Bowden’s MLB offseason mailbag: What I’m hearing about free agents, teams and trades

Jim Bowden


With the moves coming here and there but many top free agents still available and several significant trade targets still on teams’ radars, I opened up the mailbag and answered more than 20 questions from subscribers. As we head toward the midpoint of January, here’s some of what I’m hearing in conversations with decision-makers across the game. Pitchers and catchers report in a little more than a month!

Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.

If and when Cubs management wakes up, what moves are you anticipating? Jed Hoyer is known as patient but there are obvious holes on the roster. Are the Cubs waiting out Cody Bellinger? What are you hearing? — Oliver S.

The Cubs have been aggressive this offseason in trying to improve their roster but deals can take time. On Tuesday, they finally got on the board as they’re close to finalizing a contract with left-handed pitcher Shota Imanaga, which is a gamble. Imanaga is a fly-ball pitcher who does not have a good track record against foreign-born players in Nippon Professional Baseball. (They posted like an .800 OPS against him.) Given his small size and the fluctuation of his stuff, I’m also concerned about his durability as he transitions from the five days of rest between starts that he had in Japan to the four days of rest he’ll have in MLB. However, the Cubs also remain engaged in negotiations with Jordan Montgomery, Bellinger, Matt Chapman and Rhys Hoskins, and I’d be surprised if they don’t land one or two of them in addition to Imanaga, which will be imperative for them to have a successful offseason. Also, no matter what else they do, don’t forget their best move was hiring manager Craig Counsell, who is one of the best in the business.

Orioles–White Sox trade proposal: Does Jordan Westburg, either Colton Cowser or Heston Kjerstad, Cade Povich, Ramón Urías and a lower-level prospect or two land Dylan Cease? Would you make that trade as Orioles GM and as White Sox GM? — Michael J.

Chicago’s asking price for Cease has been unrealistic and Orioles GM Mike Elias has done the right thing by continually saying no. However, the White Sox will eventually lower their price to a more realistic package and at that point Baltimore will still be able to outbid the other teams in contention thanks to their strong depth. I think your trade idea/proposal is pretty close to what a final deal should look like.

Can you explain the extreme interest in Cease? He was 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA last year, so how valuable is he? Was last year a fluke? I know he has two more years of team control, but Cease seems like a crapshoot to me. Also, because of those controllable years, the White Sox want serious prospects for him. Why is that reasonable? — James P.

In 2021, Cease went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA over 32 starts and struck out a league-leading 12.3 batters per nine innings. In 2022, he was 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA and 3.10 FIP over 32 starts while punching out 11.1 batters per nine and finishing second in the American League Cy Young Award voting. This past year he went backward, going 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 33 starts while striking out 214, the third straight year in which he’s struck out 200 or more.

Cease’s fastball is 95-97 mph and he throws an 86 mph slider, an 80 mph curveball and a 74 mph changeup. Opposing batters hit .216 against the slider. He has Cy Young-winning upside if he can put it all together, he’s only 28 years old and, yes, the team that acquires him would control him for two more years. Several teams, led by the Yankees and Orioles, are pursuing Cease and I would be too for the right prospect package. If the Yankees get him, they’d slot him after Gerrit Cole in the rotation. If the Orioles get him, they’d place him after Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez.

If the Mets were to consider a trade for Cease, what would the prospect package look like? — Eric F. 

The White Sox have been asking for everyone’s best prospects in the Cease talks so it’s fair to guess that the names they’d be after would be Luisangel Acuña, Kevin Parada, Drew Gilbert, Jett Williams, Mike Vasil, etc. They’ve been looking for a package of three to five top prospects, which I don’t think they’ll get from anyone. I also don’t think the Mets are suitors right now because their new president of baseball operations, David Stearns, wants to be able to see these prospects for himself in spring training and wants to build the organization through scouting and player development, and to make a trade of this magnitude would set that process back. So, don’t expect a Cease trade to the Mets because it’s not happening this offseason.

Craig Breslow has spoken about wanting to improve Boston’s rotation this offseason and hasn’t been afraid to make big trades (Alex Verdugo to the Yankees, Chris Sale to the Braves). What starting pitcher do you think the Red Sox could acquire via trade if the team decides Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, and Kyle Teel are off-limits, but other prospects are on the table? — Tim K.

The Red Sox have made a lot of moves this offseason but I’m not sure their major-league team is any better than it was when the season ended. They’ve had trade discussions with the White Sox regarding Cease, but those have never gotten any traction. They touched base with the Brewers on Corbin Burnes and that went nowhere, and they had a conversation with the Marlins about Jesús Luzardo that also came up empty. Free agency remains their best shot at improving the rotation this offseason, but I’m not sure Red Sox ownership is willing to step up and pay the price it will take to land one of the top starters.

