ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s been a quiet offseason on the player movement front. Not much happened at the General Manager meetings here beyond the hiring of ex-Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos as the Braves’ new general manager being finalized and Ryon Healy being dealt from the Oakland Athletics to the in-division Seattle Mariners, meaning just about everything is still to come.
The reasons for the slow start to the winter are myriad, from the complications involving the posting system that affects the world’s most unique talent, Shohei Otani, and his desire to play in MLB next season, to the possibility that a few or more big-market teams are waiting on the possible trade of baseball’s biggest contract and one of its biggest stars in Giancarlo Stanton, to possible sticker shock involving some major stars and key bullpen pieces, to all the coaching/managerial/GM (the Braves) movement — which still isn’t quite done — with the Yankees holding one of the most unusual skipper searches for baseball’s most marquee franchise.
Let’s tackle the big questions that remain, which is just about all of them.
1. Will Otani be posted and become a Yankee, like many are now figuring?
This is a unique case involving a unique talent, but many Yankee competitors are now viewing them as the supreme favorite to land international sensation Otani.
It’s funny, when a player has real free agency, teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have a built-in advantage due to their great revenues and wherewithal. But this is a rare case that is not mostly about money; the current CBA would seem to limit the payout to the international signing bonus a team has left, with the Rangers having the most at $3.5 million and the Yankees next-most at $3.25 million (though the players union, which has yet to approve the new posting system, is still looking to enhance his finances in a potential deal).
It’s mostly about the feelings of Otani. He is just a kid – he’s only 23, two years from being allowed by the CBA from acquiring full free agency – he’s thousands of miles away and there’s a language gap, so no one knows for sure. But one thing seems clear: He is determined to come to MLB to play against the best and to show he’s not only an elite pitcher but also an elite hitter.
Although every team would happily sign him up for whatever’s left in their bonus money, and no one’s quite conceding, the guess of many seems to be that the Yankees hold some major advantages, beyond that minor monetary edge that represents peanuts in the real value of this amazing talent. While Otani wants to play right field and pitch, an American League team, where the DH is a possibility, is seen as having an advantage because it brings the chance to hit as well as pitch.
The other, even bigger, advantage, the Yankees are thought to have is that, well, they are the Yankees, a major, worldwide brand, which brings extra exposure and more earning potential (though Otani hasn’t shown any real interest in money to this point; if he did he’d just wait the two years).
Japanese players are seen as preferring either the Yankees or Dodgers due to the prestige of the league’s respective marquee franchises, and it is no surprise that those two teams have had the most success with Japanese players (the Yankees have had Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka, and the Dodgers Hideo Nomo and Kenta Maeda), which provides some positive history. And in this case, where the player very likely will be signing for something well below his market value, there is an expectation that marketing opportunities will come into play.
“The Yankees are the favorite, there’s no other way to look at it,” one National League executive said.
That seems to be a widely-held belief. But until the rules are in place – “we are still a long way from that,” says one player-connected source – just about every team will be in there pitching. Teams are doing what they can. The Mariners, who have had their own success with a Japanese star, Ichiro Suzuki (who will become the first Japanese League player to make the Hall of Fame), are enlisting Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. for the recruitment process. And, unlike with true free agents whose contracts aren’t capped, teams are free to heap praise on Otani, which by all accounts is deserved.
He seems almost mythical in the comments. “He’s like Sidd Finch,” one GM said. “There is nothing he can’t do.”
The one thing it looks like he won’t be doing is being paid like the All-Star most think he is. Scott Boras, who does not represent Otani (CAA does), said, “The system is patently unfair to the Japanese standard of play. We have All-Star players coming who will be making the pay of someone in Rookie ball.”
Some teams may not think it fair that the Yankees seemingly hold an advantage, too, though no one has expressed any outrage along those lines yet. But while everyone wants him, and many think the Yankees ultimately will get him, we are still not to the finish line. While his Japanese team — the Nippon Ham Fighters — has announced its intention to post him (and receive the $20 million posting fee that team and MLB have agreed to), the reality is that the players union has wisely retained the right to have a say in what happens, and it is said to have “three or four” issues with how things look like they are being done, not the least of which is the inequity of a system where the team will get $20 million and the unique talent will receive a small fraction of that.
Some people on that side believe the team should get only 15 percent of the player’s take – or more favorably, Otani should get the full free agency usually associated with that rather-high $20-million fee – though they are thought to be seeking some sort of compromise solution.
Folks on all sides are figuring this will get done, but there’s little question that this is a real hurdle – at least at the moment. The other issue is that smaller-market teams may easily be concerned that the Yankees, baseball’s richest team, will very likely be cashing what looks like a lottery ticket – a $300-million talent for little more than $3 million. At least when the Yankees won a bidding war, they had to bear the cost financially. In this case, they may be getting an all-time great talent for the price of a utility-man, while enabling them to get under the $197 million salary tax threshold that has been their biggest goal.
