Daily News Portal

MLB pressure watch: 10 names under the most scrutiny at Winter Meetings


The story of the Winter Meetings is the same almost every December: Pressure.

The conversations at this annual industry-wide convention, which will take place for the first time since 2019 in San Diego this week, often revolve around money. But the forces driving the spending — the reason wallets open up and record-setting free-agent deals get made — take different shapes. The pressure can come from the ownership above or the clubhouse below. It can come from an internal desire to jumpstart a rebuilding effort, or from an external concern about fans refusing to line up at the box office. It can come from the fear of missing out on an exceptional talent — the sort that might not come along again soon.

Several players fit that description this winter. Jacob deGrom, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, has already made his decision, departing the Mets for a five-year, $185 million contract from the Texas Rangers. He won’t be the last star to cash in.

Aaron Judge authored the finest platform season in recent memory. Justin Verlander returned from major surgery to win the World Series and his third Cy Young Award. Carlos Correa, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts are three of the best shortstops in the sport — and Dansby Swanson wasn’t far behind in 2022.

Yet even the players are not immune to the pressure. The forces can cut both ways. There is pressure to find the right landing spot, pressure to surpass prior deals. For certain agents, there is pressure to live up to their lofty rhetoric.

As a way of understanding what will transpire this coming week in San Diego, we present to you a list of the owners, executives, agents and players facing the most pressure at the Winter Meetings. The story of this week will be told through how they react to it.

Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees owner

Judge.

Judge?

Judge!

You guessed it. For Steinbrenner and the Yankees, this entire winter boils down to the franchise’s ability to keep Judge in pinstripes. Steinbrenner said a few weeks ago he wants to make Judge “a Yankee for the rest of his life.” It will surely cost more than the $213.5 million offered by the Yankees at the outset of the season. But Steinbrenner and his ownership group can afford it, even if Judge surpasses Mike Trout’s record for average annual value for a position player at $35.5 million.

The bigger question, really, is if Steinbrenner can afford to let Judge leave.


Hal Steinbrenner (Alex Trautwig / MLB Photos)

The Yankees could survive without him. You could make an argument, from an actuarial perspective, that signing up for nearly a decade with an oversized outfielder entering his 30s may be a mistake. But that ignores all the potential benefits, both in marketing the franchise away from the diamond and winning games on it, that could accrue from a partnership with Judge.

Steinbrenner understands as much, which is why many executives within the industry view the Yankees as the favorite to win the bidding. The Yankees are a financial behemoth, but the team often resides on the periphery of free-agent sweepstakes. When necessary, as with Aroldis Chapman and Gerrit Cole in the past, Steinbrenner is willing to set records for spending. A deal with Judge may require that.

“We have plenty of ability to make other things happen too,” Steinbrenner also said earlier this month. It is a nice sentiment. But it is hard to imagine his fanbase, already howling about stagnation amid the 13-year World Series drought, taking things well if the Yankees permit Judge to depart.

Chaim Bloom, Red Sox chief baseball officer

Perhaps no head of baseball operations is under greater scrutiny. Bloom, previously with the low-budget Rays, needs to flex big-market muscle. But in his three years running the Red Sox, second baseman Trevor Story is the only free agent he has signed to more than a two-year deal.

The Red Sox say they want to keep shortstop Bogaerts, but haven’t done it. They say they want to extend third baseman Rafael Devers, but haven’t done it. Their commitments for 2023 currently amount to slightly more than $140 million — more than $70 million below their Opening Day figure last season and more than $100 million below the number in 2019. And suddenly, certain free agents won’t take their money, turning the Sox into the Boston Bridesmaids.

First, first baseman José Abreu chose the World Series champion Astros over the last-place Sox. Then right-hander Zach Eflin returned to his native Florida when the Rays matched the Sox’s three-year, $40 million offer. Bloom recovered to strike a two-year, $17.5 agreement with righty reliever Chris Martin. His only other signing was lefty reliever Joely Rodríguez for $2 million.

