Hot stove time: What will be the biggest stories this offseason?

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The carpet of the visitor’s clubhouse down in Texas is still wet with bubbly and the Giants are still several hours from having their hangovers kick in, but it’s never too early to think about what’s next. That’s especially true this year with the free agency season getting into full swing so soon after the season starts.  If previous years are any guide we can expect the unexpected. But before  fate, karma, juju, the whammy and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle take over the hot stove season, let’s take a quick look at what will likely be the biggest stories this offseason:

  • Albert Pujols’ deal:  Yes, there may be more ink spilled about Cliff Lee, but the Cardinals locking up Albert Pujols to a long term deal is easily the biggest task facing any team this winter, and the one with the greatest implications for baseball.  He’s under contract for 2011, but the Cards would be insane to let him get to spring training without locking him up. Why? Odds are he won’t negotiate during the season and if he gets to next fall without a deal being struck, he’ll almost certainly test the open market. If that happens the best case scenario is that it would cost St. Louis tens of millions of dollars, as no small number of teams would likely get in on the bidding. Worst case: Pujols walks and the Cardinals are left as a smoking crater of a baseball team. It took the Indians 35 years to get over the Rocky Colavito trade. Who knows how long losing El Hombre will keep the Cardinals down, psychologically or otherwise. Either way, this needs to get done now.
  • Cliff Lee’s free agency: The Yankees obviously have their heart set on the guy. The Rangers have talked a big game about keeping him in Texas. Even Lee’s wife has gotten in on the act.  Ultimately, however, where Cliff Lee pitches next year is going to depend on (a) his wishes, not anyone else’s; and (b) the Benjamins.  While it’s always wise to bet “the field” in a 30 horse race, the fact of the matter is that about 25 of the horses don’t have the giddyup  to stay in the Cliff Lee Derby. I would have a hard time predicting him ending up anywhere but New York, but I suppose stranger things than the Yankees not getting a coveted free agent have happened.  I just can’t think of what they are at the moment.
  • The inevitable Prince Fielder trade: It’s dangerous to say that a trade is definitely going to happen. Just look at the Adrian Gonzalez stuff from last year. He didn’t go anywhere despite the fact that all the big media websites were messing with their graphics to change his cap and uniform in their file photos as early as December.  With that caveat out of the way, Fielder does look poised to go. He too faces free agency. He’s represented by Scott Boras, who has already suggested that he’s expecting Mark Teixeira money.  The Brewers are highly unlikely to pay Fielder that kind of dough, so their best bet is to trade him.  It’s an open question as to whether one can get better value for an in-season trade to a desperate contender at next year’s deadline or during the offseason when more teams can picture themselves competing the following year, but rest assured there will be tons of Prince Fielder rumors flying between now and when pitchers and catchers report.
  • The McCourt divorce and the fate of the Dodgers:  We can expect a decision from the judge presiding over the Frank and Jamie McCourt divorce any day now, but no later than Thanksgiving. If he rules that Frank is the sole owner, the Dodgers will likely see little turbulence going forward. At least not related to the divorce. If he rules, however, that Jamie is the co-owner, Katey bar the door, because we’re going to have a mess on our hands, most likely involving a sale of the team to satisfy what will be a hefty divorce settlement.
  • Derek Jeter/Mariano Rivera:  Both are free agents, and both are almost 100% certain to return to the Yankees. But for how much? And how long? And even if there’s no doubt about any of that, if you think the matter isn’t going to be analyzed to the nth degree in the media, you’re crazy.
  • The direction of the Mets:  This will be an ongoing story, as the second banana in the Big Apple appears to be on the brink of a major overhaul.  Sandy Alderson is in place as the new GM, and if he was truly promised a free hand in running the team, expect big changes, because he sees the world a little differently than Jeff Wilpon does.  The first order of business will be the new manager, but there will be all manner of personnel decisions this winter. They may not all change the Mets’ 2011 roster that much, will have lasting implications for the direction of the team.
  • Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth’s new home: They’re different men, but I include them together because where one of these big ticket free agents signs will almost certainly impact the other.  It’s a thin offensive free agent class out there once you get beyond these two, so competition will be fierce.  If it helps, think of this as Glengarry Glen Ross: the winner gets the Cadillac (Crawford). Second place gets steak knives (Werth) and third place gets fired.

