We’re still at the tire-kicking stage of the Josh Hamilton sweepstakes, still largely playing a guessing game. But in theory, some teams make more sense than others — assuming, of course, that those teams are willing to gamble on a recovering addict who seems to deal with one physical issue after another.
Hardly anyone in the sport has any idea which team will sign Hamilton, or how much money he will get in free agency. Here are four clubs, though, that agents and rival executives have mentioned as possibilities at the general managers’ meetings. Whether those teams demonstrate serious interest in Hamilton remains to be seen.
• Washington Nationals. The Nats only will pursue an outfielder if they fail to re-sign free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche and move Michael Morse from left field to first base.
At that point, they might prefer a leadoff type, a free-agent center fielder such as Michael Bourn. Or, they might leave Bryce Harper in center, go with a Tyler Moore/Roger Bernadina in left and invest in starting pitching instead.
Nats GM Mike Rizzo figures to at least inquire on right-hander Zack Greinke, a pitcher he tried to obtain in a trade two years ago. The Nats already have two $100 million players — right fielder Jayson Werth and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The addition of a third is unlikely, but if the team has the money for Greinke, it almost certainly has the money for Hamilton.
The final word: Imagine an outfield of Harper in center, Hamilton in left and Werth in right. The Nats’ lineup would be AL-caliber.
• Philadelphia Phillies. They want a center fielder, and their preference is thought to be B.J. Upton. But the Phillies also are pursuing Cody Ross and other outfielders, and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said, “We’re keeping all of our options open.”
Hamilton would appear to be a stretch, both from a financial and baseball perspective. But two industry sources say the Phillies are quietly checking on him. While their background work might only be due diligence, Amaro loves to make a splash, loves to surprise.
The fit isn’t great; the Phils frankly need a right-handed hitter more than another left-handed one. On the other hand, Hamilton had an .853 OPS against lefties last season. Upton, a right-handed hitter, was at .792.
The final word: Phillies general partner David Montgomery is probably too image-conscious to seriously consider Hamilton, and the team already has $135.6 million committed for next season, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
• Seattle Mariners. Now here’s a team that might be desperate enough to jump. The Mariners badly need to add offense, and one hitter won’t be enough. The addition of Hamilton — in combination with say, catcher-first baseman Mike Napoli — would help the M’s reconnect with their increasingly skeptical fan base.
Money should not be an issue; the Mariners have $48.5 million committed for next season, according to Cot’s, and that number rises to around $61 million when you include their arbitration cases, according to the projections at MLBTradeRumors.com.
Thus, the Mariners could have at least $25 million to play with; they intend to increase their payroll slightly from last season, when it was nearly $85 million. The M’s could always back-load a contract for Hamilton, and club officials say that free-agent hitters are showing more interest in the team now that the M’s have announced plans to move in the fences at Safeco Field.
The final word: The Mariners last reached the playoffs in 2001, and GM Jack Zduriencik needs to make a statement entering his fifth season. The team’s ownership, however, is generally risk-averse, making Hamilton an unlikely target.
• Baltimore Orioles: FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi first reported the Orioles’ interest Wednesday, and rival execs view Hamilton as ideal for Baltimore, playing in the same outfield with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis and going off at Camden Yards, where he hit four homers in a game last season.
Hamilton, though, would be a serious departure for Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who demands that his GMs find him not only healthy players, but also players who demonstrate good conduct.
The final word: This is a team that once took a chance on Albert Belle — and got burned when he broke down physically. The O’s turned bold last season under GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, but good luck trying to convince Angelos that Hamilton is a must-have.
RAYS: PREPARING TO STRIKE?
After much talk the past few years, the Tampa Bay Rays finally appear ready to trade a starting pitcher. In fact, they could even trade two, considering that they’ve got eight to choose from.
So, is there a scenario in which the Rays could move both left-hander David Price and righty James Shields? Of course, if the respective prices are right. The Rays, though, are more likely to deal just one starter. And industry sources are skeptical that they will trade Price or Shields, given the weakened state of the AL East.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox surely will make improvements, but rarely in recent times have the two super-powers appeared this vulnerable in November. The Rays control Shields for two more seasons and Price for three. They could trade righty Jeremy Hellickson or even lefty Matt Moore for a big bat, and be a serious contender again next season.
One rival executive says there is “no chance” the Rays will move Price, but next offseason could be a different story. The team likely will be unable to sign Price long-term, and his trade value — with two years of control remaining — still will be high.
DICKEY: WHAT ARE THE METS THINKING?
Many in the industry believe that the Mets, by talking about trading right-hander R.A. Dickey, are trying to leverage the knuckleballer into accepting a club-friendly contract extension.
