Free agency this year may be a little slow. The cool kids like trades.
Thankfully, we've got some cool kids in Major League front offices these days. Trades have come fast and furious in the recent winter and summer swapping seasons, and that is expected to continue all the more on a 2016-17 Hot Stove scene in which the free-agent pool is particularly shallow.
You could actually make a pretty darn good team just out of high-profile trade candidates. And that's precisely what we aim to do right here.
Catcher: Brian McCann, Yankees
The Yanks' asking price on McCann is predictably high, and they don't seem to have much interest in eating much, if any, of the $34 million guaranteed to him over the next two years (McCann also has a vesting option for 2019). Because while Gary Sanchez's breakout at backstop does seemingly assure the Yanks of a productive option behind the plate for the long-term, McCann still has value to them as a part-time catcher/part-time DH/part-time first baseman. McCann himself seemed to enjoy the respite from the daily grind of catching, and his bat responded well in the home stretch, with an .829 OPS in September.
It could be that the top free-agent options -- Matt Wieters and Jason Castro (whose market will put a tangible price tag on pitch framing) -- will have to find homes before we know how desperate a team is to give up what it would take to land McCann. But there's no denying he's a valuable, veteran piece, albeit one whose bat no longer posts numbers at his Atlanta levels and one with a full no-trade clause that he can use to veto any deal.
First base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
From the Tigers' perspective, the motivation to move a future Hall of Famer is clear: They've spent too much for too long for too little. That's not a comment on Cabrera's output, because he remains a monster as he approaches his mid-30s. But the all-in financial fixation in Motown was bound to reach a cliff, whether or not it ever reached its prescribed World Series payoff, and the cliff seems to have arrived this winter.
The question is: What team -- and realistically, what AL team -- can actually bite on such a deal, forsaking not just enormous percentages of future payrolls but the prospects the Tigers would be seeking? The Red Sox and Yankees obviously come to mind, though the latter seems intent on letting its already onerous contracts come off the books before going down a road like this. The Astros have next to nothing big on the books beyond 2017, so they could pull it off. The Rangers are an option, though "acquiring a Tigers first base/DH type who is still owed nine figures" didn't work out so well last time.
Cabrera is entering his age-34 season. Would he command a seven-year, $220 million (this is what's still owed to him) contract if he were a free agent today? Possibly. But the prospect factor ups the ante all the more and limits this market -- to the extent it exists at all -- to a select few. And there are already several sluggers available in free agency. So this one's complicated, especially as we wait to see how the next Collective Bargaining Agreement affects the luxury tax threshold.
Worth noting here that the rebuilding Reds could, conceivably, move Joey Votto. But money complicates matters there, too.
Second base: Brian Dozier, Twins
The Tigers' Ian Kinsler is another option here, but, for the sake of team variety -- and out of deference to the guy who hit 42 homers in 2016 -- let's put Dozier on our squad. Even new Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine acknowledge this isn't a great time to move Dozier, because second base just doesn't rate as a glaring position of need among the current crop of contenders. But there are exceptions (the Dodgers, for instance), and there is always the possibility of positional creativity, too. The 29-year-old Dozier, who has just $15 million owed to him over the course of 2017-18, is at the height of his trade value.
In a three-year span, Dozier has an .800 OPS, a 118 OPS+ and has averaged 4.7 WAR, so it's not like teams would be bidding solely on his '16 power surge.
Shortstop: Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
If I had no soul or moral compass, I could put Manny Machado's name here and watch O's fans get all hot and bothered. Maybe there's even a (weak) argument for that on a Baltimore team that has a payroll spiraling into unchartered territory and that thus far hasn't locked up its linchpin on the left side of the infield.
Instead, here's Peralta. He makes $10 million in 2017, the last year of his contract. He has no guaranteed position on the Cards. His bat has sagged and he only played half a season in '16.
This is the least exciting section of this column. Let's just move on.
Third base: Evan Longoria, Rays
The 2016 season brought us a return of the Longo we once knew and loved, with a career-high home run total (36) to go with his highest OPS and adjusted OPS+ marks since 2013. And you know how it is with the Rays -- guys graduate from their palatable price range. Longo isn't due some ridiculous leap, as he'll make just $2 million more in 2017 ($13 million) than he did in '16 ($11 million), but he just turned 31 and his raises keep coming through 2022. The '17 season actually marks the start of the six-year, $100 million extension he signed back in 2012, so it would be an oddly fitting time to flip him, now that he's re-established himself as a reliable power bat at a corner position.
As I wrote back in June, the Dodgers make a whole lot of sense here, depending on what happens with Justin Turner.
Left field: Ryan Braun, Brewers
Of course, here's a guy who makes even more sense for the Dodgers, if only because we know they almost acquired him in July and August of this year. Braun is owed another $76 million over the next four years, money that actually doesn't seem totally crazy even after his PED suspension in 2013. He has 74 homers, 80 doubles, an .844 OPS and a 127 OPS+ over the last three seasons. He's the only Brewers player left who is under contract beyond 2017.
