During last year’s Hall of Fame discussions, I wrote about how, despite much bigger and better names on the ballot, Bill Mueller was my own personal favourite player on the list. In a similar vein, this year’s historically stacked ballot means a number of excellent players are going to little to no attention in the voting. Reggie Sanders is one such player, who, in all likelihood  will be dropping straight off the ballot in his first year of eligibility.

Sanders may not have had a Hall of Fame calibre career, but he was a seriously good and often overlooked player. His talent is quite nicely summed up by the symmetry of his final career numbers of 305 home runs and 304 stolen bases, one of only eight players ever to surpass 300 in both of those categories. The similarity of those numbers gives a good impression of what Sanders could do. He wasn’t the biggest, listed as 6’0 and 180 lbs, but he always appeared to be an outstanding athlete, even towards the end of his career.

As Joe Posnanski describes, Sanders wasn’t athletic in the graceful and fluid way of a Carlos Beltran, he had far more physicality about him than that, in some ways closer to the athleticism of a football player rather than a baseball star. Maybe because of this physicality, Sanders had trouble staying healthy and only once reached 140 games played in a season. Baseball Reference lists his 162 game averages as being a 28/28 season. If he could have been less injury prone his Hall of Fame case might have been considerably stronger.

As it is, Sanders can look back on an excellent career, even if it didn’t reach Hall of Fame levels. He made it to three World Series, winning one ring, and only twice was he a below average hitter with one of those seasons coming at the age of 38. His final career OPS of .830 compares reasonably favourably with that of recent Hall inductee Jim Rice’s .854 mark. The difference in eras means Rice has a bigger edge in OPS+, 128 to 115, but Sanders excellent defence and superior baserunner also negates some of that difference.

The jam-packed ballot for voters to deal with this year means it is less likely that Sanders will receive the sort of ‘courtesy’ votes that players of his calibre often receive, but while his career might fall short of Cooperstown, it’s worth acknowledging his 17 years of superb Major League play.

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Now most of the big name free agents have been snapped up, the common denominator among most of those left on the market is the draft pick compensation hanging around their neck. The likes of Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano and Michael Bourn remained unsigned and all are clearly candidates to improve a significant number of teams.

It’s understandable that teams would be reticent to both hand over a big free agent deal as well as give up what could be a pretty valuable draft pick. All three of the above names are represented by Scott Boras who has a reputation for holding back in the free agent market to ensure that he has the only first baseman/shortstop/closer (delete as applicable) left on the market, leaving teams to scramble for the last available option. Boras didn’t get where is without knowing how to work the market to his client’s benefit but he does have a couple of miscalculations on his record and it’s possible that his strategy doesn’t work so well under the new CBA rules.

Lohse has been particularly vocal, yet realistic, about the current situation when he argued that “a guy like a Zack Greinke or Anibal Sanchez got a get-out-of-jail-free card because they got traded midseason, so the rules don’t pertain to them. I’m obviously a little biased, but the rules could use some tweaking.”

The current rules do create the possibility that, come the summer, players that are in with a chance of receiving a qualifying offer as a free agent next off-season, may begin agitating for a trade if they think it will ultimately help their free agent chances. Obviously this won’t apply to every player, someone like Jacoby Ellsbury could quite easily be young enough, healthy enough and good enough for a team to have few concerns over giving up a draft pick to sign him. There’s also the possibility of the Red Sox being in contention for a playoff birth and the player being unlikely to move as a result.

However, to take an example such as prospective 2014 free agent Chase Utley for who a strong bounceback year could result in the Phillies making him a qualifying offer, there could be motivation to want to be traded mid-season to help his free agent case. As he’ll be 35 years old when his next contract kicks in, Utley is the sort of player teams will be reluctant to give up a draft pick for and could find his market reduced as a result. Utley doesn’t have a reputation as someone who publicly kicks up a fuss, but if the Phillies aren’t contending he could find himself in a position where a mid-summer trade will be of significant financial benefit to him.

