The last week brought a flurry of transactions, with nine free agents landing multi-year deals (not counting Chase Headley, who reportedly reached a four-year contract with the Yankees on Monday morning), and 18 of the league's 30 teams making a trade that impacted their 40-man roster. Yet there are still compelling players whose destinations for 2015 remain unsettled. Here's a quick look at the latest rumors on some of the top names left on the market.
1. Max Scherzer and James Shields
Scherzer and Shields are the only two players from the top 10 of SI colleague Ben Reiter's list of the 50 best free agents who have yet to sign. They are also the only two free agents remaining who declined qualifying offers and thus will cost their new teams a draft pick. That's a significant change from last year, when five notable free agents remained unsigned until after pitchers and catchers reported to camp in February.
Draft pick compensation should have not adversely impact the markets for Scherzer or Shields. The former, who just turned 30 in July, was the deserving 2013 American League Cy Young award winner and was nearly as good last year despite a correction in batting average on balls in play. The latter will turn 33 on Saturday but has been an absolute horse over the last four years (averaging a 124 ERA+ and 233 innings) and helped the underdog Rays and Royals to the playoffs in three of those four seasons.
Despite their obvious excellence, there has been a surprising lack of heat on both in the rumor mill. Most of what we've heard about Scherzer of late has been teams saying they are not going to pursue him, including the Giants (who lost out on the Jon Lester sweepstakes), Cardinals and Tigers. There has been some speculation that market for Scherzer will be headed up by the Yankees, who gained a draft pick by letting David Robertson sign with the White Sox, or by the Nationals, who may yet opt to trade ace Jordan Zimmermann, but that remains little more than speculation. Before Lester signed, Scherzer was said to be seeking a contract worth at least $200 million, but with Lester, who is just six months older, having signed with the Cubs for $155 million, Scherzer may have difficulty hitting that figure.
As for Shields, San Francisco is currently believed to be his most likely destination. The team met with Shields during the winter meetings last week, and he was said to be the Giants' primary focus when the meetings ended last Thursday. Thus far, they appear to have little competition for his services.
Matt Kemp is now with the Padres and Jeff Samardzija was dealt to the White Sox, but trade rumors continue to swirl around Braves slugger Upton and Phillies ace Hamels, the two biggest names believed to be on the block. Upton is entering his walk year but could provide a big production boost for a contender with room in its outfield, such as the Orioles or Blue Jays. Hamels, who will turn 31 later this month and has four years and $90 million left on his contract plus a club option for 2019, could be a cheaper alternative to Scherzer or Shields and seems far more likely to be dealt than Zimmermann.
On Sunday, the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo listed the Cubs, Dodgers, Padres, Rangers, Red Sox, Astros and Giants (barring a Shields signing) as teams that were interested in trading for Hamels. However, the New York Post's Joel Sherman had the Dodgers out on Hamels after their flurry of moves at the winter meetings, which included signing righthander Brandon McCarthy to a four-year deal. Of the teams listed by Cafardo, the Red Sox, Astros and Giants are on Hamels' no-trade list, but that could always be worked around by, for example, having the acquiring team offer to pick up his $20 million club option for 2019.
As for Upton, team president John Hart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schulz on Saturday that he had spoken with "six to eight teams" about Upton, but that the conversations were unproductive. One particularly compelling rumor had San Diego pursuing Upton despite already landing Kemp. That seems misguided, given that Upton is a one-year rental and the Padres need to rebuild, but it certainly would give San Diego a radically different look with those two righthanded sluggers in the heart of its order.
A more likely destination for Upton would seem to be Seattle, where the Mariners, who have shown interest in Upton, went hard after free agent Melky Cabrera, only to lose him to the White Sox over the weekend. Other teams said to be interested include the Giants and Royals. The Rangers have also come up frequently in connection with Upton, though the most recent word from MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan is that their interest centers on a potential three-way trade that would net them not Upton but a pitcher, though that rumor pre-dates their acquisition of Ross Detwiler from the Nationals last Friday.
The shortstop market has seen some movement via trade, with the Yankees acquiringDidi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers coming to agreement on a deal for the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins. But the the top shortstop in free agency, Hanley Ramirez, signed an $88 million deal before Thanksgiving and he'll be a leftfielder in 2015. On Monday afternoon, the Astros reportedly reached an agreement with Jed Lowrie, but that still leaves Asdrubal Cabrera and Stephen Drew as options on the free-agent market.
UPDATE: Lowrie did indeed sign a three-year contract with the Astros on Monday afternoon, one worth $23 million. Per his willingness to move around the infield and his poor play at shortstop in recent seasons, Lowrie’s role with Houston is not immediately apparent, though with Jose Altuve in place at second base, he’ll obviously be limited to shortstop and third base. Which of those he plays more often, and whether or not he’s the clear starter at either remains to be seen.
Marwin Gonzalez, who will be 26 in March, had a solid showing at shortstop this past season, hitting .277/.327/.400 with good play in the field. Matt Dominguez, however, is coming off an awful season at third base and has now hit .228/.271/.366 in 1,196 plate appearances over the last two years, suggesting that Lowrie, who will turn 31 in March, is more likely to play third base, a position he has not manned since 2011. Indeed, the big picture view is that Lowrie will be in Houston to help paper over holes in the infield as the Astros work to get back on their feet and get top prospects, such as 2012 No. 1 pick Carlos Correa, established in the majors.
There's good reason for teams to be wary of Cabrera and Drew. The former is a sub-par fielder who may be better off at second base, and the latter is coming off a down year at the plate. Neither of them is an impact bat even at his best, and only Drew, who will turn 32 in March, is an above-average fielder at shortstop. Still, middle infielders with any kind of upside are hard to come by, and those two have established themselves as major league regulars.
Last week, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman listed no fewer than 10 teams that had shown interest in Drew despite his dismal 2014. The Mets, who will apparently do anything to avoid having Ruben Tejada be their shortstop, will reportedly check in on both but favor Drew over Cabrera, per MLB.com's Anthony DiComo. The Giants have inquired as to whether Cabrera would consider moving to third base, something he is resisting for now. The Athleticsreportedly have some interest in both. Finally, per MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes, the Royals, who have put second baseman Omar Infante on the trading block, are reportedly interested in signing Cabrera as Infante's replacement, though Kansas City may be better off standing pat at the keystone.