LAS VEGAS — Tuesday at baseball’s winter meetings dawned with rampant rumors of a blockbuster trade that would have sent ace Noah Syndergaard from the New York Mets to the Miami Marlins and all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto in the opposite direction — or perhaps triangulated into a three-way deal involving New York Yankees third baseman Miguel Andujar, which would have resulted in Syndergaard pitching in pinstripes in 2019.
By Tuesday evening, as team executives spilled out of their suites and into the 33 gouge-priced restaurants and bars of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino — to do a different sort of damage to their owners’ bottom lines — nothing of the sort had been consummated, or even appeared imminent at that point.
The trade market, however, was in full bloom Tuesday, with the aforementioned names joined by the likes of Rick Porcello and Jackie Bradley Jr. (Boston Red Sox), Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians), Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood (Los Angeles Dodgers), Amed Rosario (Mets) and Tanner Roark (Washington Nationals) among those being tossed around as trade possibilities on the casino floors and in the long lines at the multiple Starbucks.
In a related development, among the names that were not being discussed at such high volume: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
While all indications continued to be that the two elite players on the free agent market — each of whom was taking aim at topping Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million pact as the largest in baseball history — would go deep into the winter or even the spring before signing, many teams, including some that might otherwise be in on Harper and/or Machado, were showing an unwillingness to wait around.
“At this time of the offseason, that’s often the case,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who already has added an elite starting pitcher (Patrick Corbin), two relievers and two catchers. “You have your handful of really good free agents who go off the board. You’ve got a couple elite guys who it’s going to take a little while longer. So I think a lot of [teams] do turn to the trade market to see what’s out there. And if they don’t want to give up what it takes [to acquire a player via trade], they often go back to the free agent market.”
One day after their general manager vowed not to “sit around and be held hostage by one or two players,” the Philadelphia Phillies — whose deep resources and aggressive stance at the start of this offseason had them the odds-on favorite to nab Harper or Machado — made a somewhat surprising move to sign 32-year-old outfielder Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal (pending a physical) reportedly worth $50 million. It was the biggest contract for a free agent position player this offseason, which says more about the slow-moving market than about McCutchen.
Rather than signaling a pivot away from Machado and/or Harper, the Phillies’ signing of McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP, was widely viewed as a separate move, one that — given their financial might and ambition — wouldn’t preclude them from also taking on one of those high-priced sluggers, if they choose to do so.
But by later in the day, the Phillies were also being linked to the trade market for Realmuto, the Marlins’ talented and highly coveted catcher. Between McCutchen and Realmuto, the Phillies could add some 40 annual home runs to their lineup, thus solving one of their biggest needs this offseason: power.
As the Phillies work through their offseason checklist, the Dodgers have emerged as the West Coast hub of transactional momentum.
The Dodgers present a curious case: a large-market, high-profile franchise — with back-to-back NL titles — that by all measures looks to be the perfect landing spot for Harper, a Las Vegas native. But they, too, were believed to be more engaged in trade discussions than in high-level free agents at this point, seeking to turn their surplus of outfielders and starting pitchers into a couple of significant upgrades.
The Dodgers were known to be shopping established outfield assets such as Puig, Matt Kemp and Joc Pederson, but a more intriguing possibility is top outfield prospect Alex Verdugo, 22, who could bring back a far richer return — perhaps an elite starting pitcher such as Kluber or Bauer.
“It’s a luxury when . . . you have a lot of good players already on your roster [and] you don’t need to chase a certain player [and] overpay,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “What [Harper] decides to do . . . is going to influence the market. [But] we have a pretty clear vision on the guys we’re targeting.”
Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, can only hope the Dodgers’ moves clear some payroll space and position them for a late, aggressive play for Harper.
“Every move you make,” Rizzo said, “there’s a reaction from the industry.”
Meanwhile, of all the many possibilities and narratives as the sun set on the Las Vegas Strip on Tuesday, the notion of a Syndergaard/Realmuto swap, in whatever form it would take, remained the most tantalizing.
By this point, there is little doubt the Marlins will deal their all-star catcher, and the Mets, in the midst of an aggressive offseason of dealmaking behind new GM Brodie Van Wagenen, would love to have him. But in Syndergaard, 26, they have an ace-caliber starter — albeit one who has made just 32 starts in the past two seasons — with one of the best fastballs in baseball who is under club control for three more years.
The juiciest possibility of all was the involvement of the Yankees in a potential swap with the Mets — their crosstown rivals with whom they haven’t pulled off a significant trade in a decade and a half — and/or the Marlins, whose CEO, Derek Jeter, is merely the greatest Yankee of the past half-century.
For the Yankees, Syndergaard would probably cost them Andujar, the AL rookie of the year runner-up, and a couple of top prospects. They could also maneuver their way to Realmuto, though that would also be costly and would lead to the question of what to do with current catcher Gary Sanchez.
As the winter meetings head into their final full day — the proceedings end Thursday morning with the Rule 5 draft — with almost zero chance of a Harper and/or Machado signing to upend the industry, this is what counts as excitement.