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Why sluggers aren’t hitting it big in free agency

From left: Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mark Trumbo.Associated Press/Getty Images photos

Yoenis Cespedes (four years, $110 million) got paid probably as much as he deserved based on his last two seasons with the Mets. Edwin Encarnacion, however, “settled” for a three-year deal worth $60 million, and his expectation when free agency began was more like five years and $125 million.

“It’s a slow-developing market this year. It’s coming soon,” insisted Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, who is waiting on a Mark Trumbo deal to pop.

Not long after he said those words, Duquette pulled off a deal with Seattle on Friday afternoon, trading pitcher Yovani Gallardo for outfielder Seth Smith. Moments later, the Mariners traded righthander Nathan Karns to the Royals for outfielder Jarrod Dyson.


The logjam appears to be easing, but why did it take so long?

For one, the collective bargaining agreement delayed the push by teams for higher-ticket items. The priority for most teams is pitching, both starting and relief, so teams tend to take care of what they deem most important first. Teams try to promote from within on offense as much as they can. They’d rather take a chance on a kid than pay a small fortune for a veteran. This isn’t always the best way to go about it, but it’s how it is done.

You don’t think Jose Bautista is pulling out his hair trying to figure out what’s going on?

Is Trumbo wondering whether he’s really asking too much — a four-year deal for maybe $72 million — after slugging 47 homers last season?

Mike Napoli slashed .239/.335/.465 in 2016.Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

How about Mike Napoli? He hit 34 homers with 101 RBIs last season and brings great leadership. Everywhere he goes he wins, and yet he’s out on the street. The Twins have been looking to fill the leadership void left by Torii Hunter, and there’s Napoli. He’s a different kind of leader, but what an example he sets. Which is why the Rangers, who twice had Napoli, might be the favorites to land him again.


Take Chris Carter. He hit 42 homers for Milwaukee last season. Yet he was designated for assignment and nobody traded for or signed him.

There are other good, but lesser hitters available, such as Adam Lind, Brandon Moss, Logan Morrison.

And look at all the hitters who are available in trades. The Tigers have a lineup full of them.

They have basically said, “You can have the best righthanded hitter of the era if we can make a deal.” And yet GM Al Avila has gotten little action on 33-year-old Miguel Cabrera. OK, he makes a lot of money, but a deal could be subsidized by the Tigers.

The Tigers also have J.D. Martinez, who has received a lot of attention. He was the young hitter whom Dave Dombrowski picked up off the street from the Astros, who just let him go. He’s been a slugger in his own right the past three seasons. Lots of rumors — maybe to Philadelphia — but still, nothing substantive.

There’s aging designated hitter Victor Martinez, who can still hit and is a fit for the Red Sox, Orioles, Rays, or Blue Jays. There’s second baseman Ian Kinsler, who won the Gold Glove in 2016 at age 34 and also had an .831 OPS.

The White Sox have made their top hitters available, as well. First baseman Jose Abreu, who has had 100 or more RBIs for three straight seasons; third baseman Todd Frazier, who has one year remaining before free agency, and who hit 40 homers with 98 RBIs; and Melky Cabrera, who had an .800 OPS last season while hitting well from both sides of the plate.


Ryan Braun hit 30 homers and 91 RBIs in 2016.Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Brewers would gladly trade Ryan Braun, who still has 30/30 capabilities and is a very good all-around player at age 33, including a .903 OPS last season. He has four years remaining on his deal at about $76 million (not including a $15 million option for the fifth year). The Dodgers seemed interested for a while but we haven’t heard a thing since, and now they seem to be focusing on Brian Dozier.

It’s hard to tell if the Royals would talk about any of their top would-be free agents — Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, or Mike Moustakas — but they may part with one of them before the season starts because they can’t afford to keep all three.

Amazingly, the Twins will deal Dozier, who hit 42 home runs last season, for a package of prospects. The Dodgers seem to be front and center since they’re willing to part with coveted righthander Jose De Leon, though at least one more blue-chipper and perhaps two are needed to complete the deal. The Dodgers have them to give.

The rebuilding Yankees don’t want to stand in the way of their young hitters, so for the moment they’re out. Brett Gardner could be had, but GM Brian Cashman hasn’t heard a package for the Gold Glove left fielder that would make it worth it.


One GM indicated he wonders if teams are saving themselves for the 2018 class of free agents. But if they can’t afford this group, would they extend themselves for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, A.J. Pollock, or Dozier?

