The frequent questions concerning when Team X will bring up Player Y is a difficult one to answer as, during the season, injuries and productivity issues in the big leagues can play as large a role in determining a call-up as the prospect's performance can. That changes in the off-season, however, when free agency can create sudden and glaring holes. Here are some big name free agents whose departure could create some opportunities, as well as some not-so-big ones who could nonetheless clear a path.
Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
While there is every indication that the Cardinals will do everything within their power to keep the three-time MVP, what if somebody throws him more money than the Cardinals are willing to match? While the Cards system is not known for their power hitters, one name generating significant buzz this year is Matt Adams, who has hit .310/.368/.583 at Double-A Springfield with 31 home runs in 109 games. A massive presence who is closer to 300 pounds than 200, Adams draws physical comparisons to Jason Giambi, and there is no questioning his power, nor an ability to hit, as his strikeout rate is quite low for a power hitter.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers
While the current RBI leader is stepping to the plate with Pink Floyd's “Money” in the background, the Brewers might be left scrambling to figure out what to do in 2012 should his money be coming from somewhere other than Milwaukee. There are a variety of options available here, as the Triple-A Nashville squad featured a pair of producing corner infielders, with recently called up Taylor Green hitting .336/.413/.583 and perennial prospect Mat Gamel at .321/.383/.563. Gamel likely gets first crack at the job, but he's done so little with nearly 200 big league plate appearances (.222/.309/.374) that scouts wonder if the 26-year-old is more of a 4A type.
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia Phillies
While it's hard to imagine Rollins leaving the team he's spent his entire career with, he's now aging, injury prone, and a far cry from the 2007 MVP, which could lead to a big gap between what he's asking for and what the Phillies are willing to pay. While losing his bat would unquestionably be a blow, the Phillies have a defensive upgrade available in Freddy Galvis, a 21-year-old Venezuelan who is among the best defensive players in the minors. Always seen as a great-glove/no-hit type, Galvis has had a shockingly good year with the bat (for him), batting .280/.327/.396 between Double- and Triple-A while showing occasional power. He'd hit eighth for the Phillies, but with teams leaning more and more on defense, Philly pitchers would at least not have to worry about a negative effect in the field.
Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Chicago Cubs
While the Cubs don't have an obvious replacement lined up, invoking Ramirez' $16 million option does nothing for a team that should be entering rebuilding mode. Treating 2012 as more of a discovery season than one to compete, the Cubs could go with a multi-headed monster of existing players Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt and future utility man prospects like Ryan Flaherty or D.J. LeMahieu in order to take one more year to figure out if former first-round pick Josh Vitters can be the answer. While a .283/.323/.442 season represents progress, he remains almost too good of a hitter for his own good, swinging far too often at bad pitches and generating poor contact. With just 52 strikeouts in 428 at-bats and outstanding hands, scouts hold firm to their belief that with a tempered approach, Vitters would hit .300.
Alex Gonzalez, SS, Atlanta Braves
While Alex Gonzalez is a steady defender with occasional power, his .227/.225/.341 line likely means the end of his road in Atlanta. While a one-year fill-in option (including Gonzalez himself) will certainly be considered, the Braves could also be entertaining a long look at Tyler Pastornicky next spring. Acquired with Gonzalez in last year’s Yunel Escobar deal, Pastornicky has hit .315/.360/.416 at the upper levels and profiles as a .280 hitter with limited power but solid defense and the ability to steal a base.
Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, OF, Minnesota Twins
On pace to finish lower than third in the American League Central for the first time in more than a decade, the Twins are expected to see a major shuffle in their roster during the winter, beginning with two longtime members of the lineup in Cuddyer and Kubel. Their departure could clear way for Joe Benson, who has made tremendous progress in turning his obvious tools into baseball skills over the last two seasons, including a .281/.384/.495 line for Double-A New Britain this year. With above-average power and speed, as well as a good arm, Benson has big league athleticism, and while he'll always rack up a high strikeout total, he does enough around those to be an everyday player.
Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, SP, New York Yankees
It's not news to anyone that the Yankees are an old team, but the first wave of a youth movement could begin in 2012. Garcia and Colon have done yeoman's work in the Bronx this year, but the future of the Yankees rotation was on display Monday night when both lefty Manny Banuelos and right-hander Dellin Betances threw seven-inning complete games in a double-header for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It's hard to see the notoriously conservative Yankees opening the season with two rookies in the rotation, but that should be the case at some point in the 2012 season.
Jorge Posada, DH, New York Yankees
Posada has made some recent statements that he's open to playing elsewhere in 2012, but his Yankee career almost assuredly comes to an end come October. That means Jesus Montero might finally get his chance in New York while falling just short of getting his 1000th Triple-A plate appearance. Yankees fans could get a taste of his bat in September, and with the designated hitter slot opening up, he can play a position he can handle defensively.
Mark Buehrle, SP, Chicago White Sox
Another one of the rare players who has spent a long career with just one team, Buehrle has never made his desire to pitch for the Cardinals a secret, and now that the prime of his career is in his rear view mirror, that becomes a distinct possibility. The White Sox have no obvious prospect candidate for the rotation, but the loss of Buehrle could create a tide of changes that begins with Chris Sale sliding into a starting role and this year's pop-up relief prospect, Addison Reed, moving into a late-inning role in the bullpen. A third-round pick in 2010, Reed has pitched for every full-season league team in the system this year, compiling 111 strikeouts over 78.1 innings while allowing just 43 hits and 11 walks thanks to plus command and control of a fastball that can get into the upper 90s and a vicious breaking ball.
Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis, SP, Kansas City Royals
We end with a quick lesson on the volatility on prospects. Five months ago, any talk about Royal pitching prospects began with how left-handers John Lamb and Mike Montgomery could be in the rotation by mid-season. Lamb had early-season Tommy John surgery and Mike Montgomery saw his mechanics (and therefore his command) go downhill, leading to a 5.44 ERA at Triple-A. As a result, Chen and Francis went from placeholders to rotation stalwarts. They'll likely be pitching elsewhere, but the Royals are suddenly out of ready-to-go replacements, and a great system is no guarantee of instant greatness.