By setting up a system where players can benefit so significantly from being traded during the year, MLB has left itself open to players demanding trades to circumvent the new rules. It might not be Utley that gets the ball rolling, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone trying to game the system before long.

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The Mariners and Angels completed a slightly surprising but ultimately sensible trade last night, swapping left handed starter Javier Vargas for 1B / DH Kendrys Morales. Vargas gives the Angels a reasonable innings eater to fill out the rotation, one who will benefit from Angels Stadium’s run suppression and the team’s strong outfield defense, for a hitter whose opportunities were likely to be limited in Anaheim but who gives the Ms a much needed power threat.

Morales is likely to spend the majority of his time at DH in Seattle, with former top prospect and current bad major leaguer Justin Smoak at first base. That could leave last winter’s marquee acquisition Jesus Montero to spend a little more time at catcher than he otherwise would have. There is minimal indication that Montero has the defensive skills to be a full time backstop, but with Morales a free agent at the end of 2013 he now has a final chance to show that he’s a least competent enough back there to play the position on occasion.

With John Jaso in the fold, Montero’s options behind the plate will likely come against left handers only, or on days when Jaso needs a breather. Even in this limited time at the position, Montero may show he can do a job back there without embarrassing himself or getting hurt. If things work out as planned, prospect Mike Zunino will be the Mariners full time catcher in the near future, however these things often don’t pan out the way teams would like so if Montero can show at least a small amount of capability as a catcher it will leave the Mariners with much more flexibility going forward.

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The New York Daily News’ Mark Feinsand just tweeted that the Dodgers might be looking to move Andre Ethier, with a possible view to getting involved in the Nick Swisher sweepstakes. That’s the same Andre Ethier they signed to a five-year $85 million extension in June.

The obvious caveat here is that this could well be part of the general winter chicanery that teams go through, sounding out rivals about availability of players and trying to gauge the market for their own talent. Alternatively, it may have no foundation at all. Even with those caveats, it would not be a surprise if there was a least something to this report as the number of similar rumours around Ethier give the impression that, even with money to burn, the Dodgers were regretting that extension even before the ink was dry on the contract.

For the first month after Ethier was extended, the Dodgers at least had some flexibility with him down the line as they retained the option to move him to left field or first base should the need arise. The franken-trade with the Red Sox has now backed the team into a corner on that front as Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are locked in at Ethier’s only other possible positions with even more difficult to trade contracts.

Even with the value of free agent contracts taking a bit of a hike this winter, it’s still hard to see Ethier’s contract as any sort of bargain. To move him the Dodgers are probably going to have to eat some money, unlikely to be an issue of course, and then turn around and find a replacement. If that replacement is Swisher, it’s hard to see how giving him a deal that wouldn’t be far away in years or money from Ethier would benefit the team. Swisher might be a small upgrade in the short term, but it’s likely to be a marginal shift and the he is also two years older than Ethier. Fortunately for the Dodgers, it looks like Ethier’s deal is unlikely to prevent them making other moves anytime soon which is just as well, given the difficulty they will likely have finding a helpful deal for him.

It seems like most winters there is a free agent who finds the market doesn’t shift in their favour the way they hoped it would, leaving them scrambling for suitors as the off season rolls on. It looks pretty clear at this point that, if anyone is left without a chair when the music stops, it is most likely to be Michael Bourn. The centre field market has been developed rapidly and unexpetedly this off season with teams resigning incumbents (Giants), trading for upgrades (Nationals, Reds) or splashing out on free agent imports (Braves). All this has meant that the market for Bourn’s services isn’t as robust as he and his agent would likely hope as we head towards 2013. Only a handful of teams could still be considering a move for Bourn and there is still a small chance he ends of taking a lucrative one year deal with the aim of retrying the market next winter. It’s worth remembering, however, that agents earn their money by being able to get that big deal when it appears no offers are out there. Prince Fielder’s contract with the Tigers is just the most recent example of this.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are bringing in the fences at Safeco and have been strongly linked to Josh Hamilton already this winter, a clear sign that they are looking to add some significant thump to their offense. It may be worth considering if the reason they haven’t yet signed Hamilton is because the former MVP has far more interest in re-signing with the Rangers than he does with a move to the north west. If Hamilton does stay put, the M’s could decide that Bourn is the best option for reallocating their money.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Big outsiders in this race but have pulled off some surprising moves already this winter. An unlikely destination but could come into play if Bourn ends up with a one year deal.

