NASHVILLE -- Five thoughts on the second day of baseball's winter meetings:
1. Quiet in the Music City
While the guitars and fiddles presumably rocked downtown's Broadway strip, a few miles away at the Opryland Hotel there was a distinct lack of noise from the Hot Stove's biggest names. Rumors circulated here and there, on Twitter and under each of the massive hotel's many atriums, but no decision was rendered by Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Michael Bourn, Anibal Sanchez or Nick Swisher, the top five remaining free agents, nor by the Mets on R.A. Dickey or the Diamondbacks on Justin Upton, the offseason's two most notable known trade targets. (An Upton-for-Cliff Lee trade rumor briefly emerged Tuesday afternoon, though it was immediately and unequivocally shot down.)
Hamilton, the former Rangers outfielder and top hitter available, was in Nashville for the start of the winter meetings but was only publicly seen on his Twitter account, after posting a self-portrait of him with his wife, accompanied by the caption, "heading home!!" For the time being, he's heading home empty-handed without a contract.
"Inflation" has been the word of this offseason, due largely to an influx of new TV money as has been noted in this space a few times already (including here), and one factor for the signing delay by top free agents may be a wait for a standard rate of mark-up to be established before signing on the bottom line. If that inflation seems to be, say, 10 percent or 20 percent or whatever the exact number, then it would equate to a huge increase for nine-figure contracts over what comparable players have gotten in the past.
Some back-of-the-envelope math: using the data available at USAToday.com, the average 2012 Opening Day payroll was $98 million for the 30 major league clubs. The new national TV deal is expected to provide each team with approximately $25 million per year. Importantly, not all of that increased revenue will go toward player salaries and that new money won't be distributed until 2014, but one can see an inflation rate of up to 25 percent.
B.J. Upton's signing with the Braves last week was the one major free-agent contract signed this Hot Stove, but apparently it was not enough for the rumor din to crescendo. It'll come soon, though, and it'll be loud.
2. The Flyin' Bostonian
The Red Sox continued their mid-market shopping spree on Tuesday, reportedly agreeing (per WEEI.com) to terms with outfielder Shane Victorino, who joins first baseman Mike Napoli as recipients of three-year, $39 million contracts. The Sox have also signed catcher David Ross and leftfielder Jonny Gomes this offseason.
Victorino, a longtime Phillies centerfielder who finished last season with the Dodgers, is expected to primarily play rightfield, which is a uniquely demanding position to play at Fenway Park. Victorino may have lost a step in center, according to advanced defensive metrics, but he acquitted himself very well when he moved to leftfield in Los Angeles. The Red Sox are clearly hoping that continues if he moves to the other corner in right.
Though Victorino was consistent and, at times, spectacular from 2006 through '11 with the Phillies (.791 OPS over that span and peaking at .847 in '11), his production waned considerably last year with career lows in all three rate stats: .255 average, .321 on-base percentage and .383 slugging. Was that a case of being distracted by free agency, of simply having a down year or of feeling the typical age-related decline for the then-31-year-old?
That, of course, is the many-million-dollar question. If nothing else, the signing is a further example of Boston's newfound restraint. Rather than hand seven-year deals to mega-stars, they've handed out a pair of two-year contracts to helpful role players and now two three-year deals to above-average players who fill obvious holes.
3. Upper Middle (Infield) Class
Every time San Francisco wins the World Series, one of its 30-plus utility infielders gets overpaid on a multi-year deal. After the Giants' victory in 2010, the Dodgers gave Juan Uribe $21 million, for which he has rewarded his new club with 143 games played over two seasons with a paltry .552 OPS. According to FoxSports.com, Marco Scutaro received $20 million over three years to stay with the Giants.
Now Scutaro appears ready to cash in. Two disclaimers: he's much older (37, as opposed to Uribe's 30 at the time of his signing), and his talents are more likely to age well. While Uribe was more dependent on power -- he hit 24 home runs in his final year in San Francisco -- Scutaro is the better pure hitter, having batted .362 in 61 games after being traded to the Giants and producing a .761 OPS in the three preceding years with Toronto and Boston.
