- The Astros have been ultra-aggressive in upgrading their roster this offseason, yet team president Reid Ryan indicated Sunday that they’re still missing a major piece. “What we lack is that starter who you pencil in at the top of the rotation that is an automatic W,” Ryan told MLB Network Radio (Twitter link). Houston does have 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel atop its rotation, though his production took steps backward during a shoulder injury-shortened 2016. Notably, the Astros are in the mix for White Sox ace Chris Sale and the Rays’ starters, including Chris Archer.
- The Astros are continuing to “pay really close attention” to the Rays’ starting pitchers, according to sources. Houston has made several lineup upgrades (Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and now Carlos Beltran) this offseason but Charlie Morton is the only addition to a rotation that underachieved in 2016. Tampa is widely expected to deal at least one of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb or Drew Smyly this winter. The Astros are known to have interest in Archer, though he would command the highest price of the lot.
SUNDAY, 7:09pm: An official announcement from the Dodgers about a Hill agreement isn’t likely to happen tonight, Andy McCullough tweets.
SATURDAY, 6:48pm: The Dodgers and Hill are “closing in” on a contract, tweets Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. They’re unlikely to reach an agreement today, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times, though he corroborates Plunkett’s report that a deal is forthcoming (Twitter link). The Dodgers aren’t facing much of any competition from Hill’s previously reported suitors – the Astros, Rangers or Yankees – according to FanRag’s Jon Heyman.
4:02pm: Another team who tried to negotiate a deal with free agent starter Rich Hill believes the lefty has a three-year contract worth $40MM or more in place with the Dodgers, Peter Gammons tweets. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe tells a similar story, saying the Dodgers might already have a deal in place for Hill for three years and $46MM-$48MM. Cafardo, though, emphasizes the possibility that one of a number of East Coast teams could still sign him. No move has been confirmed by Hill or the Dodgers at this point, however.
The latest rumors about Hill had the Dodgers as one of four teams bidding for his services, along with the Yankees, Rangers and Astros. The Red Sox and Orioles were also believed to be interested. Hill, of course, is coming off an outstanding age-36 season with the Athletics and Dodgers during which he posted a 2.12 ERA, 10.5 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 in 110 1/3 innings, including a start in which he was pulled a perfect game after seven innings. His performance in 2016 landed him the No. 14 spot on MLBTR’s list of the top 50 free agents, making him one of the top starters available.
The downsides with Hill are his age and his lengthy injury history — even in his 2016 breakout campaign, he dealt with blister problems and a groin injury. As Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times points out via Twitter, though, the Dodgers’ depth puts them in position to take advantage of Hill’s upside while minimizing their risk if he’s not available to pitch. Particularly given Hill’s vanishingly low 2016 home run rate of 0.33 per nine innings, there’s reason to be somewhat skeptical of his ability to repeat his incredible performance last season. He could regress a fair amount in the next couple years and still be a vital contributor, however, and if he does return to the Dodgers, he should provide their rotation with a healthy boost if he’s able to stay healthy.
For Hill, a $40MM-plus contract would represent an enormous financial windfall — he has spent most of his career as a journeyman and has never had a long-term deal. He’s also never made more in a season than the $6MM he made last year.
The Dodgers are currently dealing with debt issues, but those issues seem unlikely to prevent them from pursuing a free agent of Hill’s stature, and the team has not been required to reduce its payroll. In addition to Hill, the team has also been fleetingly linked to other potentially expensive or relatively expensive players like Aroldis Chapman and Andrew McCutchen.
5:45pm: Rangers GM Jon Daniels told reporters (including Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) that his team isn’t looking at the trades like the blockbuster that brought Cole Hamels to Texas in 2015, which would seem to confirm that the Rangers indeed aren’t in on Sale right now.
SUNDAY, 1:40pm: Mark Bowman of MLB.com joins Heyman in reporting that the Braves aren’t willing to give up Swanson, whom the White Sox covet. Discussions between the two teams aren’t leading anywhere as a result (Twitter link). While it won’t surrender Swanson, Atlanta would consider parting with Albies, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post (via Twitter).
SATURDAY: The Braves have already added three starting pitchers in Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia early this offseason, and they’re now trying to swing a trade with the White Sox for ace Chris Sale, according to Fanrag’s Jon Heyman. However, there’s competition in the form of the Astros, Nationals, Red Sox, Rangers and Dodgers, writes Heyman, who notes that Los Angeles is lagging behind because it’s hesitant to deal any of its top prospects.
