Major League Baseball’s winter market has finally reached the place that a lot of agents have waited for, through the sluggish days of November and early December. Shohei Ohtani’s future is settled, and the many teams that failed to land him must now shake themselves out of their dream state. The Miami Marlins have concluded one of the greatest salary dumps in professional sports history, moving Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees.
Ohtani and Stanton were considered to be the most coveted market alternatives among starting pitchers and hitters, respectively, and now that they are off the board, other players slide upward, into focus.
With that in mind, and with the winter meetings beginning today in Orlando, Florida, a list of some of the most pressing points of business in the market:
San Francisco Giants: power hitter. Stanton would have solved their desperate need for home runs, and because he’s an effective defensive outfielder, he would’ve help address the Giants’ other priority this winter: run prevention. But Stanton wouldn’t accept a deal to San Francisco, and that leaves the Giants in a situation in which they might have to make stark choices about whether to focus on adding power or defense.
If they prioritize home runs, then free agent J.D. Martinez would be the natural fit, coming off a season in which he was one of baseball’s best sluggers. They could play him in left field or right and he would upgrade their offense, unquestionably, hitting behind Buster Posey in the Giants’ lineup. But Martinez’s defensive metrics were not good last year, and given that he’s 30 now, that probably isn’t going to change. If the Giants sign Martinez, they would have to get comfortable with his inevitable defensive regression over his time in San Francisco.
If the Giants focus on defense, then Lorenzo Cain would probably be the better alternative. He could play center field, enabling a shift of Denard Span to left field. But Cain is not a premier power hitter, and the Giants would have to hope they could generate homers elsewhere (perhaps with an investment of Mike Moustakas at third base).
The Giants have a lot of financial commitments and have luxury tax concerns, but the fact that they were willing to take Stanton’s contract is a sign that San Francisco’s ownership -- a wildly successful group that just finished paying off its privately funded ballpark, and stands to make a lot of money in real estate development around AT&T Park -- is less concerned about its payroll cost. Rather, the Giants want to do what it takes to win and compete with the Dodgers again, after their disastrous 2017 season.
It’s easier for the Giants to add through free agency than through trade, given the industry perception that San Francisco’s minor league system is thin in prospects. The Giants could try to move on the Marlins’ Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna, but they probably would be at a disadvantage to a team like St. Louis in what they could offer.
St. Louis Cardinals: middle-of-the-order masher. If Stanton didn’t have a no-trade clause, then he probably would be hitting third or fourth in the St. Louis lineup in 2018, given the Cardinals' level of aggressiveness in talks with the Marlins. But Stanton didn’t want to go to the Cardinals, and so St. Louis must shift in other directions.
The Cardinals already planned to move Dexter Fowler to a corner spot in the outfield, with Tommy Pham taking over center field. They have picked up the threads of the conversations they’ve had with the Marlins about Stanton and can apply that knowledge to talks about Miami’s two other veteran outfielders, Yelich and Ozuna; either would bolster the St. Louis offense.
In recent seasons, the Cardinals have been an island of misfit toys, with a mix of players sometimes out of position. John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, seems intent on cleaning that up this winter.
Boston Red Sox: middle-of-the-order masher. After trades for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale, Boston’s farm system doesn’t have a lot of marketable alternatives, in the eyes of rival evaluators. But the Red Sox have money, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has acknowledged a willingness to spend.
Former Indians first baseman Carlos Santana probably won’t be as expensive as Eric Hosmer, but his inconsistency and price tag might scare the Red Sox away. Agent Scott Boras wants big money for Hosmer and J.D. Martinez -- maybe too much for the Red Sox, at least at the beginning of the offseason. But the Yankees have a funny way of pushing the Red Sox and vice versa, and with the Yankees now poised to run out a modern-day murderers’ row of Aaron Judge, Stanton, Gary Sanchez and others, Boston might feel pressure to spend more.
Colorado Rockies: closer. The presence and work of Greg Holland completely altered the Rockies’ pitching staff in 2017, and Colorado reached the postseason for the first time in a decade. The Rockies could re-sign Holland, but if they don’t, it figures they will try to get an established closer -- someone like Wade Davis, perhaps.
