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Five Key Holes the Rangers Need to Fill This Winter, and How They Should Fill Them

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Just a few days after the 2012 MLB season kicked off in Japan, one of the elite players scheduled to become a free agent in the coming offseason took himself off the market. The Giants enticed Matt Cain to stay in San Francisco, signing him to a six-year, $127.5 million contract extension -- the most money awarded to a right-handed pitcher in history.

Another premier soon-to-be free agent followed in late July, when Cole Hamels signed a six-year, $144 million deal in Philadelphia. Only Yankees southpaw CC Sabathia had signed a larger contract (seven years, $161 million) among pitchers in history, and only Sabathia earns a higher average annual salary ($24.4 million) than Hamels ($24 million) among active pitchers.

Despite both ace hurlers landing historic contracts, they actually left millions of dollars on the table. At a time when television contracts are exploding in value, stadium revenues are up and several teams seemingly have money burning holes in their pockets, it's reasonable to suggest Cain and Hamels could have done even better had they shopped themselves to 30 teams instead of one.

Which brings us to Zack Greinke.

No matter what happened with Cain and Hamels, Greinke was set to be among the most-coveted free agents this offseason. But now that they're unavailable, Greinke has risen to the No. 1 spot on the list. And there's no shortage of suitors, led by both Los Angeles teams and Your Texas Rangers.

Greinke has been available two other times, first in December 2010, when he was dealt to Milwaukee, and this year in July, when he was traded to the Angels. The Rangers reportedly had strong interest both times, but they ultimately balked at surrendering the prospects necessary to acquire the former Cy Young Award winner.

This time, the Rangers would have to dip into their pockets instead of the farm system, but the result is likely to be the same: Greinke will end up elsewhere. I'd be surprised if Greinke signs for anything less than seven years and $175 million, a price I expect the Angels to meet.

As much as the Rangers could use Greinke in their rotation, I just don't see them outbidding the Angels, or the Dodgers for that matter. So while Greinke's name will continue to be linked to Texas countless times in the next month heading into the December 3 Winter Meetings in Nashville, the odds of him landing in Arlington are slim at best, especially since Texas has other needs.

So: Let's take a look at the Rangers' top five offseason questions now that free agency is officially underway and how general manager Jon Daniels might answer them.

Next: Filling out the rotation.

1. Who will fill the opening in the starting rotation? Free agents: Ryan Dempster, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez

Trade targets: R.A. Dickey, Felix Hernandez, Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee, David Price, James Shields

With Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland guaranteed rotation spots in 2013, that leaves room for someone else, preferably a top-of-the-rotation starter. Jake Peavy re-upped with the White Sox, so Greinke and Kuroda are the only free agents fitting that description, and I don't see either coming to Texas. Kuroda is likely to return to the Yankees or Dodgers and Greinke's price tag will be too high, leaving the trade market as the best route to obtain a frontline starter.

The Rays might be willing to part with 27-year-old lefty David Price, even though he's an AL Cy Young Award candidate and under control for three more years, because of their abundance of great arms and need for offensive help and salary relief. Jurickson Profar would be able to step in and play shortstop for them and Mike Olt could play first base, representing significant offensive and defensive upgrades both short and long term at low salaries. If the Rangers tossed in Martin Perez and maybe someone else, and it would be hard for Tampa Bay to pass up such an offer.

It's hard to part with some of the best young players in the organization, but it's a necessary cost if Texas wants someone of Price's caliber, which is why I proposed a similar deal for Felix Hernandez at this year's trade deadline. And I'd still do that deal in a heartbeat, assuming King Felix could be had.

I've also advocated in the past to trade for James Shields, who makes $9 million next year and has a $12 million option for 2014. For whatever reason, he doesn't seem to get fans as excited as they are about Greinke, but the stats suggest there's very little difference between the two.

Greinke (1,492 career innings): 91-78 record, 3.77 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 1.25 WHIP Shields (1,452.2 career innings): 87-73 record, 3.89 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 1.22 WHIP

Greinke (2012): 15-5 record, 3.48 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 1.20 WHIP Shields (2012): 15-10 record, 3.52 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.17 WHIP

It would also make sense for Texas to try a deal for probable NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, who makes just $5 million in 2013 but could be available because the Mets have been unsuccessful in their attempts to sign him to a long-term contract.

If the Rangers can't swing a deal for an ace, I'd rather they give Robbie Ross a shot in the rotation than sign a mid-level starter for too much dough. If he doesn't show promise as a starter after a few months in the rotation, Colby Lewis -- who was re-signed in mid-September to a one-year, $2 million contract with incentives -- could be an option to replace him if he returns around the All-Star break as expected.

Next: Oh, Josh.

