SAN DIEGO – Isn’t Las Vegas supposed to be the place to drop inhibitions and throw discipline and caution to the wind? Wasn’t last year in Sin City, with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado atop an inviting free-agent class, going to be when the baseball winter meetings made a real comeback?
The frenzy expected back then arrived instead over the past four days at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in idyllic San Diego, with super-agent Scott Boras alone putting himself in range of a billion-dollar off-season thanks to mega-contracts for Gerrit Cole ($324 million, nine years), Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon ($245 million, seven years apiece). Plenty of action also preceded the annual swapfest, which was so dull in recent years that executives and agents openly wondered if it was still worth having.
What makes the shock-and-awe so far this winter all the more significant is that it comes against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between owners who seemed increasingly unwilling to spend and players frustrated at the way free agents were being leveraged.
Still, to say the recent industry trends toward self-control and restraint have been reversed would be premature. But for some reason – a desire to stave off player suspicions about a new type of collusion, as well as chatter about a labour stoppage when the current CBA expires after 2021, perhaps – the spigot opened, with even traditional non-spenders getting in on the act.
“Markets are going to be up and down – that’s what happens in markets,” commissioner Rob Manfred said during a Wednesday news conference. “It depends on what players are out there, what financial constraints clubs are under in a particular season.
“Over time it’s important to drop back and remember we have the freest free agency in professional sports. No rights of first refusal, no salary cap, no franchise tags. None of that. It has produced the largest amount of guaranteed dollars for players in any professional sport. …
“The fact that you have markets up and down over a short period of time, I don’t think is an indication that somehow we need to throw out something that’s worked for 30 years, and make really fundamental changes in the system.”
It’s within that context that the Toronto Blue Jays operated over the past week, landing right-hander Tanner Roark on a $24-million, two-year deal that raised some eyebrows but was described as reasonable by a couple of rival executives.
The deal came after the club shifted its more conservative tactics to adjust to the bull market, and was the first time their aggressiveness in the market was rewarded. Another of their targets – righty Rick Porcello – agreed on a $10-million, one-year deal with the New York Mets on Thursday morning, more money failing to lure the New Jersey native north.
The Blue Jays were also right there financially earlier this winter on Kyle Gibson, who opted for the Texas Rangers, underlining some of the challenges the front office faces in convincing players to join a rebuilding club in the meat-grinder American League East.
The money thrown around also demonstrates how the money this off-season is being spread to players all along the spectrum, an upside gamble like Zack Wheeler reeling in $118-million over over five years from the Philadelphia Phillies, and a non-tender, bounce-back candidate like Blake Treinen getting $10 million for one year from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Personally, my take is the talent is substantially better this year,” Blue Jays assistant GM Joe Sheehan said of why the market has shifted so dramatically. “There is a ton of good pitching, middle tier pitching and lower tier pitching – just a ton of quality starters. With those guys, you sometimes find it easier to get a competition between teams … which probably drives the price up a little bit. But it’s as much to do with the level of player. The winter meetings last year, I don’t think there was this level of engagement, this level of activity. It’s been cool. It’s been fun, like, oh, this guy signed. We’re still fans, too.”
The Roark agreement is the last transaction in what’s a remarkably underwhelming decade of activity at the winter meetings for the Blue Jays.
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) December 12, 2019
That list contrasts sharply to the boldness shown Dec. 5, 1990 in Rosemont, Ill., when the announcement of the Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez trade with the San Diego Padres drew gasps in the media room. In 2005 at Dallas, they signed A.J. Burnett and traded for Lyle Overbay as part of a bold roster remaking.
By no means is winter meetings action the sole measure of the club’s off-season work – former GM Alex Anthopoulos as a matter of course preferred to do his business outside the week’s bubble – and the Blue Jays this winter are far from done.
Missing out on Porcello was a disappointment and they also tried on Kevin Gausman and Didi Gregorius this week, having already missed out on Gibson, Jake Odorizzi and Mike Moustakas, but they remain in the mix for Hyun-Jin Ryu, among others in free agency and are active on the trade front, too.
“We’re active on anybody we think could improve us,” said Sheehan. “It’s top-end pitching – trades, free agents – top-end hitters – trades, free agents. Anybody we think is potentially moving our needle.”
This year, that didn’t include anyone in the Rule 5 draft, ending a run of two consecutive years with a pick, although they lost double-A right-hander Dany Jimenez to the San Francisco Giants.
The 25-year-old struck out 93 batters over 59 innings of 2.59-ERA ball between single-A Dunedin and New Hampshire last year, although the Blue Jays think there’s a chance he gets returned the way lefty Travis Bergen (also chosen by the Giants) and Jordan Romano were last year.
What Jimenez returns to very much remains a work in progress. Sheehan conceded the market “has been probably a tad higher than we would have guessed in September/October,” but added that “once you start to see it break early, you can adjust your process accordingly.”
“Where we’re looking ahead, it’s continuing to be opportunistic, to find value, to add impact players, whether that’s a trade, whether that’s free agency. There are a lot of ways we can improve our roster,” Sheehan added. “We’ve had discussions on both. I think we’re engaged pretty heavily on both sides.”
As this off-season has already shown, engagement alone may not be enough. Wide-scale competition for players on the open market is back, for this winter at least, and spending power doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing power for the Blue Jays.