Who Will Make a Splash at the MLB Winter Meetings?

HamiltonWelcome to the second-annual edition of Grantland’s MLB Winter Meetings coverage. We’ll be filing frequent updates throughout each day of the meetings, weighing in on signings, trades, and rumors, while also providing as much color as possible from Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel, home of the The Great Christmas Arboretum Cotillion.

At last year’s Winter Meetings in Dallas, we saw Jose Reyes shock the baseball world by signing with the Marlins for $106 million. Then the Angels swooped in, landing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson for more than $300 million combined. Ten months later, both teams were playing golf, while teams with less splashy agendas competed in the playoffs.

Expect to see plenty of action at this year’s meetings too. Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke top the list of available free agents, while a number of teams have been linked to juicy trade talks. Here are 10 clubs that could make a splash by the time the week is up:

Texas Rangers

No team can top the Rangers’ 86 percent bulge in payroll since 2010. Thank the hugely lucrative TV deal coming down the pike, but also a management team that took its time building a contender, then ramped up spending once the time was right. For all that wallet-opening, though, the Rangers haven’t gone nuts with free-agent contracts, at least not yet. The biggest contract handed out by Texas during their current three-year playoff streak was a five-year, $75 million extension to keep Ian Kinsler in the Metroplex. On the open market, the biggest move was a five-year, $80 million deal for Adrian Beltre that now looks like a steal. From a total dollars standpoint, the $108 million outlay to land Yu Darvish beats all other Rangers deals, though nearly half of that figure was a posting fee, and Darvish’s immense talent and youth made him a worthwhile gamble.

All of this makes the current speculation that Texas might break the bank for Zack Greinke, or spend nine figures to retain Josh Hamilton, interesting. There’s been speculation that Greinke might bag the biggest contract ever given to a right-handed pitcher. There are few obvious holes in his game, though Greinke’s struggled with men on base for three years running, and he’ll be four years older than Darvish was when he signed his deal. Hamilton’s flaws are far more obvious and well-documented, ranging from his checkered past to the approach of his 32nd birthday in May to the sizable holes in his swing. Both players would certainly help the Rangers next season, and possibly well beyond. But Jon Daniels and company don’t take risks lightly.

Consider the buzz last offseason. Several early reports last winter speculated that Arlington would be Prince Fielder’s destination once the bidding war settled. Didn’t happen. On a much smaller scale, we’ve seen the Rangers act extremely frugally in making re-up decisions, such as not extending a qualifying offer to Mike Napoli for fear that he might accept it and leave the Rangers $13.3 million poorer for 2013. This is a team with big-market resources that plays in the fourth-biggest market in the country, but still maintains the small-market discipline that helped it build a winner. If the Dodgers whip out the Guggenheim Partners full-court press on Greinke, and Hamilton commands his $100 million-plus elsewhere, don’t be surprised if the Rangers move aggressively on other fronts — be it a trade for Justin Upton or Josh Willingham, or a series of subtler, but still shrewd moves.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have been contenders at the trade deadline in each of the past five seasons, in a couple of cases with legitimate World Series aspirations. During that half-decade, their biggest deadline acquisitions were Chad Qualls and Ryan Roberts. They’ve been far more aggressive in the offseason, though, with two blockbuster deals in that five-year span, both involving Matt Garza.

The buzz this year is that they’ll again trade a front-line starting pitcher, this time probably for a major league–ready bat and not a basket full of prospects. Of course we heard similar rumors last offseason, and everyone stayed put. When Jeff Niemann lost most of the year to injuries and Wade Davis starred in relief, that decision looked prescient, even if the Rays did fall just short of the postseason. The names linked to the Rays this time look far more attractive, with Upton’s one of the first to surface. But the big catch would be Royals superprospect Wil Myers, given Kansas City’s burning desire for starting pitching. Tampa Bay covets a big bat, with outfield one of the most obvious target positions now that B.J. Upton’s in Atlanta. Myers is the best hitting prospect in the game, he’s ready for the Show given his .314/.387/.600 line (with 37 homers) across Double- and Triple-A in his age-21 season, and he gives the Rays six years of team control, something they covet more than nearly any other team, given their perennially low payrolls. It’s not quite a perfect fit with the Royals, since James Shields only offers two years of team control and Jeremy Hellickson has some doubters given his high strand rates and unusual success on balls in play. The Rays could offer Matt Moore, but he’s signed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in the game. I don’t think David Price makes it to Opening Day 2014 as a Ray, given his pending gigantic arbitration award following a Cy Young–winning season, but a Price deal might need to be absolutely enormous to happen.

