THE RED SOX proved that champions can be made in November and December, having traded for ace Curt Schilling last Nov. 28 and signed free-agent closer Keith Foulke 15 days later. This year's hot stove league could be equally enriching for some team. Here's what to look for.
The courtship of Carlos Beltran
He's only 27 years old, switch-hits with power, is a Gold Glove--caliber centerfielder (left), may be the best base runner in the game, responded to his first postseason with a record-tying eight homers and flosses regularly. Oh, and one more enhancement to his value: The Yankees haven't won the World Series in four years. The Astros will try to retain Beltran, who's likely to hear from the Cubs, Red Sox, Orioles and Dodgers, among others. And did we mention the Yankees?
The breakup of Oakland's Big Three
With the emergence of Rich Harden as a premier starter in 2004 and Tim Hudson eligible for free agency after next season, the A's will entertain trade offers for Hudson, Mark Mulder or Barry Zito (left), who have been in the A's rotation for five years. Oakland would likely prefer to deal Zito, who's been inconsistent of late (and who, like Mulder, has an option year for '06) to free some money to sign Hudson to an extension.
More than one third of the majors' regular shortstops are eligible for free agency: Nomar Garciaparra (Cubs, left), Edgar Renteria (Cardinals), Cristian Guzman (Twins), Orlando Cabrera (Red Sox), Omar Vizquel (Indians), Jose Valentin (White Sox), Barry Larkin (Reds), Royce Clayton (Rockies), Craig Counsell (Brewers), Deivi Cruz (Giants) and Chris Gomez (Blue Jays). Any or all of them could be on the move. Keep in mind that the shortstops for the past four world champs (Tony Womack, D-Backs; David Eckstein, Angels; Alex Gonzalez, Marlins; and Cabrera) have combined for two career All-Star appearances (Womack in 1997 and Gonzalez in '99).
Big-name (and big-money) trade talk
Randy Johnson (left), 41,has one year left at $16 million for a D-Backs team that lost 111 games. The Cubs may be tired of Sammy Sosa, who turns 36 on Nov. 12, but does another club want him enough to pay him $39.5 million for two years? Manny Ramirez's availability is an annual postseason rumor because of his $20 million salary. The Yankees would so love to dump the injury-prone, 39-year-old Kevin Brown that they would eat a big chunk of the $15 million owed him. Mike Piazza, 36, and his $15 million salary are available from the Mets. The rumors will fly, but bloated salaries make the likelihood of any of these players being dealt remote.
The Roger Clemens retirement watch
Can he really walk away after a Cy Young--caliber season? Sandy Koufax did it in 1966, though elbow pain prompted his departure. A healthy Clemens (left), with 328 wins, needs only two to pass Steve Carlton for ninth place on the alltime list and become the winningest pitcher alive. Clemens is reportedly leaning toward retirement, and speculation is that if he were to return it would only be with his hometown Astros.
The valuation of Adrian Beltre, J.D. Drew and Carl PavanoAfter years marred by underachievement and injuries the Dodgers third baseman (major league--high 48 home runs), Braves outfielder (31 homers) and Marlins pitcher (18-8, 3.00 ERA), respectively, had breakout seasons just in time for free agency. But for how much and for how long are teams willing to wager that Beltre (left), 25, Drew, 28, and Pavano, 28, will continue to perform at the level they reached in '04?
The Rockies' garage sale
Outfielder Preston Wilson (left), catcher Charles Johnson and lefthander Denny Neagle are owed $40 million combined next year, including a $9 million buyout on Neagle's contract for 2006. The team can't fully rebuild until those contracts come off the payroll. Johnson will likely be traded or cut, but Colorado is probably stuck with Wilson (limited to 58 games by a knee injury) and Neagle (who missed all of last year after elbow surgery).
The autonomy of Omar Minaya
After three straight losing seasons the Mets publicly gave Minaya (left), their new general manager, free rein to pick the next manager--leading contenders Willie Randolph (the Yankees' bench coach) and Rudy Jaramillo (the Rangers' hitting coach) have no big league managing experience--and rebuild an aging team. Minaya's every move will be dissected by the New York media and fans.
Filibustering in Washington
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (left) and the denizens of D.C. are on cloud nine, but the artists formerly known as the Montreal Expos will probably not get a new owner until after the first of the year. With Major League Baseball continuing to run the team and restricting spending in the interim--and no G.M. in place--Washington will remain at a competitive disadvantage through the sport's key acquisition season.
The Hall of Fame vote
Wade Boggs (left), with3,010 hits, is the only lock among the first-time candidates on the ballot to be mailed to baseball writers in December. Last year's top two runners-up, Ryne Sandberg (.285 lifetime average and 282 homers, solid numbers for a second baseman) and Bruce Sutter (300 saves, 2.83 ERA), could inch closer to, and maybe even into, the Hall, after the results are announced on Jan. 4. --T.V.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
JOHN BIEVER (BELTRAN, GARCIAPARRA)
MICHAEL ZAGARIS (ZITO)
JASON WISE (JOHNSON)
BOB ROSATO (CLEMENS)
BRAD MANGIN (BELTRE)
LARRY GOREN/WIREIMAGE.COM (WILSON)
FRANK FRANKLIN II (MINAYA)
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS)