The annual December baseball carnival known as the winter meetings begins Sunday just outside of D.C., at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, another sprawling, self-contained bubble where general managers, managers, agents and maybe even some players looking for work will show up for what amounts to four-plus days of further stoking the hot stove conversations.
After a somewhat cooler start to this offseason — chilled by the protracted negotiations for the new collective-bargaining agreement that narrowly beat Thursday’s deadline — things should heat up a bit this week now that teams have received clarity on a number of issues. Chief among them are a revised luxury-tax structure, with increased flexibility but greater penalties, and tighter restrictions — financial along with age limits — for signing international players.
But with plenty of big names still available on the open market, it will be interesting to see if most of the activity swirls around the current free-agent crop or leans more toward high-profile trade chips, such as everybody’s favorite on-the-block ace, Chris Sale. A year ago, the Mets and Yankees pulled off significant swaps for second basemen, with Sandy Alderson dealing for Neil Walker and Brian Cashman grabbing Starlin Castro.
So as MLB’s traveling road show commutes to National Harbor for the week ahead, here are a few trends to monitor as teams look to reshape their rosters — and fortunes — for the 2017 season.
1. THE YO FACTOR
Amid the saber-rattling of a potential lockout, the Mets and Yoenis Cespedes wasted little time in ironing out a four-year, $110-million contract that became official only a matter of hours before the new CBA was approved Wednesday night. The courtship was relatively brief, considering that Cespedes was the top free-agent slugger on the market. But the Mets were well-positioned as Cespedes’ much-preferred destination, and they bent on giving him a record average annual value ($27.5 million) for an outfielder, given his proven track record in Flushing. Now we’ll see what effect the Cespedes contract has on the rest of a group headed by Mark Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Each is older than Cespedes, who just turned 31 in October, but the limited inventory should work to their advantage now that he’s off the board.
2. THE SALE SWEEPSTAKES
It isn’t very often that a pitcher of Sale’s caliber is floated so frequently in trade conversations, which seems to increase the chances that the White Sox will trade him at some point this offseason — perhaps even this week, if a team such as the prospect-rich Rangers chooses to be aggressive from the jump. Sale, who finished fifth in the AL Cy Young balloting in 2016, is an exceptional talent who also is a relative bargain. He’ll earn $12 million in 2017, the last year of his current deal, but with two club options attached: $12.5M for ’18 and $13.5M in ’19. Obviously, all that won’t come cheap in terms of talent. ESPN reported that the White Sox are looking for a No. 1 prospect along with two more players in a package for Sale. While Sale certainly is attractive for a rotation-thin team like the Yankees, it’s seems very unlikely that they’d be willing to part with a Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier to make a Sale trade happen.
3. CLOSING TIME
With Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon still on the market, it’s a virtual lock that at least one will sign this week, and that could pave the way for all three to be scooped up after the first domino falls. Chapman is at the top of the list, and with the Yankees and Dodgers jockeying for his services, he could become the sport’s first $100-million closer, far surpassing Jonathan Papelbon’s previous record of four years and $50 million, a deal signed in 2012. Another number to keep in mind for the negotiations involving these three: $15 million, the record AAV for a closer as established by Mariano Rivera. After seeing the value of bullpen arms this past October and with the money that closers now are expected to command, it’s hard to believe the Yankees got Andrew Miller — the playoffs’ most dominant reliever — for four years and $36 million only two winters ago.
4. WHO NEEDS AN OUTFIELDER?
Some familiar names, of varying talents, certainly could switch uniforms this week, with Andrew McCutchen one of the most attractive outfielders on the board. Pirates GM Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this past week that he is prepared to “make challenging and potentially unpopular decisions” to keep his team in the playoff hunt, trades similar to the ones that shipped out closer Melancon and Pittsburgh native Walker. With the Nationals missing out on Cespedes, they reportedly are eyeing McCutchen, who is due $14 million this season in the final year of his contract (with a $14.5M option for ’18). Now compare McCutchen’s money with the ’17 salaries for Curtis Granderson ($15M) and Jay Bruce ($13M), the two outfielders the Mets are interested in moving, with a preference to trade the latter. While the Mets need to find a taker for one of those two — and likely will — the Pirates have a much tougher decision with McCutchen, who remains the face of the franchise despite coming off a career-worst year.
5. MORE STARS FOR THE ASTROS?
No team has been more active this offseason than the Astros, who reportedly struck again Saturday afternoon by reaching agreement with Carlos Beltran on a one-year, $16-million contract. Houston beat out the Red Sox and Yankees for Beltran in the latest in a flurry of moves that also has netted them Brian McCann and Josh Reddick. The Astros sent a pair of low-level pitching prospects to the Yankees for McCann and signed Reddick to a four-year, $52-million deal last month. Next on the Houston agenda is likely to be a serious push for a front-line starting pitcher this week.