Meanwhile, the Rays could engage the Padres on a catcher (they need someone to play 80 games or more alongside framing master Jose Molina, and the Padres have depth at the position) and maybe to spend some money on a short-term deal for a first baseman and possibly a DH, the way they did last year with Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. They’ve signed James Loney to a deal, and adding Mike Morse or Mark Reynolds could make sense, too.

Kansas City Royals

On the flip side of that Wil Myers scenario, Dayton Moore has spoken candidly about his quest for pitching help, and spending more than one-quarter of his likely 2013 budget on Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie probably wasn’t a great use of limited resources. If the reports are true and Moore sees Myers as an easier trade chip to surrender than a good, but one-dimensional DH like Billy Butler, then you have to figure the pressure’s mounting to win soon, after tacking six-and-a-half years onto what’s now a 27-year rebuilding project.

It’s great to see a team marshal its assets and make a real run at it, after an entire generation came and went without witnessing playoff baseball at Kauffman Stadium. But from the outside, it’s frustrating to watch the Royals dangle a potential franchise player for good-but-not-quite-great pitchers, if the rumors are true. Especially when there are quality pitchers to be had on the open market who’d likely deliver more bang for the buck than $20 million-plus being spent on Santana and Guthrie in 2013. The good news is the Royals now say they aren’t looking to trade Myers. Let’s hope those cooler heads prevail, and that the Royals do the smart thing: spend for actual good pitching (Anibal Sanchez? Edwin Jackson? Hell, Greinke?!), rather than chip away at their great young core to get it.

Washington Nationals

It’s certainly possible that Alex Meyer one day becomes a star. But to GM Mike Rizzo’s credit, he focused on the major surplus value Denard Span could deliver at three years, $20 million, rather than fixate on the loss of an A-ball pitcher who some say might end up in the bullpen. With Span on board, the Nats added on-base ability and defense, while allowing Bryce Harper to play a corner outfield spot and focus on becoming a godless hitting machine. Meanwhile, Span’s low price tag opens up all kinds of other possibilities, all the way up to entering the Greinke sweepstakes. Rizzo’s kept his options elsewhere, too, standing firm against offering Adam LaRoche a three-year extension on the heels of a career year, while weighing trade offers for Morse and sizing up young slugger Tyler Moore’s future.

The Nationals were already flush with talent. Thanks to Rizzo’s maneuvering, they now also have the roster flexibility and money to add to what’s already one of the best top-three starter combinations in the game.

Toronto Blue Jays

It seems crazy to sweat the needs of a team that just acquired Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle in one fell swoop. But the Jays still have multiple holes to fill, including more starting pitching (Brandon Morrow’s health is never a sure thing, the kids might not be ready, and who the hell knows what you have in Ricky Romero) and DH (Adam Lind has been paid handsomely to be a replacement-level player). As it is in Texas, it’s great to see the Jays start acting like the large-market club they are. But you get the sense that the next move might be a trade, with Morse one of the most logical fits. Toronto’s catching surplus could factor into a deal, though the Nats are one team that’s not lacking at that position.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Greinke’s the obvious target here, as the Dodgers lack star pitching power beyond Clayton Kershaw, despite their sky-high (and rising) payroll. The Andre Ethier extension was probably a mistake tied to having a lot of money and thus feeling the need to spend it, given Ethier’s sharp platoon splits and just-above-average profile. Taking on Carl Crawford’s bloated contract as part of the Adrian Gonzalez overpay almost certainly was. Especially given the multiple outfielders left on the market who could be had for around the same price, or even less. I mean, if the Dodgers are really keen on paying megadollars for marquee talent, how’d they end up boxing themselves out of Josh Hamilton?

