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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Unlike last year, MLB's free-agency signings should heat up a lot faster this winter

Scott Boras, who represents Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg

Scott Boras, who represents Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, will hold court at this year's Winter Meetings.  Credit: AP/Matt York

Only days after the Yankees made their pitching pilgrimage to the West Coast, the rest of the baseball world will descend on San Diego this week, as the sport’s Winter Meetings officially commence Monday at the Hilton Bayfront.

In recent years, this annual baseball carnival has been a relatively sleepy affair, due to a sluggish free-agent market that has caused increasing labor friction between MLB and the union. Ideally, both sides want December fireworks - like the NFL and NBA regularly provide during the spring/summer months. But the nature of baseball’s truly free-market economy, which isn’t restricted by the salary-cap rules of those other leagues, makes it nearly impossible to manufacture excitement on a schedule.

Based on this year’s activity so far, however, we could see a quick thawing of the previous glacial trend, and that would be good news for the sport on a number of fronts. Through Friday, according to Spotrac.com, 23 free agents already had been signed, for a total of $471.7 million. That’s a brisk shopping spree compared to recent offseasons, and plenty of other negotiations are well underway, with resolutions expected during these winter meetings.

It couldn’t happen fast enough. MLB had grown so concerned about the sluggish pace of the free-agent market that they explored ways to trigger activity in early December, such as putting a signing deadline on multi-year contracts, but the union predictably balked at those suggestions. Many agents, and notably Scott Boras, see baseball’s long winter as a negotiating advantage, which allows them to drum up greater demand as teams mull over their roster finances.

But that seems to be changing, even without MLB’s intervention. Boras, who represents a half-dozen of the most coveted free agents this year - including the top three in Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon - predicted a faster moving marketplace when he held court last month in Scottsdale at the GM Meetings.

While that was greeted with some skepticism at the time, Boras’ words may turn out to be prophetic. And why not? He’s the one holding all the cards. The superagent already secured a four-year, $64 million deal for Mike Moustakas, who was coming off a pair of one-year deals, worth a combined $16.5 million (including the option buyouts).

Combine that with Zack Wheeler’s market-rocking five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies this past week, as well as Yasmani Grandal parlaying last winter’s bet on himself into a four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox, and there is reason for optimism on both sides that the Winter Meetings will be different this time. MLB could get the attention it craves, and the players get their money. That’s about as good as December gets for baseball, and here are some other things to look for this week:

The Big Three

As mentioned above, Boras will be the ringleader at these San Diego meetings, with Cole, Strasburg and Rendon on center stage. While that’s typical at these events - Boras remains the only agent to hold his own impromptu news conferences, typically beside a giant lobby Christmas tree - the chance to shop a trio of superstars during the same offseason is a rare bounty, even for him.

Remember, it was a year ago that Boras dragged out the Bryce Harper sweepstakes until March 2, when he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies. This time, however, the Boras Three could have new teams by the end of this month. The Yankees already met with Cole and Strasburg the past week in Newport Beach, near the Boras Corp. compound, and they sound all-in on the top starters. The Nationals also reportedly have made offers to both Strasburg and Rendon, so Boras already has an idea of what’s on the table. Expect him to sprinkle in a “mystery team” or two to get a few more bucks for his clients, but there is an industry sense these players will land somewhere relatively quickly.

More Astros fallout?

It’s been less than a month since we all got a peek behind the Astros’ dugout and learned of an extensive, illegal sign-stealing scandal, courtesy of the expose provided by The Athletic. Since that time, MLB has continued their investigation, but additional public details have been scarce, and the Commissioner’s Office has given no timetable for disciplinary action. The story first broke during the GM meetings in mid-November, so with everyone gathered at the same Scottsdale resort campus, the media was able to interrogate Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, as well as grill other general managers on Houston’s alleged crimes.