Obviously, the offseason is a long way from over. But with Nathan Eovaldi, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha all free agents, the Red Sox rotation presently consists of Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock, Brayan Bello and perhaps the oft-injured James Paxton. They need perhaps two starters. Bogaerts or a reasonable facsimile at shortstop. A big right-handed bat to fill the role they envisioned for Abreu, and a corner outfielder.

We wrote in September that this offseason represents a turning point, if not a breaking point. That breaking point is getting closer.

Billy Eppler, Mets general manager

With the passage of time, perhaps the Mets will view the events of Dec. 2, 2022, as a blessing, an opportunity to sigh with relief about dodging a lengthy commitment to Jacob deGrom, an absurdly gifted pitcher who has made just 26 starts in the past two seasons and will turn 35 this coming summer. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But in the present, the departure of deGrom stings. Owner Steve Cohen has mandated the Mets win – now – and it’s up to Eppler to reconstruct a starting rotation that is missing three members from the 2022 group. The team can console itself by remembering that deGrom was only a member of the team for a couple months, and the Mets still won 101 games. Rival evaluators believe the club still must accomplish a lot this winter to approach that win total in 2023.

So Eppler will face scrutiny as the Mets pivot away from deGrom. The Mets planned for this contingency. The team has met with Verlander, Carlos Rodón and Japanese star Kodai Senga. The club is also now expected to approach the middle-tier of the market with aggression — it is a great time, it appears, to be someone like Jameson Taillon, Chris Bassitt, Eovaldi or Andrew Heaney. The early deals for starting pitchers like Matthew Boyd and Eflin set a strong market. Now the game’s richest owner has a rotation to rebuild, and fast, and about $40 million in average annual salary no longer allocated toward deGrom.

It will be up to Eppler to execute Cohen’s vision. The Mets also need a center fielder, with Brandon Nimmo on the market. Cohen has indicated he does not want to take the payroll above $300 million. But chances are, he’ll zoom right past the number, even if the Mets pivot away from the high-priced starting pitchers and try to secure an impactful hitter.

Oh, by the way: Eppler is operating under a shadow of uncertainty about his future. David Stearns’ contract in Milwaukee expires after this coming season. James Click, the recently deposed Astros general manager, is also available. You want pressure? This is what it looks like.

Jed Hoyer, Cubs president of baseball operations

After back-to-back losing seasons, the flag flying over Wrigley Field should not be a “W” but a “U.”

For urgency.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts arguably should be the focus of this section, just as Steinbrenner is the focus of the Yankees’. But Hoyer, the team’s president of baseball operations, will make the personnel decisions to build the team back up, just as he made the decisions to tear it down.


Jed Hoyer (Lucas Peltier / USA Today Sports)

The first litmus test will be whether the Cubs sign one of the Big Four shortstops, seemingly a must for a team lacking not only offensive talent, but also star power. Hoyer dipped his toe into free agency last offseason, adding Seiya Suzuki for $85 million and Marcus Stroman for $71 million. There should be plenty of room for more. The Cubs’ projected 2023 payroll stands at $127.2 million. Four years ago, the team opened the season at $203 million.

The problem for Hoyer is that shortstop is not the Cubs’ only hole. For all the talk about the Next Great Cubs Team, the major-league club is short on long-term building blocks, and the farm system, while plenty deep, is short on potential stars. Hoyer bid for Abreu to fill the team’s void at first base. He wants a center fielder, but rather than Nimmo, he might prefer a one-year stopgap while awaiting the arrival of prospect Pete-Crow Armstrong. Rotation help, bullpen help, Hoyer’s team needs that, too.

Playing in one of the game’s weakest divisions, the Cubs are in position to spend their way into contention. But it likely will require Hoyer going outside his comfort zone. Fly the “U.” It’s time.

Scott Boras, agent

In 2019-20, the last normal baseball offseason, Boras cut seven of the 11 biggest free-agent deals, totaling, ahem, $1.07 billion. His class this offseason might be even deeper, and he was in high spirits at the general managers’ meetings, regaling reporters with puns on his clients’ names and his usual visions of grandeur.

Now, the game’s leading agent/showman must deliver.

