MLB Winter Meetings: Shohei Ohtani rumors, Juan Soto trade destination come to forefront

The anticipation level is high heading into baseball’s annual Winter Meetings, which are being held in Nashville — a future expansion site? — this year. 

Lots of teams had long to-do lists heading into the offseason, and only a couple have started to check off boxes. The Phillies kept co-ace Aaron Nola in Philly. The Cardinals have already added three starting pitchers, though two are on one-year deals and all three significantly raised the average age of the roster (hard to do, considering 41-year-old Adam Wainwright retired after the season). 

For everybody else, though, there’s work to be done. For some teams, there are dominoes that need to fall before they’re ready to move forward. The biggest one is Shohei Ohtani, the generational talent who is a free agent for the first time and absolutely will set the record for the biggest contract in MLB history. 

Should be a fun week. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines. 

MORE: Looking at six potential MLB expansion cities

Everybody wants Shohei Ohtani

A few weeks ago, reports surfaced that Ohtani and his camp preferred to keep negotiations private, and that any leaks would be held against the team in the decision-making process. Seems that the interested franchises have taken that to heart, because there has been a noticeable lack of fodder for the rumor mill, considering Ohtani is the biggest free agent in MLB history and literally everybody who has even a tiny interest in baseball is dying to know what he might decide. 

So far, it’s been quiet.

Maybe that will change at the Winter Meetings. Hopefully. The early reports were that Ohtani wanted to be done with the process sooner than later, and that might make his decision by early December, and, well, that time is now. Every team in the running would love for Ohtani to decide during the meetings, because even if he signs elsewhere, at least they’ll know and be able to spend the money potentially allocated for Ohtani on other free agents. 

Fingers crossed. The Dodgers are still seen as the favorites, with the Cubs and Rangers not far behind. In the next group, you have the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Giants, Mets, Mariners, Braves, Phillies and maybe Padres. I mean, at least that’s the speculation, which is what we’re left with considering the lack of news being leaked by either the player or the teams.

MORE: Tracking the latest Shohei Ohtani developments

Yamamoto or bust?

Now that two of the “premium” free-agent starting pitchers have signed — Aaron Nola, back with the Phillies, and Sonny Gray signing with the Cardinals — there’s a mild sense of panic starting to set in for a few fan bases. The Braves, for example, were reportedly right in the mix for both Nola and Gray. The Red Sox could have really used either one. Same with the Rangers, the Dodgers, the Cubs, both New York teams and the Giants. 

The front office types for those franchises might not be at the panic stage quite yet, but they’re certainly feeling the pressure. All this does it drive up Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s price. He’s the biggest prize of the starting pitching market, a legit ace coming over from dominating performances in Japan — his career ERA is 1.72 in seven seasons, including a 1.16 ERA in 2023 — who is just 25 years old. He’s pretty much the dream. 

The right-hander officially was posted on Nov. 20, meaning he’s free to negotiate with teams during a 45-day window. He’s not expected to rush into a decision, but chances are he won’t need all 45 days to make his choice. He’s reportedly started Zoom meetings from Japan with interested teams, and then the process will move forward.

It’s not likely that he’ll sign during the Winter Meetings — not impossible, though — but expect to hear a lot of talk, especially connecting him to the Giants and Red Sox, two teams with a lot of money to spend and a lot of need near the top of their rotation.

MORE: Potential destinations for Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto

What about the “other” free-agent starting pitchers? 

In reality, there are a healthy number of impact-type starting pitchers still available on the free-agent board. Not enough for everybody to fill out their rotations, but enough to give aggressive teams some relief. 

Let’s take a quick look at the best starters out there. Wouldn’t be surprised at all to see at least half of these guys sign before the end of the Winter Meetings, or soon after. 

1. Yoshinobu Yamamoto (25 years old on Opening Day)
Wouldn’t surprise anyone if he got a deal north of $200 million, maybe way north if a couple of desperate teams dig deep into their pockets. 

2. Jordan Montgomery, 31
He’s Mr. Reliable during the regular season and Mr. Electric in the postseason. What more can you ask from a starter? 

