Teams to keep an eye on heading into MLB’s GM Meetings

With Yoenis Cespedes potentially gone, the New York Mets could covet Edwin Encarnacion, left, and Jose Bautista. (Ben Margot/AP)

TORONTO – Godspeed to general manager Ross Atkins and the rest of the Toronto Blue Jays brain trust as they start the business of the 2017 season this week at the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Az. We’ll spend a great deal of time talking about the Blue Jays over the next few weeks through to the winter meetings in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and up to Christmas, but here are the GMs whose suites we’d love to bug this week:

Sandy Alderson, New York Mets: Let’s start with Blue Jays free agents Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Any team that lost a player like Yoenis Cespedes will be in on free-agent talks with the pair, and any team that has J.P. Ricciardi as special assistant — the man who brought those two players to Toronto in the first place — might figure to have a bit of an edge in talks. The Mets are one team that views hitters such as Bautista and Encarnacion as a possible bridge to the free-agent cornucopia that awaits post-2018, but only if the two could be convinced to settle in as full-time first basemen or, in Bautista’s case, become a kind of Ben Zobrist — you know, the guy with back-to-back World Series rings.

Al Avila, Detroit Tigers: Gone are the days, it appears, when the Tigers could add anybody at any cost in a bid to give aging owner Mike Illitch a World Series before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Moving out Cameron Maybin to save $9 million was just the start; this is a team with $170 million in payroll obligations for 2017 and chatter is that Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler are on the block. Kinsler makes $11 million this year with a $5-million club option in 2018 that, even for a player who turns 35 mid-season, is just this side of insanely cheap for a career .277-hitting middle infielder coming off a career-high in home runs who was fourth in overall WAR at second base. If J.D. Martinez is available, it’s negligence to not at least talk about it — and if you haven’t already booked facetime in Casa Avila this week, you’re screwed.

John Hart/ John Coppolella, Atlanta Braves: The Braves will move into a new ballpark in 2017, but say they will stay the course and position themselves to take advantage of what they believe will be a steady supply of homegrown pitching in the next two-to-five years. But outfielder Ender Inciarte intrigues a lot of teams, and this is the tandem that used last year’s GM Meetings to put together what will go down as one of the franchise’s best trades of all time: getting Inciarte, 2015 top overall selection Dansby Swanson and pitcher Aaron Blair in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks that sent Shelby Miller to the desert. They have some pieces that would make them a lovely partner in any three-way deal, and might want to get in and get out of the off-season market early in the process.

Neal Huntington, Pittsburgh Pirates: It was whispered that the Pirates would consider trading Andrew McCutchen, who gets $14 million this season and has a $14.5-million club option for 2018 (with a $1-million buyout), even before the club suffered a third year of declining attendance and Huntington was making public pronouncements about a tighter budget. Attendance revenue is paramount for the Pirates, whose regional television deal is below-market value, as is managing the team’s window of opportunity in a National League Central that figures to be owned by the Chicago Cubs in the immediate future. This is the weakest free-agent market in some time, and trading for McCutchen gives the acquiring team two years to negotiate before he becomes part of the greatest free-agent class in baseball history.

TERRIFIC FC

Celebrate that 5-0 win, Toronto FC fans. Because know what? I remember another 5-0 decision involving the Reds and a team from New York City. Because I was there in a previous professional life, covering a loss to New York City Red Bulls on a rainy October night in the Meadowlands in 2009. If Sunday night’s win over New York City FC was the high point of this often star-crossed franchise, than that night was the lowest: all TFC needed for their first-ever post-season berth was a win over the Red Bulls who were out of the playoffs. Instead, the franchise was embarrassed in a game the start of which was delayed 16 minutes by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. It was the final soccer game played at Giants Stadium and other than a pressbox seat next to former French international Youri Djorkaeff (who was invited to a ceremony honouring former players of New York’s franchise, and whose conversation made for one of those memorable work nights known only to sportswriters) it was one of the most depressing events I’ve reported on that didn’t involve police or a coroner.

