Welcome to Hot Stove Halftime.
If you don’t enjoy the cause of this free-agent freeze — the owners’ lockout of the players, which began the second Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expired — the result, for now at least, ain’t bad, eh? A delightful frenzy of spending occurred in the week leading up to that expiration. And when the two sides ever find labor peace, there will be a mad rush by players and teams to finish their business before convening for spring (summer? fall? never?) training. Maybe this could be the new model.
The pressure falls on Rob Manfred and Tony Clark to herd their constituents, and not only to determine economic terms palatable to both sides, but also to devise a serious plan to increase the appeal of their product via on-field alterations. Once they do that (Jan. 15? March 15? Never?), the heat will turn to those who chose to defer their choices until the second half.
These clubs and players will emerge from their shutdown slumber and immediately face the most heat, no matter the season:
Who else? When you run the most famous and successful franchise in North American sports and register one of the more turbulent campaigns in recent memory, which compelled the typically mild-mannered owner to declare, “We need to get better, period,” then essentially sit out the first half, you’ll draw some attention to yourself. The Yankees must figure out their situations at shortstop, first base and center field. They could use another experienced starting pitcher and reliever. And I won’t believe that Gary Sanchez actually will be a 2022 team member until he pinch hits for Kyle Higashioka after Gerrit Cole leaves on Opening Day.
They petered out in the National League Championship Series, falling to the Braves, and their once-vaunted pitching supply has dwindled as rapidly as the list of Chris Cuomo’s defenders. The Mets pilfered their trade-deadline acquisition, Max Scherzer, team icon Clayton Kershaw is a free agent and the odious Trevor Bauer is still in legal limbo, so the Dodgers must find a supporting cast for Walker Buehler and Julio Urias as well as make a call on free-agent closer Kenley Jansen.
The great unsolved mystery of this break in the action: Why didn’t Houston announce its two-year, $50-million agreement to bring back future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander? Only a select few know and they aren’t talking yet. Wouldn’t it be something if Verlander, returning from Tommy John surgery, wound up back on the market? You could see the Yankees making another run at him. And who will replace Carlos Correa at shortstop, assuming he goes elsewhere?
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, typically uber-aggressive, signed only reliever Corey Knebel. An outfielder (Michael Conforto?) and shortstop stand as priority items on their shopping list.
The defending World Series champions face just one task, though it just happens to be a whopper: Can they re-sign face of the franchise Freddie Freeman?
After staying alive until the regular season’s final day, they found an arm in Robbie Ray. Now they need a bat (Kris Bryant?).
They retained closer Raisel Iglesias and shocked the world with their sizable investment in Noah Syndergaard. Now they need another starting pitcher.
Athletics. They land here for a different reason: After letting beloved manager Bob Melvin jump to the Padres, they didn’t hide their intention to tear down again. However, the trades of the Matts (Chapman and Olson) and the pitchers (Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea), if they are to happen, will occur later.
The dynamic shortstop entered the winter (surely) eyeing one number: $341 million, the sum that Steve Cohen gave to Francisco Lindor earlier this year. With his two most obvious suitors (the Tigers and Rangers) likely off the board, though, can the 27-year-old at least surpass the $325 million that Texas guaranteed to Corey Seager? If the Yankees still seem like an unlikely pairing, how about the Phillies? Could Detroit pair up Correa and Javier Baez, a la Texas with Seager and Marcus Semien? Could the Dodgers, like the Yankees still sore over 2017, sign him to replace Seager? Could the Astros get back into the picture? It represents quite the challenge for his representative, Jon Rosen, an accomplished agent in the entertainment world, although not in baseball.
He and Correa saw the other elite shortstops (Baez, Seager and Semien) decide their futures. Will anyone give him $100 million-plus? Is there any way he and the Yankees could wind up agreeing on a lucrative one-year deal, with DJ LeMahieu easing his former Rockies teammate’s transition to the Big Apple? That would give the Yankees’ young shortstops a year to develop further and Story a great platform for the 2022-23 winter.
His agent, Scott Boras, found nine figures, easily, for his clients Scherzer, Seager and Semien. Can he do the same for another trio: Conforto, Bryant and Nick Castellanos?
You could easily expect the Yankees or Dodgers to welcome him aboard if he opts to bolt Atlanta, so don’t fret over his financial well-being. Yet he hasn’t hidden his desire to be a lifelong Brave. Can he convince his only employer to reward him for his exemplary service?
He’ll face a different sort of pressure. As long as he’s not too worried about chasing every last dollar — and that has not been his way — would he rather re-sign with the Dodgers, whose logo will eventually be on his Hall of Fame plaque? Or would he like to go home and join the Rangers, who just brought aboard his longtime teammate, Seager?
He and the Yankees sure seemed like a great fit during that small sample. Can they agree on the right price to turn that honeymoon into a longer commitment?
The pitcher could have played for the Mariners on a one-year, $13-million deal in 2022. Instead, the 30-year-old opted for free agency. Could the Mets tap him to complete their starting rotation?
The all-time great hit pretty well against lefties in the final season of his massive, 10-year deal, and he is on record that he wants to keep playing. No one wants to see Pujols retire due to a lack of interest. C’mon, Cardinals, bring him back for a final run with ageless wonders Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
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