Top off-season storylines: Free agency, Hall of Fame voting, more

Who will take home this year's major awards? How will teams navigate one of the weaker free-agent classes in recent memory? And which retired greats will earn Hall of Fame honors? Here are the top 11 off-season storylines to watch.
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At this writing, there are 95 days days (give or take, depending upon your team of choice) until pitchers and catchers report and 143 days until Opening Day. While it's tempting to find a cave in which to hibernate—or at least a window simply to stare out and wait for spring, Rogers Hornsby-style—the hot stove season is already underway. Here are 11 storylines worth following as it heats up.

1. More toss-ups than usual for the major awards

Who (if anyone) will rob Mike Trout of that elusive second MVP award? Was Gary Sanchez's late-season power burst enough to overcome the substantial head start by Michael Fulmer for AL Rookie of the Year honors? Who's going to prevail in the wide-open AL and NL CY Young races? Those answers and more are coming very soon. On Monday, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the top three finalists for the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards in each league, the voting for which was completed by the end of the regular season. The Rookie of the Year winners will be announced on Nov. 14, with the managers, Cy Youngs and MVPs following on successive days.

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2. A small slate of qualifying offers

The free-agent season kicked off right after Anthony Rizzo caught the final out of the World Series, with teams making decisions on accepting or rejecting options. The deadline for teams to issue one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offers to their top free agents was Monday; if the players decline those offers and sign elsewhere, their former teams will receive draft pick compensation. Last year, a record 20 players received such offers, and for the first time, three—Brett Anderson, Colby Rasmus and Matt Wieters—accepted theirs.

Perhaps out of fear that a few of the more marginal players in question would bite, this time just 10 players received qualifying offers, the lowest number since the winter of 2012–13 (nine). The ten—Jose Bautista (Blue Jays), Yoenis Cespedes (Mets), Ian Desmond (Rangers), Edwin Encarnacion (Blue Jays), Dexter Fowler (Cubs), Jeremy Hellickson (Phillies), Kenley Jansen (Dodgers), Mark Trumbo (Orioles), Justin Turner (Dodgers) and Neil Walker (Mets)—have until Monday, Nov. 14 to decide whether to accept those deals or reject them and seek longer, more lucrative pacts. Among the players not receiving qualifying offers: Wilson Ramos (Nationals), Michael Saunders (Blue Jays), Edinson Volquez (Royals) and Wieters (Orioles), as well as anyone traded in mid-season; by rule, those players aren't eligible for qualifying offers.

3. A largely barren free-agent market for starting pitchers, but plenty of closers

Last winter offered plenty of high-end pitching—with established aces Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke and David Price on the market—as well as numerous secondary options, such as Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen and Mike Leake, all of whom received contracts worth at least $80 million. By contrast, with Stephen Strasburg signing a seven-year extension with the Nationals back in May and both James Shields and Scott Kazmir pitching poorly enough that opting out of their current contracts made little financial sense, this year's crop of starters is one of the weakest in memory.

There's nobody you'd pick to head a rotation; it’s possible that not a single one will receive a deal on par with any of last year’s top targets. Between age, injury history and inconsistent performances, what's out there is a grab bag full of risky choices such as Andrew Cashner, Bartolo Colon, Rich Hill, Doug Fister, Hellickson, Jason Hammel, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Ivan Nova, Volquez and C.J. Wilson. Some are coming off good seasons, but none reached 200 innings in 2016, and only two (Lewis and Volquez) did so in '15.

The closer market has more depth, with top-tier options Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon and Jansen all likely to net deals well over $10 million per year, the last of them even in spite of his qualifying offer. Less expensive (and riskier) options such as Santiago Casilla, Greg Holland (who missed all of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery), Fernando Rodney, Sergio Romo and Koji Uehara are also available for teams on tighter budgets.