There are three problems with that strategy:
• Dickey might not bring back much in a trade, even if he wins the NL Cy Young Award. True, he is a bargain next season at $5 million, but players entering their free-agent years generally do not yield strong returns.
A number of executives believe that Dickey needs to be in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, limiting the number of teams that could show interest. The fact that Dickey is 38 also could lessen the Mets’ potential haul.
• Dickey might not be hellbent on staying with the Mets. Sure, his profile is greater in New York, but he already has written his autobiography and soon may win the Cy. How much more attention does he actually need?
If Dickey is like most players, he wants to win a World Series. He isn’t a career Met like third baseman David Wright, and the team doesn’t figure to contend anytime soon. Viewed from that perspective, there isn’t much reason for him to stay, much less give the Mets a discount.
• Dickey actually deserves a good contract. Yes, his age is a concern. Yes, he throws a “trick” pitch. But Dickey’s performance the past three seasons is nearly as good as Johan Santana’s was in his last three years with the Minnesota Twins before he joined the Mets.
No one would suggest that Dickey merits a deal anywhere close to Santana’s six-year, $137.5 million whopper; Santana was nine years younger than Dickey when he agreed to those terms and a left-handed ace. But if the game is about performance, then what exactly is the case against Dickey, other than age?
The Mets could always keep Dickey, then make him a qualifying offer when he becomes a free agent at the end of next season and collect a draft pick if he says no. But there is a sense among some Mets officials that the team needs to make a dramatic move to get better. In the view of those officials, trading Dickey might be their best shot.
NAKAJIMA: HE’S BACK!
Remember shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who stayed in Japan last offseason rather than accept a part-time role with the Yankees after they won his bidding rights with a $2 million posting fee?
Well, now Nakajima is a free agent coming off another strong season with the Seibu Lions, trying to choose between major league teams and Japanese clubs.
The Oakland Athletics and Arizona Diamondbacks are among the teams that are at least mildly intrigued, given the shortage of quality shortstops in both the trade and free-agent markets.
Nakajima, who will play next season at 30, also could be an option at second base for the San Francisco Giants, who are trying to re-sign free agent Marco Scutaro.
The problem for Nakajima is that few Japanese infielders have succeeded in the majors, making teams skeptical. Still, he has been a remarkably consistent performer in Japan, winning Gold Gloves the past two seasons and batting .312 with an .867 OPS over the past five years.
Count the Milwaukee Brewers among the teams interested in free-agent right-hander Ryan Dempster, particularly now that the Los Angeles Dodgers are showing greater interest in other pitchers.
The Dodgers tried to acquire Dempster before the non-waiver deadline, but they’re reluctant to award a multi-year contract to a pitcher who will turn 36 on May 3.
Dempster, while pitching in the NL, had a 2.66 ERA in 101 1/3 innings at Milwaukee’s Miller Park.
AROUND THE HORN
• No one should be surprised if the Cleveland Indians trade right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, closer Chris Perez and right-hander Justin Masterson, all of whom have two or fewer years of control remaining.
Catcher/first baseman Carlos Santana, signed for four more years, is more likely to stay. Then again, Santana would bring more in return than any of the players listed above.
Choo, entering his free-agent year, looms as a one-season rental; he is represented by Scott Boras, and almost certain to hit the open market next offseason.
Masterson, meanwhile, holds little current value; thanks to arbitration, his salary will increase from $3.825 million after a season in which he had a 4.93 ERA and got tattooed for an .825 OPS by left-handed hitters.
• The Brewers are discussing a new deal with first baseman/right fielder Corey Hart, who is under contract for one more season at $10 million.
Hart, 30, is seeking a three-year extension, sources say, but the Brewers might prefer to give him two more years while increasing his 2013 salary — in effect, awarding him a new three-year deal.
If talks fail to progress, the Brewers could keep Hart through next season, then make him a qualifying offer to ensure draft-pick compensation.
• Giants GM Brian Sabean expressed confidence Thursday that the team would re-sign its top three free agents — center fielder Angel Pagan, Scutaro and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt.
Of those three, Pagan might be the most difficult to keep. Sources say that other teams are more aggressive than the Giants on Pagan at this early stage, but to a degree that’s to be expected.
Those teams know they need to pry away Pagan from the Giants. And the Giants can always make up ground.
• Speaking of the Giants, it would be a shock if the team offered arbitration to reliever Brian Wilson, who is coming off his second Tommy John surgery, not to mention an $8.5 million salary.
The maximum pay cut in arbitration is 20 percent, so the least the Giants could offer Wilson would be $6.8 million. A better plan would be to strike an incentive-laden, pre-arbitration deal with Wilson, preventing him from becoming a free agent.