So much heavy lifting has already been accomplished in Major League Baseball. In fact, it has been heavier than any of us reasonably imagined. But that doesn't mean all the work is done.
Here, then, are five predictions for what could still be in store between now and the opening of Spring Training camps.
1. The Padres, Rangers and Phillies make a monster trade
Projecting two-way trades from the outside is hard enough, and projecting three-way trades is downright impossible. I'll also add here that, in prospects like Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler and Hunter Renfroe, the Padres probably have adequate internal pieces to pull off the Cole-Hamels-to-his-native-San-Diego scenario so many of us have been discussing, even if they don't include Wil Myers (and frankly, I doubt they'd include Renfroe).
Still, one reason why I could see these three clubs entangled is that if the Padres want to land some short-term salary relief to help offset some of the Hamels haul (he's guaranteed $96 million over four seasons), perhaps parting with Ian Kennedy (whose salary could climb to eight figures in his final round of arbitration) is one way to do so. Kennedy is a pitcher who interests the Rangers, who still have a need near the front of their rotation in 2015, but he's of no use to the rebuilding Phillies.
So that's the basic genesis here.
From there, you may need to stretch to connect the dots, but hear me out.
How many AL teams are an actual fit for Ryan Howard? Maybe the Rays, maybe the Blue Jays (though I think they'd be more inclined to give DH/first base at-bats to the younger and more defensively adept Justin Smoak), maybe the Rangers. That's about it. For the Rangers, Mitch Moreland is hardly an irreplaceable piece in their current setup (maybe he could even be involved in this deal). And if the Phillies are really willing to eat all but a fraction of the $60 million still guaranteed to Howard, he could still hold some appeal to Texas. The word around the league of late is that recent changes to make the luxury section behind home plate at Globe Life Park have affected the Jetstream effect out to left, so the ball doesn't carry as well as it once did. But it's still considered enough of a hitter-friendly environment to help bring out what's left of Howard's power bat (and the Rangers are reportedly one of only nine teams to whom he can be traded without approval).
The Phillies could also soak up a significant chunk of Carlos Ruiz's remaining salary and send him to a Texas team that could use a veteran presence to pair with Robinson Chirinos. The Rangers are in this weird spot where they're trying to evaluate some young players while simultaneously hoping and praying Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo come back and resemble their old norms. They're clearly not rebuilding, or else Adrian Beltre would have been on the block this winter. So you could sell Howard, Ruiz and Kennedy as viable improvements to a roster that might be ready to sneak back into contention, without any onerous long-term entanglements.
So the gist of what I'm proposing here is that the Padres give up Kennedy (to Texas) and prospects (to Philly) for Hamels; the Rangers give up prospects (to Philly) for Kennedy, Howard, Ruiz and money; and the Phillies do what seems the inevitable, parting with Hamels, swallowing a lot of salary with Howard and Ruiz and bringing back the kind of young talent it will take for them to be relevant by 2017, at the earliest.
Or, you know, the Padres can just trade for Hamels themselves. Whatever.
2. Batter's box rule instituted
Alas, nobody's seriously expecting the 20-second pitch clock -- the best of the pace-of-play procedures tested in the Arizona Fall League -- to be instituted anytime soon, but one league source said the "one foot in the batter's box" rule that was also tested does have some legs (pun intended).
Nothing foils efficiency quite as needlessly as a batter stepping out of the box to adjust his helmet, his gloves, his jock or whatever after taking a pitch. This rule, if instituted, would only allow batters to step out after foul balls, foul tips, wild pitches, passed balls, granted "time outs," etc. It will be among the topics discussed in earnest at next week's owners' meetings.
It's also possible we'll see limits on "time out" conferences on the mound or timed pitching change breaks. The no-pitch intentional walks idea also seems an easy fix, though it would rob us of occasional oddities like this one from October:
3. Max Scherzer (back) to the Tigers
No, this isn't an especially bold prediction, unless you want to take the general public distance Dave Dombrowski has taken from the Scherzer market as gospel. But the list of teams who have both the combination of need and resources to land Scherzer is, from the outside, very slim. And as we sit here today, I'm struggling to see any Scherzer scenario that makes quite as much sense as this one.
- Yes, the Red Sox could use a bona fide ace. But if they weren't willing to extend themselves beyond a reported $135 million for Jon Lester, a known quantity to them, what makes you think they'd drastically exceed that total for Scherzer?
