It has been a gratifying offseason for free-agent pitchers and their investment professionals. David Price and Zack Greinke have signed deals for $200 million-plus, while Jordan Zimmermann cracked nine figures and Jeff Samardzija came close. Relievers have cashed in too, with Darren O'Day, Ryan Madson, Tony Sipp and Shawn Kelley agreeing to contracts of three years or longer and Jason Motte, John Axford and Mark Lowe signing two-year deals in the $10-11 million range.
While all those pitchers were cleaning up, a starry group of free-agent position players collected dust in the corner. So the question was posed to Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in a ballroom at the Opryland hotel in Nashville, shortly after the team introduced new second baseman Ben Zobrist on Wednesday:
Why the run on pitchers and the total lack of action on outfielders?
"I don't remember it ever being separated like that,'' Epstein said. "There was just more supply and more demand for pitchers than anywhere else, and outfielders came next. Everyone is just waiting for the first one to sign.''
Thanks to Epstein and the Cubs, the mystery has been resolved and the logjam has been cleared.
Chicago made its second impact free-agent signing of the week Friday by reaching agreement on an eight-year, $184 million deal with Jason Heyward, considered by many the prize position player on this year's market. He will join a Cubs team that clearly means business after winning 97 games and making the playoffs in 2015.
Just as the Zimmermann and Price deals cleared the decks for starting pitchers and O'Day created a path for relievers, Heyward's agreement could lead to a succession of falling dominoes among outfielders. As MLB executives recover from four days of nonstop chatter and sleep deprivation at the winter meetings, they'll turn their attention to a backlogged outfield market that's ready to pop. Here's a primer on where things stand coming out of Nashville:
The outfield landscape
With Heyward off the board, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes are at the top of the outfield pecking order, with Alex Gordon a tick below. All three players bring some serious attributes to the table, along with a few warts.
"The biggest issue is the years and the money,'' said an AL scout. "Each year that you add on at the end, you pretty much know it's going to be a bad year.''
Upton is a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner at age 28, but he has yet to fulfill the monster expectations that came with being the top pick in the 2005 draft. Cespedes has played for four teams since July 2014, and potential suitors have concerns about the length of Gordon's next contract given that he'll play at age 32 next season.
The next wave consists of Dexter Fowler, Gerardo Parra, Denard Span and Austin Jackson, although Jackson has been trending in the wrong direction of late. Fowler is the only one of the four who received a qualifying offer and will require the team that signs him to surrender a draft pick. He is also likely to be the most expensive; one baseball insider estimated that he's looking at a deal in the three-year, $42 million range.
The third wave (or two) includes Will Venable, Rajai Davis, Alex Rios, David Murphy, Steve Pearce, Shane Victorino, Ryan Raburn and Jeff Francoeur, all of whom have something to offer without necessarily being 500-at-bat-a-year guys.
There's also a wild card in the mix. Ian Desmond, who averaged 22 home runs from 2012-2015, is the most accomplished shortstop on the market. But he's such a good athlete, some teams have explored the idea of signing him as an outfielder.
A lot of roads lead to Colorado, where the Rockies are listening on Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson. Gonzalez would be a franchise-reshaping trade, while Blackmon and Dickerson would be attainable for a more reasonable package.
The buzz about Miami's Marcell Ozuna appears to have dissipated, in part because the Marlins' asking price is so high. Executives with knowledge of Miami's trade talks say the Marlins covet a high-upside young pitcher and have targeted the likes of Cleveland's Danny Salazar, Seattle's Taijuan Walker and Kansas City's Yordano Ventura. That helps explain why their talks haven't gained much traction.
While Cincinnati is clearly willing to listen on Jay Bruce, sources say the Reds' trade talks have revolved primarily around closer Aroldis Chapman (until domestic violence allegations put those discussions in a deep freeze) and third baseman Todd Frazier. Cincinnati has had a "couple'' of feelers on Bruce, according to a team official. But that's about it.
The world champion Kansas City Royals are an intriguing case. They'd love to bring back Gordon, a former No. 1 pick who has been such an integral part of the team's success. But Gordon appears to be in line for a five-year deal in the $75-80 million range -- if not more, now that the Cardinals need a lefty-hitting outfielder to replace Heyward.
In the meantime, the Royals are weighing their options. Plan B is most likely a trade, and the Rockies are a natural fit. If the Royals want to shoot the moon, they can deal for Gonzalez and take a major bite out of their prospect pipeline. Or Royals GM Dayton Moore can downsize his ambitions and make a run at Blackmon or Dickerson. Either one of those players wouldn't require Kansas City to part with prospects Raul Mondesi and/or Miguel Almonte, who would likely be part of the package in a CarGo deal.
If the Royals can't sign Gordon or make a trade, their attention will probably shift to Span, Parra or Fowler. Any one of those three would slot nicely into left field at Kauffman Stadium and be able to spell Lorenzo Cain in center field on occasion.
Balancing the resources
The Angels and Giants are prime examples of teams with multiple spots to fill and only so much money at their disposal.
After signing Samardzija for $90 million, San Francisco is intent on adding another starting pitcher. Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen and Ian Kennedy are among the names on the radar. But one thing is certain: The more the Giants spend on a starter, the less money they'll be able to invest in a left field bat. That could mean the difference between adding a Justin Upton rather than a Fowler or Parra.
Angels GM Billy Eppler has solidified the left side of his infield with trades for shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Yunel Escobar and is still looking for upgrades at second base and left field. Eppler could go in any number of directions, although a trade would probably be difficult to pull off because the Angels' farm system is so thin.
"There are a lot of big names in the outfield, no doubt, that would fit on our club,'' said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "There are also a lot of guys you can bring in that can piecemeal it and platoon and give you the production you're looking for. There are a lot of different ways that you can become a better team offensively, not necessarily with a big splash and the big free agents.''
It's worth noting that Angels owner Arte Moreno has a track record of swooping in and signing prominent free-agent bats, from Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Will Moreno make a splash again this offseason?
Others in the mix
The Chicago White Sox appear set in the outfield with Melky Cabrera in left field, Adam Eaton in center and Avisail Garcia in right. That said, the Sox ranked last in the American League with 622 runs and a .686 team OPS in 2015. Can they stand idly by and let Upton or Cespedes sign elsewhere with an offense that sad?
The Orioles are another interesting case. Even if their $150 million offer to Chris Davis is off the table, as ESPN's Buster Olney has reported, it's likely they would be happy to re-engage if agent Scott Boras is so inclined. One thing the Orioles don't want to do is wait until late January for Davis to make a decision and find that a lot of other options have come off the board.
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak is shopping for a lefty outfield bat now that Heyward has departed for Wrigley Field. As luck would have it, Heyward's agent, Casey Close, represents a guy named Alex Gordon who could fit nicely in the Cardinals' lineup.
Recent events in the starting pitching realm show how quickly market dynamics can change, regardless of position. In November, the Arizona Diamondbacks focused on Johnny Cueto as their prime free-agent target until he spurned a six-year, $120 million offer. That prompted the Diamondbacks to change course and, in a stunning sequence of events, sign Greinke for $206.5 million and spirit him away from San Francisco and the Dodgers.
Now Heyward's decision will prompt several clubs who finished out of the running to recalibrate and go in a different direction. That's the way free-agent markets work.
"Every data point sort of affects the next,'' Epstein said earlier this week. "Every signing affects a team's thinking. There's usually a run after someone signs.''
Since the final out of the World Series, pitchers have been the undisputed champions of the Hot Stove season. Now it's time for MLB's outfield wallflowers to start having some fun.