Winter Meetings roundup: Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale trade rumors sizzle
- There was a flurry of action at baseball's Winter Meetings on Monday. The next big splash could come in the form of a trade.
The Winter Meetings are here, and with them comes a flood of signings, trades and rumors to match the off-season’s busiest week. On Monday, the market’s best available starting pitcher, veteran lefty Rich Hill, re-upped with the Dodgers on a three-year, $48 million deal. But his signing wasn’t the only big news to come out of a hectic day and weekend. Below is a roundup of three notable free-agent additions, as well as a quick look at some of Monday’s bigger rumors.
Giants sign Mark Melancon to four-year, $62 million deal
After a season in which the team’s bullpen collapsed in horrifying and repeated fashion, the Giants have decided that the path back to the World Series will go through the ninth inning. On Monday, the team announced it had signed free-agent closer Mark Melancon—formerly of Washington and Pittsburgh—to a four-year deal worth $62 million. The contract is the largest ever given out to a reliever, beating out the terms of Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million pact with the Phillies back in 2011.
It’s a move that San Francisco had to make given the state of its depleted bullpen, with former closers Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla hitting free agency alongside longtime lefty Javier Lopez. The team has a quartet of serviceable middle relief options in George Kontos, Derek Law, Hunter Strickland and Will Smith, but it’s clear that manager Bruce Bochy had little trust in anyone of that group. That much is understandable, given that the team’s second-half collapse was led in part by the arson brigade that was the bullpen, which blew nine saves in September and October alone as the Giants threw away a gigantic lead in the National League West.
In Melancon, the Giants have a closer who has been close to automatic in his four seasons in the ninth inning. A former ninth-round pick of the Yankees back in 2006, the righthander bounced from New York to Houston to Boston to Pittsburgh, where he landed in 2013 and emerged as an ace setup man before taking over the full-time closer gig that season. A three-time All-Star with the Pirates, Melancon saved 130 games over three-plus years in Pittsburgh before the team dealt him to the Nationals at the trade deadline last summer. Replacing Papelbon as Washington’s closer, Melancon didn’t miss a beat, converting 17 of 18 chances. All told, he finished 2016 with 47 saves and a 1.64 ERA in 71 1/3 innings, striking out 65.
Despite those gaudy numbers, Melancon was the clear third option on the market behind Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, largely in part due to those strikeout numbers. His whiff rate of 8.2 per nine is well behind the astronomical averages of Chapman (14.0) and Jansen (13.6), and his fastball sat at just 91.8 mph last year. Instead of blowing away hitters with his heat, Melancon relies on a darting cut fastball that he uses to induce tons of ground balls, pairing it with a curveball that held opposing hitters to a mere .138 batting average against in 2016.
Unwilling to pay the prices that Chapman and Jansen were seeking—the former is reportedly looking for a six-year contract, and the latter may go for as much as $80 million—the Giants instead went with the steady-but-unsexy option, betting that Melancon’s ground-ball-inducing ways will win out. Already 31, it’s hard to imagine him staying a top-flight closer through the entirety of his deal, and the average annual value of $15 million is a hefty figure. But for a team that watched the ninth inning constantly slip through its fingers last year, coming out of this off-season without a closer would have been a grave mistake. Melancon solves that problem, allowing San Francisco to move on to other concerns.
Astros sign Carlos Beltran to one-year, $16 million deal
The most hated man in Houston is now an Astro. Fresh off a rejuvenated 2016 campaign, veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran will join the Astros on a one-year pact worth $16 million. The move likely won’t sit too well with longtime Houston fans, who remember all too well the acrimonious terms of Beltran’s free-agent departure after the 2004 season. But his addition is a big boost to a lineup that needs it and further solidifies the Astros as contenders.
Beltran came into the 2016 season looking like a lost cause after two desultory years in the Bronx with the Yankees, but the 39-year-old Puerto Rican perked up last year, bashing 22 home runs and hitting .295/.337/.513 in 99 games with New York before being sent to Texas at the trade deadline. With the Rangers, Beltran initially slumped, but the veteran came alive down the stretch, hitting a red-hot .309/.363/.511 with four home runs in 102 plate appearances in September and October. That wasn’t enough to get Texas over the hump in the playoffs, but it did wonders for his market, earning him a one-year deal in what will likely be his final season before retirement.
