The baseball offseason is entering its second month, and so far the biggest story has been the Miami Marlins’ salary dump.
That’s about to change.
The annual winter meetings begin Monday at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., the ideal site for an event headlined by free agents Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton.
The elaborate Opryland — think sprawling biodome with boutique shopping — was devastated by the 2010 Cumberland River flood that struck Tennessee. The hotel sustained severe damage and was shuttered for six months. It’s prospering today. Greinke and Hamilton can identify.
Greinke barely pitched in the majors during the 2006 season while being treated for social-anxiety disorder. Hamilton was out of organized baseball for more than three years because of drug and alcohol abuse. Now they are the most coveted players on the open market.
The powerful narratives of Greinke and Hamilton, known to virtually all who pass through the Opryland corridors, will impact the meetings in different ways. In all likelihood, Greinke’s effect will be more direct. He is viewed within the industry as the best free-agent starting pitcher, which means two things: The Los Angeles Dodgers want him — they want everybody — and the other top-tier starters (led by Anibal Sanchez) likely will wait for a resolution to those negotiations.
Several days ago, CBSSports.com reported Greinke could sign for as much as six years and $150 million. The Dodgers, amid reports of a possible $6 billion local television rights contract with FOX, have the resources to meet that price tag. The Washington Nationals may be the Dodgers’ greatest competition because they have one of the wealthiest ownership groups in baseball and a realistic chance to win the World Series.
No matter where Greinke signs, the dollar figure is likely to be huge and maybe even record-setting. So it makes sense for Sanchez — along with Kyle Lohse, Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson & Co. — to let Greinke set the market and argue they are worth 60 or 70 or 80 percent of that sum.
Sanchez is in a particularly strong position, with multiple executives telling FOXSports.com this week that he’s likely to sign a contract of five years or more. The 28-year-old Sanchez is about four months younger than Greinke, 29, and the two have some comparable numbers over the past three seasons. Sanchez improved his stock with a strong postseason (1-2, 1.77 ERA) for the Detroit Tigers, who are interested in retaining him and may be willing to offer five years.
The Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels are known to have interest in Sanchez, too. And in keeping with the tradition of teams coveting players who perform well against them, it won’t be a surprise if the Nationals pursue Sanchez: He is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA in six career starts at Nationals Park.
Hamilton is a more complicated case than Greinke, because there’s little concrete information about the teams involved, and some owners may be reluctant to spend $100 million or more on a player with past drug problems. Rival executives believe the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies are among the potential suitors, even though the traditional AL East powers — the Red Sox and Yankees — need a player of Hamilton’s profile, too.
(The Yankees, by the way, can’t possibly consider themselves close to done with their offseason business. They have spent $37 million to bring back three aging pitchers — Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera — on one-year contracts. For a team that was swept in the ALCS this year and must deal with Derek Jeter’s uncertain health, more significant upgrades are in order. The Red Sox have even greater incentive to act, following their last-place embarrassment.)
It remains possible that Hamilton will return to the Texas Rangers, although retaining him doesn’t seem to be a chief priority for the team. Some in the organization have appeared exasperated with him in recent years, for reasons ranging from two well-publicized incidents of public drinking to his proclivity for injuries. (He has been absent from the lineup an average of 33 times per season over his five years in Texas.)
Hamilton is a market unto himself in this year’s free-agent class, better than unsigned outfielders Angel Pagan, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino and Nick Swisher but with added off-the-field questions. If contract length matters more to Hamilton than the average annual value, his best chance may be with a team that lacks a superstar everyday player and is desperate to make a statement — like the Mariners.
Because of his unique position in the market, Hamilton could wait until sometime after the meetings before signing his contract. Prince Fielder’s patience was rewarded last winter, when Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez suffered a knee injury in January and was lost for the season. The Tigers, suddenly lacking lineup protection for Miguel Cabrera, gave Fielder a nine-year, $214 million contract. Hamilton probably shouldn’t bank on a similar event.
Close followers of the statements from executives and agents in Nashville next week probably will notice differing views of the industry’s financial realities. Agents will point out — as Scott Boras has, on numerous occasions — that television money has expanded revenues for individual teams, necessitating a similar upward adjustment in player salaries. General managers will respond by saying this team doesn’t have that kind of money to spend on free agents, so they will shop on the trade market instead.
That, among other reasons, is why Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman will be a popular man during the four-day proceedings. He needs offense badly and has pitching to trade — most likely James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson — to a pitching-starved team like the Kansas City Royals.
As the Marlins proved over the past 12 months, it’s more important to win in September and October than in the media room during the winter meetings. But every story of redemption needs a compelling first chapter, and this reborn hotel is a fitting place to begin.
After all, it was in Nashville at the 2007 meetings that reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey made one of his many career moves — from the Twins to the Mariners as a Rule 5 draft pick, for the sum of $50,000. Pretty soon, Hamilton and Greinke will be able to say they earn that much every game … before the sixth inning.