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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Here are 20 MLB players in demand at winter meetings

Manny Machado of the Dodgers reacts after hitting

Manny Machado of the Dodgers reacts after hitting a double during the ninth inning against the Brewers in Game 3 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 15, 2018. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Harry How

Viva Las Vegas!

The baseball offseason everyone has waited for is finally upon us. In fact, teams were so anxious to get started this year that   four marquee trades involving All-Stars and MVP candidates already have been made, as well as more than a dozen free-agent signings totaling more than $450 million.

And the winter meetings, which return to Sin City for the first time since 2008, don’t even begin until Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.

So what should we expect when all 30 teams, and dozens of agents, converge on The Strip for this five-day baseball circus? More of what we’ve seen from the offseason’s first month, likely at a frenetic pace, with teams such as the Phillies willing to spend “stupid” money and others, such as the Mets, looking to make good on recent promises.

Do we really believe the Cubs are wary of payroll limitations, as Theo Epstein said the other day? Or that the Dodgers and Yankees won’t go over the $206-million luxury-tax threshold for 2019? We’ll find out soon enough. What better place than Vegas for these high-stakes poker games to ramp up, to see who’s truly all-in for next season?

With that in mind, here are some of the most intriguing names that will be in play in Vegas --  some free agents, some top trade targets:

1. Manny Machado

Time to find out just how successful Machado has been walking back his “Johnny Hustle” comments from October, or if that ultimately dings him in his quest for a $300-million payday. The Phillies and Yankees seem to be lying in the weeds here, waiting to see where the market goes.

2. Bryce Harper

The Scott Boras client appeared to lose a powerful suitor this past week when Nationals owner Mark Lerner suggested Harper was ready to move on after turning down his 10-year, $300-million offer at the end of the season. Harper already has set up meetings with a number of clubs. So far, the Yankees aren’t one of them.

3. Corey Kluber

A two-time Cy Young Award winner with three years of team control remaining? No wonder Kluber is generating a ton of trade interest, but the Indians would need a big return of young, cheap talent in order to deal him. Given the lack of aces available, Cleveland could get it.

4. Madison Bumgarner

If Bumgarner isn’t available, he should be, as the Giants have to be in rebuild mode with the hiring of new general manager Farhan Zaidi, formerly of the rival Dodgers. Bumgarner is a World Series legend by the Bay, and only 29, but has been plagued by injuries lately and is headed into his walk year.

5. Craig Kimbrel

The early word from Kimbrel’s camp said the closer is seeking a six-year deal. The reality should be more like four, a reasonable number that will generate a sufficient bidding war for his services. Looked vulnerable for the Red Sox last October, and a return to the world champs doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

6. Dallas Keuchel

The 2015 Cy Young Award winner would seem to be the ideal free-agent fallback for the teams that missed out on Patrick Corbin (six years/140M), and Keuchel had to be thrilled to see that signing. Despite allowing a career-high 211 hits and experiencing a serious dip in his K/9 rate (6.7), he’s still a top lefty with postseason experience.

7. J.T. Realmuto

Last year, it was the Nationals pushing to pry Realmuto from Derek Jeter, and now the Mets appear to be the most prominent suitor, at least judging by all the smoke coming from Flushing. But with a dozen or more teams interested, the cost in talent is going to be prohibitive, and likely even more so for an NL East club.

8. Michael Brantley

Without many outfielders available, the 31-year-old Brantley is hitting the market at the right time -- especially after restoring his value with a bounce-back 2018 (.309 BA, .832 OPS) after playing a total of 101 games the previous two seasons.  

9. A.J. Pollock

The oft-injured Pollock has averaged 79 games the past three seasons after playing 157 in 2015, but on those days when he's actually in the lineup, he’s an elite centerfielder with a career .805 OPS. That lack of durability should keep his price somewhat in check, with the Mets and Reds among the early teams in the hunt.

10. Trevor Bauer

The Indians have a nice problem in deciding whom they prefer to trade between Kluber and Bauer, who is coming off a career-best year at the age of 27. Bauer had a 2.21 ERA to go with an 11.3 K/9 and led the AL with fewest HRs/9 at 0.462. Only Jacob deGrom was stingier about allowing balls to leave the park.

