Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 8, 2016

Wheeling And Dealing At The Winter Meetings

The Great Game’s Winter Meetings wrapped up on Thursday, and even as team executives made their way through the security lines at Washington’s National Airport to head home, pundits were busy identifying the major league teams and players who came out on top after five days of trade talks and free agent negotiations set against the backdrop of an annual conference of workshops, networking, a job fair and trade show that is actually for the benefit of several thousand minor league front office personnel.

The main scheduled event, the Rule 5 draft, is also about the minors. This draft allows minor league players who are not on their major league club’s 40-man roster to be claimed by other franchises. Those players switching clubs in the Rule 5 draft must remain on their new team’s 25-man playing roster for all of the following season, or be offered back to their old club. But the players whose names are called in the Rule 5 draft are mostly unknown to fans. Because of that, and the fact that the Winter Meetings are always scheduled shortly after the official start of free agency, most of the public and media focus is on the first big league signings and trades of the off-season.

Among teams, the two consensus winners were the clubs known by the color of their hosiery. Coming off a disappointing season in which they faded to a sub-.500 record after a blazing start, the Chicago White Sox were in sell mode this week. GM Rick Hahn sent 17-game winner Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday. The left-hander has finished in the top ten among American League pitchers in WAR five times, the most of any member of a 2010 draft class that included Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. One day later Hahn traded leadoff hitter Adam Eaton to the Nationals. In exchange for the two stars Chicago received seven minor league prospects, four from Boston and three from Washington.

Hahn’s haul included Yoan Moncada, the young Cuban infielder who is rated the number one prospect in the country. The Red Sox also parted with Michael Kopech, a fireballing right hander rated thirtieth overall, and two other minor leaguers ranked among the top thirty in Boston’s farm system. From the Nationals Hahn received three right-handed pitchers, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Giolito was Washington’s top minor leaguer and is ranked third overall. The other two young players are also highly prized. The influx of top-ranked prospects greatly strengthens Chicago’s farm system, and it’s likely that general manager Hahn isn’t done dealing.

For the Red Sox the addition of Sale, who is just 27 and is under team control for the next three years, means fans at Fenway Park will be watching a formidable starting rotation come next season. This year’s AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello may well be Boston’s third starter, behind 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and Sale. Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, also traded for a setup man in Tyler Thornburgh and signed free agent first baseman Mitch Moreland at a bargain price of $5.5 million. Adding the solid hitter takes some pressure off Dombrowski to make an expensive splash in his quest to replace the retired designated hitter David Ortiz. Boston’s once formidable farm system is decidedly less so now, but Dombrowski has a long track record of trading prospects for proven commodities in his quest to produce immediate results. The Red Sox won 93 games this year, and this week’s moves will only increase expectations for next season.

As for free agent players this was a great week to be a reliever. First Mark Melancon, who recorded 47 saves in 51 chances while splitting his time between the Pirates and Nationals in the season just ended, set a relief pitcher contract record by signing with San Francisco for four years and $62 million. The total value of the deal dwarfed Jonathan Papelbon’s 2011 $50 million contract with Philadelphia, the and $15.5 million annual value edged past the $15 million that Mariano Rivera was paid in several of his final seasons with the Yankees. Given the fact that the Giants bullpen blew an astonishing 30 save opportunities this year, it’s no wonder that the team was ready to offer a big number to an elite closer.

Melancon’s record lasted for a little more than 48 hours, until late Wednesday night when news came that Aroldis Chapman was returning to the Bronx. Acquired from the Reds in a bargain deal before last season, Chapman was traded by the Yankees to the Cubs for prospects at the deadline, and helped Chicago win a championship. But he had made no secret that he’d be happy to return to New York, and owner Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman gave Chapman 86 million reasons to smile. That money, in a five-year deal with an opt-out after three, means that the Yankees, as they did for years with Rivera, will once again have the Great Game’s highest paid closer.

Yet another reliever didn’t sign before the Winter Meetings ended, but the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen is likely to do so soon. While Los Angeles is trying to retain their free agent, the Miami Marlins are reportedly dangling an offer nearly as enticing as the one that New York used to bring Chapman back into the fold. And another closer didn’t win a big new contract but rather a chance to shine on a bright stage. The Royals shipped Wade Davis to Chicago’s north side, where the 31-year old will replace Chapman at Wrigley Field in his final season before reaching free agency.

Of course baseball remains a zero sum game, so if there are winners then there must also be losers. A lot of teams left the National Harbor complex on the Potomac just south of Washington with needs still unmet. The host Nationals gave up a lot to secure Eaton from the White Sox. They did so only after failing to reach a deal with the Pirates for Andrew McCutchen. Washington also lost out on the auction for Sale, and were outbid for both Melancon and Chapman as well as, or so it appears, Jansen. It’s also likely that one or more of the teams that opened their checkbooks will come to regret it. There are always contracts that make a splash when announced but leave management and fans feeling a bit nauseous a few years later. For that matter we won’t really know whether the White Sox, deemed the big winner of this year’s Winter Meetings, have won anything at all until a few years down the road. Not until we find out whether all those prized prospects are able to turn promise into production.

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