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Nightengale: MLB’s Uncertain, Aggressive Winter

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Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. Photo: http://theledgesports.com/

When baseball’s general managers’ meetings ended Thursday, no team could have imagined that the Atlanta Braves would out-spend everyone else, but then again, they weren’t envisioning Donald Trump to be their next president, either.

“It’s been an interesting couple of weeks,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred said, smiling. “Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Donald Trump got elected president. Pretty interesting all the way around.

“So here we are.”

While the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox were the most popular teams at these meetings after declaring they’re open to trading away any of their star-studded players, politics dominated the conversation behind the scenes.

One general manager declared it the worst day in American history. Another executive jokingly told his assistant to find as many good players in Mexico as possible “before Trump builds that wall.’’ And another spent time comforting his distraught wife and crying daughter.

Baseball, too, faces an uncertain winter, a point driven home in three days of meetings.

“We sure got real popular here,’’ Tigers GM Al Avila said while heading back to Detroit. “It used to be that we’d be meeting with all of the agents. This time, we’ve been meeting with all of the teams.

“We have so many valuable pieces. We don’t know who’s going to stay or who’s going to go. We don’t know what direction yet we’re going to take.

“We’ll sit back and assess. It’s not going to be a tear-down, but an adjustment.’’

While the Braves out-spent everyone at these meetings – signing free-agent starter R.A. Dickey to a one-year, $8 million contract Thursday after re-signing pitcher Josh Collmenter to a one-year, $1.2 million deal – the most titillating action this winter will involve the trade market.

“Listen, there are good players out there,’’ Chicago Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said, “but this is probably the weakest free-agent class that we have seen, and probably will see for a while.’’

Indeed, unless you’re going to drop at least $100 million for sluggers Yoenis Cespedes or Edwin Encarnacion, or spend at least $75 million for closers Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen, you’ve got no choice but to hit the trade market for help.

This is why the Tigers and White Sox can provide a virtual All-Star team with everyone they’re offering:

Starting pitchers: Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Jose Quintana.

Closers: David Robertson and Francisco Rodriguez.

Infield: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Todd Frazier.

Outfield: J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Melky Cabrera and Adam Eaton.

DH: Victor Martinez.

The Houston Astros, hoping to become the American League’s version of the Cubs’ success story, have plans to dive right in.

“We’re ready to move quickly this year,’’ Astros GM Jeff Luhnow told USA TODAY Sports. “We don’t feel like we have to wait and see how the market develops, and try to pick up guys who make sense for our budget and our team.

“We’re prepared to start making some offers and being aggressive. If there’s a move that makes sense for our club right now, we’re going to do it. There’s a lot of moving pieces. I’d like to make one big move before the winter meetings, at least one. This will be a more interesting off-season for us than prior off-seasons.’’

Really, there’s a sense of aggressiveness throughout the industry. The only potential hold-up may be the collective bargaining agreement, with teams still not knowing the new draft compensation rules for free agents, or whether the $189 million luxury tax will significantly rise or stay flat.

“The CBA probably creates more uncertainty in these discussions,’’ Hoyer says, “because you don’t know what rules we’re playing by going forward. So that could slow things up. It adds some uncertainty to the process.’’

The Boston Red Sox, for instance, want to find a DH to replace retiring David Ortiz, and bullpen help. Yet, with a $200 million payroll and not knowing the tax ramifications, they may have no choice but to delve into the relief market first. They may have to wait before knowing whether they go for a shorter-term deal with Carlos Beltran, or a long-term plan with Encarnacion or perhaps Jose Bautista.

“There might have to be some patience involved,’’ Red Sox GM David Dombrowskisays. “We don’t know what the collective bargaining situation is. It’s really hard to push some of those things until you really know what rules you’re playing under.’’

In the meantime, the New York Mets say they’ll wait on Cespedes, the Yankees will keep taking the best offers for catcher Brian McCann, the Milwaukee Brewers will continue to talk about outfielder Ryan Braun, and, no, absolutely not, the Los Angeles Angels say, will they even listen to any offers on MVP outfielder Mike Trout.

“This is the time to dream big,’’ Angels GM Billy Eppler said. “Everyone dreams big this time of year. But by the end winter meetings, a lot of times your dessert is humble pie.

“It’s going to be an intriguing next few weeks.’’

And, uh, perhaps the next four years, too.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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