MLB off-season just getting started after quiet winter meetings

Ross Atkins spoke after the Rule 5 draft about his experience there and at the Winter Meetings as the Blue Jays find their footing in the off season.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Maybe this is simply how the winter meetings now work, that rather than bringing teams and agents together for an action-packed swapfest, the annual event is little more than a large-scale information dump for sides to chew over and digest.

After all, more often than not when negotiators of all sorts have time, they tend to use it, especially in the absence of a catalyst. "Teams understand, I think all 30 GMs would answer that this is not a deadline," general manager Ross Atkins said Thursday after a transaction-less stay at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort for the Toronto Blue Jays. "This is an opportunity to learn, and sometimes things happen here and sometimes they don’t."

Perhaps things are different next year when the winter meetings are in Las Vegas and a once-in-a-generation free agent class that could include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel triggers a frenzy in a setting that encourages letting things ride. Or, the homogenization of player valuation may continue to spread through any outlier front offices and transactions will become tougher and tougher to complete. "There are no more steals," said one executive. "Everyone values players so similarly that it’s really hard to match up unless the needs align perfectly."

In the current environment, some officials discussed among themselves this week if the winter meetings as they are structured now are even necessary. Fortune may favour the bold, which is perfect in grand gatherings, but fewer and fewer teams are willing to set the market, preferring instead to strategically play off it, away from decision-impacting pressures inside the bubble, in search of value.

"As things happen for other teams, more pressure hits the other 29 as one team moves," said Atkins. "Slowly, alternatives and options are coming off the board and that will continue to occur. There is more than one opportunity for the Blue Jays."

Executives and agents to have spoken with the Blue Jays continue to say their focus still appears set on acquiring a middle infielder. But as a report on Twitter by Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports again linking them to free agent Lorenzo Cain and another by Bob Nightengale of USA Today connecting them to Avisail Garcia of the White Sox suggest, they’re keeping an eye on the outfield market, too.

One team hunting for help up the middle infielder came off the board when the Los Angeles Angels acquired Ian Kinsler, and there a bounty of options remain. Among trade possibilities the Blue Jays are believed to have interest in are Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar, Philadelphia’s Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis, and San Diego’s Yangervis Solarte and Cory Spangenberg. The Diamondbacks are also said to be looking to move one of Chris Owings or Brandon Drury, and Atkins is close with Arizona counterpart Mike Hazan.

On the outfield side, the Blue Jays are also thought to have some interest in Cincinnati’s Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton, as well as Randal Grichuk of the St. Louis Cardinals, who still have surplus in the outfield after sending Stephen Piscotty to Oakland following the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna.

The Cardinals, Brewers and Reds are all thought to want relief help and given how the market for high-leverage, non-closer relievers surged this week – Tommy Hunter got $18 million over two years from the Phillies and the appropriate emoji for that doesn’t yet exist – the Blue Jays’ stable of controllable, inexpensive relievers are suddenly an even more desirable commodity they can possibly leverage.

"We’re really excited about Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Dominic Leone, Danny Barnes," Atkins said of the value of his relievers. "That’s a difference-making aspect of our year and continues to provide us depth. Also, that market, there’s some depth to it, so we’ll be able to be opportunistic there later in the off-season."

The Blue Jays have already been in touch with the representatives of several rebound-type relievers, and they made a well-publicized pitch aimed at reuniting with lefty CC Sabathia. Concurrently, Atkins spent a lot of time talking up Joe Biagini as a candidate for fifth starter, while at the same time there was behind the scenes chatter of a desire for a swingman type. Just a guess here, but bringing back Tom Koehler would make some sense should they take that path.

And so the Blue Jays flew home from the suspiciously mosquito-free swamplands of Disney World empty-handed, while the New York Yankees reeled in Giancarlo Stanton, dumped Chase Headley and positioned themselves for more gains, and the Boston Red Sox put in work to land not only J.D. Martinez, but Eric Hosmer, too, according to Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald.

The Tampa Bay Rays continued to do their due diligence in preparation for what seems like a looming teardown, while the Baltimore Orioles started listening to offers for Machado.

"We learned a ton about this year’s landscape, about some of our opportunities and how other teams and agents are seeing our fit. Remain optimistic," said Atkins. "I feel that there are things that became a little more concrete for us and I would imagine that is the case across the industry. Whether or not people end up signing contracts and moving towards physicals, it feels like that’s going to happen a little bit more this week and before we break for the holidays for a bit."

In years past the off-season would already be more or less over by now, but as baseball evolves with bigger front offices driving increasingly valuation-drive decisions, this one is just getting started.

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