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10 storylines to follow throughout the rest of the MLB offseason

The slow free-agent market has made this MLB offseason a rather quiet one. Here are 10 storylines to hold you over while we wait for spring training.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the good, old days — or three years ago, really — the MLB offseason generally had begun to wind down by January, with a large chunk of the activity after the New Year either being trades or players signing minor-league deals with spring training invites. But in today’s marketplace, we’re roughly five weeks away from spring training camps getting underway and there are still plenty of question marks. The data-driven, emotion-free philosophy to roster management that was popularized by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and further brought to the forefront by the accompanying film reigns supreme and heavily influences the actions of all 30 front offices (several prominent executives — Jeff Luhnow, Farhan Zaidi, and Michael Girsch among them — were quite literally inspired to enter the field by Moneyball) and as a result, the offseason moves at a glacial pace as teams try to wait out the market. When you factor in the knowledge that several agents, most notably Scott Boras, operate with the idea of waiting as long as possible to secure the money they think their clients are worth, it’s basically a perfect recipe for offseason boredom. We’re going three or four days between relevant moves being made, and over 100 legitimately major-league-caliber free agents remain on the market as this article is being published.

With that in mind, here are 10 storylines to watch during the post-New Year portion of the offseason — ones that will hopefully keep you interested until the MLBPA (probably) decides to generate headlines again by holding its second annual free-agent spring training camp next month:

  • The Harper/Machado saga finally coming to an end

Remember last offseason, when we felt like that “Where Will The Marlins Trade Giancarlo Stanton?” storyline was the one that just wouldn’t go away? Multiply that by about 100 times for the Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free agency discussion this offseason. As if the near-daily discussion of their impending free agency for over a year leading up to them hitting the market wasn’t enough, it’s now been nearly two-and-a-half months since they officially became free agents, and neither one has signed yet. It’s safe to say pretty much everyone would prefer to get it all over with at this point — Harper and Machado would like to find out who they’ll be going to spring training with next month, executives would like them to make their decisions so that they can proceed with the rest of their offseason plans, and plenty of fans are ready for some different topics on sports TV and radio (and Twitter might be a slightly more peaceful place without people rage tweeting all day, every day about how their favorite team isn’t seriously pursuing one of the top two free agents on the market). With players theoretically controlling their own destiny on the free-agent market, it feels easy to criticize the players for dragging out their decisions so long and effectively holding the rest of the market hostage. Harper and Machado aren’t totally at fault, though (and perhaps don’t even deserve a lion’s share of the blame). As 26-year-old free agents who have done some great things and theoretically still have upside, they rightfully want to get as much money as they can and find the right fit on the market, and it seems as if there aren’t a whole lot of teams willing to give them that right now: Only the Phillies, White Sox, and possibly the Yankees have been reported as serious suitors for Machado, and Harper may have fewer than that, with the Phillies and Nationals being the clubs most bandied about as suitors for his services in recent weeks. While it had been speculated for years that both Harper and Machado could be the first free agents in MLB history to receive guarantees of over $400 million, it now seems quite clear that that won’t be the case. Instead, we’re simply left to wonder whether they’ll crack the $300 million threshold that only Giancarlo Stanton has surpassed — and he did that through an extension, rather than going through the open market.

Eventually, they’ll have to make a decision — there’s been talk that Machado will pick his new team within the next week, and one would think that Harper will make his choice no later than Boras’ biggest client of last season, Eric Hosmer, did — news of his his eight-year deal with the Padres broke on February 17. One would hope that if nothing else, a domino effect is created by Harper and Machado finally coming off the board, allowing guys like A.J. Pollock, Nick Markakis, and Mike Moustakas to get the interest from clubs that they’ve seemingly failed to generate to this point. In the meantime, it will be fun to see the non-monetary efforts teams keep making in an effort to recruit Machado.

  • Will the trade market pick back up?