“Everybody will get signed; they always do,” said one veteran National League GM. “Maybe it’s not for what the player and his agent had envisioned, but the best of them will have jobs. Teams like to step back sometimes and ask themselves, ‘Is my roster as is really what I want to start the season with?’ Then you have the new CBA and the luxury tax concerns where teams incur stiffer penalties than before. I think everybody is just trying to be a little bit smarter in how they do business. Does it make sense anymore to sign a hitter for four or five years? That’s why the Indians did a great job on Encarnacion. They got a premium bat for three years at reasonable money. They waited it out. Great job by Chris [Antonetti].”


Hobson has job with D-backs

Butch Hobson is back with a major league organization and will manage the Diamondbacks’ Single A Kane County (Illinois) club. Hobson, who resides in Wilmington, N.C., was Boston’s manager from 1992-94 and also spent 16 years as an independent league skipper before being let go in November as the Lancaster team was undergoing financial difficulties.


Hobson, who was hired as manager by the Red Sox at age 40, is now 65, but don’t be fooled by his age. Last season he activated himself for a game, playing third base so he could say he played with his son K.C., who had been released by the Blue Jays and came to Lancaster to play for his father. K.C. Hobson, who raised havoc in the manager’s office at Fenway as a little boy, hit .320 with 24 homers and 65 RBIs in 98 games for Lancaster. He has since been signed by the White Sox and will be at Triple A.

“I loved my time in the independent league,” Hobson said. “If it wasn’t for the independent league I never would have been able to play with K.C. It was a great thrill. I played third base and I held my own. And K.C. was at first base. I didn’t embarrass myself. Struck out, but what’s new?”

Hobson was the winningest manager in Atlantic League history with 11 playoff appearances and was manager of the year four times.

“I thought I’d just be there for the rest of my career,” Hobson said. “I was surprised when I was let go.”

Hobson got his new job through Arizona farm director Mike Bell, whose father Buddy Bell recommended Hobson. Hobson was managing Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in May 1996 when he received a package of cocaine at the team hotel in Pawtucket, where the Red Barons were playing. He was arrested and had to do approximately 60 hours of community service. Hobson was unable to get a major league job after that and settled for an independent league career.

Unfortunately for Hobson, he fell 63 days short of the 10 years in the majors required for a full pension, which these days is about $220,000 a year. This new job at least gets him closer to being eligible to be a major league coach or manager, and could get him the 63 days he needs if he should ever be hired on the major league staff.

New Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen, who grew up in Abington, was only 4 years old in 1980 when Hobson was traded to the Angels along with Rick Burleson for Mark Clear and Carney Lansford. Hobson got to meet Hazen when he came in for his interview.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Hobson said. “To be with an organization and help these kids get better is something I’m really looking forward to. Not many managers and coaches my age get to do this at age 65. I’m very grateful to the Arizona organization.”

Hobson will be in Fort Myers in a couple of weeks for Red Sox fantasy camp.

Apropos of nothing

Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts will both be at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2016

1. This year’s Boston Baseball Writers dinner (Jan. 19 at the Boston Marriott Copley Place) has an impressive head table: Theo Epstein, Terry Francona, John Farrell, Mike Lowell, Luis Tiant, Dave Dombrowski, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and others. For ticket information ($200 a head), contact Ashley Walenta at 617-624-1231 or here for more info.

2. I respect some colleagues for their stance to withhold a vote for Curt Schilling for the Hall of Fame, but I think they’re wrong. We are voting based on playing careers. I couldn’t care less about Schilling’s political views or if he ventures too far with his tweets. The only thing that would change my opinion is if Schilling had committed a major crime. I’m voting for the pitcher, not the Breitbart News Network commentator. Schilling the political commentator can have his opinions, but those of us trying to determine who the best players of all time are must base our conclusions on playing careers.

3. The more I see attempts to speed up the game, the more I realize it can’t be done nor should we try. Baseball shouldn’t have a clock or time limits (within reason). It wasn’t invented that way. It takes its due course and time. Why isn’t that acceptable? Why do we have to rush everything in our society?

4. The World Baseball Classic is a nifty idea on the surface, but there’s never been a natural time to play it. The timing is awkward in spring training. Just as teams are trying to solidify their rosters, the players aren’t part of that team building. And it seems they have to amp up their competitiveness before they’re ready, which sometimes results in injuries. There’s no alternate timeframe that seems right, either.

