Plenty to chew on as baseball gets back to business

Plenty to chew on as baseball gets back to business

Plenty to chew on as baseball gets back to business
Just when you thought you had cleared everything off of it, even that last succulent bit of pumpkin pie, baseball returns to the American consciousness on Monday with a full plate.

Monday takes us out of the holiday haze and returns us to a business week. In the offices of 30 Major League clubs, it'll be back to business as usual, or, as is often the case -- just ask the Marlins and Blue Jays, who stunned the industry with their recent 12-player trade -- business as occasionally unusual.

Winter technically begins on Dec. 21, but when it comes to hardball -- the game played this time of year at the negotiating table -- the season is already upon us. Take the first big date to look out for as we cruise along toward Christmas, the New Year, pitchers and catchers in Febuary and Opening Day on March 31. That would be this Friday, the last date for clubs to offer, or tender, contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

Some very good players are likely to be "non-tendered," or cut loose to become immediate free agents. It could be because their current teams don't have room for their roles on the roster. It could be that the projected payroll sent down by the front office doesn't hold room for their projected salaries. It could be the mutual agreement to give a guy a fresh start somewhere else.

Whatever the case, it's always worth watching, because big names have been non-tendered in the past. Sometimes these decisions are made prematurely along the career path of a budding star, and the team that scoops up that player can benefit, big time. The most famous recent example would be the tale of David Ortiz, the left-handed-hitting first baseman/designated hitter who just couldn't hit lefties for the Minnesota Twins 10 years ago. He was non-tendered, signed to a one-year, $1 million deal by Boston before the 2003 season and helped re-define Red Sox history over the next decade.

Big Papi is not the only big pop on the non-tender heap. Other players who have been set free in this fashion over the years include Jayson Werth, Edwin Encarnacion, Jonny Gomes, Chris Capuano, Bobby Jenks and many more.

"There are a lot of reasons why a guy might get non-tendered," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "But just like with exploring trades or free agency, you go into it with an open mind. There could be guys waiting to resurface as quality players, or guys who just happen to be the right fit on other clubs. That's one of the challenges of this job."

Sure, these transactions will make headlines. Potential non-tenders this week include Brian Wilson, Mike Pelfrey, Jair Jurrjens and Mark Reynolds. We won't know until Friday, but it probably won't take long for good players to be signed by other teams.

Then again, the non-tender date is only four days before the major event of the offseason for the Hot Stove set: the Winter Meetings in Nashville.

Not every big deal will get done when the Meetings descend upon the massive Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center next Monday, but plenty will, and plenty of stars are still on the free-agent board, waiting to be plucked.

In Music City or soon after, we'll likely learn the fates of Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, plus a host of other plus talents: impact hitters Mike Napoli, Lance Berkman, Nick Swisher, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Ludwick, Cody Ross, Delmon Young and A.J. Pierzynski and speed-and-defense specialists Michael Bourn, Ichiro Suzuki, Marco Scutaro and Shane Victorino.

Then there are the starters, whose ranks still include Dan Haren, Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Brandon McCarthy and Joe Blanton; and the closers and late-inning relievers, whose free-agent list features Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Joakim Soria, Jose Valverde, Mike Adams, Kyle Farnsworth, Francisco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell.

Any of these players could sign in Nashville, or as early as this week. Or none sign right away and we might only read about other monster trades. That's part of the fun of this time of year.

Also on tap in Nashville will be the announcement of the latest voting results by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee and the Dec. 6 Rule 5 Draft, which is held on the final day of the Winter Meetings.

For the bargain-basement price of $50,000, (half of which is refundable if the drafted player does not remain on the 25-man roster for the entire season), astute GMs might just score a player in the mold of Johan Santana, Hamilton or Victorino, all of whom were Rule 5 selections.

Cubs president Theo Epstein seemed to sum up the whole scene well after Day 1 of the 2008 Winter Meetings, when he was general manager of the Red Sox.

"I guess it was a typical Winter Meetings day," Epstein said. "Some talks, couldn't get anything done. It took a half-hour to get through the lobby. It was all right."

And so is the rest of the Hot Stove season.

Just after the New Year, on Jan. 9, we'll find out the next class of Hall of Fame players, which could include last year's runners-up -- starting pitcher Jack Morris and first baseman Jeff Bagwell -- and a host of newcomers, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Kenny Lofton and David Wells.

A few weeks after that, equipment trucks will start rolling out of stadiums to warmer climates. And in mid-February, it's pitchers and catchers and the magical prelude to another season.

In other words, make sure those plates are in the dishwasher and the leftovers are sealed tight in the fridge. Baseball's winter flight is about to take off.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.