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The MLB Hot Stove Is Already Here

There are no superstars, qualifying offers are depressing wages, and everything else you need to know about baseball’s free-agency period

Getty Images/Casey Moore
Getty Images/Casey Moore

The hot stove season, which begins today, is like the setup phase in a game of Risk: It takes three months to complete and allows each team to put the pieces in place for the actual competition. It’s also the only opportunity for a team to sidestep the complexities and long timeline of the draft and trade markets by simply paying sticker price for established players. You need a good setup man? Here’s a setup man — if you’ve got $6 million, you can drive him home from the lot today. No waiting, no games — I’m going to put you in a certified pre-owned Mike Dunn today.

It’s also — praise be to Andy Messersmith — the only time players can go out and be paid market value for their labor, after having their wages suppressed by amateur spending caps and the arbitration process for the first six years of their big league careers.

In other words, free agency is really important — important enough, in fact, for us to conjure an imaginary conversation partner for rhetorical purposes.

Hi, buddy. Let’s talk hot stove. When does the action start? Is it all going to happen in a matter of hours like the NBA and NHL?

No, this is going to take months. Yesterday wrapped up the qualifying-offer period — if a free agent had been with his team for the entire 2016 season, his team could offer a one-year contract for $17.2 million, and if the player turns it down (which he almost always does), his old team gets a compensation-round pick if he signs elsewhere. So, while all those offers are in already, the players have until November 14 to sign them. Then it’s another three weeks before teams have to tender contracts to players with less than six years of service time. We should see some big names sign by the end of the winter meetings on December 8, but there are usually at least a few significant free agents left by January, or even into spring training.

Who’s the biggest name on the market?

Probably Yoenis Céspedes, the car enthusiast and sometimes outfielder late of the New York Mets. Either he or Toronto’s Edwin Encarnación is the best hitter on the market, and by virtue of being three years younger and an outfielder, Céspedes is in a much better position to cash in.

Except Céspedes is in sort of a weird situation because of his relationship with the Mets. Before July 2015, Céspedes was an average to above-average corner outfielder whose power, throwing arm, and eyebrows made him something of a cult figure. He was cooler than he was good. Then he went to the Mets at the deadline and turned into Mecha-Céspedes —

Or Mech-spedes?

Don’t push it. But he had the best two months of his life and led the Mets to the World Series. Since the Mets are run by broke-ass suckers, it took a little bit of creative bookkeeping to get him back into the fold for 2016: A three-year deal with an opt-out after one season, which (in case you haven’t figured it out already) Céspedes chose to exercise. I can only imagine the Mets want him back, since he was by far their best hitter last year, but the big question is not fit, but whether the Mets can afford both Céspedes and the millstone of debt that the Wilpons have to service. The 31-year-old Céspedes has already declined a nine-figure contract to stay in New York once; I don’t know if he’ll do it again.

So those are two power hitters. What about starting pitchers?

Well, Rich Hill, when he’s healthy, is the best starter on the market, but he’s going to be 37 next year, and as alluring as his 202 ERA+ over the past two seasons is, he has thrown only 139.1 big league innings in that time. He’ll probably get a two- or three-year deal for between $15 million and $20 million a year, and considering everything he’s been through to get here, I couldn’t be happier for him.

Beyond that, we’re looking at Jeremy Hellickson or Jason Hammel as the next-biggest names out there.

Jason Hammel? You mean Cole Hamels.

No, I mean Jason Hammel. You know, the former Cub?

Get the fuck out.

I know. It’s a really weak crop of starting pitchers. There’s no David Price or Johnny Cueto out there like last year, and apart from Hill, who’s a unique case, you could argue that no free-agent starter this year would’ve been among the 10 best on the market last offseason.

Hellickson, who threw 189 innings with a 111 ERA+, was both healthy and effective last year, which he could not have said since 2012. And Hammel, despite being left off the Cubs’ postseason roster, and despite being 34 years old, has qualified for the ERA title with an ERA+ of 100 or better three years in a row. In this day and age, a reliable midrotation starter is a $15 million a year player, but I doubt either one will be the missing piece for a contender the way Price was supposed to be for Boston.

In fact, the best indicator of how weak this class is might be Iván Nova, who was hurt and/or terrible for the last two and a half years of his tenure with the Yankees. But in two months with the Pirates, under pitching coach Ray Searage, he posted a 137 ERA+ while walking only three guys in 64.2 innings. And here’s what the market thinks.

Last year, seven players got $100 million or more in free agency. I’d be shocked if more than one got that much this year.

That’s pretty bleak. So, what else is out there?

A lot of power hitters. Besides Céspedes and Encarnación, there’s Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, and Kendrys Morales, which makes it a buyer’s market for first-base/DH types. And weak as the market is for starters, it’s loaded with top-notch closers.

Kenley Jansen (Getty Images)
Kenley Jansen (Getty Images)

I count three pitchers — Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon — who could break Jonathan Papelbon’s record for richest contract ever for a relief pitcher (four years, $50 million and change), plus Boston submariner Brad Ziegler and several candidates for a bounceback year: l like Koji Uehara, Neftali Feliz, Brett Cecil, and (if he ever gets his velocity back) Greg Holland.

