Free agency is a time for making matches and forging new relationships. The coming weeks and months will tell us plenty about how clubs have prioritized their needs, assessed their potential playoff positioning and valued the available talent on the open and trade markets.
That's nothing new, of course. But the game has been so fundamentally changed by postseason expansion, revenue sharing and extensions for young, in-house talent that the free-agent market has become arguably more unpredictable than ever.
This figures, therefore, to be an especially wild winter. And to help make sense of it all, MLB.com has lined up its team of columnists to offer its predictions and suppositions on how things will shake out.
Here's what we came up with:
Robinson Cano is worth more to the Yankees than he is to anyone else, even if he isn't worth $300 million. Who else will even bid in this neighborhood? Maybe the Angels would like an encore to the signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Maybe not.
Brian McCann is the underpublicized gem of this free-agent class. He's still a fine defensive catcher, a terrific handler of pitchers, he can hit, and he's only 29. He has deep-pocket suitors -- including the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers. The Yankees and Red Sox, in that order, have the most pronounced need at his position. Make them the co-favorites.
The Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles and Phillies are all reported to be after the services of Carlos Beltran. Even at 36, with knees that need rest, Beltran is a valuable commodity. But his career found its greatest fulfillment, professionally and personally, with the Cardinals. He's a beloved figure in St. Louis. The guys with the birds on the bat will make it worth his while to stay.
Jacoby Ellsbury's worth is proven, but he's a speed guy at age 30 -- which doesn't point toward a happy ending on a long-term deal. But some club will be willing to take the plunge. Let's say he goes to the Mariners, providing a boost to their profile and a homecoming to the Pacific Northwest for Ellsbury.
Shin-Soo Choo isn't really a center fielder, but he certainly fits the bill as a leadoff man. The Mets, Rangers and Phillies are said to be very interested. The Mets, hoping to stage a resurgence, sign him, making a modest splash, and Choo does his bit by reaching base four times out of 10.
Curtis Granderson played in only 61 games in 2013, but having bones broken twice by pitches was hardly his fault. A left-handed hitter with power and still an above-average outfielder, he is an ideal hitter for Yankee Stadium and a solid citizen wherever he plays. The Bronx Bombers should retain his services.
Beware the sleeping giants. The Hot Stove period is a time to throw currency (be it cash or trade chips) at your problems, and the Yankees and Rangers strike me as the two teams loaded with enough resources and 2013 frustration to do some big business.
This will be the winter in which the Yankees reassert themselves as the overlords of the open market. Not only do I expect them to re-up with the No. 1 player available in Cano and take the gamble on Beltran, I don't think they'll shy away from breaking the Yu Darvish posting-fee record of $51.7 million to try to win the rights to Masahiro Tanaka. The Yanks and Rangers could both wind up battling for the services of McCann. If either of the two most tantalizing trade targets -- David Price and Giancarlo Stanton -- are made available, the Rangers can put together a plentiful package.
Beyond that, I would not be surprised to see the Mets and Cubs jump into the free-agent fray. Choo, Ellsbury or Granderson would be a great fit for either team. Of course, even though the Dodgers and Tigers have plenty of in-house business to consider with Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer controllable only through next season, the fact that neither club has spared any expense in searching for outside upgrades means we could see Ellsbury or Choo in Detroit and perhaps Tanaka or Hiroki Kuroda or any of the top-flight starters winding up in L.A.
Surprises are in store, a la the Indians landing two of the top position players available -- Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn -- a year ago. The Royals have to maximize the James Shields era, so they'll be ones to watch, especially when it comes to a right-field market that includes Beltran and Nelson Cruz.
The Yankees are shopping aggressively, and that simple fact impacts the market for all the top free agents. So pencil in Cano to stay in the Bronx for around $150 million. Kuroda will also re-sign with the Yankees, and Ervin Santana and Beltran will land with the Bombers.
McCann and Granderson are perfect fits for the Rangers and will find their way to Arlington. Cruz will re-sign with the Rangers. Ellsbury will be a nice building block for the Mariners, while Tim Hudson and Bronson Arroyo will fortify the Giants' rotation.