2. Will Giancarlo Stanton be traded, and where will he go?
The Giants and Cardinals are seen as the most aggressive long-time (at least since summer) pursuers of Stanton — and are also seen as having a realistic chance to land him. No one should forget that his record $325 million deal contains a complete no-trade clause, which gives him almost all the power.
While Justin Verlander’s full no-trade didn’t ultimately provide that kind of authority (he was forced, with two seconds to go, to choose between his rebuilding-but-beloved Tigers and the Astros, which wasn’t originally among his top two choices), Stanton has time on his side: He has 10 years to go on his deal, so technically he could hold up any deal until he got to one of his top one or two choices.
Stanton, of course, has suggested no appetite for a Marlins rebuild in his interview with FanRag Sports, so we know he’s tired of that plight and wants to win. But the belief of people around the team has been that he would prefer to be on one or the other coast, with the West Coast the perceived first choice, which could give the big-market, big-monied Giants (and certainly his hometown Dodgers, if they seriously got involved) a major advantage.
The Giants were pretty terrible last year, but they seem committed to getting back on their usual track this year, so that may not be a difficult sell. And of course the Dodgers – Stanton is from the Valley and starred at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High – would surely be the top choice, if they truly got involved. For now, people familiar with the situation suggest their first brief conversation regarding Stanton was mostly a matter of due diligence. The Dodgers have done a nice job paring their payroll from close to $300 million to somewhat below $250 million and have suggested an intention to go lower, but Stanton could potentially provide a temptation that’s tough to resist.
The Yankees, Red Sox and three other mystery teams also have had brief talks with the Marlins, but the seriousness of their interest isn’t known at this point. The Cardinals have the best prospects from a pitching standpoint (and are likely the preferred trading partner of the Marlins), the Giants have a “bottom five” organization for prospects (but probably could swing a deal by giving up their best guys and offering to offset more of the $295 million to go) and the Dodgers surely have what it takes to get a deal done. While the long-guessed swap of Yasiel Puig (he lives in Miami) seems like a long shot – Marlins manager Don Mattingly lost patience with the kid-like Puig when Mattingly was in L.A.—they have other nice prospects who could form a reasonable deal if they are really interested.
People around the team say there have been a lot of talks with St. Louis, but there’s an uncertainty whether Stanton would approve the Midwest (he hasn’t said one way or the other). The Phillies, who are also in a rebuild, are seen as a likely “no” for Stanton, while the Red Sox and Yankees are maybes. Boston is expected to do something big, but sources are suggesting for now that J.D. Martinez, Carlos Santana or possibly Eric Hosmer are more realistic than Boston adding another $200 million-plus man (they already have David Price).
The Marlins, meanwhile, almost surely need to do something with Stanton. They want to pare $25 million from their 2017 player payroll, (from $115 million to $90 million or so), which coincidentally happens to be Stanton’s 2018 salary, and with natural raises adding another $15 million or more to Miami’s payroll, it’s pretty clear the Marlins can’t get where they need to go without trading their marquee man. So he will almost surely go somewhere. But where? When you’re talking about a player of this talent, there’s always the potential of a mystery team coming out of the woodwork. But for now, the Giants or the Cardinals look like the favorites.
3. Who will get the biggest deal this winter?
There doesn’t seem to be consensus over this, with some going with J.D. Martinez, others with Eric Hosmer and still others with Yu Darvish. The guess here remains Hosmer.
While agent Scott Boras has bestowed the “King Kong” nickname on Martinez (and there are reports of a $200 million asking price, or even $210 million) and the talent of Darvish is incredible, the guess here remains Hosmer, an all-around player who won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove award this year. This is not an obvious choice, as he is more polarizing as a player than you might think (as a personality, he is beloved).
The issue is that his defensive metrics have been below-average in recent years, and were even so this year when he still won the top fielding award. Defensive metrics are far from perfect, but Hosmer’s marks are bad enough that some believe it will still scare off some analytics-heavy teams. The Royals, his only team, love him, and are open about saying that metrics don’t come close to doing him justice. While Hosmer’s range may be average, even Royals GM Dayton Moore will wax poetic on everything Hosmer does great that aren’t captured in the defensive number.
“He helps shut down the running game, and no one has a better feel on the 3-1 play,” said Moore, who will actually pull out pen and paper to cite seven things Hosmer does well defensively, if asked.
The Royals have spoken extensively with Hosmer’s agent Boras (they even made an offer in spring training) but don’t seem overly optimistic they can keep the player they most covet. Someone with the Royals said that if Hosmer gets what we predicted here ($160 million), he’d likely be playing elsewhere. But K.C. has surprised us before (like when they re-signed another home-grown star Alex Gordon).
The small-market Padres were revealed by Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network and The Athletic to be one surprising, interested party; they are a team that favors scouting over sabermetrics, and would love a “winner” to show their kids how to get there, as Hosmer did with the Royals. The Red Sox look like a possibility – “he’d pepper that left-field wall,” says a rival GM—and like eight (nine before Seattle’s trade for Healy) other teams, they just so happen to have an opening at first base.