Jansen, Chapman, and Melancon are set to really ring the bell not only because they’re good, but due to two external factors: First, we’re going on three years now of the postseason proving how big of a weapon an elite closer can be. While a few years ago most relievers were seen as interchangeable, the pendulum’s swinging back the other way. How many GMs (either on their own or under pressure from ownership) watched Andrew Miller scythe through three of the best lineups in baseball, his slider gleaming in entrails like the scimitar of righteousness, and said, “I’ve got to get me one of those”?

The second factor is that even though the big free agents aren’t out there, the money to pay them still is. Baseball is still raking in billions of dollars every year, and while big money was once tied up in guys like C.J. Wilson, Matt Holliday, Ryan Howard, and R.A. Dickey, they and numerous other high-priced veterans are coming off their teams’ books. It’s got to go somewhere, and the player in this free-agent class who is best at his specific job is probably Chapman.

So, where else might teams find value?

Everyone will have his or her favorite sleeper pick, but mine is Luis Valbuena, who is entering his age-31 season and has very quietly posted a 114 OPS+ over the past three years, including a 25-homer season with the Astros in 2015. With the arrival of Yulieski Gurriel and Alex Bregman, the Astros have no further use for Valbuena, but he can play both infield corners and hit for power, and can probably be had for two years at less than $10 million per. You might be scared by Valbuena’s platoon splits (more than 200 points of OPS in 2014 and 2015), but as a left-handed hitter, he’d be playing the long end of the platoon anyway. I’d much rather spend that much on him than give José Bautista, for example, a longer deal for more than twice as much per year.

But the best value might come from one of three position players with complicated recent histories: Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, or Carlos Gómez. Desmond was the steal of last year’s free-agent class, rebounding from a disastrous walk year with Washington to make the All-Star team with the Rangers while transitioning from shortstop to center field. Even so, Desmond’s bat fell off a cliff in the second half, so while he enters this offseason in a better position to command a multiyear deal than he was in last year, he’s still not a sure thing. That uncertainty might give a team with cash to burn a chance to grab an above-average outfielder for something like back-end starter money.

Gómez, meanwhile, is the position-player version of Nova. He was one of the best players in baseball with the Brewers in 2013 and 2014, then spent a little more than a year in Houston that — between injuries, ineffectiveness, and the occasional racist hit piece from local columnists — could not have gone worse. But in 33 games with the Rangers at the end of the year, Gómez hit .284/.362/.543. That could be noise, but it could also be proof that a change of scenery helped — and someone will likely pay upward of $10 million to find out.

That leaves Ramos. I’ll admit to being higher on Ramos than most, but if he hadn’t torn his ACL in September, I think he would have been the best player in this free-agent class. Not only are catchers who can post a 123 OPS+ extremely rare, Ramos hits free agency at 29, which makes him very young for this class. But after blowing out his knee twice, Ramos will not only miss the first half of next year, he probably won’t be able to catch much longer, if he can even catch now.

But if he goes from being a poor man’s Buster Posey to a poor man’s Carlos Santana, that’s still a 29-year-old middle-of-the-lineup bat who might be able to transition to third base or an outfield corner instead of going straight to DH-land. And most importantly, the Nationals didn’t saddle him with a qualifying offer.

Wait, why’s that important?

Qualifying offers are the latest form of free-agent draft-pick compensation. The party line is that if teams can’t afford to pay top-level free-agent salaries, they’ll receive a high draft pick if one of their big free agents walks. That way, poorer teams don’t lose their best players for nothing. That’s the party line, at least, but what qualifying offers really are is a way to keep salaries down.

How do you know that?

Because every time MLB does something to transaction rules in the interest of “competitive balance” it’s a cover for paying players less. The draft, international-spending caps, free-agent compensation — all of these things either explicitly or implicitly reduce players’ ability to negotiate for higher salaries. Under current rules, a team that signs a free agent under a qualifying offer loses its first draft pick the next year, unless that pick is in the top 10. If this were just about making the player’s old team whole, that team could just get a compensation pick instead of the signing team losing its own first-rounder. The current system serves only to punish teams for signing high-priced free agents. In other words, transferring more money to owners’ pockets from the players, who are the only thing of value—

OK, Trotsky, we get it. What does that have to do with Wilson Ramos?

The cost of a free agent with a qualifying offer is not just money: It’s money, plus a draft pick. For certain free agents, that doesn’t matter very much. Last year, Zack Greinke got more than $200 million, draft pick or no, because he’s Zack Fucking Greinke, and there are only so many no-doubt $200 million superstars out there. It’s the guys the next level down who get screwed, because — to use an example from last year — you’d much rather give up just money for Ben Zobrist than give up money and a draft pick for Daniel Murphy or Howie Kendrick. (By the way: If Chapman ends up walking away with significantly more money than Jansen, this is going to be one of the primary reasons.)

This year, there is no Greinke — the entire free-agent class is second-tier guys who usually end up without a chair when the music stops and have to take a discount, return to their old team, or both. That makes Ramos attractive — he just costs money — perhaps so much so that it would offset his injury risk.

So, where’s Ramos going?

No idea. Any of these guys could end up anywhere. Check back in February.