Monday, December 8, 2008

Baseball's Stove Heating Up

For baseball fans the winter can be particularly cold, dark, and long. From the end of the final game of the World Series until Spring Training gets going, there are four months without the game that we must endure. For the most hard core of us, the game never really goes away fully, and this week will find our National Pastime once again in the headlines. This is the week that Major League Baseball holds its 'Winter Meetings' at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Front-office executives from each of the MLB teams will be present, along with players, their agents, vendors, job-seekers, fans, and media. There will be numerous presentations, meetings, discussions, and social engagements. The biggest function of the Winter Meetings is always the full opening of the 'Hot Stove League', the name coined for the frenzied discussion of player movement via trades and free agent signings. Since the end of the World Series, which this year has made the off-season much more endurable for we Phillies fans thanks to the still-warm glow of our world championship, players and teams have been prepping for this week. The Phils have a pair of key free agent players, outfielder Pat Burrell and starting pitcher Jamie Moyer. The prevailing wisdom is that Burrell's decade-long career with the Fightin's has come to an end, and that the club will not make a big effort to re-sign the slugging left fielder, at least not unless it becomes a last-choice type scenario. Burrell turned 32 years old during the playoffs in October, and is viewed as a player severely limited defensively, a situation that will only worsen as he moves through his 30's. He will be seeking a multi-year contract for a lot of money, and the Phils just don't see him as a prudent investment. They may be right, depending on his actual price, but it will still be sad to see the Series hero leave town. Moyer is another story. The club wants him back for next season, but again age and cost are two considerations. Moyer turned 46 years old just a few weeks ago, and it is very possible that the Phillies squeezed one final productive turn from the seasoned lefty this past year. There are some huge names available as free agents this year including starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia (pictured), Derek Lowe, A.J. Burnett, and a number of intriguing names such as Brad Penny, Ben Sheets, Oliver Perez, Jon Garland, and future Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. At the back of the bullpen, closers Francisco 'KRod' Rodriguez broke the single-season Saves record this year just in time to hit the free agent market. He leads a group of closers that includes all-time Save leader Trevor Hoffman, Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood, and Brandon Lyon. Need a hitter? MLB clubs have many here to choose from as well. The two biggest prizes are 1st baseman Mark Teixeira and outfielder Manny Ramirez. Tex is just entering his prime, and is one of the top hitters in the game as well as perhaps the best defensive 1st sacker around. Ramirez is older, but proved last season that he is in great shape and still capable of carrying a team for months at a time. The Phillies found out all about that in the NLCS, when it often seemed like it was their team against Manny alone. The other bats include Burrell, 3rd baseman Casey Blake, shortstop Rafael Furcal, and two of the game's most underrated players in 2nd baseman Orlando Hudson and outfielder Raul Ibanez. The Phillies reportedly have interest in Ibanez, and have also reportedly put a formal offer on the table for Lowe. Whether they will make any deals is questionable. There is much talk that the local nine will be satisfied perhaps with going after a complimentary bat to add outfield depth, and instead will concentrate on signing both Jayson Werth and Ryan Madson to long term deals. They also are rumored to be shopping for one more strong arm to add to what is already one of baseball's best bullpens. Baseball's 'super-agent', Scott Boras, will be highly visible as he and his group represent a number of the top free agents. The dominoes are likely to begin falling with the signing of Sabathia. As soon as this highest rated hurler signs, watch the other deals, both free agent signings and trades, begin to come fast and furious. Of course we could leave the Winter Meetings with just a few signings and deals, but the groundwork will have been laid for others that will come within a week or two, definitely before Christmas. So the next week or so is an important time for baseball teams to improve their rosters. You can catch all of the important Winter Meetings news on ESPN's outstanding program 'Baseball Tonight', which will air special editions from Monday through Thursday at 5pm. The 'Hot Stove' is heating up, warming all baseball fans just as winter's cold begins to set in across the nation.

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