Olney: Tough market for top free agents looking to land with contenders

Free agent Zack Cozart might take his best swing at free agency, but will he get what he's looking for? Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports

Zack Cozart had easily the best of his seven seasons in the big leagues in 2017, accumulating an Adjusted OPS+ of 141, hitting 24 homers and generating a .385 on-base percentage in 122 games. His fielding metrics continue to be solid, with the 32-year-old Cozart sitting in the middle of the pack in defensive runs saved at his position, a little behind Carlos Correa and Elvis Andrus and a little ahead of Didi Gregorius and Jordy Mercer.

But the timing of Cozart’s journey into free agency is less than optimal because there seem to be more experienced shortstops available than there are primary openings. The same circumstances appear to be occurring with the first base market as well.

Baseball is loaded with great, young shortstops right now, with Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Orlando Arcia leading the pack. The Cubs have Addison Russell and Javier Baez, the Yankees field Gregorius, and the Red Sox have Xander Bogaerts, whose defensive shortcomings should be helped by the increased use of shifts in 2018. Andrelton Simmons has three years left on his deal with the Angels, and the Giants have Brandon Crawford locked up. Paul DeJong had an excellent rookie season for the Cardinals. There are almost no shortstop jobs available on would-be contenders.

The Blue Jays, looking for some infield depth, traded for Aledmys Diaz. The Orioles need to identify a shortstop and might wait for market prices to fall within their range, a strategy that has worked for them repeatedly. The Braves have checked around about shortstops, perhaps to buy more development time for Dansby Swanson, who is coming off a rough 2017 season.

For this fall's class of free-agent shortstops -- Cozart, Alcides Escobar and J.J. Hardy -- there is a remarkably small group of teams that could emerge to bid.

Eric Hosmer hit .318 with 25 homers and won his fourth Gold Glove. His agent, Scott Boras, has been casting Hosmer as a human ticket into the postseason because of Hosmer’s leadership and history of success with the Royals.

But as with Cozart, there appear to be very few potential bidders because so many big-market teams look set at first base:

Yankees: Greg Bird

Phillies: Rhys Hoskins

Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman

Dodgers: Cody Bellinger

Diamondbacks: Paul Goldschmidt

Orioles: Chris Davis

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo

Astros: Yuli Gurriel

Braves: Freddie Freeman

Jays: Justin Smoak

The Giants might prefer an upgrade on Brandon Belt, but he’s early in a long-term contract, and San Francisco is focused on Giancarlo Stanton for the moment. The Mets are looking for a short-term investment at first.

The Red Sox need a first baseman and are talking with the White Sox about Jose Abreu, plus they might simply be scared off by Hosmer’s high price tag. “If the Red Sox aren’t in on Hosmer,” a longtime agent said, “he could be in a tough spot. He needs the Red Sox almost as much as the Red Sox could use him.” Hosmer has been linked to the Padres as well, and San Diego has payroll flexibility, but the Padres also have a first baseman, Wil Myers, under a long-term contract.

What's more, the list of free-agent first basemen who will be less expensive than Hosmer is long: Carlos Santana, Yonder Alonso, Lucas Duda, Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, Mark Reynolds and Mike Napoli.

• Joe Mauer’s contract is set to expire after the 2018 season, and Ervin Santana’s four-year deal will run out next fall, with a club option attached to the back end. After that, the sum total of what Minnesota is obligated to pay in player salary is $21.2 million.

Pitcher Phil Hughes is in line to earn $13.2 million in 2019, and catcher Jason Castro $8 million. They are the only Twins with guaranteed contracts for the 2019 season, and Minnesota has no player under contract for 2020. The Twins’ long-term room for salary growth, then, is enormous, as Derek Falvey, Thad Levine and others in the Minnesota front office make their choices.

Paul Hembekides of ESPN Research sent this chart of salary obligations for each of the teams in 2018:

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A lot of columnists have assessed the Yankees’ decision to hire Aaron Boone as a great risk. I have worked closely with Aaron regularly in recent years, and to me the pick actually seems almost risk-free. Boone is so measured, open-minded and at ease with people at every pay grade that he’s as close to a natural fit for the job as I could imagine in this era.

If this were 1979 or 1990 and you wanted your manager to be taken from the mold of an Earl Weaver or Billy Martin or Tony La Russa, well, sure, then Aaron would be a risk. He’s a different type of person than those guys. He isn't going to try to intimidate anybody or bully somebody into a better performance.

But that notion of the manager as an organization’s field general is completely outdated. These days, most managers are well-armed with information and input from their front offices, leaving them more time to tend to their players, their clubhouse culture and their responsibilities as the daily spokesmen for their franchises. The work of managing is now much more about collaboration, about how to relate to players and get the best out of them, than about dugout dictators.

Three weeks ago, I wrote at length about how Aaron seems similar to Terry Francona.

• Some rival evaluators who have spoken with the Marlins about Giancarlo Stanton are under the impression that it’s more important to Miami to shed his money in whatever trade it arranges than add young talent in return. Stanton has a full no-trade clause that effectively gives him the power to dictate where he will be traded, and that financial pressure on the Marlins, a team with a mountain of debt, might force them to accede to his wishes.

If Stanton uses his veto power to scuttle the current trade talks with the Giants and Cardinals and has specific destinations that are acceptable to him -- or just one team, for that matter -- then the Marlins eventually will be faced with a choice. They could keep him into the start of spring training and the 2018 season, assuming the risk of injury or some other diminishment of their $295 million player. Or they could make their best deal with a team that Stanton will OK -- which is not to say they’ll make the best trade they can, but only the best trade Stanton will approve.

The Dodgers have not been heavily involved in the Stanton talks to this point, largely because they’re not interested in taking on such a massive contract. But sources say the Dodgers are well aware that the Stanton talks could turn in their direction, and in time, as the Stanton situation marinates, there could be an opportunity for them to consider.

Rival executives have spoken with admiration of the discipline that Andrew Friedman has demonstrated in his time with the Dodgers, citing his handling of Yu Darvish trade talks last summer -- when Friedman waited and waited and waited before getting Darvish for what was perceived at the time to be excellent value. If Stanton is willing to go to only the Dodgers and the Marlins decide they have to move as much of the contract as possible -- as the Rangers did with Alex Rodriguez in the winter of 2003-04, when they ate about 40 percent of his salary to make their deal with the Yankees -- then Friedman will have some leverage.

Friedman could make the money in a Stanton deal work a little better by working to shed some of his extraneous investments. He could ask the Marlins to take left-hander Scott Kazmir, who is owed $17.67 million for next season, and/or right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who will make $11.5 million. The Dodgers could approach Adrian Gonzalez, who will make $22.4 million next season, and give him choices: He could waive his no-trade clause, be included in the package to the Marlins (the team that drafted him in 2000) and have a chance to play regularly in 2018, or he could sit on the Dodgers’ bench.

If the Dodgers shed some expensive veterans in the deal and have a chance to get Stanton for say, $225 million to $240 million over 10 years, and if the Marlins are presented with their only immediate opportunity to dump $225 million in debt, it’s hard to imagine either side saying no.

• Surprisingly, at least three teams have not answered the information request made by Shohei Ohtani’s representatives last weekend.

And today will be better than yesterday.