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5 Things to Watch During MLB Winter Meetings

Johnny Cueto

Johnny Cueto

The pitching market has been on the front burner so far during the MLB Hot Stove season. David Price signed a seven-year, $217 million ($31 million AAV) deal to be the ace of the last-place Boston Red Sox, only to see his deal be one-upped by Zack Greinke’s six-year, $206 million ($34 million AAV) contract with the — surprise! — Arizona Diamondbacks.

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Former Nationals’ pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman, set the market earlier when he signed a five-year deal worth $110 million with the Detroit Tigers. Meanwhile, the Cubs shored up their rotation by signing veteran righthander John Lackey, and the Giants, fresh off a failed attempt to land Greinke, overpayed for Jeff Samardzija to the tune of $90 million over five seasons. Eighteen million per year seems like a rather lofty risk for a pitcher with a career 4.03 ERA and 4.23 FIP — but that also is an indication of the premium contenders are willing to put on starting pitching.

With the MLB Winter Meetings commencing this week in Nashville and record contracts already being inked, its safe to say we are in for a wild ride. Buckle up.

Here are five things to keep an eye on in the Music City this week.

1. Where will Johnny Cueto land?

The assortment of mega-pitching deals mean one thing: Johnny Cueto is going to get paid. Cueto reportedly turned down a deal from the Diamondbacks worth $120 million, and the gamble will probably pay off. Cueto is now the most desired pitcher on the market, bar none.

This past season was the first in five that Cueto’s ERA topped 3.00. After posting a 3.64 ERA for Cincinnati in 2010, he followed that up wtih 2.31 ERA and 9-5 record in 24 starts. From 2011-14 Cueto averaged 13 wins and a 2.48 ERA in 102 total starts, while finishing among the top four in voting for the NL Cy Young Award twice (2012, '14). Cueto doesn't turn 30 until February and there's no reason to think he can't be a top-of-the-rotation starter.

After missing out on Greinke, the Dodgers have to be considered among the teams that at least would be willing to pay for Cueto’s services. According to reports from his agent, Cueto is in no hurry to sign a deal this week. Cueto’s lack of urgency could be a golden opportunity for fellow free agent pitcher Mike Leake to step in and sign a bigger deal that perhaps originally expected with a contender.

2. Speaking of the Dodgers...

What are they doing exactly? First, reports indicated that the Dodgers offered Greinke in the neighborhood of $155 million, or about $60 million less than their NL West rivals, the Diamondacks. That gap also is roughly the salary of Cuban defector Hector Olivera, who never played an inning for Los Angeles as he was part of the the three-team trade with the Braves and Marlins that brought Alex Wood, Jose Peraza, Mat Latos, Mike Morse and others to the Dodgers around the deadline. Latos (released) and Morse (traded) didn't even finish the season with the Dodgers.

Second, the Dodgers re-signed second baseman Chase Utley to a one year deal. Yes, you read that correctly. Utley, the same 38-year0old that had a grand total of nine base hits in 141 plate appearances as a Dodger last season is being brought back. Utley’s one-year contract is simply another head-scratcher for a Dodgers’ front office that has been oddly consistent in bad deals over the past year. Missing Dee Gordon yet?

So now, the Dodgers find themselves in a conundrum. The Diamondbacks have gotten significantly better and the Giants have reloaded. Los Angeles has reportedly agreed to terms with free agent and former Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma. But Iwakuma is 34 and has made 30 starts in a season just once. Last season, the Japanese import tossed a no-hitter on Aug. 12, but overall he went 9-5 witha  3.54 ERA in 20 starts as he missed more than two months with a lat injury. While Iwakuma solidifies the Dodger rotation a little bit, Los Angeles is still without a legitimate No. 2 pitcher to complement Clayton Kershaw, especially while starters Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu recover from major injuries. 

More rumblings are being heard about a possible deal with the Reds for flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman or possibly the Marlins' young ace Jose Fernandez. Chapman would certainly help a bullpen that has proven to be the Achilles heel for several seasons now. The Reds are asking for top prospects for Chapman as they look to rebuild, a price that may be too high for Dodgers’ President Andrew Friedman. And certainly Fernandez, who is just 23 and is under team control for three more years before being eligible in free agency in 2019, would command a high return for Miami as well.

But whether it's bolstering the bullpen or rebuilding the rotation, neither will help fill the holes that exist elsewhere on the current roster that new Dodgers manager Dave Roberts inherits. For example, if there is a ball hit to second base, I’m not sure who is going to field it — unless it’s Chase Utley since last season's starter, Howie Kendrick, is a free agent. Also, the Dodger outfield currently stands as Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig, a quartet that didn't exactly get the job done in 2015.

Pederson is the future and isn’t going anywhere. But between Ethier and Crawford the Dodgers owe about $40 million in salary for 2015. Ethier had a bounce-back year in ’15 and could be trade bait to unload salary. Crawford’s lack of production and remaining $43 million contract are dead weight and are trying to be shopped. Puig is more affordable, but his injury-plagued, antic-filled seasons are becoming tiring in Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers may wait and see if Roberts can have a positive impact on Puig, but don't be surprised if “The Wild Horse” finds a new home by the end of the week.

In summary: The Dodgers need rotation help, bullpen bolstering, contracts eradicated, and an increase in offense. Piece of cake.

3. Cubs Conundrum: Trade Baez or Castro?

The Cubs have several different avenues that they can take. First, they need an outfielder and a leadoff hitter and perhaps another starter. Some have suggested that Javier Baez can make the jump from middle infield to centerfield, but its probably a long shot. What is more plausible is to trade long-time shortstop Starlin Castro in order to free up space for a free agent outfielder — perhaps Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon. If Theo Epstein and Co. decide to move Baez, it will likely be for another starter, perhaps Tyson Ross from San Diego or Atlanta’s Shelby Miller.

4. Outfielders Delight

Some major contenders are in desperate need of outfield help and there are plenty of outfield options available. Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Dexter Fowler are all top-tier outfielders looking for big deals this offseason — and each of them is likely to get one.

In the National League, the Mets, Cubs, and Cardinals are the leading contenders for most of those names if the price is right. In the AL, the Angels, Mariners, and Rangers could all be buyers in the outfield market.

With the money that has already been spent on pitchers, it will be intriguing to see what the market will be for outfielders with offensive pop. Since so many contenders are in need of outfield help, I wouldn't be surprised to see a series of smaller deals go down to clear up space for a big name free agent.

5. Blockbusters

Who will it be? Could it be a young ace like Chris Sale or Jose Fernandez? Maybe. Could it be a hot-shot prospect, the cherry on top of the deal, that sends an All-Star to a new city? Perhaps.

Last year, Yoenis Cespedes, Mat Latos, Rick Porcello, Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon and Jimmy Rollins were all traded in deals concocted at the Winter Meetings. This year, more big names are rumored to be on the block. Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Shelby Miller, Freddie Freeman, Sonny Gray and Yasiel Puig have all be discussed as available to some degree.

If any of these names move, the shift of power in the baseball world could be seismic. The 2015 MLB Winter Meetings is shaping up to be one of the more exciting in recent memory.

— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.