From a loaded free agent class to a star-studded awards race to a jam-packed Hall of Fame ballot, here are the biggest storylines to watch during what should be a compelling off-season.

By Cliff Corcoran
November 03, 2015

The 2015 Major League Baseball season may be over, but baseball never really stops, and neither does our coverage of it here at From the hot stove to the Hall of Fame voting, here are just a few of the things we will be following in the mere 3 1/2 months until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Florida and Arizona.

1. Free agency and other player movement

The centerpiece of every off-season is the work each team does to restock, reload and/or rebuild via trades and free agency. Each off-season brings its share of blockbuster trades, but while we may not be able to anticipate those, we do know who the top free agents on the market will be. This year’s class is led by aces David Price, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann; outfielders Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes; and infielders Chris Davis, Ben Zobrist, Howie Kendrick and Ian Desmond. To that lot, we can likely add National League Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke, who can opt out of his contract with the Dodgers this fall and is a near lock to do so.

For World Series champion Royals, busy, important off-season awaits

Speaking of which, the exclusive window for teams to negotiate with their free agent players ends on Saturday. On Friday, teams must decide whether or not to make qualifying offers—valued this year at $15.8 million for one year—to those players. Free agents who decline those (their decisions are due Nov. 13) and sign elsewhere will net their former teams draft pick compensation and cost their new teams their top unprotected pick in the 2016 draft.

In past years, qualifying offers have had a deleterious effect on the market value of mid-level free agents. Most notoriously, Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew were forced to sit out the first two months of the 2014 season when no team was willing to part with a draft pick in order to sign them. That was not the case last year, as no player appeared to have the timing or size of his new contract impacted by compensation. This will be the fourth off-season under the qualifying-offer system of compensation; in the last three years, no player accepted a qualifying offer, though several wound up signing identical deals later in the winter.

2. Extensions and arbitration

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Not all of the transaction news involves players changing teams. Every off-season brings its share of nine-figure extensions for young players, as well as dramatic arbitration raises for players who have not yet reached free agency. Among the players eligible for arbitration this January are likely American League MVP Josh Donaldson, likely AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel and NL Cy Young contender Jake Arrieta. Also up for raises: Lorenzo Cain, Matt Harvey, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Chris Archer, Stephen Strasburg, A.J. Pollock, Dee Gordon, Brandon Crawford, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Fernandez, Kenley Jansen, Jeurys Familia, Lucas Duda, Mark Melancon and Mike Moustakas. Some of those players will land multi-year extensions rather than one-year arbitration settlements. Some may even be traded as a result of their rapidly rising salaries, as Donaldson was last year.

Arbitration is also the primary motivator for teams to decline to tender contracts to increasingly expensive players who haven’t enjoyed the success of those listed above; this year’s deadline to tender contracts to players still under team control is Dec. 2. One player who seems like a lock to be non-tendered is former Royals closer Greg Holland: He made $8.25 million this past season, will reach free agency a year from now and had Tommy John surgery on Oct. 2, meaning he won’t pitch at all in 2016.

3. Management hirings

In bizarre turn, Nationals hire Dusty Baker, not Bud Black, as manager

In the wake of the Nationals hiring Dusty Baker as their new field manager, there are still two prominent management positions that remain vacant: The Dodgers have yet to replace Don Mattingly in the dugout, and the Blue Jays have yet to replace general manager Alex Anthopoulos in the front office. Toronto and new team president Mark Shapiro have tabbed assistant GM Tony LaCava as their interim GM, but have said they intend to replace LaCava with a permanent hire. In Los Angeles, Dodgers director of player development Gabe Kapler is considered the leading candidate to replace Mattingly, though the list of candidates also includes Padres bench coach Dave Roberts, University of Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad, Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, current Dodgers coaches Tim Wallach and Ron Roenicke, Mets bench coach and former Athletics skipper Bob Geren and former Padres manager Bud Black, who was briefly believed to have landed the Nationals job.

4. The BBWAA awards

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America will hand out its annual awards the week of Nov. 16; I will have full Awards Watch coverage of the candidates and the results. This year offers a host of compelling races, with likely NL MVP Bryce Harper and Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant as the only sure things. Most compelling of all will be the NL Cy Young vote, where strong arguments can be made on behalf of Greinke (19–3, 1.66 ERA), Arrieta (22–6, 1.77 ERA) and the winner of the last two NL Cy Young awards, Clayton Kershaw (2.13 ERA, 301 strikeouts). The awards results will be announced live on the MLB Network, with the Rookie of the Year winners being revealed on Nov. 16, the Manager of the Year selections on Nov. 17, the Cy Young results on Nov. 18 and the MVPs on Nov. 19.

5. The Hall of Fame ballots and results

Newcomers to this year’s Hall of Fame ballot include Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. Griffey is a lock, with Hoffman likely to be inducted as well. The relatively thin first-year class, at least compared to the last two years, could also create room for Mike Piazza (named on 69.9% of the ballots last year), Jeff Bagwell (55.7%) or Tim Raines (55.0%) to reach the necessary 75% required for induction.

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For Raines, this will be a crucial vote, as this is his penultimate year on the ballot due to the rule change enacted last year that cut a candidate's period of eligibility from 15 years to 10. Raines’s support has grown significantly in the last eight votes, with his share increasing nearly 9% last year despite a crowded ballot which yielded four inductees (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio). A comparable jump in each of his final two seasons could lead to his induction in 2017, but he—as well as Alan Trammell, who is in his final year on the ballot and has no real chance of induction after receiving just 25.1% of the vote last year—deserved to go in years ago. All of that said, I still count roughly a dozen candidates who I’d be willing to vote for (I am not yet eligible), meaning big-Hall voters will still have to leave candidates they support off their ballots.

This year’s veterans committee ballot is comprised of ten pre-integration candidates, of whom slick-fielding shortstop Bill Dahlen is the most deserving. The results of the pre-integration ballot, which will be voted on by a 16-member committee, will be announced on the first day of the winter meetings in Nashville on Dec. 7. The results of the BBWAA ballot will be announced on Jan. 6, live on the MLB Network. As he does every year, Jay Jaffe will have full JAWS coverage of both the BBWAA and pre-integration ballots leading up to those announcements, as well as reactions to the results.