Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2016

Time To Fire Up The Hot Stove

The final out of the final game has been recorded, and a victory parade more than a century in the making has wound its way through the streets of Chicago. But the Great Game like every other sport is in the news all year round in this age of 24/7 media coverage. This week marked the beginning of awards season, with top individual performances recognized with Golden Gloves and Silver Sluggers, while the Players Choice Awards recognized the late Jose Fernandez of the Marlins as the NL Comeback Player of the Year.

Lest one think the recognition was merely a nod to sentiment, it should be noted that the voting by players took place in mid-September, before Fernandez was killed in a boating accident late in the month. After losing most of two seasons to Tommy John surgery, the 24-year old was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeouts as the time of his death. Next week come the announcements of the BBWAA’s annual trophies – MVP, Cy Young, and Manager and Rookie of the Year.

Ultimately more important than hardware, the Hot Stove Season also got underway this week with the start of free agency, almost before the street sweepers in Chicago were done cleaning up the detritus from the Cubs party for a couple million or so of their fans. The champion Cubs will look to strengthen a lineup that dominated the most recent season from start to finish, while twenty-nine other teams will be trying to figure out what moves will give them the best shot of challenging Chicago for pride of place in baseball’s pecking order next year.

While it would be highly unusual for the first few days of free agency to produce any news of an imminent blockbuster signing or multi-player trade, there have already been two stories worthy of mention. The first was the list of prospective free agents extended qualifying offers by their current teams. While the system may change with the advent of a new collective bargaining agreement in the near future, the current qualifying offer mechanism allows a team to offer a player a one-year deal equal to the average of the top 125 major league salaries. This year that average jumped to $17.2 million, up from $15.8 million last off-season. If the player declines the offer and signs elsewhere as a free agent, his now former team receives draft pick compensation.

The concept is simple. A team that may not want to extend or be able to afford a rich multi-year offer can try to retain a player’s services with a lucrative short-term deal while at least assuring that if their star walks the franchise gets something in return. The player in turn has the chance to make a very good salary for one season while retaining the option of free agency just twelve months later. But up until last year it was a simple concept that didn’t work, because not a single qualifying offer had been accepted since the mechanism was put in place in 2012. It had come to be seen as just a means of depressing the value of any free agent saddled with the offer, since all potential new employers knew that signing him carried with it the cost of a draft choice.

Then last year Dodgers’ starter Brett Anderson, Orioles’ catcher Matt Wieters and Astros’ outfielder Colby Rasmus became the first players to accept qualifying offers. Their decisions to do so breathed new life into the system, and ultimately showed that when it works it imposes risks on teams as well as players. While Wieters performed about as expected for Baltimore, Rasmus was plagued by injuries and finished the year barely batting above .200. The news was worse in Los Angeles, where Anderson never made it through Spring Training before requiring back surgery. For their investment of nearly $16 million, the Dodgers got just four late season appearances from Anderson, and in those he had an unsightly 11.91 ERA.

Perhaps because of those cautionary tales, the number of qualifying offers extended by clubs plummeted this year, from the record twenty of last November to just ten. The two highest profile players on the list are slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets and closer Kenley Jansen, who saved 47 games for the Dodgers. Odds are this year the system will revert to form, with it more likely than not than none of the ten players tabbed by their current teams will opt for the one-year, $17.2 million contract. Perhaps the new CBA will produce a mechanism that does a better job of balancing the interests of teams and players.

The other news of note involved not $17.2 million, but $7.5. That’s the amount of the one-year deal that pitcher R.A. Dickey inked with Atlanta on Thursday. That might sound like a lot of money to throw at a 42-year old who posted a 10-15 record with Toronto and was left off the Blue Jays playoff roster, but it may actually be a good fit. In the economics of the game that is not a huge contract for a starting pitcher, even including the club option for 2018 at $8 million. And as a knuckleballer Dickey is one of those rare pitchers who could conceivably be relatively effective well into his forties. He’s an innings eater, have thrown more than two hundred five seasons in a row prior to dripping to 169.1 in 2016. For a team in the midst of a rebuild like Atlanta, Dickey might well serve as a veteran bridge until younger prospects are ready to join the rotation.

The 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner is also one of the more cerebral players in the Great Game, and author of “Wherever I Wind Up,” a compelling memoir. The only pitcher who will never have to worry about Tommy John surgery, because his right arm doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, made it to the big leagues against the longest of odds. Now he gets to finish his career with a franchise that’s a relatively short commute from his Tennessee home. Dickey may not have another Cy Young season in him, but the Great Game has always in part been about its characters. The knuckleballer is certainly one of those. It’s good news for baseball fans that he’s not done yet.

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