That said, Scutaro is primarily a second baseman these days and, though that is easier to man later in years than shortstop, it's still a physically demanding middle infield position.
It's also jarring to note how closely Uribe and Scutaro compare as offensive players at the time of their free agencies: through the 2010 season, Uribe had a .731 career OPS, and Scutaro currently has a .731 career OPS.
(Interestingly, 32-year-old Rays utility infielder Jeff Keppinger -- who has a two-year, $8 million offer on the table according to FoxSports.com but seeks three years and $12 million, per CBSSports.com -- has a .733 career OPS.)
Once again, how those OPS ratings are compiled matters, with Uribe depending more on slugging and Scutaro more on on-base percentage. Body type matters, too, with Scutaro leaner and thus apparently much more fit. Still, it's hard not to think that this deal with Scutaro is a nostalgic overpay for their NLCS MVP.
4. A short stop in Miami
The shortstop, Yunel Escobar, made only a brief cameo in Miami before being traded across the peninsula to Tampa Bay for middle infield prospect Derek Dietrich, as CBSSports.com first reported. Just yesterday Rays manager Joe Maddon raved about how utility star Ben Zobrist had played shortstop near the end of the season -- "I thought he played better there than almost any other position he played all season," Maddon said, "It did not impact his offense whatsoever" -- but now that point is apparently moot, with the acquisition of Escobar.
Escobar, who played for the Blue Jays last year but was traded to the Marlins earlier this offseason, is a very good fit for the offense-starved Rays. Last year not withstanding, when he had a .300 OBP and .644 OPS, Escobar has been an above-average offensive shortstop, with a .366 OBP and .766 OPS from 2007 through '11. Meanwhile, if you remove Zobrist's 197 plate appearances from Tampa Bay's collective shortstop production, the remaining three players combined for a poor .589 OPS while playing the position.
Escobar comes with some off-field baggage -- most recently, he was spotted wearing eye black in which he wrote a homophobic slur -- but on the field he's a big offensive upgrade who also fits in with the Rays' stellar defensive reputation. According to Fielding Bible's Runs Saved statistic, he ranked fourth among big league shortstops last year and has been in the top-10 each of the last five seasons.
5. "World Series or bust"
That was the slogan proclaimed by Nationals manager Davey Johnson Tuesday afternoon, and he's not wrong after his club won an NL-best 98 games last year while already adding centerfielder Denard Span last week and, apparently, starter Dan Haren on a one-year deal (analysis here). Johnson was also right on a similarly bold proclamation last year, when he said he could be fired if Washington missed the playoffs.
Next in Johnson's line of sight is retaining first baseman Adam LaRoche. The manager said Tuesday that he staged his recent charity golf tournament to put LaRoche in regular contact with general manager Mike Rizzo. Johnson said he told LaRoche to bring a pen from Kansas, purportedly to sign a contract.
"Adam LaRoche is going to come back," Johnson said. "I mean, if I have to go to Kansas and take him and all his cattle to [spring training in] Florida, I will."
LaRoche had a tremendous season in 2012 -- 33 homers and a .853 OPS -- and provides great balance to a righty-heavy lineup. Only LaRoche and Bryce Harper were regulars in the order last year, with Danny Espinosa as the only switch hitter.
Michael Morse, who's a better first baseman than he is a leftfielder, remains on the roster but could be traded if LaRoche is retained. Johnson, who has signaled his intention to retire at year's end, has obvious incentive for the Nationals to go-for-broke in 2013, and for good reason, given the club's performance last year. Rizzo, however, proved with the Strasburg shutdown that he's not inclined to put any one season over the opportunity for a long period of contention, which Washington is currently on track for, but Johnson has a point -- this team is so well stocked that it should be the NL favorites next year.
"If we're not the favorite this year," Johnson said, "I'm going to be embarrassed [for] all you guys that didn't pick me."