David Price headlines short list of MLB off-season targets

Baseball is a unique sport because of its ridiculously long season. With the season lasting from the end of March through the end of October, there isn’t much time for a true off-season. Add in the beginning of spring training in late February, and there are only three months for all of the off-season player movement, in the form of both free agency and trades.

With the winter meetings, where all of the MLB teams meet to discuss changes to the rules, less than a month away, free agency is about to kick into high gear. Since all of the general managers are in one place, most of the major off-season trades happen during the meetings, but that doesn’t mean teams aren’t already planning their major moves.

The most talented name in this year’s trade market is Tampa Bay’s ace David Price. The Rays have a long history of trading away their talented pitchers before they hit free agency. The Rays have always had a low budget and have had to be selective in whom they can sign to expensive, long-term contracts.

In the last off-season, the Rays traded James Shields to the Kansas City Royals for top-level prospect Wil Myers. The season before, Matt Garza was traded to the Chicago Cubs for top pitching prospect Chris Archer and a host of other less promising young players.

Now it is Price’s turn to bring the Rays back a bounty of young players to reload their minor league system and to allow them to continue contending with cheaper players on their small budget.

Current rumors have named the Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Los Angeles Angels as possible trade destinations, but another team may come from out of the blue with a better offer. Regardless of the destination, expect the Rays to move Price before the off-season ends.

The other major piece of the off-season is free agency. MLB changed the rules governing the complicated free agent process before last off-season, and their effects can already be seen, most notably in the Milwaukee Brewers’ signing of Kyle Lohse. To help keep players with the team that drafted them, teams that lose top-level players in free agency now gain a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds in the MLB draft.

On the other hand, the team signing another team’s free agent will forfeit their first-round pick unless it’s a top 10 pick, in which case they forfeit their second round pick. That forfeited pick disappears and all teams behind that draft slot move up.

In order for a player to qualify for this compensatory system, two criteria must be met. First, his current team must make the player a qualifying offer. This offer must, at a one-year contract’s worth, be at least the average yearly salary of the top 125 free agents from the previous off-season, which is around $14 million this year.

Second, the free-agent-to-be must have been with the current team for at least one full season. The purpose of this clause is to prevent teams from acquiring a player in the last year of his contract at the July 31 trade deadline, and then receiving compensation when he leaves two months later.

This year, 13 players were given qualifying offers. Two of them, pitchers Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jiménez, are eerily similar to Lohse in terms of recent performance. The only major difference is age, with Lohse entering the free agent market at 34 and Jiménez and Santana being 30 and 31, respectively.

There is another band of power hitting free agents who carry their own risks, but are still likely to receive great offers given the absence of available sluggers on the market. Veteran outfielder Carlos Beltrán played lights out for the St. Louis Cardinals in the post season, but health concerns and his advancing age have given many teams doubt about his potential.

Nelson Cruz was having a great year for the Texas Rangers before he got caught up in the biogenesis scandal and was suspended for the last 50 games of the season for human growth hormone usage. Kendrys Morales and Mike Napoli are both defensive liabilities and would be best suited as designated hitters, but could be used as first baseman in a pinch.

Shortstop Stephen Drew is the position player most likely to feel the pain of the qualifying offer with his terrible offensive performance during the Red Sox postseason run. His agent, Scott Boras, has a history of not accepting the one-year qualifying offer out of principle, and thus, Drew could be left high and dry with few suitors.

Boras also represents the two centerfielders that represent the top of this year’s free agent class, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo.

It may take a while for either of these players to sign, but that will not be due to lack of interest. Boras is notorious for holding out and playing teams against each other. Some speculate that Boras will make sure Choo signs first, and later demand that Ellsbury receive an offer more lucrative than the one Choo receives.

While this may not be the most exciting free agent or trade market class, there will still be plenty of story lines as teams try to get the most bang for their buck.