CARLSBAD, Calif. — A few big buyers have been identified here at the General Manager meetings, and a couple potential selling teams, too. A few small signings have been done by baseball’s richest teams — and though two players, C.C. Sabathia and Brett Gardner, took small pay cuts to return to baseball’s richest team, it’s too early to draw conclusions about a market that is expected to explode (both are longtime Yankees who badly wanted to stay in pinstripes, more on C.C. below).
The anticipation remains that this will be the biggest and best free-agent market yet, and even MLB people, heartened by the reasonableness of last year’s market, are predicting big numbers in some cases. While the general belief is that Bryce Harper — or for that matter Manny Machado — won’t hit the $500-million figure some see Harper shooting for (while that number hasn’t been confirmed, and while agent Scott Boras isn’t naming numbers in early talks with teams, a quick extrapolation of the expectation of salary and years suggests that’s in the ballpark), one or both megastars could and probably will top Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325-million deal.
Lots of interesting stuff is going to happen this winter, but things are just getting under way. Here are 10 observations from the GM meetings.
1) The White Sox look like a player for the big guys
While a White Sox person humorously countered a question about whether they could contend next year by pointing out that they lost 100 games last year, they look like they are itching to spend the loot they’ve been saving the past few years as they rebuild. That could mean a look at Machado or possibly Harper, with Machado, a player they targeted in trade last winter before the Orioles decided to hold him until July, perhaps the more likely of the two huge stars for the South Siders. One of their few players under a long-term deal is shortstop Tim Anderson, so third base would be a better fit than short for Machado on the South Side. But while they like Anderson, if Machado insists on shortstop they probably wouldn’t let the incumbent stand in the way. The White Sox have what they term “waves” of prospects coming, and that is a fair characterization. They also are tiring of losing in recent years. They’ve gone for the controversial star before (Albert Belle) and Machado is certainly a better clubhouse influence than Belle. But you have to wonder whether the White Sox are concerned about this, as manager Rick Renteria has gone to great pains to make sure the kids play the game right. It seems like their overriding concern is getting better, and there’s something to be said by that.
2) The Phillies aren’t ruling out a run at both Machado and Harper
Given a chance to shoot down that possibility, a Philly guy opted not to do so, leaving open the chance to make two enormous deals — though most outside the organization still doubt that possibility. The Phillies certainly can afford both players as they have a $2.5B TV deal that leaves plenty of room, and they are known to like both players. GM Matt Klentak was pressed on Tuesday about whether Machado’s on-field episodes might discourage them, especially in a blue-collar city that doesn’t tolerate a lack of effort, but Klentak was very consistent to suggest that everything is considered, and postseason indiscretions are not necessarily disqualifying. Just about all the Phillies’ big decision makers know Machado from when they drafted him for the Orioles eight years ago, and they feel like they know him. And like him. They like Harper, too, though.
3) The Nats made a late try to cut off Harper’s free agency
The attempt came via the offering of a mega deal on Sept. 26, on the occasion of the last home game of the season. And that offer was for about $300 million over 10 years, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post first reported. The Nats had to know there was almost no chance Harper would forgo free agency with only a few weeks to go, but they had to find out. This deal didn’t include opt-outs or even a no-trade clause, but it’s high enough that it probably only raised Harper’s resolve to go for the gusto, as if he wasn’t already doing that, as there’s no chance he couldn’t go back to them now even if it’s technically “off the table” while they shop around. GM Mike Rizzo loves Harper, and they feel loyalty to him for all he’s done since he became the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Rizzo said he’d be comfortable with the remaining outfielders but made clear he disagreed with a question about whether they might be better without Harper (due to having money to spend elsewhere, presumably). Said Rizzo: “I’m not comfortable saying we’re a better team without him.”
4) The Giants are expected to join the Nats and Phillies as a major player for Bryce Harper
It's worth noting the Giants expected chase of Harper may be based on the wishes of managing partner Larry Baer, who was the one behind the pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton last winter. Give the Giants this; they do what they can to win. Even last year, when things looked hopeless going into the winter, they wound up adding Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria and others while pushing the payroll close (but not over) the luxury tax threshold. They have imported Farhan Zaidi as their president of baseball operations, so presumably he’ll have a say in this, too.
