1. January Will Bring the Max Scherzer Thaw

Spring training is little more than a month away, which means the biggest marquee free agent this side of Jon Lester is about to sign with…

“The two sleepers all along for me were St. Louis and Washington,” one American League executive said of Max Scherzer’s possible destinations. “They’re just guesses. I can see him with the Yankees, too, or going back to Detroit.”

Happy New Year, in case I missed you the first time around, and please join our executive friend in the biggest guessing game remaining before pitchers and catchers report: Which club will push to the max for Max?

The Cardinals have not previously shown an appetite to spend the $200 million or so that Scott Boras, Scherzer’s agent, hinted at last month, but we can all agree (can’t we?) that Scherzer to St. Louis makes a ton of sense. It’s his hometown, the Cubs are closing the gap fast in the NL Central, and St. Louis’ rotation is working under potential storm clouds: Adam Wainwright (elbow), Michael Wacha (shoulder) and Jaime Garcia (you name it) all are recovering from health issues.

Talk surrounding the Nationals has quieted down from earlier this winter, when Jordan Zimmermann’s name was in the rumor mill. Plus, with outfielder Jayson Werth’s shoulder surgery keeping him sidelined for two or three months, Washington has other, more pressing issues.

But the relationship between Boras and the Lerner family—owner of the Nationals—is very good, and for that reason alone, you can’t completely discount Washington until Scherzer has signed elsewhere. Among the Boras clients with the Nats: Werth, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa.

The Yankees expect CC Sabathia to be full-go when they report to Tampa later this month, but they have the two most important things where Scherzer is concerned: Money and need. Even if healthy, Sabathia is no longer what he once was and will turn 35 on July 21. And with luck, Masahiro Tanaka will pitch the entire season after rehabbing his elbow injury last summer.

But Tommy John surgery lurks in the background. Many pitchers with Tanaka’s injury (Chad Billingsley being one recent example) have tried the rehab route before having to undergo surgery. Depending on Tanaka to make 33 or 34 starts at this point is a risky plan for the Yankees.

The Tigers? General manager Dave Dombrowski said last month, per MLB.com’s Jason Beck, that there are no talks ongoing but “I guess that anything can happen.” The Tigers were rebuffed by Scherzer last spring when they made a six-year, $144 million offer. 

Given Boras’ track record, even in a Scherzer market that has been noticeably quiet, history has shown time and again that it is foolish to underestimate the agent. But where Detroit is concerned, it appears that the only way that works is if Scherzer’s market doesn’t develop as expected and he falls back to Detroit on a short-term deal.

As for Scherzer, he’s mostly stayed under the radar this winter, though he did pop up to say hello on Sunday:

Prediction: Yankees.


2. The Cardinals May Have a Big Move Left

As Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi over at Fox Sports reported last week, the Cardinals, in looking to upgrade their rotation, are checking into Scherzer on the free-agent market and Cole Hamels and David Price on the trade market. Hamels and Price make great sense, in that St. Louis lacks a strong left-hander. And Scherzer, as I mentioned above, would be quite the homecoming story.

Question is, how much money are the Cardinals willing to spend? Scherzer still seems like a seriously remote possibility, given that the fiscally responsible club drew a hard line even with a franchise icon like Albert Pujols a few winters ago. And not only did they live to tell about it, but the Cardinals have fared far better than Pujols since then.

That, combined with the fact that the most the Cardinals have ever paid for a pitcher is the five-year, $97.5 million extension they awarded Adam Wainwright two years ago, likely doesn’t foretell the eventual signing of Scherzer. Unless the Cards and Boras get awfully creative, of course.

As for Price, industry speculation still has him linked, to a degree, with Scherzer. The thinking is that the Tigers intended to try to sign Price longterm, and the fact that they haven’t done so yet has convinced some that Price, who can be a free agent next winter, isn’t interested in an extension with Detroit. Might the Tigers deal him? And if so, will they use the money to take another run at Scherzer?

The Cubs’ move to the precipice of contending with a slew of young talent, the signing of Lester and the deadly serious hire of Joe Maddon as their manager has added fuel to the NL Central Hot Stove fire this winter, intensifying speculation that the Cardinals will strike for another pitcher.

Of course, under general manager John Mozeliak, the Cards have continually moved at their own pace, made smart decisions and refused to be bullied into making a move out of concern for their rivals’ actions. It’s part of why they’ve won for so long.

Prediction: The Cards strike for Hamels, who makes a lot of sense. He’s affordable, and the Cardinals have the prospects.


3. Speculating on the Phillies

Finally, the Phillies moved Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers last month. Then they dealt outfielder Marlon Byrd, acquiring a solid prospect in right-handed pitcher Ben Lively. That was another small step toward an overdue and badly needed reconstruction.

Next up: Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels?

To be sure, those are two completely different situations. Hamels is owed $94 million over the next four years and is viewed as one of the game’s best left-handers. Howard, 35, is owed $60 million over the next two seasons and is viewed as a has-been who can’t do much more than hit homers.

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro told 97.5 The Fanatic’s Mike Missanelli (h/t Matt Lombardo of NJ.com) that the club is better off without Howard going forward, and the Phillies know they’re going to have to eat a sizable portion of his contract. Clearly, the best thing for both sides is a deal before camp opens. The Phillies’ sluggishness to deal continues to be crippling at best and irresponsible at worst, given that they missed their window to jump-start a retooling by at least a year.

