MLB’s free-agent signing period suggests less buying, more bartering this off-season

Gregg Patton looks at the options available this free-agent signing period and explains why it's slim pickings this year.

Rich Hill is the prize starter of the group, but at 37 years old, and having pitched a mere 110 innings, he has a long, inconsistent history.
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Major League Baseball’s free-agent signing period opened this week, looking much like a going-out-of-business sale.

The pickings are mighty slim: top-tier slugger Edwin Encarnacion, all-around star Yoenis Cespedes, a few attractive closers and then, mostly, dusty leftovers and chipped return items.

Only a few teams figure to find anything exciting, as they pick through one of the weakest classes of available players in recent memory.

Case in point: Rich Hill, the left-hander who spun a 2.12 earned run average for the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers this past season, is the prize starter of the group.

Hill is 37 years old, pitched a mere 110 innings and has a long, inconsistent history.

Hill also was a free agent last year, but his one-year deal with Oakland was buried in an off-season that included mega-deals for stars David Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann.

This year, Hill looks like spun gold next to fellow greybeard free agents Doug Fister and Bartolo Colon, and regressing right-handlers Jeremy Hellickson and Ivan Nova.

Hey, does anyone need a No 5 starter?

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At least the available closers are true game-changers.

The Dodgers may not let their intimidating save artist Kenley Jansen walk away, but they will have to shell out for multiple years in the US$15 million (Dh55m) per range. No discount to stay in LA.

The champion Chicago Cubs finished off the year with MLB’s hardest thrower, Aroldis Chapman, as their closer.

But he, too, is chasing the largest contract he can drum up, likely short of the $100m package he seeks.

Mark Melancon is the other available bullpen anchor.

He may not be a Jansen- or Chapman-style strikeout machine, but he has been equally effective finishing games over the past couple of seasons.

Offence is rather meagre in this market, too, with Encarnacion’s power-packed resume the exception.

It includes 42 home runs and 127 runs batted in for the Toronto Blue Jays last summer.

But he is primarily a designated hitter and that will limit his suitors.

Outfielder Cespedes was a cornerstone of the New York Mets attack with his 31 home runs and 86 RBI in spacious Citi Field.

He figures to command a four-to-five year deal, somewhere north of $100m, which may be the sum Encarnacion collects. No one else will come close.

Once-great outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jose Bautista are in their twilight, suggesting short-term deals.

Home-run specialists Mark Trumbo and Mike Napoli will find homes as role players, not as franchise-carriers.

Former elite shortstop Ian Desmond has tumbled into, potentially, a utility player.

Serviceable Matt Wieters is the top catcher.

He would have been overshadowed by Wilson Ramos, who had a breakout year for the Washington Nationals before a knee injury reduced his appeal.

Dexter Fowler had a career year as the Cubs centre fielder, suggesting a nice multi-year agreement if anyone can pry him out of comfy Chicago.

At 31 years old, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner is a late-blooming run-producer, meaning his first big-money contract will be his last big-money contract.

Few others will make news.

The paucity of supernovas may shift the focus from the free-agent market to the trade market, favouring aggressive general managers.

Trades are where the headlines might be. Aces such as Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer are reportedly being dangled.

Detroit Tigers future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera’s name has emerged as trade bait.

The new off-season theme?

Less buying, more bartering.

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