5) The Giants got a big and respected name in Zaidi to lead them
While the Giants deserve credit for finally landing their leading man, the Dodgers als0 deserve credit for doing the right thing and allowing their well-liked GM to go to their archrival (though as Hank Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, the Giants once let their assistant GM Ned Colletti go to the Dodgers to be their GM, so they have a history of being fair — if hated and heated — rivals). Baer said he was looking for a “Next Gen” guy to run things, and Zaidi is that guy. But as one Dodgers person put it, “He’s not just about numbers — he gets it.” The task is tall, however, as the Giants have a losing team, some bad contracts (Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto, Longoria) and a farm system that is less than fertile at the moment. His acceptance had to be a relief for the Giants, who had tried before for A’s GM David Forst, Brewers GM David Stearns, Indians GM Mike Chernoff, Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen, ex-Red Sox GM Ben Cherington and many, many others. Some teams rebuffed the Giants’ request, and in some cases, the execs decided to stay put, making the seemingly most desirable jobs in the game looks slightly less desirable ... until they reeled in the big fish, anyway.
6) The Cubs declined to extend Joe Maddon but the White Sox extended ex-Cub manager Rick Renteria
The lack of extension for Maddon was no surprise, as it was previously reported here and elsewhere, but the contrast certainly was interesting. The Cubs don’t discuss it but it’s been suggested in multiple places that there’s some friction between Maddon and his bosses. It isn’t clear whether it’s personality or pay (managers just aren’t making Maddon’s $6 million anymore) or just the desire to wait for more information that’s causing the Cubs to wait. The White Sox, meanwhile, quietly extended their manager Rick Renteria (for undetermined length), the guy the Cubs pushed aside to bring in Maddon, who became the first Cubs manager to win the World Series in 108 years, which maybe didn’t buy the good will you’d think.
7) It looks like Patrick Corbin vs. Dallas Keuchel for top free agent pitcher
It isn’t only Machado vs. Harper on this free agent market, there’s also a nice competition at the top of the starting pitching market, with Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel likely duking it out for top honors. Keuchel’s had a better career to this point, but Corbin had the better year, so it should be interesting. The presence of the Yankees in the Corbin derby might help him. But Keuchel also is not the type to shy away from big markets, and could have interest in going to New York, L.A. or anyone else big after spending his life in a band of the Sun Belt. Keuchel had multiple chances to stay in Houston earlier but his switch to agent Scott Boras, and well-known admiration for Justin Verlander, has folks saying he will not shy away from a challenge and might prefer a move to a bigger stage.
8) There are plenty of talented lefties available
Keuchel and Corbin aren’t the only two lefties on the market. It’s a very nice list, with also J.A. Happ, Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez plus Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi, who will have Boras rep him, and possibly also Hyun-Jin Ryu, who may just take the $17.9-million qualifying offer.
9) The relief market is loaded
Last year’s relief market featured a litany of regrettable overpays, with the Phillies’ two buys of Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter being two rare ones that paid off, among many that did not. This year’s market is even better, with star Craig Kimbrel leading the group (agent David Meter points out that Kimbrel is the best reliever all-time, at least statistically, with the lowest ERA, lowest batting average against and lowest OPS against). It’s a long and talented list that also includes Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Joakim Soria, Brad Brach, Justin Wilson, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson and many others.
10) The player-agent shuffle has already made for fascinating movement
Some of the more interesting player movement has already happened, and it’s from agent to agent, not yet team to team. The Legacy company’s baseball arm seems to be disbanding as the federal government investigates alleged wrongdoing and its stock price plummets as potential buyers haven’t found the books up to the claims of the company. Legacy once was arguably the second biggest agency behind BorasCorp so this is quite a change. Longtime agents Brian Peters and Kenny Felder moved to Excel, which is led by Casey Close and now appears to be in the top two in terms of size (though Wasserman and CAA may still have a claim to that, too). Michael Brantley and A.J. Pollock went with them to Excel, and George Springer is looking around and may also go to Excel. So might be his teammate Carlos Correa. Brodie Scoffield left Legacy to set up his own shop with Alex Bregman, Kevin Gausman and many others going with him, as did Ed Cerullo and Steve Veltman, who were joined by Mookie Betts, Madison Bumgarner and others. Presumably, the Greenbergs, Peter and Ed, who used to be on their own anyway, will leave soon, too.
Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and FancredSports.com. You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.