This is the first of a six-part preview of the impending offseason, which I’ll cycle through relatively quickly over the course of the next couple of weeks. While it might seem sacrilege to write about the Hot Stove League at a time when the 21 most important games of the baseball season remain to be played, I hope it will be of some interest to the 87 percent of you whose teams have now been knocked out of playoff contention. From everything we’ve been hearing, winter madness is going to start early this year, with a series of key decision points revolving around Alex Rodriguez and some of the other biggest names in the sport.

The focal point is not in the details but in the general direction that each team is going to take, which can range from a “strong buy” (trading in cash and long-term assets to win in 2008) to a “strong sell” (just the opposite). For each club, I’ve provided both a recommended and a predicted course of action; the latter is generally based on a top-level read of a team’s behavior rather than any sort of insider information. There’s also an abundance of information on long-term contracts, most of which is borrowed from the invaluable Cot’s Baseball Contracts. One quick note: the category for “key ready-now youngsters” is generally limited to players who have not yet broken into their team’s everyday lineup, or who only did so in the middle of the 2007 season. Thus, we remind Royals fans that Billy Butler needs to firm down his position, but assume that they know that Alex Gordon is the man at third base.

We’ll start in my home division, the American League Central:

Cleveland Indians
2007 Record: 96-66, first place
2007 Attendance: 2.2 million, 10th in the AL
2007 Payroll: $62 million, 23rd in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): RF-L Trot Nixon, OF-L Kenny Lofton, RHP Joe Borowski (club option), RHP Paul Byrd (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): LHP C.C. Sabathia, 4C-R Casey Blake
Key Long-Term Commitments: DH-L Travis Hafner, $14.25M/year through 2012, plus 2013 club option; CF-L Grady Sizemore, $5.2M/year through 2011 plus 2012 club option; SS-R Jhonny Peralta, $3.4M/year through 2010 plus 2011 club option; C-S Victor Martinez, $5.0M year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; RHP Jake Westbrook, $11M year through 2010; LHP Cliff Lee, $4.75M through 2009, plus 2010 club option; OF-L David Dellucci, $3.9M year through 2009
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: MI-S Asdrubal Cabrera, RHP Adam Miller, LHPs Aaron Laffey and Chuck Lofgren, OF-R Franklin Gutierrez, 3B-R Andy Marte, OF-L Shin-Soo Choo
Needs: 1. LF; 2. probably 3B
What They Should Do: Hold. This team is loaded. With all the young talent either in stock or on the way, the Indians could not spend a dollar in the free agent market and PECOTA out at 96-98 wins next spring. The key decision is really whether to re-sign Sabathia now or wait until next winter to make a choice, which mostly boils down to just what his asking price is. Now, the one worry is that attendance has been a little sluggish, and you could argue for one strike into the free agent market to put the proverbial ornament on the Christmas tree. But the Indians might be good enough that they don’t need to do that, and attendance should pick up anyway after their deep postseason run this year. The options for Byrd and Borowski should probably be exercised, however, given how expensive pitching will be this winter.
What They Will Do: Hold. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Indians sign a left fielder if something relatively cheap falls into their laps, but otherwise Mark Shapiro should be able to catch up on his sleep this winter.

Detroit Tigers
2007 Record: 88-74, second place
2007 Attendance: 3.0 million, third in the AL
2007 Payroll: $95 million, ninth in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): LHP Kenny Rogers, RHP Todd Jones, 1B-L Sean Casey, C-R Ivan Rodriguez (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): None
Key Long-Term Commitments: RF-R Magglio Ordonez, $16.5M/year through 2009, plus 2010/2011 club options; DH-R Gary Sheffield, $14M/year through 2009; SS/1B-S Carlos Guillen, $12M/year through 2011; RHP Jeremy Bonderman, $11.2M/year through 2010; 3B-R Brandon Inge, $6.4M/year through 2010; 2B-R Placido Polanco, $4.6M/year through 2009
Key Ready-Now Youngers: OF-R Cameron Maybin, LHP Andrew Miller, RHP Jair Jurrjens, UT-R Ryan Raburn
Needs: 1. Bullpen Depth; 2. C, if Ivan Rodriguez departs; 3. SS; 4. #4 starter; 5. LF
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. The Tigers actually have quite a few moving parts. The first decision is whether to pick up Ivan Rodriguez’ option at a marginal cost of $10 million ($13 million in salary versus the $3 million buyout). On paper, this is possibly a “no”; Rodriguez delivered a .294 OBP last season, and the market for free agent catchers is relatively robust. But the decision is reasonably close, and certainty counts for something; it’s hard to fight a multi-front war under the pressure of the free agency cycle. Carlos Guillen will most likely be moving to first base, which leaves the Tigers with either a choice of Ramon Santiago and possibly Omar Infante at shortstop, or a deicision to pay something for an external hire. The problem is that there isn’t too much in the way of middle-tier shortstops; you have guys like David Eckstein and Omar Vizquel who will probably wind up being overcompensated, and then you have Alex Rodriguez, who isn’t the worst fit here but is probably a stretch financially. A trade of Jurrjens for Atlanta’s Edgar Renteria or Pittsburgh’s Jack Wilson-underrated in stathead circles-might be the best alternative.

But the Tigers’ choices do not end there. Is Cameron Maybin ready? You could do worse than to go into spring training with Maybin, Marcus Thames, and Ryan Raburn as your options in left field, but a one-year, $4 million commitment to a Cliff Floyd type would not kill anyone. And what about the pitching staff? If this is my team, what I probably do is as follows:

  1. Bite my tongue and re-sign Rodriguez
  2. Hold in left field, and, hope Maybin is ready by June 15
  3. Trade Jurrjens for Renteria
  4. Sign Eric Gagne
  5. Sign a Paul Byrd type who can pitch to a good defense, or find a suitable freely-available talent alternative
  6. Take a flier on an injury-discounted swingman like Kerry Wood.