Moving Braun, who turns 33 on Thursday, seems an essential element to their rebuild, and moving him now, before he reaches 10 years of service time next May and receives the right to veto any trade (the Dodgers are reportedly one of six clubs he can't currently block a deal to) seems especially worthwhile.
Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
There is a certain symmetry to following one member of that insane 2005 Draft class with another. But this is a far more complex situation than the one in Milwaukee. The Pirates obviously aren't in a clear rebuilding mode, but they are in a market -- and they do operate with a mindset -- that demands the maximization of assets. In other words, if a dude's approaching free agency and another club comes calling, the Pirates are open-minded, even if the dude in question happens to be the one star-caliber player who opted to stay and see what was a 20-year stretch of losing seasons come to an end.
But Cutch's clout -- and value -- took a sizable hit in '16. His .766 OPS was a career low. He'll be entering his age-30 season, and his $14 million salary for '17 (and $14.5 million club option for '18) is a lot bigger bargain when he's posting MVP-caliber stats.
The trade chatter surrounding McCutchen is absolutely understandable. But because prospect Austin Meadows is probably not yet ripe and because McCutchen can rebuild his value with a strong first half or '17 season, there is still reasonable doubt surrounding this one.
Right field: J.D. Martinez, Tigers
This could be a place for yet another biannual round of Carlos Gonzalez talk, but the Rockies seem to be making an earnest effort to compete in Bud Black's first year at the helm, so CarGo is no lock to be moved.
So let's circle back to those wheeling, dealing Detroiters. Yeah, they could shake up the baseball world by dealing one of the best pitchers (Justin Verlander) and best hitters (Cabrera) in franchise history, but the simple fact of the matter is that a pending free agent like Martinez, who is owed $11.75 million in his final year under the Tigers' contractual control, comes with a trade equation that is much easier to assess. And general manager Al Avila has said publicly that he doesn't foresee an extension with Martinez.
In three years with the Tigers, Martinez has gone from waiver wire fodder to a premier position among power hitters, with a .299/.357/.540 slash and 83 homers (despite missing two months of '16 with an elbow fracture). Plus, he just turned 29. (The Tigers would happily discuss moving Justin Upton, too, for the record.)
Designated hitter: Jose Abreu, White Sox
Hey, we're just having fun here, so might as well fill this position and might as well do it with a guy who doesn't grade out as an especially great defender at first base. The bottom line is that if the White Sox do go into full fire-sale mode, Abreu's name will be bandied about.
Abreu might never again reach the level he did in his rookie season of 2014 at age 27, when he had a Major League-best .581 slugging percentage to go with 36 homers and 35 doubles. But he does have a 130 OPS+ with a 28-homer, 33-double, 100-RBI average over the last two years.
Again, though, one place this free-agent market is actually pretty deep is with sluggers, especially of the DH/first base ilk.
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Chris Sale, White Sox
Jose Quintana, White Sox
Chris Archer, Rays
Sonny Gray, A's
Rich Hill will turn 37 prior to Opening Day, battled substantial blister issues in 2016 and was pitching for the Long Island Ducks just a little more than a year ago. He's probably the top arm on the starting pitching market, especially now that Jeremy Hellickson -- Jeremy Hellickson! -- accepted the $17.2 million qualifying offer from the Phillies.
It's dark out there, in other words, and that's why we throw such a spotlight on the trade market, where the above names are merely the cream of what could be an ample crop for discussion.
How likely is it that all of these five guys move? Not bloody, because that would truly qualify as the wildest of winters. And there are particularly careful considerations attached to some of these guys. Verlander will soon be 34, has thrown nearly 2,500 innings in the big leagues and comes with three years and $84 million guaranteed left on his contract. Archer and Gray both took big statistical steps back in '16, and Gray missed time with a forearm strain.
But this is a time to be opportunistic, and the principal figures in each of these front offices know they have an opportunity to take advantage of the market conditions. This is but a small sampling of the names sure to be wrung through the rumor mill. (If some team called with an offer to take on the $172.5 million still owed to Zack Greinke over the next five years, don't tell me the D-backs wouldn't listen.)
Closer: Wade Davis, Royals
The Royals are in a weird spot. Every move they've made in recent years has revolved around maximizing this competitive window, but the window sure seems to be close to closing, and they are on record as saying they can't take on any more salary. Maybe retaining the current club (sans Kendrys Morales) and hoping for bounce backs from Alex Gordon, Chris Young and Joakim Soria and better health overall will be enough. But that's assuming a lot.
What's clear is that the game values high-leverage relievers like Davis more than it ever has. Look at the packages the Yankees netted for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, and monitor the money Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon will get in this free-agent market. The Royals, who have control of Davis for just one more year (at $10 million) would be crazy not to at least consider taking advantage of this environment.
And hey, though I highly doubt it, maybe the Indians flip Miller and get back, say, 80 cents on the dollar from the prospect price they paid previously, rather than dole out roughly 10 percent of their payroll to a taxed arm (had the Indians won Game 7, I would have actually advocated for such a move). If not, there could be other trade options, such as David Robertson of the White Sox and Alex Colome of the Rays.
But Davis is the big fish here. And this trade market, in general, is going to be fun.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.