ORLANDO, Fla. — Commissioner Rob Manfred has made a priority of addressing baseball’s lethargic pace of play in 2018. Judging from the slow start to the offseason, MLB might also have some work to do on pace of the industry.
Baseball’s general managers met near Disney World this week and had lots of conversations without much tangible to show for it. Thank goodness for Jerry Dipoto, Seattle’s resident transaction machine, who christened the offseason trade market by acquiring infielder Ryon Healy from Oakland for reliever Emilio Pagan. That deal was barely complete when Dipoto sent pitcher Thyago Vieira to the Chicago White Sox for international bonus money. The man is relentless.
Proceeding under the assumption that the Thanksgiving holiday week will be relatively uneventful as it usually is, the hot stove season has more of a room-temperature feel to it so far. Several factors help explain why the offseason has started slowly and might take a while to get moving.
1. The Giancarlo Stanton situation
It’s a fascinating and unprecedented confluence of circumstances. Hall of Famer Derek Jeter buys into a team saddled with debt. Stanton is both the team’s best player and a financial albatross because of the $295 million still owed him. The coming weeks will determine if he will join Eddie Collins of the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics and Alex Rodriguez of the 2003 Texas Rangers as the only players to be traded after winning an MVP award.
The deal will be a challenge to pull off, to put it mildly. The Jeter-Bruce Sherman group needs to cut payroll. But it also must establish a more positive tone with the fan base after the negative drumbeat of the Jeffrey Loria era, and that’s not going to happen if the Marlins simply dump salary without getting a haul of young talent in return.
Stanton, in many respects, is driving the train. As Jeter observed this week, “I can’t tell the future. But Giancarlo has a full no-trade clause.”
If the Marlins work out a trade with the Cardinals and Stanton decides he doesn’t want to go to St. Louis, the deal is dead. Or if he decides he wants to stay in Miami rather than go to San Francisco because of Florida’s lack of state income tax, it’s his call. So it was a bit puzzling when Jeter said he sees no reason to pick up the phone and get acquainted with Stanton. At some point, the Marlins might have to work on Stanton to get him to sign off on a trade. Wouldn’t that be more doable if Jeter establishes a relationship with Stanton now rather than introduce himself a month from now?
2. The Shohei Ohtani situation
Ohtani is a novel commodity as a potential impact starting pitcher and hitter, and he crosses all lines because of his affordability. He can make a maximum of $3.53 million under MLB’s international signing rules, so he’s available to a broader collection of teams than just the usual affluent, big-market players.
Ohtani checks off enough boxes and fits so many needs, clubs would be almost derelict in their duties not to explore the possibility of signing him. If you have even a remote chance to land “Japan’s Babe Ruth,” why not wait and put other pursuits on the back burner?
For the moment, Ohtani isn’t going anywhere until MLB agrees on a new posting system, and that won’t happen unless the players’ association gets on board. It was instructive when one club executive after another was asked about Ohtani this week and squirmed before switching the subject.
“I really have nothing to say regarding the topic because nothing has happened yet,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said when asked about Ohtani. “If something happens, several people know where to find me, and I would be more than happy to opine. But right now nothing has happened.”
3. The Boras factor
Scott Boras loves to hold court at the GM meetings and pontificate on baseball economics. His state-of-the-industry discourse this year was especially noteworthy given his powerhouse free-agent class. He represents J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez and Jeremy Hellickson among others. That’s a lot of negotiations to juggle even for someone with his prolific résumé.
In some cases, Boras will be pitching multiple players to the same team. The Red Sox have an interest in both Martinez and Hosmer, so that sets up a potentially complicated dynamic. If Boras’ history proves anything, he’s always willing to slow-play the market and bypass the GM and appeal directly to ownership if necessary. He has a history of waiting until January or even February for events to play out.
4. The luxury tax
Steinbrenner reiterated the Yankees’ desire to come in under the $197 million threshold in 2018. That objective casts significant doubt on the team’s willingness to play at the high end of the free-agent market.
“It’s absolutely a goal of mind — to be under,” Steinbrenner said. “And I believe it’s very attainable.
