The free-agent market always produces certain oddities. Consider this 2022 comparison of two right-handed hitters who recently reached switched teams, as if they were traded for one another.
Player A: Age 38, 13 HRs, 116 OPS+, 532 PAs
Player B: Age 35, 16 HRs, 117 OPS+, 596 PAs
Player A is Justin Turner, who agreed with the Red Sox on a two-year, $21.7 million contract. Player B is JD Martinez, who agreed with the Dodgers on a one-year, $10 million deal.
How is it possible Turner signed a contract for more than twice as much as Martinez, considering both offer minimal defensive value at this stage of their respective careers?
Martinez’s agent, Scott Boras, pointed to the slugger’s relationship with his former Red Sox teammate, Mookie Betts, and Dodgers hitting instructor Robert Van Scoyoc, who helped Martinez revamp his swing after the 2013 season.
Martinez went for not only less than Turner, but also Josh Bell (two years, $33 million), Michael Brantley (one year, $12 million) and Joey Gallo (one year, $11 million).
“(Dodgers president of baseball operations) Andrew Friedman and Mookie were like college coaches seeking the big recruit,” Boras said. “JD was fully aware of the recent signings and took $6 million to $7 million below his value.
“He wanted to win and he wanted to (optimize his ability). He felt the Dodgers were the best team to help him achieve those goals. He made them fully aware that he has every intention to play well and seek his true value in the seasons ahead.”
Rays, Jays were in on Brantley
The day the Rays announced their signing of right-hander Zach Eflin, president of baseball operations Erik Neander all but signaled he was interested in free-agent outfielder Michael Brantley.
“I think for us adding another player, that’s a rebound candidate, or a breakthrough candidate, I don’t know how much appeal it has relative to someone that has much more of a consistency to them, and a recent track record of success, Neander said.
“Because I think that’s what this group probably needs most is someone that has demonstrated that and frankly, for the younger players, can take some of the attention and the expectations off of them.”
As it turned out, the Rays indeed pursued Brantley, who turns 36 on May 15 and is a .296 hitter in 54 career postseason games. So did the Blue Jays, who also targeted Brantley the last time he was a free agent two years ago.
Brantley returned to the Astros that winter on a two-year, $32 million deal. This time, he agreed to a one-year, $12 million contract with $4 million in incentives. Presumably, the Astros are confident Brantley will pass his physical. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a labrum tear in his right shoulder in August and missed the rest of the season.
Where are the trades?
For the past several years, I’ve been among those complaining that too many teams are rebuilding, damaging the competitive integrity of the sport. Well, we can finally report a measure of progress on that front. Three heads of baseball operations in recent days attributed the slow trade market to the number of clubs shunning veteran-for-prospect deals as they try to build rosters capable of contention.
“That’s the biggest dynamic in play,” one executive said. “We can’t use our prospects to go get players. With a couple of teams we could, but it’s not enough. You need enough teams that have major-league players. That is definitely hanging things up, definitely.”
The new collective-bargaining agreement introduced a draft lottery, but otherwise did not appear to go far enough to boost competition. One aspect of the CBA, however — the expansion of the postseason from 10 to 12 teams — gave clubs perhaps more incentive than expected. Two sub-90 win outfits, the Phillies and Padres, reached the National League Championship Series.
The Reds, Pirates and A’s are the only teams truly in rebuilding mode, according to one executive; the Nationals, he said, are not quite behaving in that manner. The trade market is so quiet, not even Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, one of the game’s leading deal-makers, could stir activity at the Winter Meetings. Dipoto said the Mariners made a few calls to check on possible matches and got feedback from one club, but outside of that teams seemed focused on free agents.
The trade market will likely accelerate as the number of free agents dwindles. The biggest deal thus far was the three-team, nine-player extravaganza that sent Sean Murphy from the A’s to the Braves and William Contreras from the Braves to the Brewers.
Orioles’ Mateo on the move?
The Orioles, according to major-league sources, began receiving inquiries on shortstop Jorge Mateo almost immediately after the Cubs reached an agreement with Dansby Swanson, the last of the big four free agents at the position.
