SAN DIEGO — It’s another gorgeous, serene day in San Diego, but stroll inside the Manchester Grand Hyatt, there is turbulence and a lobby full of folks running for cover.
It’s the annual MLB Winter Meetings, the first one staged since 2019 with COVID-19 and a labor lockout canceling the past two years. Beginning Monday, teams, executives, managers, scouts, agents, reporters and job seekers will all be under one roof.
And these winter meetings could create chaos and pandemonium like no other.
When Jacob deGrom is signing a five-year, $185 million contract with the Texas Rangers — about $65 million more than the New York Mets' offer — after making just 26 starts and pitching 156.1 innings the past two years; first baseman Jose Abreu is signing for $58.5 million with the Houston Astros despite turning 36 next month; and pitcher Matthew Boyd — who pitched 13.1 innings last year and has a career 39-62 record with a 4.90 ERA — gets $10 million, you know that money is flush in this game.
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Team executives and agents believe these winter meetings will ignite a sensational flourish of activity, perhaps exceeding the record level of expenditures the last time they were in San Diego, particularly once that big free agent domino falls.
That would be reigning American League MVP Aaron Judge, who has already been offered an eight-year deal worth between $288 and $304 million to stay with the New York Yankees. It would make him the highest-paid position player per year in baseball history, surpassing Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout's 10-year, $360 million extension ($36 million a year) in 2018.
Judge is expected to make a decision soon on whether he remains in New York or joins the San Francisco Giants, who are expected to make a formal offer exceeding $300 million soon. And if Judge signs his deal this week, there could be a sequel to the wild winter meetings of 2019 when it was staged at the same hotel property.
There was a record $1.069 billion doled out to 19 free agents, led by Gerrit Cole ($324 million), Anthony Rendon ($245 million), Stephen Strasburg ($245 million) and Zach Wheeler ($120 million) during those meetings.
This could top it with at least eight free agents expected to receive contracts for at least $100 million, with Judge leading the way, and a Mount Rushmore shortstop class of Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson.
The free agent market should be on overdrive considering the trade market is almost non-existent, general managers and executives predict.
The prized trade chip is Oakland Athletics Gold Glove catcher Sean Murphy. The Arizona Diamondbacks have young outfielders Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas and Daulton Varsho on the block. The Toronto Blue Jays are letting teams know they are willing to part with one of their three catchers — Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno. The Miami Marlins have starter Pablo Lopez available while the Yankees are shopping infielder Gleyber Torres. Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds might have requested a trade, but the Pirates continue to have a high price tag on him. The Milwaukee Brewers also were in the trade market before sending Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Jesse Winker and infielder Abraham Toro.
While teams were hoping that the Brewers would strip payroll and trade 2021 Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, starter Brandon Woodruff, or even shortstop Willy Adames, sorry, Brewers GM Matt Arnold is telling them they are off limits. At least for now.
"Those guys that are the very core to our franchise," Arnold told reporters Friday, "and we intend to build around that group to do the best we can here in 2023."
The diminutive trade inventory is why baseball executives are predicting a robust free agent market, with even the likes of the Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Guardians and Kansas City Royals planning to spend. The Guardians already tipped their hand about spending when they also offered a three-year contract for Abreu.
There are more than 130 unsigned free agents on the market that includes MVPs, Cy Young winners, All-Stars and World Series champions, but no one is dominating the attention like Judge.
Only two teams have publicly declared their interest in signing Judge — the Yankees and Giants — but his decision could dramatically impact the entire free agent market.
The sentiment among executives is that Judge returns to the Yankees, who will name him team captain and reserve a spot in Monument Park for him. Then again, the Giants could make an offer that Judge can't refuse, and become the star attraction bringing fans back to Oracle Park. The Giants badly need star power after drawing the fewest fans in a full season in their ballpark's history, and Judge could be the perfect fit. He grew up a Giants fan just 95 miles away in Linden, California, where his parents and in-laws still live.
"Judge has to go back to the Yankees," one former home run champion said. "His swing is molded for that short porch in right-center to the right-field foul pole. His swing is built for Yankee Stadium for sure. Any other place, he'll have to make an adjustment."
While the Judge sweepstakes could wrap up this week, the Philadelphia Phillies are hoping to land one of the marquee shortstops before they head home, too. The Phillies have scheduled meetings with the agents for Turner, Bogaerts, Correa and Swanson.
Turner, the two-time stolen base champion and former batting champion who spent his first 5½ years playing for the Washington Nationals before being traded to the Dodgers, has expressed his desire to head back East.
