Nightengale's notebook: 10 questions heading into MLB's winter meetings

nightengale's notebook: 10 questions heading into mlb's winter meetings

Shohei Ohtani is the most coveted free agent this offseason.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. − Christmas trees are everywhere, wreaths are hung, carolers singing, and there are enough bright lights to illuminate a small country.

But no matter where you look at the 3.3 million square foot complex at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, with 2,888 hotel rooms, the attraction everyone wants to see at the annual baseball winter meetings is missing.

Free agent Shohei Ohtani is nowhere to be found.

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And we hate to be the Scrooge, but he’s not coming.

It’s highly doubtful you’ll see his agent or his interpreter, either.

Despite the rampant rumors, unless someone suddenly writes a $1 billion check, Ohtani is not signing at the winter meetings.

But, at least, he’s getting a little closer.

There’s the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Angels. The Toronto Blue Jays. The Chicago Cubs. The San Francisco Giants. And at least one other team, call them a mystery team, are among the finalists.

But sorry, Ohtani is not on the verge of a decision.

Give it a week, certainly before the Christmas holidays, but not quite yet.

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While anticipation of the most celebrated free-agent signing in baseball history continues, with teams poised to make Ohtani the first $500 million player in North American team sports, there is a genuine fear that the winter meetings could come and go making less buzz than the electric reindeer in one of the spacious lobbies.

It has been an eerily quiet winter.

Aaron Nola, who re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $172 million, and Sonny Gray, who signed a three-year, $75 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, are the only free agents to receive more than $50 million.

The highest-paid free-agent position player, you ask?

Jason Heyward, who re-signed with the Dodgers for $9 million.

The only major trade?

The Arizona Diamondbacks acquired Seattle Mariners third baseman Eugenio Suarez.

That’s it.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

“There’s just not a lot of good players,’’ one GM said. “Nobody is jumping out and grabbing mediocre players. And agents are just waiting it out to see if teams start to panic.”

Baseball GMs, executives and agents remind everyone that the World Series ended just five weeks ago, and there are still two full months of shopping days before spring training.

Still, everyone seems to believe that something will happen at these winter meetings, which officially opens Sunday, and ends Wednesday afternoon.

The biggest trade that could potentially happen is the San Diego Padres desperately finding someone to take Juan Soto and his expected $33 million salary, while getting back a wealth of pitching in return to patch their tattered rotation.

And no, as much as the New York Yankees would like to add a power bat for at least one season, there’s not enough eggnog in all of Manhattan to make them trade pitcher Michael King, pitching prospect Drew Thorpe, and a handful of other prospects while also taking on Padres center fielder Trent Grisham’s projected $5-6 million contract.

“I think the most fascinating part of these winter meetings,’’ one GM said, “is to see if anyone will bite on any of these one-year guys like Soto, [Tyler] Glasnow and [Corbin] Burnes . There’s not a Mookie Betts here. The Dodgers didn’t give up anything to sign Betts and were still able to sign him to an extension.

“You’ve got to be pretty desperate, or even stupid, to give up a ton for one of these guys.’’

Well, after missing the postseason and finishing with their worst record since 1992, and the fans and media throwing verbal haymakers at GM Brian Cashman, the Yankees just may be that desperate.

They also realize that they may be bidding against themselves for Soto.

Who else is interested in taking on a salary like that and giving up top prospects for one year of Soto’s services?

The Blue Jays? Cubs? Giants?

The Padres, who want to lower their payroll to about $200 million, will have to act like a used car dealer and keep lowering their asking price.

Desperation is indeed the operative word at this winter wonderland in Nashville.

Go ahead, you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers, with the assistance of GMs, baseball executives, scouts and agents.

Who are the most desperate teams and how will they react?

≻ Yankees. They have to do something or heads will roll, starting with Cashman. They have no choice but to make a splash. This is why they’re in on Soto. This is why they’re doing everything possible to sign 25-year-old Japanese free-agent sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto. And they want free-agent center fielder Cody Bellinger.

The Yankees plan to act like the Yankees of old, a sequel to the winter of 2008 when they dropped $424.5 million on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, and won the 2009 World Series.

≻ Dodgers: They have been scheming for this moment for two years knowing Ohtani will be a free agent. This is why they didn’t give anyone more than a one-year contract last winter, let Bellinger and Justin Turner walk, and told the world just how much they value the Ohtani brand. They want Ohtani. They want Yamamoto. And they want Chicago White Sox starter Dylan Cease, too. They’re going for the jugular.