Predictions: For Hamels, see item No. 2 (though people close to him say he would love to pitch for the Dodgers). For Howard, look for the Orioles, who need bats and tend to work late during the winter under Dan Duquette (see Ubaldo Jimenez last year), to make a move.


4. James Shields‘ Prospects

Remember the days when marquee pitchers were in demand? There is no better illustration of the state of today’s game—how runs and hits have regressed back to early 1970s levels—than the fact that two of the three marquee free-agent pitchers—Shields and Scherzer—remain unsigned, while hitters were snapped up early this winter as eagerly as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler jokes at the Golden Globes.

While Scherzer and Shields continue to look for new homes, Victor Martinez (Tigers), Hanley Ramirez (Red Sox), Pablo Sandoval (Red Sox), Nelson Cruz (Mariners), Russell Martin (Blue Jays), Melky Cabrera (White Sox), Chase Headley (Yankees), Michael Cuddyer (Mets), Alex Rios (Royals), Adam LaRoche (White Sox) and even Yasmany Tomas (Diamondbacks) all have signed.

So what happens with Shields? Rosenthal reported on Jan. 4 that he supposedly has a five-year, $110 million offer on the table (though the team has not yet been identified, so no guarantees that such an offer even exists).

If the Marlins deal Dan Haren, who prefers pitching for a West Coast team at this stage of his career, there could be a fit in Miami (financially, though, that’s another question). Boston and Arizona both expressed interest at various points this winter. The Giants did as well, before they signed Jake Peavy. Now? Crickets. At least, publicly where Shields is concerned.

Prediction: Rockies.


5. The Next Market to Flourish

Though top-flight, late-innings men David Robertson (White Sox), Andrew Miller (Yankees), Pat Neshek (Astros) and Luke Gregerson (Astros) struck gold earlier in the winter, several free-agent closers (or setup men) remain unsigned: Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Casey Janssen and Alexi Ogando are all there for the taking.


6. Don’t Tread on Alexi Ogando

Ogando’s agent, the highly respected Larry Reynolds, took to Twitter the other day to defend the reliever from the rumor mill:


7. Don’t Tread on the Hall of Fame Voters

One quick follow-up from last week’s announcement that Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio have been elected to the Hall of Fame:

I find it interesting that, just two years after the Baseball Writers’ Association of America was roasted for not voting anyone into the Hall of Fame for just the eighth time ever, voters put four men into the Hall—the largest group in 60 years, since 1955.

Was the system broken two years ago, as many claimed? No.

Is it broken now, as many claim in the aftermath of steroids guys like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire being shut out? No.

I don’t know how the steroids class ultimately will fare—Bonds, McGwire, Roger Clemens, etc.—but I also know this: It is an unprecedented chapter in baseball history. There is absolutely no harm in continuing to take time to sort that era out.

Look, the system is not perfect. No system ever is. But since the first Hall of Fame election in 1936, it’s worked pretty doggone well. The baseball Hall of Fame is easily the best Hall of any sport. And part of that is because it is so difficult to get elected.

And if you think voters today are wrong-headed on some issues, how about this for a history lesson: No Hall of Famer has ever been elected unanimously. That is crazy, of course, but it is a fact.

In 1966, 20 voters did not cast a ballot for Ted Williams (out of 302). In 1936, 11 voters did not cast a ballot for Babe Ruth (out of 226). In 1962, 36 voters bypassed Jackie Robinson (out of 160).

There will always be issues with voting, no matter who is charged with doing it. And you know what? Differing viewpoints and dissenting opinions only make the process stronger. As with many other things, the process can get messy. But in the case of the baseball Hall, it has worked and it continues to work.


8. Cue the Theme from The Odd Couple

Bruce Bochy and Tim Flannery played together for years, then worked together as manager and third base coach for many more years. They were teammates for one World Series run in San Diego in 1984, they were manager and coach for another World Series run in San Diego in 1998, and then they teamed up for three World Series rings in San Francisco in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

So where does that leave them? Well, for now, featured in what I’m sure will be one terrific MLB Network Presents feature that will debut Tuesday night on the network. I know my DVR is set. For an advance peek, check this out:


9. In the Spirit of the Game

Dennis Gilbert has been many things throughout a life dedicated to baseball: agent, special assistant to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, prospective owner (oh, what fun it would be if he ever gets a team). But the role in which he’s touched the most lives, easily, comes this Saturday night in Los Angeles, when the Professional Baseball Scouts’ Foundation hosts its 12th annual charity fundraiser, “In the Spirit of the Game.”

Gilbert started the event more than a decade ago as a way to raise money for indigent scouts who were down on their luck. You won’t find anybody who loves the game more than the scouts, who don’t make much money but are so important to the game’s soul.

The event has become one of the biggest of the offseason, with a silent auction before the program that, in the past, has featured items such as dresses from Marilyn Monroe, guitars signed by the Rolling Stones and autographed memorabilia from Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and more. It’s a who’s who from the baseball world—and, given the Los Angeles location, Hollywood. Two years ago, I bumped into Bo Derek.

This year, Dusty Baker will receive the Tommy Lasorda Managerial Achievement Award, Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Jim Palmer, George Brett, Goose Gossage, Brooks Robinson and Dave Winfield are scheduled to appear, and retiring Commissioner Bud Selig will be honored.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like to attend, here’s the information. If not, check it out on MLB Network television later this month.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.


Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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