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December 04, 2016

What to watch for at the MLB Winter Meetings this week

Now that baseball’s flirtation with a work stoppage is over and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is in place – although, really, I can’t get enough of reading about millionaire and billionaires bickering over issues like personal chefs – the Hot Stove League is back in full force. And that stove could reach a boil as it's wont to do at the Winter Meetings, which will take place this week in National Harbor, Md.

Can we get through the rest of this without terrible stove references? Maybe. Maybe not.

Andrew McCutchen Watch

This is not the most talented free agent class. Jeremy Hellickson may have been the best starting pitcher available before he accepted the Phillies qualifying offer. And with arguably the best hitter on the market (Yoenis Cespedes) re-upping with his old team earlier this week, the potential blockbuster trades are more intriguing, especially when former MVPs are involved.

Before the ink was dry on the new CBA, breaking news maven Ken Rosenthal of reported that the Pirates were looking to deal franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen. And later the same day, Jeff Passan of YahooSports went even further, reporting that Pittsburgh was actively offering him to other teams.

At one point it even appeared a McCutchen-to-the Washington Nationals trade could be imminent. But that was more than 48 hours ago, so it’s difficult to get an appropriate read on the current temperature of those apparent negotiations.

Wouldn’t McCutchen look good in a Phillies outfield starving for consistency and some power? Surely. And with just two years (and a very club-friendly $28.75 million) remaining on his contract, he’d fit into GM Matt Klentak’s plan of looking for players on short term deals so they wouldn’t be blocking prospects.

But, are the Phillies realistically going to compete for a playoff berth in those two years? Probably not. And definitely not when they’d have to trade at least 2-3 attractive, MLB-ready pieces (including a pitcher, which the Pirates are seeking) to the Pirates to even jump into the McCutchen sweepstakes.

One final note: the 30-year-old McCutchen had an off-year in 2016, but sure looked a lot like himself in the season’s final month, slashing .287/.373/.513 with six home runs in his last 31 games.

Chris Sale Watch

When you consider everything about Chris Sale (and the fact that he plays for a big market team that should be able to contend again sometime soon), it’s really difficult to see how the White Sox reach the point of trading him.

Sale doesn’t turn 28 until four days before Opening Day. he is under club control for three more seasons at a grand total of $38 million … or just slightly more for three seasons that Zack Greinke gets paid for one season.

So who the heck can offer enough to make it worthwhile for the White Sox to sell Sale?

The Braves have been collecting starting pitchers like some crazy stamp collector downing 5-hour energy drinks four times a day, so I guess you can’t rule them out if they’re dangling former No.1 pick Dansby Swanson. Although it’s going to take a lot more than that. Ditto the Astros, who have already made a trio of upgrades to their already-potent office (including a Carlos Beltran reunion Saturday) and could use a legitimate No.1 starter to top off a competitive roster (and, like the Braves, they have young talent, including Alex Bregman, to use as bait).

It still feels like it’s going to take a lot more than one can’t-miss stud prospect to pry Sale away.

Since transitioning into a starting role in 2012, Sale is 70-47 with a 3.04 ERA, 14 complete games, a 1.06 WHIP, and 5.08 K/BB rate in five years. Those are Cliff Lee-in-his-prime numbers, and from a pitcher who is younger than Lee was when he took off, winning the 2008 A.L. Cy Young.

Phillies Watch

Uh, there’s a reason we didn’t lead with the Phillies in this Winter Meetings Preview. They’ve done most of their heavy lifting already, save a Ken Giles-like blockbuster-ish trade. And they could certainly sell high on some of their youngsters, like Cesar Hernandez, Cameron Rupp, Hector Neris, and even Vince Velasquez (although it’s not selling high in Velasquez’s case).

As for that heavy lifting? The Phillies improved their ‘pen in adding useful veteran Pat Neshek, fortified their rotation when Jeremy Hellickson accepted his qualifying offer, and upgraded their offense by trading for former All-Star Howie Kendrick and placing him in a corner outfield spot desperate for productivity.

This doesn’t mean Klentak and Co. will spend the week in suburban Washington sight-seeing or sneaking out to see Alex Ovechkin and the Caps. The Phils front office with do their due diligence and keep the conversations flowing, they’ll continue to look for ways to improve their roster for not only 2017, but for the years to come (when they could contend next), too.

Just don’t expect them to emerge as a mystery team in on a big fish free agent like they did six years ago this month.

Bold Winter Meetings Prediction

The Dodgers will pull off a blockbuster trade. They’ve been linked previously to Ryan Braun, but they could also use a Chris Archer to put alongside Clayton Kershaw in their rotation. And they have the firepower to make a serious run at Sale. But they’ll land someone before everyone departs Maryland following Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft.

Bold Phillies Winter Meetings Prediction

They’ll sign a free agent. No, not Edwin Encarnacion. Not Aroldis Chapman. Think smaller, like when they signed Roberto Hernandez for their starting rotation at the Meetings in Nashville three years ago. Like re-signing free agent catcher A.J. Ellis to a one-year deal to be a backup behind Rupp (and perhaps to one of the young prospects when they reach the big leagues) and also as an important mentor to the young starting pitchers on the staff.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21