MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

5 simmering Hot Stove storylines to watch

Relief arms, power bats expected to dominate thin market

5 simmering Hot Stove storylines to watch

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- How good would the St. Louis Cardinals look with Yoenis Cespedes playing center field? Or Dexter Fowler? Or Ian Desmond?

How about the Boston Red Sox slotting Edwin Encarnacion into a lineup spot that once belonged to David Ortiz?

Pitching? We've got that, too. There may be less big-ticket pitching on the market, but there are still difference-makers.

Hot Stove Tracker

How much better would the San Francisco Giants be with Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen pitching the ninth inning?

This is the kind of game dozens of baseball executives are playing as the Hot Stove League kicks into gear.

The free-agent marketplace opens for business at 12:01 a.m. ET on Tuesday -- and the annual General Managers Meetings begin in Scottsdale, Ariz., later in the day -- and it'll be interesting to see if a thinner market increases the urgency from teams.

Baseball has parity. With parity comes opportunity. Also pressure. Last Sept. 1, 18 of the 30 Major League teams were within five games of a playoff berth. In the past three seasons, 15 teams have played at least one postseason series, and the Chicago Cubs were the seventh franchise to win the World Series in the past 10 seasons.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on:

1. Relievers will run the show
Having watched managers be more aggressive with the way relievers are used, every team will have to take a long look with how bullpens are built and used.

This may increase the market for all the free-agent relievers, especially for Chapman, Jansen and Mark Melancon. (And let's not forget Greg Holland, a once-dominant closer who is working out for teams after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.)

There'll also be a healthier market for the middle relievers -- such as Joe Blanton, Daniel Hudson and Brad Ziegler -- the bridges between the starter and late-inning guys.

The Giants, Nationals, Yankees and Dodgers top a long list of teams with an eye on upgrading their bullpens.

Top closers hit free agency

2. Lack of starters = trades!
There's not a David Price or a Jon Lester available, and that's where teams with an astute front office may be able to identify pitchers who need a mechanical tweak or change in scenery. Rich Hill, Jeremy Hellickson and Jason Hammel may be the best starting pitchers on the open market and likely will land multiyear deals.

That lack of pitching could open the floodgates for major trades with big-time arms. The Rays (Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer), White Sox (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana) and Athletics (Sonny Gray) will be in a listening mode for their starting pitchers in attempting to retool and upgrade their rosters.

For teams like the Rangers, Cardinals and Astros, who have deep farm systems and aggressive general managers, there are all kinds of possible fits.

Thin market for rotation help

3. There are power hitters to be had
Cespedes is 31 years old and had 66 home runs and 140 extra-base hits the past two years. The Mets were 110-79 with him in the lineup after he was acquired at the 2015 Trade Deadline.

Then there is Mark Trumbo, who led the Majors with 47 home runs, and while he may be better-suited for the American League because of the designated-hitter rule, he figures to have an array of options. Nelson Cruz parlayed a bounceback year in Baltimore into a four-year, $57 million deal from Seattle two years ago, and Trumbo could follow a similar path.

And let's not forget Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. They've been the collective faces of the Toronto Blue Jays for years and are coming off seasons in which they hit 42 and 22 home runs, respectively. Bautista played just 116 games, but he averaged 38 home runs the previous six seasons.

Encarnacion may end up being the most highly coveted player in this market because he has been so consistent -- averaging 144 games, 35 home runs the past six seasons -- and because he's universally revered as a great teammate.

Atkins on Bautista, Encarnacion

4. Future free agents
The Tigers will listen on outfielder J.D. Martinez, who is 29 years old and a year away from free agency. As general manager Al Avila looks to add youth and payroll flexibility, Martinez may be Detroit's most coveted chip.

The team most loaded with players a year from free agency is the Royals, with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain and Danny Duffy all set to hit the market next offseason. However, Kansas City is more likely to try for one last run with this crew and only consider trading them if it is out of the race at next year's Trade Deadline.

Hot Stove about to heat up

5. The CBA and pace of play
Baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, and while Commissioner Rob Manfred has steadfastly refused to discuss details of the new deal, every indication is that the two sides are headed for a deal that would avoid a work stoppage.

One other topic sure to get discussed is pace of play, and Manfred says he's willing to discuss an array of changes to speed up the game. Among those: a 20-second pitch clock that has received favorable reviews in the Minor Leagues.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.