The Dodgers are more focused on bolstering their rotation through free agency than trades, tweets FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, which aligns with a report from earlier Saturday that they have a deal in place to re-sign left-hander Rich Hill. Contrary to Heyman, Rosenthal relays that the Astros and Rangers are out on Sale at the White Sox’s current asking price. And while the Red Sox are involved, they’re also reluctant to meet Chicago’s demands (Twitter link).
After agreeing to sign outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran on Saturday, Astros owner Jim Crane told Mark Berman of FOX 26 that the team will go into the winter meetings seeking pitching, but it’s unlikely to make any “big moves” (Twitter link). That would seem to rule out a Sale acquisition for Houston.
Based on reports from Heyman and Rosenthal, both the Braves and National League East rival Nats – who are continuing their discussions with the Pirates regarding center fielder Andrew McCutchen, per Rosenthal – are among the front-runners for Sale.
It’s unlikely the Braves would include prized young shortstop Dansby Swanson in a trade, Heyman suggests, but the belief is that they have the pieces to make a deal happen. Atlanta has major league trade chips in center fielder Ender Inciarte and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, not to mention a well-regarded prospect pool that features the likes of middle infielder Ozzie Albies, southpaws Sean Newcomb and Kolby Allard, and righties Mike Soroka and Touki Toussaint. Baseball America included all five of those players in its Midseason Top 100 prospects list.
- The Astros are willing to listen to offers for catcher/designated hitter Evan Gattis and right-hander Collin McHugh, per Cafardo. Gattis, who has two years of team control left and will make $5.2MM in 2017, has perhaps become movable with the Astros having added catcher Brian McCann and DH/outfielder Carlos Beltran this offseason. The Astros don’t seem as well off in their rotation, even after signing Charlie Morton, and the 29-year-old McHugh led the team in innings pitched (184 1/3) this past season and posted decent numbers (4.34 ERA, 8.63 K/9, 2.63 BB/9). MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects a $4.6MM salary in 2017 for McHugh, who will make his first of three trips through arbitration.
The Nationals, Astros, Red Sox, Rangers and Braves are at the forefront of the Chris Sale market, reports FanRag’s Jon Heyman in his latest notes column. However, an exec with one of those clubs that spoke to Heyman still said he’s not sure that Sale is moved at all due to the exorbitant nature of the White Sox’ asking price. The Nationals, for instance, have been asked for Trea Turner as part of the package but have balked at the idea, Heyman notes, with one Washington source calling the budding star “too valuable” to part with. It’s similarly difficult to envision a player like Alex Bregman or Dansby Swanson being moved for Sale as well. The White Sox do like Dodgers prospect Cody Bellinger, writes Heyman, but L.A. has yet to show a significant inclination to pursue Sale, he adds. (And, from my vantage point, the Dodgers would need to add quite a bit more than Bellinger to a Sale package anyhow.)
- The Yankees, Astros and Blue Jays all remain in the mix for Edwin Encarnacion, but Heyman joins others in writing that Twitter reports of a deal between Houston and Encarnacion were premature. The Astros are being aggressive on Encarnacion, according to Heyman, though agent Paul Kinzer told him that there are “a couple” of other teams in the mix beyond this group as well. Perhaps signaling their desire to add an impact bat, the Astros made a legitimate run at Yoenis Cespedes both this offseason and last winter, Heyman adds, noting that last winter’s pursuit flew largely under the radar.
- The Astros continue to strive to add another bat, with the team confident it will land either Edwin Encarnacion or Carlos Beltran, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today (Twitter link). Still, the Yankees, Blue Jays, and a “couple others” remain involved on Encarnacion, Heyman tweets. All three of those teams, along with the Red Sox, are in on Beltran, Nightengale adds on Twitter.
- Several former employers of first bagger Mike Napoli have interest in a reunion, per Heyman. The Red Sox, Indians, and Rangers are perhaps the three teams most heavily invested in his market. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Astros appear to be involved at the periphery at present.
TODAY, 9:13pm: In further comments, Kinzer says that he does not expect a deal to be completed before the Winter Meetings, though he notes that could change if the right offer hits the table. (Via Mark Berman of FOX 26; Twitter links.)
