With the Yankees signing Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract on Wednesday, those who work in or cover baseball believe that offseason moves will begin happening again. What has essentially been a winter freeze since the holidays will now thaw out and we'll have news concerning the actual on-field product. Free agent signings! Trades! The Hot Stove is warming back up!
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in approximately three weeks, so there's still plenty of time to generate some offseason heat. As Joe Lucia points out, many top free agents remain to be signed. Last year's late signings of Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse also demonstrated that the offseason can roll into the spring as teams look at their rosters, see the open market working in their favor and decide to add some key pieces. The MLB offseason could really use some offseason activity that has to do with actual baseball.
During our weekly discussion on all things baseball, my friend Chris Cox asked me if MLB has had a good offseason. I answered more quickly than I anticipated. I really didn't even need to think about it. No, baseball has not had a good offseason. Maybe that no longer matters with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in three weeks. Next season is about to begin. Yet has there really been that much baseball-related news to get excited about recently?
We just went nearly an entire month without a major league player being signed to a contract. Nearly all of January has been filled with minor league contracts and spring training invitations. Mark Reynolds signing with the Brewers could have some significance, since Milwaukee was in such dire need of a first baseman. But he was still inked to a minor league deal and will have to win a job in spring training. This also meant that the Brewers wouldn't be trading for Mets first baseman Ike Davis, a move that had been anticipated throughout the winter.
Of course, if you're a Yankees fan, this has been a fantastic offseason. Adding Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka is a blockbuster winter haul. It could be argued whether or not this foursome will return the Yanks to contention in the AL East (something we'll surely be contemplating in the days and weeks to come). And losing Robinson Cano was a significant blow. But having the Yankees spend big money on top free agent talent brings a sense of normalcy to the Hot Stove season. In terms of spending, the so-called Evil Empire seems to be back.
Other clubs that are likely feeling pretty good about how the winter has progressed include the Rangers, who added two impact bats in Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. The Tigers unloaded Fielder's contract and set about trying to make their lineup more athletic and versatile (though that Doug Fister trade is still a head-scratcher). Oakland has been busy this offseason, overhauling its bullpen with four new relievers and making its starting rotation younger. The Mets signed Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, which should help the team improve.
By signing Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract, the Mariners tried to send a message that Seattle still matters in MLB and can be a destination for the best free agent hitters. The D-Backs traded for a much needed power hitter in Mark Trumbo, while providing the Angels with some payroll flexibility and a younger starting rotation. The Nationals bolstered their rotation with Fister, while also strengthening their bench and bullpen depth. In St. Louis, the National League champion Cardinals filled the biggest hole in their lineup by signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
So there has been some offseason sizzle to generate some excitement. The Mariners signing Cano and Yankees getting Ellsbury were two of the more unexpected moves of the winter, reminding us to expect the unexpected when it comes to free agency.
But by the end of 2013, the music of the offseason seemed to have died. Or at least it took a holiday vacation, like many of us did. The free agent market for starting pitching came to an abrupt stop while teams decided whether or not to make bids on Tanaka. However, current free agency rules requiring clubs to give up a first-round draft pick for those who received qualifying offers from their former clubs is not helping players such as Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana.
The wait for Tanaka may also have prevented a handful of blockbuster trades from happening. One of the most anticipated deals of the winter was the Rays trading David Price for a likely return of young major league talent and prospects. Yet as of right now, Price is still with Tampa Bay and at this point, it appears that he'll stay there. The Cubs' Jeff Samardzija is another top-of-the-rotation starter that could have been a significant addition for a contender. But after losing out on Tanaka, the Cubs may want to hold on to him.
Offseason activity coming to a halt created a vacuum that allowed off-the-field developments to creep into the news and discussion cycle.
Early January was dominated by the Hall of Fame debate. Voters who revealed their ballots that excluded PED users or other deserving candidates were ridiculed for their short-sightedness. Some longtime members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) with Hall of Fame votes chose to disregard anyone who played in the so-called steroid era, regardless of whether or not a player had actually been associated with PED use. The outrage and venom directed toward BBWAA voters as the voting process unfolded and the final results were revealed virtually overshadowed the accomplishment of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas being elected into Cooperstown.
Then there was Alex Rodriguez. If you asked a casual observer or non-fan about baseball over the past couple months, chances are those people heard more about A-Rod's PED suspension and his fight with MLB to overturn the ban than any other offseason activity. Baseball may have tried to lessen the impact of announcing A-Rod's suspension by releasing the news on Saturday. But that just gave fans and commentators two days to ramp up their feelings on the subject for the following Monday. Making things worse is that Rodriguez won't let the story die as he sues MLB and the players union to try and stop the suspension.
But now that the Hall of Fame vote has passed, A-Rod's suspension has been decided and Tanaka has signed with the Yankees, baseball can move on and look ahead toward the coming season.
MLB has finally implemented an expanded instant replay system. Naturally, that's invited some debate, especially among those who think more replay is going to slow the game down. (Personally, I wonder how much baseball those people have watched in recent years as manager-umpire arguments drag out over blown calls, while no resolution is reached.) However, the majority seem to be in favor of it, hoping that replay results in a better product. At the very least, arguing over instant replay's effect on baseball is a debate about what could happen on the field. And it shows just how deeply so many of us care about the game.
Yet we seem to have gotten through the dark part of this offseason all right. Photos and reports are beginning to circulate from Arizona and Florida as fields and complexes are prepared for the arrival of players. For the most part, teams have settled on the rosters they'll bring to spring training. There could still be some big moves made, but most clubs will sand off the edges or fill in some holes from here on out. Most importantly, baseball talk should be about baseball for the next couple of months. That's exactly what MLB and its fans need.