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4. A slightly better market for free-agent sluggers, but enough shortages that trades could be in vogue

After leading the majors with 47 homers but playing such lousy defense (-11 DRS) that he was worth just 1.6 Wins Above Replacement, Trumbo is on the market and may well wind up playing for his fifth team in as many years. Even so, he won't come cheap, but after a season in which more homers were hit (5,610) than in all but one year (2000), power is in abundant supply on the open market. Encarnacion (42 homers), Mike Napoli (34), Cespedes (31), Kendrys Morales (30), Carlos Beltran (29), Brandon Moss (28), Turner (27), Ryan Howard (25), Saunders (24), Walker (23), Pedro Alvarez, Bautista, Desmond, Mitch Moreland and Ramos (all 22) are all available as well. Not every position is well-stocked, so expect players at key defensive positions (such as Walker and Turner) to get a lot of attention.


5. Trades could be in vogue, fueled by rebuilding in Chicago and Detroit

The upshot of having so few free agents of note available is that we could see a barrage of trades, as teams try to find matches to fill their needs and give hot stove followers much to debate with regards to who fleeced whom. Two clubs to keep eyes on: the White Sox and Tigers, both of whom have let teams know they’re willing to deal their top players and commit themselves to rebuilding programs.

Chicago has starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana under club control at very reasonable prices through 2019 and ’20 and outfielder Adam Eaton through ’21; closer David Robertson, third baseman Todd Frazier and outfielder Melky Cabrera could also move. Detroit has a mandate to cut payroll well below last year’s Opening Day mark of $198.6 million, though most of its expensive players—starting with Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera (under control through 2020 and ’25, respectively)—have partial or full no-trade protection. Keep an eye on Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez, who notably do not.

Other players who could be on the move: the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa; the Dodgers’ Howie Kendrick; the Yankees’ Brian McCann; and perhaps even the Rays’ Evan Longoria.

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6. Pushes to retain Cespedes and Encarnacion

On the heels of a midseason acquisition that helped propel the Mets to their first World Series appearance in 15 years, Cespedes signed a three-year, $75 million deal with an opt-out after the first year, which he exercised. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has expressed his desire to re-sign the 31-year-old outfielder, but the team will obviously have to make an even bigger commitment to keep him in the fold. It won’t help the Mets' cause that the Yankees and Nationals (who pursued him last winter) are also interested.

Meanwhile, both Encarnacion and Bautista salvaged their careers with the Blue Jays and became part of the modern-day Murderer's Row that helped them to back-to-back playoff appearances after 21 years of missing out; both hit iconic homers to carry the team to the next round. Bautista, who just turned 36, made plenty of noise about his contract demands last spring but suffered through a relatively subpar, injury-plagued season that will cost him millions; he's likely to move on. Toronto is making a push, however, to retain the going-on–34-year-old Encarnacion, who's said to be seeking a five-year, $125 million deal. Via Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, they'll have to compete with teams such as the Astros, Rangers and Red Sox—who need to replace retired icon David Ortiz—for his services.

7. A home for Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Members of Cuban baseball's "first family," brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (formerly "Gourriel") defected last February. The 32-year-old Yulieski was declared a free agent in June, signed a five-year, $47.5 million with the Astros on July 16, debuted in the majors on Aug. 21 and hit .262/.292/.385 with three homers in 35 games for Houston. Lourdes, however, did not sign, because his age (22) made him subject to international bonus pool spending rules that would have prevented some of the biggest-spending clubs from offering more than $300,000. He turned 23 on Oct. 19 and is now an unrestricted free agent.

Primarily a shortstop and outfielder, Gurriel will benefit from a market that is all but barren of the former, with Erick Aybar, Stephen Drew, Alexei Ramirez, Eric Sogard and Ruben Tejada representing the top names. Of that quintet, only Drew and Sogard were above replacement level in 2016, and they combined to start just 21 games at the position.

8. Completion of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, perhaps with an international draft

It's no coincidence that baseball is both awash in cash, with revenues approaching $9.5 billion last year, and amid the longest stretch of labor peace among the major North American sports, having avoided a stoppage since the players' strike that killed the 1994 World Series. The owners and players are getting along fairly well, generally speaking, and both sides are optimistic that a new CBA to replace the one expiring on Dec. 1 will be finalized without a work stoppage.

That said, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association still have several issues to resolve via negotiations, and they could lead to significant changes. The free-agent qualifying offer system could be tweaked with regards to its mechanics and to draft pick compensation, particularly given the union's concern about the way attached picks have limited the choices and mobility of mid-tier free agents who have been forced to settle for one-year stopgap deals (think Fowler and Desmond this past winter). What's more, MLB is pushing to implement an international draft, with one proposal calling for a two-day, 10-round draft in March 2018.