No one covets him more than the Phillies, with owner John Middleton making no secret how badly he wants him, ready to add more star power. The most intriguing entrant for Turner, and perhaps the Phillies' biggest competition, might be the San Diego Padres.
The Padres already have two highly paid shortstops. Fernando Tatis Jr. is returning April 20 from his PED suspension and Ha-Seong Kim played brilliant defense in Tatis' absence in 2022. Yet with Turner available, the Padres are exploring the possibility of moving Tatis to left field, Kim to second base, and opening shortstop for Turner. The Padres could be the first team in history to have three players earning at least $300 million with Tatis ($340 million), Manny Machado ($300 million) and Turner, with right fielder Juan Soto expected to command perhaps $500 million when he's eligible for free agency in two years.
The Padres aren’t about to let a little red ink or luxury tax penalties stand in the way of winning their first World Series in franchise history.
No shortstop is drawing more widespread interest than Bogaerts, who will come cheaper than Turner and Correa. The Boston Red Sox would love to keep him, but their offers haven't come close to enticing him to stay, and now Bogaerts has about nine teams who have expressed strong interest.
The Chicago Cubs, who have boldly said they plan to build a contender, significantly raising their payroll, have Bogaerts as their top priority. Yet they are also exploring the market for Correa. The Cubs jumped into the Correa sweepstakes late in February before he signed a three-year, $105.3 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, and opted out after the season.
The Twins have offered a variety of contracts to retain Correa, one as long as 10 years, making him the face of the organization, but agent Scott Boras is making it known that he believes Correa should be the highest-paid shortstop. He cites his resume and age (28) and that he's the only shortstop among the group who doesn't have a qualifying offer attached to him.
Executives believe the leading candidate to sign Correa is the Dodgers. Certainly money has never been an issue, particularly with $119 million coming off their books. But the tricky part might be convincing the Dodgers' players, and their fan base, that it's time to forgive and forget. Correa, of course, was in the heart of that 2017 Astros cheating scandal, and the Dodgers and their fans have loudly voiced their anger. Has enough time gone by to welcome Correa? And, come on, who would Dodgers fans rather see, Correa or Gavin Lux, play shortstop?
Swanson is the fallback plan for several of the teams vying for Turner, Bogaerts and Correa, with the Atlanta Braves still making him their top priority. They have offered about $100 million to keep Swanson, but he is seeking at least $140 million, and neither side has budged. If Swanson doesn’t return, executives predict that he could wind up with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals have made it out of the first round of the playoffs just twice since they reached the World Series in 2013. They have loads of money, and GMs and executives believe Swanson would be the ideal fit.
The most intriguing team to watch might be the Mets, unless, of course, the Yankees don't land Judge. Who'd have envisioned that the Mets not only wouldn't be able to bring back deGrom, but that they would be blown out of the water financially with their three-year offer for about $120 million completely dwarfed by the Rangers? And who would have thought that the Yankees could offer Judge about $300 million with no idea whether the Giants will blow past it?
The Mets now are focusing their attention on three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who's seeking at least a three-year deal for $130 million. If the Dodgers jump in and grab Verlander, it would leave the Mets pursuing left-hander Carlos Rodon along with a mid-tier starter such as Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Johnny Cueto, Jameson Taillon or Jose Quintana.
The Astros, aggressive since winning the World Series with the signing of Abreu and reliever Rafael Montero (three years, $34.5 million), are strongly pursuing All-Star catcher Willson Contreras and talking to outfielder Andrew Benintendi.
"Going into spring training, we knew we had a special team, and a special group," said Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña, who was the AL Championship Series and World Series MVP during his rookie season, "and then we sign Montero and add Abreu. Unbelievable. It just speaks to what the front office is trying to do, keep winning, keep that winning culture, and keep that World Series streak going."
The Astros would like to retain Verlander, but have shown no inclination of competing with the Mets and Dodgers for his services, particularly with their deep and talented rotation.
If Judge doesn’t return to New York, the Yankees could create havoc in the free agent market. They may decide they have no choice but to replace Judge with a star, jump into the shortstop market, and do whatever it takes to sign Rodon, Verlander or several other starters.
"We're on the clock," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said recently. "We're certainly not going to mess around."
It sure appears that a whole lot of teams are sharing the same sentiment.
"I think we could be in for a wild week," one veteran GM said. "I just have the sense there's so much more urgency. Nobody wants to wait until January anymore. Who knows, maybe this is the new normal.
"This could be like the winter meetings used to be 30 years ago."
Buckle up, this could be a wild ride.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB Winter Meetings could deliver unparalleled pandemonium