Hot Stove season kicked off early this time around, with Justin Upton inking a five-year, $106 million extension with the Angels less than 24 hours after the final pitch of the World Series was thrown. Since then, we’ve had a ton of option decisions (most notably Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanaka staying with the Giants and Yankees, respectively) and the deadline to extend qualifying offers. Now comes the fun part.
Free agency is officially underway and the Winter Meetings will hit Orlando in just about a month. It’s time to run down the 10 biggest storylines we’ll be monitoring until Opening Day.
Where will Giancarlo Stanton play next season?
This is unquestionably the biggest question in the world of baseball this winter and will continue to be until there’s a resolution. With Derek Jeter now running things, the Marlins are expected to make major deals and will be aggressive in shopping Stanton, their most valuable asset.
Trade talks involving Stanton will be complicated due to his contract, which not only calls for him to be paid $295 million over the next 10 years but also includes an opt-out clause after 2020 and a full no-trade clause. This means that coming to terms on a deal with Miami for Stanton: a) is extremely expensive, b) guarantees only three years of his services and leaves a club vulnerable to a massive albatross of a contract if he underperforms and does not opt out after 2020 and c) does not even necessarily mean you will actually get him because of his full trade veto power.
A Stanton deal will take a ton of work from the Marlins, the acquiring club and the player himself, so it seems like the type of thing that will heat up around the Winter Meetings next month. Miami will have to toe the ever-difficult line of deciding whether to prioritize prospect value or salary relief in potential return packages.
Only a few clubs have will have both the financial ability to make a deal and a situation attractive enough to Stanton to make him waive his no-trade clause. The field here is extremely limited, with the early favorites being San Francisco, St. Louis and maybe Philadelphia.
Who will win the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes?
While the field for Giancarlo Stanton is limited to a few clubs, the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes are wide open. The 23-year-old Japanese phenom will officially be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters and is seen as very likely to be playing in the majors next season.
Because Ohtani is younger than 25, he’s subject to international signing rules and won’t be getting a huge deal like we’ve seen for Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka in recent years. Each team has a different amount they can offer him based on what they’ve already spent internationally this year, with the Rangers leading the pack by being able to offer $3.535 million and only six teams in total being able to offer at least $1 million.
Translation: money will play a very small role in Ohtani’s free agent decision. This will create a scenario unlike anything we’ve ever seen in baseball, where teams must woo a top free agent based completely on non-financial factors like location, competitiveness, opportunity and culture.
Don’t be fooled by rare cases like Kenley Jansen taking a hometown discount to stay with the Dodgers a year ago. Money almost always wins out in free agency (see Price, David in the worst fit imaginable). For once, we’ll see college-type recruiting (correction: non-Louisville college-type recruiting) in Major League Baseball, and that’s something to sit back and enjoy.
How will Scott Boras control free agency?
Scott Boras is already known as the most powerful agent in the game, and he’s unquestionably the most influential figure in free agency this winter. Boras represents five of the top 10 or so free agents on the market: J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland.
That means he has the arguably the top three offensive players, one of the top two starters and one of the top two closers available this year. A very impressive group, as we’ve come to expect from Boras and his team.
Boras is known to let the free-agent process play out at its own pace, so he won’t be rushing to get deals done for his top guys. Prince Fielder and Max Scherzer come to mind as recent big-time January signings under Boras’ watch, and there are plenty more examples. It would count as an upset if two or three of Boras’ guys had deals done before the Winter Meetings.
The interesting piece here is how Boras will use overlapping markets to his advantage. While Martinez and Hosmer, for example, play different positions, offense-starved clubs will make efforts for both of them and Boras will have to find each the best fit while having complete knowledge of the other’s market. An interesting spot to be in, but not one that will be foreign or too treacherous for the game’s best agent.
Lots of top Boras free agents means lots of Boras hyperbole in the media. And look at that, he’s not wasting any time.
Scott Boras on J.D. Martinez: “High atop the MLB Empire rests the King Kong of Slug — a 50-point lead.” Boras said Martinez’s pace with DBacks would project to 70 HR and .741 SLG over 150-game season. Boras: “That’s how dominant J.D. Kong is.” @MLB— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 10, 2017
How drastically different will the Royals look in April?
Royals fans have been dreading this winter for years, as the core of the club was destined to be broken up after a fantastic run. A year ago, general manager Dayton Moore was faced with the reality that Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Wade Davis, Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas would all have their contracts expire at the same time. Not ideal.
Since then, the club extended Duffy for five years and traded Davis to the Cubs, leaving Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Escobar and Vargas as free agents along with Mike Minor, Peter Moylan and trade deadline additions Melky Cabrera and Trevor Cahill. That’s nine free agents for Kansas City, including five players (Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas, Minor and Vargas) who combined for 14.1 fWAR in 2017.
The early priority for Moore will be to try to re-sign Hosmer, though he’ll surely get major offers elsewhere and is seen as a potential fit for both the Red Sox and Yankees. Moustakas and Cain seem likely to head elsewhere, considering the money it would require to re-sign Hosmer.
Don’t count the Royals out on any of these players; just two years ago almost no one expected them to re-sign Alex Gordon at the beginning of the winter. But the reality this time around is that it’s impossible for everyone to be back, so the club will surely look much different come April after deciding to buy at the trade deadline instead of selling.
Where will the top aces end up?
With controllable starters Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray and Justin Verlander all being traded within the last year, the emphasis now shifts back to free agency as a critical way to acquire top starting pitching. That surge in the trade market was largely due to last year’s weak free-agent class in which only six starters (Rich Hill, Ivan Nova, Travis Wood, Edinson Volquez, Charlie Morton and Jason Hammel) received multi-year deals and no deal eclipsed $50 million.
