Significant deals hinge on Rangers
Until the Rangers make a move, the Hot Stove will resemble a game of Jenga
The Phillies may have the leverage to sign Michael Bourn at a reasonable rate
The Yankees need a third baseman and their free-agent options are shrinking
NASHVILLE -- Five thoughts on another mostly quiet day of baseball's winter meetings:
1. Hot Stove Jenga
With each passing day with no movement atop the list of available players -- the greatest riches dispersed were the $15 million the Angels guaranteed to starter Joe Blanton -- this year's Hot Stove increasingly resembles a game of Jenga. The rules, for the uninitiated, are that players alternately remove blocks from a wooden tower and place them at the top, building it higher and higher until the structure weakens enough that it topples over. The drama of the game is the difficulty in anticipating which move triggers the collapse.
So, too, does the Hot Stove seem to be building and building in anticipation of it eventually toppling -- i.e. the expected signings and trades falling into place -- but it's hard to grasp which move happens first, setting the process in motion.
In addition to the bold-faced free agents who remain available -- starters Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez and outfielders Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher -- there were reports of three notable trade notions.
The first was a four-way concoction reported by FoxSports.com in which Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton, Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, Rays starter James Shields and Rangers prospects changed hands.
The Mets continue to entertain offers for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, with general manager Sandy Alderson acknowledging that the club was closer to a resolution of whether to trade him, extend him or let him play next year on his existing $5 million contract, but Alderson noted such a decision may not happen during the meetings.
Late in the evening FoxSports.com also proffered the idea of the Royals trading top offensive prospect Wil Myers to the Rays for Shields.
Most teams' interests are generally clear. The Dodgers want Greinke. The Rays want to trade pitching for offense. The Diamondbacks want a shortstop.
The fulcrum of these pending decisions, however, appears to be the multiple interests of the Rangers, who have been linked to pitching (especially Greinke but also Shields and others) as well as outfielders (Upton via trade or Hamilton via free agency). If they trade for Upton, Hamilton will pick the top bid among his other suitors. If they land Greinke, the pricing of the pitcher market will be established, allowing others to sign and teams like the Rays and Mets to trade their starters elsewhere (or choose to keep them); potentially the Rangers could then trade one of its starters like Derek Holland. If they don't sign Greinke and complete the Upton trade, maybe they do re-sign Hamilton after all and maybe they do make a play for Shields or a free-agent starter.
The pressure point could be Greinke's decision. It could be the completion of the multi-team trade sending Upton to Texas. Or it could be another move -- Swisher agreeing to a deal, Shields getting traded or Dickey signing an extension, to name three hypotheticals -- that alters the market sufficiently that clubs rush to submit their best offers before the available inventory disappears. Either way, Texas will be in the middle of it.
2. Bourn again in Philly?
Asked about the possibility of free agent center fielder Michael Bourn signing with the Phillies, one scout said, "They should." The match of Bourn with the team that drafted him is hard to ignore.
The Phillies need a leadoff hitter after their No. 1 batters had only a .318 on-base percentage last year, which ranked 20th in the majors. And defensively their center fielders cost the club five runs with poor play, which was tied for the fourth-worst mark in the majors, according to the Fielding Bible.
Ergo, Bourn. He's had a .348 OBP over the past four seasons, and his previous employer, the Braves, had the majors' second-best defensive play in center field behind only the Mike Trout/Peter Bourjos combination for the Angels. Bourn's agent, Scott Boras, even said he's "by far the best defensive center fielder in the game." That's debatable -- at least the "by far" qualifier -- but there's no doubting Bourn is a premium player at a premium position of need for the Phillies.
"I'd say my first prerogative would be a center fielder," manager Charlie Manuel said.
