Previewing this week’s winter meetings

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Expect the rumors to come fast and furious as the league’s top executives converge on Dallas. The winter meetings officially start Monday, but the general managers will arrive and start talking among themselves this afternoon. With so much of the free-agent talent congregated at a few select positions, there could well be more trades than usual, and chances are we’ll see at least a couple of significant signings over the next few days. Some potential highlights:

– Starting pitching trades – Since the pitching market beyond C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle is pretty barren, many familiar names will be tossed around this week. There has been plenty of talk about Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, Atlanta’s Jair Jurrjens and Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez already. The White Sox may be open to moving either John Danks or Gavin Floyd. There’s also the Rays’ James Shields, the Cubs’ Matt Garza and the Twins’ Francisco Liriano, none of whom are certain to be available but who would generate plenty of conversation.

– A Buehrle signing – Just two of this winter’s top 20 free agents are currently off the board and those two are closers (Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell). One gets the impression that the top two starters might be the next to go. Buehrle doesn’t seem like the type who will want the free agency process to drag on, and he already has a handful of offers to choose from. Wilson is also a candidate to sign in the next few days, though that process may take a bit longer to play out.

– Closer trades – The Rockies’ Huston Street appears to be pretty much free for the taking, as Colorado would prefer to reinvest his $7.5 million salary elsewhere. Oakland’s Andrew Bailey and Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan would be considerably more expensive, but both could be had by a team not wanting to commit $10 million per year to Ryan Madson or Francisco Rodriguez.

– Mystery teams! – The big three of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes aren’t making nearly enough noise at the moment, so it’s definitely time for some mystery suitors to become involved. Of the trio, only Reyes looks like any sort of candidate to get a deal done this week. The Marlins, though, would likely have to step up their offer to make that happen. Possible mystery teams for him include the Red Sox and Tigers.

– A Michael Cuddyer signing – The Twins want Cuddyer back, and the market is quiet enough that they may not have to go to three years to make it happen. Only the Phillies have made much noise regarding Cuddyer. The Red Sox are unlikely to chase him, and the Indians’ interest ended when Grady Sizemore chose to re-sign.

UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.