I'm not sure exactly when the winter meetings turned into an agent-fest. Or a free-agent-fest.
But sometime between the Curt Flood verdict and the founding of the Scott Boras Corporation, the good old-fashioned blockbuster eight-player mega-trade at the winter meetings almost became an endangered species.
Well, not this year. As pretty much the entire sport gears up for next week's annual winter meetings yakathon in San Diego, there's more talk about trade rumors than free-agent rumors, for the first time in years. Check out these comments from assorted general managers and assistant GMs in the past couple of days:
From an AL GM: "There's a lot brewing, a lot of trade talk. I would expect next week to be busy."
From an NL exec: "Have you seen the free-agent list? There are no bats left on the market. So if you want a bat, you have to make a trade."
From an NL GM: "We could see a lot of trades. That's a definite possibility. There's been a lot of chatter."
Of course, with virtually all of the prominent free-agent pitchers still looking for work, we'll be hearing about them, too. But here comes a list of 10 names to watch at the winter meetings next week. Shockingly, only three free agents made the cut:
LHP Jon Lester
Here's the deal. We need Lester to pick a team sooner, not later. The entire starting-pitching market -- both free agents and trade chips -- has been placed in a state of frozen trigger-finger-itis, waiting for him to kick off the avalanche.
"Lester affects everything that goes on with all these pitchers," said another NL exec. "And not just free agents, Lester affects when and where [Jeff] Samardzija goes. Then Samardzija affects what happens with [Cole] Hamels. It all starts with Lester. He sets the free-agent market and kick-starts the trade market. Depending on when he signs, he could create the greatest winter meetings in decades or the most boring. He'll have a direct effect on the number of hotel rooms canceled and the amount of alcohol consumed."
The good news is Lester's agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, like to move quickly -- and every executive I polled expects Lester to pick a team before the end of next week. But the bad news is, there are still four highly motivated teams involved, with plenty of funds in the checking account, in the Red Sox, Cubs, Giants and Dodgers. So this race has had a surprisingly tough time reaching the finish line.
RHP Max Scherzer
Don't take Scherzer's inclusion on this list to mean I think he'll actually sign at the winter meetings. If signing were the criteria, "you'd need to have a winter meetings during Super Bowl week for Scherzer to make your list," quipped one exec who actually sounded amused by Scott Boras' slow pace in the Scherzer talks. But if all a guy has to do to make this top 10 is get talked about all week, well, heck, I guarantee he can pull that off.
Remember, Boras has already announced that the Scherzer negotiations are for owners, not GMs. So this seems all set up for Boras favorites like Mike Illitch (Tigers) and Ted Lerner (Nationals) to get be romanced by sales pitches that begin: "Want to win the World Series? This is the guy who can win you the World Series."
But the most widespread front-office conspiracy theory goes this way: The Nationals trade Jordan Zimmermann, then turn around and sign Scherzer, a one-time No. 1 pick by (guess who?) Nationals GM Mike Rizzo when he worked in Arizona. Stay tuned.
RHP James Shields
Shields has spent the winter riding just behind Lester's bumper, waiting for Lester to set his own market in motion. I just finished working on my annual "when will they sign" survey. And the nearly unanimous sentiment was that Shields could sign within days of Lester -- with one of the "Lester losers," as another AL exec put it.
And remember, two of those "Lester losers" could include men of influence who have seen Shields at his best -- manager Joe Maddon of the Cubs and team president Andrew Friedman of the Dodgers. Either could be a very real destination, depending on dollars and timing.
OF Justin Upton
You know how many outfielders in the current free-agent market hit 20 home runs this year? How about zero. You know how many home runs Upton has averaged in his two seasons in Atlanta? How about 28. And now that the Braves have signed Nick Markakis and are pointing toward the 2017 opening of their new ballpark, they're more motivated than ever to trade Upton -- but only, say teams that have spoken with the Braves, if they get even more in return than their haul for Jason Heyward.
True, Upton is a one-year rental, dreaming about a Giancarlo-esque payday in free agency. But he's also just 26, will be playing for a monster contract and will net a compensation pick when he leaves. And power is so rare these days, the Braves have fielded calls from more than a dozen teams, according to one exec who spoke with them.
So where will he land? Upton can block deals only to the Cubs, Brewers, Blue Jays and Indians. So this could go in many directions. But the Padres need a thumper and have been aggressive on Upton and others. The Orioles are in win-now mode, need to replace Markakis and Nelson Cruz, and don't have good options in free agency anymore. And the Rangers have a deep system and just lost out in their pursuit of a one-year deal with Torii Hunter. But reports of the Mariners' interest appear to be exaggerated, and it would be a monumental upset for Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik to deal a controllable, high-upside arm like Taijuan Walker for a rent-a-bat.
It would be easier to list the position players the Red Sox won't talk about than the ones they will. So let's do that. Clubs that have checked in say the Sox have no interest in dealing Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez or Rusney Castillo. And obviously, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia aren't packing any suitcases.
Other than that, almost any position player, young or old, is a potential chip. And the Red Sox have so many starting pitchers on their shopping list (Cole Hamels, Jeff Samardzija, Rick Porcello, etc.), it's impossible to predict quite yet which of them will wind up in Fenway.