This was back in the day when the folks at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had loads of dough and little wisdom when it came to the soccer team. They were played for suckers by every snake oil salesman with an accent, whether it was the Scot Mo Johnston or Jurgen Klinsmann, whose gift of the gab gave him a hefty consultant’s fee and led to innumerable horrible decisions.

After the loss to the Red Bulls, interim coach Chris Cummins was told that then-MLSE executive vice-president Tom Anselmi said that Johnston was going to be back as manager of soccer, thought for three seconds, then said he’d rather go home to his family in England, anyhow, muttering about "things promised me that I didn’t get at the end of it." A rookie, Sam Cronin, stood in the locker-room and spit fire, saying bluntly that the team needed "a culture change and a psychological overhaul" as his embarrassed teammates glanced sideways at him. And Dwayne DeRosario, who was repatriated to make sure crap like this never happened again, said: "I want to see more heart on this team. I could have come in here and kicked everything down but what’s that going to prove? I’ve done it many times and there’s been no response; been there, done that."

Readers of this column or frequent listeners to my radio show will know I harbour no great respect for Tim Leiweke, who gas-bagged his way through Toronto as MLSE chief executive officer for a couple of well-paid seasons before realizing the city was never getting an NFL franchise and moving on. But know this: Leiweke loved soccer and more importantly understood soccer people, and he was very much a man for the time for TFC and their long-suffering fans. This stillborn franchise was revived by him. No question.

QUIBBLES AND BITS:

• I love the way Toronto Raptors analyst Paul Jones describes DeMar DeRozan’s game as being an "old man’s game," how DeRozan’s willingness to take a few steps forward and turn a 30 per cent three-pointer into a mid-50s per cent mid-range jumper kind of flies in the face of current NBA thinking. It’s too simplistic to say that the Raptors are taking a counter-intuitive approach to the game at a time when Karl Anthony Towns is the new prototypical player and the Philadelphia 76ers are talking about breaking in 6-foot-10 rookie Ben Simmons as a point guard when he’s back from a foot injury in January.

But with the reliance on DeRozan’s mid-range game and an old-fashioned big man like Jonas Valanciunas, you wonder whether the Raptors are going to be forcing the hands of other teams — especially when they’re leading. DeRozan was held to a merely mortal 23 points in Sunday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings but he became the first player to start a season with five consecutive 30-plus games since Michael Jordan in 1986. Last season, only Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers had five consecutive 30-plus points games at any point in the season.

• How times have changed: Don Cherry and Coach’s Corner have gone from hugging the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri on national television to accusing him of a cheap shot on the Vancouver Canucks’ Daniel Sedin on Saturday. Have to admit I love seeing the Canucks — whose past employing of cheap shot artists such as Raffi Torres and current employing of Alexander Burrows is one reason so many people dislike the team — whining about getting some of their own medicine. What a sorry, sorry group. On the other hand, while it’s a safe bet that establishing some sort of physical element to their game is a necessary part of the Leafs’ growth and while it appears Kadri is trying to carve out a niche for himself in the team’s new world order, I’d be leery about putting targets on the back of my own smaller, younger players. There will be a price to be paid for it.

• Can we please stop reading anything into the so-called ‘window’ of exclusivity to negotiate with your own free agents in baseball? It doesn’t exist; in the case of Edwin Encarnacion, the Blue Jays have had a couple of year’s worth of ‘exclusivity.’ Whether or not Encarnacion re-signs — and I doubt he will without soliciting other offers — has nothing to do with anything that did or did not transpire over five days. Really.

THE ENDGAME

Is Bud Black’s hiring to manage the Colorado Rockies an affirmation of John Gibbons’ imminent signing to a contract extension? I wonder. Black, whom people inside the game believe would have been the first choice of Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro to replace Gibbons, will take over from Walt Weiss as Rockies manager after beating out a list of contenders including Tim Wallach, Dave Martinez, Sandy Alomar, Jr., and Glenallen Hill. Black, who was a confidant of Shapiro’s with the Cleveland Indians, spent the last season as a special assistant with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has had discussions with Gibbons about adding another year on to the season remaining on his deal. Might be a nice announcement to keep in your back pocket for a slow news day at next month’s winter meetings.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show on Sportsnet 590/The Fan from 9 a.m.-Noon ET