3. Blake Snell, 31
Winning a Cy Young — the second of the career — is a nice way to enter the free-agent market. 

MORE: Where Blake Snell might land this offseason

4. Eduardo Rodriguez, 31
He’s not gotten nearly as much hype as some of the other starters, but he belongs in this top group. Might stay in Detroit, but lots of teams would love to sign him. 

5. Marcus Stroman, 32
Opted out of his Cubs deal, which was mildly surprising considering how much time he spent on the IL in 2023. Was great before the injury, though. 

6. Shota Imanaga, 30 
His numbers in Japan weren’t Yamamoto-like, but he’d be a great back-of-the-rotation pitcher for a playoff contender. 

7. Trevor Bauer, 32
Genuinely curious to see what happens with Bauer this offseason. 

8. Lucas Giolito, 29
No free-agent-to-be tanked his value in the second half of the year quite like Giolito, who was really good with the White Sox, then a disaster with the Angels and Guardians. Most years, he might have to sign a one-year deal to reestablish value, but with so many teams needing starting pitching, it’s possible he could still get a 3- or 4-year contract. 

9. Michael Wacha, 32
Wacha has steadied a career that seemed to be heading in the wrong direction — he had a combined 5.11 ERA for three teams from 2019-21 — with back-to-back outstanding seasons with the Red Sox and Padres, posting a 3.27 ERA in 47 starts in 2022-23. His teams were 32-15 in those starts.

10. Seth Lugo, 34
In his first full season as a starter since 2017, Lugo posted a 3.57 ERA in 26 starts, then opted out of his contract with the Padres. Could make for a nice two-year (three?) contract for a contender. 

11. Hyun-Jin Ryu, 37
At 37, he’s mostly a five-inning pitcher and probably looking at one-year deals, but Ryu was pretty solid in his 11 starts coming off the IL last year, posting a 3.46 ERA for the Jays.

12. Frankie Montas, 31
Montas worked hard to get back from shoulder surgery, making one appearance for the Yankees at the end of September. Whatever contract he winds up signing will either be short or have at least one opt-out. 

13. Jack Flaherty, 28
Injuries have halted his development after he finished fourth in the 2019 Cy Young vote, but he did stay mostly healthy in 2023. He was finally hitting his stride in July (3.03 ERA that month) before the trade to Baltimore, but he was lit up in his 34 2/3 innings (6.75 ERA). He’s only 28, so seems likely he’ll sign a short-term deal to reestablish his value. 

14. Wade Miley, 36
A total of 105 pitchers have made at least 55 starts over the past three seasons. Miley’s ERA in that span (3.26 in 59 starts plus one relief appearance) ranks 20th of those 105. The crafty veteran lefty seems destined for a Jamie Moyer-type extended career, if that’s what he wants. 

The Juan Soto watch

The Padres are intent on cutting salary, and even though they love having Juan Soto in their lineup — who wouldn’t? — his $30-plus million salary (exact number TBD heading toward the arbitration deadline) and looming free agency make a trade of the young superstar appear pretty imminent. Even though the Padres won’t get back as much as they sent to the Nationals when they traded for Soto, the return still will be strong.

A lot of the same teams in the market for Ohtani would be interested in Soto, too — the Cubs, Giants, Rangers, the Yankees, etc. The element that’s different from Ohtani, of course, is that Soto’s a free agent after the season, and has given every indication that he intends to get to that point without signing an extension. 

With that in mind, don’t overlook teams that might just view Soto as a one-year rental, with zero intentions of even offering an extension. That group includes possibly the Rays, Phillies, Braves, Blue Jays and maybe even Cardinals. 

Regardless, expect Soto discussion to dominate during the Winter Meetings. 

C’mon, do something … 

As always, some teams are facing more pressure than others. 

Will the Giants ever get their new “face of the franchise” or swing and miss again, like they did with Aaron Judge? Can the Yankees fix their plethora of problems with a series of moves? Will David Stearns make an impact move of two early in his time as the Mets’ chief decision-maker.

Can the Red Sox land an ace or two to give their rotation a much-needed jolt? The Cubs can’t possibly go the whole offseason with poaching a manager from a rival club as their biggest move, right? Are the Dodgers just going to sit there? It’s about time for these teams to make something happen. 

Source : ESPN.com

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