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Original Issue

Fire Up the Stove

ANYONE WHO thought the World Series ended anticlimactically needn't worry: The off-season promises plenty of intrigue. Though this winter's free-agent class isn't deep, it includes impact players at almost every position. A rundown of the front-burner questions on the hot stove.

Will Paul Konerko return to the White Sox?

Konerko is the most desirable of the free-agent power hitters; his splendid postseason only burnished his credentials and fattened his asking price ($12 million per for five to seven years has been floated). White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has said that re-signing Konerko is his top priority, but the 29-year-old could draw top dollar from a deep-pocketed club such as the Angels, who got little production from their first basemen: last in the AL in home runs (11) and slugging percentage (.379). PREDICTION: Konerko re-signs.

Will Roger Clemens retire (again)?

The 43-year-old righthander left his Game 1 start after two innings because of a strained left hamstring, and his competitiveness is such that he wouldn't have come out unless his condition had been truly serious. Clemens led the majors with a 1.87 ERA, but his age and injury caught up with him in October, when he allowed 17 hits in 16 innings, had a 5.63 ERA and struck out only eight. He has committed to pitch in the World Baseball Classic in March, so he expects to be in game shape, an indication that he will return. PREDICTION: Clemens comes back for a last hurrah.

Is this the winter the Red Sox finally trade Manny Ramirez?

Over the past few off-seasons Boston's front office has made little secret of its desire to unload Ramirez, despite his averaging 122 RBIs for the team. Last week he asked the Red Sox to trade him--his fifth such request since 2002--and said he will not otherwise report to spring training. There are two major obstacles to a deal: Ramirez is owed $57 million over the next three years, and as a 10-and-5 player he has no-trade protection. Ramirez's agent, Greg Genske, has said his client's preferred destinations are the Indians and the Angels. If Ramirez goes, Boston must add a power bat to protect designated hitter David Ortiz in its lineup. PREDICTION: Ramirez is traded to Cleveland, where he spent his first eight seasons.

Where will the top starting pitchers end up?

Despite two black marks on his record--his Tommy John surgery two years ago and a late-season tirade that caused his dismissal from the Marlins in September--28-year-old righthander A.J. Burnett, who threw a career-high 209 innings with a 3.44 ERA and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings (sixth in the league), is the prize free-agent pitcher. For clubs that don't land Burnett, Indians righty Kevin Millwood, 30, or Angels lefty Jarrod Washburn, 31, are the best alternatives. PREDICTION: The Blue Jays have money to spend; they also have pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, who worked with Burnett in Florida in 2002 and part of '03, and that will seal the deal. Millwood winds up in Baltimore, and Washburn re-signs.

Who will land the top closers?

Three of last year's best closers--the Indians' Bob Wickman (45 saves, second in the majors), the Padres' Trevor Hoffman (43, fourth) and the Phillies' Billy Wagner (38, 12th)--are free agents, as are lesser lights such as Baltimore's B.J. Ryan and Pittsburgh's Jose Mesa. Hoffman made $5 million this year, and San Diego, under new CEO Sandy Alderson, may economize and replace the 38-year-old with setup men Scott Linebrink and Aki Otsuka. Wagner has told Philadelphia that he'll shop around. Closers are as replaceable as anyone else, even through the draft, as Washington's Chad Cordero and Oakland's Huston Street have shown, but that won't stop teams from handing out huge deals. PREDICTION: Hoffman, an icon in San Diego, stays put. Wagner signs with the Mets. Wickman, who'll be 37 in February, retires.



PLAY IT AGAIN? Clemens will turn 44 next August.