There are, of course, concerns about contract length when it comes to all players, but especially ones that depend on speed and who'll be 30 before the year ends. There's also the budgetary issue, as Bourn will likely command more than the $75 million center fielder B.J. Upton got earlier this offseason. But the Phillies have so much already invested in starters Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay -- the latter two aren't getting any younger -- as well as infielders Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, that they have to be in win-now mode. With center fielders Upton, Denard Span, Angel Pagan and Chris Young all off the board already, few teams are desperate for a center fielder, so perhaps Philadelphia now has the leverage to sign Bourn at a slightly more affordable rate.
3. Hot Corner of the Hot Stove
Whoever thought we'd see the day when we'd see the Yankees -- the Yankees -- would lose out on the services of journeyman infielders along the lines of Eric Chavez and Jeff Keppinger? New York appeared to have interest in both, even if it may not have made a formal offer, before Chavez signed for $3 million in Arizona and Keppinger inked a three-year, $12 million deal. Such is the market for third baseman, where the demand exceeds the supply. (Both agreements were first reported by CBSSports.com.)
Chavez was an excellent safety valve for the Yankees last year at third base while also spending time as the designated hitter and as a first baseman. Wherever he played, he hit. He had a .281 average, 16 home runs and an .845 OPS but apparently wanted to return home to Arizona.
The Keppinger deal raised more than a few eyebrows around the game for its guaranteed length of three years, but any deal for an average annual value of $4 million is comparatively a shrewd one in this inflated market, unless the 32-year-old declines steeply or has unexpected trouble recovering from a broken fibula. Overall, Keppinger batted .325 in 385 at bats with the Rays last season, and he batted .376 in 117 at bats against left-handers, which ranked fourth in the majors.
A third baseman and second baseman by trade, Keppinger has a much better chance of being an everyday player by beating out either Brent Morel or Gordon Beckham in Chicago than he does of displacing Alex Rodriguez or Robinson Cano. (A-Rod is recovering from hip surgery but probably won't miss more than two months of the season, which is a tiny sliver of the three-year deal.)
4. Lucky LOOGYs
Veteran reliever Randy Choate is used to getting one batter out at a time, but he won't have to play one-year at a time. The Cardinals signed the left-handed specialist to a three-year deal, according to ESPN.com. Since 2009 Choate has an 8.5 K/9 ratio and a 3.30 ERA with 131 appearances in which he faced exactly one batter, far outpacing his LOOGY cohorts Tim Byrdak (second with 84) and Javier Lopez (third, 80). St. Louis used only one left-handed reliever, Marc Rzepczynski, in last year's postseason.
No. 8 on that list with 47 one-batter outings is former Nationals reliever Sean Burnett, who had a 2.38 ERA and 4.75 K/BB ratio in 56 2/3 innings last season. He received a two-year contract with a club option from the Angels, according to mlb.com. Burnett joins Ryan Madson as free-agent additions the Angels hope can bolster a disappointing bullpen from a year ago. Burnett has often been used against hitters from both sides of the plate but particularly exceled against lefties last year (.534 OPS against with a staggering 28 K/BB ratio) while he didn't fare nearly so well against righties (.767 OPS, 2.64 K/BB).
5. Infield singles
One scout said that new Red Sox signee Shane Victorino, who has primarily been a center fielder in his career, is better defensively as a right fielder because in the corner he gets better jumps on flyballs and his accurate throwing arm plays well in right. ... That source also said the Nationals are "waiting on LaRoche" -- free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche is Washington's top priority -- and it should be settled in a manner of weeks, given a Washington Post report that the club has set a soft deadline of Christmas day. Contract length appears to be the issue. The Nationals have offered two years; LaRoche is seeking three. Resolution of his situation will determine whether Washington retains Michael Morse or trades him. ... Heard this: relief pitcher Chris Hayes, who formerly blogged as Disco Hayes and most recently as "the pitcher formerly known as Disco," is hopeful of getting back into affiliated baseball after throwing 77 innings in independent ball this year. ... Boras also said the market for free agent shortstop Stephen Drew "ever-growing" and said that the use of rookie closers was a "philosophical cliff."
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