Eventually, Hosmer will probably beat Darvish (the saber guys aren’t concerned about his World Series flop, though others may be), and Martinez (while that .690 slugging percentage is the best since Bonds, he doesn’t bring the all-around skill set of Hosmer). If anything, we may have been a little light here. While Jason Heyward was more of a darling of the saber set, his $184 million, eight-year deal may be a decent comp for an all-around player.
4. What’s the rest of the first base market look like?
It’s pretty amazing. Hosmer is clearly the leader, but Carlos Santana looks like he’ll be in line for a big deal, and several others appear to be in decent shape to land big-league deals only a year from a first base disaster in free agency.
As many as nine teams are looking seriously at the first base market, with the Mets, Angels, Phillies and Cardinals joining the more obvious Royals, Rays, Rockies, Rangers and Indians, while the Mariners just took care of their need. This should provide plenty of room for deals for the next-tier free agents, starting with Logan Morrison, whose big year in Tampa will be turned into fairly big dollars, and some other power guys such as Mark Reynolds, Lucas Duda, Mitch Moreland, Yonder Alonso, Mike Napoli and one or two others.
What’s helped here is that the Angels remain less-than-sold on C.J. Cron, the Mets weren’t overwhelmed by the first foray in the majors by Dominic Smith and the Phillies seem to like the idea of keeping Rhys Hoskins in left field.
Santana is truly a terrific player – consistent, durable and versatile – so perhaps his popularity shouldn’t be such a surprise. The others are more power guys, but in this day and age, it’s nice to have a 30-homer hitter at the position, and Duda, Reynolds and Napoli were all right there this past season. Angels GM Billy Eppler called it a game of “musical chairs,” and that’s just about right. It looks like there will be close to an equal number of players and landing spots – but things can change in a hurry. The Rockies could use Ian Desmond at first base, which was their original intent, and one or two more surprise moves like that could change the equation.
5. Which market may be most interesting in free agency?
The relief market is very intriguing, with Wade Davis at the top, and Greg Holland very close to him, but also several very fine pitchers who could fill key set-up roles in line for some very nice paydays.
“The relief pitchers are going to get big deals,” one AL GM said.
Davis and Holland, two of baseball’s most accomplished closers, will break a couple banks, of course. But beyond them, with the importance of bullpens and the advent of “bullpenning,” relievers are no longer seen as equals to bench players or backups. Left-handers Mike Minor and Tony Watson, plus righties Brandon Morrow, Addison Reed, Brandon Kintzler, Pat Neshek, Bryan Shaw, Anthony Swarzak, Steve Cishek and Juan Nicasio all should cash in big-time.
Take Shaw, who’s almost anonymous in the Indians vaunted bullpen. While he may not be well-known, people around the game get his value. In fact, he’s the only reliever with 70-plus appearances and 20-plus holds the past two years, and he’s actually done it four straight years. He and the others also are blessed by a great sense of timing.
6. What’s the most interesting trade market?
The second-base market looks pretty stellar, with Ian Kinsler, Dee Gordon, Jason Kipnis, Cesar Hernandez and Brian Dozier all having some degree of availability. They bring something for everyone. There’s Gordon, a prototypical leadoff hitter with three years to go; Kinsler, an all-around guy with a year to go; and Dozier, a power-and-glove man with a year to go.
While trading was tough a year ago (the Twins heard nothing to their liking for the excellent Dozier), several teams are openly looking for a second baseman, including some big-market clubs. The Angels, Mets and Blue Jays all are dabbling in that market, while the Brewers are yet another team that could consider looking around.
7. Who will the Yankees hire for manager?
They appear to have five serious names in play so far: Rob Thomson, Hensley Meulens, Aaron Boone, Eric Wedge and Chris Woodward, with maybe one or two more to come (maybe).
Some out here could hardly believe the Yankees ousted the accomplished Joe Girardi to take a chance on a relative neophyte (all but Wedge have limited or no managerial experience among this quintet). And some are thankful.
“I’m just glad (Girardi) is out of our division,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
Girardi was seen as prepared, knowledgeable and obviously experienced. But teams – and obviously the Yankees – are looking for something different now. They are looking for the ability to “connect,” and Yankees GM Brian Cashman believed that while Girardi was connecting with the clubhouse in the early years, that had been lost somewhere along the way (Yankees people appear to have been wondering about this for as many as “three or four” years). Apparently, there was enough intelligence out of the clubhouse to make the decision easy for Cashman, though none of this discontent ever came to the fore.
It is believable, however, as Girardi wasn’t exactly Mr. Personality. This has always been the case of course, but with the front offices gaining more strategic control, the clubhouse connection has gained in importance. So the Yankees have five – it may be a final five (Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested it’s getting close to the end) – that have almost no strategic track record whatsoever. This has been a trend in recent years.
But it’s still a little weird to see the team of Miller Huggins, Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, and yes, even Girardi – go for the unknown.
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