The Winter Meetings are baseball’s annual convention and the week when the most off-season activity occurs. Typically, general managers get together and hash out trades on the back of cocktail napkins, while negotiating deals with agents in hotel lobbies.
That won’t happen this year due to the pandemic. The Winter Meetings will still take place, beginning today, but they will be a virtual event. That, coupled with the economic uncertainty and austerity hanging over the game, makes it less likely to be an active week of transactions.
Still, let’s try to anticipate what could happen at the Winter Meetings “in these uncertain times.”
Will we see any big free agents sign?
Those free-spending Royals are one of just two teams that have signed a player to a multi-year deal, inking pitcher Mike Minor to a two-year deal with the Mets signing reliever Trevor May a few days later. That still leaves the top free agents in this class available, but with teams cutting back, we may not see big time offers for George Springer, Marcus Semien, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, and Marcell Ozuna. Some big free agents like Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman decided not to even test free agency this year, opting instead to accept the $18.9 million Qualifying Offer.
The early theme this off-season has been “keep the commitment short.” Free agents like Drew Smyly and Robbie Ray accepted one-year deals, which could set the market, particularly for pitchers. That could lead to a lot of free agents waiting until spring for a better offer to materialize, one that may not happen.
Will there be any teams looking to spend?
Commissioner Rob Manfred claims teams suffered $2.8 to $3 billion in operating losses because they could not have fans due to the pandemic. Even if you don’t believe his numbers, it seems likely that teams lost some money, and with uncertainty over whether fans will be able to return at the start of next year, owners are looking to stem their losses. The Phillies claim to have lost $145 million and aren’t expect to bid to retain Realmuto and may even be looking to dump high-priced pitcher Zach Wheeler. Small market teams like the Indians, Pirates, and Rays will continue to keep looking to make cuts, while even the Red Sox and Cubs may look to pare payroll.
That leaves an opportunities for the few teams that are willing to spend some money this off-season. Most signs point to the Mets, with new owner Steve Cohen, making a splash this winter. The Blue Jays have very few payroll commitments, have built a team of impressive young hitters, and have been linked to top free agents like Springer. The White Sox are also looking to build on this year’s success with their young core by adding another piece. Even the Royals, who have quite a bit of financial flexibility and a new ownership group, may be willing to spend some money, although it is not likely they bid for the top free agents.
What will the Royals be looking to do this week?
Having addressed the pitching staff by signing Minor, Dayton Moore will likely turn to the offense now. Last week he signed outfielder Michael Taylor to a one-year deal, although the 30-year old is known more for his defense and will likely not make a big impact on offense. Moore said the team is “focused on a middle of the order bat or continuing to be able to lengthen out our lineup a little bit” and earlier this off-season he said the team needs “more on-base guys”. The club could still look for an outfielder to add to the mix with Taylor, Whit Merrifield, Franchy Cordero, Edward Olivares, and prospects Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel. The Royals could look to non-tendered players that became free agents last week.
In terms of that big bat that Dayton Moore covets for the middle of the order, hearing that the Royals will be scouring the nontenders for a bargain, especially a player hoping to resurrect his career (like Kendrys Morales back in '15). It has worked before.— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) December 2, 2020
There is also an opening at third base, with the club failing to tender a contract to Maikel Franco last week. They could bring him back, although Moore praised the internal options they have that include rookies Kelvin Gutierrez and Emmanuel Rivera. Hunter Dozier could also move back to third base and has been told to “prepare for anything”, although the club seems to like his defense at first base.
The Royals could also look to add a veteran reliever to go with the young bullpen arms. They are interested in bringing back Greg Holland, who enjoyed a solid season with the Royals and closed the season out particularly strong.
What about the Rule 5 draft?
The Rule 5 draft will still take place this Thursday morning. The Royals cleared some roster spots last week and will have enough room to make up to four selections if they wanted to. The Royals have found gems in the Rule 5 draft in the past, getting Joakim Soria from the Padres and Brad Keller from the Diamondbacks. But with no minor leaguers getting into games last year, teams will have to make selections based on a bit of blind faith.
Also looming over the draft is uncertainty as to what roster limits will look like next year. Teams were allowed to have up to 30 players this year due to the pandemic, but would otherwise have to 26 players. There is some doubt that spring training will be able to begin on time, which could cause baseball to begin the year with expanded rosters again.
If the Royals make a selection, it seems likely they would add a bullpen arm. Many of the players eligible from last year’s draft are still available. Some of the top first-time eligible players include Rangers pitcher Alex Speas, Astros pitcher Jose Alberto Rivera, Yankees pitcher Garrett Whitlock, Mariners pitcher Raymond Kerr, and Dodgers pitcher Brett de Geus.
What changes does baseball need to decide on?
In addition to roster limits, baseball has yet to determine on whether the designated hitter will be used in both leagues again next year. The designated hitter rule was universal this year to keep pitchers healthy, but it is something that the union has wanted for awhile. Teams have been told to operate as if the designated hitter will not return in the National League next year, but that is subject to change. Reports indicate that owners are trying to use the universal designated hitter rule as a bargaining chip to get an expanded playoff or other concessions from the union.
Baseball also needs to determine how the minor leagues will look next season. Owners have attempted a major overhaul of the structure of the minors, potentially axing up to 42 teams from affiliation. Already they have announced that the Pioneer League - which fields the Royals’ affiliate the Idaho Falls Chukars - will no longer be an affiliated league and will instead serve as a “MLB Partner League.” The Royals’ affiliations with Triple-A Omaha and Double-A Northwest Arkansas are likely to remain, but the Carolina League, home to the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, is likely to be disbanded, with the Blue Rocks likely left for a low-A league. That could leave the Royals moving their High-A affiliation to the Midwest League, which is likely to be bumped up from Low-A ball. The Lexington Legends may continue to be the low-A affiliate in some sort of new southern league, but short-season rookie teams will be eliminated.