The winter meetings are a snapshot in time, a few days of intense wheeling and dealing that takes place more than two months before pitchers and catchers report to spring training and nearly four months before Opening Day. In terms of the 2017 season and beyond, the trades and free agent moves on either side of the meetings may turn out to be equally as significant, if not moreso than what transpired this week just outside of Washington D.C.
Nonetheless, the intense competition for scarce resources and the jockeying for position among rivals lends itself to declaring a few "winners" and "losers," however fleeting those designations may be.
Particularly with so few free agent starters worth spending money on this winter, it was always an inevitability that Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon would break the bank, setting new records for relievers in terms of both total contract value (surpassing Jonathan Papelbon's four-year, $50 million deal from 2012 to '15) and average annual value (topping Mariano Rivera's two $15-million-per-year deals). On Monday, Melancon broke both records by agreeing to a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants, but it took only until late Wednesday night for both standards to fall thanks to Chapman's jaw-dropping five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees.
Jansen stands to win as well, as he has reportedly received an offer of five years and more than $80 million from the Marlins, and both the Nationals (who are reportedly "uncomfortable" with that level of commitment) and Dodgers (who may have to choose between the closer and third baseman Justin Turner given competition and future luxury tax implications) have pursued him as well. Meanwhile, Wade Davis was dealt from the Royals, who have an uphill battle to reclaim a postseason berth, to the newly crowned world champion Cubs, and David Robertson is set up to be dealt from the rebuilding White Sox to a more competitive team, with Washington a logical destination.
2. White Sox
After four straight losing seasons, Chicago decided to shift its focus to rebuilding, and so far, general manager Rick Hahn has knocked it out of the park. The return on trading Chris Sale to the Red Sox for a four-player package that included infielder Yoan Moncada, considered by MLB.com to be the game's top prospect; fireballer Michael Kopech (30th on MLB.com's list), who could be a number one starter in the making according to Baseball America, outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe, ranked eighth on BA's recent Boston top 10 list, and power righty Victor Diaz, whose fastball is in the 96-100 mph range. The return on sending outfielder Adam Eaton to Washington was a pair of near-ready righties in Lucas Giolito and Reynadlo Lopez (third and 38th on MLB.com's current list) plus 2016 first-round pick Dane Dunning, also a righty (No. 7 in the Nats' system according to Baseball Prospectus). Wrote BA's J.J. Cooper, "[The] White Sox started this week with a 26th-28th ranked farm system. [They are] leaving DC with a top five system."
Hahn may not be done yet. Robertson, third baseman Todd Frazier, outfielder Melky Cabrera and possibly even starting pitcher Jose Quintana are also candidates to be dealt.
3. Red Sox
The 2016 AL East champions have separated themselves from the pack with the addition of Sale, who will join a formidable rotation that features two Cy Young winners, David Price and reigning honoree Rick Porcello, plus breakout knuckleballer Steven Wright. Boston also filled another significant need by adding setup man Tyler Thornburg in a trade with Milwaukee. Yes, dealing away Moncada could hurt down the road, but his stock had taken a minor hit with his ugly September callup (12 strikeouts in 20 plate appearances). With Pablo Sandoval returning from injury and Dustin Pedroia still considered the heart and soul of the team, finding a lineup spot for Moncada was going to cause other kinds of pain, and Kopech may have wound up a reliever. Even so, the Sox are bursting at the seams with talent and look like a championship club in the making.
Trading outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City to get Davis made sense in that Soler was going to have to battle with Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Jon Jay for playing time in the outfield. In exchange, the champs got a closer who's posted a 1.18 ERA over the last three seasons and won't cost them $80-some million the way their most recent closer (Chapman) would have.
1. Edwin Encarnacion
Going into the off-season, it wasn't unreasonable to think that the slugger would either remain with the Blue Jays (who expressed interest in keeping him) or sign a big deal with one of three teams: the Red Sox (who could have put him at DH to replace the retired David Ortiz or at first base, moving Hanley Ramirez to DH); the Astros (who were aggressively trying to upgrade at several positions); or the Yankees (who were said to have expressed interest). Yet with Toronto signing both Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce, a reunion there is now unlikely. Boston has said that it won't make a long-term, big-dollar commitment at DH, while Houston went with Carlos Beltran on a one-year deal and New York did the same with Matt Holliday. The Rangers, another possible fit, reportedly say they’re unlikely to sign a top free agent, and while the Indians have spoken to Encarnacion, they don't sound likely to break the bank.
Encarnacion has been linked to the Rockies, who would be a longshot after they signed Ian Desmond. Still, Colorado would make sense if the deal carried an early opt-out; Encarnacion would get to hit in a setting where he could maintain his gaudy offensive numbers and the team would not only get a more sensible first baseman than the one they just added but would be able to trade either Charlie Blackmon or Carlos Gonzalez for pitching while letting Desmond stay in the outfield.
(Stronger signals of further activity from the Rockies and a further evaluation of their farm system has led me to exclude them from the loser bracket here; they get an Incomplete).
