Baseball’s Winter Meetings will soon be upon us, and I have to admit it’s an event which always piques my interest. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a white collar job, but it seems like it might be fun to be a fly on the wall in a hotel bar when the game’s top executives feel each other out in a social setting. This is where the groundwork is done over cocktails, or at least initiated, that potentially shapes the upcoming season.
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This year’s event heads back to Nashville for the third time in eight years, with the Gaylord Opryland Resort once again serving as the host venue. And one of the main topics of discussion will be high-end relief pitchers. Every contending team needs bullpen depth with a reliable closer, a reality that glared importance in this year’s playoffs and World Series. Plenty of wheeling and dealing has been done already. The San Diego Padres, a club that has little need for guys that preserve wins, have already dispatched Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit to the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners, respectively, in exchange for promising prospects. Similarly, the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers shipped closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Detroit Tigers. I couldn’t care less about K-Rod, but it was a heartbreaker when my Padres moved Kimbrel with three years left under team control. It reminded me, though, that big league baseball is not unlike any other corporate business. That’s why the cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Reds have been offering their star reliever, Aroldis Chapman, like a gourmet cut of prime rib, hoping a few executives from rival factions will salivate uncontrollably.
Aroldis Chapman, who will turn 28 next February, is the only bullpen specialist who consistently throws a baseball in triple-digits in almost every outing. Last season, the 6′-4″, 215 pound lefty fanned 161 batters in 66 innings and recorded 33 saves on a Reds team that only won 64 games. It’s been rumored that in Nashville, the Pittsburgh Pirates might be receptive to inquires regarding their ace closer Mark Melancon, while the San Francisco Giants will could try to swap Santiago Casilla. Although in different stages of the careers, both hurlers are approaching the final year of their deals. The same is true for Chapman, however, a pitcher still on the upside who can expect to earn nearly $13 million next season in his third year of arbitration. Faced with that scenario, Cincinnati General Manager Walt Jocketty is motivated to pull the trigger on any reasonable overture.
Despite his extraordinary talent, it’s clear that only wealthy teams with a burning desire to win immediately will be interested in Chapman. Another issue is that Aroldis Chapman is a surly sort with frequent mood swings, and is not the best clubhouse dude. An added twist is the lanky Cuban has new representation with Magnus Sports, a management limb of Magnus Media that is headed by Latino entertainer Marc Anthony. While that’s not a problem now, it could affect extension talks with the team that gambles on Chapman. The sole purpose of Anthony’s endeavor is to market his Hispanic clients to the max, meaning that Los Angeles, New York or even Miami could be the pitcher’s ultimate landing spot.
All things considered, there are probably a half dozen teams that might consider acquiring Chapman. I’ll list those organizations in order of likelihood that a mutual deal could be reached:
6. Houston Astros
Aroldis Chapman in the Astros pen might be all Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and company need to turn the corner. In addition, Houston still has many minor league prospects who would please the Reds. But I just don’t see a chemistry fit here. It’s also questionable whether Astros ownership has the financial clout to make any long-range investment.
5. Miami Marlins
With new skipper Don Mattingly, the return of Giancarlo Stanton along with countrymen Jose Fernandez and Adeiny Hechavarria in the dugout, Aroldis Chapman would be “lovin’ it” in Miami. And a few more fans might be enticed to attend games at Marlins Park knowing that Aroldis would be lurking in the pen almost every evening. The problem, to be sure, is that Miami has nobody to send in return except Marcell Ozuna. And even though the Dominican is a big league player who would start in the Reds outfield, Cincinnati will want more before snapping at the bait.
4. Texas Rangers
As in Houston, adding Aroldis Chapman would be the final piece in a winning Arlington puzzle. It might even give Texas the deepest relief corps in the American League. I’m wondering, though, if Rangers GM Jon Daniels sees Chapman as an offer he can’t refuse, since his pen is already a strength. With payroll approaching $142 million, that extra $12 million earmarked for Aroldis could be used in other areas.
3. San Francisco Giants
Zeroing in on a deal like this could be a reckless roll of the dice for the Giants, since they could potentially lose both Chapman and Casilla after next season. But if they can move the latter for an extra bat, it would be a win-win for San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy. Still, 2016 is an even-numbered year and the Giants could decide to keep both men and gear up for another wild ride to the top. Besides, Casilla will only make $6.5 million next year, not out of line in a setup role. From Cincinnati’s point of view, San Francisco has a nice crop of farm kids and fringe varsity players in which to pick and choose.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Imagine the Cuban Missile in a lefty-righty tandem with Kenley Jansen? Good Lord, opposing hitters would have little chance. The Dodgers are a team with a lot of high-priced baggage. Call me crazy, but I can visualize a straight up Cuban swap: Chapman for Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers could also sweeten the pot by throwing in disgruntled Alex Guerrero and pick up most of his salary. Well, that would be a bit much, but you get the picture. That said, the Reds might prefer minor league prospects over big league headaches, and the Dodgers are very protective of their homegrown kids. But would I be surprised if Los Angeles gets something like this done? Hell no.
1. Washington Nationals
Two words: Dusty Baker. To me, trading for Aroldis Chapman would be a reunion that the new Nats manager would crave. The existing problem, of course, is Jonathan Papelbon, 35, will also be a free agent in 2017 and will make $11 million next year. It’s a combustible formula, almost frightening, to consider three egos like Chapman, Papelbon and Bryce Harper living together for nine months. One thing all three have in common, however, is that they are intense competitors who value winning above all else. Washington was an embarrassment last season because it had a manager that let things get out of hand. The whole team seeks redemption, which is why Chapman will be welcomed with open arms. So, if I’m a betting man (which I’m not), odds are likely that Chapman will pitch in the nations’s capital. How ironic, since President Obama scuttled the Cuban embargo fiasco and will still be in the White House if and when Chapman wears the local garb.
The loss of Jordan Zimmermann was a blow to Washington, but at least he’ll be pitching for the Tigers in the Junior Circuit, and the Nats have some quality young arms to pick up the slack. Zimmermann’s five year, $110 million package will be widely discussed at the meetings, because it sets the contract bar to lofty proportions. If you do the math, that’s $22 million per season for a pitcher who is very good but not great. Is there any wonder why Johnny Cueto turned down a six year, $120 million proposal by the Arizona Diamondbacks? With those kind of numbers, guys like David Price and Zack Greinke will be asking for the moon with some extra green cheese.
Yes, pitching will be the main focus at this year’s gathering, although the Colorado Rockies will be occupied with the best parcel they can get for Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, CarGo will be a goner, and I wonder how many bombs he’ll hit while playing in a city other than Denver? The first order of business will be Chapman, however. This is the deal that will likely kick off the event, if not before. What’s going to be tough to decide is how much talent interested teams will be willing to give up for a guy who could walk in 2017?
Maybe that’s why executives make the big bucks and I’m still a blue collar journalist.