- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2013

Major League Baseball’s offseason often crests with its annual winter meetings, held this year in Orlando, Fla., next Monday-Thursday. With all of the sport’s key executives and agents in one location, signings and trades come fast and furious.

It is where Albert Pujols ditched the St. Louis Cardinals two years ago and signed his massive contract with the Angels and where the Nationals stunned baseball by signing Jayson Werth on the eve of the 2010 meetings. Things can take a turn for the dramatic quickly. So what can we expect next week?

Where will Robinson Cano land?

The game’s top free agent this winter, Cano dropped agent Scott Boras in April for Roc Nation Sports — an agency owned by music mogul Jay-Z and partnered with Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The star second baseman can expect a huge new contract. Whether that will be with the New York Yankees is in question. New York has already handed out big deals to Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury. Are the Yankees squeezing Cano? Is there a price where even they will blink? And if that happens, what team is willing to pay him?

The Seattle Mariners have been mentioned as a legitimate contender willing to pay anything for a bat. That sounds a lot like Mark Teixeira to the Nats in the winter of 2008-09. It’s nice to have a bad, desperate team to help an agent drive up the price. But how about contending teams looking for second baseman? The Nationals have been mentioned, but aren’t tipping their hand yet.

Who needs pitching?

Everyone. There are some intriguing names on the free-agent ledger, but good luck predicting how any of them will do.

Ubaldo Jimenez was dominant in Colorado, stunk in Cleveland, redeemed himself at the end with the Indians and now is free to go anywhere. Teams will remember how disappointing he was for 2 ½ seasons, but his ceiling at age 30 remains so high a big contract is expected. A.J. Burnett was outstanding for the Pirates the last two seasons. The two years before that? He was a disaster in New York. At 36, he’s a risk to decline, but probably a good bet to help a contender this year. Ervin Santana had a career year with Kansas City in 2013, but two of his four seasons with the Angels before that saw ERAs above 5.00.

Looking for something a little less volatile? Matt Garza, searching for his fourth team in four years, last posted a full-season ERA over 4.00 in 2006.

Where are the big bats going?

New York, apparently. Ellsbury and McCann have already signed with the Yankees, who still hope to retain Cano, too. Those are three of the best on the open market. Another good bet? Shin-Soo Choo had a .423 on-base percentage for the Reds last season and at age 31 remains a good defensive player. He played center field out of necessity for Cincinnati, but is better suited to a corner spot.

Otherwise, the options are Curtis Granderson and Mike Napoli and … not much else. The Cardinals may lose veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran. The 37-year-old would be a nice fit for a contender. He’s a proven postseason player even if no longer the dynamic force he was in his prime. Kendrys Morales might be a good buy-low bet two years removed from a serious foot injury and three after a broken leg. He is a designated hitter or first baseman with power (23 home runs).

Do former PED users get rewarded?

Some baseball executives share the sentiment of Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, who doesn’t want to go after any players who have served long drug suspensions. There are others who say talent is talent. But it’s an interesting wrinkle as players like free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, late of the Rangers, try to land new homes. Cruz was suspended for 50 games last season for performance-enhancing drug use. Do executives believe Cruz is the player with five years of 22 homers or more and four of those with a plus-.821 OPS? Or is he a cheat who is about to crash to earth at age 33? Texas missed the postseason by a single game. Cruz would have helped over the final two months. Think his teammates were happy with him?

Then again, Jhonny Peralta was also suspended 50 games last year and St. Louis still opened up the vault at four years and $53 million because it was desperate for a shortstop.

Are the Nats finished?

Washington general manager Mike Rizzo rarely hints at his future plans and again declined to do so this week after trading for pitcher Doug Fister. But he also admits his team is far from flawless. There are holes here.

If the Nats pass on the expensive Cano — and there are no indications yet they are legitimately in the mix — they still need bullpen help, especially from the left side. The bench, so good in 2012 and so bad in 2013, could use an upgrade, too. Washington might want to hedge against the health of Wilson Ramos, always in question, and find a legitimate backup catcher who can play 75 games, if needed.

The offense must be better. But do you simply hope Anthony Rendon makes a leap? Is their confidence in Adam LaRoche shaken? Do they expect a better full year from Denard Span? Or can Washington make a trade for another bat?



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