It was a quiet week in Orlando, if you’re just looking at the transactions logs. There was a run on setup relievers, but there are enough setup relievers to go around; a valuable Marlin was traded, but other valuable Marlins somehow weren’t. Manny Machado remains an Oriole, Chris Archer remains a Ray, Danny Duffy remains a Royal and Zack Greinke remains a Diamondback. You have to go all the way down to Jake McGee, No. 17 on Keith Law’s top-free-agents list, to find somebody who signed this week (or who has signed this offseason, period).
But here’s a posit for you: We can learn more about a team by its winter meetings rumors than its winter meetings moves.
So this week, I kept a spreadsheet with every rumor aggregated by MLB Trade Rumors. I ended up with 200 lines — it was a very full week! — but I tossed out about 50 for being insufficiently juicy. (See the explainer below if you care about my definitions of “rumors.”) Within the remaining 150, the teams that drove the dialogue emerged: the Yankees (rumors involving 10 separate players), Cardinals (seven), Phillies (seven) and Twins (six). The Rangers generated rumors for eight players, but their pursuits all seemed like long shots — trade discussions about players who weren’t actually available. The Giants generated eight, but their rumors tended to be weak or described the very early stages of pursuits, and it’s not clear they can or even should add anyone right now.
But more interesting, to me, are four other teams — the teams that generated exactly one rumor apiece. Each team’s place among this group says something interesting about where it is right now, and each team’s lone rumor does, too. (No team made it through the entire week without fueling a rumor, incidentally.)
Their rumor: The White Sox “made the best offer of the dozen offers the Orioles have received” for Manny Machado. — Bob Nightengale
What their quiet might mean: There are probably only two teams in baseball — the Tigers and the Marlins — who are less oriented toward a pennant chase in 2018 than the White Sox. But each of those teams spent the week making headlines, because the only way to generate more rumors than a contending team is by holding a fire sale. The White Sox, by contrast, were mostly invisible in the rumor pages. That’s partly because they already had a fire sale last year, so most of their veterans are already gone. But it’s also partly because their fire sale went so much better than those of the Tigers or Marlins. Those previous White Sox trades — of Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana and David Robertson — brought back so much high-end talent (four of the top 20 prospects in the game, plus other top-100 guys) that 2019 is already a reasonable target for competing.
For that reason, the White Sox threaded the needle this week between not-buyers and not-sellers. They weren’t attached to any free agent, but they also didn’t spur much public conversation about veterans Jose Abreu or Avisail Garcia, both of whom were batted around as trade candidates earlier this winter. As general manager Rick Hahn put it, the White Sox might just like those two players more than anybody else does, for both performance and relationship reasons. And neither is a free agent until after 2019, when the White Sox might plausibly be competing for the division.
Alternately, they might just be concerned about the business effects of totally bottoming out. The White Sox’s owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, has in the past worried that a complete teardown could “destroy” the franchise.
What their lone rumor says about them: Uhhh. To be honest, the Machado-to-White-Sox link might have been the most inexplicable of the week, considering few people think Machado (and his agent, Scott Boras) would sign a long-term extension before hitting free agency next winter. Which means a team would be getting him only for 2018 — a year the White Sox are not targeting. “We are not looking to make any sort of move that’s aimed at jumping up and perhaps contending for a wild-card [berth] or the division for one year,” Hahn said, seemingly making the case against this rumor.
But, he continued, “we may take some calculated risks along the way.” One calculated risk might be that they could somehow persuade Machado to sign an extension. Another might be that they could flip him to another team in the summer and recoup a similar or better return. (See, for example, the multiple trades of Cliff Lee in 2009-10 or Yoenis Cespedes in 2014-15 or Ben Zobrist in 2015.)
Finally, it might say about the White Sox that the Orioles are using them to build up another team’s offer.
Their rumor: “The club still is having active dialogue with Darvish, a free agent.” — Ken Gurnick
What their quiet might mean: They’re really good! It’s a lot harder to upgrade a roster when it was above average at every position and when it had the National League’s best rotation ERA and bullpen ERA. As GM Farhan Zaidi said: “We don’t have very clear needs.” (Note that the Astros, aside from signing Joe Smith, were also quiet this week, besides the extremely tepid rumor that they were “considering pursuing” some top starter.)
But it’s not just that they’re good. I once found that teams that lose the World Series make a lot more moves the following winter than teams that win the World Series. The losers are more or less just as good as the winners, but they are more aggressive about fixing perceived holes — or, perhaps, they are more likely to overreact to their seven-game failure. The Dodgers lost the World Series, but they’re not following that script. This isn’t that surprising to anybody who has followed this front office, which has been defined by (and sometimes criticized for) a stridently disciplined approach to team building. The Dodgers carry a huge payroll, but they don’t overreact to the situation and they don’t chase star power. They spend as much money as George Steinbrenner did, but they’re otherwise his opposite, perfectly happy to sit out a winter meetings six weeks after a painful World Series loss. (Whether this is flaw or a feature will be debated until they win a World Series.)
At some point, they’ll add some relievers this winter, but they avoided the busy shopping season. There are about a hundred relievers left.
What their lone rumor says about them: That they’re really polite and don’t say mean things about a guy who was trying really hard when he practically single-handedly cost them the World Series. Also, adding a pitcher of Darvish’s caliber does make some sense for the Dodgers, just as adding Darvish made sense for them last summer. It just probably won’t be Darvish.
What their quiet might mean: I’m not sure anybody really knows whether they’re good or not, and that includes them. GM Neal Huntington said Thursday, “Depending upon what we’re able to do in this market, that goal may be ’18, that goal may be ’19.” They were bad last year, but they have much of the same young core — Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Cole — that made them so good in 2015. And that core is still pretty young!
So they’re stuck in the middle. If a couple of bargains landed in their lap, or the market for Andrew McCutchen is soft, they could justify keeping McCutchen and Josh Harrison and competing this year, at least until reassessing at the trade deadline. And if a team overbids for, say, Cole, they could justify taking a big package and trying a flash rebuild. It’s hard to commit to anything except letting the market, or the first couple of months of the season, tell them what to do. “For us, it’s not either [a] completely in or completely out scenario,” Huntington said.
What their lone rumor says about them: Almost every Cole rumor this week was one-sided — some team wants him, but there’s no indication the Pirates are looking to move him. And then, suddenly, there was that note about Pittsburgh “gathering names” from the Yankees system. Which says, more or less, that the Pirates don’t want to trade Cole but they are always willing to skin a sheep.
Their rumor: “I feel like we are in the red zone to get something done, and it’s more likely to be in our bullpen than in our rotation.” — GM Jerry Dipoto, on MLB Network Radio. Shortly after, the Mariners signed reliever Juan Nicasio.
What their quiet might mean: That not every rumor gets reported, for one thing. If there’s anything we can say with confidence, it’s that Jerry Dipoto in a hotel with 29 other GMs talked some danged trades. Indeed, on his podcast this week, he said that “we’ve talked about probably a half-dozen while we’ve been here,” and described the high-carb snacks he and his staff have been “pounding while we get disappointed by conversation after conversation.”
So the fact that the Mariners’ half-dozen trade talks didn’t generate any headlines is a good reminder that the rumor mill is just a small part of what happens at the meetings, just as the reported transactions are just a small part of what happens.
What their lone rumor says about them: Just what it says: They wanted to get relievers. Rarely, but sometimes, even the winter meetings don’t demand much speculation.