While there has been some internet chatter suggesting that there’s a deal in place with the Astros, Kinzer denies the rumors. As Jon Heyman of Fan Rag tweeted, there is nothing in place with Houston. Still, Kinzer does tell Berman that the Astros are a “great fit” from Encarnacion’s perspective, and acknowledges that there is interest from the team.
6:16pm: There’s “nothing imminent” on Encarnacion, Kinzer tells MLB Network’s Jon Morosi (links to Twitter). More than one team is still involved on the veteran slugger, per his agent, with multiple offers on the table.
The Astros and Yankees are believed still to be in the hunt, Morosi adds.
YESTERDAY: Edwin Encarnacion’s free agency may not last much longer, as the slugger’s agent, Paul Kinzer, told TSN’s Rick Westhead today that his client will probably agree to a contract later this week or early next week. Kinzer told Westhead that the Blue Jays remain in the picture and have been “showing Edwin the most love,” though the agent didn’t handicap any one team’s chances of getting a deal done. According to Kinzer, three teams have told him that they’re waiting for the resolution of the collective bargaining negotiations before making a formal offer. He added that two teams have made “serious” offers to Encarnacion already.
[Related: Edwin Encarnacion’s Free Agent Profile]
One team that doesn’t appear to be in the running for Encarnacion is the Red Sox, though, as WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford writes that a source has informed him that Boston “probably” won’t be a finalist for Encarnacion’s imposing bat. Boston remains focused on adding a shorter-term option to fill its DH vacancy, according to Bradford.
ESPN’s Buster Olney reported earlier today that the Astros bid big on Yoenis Cespedes before he agreed to return to the Mets, and his colleague, Jerry Crasnick, added that the Astros are still a possible landing spot for Encarnacion (Twitter links). While a big bid on Cespedes doesn’t necessarily indicate that the ’Stros are willing to make a market-beating offer for Encarnacion, their willingness to make a competitive bid for a player that agreed to a $110MM deal does suggest that they can at least afford to make a legitimate play for Encarnacion.
It remains unclear which teams have made the aforementioned serious offers to Encarnacion. The Blue Jays reportedly offered Encarnacion about $80MM over four years earlier this month, but that offer seems light to constitute the “serious” adjective utilized by Kinzer, considering the agent’s previous comments implying that a five-year deal and/or a $25MM annual value both seemed reasonable. Furthermore, Kinzer tells Westhead that he hasn’t talked dollars with Blue Jays brass since that initial proposal. The Yankees have also been connected to Encarnacion on multiple occasions, and the Rangers have reportedly reached out to Kinzer as well, though the extent of Texas’ interest isn’t known at this time.
Encarnacion, like most agents, should be reasonably expected to end up with the highest bidder, but Kinzer did imply that there will be other factors at play when speaking to Westhead. “We won’t put any restrictions on any offer like years or anything,” he explained. “[Encarnacion is] going to decide where he’s comfortable. One of the things we have to look at is the big difference in the tax base between some of the teams that are interested. Plus, there’s a comfort level we need to consider.”
The Astros agreed with outfielder Nori Aoki on a $5.5MM deal with him to avoid arbitration, according to Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle (Twitter link). MLBTR had projected a $6.8MM salary for the veteran, so this represents a rather notable cost savings for the club.
While Aoki could have justifiably asked for a raise, the alternative was to test the open market. Though it’s possible he could have done as well or better there, he may simply have decided that he liked the price and the fit in Houston.
Soon to turn 35, Aoki was claimed off waivers from the Mariners earlier in the offseason. It wasn’t clear at the time whether the Astros would ultimately tender him a contract; yet more questions were raised when the club went out and added another left-handed-hitting corner outfielder in Josh Reddick.
It seems that Houston still likes the idea of utilizing Aoki in some kind of platoon. Presumably, he’ll share time with Yulieski Gurriel or some other right-handed hitter in left field.
Aoki has typically produced at just above the league-average rate, and that was true again last year in Seattle, as he put up a .283/.349/.388 slash over 467 plate appearances. He doesn’t typically carry platoon splits, and he has struck out in only eight percent of his trips to the plate in his career, making him a reliable — albeit somewhat unexciting — offensive presence.