As the offseason began, there were rumors about more than a few All-Star caliber players possibly being on the move via trade over the winter. J.T. Realmuto, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, Mitch Haniger, Whit Merrifield, and even Kris Bryant were among the prominent players mentioned as potential trade candidates during the early part of the offseason. Obviously, we know that not every move that is rumored about ultimately comes to fruition — some reporters choose to tweet out every small piece of info they hear, some throw things out there in order to gain trust with sources, and some are just straight-up fed misinformation at times. But after the first few weeks of the offseason, it really did look like it could be a fruitful winter of trades, as former All-Stars such as Paul Goldschmidt, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, Yan Gomes, Jay Bruce, Alex Colome, Aledmys Diaz (and another All-Star caliber starting pitcher in James Paxton) were all dealt before the Winter Meetings even got underway. But since the Meetings — ironically, the event that used to really kick the offseason into full gear — began, the trade market has become ice cold. Tanner Roark was dealt to the Reds during the summit of front-office personnel, and the Mariners, Indians, and Rays made a move on the final day of the Meetings — essentially amounting to a salary dump for Seattle and Cleveland — that sent Edwin Encarnacion to the M’s and Carlos Santana (along with former Ray Jake Bauers) to the Tribe. But otherwise, the trade market in Las Vegas was eerily quiet, and it’s largely remained that way in the month since then, with change-of-scenery moves sending Yonder Alonso to the White Sox, Jurickson Profar to Oakland, Domingo Santana to Seattle, and Keon Broxton to the Mets — plus another salary-dump-type deal between the Dodgers and Reds that sent Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood to Cincinnati — being the only trades that have been particularly notable.

It’s not as if we need all those players listed above to be dealt in order for this to feel like a successful offseason (in fact, it’ll probably be remembered as a bad one even if they all do), but with all the media coverage that has been devoted to potential deals for Realmuto, Kluber, and Bumgarner in particular, it’s going to feel especially disappointing if they all stay put. With Yasmani Grandal — the only starting-caliber catcher who still remained unsigned — signing with the Brewers late Wednesday night, Realmuto’s trade market could start to heat up again, and the same could happen for Bumgarner and Kluber once Dallas Keuchel agrees to a deal (though to be fair, they’d be major upgrades for pretty much any club, regardless of where Keuchel ends up). On the other hand, all of those potential trades would likely make those players’ teams significantly worse than they already are, so maybe we should root for all the competitive balance we can muster?

  • Veteran major-leaguers having to settle for minor-league deals

We see it every year: Well-known major-league names having to settle for minor-league deals as they try to play their way onto rosters in spring training. With prospects being valued more than ever — and therefore taking up more 40-man roster space than ever as teams try to protect their most precious young assets from the Rule 5 Draft — this is happening more and more, and we’re sure to see plenty of it this year. Last year, we saw high-profile veterans such as Brett Anderson, Bartolo Colon, Derek Holland, Wade LeBlanc, Wade Miley, Jeremy Hellickson, Tyler Clippard, Mark Reynolds, Mike Napoli, Adam Lind, Gregor Blanco, Melby Cabrera, and Rajai Davis have to settle for minor-league contracts, and while most of them ultimately ended up playing in the big leagues in 2018, the lack of financial commitment and the extra roster flexibility in spring training was certainly a plus for the teams that were able to sign them to no-risk deals.

In a very odd move, we already saw Gorkys Hernandez — who finished second in home runs (15) on the 2018 Giants — sign a minor-league contract with the Red Sox back in December, and in recent days and weeks we’ve seen veteran big-leaguers like Davis (for the second year in a row) and Luis Avilan agree to non-roster deals. We should see that market explode as we move into the second half of January, and it’ll accelerate even more as teams try to build up some last-minute depth just prior to camps opening in mid-February. (As an aside, the slow market and uptick in minor-league deals for veterans were a plus for local beat writers last spring, as they were able to walk into the spring training clubhouse early in the morning, see a new locker for a guy they’d heard of before, and beat the national reporters to a scoop. They’ll likely be in for plenty more scoops next month.)

Some veteran big-leaguers who seem like they may have to settle for a minor-league deal include Reynolds (for a third straight year), Anderson (for a second straight season), A.J. Ramos, Ryan Madson, Jason Hammel, Doug Fister, Hunter Strickland, Caleb Joseph, Drew Butera, Neil Walker, Alcides Escobar, Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, Cameron Maybin, Jose Bautista, and Hunter Pence.

