Inside Baseball: Three questions that need answers for hot stove to start cooking

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With Christmas less than a week away, many players have yet to receive their presents; in fact, only about 25 percent of free agents expected to get big-league deals have signed in a second straight slow-moving market. 

The GM and Winter Meetings have come and gone, but plenty of players remain on the market. So there's plenty of work left to do.

(Here was our original free agent list with contract predictions and it’s obvious that the vast majority are still looking.)

While we await all the signings, let’s take a brief pause to look at three of the key winter questions remaining.


1) Where will Bryce Harper sign?

That’s a tough one. We know Nationals owner Mark Lerner has expressed skepticism about their chances and Yankees GM Brian Cashman has suggested he isn’t a fit (before backing away the next day, and saying maybe things can change). But we also have heard that Harper has had meetings with several teams before, during and since the Winter Meetings, including one with a mystery owner who flew in to Las Vegas for a seat at the table. So that sounds like a lot of meetings, which probably shouldn’t surprise anyone since Harper is the type of personality that has the potential to move the needle. The White Sox are said to have had a meeting, and the Phillies met with agent Scott Boras at both meetings and are also said to be interested – though the early assumption on the part of some that he’s going to wind up in Philly seems to have gone away, with some Phillies people recently suggesting Manny Machado may be a better fit. (Perhaps that’s mostly because there’s word out there that Harper isn’t necessarily enamored with the city of Philadelphia after three trips there a year, and perhaps they are thinking about waiting for another outfielder and Philly-area icon Mike Trout in two years. Or perhaps it’s because Machado may be the better positional fit.)

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Harper makes a lot of sense for the ChiSox in that they have a TV deal coming due, and even if he’s not quite the icon he’s sometimes made out to be, he certainly scores high in Q rating and cachet, and may take a few eyes off the beloved crosstown Cubs, if only for a moment or two. Longtime owner Jerry Reinsdorf has never spent more on a U.S. free agent than the $65 million he spent (er, wasted) on Albert Belle, so to invest five times that seems like a reach. The White Sox’s rebuild looks to be on track but at least a year or two away; however, as one ChiSox executive pointed out, they can’t choose when the best free agents become available, and just because the timing isn’t perfect, that doesn’t make it wrong. If the ChiSox are a couple years away, the Giants, who tried hard for Giancarlo Stanton a year ago, are even further than that. The Mets have done a lot of good stuff already and have all but ruled out a run at Harper. The Cubs tried to extend Harper’s good friend Kris Bryant but it seems like a stretch for them to redirect that money to Harper at a time they still seem to be concerned about the luxury-tax threshold. The Yankees  seem loaded on the outfield corners with Stanton and Aaron Judge, and the talk of making Harper a first baseman seems to have died down for the moment.


The Nats do love Harper, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them – with baseball’s richest owners – give it one more shot to make Harper a National for life. But for now, the greatest speculation surrounds the Dodgers, who apparently didn’t send part-owner/hoops icon Magic Johnson to a reputed meeting with Harper in Las Vegas (there’s even some real doubt whether there even was such a meeting in Vegas), but have the wherewithal to do such a deal. Anyway, L.A. reset its luxury tax lower last year with their brilliant Matt Kemp trade, have former Nats president Stan Kasten at the helm, have a geography advantage (Harper is from Las Vegas so they in effect were his hometown team) and have spent the past few weeks trying to unload several of their outfielders. That could just be because they have too many outfielders – they do – or it could be because they are gearing up for a big run at Harper. One Dodgers person said they’d love to have Harper but like some others suggested they’d love to have him for something less than $300 million. 

2) Where will Manny Machado sign?

This one’s a little easier. Machado went on a tour that included the White Sox, Yankees and Phillies this week, and may at some point include the one-to-three mystery teams said to be involved. We don’t know who the mystery team(s) are, but that’s what makes them a mystery. The White Sox went to the trouble to acquire his brother-in-law Yonder Alonso (Machado married Alonso’s sister, and they are said to be “very close”) on the eve of his visit in what White Sox people called a “baseball trade.’’ It also doesn’t hurt that they are family, and Alonso already has begun politicking for his close relative to join him. Of course, they may need the help, as they are said to be at least a year away from contending (maybe more) and can’t compete with the Yankees in terms of tradition and probably even locale. To have a shot, they’d likely have to be the high bidder, but they shouldn’t be ruled out (as we recall, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols all signed $200-million-plus deals with non-contenders). The Phillies, whose top executives were to a man almost all in Baltimore when Machado was picked No. 3 overall in the 2010 draft, could be a nice compromise pick – a team on the preferred East Coast, which may contend and likely are in position to bid big. The Yankees already said in this space it won’t be $300M for them, so they are hoping his preference carries the day. “I think he ends up in New York,” one rival exec says. “He wanted to be with the Yankees or Red Sox. We’ve known that for a while. And it’s not going to be Boston.”

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3) Where will J.T. Realmuto wind up?

The Miami Marlins, who traded four stars last winter — including what turned out to be back-to-back MVPs one for them, one for the team they traded him to — are still shopping star catcher J.T. Realmuto, to the surprise of many who expected he’d be dealt by now. The Mets have moved on after signing free agent catcher Wilson Ramos, and others are complaining about the price tag. One issue being heard is that he only has two years to go before free agency. But the reality is, he is almost inarguably the best all-around catcher in the game, and it’s still two full years. The Astros, Dodgers, Rays, Reds, Braves and Padres all have been linked to Realmuto, though the Yankees insist they have their catcher in Gary Sanchez and could be in it as a conduit for other teams (it’s possible they could use Sanchez as their DH, but GM Brian Cashman is on record saying Sanchez is “our catcher”).


The two best fits, according to one rival, are probably the Dodgers and Astros. The Dodgers have always been a fit with their plethora of outfielders; though they have said they won’t part with Cody Bellinger, either Alex Verdugo or Joc Pederson could make sense. The Astros especially after agreeing to a deal with Michael Brantley also could be a fit. Rivals think they’d give up top outfield prospect Kyle Tucker for Realmuto, but one Marlins person suggested that would just be the start of a package. Considering Realmuto’s all-around game, that actually makes sense.

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.

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