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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Verlander, Sale Talks Could Heat Up Winter Meetings

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistDecember 1, 2016

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 27: Pitcher Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers acknowledges the fans after being relieved in the eighth inning after giving up four hits and striking out 12 in a game against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park on September 27, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, and the free-agent market is less than delightful…

   

1. Let It Snow Trade Rumors

Yes, free agent Yoenis Cespedes re-signed with the Mets this week, which means Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista may not be far behind, and doesn't that get your blood pressure pumping.

No?

As the industry descends upon Washington, D.C., for the winter meetings beginning Monday (well, really, they begin in the hotel bar and lobby Sunday night), this year's featherweight free-agent class is putting a drag on things. But maybe not everything.

The Detroit Tigers have hinted at rebuilding, and rivals see a potential trade opening with Justin Verlander. The Chicago White Sox talked seriously last summer with the Boston Red Sox about lefty ace Chris Sale and are expected to continue investigating what kind of package he could bring. Tampa Bay is stocked with pitching but has little offense, and even Chris Archer does not appear to be an untouchable as the Rays look to balance their team.

So here's where the winter meetings could get interesting. Which starting pitchers could get traded? Which ones will get traded?

Even as runs and hits have dwindled in recent years and everybody is looking for a middle-of-the-order bat, pitching remains the heartbeat of the game. Unlike last year, there is no David Price or Zack Greinke on the free-agent market. Two years ago, Jon Lester was out there. The Chicago Cubs narrowly beat the Red Sox and San Francisco Giants to the finish line, and look where that helped lead Wrigleyville.

Look at the top, say, 10 free agents this winter, and only three pitchers are in the bunch. And all of them are closers: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. The best of the starters' lot in the free-agent market? Left-hander Rich Hill, 36; right-hander Ivan Nova, 29; and right-hander Jason Hammel, 34.

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All of this is why, if you're the Tigers or White Sox and you're looking to acquire young talent, you have to consider trading Verlander and Sale. In a market devoid of game-changers, they qualify. And we're getting deep enough into the winter now that clubs are getting serious about dealing.

As one American League executive who has spoken with the Tigers told colleague Danny Knobler this week, he believes Detroit would like to make a significant move, dealing either Verlander or slugger Miguel Cabrera. As general manager Al Avila completes his first year in charge of the club, there is a different feel around Detroit post-Dave Dombrowski, as if owner Mike Ilitch is shifting out of win-at-all-costs mode and looking for more fiscal responsibility.

Verlander has three years remaining on his seven-year, $180 million deal (at $28 million per year), with a $22 million vesting option for 2020 (the option is guaranteed with a top-five finish in the 2019 Cy Young voting). He also has full no-trade protection.

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 20:  Starting pitcher Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox delivers the ball against the Oakland Athletics at U.S. Cellular Field on August 20, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Sale has one more guaranteed season left at $12 million, with a $12.5 million club option for 2018 and a $13.5 million club option for 2019. There is a $1 million buyout in each of those option years.

Sale's contract is easier to digest for an acquiring club, but some rival executives think the Tigers appear more motivated than the White Sox to deal. Of course, clubs can get awfully motivated once the talks (and adrenaline) start flowing at the winter meetings, but that presents another issue with the White Sox: mercurial owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who sometimes changes his mind midstream regarding whether he wants to move one of his own guys or make a strong play for another club's guy.

A Verlander or Sale blockbuster would almost certainly be the biggest move of the winter. Heck, for that matter, even a good rumor with real legs about one of these guys next week would send the meetings into a frenzy.

What there is of a pitching market this winter already has started to move. Texas signed chronic underachiever Andrew Cashner, and Arizona is taking a chance with the trade for chronic underachiever Taijuan Walker (from Seattle). Atlanta signed Bartolo Colon and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Jeremy Hellickson surprised folks by accepting Philadelphia's one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer.

That, and the overall lack of stars on the free-agent market, very well could cause clubs to consider things this winter that maybe they wouldn't in other offseasons when there is a more attractive supply of available players.

Is there somebody out there, however, with a reservoir of young talent (like the Cubs, Nationals or Red Sox, for example) who will blow away the White Sox for Sale or the Tigers for Verlander?

When you get right down to it, that is a far more intriguing question than where, say, Encarnacion, Dexter Fowler or Mark Trumbo will land.

While it's impossible to predict with certainty that either of these two AL Central aces will be dealt, let's just say the question of whether Sale and Verlander will be on the mound on Opening Day next spring for the White Sox and Tigers, respectively, is more fuzzy right now than ever before.

   

2. Going Once, Going Twice…Former MVP

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 26:  Ryan Braun #8 of the Milwaukee Brewers waits for a pitch during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Miller Park on August 26, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The Pirates defeated the Brewers 5-3.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Get
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Ryan Braun is nowhere close to the player he once was. That's not a juicy rumor; that's just fact. And the Milwaukee Brewers are nowhere close to the National League Central Division-winning team they once were when Braun was in his (performance-enhancing drug) prime.

