A year after five free agents switched Major League Baseball teams in deals worth more than a half-billion dollars, the 2012 Winter Meetings that begin today should be much less of a big-spending event.
The biggest name on the free-agent market, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, has a history of drug and alcohol abuse that may reduce clubs’ interest. Marquee players such as New York Mets third baseman David Wright and New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera are staying with their teams.
Instead, general managers of the 30 MLB teams probably will be focused at the meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, more on trades and second-tier players.
“I don’t expect anything as earth shattering as last year,” Mike Haupert, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, said in a telephone interview. “There just isn’t anybody out there who I think is a game changer, a franchise player. There are a whole bunch of guys out there who you might want if you’re building a team.”
Hamilton, 31, the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player, hit a career-best 43 home runs last season and could return to the Rangers after being courted by other teams.
The top pitcher available in free agency is Zack Greinke, 29, who made $13.5 million during a 2012 season that he finished with the Los Angeles Angels after starting it in Milwaukee. Greinke, who won the 2009 AL Cy Young Award while with the Kansas City Royals, missed most of the 2006 season while being treated for social anxiety disorder.
Free agents B.J. Upton and Russell Martin already have signed with new teams. Upton, a center fielder, moved from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Atlanta Braves and Martin, a catcher, went from the Yankees to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The biggest trade of the offseason probably has already occurred, as well. The Miami Marlins sent All-Stars Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and John Buck to the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a 12-player trade.
The Mets may officially announce at the Winter Meetings that Wright has signed a seven-year contract extension that will keep him with the team through the 2020 season.
Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of sports management at New York University, said the Wright signing, and the Mets’ desire to build for the future, could lead General Manager Sandy Alderson to trade Cy Young Award-winning knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey, 38, this week.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see teams such as the Kansas City Royals or Los Angeles Dodgers get in on the action for Dickey,” McDonnell said in a telephone interview. “If Sandy Alderson is presented with a knee-buckling deal, I could see Dickey being moved. The Mets are not going to be a competitive ballclub for probably another two to three years, I think they’re really looking at getting young players.”
The Yankees retained Rivera, 43, the MLB career leader with 608 saves, with a one-year deal. They also re-signed starting pitchers Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda in recent weeks.
The Yankees probably will be looking for a right fielder to replace Nick Swisher, a free agent who will probably sign elsewhere. General Manager Brian Cashman said that will be a bigger priority than finding a free-agent catcher to replace Martin.
Free-agent catchers on the market include A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli. Cashman told reporters last week that the Yankees are likely to fill Martin’s spot with one of the catchers now on the roster -- Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Austin Romine.
“In terms of catching and throwing and running games, I’d line those guys up with some of the best catchers in the game on the defensive side, game-planning and handling a pitching staff,” Cashman said. “A couple of those guys have the potential to become everyday catchers because of their bats if they develop.”
McDonnell said the Yankees might pull off a big trade this week in Nashville, perhaps dealing away All-Star center fielder Curtis Granderson -- whose 43 home runs during the regular season were offset by 195 strikeouts and a .232 batting average. He hit .100 (3-for-30) in the playoffs.
“I think the Yankees are a team that might make some noise on the trade front, because they are going to be very conservative in how they spend their money but they might reposition their finances with a trade,” he said.
With the moves that already have happened before the Winter Meetings, the four-day session in Nashville isn’t expected to be as frenetic as last year’s gathering in Dallas.
Reyes, Buehrle and Heath Bell signed long-term contracts with the Marlins as free agents during last year’s meetings, with shortstop Reyes agreeing to a $106 million deal, starting pitcher Buehrle getting $58 million and reliever Bell receiving $27 million. Bell was traded away in October by the Marlins, who went 69-93 last season.
Three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson were signed as free agents by the Angels during the 2011 Winter Meetings. Pujols got a 10-year, $240 million contract and Wilson was signed for $77.5 million over five years. The Angels missed the playoffs.
This year, Hamilton and Greinke are the only players who should be offered blockbuster free-agent deals.
“Josh Hamilton is the biggest name and he comes with so many red flags,” said Haupert, who teaches the economics of sports. “Without that baggage, he would probably have been courted by every team in the league right now.”
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