The Twins, Braves, Red Sox and Dodgers all lost shortstops on the open market. Mateo, entering his age 28 season, might be an affordable and potentially attractive fit for interested clubs, a player whose value as an athletic defender and stolen-base threat should only increase as the league introduces shift restrictions, larger bases and pickoff rules in 2023 .
The Orioles like the idea of pairing their right-handed hitting infielders, Mateo and Ramón Urías, with their left-handed hitting options, Gunnar Henderson and Adam Frazier. The additional depth at second, short and third will enable them not only to mix and match, but also to get each player sufficient rest. Then again, the O’s will also have three middle-infield prospects at Triple A, Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby. The team is bound to move some of its infielders eventually.
Mateo, then, would appear expendable in the right deal. He ranked among the top five defenders at short last season in both Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average, and is projected to earn a relatively paltry $1.8 million in the first of his three years of arbitration. The downside: His adjusted OPS last season was 19 percent below the league average, although he led the American League with 35 stolen bases (in 44 attempts) and hit 13 home runs.
Latest on Conforto
Some of the teams considering free-agent outfielder Michael Conforto are concerned about his ability to throw at full strength, citing the surgery he underwent on his right shoulder last April. If Conforto requires time at designated hitter, he might be less attractive to clubs that want more of a full-time outfielder.
Boras, however, said Conforto is throwing at 150 feet, putting him ahead of players who are just starting to get ready for the season. The Rangers, seeking an impact bat in left field, are among the teams with interest, along with the Mets and Blue Jays, major-league sources said.
Another left-handed hitting option for those clubs: David Peralta, who at 35 is more than 5 1/2 years older than Conforto but remains an above-average hitter with a reputation as a winning player.
In general, left-handed hitting outfielders are in less plentiful supply than in the past. Outside of Juan Soto, Peralta and Andrew Benintendi were the best ones traded at the deadline. One executive speculated that the shortage contributed to the Red Sox giving Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida $90 million.
Around the horn
• Padres general manager AJ Preller acknowledged he has received trade inquiries on infielder Kim Ha-Seong and center fielder Trent Grisham since the team’s addition of free-agent shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Preller, however, does not sound inclined to make a move.
“With the Bogaerts signing, our intention is to play this position group together,” Preller said. “We like the flexibility and the versatility it gives our team.”
• The Rangers, like the Orioles, boast a surplus of infield prospects, giving them the ability to trade for veteran help at the deadline, if not sooner.
Ezequiel Durán, one of the infielders they acquired from the Yankees in the Joey Gallo trade, is playing a good amount of outfield in the Dominican winter league. Josh Smith, another player in the Gallo trade, could develop into a super-utility type, the Rangers’ version of Chris Taylor.
Also in the system: Second baseman Justin Foscue, 23, the 14th pick in the 2020 draft out of Mississippi State, and Luisangel Acuña, 20, the younger brother of Ronald Acuña Jr. According to MLB.com, Foscue and Luisangel Acuña are the team’s Nos. 5 and 7 prospects, respectively.
• The Brewers sent outfielder Esteury Ruiz to the A’s so they could access William Contreras from the Braves in the three-team Murphy trade. It would not be a surprise to see them move another young outfielder for pitching.
Four of the Brewers’ top five prospects in MLB.com’s rankings are outfielders. Topping the list is Jackson Chourio, an 18-year-old out of Venezuela who is almost certainly untouchable. Right behind him is Sal Frelick, the 15th pick in the 2021 draft and another player the Brewers are unlikely to move.
Interested teams might have a better shot at the Nos. 3 and 5 players on the Brewers’ list: Joey Wiemer, a fourth-rounder out of the University of Cincinnati in 2020, or Garrett Mitchell, the 20th pick that same year.
• And finally, the Diamondbacks are seeking a right-handed hitting infielder in trade discussions involving their left-handed hitting center fielders. They also have been in the mix for a free agent who would fit their desired profile, Brandon Drury.
As always, one phone call could change everything. But no trade is expected before the new year.
(Top photo of JD Martinez: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)