Such a draft is a particularly contentious issue, with the league wanting to seize more control of a "wild West" process that's see more than its share of abuse. Last month, Dominican trainers and players protested the prospect of an international draft by not showing up to MLB's Dominican showcase, forcing its cancelation, and the threat of further protests forced the league to nix an upcoming Venezuelan showcase as well. Numerous major league stars—including Encarnacion and Indians stars Carlos Santana and Carlos Carrasco—have spoken out against the draft on social media. Resistance is high because as with just about every change coming from the owners, the real goal is cost control; here, it would reduce the already minimal leverage of players who often hail from impoverished conditions. Despite those protests, some fear that the union will sell out the rights of those it does not represent in exchange for more favorable terms for its membership elsewhere, including changes to arbitration or free agency.

9. Pace of play and replay tweaks

Even though the instant replay system implemented in 2014 generally works, the spotlight of the postseason once again highlighted its quirks and shortcomings. It's unlikely that the current system of managerial challenges will be replaced by an eye-in-the-sky fifth umpire on the lookout for blown calls anytime soon, to say nothing of the arrival of robot strike zone judges (we can dream). On the other hand, there exists considerable dissatisfaction when it comes to the use of replay to determine whether a player momentarily lost contact with the bag, and more than anything else, complaints abound regarding the amount of time reviews take.

Indeed, pace of play is a concern in general. Six minutes were trimmed from the average nine-inning game time from 2014 to '15 (from 3:02 to 2:56) via initiatives that included mandating that batters keep one foot in the box at all times baring an established exception. But game times rose by four minutes last season despite new measures that included reducing the time between innings and limiting mound visits by managers and coaches to 30 seconds.

Pace of play is an ongoing pet project of commissioner Rob Manfred, who's willing to explore radical solutions such as limiting the number of pitching changes per inning and implementing a pitch clock. Don't hold your breath waiting for the former, but after watching Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez futz around endlessly on the mound during the postseason, the latter may be closer to happening than ever before.

10. The Hall of Fame voting

Curiously, the Baseball Hall of Fame chose Oct. 3—the day after the regular season ended—to unveil the first slate of candidates since reforming the process by which executives, managers and long-retired players are elected. The Today's Game Era ballot covers those whose biggest impact came from 1988 onward, and it's relatively mediocre with regards to the players on this year's bill, with Mark McGwire the only one with a particularly meaty case. More likely, we'll see former commissioner Bud Selig and longtime Royals and Braves GM John Schuerholz elected, and the 16th straight year without a living ex-player gaining entry via this oft-reformed process.

As for the BBWAA voting, the ballot for which will be sent out later this month: Jeff Bagwell (71.6% in 2016), Tim Raines (69.8%) and Trevor Hoffman (67.3%) are all on the precipice of election based on last year’s results, with Raines in his 10th and final year of eligibility thanks to the Hall's unilateral truncation of his eligibility period mid-candidacy. They'll have to compete for ballot space—which remains limited to 10 candidates despite this scribe’s efforts—with newcomers Ivan Rodriguez, Vlad Guerrero, Manny Ramirez and Jorge Posada, as well as holdovers Curt Schilling (52.3%), Roger Clemens (45.2%), Barry Bonds (44.3%), Edgar Martinez (43.4%) and Mike Mussina (43.0%), among others. The results will be announced on Jan. 18, with inductions in Cooperstown next July 30.

11. The World Baseball Classic

The fourth edition of the international tournament will take place March 9–22, with first-round games in Miami, Tokyo, Seoul and Guadalajara, Mexico. Second-round games will take place in Tokyo and San Diego, with the championship round in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. The Dominican Republic will defend its 2013 title; Team USA—which will apparently feature Max Scherzer—will shoot for just its second top-four finish (its first was in 2009); and both Israel and Colombia will participate for the first time after winning qualifying rounds in 2016. Expect the usual griping about which stars chose to bypass the 16-team tournament, but be grateful for competitive baseball in March amid a barrage of best-shape-of-his-life stories and photos of pitcher fielding practice.