- The Yankees, bearing the back-end burden of the record-setting CC Sabathia, really do seem intent on avoiding a contract of this particular magnitude.
- The Dodgers already have one $200 million pitcher, and that 40-percent luxury tax they're paying ain't cheap.
- The Angels aren't likely to cross that tax threshold, which is what it would take to add Scherzer to their bloated budget.
- The Giants made a big play for Lester, but the $150 million range they were in with him is a far cry from the $200 million Scherzer is seeking, and Scherzer will cost a Draft pick, too. The Giants seem to feel comfortable with the young, depth options they have aligned beyond their penciled-in five.
- The Cardinals have the hometown connection, but they're simply not going to do a contract this size.
- The Nationals have the Scott Boras tie-in, but a Scherzer signing would almost certainly have to be coupled with a Jordan Zimmermann trade, and signing Scherzer could impact their long-term flexibility with Ian Desmond, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, etc. This could very well happen, but it's a reach.
- One would imagine the White Sox are tapped and the Padres are more likely to go the more manageable route mentioned with Hamels (whose contract looks like a bit of a bargain in light of the Lester and Scherzer rates), but who knows?
- The Cubs probably made their lone expenditure of this magnitude with Lester.
- The Marlins and Blue Jays have gone the heavily backloaded route to augment their rosters for 2015, and a Scherzer deal would blow up their budgets.
- The Astros have the money, but, because they're not an established contender, they'd probably have to overpay, and they do have to keep in mind that next year's pitching market is deeper and, ergo, more affordable. I actually think that if Scherzer doesn't return to the Tigers, the Astros might be the most likely fit, but that, like everything else in this column, is merely speculation.
Until further notice, the Tigers still have the fewest hurdles in front of them here. They don't have to worry about the Draft pick issue, obviously, and the luxury tax impact could be considered a relatively small, one-time hit (as a first-time offender, the Tigers would only pay a 17.5-percent penalty on the overage, which could amount to just a few million bucks) from which they might be able to divorce themselves in 2016, when David Price and Yoenis Cespedes come off the books.
As it stands, the Tigers no longer have a team with anywhere near as obvious a strength at starter as they once enjoyed. Bringing back Scherzer would not only strengthen that situation but allow Alfredo Simon to slide back into a setup role, reinforcing a bullpen that was such a source of frustration in '14.
This is a club that wants to win a World Series now, and, in an especially demanding division such as the AL Central, signing Scherzer puts Detroit in a prime position to do so.
4. James Shields to the Yankees
Hey, I said New York would likely avoid a contract of Scherzer's magnitude. I didn't say they'd abstain from Shields.
If Shields really does have a five-year, $110 million offer on the table, as FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported earlier this week, maybe that, too, is more than the Yanks are willing to swallow at this point. I would not blame them even the slightest.
But Shields would be the sort of bankable rotation piece needed by a Yankees club that seems doomed to see Masahiro Tanaka's elbow ligament snap, that is hoping (possibly against hope) that Sabathia can come back strong from knee surgery, that never knows what to expect from Michael Pineda's shoulder and that will undoubtedly be missing the steady presence of Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankees have made strides this offseason to become the younger, more versatile club they need to be. Yet they still will have a hard time selling themselves as a legitimate contender if they don't stabilize their starting pitching outlook.
Shields has succeeded in the AL East before, so he'd be a fine fit here.
5. Ben Zobrist to the Orioles
Two NL clubs -- the Nationals and Giants -- are far more obvious (and, ergo, likely) fits, should the Rays trade Zobrist, as expected. The Angels have also been linked to him. Now that the Rays have added Asdrubal Cabrera, a deal could come together quickly… as in, by the time you read this.
But I'm doing my little part here to electroshock the Orioles back into coherence in this remarkably quiet winter by landing them a pliable, valuable bat to help offset all they've lost.
Zobrist would be insurance for Jonathan Schoop, a plug-and-play when J.J. Hardy (who battled thumb issues last year) needs a day and, best of all, a right-field option and on-base threat now that Nick Markakis is suiting up elsewhere. One would also have to imagine the full-time shift to Camden Yards (where, for the record, he has a .509 SLG, his highest such mark in any ballpark in which he's appeared in at least 30 games) would be good for Zobrist's sagging power.
Of course, this would require dealing within the division, but the general sense is that this is less of a concern in the dual-Wild Card era than it was previously.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince