To those feeling generous, baseball's offseason is simply a slow burn, building toward a climactic scene, like, say, the 2019 winter meetings, which start Monday in San Diego. And to others, who see the hot stove as a microcosm of the sport's greater issues -- it's ... so ... slow -- this is just another tease, baseball's promise falling short.
With free agency beginning to churn into high gear -- the first nine-figure deal could be coming sooner than later -- and teams that miss out needing fallback options, the trade market is always there. And conversations with more than two dozen executives in recent weeks illustrate a trade market that is filled with available players -- for the right price. The prices have been high, clearly. How exactly they shift will determine whether the winter meetings will indeed be livelier than last year's festival of tedium.
Trade discussions, it should be noted, do not take place strictly at the president/general manager level. Midlevel executives talk. Lower-level executives converse. These parleys are not in and of themselves of great import. Talks are talks, simply the first layer of blocks for deals. But now that those foundations are set, teams know the available player pool and can maneuver in that space.
Because so many names have been bandied about, it's easier to separate them into categories for assessment. Some of the strata are overloaded. Others contain a few names. The first consists of just one.
WE MIGHT TRADE MOOKIE BETTS
Candidate: Mookie Betts, of course
Multiple executives this week said they believe a potential trade involving 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts is unlikely to happen. The Boston Red Sox, who are looking to cut payroll, instead are trying to move salary in the form of a pitcher -- either David Price or Nathan Eovaldi. Which is all well and good, except that to do so, the Red Sox will need to include someone of value.
Because new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom inherited one of the game's worst farm systems, attaching prospects as a sweetener is tricky. Because the Red Sox want to remain competitive, attaching major league players -- outfielder Andrew Benintendi has been a popular ask this offseason -- is likewise difficult.
It's what makes Boston's position so precarious. All of it stems from the desire to sneak under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. Why the Red Sox, who are worth more than $3 billion and have won four championships in the past 16 years, need to practice austerity is a reasonable question. Particularly if it brings them back to dealing Betts.
He is the sort of player the Red Sox would seemingly dream of locking up to a long-term deal: homegrown, supremely skilled, beloved. Problem is, Betts wants to test free agency after this season, and if the Red Sox don't re-sign him, the best they get is a compensatory pick around 80th overall. (Or, if they've exceeded the luxury-tax threshold, closer to the 135th-pick range.)
If the Red Sox were to deal Betts now, not only would they dip below the threshold -- Betts could earn upward of $30 million in arbitration this year -- but the return in prospects would far exceed that of a post-2020 draft pick.
Still, as much sense as that makes in the vacuum in which the Red Sox need to get under the threshold -- they don't need to get under the threshold, whispered the narrator -- Betts is going to serve as a reasonable litmus test for the Red Sox under Bloom. If he is working in a world in which the unspoken-but-kinda-spoken mandate is to sneak under the threshold, he must operate there. If Bloom is operating there and believes it is the clearest and most intelligent way to maneuver the Red Sox back to World Series contention, then he will trade Betts. Simple as that. Feelings cannot get in the way. The Red Sox hired Bloom from Tampa Bay to bring a little of the Rays' calculation to an organization that has been guilty of lapsing into operating on emotion.
WE ARE TRADING SOMEONE
Candidates: Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr.
The Chicago Cubs have been, according to various executives, "aggressive," "manic," "motivated" and "obvious" in their desire to trade someone. Or someones. The Cubs are going to make a move. They're just not sure what yet.
Contreras is the name bandied about the most, partially because at $5 million or so as a first-time arbitration-eligible player, he's cheap and comes with three full years of control. Bryant, who turns 28 in January, is only four months older than Contreras but could cost quadruple the amount as a third-time-eligible player.
Because Bryant is so costly -- and because there's a risk, albeit slight, that an arbitrator could rule in his favor that the Cubs manipulated his service time and award him an extra day of service, giving him free agency after this season -- teams are hesitant on him. And that complicates matters, because a former MVP going on the trade market for a team with aspirations to win in 2020 is as weird as it sounds. It's simply the calculus these days, in which the balance between now and next is ever harder to strike.
It's why Rizzo's name comes up in discussions. He seems untradable. The likelihood of the Cubs moving him certainly is lower than the others. But even he could move in this climate.
The Cubs know they need to be creative. They also know the first move they make is perhaps the most important and will set the tone for their winter.
WE ARE PROBABLY NOT TRADING NOLAN ARENADO ... BUT SHOULD WE?
Candidate: Nolan Arenado
Multiple teams have approached the Colorado Rockies expressing interest in their star third baseman, according to club sources. While those conversations went nowhere, they at least raise a decent question for the Rockies to ask themselves: Why don't we move him?
Now some context. Less than a year ago, the Rockies signed Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million deal. It dwarfed their previous biggest deal, Troy Tulowitzki's, by more than $100 million. It was one of the biggest contracts in the sport's history.
It also included an opt-out clause after the third year. And while it's too early to say whether Arenado would really leave five years and $164 million on the table, it's at least a distinct enough possibility that if you're the Rockies, you must consider it. The issue, of course, is that the acquiring team would be dealing with the same concern and would price the risk of the opt-out into what it would pay in trade capital. And the Rockies aren't simply going to part with Arenado for payroll flexibility -- unless ...
WE DON'T HAVE TO TRADE HIM BUT THE CLOCK IS TICKING
Candidates: Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien
These are three players in similar circumstances with teams facing distinctly different potential outcomes.
Lindor, multiple executives said, "is going to get traded." They're not sure if it's this winter or next summer, but considering how disciplined the Indians are, they want to maximize Lindor's value, and doing so means trading him before the July 31 deadline. Maybe if Cleveland is excellent, it's a different story, but executives who covet Lindor believe it's the logical outcome, because the Indians don't want to find themselves in a similar situation as Boston, with Betts' value diminished because he's so close to free agency.
Story is part of the ridiculous shortstop class of 2021, along with Lindor, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager. The notion of the Rockies carrying two $30 million-plus players simultaneously is laughable. And if they're stuck right now without any additional payroll, as they've suggested to other teams, and spend 2020 hamstrung by the disastrous 2018 offseason -- in which they guaranteed $106 million to Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, who have combined for 327 innings of 5.69 ERA ball -- then that puts the onus on them to act decisively now, when they have at least some control over how to dictate their future. Because the true mess, in which the Rockies hold on to Arenado and Story through 2021 and both leave via free agency, cannot happen. Inaction, in this case, is inviting disaster.
Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting this year, is set to be a free agent after next season. His case is slightly different from Lindor's and Story's in that he reached stardom the year before free agency. The clear answer for Oakland is to extend Semien, though doing so after a career year is always tricky. At the same time, trading him now (or in July) probably won't bring a huge bounty. Holding on to him to win again next year is palatable ... until Semien signs elsewhere and all the A's have to show for it is a compensation pick in the 80s. (In 2020, they are fully market disqualified, according to the collective bargaining agreement, which means they no longer will receive revenue sharing.)
WE DON'T HAVE TO TRADE HIM BUT WE'D BE DUMB NOT TO LISTEN
Candidates: Whit Merrifield, Mitch Haniger, Andrew Benintendi, Noah Syndergaard, Matthew Boyd, Tommy Pham
All of the above have generated various levels of interest. Merrifield is the only one under a long-term contract. He also turns 31 in January, and considering where the Royals are in the rebuilding process -- they're not spending this winter and, best-case scenario, graduate some pitching this season and start trying to win in 2021 -- dealing Merrifield before his decline begins and extracting value out of his cheap contract (three years at $15.25 million guaranteed with a 2023 option for another $5.75 million) makes too much sense not to explore. If Merrifield's former teammate Mike Moustakas is getting $64 million to play second base for four years in Cincinnati, teams are going to see Merrifield at $21 million over four years in an even better light.
The remainder of the players are under control for two (Syndergaard and Pham) or three (Haniger, Benintendi and Boyd) more seasons. The Mariners have said they'd like to hold on to Haniger. The Red Sox aren't budging on Benintendi. Syndergaard is the ur-candidate but is seen by executives as more of a July target. Boyd is often mentioned, never moved. And it would be nice to see Pham not part of the Rays' revolving door.
WE'VE DISCUSSED PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE, SO MIGHT AS WELL
Candidates: Josh Hader and just about any Brewer who isn'tChristian Yelich
For more than a month, as Ken Rosenthal said Monday, the Milwaukee Brewers have told opposing teams they're open to trading super reliever Josh Hader. Their penchant for creativity -- or at least a willingness to discuss anyone not named Yelich -- extended even to center fielder Lorenzo Cain, according to sources. With three years and $51 million remaining on his contract, Cain is the Brewers' biggest financial liability. Ryan Braun's deal is up after next season. Yelich has three more years remaining, including a 2022 option. And with the trade of Zach Davies and nontenders of Travis Shaw, Junior Guerra, Jimmy Nelson, Alex Claudio and Tyler Saladino, the Brewers slashed more than $20 million from their payroll.
Perhaps that keeps Cain and Hader in Milwaukee, though it's worth noting that multiple arbitration experts believe Hader will command significantly more in the arbitration process than the $4.5 million MLB Trade Rumors estimates him to earn. Hader, 25, has been arguably the best reliever in baseball over the past 2 years, though his 15 home runs allowed has given a number of teams pause.
WE ARE TALKING ABOUT HIM A LOT
Candidates: Danny Duffy, Starling Marte, Robbie Ray, Joc Pederson, Miguel Andujar, Corey Kluber
These are the guys who come up in conversation often, for varying reasons. Kansas City wants to take advantage of a pricey free-agent market and parlay Duffy and the remaining two years and $30.75 million on his deal into something. Ditto Marte: He plays a premium position in center field, one without much representation in free agency, and Pittsburgh is in pure talent-gathering mode.
Arizona could keep Ray, who's in his walk year, but if second-tier free-agent pitchers like Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner are getting $100 million, a motivated, (relatively) cheap pitcher such as Ray is quite the bet to make for a season around $10 million. Pederson and Andujar are on the permanent perpetually discussed list, each more a victim of his surroundings -- and teams' skill at acquiring depth -- than anything that has to do with either.
Multiple executives said the Indians have shown more interest in finding out what they could get for Kluber than Lindor. The Indians are notorious for dangling pitching -- last spring they were talking about dealing Kluber, Trevor Bauer or Shane Bieber -- so until there's further movement, file it away as more tire-kicking.
WE'D LIKE TO GET RID OF THIS CONTRACT, PLEASE
Candidates: Josh Reddick (one year, $13 million), Shin-Soo Choo (one year, $21 million), Kevin Kiermaier (three years, $36 million), Kyle Seager (two years, $37 million), Nathan Eovaldi (three years, $51 million), Dee Gordon (two years, $28.5 million), Jeff Samardzija (one year, $18 million), Johnny Cueto (two years, $47 million)
Pretty self-explanatory. All of them are going to need some sort of hefty inducement, whether it's the original team eating a massive chunk of cash or sending along some prospect capital -- or both. Of all the players on the list, these might be the least likely to move.
WE THINK OTHERS SEE HIM AS A NICE CHANGE-OF-SCENERY BET
Candidates: Nomar Mazara, Gregory Polanco, Edwin Diaz, Clint Frazier
Before exploring the above, some other names in trade talks who didn't fit into a particular category: outfielder Jake Marisnick (especially if the Astros are trying to save money), catcher Omar Narvaez, every Baltimore Oriole (but particularly Dylan Bundy, Mychal Givens, Hanser Alberto or perhaps even Trey Mancini). Mike Minor isn't out there yet but could be if the Rangers add a free-agent starter.
Mazara is still only 24, and in the Rangers' quest to get more right-handed, he could be the one to go, mainly because he's likeliest to bring back the best return. Polanco is in the final two years of a five-year, $35 million deal that has even been good enough to warrant the Pirates picking up two option years at $12.5 million and $13.5 million in 2022-23. At more than $20 million the next two years, Polanco would warrant a pay-down too.
Diaz and Frazier are the in-the-moment get-'em-out-of-New York-and-see-what-they-can-do poster children. Diaz was arguably the best reliever in baseball in 2018 and couldn't get anyone out after he went to the Mets. They want to upgrade in center field, maybe upgrade at catcher, though to do so takes talent and/or money. The Mets are loath to give up either. Frazier was hitting for the Yankees and then got sent down and didn't get many reps when he returned to the big leagues. Neither is seen as likely to move.
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