Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 21, 2017

The Hot Stove Is Steaming

The Hot Stove League is in full swing. While most of the leading free agents are still engaged in their ritual mating dances with various general managers, there have already been significant transactions that will help define the Great Game’s 2018 season. Even as team executives were descending on Orlando for the Winter Meetings earlier this month, Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani named the Angels as his chosen team, and the Marlins and Yankees agreed to terms on a trade that sent 2017 home run king Giancarlo Stanton and most of his massive contract to the Bronx in exchange for second baseman Starlin Castro and two minor league prospects.

Either of those deals would qualify as the lead story of many off seasons; this year they share top billing. Fans in Anaheim and New York were ecstatic, while those in Miami were decidedly less so. The ongoing fire sale that new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter is conducting has quickly turned the Yankee icon into a pariah on South Beach. In addition to Stanton, Miami has traded infielder Dee Gordon to Seattle and outfielder Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis, with more gutting of the major league roster still to come.

This week Jeter held the first of several planned meetings with season ticket holders, where the future Hall of Famer encountered both anger and tears from his team’s faithful. Those reactions are understandable. It’s hard to get excited about paying major league prices to watch what’s likely to be at best a AAA lineup. But Jeter and majority owner Bruce Sherman have not been coy about their near term plans for the franchise. Part of their $1.2 billion purchase price was the assumption of $400 million in debt incurred by previous owner Jeffrey Loria, an untenable amount for a team that regularly sits at the bottom of baseball’s attendance rankings.

The question is what comes next, and whether the ingénue executive even has a plan for rebuilding the Marlins. Fans in Houston and Chicago endured 100-loss seasons while management rebuilt those franchises. Their eventual reward was getting to attend the last two championship parades. It remains to be seen whether Jeter is following what has quickly become the accepted method of building a winner for teams without bottomless pockets, or if his only concern is the bottom line.

Marlins fans can take some comfort in knowing that theirs is not the only team facing a difficult season of rebuilding, indeed not even the only team in the Sunshine State. This week Florida’s other franchise, the Tampa Bay Rays, traded third baseman Evan Longoria to San Francisco. Longoria made his major league debut in a Tampa Bay uniform on April 12, 2008. Any player with ten years of big league service and five years with the same club is granted 10 and 5 rights, fancy language for a full no-trade clause. The face of the Rays was scheduled to hit that milestone a few days into next season, making this the last chance for the team to control any trade of Longoria.

Principal owner Stu Sternberg surely didn’t miss what had just happened across the state, where Stanton exercised the no-trade provision in his contract to block Jeter’s attempts to move him to both the Giants and Cardinals. Still the reality is that the trade of Tampa Bay’s career leader in games, home runs, RBIs, runs, walks and assorted other categories, along with rumors that other front-line players are available for the right package of prospects combine to send a clear message to Rays fans that their team is looking beyond next season.

Most of the media focus has been on these big names, and that will continue to be true over the coming weeks as the list of free agents steadily dwindles. Headlines will announce the signings of starting pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, of reliever Wade Davis, and of sluggers J.D. Martinez and Jay Bruce. But this year’s offseason also has stories from the fringe, including two of players contemplating comebacks that seem either unlikely or laughable, depending on how harshly one chooses to react.

First came the word, originally reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that Rafael Palmeiro was hoping for an invitation to Spring Training. While he had 3,020 hits including 569 home runs over a twenty-year career that began with the Cubs and included two stints with both the Rangers and Orioles, one can understand Palmeiro aching for a shot at redemption. His career ended ignominiously with a 10-game suspension for a positive steroid test, just months after he had testified to Congress that he had “never ever used steroids, period.”

But Palmeiro is 53 years old, and last played in a major league game in 2005. The oldest everyday player in MLB history was Julio Franco, who was 49 when he retired in 2007. The notion that Palmeiro’s middle-aged reflexes could match up well against the heaters favored by many of today’s moundsmen seems farcical.

Then within the past couple days came the reemergence of Tim Lincecum. The right-hander burst onto the scene like a fiery meteor streaking across the sky, winning the National League Cy Young Award in both of this first two full seasons with the Giants. But like that space rock Lincecum burned as quickly as he did brightly. By the end of 2015 his career with San Francisco was over, after he posted a losing record and an ERA of 4.17 over the preceding five years.

Twenty months ago, after multiple postponements, Lincecum pitched in front of representatives for several teams, hoping to find a spot with one of them. Eventually the Angels signed him, but after running up a 2-6 record and an ERA over 9.00, he was released in the middle of the 2016 season.  His whereabouts since have been something of a mystery, until a notably more muscular Lincecum was seen working out this week. The promise of another pitching showcase is now in the air, as the hurler known as the Freak apparently still hopes to find a roster spot. As Yogi said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

As absurd as the idea of Lincecum or especially Palmeiro ever again wearing a major league uniform may seem, their stories do remind us that through all its history one of the Great Game’s elemental qualities has been hope, the sense of possibility. That is what fuels the Hot Stove League. Hope is why, despite the anger in Miami, Marlins Park will not be empty next season. It is why fans in Tampa who will still wear Longoria jerseys to games are busy imagining what veteran Denard Span or top prospect Christian Arroyo, the two main pieces coming to the Rays in the trade, might do for their team. Possibility is the currency of baseball in winter. At the December solstice, the daily grind of the longest season seems distant. But it is out there, the hard test that always proves not all hopes can be realized.

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