NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Baseball's winter meetings are over, and executives across the game are sorting through the detritus of three days inside the Gaylord Opryland hotel. The takeaways are fairly evident.
There is a lot of money in baseball. Like, $13 million-a-year-for-an-OK-and-aging-outfielder lot. Like, three-years-for-a-utilityman-or-one-out-lefty lot. Like, parents, if-your-child-shows-a-whit-of-talent-cultivate-it-like-a-cash-crop lot.
That money does not necessarily filter down to the traditional spenders. After an old-guy binge, the New York Yankees are eerily quiet. They got outbid for Jeff Keppinger and Nate Schierholtz. They're staring at budgetary restrictions for 2014 and beyond that are stifling any creativity. General manager Brian Cashman has privately expressed frustration with the team's uncertainty and unhappiness with his roster as it's currently constituted, sources said.
Of course, that didn't translate into any big-name trade activity. The only swaps were Ben Revere to Philadelphia, Yunel Escobar to Tampa Bay, Wilton Lopez to Colorado and Andy Oliver to Pittsburgh, or as the quartet of deals was deemed here: Snooze.
The framework for a three- or four-way blockbuster involving Texas, Arizona, Cleveland and perhaps Tampa Bay or the Los Angeles Dodgers kept taking on different incarnations … and falling apart because the principle dealmakers are among the toughest to read in the game.
[Related: MLB free-agent tracker]
Something may yet happen. After three days in which the biggest deals went to Angel Pagan, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, the dam is ready to burst. And all it's going to take is …
1. Zack Greinke figuring out where he wants to go. A few days ago, we posited the pitching market is waiting on Greinke. Strike that. Every market, from pitching to hitting to trade, will start moving again when Greinke chooses among the Dodgers, Rangers, Angels and a couple of other teams lurking in the background and waiting to gauge his price once others bid, according to a source.
Complicating the deal is Greinke himself. He is a particularly hands-on client – a pitching savant whose priorities remain unclear to the teams involved. One source said money is a motivating factor, though another who knows him well said Greinke is the sort who would look at the highest offer and dismiss it on principle, as if to say money is far from the most important thing.
Whether the Greinke situation resolves with a $150 million deal or something closer to a record-breaking $175 million, the rest of the world can move on, starting with …
2. Josh Hamilton and his market that seems down to two teams. If the Rangers land Greinke, Hamilton is likely to wind up a Mariner, according to a Seattle Times report. If Greinke bolts to the Dodgers or one of the mystery teams, Hamilton's return to Texas isn't as much a certainty as it is a deal that makes the most sense for both parties.
Hamilton's first choice is the Rangers. They are perennial playoff contenders. Their farm system is loaded. They are comfortable. They know how to support him. Still, Seattle has become familiar with trips in the AL West, and the Mariners' core is improving. Among Felix Hernandez, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager and one of the three best farm systems in the game, with catcher Mike Zunino, shortstop Nick Franklin and pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, Seattle may be ready to compete in the powerful West by 2014.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Barry Larkin on hanging out with baseball old-timers]
Complicating Hamilton's return to Texas is …
3. Justin Upton and his maybe-yes, maybe-no deal from Arizona. Ownership would like GM Kevin Towers to deal Upton and get a shortstop, though Towers' reluctance has held up the blockbuster. He could pivot to a two-team deal with Texas if the Rangers budge on Elvis Andrus. It could be for Asdrubal Cabrera as part of a three-way package including Texas. Either way, the pressure to deal Upton has grown enough that Towers is no longer shopping outfielder Jason Kubel, who had been on the trade block early in the meetings.
Texas' aggressiveness with an Upton deal contrasts with their tack in free agency, where they almost never bid first and allow the market to set the price, hoping their lack of involvement drives the cost down. The Rangers covet him at $38.5 million over the next three years, a staggering bargain considering what $13 million a year buys in free agency today. Understandably, executives with team-friendly contracts to deal want the world for such players, and in the case of …
4. Asdrubal Cabrera the world plus a couple prospects for good measure.
While the Indians like right-hander Trevor Bauer, with whom the Diamondbacks are frustrated, they prefer Skaggs, whom the Diamondbacks are loath to deal. Skaggs is seen as the safer bet, though Bauer, with his intellect and pitching acumen, may in fact be just as safe – and with far more upside.
Cleveland's missteps on trading core pieces in the past – the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez deals bombed badly and netted only Justin Masterson and Michael Brantley – makes success in this deal imperative. Cabrera has two reasonable years left on his deal, and considering the paucity of offense at shortstop – only Ian Desmond finished last season with an OPS above .800 – he deserves to fetch a hefty price. Maybe not quite that of …
5. James Shields, whom the Rays aren't eager to trade but won't turn down a blow-away offer. Once Greinke signs and the losers of that derby go hunting for pitching, Shields will be arguably the best available.