Will Yankees GM Brian Cashman make another big move? (Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

If you had to pick a team that will make the biggest (offseason) splash from here on out, who’s your guess? — Cristos L.

I’m not sure there will be a cannonball splash by any team but I believe the Yankees, Cubs, Giants, Blue Jays and Rangers all have one more big move left in their wallets.

Are the Dodgers introducing a new era of roster building? If so, what happens to the small-market teams? — Anonymous U.

The Dodgers are taking advantage of the growing revenue disparity that stems from their lucrative local television contract and they’re putting the best product they can on the field for their fans. Small-market teams need to focus on what the Diamondbacks, Twins, Rays and Orioles have accomplished of late and recognize that over the past two years the new postseason format, in some ways, has given an advantage to teams that don’t have a first-round bye — that opens the door for wild-card teams to make it to the World Series and win a championship, which we saw last season. And when you do it with less, it’s far more rewarding.

Do you think the Dodgers are turning the page on the Clayton Kershaw era and moving on to the Shohei Ohtani era as a fresh start for the organization, or are they holding a spot for Kershaw in the rotation out of deference to him? — Tae K.

The Dodgers have told me they are keeping the door open for a Kershaw return and hope he decides to finish his career as a Dodger. I think the signings of Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto will make it easier for him to decide to stay with Los Angeles rather than opting to finish his career with the Rangers, his hometown team, which is the only other realistic option outside of him choosing to retire.

What can the Giants reasonably do to compete in the National League West against the Dodgers? It has to be more than signing Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery. — Greg E.

The Giants still have work to do this offseason but at least they signed Jung Hoo Lee, solving center field, and they traded for former AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, who should help them starting late this summer when he returns from Tommy John surgery. And they’re not done. The Giants have been engaged with the top starting pitchers left on the free-agent market, as well as Bellinger, Chapman and Hoskins.

Are the Cardinals done? Because their rotation as it currently stands isn’t good enough to be considered a contender. Please tell me they’re not done. — Michael P.

I loved the Sonny Gray signing but didn’t love the gambles they took on Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. Four of their starters (Gray, Miles Mikolas, Gibson, Lynn) are 34 or older and all five of the starters in their presumed rotation (that group plus Steven Matz) are older than 32. The Cardinals obviously need young starting pitching and they’ll have to find it in the trade market. They’ve done a good job of flushing out their outfield depth and their lineup is good enough to win the division. I’d like to see them add one more young starter and two more viable set-up relievers before considering them serious contenders in the NL Central.

What can the Mets expect to receive for Pete Alonso at the trade deadline? Are they making a mistake by not trading him now? Would the Mets be better off (bolstering) their farm system with an Alonso trade while they are still in transition (as an organization) and then look to target Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in free agency ahead of the 2026 season? — Andrew B.

Their new front office, under Stearns, has indicated a desire for Alonso to finish his career as a Met. Alonso has told teammates that his preference is to spend his entire career with the Mets. That’s usually a great sign. However, his agent, Scott Boras, has a long history of taking his clients to free agency when they get this close because that’s usually where they’ll land the best deal (versus signing an extension). The Mets listened when teams called about Alonso but have never seriously considered trading him — at least not yet. They could re-evaluate the situation at the trade deadline but likely will keep him through this season and then be willing to match the best offer he receives in free agency. I think that’s the most likely outcome.

Will the Reds trade Jonathan India? (Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

Why did the Reds sign Jeimer Candelario, and how are they planning to deploy their 37 infielders? — Justin F.

Do you see the Reds making a trade from their surplus of infielders or do you think they stand pat and keep their depth? — Dave P.

The Reds’ starting infield appears to be Candelario at first base, Matt McLain at second, Elly De La Cruz at short and Noelvi Marte at third. That leaves Jonathan India to play some second, first (?) and DH and Christian Encarnacion-Strand to mostly DH and play some first, with Spencer Steer becoming a full-time outfielder and right-handed hitting option out there. The infielders and designated hitters can all move around and rotate. The Reds don’t have quality depth among their Triple-A infielders, and if their major-league starters all play around 142 games, then the extra player plays at least 100 games plus any time as an injury fill-in. The Reds have found it tough to get free-agent pitchers to sign and pitch in Great American Small Park unless they’re coming back from injuries (like Frankie Montas is) or the team overpays, so they bolstered their lineup. (In addition to Montas, they have added to their pitching staff by signing Nick Martinez, Emilio Pagán and Buck Farmer.) However, without a doubt, if they deal for a Cease, Burnes, Luzardo, etc., they can start every trade conversation with India or Encarnacion-Strand because of their depth.

How much have the financial problems with the regional sports networks impacted free-agent spending? — Spencer L.

Which teams are cutting back due to the Bally fiasco? And has that/will that impact free-agent prices for the rest of the season? — John B.

