Free agency gets all the headlines this time of year in Major League Baseball, but a dreadful crop of talent for all 30 teams to choose from should boost interest and activity in the trade market over the winter. 

The end of November is often the calm before the storm, as MLB players and executives are making their final preparations for the winter meetings that will begin on Dec. 4. 

That is the key date to focus on for when a deluge of trades is likely to happen. Teams already have a strong idea of what their payroll will be for 2017 and how much they have to spend, though trades are more complex because they require teams to give up assets and money in order to improve. 

Given what the trade market could bring this hot-stove season, here are the hottest rumors two weeks away from the winter meetings. 


McCutchen’s Market

Coming off the worst season of his career, Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen finds himself at a crossroads. He’s only 30 years old and finished in the top five of National League MVP voting each year from 2012-15, so there is reason to be optimistic about a turnaround next season.

Other teams are aware of this, which is why they have called the Pirates about McCutchen. 

MLB Network’s Jon Morosi reported the Seattle Mariners inquired about McCutchen earlier this offseason, but whatever talks the two sides had did not advance. 

The Pirates may not be able to wait around for McCutchen to figure things out in 2017. His salary will be $14 million, per Spotrac, which is a manageable figure for most teams. 

Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Pirates’ payroll has exceeded $90 million the previous two seasons and their obligations for next season when factoring in estimated arbitration salaries. They also have to supplement the roster with free agents. 

The Pirates are a small-market team, so having one player eating up a significant portion of the payroll severely limits what they are capable of adding around him. They also have a nearly ready center field prospect in Austin Meadows, who ended this season in Triple-A.’s Keith Law highlighted another reason it could be enticing for the Pirates to move McCutchen now:

Trading McCutchen, as painful as it might be, could be a big retooling move for the Pirates, who still have a strong farm system and could use Cutch to keep the team competitive without having to go through a few losing seasons first. There should be 20 clubs lined up to make offers, as anyone could take him and put him in left field, where I expect his defense to be plus and his offense, at pre-2016 levels, to still make him an above-average or better regular.

McCutchen hit .256/.336/.430 with a career-high 143 strikeouts in 598 at-bats. His defense fell off a cliff, with FanGraphs’ defensive runs saved noting he cost the Pirates 28 runs in center field. 

There is an injury explanation for McCutchen’s offensive performance. He had a right thumb issue that flared up in May and June, and any issue with the hand is going to impact bat speed and power. 

The defensive fall is more worrisome since it could be an indication McCutchen is losing a step now that he’s reached 30. 

If the thumb issue is a problem in the rearview mirror, McCutchen’s offense should at least approach his 2012-15 levels and make his $14 million salary a relative bargain. He’s exponentially more valuable if he can play center, as opposed to moving to a corner, but the bat will play anywhere. 

The Pirates certainly don’t want to trade McCutchen because of how important he’s been to the franchise, but they also can’t afford to hang onto him one year too long when his market could completely collapse if he has another down season. 

The Mariners may be the most recent team linked to McCutchen, but when the winter meetings begin, any team that might think it needs an outfielder should be calling the Pirates to see how serious they are about engaging in trade talks. 


The Kinsler Complication

The Detroit Tigers could be at the epicenter of trade discussions this offseason. General manager Al Avila said in October the team has been operating “way above its means for some time,” per’s Jason Beck

Owner Mike Ilitch has been willing to spend freely for the last five years in hopes of bringing Detroit a World Series title, but that strategy has limitations. The Tigers are now saddled with a lot of large multiyear contracts for players well into their 30s. 

Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander are still terrific players. However, they are almost impossible to move because they will make a combined $172 million through 2019, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, and Cabrera is signed through 2023 (excluding option years), when he will be 40 years old. 

Ian Kinsler becomes one of the most valuable trade chips for the Tigers because he’s still a star player who is signed to a modest deal that pays him $11 million in 2017 with a $10 million team option for 2018, per Spotrac

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported the Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers have had talks regarding Kinsler. 

Things would not be as simple as merely agreeing on pieces being moved if the two sides were to strike a deal.

Rosenthal noted Kinsler has a limited no-trade clause with 10 teams on the list, including the Dodgers. Kinsler’s agent, Jay Franklin, told Rosenthal his client would be open to agreeing to a deal under one condition.

“If one of the 10 teams happens to call and wants to talk about it, we’re open to talking about it,” Franklin said. “(But) they’re going to have to extend him for us to waive the no-trade.”

The problem with extending Kinsler is he will turn 35 in June. He’s coming off a strong 2016 in which he hit .288/.348/.484 with 28 homers and won his first Gold Glove. 

As a result of that success, Kinsler could and should be seeking a multiyear extension. But how many more years can he realistically be expected to have anywhere near that kind of production?

The Dodgers would be a perfect fit because they need a second baseman with Chase Utley being a free agent, and they certainly have the money to do whatever they want. Yet this front office, led by Andrew Friedman, let Zack Greinke walk last winter after he had a 1.66 ERA in 2015. 


Wacha’s Last Stand

When Michael Wacha burst onto the scene in 2013, the natural assumption was he would be the St. Louis Cardinals’ No. 2 starter and heir apparent to Adam Wainwright as the ace. 

Three years later, Wacha’s career has been a disappointment due to a series of injuries that have hindered his performance. 

Perhaps as an indication the Cardinals don’t want to wait around for Wacha to regain his 2013 form, Rosenthal reported the team has “floated” his name around in trade discussions. 

However, Rosenthal added “it’s unlikely they would get much for a pitcher who has a history of shoulder trouble.”

Last year was rock-bottom for Wacha. He had a 5.09 ERA with 159 hits allowed in 138 innings over 27 appearances (24 starts). He missed one month from Aug. 8 through Sept. 14 with a shoulder issue. 

Per’s Jenifer Langosch, Wacha and the Cardinals doctors worked together to develop a new rehab strategy to get him healthy. The results didn’t show upon his return, as he allowed 13 earned runs in 6.2 innings. 

One advantage Wacha has for any team potentially interested is age. He’s only 25 years old and under team control through 2019. His struggles last season will help keep his arbitration salary down next season, with Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors estimating he will make $3.2 million. 

Wacha is just one year removed from making 30 starts with a 3.38 ERA and posting a career-high 2.3 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.

He may never be the pitcher who looked like an ace and carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of his first playoff start in 2013, but a low-cost starting pitcher is the most valuable commodity in baseball. 

The Cardinals are smart to dangle Wacha out there to see if any market develops. If it does, they can deal him without hesitation. If it doesn’t, they will do everything in their power to make sure he starts 30 games once again.

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