Free Agent Frenzy Certain to Dominate Winter Meetings

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Justin Verlander is the top available free-agent pitcher this off-season.Photo byKeith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

By Dan Schlossberg

For the first time in three years, the Baseball Winter Meetings are back — this time with a vengeance.

Cancelled by COVID in 2020 and the lockout in 2021, this five-day extravaganza brings managers, general managers, owners, player agents, and media members under the same roof, in this case the Manchester Hyatt on the shores of San Diego Bay.

Hundreds of players remain suspended in the Twilight Zone of free agency with each waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now that Jacob deGrom has pick his 2023 team, for example, Justin Verlander and the other starting pitchers will fall into place.

And that four-way flood of All-Star shortstops also needs to shake out, with decisions pending for Dansby Swanson, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa.

Hanging over all of that is the enormous shadow of Aaron Judge, the 6’7” slugger who coming off a 62-homer season but considering trading his Yankee pinstripes for Dodger blue or the black-and-orange of the upstate Giants (his favorite team as a kid growing up in nearby Linden, CA).

With salaries spiking into the stratosphere again — thanks, Steve Cohen — the big-ticket free agents are virtually certain to break the records for annual average salary ($43.3 million by Max Scherzer) and overall dollars ($430 million for Mike Trout).

Scott Boras, of course, is thrilled. The boisterous agent, who loves to hold court for media members in hotel lobbies, will probably get more publicity for himself than for any of his clients — at least until they sign. And Boras is skilled at prolonging negotiations long enough to squeeze team treasuries beyond the last drop.

The Winter Meetings have a longer history than the American League, which began play in 1901.

The initial confab was in 1876, the year the National League played its first season. William Hulbert, an executive eventually enshrined in Cooperstown, was named the NL president while the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics were expelled for failing to complete their schedules.

More recently, meetings have been known for trades and signings. In 1975, White Sox owner Bill Veeck set up a lobby stand that said “Open for Business” and negotiated a half-dozen deals involving 22 players. P.S. His team lost 97 games anyway.

Whitey Herzog, who doubled as manager and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, pulled off a memorable deal involving a pair of future Hall of Famers. On Dec. 12, 1980, he completed a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers that sent Rollie Fingers, Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich to the Brewers in exchange for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano and Lary Sorensen. The trade ended a four-day stay in St. Louis for Fingers, whom Herzog had acquired from San Diego four days earlier in an 11-player deal.

The complexities of modern contracts make such massive maneuvering difficult if not impossible today. But teams continue trying.

The Texas Rangers made Texas-sized moves in 1988, signing native Texan Nolan Ryan while making transactions that involved 15 players.

There was the 1990 blockbuster that sent Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez from Toronto to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter.

Barry Bonds signed with San Francisco during the ‘92 meetings in Louisville. In 2000, Alex Rodriguez inked a 10-year, $252 million pact with Texas. Albert Pujols got an almost identical contract from the Los Angeles Angels 11 years later.

The 2014 Dodgers made six swaps with four different teams, adding 19 players in a 24-hour whirlwind of frenzied activity. A year later, the Cubs beat bids from the Dodgers, Giants, and Red Sox for pitcher Jon Lester.

At the last winter meetings, in 2019, seven-year, $245 million contracts went to Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and former National Anthony Rendon, who signed with the Angels (both have suffered serious injuries since). The big winner was starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, who jumped from the Houston Astros to the New York Yankees for a then-record $324, spread over nine years.

Once presented by Minor League Baseball, the Winter Meetings used to include a jobs fair, awards luncheon, evening gala, and trade show. Most are now history, though representatives of all 170 professional teams (30 from MLB and the remainder from the minors) do meet and mingle.

Still on tap, beyond transactions, are Hall of Fame election announcements, the Rule 5 draft, a Manager’s Luncheon with media members, and appearances by Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and players union chief Tony Clark, whose contract as executive director was just extended for five years.

Although most winter meetings take place in warm climates, there have been exceptions. Destinations have included Toronto, Indianapolis, Boston, National Harbor (Washington), Dallas, and Nashville.

The climate, in terms of temperature and activity, should be a whole lot better in San Diego. The Winter Meetings were cancelled by Covid in 2020 and by the lockout last year.

After the nuclear winter imposed by the 99-day lockout, baseball needs to keep its strikes between the white lines.

The Grand Old Game also figures to knock the winter sports out of the tabloid headlines for a few days as the Hot Stove League lives up to its name.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch, national baseball writer for forbes.com, columnist for Sports Collectors Digest, and contributor to USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Latino Sports, and Memories & Dreams. Learn more at www.danschlossberg.net or e.mail ballauthor@gmail.com.

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