“I’ve been saying you can have a World Championship caliber team and not have a $200 million-plus payroll. We’re finally getting to a point where that’s coming true for us. We’ve got a lot of good young players on our team and we made it to Game 7 of the ALCS, and we’ve got a lot of good ones coming. I think that flexibility — it’s going to be a reality for us to do that and still field the kind of team that our fans demand.”
5. Internal team business
Executives from several clubs said they’ve spent more time than usual filling coaching, development and other positions early this offseason. As a result, they felt as if they were scrambling to catch up upon arrival in Orlando. Discussions seemed to have a more preliminary, ground-floor feel to them than in some years.
The Yankees left the meetings Wednesday and plunged back into the task of finding a manager. They interviewed San Francisco Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens and have more work to do before picking a successor to Joe Girardi. Even if you subscribe to the theory that GM Brian Cashman is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, priorities are priorities.
Fresh off a World Series, the Dodgers lost farm director Gabe Kapler to the Phillies and assistant farm director Jeremy Zoll to the Twins. They also had to replace assistant hitting coach Tim Hyers and fill several other internal positions. So Andrew Friedman and his crew have been far too busy to lament the team’s Game 7 loss to Houston.
Then there are the Braves, who have a new GM in his fourth day on the job. Alex Anthopoulos, fresh off a stint in the Dodgers’ front office, will try to hit the ground running while the results of a Major League Baseball investigation hang over the franchise.
6. Gluts at key positions
Stanton and Martinez are at the top of the power-hitter heap, but teams in search of pop have plenty of Plan Bs and Cs. Logan Morrison hit 38 home runs. Lucas Duda has surpassed 30 bombs twice since 2014, and Yonder Alonso hit 28 homers and slugged .501 this season. Beyond the big names, teams are generally content to wait because they might not see a huge distinction between the abundant second-tier choices.
The relief pitching crop is also deep. Beyond proven closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland, teams can pick from a menu of options that includes Brandon Morrow, Addison Reed, Brandon Kintzler, Bryan Shaw, Tommy Hunter, Jake McGee, Pat Neshek, Seung-Hwan Oh, Joe Smith, Huston Street, Luke Gregerson, Steve Cishek, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
Combine the depth at those spots with the increased willingness of teams to promote young players at the expense of blue collar veterans, and it can be a recipe for inertia. There are likely to be a lot of anxious free agents still looking for work in January.
7. A shortage of motivated sellers
Last year, White Sox GM Rick Hahn seized the initiative and traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton in early December. Hahn has since packed off veterans Todd Frazier, Jose Quintana, David Robertson and Melky Cabrera to further reduce payroll and fortify the farm system.
When asked about Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia, Chicago’s two most marketable commodities, Hahn spoke with the lack of urgency of a man who’s achieved most of his goals and has all the leverage. The White Sox could weigh trade offers for the two hitters this winter. Or Hahn could wait until July or next winter, because Abreu and Garcia are both signed through 2019.
The Detroit Tigers are also in rebuild mode, but GM Al Avila dispensed with a lot of heavy lifting when he traded J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander during the season. While Ian Kinsler‘s name continues to crop up in rumors, he’s making an affordable $10 million next season and the Tigers are under no huge pressure to move him.
Baltimore is always resistant to roster teardowns because owner Peter Angelos just isn’t built that way. And while Toronto could move Josh Donaldson and add some young talent, Blue Jays management has said it feels an obligation to put a competitive team on the field as a show of faith to the 3.2 million fans who came to Rogers Centre in 2017.
8. The 2018 class
The Philadelphia Phillies have a nice young nucleus and appear to have a pressing need for a top-of-the-rotation starter, but the front office has already told fans not to expect a marquee free-agent signing this winter. Barring a surprise, the Phillies probably won’t be involved in a pursuit of Jake Arrieta.
Like other teams with financial flexibility, the Phillies might want to stay flexible in anticipation of 2018, when Bryce Harper, Machado, Donaldson, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, Jose Quintana, A.J. Pollock, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, Cody Allen and Andrew McCutchen hit the open market as part of a monster free agent class. Things could get a lot more interesting if future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw exercises his opt-out clause and goes back on the market next winter at age 30. Why take the plunge on a big-ticket investment this winter when something even better might be just around the corner?