- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Only 20 days have passed since Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Cabrera to end the World Series, but this offseason has already generated one of the biggest trades in history and some aggressive signings. There are many market forces at play, baseball officials and agents report. Among them:
1. The Sticker Shock
In the first days after the free-agency period began, agents presented their asking prices to general managers -- huge numbers, in many cases, such as Anibal Sanchez asking the Tigers for a deal in the range of $100 million. These suggested retail costs have been enhanced, of course, by the anticipated influx of cash into the market this winter.
The response of club executives has been a mad search for the best bargains on short-term deals; we are seeing the kind of deals in November that we typically see in January. This is why Oakland quickly jumped on Bartolo Colon on a one-year, $3 million deal, why the Rays pushed aggressively to get Joel Peralta locked into a two-year, $6 million deal, and why Scott Baker got a solid, one-year $5.5 million deal just six months after he had Tommy John surgery, and why so many teams are pushing for the low-cost options such as Jeremy Bonderman.
It won't be until after the best bargains are cleaned out, some executives believe, that the clubs will seriously start to consider the more expensive options of Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, et al.
2. The Prospect Love
Twenty years ago, most teams probably would've swapped a young, unproven minor leaguer such as Jurickson Profar for an established star such as Justin Upton without hesitating. Remember the day when the Mariners aggressively dealt for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb, dealing a couple of unknowns (at that time) named Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek?
Times have changed, and the perceived value of prospects has skyrocketed, almost to a point that some executives believe teams have started to cling too tightly to young players. "They're still prospects," one GM said this week, "meaning that anything can happen. You still don't know whether they can play in the big leagues."
A recent example: The market value of Texas infield prospect Mike Olt soared during the summer as teams scrambled to identify trade targets. The Rangers -- who have built a championship-caliber team through their player development -- kept Olt through the July 31 trade deadline, then called him up in August. Olt struggled in 40 plate appearances, going 5-for-33 with one extra-base hit, and rival officials believe his value on the open market took a major hit just from that that first brief showing.
Speaking generally -- and not specifically about Olt -- an NL executive said, "Sometimes, keeping a prospect feels like the safe thing. But that doesn't mean it's the right thing [to do.]"
Upton is an established big leaguer, and he is available, in the right deal. But to date, nobody has come close to meeting the Diamondbacks' asking price.
3. The Desperate Team Syndrome
The teams that typically drive the winter market -- the Yankees, the Red Sox, etc. -- don't seem to be playing that role. Rather, it's the teams starved for success. The Mariners are thought by agents to be in this mode, aggressively shopping around at a time when they are under a lot of pressure to do a big move. The Indians are in need of a big shakeup because of their search for good young starting pitching, which is why they are expected by other GMs to be in the middle of the trade market (Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez).
And rival executives sensed that Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos was itching to do something big, to push the Blue Jays back into relevancy. "He has been fishing around hard," said a friend.
He caught some Marlins, and, on Friday, Anthopoulos landed Melky Cabrera.
The surprise for me about Cabrera's signing was that he didn't take a one-year deal rather than two years. You knew he was going to get offers, in spite of his 50-game suspension, because baseball executives and owners are all trying to win and get the best players on their rosters, plain and simple. But if he had taken a one-year offer and gone through 2013 without a positive drug test, he could have made a case that what he accomplished over the past two years was legitimate -- then hit the market next fall with his value re-established.
But with the two-year deal, Cabrera gets the security of his first significant multiyear deal -- the $16 million, guaranteed -- and he goes to a great city with a relatively low-key media contingent, to be part of what is perceived to be a really good lineup. And by taking the two-year deal, the thinking is that this will remove the pressure on Cabrera to jump out to a quick start in 2013, to re-prove himself. He can hit the market again after a couple of seasons, at age 30.
The speed the Blue Jays have put together for their roster could be breathtaking:
SS Jose Reyes
3B Brett Lawrie
CF Colby Rasmus
But keep in mind that the Blue Jays still have work to do because of the roster surpluses they have at catcher and in the outfield, with John Buck, Lind, Davis and Arencibia all candidates to be dealt. Davis is signed for next year, at $2.5 million.