≻ Giants: They’re tired and simply embarrassed that no one will take their money. Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge all turned them down. They need to sell tickets. They may play in a jewel of a stadium, but with downtown office vacancies at an alarmingly high level, they need to give a reason for fans to come back to the ballpark. Their attendance this year ranked only 17th in MLB, the lowest in the 23-year history of the ballpark.

The Giants may not get Ohtani − and probably won’t considering that Ohtani values his home-run numbers just like any other slugger − but they won’t be out-bid for him. They’ll shoot for Yamamoto, too, but he prefers the bright lights of New York or Los Angeles. Bellinger could be their answer, and perhaps free-agent third baseman Matt Chapman, too.

≻ Blue Jays: Toronto is making it no secret they want Ohtani, and Ohtani quietly is reciprocating the interest. The Blue Jays’ fanbase is becoming awfully impatient, and Ohtani’s arrival would certainly appease them. Yet, if Ohtani doesn’t arrive, they better do something. They have two more years left before Vladimir Guerrero and Bo Bichette hit free agency. If the Blue Jays don’t appear in a World Series before they depart, the front office will be looking for work.

≻ Cubs: You don’t fire your beloved manager, steal manager Craig Counsell from your rival, pay him a record salary, shout from the Chicago rooftops that it’s Ohtani or bust, and sit back and tell your fanbase that at least you tried if you don’t land him. Uh-uh. It’s not good enough. The Cubs have to go big, and at least win the NL Central, or heads will roll in their front office, too.

≻ Padres: Let’s face it, they’re a mess. They were the most underachieving team in baseball history last year, and now have no choice but to slash payroll. They were hoping to keep Soto until at least the trade deadline this summer, but ownership said no.

It’s hard to imagine that just a year ago folks were talking as if they were a World Series favorite, and now they go into the offseason having just two starters, losing 600 innings worth of pitching in free agency, and no closer. If they’re not competitive again this summer, don’t be surprised if they quietly ask Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts or Fernando Tatis if they’d be willing to lift their no-trade clause to move them to a contender.  Yes, as several executives say, how in the world can you ever rebuild with those contracts.

Where will Yoshinobu Yamomoto sign? 

He loves the bright lights, star power, and fashion, so really it’s one of just three places:

The Yankees, Mets or the Dodgers.

The Yankees never gave out uniform No. 18 last season, knowing it’s Yamomoto’s favorite number, knowing that every little advantage helps.

What marquee free agent will take the longest time before signing? 

Almost a toss-up between Bellinger and closer Josh Hader, executives say.

Bellinger still is seeking in excess of $250 million, and Hader wants to break Edwin Diaz’s five-year, $102 million record from the Mets, or at least the five-year, $80 million that Kenley Jansen received from the Dodgers in 2016.

What big-market team will be the quietest this winter? 

The Mets.

Oh, they’re all in on Yamomoto. They’ve got strong interest in Korean center fielder Jung Hoo Lee.

Yet, they’ve got no interest in trading for Soto. They’re not adding Cy Young winner Blake Snell.

They hired David Stearns to build a consistent winner, the West Coast version of the Dodgers, and are eying the future much more than the present.

A year from now, it may be altogether a different story.

What pitcher has the most trade value on the market? 

It’s Dylan Cease of the Chicago White Sox.

Cease, who finished second in the AL Cy Young race two years ago, still has two years of control before he’s a free agent and earned just $5.7 million last season. He’s scheduled to earn $8.8 million in salary arbitration this year, according to MLB Trade Rumors.

There’s a reason why the Dodgers, Atlanta, St. Louis and Baltimore are all clamoring for him.

The White Sox are telling teams they are in no rush to move him until the free-agent picture comes into focus.

What pitcher won’t bring the return everyone envisions? 

Tyler Glasnow of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Glasnow, who has never pitched more than 120 innings, and only twice over 100 innings in his career, is owed $25 million and is a free agent after the season.

Is someone really going to give the Rays top prospects for one year of Glasnow at $25 million considering his injury history?

Just how much money will Blake Snell get? 

He won’t get the same salary as Yamamoto, but could come closer than anticipated, and definitely wants to earn more than Nola’s $172 million deal.

