Before the Diamondbacks included Ender Inciarte in the Shelby Miller trade, they strongly considered a deal that would have sent Inciarte to the Nationals for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, according to major-league sources.
Would the D-backs have been better off making that move rather than acquiring Miller from the Braves for Inciarte, right-hander Aaron Blair and last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson? That’s one question to consider, and here’s another:
Could the Nationals trade Gonzalez for another center-field type, then sign free-agent left-hander Wei-Yin Chen?
The Nats are discussing such a scenario, sources say. Their frequent business partner, agent Scott Boras, represents both pitchers.
Gonzalez, 30, averaged only about 5 2/3 innings per start last season, but over the past six years his park- and league-adjusted ERA ranks 10th in the majors (minimum, 1,000 innings). At the right acquisition cost, he would be more attractive to teams than free-agent right-handers Ian Kennedy and Yovani Gallardo, both of whom are attached to draft picks.
The addition of a left-handed hitting outfielder would give the Nats an alternative to the right-handed hitting Michael Taylor in center and Jayson Werth in left. Inciarte, however, is probably no longer an option, at least not for Gonzalez. The Braves are rebuilding, and Gonzalez is guaranteed $12 million in 2016 with a $12 million club option for ’17 and $12 million club or vesting option for ’18.
Chen, who actually is two months older than Gonzalez, might not be a dramatic upgrade as his replacement. But the Nats likely are entering their final season with righty Stephen Strasburg, who looms as the prize of next winter’s weak free-agent pitching class. They could sign Chen as a long-term piece to go with righty Max Scherzer, and still would control Tanner Roark along with younger righties such as Joe Ross, A.J. Cole and Lucas Giolito beyond ’16.
Officials with the Orioles, Chen’s original club, originally believed that he would land with a West Coast club. But the Giants signed added righties Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, while the Dodgers added lefty Scott Kazmir and righty Kenta Maeda, and the Mariners ended up with righty Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty Wade Miley. The Athletics and Padres, meanwhile, are unlikely to spend big on a starter.
Boras still could find another taker, considering that Chen is the best starter left on the open market. But it was right around this time a year ago that the agent negotiated with Nats owner Ted Lerner to bring Scherzer to Washington. And now that the Nats have signed one free agent who received a qualifying offer, second baseman Daniel Murphy, Chen would cost them only a second-round pick.
The Nats, though, also can pursue other options.
Rather than trade Gonzalez, they could fill their need for an outfielder by signing free agent Gerardo Parra, whom Nats GM Mike Rizzo secured out of Venezuela in 2004 during his tenure as the D-backs’ scouting director. They could even pursue Yoenis Cespedes, but he would be more expensive and, as a right-handed hitter with limited ability in center, less of a fit.
The bullpen is another variable: The Nats, according to rival executives, are trying to trade both of their top late-inning relievers, Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon.
Storen, projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to earn almost $9 million in his final year of arbitration before free agency, is likely to go first. Papelbon — guaranteed $11 million, armed with a 17-team no-trade clause and coming off a season-ending suspension for choking Bryce Harper — is, uh, a more difficult sell.
The Nats, who earlier this offseason signed free-agent relievers Oliver Perez and Shawn Kelley, will need additional bullpen help if they trade Storen and/or Papelbon; one of their former relievers, righty Tyler Clippard, is still available on the free-agent market. Indeed, Rizzo ultimately could abandon any thought of Chen, determining that he needs an outfielder and a reliever more than a starter.
Then again, Boras’ clients on the Nationals already include not just Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez, but also Werth, Harper, shortstop Danny Espinosa and third baseman Anthony Rendon, plus two recent free-agent additions, Perez and infielder Stephen Drew.
No one in the industry would be surprised if Chen was next.
GIANTS’ SPENDING SPREE CONTINUES
The Giants, after agreeing Thursday to a three-year, $31 million contract with free-agent outfielder Denard Span, have guaranteed a combined $326 million to four players this offseason.
That sum includes $130 million to free-agent righty Johnny Cueto, $90 million to free-agent righty Jeff Samardzija and $75 million to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who agreed to a contract extension.
The breakdown of Span’s contract is not yet known, but each of the other three deals were back-loaded — and Cueto, remember, can opt out after the second season of his six-year agreement.
The massive outlay by San Francisco is not a surprise — rival clubs actually braced for such an eruption, knowing that the Giants had significant money coming off the books both this offseason and next.