It will be difficult for Boras to miss when he represents six free agents in Jim Bowden’s top 25 (Correa, Bogaerts, Rodón, Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Josh Bell) and a number of other accomplished players (J.D. Martinez, Cody Bellinger, Walker, Jurickson Profar, Zack Britton). But every so often, one of his clients does not meet expectations.

Correa was an example last offseason, though he did not hire Boras until Jan. 18, leaving the agent little time to negotiate a monster deal when the lockout ended in mid-March. Conforto was another example after declining the Mets’ $18.4 million qualifying offer and a previous $100 million over an unspecified term, according to the team’s television network. Conforto injured his right shoulder in January, underwent surgery in April and earned not a single cent while sitting out last season.

Boras, 70, remains energetic. His staff is large enough for him to handle a large stable of clients. One of his players says, “it’s fascinating to see him work this time of year.” The pressure on the agent, then, is relative; Boras is wealthy and at the agents’ standard 5 percent rate he is about to get even wealthier. But he’ll be busy, that’s for sure.

Carlos Correa, free-agent shortstop

Do the math. Correa earned $35.1 million with the Twins last season, then opted out of the final two years of his contract. So, to beat the Tigers’ reported 10-year, $275 million offer to him last year — before the lockout, before he hired Boras — he would need to exceed $239.1 million over nine years. Shouldn’t be a problem.

Correa, though, surely is eyeing a bigger prize — the 10-year, $325 million contract Boras negotiated for Corey Seager with the Rangers a year ago. He is entering his age 28 season, just as Seager was then. His career OPS+ is nearly identical to what Seager’s was at the time. And though his advanced metrics took a hit last season, he is generally regarded as the better defender.

The Twins want Correa back, even though he was not as good for them as he was in his final season with the Astros, when he was an All-Star, won a Gold Glove and finished fifth for MVP. Correa accomplished none of that last season, but his OPS+ was the second-highest of his career, behind only his tainted 2017 season with the Astros, and he impressed the Twins with his leadership. He also worked diligently to keep his troublesome back strong, and has appeared in 148 and 136 games the past two seasons.

So, will he beat Seager? Heck, he might not even beat Trea Turner, who is only 15 months older and a less skilled defender. The jockeying between Boras and Turner’s agent, Jeff Berry of CAA, could be one of the meetings’ better sideshows. Berry is not going to want to sign Turner first, and then get trumped by Boras with Correa.

Dansby Swanson, free-agent shortstop

As the likely fourth choice among the Big Four, Swanson might not get his choice of teams in the game of shortstop musical chairs. Last season was the first in which he produced an OPS+ above league average over a full schedule. Even in a year in which he was an All-Star, won a Gold Glove and finished 12th in the MVP voting, he struck out a career-high 182 times.

All right, so Swanson is a streaky hitter. He also is a shortstop who helped the Braves win five straight division titles and the 2021 World Series. At 28, he’s only nine months older than Correa. And best of all, he’s hitting the market at a time when nearly a dozen clubs could invest at shortstop.


Dansby Swanson (Ethan Mito / Clarkson Creative / Getty Images)

The only questions, then, are where Swanson will land, and for how much. The Braves are his hometown team, the team that acquired him while he was still in the minors, his first choice. Swanson is represented by Excel Sports Management, the same agency Freddie Freeman used when he went through his messy breakup with the Braves. The difference is, Swanson is more emotionally prepared to leave Atlanta, if necessary.

So, let’s play this out. Let’s say the Braves decline to meet Swanson’s price, while Correa signs with the Giants, Turner the Phillies, Bogaerts the Red Sox. At minimum, the Cubs and Twins would be in play for Swanson. The Dodgers could seek to reunite him with Freeman on a shorter deal. Perry Minasian, previously with the Braves, could pursue him for the Angels. Other teams also might emerge.

If the Big Four shortstops are the free-agent market’s version of the Beatles, there are worse things Swanson can be than Ringo Starr.

