Sometime around the midpoint of the baseball owners’ nearly two billion dollar spending spree at the Winter Meetings in San Diego this week, Billy Eppler got off the phone in the Mets war room and announced to his troops that the earth had just shifted.
Leading up to the meetings, the Mets general manager had devised numerous game plans with his owner Steve Cohen on how to fulfill all of their needs — center field, starting pitching, bullpen — in as prudent a way as possible. They had all but conceded losing Brandon Nimmo to a bidding war that seemed headed for more years than they felt comfortable.
But then Hal Steinbrenner blinked on a ninth year for Aaron Judge and coughed up $146.5 million more than his superstar slugger had originally turned down back in March, and Phillies general partner John Middleton, who had earlier signed Taijuan Walker, the Mets’ No. 4 starter last year, for a whopping $72 million over four years, fulfilled his quest for shortstop Trea Turner with an eye-popping 11-year, $300 million deal. Mind you, Cohen had already seen the Texas Rangers stun the baseball fraternity by luring away Jacob deGrom for a five-year deal worth $185 million — when he and Eppler had privately agreed that three years would be their max for the oft-injured two-time Cy Young winner — and now he was steaming.
Whether they realized it or not, the baseball owners with their contract madness this week in what one high-level MLB official termed “the age of irrationality,” unleashed the spending monster in Steve Cohen, who essentially told Eppler that night: “Screw this. We are not losing Nimmo and we are not stopping there. We will spend what it takes to win.”
With Nimmo’s eight-year, $162 million deal plus the $10 million thrown at David Robertson to fill the set-up reliever hole late Thursday, Cohen had already spent $386 million this offseason to bring his payroll to about $325 million — or nearly $100 million over the first payroll tax threshold of $233 million, and $35 million over the fourth so-called “Steve Cohen” threshold of $290 million for which the Mets will now be taxed at 90% with their top draft pick also moved down 10 slots.
But Cohen obviously doesn’t care. Nor does the Phillies’ Middleton, the Padres’ Peter Seidler, the Rangers’ Ray Davis or a reluctant Steinbrenner, who all blew past or got right up to the $233 million threshold last week. And to think, the owners almost took a lockout last March over the threshold issue.
There are still at least four gigantic contracts out there yet to be signed — Carlos Correa, who appears to be headed to the Giants, now desperate after losing out on Judge; Dansby Swanson, who many believe will be priced out of the Braves’ comfort zone and most likely land with the Cubs; Carlos Rodon, the top remaining starting pitcher who is said to favor going to the Yankees but won’t get his reported six years, $180 million ask from them; and the latest Japanese prodigy, Kodai Senga, who with multiple teams including the Mets still in pursuit, will likely reap over $100 million despite never having thrown a pitch in the majors.
Suffice it to say, we should not expect any more declarations from Commissioner Rob Manfred about poverty among his owners. Between the $900 million bonanza from Disney for the purchase of BAMTech, the extra TV millions coming in from all the streaming deals, the new revenues from selling advertising patches on the uniforms beginning next year, baseball is awash in money and the players should be happy because a whole lot of it appears to be going to them. I’m told the Padres, in the 27th-ranked market, are coming up with all their money by selling off small shares of the club.
So the happy spenders will all declare themselves Winter Meetings winners and their fans will surely agree. The one notable loser was the Red Sox, who lost shortstop Xander Bogaerts to the Padres by not even coming close his 11-year, $280 million deal (reportedly they’d topped out at six years). Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom who was brought in from Tampa Bay by Red Sox owner John Henry purportedly to run the team like the Rays, is doing just that.
No eight-10-year deals for them, even for their franchise players, which means there is no way they’ll be able to keep Scott Boras-client Rafael Devers as the premier position player on the free agent market next year. Meanwhile, there were questions raised on both of Bloom’s signs at the meetings — the $105.4 million total outlay (including posting fee) for Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida, who is said to be below average defensively, and the two-years, $32 million for closer Kenley Jansen, who most scouts think is at the end. Regardless of how those work out, the Red Sox, who also lost out to the Rays on a No. 4 starter Zach Eflin, are now a last-place team.
IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD
Dec. 9, 1982. Baseball Winter Meetings, Honolulu. The Yankees had just completed a trade with the Blue Jays, with outfielder Davey Collins and his bloated $650,000 salary going from the Yankees to Toronto for right-handed reliever Dale Murray. On the surface it looked like a home run for the Yankees, unloading Collins who’d been a lost soul in New York, and getting, in Murray, a useful set-up reliever. But when the New York baseball scribes approached Pat Gillick about the trade, the Blue Jays GM, had a whole different take on it they were not prepared for.
“Forget about Murray and Collins,” Gillick said. “Years from now this will be remembered as the Fred McGriff trade.” Fred McGriff? It seemed he was the throw-in in the deal, a young lefty-swinging first baseman who’d spent the previous year with the Yankees’ rookie league team in Bradenton, Fla., and whom Gillick had personally scouted. “I had actually gone down to Bradenton to look at a pitcher, Jose Mesa, who we had just signed and was pitching for our Rookie League team against the Yankees,” Gillick recalled by phone Friday. “And during the game, McGriff, who had this beautiful swing, hit a 425-foot home run, and I made a mental note that if we ever made a deal with the Yankees to see if we could get him as a throw-in since he was so far down in the minors and they had [Don] Mattingly just starting out on the big club. My only worry was that McGriff was from Tampa and I was afraid George [Steinbrenner] wouldn’t trade a local kid. But he wanted badly to make the deal and it never came up.”
Five years later, McGriff made it to the big leagues as the Blue Jays’ first baseman and hit 125 homers for them over the next four years before Gillick traded him to the Padres along with All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez in the blockbuster deal for Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter. “I hated trading Fred,” Gillick said, “but we had come close to getting to the World Series in ‘85, ‘87 and ‘89 and I just felt we needed to shake things up and change the complexion of the club a little. Plus, we needed a right-handed hitter in Carter.” So last week, there was probably no one in baseball more proud about McGriff’s unanimous election to the Hall of Fame by the Contemporary Era committee than Gillick. For him, the Fred McGriff trade had finally come full cycle.