SAN DIEGO — Credit baseball’s top mandarins with finding a magnificent backdrop this year for its annual swap meet, trade show and rumor festival.
The Winter Meetings.
The Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, the headquarters hotel, is sufficiently spacious to accommodate the mingling of scouts and front-office officials, the swell of player agents and an accompanying crush of media.
And if not, conversations can shift to a stroll along San Diego Bay right outside the hotel’s door. And a detour to the Gaslamp Quarter takes less time than Fernando Rodney requires between pitches.
Officially, the meetings start Monday, but many participants are already in town. The sessions conclude Thursday morning with the Rule 5 Draft, which permits clubs to claim unprotected players from other organizations.
It might be a newsy three-plus days.
Several marquee free agents are already off the board, including outfielder Nelson Cruz, the reigning home run champion whom the Mariners signed Thursday to a four-year deal for $57 million.
Cruz’s deal and others effectively set the market price for this off-season’s talent pool. Once that happens, things tend to heat up — and quickly.
“There’s always this domino effect,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “When someone makes a move, it gets the ball rolling.”
The looming holidays also have an impact.
“You try to fight against that,” one agent noted, “because, sometimes, you’re better off if you wait. But most players want to have things settled before Christmas.”
Rumors will be rampant, but here are five things to watch:
THE LESTER SWEEPSTAKES
Several top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers remain on the board, but lefty Jon Lester — he of the Bellarmine Prep pedigree — appears closest to a deal. Therefore, he will set that market price.
Lester, 30, figures to cash in big.
The Chicago Cubs, in desperate need of rotation point man, are believed to have offered six years at $135 million for the nine-year veteran who was 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA last season for Boston and Oakland.
That was before the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the game’s biggest payroll, jumped into the competition. If the Dodgers are serious — and there’s no reason to believe they aren’t — they likely won’t be outbid.
The Red Sox are trying to coax Lester back to New England, and he appears open to the possibility. San Francisco is also showing interest but likely lacks the financial muscle of the other three clubs.
Once Lester signs, attention will turn to two other free-agent arms: Max Scherzer and James Shields. Industry analysts say Scherzer could get more than Lester, while Shields likely will get somewhat less.
Any Lester deal will also set a benchmark for second-tier possibilities such as Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano and Jake Peavy.
THINNING DODGERS OUTFIELD
The Dodgers are overloaded with outfielders, including some with substantial salaries in line for decreasing playing time.
So bank on this: The Dodgers will move at least one outfielder.
They say they won’t trade Yasiel Puig or top prospect Joc Pederson, and they’d prefer to hold onto Scott Van Slyke.
That could change, of course, but LA’s preference is to unload either Andre Ethier (three more years at $56 million) or Carl Crawford (three years, $62.5 million).
The problem is they’re finding few (if any) takers on Ethier or Crawford.
That leaves Matt Kemp (five years, $107 million). Several clubs, including the Mariners, are interested because the Dodgers appear willing to eat some of Kemp’s salary in proportion to the talent they receive in return.
The Mariners’ primary competitors, at this point, appear to be San Diego and Baltimore. Others could jump in, though, because there are few impact bats available.
OTHER OUTFIELD BATS
Cruz’s deal with the Mariners positions switch-hitter Melky Cabrera as the top remaining free-agent outfielder — and, yes, the Mariners are interested in him, too.
After Cabrera, the field narrows to players such as Michael Morse, Alex Rios and Colby Rasmus.
There are, however, two high-profile outfield bats on the trade market as one-year rentals: Justin Upton in Atlanta, and Yoenis Cespedes in Boston. Both will be free agents after next season.
Both are very available, but the current asking price on both is substantial.
The Braves and Red Sox each seem content, for now, to play a waiting game in hopes that some club, in desperate need of an impact bat, will surrender more than it should once the crowd of alternatives dwindles.
WATCHING THE EASTERN AXIS
The meetings often seem to turn, like so many things in baseball (like it or not), on the activities of the two American League East monoliths: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
That could easily happen again because both clubs are in flux.
The Yankees landed their replacement for shortstop icon Derek Jeter in a three-team deal Friday that netted Didi Gregorius from Arizona, but their roster still needs work after missing postseason in back-to-back seasons.
The Red Sox responded to a last-place finish by signing free-agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to big-money deals, but their rotation isn’t close to contender status.
Even if Lester turns into a prodigal, the Red Sox probably need to find at least one more impact starter. Cespedes is already being shopped. Mike Napoli, Allen Craig and perhaps Shane Victorino might be available.
AND THE MARINERS…
Zduriencik has one major item left on his off-season list after signing Cruz and bolstering the club’s rotation by acquiring veteran lefty J.A. Happ from Toronto for outfielder Michael Saunders.
The Mariners are seeking a run-production right fielder who is either a switch-hitter or who bats right-handed. The two best fits, seemingly, are Kemp and Cabrera.
The Mariners were close to a deal to land Kemp before the Dodgers, on reflection, insisted that either Taijuan Walker or James Paxton be included in the swap.
Since the Mariners backed off when, at that point, they hadn’t yet signed Cruz, they seem less likely now to buckle. That suggests a deal could hinge on what offers the Dodgers get from other clubs.
Cabrera previously indicated a preference to play for an eastern club, but he now seems willing to look west if he can secure a desired five-year contract.
Are the Mariners willing to offer five years and, presumably, $50 million or more? Is any club? Stay tuned. The Winter Meetings are about to get started.