More big names expected to be on move during winter meetings
The wildest offseason week in recent memory is over before the winter meetings began, with nine trades and 29 major league contracts either agreed to or announced that span 73 seasons of control and $903 million of compensation.
While four of the top 10 players in this offseason's Reiter 50 -- the ranking of the top 50 free agents, as compiled by SI's Ben Reiter -- are off the board, including Nos. 1 and 2 in Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury, respectively, plenty more talent remains available. That's particularly true among starting pitching and includes the top four starters. The market has been swift thus far, which should carry into this year's winter meetings at Disney's Swan and Dolphin resort near Orlando. Here are the top 10 storylines to watch:
1. The last nine-figure talent
Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is now the biggest prize on the board. His .423 on-base percentage this past season ranked fourth in the majors, making him an ideal leadoff hitter, but he also has enough power (34 doubles, 21 home runs) that he could hit in the middle of a lineup. The one big knock is a bad righty/lefty split (an OPS discrepancy of about .400 points last year). Likely contenders with corner outfield openings are expected to be among the strongest suitors for his services, a list that the Boston Globe reports includes the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers and Phillies.
2. Rotation help: via trade
The best pitcher available this winter has no say in where he ends up -- though he's had plenty to say on social media (ahem and ahem) -- and that is the Rays' lefthanded ace, David Price, who has two years remaining of player control. That means he's likely to be shipped away for a maximum return, in keeping with the organization's precedent of trading former teammates Matt Garza and James Shields at the same juncture of their careers.
Price, a former Cy Young winner and three-time All-Star with a 3.19 career ERA, would return the biggest bounty of the trio. In fact, one executive told ESPN's Jayson Stark that Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations, was looking to make a "Herschel Walker trade," referring to the franchise-changing football deal that rapidly rebuilt the Cowboys.
The consolation prize is Cubs righthander Jeff Samardzija, who also is under team control for two more seasons. In his two full seasons as a starter, he's averaged a strikeout per inning and has a 4.10 ERA while pitching for some bad Chicago teams.
3. Rotation help: via posting
Sunday came news that Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball had agreed to a revamped posting system (capping fees to the team at $20 million) and that Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana would probably allow Masahiro Tanaka to leave if the 25-year-old righthander preferred to move to North America. If so, another potential ace would be available to any club willing to send $20 million to Rakuten before trying to outbid other major league suitors. Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 27 starts (and one relief appearance, which resulted in a save) last season.
4. Rotation help: via free agency
The merits of the top three free-agent starters -- Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santanta -- are hard to distinguish. All are righthanders who'll be between 30 and 32 years old next season and parsing the data to find a favorite is a dizzying exercise. Garza has the best career ERA among the trio (3.84, compared to Jimenez's 3.92 and Santana's 4.19) but his injury-plagued 2013 season was the worst of the group (3.82 ERA, compared to Santana's 3.24 and Jimenez's 3.30). While Santana's 2013 was arguably the best of the bunch, Jimenez boasts the best single season for his brilliant 2010 campaign in Colorado. (Try it yourself using these side-by-side statistical comparisons of their 2013 seasons and of their careers, via FanGraphs.com.)
The one major difference, however, is that Garza won't cost his new team a draft pick, as he alone among the three didn't turn down a qualifying offer from his old club. (The collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from extending a QO to midseason acquisitions, so the Rangers, who traded for Garza at the deadline, won't get a pick while Jimenez's Indians and Santana's Royals both will.) As a result, Garza will likely have more suitors and that competition for his services could drive up his price tag.
5. Rotation help: via the aged
There is a wealth of available pitchers who are closer to 40 than 30, a list with pitchers coming off good years (Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon), uneven years with at least one hot streak (Bruce Chen, Freddy Garcia and Jake Westrbook) or completely lost years (Roy Halladay and Barry Zito).
The pitchers in the first group will all have several suitors each, but the rest could provide some value with the right teams and for the right contracts. Westbrook, for example, ranked sixth in groundball rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings; Garcia had a 1.89 ERA in 33⅓ innings with the Braves; and Chen had a 3.27 ERA in a year split between starting and relieving.
Halladay is the most intriguing name on this list, as his decline the past two seasons was precipitous, but a two-time Cy Young winner with a legendary work ethic shouldn't be counted out just yet.
6. Other hitters saddled with draft-pick compensation
In addition to Choo, the other two position players who declined qualifying offers and thus will cost their new teams a draft pick are Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales. Both, however, carry big questions, meaning the compensation picks could be market killers.
Cruz only played one game for the Rangers after returning from his 50-game suspension for his connection to the Biogenesis clinic, so he has not had sufficient time to prove he can still compete after a PED ban. Morales, meanwhile, is a good hitter but not an elite one; his production last year (.785 OPS) for Seattle was only eight points better than the average AL first baseman and there are concerns he's destined to be a full-time DH.
7. Robust reliever market
New Tigers closer Joe Nathan, Giants lefthanded specialist Javier Lopez and Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson have signed, but a bevy of quality arms are still available. Free agents Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Kevin Gregg, Chris Perez and Fernando Rodney all had at least 20 saves last season.
There are several more relievers with high-end track records who are overcoming 2013 injuries -- Joel Hanrahan, Eric O'Flaherty, Jesse Crain, Andrew Bailey and Ryan Madson -- or who are looking to bounce back after disappointing seasons, such as John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez.
8. Middle infield paucity
With Cano and Jhonny Peralta having agreed to contracts with the Mariners and Cardinals, respectively, there are two remaining impact players left among middle infielders in second baseman Omar Infante and shortstop Stephen Drew. Infante batted .318 for the Tigers in 2013, the third time in the last five seasons he's been over .300; his .795 OPS ranked fifth among big league second basemen with at least 450 plate appearances. He would be a great fit for the Yankees now.
Drew enjoyed a stellar year in Boston where his .777 OPS was fourth among all shortstops with at least 450 PAs thanks to his 50 extra-base hits (29 doubles, 8 triples and 13 homers). He also played exceptional defense in the postseason, though he turned down a QO and would cost his new team a draft pick. At least two contenders, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, should seriously consider Drew because he'd represent a substantial upgrade, though the pick is an especially steep price to pay for smaller market teams. The Red Sox could also retain Drew and keep prospect Xander Bogaerts at third base.
9. California trading block
The hefty free-agent price tags have precipitated a recent trading spree, and it's probably not over, either. Some really big contracts (including those of Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford) have been dealt in the last 18 months, too, meaning no one without a no-trade clause is secure. There have been sufficient rumors surrounding Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp, who is playing under an eight-year, $160 million deal, that his agent, former big league pitcher Dave Stewart, told the Los Angeles Times, "I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen."
If it's not Kemp, the Dodgers may well move either Crawford or Andre Ethier. Three other prominent names from the Golden State whose names have circulated in reports off and on: the Padres' Chase Headley, the Angels' Mark Trumbo and the Athletics' Brett Anderson.
10. Two who (probably) won't be traded
There have been various reports that Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon and Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips have been shopped around, but the sheer logistics of finding a partner willing to make a worthwhile deal for either means a trade is unlikely. After all, Papelbon, who turned 33 last month, saw a precipitous decline in his strikeout rate (from a career 10.8 K/9 to an 8.3 K/9 last season) and is owed $26 million the next two seasons with a vesting option for a third year at $13 million if he finishes 100 games the next two years or 55 in '15. Phillips, who'll turn 33 in June, is owed $50 million over the next four seasons and just had the worst OPS (.706) of his eight seasons in Cincinnati.