Winter Meetings preview: Ohtani, trades, Hader & more

December 4th, 2023

Music City welcomes the baseball world to town this week for the annual Winter Meetings, but which teams -- and which players -- will have something to sing about by the time everybody leaves the Gaylord Opryland Resort on Thursday?

Rumors will buzz throughout the lobby -- well, multiple lobbies, to be exact -- as some of the top free agents seek deals for 2024 and beyond. The same goes with the trade market, which features a number of All-Stars who could be trading in their current uniforms for new ones by Opening Day.

Here are six storylines to watch as the Winter Meetings get underway in Nashville.

1. Is it finally Sho Time?
It’s been a month since free agency began, and although Shohei Ohtani is the centerpiece of the 2023-24 offseason, we know remarkably little about his free agency.

Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo, have been keeping their business private, causing nothing more than speculation and conjecture about where the two-time American League MVP could be headed.

The Dodgers are still considered to be the favorites to land Ohtani, though the Giants are believed to be serious about signing him, too. Then there are the two wild cards that have started to get some serious buzz: the Cubs and Blue Jays. We still have no idea whether Ohtani is open to a move away from the West Coast, but if he is, those two clubs appear set to take their best shot.

Will Ohtani sign during the Winter Meetings? It’s quite possible, especially if he’s narrowed his choices down to two or three clubs. The rest of the market certainly hopes so; once Ohtani signs, it should open the floodgates for a number of other free agents to do the same.

2. The “forgotten” position players
As of this weekend, the biggest free-agent signings this winter have been pitchers, with Aaron Nola (7 years, $172 million), Sonny Gray (3 years, $75 million), Nick Martinez (2 years, $24 million) and Kenta Maeda (2 years, $24 million) leading the way.

There have also been a number of one-year deals for starters Luis Severino ($13 million), Kyle Gibson ($13 million) and Lance Lynn ($11 million).

Do you know what there haven’t been? Many deals for hitters.

The largest contract handed to a position player as the Meetings begin is Jason Heyward’s one-year, $9 million deal to return to the Dodgers. After that, it’s Joey Wendle ($2 million), Garrett Hampson ($2 million) and Paul DeJong ($1.8 million).

What about Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Jorge Soler and Rhys Hoskins? This year’s market might not have the same flair as the shortstop-heavy classes we’ve seen the past two years, but there are still some impact bats available for hire.

It’s possible that some clubs -- and some free agents, for that matter -- are simply waiting for the Ohtani domino to fall before turning their attention toward the rest of the market. The clubs that swing and miss in their efforts to land Ohtani will have to pivot elsewhere to add offense, leaving the rest of the class in position to capitalize.

3. Soto to the Bronx?
While the position-player market has been quiet on the free-agent front, the trade market -- well, one in particular -- has been gaining some traction.

The Friars are expected to move Juan Soto this winter, possibly as early as this week. Despite reports that the Yankees and Padres remain far apart in their talks, New York is still considered a solid favorite to acquire the two-time All-Star, whose left-handed bat would be the perfect tonic for the Yanks’ lineup.

San Diego is said to be seeking young, Major League-ready pitching in return, so this won’t be the type of prospect-laden deal that landed Soto with the Padres during the summer of 2022. The Yankees could center a package around either Michael King or Clarke Schmidt along with top pitching prospect Drew Thorpe, which could be the type of trade to entice Padres GM A.J. Preller to pull the trigger.

Other clubs -- including the Blue Jays -- remain engaged on Soto, as well, but if he’s going to be traded this week, it’s starting to feel like it’s the Yankees or bust.

4. The big names from Asia
Yoshinobu Yamamoto is the most intriguing free agent this winter not named Ohtani, as the Japanese ace is expected to command a deal worth well north of $200 million.

The Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers are among the teams believed to be targeting Yamamoto, though most people inside the industry believe it could very well come down to an old-fashioned bidding war between the two New York clubs. That’s not to say the Dodgers can’t get involved in such a war, but if they’re going to spend what it will take to sign Ohtani, it remains to be seen whether Los Angeles will also be prepared to shell out big bucks for Yamamoto.

Two other Japanese pitchers -- starter Shōta Imanaga and reliever Yuki Matsui -- are also commanding attention from multiple teams, as is Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee.

5. Multiple ace pitchers could be dealt
Soto isn’t the only player on the trade block making headlines this winter, as four big-name pitchers -- Tyler Glasnow, Dylan Cease, Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber -- are all believed to be available at the right price.

Glasnow is the most likely of the quartet to be traded, as his $25 million salary is very high for a typically low-budget Rays team. Multiple executives have said they “definitely” expect Glasnow to be dealt, while Burnes (who could be dealt as part of a package with shortstop Willy Adames) and Cease are also likely trade candidates.

Bieber is the most complicated of the bunch thanks to an elbow injury that kept him off the mound from July 9 through Sept. 22 last season. Cleveland needs to add an impact bat or two, so dealing Bieber might be the best way to accomplish that goal.

6. Hader could set a new reliever standard
Aside from a handful of deals, the bullpen market hasn’t been very active to this point, though that could change this week in Nashville.

The biggest deals for relievers this winter have been Reynaldo López (3 years, $30 million), Joe Jiménez (3 years, $26 million) and Emilio Pagán (2 years, $16 million), but those three contracts won’t add up to the total expected to be handed out to the top reliever on the market: Josh Hader.

It will likely cost more than $100 million over five years to sign the All-Star closer, who is looking to eclipse Edwin Díaz’s relief-record five-year, $102 million deal from last offseason.

Other relievers attracting significant interest include Robert Stephenson, Jordan Hicks and Hector Neris. Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and David Robertson are also available, which could intrigue clubs looking for a proven, veteran closer on a short-term deal.