San Francisco Giants

The Giants’ patience in locking down an outfielder (or two) to replace Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan might end up paying off. The Braves and Nats have filled their outfield voids, the number of competitors for outfielders is shrinking, and the Giants might end up buying low on a short-term Shane Victorino deal that could deliver ample value at an attractive price. Frankly, the team’s top priority should be making Buster Posey a very rich man very soon. Avoiding a $75 million deal for an outfielder and either going the cheaper route or even promoting Gary Brown this summer would certainly help pad the Posey fund.

New York Yankees

Here’s another team that should be focusing on locking up its best player, in this case Robinson Cano, one year away from free agency. This being the Yankees, there’s more than enough money in house for Cano to buy an entire archipelago, and the Yankees to still make upgrades elsewhere. But they’re choosing to be more frugal, re-upping Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera on one-year deals. Avoiding multi-year deals has its benefits, from not getting stuck when aging pitchers eventually dry up to pocketing tens of millions of dollars just by ducking 10 cents under the luxury tax for 2014. But all of this relative penny-pinching might come with a costlier price. Already the Yankees are scrambling at catcher after getting outbid by the Pirates (the Pirates!!) for Russell Martin. They still have to fill Nick Swisher’s spot, while needing to find another utility infielder/bat after the Post‘s Joel Sherman reported that A-Rod has to go under the knife again after re-tearing his surgically repaired hip, another Father Time-defying effort from Derek Jeter, and a bunch of other things to go right. With the Jays and Orioles on the rise, the Rays with a chance to be right in it if they leverage their pitching surplus properly, and the Yankees likely not going big on Greinke or any other elite talents, the AL East race could get very interesting yet again in 2013.

Baltimore Orioles

My darkhorse pick to land Hamilton. It makes too much sense, really. The Nate McLouth/Lew Ford Experience was fun last season, but the O’s aren’t going to go 29-9 in one-run games every year, and they could use a premium talent like Hamilton to augment the middle of the lineup and fight back against some inevitable team regression. Of course, this assumes that Peter Angelos dips into the king’s ransom he collects from regional sports network MASN every year, with some estimates pegging the RSN’s annual take at close to $200 million (with more than 85 percent of that total going to the O’s). Granted, these are the Orioles, who famously overspent on aging talent for years, in a desperate and futile attempt to cling to their success in the ’90s. But the team’s payroll’s been slashed to an extremely manageable level, phenoms Dylan Bundy and Manny Machado are poised to break out sometime soon, and hell, just because the numbers say regression is probable doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.

The surprise team of 2012 was an amazing story. Following it up with another playoff run is a worthy goal.

Seattle Mariners

We talk a lot about teams recognizing what they have, and not overreaching for new players when the rest of the roster doesn’t support that kind of aggression. But the O’s and A’s reminded us that crazy stuff happens more than you’d expect. In the Mariners’ case, you’ve got several high-variance players who could swing the team’s 2013 outcome by 10, even 15 games — and that’s before Seattle spends dime one this offseason. Dustin Ackley looked like a future star a year ago, then a scrub in 2012. Justin Smoak has a top prospect’s pedigree, and it might be too soon to completely write him off. Jesus Montero was considered a near can’t-miss hitting star, so maybe we shouldn’t get too depressed over a rough rookie season at age 22. And that’s before we get to the pitching side, where top prospects like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen might seem like long shots to make a big impact with the big club next season, but we won’t know until we see it. Jumping in on Hamilton or Michael Bourn, making a blockbuster trade for Upton, going after a bopper from the Royals, dealing for Willingham…these are all viable strategies for a team that needs a boost in offense, and might very well have some of the tools in place to fuel a big bounceback season.

It would be an uphill climb, to be sure. But you could have said the same thing about Oakland having to overcome the loaded Rangers and the spendy Angels last year, and look how that turned out. Someone’s going to emerge as the underdog story of 2013. Why not the Mariners?

Filed Under: Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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