It is, in theory, the perfect intersection of glitz, glamor, gambling and greed: Major League Baseball, with its massive assembly of platinum free agents and its compelling trade pieces, will meet for four days for the winter meetings in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, the gambling mecca, Sin City. What happens here, stays here. It’s an ideal collision. Place your bets right here, folks, and let the roulette wheel spin.
And yes, there will be tremendous movement and excitement at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will get paid an enormous amount of money, Patrick Corbin has already been paid, and to a lesser degree, so will Nathan Eovaldi and Craig Kimbrel. Maybe Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Greinke will be traded. But the game has changed, and so have those who run it, which might make Vegas the least appropriate site for baseball’s winter meetings. This might be more like Wayne Newton vs. Sir Issac Newton.
Today’s baseball executives, mostly the general managers, are logical. They aren’t gamblers, and building a team is no longer a game of chance. Today’s leaders are young, brilliant, remorseless, bloodless guys from business and mathematical backgrounds, from the Ivy League, not the International League or the Pacific Coast League. At the general managers’ meetings last month in Carlsbad, California, one executive estimated that of the 90 people in one meeting room, three per team, only 14 played pro ball. An executive who was there said that when a baseball question came up, about the actual playing of the game, “no one in the room knew who to look to for an answer.”
Our new execs might not have played the game at its highest level, but they know how to play the game.
“The market has been flooded with very intelligent people over the last 10 years,” said Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ GM the past 21 years. “Maybe they have more discipline and patience. The light has been shined on making objective decisions, not subjective decisions. Teams are still spending lots and lots of money. But with all the information we have now, the decisions on how and where to spend are safer and more sound. We are investing in the right places. It’s like Michael Corleone: It’s not personal, it’s just business.”
One of the new general managers, former agent Brodie Van Wagenen of the New York Mets went rogue by taking on $83 million in salary in a risky trade to acquire second baseman (and former client) Robinson Cano, age 36, and closer Edwin Diaz from the Seattle Mariners. But for the most part, these guys, as we saw last year during free agency, are not going to give a 32-year-old with declining skills a four-year deal because they had a good “feeling” about the player. There isn’t much feeling any longer, gut or otherwise. There isn’t much human element involved. The players are numbers, imminently replaceable, as important to the game as beer vendors, according to Bill James. This is about math and science now. Physics is undefeated. This is not about riding a hot hand at the blackjack table or blowing on dice in a game of craps. This is about counting cards. This is MIT against Vegas, which, we have learned, is Vegas’ worst nightmare. This is about exit velocity, launch angle and spin rate. Two years ago, an American League team hired a rocket scientist to study exit velocity, and among his findings was that Tony Gwynn was a not a great hitter. He was a lucky hitter because his exit velocity wasn’t as high as that of other great hitters. He must have gotten lucky 3,141 times.
“There’s no substitute for the experience of people who have marinated themselves in scouting and player development,” Royals GM Dayton Moore said. “But there’s a lot of wisdom in the game. With advanced metrics, we rely less and less on instinct and more on facts and information. We’re in the most over-evaluated period of players in baseball ever, but the information is so precise, we are much more strategic and focused on things that make sense. We know teams’ plans, who non-tenders will be, two to three years in advance.”
The old days of evaluating players and assigning value are over, as are the old days of the winter meetings. At the 1975 meetings in Hollywood, Florida, White Sox GM Roland Hemond posted a sign in the hotel lobby that read: “Open For Business.” “By midnight that night,” he said proudly, “we’d made four deals.” Back then, the GM with the biggest bar made the most trades. Back then, Phillies GM Paul Owens, at the hotel bar at 1:30 a.m., took off his sport coat, and demonstrated the proper way to execute a hook slide. He also, one morning at 2:30, called the beat guys who covered the team to announce that the Phillies had acquired Sutter — but it wasn’t closer Bruce Sutter. It was a minor leaguer named Burke Sutter.
