LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Free agency is largely about chasing dollars, but the emotional component can't be discounted. Baseball players, like all athletes, crave certainty, and nothing puts the entire family on edge more than an uncertain job situation after the holidays.
"Even agents admit there's a mental hurdle for a player to go past Christmas," said Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. "That's coming up fairly soon, and, because of that, I think there'll be a greater sense of urgency over the next couple of weeks for players to get signed."
If there's a run on talent between now and the holidays, it's likely to revolve around pitching. That's pretty much all that's left.
Although Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and the other marquee hitters not named Shin-Soo Choo or Nelson Cruz are off the board, starting pitchers of all talent levels and price tags are still available through trade or free agency. So, what hot stove storylines should we keep an eye on between now and New Year's Day? Here's a handy checklist:
The Masahiro Tanaka watch
The posting process continues to proceed at a leisurely pace. Even when Nippon Baseball and the 30 MLB clubs officially agree on the new rules, the system will be subject to approval by MLB's executive committee and the corresponding governing body in Japan. Assuming the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles make Tanaka available, MLB teams will bid a $20 million fee for the right to talk to him, and he'll have a 30-day negotiating window to pick a club. (Only the club that ultimately signs him will pay the $20 million posting fee.)
That means Tanaka probably isn't going to sign any earlier than late January. The Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, Rangers, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays are among the potential bidders, and that number could swell to double figures. They're still waiting for definitive word from the commissioner's office, and trying to determine whether they want to fill a need now and punt on Tanaka or hold off on other business until Tanaka becomes available.
"I have no idea [what's happening], which makes us just like 29 other teams," Angels GM Jerry Dipoto said Thursday. "He's a great pitcher, and he's had a fantastic career. But we don't know if he's coming to the United States or if he's available for MLB teams. We'll remain patient and abide by the rules, and, if and when he comes over, I'm sure there'll be a lot of conversation about it."
The trade guys
Yes, David Price and Jeff Samardzija are still out there. But Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman is taking a very deliberate approach with talks involving Price, and the Cubs apparently didn't make much headway on Samardzija trade discussions here at the winter meetings. The Cubs continue to explore the idea of a long-term contract extension for Samardzija, but the odds still favor them trading him before he hits the open market in November 2015.
The consensus is that the Dodgers, Rangers and Mariners are the best fits for Price, with Atlanta also a possibility. The Diamondbacks and Braves are among the teams monitoring Samardzija. Until further notice, the Cubs are declaring a moratorium on comments about Samardzija and his future with the organization.
"We'll put it to bed, publicly," Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, told reporters at the meetings. "Jeff is our Opening Day starter unless something changes."
The first-tier starters
This free-agent group, which consists of Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez, has generated very little buzz this winter. That's because most executives view them as middle-of-the rotation types who have a chance to be significant overpays. Jimenez was terrific in Cleveland in 2013, but he'll need to do it again to convince some teams that he's a good bet on a three- or four-year contract. Garza has had injury concerns, and Santana has a history of being good one year and a drag on his team's ambitions the next.
That inconsistency hasn't prevented Santana from seeking a nine-figure contract. His closest career comparables on Baseball-Reference.com are Vicente Padilla and Alex Fernandez. But it hasn't stopped agent Bean Stringfellow and Santana's representatives at Proformance from distributing a binder to clubs comparing the pitcher to Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers last winter.
"The book is very impressive," said a general manager. "If you took an analyst who didn't watch baseball and he went through it, he would think, 'This guy is pretty good.' It was almost like an arbitration case. You looked at it and at the end you're like, 'This guy might be better than I thought.'"
The second-tier guys
Bronson Arroyo, Jason Hammel and Paul Maholm are among the notable pitchers in this category, and their expectations have been raised by some unexpectedly lucrative payouts for pitchers who travel in a similar realm.
Ricky Nolasco (four years and $49 million from Minnesota), Scott Feldman (three years and $30 million from Houston), Phil Hughes (three years and $24 million from the Twins) and Scott Kazmir (two years and $22 million from Oakland) all hit the mother lode, and Arroyo, Hammel & Co. are hoping to benefit from the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory. They'll discover soon enough whether price inflation applies across the board.
The unknown commodities
One baseball source said Burnett is still "wrestling" over the decision to retire or return for one more go-round at age 37. The Pirates signed Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million deal Wednesday, and it remains to be seen whether that spells the end of Burnett's tenure in Pittsburgh.
Teams in need
The Yankees, Indians, Diamondbacks and Orioles are among multiple teams still on the lookout for starting pitching upgrades. Here are four other clubs that merit watching in the coming weeks:
• The Angels upgraded their rotation Tuesday when they acquired Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago in a three-team trade with Arizona and the White Sox. Anaheim still wants an established starter to slot in behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, and Garza looks like a nice fit because the Angels' farm system is barren and he won't require them to surrender a draft pick. The same cannot be said for Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez.
"We're committed to the idea of preserving our first-round pick," Dipoto said. "We haven't had one in the last two years. We are notably thin in the minor league system with upper-level pitching. So, for us to be able to start a more significant rebuilding of our minor league system, that first-round pick is very important to us."
• The Minnesota Twins have added Nolasco and Phil Hughes to a rotation that posted a major league-worst 5.26 ERA, but they're not done yet. The Twins dabbled in the Bartolo Colon market before he signed with the Mets. They've talked about bringing back Garza, who began his career with the organization, and they're in the mix with Arroyo, Maholm, Hammel and Mike Pelfrey, among others.
"There's some talent and quality still out there," said Twins GM Terry Ryan. "Anybody who's looking for pitching at least has some opportunity and choices. That's a good thing."
• The Braves feel comfortable with a rotation of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood, with David Hale as an additional rotation candidate. They're monitoring the Price and Samardzija trade markets, but they're not going to bite if it requires them to decimate the farm system.
"Trading players you have for a long time for one year or two years of service [from a player] doesn't work and doesn't make sense," said Atlanta GM Frank Wren. "We're in a good spot. We like our five guys. They're all homegrown, and they're all on the ascent. We think we can go into the season with our rotation as it is and have a very solid group."
• The Blue Jays have R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow (assuming he can stay healthy) and J.A. Happ in the first four spots. Barring an acquisition, they have Drew Hutchison, a rehabbing Kyle Drabek, and prospects Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin in the wings.
"If we can do something, great," said Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. "If we can't, we'll sit back. We like those guys. They have high ceilings. We definitely have bodies. We're just trying to upgrade the quality."
Like other clubs with similar agendas, the Blue Jays will focus on pitchers who fit their needs at a price that makes them comfortable. If it happens before Christmas or New Year's Day, so much the better. Just like players, teams have been known to get a little antsy when they have unfinished business around the holidays.