Tampa Bay's talks with Kansas City stalled late Wednesday over the strength of the Royals' offer. While top prospect Wil Myers is a starting point, the Rays "want a lot more," according to a source. Some of that is posturing, but a majority of executives agree: almost seven years of Myers does not necessarily equal two reasonable-cost years of Shields.
Their rationale: Myers is a corner outfielder, and good corner outfielders can be had for between $8 million and $10 million on the free-agent market. Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer – they are bat-only guys, sure, but so is Myers. And for a bat to play at star level in a corner, Myers would need to hit well over 30 home runs, something scouts aren't certain he would do. One executive, of course, called him Ryan Braun 2.0, so there is that.
No matter what others think, the Royals are convinced they can win this year without a top starter, and with them priced out of the Anibal Sanchez sweepstakes – they are not, a source insisted, in the bidding for him – Shields is their archetype. Whoever they get, one thing is for sure: He won't cost as much as …
6. Shane Victorino, the undeniable winner of the meetings. Coming off the worst year of his career, Victorino juggled two offers: four years and $44 million from the Cleveland Indians and three years, $39 million from the Boston Red Sox. How a .255 hitter with a .704 OPS and a 1980 birth date merits two of the biggest offers of the offseason is a testament to his good-guy perception and the Powerball that is baseball.
The Red Sox's offer that Victorino accepted is now a bellwether for the rest of the free agents available. Even though the teams that need outfield help are dwindling, agents are right to ask a question for their client that goes something like this: If Shane Victorino is worth three years and $39 million, what is …
7. Nick Swisher worth? And the answer should be: A whole lot more than three years and $39 million. Because of the fluidity of the market, sometimes it doesn't quite work that way. Outfield supply, at the moment, is outstripping demand, and it leaves Swisher in a vulnerable position.
Baltimore reportedly isn't interested. Seattle might get Hamilton. Cleveland isn't going to pay monster money – not the premium over Victorino that Swisher deserves because he is clearly a more valuable player. Swisher will find a job that pays him well, no question, but there are only so many big-money jobs available, and finding one will be a testament to agent Dan Lozano, who this year negotiated deals worth more than a half-billion dollars, the biggest bonanza ever.
It broke the record of Scott Boras, whose biggest-money guy this offseason is …
8. Michael Bourn, who could end up squeezed even worse than Swisher. With Philadelphia trading for Revere – executives loved the Twins' return of Vance Worley and pitching prospect Trevor May – that fills the Phils' center-field gap. If Hamilton ends up in Seattle, the Mariners won't have the money to go after Bourn, who wants $17 million a year if B.J. Upton was worth $15 million.
Both the price and demand leaves a barren market. If the Yankees deal Curtis Granderson, they could chase Bourn on a shorter-term contract that won't hamstring them in their attempts to whack the budget to $189 million by next season.
This is the cat-and-mouse game being played everywhere. Boras will earn his commission with Bourn if he can get big years and money. It won't be quite like that for agents of pitchers, because they can use the Victorino corollary: If Zack Greinke is worth $170 million, certainly …
9. Anibal Sanchez should get six years and $90 million. That's what agent Gene Mato wants, and while he's got five-year deals on the table, there's no sense in grabbing one right now considering the potential desperation of teams that don't want to pay the price in prospects to get Shields or R.A. Dickey.
(An aside: One executive marveled at how Mets GM Sandy Alderson is playing the Dickey situation. "It's perfect," he said. "If they keep him, they get the Cy Young winner for one year at $5 million and have time to bring down his price for an extension. But they really want to deal him, and they're going to get some sap to overpay just like they did with Beltran." Alderson's Carlos Beltran-for-Zack Wheeler deal remains a highlight of his tenure, and executives think he might be able to pull the same sort with Dickey.)
Mato's only concern: overplaying his hand. If the six years is excessive – and for every team so far, it has been – teams can get Kyle Lohse or Ryan Dempster or Edwin Jackson or Brandon McCarthy or Shaun Marcum for far less. Those dominoes will fall once …
10. Zack Greinke makes his choice. It will set in motion what the Rangers do, which will set in motion what the teams in the trade market do, which will set in motion what free agents can get, which will circle back to Greinke, because more than in most 10 Degrees, the baseball world truly does revolve around him.
It's an interesting position, too, considering of all the people in the industry to want that, Greinke might be the least likely. He loathes attention and avoids it religiously. It's coming. If he's in Los Angeles, it will be the TMZs of the world, and if he's in Texas, it will be those who go to him as the highest-paid player in the clubhouse and rely on his insight.
Money is everywhere in baseball right now. And when Zack Greinke signs soon, that will be the biggest sign yet: It's not going anywhere.
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