Our GMs today don’t laugh much. And they don’t call writers at 2:30 a.m. or make trades after 12 gin and tonics. In fact, you rarely see them in the hotel bar or in the hotel lobby at the winter meetings. They are all gathered in their suites with their computers, their smartphones and their battalion of sabermetric minds, all looking for the perfect deal. This is how it works now: A smart, young GM surrounds himself with a bunch of other smart people, and they don’t leave the room until they get exactly what they want. Much like in our society, there are fewer handshake deals, and there is far less personal communication, especially face to face. The winter meetings are, as they have been for several years, the image of Scott Boras texting Barry Zito with the final contract details in nine characters: 7 for 126.
“We are able to make more efficient decisions now, less emotional decisions,” Cashman said. “The guy at the blackjack table isn’t as willing to gamble. Now, it’s the house rules. Now the guy sitting at the poker table might stay and fold rather than make an emotional decision and just go all-in. And he might sit at the table until spring training if he has to.”
Maybe it is the right way to go. Maybe our new execs have developed a new system, a better system, to build a team and save money. The owners think so. But if they are right, then the meetings in Vegas don’t represent the perfect intersection of free agents and free enterprise. They represent the irresistible force against the immovable object and could take place in Iowa or anywhere. The meetings will have movement, excitement and their own fascination, but at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, sadly, there will be no hook slides.
Brian Cashman doesn’t see Bryce Harper as need for Yankees, says Manny Machado talks active
LAS VEGAS — New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman downplayed Monday any chatter involving his team and Bryce Harper, the hard-swinging right fielder who has been the headliner of this year’s free-agency period.
The way Cashman sees it, a crammed-full outfield and other, more pressing offseason personnel concerns leave the Yankees no place to put the widely-coveted slugger.
“No time at all all winter have I said I’m looking for an outfielder,” Cashman said. “The Harper stuff … I’m surprised you’re still asking.”
When he was first asked about Harper during a session with Yankees beat reporters on the first full day of this year’s Winter Meetings, Cashman rattled off the names of his current six outfielders (Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clint Frazier) as reasons he isn’t looking for a seventh.
So, then, would the Yankees sign Harper — who could command a total deal with $300 million or more — and get him to exchange his outfielder’s glove for a first-base mitt?
“I’m sure it’s potentially a possibility, but it’s not something that we would play on at that level with that type of money, to play somebody like that at first base,” Cashman said.
Weary as Cashman has grown of them, the questions about Harper being linked to the Yankees have persisted in earnest since New York was beaten by the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox back in October.
A player whose longtime Yankees fandom has been well-documented, Harper’s violent, left-handed swing seems to suit Yankee Stadium’s short right-field dimensions.
But Cashman, speaking to Yankees beat reporters on the first full day of this year’s Winter Meetings, indicated that signing Harper would not top his still extensive to-do list between now and spring training. He reiterated that his primary focuses since the end of the season have revolved around bolstering New York’s starting pitching and looking for ways to manage the loss of shortstop Didi Gregorius, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm earlier this offseason.
Cashman said Monday he still had no specific timeline for Gregorius’ return, but did mention it might not occur until July or August.
While the Yankees may be out in the Harper sweepstakes, Gregorius’ injury has them still very much in the conversation for fellow star free agent, infielder Manny Machado.
“We were definitely focused in the marketplace on those areas of need [shortstop], and he obviously is available and solves that area of need,” Cashman said. “So not going to deny we’ve had a conversation, or two.”
Cashman said he and Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, spoke before the Winter Meetings. Machado is reportedly planning on soon visiting the teams that are courting him in free agency.
In terms of the hole the Yankees still have in their starting rotation, free-agent J.A. Happ remains a serious option. The lefty was added during the trade deadline to bolster the flailing staff heading into the postseason. In 11 starts across the final two months of the regular season, Happ looked like the Yankees’ ace, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA.
“We’ll see if we all match up,” Cashman said of the talks he’s had with Happ’s representatives about a possible contract.
Along with Happ, expect the Yankees to be involved in the race for Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, the 27-year-old one-way player who could be even better on the mound than Shohei Ohtani. Teams have until Jan. 2 to negotiate with the lefty who had a 3.08 ERA and struck out 153 batters in 23 starts for the Seibu Lions of the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization this season.
