MLB's top 10 off-season storylines

Josh Hamilton is one of the big-name free agents on the market this winter. (MIKE STONE/Reuters...

Josh Hamilton is one of the big-name free agents on the market this winter. (MIKE STONE/Reuters file photo)

MELISSA COUTO, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:02 AM ET

10. PITCHING HELMETS?

Though it’s far from an issue that will be settled this off-season, Major League Baseball may want to start looking into the use of helmets for pitchers on the mound. After all, it’s a dangerous job.

Oakland’s Brandon McCarthy took a line drive off the side of the head in early September and underwent brain surgery to repair the damage.

In the post-season, it was Detroit’s Doug Fister who took a comebacker off the back of his head, but luckily, was able to stay in the game.

Earlier this year, Easton-Bell Sports designed a prototype of a lightweight helmet for pitchers made of polystyrene and polycarbonate, but so far the design hasn’t excited anyone.

But in an age where player safety is paramount, we’ve already seen evolution in the sport. Maybe this is next.

9. FIGURING OUT THE AL EAST

Will Baltimore be able to repeat its fantastic 2012, and will the Red Sox rebound from their second dismal season in a row? The American League East division was turned on its head last season and no one is really sure what it will look like next year.

The Red Sox, who re-signed David Ortiz to a two-year $26 million deal on Monday, hope to make a statement in 2013. After kicking Bobby Valentine to the curb and picking up John Farrell, the manager they unabashedly wanted all along, Boston is hoping that this Chosen One will lead them to greatness.

With the Orioles, nothing is certain but they did decline Mark Reynolds’ 2013 option, meaning they’ll be paying him a $500,000 buyout instead of $11 million they would owe him next season. Baltimore has until the end of the month to offer Reynolds another deal.

8. WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

The MLB season may be over, but that doesn’t mean that top-level baseball has stopped. For the third time since 2006, players from all over the globe will be preparing to compete in the World Baseball Classic, scheduled for this March. But unlike the previous two instalments of the tournament, the 2013 version will see 16 teams compete in qualifying rounds before the actual WBC begins.

Canada and Spain, having played in their respective qualifiers back in September, have already secured spots for the 2013 tournament, but two more berths are still up for grabs and will be contested from November 15-19.

Chinese Taipei will take on New Zealand, the Philippines and a Thailand team featuring Johnny Damon, while Panama will play Colombia, Nicaragua, and a Brazil team headlined by former Blue Jay Yan Gomes.

7. GEARING UP FOR INTERLEAGUE PLAY

With the Houston Astros moving from the National League to the American League West to start the 2013 season, scheduling issues became a big concern for MLB.

How would an odd number of teams (15) be able to play against each other without giving any team three off days in a row?

Solution — interleague play!

Although it’s nothing new to have an American League team play a National League team, it will become a far more frequent occurrence in 2013 as each team will play outside its own league 20 times over the course of the season.

The biggest difference between the two leagues’ styles of play is undeniably the use of the designated hitter. With the new system, pitchers in the American League will be participating in a lot more batting practice, while bench players who might rarely see action in the National League will be placed into the DH role far more frequently.

6. THE NEVER-ENDING MVP DEBATE

Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera? New age sabermetrics or traditional statistics?

The debate has raged all season long, but by next Thursday, it will finally be settled when MLB announces the American League and National League MVPs.

Trout, the 21-year-old Angels outfielder, was impressive in his first MLB season, leading the American League in runs and stolen bases (129 and 49 respectively), and in the controversial wins above replacement (WAR) stat with 10.7, suggesting that having Trout in the lineup over a replacement player contributed to nearly 11 of the Angels’ 89 wins this season.

But on the other hand, there’s Cabrera, MLB’s first Triple Crown winner since 1967. Though Cabrera finished 2012 with a 6.9 WAR, he led the league in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBIs (139), and led his team to the World Series.

