Hot Stove Cooling

Now that the Kansas City Royals have won the World Series and MLB general managers have met in Florida last week, the Hot Stove season has officially kicked off.  One can sense the excitement, almost giddiness, of baseball fans as they fantasize about the possible personnel moves forthcoming over the next several months affecting their favorite teams.  This excitement can be seen throughout baseball sites and blogs, especially as comments from site readers have significantly increased.  Some fan blogs, such as South Side Sox, a site for White Sox fans, go so far as to give readers the opportunity to layout their own offseason plans as if they were the general manager of their favorite team.  While it is an amusing exercise, much of the plans submitted read as nothing more than the fantasies of naive folks lacking any knowledge of the business of baseball with little to no understanding of market forces and the personalities of those really in charge.

Admittedly I’m no better than other fans, as I too get giddy thinking of all the possibilities over the next few months.  And I too have thought about the direction my favorite team, the White Sox, can take when it comes to specific free agents or trades and what the roster will look like come Opening Day.

As an example, I’ve lately had many a sleepless nights thinking about the Sox starting catcher situation.  Obviously I have first world problems, but it is not an odd one to have for a Sox fan.  Currently the Sox have catcher Tyler Flowers, who, according to Pitch Framing statistics, was the best catcher in the American League in 2015.  However as I see it, Flowers’ overall numbers including both offensive and defensive metrics such as caught stealing percentage (not to mention the good ol’ eye test), reveal that a significant upgrade is needed.  It could be argued that Flowers is an above average catcher when compared to the rest of the majors and it would behoove the Sox to focus on other areas of concern (there are quite a few).  Yet having one of the taller midgets behind the plate is a terrible situation for, arguably, the most important position on the field, especially for a team looking to contend.  It’s no coincidence that the game’s top catchers (Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Salvador Perez, Russell Martin) consistently have their teams in the playoffs (and usually winning).  This year’s World Series MVP was none other than Perez.

A player that, for all intents and purposes, fit the Sox catching hole going into the Hot Stove season was Matt Wieters.  Although Wieters had been oft-injured the last few seasons, with Tommy John surgery occurring in 2014, there was a lot to like for a team such as the White Sox looking for a significant upgrade behind the plate.  When healthy, the switch-hitting Wieters showed consistent ability and power from both sides of the plate, not to mention one of the strongest arms to match his defensive skills.  And because of his injuries, his stock was significantly down, with early rumblings that the Baltimore Orioles would not even make a qualifying offer this offseason (they ended up doing so).  A buyer’s market would ostensibly put a small market team, even the White Sox, in the running for his services.

My sleepless nights, however, were all for naught as Wieters became one of three to accept the qualifying offer last week, the first three to ever do so.  Yet before history was made, my desire for the Sox to upgrade with Wieters was assuredly never going to happen.  This certainty boiled down to the simple fact that Wieters is a Scott Boras client.

If you hadn’t heard, the White Sox don’t deal with Scott Boras.  Even though there was a reasonably thought out possibility for the White Sox to acquire someone like Wieters before he signed his one year deal, I didn’t account for forces behind the scenes that we fans are usually not privy to, forces such as the personalities of those making the deals and signing the contracts.  Through the years, we fans have come to know that Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf notoriously doesn’t deal with super agent Boras for the simple reason that Boras drives the price up on his clients.  For a small market team like the White Sox, Reinsdorf’s policy is a little understandable, as there would be considerable financial risk on doling out big money.  The Sox history of free agent signings exposes a hesitancy in making big splashes, with first baseman Jose Abreu’s deal of $66 million being their biggest ever – a rather meager amount compared to the rest of the major contracts seen from the last decade.  Whether Reinsdorf is right or wrong in his spending philosophy, Boras and his clients are simply never welcome.

Where is Boras welcome?  Two places that come to mind are Detroit and Washington, evident by all the Boras clients that have signed there.  It would not have been surprising if Wieters ended up in one of the two places if he had turned down the qualifying offer because of the team histories with Boras.  Since Wieters would have been coming from Baltimore, Washington was the more likely of the two to be the landing spot.  The Nationals also had been reported to be looking to upgrade at catcher as well.

When we fans excitedly start mapping out our offseason plans, we overlook the fact that personalities of players and their agents as well as their relationships with team front offices and ownership can be major factors in the free agent market.  As an example from last season, the White Sox signed first baseman Adam LaRoche, a deal which to many seemed liked a head scratcher and, as the saying goes, out of left field.  Sox GM Rick Hahn, in offering a rationale for the signing, explained the move from two perspectives.  First, LaRoche clearly had talent.  Specifically he had a strong left-handed bat (26 home runs the year before) and Gold Glove caliber defense that could compliment the right-handed hitting Jose Abreu, who displayed below average defense at first as well as noticeable fatigue towards the end of the previous season.  Second, and arguably more importantly, LaRoche had the personality that could fit with the rest of the team.  Hahn said of LaRoche: “Quite frankly, part of the appeal [was] his presence in the clubhouse…it was appealing what he could bring to the clubhouse and the leadership he could provide.”

The relationships of players and agents to teams are not the only important factor this offseason, but also the relationships among front offices of competing teams.  For example, Sox GM Hahn reportedly has a good working relationship with now Oakland Athletics’ GM David Forst, which accounted for the Jeff Samardzija trade last December.  Future trades between those two teams seems not only possible, but likely.

During these cold winter months, we fans can dream big when it comes to talent we’ve seen on the field, but reality is sometimes dictated by the personality of players, front office folks, owner and agents, and this traditionally remains unknowable behind the MLB curtain.  At most we get snippets through the media, but most of this is nothing more than highly spun and marketed information.  What better way is there to play on our fantasies and quench our thirst for information than using the media to drive the hype?  When millions of dollars are involved in player contracts, free marketing is quite valuable in keeping us fans giddy and excited for the new season.

And while we suffer and wait, we are teased with important dates such as the official start of free agency (November 2nd), the owners meetings (November 18th-19th), the tender deadline (December 2nd),  and the baseball winter meetings (December 7th-10th).  In between these teasers, there is sprinkled news of free agent signings and trades.  It is a time of “what ifs” and endless possibilities that re-energizes our team brand loyalties, with us forgetting the miseries of the season before.  All of us, that is, except Royals fans.  We drool at the possibility of a below average player on our favorite team being replaced with a Jason Heyward, David Price or Zack Grienke.  For a brief moment, it seems that every team, even our favorite, has a chance.  The hype machine is in full force during the Hot Stove season as MLB exploits our dreams and excitement to carry us through the cold winter, ensuring that we are lining up at the gates on April 3rd.

Just be prepared for disappointment.

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