Texas Rangers

Would make some sense if Hamilton does indeed leave to sign with someone like Seattle, however there has been little indication that the Rangers have been sizing Bourn up in the last couple of months. Bourn would appear to be a reasonable fit in the Rangers  lineup but if they have money left in the budget it’s more likely to be spent on pitching.

Chicago White Sox

They don’t have a glaring need when you look at last year’s team but there are significant questions about whether their current group of Viciedo, De Aza and Rios can reproduce their 2012 performances. Kenny Williams’ reputation for springing surprises isn’t undeserved and he could well get involved here at some point. A sleeper to watch.

Milwaukee Brewers

Again, another unlikely landing spot on paper but that’s the reality of Bourn’s market at the moment. Would mean finally giving up on Carlos Gomez but throwing money at Bourn is probably not the best use of the team’s resources given the current state of their rotation.

And that’s about it, and even some of those teams can only be tenuously said to be a fit for Bourn. In the current handicapping the Mariners are probably favourites although the White Sox have some appeal as an outside chance. Given the state of the centre fielder marketplace, it may take a trade of some sort to open a spot for Bourn.

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After trading their centre fielder and leadoff man Dernard Span to the Nationals for Alex Meyer, in a trade that the number of supporters for both sides ‘winning the deal’ would indicate it was actually a pretty even swap, the Twins traded another outfielder today as they shipped Ben Revere to the Phillies for Vance Worley and Trevor May. Unlike the Span trade, it seems pretty clear that the Twins got the good end of this trade. Worley is a decent rotation piece and May appears to be a good but not great pitching prospect and that looks to be a good return for a centre fielder who, for all his speed and defensive ability, can’t really throw or hit.

The two trades boost the Twins pitching depth and indicate the team is going into full rebuild mode. Long-time frustration Aaron Hicks may now get a chance in centre field and a number of other young players will likely be asked to step in if the front office continues to clear out established talent in an effort to bring in younger, cheaper options with the intent to contend further down the line.

Looking over the Twins roster, there’s really only a handful of players left who are candidates to be moved in a rebuild:

Justin Morneau

A hard player to put a trade value on given his suddenly alarming platoon splits, .902 OPS vs righties, .569 OPS v lefties in 2012, and a recovery from a severe concussion that can probably be characterized as ‘ongoing’. The Twins could well be aiming to trade him mid-season after a strong start.

Jamey Carroll

Isn’t going to bring much back. Most likely to be picked up by a club who just want a veteran backup infielder and aren’t too worried about his weak bat.

Josh Willingham

Of all the players on the roster, Willingham is the one who is most likely to bring back a significant return. He’s just put up a strong year and there’s a good chance a team will give up something of value to get hold of him.

Joe Mauer

This is where it gets a little strange. Signed to a huge deal when the team moved to Target Field, Mauer is linked to this franchise in a way few other players and teams are and it would seem to be an admission that his 8 year $184m contract was an error in judgement. Obviously few teams could afford to take on that deal, even if the Twins kicked in money to try and get some prospects back, but rather than try to construct elaborate trade scenarios, what might be more interesting is how this effects the relationship between Mauer and the club. One would assume that during negotiations for Mauer’s deal, there were discussions about the future direction of the club and plans banded about over how they would put a winning team on the field in the new stadium. Mauer remains an outstanding hitter who is still capable of catching, but his contract and standing make him incredibly difficult to move,  and that’s before mentioning his no-trade clause.

If the Twins move Willingham and/or Morneau before Opening Day, Mauer will be more or less the last man standing on the club which is unlikely to be what he signed up for in 2010. It is entirely possible that Mauer is happy and settled enough in Minnesota that he can live with that, but it is a situation that may warrant monitoring if the Twins start shipping out everyone around him.

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