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2018 MLB Winter Meetings preview

The 2018 Winter Meetings will be in Las Vegas this week. Here’s what to expect.

MLB: Winter Meetings Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Winter Meetings start Monday at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. This is the biggest meeting of baseball every year where nearly anyone who has a job (or anyone who wants a job) with any connection to the business of professional baseball shows up.

The main purpose of the Winter Meetings is not something that most of you are interested in. There will be banquets where the best baseball executives are honored. Awards will be handed out to both major and minor league front offices for things like the best promotion or the best fan experience. The sport’s top scouts, coaches, trainers and medical staff will be honored. Sporting goods manufacturers will be there with a trade show as they try to sell their latest products to both teams and players. Thousands of people will show up with their resumés in hand, hoping to land a job with a major or minor league team. On Thursday, the final day of the meetings, major league baseball will hold their annual Rule 5 draft.

But what most of you are interested in are the deals. As I wrote in the earlier preview of the Cubs’ Winter Meetings plans, the Winter Meetings exist as a swap meet mainly because of tradition. In the days before texting and email, the Winter Meetings provided an easy way for teams to deal with each other. Nowadays, general managers and agents are in contact with each other all the time and a deal can happen any time. But it is a time for teams to start to get their rosters set for next year before the Christmas holiday. Teams also want to get the best players for next season locked up before other teams get them. You put executives of 30 teams in a hotel together along with agents and players and sooner or later a deal is going to get made. (Either that, or Kirk Gibson is going to body slam a GM.) So deals will get done.

With the caveat that no one knows what is going to happen at the Winter Meetings, here are some things to look for over the next four days.

Free agents aren’t free

As I wrote in the Cubs preview, I’d be shocked if Bryce Harper signed with a team over the next four days and I’d only be slightly-less surprised if Manny Machado signed before Thursday. The top free agents usually want to see other free agents set the market before they pick a team.

But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be free agent signings this week. In particular, the market for pitching should be in full swing. Starter Dallas Keuchel is a former Cy Young Award-winner who is available and could pick a team over the next four days. Teams that missed out on Patrick Corbin, such as the Phillies and Yankees, could now turn to Keuchel. The Braves weren’t reportedly in on Corbin, but there have been rumors that Atlanta would like to add Keuchel. The Reds want Keuchel as well, but he seems reluctant to go to a rebuilding team. Maybe a lot of dead presidents will change his mind.

Teams that don’t get Keuchel could be interested in free agents Gio Gonzalez, J.A. Happ and Matt Harvey. The Reds want to keep Harvey and the Yankees would keep Happ if they can’t land a bigger fish. But there will be competition for all three of those pitchers.

A wild card in this equation is Yusei Kikuchi, who was posted by the Seibu Lions of NPB. Most scouts seem to think that Kikuchi projects out to be a mid-rotation starter, so there should be a lot of interest in him. Which team he signs with is pretty much a mystery at this point, but the Angels still need starting pitching and Kikuchi might be interested in joining fellow countryman Shohei Ohtani in Orange County. He was seen there last week, although that’s where his agent, Scott Boras, has his offices so there might be nothing more to it than that.

There are lots of relievers on the free agent market and I mentioned many of them in the Cubs preview. But one big-name player the Cubs aren’t likely to go after is closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel is coming off a terrific three-year run in Boston, but he turns 31 in May and he’s looking for a six-year deal. Even a five-year deal might be too much for a team considering the shelf life of most relievers. But some team is going to either figure that Kimbrel is going to be the exception to that rule or are trying to win now and don’t care what kind of a pitcher he’ll be in 2023. I think there’s a good chance Kimbrel picks a team over the next week.

On position players, catcher Yasmani Grandal should get a ton of attention this week despite his poor postseason showing. Quality catchers are a rare commodity and Grandal is someone who can both hit, play defense and manage a pitching staff.

Outfielder Andrew McCutchen isn’t the same player he once was, but he’s still good. He’d be a great addition to a young team like the Braves. The Mets, who are sort of young and sort of not, might also be interested. A.J. Pollock is another outfielder who is drawing lots of interest and who could sign this week.

I already spoke a lot about Marwin Gonzalez in my Cubs preview, but a team that doesn’t need the defensive flexibility that Gonzalez brings could turn to infielders DJ LeMahieu or Mike Moustakas. and all of these players could sign over the next week.

He’s the real deal

The player most likely to be traded this next week is Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. As I mentioned above, catching is in short supply in the major leagues and Realmuto is arguably among the five best catchers in the majors right now. He’s a solid defensive catcher who can get on base and hit for power. In short, he’s everything that a team looks for behind the plate. On top of that, he’s under team control for three more seasons. Realmuto shouldn’t come cheap, however. After getting underwhelming returns for Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna last winter, the Marlins really need to hit the jackpot in a deal for Realmuto. On the other hand, it’s the Marlins. The Mets and Dodgers have been linked to Realmuto, but Jon Heyman reports that at least 14 teams have talked to the Marlins about a deal.

