Will stalled free agent market slow action at Winter Meetings?

SAN DIEGO - Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings are this week at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a 15-minute walk from Petco Park, home of the Padres. It’s an event where reporters and pundits take a kernel of corn and in seconds turn it into a jumbo bag of popcorn.

Trade rumors are what make these meetings beautiful.

But some years, such as last December in Las Vegas, there was more speculation than action. The podium in the press room stood most empty. Little happened.

This December, if the activity in the days before the meetings is an indication, moves here will be riveting. But there are still reservations in the baseball world about how much will get done this week because none of the top free agents have signed.

The Braves, White Sox and Padres have been the most active teams. The Braves have spent nearly $100 million and the White Sox and Padres are set to be relevant next season.

Chicago signed catcher Yasmani Grandal to a team-record $73 million contract. The Braves added three relievers and a starter. The Padres traded for Tommy Pham to help their on-base percentage at the top of the lineup and added pitcher Drew Pomeranz and second baseman Jurickson Profar.

The activity could be slow because the free agent market is slow for the big-name players such as Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, meaning it might be difficult for second-tier free agents such as Hyun-Jin Ryu and Madison Bumgarner to get a deal.

Why would the Nationals sign Bumgarner if they think Strasburg, the World Series MVP, is going to return to D.C.?

If the meetings area dud for a second consecutive time, the question will be: What can be done to get more going at the meetings?

Nationals owner Mark Lerner, who brought a World Series title to D.C. for the first time since 1924, says the team can’t afford to re-sign both Strasburg and Rendon, so Nationals fans debate who would be more valuable to keep.

One theory: Strasburg is more important than Rendon because he’s in the rotation. Who wouldn’t rather have a strong rotation and less run production?

While the Nationals figure out who plays third and second, National League East teams are loading up.

The Nationals won the World Series, but the Braves have two consecutive division titles. They’ve added three pitchers to their chaotic bullpen and starter Cole Hamels to their rotation. But they are still looking for a power bat to play third, and who knows if Josh Donaldson will return to Atlanta? Or maybe with the Nats?

Maybe Donaldson isn’t in the Nats’ plans at all. How about the Nationals signing Jonathan Schoop at second and letting Carter Kieboom take over third. Schoop is good for 25 home runs and great defense.

The Phillies signed free-agent Zack Wheeler to join a rotation that has Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, but the back of their rotation still has questions. Their bullpen is thin and they might sign shortstop Didi Gregorius and decide whether Jean Segura moves to second base or third base. Scott Kingery would play whichever position Segura doesn’t.

The Mets added Jake Marisnick to their outfield mix and lost Wheeler to a division rival. They might add a low-level fifth starter to join a rotation that has Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Marcus Stroman.

The Marlins, who have already added second baseman Jonathan Villar, are looking for run-producing bats. They believe their young rotation is going to improve and they want to score more runs to help them along. The Marlins hit 146 home runs last year, and in an era of power, that’s not enough. Plus, they scored an NL-worst 615 runs in 2019.

In the American League East, the Orioles will gather as many prospects as possible. After trading starter Dylan Bundy to the Angels, could reliever Mychal Givens be next on the block? It’s likely.

The Yankees are bidding for either Cole or Strasburg. They need rotation help, given that James Paxton and Luis Severino are the only two stable starters.

The Red Sox are trying to get under the luxury tax of $208 million, so it could be a year where the they are involved in tons of rumors, trying to get rid of players with big contracts. And Mookie Betts, an MVP-type player eligible for free agency after 2020, could go in a trade.

The Blue Jays like their young foundation of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, but they need a starting pitcher. They’ll probably spend in the mid-range level and look at Dallas Keuchel and Bumgarner.

Bumgarner, 30, made 34 starts with 200-plus innings in 2019 after two seasons of injuries knocked him off the radar. In 2017, he injured his shoulder and ribs in a dirt bike accident. In 2018, he broke a finger when a spring training line drive nailed him.

What’s interesting is how many teams from the NL Central and AL Central are in the bidding for Bumgarner. The Twins, White Sox and Reds each have interest, as well as the Angels, Blue Jays, Rangers and Astros. They are all making pitches to the pitcher with four All-Star appearances and three top six finishes in the NL Cy Young voting, along with his three World Series rings with San Francisco.

Bumgarner says he wouldn’t mind returning to the Giants, even if they have an aging roster and bloated payroll that includes Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Johnny Cueto and Evan Longoria.

In addition to Betts, the biggest All-Star players that could be on the block are Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and the Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant.

Cleveland is in a typical Winter Meetings predicament with Lindor.

The shortstop market is not robust, so that might make it difficult to trade Lindor, a free agent after 2021.

Sign Lindor for what he’s worth? Indians fans can forget that.

Indians management is saying that it expects Lindor to be in the Indians’ starting lineup when next season begins. With Lindor - not to mention a healthy Corey Kluber in the rotation - the Indians could overcome the defending AL Central champion Twins.

The White Sox are improved, but not enough. The Royals and Tigers aren’t close to contention.

The only way the Indians trade Lindor is if they get the type of return they received when they traded pitcher Bartolo Colon to Montreal in 2002. Back then, they got outfielder Grady Sizemore, infielder Brandon Phillips and lefty Cliff Lee for Colon.

Given the slow shortstop market, and that the Indians have time before Lindor’s free agency kicks in, the Indians will likely wait.

And non-moves like that will slow the Winter Meetings. Although it will not slow the speculation.