11. Yusei Kikuchi

Kikuchi was the ace of the Seibu Lions, who agreed to post him at age 27 after he had a 2.81 ERA and 8.0 K/9 over eight seasons. Yet another lefthander on the market, Kikuchi has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, with a 98 max. As a Scott Boras client, he won’t come cheap.

12. J.A. Happ

It almost seems a foregone conclusion that the Yankees will wind up with Happ, who went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA down the stretch for them last season and again demonstrated his ability to succeed in the tough AL East. Corbin's snub of the Bronx certainly helped Happ’s cause, but do the Yankees now go for a bigger splash instead?

13. Zach Britton

Britton’s dominance was tempered some by his  Achilles tear a year ago, and he spent most of last season trying to regain that nasty lefthander status. He seemed to find it after the midseason trade to the Yankees, for whom he had a 2.88 ERA in 25 appearances.

14. Yasmani Grandal

Grandal is the obvious Plan B for the teams that fall short on Realmuto. It will be interesting to see how much his disastrous October  hurts his negotiating stance. As a switch-hitting catcher with power, Grandal still should do fine, and he turned down the one-year, $17.9-qualifying offer from the Dodgers.

15. Marwin Gonzalez

Remember the frenzy around Ben Zobrist at the 2015 meetings in Nashville? That seemed to be the height of the super-utility craze -- with Zobrist getting a four-year, $56-million deal from the Cubs -- and at age 29, Gonzalez  could be set up for a similar haul based on his extreme versatility.

16. Andrew Miller

Miller turned out to be a market-maker for middle relievers in 2014 when he signed a four-year, $36-million deal with the Yankees -- the largest ever for a non-closer (Miller had one career save). He was limited by knee problems last season (4.24 ERA) but should be an ideal setup candidate if healthy.

17. Nelson Cruz

At 38, Cruz is only a DH now, but he’s a really good one, averaging 41 homers and 104 RBIs the past five seasons while hitting .281 with an .897 OPS. Problem is, more and more, teams prefer to rotate the DH spot as a rest day for position players, which will impact his price tag.

18. Adam Ottovino

The crowded reliever market is waiting for that first domino to fall, and Ottovino, born and raised in New York, is among the top choices for both the Yankees and Mets. He’s another gem of this thirty-something group, coming off a 0.99 WHIP season made even more impressive by the fact that he pitched for the Rockies.

19. Daniel Murphy

The former Met would seem to be a great fit in the Bronx. He could  split time at second base and first, depending how the Yankees choose to handle the shortstop void left by the rehabbing Didi Gregorius. Murphy’s knee issues have cut down on his mobility, but he remains a great contact hitter, a particularly coveted skill these days.

20. Matt Harvey

Remember when this offseason was supposed to be all about Harvey and his shot to eclipse the $200-million mark? He isn’t even a headliner at these meetings, but his next contract will be fascinating nonetheless. Two years at $20 million would be a win for him at this point.

Winter dealing

Highlighting major moves (not involving the Mets or Yankees) at the last five Winter Meetings:

Dec. 9-13, 2017: The Angels announced the signing of Japanese free agent P-OF Shohei Ohtani

Dec. 4-8, 2016: The White Sox traded RHP Chris Sale to the Red Sox for OF Luis Alexander Basabe (minors), RHP Victor Diaz (minors), RHP Michael Kopech and 3B Yoan Moncada.

Dec. 7-10, 2015:  The Diamondbacks acquired RHP Shelby Miller from the Braves for OF Ender Inciarte, RHP Aaron Blair and SS Dansby Swanson.

Dec. 7-10, 2014: The Red Sox traded OF Yoenis Cespedes, RHP Alex Wilson and LHP Gabe Speier (minors) to the Tigers for RHP Rick Porcello.

Dec. 9-12, 2013: A three-team deal sent Angels 1B Mark Trumbo to the Diamondbacks. The Angels  received LHPs Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago from the White Sox. The White Sox received OF Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks.

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