Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Hoornstra: Welcome to the off-season, metaphorically speaking

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Speaking at baseball’s GM Meetings in Las Vegas, agent Scott Boras used various forms of pun and wordplay to describe the markets for clients Jurickson Profar, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Nimmo, Sean Manaea, Josh Bell, Michael Conforto, Matthew Boyd, Carlos Rodon and Xander Bogaerts, documented across various reports Wednesday. Whether or not you believe “whoever Pixar guy will be the lucky one to finding Nimmo” constitutes humor, the message was clear: the off-season has arrived.

This off-season will be different than years past for several reasons, only some of which are by design. The intrigue begins with a free agent class headlined by several non-Boras clients and a hype video narrated, for some reason, by actor Jon Hamm.

Here are the key storylines to watch:

1. ‘Did I mention he hits for power?’

Trea Turner is arguably the best shortstop in a group that includes Bogaerts, Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson. The Dodgers got more than seven Wins Above Replacement from Turner after acquiring him at last year’s trade deadline, and they will be hard-pressed to replace that production if he signs elsewhere.

Turner probably didn’t need a sizzle reel to drum up interest around the league. Hamm, an avowed Cardinals fan, narrated one anyway. He and Turner are both represented by CAA, so Hamm did not have to go out of his way to mention that Turner hits for power.

The star-studded starting pitcher free agent class includes Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. Those three pitchers have combined for seven Cy Young awards, eight if Verlander claims the AL award this year.

None of them are the crown jewel of this year’s class. That would be Aaron Judge, who used his final year before hitting free agency to swat 62 home runs, an American League record. The slugger reportedly rejected a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension from the New York Yankees in favor of testing the market. It might be the best decision in the history of free agency.

2. New rules, unintended consequences

MLB instituted three big rules changes for next season: a penalty system for batters and pitchers who take too long between pitches, a ban on extreme infield shifts, and a limit on the number of times a pitcher can throw to first base with a runner on. In September, I wrote about the potential for these rules to effect unintended change on the game.

The changes coming to the game on the field will also affect how players are projected to perform in 2023 and beyond. How will slow-paced pitchers (like Kenley Jansen, a free agent) adapt to the new restriction on time between pitches? How will fast runners (like Turner) thrive with new rules making it easier to take a larger lead off first base? Will second base become a more demanding defensive position, favoring glove-first athletes over bat-first sluggers?

Of course, the answers to these questions have yet to be revealed, and that’s what makes them great. They haven’t existed long enough for front offices to reach a consensus. Players and their agents have complained for years that teams are essentially in lockstep with each other in how they value free agents, to the point where private accusations of collusion became commonplace. The new rules are a welcome monkey wrench in the system.

3. Expanded playoffs, shrinking incentives

A team that won 87 games and finished third in its division in 2022 just reached the World Series. If you’re the general manager of a team that won more games in a less competitive division last season, how much incentive do you have to improve your roster?

This isn’t a hypothetical question, and it didn’t crop up overnight. Take the Yankees. Their gradual decrease in spending relative to the league average has been well-documented, a source of ire for spoiled fans who are not content with a mere 30 consecutive winning seasons. And yet, what incentive does a Steinbrenner have to spend like, well, a Steinbrenner, when each playoff series is a crapshoot with near-even odds for all 12 participating teams?

The expansion of the field from 10 teams to 12 exacerbated an existing problem. A 99-day lockout interrupted last winter, giving front offices little time to react once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was in place. This is the first full off-season under the new playoff format, and I can think of one big way to Judge its effect on free agency.

4. The draft lottery cometh

The Winter Meetings in December will be the first to feature a draft lottery. MLB Network will televise the event on Dec. 6 from San Diego.

The first six selections in the 2023 amateur draft will be awarded to teams via a lottery that will shape the order of the top 18 choices overall. Every team that didn’t qualify for the postseason is eligible. Odds of being awarded the first pick range from 16.5 percent (Washington, Oakland and Pittsburgh) to 0.2 percent (Milwaukee).

It’s a gimmick, but it’s a good time to try it out. Attention on the draft has only grown over time. While the top amateurs might never be household names, the lottery is an easy way to generate interest in the college season among the affected major-league fanbases.

5. A potentially infamous Hall of Fame class

For the first time, the veterans committee ballot is deeper on talent than the regular Hall of Fame ballot distributed to all BBWAA voters.

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Rafael Palmeiro ― all Hall of Famers on paper ― will appear on the committee ballot for the first time after failing to gather 75 percent of the vote on the general ballot. Their path to Cooperstown is arguably easier now, needing only 12 people on the 16-member committee to vote them in.

However, the committee members tend to skew older than the average Hall voter, and older voters have historically been less forgiving of accused PED users than their younger peers.

The general ballot features holdovers Alex Rodriguez (himself a penalized PED user), Manny Ramirez, and few intriguing first-time candidates other than Carlos Beltran. Will the only player named in the Houston Astros cheating scandal be denied a chance of induction as well as a chance to manage the New York Mets?

Somehow I doubt it. You can’t spell “impediment” without “PED.”

Memo to Scott Boras: I’m available.

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