Free Agent Market Gives Way to Trades

The Hot Stove season is waning

It’s that time of the year; Hot Stove season is over and the focus of MLB teams now shifts from free agent signings to trades.

The six-month offseason is hell for hardcore baseball fans. MLB Hot Stove manages to provide at least some relief, that is, when it isn’t causing blood pressure problems. Each year, hundreds of free agents test the market, hoping to hit pay dirt.

Many low-tier players get released then become free agents, which is what comprises most of the names on the list. Teams will sign them to minor-league deals, but they generally don’t pan out. The top-50 are the names who garner attention, and the bidding wars can become insane. This year’s upper echelon consisted of names like Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, but 47 other top-tier free agents were also up for grabs.

Deals were struck quickly this year, clearing some of the biggest names of the list early in the offseason. Rendon signed with Angels on December 13th, while Cole grabbed an offer from the Yankees on December 18th. This unexpected turn of events set off a feverish pace for teams to sign the rest. Nicholas Castellanos agreed to a four-year, $64M deal with the Reds on Monday, clearing the top-50 from the board.

Trades Take Center Stage

Several lower-tier free agent stragglers like Puig remain unsigned, but from here forward, trades will take center stage. In addition to other rule changes, MLB has now designated a single trade deadline. Non-waiver trades have now become a thing of the past, as teams must complete all trades by July 31st.

Just as the free-agent class had its top tier, trade candidates have now been loaded into their queue.

All winter, rumors said that the Red Sox would trade Mookie Betts, but few believed it would come to fruition. Boston needed to shed payroll, but would they trade their superstar centerfielder? Maybe. Recent reports have the Padres pushing hard for Betts and it looks like a trade may actually occur.

The Pirates Starling Marte was wanting a new home, and the Bucs obliged yesterday, trading him to Arizona.

Then, There’s the “Must Trades”

Others will be traded before the season starts, but for the most part, those should be mostly low-level deals. That is, until you look at what the Cubs and Rockies may be offering.

For the Rockies, trading Arenado has become almost a must. This all started in February of 2019, when the Rockies and Arenado agreed to an extension. Shortly after signing the massive eight-year/$264M extension (AAV $33M), the relationship began to deteriorate. The Rockies allegedly told Arenado that they planned to build for contention and that locking him down would be the cornerstone.

After doing nothing to significantly improve the team during the start of this offseason, the rumors began. The Rockies would listen to trade offers for Arenado, but it would take an insane offer to move him.

On January 20th, Rockies GM Jeff Bridich announced that Arenado would be with the team when they broke camp in late March. Arenado immediately became outraged, stating that the team had disrespected him.

Feeling heavy pressure, Bridich recanted his original statement, adding the team would once again listen to offers. A week later, reports claimed a trade was “inevitable”.

There’s a little different situation happening in Chicago. Cubs President of Baseball Ops Theo Epstein vowed in his end of the year presser that changes were coming. Stating that the Cubs could deal from their young core of players, the process of elimination quickly pointed to Kris Bryant.

Earlier in the offseason, the Cubs stated their short-term goal was to lock Javier Baez into an extension. Willson Contreras’ name garnered trade speculation, but talk of such a deal quickly faded.

With the diminished trade value in the Cubs’ roster, Bryant presented as the only logical candidate. There’s just one problem; nobody knows when he’ll become a free agent. Until Bryant’s service time grievance is finally settled (it’s only been pending for 4+ years), Bryant is untradeable and the Cubs’ offseason is stagnated.

Bryant and the Cubs settled for $18.6M this winter, avoiding arbitration. Several speculate that Bryant will never re-sign in Chicago and that the Cubs would trade him now. The problem is, until the grievance is settled, prospective buyers won’t know if they’ll be able to control Bryant for one year or two.

Bryant’s grievance is considered unwinnable by most, as the Cubs didn’t violate the rules of the current CBA. If Bryant loses, he’s controllable for two years; if he wins, this is his walk year.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have failed to sign any notable names, as Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts says there’s no more money for free agents. The players they have signed are all comeback candidates, the latest being former Brewers’ reliever Jeremy Jeffress.

Is a Cubs/Rockies Swap Possible?

The Dodgers and Cardinals are reportedly the frontrunners for a trade involving Arenado; while many suggest Bryant would go to the Dodgers or Braves. Surprisingly, the Cubs have also reportedly shown interest, as have others.

The Cubs are in the middle of a payroll quagmire, with no relief for the next few years. Trades would lighten their financial load, but taking on Arenado’s salary would hinder that. Arenado wants to play for a contender, as evidenced by the Rockies’ promise to do so. The Cubs want to continue their championship window, and adding Arenado would help, but the team also wants to avoid the luxury tax.

So far as Bryant is concerned, agent Scott Boras says he wants to stay in Chicago. Boras, however, also says that he’ll listen to “reasonable offers,” eluding that the Cubs are trying to lowball his client. There are varying reports, but Bryant has allegedly already turned down one offer from the Cubs, estimated at $200M.

Arenado will move, but the Cubs may be stuck with Bryant for now, having to wait to trade him before the July trade deadline.

**Update: Kris Bryant lost his grievance and is now officially controllable for two years.

Only a few weeks left before Spring Training starts, so the free agent market timed out at just about the right time. While you wait for baseball, there should be some big trades to keep you occupied.

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