What They Will Do: Weak Buy. In contrast to the Indians, Dave Dombrowski has one of the more difficult jobs of GMing this winter. This team looks to me like an 85-86 win team if it just treads water, and any team in that position that’s drawing three million fans or more per season is usually going to be a net acquirer of talent. The problem is that there aren’t that many ready-made free agent solutions at the positions where the Tigers need them, so some creativity is going to be required. When all is said and done, I think the Tigers will look at the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees, decide that they have to improve to catch up to that group, and make some or another kind of move. But I have no idea what it will be.

Minnesota Twins
2007 Record: 79-83, third place
2007 Attendance: 2.3 million, ninth in the AL
2007 Payroll: $71 million, 18th in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): CF-R Torii Hunter, RHP Carlos Silva
Key Free Agents (2008): LHP Johan Santana, RHP Joe Nathan
Key Long-Term Commitments: C-L Joe Mauer, $9.75M/year through 2010
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: RHPs Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker, 2B-S Alexi Casilla
Needs: 1. CF, assuming that Hunter departs; 2. 3B; 3. A premium bat for DH/LF/RF, and maybe two
What They Should Do: Strong Sell. Is this team strong enough to compete if it re-signs Hunter and treads water elsewhere? Possibly, depending on the performance of the young pitchers. More likely, however, it would be about the sixth-best team in a league where four teams make the playoffs, and the revenues probably are not elastic enough in the old ballpark to warrant the risk. Once you let Hunter go, the cascade begins. Trade Santana, whose value is absolutely huge right now and who could potentially fetch two long-term cornerstones. And trade Joe Nathan too, who probably gets you another key long-term asset. That gives you a core of Mauer, Justin Morneau, Garza, Slowey, plus at least three other very attractive young assets for your honeymoon season in the new ballpark in 2010, and also your bachelor party season in the HumpDome in 2009. This is not a five-year rebuild, it’s a two-year retrenching job.
What They Will Do: Strong Sell. This is a pretty obvious plan.

Chicago White Sox
2007 Record: 72-90, fourth place
2007 Attendance: 2.7 million, fifth in the AL
2007 Payroll: $109 million, fifth in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): SS-R Juan Uribe (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): DH-L Jim Thome, 3B-R Joe Crede, RHP Jon Garland
Key Long-Term Commitments: LHP Mark Buehrle, $14M/year through 2010; 1B-R Paul Konerko, $12M/year through 2010; RHP Javier Vazquez, $11.5M/year through 2010; RF-R Jermaine Dye, $11M/year through 2009, plus 2010 mutual option; C-L A.J. Pierzynski, $6.25M/year through 2010
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: 3B/LF-R Josh Fields, OF-L Ryan Sweeney, LHP Gio Gonzalez
Needs: 1. At least one big bat for LF/CF; 2. 2B; 3. SS
What They Should Do: Strong Buy. The White Sox picked their direction during the season when they re-signed both Mark Buehrle and Jermaine Dye to long-term contracts rather than trading them for prospects. Having done so, the team has little choice but to complete the cycle and field a team that should have a median expectation somewhere in the 88-win range. That scenario will probably require signing at least two “name” free agents. The alternative is being stuck in the middle, and spending a lot of money while undermining the reservoir of support they built up in 2005.
What They Will Do: Weak Buy. When you combine Jerry Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams, no direction would be entirely surprising, but this is one of those cases where going 72-90 might ultimately have been better than 80-82, because it underscores the fact that the team must spend money to improve. The guess here is that the White Sox go far but not quite far enough, trading Jon Garland for an offensive piece, and signing one mid-tier free agent.

Kansas City Royals
2007 Record: 69-93, fifth place
2007 Attendance: 1.6 million, 13th in American League
2007 Payroll: $67 million, 22nd in baseball
Key Free Agents (2007): DH-R Mike Sweeney, LHP Odalis Perez (club option), RHP David Riske (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): 2B-R Mark Grudzielanek, OF-R Emil Brown
Key Long-Term Commitments: RHP Gil Meche, $11.5M/year through 2011; OF-L David DeJesus, $3.6M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: DH-R Billy Butler, OF-L Joey Gathright, RHPs Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar, 1B/OF-R Justin Huber
Needs: 1. two or more high-quality starting pitchers; 2. 1B; 3. SS
What They Should Do: Strong Sell. I don’t think there’s quite enough long-term talent here to make the Royals a legitimate contender in 2009 through 2011. Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar had disappointing seasons, and a team centered around those two plus Mark Teahen, Billy Butler, Brian Bannister, David DeJesus, Gil Meche, and Joakim Soria is probably going to peak at about 78 wins. So what do you do? You flip Meche, whose contract will now look like an asset to at least 15 or 20 teams, to the losers in the Johan Santana derby (although Meche does have a no-trade clause, unfortunately). You trade Bannister, who isn’t all that young and whose low ERA was a DIPS-induced fluke. And you see what you can get for Grudzielanek in a middle infield market that should be fairly fluid this winter.
What They Will Do: Hold. Teams that exceed expectations like the Royals just did tend to be holders, whereas teams that fail to meet expectations are usually either buyers or sellers. I suspect that Dayton Moore fails to see the opportunity he has on his hands with Meche and Bannister.

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