2. Who will replace Josh Hamilton's bat? Free agents: Michael Bourn, Melky Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Ludwick, Angel Pagan, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino

Trade targets: Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Andre Ethier, Jason Kubel, Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Morneau, Justin Upton

Hambone's reportedly asking for seven years and $175 million, and given the fat contracts handed out to Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder last offseason, he might actually get that much. But no matter what his price ends up being, consider him a goner.

I have varying levels of interest in Bourn, Swisher and B.J. Upton, but none come close to filling Hamilton's shoes at the dish (few do) and none will be worth the investment required to sign them.

Once again, the best options appear on the trade market, although I would steer clear of Justin Upton, as something appears chronically wrong with his shoulder. However, Choo and Ellsbury, both free agents at the end of next year, would be terrific additions, particularly because they bat left-handed and are five-tool players.

Arizona has outfield depth and might be willing to trade Jason Kubel, a left-handed hitter who slugged 30 homers last year and drove in 90 runs. He's under contract for $7.5 million next year and has a $7.5 million option for 2014.

Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez would be an ideal fit. He's under contract for the next five years at $71 million, representing an intriguing trade chip for a Colorado club that lost 98 games this year and needs to rebuild.

Next: Who will fill the openings in the bullpen?

3. Who will fill the openings in the bullpen? Right-handed free agents: Mike Adams, Jonathan Broxton, Kyle Farnsworth, Scott Feldman, Kyuji Fujikawa, Mark Lowe, Ryan Madson, Joel Peralta, Francisco Rodriguez, Joakim Soria, Rafael Soriano, Koji Uehara

Left-handed free agents: Jeremy Affeldt, Brian Fuentes, Mike Gonzalez, J.P. Howell, Francisco Liriano

This is where the Rangers need to focus their offseason spending. As of now, the bullpen includes Joe Nathan, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman and, um, maybe Wilmer Font. That won't be enough to win the West or even secure a wild card. Texas needs to sign at least three solid arms to ensure the bullpen isn't a concern.

Strong consideration should be given to bringing back both Uehara and Adams, assuming Adams successfully recovers from rib surgery. And left-hander Jeremy Affeldt would be a smart signing since Ross is likely to get a shot in the rotation at some point in the future.

There will be some sticker shock because clubs are putting a greater emphasis on building bullpens, but Texas needs to pay the going rate or get stuck overpaying for leftovers.

Next: Who will be the backstops? 4. Who will be the backstops?

Free agents: Gerald Laird, Russell Martin, Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross

Trade target: J.P. Arencibia

This presents the biggest challenge for JD this offseason given the limited options available. I'd like to see Texas re-sign Napoli, but his price might be difficult to meet, and he's not a full-time catcher. I'd also like to see the Rangers non-tender Geovany Soto, who's likely to fetch around $4.6 million in arbitration, which is too pricey for a backup. (A decision on Soto needs to be made by Dec. 2.)

Pierzynski had a career year this season but turns 36 next month, is unlikely to repeat his performance and has a reputation as somewhat of a clubhouse cancer.

There's a lot of discussion about a possible deal between the Rangers and Blue Jays for J.P. Arencibia, since Toronto has top prospect Travis d'Arnaud ready to take over behind the plate. However, the price for Arencibia will be significant. Although he's just a .222 career hitter, he hits for power (41 total home runs in the last two seasons), is solid defensively and won't be a free agent until after the 2016 season.

It might take Derek Holland to convince the Blue Jays to pull the trigger. Depending on who else is involved in the deal, it's something worth considering, but I'm guessing Daniels won't meet Toronto's demands.

No matter what the Rangers decide, they need to move quickly and aggressively, or risk heading into spring training with the undesirable duo of Soto and someone like Laird.

Next: What should be done to solve the logjam at second base and shortstop? 5. What should be done to solve the logjam at second base and shortstop?

There's seemingly a lot of support for moving Ian Kinsler to the outfield and replacing him at second base with Jurickson Profar, and there's also a faction of folks pushing for Texas to deal Elvis Andrus, who's two years away from free agency and is represented by Scott Boras.

I prefer the least popular move: trading Profar. As I mentioned earlier, he'd be the key piece to a deal that could land an ace. As tantalizing as his talent is, Profar turns just 20 in February, and aside from his amazing major league debut, we don't know if he's ready to play 150-plus games, especially since he only has one season under his belt in Double-A and played sporadically in September. And while he had a strong season (.281, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 16 SB) with the Frisco RoughRiders, it's not like he posted Ruthian numbers. Sure, Andrus played well as a 20-year-old rookie, but that doesn't mean Profar can do the same.

If a deal can't be made for a frontline starter using Profar, I'd give him another year in the minors. And if Texas is hell-bent on giving Profar a starting job, I'd shop Andrus, since Kinsler is basically untradeable with his five-year, $75 million contract kicking in next year.

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