Mike Napoli will stay with the Red Sox, even after shopping around. Stephen Drew will wade through a stack of offers and sign with the Cardinals.
The Orioles will be quiet no more in free agency. Matt Garza will be a huge addition to the Baltimore rotation. The Mets will make some noise, too, landing Choo, Jhonny Peralta, Nate McLouth, Phil Hughes and Scott Kazmir.
Ubaldo Jimenez will be a solid addition to the Blue Jays rotation. Tanaka will sign with the Dodgers, who will keep Ricky Nolasco. Former Rangers closer Joe Nathan will anchor Mike Scioscia's bullpen in 2014. The Angels will re-sign Jason Vargas. Grant Balfour will give new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus another late-inning option.
In an odd kind of swap, the Twins will sign former Rays first baseman James Loney and the Rays will go for a Minnesota icon, Justin Morneau. Jesse Crain will be the Rockies' new closer.
San Francisco built its World Series championships in 2011 and '13 around a quality rotation.
The Giants need to rebuild that rotation this offseason. They have the type of wiggle room to make a free-agent statement.
Arroyo is a perfect fit for the Giants, who not only re-signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract that reduces his annual salary from $22.25 million in 2013 to $17 million in 2014, but also have payroll space because of the expiration of Barry Zito's $20 million-a-year pact.
That puts the Giants in position to make a run at Arroyo, who will turn 37 prior to next season. He has proven to be one of the game's most durable pitchers, having pitched 199 or more innings and averaged 13.2 wins per season over the past nine years.
Not only do the Giants have the payroll flexibility to entice Arroyo, but they also have AT&T Park, a pitcher's comfort zone that offers a contrast to the hitter-friendly environment of Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, which he called home for the past eight seasons.
The wild card in the free-agent market will be the Yankees. They have vowed to get under the luxury-tax threshold, but having failed to advance to the postseason for the second time in 19 seasons, can they really resist grabbing offseason headlines? While they have balked so far at the suggestion that Cano will command a $300 million deal, I think they won't be able to resist the temptation.
The threat of the Yankees' involvement will serve free agents well, as it usually does, most likely driving up prices for other teams. Ellsbury, a native of the Pacific Northwest, is an ideal fit for a Seattle team that needs a table-setter. Texas can offer McCann a chance to limit his time behind the plate, with enough opportunities at designated hitter and first base to get plenty of at-bats. Choo is the one outfielder who seems likely to step into the Bronx.
Everybody knows the usual suspects. But expect some big surprises, with teams like the Mets, Mariners, White Sox and maybe even the Cubs and Astros spending heavily to try to make themselves relevant again.
With national television contracts essentially doubling, teams will have another $25 million each to sink into payrolls if they deem it appropriate. That figures to stimulate a market lacking true superstars in their primes and could allow some seemingly tapped-out teams -- the Angels, Nationals, Blue Jays and Reds among them -- to be players. But beyond the question of whether Cano stays with the Yankees -- guess: he will -- the most intriguing aspect of the market lies with rebuilding teams.
The Mariners and Ellsbury are a natural fit, one that agent Scott Boras can spin into a nine-figure signing, with Ellsbury's strong postseason fresh in the memory bank. But other second-division teams are casting a wider net. The Mets are seeking two hitters and maybe a veteran starting pitcher. The White Sox need to improve their lineup beyond the $68 million signing of Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, and could make a run at Granderson or Choo.
Theo Epstein remains mostly in bide-your-time mode, but the Cubs know they need to do something to energize their fans. They will bid heavily for Tanaka, assuming he is posted. Astros owner Jim Crane has indicated his payroll could climb beyond $50 million, and currently there's only about $7 million on Houston's books for 2014 -- $5.5 million of which will go to the Pirates to pay Wandy Rodriguez. While general manager Jeff Luhnow holds the first pick in the Draft for a third consecutive year, it's time for him to think about the Major League roster, too.