If ever there were a sport in need of a shiny, fancy distraction at a particular moment in time, it is baseball in the second week of December 2019.
And it just so happens that the ingredients — a handful of elite free agents looking for homes, some intriguing names available on the trade market and a number of highly motivated, deep-pocketed teams on the prowl for either — are in place for such a thing to occur.
Will baseball be saved from scandal, at least temporarily, by a busy, star-studded winter session — full of nine-figure signings, blockbuster deals and mega news conferences? Could we see one or more of the three free agent headliners — Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg — appearing on the podium in the media center this week? Could we get a massive trade involving such players as Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor and/or Josh Hader?
Recent history would suggest no; last year, for example, the biggest moves made at the meetings were the Philadelphia Phillies’ signing of Andrew McCutchen and the Seattle Mariners’ trade for Edwin Encarnacion. That offseason, of course, is best remembered for $300 million men Manny Machado and Bryce Harper waiting until late February to sign.
But there are reasons to believe things could be different at these winter meetings — busier and more blockbuster-y. Or at the very least, that this year we may not have to wait until spring training camps to be opened for baseball’s biggest offseason moves to occur. Here are a few of those reasons:
The pace so far. Already, this has been a faster-moving free agent marketplace than any of the past few, with four multiyear deals of four or more years signed — only two fewer than during the entire 2018-19 offseason — with a handful that far exceeded predictions in terms of money and years. Zack Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies last week was the most vivid example.
Simply put, there are more teams — including both perennial contenders and wannabes — participating in the high-end free agent market than in previous winters, leading to more (and earlier) competition and quicker deals.
Even veteran infielder Mike Moustakas signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds in the first week of December. Why is that significant? Because Moustakas is a client of agent Scott Boras, whose modus operandi in previous winters has been to wait as long as possible to get his clients signed, in hopes of drumming up late action.
Which leads us to …
The Boras factor. Because the uber-agent represents Cole, Rendon and Strasburg, his annual State of the Market address, a winter meetings staple, will be even more anticipated than usual — and perhaps even more full of awful puns, tortured metaphors and hyperbolic claims.
And because Boras represents both Cole and Strasburg, by far the two top pitchers on the free agent market — thus putting them in direct competition with each other — there is a sense around the industry that he will look to get one of them signed quickly. And if so, the smart money would be on Strasburg, who last month opted out of the final four years of his Washington Nationals contract and is believed to be looking for a new deal along the lines of that of Nationals teammate Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million).
But with more teams bidding for high-end free agents this winter — as opposed to last winter, when the markets for Machado and Harper were notably thin — we could even see all three marquee Boras clients signed by a more reasonable date.
The Dodgers and Yankees. Much of the stagnation that gripped the past few offseasons can be attributed to the fact these two behemoths, despite the best efforts of Boras and his fellow agents, largely sat out the high-end free agent markets in those winters. The Dodgers, in fact, have never signed a nine-figure deal with a free agent under the Andrew Friedman regime, while the Yankees last signed one in January 2014 (pitcher Masahiro Tanaka for seven years and $155 million).
But both franchises, having gotten their financial houses in order after several years of (highly relative) frugality, appear ready to dive back into the elite free agent pools this winter, with the Yankees’ brass having already met with Cole and Strasburg in Southern California and the Dodgers linked to all three top Boras clients.
There is perhaps no better spark for a combustible free agent market than a pair of highly motivated, financially positioned, creatively oriented front offices in the Bronx and Chavez Ravine — during a winter loaded with high-end talent.
Will that lead to a wild and headline-filled winter meetings? Maybe not. But at the very least, it might be enough to distract us, if only for a few days, from the many plagues now visited upon the game.