SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Baseball’s annual rite of winter — the opening of the wallets — is upon us.
While the Cubs bask in the afterglow of their first World Series title in 108 seasons, the business of building the next contenders begins with the opening of the free agency period, as general managers and the occasional agent mingle in the shadow of Camelback Mountain here this week.
The market is flush with big outfield bats and relievers, especially closers.
Starting pitching, not so much.
The market is now set, with the only thinning coming if one of the 10 players given a $17.2 million qualifying offer at Monday’s deadline accepts. Players have a week to decide. Only three players have accepted an offer since the implementation of the system in 2012.
“It’s kind of a special time. I feel excited to be a part of,” said Mark Trumbo, who had a major-league-high 47 homers with the Baltimore Orioles this season and will enter the free agent market for the first time this winter.
“It’s all part of the process as a player. To get six full seasons in the league is pretty cool. To be able to choose where you go is big for me. I hope to be able to find a place to call home. What I’ve always wanted is to contribute to a winning team and play every day.”
Executives, prepare your offers.
Five story lines to follow relating to the free agent market:
1. It is a great time to be a closer.
The three premium closers on the market — Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon — all could top the $11.5 million average annual value (AAV) that Chicago White Sox closer David Robertson received at this time last year, and at least one in that trio might threaten Mariano Rivera’s all-time closer record AAV of $15 million. Andrew Miller received $9 million a year from the New York Yankees last year, a deal that looked like a bargain after his creative use by Cleveland manager Terry Francona in the playoffs.
Past performances, the age of the principals and the teams involved will make this a banner year.
Chapman, who will turn 29 next spring, has the liveliest arm of the bunch at 102 mph, and he turned his season of pending free agency into an extended display of the power of shortening a game while helping the Cubs to the title.
The left-hander had 36 saves, a 1.55 ERA and a ratio of 14 strikeouts per nine innings with the Cubs and Yankees while playing for $11,325,000 after avoiding arbitration with the Yankees last winter. Known among his peers as a diligent worker, Chapman was big on the big stage, posting a 1.01 ERA and 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings with the Cubs.
Jansen, 29, has averaged 42 saves the last three years with a combined 2.31 ERA, and with his pet cut fastball — you know it is coming and you just can’t square it up — has averaged 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Melancon, 32 next spring, has 131 saves the last three years after becoming the Pittsburgh Pirates’ primary closer before a deadline deal to the Washington Nationals last summer.
It is likely only the rich can afford these guys.
The good news for the trio of closers is, the rich — the Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Nationals and San Francisco Giants — have the greatest need.
2. Starting pitching will be worth more than you think.
Timing is everything.
The class is thin, so those at the top could get more this year than expected.
Rich Hill is 37, but he still could make a bundle, perhaps more than the three-year, $12M AAV that Toronto gave J.A. Happ last winter. Still flying under the radar, Hill had a stellar season with the Oakland A’s and the Dodgers, capped by a prime showing in the postseason. The Dodgers are expected to go after the left-hander hard, but others will be in the mix.
Doug Fister, Andrew Cashner, Jeremy Hellickson, Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon also will have value as starters who while not No. 1s or No. 2s certainly could flesh out a rotation. Nova is only 30, and he made a statement while going 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA after going to the Pirates at the deadline.
There are two numbers to consider with Colon — 43 (his age) and 1.502 (his NL-leading ratio of walks per nine innings). Colon cannot go on forever, but he waited until 2015 to hit his first homer, so maybe anything is possible.
3. The big bat market will take awhile to play out.
The field is deep — Jose Bautista, Carlos Beltran, Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, Edwin Encarnacion, Dexter Fowler, Mike Napoli, Michael Saunders, Mark Trumbo.
That usually means waiting until the top name goes off the board before the others fall in line. The outfield market did not move until Jason Heyward signed his seven-year, $23 million AAV deal last season, with Justin Upton, Chris Davis and Cespedes signing later.
Cepedes is back in the market after getting an opt-out, the new standard in top free agent deals.
Fowler did not sign with the Cubs until the start of spring training after a deal with Baltimore fell apart because of opt-out language, and that sort of thing could happen again.
The market will wait on Cespedes and Encarnacion.
4. Setup men arms will do well.
As if it were not already obvious, Cleveland demonstrated the value of a deep, trusty bullpen in the postseason. Bridge guys will be in demand, and plenty are out there.
Joaquin Benoit, Daniel Hudson, Kevin Jepsen, Boone Logan, Eric O’Flaherty, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, Neftali Feliz, Brett Cecil and Santiago Casilla can help any bullpen.
5. You want to be catcher Wilson Ramos, third baseman Justin Turner or second baseman Neil Walker.
You really do.
Each is the best available free agent by far at his position, and each will be paid accordingly.