The expiring contracts of second baseman Marco Scutaro, left-hander Jeremy Affeldt and right-handers Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong this winter accounted for a savings of more than $45 million. The Giants also saved $4.8 million by declining outfielder Nori Aoki’s option, then another $3.3 million by non-tendering righty Yusmeiro Petit and catcher Hector Sanchez.
Next offseason will be more of the same: The Giants again stand to save more than $50 million with righty Jake Peavy, center fielder Angel Pagan, left fielder Gregor Blanco and relievers Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez all entering the final years of their respective contracts.
The question now is whether the Giants spent their free-agent money wisely. Cueto, Samardzija and Span all could be quite good, but all come with considerable risk.
Cueto was inconsistent last season. Samardzija was awful. And Span is coming off surgery on his left hip.
THE MAEDA MYSTERY
Let’s face it, the Dodgers have no idea what they will get out of Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda, or even how they will use him. Maeda’s eight-year, $25 million contract reflects the serious "irregularities" that turned up in his physical, and amounts to a low-risk gamble.
MLBTradeRumors.com projected before the offseason began that Maeda would receive a five-year, $60 million guarantee on top of the $20 million posting fee that went to his Japanese team, the Hiroshima Carp.
Maeda, 27, received nearly $9 million per season less than that, and his $3.125 average annual guarantee ensures that he will be modestly paid even if the Dodgers use him as a reliever. Incentives can max out his contract at $105 million, but the bonuses at the back end are largely unattainable, according to sources with knowledge of the deal.
Neither Maeda nor the Dodgers revealed the exact nature of the pitcher’s irregularities at his introductory news conference Thursday. He is asymptomatic and pitches without pain, but the Dodgers recognize that he might require surgery at some point and pitch less than the full eight years, sources say. The length of the deal protects the club if Maeda misses significant time in the middle.
Maeda’s issues surfaced in a physical that he underwent at the behest of his agents at Wasserman Media. Two other recent Japanese imports, right-handers Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish, suffered elbow-ligament damage after signing expensive major-league contracts. Whatever Maeda’s problems are, they were caught before a team made a major investment in him.
Another interesting twist: Maeda and fellow Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma are good friends who wanted to pitch for the same team, sources say. It might have happened with the Dodgers, but the team declined to complete a three-year, $45 million free-agent deal with Iwakuma after issues arose during his physical; he wound up signing a one-year, $12 million contract with the Mariners.
Rival scouts view Maeda as a potential No. 4 starter if he remains healthy. One scout praised the pitcher’s slider, saying he "can throw it in a teacup," but added that Maeda needs outstanding command and control to be successful. Pitching that way will be problematic if Maeda is less than 100 percent.
AROUND THE HORN
*The Orioles have talked for nearly a month about moving on from free-agent first baseman Chris Davis and pursuing other options. They remain engaged with Davis largely due to owner Peter Angelos’ fondness for the player, sources say.
If the Orioles lose Davis, they likely would prefer Yoenis Cespedes to Justin Upton, in part because the price for Cespedes would not include the loss of a draft pick. The O’s could end up with six of the top 100 selections if both Davis and Chen sign with other clubs.
Starting pitching, meanwhile, remains a glaring concern – the Orioles’ rotation ERA increased from 3.61 in 2014 to 4.53 last season, and that was with Chen as the team’s top starter. The O’s remain in contact with free-agent righty Yovani Gallardo, but signing him would cost them their top pick, No. 14 overall.
*Speaking of picks, the Padres could sign shortstop Ian Desmond without losing their No. 8 overall selection, which is protected. Alexei Ramirez, however, might be an even more attractive free-agent option.
Ramirez likely would accept a shorter term than Desmond without costing the Padres any pick. The Pads expect to gain compensation selections for Upton and free-agent right-hander Ian Kennedy, potentially giving them six draft choices in the top 100.
The White Sox also could sign Desmond (or Upton) without losing their first rounder; their No. 10 selection is protected. A team that has a protected pick forfeits its next available selection if it signs a free agent who received a qualifying offer from his previous club.
*The glut of outfielders on the free-agent and trade markets could prevent the Dodgers from purging Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford before Opening Day. It might not be the worst outcome; the team needed the depth last season due to injuries.
The bullpen, on the other hand, remains an area of need. The Dodgers figure to be among the teams that will check in with the Nationals on Drew Storen, and Tyler Clippard in free agency would be another option.