Trading with the Indians

The Indians are trying to shed payroll this offseason and are widely expected to deal either Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, but not both. (Carlos Carrasco is safe after signing an extension.) Any team that missed out on Corbin or Keuchel will be interested in a deal. The Reds are also reportedly interested in Kluber as they think they will be able to compete soon if they can add some arms. Both players will likely command a high price in prospects or young pre-arbitration eligible major leaguers. I’d expect one of them to be traded in a blockbuster this week, with Bauer more likely to be dealt than Kluber. (Although if their main goal is to shed salary, Kluber makes a lot more money than Bauer does.)

Giant steps

The San Francisco Giants were a mess last season and are in desperate need of a rebuild. The issue is that Giants ownership, much like the Mets, doesn’t believe that a full teardown will fly with their fans and don’t want to see all those expensive tickets at AT&T Park to go unsold.

But it’s clear that the Giants have to do something. Catcher Buster Posey is a Bay Area legend at this point and the Giants would be loath to deal a guy they’d like to see spend his entire career in San Francisco. He’s also under contract for four more seasons.

Madison Bumgarner, on the other hand, is a different Bay Area legend who is a free agent at the end of 2019. The Giants love Bumgarner for his role on three World Series champions, but they are also realistic in seeing that he’s not quite the same pitcher he was in 2014. They’ve also seen this story before with Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, so they probably don’t want to offer Bumgarner a long-term extension. New team president Farhan Zaidi doesn’t have the same emotional attachment to Bumgarner that the rest of the team does. I expect he’ll be traded in Las Vegas.

Finishing off the remodeling out west

The Mariners are selling off anything that isn’t nailed to the seats at Safeco Field, including the name of the stadium which will now probably be known as T-Mobile Field. There isn’t much left in Seattle to sell, but GM Jerry Dipoto loves to deal and the one chit he still has is outfielder Mitch Haniger. It would almost be a surprise if Haniger weren’t dealt this week.

Another team that had a winning record in 2018 that’s decide they can’t compete anymore is the Diamondbacks. They might trade starting pitcher Zack Greinke, but they’d have to eat a lot of contract to get anything back for him. Greinke might get dealt this week, but it’s more likely that Arizona hangs on to him until the trade deadline in 2019.

Rule 5 card stud

Every year the Winter Meetings conclude with the Rule 5 draft and fans tend to get worked up about it. In truth, the Rule 5 draft hasn’t amounted to much MLB changed the rules to give teams an extra year of control of minor league players before exposing them to the draft in 2006. At most, teams are generally looking at finding a decent middle reliever or utility infielder. (Although the Cubs lost Marwin Gonzalez in the Rule 5 draft in 2011, so it is possible to get a star. But Gonzalez was basically a utility infielder for four seasons before he made some adjustments in his late-20s.)

Remember, anyone taken in the Rule 5 draft has to be on the major league roster for all of 2019 and they can’t spend more than half of the year on the disabled list. (It’s amazing the number of Rule 5 picks that suffer injuries that end up costing them half a season.) But that means that few contending teams will offer a roster spot to a player that really needs more development time. A lot of these draft picks will end up getting returned to their original clubs before Opening Day.

But there are a few interesting names that could end up becoming valuable players. Astros right-handed reliever Riley Farrell has batted injuries and control problems over the past few seasons, but the stuff is good enough that someone is likely to take a chance on him.

Jake Gatewood is a former first-round pick who is just 23 and still has tremendous power potential. His ability to make contact has been a major disappointment and he’s also battled injuries, In fact, Gatewood comes pre-packaged with an ACL tear that should keep him on the disabled list until the All-Star Break. Some rebuilding team should take a chance on a player with Gatewood’s potential with basically no risk.

Jairo Beras was a top outfield prospect in the Rangers system for years, but his bat stalled out in High-A. He converted to pitching in 2017 and can now touch 100 mph on the radar gun, although he sits a touch below that. He’s obviously very raw and has trouble finding the strike zone, but he’s also doesn’t turn 24 until Christmas Day (allegedly — there were some issues with his age that were never actually resolved) so there is room for improvement. A non-contending team that can afford to be patient would do well to take a chance on Beras.

The Cubs could lose right-handed pitcher Erick Leal, who had a very successful Arizona Fall League stint but the Cubs still chose not to protect him. But even if a team does select Leal, there is a solid chance that he gets returned to the Cubs before Opening Day.

Also, please take note of this, which was included in the official MLB Winter Meetings press kit:

Bleed Cubbie Blue will have coverage of every move the Cubs make at the Winter Meetings as well as all the major moves by other teams.