It takes a certain resolve to trade away the best position player in your franchise’s history, coming off a season in which you contended until mid-September, but that’s what the Arizona Diamondbacks did Wednesday in sending first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals for prospects and draft picks.
It takes a certain boldness to guarantee six years and $140 million to a pitcher with one transcendent season on his resume, but that’s what the Washington Nationals did in signing lefty Patrick Corbin on Tuesday.
And it takes a certain suspension of disbelief for a team coming off a fourth-place finish to deal away the prospect it drafted with the sixth overall pick just six months earlier — while committing $63 million to an aging second baseman coming off a drug suspension — but that’s what the New York Mets did in packaging outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic in the deal to land Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz from Seattle.
These are the days of bold moves and uncommon resolve in baseball, with teams increasingly divided into those in the midst of extreme rebuilds and those committed to winning now at all costs — a pivot from the days not too long ago when the vast majority of teams sat somewhere in the middle, often too attached to their own prospects and too paralyzed by fear of making a massive misstep.
“This organization,” Brodie Van Wagenen, the former agent who became general manager of the Mets in October, said this week after giving up three prospects for Cano and Diaz, “[will] be relentless and fearless in our pursuit of greatness.”
But as baseball’s Winter Meetings approach, Monday through Thursday, at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, two of the biggest, boldest moves — the strongest tests of organizational resolve — remain out there to be made. Despite a flurry of activity in the past few days and weeks, the industry is still awaiting answers to the big questions of this offseason:
Who will sign free agent sluggers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? And will either or both of them shatter the record — currently held by Giancarlo Stanton, at $325 million over 13 years — for the biggest contract in baseball history? Harper, it is worth recalling, has already turned down a 10-year $300 million offer from the Nationals.
While there are no indications either player’s situation is headed to a speedy resolution — and these days, many of the biggest signings get pushed well past New Year’s Day — the heightened media atmosphere and face-to-face nature of the Winter Meetings has a way of creating sudden, splashy deals, or at least rampant rumors.
That could be particularly true of Harper, the 26-year-old outfielder who spent his first seven seasons with the Washington Nationals, and whose initial dive into free agency is the most anticipated since Alex Rodriguez’s in 2000. Las Vegas, as surely everyone knows by now, happens to be Harper’s hometown, and his agent, Scott Boras (the same man who negotiated Rodriguez’s record-setting $252 million with the Texas Rangers in December 2000), has set up meetings next week with interested clubs at an undisclosed off-site location.
Will the meetings conclude with Harper on a news conference stage, flanked by Boras, team executives and a chorus line of Vegas showgirls, pulling a jersey of his new team — the Los Angeles Dodgers? Philadelphia Phillies? New York Yankees? — over a suit and tie? Might it even be the same jersey he has always worn, that of the Washington Nationals?
The sheer number and magnitude of the moves already made in November and the first week of December has left the impression most of the teams have already done their heavy lifting for the winter. In the National League East alone, the Mets have traded for Cano and Diaz; the Atlanta Braves have signed veterans Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann; the Phillies traded for shortstop Jean Segura and the Nationals have signed the top starting pitcher on the market, lefty Patrick Corbin, while also adding two catchers and two relievers.
Meantime, the Mariners, despite contending for a wild card well into August, have gone full rebuild-mode, having already traded Segura, Cano, Diaz, ace James Paxton (to the Yankees), catcher Mike Zunino (to Tampa Bay) and three relievers.
“This is what a reset looks like,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters.
But in reality, an unusual flurry of early winter trade activity has disguised an alarming lack of movement on the free agent front — and has likely contributed to it. ESPN’s free agent tracker showed only 15 of an available 153 players having signed as of Thursday afternoon, with only five of those being multiyear deals. Only three of the top 40 free agents, as ranked by MLBTradeRumors.com, had been signed: Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi (back to the Red Sox) and Donaldson. And Donaldson, a former MVP coming off two injury-plagued seasons, had to settle for a one-year deal from Atlanta.
There is little question the thriving trade market has damaged the free agent market — just as it did a year ago when the Miami Marlins jettisoned Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna — and will continue to provide an attractive alternative for teams looking for high-end talent. That is especially true of starting pitching, with Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants), Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians) and Zack Greinke (Diamondbacks) known to be available.
When they eventually sign, Harper and Machado will undoubtedly push the total expenditures for this year’s class into the stratosphere, but for the bulk of this winter’s free agents — the glut of solid, serviceable, 30-ish players looking for new homes — the grim reality is likely to be the same as was for last winter’s class, as teams increasingly turn away from older, established talent.
At the top end, the perception persists that the Phillies are driving the market, a notion they are not even trying to hide, with owner John Middleton last month telling USA Today he is ready to spend, and may “be a little stupid” in doing so. Having streamlined their roster in recent years in anticipation of this winter, they appear poised to sign either Harper or Machado — their preference, though, is a closely guarded secret — with some still speculating they could make a play for both. (They also were known to covet Corbin, before the Nationals got him by offering the sixth guaranteed year.)
The Yankees, meantime, are another logical landing spot for one of the prized pair, and Machado — who can play shortstop until Didi Gregorius returns from surgery, then slide to third base — would seem to be the better fit. But having gotten themselves under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018, they are now sounding adamant about staying under it in 2019, when the figure goes up from $197 million to $206 million.
Given the Yankees’ professed need for another starting pitcher — lefty J.A. Happ is a logical target — it’s unclear whether they can also add Machado, or if they even want to. It was telling when Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ general managing partner, acknowledged last month that he found “troubling” Machado’s comments during the playoffs that he’s “not the type of player who’s going to be Johnny Hustle and run down the line.”
“It’s a decision [ownership] ultimately will make when they’re forced to make it,” GM Brian Cashman told reporters this week of the decision to push the payroll past the threshold. “It’s my job to collect as much talent as I possibly can in a very cost-effective manner, and hopefully I can do that and not have to [pay] luxury taxes.”
If the Yankees are truly out — and let’s be honest: who really believes that? — the rest of the landscape for Harper and Machado is less defined. The Chicago Cubs seem disinclined to spend at that level, and the Dodgers, at least under Andrew Friedman, never have. The Giants have yet to signal a strategy under new GM Farhan Zaidi. The Cardinals seem to have solved their need for a middle-of-the-order bat by trading for Goldschmidt. The Houston Astros tried to trade for Harper in August, but have bigger needs.
Somewhere out there, however, is a team, or teams, ready to make the next bold move in a winter already full of them. With the Winter Meetings headed to Bryce Harper’s hometown, and the numbers expected to climb to a place where only a handful of teams can compete, it’s now only a matter of time.