5. I’ve heard some managers and GMs indicate that when two-way Japanese star Shohei Otani finally comes to the major leagues he should be allowed to play the field and pitch. I’ll have to see it to believe it. You know what happens in these situations, the player becomes exclusively a pitcher, and after a while you wonder if he made the right decision (Frankie Rodriguez and Casey Kelly come to mind).

6. Can’t wait to see how Epstein takes the Cubs from world champions to dynasty. For someone who has won three titles, the dynasty aspect, which is virtually nonexistent in baseball, is the next big challenge. While the Braves often stubbed their toes in the playoffs, Hall of Fame executive John Schuerholz had 14 of 15 National League East titles, accomplished with a combination of homegrown players and strategically placed veterans. Epstein has successfully done that in Boston, but let’s see he can do in Chicago.

7. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s distant cousin is former Twins GM Terry Ryan, now an adviser to the Phillies.

Updates on nine

The Yankees still owe four years on Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract at just under $22 million per.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Yankees — Even Ellsbury should feel frustrated about his career. He should always have been the 2011 version of himself, but he hasn’t been that at all. The Yankees still owe four years on his contract at just under $22 million per. Maybe injuries have slowed him down, but Ellsbury should have been a 20-plus home run, 40-50 stolen base guy at Yankee Stadium, and he’s fallen far short. The Yankees have to hope Ellsbury, 33, still has the drive to be that 2011 player (.321/32/105/.928 OPS) again.

2. Michael Bourn, OF, free agent — One scouting evaluator told me, “If I were in charge of a team I’d scoop this guy up so fast.” But the 34-year-old Bourn remains available. Bourn was last with the Orioles and still has skills as he ages. “He doesn’t have to be a starter, but a guy who can be rotated as a fourth outfielder. He can still run, defend, and get on base,” said the scout. The Orioles may still have interest in re-signing him.

3. Colby Rasmus, OF, free agent — We seldom hear his name, likely because he got hurt and had a horrible season (.206 with 15 homers). But Rasmus might be a good gamble. At 30, he can still play center field and gives the threat of pop from the left side. Managers have had difficulty dealing with him, but he seems to have matured as he’s gotten older.

4. Desmond Jennings, OF, free agent — Two years ago, he was a very good player in Tampa Bay, but injuries have slowed him way down, which is why he remains a free agent. One National League scout who is fond of Jennings said, “He’s only 30 and if he’s OK physically, which I’m told he is, this could be a find for a team. He’s worth the gamble. You can probably get him on a minor league deal, get him to camp, and see what happens.”

Ryan Howard batted .196 for the Phillies in 2016.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

5. Ryan Howard, 1B, free agent — Howard is still hoping to hook on with a team on a minor league deal and invitation to major league camp. With players off to the World Baseball Classic, some spring training rosters could need beefing up, which could be Howard’s opportunity. Teams such as the Athletics, Rays, and Yankees (with that short porch) might be willing to have him in camp. We’ll see.

6. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates — While McCutchen didn’t get traded at the Winter Meetings, one major league source indicates teams are still trying to obtain him. With the Mariners dealing Seth Smith, they may have some interest.

7. Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — Not giving up the ghost, Matsuzaka, who still resides with his family in Brookline, did fairly well pitching in the Puerto Rico winter league. Daisuke made four appearances, going 0-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings. He struck out 11 and, of course, walked 11.

8. Aaron Hill, INF, free agent — Hill, who was well-received by the Red Sox last season after he was acquired from the Brewers, has yet to surface with another team. But a few teams are in the market for a utility infielder, including the Braves and Royals. Hill hit only .218 with the Red Sox, but hit well for the Brewers (.283).

9. Trevor Plouffe, 3B, free agent — Plouffe’s career with the Twins went poof. He was released and now is an intriguing extra piece for a team that might be looking for a bargain and the potential for a high return. The Red Sox kicked the tires as a backup for Pablo Sandoval but may not have room on their roster. The Braves also expressed interest, and the Royals as well, if they’re thinking about moving Mike Moustakas.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Last season, in 69 games, Zach Britton allowed only 38 hits, but interestingly both he and Mark Melancon (who allowed 52 hits in 75 games) each made 39 hitless appearances, covering 35⅓ innings apiece.” . . . Happy birthday, Mike Cameron (44) and Willie Tasby (84).

Hall monitoring

Baseball’s 2017 Hall of Fame class will be announced Jan. 18, but there is a small group of active players who are very good bets when their time comes in the not-too-distant future. Here’s a list of candidates with at least 10 years of experience, with their rank among active players in each category in parenthesis.

Compiled by Richard McSweeney

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.