It has had a huge impact on the affected teams, including the Padres, Mariners, Twins and Guardians, among others; all you have to do is look at their moves or lack thereof. (Note: Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Andy McCullough wrote more about the dynamics at play this offseason, including the RSN fallout.)

Is there any chance the Guardians could go after Jorge Soler or J.D. Martinez on a one-year deal? Seems like a perfect fit if Josh Naylor is ready to play more in the field after his leg injury. — Jason F.

The Guardians need another big power bat to put in the middle of their lineup and their front office has told me they are looking for it to come from either a DH or corner outfield spot. Both Soler and Martinez as well as Justin Turner would be solid fits for their lineup.

Assuming the Tigers won’t trade Tarik Skubal, (do they have other pitchers) that teams would value enough to give up a potential middle-of-the-order bat who’s close to being ready? Their offense, even with some growth from Kerry Carpenter, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and the arrival of Colt Keith, is still fairly light. — Cliff C.

The Tigers front office knows they still must improve the lineup but at the same time they want to build their organization the right way and don’t want to block any of their top prospects with stopgap-type moves. They’re excited about their prospects, including Keith, Jace Jung and Justyn-Henry Malloy, and are hoping that trio will make an impact at some point in 2024.

Will Matt Chapman re-sign with the Blue Jays? (Ian Hamilton / USA Today)

Whom do you think the Blue Jays could add before spring training? — Rick G.

What do you think the Blue Jays need to do to salvage this offseason? — Jake L.

The Blue Jays have a legitimate shot at bringing back Chapman and they have been engaged with Bellinger as well. I’ll be surprised if they don’t land one of them, with the other signing with the Cubs or Giants.

Do the Blue Jays possess the trade assets to entice teams such as the Reds, Rays or Orioles to surrender players they might be interested in (e.g., Harold Ramirez, Anthony Santander)? — Brian G.

The Blue Jays have young talent they could trade, such as pitchers Brandon Barriera and Landen Maroudis, but it’s unlikely the Rays or Orioles want to trade major-league regulars to help a division rival immediately, and the Reds have been interested in only left-hander Ricky Tiedemann, whom Toronto is not going to move, at least not for a position player.

Are teams not interested in Joey Votto due to his age and injury history? Have you heard of any teams that are interested in him? — Tom R.

Votto is 40 and his decline is real. The Reds have moved on from him. I think his only shot is if the Blue Jays sign him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training and give him a chance to make the team, which would allow him to finish his stellar career where he grew up, in Toronto. Otherwise, his future career as a hitting coach or broadcaster might arrive sooner than he wants.

Are there any big moves you could see the Phillies realistically doing? — Scott E.

I think the Phillies could land a versatile player such as Whit Merrifield or Tony Kemp who could play both the infield and outfield.

When will Paul Skenes, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, debut in the majors? (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

Do you think Paul Skenes has a realistic chance at making the Pirates’ Opening Day roster? They don’t have anyone better than him in the major-league rotation. Why not a baptism by fire? — Kurtis H.

I’m told the Pirates believe Skenes would benefit from more development in the minors and that he’s not ready for the majors, even though, as you point out, he’s better than everyone in their system. However, they need him to be their long-term ace, and to start his service-time clock would not be wise. Therefore, I see him being a September call-up this year and a full-time starter in 2025.

How likely do you think it is that MLB makes changes to the way the offseason is structured so that free agency isn’t boring and doesn’t stretch on for four months? Every offseason feels like a buzzkill. — Jared H.

I have been a strong proponent of having a free-agent and trade deadline at midnight on the Wednesday of the Winter Meetings (Dec. 6 last month), with a subsequent freeze of rosters until Feb. 1. The MLB Players Association and the majority of clubs do not support this concept, so I don’t see it changing anytime soon. However, as an MLB talk show host, writer, analyst and insider, I will say it makes December and January more entertaining than it would be under those rules because, although there are inevitable slow periods, a transaction can happen on any day or at any hour, which is exciting.

As the calendar gets closer to spring training, who gets antsier — the unsigned free agent or the teams with gaping holes to fill? I feel like the player and his family would want to know where they will live for at least the next six months or so. — Preston K.

The players tend to get antsier, as you put it, because their families want to know where they’re going to be for spring training in Arizona or Florida. And they want to know where they’re going to live during the year. So there’s more unrest for the players and their families than there is for the teams because of that factor. From the club’s perspective, at that time of year, you’ve already made close to your best offers to free agents and there is nothing you can do except offer more money and/or years — you’re waiting on the player to decide where he’ll sign. If a team is working on trades, you keep making your best offers, but if the other team doesn’t want to say “yes,” there isn’t much more you can do unless you decide to improve your latest offer.

(Top photo of Dylan Cease: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

Jim Bowden

2024-01-10 16:07:28 , Giants – The Athletic

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