An impressive flurry of activity before the Winter Meetings left some feeling that there would be little left to tackle before the 2014 season kicks off. And yet, while just seven of MLBTR's top fifty free agents were still available last time this year, fully twice that number remains this time around. Meanwhile, by this point in the 2013 offseason, David Wright and Evan Longoria had already entered huge new extensions. So far this year, however, only Hunter Pence's deal has approached those in magnitude, and he was set to hit the free agent market anyway.
All of which is to say that there is plenty of time left for major decisions before the start of the 2014 season. Here are a few of the most impactful situations to watch as we enter the new year:
Perhaps the biggest reason for the hold up in the current free agent market, of course, is the Masahiro Tanaka posting. With only a $20MM surcharge required for whatever team wins the bidding war, Tanaka is a virtual free agent. Given his open market status, young age, high-end billing, and complete lack of a MLB track record, his courtship will be fascinating and impactful.
Tanaka's situation is not just interesting in its own right, however. Most of the top free agent starters remain available: chief among them, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana. If they continue to wait and see where Tanaka lands, there could be an unprecedented rush for arms right on the precipice of Spring Training. Or, perhaps, one or more will break ranks earlier as the Tanaka market begins to clarify.
There are, of course, multiple other important players still available to the highest bidder. The markets for Stephen Drew, Nelson Cruz, and Kendrys Morales — constrained by the draft pick compensation they are tied to — will be interesting to track and could have a big impact on future qualifying offer situations. And A.J. Burnett could still bring big impact on a short-term commitment to the Pirates or, potentially, another destination. Finally, some club could well be in line to add a big arm to the back of its pen at a reasonable rate, with both Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney still available.
Between January 1 and Opening Day of last year, long-term extensions were signed by Elvis Andrus, Justin Verlander, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, and Adam Wainwright. Right now, there are several major potential extension targets whose situations seem ripe for resolution.
To begin, baseball has several high-end arms entering their final year of team control. First amongst them, of course, is Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, who could ultimately land one of (if not the) biggest contracts in MLB history. But he is not alone: Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and Homer Bailey were all amongst the game's most valuable starters last year.
One team, in particular, faces an intricate set of decisions on its many viable externsion candidates: the Braves. First baseman Freddie Freeman; shortstop Andrelton Simmons; outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton; closer Craig Kimbrel; and starters like Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran. While each player comes with different service time and other considerations, there are arguments to be made for them all. Whether, when, and how Atlanta GM Frank Wren pursues extensions promises to have major long-term implications for the organization, especially given its budget constraints.
More pressing, perhaps, is the situation in Baltimore. The Orioles have two key younger players — Chris Davis and Matt Wieters — entering their second-to-last year of team control. As MLBTR's Mark Polishuk explains, the O's will face a challenging test in determining whether to make a serious run at either or both of the two Boras clients. If an extension is not in the cards, and Baltimore cannot stay in the thick of things in 2014, there is certainly a possibility that a trade could instead be in the works.
And then there is the most fascinating extension case of all: unprecedented superstar Mike Trout of the Angels. $400MM has been floated as a starting point for valuing a huge new deal for baseball's best player, who is still just 22 years of age. If Los Angeles wants to get any kind of break on the price, it may need to set negotiations in serious motion before Trout hits a big arbitration payday (and secures his financial future) after this season. Since the club can delay the luxury tax implications of an extension by waiting to put pen to paper until after Opening Day, look for things to heat up as the season draws nearer.
Some obvious trade candidates — like Ike Davis of the Mets — have been actively involved in trade talks of late. But after a series of big swaps in advance of and during the Winter Meetings, things have been much more quiet since with respect to some of baseball's biggest targets.
The most likely star to be traded, it would seem, is Rays ace David Price. While his market has been slow to develop, one must wonder whether some team will eventually decide to make a significant offer to bring him on board. With the aforementioned Scherzer, Lester, and Bailey all seemingly unlikely to be dealt at this point, and a free agent market filled with less appealing arms, Tampa still has plenty of leverage — particularly since the club could always hold onto Price if its demands aren't met.
Otherwise, it is not clear that any top-end talent is truly available by trade. Though plenty of speculation has visited Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins appear prepared to keep him in right field for at least one more year. In fact, as time goes on, it could well be that the chatter will begin to shift back towards whether the Fish can and will try to ink Stanton to an extension.
The resolution of Alex Rodriguez's grievance hearing is still an important element of the overall market, given its impact on the Yankees' luxury cap and overall payroll situation. Even if keeping under the cap will now be a significant challenge, particularly if the Yanks sign Tanaka, New York can still save big dollars if the suspension is upheld.
The stage is set for a new year, with plenty of room to impact the outcome of the 2014 campaign. As always, MLBTR will be there every step of the way.