LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Pat Gillick was asked in a conversation a couple of years ago whether major-league teams were already planning for the greatest free-agent class in baseball history, which was due to appear after the 2018 season.
"They’d better be," answered the long-time executive.
So has the industry in general. The calendar hasn’t even turned on this free agent class, but one day after Giancarlo Stanton’s shape-shifting trade to the New York Yankees was made official, it was one of next year’s free agents who was the talk of this year’s winter meetings. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Baltimore Orioles are now taking offers on Manny Machado, who himself added a further wrinkle when it emerged he is interested in moving back to shortstop even if he isn’t dealt.
The Philadelphia Phillies have already reached out to the Orioles, to the point where MASN, the Orioles network, reported that the team has put together a list of Phillies prospects to present to the team. It’s an intriguing proposition, since the rebuilding Phillies are expected to be among the most aggressive teams in next winter’s free agent class, which could also include Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Jones, Dallas Kuechel and, of course, Josh Donaldson. The Phillies, then, could be expected to ask for a window to negotiate a deal with Machado, who is going to get at least $300 million on a long-term deal either way.
There are profound implications here for Josh Donaldson, the Toronto Blue Jays third baseman who, like Machado, is represented by agent Dan Lozano. Perhaps the position switch is just a temporary idea on the part of the 25-year-old Machado, Lozano and the Orioles after a year in which Machado’s batting average (.259) was 40 points under his career average and his OPS was .782, compared to a career mark of .805. Perhaps it doesn’t preclude the two-time Gold Glove winner and all-star’s return to third in two or three years.
But what it would do next winter, if Machado sticks at shortstop, is make Donaldson the premier free agent third baseman on the market. That would make life easier for Lozano and both clients, preventing them from being played off against each other while enhancing Donaldson’s marketability.
If Donaldson’s smart, he’ll likely figure out it makes even less sense to entertain the concept of an extension.
Yet as he did at his winter meetings media availability Tuesday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter spoke of Machado’s position shift against the backdrop of having him stay with the team in 2018. He also mentioned that Tim Beckham could play both positions, too. Machado was converted to third base in his third year in the organization’s minor-league system at the age of 19, and has played 52 games at shortstop in the majors, 45 of them in 2016.
"He’s always had a desire to play shortstop, since the day he signed," said Showalter. "I think he hasn’t, out of his respect for J.J. Hardy. One of the reasons we brought Jonathan (Schoop) and (Machado) up early is because the chance to play alongside J.J. could really jumpstart their development in a lot of areas.
"Manny has not only respect for J.J, but also for Tim and other people. Obviously we’re not there yet … but I’ve found players need to know about that before Feb. 15 or March 15."
Showalter joked he would know where Machado will be playing in the next 48 hours. He was joking, right?
"Listen, you know, I’ve got a real gut feeling about how it’s going to work out, but I want to make sure we cover all the bases whatever direction we go in. Manny and I have talked privately about it. He played it for almost a month (in 2016) and it was a different challenge for him. But he’s capable."
The Blue Jays remain bullish on competing in 2018, despite the Yankees aggressiveness and the Boston Red Sox’s expected response. Elsewhere in the American League East, there seems to be zest for a reset. In addition to the Orioles, the Tampa Bay Rays have a loaded triple-A team and there is a sense that they might be ready to move off some of their core players at the major-league level, with rumours of Evan Longoria, Jake Odorizzi and even Chris Archer being available.
How active could this trade market become? One general manager suggested the old notion of not trading within one’s own division might hold less true this season, although normally deals within divisions (especially involving major-leaguers) carry an attached ‘premium’ to be paid by the team acquiring the best player. This is one winter where it seems as if almost everything’s on the table, which might mean the slow movement here is misleading.