Farhan Zaidi, Giants president of baseball operations

The magic of San Francisco’s 107-win season in 2021 was likely impossible to bottle. The Giants should know: They tried to replicate the formula in 2022 and won 26 fewer games. The 2021 performance represented a feather in Zaidi’s cap, a triumph in terms of team-building. It also heightened expectations and accelerated the public timeline for when the Giants would re-emerge from rebuilding.

Even if 2021 had never happened, that time would be now. Buster Posey has retired. Brandon Belt is a free agent. The team is more than $90 million shy of the first luxury-tax threshold. The fans are clamoring for a long-term commitment to a new superstar — specifically a native of northern California who just hit 62 home runs.

The franchise spent the latter portion of the 2010s searching for a new pillar to build around. The previous regime swung a deal for Giancarlo Stanton, only to see the slugger exercise his no-trade clause. Zaidi made a late charge for Bryce Harper, only to see him take his talents to South Philadelphia. The hope — nay, the demand — in the Bay Area this winter is that the Giants will not meet the same fate with Judge.

The Yankees, of course, are unlikely to make it easy for Judge to go elsewhere. If he opts to return to The Bronx, Zaidi must determine the merits of pursuing another new face of the franchise — like, say, Carlos Correa — or opting for incremental improvement in less flashy ways. The strategy worked close to perfection in 2021. But that season, as we’ve seen, may never be replicated.

Willson Contreras, free-agent catcher

Remember what happened at the trade deadline? No team met the Cubs’ price for Contreras, even though his hard-hit percentage and maximum exit velocity were among the top 3 percent in the sport at the time. Contreras’ dubious reputation as a catcher preceded him, in what appeared to be an ominous sign for his free agency.

At a time when teams increasingly emphasize catching defense, the questions about Contreras’ pitch framing and game calling almost certainly are hurting his market. He is also entering his age-31 season, which is somewhat advanced for a catcher, and hampered by a qualifying offer, which will require any team that signs him to forfeit a draft pick or two and in most cases international bonus pool space.

A team intrigued by Contreras’ bat and the edge he brings to a clubhouse might be willing to overlook the questions surrounding his defense. But would the Cardinals, for example, want him replacing Yadier Molina, an all-time great defensive catcher? A more realistic scenario might be the one envisioned by the Astros, who would catch Contreras only on occasion, using him more as a left fielder and DH.

The problem? Left-field/DH types do not get paid like top catchers such as J.T. Realmuto (five years, $115.5 million) or Salvador Perez (four years, $82 million). Which, in the end, might leave Contreras less than satisfied.

Perry Minasian, Angels general manager

Minasian’s team is for sale, a mitigating circumstance as he enters the third year of a four-year contract. The Angels’ GM can neither trade Shohei Ohtani nor sign him; Arte Moreno seemingly is leaving that decision to the next owner. Ideally, Minasian would build a team strong enough to dissuade Ohtani from becoming a free agent next offseason. In reality, there is perhaps only so much he can do.

And yet, Minasian has no choice but to push. For the sake of his franchise, which has not won a playoff game since before Mike Trout’s arrival in 2011. And for his own future.

Rather than conduct a managerial search, Minasian had little choice but to extend Phil Nevin, the interim replacement for Joe Maddon, for one year. But at least to this point, Moreno is providing the financial leeway necessary for roster upgrades, and Minasian is responding with a feverish attempt to end the Angels’ streak of seven straight losing seasons.

The signing of free-agent left-hander Tyler Anderson to a three-year, $39 million contract bolstered the rotation. Trades for two potential free agents — third baseman Gio Urshela, projected to earn $9.2 million in his final year of arbitration; and right fielder Hunter Renfroe, projected to earn $11.2 million — thickened the lineup.

The Angels still need a shortstop and bullpen help. Even if they get it, they still might be behind two playoff teams in their division, the Astros and Mariners, and a third club that is spending aggressively, the Rangers. But Minasian has no choice but to maneuver as creatively as possible, and not only to avoid talk of trading Ohtani this summer. With a new owner coming, it might be the only way for Minasian to save his job.

(Top photo of Carlos Correa: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)





Read More:MLB pressure watch: 10 names under the most scrutiny at Winter Meetings