Getting Cabrera adds intrigue to the Blue Jays' lineup, writes Bob Elliott.
4. The Dodgers
They loom over all talks this winter, like the hungriest uncle at the Thanksgiving feast, with the greatest hunger of any team we've seen since George Steinbrenner's Yankees in the first days of free agency in 1976.
The Dodgers are poised to get at least $150 million per season in local TV revenue, let alone the money they get from attendance or national TV dollars or any other source of income. No wonder the team just doesn't seem to care about painting within the lines of the economic structure laid out by the other 29 teams.
GM Ned Colletti has told some of his peers how different it is to operate under the current parameters: The working orders are essentially to make the team better, regardless of cost.
Some other teams thought the Dodgers' deal with the Red Sox was crazy -- but Dodgers' executives really didn't care how that trade was perceived. L.A. negotiated one of the first deals of the offseason with reliever Brandon League, a three-year, $22.5 million deal that has been widely panned within the industry as a clear overpay. Similarly, rival executives were stunned by the Dodgers' $25.7 million bid for a young Korean pitcher.
The bottom line to all of this: If the Dodgers target a player using their current methodology, they will win the bidding. The Yankees are increasingly concerned about painting within the lines, and so are the Red Sox and the Cubs and other big-market teams. Those boundaries don't really exist for the Dodgers, it appears.
The Rangers want Zack Greinke and are willing to be aggressive. The Angels want to keep Greinke. But ultimately, rival GMs predict, if the Dodgers intend to sign Greinke, they will get him. L.A. is also bidding for Hiroki Kuroda, whom they know well from his previous time with the team. "Cost is no object for them," said a GM. "They are playing a different game than the rest of us right now."
• It would be a shock if the Marlins don't trade Giancarlo Stanton sometime in the next 20 months because he's not happy with the team's dealings and it would be a stunner if he agreed to a multiyear deal with the team.
And hey, if the Marlins want to get the most value in return, sooner is always better than later; they might as well deal him now before his salary really starts to climb. I really don't think Stanton will be traded this winter, but the Marlins' officials certainly couldn't offend more folks than they have already if they did.
• Baseball's climate is right for more salary dumps, writes Joel Sherman.
3B Miguel Cabrera
2B Omar Infante
Pretty good. And the outfield defense will be greatly helped by Hunter's arrival.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Scott Fletcher is among the candidates to be the hitting coach of the Red Sox, writes Michael Silverman.
2. The Orioles hired another national cross-checker.
3. The Phillies have a couple of options at third base, writes Jim Salisbury.
4. Pitching is still the priority for the Twins.
5. The Brewers also are still exploring the pitching market, said assistant GM Gord Ash.
7. The Royals confirmed some minor league signings.
8. Sometimes, picking a manager is about getting the right guy rather than the best guy, says Pat Gillick.
10. The Marlins hired their coaches.
11. The Rockies filled out their coaching staff, as Patrick Saunders writes.
• Fox's decision to sell the Dodgers many years ago could wind up costing it a fortune in TV dollars.
• Prosecutors want Lenny Dykstra to serve a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.
• There are various estimates for how much money the trade to Toronto will cost some of the players involved, as mentioned within this piece. Over the length of his five-year, $96 million deal, Jose Reyes might pay almost $5 million in additional taxes.
• The Cardinals' newest jerseys were unveiled.
• Vanderbilt is worried about Tennessee's quarterback.
• Last year, Hurricane Irene did a whole lot of damage to Vermont and other states, and when we started a charity to help Vermont farmers hurt by the flooding, the very first player who reached out to help was Rick Porcello; his family has owned a place in Vermont for years.
So it wasn't surprising to see Porcello swap his No. 48 to Hunter in exchange for help for Hurricane Sandy victims, another classy gesture.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney examines four key forces at play in this year's free-agent and trade markets, including the sticker shock some teams have experienced when looking at top free agents, which has led to a run on early bargain signings.