5. FINDING THE RIGHT MANAGER

The Boston Red Sox and the Miami Marlins were both quick to fill the holes left in their organizations after the firings of Bobby Valentine and Ozzie Guillen, respectively.

While Boston turned to Toronto’s John Farrell to fill its need, Miami took a page from the Red Sox’s book, going shopping through the Blue Jays’ minor league affiliates and selecting Mike Redmond from Toronto’s class-A team in Florida.

But two other teams are still on the hunt for Mr. Right.

After the resignation of Jim Tracy last month, the Colorado Rockies seem to have narrowed their managerial options to four names — Walt Weiss, Matt Williams, Tom Runnells and Jason Giambi.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are still shopping, and are reportedly in no rush to hire Farrell’s replacement.

4. EXPANDING INSTANT REPLAY

After debating about the dangers/beauty of the human element in baseball for years, MLB has finally decided to expand the use of instant replay for the 2013 season.

As of 2012, instant replay was already being used in the game, but only in very distinct situations — to determine whether a home run was hit fair or foul.

For 2013, it is expected that instant replay will be expanded to include looking at balls that are trapped or caught in the outfield, and at balls hit down the foul lines where it is unclear on which side of the line they land.

Though the notion has been approved, uncertainty surrounds how it will be instituted — will umpires use instant replay automatically? Will managers need to protest first?

In additional, logistical issues, such as ensuring camera angles at all ball parks are the same, are still to be ironed out.

3. MEETINGS, MEETINGS, MEETINGS

GMs from across the league will be meeting this Wednesday and Thursday in Indian Wells, Calif., as a precursor to next month’s Winter Meetings in Nashville.

Though not much is expected to result from the California meetings, they do offer the league’s GMs a chance to chat with each other and, more importantly, with agents.

The real excitement will come out of Nashville from Dec. 3-6, however, where more than 3,000 MLB executives will gather to discuss, among other issues, the Rule 5 Draft.

Created as a means to prevent teams from hoarding talent in the minor leagues, the Rule 5 Draft allows GMs to select players from other teams’ affiliates and add them to their major-league 40-man roster, provided they meet certain criteria. Major gems such as Jose Bautista, selected by the Orioles in the 2003 Winter Meetings, have been uncovered through the Rule 5 Draft

2. SCOTT BORAS’ CROP

If there’s one man who’s bound to make a killing off of this year’s free-agent selection, it’s Scott Boras.

The 60-year-old Boras has been negotiating lofty contracts for his MLB clients since 1982, and he’s had great success so far, including Prince Fielder’s $214-million deal with the Tigers last year, and Alex Rodriguez’s blockbuster 10-year, $252-million contract back in 2000.

This year, Boras’ list of free-agent clients include pitcher Kyle Lohse, who had a career year for the Cardinals, pitching them into the NLCS, reliever Rafael Soriano, who opted out of the final year of his contract with the Yankees last week, and Michael Bourn, the Braves’ centre fielder who’s coming off a career year in home runs and RBIs.

Though Boras is known for overstating his clients’ skills, he somehow always seems to land those crazy deals. We’ll have to see what this off-season brings for him.

1. SIGNING TOP FREE AGENTS

One of the biggest issues facing teams this off-season will be the acquisition of free-agent talent.

Though this year’s crop isn’t exactly overflowing with those huge names that landed huge deals last year — Fielder, Albert Pujols — there are definitely some highly valuable hitters in the mix.

First and foremost, there’s Josh Hamilton.

Though the 31-year-old has battled through adversity — injuries, problems with drug abuse early in his career — he’s an attractive option to a number of teams. The 2010 AL MVP played 148 games in 2012, hitting a career-high 42 home runs in the last season of his two-year, $24-million contract with the Rangers.

Texas offered its free-agent slugger a $13.3-million qualifying offer before the deadline on Friday, meaning that if any other team signs Hamilton during the off-season, the Rangers will receive a compensatory draft pick next June.


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