According to Wikipedia, the baseball winter meetings dates all the way back to 1876.
It wasn’t an annual event at the time and, if this corner of the internet is correct, was nothing more than a small gathering of owners designed to massage egos and settle old scores. Times were simple then, baseball players were lucky to make anything close to a livable wage and were about as expendable as a low-level factory employee.
Fast forward a whole lot. The game obviously has changed, and the economics have driven this sport and its subsequent meetings along a curious trajectory. From the days when Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees for a much-needed $100,000 to the time when Curt Flood famously described himself and his colleagues as “well-paid slaves,” the market has become much more player driven and has complicated many day-to-day operations.
Gone are the days when owners and general managers could act like rowdy pioneers and pull off ten-player trades on cocktail napkins. These days, executives are dealing with expensive commodities steered by many opinions according to market and player analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, baseball executives still drink and pontificate over napkins, but it’s probably done in their respective suites while team scouts and baseball operations employees (our eras new “low-paid slave,” I suppose, if one is lucky enough to land the job) present their reports while we wait for the agents to set the prices.
Regardless of these changes, this year’s winter meetings are set to begin in Dallas, Texas, and the trade show/media storm/job fair/industry get together still should give baseball fans a lot to chew over.
Last year’s meetings started off with the Adrian Gonzalez trade and concluded with the Red Sox’s still staying active and signing Carl Crawford late into the evening. It wasn’t the raucous affair of 1971 or even the 1980 Whitey Herzog trade show, but it supplied everyone with enough surprises and headscratchers to keep us all alert through the new year.
Leading up to the annual event
Since so much of offseason baseball analysis focuses on the speculative, here at The Hardball Times we have been running a series called “Offseason Decisions.” So far we have profiled close to 20 teams, focusing either on a single need or an overall direction.
Going into this offseason, everyone knew Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and Prince Fielder would be the top prizes among this year’s free-agents. Last night, Reyes signed as soon as the Marlins increased its previous offer to a six-year deal worth $106 million with a seventh-year option. This is expected to decrease Pujols’ options significantly, but we have offered opinions in our profiles of the Cardinals and Brewers.
The Nationals and Mariners have threatened to be active in the next few days, and both teams’ general managers have hinted in interviews of their plans to become more competitive via the trade and free agency market.
Below is a quick chart of the top free agents as well as the teams linked to them this offseason:
The Marlins proved they were serious in taking home at least one offseason prize and will probably bow out of the Pujols sweepstakes, though there are rumors they will make one more run at the slugging first baseman over the next two days.
Reyes’ deal with Miami is surprising on a few levels, one of which is that he may have left money on the table as a Plan B option for a few teams, especially if the Giants fail to land Carlos Beltran and if Pujols and/or Fielder find themselves playing for different teams next season.
C.J. Wilson is leading what has become an over-valued arms race. Both the Yankees and Red Sox could use his services, but do they want to add another $100 million contract to their growing baggage? The Angels, Marlins and Nationals have publically courted Wilson, but no one seems ready to pull out the checkbook. The Rangers remain interested but are expected to act only if his price comes down.
After Wilson, teams will have the choice to pursue other options like Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson. Both are fine mid-rotation additions. The only problem is that they want to be paid more than they are worth. If that isn’t enough, the Yu Darvish $100 million-plus sweepstakes is rumored to begin after the meetings.
Jimmy Rollins should be retained by the Phillies, but the sticking point seems to be the five-year deal he is requesting. Rollins is 33 years old, but age isn’t exactly something the Phillies frown upon.
Finally, Yoenis Cespedes is a name expected to get a lot of attention of the next few days. Both the Yankees and Red Sox have shown interest, but they will have to compete with the Nationals, Tigers and Marlins, all of which are promising to put forth competitive bids.
The trade market
The Giants made the first major trade of this offseason, sending Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals for Melky Cabrera. A few days ago, the Rockies became active by shipping off Chris Iannetta to the Angels in exchange for Tyler Chatwood.
In light of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement announced recently, teams in the mid-to-lower markets hoping to remain competitive through the amateur draft and international market may have to rethink that strategy.
Gone are the days when the Pirates, Rays, and Blue Jays could stockpile and pay over the recommended slot on a slew of compensation- and later-round picks. The new strategy, at least initially, may be to focus on the trade market. The Rays did recently flip John Jaso for the controversial, albeit talented, minor-league reliever Josh Lueke. I wouldn’t be too surprised if they finally pull the trigger on trading B.J. Upton and/or Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis for offensive needs.
The Pirates have an attractive commodity in closer Joel Hanrahan. The Bucs could also explore trading Pedro Alvarez. He certainly would draw some interest, but his value is very low, and it may benefit the team to hold on to him until (or if) he figures out MLB pitching.
The Rockies could be interesting. They already flipped a few key players and are drawing interest from other teams for Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, Charlie Blackmon, Ian Stewart and closer Huston Street. The Braves have been linked to them frequently, but many feel the team is stubborn in its asking prices for Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado.
One team selling from an area of strength is the Oakland A’s. This franchise has never had problems developing pitching, and with offense being a desperate need, they should have little trouble finding interest in pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Andrew Bailey.
Both the Reds and Mets are holding on to everyone’s favorite speculative trade targets in David Wright and Joey Votto. The Mets are exploring Wright’s value, but his contract makes him a free agent next offseason if traded. The Reds, according to to our recent offseason piece, may not be as inclined to move Votto as many originally hoped.
Finally, the Astros are in a peculiar situation. The team’s plan, post 2011 CBA, was to model itself after the Rangers and Rays by focusing on scouting and player development. The plan is still feasible, but it will take some creativity to pull off. They do hold an effective trade chip in Wandy Rodriguez, but I wouldn’t expect any transactions to take place until the team lands a long-term general manager.
Which team could surprise during these meetings?
At last year’s winter meetings, the Nationals came out of nowhere to snag a big fish in Jayson Werth. The offseason before that, the Mariners were surprising in their activity. Could the Diamondbacks jump out of the bushes and sign Wilson? He definitely would be an upgrade over Joe Saunders.
What about the Indians or the Royals? The AL Central is for the taking, but I can’t see anyone beyond Wilson even close to these teams’ radar.
The Mariners seem frisky and somewhat serious about landing Fielder. I think that would qualify as surprising if it happened.
Finally, the team that is in a position to blow everyone out of the water is the Cubs. They have the revenue to land a serious blow against their rivals, the Cardinals, by snatching Pujols away. They have been coy since the front office transition, but with restrictions imposed upon amateur and international spending, they could easily say “Screw it!” and flex some spending power now and figure out things later.