In baseball, the season of giving is upon us yet again.
This is the season of free agency, the time of year when teams bestow riches upon the finest players in all the land.
This used to be the season of the Angels and Dodgers. To Albert Pujols, from the Angels, $250 million! To Zack Greinke, from the Dodgers, $147 million! To Josh Hamilton, from the Angels, $125 million!
Last off-season, however, was a quiet one for the local teams on the free-agent front. There were nine-figure contracts handed out, but none by the Angels or Dodgers. That figures to be the case this off-season as well. Neither the Dodgers nor Angels won last off-season, but each team won its division this year and, as the Angels learned all too painfully, a splashy December does not guarantee a game the next October.
As teams start their holiday shopping, a look at the market:
If the San Francisco Giants just won their third World Series championship in five years, how can the Dodgers afford to let the best free agents pass?
If spending money was the sole answer, the Dodgers would have won the World Series this year, since they fielded the highest payroll of any team in North American sports history. The Dodgers already have $200 million committed to their 2015 payroll, and they have yet to acquire a No. 4 starter, clean out their bullpen or go through the arbitration process with closer Kenley Jansen.
The Dodgers are worried about too many players getting old at the same time, sincere in their commitment to player development and frightened by the demise of the aging cast of the New York Yankees. The Dodgers would love to bring back catcher Russell Martin, but not for four or five years; he’ll be 32 on opening day.
The top three starters on the market — Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields — should get contracts that carry them into their late 30s, but not from the Dodgers. Look for the Dodgers to pursue that back-end starter (Hiroki Kuroda? Brandon McCarthy? Jason Hammel?) and to let the off-season play out without an extension that would prevent Greinke from opting out of his contract after next season.
The Angels need starting pitching more than the Dodgers do, both at the front and back of the rotation. Why are they likely to pass too?
The Angels’ starting rotation: Garrett Richards, coming off knee surgery; Jered Weaver, he of the effectively declining velocity; Matt Shoemaker, finalist for American League rookie of the year; C.J. Wilson, who pitched two-thirds of an inning in two of his last three starts; and Hector Santiago, swingman. The farm system is dry, so depth is minimal.
But owner Arte Moreno would prefer not to pay a luxury tax, so his signings of Pujols and Hamilton, and the Mike Trout extension that takes effect in 2015, should limit the Angels to looking at back-end starters. Kuroda, McCarthy, Hammel, Kyle Kendrick and Ryan Vogelsong could be of interest.
The Angels also could dangle second baseman Howie Kendrick and third baseman David Freese, each of whom has one year left on his contract, in a deal similar to the one that brought Jason Vargas to Anaheim for Kendrys Morales before the 2013 season — a veteran position player with one year before free agency for a veteran pitcher with one year before free agency.
Where does Hanley Ramirez end up?
Somewhere in the American League, most likely. Ramirez is an elite hitter when he is healthy, and he is a defensive liability at shortstop. To cash in — and, since he turns 31 next month, this might be his last big chance — he needs to agree with a team that eventually will use him as a designated hitter. The New York Yankees might be his best bet, since they are unsettled at all four infield positions. Talent evaluators do not all agree that third base is his next logical position; some see him at first base, second base, or left field. The Dodgers extended him a qualifying offer — return for one year at $15.3 million — but do not appear interested in a long-term deal.
Which player increased his value the most in the postseason?
In spring training, the Giants reportedly offered third baseman Pablo Sandoval a three-year extension worth $40 million. They could double the dollars and still fall short now, after Sandoval hit .366 in the postseason, including .429 in the World Series. Sandoval is 28, and his OPS has declined for four consecutive years, from .909 to .739. But he is a surprisingly agile defender for a player whose nickname includes the word “Panda,” and the pressure is on the Giants to retain their World Series hero after they previously followed championships by retaining the likes of Jeremy Affeldt, Aubrey Huff, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro. If October alone did not drive up the price on Sandoval, the interest of the Boston Red Sox should do so as well.
Which player did not increase his value in the postseason?
Shields might have lifted his value toward the Lester/Scherzer stratosphere with a dominant October, particularly since Lester and Scherzer were done after one postseason start. The Kansas City Royals marched within one game of a World Series championship, but Shields won one of five postseason starts, with an earned-run average of 6.12. Shields’ calling card is his durability, but he turns 33 next month, so teams wondering whether to spend $100 million on him might wonder how many years to guarantee to a guy who has pitched at least 200 innings for eight consecutive years, including 967 over the last four years.