Early storylines to follow: Cespedes and Sale on the move?
by TIM KURKJIAN
One of the great misnomers in baseball is the offseason, because there is no offseason. Baseball has become a 12-month sport, the late fall and winter being a time for trades, free agent signings, GM meetings, winter meetings, arbitration, labor negotiations, hirings and firings.
Here are 10 storylines to watch for this offseason.
10. The award winners
Some choices will be easy. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager is likely going to be the unanimous choice for the National League Rookie of the Year, but the voting for many awards will be close, if not contentious, most notably the American League MVP.
By most statistical measures, especially the advanced metrics, Mike Trout was the AL's best player this year, but he played for an Angels team that won 74 games and never contended. Only five times has a player won an MVP for a sub-.500 team, but this could be the sixth time. There are other quality candidates who played for playoff teams or contenders, including Boston's Mookie Betts and David Ortiz, Toronto's Josh Donaldson, Houston's Jose Altuve and Baltimore's Manny Machado. But it appears there has been a slight shift in the thinking of the voters, a subtle move toward voting for the best player as opposed to the best player on a contender. So Trout has a chance to win his second MVP award to go with his three second-place finishes. He is 25 years old.
9. Hall of Fame
Three players with first-ballot credentials will be up for voting for the first time this year: Manny Ramirez, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero. The first two have varying connections to PEDs. Ramirez served two suspensions for violations of baseball's drug policy (2009 and 2011). Rodriguez was never suspended or caught taking anything, but he was mentioned in Jose Canseco's book "Juiced."
Ramirez's is likely in the category with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who are at 44.3 percent and 45.2 percent of the vote, respectively, after four years on the ballot, and might not ever get enough support to in. Pudge would seem to have a better chance of eventually getting in even if he doesn't make it this year.
Jeff Bagwell (71.6 percent last year), Tim Raines (69.8) and Trevor Hoffman (67.3) have the best shot at election. It's Raines' 10th and final year on the ballot. The voting will take place in December, and will be announced in January. At the winter meetings in December, a special committee will consider another list of names from Today's Game Era (1988-present), which includes players that were previously on the ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America (Mark McGwire, Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Orel Hershiser, Will Clark, among others), as well as managers (Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella) and executives (George Steinbrenner and John Schuerholz). Someone, maybe more than one, is going to the Hall of Fame from this group.
Two teams, the Diamondbacks and Rockies, are looking for a manager. The Rockies have talked to, among others, Brad Mills and Glenallen Hill. The Diamondbacks have considered Phil Nevin, Alex Cora and Don Wakamatsu, but appear to be zeroing in on Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, who did a nice job filling in for ailing John Farrell with the Red Sox for the final 58 games (28-20) of the 2015 season. Lovullo is 51 and an old-school guy in many respects. He's the best sign-stealer in the major leagues, but he also embraces the new analytics age in the game. In the previous two years under Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart, the D-backs attempted to run their team in a pure baseball fashion, without much help from advanced metrics. But that way didn't work. Their failure is another sign that teams are being run more differently than ever. Teams are now run by young, exceptionally bright GMs who sometimes value data over the eyes, ears and feel of veteran baseball men. Consequently, the D-backs hired Mike Hazen of the Red Sox to run their team, and chances are he'll hire Lovullo to manage it.
7. Speed-up rules
There is nothing wrong with the game. The game on the field is still great, but executives, led by commissioner Rob Manfred, are determined to speed things up, especially after the average time of game went from 2 hours, 56 minutes in 2015 to 3:01. Don't look for a rule that limits the number of relievers a manager can use in a game, but look for changes, including limiting trips to the mound by a catcher or an infielder or maybe even the pitching coach. In the postseason, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras went to the mound far too often, making the game drag. The intentional walk rule might be altered; the manager would just put up four fingers, and the batter would be sent to first base without four pitches being thrown. And baseball will continue to try to keep hitters in the batter's box between pitches, and make pitchers deliver the ball in a timelier manner.
The game likely won't adopt a strict pitch clock in 2017, but after watching Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez (he's not the only one) take 30-35 seconds between pitches, bringing the game to a grinding halt, something has to be done. Here are the times of game for the seven games in the 1948 World Series, the last time the Indians were champions: 1:42, 2:14, 1:36, 1:31, 2:39 and 2:16. What a difference.
Today's young, relentless, creative GMs find a way to make trades, which is why an offseason that's not strong on free agents could include a bunch of deals. It might all begin with the White Sox, who have had little to no success in the past couple of years after making a number of moves. Will they take the next step and trade left-hander Jose Quintana or ace Chris Sale? Dealing Sale, who is a terrific pitcher with a team-friendly contract, doesn't make sense in a lot of ways, but maybe now is the time for the White Sox to explore what they can get for him. Some teams, including the Red Sox, have a surplus of young players and might be able to swing a deal for Sale, who potentially could turn a noncontender into a contender, and a contender into a champion. Quintana won't bring what Sale could bring, but he has value.
