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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Free agency allows clubs to hit reset button

Castrovince: Free agency lets clubs hit reset button

Free agency allows clubs to hit reset button
The visitors' clubhouse staff at Comerica Park has barely completed the carpet-scrubbing and Lysol-spraying necessary to remove the champagne stench from the air, and the Giants have barely completed their Halloween parade route through a sea of orange-and-black-clad San Franciscans.

For fans of the 29 other clubs, however, the focus is -- and, in most cases, has been -- elsewhere.

Free agency officially began at 9 a.m. ET on Monday, just nine hours and 10 minutes after Miguel Cabrera gawked at the final pitch of the 2012 season. Teams retain exclusive negotiating rights to their free agents until 11:59 p.m. Friday, and then baseball is really open for business.

A year ago, at that precise point in the calendar, Jose Reyes was in a swank hotel bar in Manhattan, greeted by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who opened his coat to reveal he was wearing a brand-new Marlins jersey with Reyes' name and number on it -- a sign of the commitment level of the Fish.

One year later, the Marlins are a mess and Reyes, for all we know, could become trade bait. This just goes to show how quickly the storylines can sway.

It is, therefore, difficult to know how seriously to take the Hot Stove hype, but we do know that certain clubs will make significant strides toward bumping the Giants off the pedestal. Here, then, are five non-award storylines sure to dominate the Major League news cycle in the coming weeks or months.

1. Where is Josh Hamilton headed?

Hamilton heads the free-agent class, and he's one of the more interesting compensation case studies in recent memory. His talent level is unquestioned, but between his age (31), the durability concerns (he's averaged 129 games played in five seasons in Texas) and his past struggles with addiction, he's a high-risk/high-reward guy if ever there was one.

After watching Hamilton virtually disappear in the midst of the Rangers' late-season fall from grace, general manager Jon Daniels has already said he won't make a multiyear offer to Hamilton until after he hits the open market. If another team shows an aggressive eagerness to overpay, the Rangers could bow out.

So which teams are in the hunt? Because of his age, Hamilton makes the most sense for an American League club. The Yankees and Red Sox have been increasingly conservative in the free-agent market, and the Angels might be tapped out in the outfield/DH department. But the Orioles, Mariners and White Sox might have the financial flexibility to pull off something bold, and we can't rule out the possibility that Mike Ilitch will get the itch to bring another superstar to Detroit.

In the National League, the Cubs don't seem likely to bring in a high-profile free agent at this stage of their rebuild, but the Brewers have been a rumored possibility, as have those champion Giants.

Hamilton is one of several high-profile outfielders available in a class that includes Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, Torii Hunter, Delmon Young, Shane Victorino and Ichiro Suzuki, among others.

2. Slim pickings in starting pitching?

Jake Peavy's name already has been taken off the board. If you're in the market for a legit ace-type arm, your one and only option is Zack Greinke, and he can be a bit mercurial.

Greinke had one superior season in 2009 and has otherwise posted a 4.06 ERA in his career. But he finished 2012 with a flourish, and that will help ensure his price tag for 2013 and beyond is a hefty one. The Angels have already traded Ervin Santana, with the possibility that Dan Haren is next to go, so the incentive for the Halos to re-sign Greinke is as high as the price.

It will be less steep for the likes of Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and Brandon McCarthy, but they'll all benefit from an environment in which starting pitching is at such a premium. Guys like Shaun Marcum and Joe Saunders could also be in line for multiyear deals, with Saunders increasing his stock with two strong postseason appearances.

By and large, this free-agent class again makes it clear that the best way to build a sustained winner is to draft and groom your own starting stars.

3. Any star swaps looming?

Young, controllable talent is the game's greatest commodity, and some clubs could explore the market value of that commodity if it can help them augment other areas.

Take the Rays as the most obvious example. In David Price, they have a game-changing left-hander coming off an AL Cy Young Award-worthy season, and he's under their arbitration control for the next three years. But those arbitration costs are going to get pricey in a hurry, and so it behooves the low-budget Rays to at least explore offers for Price, especially if it means adding a middle-of-the-order bat to support Evan Longoria.

The D-backs' Justin Upton will be another young star whose name is bandied about in the rumor mill, as Arizona, even after dealing Chris Young, has an excess in the outfield. Upton is signed through 2015 at what seemed a reasonable rate, though his subpar '12 could be a concern or could be an indication that a change of scenery is in order.

Several teams have big decisions to make with key core players, such as the Padres with Chase Headley or the Indians with Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo. The A's demonstrated how quickly a club can vault itself into contention with some shrewd offseason swapping, and others will try to repeat that pattern.

4. Any lessons to be learned from October?

Team chemistry is the unquantifiable, underrated component of club construction that teams must factor in this time of year. We saw how far it took a Giants team devoid of egos, a team that shunned a middle-of-the-order hitter in Melky Cabrera after his suspension and nonetheless went all the way. (And it will be interesting, by the way, to see which club commits to Cabrera at this point.)

The Giants also demonstrated the value of a stout defense and a bullish bullpen. It's not as if this was some secret beforehand, but these are the less-sexy elements of offseason planning that don't generate much in the way of headlines or hype yet loom large when it counts.

5. Who will be the big spenders?

If you haven't already freed your mind from the habit of counting just the Yankees and Red Sox in this category, it's well past the time to do so. We've seen in the past year how looming regional television deals or particularly aggressive ownerships have drastically changed the spending thresholds in places like Anaheim, Arlington, Los Angeles, Detroit and Cincinnati. And with a huge influx of new national TV money in recent months, we could be in store for more surprises on the spending front.

The Orioles will be a particularly interesting club after stunningly reaching the postseason stage. And another AL East club, the Blue Jays, has long been viewed as a sleeping giant on the spending front. After watching their rotation get ravaged by injuries this year, this could be the winter Toronto gets more aggressive.

To what depths will the Dodgers keep reaching into the wallet? Will the Mariners or Padres try to lure a big bat after moving their fences in? Are the Royals done adding payroll on rotation arms after acquiring Santana from the Angels? These are some of the questions that will shape the market this winter.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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