Chicago Cubs: starting pitcher. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are gone, and now that the Cubs know they aren’t getting Shohei Ohtani, their focus seems to be turning to one of the most coveted starting pitchers in the market, Alex Cobb. The right-hander pitched for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay, and if the Cubs add him to the rotation -- after signing Tyler Chatwood earlier this week -- they will have plugged the most significant holes in their roster. Their rotation could look like this:
LHP Jon Lester
RHP Kyle Hendricks
RHP Alex Cobb
LHP Jose Quintana
RHP Tyler Chatwood
This would be unspectacular but solid, and leave the Cubs in position to address their bullpen needs.
Pittsburgh Pirates: trade Andrew McCutchen. The marriage between the Pirates and the longtime outfielder seems to be reaching the point of expiration, because McCutchen is a free agent next fall and almost certainly will be looking for more money than the team wants to pay. After some tension last year over the shift of McCutchen out of center field -- and then the move back, after the suspension of Starling Marte -- it might be best for both sides to move on. On Saturday, Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington spoke with fans about McCutchen’s status, acknowledging the possibility that the Pirates’ most popular player might be dealt. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Huntington said, “The player who stays with one team for his entire career has become a rarity. I get that, [to] a fan, that's horrible. Unfortunately, now players come and players go.”
As Huntington’s thoughts were dispersed through social media, McCutchen tweeted this:
If you listen to nonsense, how can expect those things to make sense? Say nothing 🤫🤭but do everything.
— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) December 9, 2017
And then this:
— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) December 9, 2017
Other teams expect the Pirates to trade McCutchen this winter, and if they do, then the Giants are among the teams that could provide a fit.
New York Mets: second base and first base. For a team so unsettled by injuries in 2017, the Mets actually don’t have a long list of needs. But they are looking for a second baseman, and as Mike Puma of the New York Post reported, they will check with the Marlins about the price for Starlin Castro, who could help them at second -- or first, for that matter. The Mets want somebody to hold down first base temporarily, to buy more development time for Dominic Smith.
Los Angeles Angels: second base and third base. With Ohtani on board, Angels GM Billy Eppler has addressed his greatest need while spending almost nothing. In a couple of years, the Angels will undoubtedly discuss a long-term deal with the two-way player, but for now their financial obligation to him is only a $2.3 million signing bonus, a minimum salary of $545,000 in 2018 and slightly over minimum in 2019.
That frees up dollars for the Angels to plug the holes they have at second and third base. They have talked with the Tigers about Ian Kinsler, could pursue new Marlin Starlin Castro (who is available), or choose the free-agent route with someone like Brandon Phillips or Neil Walker. Free agent Todd Frazier could make a lot of sense for them at third base.
Within the next three years, the Angels will attempt to make heavy investments in Mike Trout and Ohtani, so their second-base and third-base solutions now might be short-term.
Toronto Blue Jays: outfield help. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the Jays might be open to trading third baseman Josh Donaldson, who will be a free agent in the fall of 2018 -- and it might make some sense for Toronto to move him now if they’re not interested in signing Donaldson, who turned 32 on Friday, to a long-term deal. But through a frustrating season in 2017, Toronto finished fifth in the majors in attendance, drawing 3.2 million fans, and the Jays have to consider the impact of a possible Donaldson trade on the fans’ perception of the team. He is their best position player and their most popular player, and moving him would alienate a lot of folks buying tickets.
It seems more likely the Jays will bet on a bounce-back season from their rotation, and augment an outfield that has been depleted in recent years. Last winter, the Jays made a hard run at Fowler, before Fowler signed with the Cardinals, and Cain is a similar type of player -- a center fielder with power and speed. The Jays could also try to lure free agent Jay Bruce, a player they attempted to trade for in the past.
News from around the majors
Cain is in an interesting position this winter because among outfielders, he’s almost a market of one: someone who could play anywhere in the outfield, with a full range of skills. Cain rated a plus-5 in defensive runs saved in 2017, ranking among the better center fielders. He’s also a high-end baserunner: FanGraphs’ baserunning metric places him in the upper echelon. His on-base percentage rose to .363 last season, and his strikeout rate fell to a career-low 15.5 percent.
Cain turns 32 next April, and some teams fret about his injury history: He has reached 135 games in a season twice in his career.
• Moustakas hit 38 homers last year and is a good defensive third baseman, and he was at the core of the Royals’ success in 2014 and 2015. Some evaluators expressed concern about his on-base percentage (.314 last season) and his body, fearing that he might be vulnerable to breakdowns.
• The conversations between the Yankees and CC Sabathia about a return for 2018 have begun. Sabathia is a good friend of new manager Aaron Boone.
And today will be better than yesterday.