“He’s somebody worth talking about. Someone that’s worth having conversations about potentially landing. Someone that would make our or other rotations better here in major league baseball,” Cashman said of the pitcher his club has scouted extensively.
Gabe Kapler, Philadelphia Phillies manager, publicly critical of players
LAS VEGAS — Phillies manager Gabe Kapler intends to be more publicly critical of his players in his second season following his team’s late fade.
Philadelphia led the NL East in early August, then went 16-33 and wound up with its sixth straight losing record at 80-82.
“One thing that I can do immediately that I think will really resonate well with our fans in Philadelphia is … as much as I illuminate some of the things we’re doing very well, I can be a little more assertive in illuminating the things that we need to work on,” he said Monday at the winter meetings. “I do think that our fans demand that we hold them accountable. I think that I’ve shared and demonstrated to our fans that I do that behind closed doors. And I think that many of them would like to see me create that really high bar publicly. And I’m committed to doing that.”
Phillies president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail reinforced that message during an offseason dinner.
“Andy did say that he thinks that holding players, staff members and the entire organization to a very high bar publicly is something that he thinks will work well,” Kapler said. “I agree with him. I think it’s an easy adjustment for me to make and it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic or forced. I think it’s just a small adjustment. It’s the turning up of the volume of just kind of raising the bar, holding the club and the organization to a high standard.”
Philadelphia has notoriously demanding fans — Eagles supporters booed Santa Claus and threw snowballs at him in 1968 at Franklin Field as the NFL team finished a poor season. That aggressive insistence on effort might cause tumult for free agent infielder Manny Machado if he signs with the Phillies.
“I think the Philadelphia fan base is an incredibly passionate and devoted one, and they demand that their players play hard,” Kapler said. “They set an incredibly high bar and are disappointed when players don’t meet that bar.”
He praised Machado, who along with Bryce Harper is among the top two players on the free-agent market.
“I think Manny has done a tremendous job in his career of establishing a reputation of being one of the top young players in baseball,” Kapler said. “And I think he’s in an incredible position to be able to choose from a wide variety of suitors at this point. And I think wherever he goes, somebody’s going to get an incredible baseball player.”
Philadelphia’s poor finish has the team adjusting its preparations and expectations for 2019. Kapler wants players to play hard through seven months.
“The way you prepare for it to happen is by building emotional armor, physical armor, in the offseason, and kind of the mental preparation that this is going to happen,” he said. “I’m not sure that everybody was 100 percent prepared for that outcome. And when we’re sitting in the middle of July and we are in first place, and we are a very good baseball team, I think … we could have prepared for that moment a little bit better, mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
He hinted at additional rules.
“I continue to trust in our players to police the clubhouse, to raise the bar for one another, and to support each other,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t have a few more boundaries in place to help guide that outcome.”
Kapler’s offseason was disrupted by the loss of his home in Malibu, California, due to the wild fires.
“We lost a physical thing that we can rebuild. I think that my family shares that sentiment,” he said. “Look, we’re disappointed. We’re human beings. You lose a home, and that’s tough. But we used it and we continue to use it as an opportunity to shine light on people who don’t have the resources that we have and who aren’t able to rebuild as quickly as we are.”
Tigers agree to one-year deal with RHP Tyson Ross
Ross, 31, went 8-9 with a 4.15 ERA last season for the Padres and Cardinals, who picked him up off waivers in August.
The key to last season for Ross was being able to throw 149 2/3 innings, after shoulder injuries limited him to 5 1/3 innings in 2016 and 49 in 2017.
Ross, who has never had a season with a win-loss record above .500, has a career mark of 43-65 with a 3.95 ERA over nine seasons.
His best season came in 2014, when he was an All-Star for San Diego and finished 13-14 with a 2.81 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 195 2/3 innings.
Ross is the second veteran starter added by the Tigers on a one-year deal. Lefty Matt Moore recently signed a $2.5 million contract with incentives.
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