It’s a bit different this time around in a class headlined by Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, who will almost assuredly both eclipse $100 million on multi-year deals. There’s actually a strong second tier as well in this class. A breakdown:
Tier One: Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta
Tier Two: Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb
Tier Three: Andrew Cashner, Tyler Chatwood, CC Sabathia, Jaime Garcia, others
Darvish and Arrieta are considered unlikely to go back to the Dodgers and Cubs, respectively, meaning those clubs will be likely to make a play for someone like Cobb, who has familiarity with decision-makers in both organizations from his time in Tampa Bay. The top two starters may very well find themselves drawing big interest from the parties you’d expect (the Yankees, Angels and Rangers come to mind) but very well could also end up in places you wouldn’t.
Knowing that big-payroll teams will be wary of paying up for free agents now when the best free agent class ever is coming down the pike in a year, clubs like the Twins, Brewers, Braves, Phillies and Rockies may very well get involved. Minnesota and Milwaukee have already been linked to top starters after surprisingly good seasons in 2017.
What will the Braves do this winter?
Atlanta improved by four games in 2017 and still has one of the best farm systems in the game. With Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte already locked up long-term and young players like Ozzie Albies and Sean Newcomb making an impact in the majors, the Braves seemed poised to be a big spender this winter in free agency.
Those plans were halted, at least temporarily, with the revelation that the club was being investigated by the league for a variety of alleged infractions. This led to the resignation of general manager John Coppolella, who was in charge of club’s rebuilding process.
As of mid-November, the investigation is still ongoing and the club has not named a replacement for Coppolella. John Hart is running the team’s baseball operations, though some question whether he will survive the investigation himself. Potential candidates are surely wary about taking over an organization that could face penalties as harsh as having top prospects like Kevin Maitan declared free agents.
Atlanta will head to the Winter Meetings in a month with a key baseball decision-maker having been in his current role for much less than a month. This, one would surmise, makes the Braves a bit less likely to make a major play for someone like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish-- especially in the event Hart leaves the organization.
Will the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen?
The smart money at last year’s Winter Meetings was on McCutchen being as good as gone by the end of the week. The Nationals, Mariners, Rangers and Dodgers were all reported to be interested and there appeared to be momentum toward a deal.
Pittsburgh ended up holding onto their franchise face as the Nats addressed their center-field need with Adam Eaton, and then contended enough in 2017 to hold onto him again at the deadline. With Cutch a year away from free agency, it appears more likely than ever that the Bucs will seriously entertain offers for him before Opening Day.
Teams looking for an immediate outfield upgrade will find McCutchen and his one-year, $14.75 million commitment much more palatable than shelling out multi-year deals to J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, Jay Bruce or Carlos Gomez. McCutchen’s strong bounce-back year in 2017 gives the Pirates a valuable trade chip if they finally decide to go all-in on a sale after dabbling in both buying and selling in trades over the last two years.
McCutchen won’t be the only Pirate discussed this winter; many teams will likely try to buy low on Gerrit Cole after the worst season of his young career. Cole is controllable for two more seasons.
How will the relief market shake out?
It’ll be hard for any free-agent relief market to be as strong as last year’s group of Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon, but this year’s group isn’t bad. Wade Davis and Greg Holland are two excellent back-end bullpen options and are expected to get four-year deals.
The main suitors for Davis and Holland should be contenders, especially at a time when there is more value than ever being placed on relievers. The Cubs and Astros will likely be aggressive in their search, with clubs like the Cardinals and Rockies also considered possible suitors.
The top reliever on the trade market will once again be Zach Britton, who was thought to be likely to go to Houston at the deadline before the trade fell apart at the last minute. The Orioles have said they will once again try to contend in 2018, but could entertain offers for Britton, who once again should be a hot commodity.
There are good free agents not named Davis or Holland available too; Addison Reed, Pat Neshek, Brandon Morrow, Mike Minor and Bryan Shaw will be attractive to clubs as well.
Will Manny Machado and/or Josh Donaldson hit the trade market?
There are 28 teams out there hoping two AL East teams, the Orioles and Blue Jays, will stop being stubborn. Neither team is likely to seriously contend in 2018 with the Red Sox and Yankees being the clear favorites, but both clubs have stated they’re going to go for it once again.
Both clubs have the option to change course this winter and cash in on two of the best trade chips in all of baseball. With Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson both a year away from free agency, it may be time for the O’s and Jays to consider making major moves.
If either club decides to shop their third baseman, almost every contender will be interested. The Cardinals and Giants, the favorites for Giancarlo Stanton, would be likely to get involved for Machado or Donaldson, and they’d have a ton of company.
As much as both Baltimore and Toronto will publicly deny the possibility of shopping Machado and Donaldson, they’ll be listening. And if an offer comes along that they can’t refuse, they’d be stupid not to take it.
How will next winter affect this one?
The most important thing to remember about this offseason is that it’s simply an appetizer for the most insane hot stove season ever a year from now. Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish and Giancarlo Stanton are great pieces. But they’re hors d’oeuvre compared to a free-agent class that includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel, Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel next year.
So think of everything that happens in the context of what we’re expecting in 2018-19. Teams may not spend huge on guys like Hosmer or Martinez because they’re saving up for major pieces next year, or they may trade guys you wouldn’t expect this offseason to make room for potential future additions. Yes, the 2018 season is important... but everyone’s taking a long-term view and knows the balance of power in baseball will be completely different come April 2019.
This year’s Winter Meetings are at Walt Disney World, which is just about the pinnacle of places to go if you’re a kid. In a year they’re in Vegas, which is just about the equivalent of Disney World for adults.
Totally different world. Fitting, really.