So as Milwaukee navigates through its rebuild, it's no secret that Braun is not a part of its future. Even Braun said as much last week at the club's annual Thanksgiving food drive. "Not knowing 100 percent where we'll be playing is hard," he said, per Andrew Wagner of the Associated Press (via the Wisconsin State Journal). "It definitely complicates things."

Braun has limited no-trade powers and a Samsonite factory's worth of baggage. The Brewers have been professional in the aftermath of Braun's 2013 PED suspension even as he became a pariah in the clubhouse, according to B/R sources. After Braun betrayed teammates who had stuck up for him when he initially proclaimed his innocence, many of those teammates felt burned when he reversed course, and things were never the same internally again.

What makes the most sense to everybody remains a Brewers-Los Angeles Dodgers deal in which Braun goes to L.A., where he lives in the offseason, and Yasiel Puig goes back to Milwaukee. Colleague Zachary Rymer laid out the scenario here this week, noting that USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported last summer that a Braun-to-L.A. deal was "about 20 minutes" from being completed when the waivers deadline passed on Aug. 31.

Though tarnished, as the 2011 MVP, Braun still has the remnants of marquee value that Hollywood would appreciate. And Puig, whose star has been descending for two years, is at the proverbial crossroads in his career where a fresh start may do him some good.

This sure seems like a when, not if, type of proposition.

   

3. Easing Off the Greenbacks in L.A.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 16:  Justin Turner #10 of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws out Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs (not pictured) in the first inning during game two of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 16, 2016 in
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Dodgers have won four consecutive NL West titles and still haven't played in a World Series since 1988, and now two of their best players are free agents at what suddenly appears to be a financially precarious time.

Not that the Dodgers are in danger of becoming paupers, but the days of their spending dough as if printing it somewhere in the bowels of Dodger Stadium may be finished. As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday, the club is under an MLB mandate to shave spending in order to comply with the industry's debt rules.

As Shaikin noted, the Dodgers are expected to reduce payroll this winter for a second consecutive season as part of a plan designed to move from a $300 million payroll in 2015 to "closer to $200 million in 2018."

That won't draw pity from the Marlins, Twins, Brewers or Reds. But at a time when Clayton Kershaw is in his prime and the Dodgers continue to swing and miss in their efforts to return to the World Series, you'd better believe that, for starters, the Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and the rest of the NL West are watching with glee.

Third baseman Justin Turner and closer Jansen are free agents, and while the Dodgers would like to bring both back, if they leave, that creates two enormous holes.

The long-term plan to transition to young talent is coming to fruition with players like shortstop Corey Seager, center fielder Joc Pederson and pitching phenom Julio Urias. But the Dodgers still are in no position to go totally with youth.

As for Braun, in the event of a deal for Puig, he's guaranteed $72 million over the next four seasons ($19 million each in 2017 and 2018, $18 million in 2019 and $16 million in 2020, plus a $15 million mutual player/club option in 2021 that includes a $4 million buyout).

   

4. Shopping for Outfielders

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 2: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates misplays a fly ball against the St. Louis Cardinals in the third inning at Busch Stadium on October 2, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Another potential star of the winter meetings next week is Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

In these final days leading up to the meetings, indications are growing that the Pirates will be proactive in looking to deal him. The Washington Nationals are among those interested, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. Three more possibilities, noted John Perrotto of FanRag Sports, are San Francisco, Philadelphia and Toronto. Meanwhile, if they do not re-sign free agent Ian Desmond, the Texas Rangers have a clear need for a center fielder as well.

McCutchen won the NL MVP award in 2013 but is coming off the worst offensive season of his career and was subpar defensively in 2016 as well. He is a potential free agent after next season, with $14 million guaranteed in 2017 but a $14.5 million club option for 2018.

The Pirates, who lost significant ground to the Cubs in the NL Central this year, want prized young talent in return as they work to retool a still-talented club.

Meanwhile, after re-signing Cespedes, the Mets are investigating a potential trade of Jay Bruce or Curtis Granderson. And as the Cubs look for a young starting pitcher, they could dangle outfielder Jorge Soler. As things stand now for the Cubs, their outfield looks like Kyle Schwarber in left field next summer, rookie Albert Almora Jr. in center field and Jason Heyward in right, with Ben Zobrist plugging in as a super utilityman and Soler also in the mix.

   

5. The Winter Meetings, the Hall of Fame and Bud Selig

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 22:  MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaks to the media before Game Two of the 2014 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants at Kauffman Stadium on October 22, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Get used to this idea: Bud Selig, Hall of Famer.

One of the first orders of business at the winter meetings will happen Sunday night, before the meetings officially open, when the "Today's Game Committee" voting results are announced.