But it's Cespedes who is generating massive interest, and figures to be the centerpiece of some major package or other. The Red Sox have told everyone, though, that they've plotted out scenarios in which he's still on their team. So if their path to trading for a starting pitcher takes them down some other road, they're surprisingly cool with that.
RHP Rick Porcello
Teams that have spoken with the Tigers report they're listening intently on both Porcello and David Price, each of whom are a year away from hitting the free-agent exit ramps. They won't trade away both. But dealing either is tricky.
Execs they've talked to have the distinct impression the Tigers won't trade Price unless they know they can bring back Max Scherzer. And good luck trying to make those two moves on the same time frame.So that would seem to make Porcello, who won't even turn 26 until this month, the more likely candidate to move. And the Tigers and Red Sox have the ingredients for a trade built around a Porcello-for-Cespedes package. But the Tigers have made it clear they aren't subtracting any starting pitchers unless they have a replacement lined up. And the Red Sox's options (Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, etc.) might be too iffy and inexperienced for a team in a win-now state of mind.
How can a team with win-the-World-Series dreams trade a pitcher this good? Only if there's an ace-type alternative lined up, of course. And we've already laid out that "out goes Zimmermann, in comes Mad Max" scenario that's sweeping through front offices everywhere, but "it's so obvious," said one of the GMs quoted earlier, "it makes me question if it's real."
Well, it's real, all right. So many teams report that the Nationals are listening closely on a big group of prominent players -- Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Denard Span, Tyler Clippard, even Ian Desmond -- that almost anything is possible. This is a team with the potential to make the biggest deal of the offseason. And maybe not just one.
"I could see [GM Mike Rizzo] making a few blockbusters," said another NL exec, "with the pitching staff in particular."
LHP Cole Hamels
The Phillies might succeed in finally trading somebody next week. (Marlon Byrd, anyone?) But it's highly unlikely to be Hamels. Clubs that have checked in on him report that while Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has told teams to make an offer if they're interested, he's leaning toward waiting until the free-agent market settles before the Hamels bidding gets serious.
One Phillies exec adamantly denies that they've asked for any team's two or three best prospects for Hamels. Yet other teams continue to complain about the asking price. "Totally out of line," grumbled one of the executives quoted earlier. So even if the Phillies disagree, if that's the perception at this point, it's probably no better than 50-50 that Hamels gets moved this winter.
"Here's my take," said an official of one club that has traded an ace in the not-so-distant past. "I think the Phillies can make a good trade for Cole Hamels. I don't think it will be a grand slam. If he was making $5 million a year, then they might get a grand slam. But he's not. I think they can make a good trade, one that makes sense for both teams. But I think there are too many different starting-pitcher options available for a team to give up the kind of prospects they're asking and pay that money. Teams don't have to do that right now. And they're not going to do that."
RHP Jeff Samardzija
As the A's unload, Samardzija has the look of the first of the available ace types to get traded, just because Oakland is pushing so hard to deal him. "He's ahead of Hamels as far as timing," an executive of one club said. "I think he goes right behind Lester."
One GM who has spoken with A's deal-master Billy Beane says Beane views this as a simple mathematical equation: "Samardzija has one year left [before free agency]. So they feel like they can trade him and then sign a one-year free agent and turn him into a good pitcher, because they've had so much success doing that for such a long time."
But while there are obvious potential fits with teams like the Diamondbacks, White Sox and possibly the Red Sox, other clubs believe Beane will have a tougher time than many people assume in finding a team that can assume Samardzija's salary (likely to be about $9 million) and the array of young players Beane is looking for (with one of them, ideally, being a shortstop). "It's just hard," one exec said, "to give up a lot of value for a one-year pitcher."
OF Matt Kemp
Here's one final prediction for you: The Dodgers will trade an outfielder this winter. Maybe more than one. But while they're talking about Kemp with the Orioles, Mariners, Padres and others, dealing Kemp is the option they're least interested in -- basically, their "Uh-Oh, We Can't Move Anybody Else So We'd Better Move Him" plan.
So teams that have spoken with the Dodgers report they're working much harder to deal Andre Ethier and/or Carl Crawford. No shocker there. And they're trying to determine how much of those remaining contracts (four years, $73.5 million on Ethier; three years, $62.25 million on Crawford) they would have to chomp on to make that possible.
Don't forget that with Hanley Ramirez gone, trading Kemp could potentially leave the Dodgers with no right-handed power other than the streaky Yasiel Puig (a guy who hit two homers in 310 trips in June, July and August). So will there be lots of Kemp buzz next week? Hundred percent chance of that. But does that mean he actually gets dealt next week? Only if it's a trade they can't possibly say no to.
10 more names to watch
Ian Kennedy: One of 100 balls Padres have in the air.
Wade Miley: The Diamondbacks are aggressively trying to reshape their team.
Brandon McCarthy: Might be first to go in second tier of free-agent starters.
Marlon Byrd: Byrd gets our vote for Most Likely Phillie to Get Traded Next Week.
Melky Cabrera: With free-agent bats all but gone, he seems like he's next up.
Chase Headley: Clearly the best free-agent third baseman left out there. But he's looking for big payday.
Alexei Ramirez: The White Sox would move him, with many teams hunting for a shortstop.
Elvis Andrus: The Rangers are dangling him. But eight years, $118 million is a huge obstacle.