MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

7 critical Hot Stove questions yet to be answered

7 critical Hot Stove questions yet to be answered

Spring Training is a mere six weeks away, and for a bunch of teams, this could be a make-or-break stretch. The Orioles, Blue Jays and Nationals aren't done with the heavy lifting. The Astros, Rangers and Yankees haven't checked all their offseason boxes, either.

This is also that point in the offseason when free agents begin to get particularly antsy about where they'll begin the 2017 season. These past couple of months have delivered the annual reminder that timing is everything in free agency.

This is a great time to be a reliever. Three closers -- Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon -- landed the largest free-agent contracts for relievers. Others relievers -- among them, Brett Cecil, Mike Dunn, Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa -- benefited from teams' desire to construct super bullpens.

Hot Stove Tracker: Free agents and trades

Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes apparently will be the only free-agent hitter to crack the $100-million threshold this offseason. Dexter Fowler, Edwin Encarnacion, Ian Desmond, Justin Turner and Josh Reddick did well, too, all signing deals worth between $52 million and $82.5 million.

Cespedes returns to Mets

But plenty of potential impact players -- Jose Bautista, Matt Wieters, Mark Trumbo, Michael Saunders, Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez -- remain unsigned.

Here are seven questions this offseason has yet to answer:

1. Why has Bautista remained unsigned for so long?
This might be the biggest surprise of this offseason. Yes, Bautista is 36 years old and is coming off a season in which he played 116 games and batted .234. Yes, he has rubbed a few people the wrong way.

Bautista is also one of the consummate professionals in the game. If he has rubbed people the wrong way, it's because he's one of the most fierce, take-no-prisoner competitors in the game.

Bautista did struggle offensively at times, but he finished with a more than respectable .817 OPS. The Blue Jays still have some interest in re-signing him on a short-term deal. Bautista would make sense for a long list of teams -- the Rays appear to be an obvious fit -- but he's at that point in his career where more than a one-year deal could be a stretch.

Bautista in talks with Blue Jays

2. Will the Mets trade Jay Bruce to the Blue Jays?
Not necessarily. Bruce is 29 and would give the Blue Jays the left-handed-hitting balance they need. Here's the rub: Even in a down season, Bautista, a right-handed hitter, was more productive than Bruce, so does lineup balance matter?

Bruce batted .219 in 50 games for the Mets in 2016, and that's not much different than his past three seasons (.231). To trade for him is to believe he'll revert to being the player he was in 2010-13 when he averaged 30 home runs and an .826 OPS.

3. How important is it that the Nationals find a proven closer?
That ship may have sailed. General manager Mike Rizzo talked to the White Sox about David Robertson and the Athletics about Sean Doolittle. Having already weakened his farm system with the trade for center fielder Adam Eaton, Rizzo may be hesitant to unload more prospects for a position he may be able to fill internally.

In Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover, the Nationals have three relievers capable of being solid closers. Kelley's injury history may prevent him from doing the job full-time. Glover is the most intriguing. While he's only 23 and has made just 19 appearances (with zero saves), he has a 97-mph heater and the makeup to be dominant.

Glover escapes inning

4. Are the White Sox going to trade Jose Quintana?
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn has had a tremendous offseason, getting a bounty of prospects for Chris Sale and Eaton. Now he's listening on everyone else, including Quintana.

Hahn has made it clear that this is no fire sale. With Quintana only 27 years old and signed for four more years at under $10 million per season, Hahn is looking for a similar package of prospects to the one he received for Sale.

The Yankees, Astros and Braves have all engaged the White Sox, but no deal appears close. Hahn seems happy to play the long game. If he can't get a price he's comfortable with, he'll see how the market changes between now and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

5. Do the Dodgers really need Twins second baseman Brian Dozier?
No, they do not. They're probably a 95-win team just as they are. But if the longer game is to catch the Cubs and get to the World Series for the first time since 1988, Dozier could be a difference-maker.

Dozier is 29 years old and is coming off a 42-homer season. He's also signed for $6 million and $9 million the next two seasons. The Dodgers and Twins have so far been unable to agree on a package of prospects. Free agent Chase Utley remains a solid fallback.

Twins fielding offers for Dozier

6. Isn't this around the time the Orioles get busy?
In the past three seasons, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has played the market smartly in adding Nelson Cruz, Alvarez, Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez in February/March.

Duquette may be hoping that both Trumbo and Alvarez get within his price range. Payroll room is tight. A year after a franchise-record $147-million payroll, four prominent Orioles -- Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman -- are arbitration-eligible. No general manager does a better job of spending his dollars wisely, but these next few weeks will be a challenge.

7. Are the Rays going to trade a pitcher?
What's the rush? The Rays need offense, but to get it, they would have to weaken a pitching staff that is potentially as good as any. Also, what if, say, Bautista or Trumbo become affordable enough for Tampa Bay? Would just one of them and a healthy pitching staff allow the Rays to compete in 2017? Stay tuned.

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.