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December 06, 2016

Winter Meetings 'Sale' is on – will the free agent market follow?

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Chris Sale won’t have to worry about those pesky White Sox throwback uniforms anymore. Here’s hoping he’s OK with that notorious Boston traffic.

After the offseason’s first month produced little more than a few tremors (the Mets re-signing Yoenis Cespedes, the Astros adding three new big bats to their lineup, including Carlos Beltran) the second day of the Winter Meetings produced a deal that sent shockwaves across the sport.

The Red Sox acquired perennial American League Cy Young contender Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox for a collection of prospects that included Yoan Moncada (arguably the top prospect in the sport) and right-hander Michael Kopech (who has reportedly hit 105-MPH on a radar gun).

Mocked for thinking they could win without a true No.1 starter when they let Jon Lester walk and sign with the Cubs at the Winter Meetings two years ago, the Red Sox now have the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner (Rick Porcello) and two of the game’s best left-handers (Sale and David Price) who have a combined 10 All-Star appearances and seven top-five Cy Young finishes since 2010.

With that rotation, Craig Kimbrel in the ‘pen, and MVP finalist Mookie Betts leading a young and still improving offense, it’s World Series or bust at Fenway Park, a place that already has had three championships in the last 13 seasons.

Although the Winter Meetings produce its share of surprises, the Sale-to-Boston news was met with more than a little shock inside the massive lobby at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon.

And not because Sale and (his incredibly-club friendly contract: 3 years, $38 million) was dealt. But because of where he was dealt.

In the previous 24 hours, it appeared Sale was on his way to the Washington Nationals.

But then everything changed, and quickly.

The Nationals reportedly did not want to part ways with rookie shortstop/center field dynamo Trea Turner (and who can blame them). Then again, in order to get a 27-year-old Sale (again, that contract), you were going to have to part with a big piece, as the Red Sox did with Yoan Moncada.

So what’s next?

Don’t be surprised if Washington re-opens their conversations with Pittsburgh regarding Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates have apparently gone into the winter hell bent on trading their 30-year-old MVP, extracting as much value as they can now before he hits the free agent market in two years.

It would seem the Nationals could use their excess of young pitching (top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, who would have likely gone to Chicago in any Sale deal, among others), to form a sensible offer for McCutchen without parting with Turner. Adding McCutchen would allow Washington to maximize its window of winning (or even appearing in) a World Series in the two years they have left with Bryce Harper under club control.

And then there is the large collection of free agents still looking for homes. Perhaps the Sale trade (coupled with the Giants signing of closer Mark Melancon) will produce a domino effect with others coming off the board soon, too.

Just for fun, here’s one man’s guess of where nine of the top free agents remaining on the market will land, perhaps some before the Winter Meetings wrap up on Thursday):

Edwin EncarnacionColorado Rockies. It’s not always the obvious contending teams that land the best free agent bats. It’s more often the team that spends the most, and with many suitors off the board (including Boston and Houston) this seems like an intriguing match.

Aroldis ChapmanWashington Nationals. Sure they didn’t land Sale, but if they’re able to turn around and use some of that package to reel in McCutchen and then sign Chapman, too, the Nationals are surely making a serious run at winning in the Max Scherzer-Bryce Harper era.

Kenley JansenChicago Cubs. Chicago saw first hand how effective and durable Jansen was in late innings in pressure-filled postseason games, and they haven’t assembled a roster that’s capable of winning multiple titles without making sure they have a pitcher capable of holding down leads late.

Justin TurnerLos Angeles Dodgers. An underrated bat who has also been a leader in the changing Dodgers clubhouse. Difficult to see a big market team hell-bent on ending a lengthy World Series drought letting a guy like this walk.

Ian DesmondTexas Rangers. He got screwed by the free agent compensation pick system last winter (a system scrapped in the just-completed new CBA). As long as they come with a multi-year offer, Texas seems like an ideal fit again. Like L.A. with Turner, they have little reason to let him walk, and Desmond could also reward them for plucking him up late last offseason.

Dexter FowlerSt. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs, who already have a crowded outfield, officially moved on when they acquired Jon Jay last week. Think of this as the reverse Jason Heyward – a talented outfielder moving south in the heated NL Central rivalry.

Jose Bautista Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto can’t let both him and Encarncion walk, can they? Bautista isn’t young enough to score a $100 million-plus deal, so he should be able to fit into Toronto’s plans.

Mike NapoliCleveland Indians. The well-travel Napoli has been a popular fit in nearly every lineup he’s played in and the defending AL champions were no exception. Cleveland might have to go to two years to make it happen, though.

Ivan NovaLos Angeles Angels. Unless they decided to go the route of the White Sox and sell off Mike Trout to the highest bidder (not likely), the Angels are in that weird spot where they have to try to put a contending team around their best guy. It’s a weak free agent starting pitching market, but Nova seems like a decent bet on a reasonable multi-year deal (4-$50?) that won’t kill a team.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21