- After an exciting postseason there are no shortage of interesting storylines to follow this offseason. Might Giancarlo Stanton get traded? Which team will land Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani? These are just a few of the several things to monitor this winter.
The calendar says there are 141 days until Opening Day 2018 (March 29), and about 97 days until pitchers and catchers report, depending upon your team of choice. We won't have much in the way of games to keep us occupied until then (unless winter ball is your thing), but the Hot Stove season should keep us warm nonetheless. What follows here is a look at 10 storylines that we’ll have our eyes on over the next few months.
Toss-ups in award season
By breaking their respective leagues’ rookie home run records, the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge are locks to win Rookie of the Year honors, but the rest of the BBWAA awards—whose finalists were revealed on Monday, with the winners announced Nov. 13-16—appear largely to be up for grabs. The Astros’ Jose Altuve probably has the edge over Judge in the AL MVP race, and likewise for the Indians’ Corey Kluber with respect to the Red Sox’s Chris Sale in the AL Cy Young race, but the NL is another matter.
Will this be the rare year that an elite hitter from a sub-.500 team, such as the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton or the Reds' Joey Votto, who finished first and second in the Baseball-Reference version of WAR, snatches the award away from a top bat on a playoff-bound team like the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt? Will three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw add a fourth on the strength of his league-leading 18 wins and 2.31 ERA despite missing six weeks due to a lower back strain, snatching a potential third award from Max Scherzer? Will the Twins’ Paul Molitor, the Rockies’ Bud Black and/or the Diamondbacks’ Torey Lovullo, who managed upstart teams to playoff berths, triumph over the pilots of their leagues’ heavyweight teams? There's plenty of intrigue to be had.
The next Yankees manager
After a season in which they fell one win short of a World Series berth, the Yankees' decision to part ways with Joe Girardi came as something of a surprise, in part because the rumor mill hadn't identified an obvious successor. Even a week and a half since the announcement, with the Red Sox (Alex Cora), Nationals (Dave Martinez) and Phillies (Gabe Kapler) having removed some of the next-generation options—younger leaders who can blend strong interpersonal skills with a fluency in analytics that meshes with the front office's vision—from consideration, it's not clear whether the Yankees are leaning toward internal options (such as bench coach Rob Thomson or Class A Tampa manager Jay Bell) or external ones (Giants coach Hensley Meulens, Dodgers TV analyst Jerry Hairston Jr. and special advisor Raul Ibanez, retired slugger Jason Giambi), only that GM Brian Cashman's preliminary list of 20-25 names will take time to work through.
A two-way star coming our way?
For more than a year, we’ve heard about Shohei Ohtani, "The Japanese Babe Ruth," who is eying a departure from Nippon Professional Baseball for MLB. The 23-year-old pitcher/DH was the NPB MVP in 2016, when he hit .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers and went 10–4 with a 1.86 ERA and 11.2 K/9. With his ability to reach triple digits with his fastball, a splitter and slider that both grade out as plus pitches or better, and a curve that’s at least average, scouts feel he’s more likely to be an elite player as a pitcher, a power righty for whom Justin Verlander is a common point of comparison. While scouts like his left-handed power and his baserunning speed, and believe he could be a legitimate offensive threat, teams might consider his bat as secondary—perhaps deploying him as a platoon outfielder or DH—because of the physical demands of pitching.
Alas, multiple obstacles to his coming stateside stand in his way, not including his recovery from right ankle surgery after being limited to 65 games overall and just five on the mound in 2017. That Ohtani is under 25 means that he's subject to international signing pool caps, so the most he could sign for would be $3.535 million (the Rangers' cap space) instead of a contract north of $200 million. What's more, the MLB-NPB posting agreement, via which a Japanese player's team (in this case, the Nippon Ham Fighters) would receive $20 million as compensation from the team that signs him, expired last week. If the two leagues can forge a new agreement and if Otani is so keen on getting to the majors that he forgoes a major fortune, he'll be the most interesting free agent on the market.
Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish headline a thin crop of free agent pitchers
With the decisions of the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka and the Giants’ Johnny Cueto not to exercise opt-out clauses in their contracts, this winter's free agent market doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of frontline starting pitching, Ohtani aside. At the head of the class is 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, whose 3.53 ERA was an eyelash away from doubling the mark of his hardware-winning season; a nine-start second-half run with a 1.59 ERA was interrupted by a hamstring injury that limited him to 10 1/3 wobbly innings in September and 10 2/3 good ones in October.
Darvish, though he made the AL All-Star team for the first time since 2014, rode a rollercoaster in Texas and Los Angeles; his combined 3.86 ERA was his worst mark since his 2012 rookie season. He looked great for a five-start run in September and October after the Dodgers tweaked his mechanics and repertoire, but an apparent pitch-tipping problem (not his first) led to his failure to complete the second inning in either of his World Series starts. If "would you want this guy starting Game 7 of the World Series?" is a litmus test for handing out a nine-figure deal, he could be in for a rough winter, but it's a big step down to the next tier of starters such as Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb.