  • A feisty debate over Hall of Fame voting

Confession: I wasn’t going to include this highly-predictable storyline that consumes an otherwise-boring week of every single offseason, but then the 10th storyline that I was going to write about — the extremely slow-moving second-base market — was essentially resolved within less than 24 hours, as Brian Dozier and Jed Lowrie came off the board on Thursday and DJ LeMahieu suddenly became the subject of numerous rumors. So instead, we’ll look ahead to the Hall of Fame announcement, which will be a bit more subdued than it’s been for the past few years. Based on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracking, which is reporting at roughly 40 percent at press time, we’re extremely likely to see Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay enter the Hall on their respective first attempts, while ballot veterans Edgar Martinez (10th and final ballot) and Mike Mussina (6th ballot) also appear on track to gain the 75 percent needed for induction. Beyond those decisions, which are all non-controversial ones involving players that almost everyone likes and respects, the biggest Hall of Fame week topic is likely to be an extremely polarizing and tiresome one: Whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will ever get the votes necessary to enter the Hall. With Clemens tracking at 73.9% and Bonds at 73.3%, it appears that both are making the strides necessary to do so by their respective 10th and final years on the ballot — though they both seem to experience a dip in the final results every year as the ballots of older, more conservative voters who don’t pre-reveal their votes are factored in. It’ll be interesting to see where Bonds and Clemens stand after all the ballots are tallied.

Andruw Jones has a slight chance to fall off the ballot in his second year of eligibility, but the other players who have received votes and are likely to fall off the ballot — Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Michael Young, and maybe Andy Pettitte — aren’t going to inspire nearly as many arguments as worthy candidates like Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton, Jorge Posada, Jim Edmonds, and Johan Santana who fell off the ballot early did in recent years. Likely having two closers and two DHs in the same induction class (Rivera and Martinez, along with Veterans’ Committee inductees Lee Smith and Harold Baines) will be fun, and it’ll be bittersweet to see Halladay elected just over a year after his tragic death. But for the most part, it’s largely set to be a predictable, non-controversial year of Hall of Fame voting (aside from the Baines controversy that took place following the committee vote last month), and that’s kind of unfortunate during such a quiet offseason.

  • Greater insight into how much “The Opener” trend will spread in 2019

GMs and managers have been talking the talk regarding “The Opener” strategy, first popularized by the Rays, all offseason. Numerous executives — and even old-school managers like Ron Gardenhire and Bruce Bochy — have expressed a willingness to use the strategy when questioned about it this winter, and the way they’re talking about it, “The Opener” seems primed to be much more widespread in 2019 than it was last year. Will they walk the walk, though? Teams obviously still highly value good starting pitching, as the top two highest-paid free agents in terms of total value this offseason (Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi) have been starting pitchers, as well as three of the top five when you factor in J.A. Happ. Seven of the 20 players to receive contracts with a total value of $15 million or more have been starting pitchers, and the Angels were willing to spend a combined $20 million on a pair of guys coming off bounce-back seasons in Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey. After signing Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal, getting Brent Honeywell, Jose De Leon, and Wilmer Font back from injury, and returning Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Jake Faria, it seems as if the Rays may not need to rely on The Opener much if at all in 2019, despite Kevin Cash saying at the Winter Meetings that the strategy will remain in use. it seems as if the Brewers and Athletics may be the only teams that are firmly committed to embracing the strategy on a regular basis next season, and it’ll be interesting to see how much teams use it in 2019 now that so many of them have made efforts to replenish their rotations this offseason. Ultimately, it may come down to how much teams believe in the benefit of having a hard-throwing bullpen arm face the top of the order to start the game, as opposed to teams using it because they simply don’t have enough major-league-caliber starting pitchers to fill out a rotation, as was the case for the Rays for most of last season and for the A’s and Brewers down the stretch.

  • MLB moving toward major rule changes

This should be an interesting topic when it comes up in late February, because the prospect of the Players’ Association agreeing to rule changes put forth by the commissioner was already awkward enough after dozens of free agents got chewed up and spit out by last offseason’s brutal free-agent market. Unless things turn around very quickly, the tension between the owners and the MLBPA will be even more significant this spring, which could make it hard for commissioner Rob Manfred pulling off the pace-of-play rule changes that he’s been hoping to implement for years — namely a pitch clock, and possibly further-reduced mound visits. That’d surely irk Manfred, whose primary mission since taking over has seemingly been to cut down time of game and increase pace of action as much as possible. Manfred could opt to implement the changes unilaterally, but he already expressed a hesitance to do that amidst last winter’s owner-labor tension, and it’s difficult to see things being much different when he’s faced with the option this year.

