CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Behind the scenes, baseball’s trade market is active early on this off-season and there are a few reasons why.
For starters, executives are connecting in person again after a year of Zoom calls, reunited for informal chats between meetings at the spacious Omni La Costa Resort & Spa. There’s also the fact that some clear sellers have emerged early, including the Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds. And to state the obvious, virtually no one’s been traded yet. At this point, anything is possible.
Already, the Toronto Blue Jays are engaging in those talks as rival teams ask after their players and various inquiries go back the other way. Teams understandably guard specifics of those conversations closely, but by reading between the lines, we can guess at how some of these inquiries are unfolding at the GM Meetings.
First: let’s establish the Blue Jays’ needs. With Robbie Ray and Steven Matz now free agents, they need multiple starting pitchers. An infielder is a priority, maybe two. And the Blue Jays are seeking bullpen help, with everything from established closers to bounce-back relievers in play.
“There’s a lot of different ways to make our team better,” GM Ross Atkins said Wednesday afternoon. “And we’re open to different avenues.”
Of course that means giving something up, too. At a time that few impact catchers are available in free agency or trade, the Blue Jays are drawing interest in their catching quartet of Reese McGuire, Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno (a trade for Moreno, who’s now emerging as an elite prospect, appears extremely unlikely). Beyond their catchers, the Blue Jays are also getting calls on their outfielders as they have four players for three spots.
Would they trade off the big-league roster? Is the preference to move minor-leaguers in order to augment the big-league team? Or are the Jays open to either?
“C,” Atkins replied.
So everything’s on the table?
From the Blue Jays’ standpoint, then, things are pretty open. Yet it takes two sides to make a deal, prompting the question of what other teams might say when the Blue Jays ask about their players. So, let’s check in with some of the sellers and potential sellers around baseball to see what they tell teams trying to pry away their best players.
In Cincinnati, Luis Castillo has consistently pitched at a high level, posting a 3.72 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in five big-league seasons. At 28, he's still in his prime and he doesn't hit free agency for another two years. When teams call, the Reds are open to moving him.
“You always have to listen because you don’t know what’s out there,” GM Nick Krall said. “You want to make sure whatever’s in the best interest of your organization in the long run. If you’re making moves that are best for the organization then you’ve got to at least have a conversation.”
In Oakland, starters Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas each struck out at least one batter per inning while posting ERAs under 4.00. Yet Bassitt and Manaea are one year away from free agency while Montas is just two away, meaning Oakland’s best chance to get something back for the trio may be this winter. By the sounds of it, they’re ready to make some moves.
“We’re open to any conversation right now,” GM David Forst said. “We have to be. Knowing the cycle that we’ve gone through after three or four years of competing, I think we have to be open to whatever other teams are asking about.”
In Cleveland, Jose Ramirez offers elite offensive ability at a position the Blue Jays are looking to fill. With two team-friendly club options on his contract, he’s affordable even to the small-market Guardians. But the Blue Jays have pursued him before. What kind of response would they get if they called again?
“I don’t think we can close any doors,” Cleveland president Chris Antonetti said. “Part of our responsibility is to engage with teams and understand how they value our players, but I can tell you at the same time we think the world of Jose.
“We think he’s not only one of the best players in the game on the field, but he makes an enormous impact on our team in our clubhouse and off the field as well. So many players have cited the impact he’s had on their development and how they’ve grown and improved as major-league players. We’re elated that he continues to be part of the organization and hopefully he’ll be here for a long time.”
Fair enough -- any organization would be thrilled to have Ramirez. And reading between the lines here, the price would appear to be immense -- as you’d expect for any perennial MVP candidate who stands to earn a total of $24 million over the next two years. But let’s say another GM wanted to push. What needs are the Guardians looking to fill this winter?
Antonetti immediately cited offence following a year in which Cleveland ranked 21st in baseball in OPS. And, noting that the Guardians declined their option on Roberto Perez, he said “We probably have an opportunity to improve our catching depth.” Outfielders could seemingly make sense for Cleveland, too.
“I think the depth of our major-league team and our minor-league system is really on the infield, and specifically middle infield, so it seems less likely that would be a place we’d focus but we could be open in other places,” Antonetti said.
On paper, then, that’s a structure worth exploring. If Cleveland needs catching and could use outfielders, the Blue Jays are a possible match. Paired with a young backstop like Kirk or Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could be an appealing centrepiece -- in theory, anyway. Whether those talks actually happen is another question, but the exercise illustrates the kinds of answers that surface this time of year.
Now for the hard part: going from the initial conversations where anything seems possible to the more granular exchanges of ideas that ultimately determine which of these many imagined deals actually come to fruition.