With the winter meetings almost at a close, Jay Jaffe rounds up the latest news and rumors on the top names in free agency and on the trade market.
NASHVILLE — Highlighted by the Shelby Miller blockbuster and the Ben Zobrist/Starlin Castro two-step, Tuesday evening enlivened what had been a slow day at the winter meetings. Still, the rumor mill is abuzz with regards to the status of the top remaining free agents and trade targets, not all of whom will find new addresses before teams and media decamp from the Gaylord Opryland biodome on Thursday. Here's a quick rundown of where things stand with the big names (listed alphabetically) as of Wednesday afternoon.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF
Unlike his late-summer stint with the Mets, Cespedes's off-season hasn't grabbed big headlines yet thanks to all the movement involving starting pitchers. In fact, the same can be said for the entirety of what we might call the nine-figure outfield class, a group that also includes Jason Heyward and Justin Upton.
So far, we know that the Tigers, who acquired Cespedes last winter and then traded him to New York on July 31, aren't engaging in a reunion, as general manager Al Avila said his team is no longer in the mix. Likewise, Mets assistant GM John Ricco called a return to Queens unlikely. Via The New York Post's Joel Sherman, the Royals showed interest but quickly concluded that Cespedes was out of their price range, and the Giants and Angels have both pursued him as well. The Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna added that the Angels have spoken to the agents of all three big-money outfielders but don't expect to make the first move and thereby set the market, salary-wise.
Cespedes would make sense for either San Francisco or Los Angeles. The Giants lost Nori Aoki via free agency, they can use Cespedes' ability to play centerfield as an insurance policy against Angel Pagan's fragility and they should be able to afford a bigger-ticket acquisition after settling for Jeff Samardzija as rotation help after losing out on Zack Greinke. The Angels, meanwhile, never satisfactorily replaced Josh Hamilton, receiving a miserable .216/.275/.317 combined showing from his replacements in leftfield, including Matt Joyce, David Murphy and Shane Victorino. Those players proved to be replacement-level killers who may have cost the Angels, who finished one game out in the AL wild-card race, a trip to the postseason. With over $134 million in salary commitments to just nine players (plus those departed, most notably Hamilton), the Halos' ability to make a big move could rest on whether they're able to offload a significant portion of the $20 million that C.J. Wilson is owed. However, the 35-year-old southpaw is coming off season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow, making that a tall task.
Johnny Cueto, SP
With Greinke, Samardzija, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann having signed, Cueto is the top free agent remaining among starting pitchers. He reportedly turned down a six-year, $120 million offer from the Diamondbacks, who then committed over 70% more salary over the same period to Greinke and gave up the No. 1 pick of last year's draft, shortstop Dansby Swanson, in the deal for Miller. The Dodgers and the Giants are the most obvious alternatives for Cueto, particularly given that the Red Sox (who signed Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract) and Cubs (who signed pitcher John Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal) have already committed big money to other starting pitchers. One team definitely not interested in Cueto is the Cardinals, who lost out on Price; CBS Sports' Jon Heyman noted that "Cueto had a rough relationship with Cardinal Nation while starring in Cincinnati." Heyman also added that the Dodgers were a team interested in Cueto at the deadline.
Of course, Cueto wound up going to the Royals, for whom he pitched unevenly down the stretch, including two disaster starts (more runs than innings pitched) out of five postseason turns. Still, his two-hit complete game in Game 2 of the World Series against the Mets closed his season on a high note and served to remind that his ability to thrive against NL teams shouldn't be in doubt. That said, between the additions of Samardzija in San Francisco and Hisashi Iwakuma in Los Angeles, neither of the two NL West rivals previously connected to Cueto are strong bets to tread into the $140-160 million range that has been suggested as Cueto's target.
Chris Davis, 1B
Via MASN's Roch Kubatko, the Orioles are believed to have made a $150 million offer to retain the slugging first baseman/outfielder. Kubatko's report didn't specify the length but did note that some of that staggering sum would be deferred; ESPN's Buster Olney reports that the deal would be for seven years. That would cover the age-30 to 36 seasons of a slugger who has bashed 159 homers over the past four seasons, including 47 in 2015. Even given his ups and downs during that time—including his 25-game suspension at the end of '14 for using a banned stimulant—he's averaged 3.8 WAR in that time and shown enough flexibility to fill in at third base and rightfield.
