Baseball's offseason started the moment the Red Sox' Koji Uehara struck out the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter for the final out of the World Series on Wednesday night, but there is no offseason for baseball fans or for us here at The Strike Zone. Here are the top 10 stories likely to be making headlines between now and the start of spring training, which is just three and a half months away.
1. Decline of free agency results in increased trade activity
There has been a significant shift in recent years as teams lock up their best young players via longterm extensions in advance of their free agency. As a result, fewer of the game's best players are becoming free agents in their prime. This year's free agent class still has its share of big names who will dominate the rumor mill -- most notably Robinson Cano, Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran -- but the youngest of that group, McCann, will turn 30 in February and the drop-off is steep after the top tier.
At the same time, the reduced threat of star players departing as free agents and the increased chance of a playoff berth with the addition of the second wild card resulted in a very quiet trading deadline during the season, meaning most teams have yet to cash in their top trade chips. The likely result is that some of the most significant players to change teams this offseason will do so via trade, just as Choo, R.A. Dickey, Wil Myers, Jose Reyes, James Shields and Justin Upton, among others, did last offseason.
A few of the names to keep an eye on for the trade market this winter include Reds All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips, Twins outfielder Josh Willingham and Rays pitcher David Price. Speaking of Price . . .
2. A potential David Price trade
The 2012 American League Cy Young award winner won't be a free agent until after the 2015 season. Still, as a Super-Two player, he is entering his third year of arbitration and coming off a $10.1125 million salary that was a record for a pitcher in his second year of arbitration. The low-budget Rays (only the Marlins and Astros had a lower Opening Day payroll this year) are well-stocked with starting pitching: Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Archer are established in their rotation and Jake Odorizzi, who will turn 24 in March, appears ready to join them.
Having seen former rotation mates Matt Garza and James Shields dealt ahead of their free agency in recent years, Price is steeling himself for a trade, which, given that he is a 28-year-old lefthanded ace and recent Cy Young award winner, could be a blockbuster. Jay Jaffe will have a detailed post on Monday examining some of the possible landing spots for Price, but the Rangers and Nationals -- both title hopefuls with intriguing prospects -- will be two to keep an eye on, along with the Pirates, Dodgers and Cubs, among others.
3. Clayton Kershaw's extension
Speaking of young, lefthanded Cy Young award winners, the time has come for the Dodgers to pay Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, who is likely to win his second Cy Young award in three years for his stellar work in 2013, turns 26 in March and is due to be a free agent after the 2014 season, but there's no way Los Angeles' new ownership is going to let that happen.
The two sides came close to a deal this summer before talks broke down, and with the distraction of the season gone, you can fully expect a deal to get done this winter. When it does, it will be the richest pitching contract ever, besting the $180 million, seven-year extension Justin Verlander signed with the Tigers in March, and very likely exceeding $200 million in total value.
4. Masahiro Tanaka to be posted under new system
Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball are expected to announce a revised posting system in early November, and once that system is in place, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old righthander, is expected to be the top player posted. The new system is not expected to be radically different, but there are at least two potential changes worth noting. The first would allow the player to choose among the top bidders, rather than being forced to negotiate solely with the MLB team that won the posting rights from the Japanese team by virtue of having the top bid. The other would give a second bidder an opportunity to sign the player if the first is unable to work out a deal.
Whatever the new system, Tanaka is a Yu Darvish-level prize. In a NPB season in which a livelier ball was introduced, he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and just six home runs allowed in 212 innings. The Dodgers and Yankees are considered the top candidates to land him.
5. Managerial holes to be filled
The Reds and Nationals have already announced their new managers by naming pitching coach Bryan Price and former Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams to the respective positions. The Phillies extended interim skipper Ryne Sandberg in late September. That leaves the Tigers, Cubs and Mariners still conducting their searches.
There is also continued speculation surrounding Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly, whose 2014 option vested with L.A.'s Division Series victory. Mattingly made it clear at a tense press conference with general manager Ned Colletti last week that he doesn't want to manage the team in 2014 as a "lame duck" on a one-year deal, having effectively been in that position this season and, reportedly, come very close to losing his job before the team's midseason turnaround. The Dodgers fired his bench coach and friend, Trey Hillman, the day after that presser. Mattingly's agent has said that the skipper will honor his contract but continue to seek an extension.
