Just like that, baseball feels re-energized.
A professional sport must use its offseason, free of the skirmishes and controversies that emanate from physical competition, to boost its brand. The positive energy Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard created last July helps the NBA endure current in-season malaises like “load management” and declining TV ratings.
Baseball’s two previous Hot Stove campaigns proved nothing short of brutal, a seemingly endless wait for moves to get done — the biggest ones did only after spring training opened — that flamed tensions between the players and owners. Even as those tensions remain tangible behind the scenes, the massive transactions completed this past week, and those that preceded the winter meetings, have relegated such labor strife to the background.
Mark it as a big win for baseball. Of course, within the baseball community, you have your winter meetings winners and losers, the definitive version of which you have stumbled into right here:
1. Scott Boras. The super agent — his shine dented the past couple of years as high-profile clients such as Jake Arrieta, Dallas Keuchel and Mike Moustakas (twice) fell well short of expectations — put on a revenge tour for the ages. After finally taking care of Moustakas ($64 million over four years with the Reds) before anyone arrived in San Diego, Boras landed packages for Stephen Strasburg ($245 million over seven years with the Nationals), Gerrit Cole ($324 million over nine years with the Yankees) and Anthony Rendon ($245 million over seven years with the Angels) on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. We haven’t seen such remarkable orchestration since Walt figured out how to kill Gus on “Breaking Bad.”
Add up that quartet and you get $878 million, which means Boras’ remaining free-agent trio of Nicholas Castellanos, Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu must average a tick over $40 million apiece to get to $1 billion. Here’s betting he does it.
2. Yankees. Namely Hal Steinbrenner, who shut up those among his spoiled fan base that still mythologize his late father when he signed Cole to the record-setting agreement, and Andy Pettitte, who burgeoned his already platinum reputation by aiding with the sales pitch to Cole — don’t forget Pettitte turned down Derek Jeter’s offer last winter to join him and Jorge Posada with the Marlins, instead staying with his original team. After years of whiffs and passes, Brian Cashman’s roster has its unquestioned ace. Now all the Yankees — who also brought back Brett Gardner, a necessity — must do is win the World Series with Cole.
3. Phillies. They’re betting on upsides this winter: first Joe Girardi, then Zack Wheeler and now Didi Gregorius. I respect the strategy. Gregorius, signed at the meetings, comes on a pillow (one-year) contract after a rather discouraging return from Tommy John surgery in the middle of last season with the Yankees. His hard-hit rate and exit velocity offer signs of hope, as does the simple notion of the 29-year-old healing and improving with a full winter, and Gregorius’ ability to shape a clubhouse culture further increases his value. His willingness to play again for Girardi, furthermore, should bolster the manager’s credibility.
4. Josh Donaldson. With Rendon off the board, Donaldson becomes the top third baseman available. The Braves badly want to retain him, and the Nats, after losing Rendon, badly want to defend their championship and have more to spend. The Twins, too, want to keep pushing forward, and the Dodgers can afford to do whatever they want. The 34-year-old should be rewarded handsomely — my prediction that he’d get $75 million over three years feels like the floor — for his rebound 2019 in Atlanta.
5. The Hall of Fame. It’s a museum first and foremost, and this museum existed as woefully, embarrassingly incomplete as long as it didn’t hang a plaque for groundbreaking Players Association founder Marvin Miller. The Hall instantly and dramatically raised its credibility this past week thanks to Miller’s election by the Modern Baseball Era Committee, and the complaints of Yankees fans about Thurman Munson’s snub hold merit, those folks shouldn’t take out their frustration on Munson’s fellow catcher Ted Simmons, a worthy inductee in his own right.
1. Dodgers. Even for analytically inclined, logic-loving folks (like me), there’s no denying a club, particularly one that has repeatedly fallen short in October, can receive a jolt of energy from catching a big fish. The Yankees should enjoy that jolt when Cole enters the Steinbrenner Field clubhouse in February. The Dodgers, who suffered an upset loss to the Nationals in October’s NL Division Series, engaged with Boras on Cole, Rendon and Strasburg, only to fall short on all three. Their last hopes for a rush appear to be longtime rival Madison Bumgarner, now a free agent who doesn’t approach Cole’s or Strasburg’s ceiling, Donaldson or a trade for Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor. They should respect the jolt.
2. Astros. Surely they would’ve preferred to see Cole go to the Angels, though that would have meant facing him as many as six times per season. The Angels with Cole still would’ve faced many hurdles to clear. The Yankees, having fallen to the Astros in two of the past three AL Championship Series, look mighty dangerous with Cole aboard. Meanwhile, Houston tries to replace Cole’s production as it awaits likely significant punishment from Rob Manfred’s dual investigation into illegal sign-stealing allegations and the team’s conduct after assistant general manager Brandon Taubman verbally harassed a female reporter.
3. Cubs. They have sat out the free-agent sweepstakes with so much money already on the books, and after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014, they sound extremely open to trading one of their core players, with third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras the two most obvious pieces, to change up their vibe. No luck so far, though. Will replacing Joe Maddon with David Ross, a 2016 Cub, in the manager’s office suffice for a 2020 turnaround? It doesn’t feel like it will.
4. Yoenis Cespedes. OK, this is a cheat, as the Mets announced their restructured deal with Cespedes on Friday after returning home. Yet this impressive maneuver, the resolution of Cespedes’ fishy accident at his Port St. Lucie ranch in May, removed the Mets from the losers’ list after they spent the week seeing the Nats and Phillies pull off big moves, with the Braves being busier than anyone in November, and dodging as many questions about their budget, Steve Cohen’s impending takeover and new skipper Carlos Beltran’s potential discipline (for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal) as they answered about pickups Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha. The 2020 Mets look interesting, if nothing else, with the hope of Cohen and his billions coming shortly. As for Cespedes, his loss of approximately $35 million, with the chance to earn back about $10 million of that, goes down as one of the most mortifying developments in baseball finance history. Let’s hope he makes it back on the field to add some further spice to the situation.
5. English majors. If you love talking about drag, seam height and coefficient of restitution, then have I got a sport for you! The great “Juiced ball/de-juiced ball” saga of 2019 led to an extensive study of the baseballs, which concluded, essentially: “Yeah, the balls carry farther than they used to, and we’re not sure exactly why, so let’s do it all again and study them some more!” Ugh. Coming next year: A brand new batch of conspiracy theories and science lessons.