It was a spectacular 2014 for Major League Baseball, but there's work for many teams to do with the New Year arriving Thursday. Here's a look at some player gossip making the rounds in the Hot Stove League and how it may affect MLB futures odds.
When Will Scherzer or Shields Sign?
Easily the top two free agents remaining on the market are starting pitchers Max Scherzer (Tigers) and James Shields (Royals). Scherzer is represented by Scott Boras, so it's no surprise that he hasn't signed on with a team yet. Boras usually drags things into January with his biggest clients in an attempt to lure more bidders, either real or imagined. It's likely that Shields signs first because he will get about $100 million less than Scherzer. The Giants were supposedly in on Shields but then re-signed Jake Peavy and seem to have their rotation set. The Yankees have said they aren't interested in Scherzer, but New York quietly has been trimming a bit of payroll perhaps to make a late strike. Scherzer can't be ruled out returning to Detroit, either, although the Tigers say they have had no conversations with Boras. Watch for the Texas Rangers to get involved on one of these guys. I wouldn't be surprised if Shields signs the first week of January and Scherzer around the middle of the month. That will give him 30 days or so before reporting for spring training. Scherzer immediately upgrades any team's MLB futures odds. Shields would give a slight MLB odds bump to a current contender like Boston or the Angels.
Where Will Cole Hamels Land?
Part of why Scherzer and Shields haven't signed could be that teams with prospects and the cash to be able to afford Hamels might prefer him with his contract already set in stone and at a pretty reasonable price. Hamels is also left-handed and had a career-best 2.46 ERA last season with a lousy Phillies team. He has officially been made available by Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro, but Amaro is asking for a huge return. The Red Sox would be a natural fit, but Hamels can block a trade to Boston and several other teams. Hamels is from San Diego and would love to pitch there, and the Padres have been incredibly aggressive this offseason. Landing Hamels would certainly improve the Padres MLB odds' to win the NL West, although still behind the Dodgers and Giants. Don't rule out the Dodgers going after Hamels, either. He would make them overwhelming favorites at sportsbooks to win the World Series. Currently L.A. is the +650 slight favorite.
Orioles Hunting Outfielders
Baltimore is the defending AL East champion but appears to have taken a major step back thus far in losing outfielders Nelson Cruz, the reigning big-league home run champion, and Nick Markakis. Adam Jones is an All-Star caliber player and returns in center field, but as things stand the corner outfielders are Alejandro De Aza and Steve Pearce. That's not great. Thus expect a move. Free-agent outfielders still available include Colby Rasmus, Nori Aoki and Ichiro Suzuki. Or the O's could make a trade for an outfielder. Boston would deal Allen Craig. The Padres still have too many outfielders even with a reported trade of Seth Smith to Seattle about to happen. The Dodgers would all but give away either Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford. The Orioles will add at least one outfielder if not two. Baltimore is +1000 at sportsbooks to win the AL pennant.
Rays' Ben Zobrist Likely on Move
The Tampa Bay Rays signed infielder Asdrubal Cabrera on Tuesday, and he can play second base or shortstop. However, the Rays have Yunel Escobar entrenched at short and Zobrist at second. It's possible the team could simply use Cabrera as a backup for both but more likely Zobrist is dealt. He has a ton of value because Zobrist can play just about any position on the diamond other than catcher and pitcher. Zobrist hit .272 with 10 homers, 52 RBIs and 10 steals last year. Since 2011, he has the fourth-highest Wins Above Replacement of AL hitters. Zobrist makes just $7.5 million and will be a free agent after the 2015 season, and the Rays likely can't afford him. Just about anyone would love Zobrist. He could play outfield for Baltimore, second in Toronto or with the White Sox or Yankees. The Angels have a hole at second after trading Howie Kendrick. Zobrist could be the every-day shortstop for the New York Mets or play all over the place for San Francisco after the Giants lost Pablo Sandoval. The Rays may not deal Zobrist by Opening Day without a great offer, but if they start slowly he's a goner.
Stephen Drew in Demand
Drew made a huge mistake by turning down Boston's qualifying offer before last season and didn't get signed by anyone until early June back with the Red Sox. He was terrible there and dumped. The Yankees picked him up and Drew struggled there. Overall he hit a putrid .162 with a .235 on-base percentage in 271 at-bats. Still, Drew was an important player of the champion 2013 Red Sox so a team that needs a shortstop or middle infielder will take a shot on him. Teams such as the Cubs, Blue Jays, Angels, White Sox and Mets could have interest. He won't be on the market much longer.