The Rays have marketable pitching to deal, led by Jake Odorizzi, and they have to upgrade their offense. It will be interesting to see if the Dodgers try again to move outfielder Yasiel Puig. He made strides toward becoming a better player and, more importantly, a better teammate after a summer demotion to Triple-A. Will the Reds dangle first baseman Joey Votto, who hit .408 with a 1.158 OPS the second half of the season? If they do, several teams (Toronto? Votto is Canadian) could have interest. But the cost of that contract might be prohibitive. Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen will come up in trade rumors, as they often do this time of year, but don't look for either to be traded.
5. The Toronto Blue Jays
They have made it to the American League Championship Series each of the past two years but lost to the Royals, then the Indians. The Jays have a tremendous amount of money with which to deal, but there is a question about how much they are willing to spend on their own potential free agents, notably outfielders Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders and first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion.
The Jays are being run by club president Mark Shapiro, who comes from small-market roots in Cleveland and has not shown a tendency to spend an enormous amount on everyday players in their 30s -- Bautista is 36, Encarnacion is 33. Bautista is looking for a big payday, and Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers and drove in 127 runs last year, is likely going to get a big payday, maybe from the Red Sox, who need a DH to replace David Ortiz. It's possible that the Jays will lose him and Bautista to free agency and try to build around their young starting pitching, led by Aaron Sanchez.
4. Free-agent hitters
Encarnacion, Bautista and Saunders are part of a group of free-agent hitters that lacks young, all-round everyday players but still includes some useful options. Outfielder/DH Mark Trumbo led the major leagues in home runs in 2016. One of his teammates with the Orioles, catcher Matt Wieters, is out there. Another catcher, the Nationals' Wilson Ramos, is available, but his value might be diminished somewhat by a knee injury that could force him to miss the beginning of the 2017 season. There are other hitters available, from outfielders Josh Reddick, Dexter Fowler, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to first basemen Mike Napoli and Mitch Moreland to third baseman Justin Turner.
Ian Desmond, who resurrected his career with the Rangers in 2016, has established himself as a major league outfielder, but it's still possible that someone could sign him to play his original position, shortstop. The Rangers will make Desmond a qualifying offer ($17.2 million this year), so he could end up back in Texas.
The best all-round player on the free agent market might be outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who is expected to opt out of his deal with the Mets before Saturday to become a free agent again. The Mets would like to have him back, but there will be competition from several other teams.
3. Free-agent starting pitchers
It is a weak group, as weak as any year we can remember. Left-hander Rich Hill, age 36, is probably the best of the bunch (look for the Yankees to be involved for Hill). He has had injury issues the past two years, but starting Sept. 1, 2015, only Clayton Kershaw has a lower ERA than Hill. His curveball, with all its variations, is difficult to hit.
After him, there's Andrew Cashner, Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson, R.A. Dickey and a few others, but this free agent group is one reason that teams will try to improve their rotations through trades rather than signings.
This is the strength of the free-agent market. It is led by Aroldis Chapman, who throws 103 mph, is 28 years old and has a strikeout rate unmatched in major league history for anyone with 350 innings. Chapman was suspended 30 games at the beginning of the 2016 season under Major League Baseball's domestic violence policy and there could be some teams not interested because of that. Kenley Jansen might have more value than Chapman because of the way he pitched in the postseason, going more than one inning, entering in the seventh inning, showing flexibility and durability.
The way Jansen (and more importantly, Andrew Miller) was used in October will not change the way teams use their closers in the regular season, not with 162 games and so few off days. But Jansen (and Miller) might make teams a little less rigid about how they use their closer. There are other closers out there in free agency, including Mark Melancon. Even teams with a top-shelf closer, such as the Red Sox, might try to add another late-inning guy to simulate what the Indians had with Miller and closer Cody Allen.
The Giants are one team that badly needs a closer (30 blown saves in 2016).
The collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1. Twenty years ago, that would mean potentially really bad news, and perhaps a lockout or a strike. But the two sides -- the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association -- are so much less contentious than they were in the early 1980s and the mid-'90s when the game nearly imploded. And Manfred overseeing the process after being so closely involved in the past bodes well for a resolution without a work stoppage. Still, there are significant, complicated issues to study and discuss, led by strengthening the polices on domestic violence, performance-enhancing drugs, tobacco, etc. In the past year, many players, including stars such as Justin Verlander, have asked for stronger testing and punishment for PEDs.
Some other issues likely to come up:
- Then there is the issue of the schedule being shortened from 162 to 154 games. That still remains unlikely because fewer games would mean less money for the owners.
- There will be a huge discussion on roster size -- should teams be able to have 35-40 players active in September, or will teams be able to activate only 30 players each night?
- The union is expected to fight to abolish the qualifying offer, which acts, in a way, like the franchise tag in football. It can limit the movement of players due to the attachment of a draft choice, and it can delay the signing of a player deep into January.
- There could be major changes with the international draft, with a soft slotting system that simply didn't work over the past few years. An international draft is possible, but more likely there will be a more stringent slotting system with penalties that could cost teams players, roster spots or draft picks.
- There will be the usual debates on the minimum salary (currently $507,500) and the luxury tax ($189 million) as well as the future of the DH. It is ridiculous that the game has two sets of rules. Executives, players and managers from the National League mostly believe that the game is better without the DH, but the union isn't going to allow for the dumping of the DH because it often is a high-paying job. So, the status quo likely will remain.