CARLSBAD, Calif. — There’s a distinctly different tone being set at the beginning of this MLB offseason compared with the last one, as money seemingly is going to flow back into the game — and into players’ pockets — one year after one of the slowest markets since the advent of free agency.
The GM meetings this week provided the foundation for what should be a very active winter — for big markets and small ones alike. Here are four takeaways from four days at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa just north of San Diego:
This year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are getting all the attention Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish received last winter. The difference is they’re likely to get the money those players weren’t able to garner. Are the Phillies the favorite for Harper? The Yankees for Machado? Do the White Sox have a shot at either of them? Let the selling begin.
“The economic flexibility allows us to flirt with various free agent options as well as potential trade targets,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn said. “We do have a pretty wide array of potential avenues to fill our needs right now.”
Phillies GM Matt Klentak was asked his thoughts on a megadeal, perhaps for a big-name right fielder from within his division. Klentak was in Anaheim when the Angels signed Albert Pujols to his massive contract.
“I don’t want to operate in absolutes,” he said. “I don’t want to say we would never do this or never do that. You have to be open-minded. There are inherent risks in a contract of that length,” he said, referring to the type of deal it would take to land Harper.
In the next sentence, Klentak said he was flattered to be mentioned among the favorites to land a big fish, but cautioned he can’t react to perception.
“I can’t allow that to creep into my decision-making,” he stated.
It’s not just the two hitters who executives will be throwing money at. The Cincinnati Reds might think they have a mini Big Red Machine around the diamond, but they need more arms. Retaining Matt Harvey would be a start. More could be coming.
“The pitching is getting there [from within], but we have to add from the outside,” team president Dick Williams said.
Yes, the timing looks right for free agents to make some of the money that wasn’t spent a year ago. The Nationals’ reported $300 million offer to Harper is a good indication of where his market is, and subsequently where Machado’s will be as well. The middle-tier free agents should get quite rich as well. The only question is when will that first domino fall and who will cash that first big check?
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman might have said it best when addressing how to catch the Boston Red Sox.
“First and foremost, it’s hard to improve on a 100-win team,” he stated with a smile.
He’s not wrong, as teams like the Yankees (100 wins), Astros (103), Cubs (95) and even Indians (91) can’t overreact to falling short in 2018. Filling a hole, making an adjustment and simply hoping the Red Sox aren’t at the beginning of a dynasty might be the best course of action. Less might be more even though the instinct is to do something big when you don’t win a ring.
“We have to continue to reinforce and repackage,” Cashman said.
Who are the sellers?
This cycle might not see many deals like the one the Brewers pulled off to acquire Christian Yelich from the Marlins last year. Yes, Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto probably will get moved, but even the new “open for business” team, the Seattle Mariners, isn’t going to strip it down like the Marlins did last season and the White Sox before them.
“We’re clearly in the middle of the pack in the AL,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said. “It’s caused us to reflect where we are in the present and the opportunities ahead of us. We have no interest in a long, painful teardown.”
But their top players can be had, just not for nothing, which seems like what the Marlins got for Yelich after the reputation of Lewis Brinson took a hit this season. In any case, the Marlins could sell off what little they have left, along with the Mariners, Orioles and Diamondbacks, but there isn’t a whole new group of teams entering a rebuilding phase. More are starting to come out of theirs.
There’s always a moment or two at the GM or winter meetings that cause some shockwaves in the baseball world. When the Chicago Cubs declared they’re all but out when it comes to the top free agent names, it caused a stir. But years of spending on pitching, without developing any homegrown talent, has come back to bite them a bit. Team president Theo Epstein said the Cubs will still have a high payroll, but it won’t increase exponentially. Translation? No Bryce Harper.
“We’ve had a top-six payroll in each of the last three seasons,” Epstein said. “We expect to have another top-six payroll this season and going forward. That investment in the club by our ownership has been everything we can ask for. It’s more than enough money to win.”
New Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen caused a stir not just by landing his job, but by intimating Tim Tebow could see the major leagues next season. He’ll be in big league camp and is slated to start the season at Triple-A.
“His season was cut short last year due to the injury, and he had this great momentum,” said Van Wagenen, Tebow’s former agent. “For Timmy, if you tell him he can’t do something, he surprises a lot of people. If he picks up where he left off last year, you never know. This game is a meritocracy. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Remarkable would be the first of many adjectives used if Tebow actually makes it to the majors.
Van Wagenen was a popular man at the meetings as his transition from agent to GM came with some raised eyebrows. At least one former rival agent, Scott Boras, seemed to be against that kind of movement in the game. But at the same time, Boras said he’ll certainly deal with the Mets in an attempt to get the most for a client. Harper in the Big Apple would be quite the sight, but it’s more likely Machado is New York-bound, just on the other side of town. Harper will have plenty of other choices.
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