What to watch for at the 2014 Winter Meetings

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SAN DIEGO — Greetings from beautiful southern California. Where the weather is gorgeous and the speculation about free agents and trade possibilities is endless. It’s the Winter Meetings, baseball’s annual transaction frenzy, where owners, GMs, agents and everyone else in and around the game assemble and make the moves which set the groundwork for the coming year. This year the work is being done at the Manchester Grand Hyatt In San Diego, and it is from here I will be writing all week to keep you in the loop.

This year’s Winter Meetings are shaping up to be very different from last year’s when, it seemed anyway, all of the big deals happened before the Winter Meetings got underway. Robinson Cano signed with Seattle in the runup to it all. As did  Carlos Beltran, Joe Nathan, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Scott Kazmir and Ryan Vogelsong. Indeed, it seemed like most of the big names were off the board before everyone even made it to Orlando in 2013. But this year it is a different story indeed, with all manner of players still available.

On the market:

STARTING PITCHING

We still await Jon Lester’s decision. He, reportedly, has offers in hand from the Cubs and Red Sox and possibly the Dodgers and Giants. The deal he ultimately accepts could be around $150 million, but for now, he is leaving everyone guessing and the rest of the pitching market is likely waiting for him to make a choice before it all falls into line. Once he does, expect the market for Max Scherzer to heat up as well as the trade market for any number of other starting pitchers, any of whom could go to teams which fell short of Lester. Included in this group could be Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Jeff Samardzija and any of the Reds’ many pitchers reportedly on the market.

BATS

Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton and Matt Kemp are the big bats on the block. If the Dodgers can’t move Kemp they may try to trade Andre Ethier and/or Carl Crawford. Jay Bruce of the Reds and free agent Melky Cabrera each own some big bats which are also in demand, the former via trade and the latter via free agency.

RELIEVERS

David Robertson is the biggest name reliever left, though his market is hard to define. The Yankees may welcome him back, but probably not at the salary he’s expecting given that they signed Andrew Miller already. The Astros — who actually outbid the Yankees for Miller, only to see him choose New York — are a possibility. Other free agent relievers include Sergio Romo, Pat Neshek, Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Francisco Rodriguez. Jonathan Papelbon is being shopped by the Phillies and, given their rebuild, the Braves could dangle Craig Kimbrel as well.

HALL OF FAME

Beyond the free agents, trade targets and rumor news, there is some other business to be attended to at the Winter Meetings. Most notably today, when the Veterans Committee announces which of the Golden Age candidates it has voted into the Hall of Fame. The candidates: Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Bob Howsam, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant and Maury Wills. If I had to guess I’d say that Howsam — the executive who built the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s — Hodges and Oliva get voted in, but really it’s anyone’s guess. Dick Allen and Minnie Minoso are certainly deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown, but whether they get there or not is an open question.

But really, we can preview until the cows come home but every year there are some surprises at the Winter Meetings. Follow us at HardballTalk all week to keep abreast of what is going on at baseball’s biggest offseason event.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.