The market for position players is even thinner
Not to take anything away from J.D. Martinez, who mashed 45 homers for Detroit and Arizona while hitting a combined .303/.376/.690 for a 166 OPS+ en route to the top ranking among the Reiter 50, but this year's free agent market doesn't offer a great deal of help beyond pitching. Via Baseball-Reference, just 11 free agents were worth at least 6.0 WAR over the past three seasons, meaning that they averaged 2.0 WAR, roughly the contribution of a league-average player. Of those 11, only Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are 30 or younger, so it’s fair to say that the class is much longer on stopgaps than building blocks.
Maneuvering ahead of next year's free agent crop
With Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both likely bound for free agency after the 2018 season, the moves of the Nationals and Orioles should be especially worth watching this winter as it's unlikely that either young superstar will grant their teams a hometown discount. Either team could get extra-aggressive in the free agent or trade markets, or we could see a shocking blockbuster (or two), though it’s also possible neither will be moved until next summer, if at all. The stakes aren't quite as high for the Blue Jays, but with star Josh Donaldson a year away from free agency, they could be another team looking at the coming year as the end of one competitive window or the beginning of another.
Derek Jeter's remake of the Marlins
Don Mattingly won't be the Yankees' next manager, and it's tough to imagine that new CEO/minority owner Derek Jeter will hand him his walking papers with two years remaining on his contract. But beyond that, the younger Yankees legend doesn't appear intent on winning any popularity contests as he settles into his new job. Jeter has his eye on reducing payroll from $115 million in 2017 to below $90 million or perhaps even lower.
That would mean parting ways with some number of the team's high-salaried veterans, including Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, Edinson Volquez, Martin Prado, Dee Gordon, Brad Ziegler and Wei-Yin Chen; many of those players offer superior alternatives to what’s on the free agent market. The biggest question, of course, is whether Jeter and company will trade their highest salaried player, Stanton—a move that could cast Jeter in a similar light as ex-owner Jeffrey Loria when it comes to breaching the trust of the team's fan base (such as it is).
A new home for Giancarlo Stanton?
No single move would pare the Marlins' payroll or generate the return in young talent as trading Stanton, who reportedly does not want to endure another rebuild. The slugger, who turns 28 on November 8, is coming off a year in which he led the NL in homers (59), RBI (132), SLG (.631) and WAR (7.6). But while his on-field value may never be higher, he's just starting to get expensive, with $295 million of his record-setting $325 million contract still to come; his salary will balloon from $14.5 million in 2017 to $25 million in 2018. Complicating matters is an opt-out after 2020, but that current chunk of change would be tough to forgo in favor of what's behind Door #2. The Cardinals and Red Sox have been most recently linked to Stanton, but one can't count out the Cubs, Yankees and Dodgers, big-money teams awash with the kind of young talent that would appeal to the Marlins.
A new slugger for the Red Sox
Though they won 93 games and the AL East for the second year in a row, the 2017 Red Sox lacked the offensive firepower of their predecessors, and not just because of the retirement of designated hitter David Ortiz. In a season featuring record home run levels, the Sox somehow finished last in the AL in that category despite spending half their games in their Fenway Park bandbox. For the first time since 1992, no Sox player hit at least 25 homers; Mookie Betts led the team with 24, with three other players hitting at least 20. It wouldn't matter so much except that the Sox ranked sixth in the AL in scoring (4.85 runs per game) and tied for 13th in OPS+ (92). Whether it's Stanton or Martinez or somebody else, Dave Dombrowski needs to restore some offensive firepower to the club.
Addressing the pace of play… and the ball
After falling six minutes from 2014 to 2015 (from 3:02 to 2:56), the average time of a nine-inning game has crept back up in each of the past two seasons, to the point that it was a record 3:05 this year. Reportedly, commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB Players Association had a positive conversation about pitch clocks in August, and some kind of implementation appears possible for 2018, perhaps as part of a multi-year rollout. That's not the only thing that would speed the game up, of course; rules to keep pitchers on the mound and batters in the box, and to limit mound visits, are worth discussing as well. No word yet on whether the commissioner and the players will discuss the state of the manufacturing and specifications of baseballs after back-to-back seasons with record-setting home run totals, and both scientific and anecdotal evidence suggesting changes to the ball despite MLB's denials.
The annual Hall of Fame voting
On Monday, the 10-candidate slate for the Modern Baseball Era Committee—the latest iteration of the Veterans Committee, for candidates whose primary contributions occurred in the 1970-87 window—was unveiled. Former union head Marvin Miller, who was snubbed so often that he asked the Hall to take him out of consideration near the end of his life, is most worthy of induction. BBWAA near-miss Jack Morris will probably generate the most discussion, but longtime teammate Alan Trammell is more worthy of the honor (as is Lou Whitaker, whose absence from the ballot is none too surprising). Those voting results will be announced on December 6.
Meanwhile, the writers' ballot will be announced on November 20. Former Braves dynasty staples Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, slugger Jim Thome, slick-fielding third baseman Scott Rolen and shortstop Omar Vizquel are the top newcomers, while Trevor Hoffman and Vlad Guererro both return having received at least 70% of the vote last year and five other returning candidates have netted at least 50% once. The writers have elected 12 candidates in the past four cycles, more than any time since 1936-39, but that shouldn't stop them from honoring another large class. Those results will be announced on January 24.