2. Blue Jays
Yes, they've saved money by not retaining Encarnacion or fellow slugger Jose Bautista, but they've also disappointed their fan base by letting two of the most iconic players in franchise history walk away while thus far making comparatively minor moves in adding Morales and Pearce. If you're using a Justin Smoak-screen as cover for not making a bid to keep Encarnacion, as general manager Ross Atkins (who signed Smoak to a head-scratching extension this summer) did, you're drowning yourself in the shallow end of the pool.
3. Orioles and Jose Bautista
Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette has done very well in turning around a franchise that didn't make a single postseason appearance from 1998 to 2011, shuffling his roster in sometimes mysterious ways while the O's have earned three playoff berths in five years. Still, it's tough to remember a more self-defeating move from a GM than Duquette's declaration that that the team—which could lose AL home run leader Mark Trumbo and others to free agency—would not pursue the 36-year-old Bautista because, in his words, "Jose is a villain in Baltimore and I’m not going to go tell our fans that we’re courting Jose Bautista for the Orioles because they’re not going to be happy.'”
Bautista is a polarizing player—just ask the Rangers and their fans—but he's also an exceptional hitter who would probably put up big numbers in Camden Yards. Yes, he carries risk given his age and recent injury history, plus he'll cost a first-round pick because he's a free agent who received a qualifying offer. Those are all adequate reasons no to sign him, but instead Duquette took the low road and burned a bridge. The former Red Sox GM need only look at the way one-time Boston fan favorites Roger Clemens (whom he infamously buried by declaring that the 34-year-old was in "the twilight of his career") and Johnny Damon won acceptance by fans of the arch-rival Yankees for their roles in helping New York win World Series championships. It turned out to be Red Sox Nation that had the harder time reconciling those moves.
Obviously, this doesn't help Bautista's already murky market, which is being hurt by a combination of the aforementioned factors. Recent talks with the Blue Jays didn't make much progress, and the moves or positions that the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers have taken with respect to Encarancion would appear to apply here as well. Ken Rosenthal suggested that Bautista's destination might be a team with a protected pick, but none of the four AL clubs in that group (Twins, Rays, Athletics and Angels) is an obvious fit. Bautista's landing spot remains a mystery.
GM Brian Cashman had been on a tear since July, restocking the farm system by trading Chapman, Beltran, Andrew Miller and Ivan Nova, then moving Brian McCann in November, with Mark Teixeira coming off the books via retirement and Alex Rodriguez exiting stage left even while being owed another full season’s salary. Nobody is expecting New York to compete in 2017, and one look at the team's rotation against Boston’s only underscores that. So why spring for Chapman, an elite reliever but a ridiculously expensive one whom a sizable portion of the fan base will permanently view with distaste given his 2016 domestic violence suspension?
Yes, the Yankees’ payroll will be clearing up over the next couple of years, as CC Sabathia comes off the books after 2017 and Brett Gardner and Chase Headley after 2018, but New York can't point to Chapman’s salary as an impediment in going big for Harper or Manny Machado after the 2018 season, or any other upcoming blockbuster free agent. They also have a potential albatross on their hands if Chapman’s UCL gives up after years of firing 100+ mph pitches and needs Tommy John surgery; there’s a reason relievers generally don’t get deals of this length. A more sensible and palatable move would have been to trade for Robertson, a longtime Yankee, and flip him to a contender at the deadline assuming he rebuilt some value.
Going into the meetings, a trade of Andrew McCutchen appeared to be an inevitability, and interest in the former NL MVP was heavy. At one point it appeared likely that the Nationals, stung by losing out on Chris Sale, would sharpen their focus to acquire Pittsburgh's centerfielder, and they're said to have offered Giolito, Dunning and a third player according to FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman. That didn't happen, and Washington used those two players to acquire Eaton. Meanwhile, GM Neal Huntington's recent discussions with the Braves, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners and Rangers don't appear to have laid the groundwork for a deal either, and now Huntington has done a 180, saying, "Our intent coming in here was to have Andrew McCutchen in our lineup. No one changed that. It’s unlikely someone changes that going forward." Hmmmm.
In Eaton, Washington got itself a very nice player, one who over his three years with the White Sox was more valuable than any player who spent at least 50% of his time in centerfield aside from Mike Trout and Kevin Kiermaier, and one who's reasonably priced going forward. Even so, the cost in prospects was considerable, and it comes at a time when the Nats could use a PR boost. On the heels of losing in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in five years, and of losing out to the Mets on Yoenis Cespedes for the second time in as many winters, they lost out on Sale and the three big-money closers (though that could be a blessing in disguise).
There's a sense within the industry that their tendency to pad their offers with deferred money, as they did when signing Max Scherzer and retaining Stephen Strasburg, is hampering them. That certainly doesn't bode well for retaining Bryce Harper, about whom an unnamed Nationals executive leaked word that the 2015 NL MVP plans to seek a 10-year deal worth at least $400 million when he reaches free agency two years from now.