Those are the biggies as far as I can see, my friends. Let’s chat about it all — including my unfortunate but dramatically necessary comparison of Jayson Werth and steak knives — in the comments.  If you have nothing to say, at least start a fire in the stove, pour yourself a beverage and enjoy baseball’s crazy season with the HBT Crew.

Astros vs. Dodgers is a match made in heaven

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A lot of people who work at the league office or who take paychecks from the Fox network probably wanted to see the Yankees and the Cubs in the World Series. They won’t admit it, of course, but I suspect that many did, as the ratings for a Cubs-Yankees Series might’ve broken modern records. If they are at all disappointed by the Astros and Dodgers winning the pennant, however, they should let that go because they’ve been gifted by a wonderful matchup from a purely baseball perspective. Indeed, it’s one of the best on-paper matchups we’ve had in the Fall Classic in many years.

Before the Dodgers went on their late-August, early-September swoon, this was the potential World Series pairing most folks who know a thing or two wanted to see. At least I did, and I don’t think I was alone. It was certainly the matchup which represented the teams with the two best regular season records and storylines at the time. While Cleveland ended up winning more games than Houston did, for the first time since 1970 we have a World Series pitting two 100-win teams against each other.

Like that Orioles-Reds series in 1970, which featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and a host of other All-Stars, the Dodgers-Astros provide us with an embarrassment of big names and future Hall of Famers. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw and Astros DH/OF Carlos Beltran are destined for induction already. Astros ace Justin Verlander may very well join them, especially if his late 2017 surge is evidence of a second career peak. Houston second baseman Jose Altuve‘s first seven years and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen‘s first eight are the stuff upon which Cooperstown resumes are made as well. People will be arguing Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley‘s Hall of Fame case for years once he retires.

Youth is served as well in this matchup, with each club featuring a handful of the game’s best young players to accompany their big name veteran stars.

The Dodgers will bat their no-doubt N.L. Rookie of the Year first baseman Cody Bellinger second or third in the lineup every game. 2016 Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, who sat out the NLCS with a bad back, is expected to be activated for the Series where he’ll be the Dodgers shortstop. The Astros are actually an old team on paper — Verlander, catcher Brian McCann, starter Charlie Morton, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, outfielder Josh Reddick and DH Evan Gattis are all over 30 while Beltran is 40 — but young players are essential to their attack as well. Shortstop Carlos Correa just turned 23 and he’s one of the game’s brightest stars. Third baseman Alex Bregman, also 23, made the play that may very well have broken the Yankees’ back during Saturday night’s pennant clincher. Age aside, the Astros are the product of a major, multi-year rebuild and many of their players are making their first national splash this postseason.

Beyond just the names and resumes, though, the Dodgers and Astros represent a fantastic strategic matchup. The Dodgers attack this postseason has featured admirable plate discipline, with third baseman Justin Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and center fielder Chris Taylor all letting balls out of the zone pass them by while abusing pitches left out over the plate. Astros pitchers not named Justin Verlander, however, have lived by getting the opposition to chase bad balls. Game one starter Dallas Keuchel did this by relying on his very fast sinker. Lance McCullers pitched well starting Game 4 of the ALCS and pitched spectacularly closing out the final four innings of Game 7 mostly by virtue of his curveball, which Yankees pitchers could simply not lay off. Indeed, his final 24 pitches of Game 7 were all curves, many of them low and away. Who will give in first in this series?

On the side of things, Dodgers relievers have made a living by pumping in strikes. Particularly strikes high in the zone from Jansen and Brandon Morrow. There may be no better fastball hitter in all of baseball than Jose Altuve, however, and the team as a whole was one of the best in the bigs in dealing with gas in the zone. This was a big reason why the Astros struck out less than any team in baseball this year while simultaneously boasting the best offense in the game. The Dodgers throw strikes. The Astros make you pay when you throw them strikes. Again, something’s gotta give.

Maybe the suits in New York wanted the Yankees and Cubs. But everyone else is getting exactly what we want: a matchup of the two best teams in the game. A matchup of strength against strength. What is, from a purely baseball perspective, the best World Series we could’ve possibly hoped for.