winter meetings

Traffic jam for free agents starts in Texas as Yanks and Red Sox scramble

NASHVILLE — The Globe and Mail

Texas Rangers batter Josh Hamilton hits a two-run home run in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles during their American League game in Baltimore, Maryland, May 8, 2012. (© Patrick Smith / Reuters/REUTERS)

This is turning into some kind of off-season.

The best pitcher on the market, Zack Greinke, and the best hitter, Josh Hamilton, have at best shown limited interest in market-drivers such as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

It is in fact the Texas Rangers who are dictating the market, holding up Hamilton’s decision while positioning themselves to add Greinke or Justin Upton in the event Hamilton goes elsewhere. They have also been aggressively pursuing R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets in the event the Los Angeles Dodgers back up the truck to sign Greinke.

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This week didn’t didn’t change the perception that this is not your father’s American League East any more. Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos left the winter meetings on Thursday morning with only third-string catcher Eli Whiteside to show for three days at the Opryland Hotel, but the static nature of the player market showed he was wise to jump in early with that 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins – and getting free agent Melky Cabrera for two years at $8-million (all currency U.S.) a season looks like a steal in a market in which Shane Victorino can get $39-million and three years.

Here’s a recap of the status of their division brethren:

Tampa Bay Rays

Trading for Yunel Escobar and signing James Loney to play first base is little more than a measured improvement, although Ben Zobrist’s willingness to accept a move off shortstop to make way for Escobar will give the Rays a solid defensive infield. But this is a team that didn’t score enough runs in 2012, and lost B.J. Upton to free agency.

The Rays are loaded with starting pitching and once Greinke falls off the market they may find themselves with more options. If the season started today, there wouldn’t be any reason not to consider the Rays the prohibitive favourite to win the East.

Boston Red Sox

This winter is an imperfect storm for the Red Sox, who are flush with cash after dumping Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford on the Los Angeles Dodgers, but there’s not much to spend it on. They’ve jumped aboard the ‘no long-term contracts’ bandwagon in a big way, adding physically flawed free agents such as Mike Napoli and Victorino and modest talents such as Jonny Gomes.

Also unsettling is the fact that outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is one year away from free agency and is represented by Scott Boras, who is not a fan of contract extensions for clients so close to free agency.

In hindsight, GM Ben Cherington blew it by trading Gonzalez. Red Sox Nation does not sleep well these days.

New York Yankees

A Wall Street Journal report and comments from agent Scott Boras have created the perception that general manager Brian Cashman can’t spend a penny without authorization from ownership; that even his one-year, $12-million offer to Kevin Youkilis necessitated a phone call to Hal Steinbrenner.

Alex Rodriguez is out for at least six months with a torn hip labrum, the Yankees have no returning catcher or right fielder and would be wise to sign Robinson Cano to an extension this year to avoid having him become the most lucrative free agent next winter. So the Yankees have placed Curtis Granderson on the block and are also listening to offers for pitchers Phil Hughes (another potential free agent in 2013) and Ivan Nova.

The Yankees have said they will be under $189-million in salaries by the time the 2014 season begins, because failure to do so would increase their luxury-tax payment to 50 per cent. Getting below $189-million could theoretically save the club $50-million.

Baltimore Orioles

GM Dan Duquette quietly reached out to the Mets regarding Dickey. Duquette is even more guarded than Anthopoulos, but he has not denied an interest in Justin Morneau, and he has made a play for Nick Swisher, who is said to be less than ecstatic about staying in the AL East. If anybody in this division makes a bold move in the next two months, it will be the Orioles.

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