Hot stove time: What will be the biggest stories this offseason?

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The carpet of the visitor’s clubhouse down in Texas is still wet with bubbly and the Giants are still several hours from having their hangovers kick in, but it’s never too early to think about what’s next. That’s especially true this year with the free agency season getting into full swing so soon after the season starts.  If previous years are any guide we can expect the unexpected. But before  fate, karma, juju, the whammy and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle take over the hot stove season, let’s take a quick look at what will likely be the biggest stories this offseason:

  • Albert Pujols’ deal:  Yes, there may be more ink spilled about Cliff Lee, but the Cardinals locking up Albert Pujols to a long term deal is easily the biggest task facing any team this winter, and the one with the greatest implications for baseball.  He’s under contract for 2011, but the Cards would be insane to let him get to spring training without locking him up. Why? Odds are he won’t negotiate during the season and if he gets to next fall without a deal being struck, he’ll almost certainly test the open market. If that happens the best case scenario is that it would cost St. Louis tens of millions of dollars, as no small number of teams would likely get in on the bidding. Worst case: Pujols walks and the Cardinals are left as a smoking crater of a baseball team. It took the Indians 35 years to get over the Rocky Colavito trade. Who knows how long losing El Hombre will keep the Cardinals down, psychologically or otherwise. Either way, this needs to get done now.
  • Cliff Lee’s free agency: The Yankees obviously have their heart set on the guy. The Rangers have talked a big game about keeping him in Texas. Even Lee’s wife has gotten in on the act.  Ultimately, however, where Cliff Lee pitches next year is going to depend on (a) his wishes, not anyone else’s; and (b) the Benjamins.  While it’s always wise to bet “the field” in a 30 horse race, the fact of the matter is that about 25 of the horses don’t have the giddyup  to stay in the Cliff Lee Derby. I would have a hard time predicting him ending up anywhere but New York, but I suppose stranger things than the Yankees not getting a coveted free agent have happened.  I just can’t think of what they are at the moment.
  • The inevitable Prince Fielder trade: It’s dangerous to say that a trade is definitely going to happen. Just look at the Adrian Gonzalez stuff from last year. He didn’t go anywhere despite the fact that all the big media websites were messing with their graphics to change his cap and uniform in their file photos as early as December.  With that caveat out of the way, Fielder does look poised to go. He too faces free agency. He’s represented by Scott Boras, who has already suggested that he’s expecting Mark Teixeira money.  The Brewers are highly unlikely to pay Fielder that kind of dough, so their best bet is to trade him.  It’s an open question as to whether one can get better value for an in-season trade to a desperate contender at next year’s deadline or during the offseason when more teams can picture themselves competing the following year, but rest assured there will be tons of Prince Fielder rumors flying between now and when pitchers and catchers report.
  • The McCourt divorce and the fate of the Dodgers:  We can expect a decision from the judge presiding over the Frank and Jamie McCourt divorce any day now, but no later than Thanksgiving. If he rules that Frank is the sole owner, the Dodgers will likely see little turbulence going forward. At least not related to the divorce. If he rules, however, that Jamie is the co-owner, Katey bar the door, because we’re going to have a mess on our hands, most likely involving a sale of the team to satisfy what will be a hefty divorce settlement.
  • Derek Jeter/Mariano Rivera:  Both are free agents, and both are almost 100% certain to return to the Yankees. But for how much? And how long? And even if there’s no doubt about any of that, if you think the matter isn’t going to be analyzed to the nth degree in the media, you’re crazy.
  • The direction of the Mets:  This will be an ongoing story, as the second banana in the Big Apple appears to be on the brink of a major overhaul.  Sandy Alderson is in place as the new GM, and if he was truly promised a free hand in running the team, expect big changes, because he sees the world a little differently than Jeff Wilpon does.  The first order of business will be the new manager, but there will be all manner of personnel decisions this winter. They may not all change the Mets’ 2011 roster that much, will have lasting implications for the direction of the team.
  • Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth’s new home: They’re different men, but I include them together because where one of these big ticket free agents signs will almost certainly impact the other.  It’s a thin offensive free agent class out there once you get beyond these two, so competition will be fierce.  If it helps, think of this as Glengarry Glen Ross: the winner gets the Cadillac (Crawford). Second place gets steak knives (Werth) and third place gets fired.

Those are the biggies as far as I can see, my friends. Let’s chat about it all — including my unfortunate but dramatically necessary comparison of Jayson Werth and steak knives — in the comments.  If you have nothing to say, at least start a fire in the stove, pour yourself a beverage and enjoy baseball’s crazy season with the HBT Crew.

Albert Pujols is eighth on the all-time home run list

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Albert Pujols kicked things off for the Angels in dramatic fashion on Friday night, cranking a two-RBI home run off of the Orioles’ Jeremy Hellickson to give the club an early lead in the first inning. The 350-footer was his 18th home run of the year and No. 609 in his 17-season career, tying Sammy Sosa on the all-time home run list for eighth overall and most home runs hit by a player born outside of the United States.

With the home run, Pujols sits just three homers shy of tying Jim Thome’s 612-home run record for seventh on the all-time list. That figures to be the last major milestone still ahead of the designated hitter this season, with Ken Griffey Jr.’s 630-home run mark still a distant 21 blasts away.

The Angels, meanwhile, ran with Pujols’ lead, collecting home runs from Kole Calhoun, C.J. Cron, Kaleb Cowart and Mike Trout. It wasn’t quite enough to quash the Orioles, however, who surged to a 9-7 finale after Manny Machado went 3-for-5 with three home runs and struck a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

Nationals place Max Scherzer on 10-day disabled list with neck inflammation

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The Nationals placed right-hander Max Scherzer on the 10-day disabled list with left neck inflammation, the team announced Friday. Scherzer was scratched from his scheduled start against the Padres and replaced by left-hander Matt Grace, though an official roster move has yet to be made to fill his spot on the roster. The assignment is retroactive to August 15.

Scherzer experienced a similar pain on the right side of his neck at the start of the month, though this is the first official stint he’ll serve on the disabled list in 2017. While comments from club manager Dusty Baker suggest that the injury wasn’t caused by any particular trauma, it seems likely that the ace right-hander will be sidelined for at least one more start.

It’s a terrible time to lose a star pitcher, especially with the Nationals positioned to make a deep run in the postseason, but their 14-game cushion in the NL East should buy them some time while Scherzer’s on the mend. Prior to his bout of inflammation, the 33-year-old looked remarkably healthy this season. He pitched through his fifth consecutive All-Star campaign and currently boasts a 12-5 record in 24 starts, complete with a 2.25 ERA (good for second-best among qualified starters), 2.2 BB/9 and 12.3 SO/9 in 160 1/3 innings.