Still, agent Scott Boras is seeking more for Davis, with the New York Post's George King III quoting one insider as saying "he wants [Mark] Teixeira money," referring to the eight-year, $180 million deal the Yankees' first baseman signed in 2009. Whether that pact should be adjusted for inflation wasn't indicated, but for any Boras client, the answer is "of course." The Orioles could move on to Upton and a less expensive alternative at first base. The Cardinals and Giants have also been connected to Davis, as have the Red Sox, though Boston would have to ditch Hanley Ramirez somewhere in order for that to be an option.
Jose Fernandez, SP
The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year's ongoing clash with the Marlins over Boras's involvement in determining an innings limit for next season has opened up the possibility that he could be moved, even with Miami's president of baseball operations, Mike Hill, telling reporters, "We haven't made him available. But it doesn't stop the phone calls from coming."
The chances of Fernandez being dealt appear remote, given reports suggesting the Marlins have asked for at least the sun, moon, stars and a time-travel machine in return for the 23-year-old righty, who has three years of club control remaining. The Miami Herald's Clark Spencer reported that before dealing for Miller, the Diamondbacks were asked for Swanson, starter Patrick Corbin, pitching prospect Aaron Blair, infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder Ender Inciarte. MLB.com's Joe Frisaro reported that the Dodgers were told it would take a boatload of top prospects: shortstop Corey Seager, lefty Julio Urias, centerfielder Joc Pederson "and two more," which won't happen even if they did engage a potential third team, as has been reported. The Yankees and Astros—and that perennial winter threat, the Mystery Team—are said to have checked in, too, and you can expect the demands were similarly exorbitant.
The bottom line is that such a move appears unlikely at the moment, though Fernandez's conflict with a fly-by-night franchise and his representation by Boras suggest that he'll never sign a multi-year extension with the team, making a trade an inevitability. It may not happen in 2016, given that Fernandez will be on a shorter leash in his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery, but his days in Miami are certainly numbered.
Jason Heyward, OF
As noted above, the Angels have checked in, and so have the Giants (who prefer his defense to that of Cespedes) and Cubs. Chicago's aforementioned additions of Lackey and Zobrist (a four-year, $56 million deal) apparently haven't quashed the team's interest in the 26-year-old rightfielder, particularly as it opens up the Cubs' ability to trade Jorge Soler. The Cardinals, who acquired Heyward from the Braves in November 2014, are interested in retaining him, with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold writing, "Heyward remains a focus of the team while they reset their pitching approach," referring to their interest in Price. Heyman lists all of those teams plus #mysteryteam while suggesting that a 10-year-deal could even be possible.
If that's the case, such a contract would surely have to be in the Robinson Cano/Albert Pujols ballpark ($240 million), which given the presence of Pujols (who's signed through 2021) and the aforementioned note about not wanting to set the market suggests that the winner of his services won't be the Angels. Beyond that, any of the above options seem plausible, but not imminent.
Mike Leake, SP
The starting pitching market's fallback option is Leake, who's said to be asking for a five-year deal in the $75–80 million range, according to ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. The Nationals, who lost Zimmermann and Doug Fister to free agency, are said to be "making [a] push" for Leake according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, who noted the 28-year-old righty's previous connection to Dusty Baker, who managed him with the Reds. The Cardinals are interested as well, but "only at a certain price," according to Rosenthal, and that's after figuring out whether Heyward is staying in St. Louis. The Giants, who traded for Leake at the end of July, could still be in play; he has a longtime connection to manager Bruce Bochy, whose sons played on a San Diego-based travel team with Leake.
For all of that, the team that makes the most sense for Leake is the Dodgers, given that none of their other starting pitcher options—Iwkauma (who has a history of shoulder problems), Brandon McCarthy (who won't be back until midseason due to Tommy John surgery), Hyun-jin Ryu (who's coming off shoulder surgery), Joe Wieland (who has yet to establish himself at the big-league level) and Alex Wood—is a good bet to approach 200 innings. Leake, meanwhile, has pitched 192 innings in two of the last three years, with a high of 214 1/3 in 2014. Los Angeles doesn't appear to have shown much interest in him recently, however.
Justin Upton, OF
As noted above, the Orioles have been connected to Upton as an alternative to Davis, and the Giants and Angels have as well. The Orange County Register's Jeff Fletcher was told there's "nothing happening" at the moment between Upton and Los Angeles. Beyond the Baltimore connection, it may be that Upton has to wait for at least Heyward to make a decision before another team commits to the 28-year-old slugger. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris suggested that the problem for the 28-year-old Upton is that when it comes to age, defense, power and contact rate, he's at least second banana relative to another available outfielder in Heyward.