Trade intrigue grows amid weak free-agent pitching market

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The celebrity pecking order was clear when Major League Baseball's general managers gathered in a large conference room at the Omni Scottsdale Resort this week for two days of media availability. The New York Yankees' Brian Cashman, Boston's Dave Dombrowski and Cubs World Series championship architects Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer attracted waves of cameras and reporters looking for updates on their offseason agendas.

In a distant corner of the room, Erik Neander of the Tampa Bay Rays and David Forst of the Oakland Athletics could have died of loneliness. That's an occupational hazard -- or a blessing, some might say -- that comes with working for small-market clubs that rarely make big offseason splashes.

But the isolation was only temporary. Once the 30 teams disperse and take stock of their needs, the Rays and A's are sure to receive plenty of attention.

Neander's Rays employ Chris Archer, a charismatic young ace who has averaged 242 strikeouts over the past two seasons. Forst and the A's have an appealing trade chip of their own in Sonny Gray, a 2015 All-Star who is still three years away from free agency. Both pitchers are coming off disappointing seasons, given their talent and pedigrees, but they're about to become hot commodities as the hot-stove dialogue commences.

"Sonny has been a popular trade conversation for the last couple of years, so it won't be new," Forst said. "Certainly it's expected, and we have to be open to anything at this point considering where we are and how much work we have to do to catch up with the teams at the top of our division. I can't speak to how aggressive teams will be or when the calls will come in, but we have to be open to that conversation."

With only a little prodding, Forst conceded it's not a bad thing to be on the right end of the supply-and-demand spectrum.

"It's nice to have assets people want," he said.

While the closer trio of Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon and power bats such as Edwin Encarnacion and Yoenis Cespedes will generate free-agent interest, MLB's hot-stove market will be driven by the desire for and relative scarcity of elite starting pitching. The Rangers, Astros, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers and Red Sox are among the teams with the talent and motivation to pursue front-of-the-rotation arms. But they're sure not going to find that commodity on the free-agent market.

Rich Hill, generally regarded as the best free-agent pitcher available, crafted one of MLB's best feel-good stories this year when he emerged as Clayton Kershaw's main wingman in Los Angeles. But Hill turns 37 in March, he's barely a year removed from pitching for the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League, and he's surpassed 100 innings only twice in 12 major league seasons.

The other free-agent options come with similar reservations. Jeremy Hellickson had a nice year in Philadelphia, but signing him will require surrendering draft-pick compensation because he received a qualifying offer from the Phillies. Ivan Nova had a wonderful second half with Pittsburgh, but his career portfolio is underwhelming. And Andrew Cashner throws a fastball in the mid-90s, but his strikeout rate is mediocre and a lot of scouts think he's best suited to be a reliever.

The rest of the field consists of Jason Hammel, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, Brett Anderson, Doug Fister, Jorge De La Rosa and Bartolo Colon, who just keeps rolling along at age 43. There are some capable back-end guys in that group, but nothing more.

Amid the talent vacuum, names that wouldn't typically be bandied around in conversation are suddenly being floated because of the talent haul they could fetch in trades. The trade rumor mill is replete with references to Archer, Gray, Detroit's Justin Verlander, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox and even Arizona's Zack Greinke, who has five years left on a six-year, $206.5 million contract.

"The starting pitching landscape this offseason has been a story for what, 18 months now?" Neander said. "There's been as much of an advance-notice publicly as there's been in a while with respect to a free-agent class. We have to respond to the market and the interest and keep an open mind. It's certainly one area where the dynamics could be different this winter than they've been in the past."'

The Rays ranked 14th in the American League in runs this season (ahead of only Oakland), but they're flush in arms. Even after sending Matt Moore to the Giants in a deadline deal, Tampa Bay has a starting rotation of Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly and Blake Snell, with Matt Andriese as the sixth option.

"Coming off the last few seasons we've had, we have to be open and creative," Neander said. "It's hard to close the door on anything after winning 68 games."

Gray, 26, maintains his appeal to other clubs even though he went 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA and appeared in only 22 games this season because of a forearm injury. The A's are breaking in a whole new wave of starters (Kendall Graveman, Daniel Mengden, Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton and Andrew Triggs), and they could address several voids on the roster by dealing Gray.

The Tigers are willing to dangle Verlander for different reasons. They have an aging roster and they've determined it's time to exercise some financial restraint after fielding a $173 million payroll, the fourth highest in the majors in 2016. As a professional courtesy, general manager Al Avila has spoken with Verlander and fellow organizational mainstays Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler and told them to be prepared to hear their names in trade rumors this winter.

"Our organization has been working well over its means for several years, for our market size, if you compare our payroll with the rest of baseball," Avila said. "It's gotten to the point, quite frankly, where it can't continue to go up and up and up. At what point do you say, 'Enough'? We have to start making some adjustments. Whether they're subtle or bigger depends on what teams out there are looking for and how some of our guys may fit them."

Some contenders have the latitude to pursue an ace or use their resources to fill other needs. The Red Sox have David Price and Cy Young finalist Rick Porcello in the rotation, so they might or might not feel a sense of urgency to raid the farm system to pursue a front-line starter such as Sale. The Cubs' rotation is good enough that they had the latitude to decline Hammel's $12 million option after he won 15 games for them this season, but Jake Arrieta is eligible for free agency after the 2017 season and Epstein and Hoyer need to be mindful of the long-term picture.

The Dodgers have some question marks after Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet. Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias (who logged a 1.99 ERA in 40 2/3 innings after the All-Star break) will slot into the Nos. 2 and 3 spots in the rotation. After that the Dodgers are looking at Scott Kazmir, who underperformed in 2016, and Brandon McCarthy, who has pitched a total of 63 innings in the first two years of a $48 million deal. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a medical wreck, and Jose De Leon and Brock Stewart are just a step away in Triple-A Oklahoma City.

"We're hoping some of the rotation improvement will come from within, but there's a reason we went out and traded for Rich Hill at the deadline last year," Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said. "It's something we're going to continue to monitor. We're actually pretty deep in starting pitching options. We have enough to get through the 162-game season, so we can afford to be fairly targeted in looking for guys who come with maximum upside to pitch at the front of the rotation."

If the Dodgers ultimately decide it's worth digging into the farm system and aiming high for an impact acquisition, they know where to find it. The action is all about trades this winter, and the intrigue has just begun.