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Stay or go, star free agents will find their way

Gonzalez: Star free agents will find their way

Stay or go, star free agents will find their way
The Hot Stove season, as we so often call it, has produced very little heat through its first month.

But a whole lot of money sure has been thrown around.

Jonathan Papelbon reeled in the largest contract ever for a closer ($50 million over four seasons from the Phillies), Matt Kemp signed the richest deal in National League history (an eight-year, $160 million extension with the Dodgers) and unexpected amounts of guaranteed dollars went to fringe middle infielders, like Clint Barmes with the Pirates ($10.5 million), Mark Ellis with the Dodgers ($8.75 million) and Jamey Carroll with the Twins ($6.75 million).

That's surely a good sign for the heavy hitters in this year's open market.

Now with Thanksgiving behind us, the Winter Meetings fast approaching, and most important, the intricacies of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement ironed out, we should soon start hearing plenty more about the likes of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson -- the only free agents with a Wins Above Replacement higher than 5.0 in 2011.

Nobody has any idea where this expensive, talented and diverse quartet of players will end up. But here is what seem to be their best fits.

Albert Pujols: Cardinals

He'll be wooed, swayed, wined and dined, but in the end, Pujols' free-agent journey will lead right back to St. Louis. Call it a gut feeling. I just don't believe the contract the Cardinals eventually decide on -- last reported at nine years and about $200 million by SI.com -- coupled with the World Series championship they're coming off of and the legacy Albert has built in that city will be enough to turn down.

It seems somebody is going to have to trump the Cardinals' offer in order for Pujols to justify bolting. It's hard to see him pulling a LeBron James and taking his talents to South Beach, or signing anywhere else, unless the deal he gets is significantly greater. The problem is there are very few teams that can afford to do that and put pieces around him to consistently compete for titles. And three of those teams -- the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Phillies -- are set at first base.

Call me a dreamer, but I have Pujols finishing his career in the place it began.

Prince Fielder: Cubs

You can print all the "Theo-logy" T-shirts you want, but Theo Epstein, the new president of baseball operations and hailed savior in the Windy City, isn't enough to turn the Cubs franchise around.

They need a player like Prince.

They may still be a few years away from legitimately competing, but Fielder's age (27) and the number of years he'll command (perhaps no fewer than eight) make him the kind of centerpiece around which the Cubs can build -- and the kind of player who can identify with the fan base in much of the same way Sammy Sosa did, before his career got tainted.

The Cubs have Aramis Ramirez's contract off the books (if he declines their arbitration offer), are entering in the final year of Carlos Zambrano's deal and should have enough payroll flexibility to make a competitive offer to the slugging first baseman. Fielder could be enticed by the promising new direction, all the city of Chicago has to offer and the chance to star on the team that breaks the greatest championship drought of mankind.

The hiring of Dale Sveum, Fielder's former coach in Milwaukee, sure doesn't hurt matters, either.

"Prince and I have a great relationship," ESPN.com quoted Sveum as saying last week. "I love Prince to death. It would be nice to have him at first base because of what he brings to the table every single day."

Jose Reyes: Marlins

South Beach, a heavy Latin culture, a bold new look, Ozzie Guillen. Reyes and the remade Miami Marlins just feels like a match made in heaven, doesn't it?

The Marlins were said to have offered Reyes a six-year, $90 million deal when they treated him to Joe's Stone Crab a couple of weeks ago, but SI.com's Jon Heyman heard it was $10 million-$20 million lower than that. Regardless, the Marlins seem sincere in their attempt to spend more money than ever, and seem determined to come away with at least one big-name free agent this offseason.

Reyes seems like the guy they want most, because of what he brings on his own and because of what he can mean for Hanley Ramirez. Reyes' presence gives the Marlins a stable leadoff hitter -- one of very few prototypical ones in baseball, frankly -- and improves Miami's defense on the left side, with Ramirez shifting over to a less-demanding third base.

Whether Ramirez would move from shortstop, a position he's been adamant about staying at throughout his career, remains to be seen. But if he were to do it, and thus diminish his market value when he becomes a 31-year-old free agent in 2014, you've got to think he'd do it for his friend and countryman.

Right?

C.J. Wilson: Yankees

Think the Yankees will be denied, for a successive year, an ex-Rangers lefty who can help stabilize the front end of their rotation?

The only question for them, it seems, is just how badly they want Wilson. They definitely don't covet him like they did Cliff Lee a year ago, and they may be more willing to try and land Japanese standout Yu Darvish if he is posted. But if the Yankees decide to make Wilson a priority, they -- as always - have the best chance to get him if this turns into a bidding war.

In New York, Wilson can be on a winner, can play in a big city, can slide comfortably into the No. 2 spot behind CC Sabathia and can make big bucks. In return, the Yankees will have a go-to No. 2 starter, which they sorely lacked last season.

The sticking point: Despite being a rather borderline ace pitcher, Wilson will command ace money -- whether it's something similar to the five-year, $82.5 million contracts A.J. Burnett and John Lackey previously landed, or something even bigger.

But with general manager Brian Cashman previously showing he's unwilling to part with his top young arms to land an ace in a trade, and with the lineup and bullpen all set, the Yankees are in position to go all out to sign Wilson, especially now that the Rangers are putting Neftali Feliz in the rotation.

The question is: Just how badly do they want him?

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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