Will winter meetings sparks finally light the hot stove fire?

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Friday, December 15, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- After Jack Morris shed a bucket of tears at his Hall of Fame news conference, MLB's winter meetings devolved into a stew of fact-finding and inertia mixed with occasional flashes of hostility.

Giancarlo Stanton, his agent, Joel Wolfe, and Scott Boras all took shots at Miami Marlins ownership. A slew of relievers found homes. Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler continued to improve his roster with the addition of Ian Kinsler, and the Marlins gave fans another reason to refrain from buying 2018 season tickets when they traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis.

Now that executives from all 30 clubs have dispersed, everyone is waiting for the inevitable surge of activity. But when? There was once a time when the big free agents felt a sense of urgency to find homes by Christmas. Now it seems inevitable that some very good players will be looking for jobs in January and even February. Seattle's Jerry Dipoto isn't the only general manager who thinks trade first, free agency later.

"As front offices become more robust, there's a lot more discussion in and around the entire landscape,'' said Toronto GM Ross Atkins. "When you have 30-man baseball operations teams who understand every single system and every single major league roster, it creates more opportunities. The landscape is just a little bit bigger on the trade side, and that might be slowing things down in free agency.''

"Slowing'' is an understatement. It has been six weeks since the Houston Astros won the World Series, and catchers Welington Castillo and Chris Iannetta and outfielder Leonys Martin are the only position players who've signed major league contracts as free agents.

Amid the dialogue and navel-gazing, here are some big-picture questions to consider over the coming weeks:

How aggressively do the AL East afterthoughts bail?

Tampa Bay and Baltimore seem to be coming to grips with the inevitable: The Yankees just added Stanton to a team that won 91 games last season, and the Red Sox are still planning to add J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer or another big-time contributor to a team that won 93. Are the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays better served striving to win 87-88 games and taking their chances on a one-game wild card, or shopping their most valuable assets and stocking the farm for the next "window of opportunity"?

All the signs say the Rays and Orioles have embraced reality and begun contemplating some difficult choices. The Orioles are listening on Manny Machado, and teams are lining up to make offers. Peter Angelos' sons, Lou and John, have become more engaged in the operation, and their involvement could help the Orioles avoid the dallying and dysfunction that made deals such a challenge to consummate in the past.

The Rays spent four days at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort listening to offers for Chris Archer, Alex Colome, Jake Odorizzi and Evan Longoria, among others. Nothing tangible came of the trade talks beyond the acquisition of infielder Ryan Schimpf from San Diego. But Tampa Bay executives got a much better read on potential trade fits.

"When you put all 30 teams in one place and get them all under one roof and kind of turn up the heat on everybody, you're going to get a sense much more quickly of what's real and what's not,'' said Chaim Bloom, the Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations. "What are the actual possibilities you need to spend real time on? We were able to do that this week. A lot of conversations have moved along to advanced stages, and the picture is a lot clearer now than it was.''

When do the Giants jump into the fray?

The Giants spent more than a month in a Giancarlo Stanton pursuit that seemed destined to fail from the outset. They also made a pitch for Shoehei Ohtani and were among his seven finalists before he decided to sign with the Angels.

Brian Sabean has made it clear that the Giants do not plan to get involved with free agents who would require surrendering a compensatory draft pick, so the potential list of targets is more along the lines of Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Carlos Gonzalez than, say, J.D. Martinez. The Giants have reached out to the Reds on Billy Hamilton, but as one baseball man said, "the Reds want the world for him.'' And Andrew McCutchen remains a possibility.

San Francisco baseball fans who are getting impatient might want to take a look at the transactions tracker. Unless the Giants were intent on signing Leonys Martin, they haven't missed out on any opportunities yet.

"We're being proactive in trying to understand our opportunities that fit,'' said general manager Bobby Evans. "We're as anxious as anybody to try and get something done. We have a sense of urgency. But you can't always control the timing.''

Will the Pirates swallow hard and deal Andrew McCutchen?

It's hard for opposing clubs to get a read on what Pirates GM Neal Huntington plans to do. The Pirates could try to compete in the NL Central despite a disappointing 75-87 record in 2017, or they could selectively sell veterans, add prospects and reduce the payroll. Under that scenario, McCutchen, Gerrit Cole and Josh Harrison would all be in play.

Manager Clint Hurdle told reporters that Pittsburgh's best lineup alignment consists of McCutchen in center, Gregory Polanco in right and Starling Marte in left (notwithstanding the new metrics). But it was telling when Huntington told reporters that keeping McCutchen and winning world championships might be "contradictory'' propositions.

"Our goal is to put this team back in the postseason as consistently and frequently as possible,'' Huntington said Thursday morning. "We haven't done what we've needed to do over the last two years. Depending upon what we're able to do in this market, that goal may be 2018 or '19. We don't feel forced to do anything.

"We continue to have dialogue. Is our focus strictly on the '18 club, or does our focus shift a little bit out? We've gathered more information. Some of it helps the process. Some of it takes us in a different direction.''

When do the Boras clients find landing spots?

Yu Darvish might be the most prominent marquee name on the free-agent market, and the buzz surrounding him has been relatively muted. The Minnesota Twins, surprisingly, are in the mix as one potential landing spot for Darvish, because they've been so upfront in their desire to add a front-of-the-rotation starter.

Beyond Darvish, a Wasserman Media Group client, Boras represents most of the big names. Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Greg Holland and Carlos Gonzalez are among more than a dozen Boras clients looking for homes.

The Padres and Royals would both love to sign Hosmer, but they're unlikely to go beyond a certain price tag. If the Red Sox jump into the fray and sign Martinez or Hosmer, it will make Boras' life a lot easier. If Boston heads in a different direction, Boras might have to scramble.

As usual, Boras' ownership connections could help determine whether he hits the mother lode with his big guns. Boras' dream scenario is to steer Arrieta to Washington, where he can be part of a monster rotation with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But will Nationals owner Ted Lerner bite?

Are the Marlins done dealing?

The pressure is off, for the most part, now that the Marlins have traded Stanton, Dee Gordon and Marcell Ozuna (while acquiring Starlin Castro) to reduce their projected 2018 payroll by $37.5 million. Based on reports out of Miami, they still need to cut $12 million to $13 million more to get down to their expressed goal of $90 million by Opening Day.

Plan A is to move relievers Brad Ziegler and/or Junichi Tazawa, but the chances of that aren't great. Plan B is to field offers for pitcher Dan Straily. And the least appealing option is to move outfielder Christian Yelich or catcher J.T. Realmuto, two talented young players who are now the heart and soul of what's left in Miami.

While Marlins officials have said they'll probably hang onto Yelich, it also helps the Marlins' leverage if other clubs don't perceive them as desperate. Team officials reportedly plan to confer with Yelich in the near future to get his thoughts on the subject. Yelich has zero leverage to request a trade. But he's signed for a guaranteed $44.5 million through 2021, and it might be a good idea to know if he's on board with Derek Jeter's program in Miami or miserable over the prospect of being the last man standing.

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