Who has the toughest decision? 

The Milwaukee Brewers.

They must decide whether to trade ace Corbin Burnes.

They continue to listen on offers for Burnes, but have yet to decide what to do.

Rival executives are starting to believe that the Brewers will at least open the season with Burnes, and if they fall out of the race, then may move him.

What team could be sneaky good next season? 

The Detroit Tigers.

They just signed starter Kenta Maeda, and considering they play in the weak AL Central, could be around all season.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win it,’’ one GM said. “They are close.’’

And finally, where does Ohtani end up? 

The Dodgers.

He’s comfortable in Southern California, loves the laid-back lifestyle, knows the landscape, and he can go about his life without a single TMZ cameraman.

The Blue Jays, however, are certainly making his decision rather intriguing.

***

The legacy of Yogi 

No one knew his real name.

Or, for that matter, even his real age.

He was simply known as Yogi, the guy with the thick moustache that nearly covered his chin, the beloved baseball scout.

His real name is William “Bill’’ Joseph Young, but never once did I hear anyone call him anything but Yogi until that Thanksgiving morning.

It was the day the news broke that Yogi died in his sleep, on his annual family vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He battled for 2 ½ years and was in remission from Stage 4 kidney cancer, but died because of complications of diabetes.

He was turning 70 in March.

Yogi, who scouted 32 years, including the last 22 years with the Chicago White Sox, was one of baseball’s lovable characters.

He was regular at the old Italian Grotto in Old Town Scottsdale, letting the scouting world know this was the place to hang out. Yogi became such a fixture there that he would either greet you at the door, wait on your table, or pour you drinks.

Grotto owner Garry Horowitz remembers sitting in the restaurant with Yogi and the late Kevin Towers when he was GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks talking trades until 3 in the morning in January, 2013. By the time they walked out the door, Towers hatched the plan to trade Justin Upton to Atlanta, relying on Yogi’s advice on the return of infielders Martin Prado, Nick Ahmed, Brandon Drury and pitchers Randall Delgado and Zeke Sprull.

“He was the answer to all baseball questions,’’ says Steve Vucinich, who worked for the Oakland A’s for 54 years as their clubhouse attendant and equipment manager. “The same guys would show up in the winter, and Yogi would answer all of their questions. People loved talking baseball with him, and he loved giving his opinions.’’

Gordon Blakely, who played with Yogi at Chapman College in California, and later became a scouting director, was the one who gave Yogi his first scouting job with the Seattle Mariners, and then hired him with the New York Yankees.

Well, in Yogi’s first few months of the job, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner stormed into the draft room and asked for their thoughts on a particular prized player. One scout mumbled and shrugged his shoulders. Steinbrenner stared at Yogi, and said, “What about you, young fella?’’

“Well,’’ Yogi said, “I don’t want him. He can’t play at all.’’

Steinbrenner said, “You work for me? What’s your name?’’

Yogi: “Yogi.’’

Steinbrenner: “Yogi, any relation to our Yogi?’’

Uh, no, Yogi explained, his last name is Young, not Berra.

Steinbrenner laughed, looked around said, “Who hired this guy? I love him. He’s got the [guts] to make a call.’’

Blakely laughs recalling the story, knowing that it was him and his Chapman teammates who gave Young his nickname in college, and it stuck.

“He was hairy, hair everywhere, he just looked like a Yogi,’’ Blakely said, “and it stuck.’’

He had that deep, booming, gravelly voice just like the Yogi Bear cartoons, and was always in the middle of everything.

When Yogi went on Hall of Fame baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby’s annual Wyoming trip every November with scouts, broadcasters and writers, it was Yogi who was always the ringleader. It was Ringolsby’s trip, but Yogi made himself the ringleader, and the cinema star of Kansas City Royals broadcaster Joel Goldberg’s homemade videos that were the highlight of the trips.

He was big, gruff, and had the heart of gold, with Cheryl and her best friend, Meaghan Stir, never recalling a single time during one of their trips or conversations that ended without Yogi telling everyone how proud he was of them, and simply saying, “I love you.’’

Yogi, survived by his wife Cheryl Baum, daughter Cheryl Young, stepchildren Sarah Bluette and Michael Baum, and three grandchildren, will have his life celebrated during spring training in March.

Stories will be told.

