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Baseball focus turns to trades, free agents

NEW YORK — Baseball's business season figures to be a little different this autumn and winter.

For sure, there will be the daily rumors of trades and free-agent signings.

Then mix in the seemingly limitless legal battle between the commissioner's office and Alex Rodriguez, a possible stiffening in penalties for new drug offenders and preparations for a massive increase in instant replay next season.

And perhaps by the time the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks open next season at Sydney on March 22, Bud Selig will even have started making preparations for his departure in January 2015, even though some owners doubt the commissioner will follow through on his retirement pronouncement.

For now, though, the focus is on the marketplace. General managers gather Monday in Orlando, Fla., for three days of meetings that usually spark discussions leading to trades weeks or months later. Tampa Bay pitcher David Price, who can become a free agent in a year, seems likely to be dealt at some point over the offseason. Will Detroit entertain offers for 21-game winner Max Scherzer, another member of next year's free-agent class?

And some agents will be on hand to talk up their clients.

"There is not any time to breathe. You have move very quickly," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said.

Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann are among the players seeking to cash in from a free-agent class lacking any ace starting pitchers. In an $8 billion-a-year industry seemingly awash with cash, long-term, high-salary deals could proliferate, anyway.

Following restraints on the bonuses for amateur drafts picks, which began in 2012, teams have more money to spend on veterans.

"The game is thriving and clubs are reveling in their financial health," agent Seth Levinson said. "More clubs should be meaningful participants in the market, which will lead to greater competition, and players should prove to be the beneficiaries of the increased competition and revenues. That competition should create a fast-paced signing period. However, each market is unique and there is a lot more art than science in understanding the ebb and flow of free agency."

And the drop in offense could cause a hike in salaries. The big league batting average of .253 was its lowest since 1972, according to STATS, and the home run average of 0.96 per team per game is down from a peak of 1.17 in 2000, two years before the agreement to start testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

"There's been a significant decline in power and production, so middle-of-the-lineup players and leadoff players, guys who can produce runs and guys who can drive in runs, are much rarer than they were in 2005," agent Scott Boras said. "Players who hit 20 home runs and drive in 80 have the value of players who in 2005 hit above 30 home runs and drove in 105."

After the GMs finish, owners take over for their quarterly meeting. Selig said during the World Series he expects a vote either in November or January to approve the expansion of video review to virtually all calls other the balls and strikes.

Agreements with the players' and umpires' unions also are necessary for expanded replay, which was tested during the past week in the Arizona Fall League.

"Three or four years ago I was telling them that I wasn't the least bit interested," Selig said after a meeting with baseball's bankers. "I said, 'Well, my father told me many years ago that life is nothing but a series of adjustments, and this is an adjustment that I just made.'"

Officials won't be leaving Florida for long. They'll return for the winter meetings, to be held in nearby Lake Buena Vista from Dec. 9-12, not too far from the Magic Kingdom. Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and perhaps Bobby Cox could gain election to the Hall of Fame from a committee on the first day of the session.

A week earlier, the players' union gathers in La Jolla, Calif., for a session of more import than usual. Union head Michael Weiner is battling a brain tumor, and formermajor league All-Star Tony Clark is expected to replace him. Players also could form a consensus to increase the penalty for an initial steroids violation, which has been 50 games since the 2006 season.

Selig held a news conference on March 2 asking for harsher discipline, and Weiner said players would discuss it for 2014. And that was before 14 players were suspended as a result of the Biogenesis of America drug probe, which ensnared Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta.

"I think it speaks volumes for the generation of athletes today who don't want to be forced to make the same mistakes of the past generation who felt compelled in order to compete to use these dangerous drugs," said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "So I think absolutely that's a huge sign that the culture has turned in a huge direction from where it was in the late '90s and early 2000s."

Unless the case settles, the appeal of Rodriguez's 211-game suspension will be decided by arbitrator Fredric Horowitz sometime during the offseason. Given precedents in cases involving Ferguson Jenkins, Pascual Perez, LaMarr Hoyt, Steve Howe and others, some reduction seems likely.

Whatever money the Yankees save on Rodriguez, who makes $25 million next year, probably will be spent on bringing in other players.

Cano, who left Boras to sign with Jay-Z's new sports agency, has asked for a record deal worth more than $300 million over 10 seasons. He's not likely to get that many dollars or years from the Yankees, reluctant to take on a contract that will become another Albatross during the declining years of the second baseman, who turned 31 last month.

Under the new rules that began a year ago, offseason deadlines were moved up. Free agents could start negotiating on the sixth day after the World Series rather than the 16th. They have until Monday to accept $14.1 million qualifying offers from their former clubs. Teams must decide by Dec. 2 whether to offer 2014 contracts to players on their 40-man rosters, nearly three weeks earlier than the old schedule.

"The earlier the better," agent Jeff Borris said. "I think it works out much better for both the clubs and the players. I always hated leaving the winter meetings with players still in limbo regarding their tender date."

By late December, the deals will slow during the holiday break. Then comes a flurry in early January, when players and teams ramp up for salary arbitration. That's also when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas learn whether they make it to the Hall of Fame on their first try.

And not long after that, teams will pack up for spring training in Florida and Arizona. There will be new managers with the Chicago Cubs (Rick Renteria), Cincinnati (Bryan Price), Detroit (Brad Ausmus), Seattle (Lloyd McClendon) and Washington (Matt Williams).

Don Mattingly seems set to return for a fourth season with the high-spending Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the cool of autumn, everyone is optimistic. Even the Houston Astros, trying to avoid becoming the first team to lose 100 games in four straight seasons since the 1962-65 Mets. Even the Chicago Cubs, attempting to win their first World Series since 1908.

"I know it might sound naive, but I still believe that any team that goes in and plays between the lines has a chance to win a ballgame every single day," Renteria said. "If I was to come in here and assume that we were going to lose, what kind of expectations am I laying for the players who are here?"