That committee is one of four different electorates under the "Historical Overview" umbrella and considers candidates twice every five years. This year, the committee is considering Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, Davey Johnson, Mark McGwire, Lou Piniella, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig and George Steinbrenner.

Prediction: Selig gets in, Schuerholz should get in and Steinbrenner might.

Stay tuned.

   

6. Weekly Power Rankings

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 05:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Yoenis Cespedes #52 of the New York Mets looks on against the San Francisco Giants during the National League Wild Card game at Citi Field on October 5, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

1. Labor negotiations: Yes, we know Thanksgiving was last week, but we can still give thanks that the villainous Don Fehr and Gene Orza are long gone from the bargaining table.

2. Yoenis Cespedes: Re-ups with the Mets, causing manager Terry Collins to spread Christmas cheer and one former club GM to say, per MLB Network Radio, that this might be the most important signing in club history.

Jordan Strauss/Associated Press

3. Hall of Fame ballots: Mailed a week ago and due by the end of this month for January announcement of 2017 class. Many eyes on first-year candidate Vladimir Guerrero.

4. Aroldis Chapman: Just a matter of time before the free-agent closer reunites with the Yankees. Right?

5. Kate Upton tweets: Still smoking hot from her Cy Young reaction.

   

7. On the Move with Houston

The Astros didn't bother waiting for the winter meetings to kick-start their campaign for 2017. Already, they have signed free-agent outfielder Josh Reddick (four years, $52 million), traded two prospects to the Yankees for catcher Brian McCann, tried to sign Cespedes (before the Mets got him) and, according to B/R sources, are romancing free-agent slugger Encarnacion.

After falling behind Seattle in the AL West in 2016, the Astros are aggressively working to recapture their 2015 magic (at least, until September of that year). Off to a good start this winter, there are strong indications of more to come.

Ken Rosenthal @Ken_Rosenthal

One rival exec theorizes #Astros trying to load up on offense so they can trade a young hitter (Springer? Bregman?) for an elite starter.

   

8. Chatter

 While Houston moves, Seattle isn't standing still. The Mariners already have addressed the need for a veteran catcher to work behind Mike Zunino (Carlos Ruiz) and for a right-handed-hitting first baseman (Danny Valencia). Though Valencia will help Seattle against left-handed pitching, he's developed a reputation as a selfish player in the clubhouse in stints with Minnesota and Oakland.

 Jon Jay gives the Cubs the perfect veteran presence who will help Almora develop in center field. Another quality Chicago move.

 Of course, the presence of Jay guarantees that Fowler signs elsewhere (Toronto?) this winter.

 The Giants jumped early to sign one free agent, adding Bob Tewksbury as their major league mental skills coach. Tewksbury, who pitched in the majors for 13 years, has been working in that capacity for the Red Sox for the past several seasons.

 Though the Twins are undergoing a major organizational shift with Derek Falvey, the new president of baseball operations, and Thad Levine, the new general manager, they are retaining a significant part of their soul with the additions of three special assistants—former Twins Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins. You will not find three finer gentlemen.

 The AL pennant winner has come from the AL Central for three consecutive seasons (Cleveland and Kansas City) and in four of the past five (Detroit).

 From the files of baseball writer/researcherBill Chuck: Only five active players remain who played in the 20th century—Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Joe Nathan, A.J. Pierzynski and Colon.

 The snow may be flying, but Michigan tropical rock maestro Don Middlebrook has written a new baseball song that is included on hislatest release, Guitar Island. Entitled "Pitchers and Catchers (Not What You're Thinking)," it follows another of his classic baseball tunes, "Frozen in Arizona," about Ted Williams' frozen head.

 With Cespedes back, the Mets will line up next summer with him in left field, Granderson and Juan Lagares in center field and Lagares/Michael Conforto/Bruce in right field. Pending trades, which are expected. Some random notes on Cespedes:

Inside Edge @InsideEdgeScout

Top ranked free agent Yoenis Cespedes returns to the @Mets for 4 years $110 million. Here are some #RemarkableNotes on the Cuban slugger. https://t.co/t52H8kONZz

         

9. Stealth Move of the Week

Quietly, the Phillies hired former Twins GM Terry Ryan to be a special assignment scout. Reunited with Philadelphia president Andy MacPhail from their Minnesota days in the 1980s and early 1990s, this move makes the Phillies better today and in the future:

Scott Miller @ScottMillerBbl

This move by #Phillies will pay dividends down the line. Smart, smart, smart https://t.co/aSF3qztIcF

    

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

From baseball gloves to bats to the rest, kids, take care of your stuff!

"There out to be a law with no bail

"Smash a guitar and you go to jail

Donn Jones/Associated Press

"With no chance for early parole

"You don't get out till you get some soul

"Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars

"Smashing a perfectly good guitar

"I don't know who they think they are

"Smashing a perfectly good guitar"

— John Hiatt, "Perfectly Good Guitar"

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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