6. The BBWAA Awards
The annual Baseball Writers' Association of America awards will be announced live on MLB Network the week of Nov. 11. First up that Monday will be the Rookies of the Year, followed by the Managers of the Year on Tuesday, Cy Youngs on Wednesday and Most Valuable Players on Thursday. (I'll have full Awards Watch coverage before and after each announcement.)
Several of those major awards should be hotly debated, including NL MVP (Kerhsaw vs. Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen), NL Rookie of the Year (Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez vs. Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig) and, especially, AL MVP. Once again, that award should come down to Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Cabrera, the game's best hitter, is likely to win for the second straight year despite the fact that the 22-year-old Trout may have been more deserving both times because of his all-around brilliance.
7. Rules changes and implementation of expanded instant replay
The format for expanded instant replay for the 2014 season was announced after the owner's meetings in August, but there are still a lot of details to work out about exactly how the system will work, what will be reviewable and in what situations calls on the field can be overturned. As my batterymate Jay Jaffe discussed earlier this month, replay could wreak havoc when it comes to such things as the neighborhood play at second base, or this play from the NLCS in which Yadier Molina had the ball and made a lot of contact with Mark Ellis well ahead of the plate, but didn't appear to actually tag him with his glove.
There have also been indications that a long-overdue change in how the game handles home-plate collisions could finally occur. The next of the owners' quarterly meetings, at which all this will be discussed, will take place on Nov.13 and 14.
8. The ongoing legal battles between Alex Rodriguez and Major League Baseball
It was a pleasant surprise that the arbitration hearing concerning Alex Rodriguez's appeal of his 211-game suspension for his alleged involvement with the Biogenesis clinic wasn't a distraction during the postseason. The hearing, originally scheduled to take place over just three days, took a one-month recess after Major League Baseball closed its case on Oct. 18. It will start back up on Nov. 18 with Rodriguez's attorneys making their case, and the verdict will be due within 25 days of the hearing's eventual end. That means the decision is likely to come down some time in December.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez has filed a lawsuit against baseball and commissioner Bud Selig in federal court. A hearing in the U.S. District Court covering the procedures for that suit has been scheduled for Nov. 7.
9. Robinson Cano and the Yankees' luxury tax target
Rodriguez's status for the 2014 season will have a direct impact on the Yankees' ability to spend. That means it will also impact several of this offseason's top free agents, including Cano, McCann, Beltran and Tanaka, all of whom are said to be among New York's top targets this winter. If Rodriguez is indeed suspended for the entire 2014 season it would reduce the portion of the Yankees' 2014 payroll that counts against the competitive balance tax by $27.5 million (the average annual value of Rodriguez's contract).
Either way, New York is poised to be major players this offseason in a way it wasn't last winter. With Nick Swisher and Russell Martin having departed last year, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera having retired (taking another $27 million off the books) and Curtis Granderson, Hiroki Kuroda, Kevin Youkilis and Phil Hughes joining Cano in free agency, the Yankees have just $84 million committed for 2014, and that's with Rodriguez's salary included. That gives the Yanks plenty of leeway, even under the $189 million tax threshold.
Cano, meanwhile, is reportedly seeking the largest contract in major league history, but there won't be a lot of suitors who can meet his demands. The Phillies (Chase Utley) and Red Sox (Dustin Pedroia) re-signed their own star second basemen during the season and the Dodgers, having signed Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero to play second base and anticipating their own record-setting contract with Kershaw, may be out of the bidding before it begins. The Tigers, who fell short of the World Series and have an opening at the keystone, could step in to drive up Cano's price and possibly steal him away from New York.
10. The Hall of Fame ballot and results
Last year, for the first time since 1996, the BBWAA failed to elect a single player to the Hall of Fame, the result of both an overstuffed ballot and the electorate's misgivings about performance-enhancing drug use during the careers of many of the top candidates. That was unfortunate, in part because there were many deserving candidates and also because the failure to clear any of them off the ballot has made this year's even more crowded.
Among the players making their debut on the ballot this year are Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent, each of whom has been described as a future Hall of Famer at one point or another. They join a group of candidates that includes (in no particular order) Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, Fred McGriff, Jack Morris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Don Mattingly and, in his last year of eligibility, Jack Morris.
It doesn't take much effort to find more than the maximum 10 players to vote for from among those named above. The resulting lack of consensus due to the surplus of legitimate candidates, once again combined with PED concerns, could result in another undersized class (though, at the very least, Maddux should be a shoo-in even among that group). That would make things even worse for 2015 when Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield join the fray.