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"Baseball Tonight w' Buster Olney"

by Buster Olney posted Nov 20 2017 11:32AM
In the eyes of some rival evaluators, the Orioles have been overachievers the past six years. With a win-loss record of 66 games over .500 in that span, Baltimore has reached the playoffs three times, despite inhabiting the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, which is why those evaluators tend to give the Orioles the benefit of the doubt.

"They exceed your expectations most of the time," said an official. "They figure something out."

Ingenuity is needed now more than ever in Baltimore, because of stark roster shortages and a mass of contract quandaries. In discussions early this offseason, the Orioles have signaled to other teams that they will have to move some money -- and, specifically, they are prepared to listen to offers for the more expensive pieces from their group of relievers, including closer Zach Britton. It might be that, given the timing of this urgency, they can't necessarily expect a lot in return.

The Orioles probably could've gotten a big haul for Britton if they had moved him in the summer of 2016, and there was measured trade interest this past July, after he was hurt early in 2017. Now the left-hander needs just a year to reach free agency, and after he goes through his last round of arbitration, he'll probably have a salary of something in the neighborhood of $14 million to $15 million.

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The Orioles believe that Britton is fully recovered from his arm trouble and that he'll wholly regain the command that sometimes eluded him in the last two months of the 2017 regular season. But between Britton's impending free agency, recent medical history and high salary, Baltimore probably can't expect to get a big piece in return for the lefty who had one of the greatest seasons ever for a reliever in 2016.

The calendar works against the Britton's market value, as well: Relievers have almost always had better trade value in July than in the winter, because teams feel a heightened sense of urgency to add one or two more finishing pieces to bullpens.

Kansas City was in a similar situation with Wade Davis last winter. Davis pitched effectively in 2016 but had some arm trouble, and Davis locked into a $10 million salary for 2017 with just one season remaining before free agency. The Royals flipped him to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler -- something of a gamble.

"You could see what the Royals were thinking," said one NL official. "There was a chance they might hit big with Soler, for a year of Davis."

That deal for the 25-year-old Soler didn't pan out in his first season with the Royals, as he batted .144 with a .503 OPS in 35 games for Kansas City. And the Orioles probably aren't going to get a can't-miss player for Britton, either. If the offers aren't suitable, Baltimore could just keep Britton for at least the start of the 2018 season; if the Orioles fall out of the race, they could swap him under more favorable trade conditions in the middle of next summer.

But the Orioles have a desperate need for payroll flexibility right now, with only two experienced starting pitchers under contract -- Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Baltimore has been linked in media speculation to a number of free-agent starting pitchers but probably isn't in a position yet to bid competitively on the top two tiers of free agents because of other obligations. Adam Jones will make $17.3 million next year, Mark Trumbo $12.5 million and Chris Davis $23 million; and through arbitration, third baseman Manny Machado, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and reliever Brad Brach will all get big raises. Darren O'Day is in line to make $9 million in each of the next two seasons.

If the Orioles bypass a Britton trade this winter, they'll probably look to move one or two of their other expensive relievers, Brach or O'Day, in an effort to improve a rotation that constantly left Baltimore in early-game holes this past season. Baltimore's 5.70 ERA for starting pitchers was the worst in the majors last season, and in the second half of 2017, the position players seemed beleaguered after months of being asked to overcome deficits.

The Orioles need help and might have to sacrifice closer Britton to get it.

The Giancarlo Stanton dilemma

Some evaluators walked away from their Giancarlo Stanton conversations with the Marlins believing that Miami probably still needs something of a reality check. Stanton is owed $295 million over the next 10 years in a deal that also includes an opt-out clause after the 2020 season and a full no-trade clause, and because of that enormous contract, there is great skepticism about the Marlins' request for big-time prospects in return for the National League MVP.

Giancarlo Stanton's hefty price tag could mean the Marlins have to choose between salary relief or top prospects in any deal for the National League MVP. Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP
"If he was a free agent this offseason [at age 27], he probably wouldn't get $295 million -- but he wouldn't be that far away from those numbers," said one executive. "He's still pretty young, and he took a big step forward this year. Maybe the Marlins can find teams willing to take the money. But they're not going to find teams willing to give up both the money and the prospects, and that's why [they'll] probably have to choose: They can either take the talent and eat some of the money, or they'll have to prioritize the [money] savings."

The Marlins also have to hope Stanton is open to some of their trade ideas and doesn't limit their options to a mere handful of teams, such as the Dodgers, Giants, Yankees and Cubs. If the Marlins have an opportunity to dump most of Stanton's contract and add some talent, it'll be interesting to see if they're open to taking back an expensive veteran in return to help make the money work -- someone like Cubs' Jason Heyward and a portion of the money owed to him; the Giants' Denard Span or Brandon Belt; or the Yankees' Jacoby Ellsbury. The Giants probably match up better than any other team in a Stanton trade and are desperate for a power hitter in the middle of their order, but they will try to get the Marlins to take back a bad contract in any deal -- and some rival evaluators wonder if Stanton might shy away from San Francisco. Stanton was the best player on a bad Marlins' team in 2017, and because the Giants have an older roster of players, it stands to reason he would be in the same position in San Francisco by 2020.

