$1.1 billion and counting: Free-spending frenzy at MLB winter meetings

SAN DIEGO — It’s an absolute dream market for free agents this winter, with teams throwing around money like they’re playing monopoly, and everyone acting like they’ve got the same bank account as New York Mets owner Steve Cohen.

You know life is beautiful when the San Diego Padres, a small market with a New York-sized mentality, are willing to make baseball history with an infield of three players earning at least $300. 

It’s a free-spending frenzy at this year’s winter meetings with $1.1 billion already spent, and Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa expected to receive at least $300 million apiece, with Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Rodon potentially eclipsing $200 million.

“As a fan, this is great,’’ San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s really exciting for baseball. Envisioning some of these players in new uniforms, and obviously the names that we’re all talking about, really excited about the possibility of some of them being Giants. …

“I’ve been coming to winter meetings for a lot of years, but this is the most exciting time that I can remember. This feels like there’s a lot at stake for the game … with the big names like the shortstops and all of the players that we’re talking about, it feels like there’s a lot at stake for Major League Baseball.’’

It’s enough to make agents salivate, and Major League Baseball officials grinding their teeth, trying to decide whether the spending is great for the game to show its financial strength, or a monumental concern considering the disparity between the rich and poor teams may never be greater.

“The free-agent market is going to be what it is, right?’’ commissioner Rob Manfred said. “It’s a product of a whole lot of economic forces, individual decisions by clubs as far as what they want to do. On the positive side, a week in December where there’s a ton of focus on players and where they’re going to be for baseball is a good thing in terms of marketing the game.

“On the downside, I think everyone understands we have a level of revenue disparity in this sport that makes it impossible for some of our markets to compete at some of the numbers we’ve seen. Just like anything else in life, there’s good and bad.’’

The biggest contracts handed out this winter have belonged to the big-market teams with the Philadelphia Phillies landing shortstop Trea Turner (11 years, $300 million), the Texas Rangers signing starter Jacob deGrom (five years, $185 million), the New York Mets signing three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander (two years, $86 million that could turn into three years, $121 million), and first baseman Jose Abreu going to the the World Series champion Houston Astros (three years, $58.5 million).

What has grabbed everyone’s attention is the money that is being offered, but not yet accepted. Judge has two offers of at least $300 million, perhaps as much as $350 million, but not one yet to convince him to sign. Teams are being told that Correa’s deal must top $300 million or they’re wasting their time. Bogaerts, who rejected the Boston Red Sox’s four-year, $90 million offer for him to stay instead of opting out, now is eyeing a $200 million deal with several clubs in play.

There was no offer more eye-opening than the Padres, who already have two shortstops in Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ha-Seong Kim, but still made a $342 million contract proposal to Turner, who rejected it in favor of the Phillies.

“We tried,’’ Padres GM A.J. Preller said. “We’ll stay active.’’

And if a team like the Padres, who play in the 27th-largest market in the country, can be willing to have a payroll exceeding $250 million, hey, no excuses for anyone else, right?

“You can see that the players, all of the 5-WAR-plus players — there’s only about six of them — are in great demand,’’ said veteran agent Scott Boras. “The elite pitchers, that top level group, also are in great demand. Consequently, we’ve seen market adjustment for the revenues, the great revenues in our game, where we’re at, what we’re doing, and certainly general managers are buzzing the economic tower to help them get their top guns.’’

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.

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