Expectations are high for a busy Winter Meetings

Bless You Boys

Sunday marked the return of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings, as leadership of all 30 teams, plus agents, journalists, the attendant trade show, and a host of luminaries converge on San Diego for four days. This is the first time the annual talks have been held in person since 2019. Last year’s edition, including the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft, were cancelled due to the lockout. The 2020 edition was virtual due to the pandemic.

An awful lot has happened in the interim, including the most contentious CBA negotiations in almost 30 years. Perhaps expectations for plentiful action on the trade and free agent fronts are a bit high on enthusiasm for the return of regular Winter Meetings. Still, in the wake of the Texas Rangers’ huge splash in signing Jacob deGrom, the rumor mill is running hot at the right time and there’s enthusiasm for a lot of players to sign or be traded before the meetings end on Wednesday. Hopefully there’s plenty of action, including from Scott Harris and the Detroit Tigers. Just don’t be too surprised if, in typical Winter Meetings fashion, things turn out to be a little quieter than the hype.

Items on the hot stove

Friday’s stunning news that the Texas Rangers had inked the long-time Mets ace to a mega deal worth $185 million over five years really kicked the rumor mill into high gear. Currently Aaron Judge is asking for a nine year deal and the Yankees and the Giants appear to be the two big players for his services. The Yankees offered a reported eight-year deal worth $300 million to the game’s premiere power hitter, and would presumably go higher, but the Giants are free and clear of most long-term commitments and have plenty of money to spend.

Meanwhile, the two top free agent starters left on the market, Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon, are sitting in the cat bird’s seat. With deGrom off the table, and the Mets now in dire need of reinforcements, one of the two seems likely to leverage a huge deal from Steve Cohen. Verlander has also been in talks with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that seems like the most obvious fit for him should Jim Crane and the Astros not decide to up their offer. Just about all the big players as well as the Twins and Orioles are reportedly interested in Rodon.

The other hot items are the shortstops. Carlos Correa seems likely to wait out the market a bit, but the Dodgers or Twins still seem like the most likely fits should the latter finally decide to really make a big move. Dansby Swanson has interest from the Chicago Cubs, while Trea Turner appears to have the eye of the Philadelphia Phillies, among several other teams. Dave Dombrowski is rumored to be interested in all of the top shortstops, perhaps in particular Xander Bogearts, who he had in Boston. The Red Sox have yet to give up their pursuit of their homegrown star either, but with the Cubs and several other clubs interested, a homecoming seems more and more unlikely. Likewise the Padres have been prominent in the shortstop rumors, among others.

Of course, the Winter Meetings had developed a reputation as a flop where big deals are concerned over the years. Teams and agents have tended to wait out the market on top free agents, and the big trades have been more common in July. The additional playoff spot in each league seemed to cool the trade market this season, so perhaps more teams having a credible chance to compete in the October tournament will make them more competitive this offseason. Perhaps the return to regular in-person talks will touch off more activity as well.

Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com weighs in with some predictions.

The Tigers remain mysterious

Other than checking in on former Cubs catcher, Willson Contreras, the new front office under Scott Harris has done a good job maintaining radio silence since taking over. The deal struck with Matt Boyd wasn’t telegraphed, and while the Tigers needs are easily identified, potential solutions remain obscure. More to the point, we really have no idea how aggressive Harris intends to be this time around. It would be pretty disappointing if the Tigers went with nothing more than stopgap measures at a few positions, but we’ll have to see what unfolds.

So far there hasn’t been a catcher signed or traded, so they do have some options in that regard. Still the crop of free agents who would be upgrades from Tucker Barnhart isn’t deep. Beyond Contreras, it’s pretty much Omar Narvaez, who does hit left-handed, and possibly Christian Vasquez. On the trade front, the vultures are circling the A’s in regard to their young star catcher, Sean Murphy. Also, the Blue Jays still have enough catching depth to possibly deal one for pitching help.

