BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 29: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox runs to first base … [+]
Being a member of the baseball media is like being in the armed forces. There’s more hurry up and wait than actual action.
That’s especially true at the Baseball Winter Meetings, where rumors run rampant and team executives barricade themselves in their suites, surfacing occasionally to negotiate with an agent or two.
In truth, only a handful of well-heeled teams can afford the exorbitant contracts veteran players and their representatives are demanding.
Just yesterday, Madison Bumgarner insisted he would sign only if offered nine figures – not to mention a long-term contract that makes savvy general managers shudder. Thirty-something southpaws with lots of innings on their belts just aren’t likely to deliver a satisfactory return on that kind of investment. Unless that erstwhile postseason hero is different.
But there’s this thing called the Law of Averages. And we’re not talking batting averages here.
The truth is that free agents are not exactly free – they are expensive, like shiny diamonds that are more cubic zirconias than actual gems. As a result, teams careful in their spending and mindful of avoiding luxury tax penalties will try to fill their needs through more creative means. Like trades.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – SEPTEMBER 21: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs tags out Matt Carpenter #13 of … [+]
There are more top stars available by trade than there are free agents of the same caliber. Consider, for example, Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox, Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, and both Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians.
Betts and Bryant can be had because their clubs have an obvious need not only to pare payroll but to rebuild with younger players. And both are attractive pieces worth two or three promising young players if traded.
The New York Mets, helmed by daring general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, are placing their bets on Betts, while the Atlanta Braves, under GM Alex Anthopoulos, want to bring Bryant to Dixie as the replacement for likely free-agent defector Josh Donaldson.
Although the Mets have already lost starting pitcher Zack Wheeler, who signed with the rival Phillies, they believe they can win by improving their bullpen and boosting their offense. It also doesn’t hurt that Betts would be a better leadoff man than Jeff McNeil and a better centerfielder than Jake Marisnick, whom the Mets acquired from Houston last week.
It would take a lot to pry either player loose but the Braves are one of the few teams with young pitching – a rare commodity every team wants – and an outfield excess. They could package Ender Inciarte, a three-time Gold Glove winner in center field, plus promising young third baseman Austin Riley and a couple of young arms just about ready for the majors.
As for the Mets, it might take less to land Betts, whose contract expires after next season. Maybe something like J.D. Davis, Dominick Smith, and a couple of minor-league pitchers. Lindor, like Betts, comes with an expiring contract. But he’s also widely regarded as the game’s best all-around shortstop.
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 29: Trea Turner #7 of the Washington Nationals steals second base in the … [+]
The Los Angeles Dodgers would prefer him to Corey Seager, a former National League Rookie of the Year, and would include Seager and probably outfielder Joc Pederson in a prospective swap.
Ramirez, who recovered from a horrible start last season, is a former 30/30 guy whose price would be steep but worth the cost. Every team in the National League East needs help at third base – unless Anthony Rendon re-ups with the Washington Nationals or Josh Donaldson stays with the Braves.
One of the NL East contenders, the Philadelphia Phillies, was the busiest ballclub last winter but finished fourth in the five-team division. That cost manager Gabe Kapler his job and put GM Matt Klentak on the hot seat.
Owner John Middleton is still willing to spend but his patience seems more limited than his pocketbook. Even teams with money could turn to trading if they fail to land their target free agents.
The Texas Rangers, to cite one example, are in hot pursuit of Rendon and Donaldson but so are a half-dozen others with deep pockets. At the other end of the payroll spectrum, the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, and Miami Marlins are among those counting on scouting, player development, and trading to power their long-shot playoff bids.
Surprises are virtually certain too, though totally unpredictable. Putting so many owners, executives, and agents under one roof always sparks moves even the multi-layered media can’t imagine. But contracts that contain no-trade clauses can be changed for a price.
At the very least, the game has found its way into the headlines again without even playing a game.