Still seeking a World Series ring after 19 seasons in the bigs, Beltran joins a Houston team that has gone full-bore in beefing up its lineup. The Astros got the hot stove season started with a pair of additions, trading for veteran Yankees catcher Brian McCann and signing former Dodgers outfielder Josh Reddick in November. Now with Beltran in the fold, Houston has added three potent power bats and improved the team’s production from the left side of the plate; the Astros hit just .249/.320/.416 against righties last season.
Likely to become the team’s regular designated hitter (displacing Evan Gattis), Beltran should remain a productive bat if he can stay healthy. Houston would be best to keep him out of the field, where his defense has fallen dramatically from his Gold Glove days, but with Reddick now in right, there shouldn’t be a need to put Beltran out there. It’s a good addition for a young team that needs offense.
Yankees sign Matt Holliday to one-year, $13 million deal
He’s no Edwin Encarnacion, but the Yankees will go forward next season with veteran Matt Holliday as their regular designated hitter, signing him to a one-year deal worth $13 million. The longtime Cardinals outfielder joins New York after eight seasons in St. Louis, and despite his advancing age and slipping stats, he makes for a good low-cost add to a Yankees lineup lacking in power.
A regular All-Star and occasional MVP candidate in his prime, the 36-year-old Holliday has seen his career stall out thanks to injuries. Limited to just 183 games over the last two seasons, Holliday’s offense has slipped closer to replacement level numbers, bottoming out with last year’s .246/.322/.461 mark in 426 plate appearances. A broken thumb robbed Holliday of roughly 50 games toward the end of the season, though the veteran was able to get off the disabled list for the final week and even ended his Cardinals career with a pinch-hit home run.
While Holliday isn’t the hitter he used to be, he’s still a good source of power—he bashed 20 home runs last year and has topped that mark in every season but one since 2006—and patience. That makes him an ideal fit for the Yankees, who dealt away Beltran last summer and McCann in November, robbing them of their two top DH options. And DH is unquestionably where Holliday will be: Never a nimble fielder, Holliday’s defense makes him untenable in the outfield. On a one-year deal, it’s hard to imagine a better bargain for New York.
Whither Edwin Encarnacion?
Aside from their on-field impact, the signings of Beltran and Holliday (along with Steve Pearce, who will reportedly join the Blue Jays on a two-year deal) complicate the market for the winter’s best available hitter: Edwin Encarnacion. The Toronto designated hitter has seen all of his prospective landing spots either claimed (both Houston and New York were reportedly in on the righthanded slugger) or fail to materialize (Boston has reportedly decided that Encarnacion’s price tag is too high for their liking).
Part of the problem for Encarnacion is that his position—first base/designated hitter—is one of the few that this market has options for. Already, Beltran, Holliday, Pearce and Kendrys Morales (also with Toronto) have signed, and other strong bats like Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez and former teammate Jose Bautista are still available. Hurting Encarnacion further is the qualifying offer attached to him—one that will cost his new team a first-round draft pick. On top of that, Encarnacion’s camp already turned down a reported four-year, $80 million offer from the Blue Jays.
So where will Encarnacion go? A return to Toronto isn’t out of the question, but the team’s newfound glut at DH and first base (aside from Pearce and Morales, the team also has Justin Smoak under contract) makes it tougher to find space for him there. His would-be biggest suitors, meanwhile, are either spoken for or not interested in a big long-term deal. His search for a new home will be a big storyline to watch throughout the week at Winter Meetings.
McCutchen and Sale sweepstakes heat up
Will this week mark the end of the respective Pittsburgh and Chicago tenures of Andrew McCutchen and Chris Sale? The buzz around Winter Meetings has been that both players are on the block, with the Pirates and White Sox each motivated to move their superstars. A surprising player in both talks: the Nationals, who have pursued each. Rosenthal reports that Washington is currently more focused on Sale than McCutchen. ESPN’s Buster Olney notes that the Rangers are also involved in talks for McCutchen, though FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman says it’s unlikely Texas would pay the price necessary for the former MVP.
Pittsburgh reportedly wants a high price for McCutchen, with the Pittsburgh Tribune’s Rob Bieftempfel reporting that the team asked for top prospects Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles from Washington in a potential trade. The Nationals said no, but it’s clear that the Pirates won’t let McCutchen go for nothing.
The same can be said of the White Sox with Sale, with general manager Rick Hahn telling reporters that he will not compromise on his asking price. What is that price? Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told the media that ideally, Chicago would get “four prospects who can’t possibly miss” in exchange for the lefty. It’s hard to imagine any team being able to match that, though Washington—with Giolito, Robles and Reynaldo Lopez—has the pieces to get into the conversation, at least.