This brings us to the crucial point. With the addition of Boyd, the Tigers projected payroll stands at $118 million per FanGraphs. Last year they spent $135 million. If Harris only has $17 million more to work with this offseason, the Tigers are not going to be a significantly improved team without some serious trade action. We can presume that he’s got the authority to spend more this year, particularly with Miguel Cabrera’s contract finally entering its final year. Still it would be surprising if the Tigers won out in bidding wars over someone like Contreras, or picked up one of the numerous star shortstops on the market. If they’re going to make a really impactful move this offseason, rather than just filling holes with rental players, a trade seems like the most likely avenue.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Harris, supplemented by the counsel of his new Vice-President and Assistant GM, Rob Metzler, most recently the Tampa Bays Rays long-time scouting director, and new scouting director, Mark Connor, who most recently held that position with the San Diego Padres, sees the Tigers’ farm system in a very different light than did Al Avila’s front office. The club currently has the type of system that makes for good trade fodder anyway.

Currently, the Tigers’ pipeline is going to be ranked widely in the bottom third in the league now that Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, and most of the pitching prospects have graduated from prospect status. However, that’s a pretty good amount of talent just produced, and really the club just currently lacks a blue chip prospect or two behind them. They have plenty of quality young pitchers to work with, and the addition of Boyd could free them up to deal someone like Beau Brieske, Joey Wentz, or even Matt Manning in combination with a deeper prospect package. Beyond that, there are a lot of solid young prospects, including 3-4 who should have top 100 status on the top prospect scouting sites. In short, they have a lot of quality prospects, but no one too painful to deal away. With three of the top 50 picks and a strong bonus pool to work with in their first draft next summer, don’t be surprised if Harris and company decide to cash in their chips on some of the prior GM’s farm system.

Beyond the catcher position, the Tigers clearly need offensive help in the infield and in the outfield. With Jonathan Schoop under contract for 2022, and Jeimer Candelario gone to the Washington Nationals after being non-tendered a contract by Detroit, third base is the obvious hole where they could bolster the offense. They could also use a good right-handed bat in the outfield. Beyond the offense, the bullpen has lost Michael Fulmer and Andrew Chafin both. Finding some help there would be wise considering the youth of the pitching staff in general. But once again, options in free agency, particularly at third base, are limited.

Waiting on a GM

There is one key bit of front office news we’ve been waiting on. Scott Harris has already hired Metzler and Conner, as well as a new set of hitting coaches and the addition of Robin Lund to the pitching coaches under Chris Fetter. They still don’t have a general manager yet, however. Harris is largely handling things himself as President of Baseball Operations, with four assistant GM’s, Metzler, Jay Sartori, Sam Menzin, and player development chief, Ryan Garko, underneath him in the organizational hierarchy.

This isn’t something that necessarily has to happen anytime soon, but if Harris is considering candidates for the GM position, the Winter Meetings might provide another forum for discussions.

Rule 5 and the draft lottery

Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET, the inaugural MLB draft lottery will be held at the Winter Meetings, and broadcast on MLB network. This is a feature of the new collective bargaining agreement, with the six teams with the worst records in 2022 all in the mix for the first overall pick in the 2023 amateur draft. In total, all 18 non-postseason playing teams from 2022 will be included in the lottery.

The system is heavily weighted toward the teams with the worst records, so the Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Oakland A’s each have a 16.5 percent chance of landing the first overall pick. The Tigers, with the sixth worst record, hold a 7.5 percent chance. After the first six positions are determined in the lottery, the rest will be ordered by reverse winning percentage. So it’s possible that the team with the worst record in baseball last year could end up with the seventh overall pick. We’ll see how things go as the first year of the anti-tanking measure plays out.

Finally, on Wednesday, the Rule 5 draft will take place at the Winter Meetings as well. The Tigers will pick sixth overall. This is for players with enough years of pro ball who aren’t protected on any team’s 40-man roster. Recent Tigers’ selections include Victor Reyes and Akil Baddoo, though the Rule 5’s major league portion wasn’t held last year due to the lockout.

Teams aren’t required to take a player, but if they choose to, they must pay the team of origin $100K and keep them player on the 26-man roster throughout the coming season or place him on outright waivers. If the player clears waivers, he’s offered back to the club from which he was claimed for $50K.

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