Laughs will be shared.

And, everyone will have a chance to say what we should have told him all along.

Yogi, we sure loved you too.

Around the basepaths

≻ Teams interested in Shohei Ohtani believe he’s worth $20 million to $25 million alone in ticket sales, merchandising, licensing and advertising.

So, anyone giving him $50 million a year in his new free-agent contract, is really paying only about half that amount.

≻ The Houston Astros have no interest in trading third baseman Alex Bregman, but have privately resigned to losing him in free agency in a year, realizing it may take $300 million to keep him. The money they’ll spend is making sure that Jose Altuve stays with the Astros for life.

≻ Atlanta is the favorite to acquire White Sox ace Dylan Cease at the winter meetings.

≻ Agent Scott Boras is seeking a contract extension for first baseman Bryce Harper, and even though his contract doesn’t expire until after the 2031 season, the Phillies are willing to talk.

≻ Respected former pitcher LaTroy Hawkins has quietly become a hot commodity. The Los Angeles Angels recently offered him their bullpen coach job, which Hawkins turned down to stay as a special assistant with the Minnesota Twins. He likely will be approached by several teams again next winter to join their coaching staff.

≻ The Angels offered their bench coach job to Clint Hurdle, but couldn’t reach an agreement, and he’s expected to stay put now in Colorado as their special assistant.

≻ The Padres’ best trade chip, executives say, is actually shortstop Ha-Seong Kim. He is earning $8 million this year in the final year of his contract.

≻ The Diamondbacks still would love to sign DH/IF Justin Turner to replace the leadership and bat of Evan Longoria.

≻ Enough of the talk that the Padres are asking for Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe in the Juan Soto talks. His name hasn’t come up.

≻ The Cardinals were interested in having Yadier Molina as a coach on their staff, but instead he will be just a special advisor.

≻ Free-agent catcher Martin Maldonado is drawing interest from five teams: The Angels, Astros, Padres, White Sox and Marlins.

≻ The Brewers are expected to announce Monday that they have signed prized outfield prospect Jackson Chourio to an eight-year, $82 million contract with two club options, the most given to a player who has yet to make his major-league debut.

≻ Paul Snyder, the unsung hero of Atlanta’s dynasty, who spent 50 years in the organization, passed away at the age of 88.

He will forever be cherished in Atlanta, scouting and signing everyone from Chipper Jones to Andruw Jones to Tom Glavine to Javy Lopez. When Atlanta won the 1995 World Series, six of their eight regulars were products of Snyder’s scouting department.

≻ The Mariners are quietly watching their payroll, executives say, and don’t anticipate them being involved in any high-priced free agent.

≻ Kudos to Cardinals president John Mozeliak, who promised this winter that they’d bring in three pitchers, and he did so in a span of a week with Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, who combined for 559.2 innings last season.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are letting teams know that starter Steven Matz and outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson are available.

≻ The Reds are telling teams and agents they have money to spend this year, and so far, are proving that with the $42 million spent on Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan.

≻ The Red Sox may have a slight edge in signing free agent Jordan Montgomery, who moved to Boston this winter where his wife started a dermatology residency at a local hospital.

≻ The Diamond Sports Group could deliver massive blows to the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Guardians. If they back out of their contracts, the Rangers could be scrambling to find someone who would match their $111 million in annual TV rights while the Guardians would lose out on $55 million.

≻ You want a few holiday ideas?

The folks at Goldins have some items for you.

They are auctioning the final $50,000 check paid from the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox in the most famous transaction in baseball history: the purchase of Babe Ruth.

They also are selling glass negatives of Ruth’s 1916 contract with the Boston Red Sox, a handwritten postcard from Ruth’s visit in 1939 at a restaurant in Mountain View, N.J., and a signed note in 1947 to a boy named Walter Johnson with Ruth saying he could become the next “Home Run Johnson.’’

Ruth’s artifacts are more popular than ever, says Dave Amerman, because of Ohtani’s emergence and the comparisons to Ruth.

There’s a Babe Ruth rookie card that’s expected to sell close to $10 million.

“Babe Ruth transcends generations,’’ Amerman said, “and now with Ohtani, Ruth’s popularity is growing again. His game-used items and autographs are worth now more than ever.’’

Happy shopping.

Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nightengale’s notebook: 10 questions heading into MLB’s winter meetings

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