Some teams prefer the Marlins' Christian Yelich over Stanton because of the money attached to Stanton. But the Marlins have indicated to other teams that their first priority is trading Stanton, and they won't start seriously entertaining offers for Yelich or Marcell Ozuna until they try to move the biggest contract.

Around the hot stove

Tony La Russa landed with the Red Sox as a special assistant to David Dombrowski, but before that, there had been conversation within the organization about La Russa serving as the bench coach for new manager Alex Cora. ... There has been a lot of speculation about Boston pursuing either J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer, but in the end, former Indians first baseman Carlos Santana might be a better fit for a more modest price tag. ... Martinez had a great year offensively, and his agent is reportedly looking for a deal in the area of $200 million, but some clubs think Martinez will be better suited as a designated hitter than playing in the outfield within a few years and note that the highest-paid designated hitter last winter -- Edwin Encarnacion, with the Indians -- got just $60 million.
by Buster Olney posted Nov 10 2017 2:40PM
In this era of information, Shohei Otani is like baseball's Russian nesting doll, with one mystery encased in a mystery cloaked inside yet another mystery. He is one of the world's most prominent athletes, a pitching and hitting talent who might fetch $200 million to $300 million today if he were placed up for auction as a pure free agent, yet Major League Baseball teams continue to dig for the most basic clues about who he is and what he wants.

They know that Otani wants to be a pitcher and a hitter of prominence -- he's known as the Babe Ruth of Japan -- but they don't know if he'd prefer to pitch or hit if a choice must be made down the road. They also don't know if he has a particular geographical preference: the East Coast or the West Coast or somewhere in between.

They don't know if he wants an AL team over an NL team, with access to at-bats as a designated hitter. They don't know if he would prefer to play alongside another star from Japan, such as the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka, to ease his transition. There have been rumors that he would prefer to be part of a rebuilding effort rather than joining an established power, but nobody really knows if that means he'd pick, say, the Twins over the Dodgers.

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"The information that's out there might be hearsay based on speculation," one evaluator said.

And then there is the overriding mystery: Nobody knows for sure if he'll have the opportunity to play Major League Baseball in 2018, because MLB's player transfer agreement with Nippon Professional Baseball has expired. As of Monday afternoon, the two sides continued to be at a standoff.

A small but important element of the Otani puzzle fell into place Monday: CAA will serve as representatives for Otani, led by agent Nez Balelo, who is also believed to be the front-runner to act on behalf of star left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi.

Other prominent agents, including Scott Boras, had worked to position themselves to represent Otani, with at least some of them trying to navigate an unusual process: Candidates submitted proposals to the Otani family lawyer without actually meeting the player himself, which only fueled the mystery.

Moving forward, there are dominoes that must fall into place before Otani appears in an MLB uniform next spring. The NPB and MLB need to resolve their differences for an agreement, which includes satisfying Otani's team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, with what it considers fair compensation. While everybody within MLB -- from the teams to the central office -- recognizes the incredible potential that Otani bears in his skills and marketing potential, there is a reluctance to create a systematic exception designed only for him.

When and if the NPB-MLB agreement is settled, Otani must then decide whether to he wants to jump to MLB for 2018. The perception of an army of MLB evaluators is that this is what Otani wants to do, and intends to do.

But unless there are changes in the MLB's agreements with the NPB and the MLB Players Association, the difference between what Otani would get for 2018 in guaranteed money and what he would stand to gain by waiting until the 2020 season could be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Otani is 23 years old, and under the current rules, any player under the age of 25 is subject to MLB's international signing rules. Rather than being a free agent, with the ability to sort through what would be staggering offers from teams across MLB, Otani will have to accept the maximum dollars allowed under the terms of a system negotiated just last fall by the MLB Players Association. The spending money available from team to team varies, but mostly, clubs would compete on what is generally a level playing field: The most Otani could get would be about $10 million.

If Otani moves to MLB for the 2018 season, he would begin his career like all players taken in the domestic amateur draft, requiring at least two-plus years of MLB service time before becoming eligible for arbitration. The first really big money Otani would be guaranteed would probably become available to him in the form of a multiyear contract after his first or second year in the big leagues.

Some current agents say their strong recommendation to Otani would be for him to wait to jump to MLB after the 2019 season, because that's when he would be eligible to take offers from all teams without restriction.

As one agent noted, this would be in the first year after the free agency of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, when Otani could benefit from salary ceilings raised even higher. "It makes sense for him to stay in Japan," one agent said. "It makes complete sense."

But as teams try to push through the veils of the Otani mystery, many operate under the assumption that one way or another, he intends to play for an MLB team next season. Club executives keep hearing that he understands he'll make plenty of money through endorsements, and that what is foremost in his mind is competing at the highest level.

"The player is coming here," one official said. "There is no doubt about that."

Well, maybe there's a little doubt. That's because there's still much hearsay based on speculation based on baseless regurgitated whispers about the player who will be the most discussed in baseball's 2017-18 offseason.
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