That’s going to happen again this week, only with a different twist. The managers have scheduled media availability, meaning three of the accused conspirators - AJ Hinch, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran - will be under the spotlight for really the first time. As the investigation is ongoing, the expectation is that all three will be mum on the subject, but it will be interesting to see how they respond anyway. Beltran already has denied any illegal activity on the record, and the fact that he replied at all probably didn’t sit well with the Mets. One source familiar with the Mets’ thinking flat-out said that Beltran wouldn’t have been hired as manager if the cheating scandal had come out before his Flushing introduction.

The Betts gamble

We only used Mookie Betts as the headliner because of the wordplay, but he does stand out among a group of splashy (if long shot) trade candidates that include Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor. While all three are incredibly popular young stars for their respective clubs, this becomes a case of weighing the prohibitive cost in future free agency against flipping them for multiple talented prospects at a cheaper spot on the salary scale.

While it seems ludicrous that a big-market club like the Red Sox would balk at paying Betts, it’s not always about what the team wants. Betts, who is entering his walk season, reportedly turned down an eight-year, $200 million extension to stay in Boston before the start of the 2019 season, so he could be looking to go sign elsewhere anyway. Plus, the Red Sox’s hiring of Chaim Bloom away from the Rays certainly supports the belief they’re looking to get more streamlined in the payroll department, and intend to operate that way going forward.

As for Bryant and Lindor, they’re both still two years from free agency, and that puts them in the sweet spot for a maximum return. But that also makes it more painful for a team to trade them. The Cubs and Indians will get plenty of conversation on their respective stars this week. As for an actual deal happening, that seems unlikely.

Outside the States

Kwang-Hyun Kim, a lefty with a wicked slider, and outfielder Jae Hwan Kim, a career .307 hitter who belted 44 homers in 2018, were both made available through the KBO’s posting system Friday and have until Jan. 5 at 5 p.m. to make a deal with a major-league club. Kwang-Hyun Kim, 31, had a 2.51 ERA in 30 starts and one relief appearance with 180 strikeouts in 190 1/3 innings for the SK Wyverns last season. He could project more as a reliever in the majors.

Also posted this past week were Japanese stars Shun Yamaguchi, a 32-year-old righthander who had a 2.91 ERA for the Yomiuri Giants last season, and second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi, 30, who batted .261 with 13 homers and 14 stolen bases for the Hiroshima Carp. Both are available until Jan. 2. Slugging lefty outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, 27, who hit 29 homers last season for the Yokohama Bay Stars, already had been posted and is available through Dec. 19.

According to the posting rules, an MLB team would pay the KBO/NPB club a fee of 20 percent of the guaranteed contract through $25 million, plus 17.5 percent above that through $50 million and another 15 percent for anything over that.

Sunday’s HOF vote

Once again, the Modern Era Baseball Committee will convene Sunday to vote on this year’s special Cooperstown candidates, a process that considers players who eventually fell off the BBWAA ballot or executives that must earn the Hall of Fame nod through these alternative channels.

You may remember last year’s outcry over Harold Baines’ election (along with the smoother entry of Lee Smith) as an example of how relationships with the 16-member panel can influence the back-room process, as two voters - Tony La Russa and Jerry Reinsdorf have strong White Sox connections with Baines. This year, there doesn’t seem to be a similar degree of fandom, though some voters do have ties to the ballot, which includes two former Yankees’ captains in Don Mattingly and Thurman Munson, the legendary union chief Marvin Miller, along with Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons and Lou Whitaker.

I’m not going to highlight all the relationships here, but you can connect some dots with the panel, which is made up of three branches: Hall of Famers (George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Robin Yount), executives (Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin, Terry Ryan) and media/historians (Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O’Connell and Tracy Ringolsby).

So who gets in? Since Baines got the minimum 75 percent required (12 votes out of 16) last year, you could make an argument for almost anyone on the ballot this time. And it’s difficult to predict what a panel like this might do. We will say that Miller, snubbed by various HOF committees as many as seven times, definitely deserves the honor for being the first champion for free agency in baseball, obviously a game-changer for the players. That may not score him points among executives necessarily, but Miller should sweep the player panel, that’s for sure.

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