Another year of baseball’s winter meetings has come and gone, and most of the top free agents remain available.
In addition to the two competing for the biggest contract — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — there’s Craig Kimbrel, who reportedly hopes to become the first nine-figure reliever, and potential closers Zach Britton and Andrew Miller. Among the available hitters are Nelson Cruz, Michael Brantley, A.J. Pollock, DJ LeMahieu and Marwin Gonzalez. A smorgasbord of talent is there for the taking, almost two months into the offseason.
All of them will sign sooner or later, just like in last year’s slow market. But the lack of movement during the annual meetings, which MLB Network televises almost nonstop, makes the affair seem anachronistic. How many times can you listen to reporters discuss the possibility of a J.T. Realmuto deal?
Only 16 official moves were announced during the three days in Las Vegas: six waiver claims, six signings, three trades and one player (Troy Tulowitzki) released. It was a snoozefest from start to finish.
“There’s a buzz today,” one TV host said on Wednesday, clearly trying to create interest with an absence of real news.
It makes you wonder whether the meetings are even necessary in this day and age, when team executives can text or teleconference with each other or with agents from their offices instead of traveling across the country to talk. Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski came up with a good idea, suggesting baseball should consider an offseason deadline for making moves, which would force teams and agents to work quicker to get things done.
“I don’t really know what’s happened where it has changed,” Dombrowski said, according to masslive.com. “It just doesn’t seem to be very important for people. I have suggested that the game needs to look at that.
“The reality is that if you’re a general manager or an assistant general manager, there is no downtime for people. … Everybody needs a break at some point. They need to change the rules or something where there’s some downtime. Every other sport has it other than ours. It goes longer and longer.”
The July 31 trade deadline is one of the best days in baseball. The winter meetings have become three of the dullest.
“It’s amazing how people work toward deadlines,” Dombrowski said.
Baseball’s luxury-tax threshold is $206 million in 2019 and rises to $208 million in 2020 and $210 million in 2021. That doesn’t give the Chicago Cubs much operating room the next three seasons unless they shed some salary, and it’s why they’re not expected to get into the mix for Harper, who was rumored last season to be interested in the Cubs, according to Peter Gammons.
The White Sox, on the other hand, are able to do whatever they want this offseason. They ranked 29th in payroll at $71.3 million before rosters expanded Sept. 1. The only team behind them was the Rays ($70.5 million).
Declining James Shields’ option and non-tendering Avisail Garcia gave them even more room to maneuver, which is why a Harper or Machado signing is a real possibility, even if both players are asking for a contract averaging $35 million or more.
It seems too early in the rebuild for the Sox to put all their eggs in one basket, but it’s not unprecedented. The Tigers signed premier free agent Ivan Rodriguez to a four-year, $40 million deal after a 119-loss season in 2003. Rodriguez said he thought the Tigers were on their way up.
“Pudge said to me: ‘I know that division. That division could be mine,’ ” Rodriguez’s agent, Scott Boras, said.
By 2006, the Tigers were in the World Series. Boras is also Harper’s agent.
Looking at the American League Central, Harper can see the Sox could contend sooner than later. Jeff Samardzija theorized in the spring of 2017 that the Sox decided to rebuild knowing that.
“Detroit is probably getting a little older, and Cleveland is hot right now,” Samardzija said. “So maybe let that train die down a little bit and then come in (and contend) in a couple years.”
Two years later, the Tigers are in the early stages of a rebuild, while the Indians have dealt Edwin Encarnacion and might have to deal Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber for budgetary reasons.
The Sox might not contend in 2019 or ‘20 even with Harper or Machado, but they definitely would narrow the gap with the Indians.
The Harold Baines Hall of Fame controversy reminds me of the days of the Nellie Fox Society, a group of Chicago attorneys who pushed the Hall candidacy of the popular former White Sox second baseman during the early 1990s.
A career .288 hitter and 12-time All-Star, the 5-foot-9 Fox won the AL MVP award in 1959 and was a good glove with elite contact skills, once going 98 consecutive games without striking out. Still, many writers considered Fox a borderline candidate — a very good player with a few great years — like many other stars.
In 1985, 10 years after his death and in his 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, Fox fell two votes shy of election. He was named on 295 of 395 ballots, or 74.68 percent — less than half a percentage point below the necessary 75 percent. It was a tough end to Fox’s candidacy, like losing a no-hitter with two out in the ninth.
Chicago Tribune baseball writer Jerome Holtzman tried to come to Fox’s rescue, arguing Fox’s vote total should be rounded up to 75 percent. Batting averages are rounded up, he said — a .2995 hitter would be listed at .300 — so why not Hall of Fame votes? Holtzman wrote an open letter to Hall of Fame president Ed Stack stating Fox’s case, requesting Fox be awarded “the customary mathematical reckoning: that 74.7 percent is 75 percent.”
Holtzman struck out. Three weeks later, the Hall of Fame released a statement saying the board of directors “expressed its sympathy in the Nellie Fox situation, but did not feel that it was proper to change the rules for election to admit any candidate named on less than 75 percent of the ballots cast.”
Fox finally became eligible again on a veterans committee ballot in 1991. By this time the Nellie Fox Society had been created, and the attorneys sent a five-page petition in the form of a legal brief to committee members. It looked like Fox was in the on-deck circle for the Hall, but the committee instead selected maverick owner Bill Veeck and Yankees second baseman Tony Lazzeri. Fox reportedly was three votes shy this time.
Five years later, Fox finally received the necessary 75 percent of a 15-member panel. But the rule at the time allowed only one inductee per year from the veterans committee, and because Jim Bunning got one more vote than Fox, the Phillies pitcher got the nod.
At long last, Fox got his reward when the veterans committee met again in 1997. Committee member Ted Williams said afterward he lobbied for Fox.
“I made a comment in the meeting that he was one of my coaches when I managed the Washington (Senators),” Williams said. “There was never a more bear-down, hard-nosed little guy than Nellie Fox. I’m just as happy as I can be that he’s in the Hall of Fame. He was a tremendous player and is very deserving. I know he took a lot of hits away from me.”
Baines’ selection sparked a debate over his stats and the presence of two of his friends, Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and former Sox manager Tony La Russa, on the voting committee. Baines’ great moment was marred, and the controversy isn’t likely to subside soon with BBWAA voting for the Class of 2019 due Dec. 31.
As the Fox saga suggests, few will remember this episode years from now.
Baines is a Hall of Famer, and no one can take that away.