Winter baseball meetings begin with uncertainty and intrigue

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Baseball’s annual winter meetings are being held in-person this week in San Diego for the first time since 2019. After three long, secluded years, Major League Baseball’s top executives and agents can text each other about potential trades and free-agent deals from suites down the hall instead of offices across the country.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced MLB to cancel the annual event. In 2021, the owners locked out the players in negotiations for a new collective agreement. Since the Washington Nationals reigned as the youngest World Series champion, these meetings haven’t taken place in their traditional form—and, frankly, that feels like a decade ago.

Whether the relative proximity of baseball decision-makers will result in a flurry of transactions remains to be seen. Up until this weekend, the offseason market had been relatively quiet. The Blue Jays and Mariners made the most notable trade when Toronto traded highly productive outfielder Teoscar Hernandez to Seattle in exchange for pitching. The most prominent free agent signing to date was the New York Mets handover of Free Agent Closer to Edwin Diaz for $102 million for five years.

Then the Texas Rangers announced a five-year deal with Jacob deGrom, a move that ousted one of the winter’s biggest available stars and left the Mets to join the battle of contenders for aces like Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodón. Potential big donors like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants have yet to signal their priorities, but they may need to do so soon lest they miss out on the top talent available.

And as they sort through those priorities, one of the biggest changes in the new collective bargaining agreement – the addition of a draft lottery – will manifest itself for the first time this week. A Hall of Fame committee will vote Sunday night to determine the fate of steroid-era stars like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Questions abound. answers come.

So for now, here are five key questions that are likely to be answered to some degree this week in San Diego — as long as cell phone service is good.

Where will Aaron Judge sign?

The most dominant story this offseason was the availability of a one-of-a-kind free agent fresh off an unusually dominant offensive season, Aaron Judge. The judge, of course, turned down the Yankees’ offer of a seven-year extension worth $213.5 million before the 2022 season and then became the first American League player to hit 62 home runs.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters that his Team Judge had made an updated offer since the end of the season. Giants GM Farhan Zaidi said last month that his team would have the money to deal with any of the best stars available — including, the implication, a judge originally from Northern California. And the Dodgers weren’t exactly ruling out a pursuit either. When it comes to the best talent available, they never do.

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Whether the lack of a judge’s decision has stalled the spike in the free-agent market is unclear. While the Yankees would almost certainly have to change if he signed elsewhere, he’s a unique player in this league — unlike the elite shortstops on the market that offer teams a more complicated choice.

Will the shortstop market move?

At this time last year, the free agents shortstop class was teeming with talent, including eventual Minnesota Twin Carlos Correa, eventual Ranger Corey Seager and eventual Boston Red Sox second baseman Trevor Story. But this year’s class could go deeper and start again with Correa after he called off his Twins deal.

Correa is followed – alphabetically if not by appeal – by former National and Dodger Trea Turner. According to several people who speak to him regularly, Turner loved the East Coast during his time with the Nationals, and while he hasn’t ruled out a West Coast option, there’s a feeling he’d prefer a team that was close to his Home off-season training in South Florida.

One team that trains in Florida, albeit on the other side of the state where Turner grew up, is the Philadelphia Phillies, a team led by former teammates Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber and hitting coach Kevin Long — a Team that always seems to have money to spend and could use a quality shortstop.

Longtime Red Sox heirloom Xander Bogaerts is also in the market, and his agent Scott Boras jumped into speculative dialogue this week to correct the notion that Bogaerts is considering signing with a team that will put him at second base would.

Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson is also a free agent. He’s a less prolific offensive player than the rest, despite having more impressive defensive presence. His situation is complicated by the fact that a) the Braves have shown a recent history of expanding stars they want to keep long before they reach free hands, and b) Swanson’s agency, Excel, was the one to take on a controversial deal with Atlanta’s front office just last season when another client, Freddie Freeman, came into the market.

How much can the cost of getting into pitching go up?

Of all sectors of the free agent market, pitching has been the most active, and early returns bode well for the handful of starters at the top of this year’s class. Aces like Verlander and deGrom watched as far less excellent starters earned sizable deals, from $10 million for Detroit Tigers starter Matthew Boyd (whom the Tigers didn’t write out this season) to the Los Angeles Angels, The $39 million over three years to 31-year-old right-hander Tyler Anderson gave to the Tampa Bay Rays, who signed their largest free-agent contract in franchise history (three years and $40 million, according to reports). … Zach Eflin, owner of a 4.49 ERA across 127 career outings, awarded.

Then deGrom was blasted by all comers when he agreed to a five-year deal reportedly worth $185 million, or $37 million a year — the second most money guaranteed to a player on an annual basis in major league history.

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Given his age, the 39-year-old Verlander seemed increasingly likely to attract more teams to a high-annual, short-term contract like the one Max Scherzer got from the Mets last year. He’s the kind of ace a win-now team can count on to give him a few more solid years, which makes reports of his run-ins with the Dodgers and Yankees all the more logical. After seeing what deGrom got for a rather lengthy deal annually, Verlander could challenge Scherzer for the biggest annual payday in major league history.

Will Bonds and Clemens stamp tickets to Cooperstown?

The first of those questions to be answered could be whether accused steroid users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will finally make their way into the Hall of Fame. Voters for the Baseball Writers Association of America finally rejected her candidacy last year when they chose neither man in his final year of eligibility to vote.

But for the first time, under a new Hall of Fame system, the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee — a group of 16 former players, current executives and longtime media members — will meet to vote on the nominations of eight players who made their mark in the years since 1980 but were not chosen by the authors. The eight players on her ballot are Bonds, Clemens, Curt Schilling, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy. Those who receive votes in at least 75 percent (or 12 out of 16) of the committees’ votes will be elected for induction in 2023.

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