There’s also another possible rule change — albeit one that seems unlikely to be proposed this spring — that may be more favorably received by the players’ union, particularly starting pitchers. That would be to curb use of the aforementioned Opener, which creates reason for legitimate long-term concern on the league’s part. If it becomes more widespread than it was last season, it has the potential to totally destroy fantasy baseball, particularly the daily version. The league may not be as concerned about that issue now that sports gambling is gradually becoming legal across the US (leading to a partnership between MLB and MGM that was announced earlier this offseason), but it still feels like a major source of interest in the sport — and all sports, for that matter — that should not just be left to wither and die. Additionally, it makes things more difficult for fans buying tickets — many of us pick have long picked which game to attend based on the starting pitching matchup — and overall, it makes the game more boring if teams are going to cycle through seven or eight pitchers a game on an everyday basis. Beyond that, as Zack Greinke pointed out last season, it could be an avenue for starting pitchers’ salaries to be suppressed in the future. The league may want to give it another season to see just how out-of-hand this trend gets, and it’s not even clear how a potential rule change would be implemented (Would starting pitchers be required to pitch to a certain number of batters, or would there simply be a limit on pitching changes to limit all-out bullpen games?), but it seems like something that MLB may be wise to address soon.

  • A middle-of-the-pack team raiding the bargain bin

We saw the Orioles do it many times, sometimes with success. The Royals and Twins did it last year, albeit with significantly less success. First because of the qualifying offers that essentially held free agents hostage since teams didn’t want to give up draft picks to sign them — then, more recently, because of the new luxury-tax rules that just discourage teams from spending money on free agents all together — middle-of-the-pack teams have made it a habit in recent years to try to sign free agents who are still left on the market as spring training camps are opening up, often at an extremely discounted rate. With the state of this year’s free-agent market — and the fact that divisions such as the NL West and AL Central largely seem to be there for the taking as the Dodgers and Indians sit on their hands — it’s extremely likely that yet another club will try to turn itself into a contender during the last few weeks of this offseason. This is a particularly likely possibility with free-agent relief pitchers, as more than a dozen upper-echelon bullpen arms remain on the market with just over a month until spring training begins.

A team like the Giants that feels an exceptional obligation to keep the fan base happy and maintain their impressive attendance could be a candidate to utilize this strategy — after all, new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said at his introductory press conference that he wanted the team to play “meaningful baseball as deep into the season, as soon as we can,” and they don’t appear to have the cast in place to do that as things stand right now. The Royals, who have a rather impressive lineup in place and some encouraging starting pitching candidates but severely lack proven options in the bullpen, could be another team that could raid the bullpen bargain bin next month if they want to try and challenge the presumptive-favorite Indians — who have spent the offseason lollygagging and slashing payroll — for the AL Central title a year or two earlier than most people believe they can. While the Rockies already have the talent to be a playoff team for a third straight season, they’re another club that could really do well for themselves by taking advantage of a slow free-agent market, especially as they look to add depth in the outfield and in the middle infield. And really, though neither club should be budget-conscious at this point and both are presumptive division favorites, it wouldn’t be shocking to see LA or Cleveland dip into the bargain bin as they attempt to fill the numerous holes that remain on their respective rosters. The skepticism towards free agents is deeply concerning in the long run, but for now it at least has the after-effect of giving middling teams an opportunity to respond to the market and put themselves into fringe playoff contention — or for an already-good team to make itself a legitimate World Series contender at a bargain rate.

  • Will Bartolo return for another season?

Yes, Bartolo mania has gotten a bit old, and the MLB marketing people should probably find someone to focus on who, well, isn’t a fringe fifth starter. With that said, the 45-year-old Colon has gotten to a stage where he’s now displaying some of the most impressive longevity in the history of the sport. If he plays in 2019 and it turns out to be his final season, Colon will be the 35th player in major-league history to play in exactly 22 different seasons, and he’ll become the 70th player all-time to play 22 seasons or more. With the retirement of Adrian Beltre, he’s the only big-leaguer left who played in the 1990s (he debuted in April 1997), and he’s also the only remaining former Montreal Expo. If he comes back and is able to make a team in 2019 — which isn’t a given even if he still wants to pitch, seeing as he posted a 5.78 ERA and allowed 32 homers last season — he would have a chance to pass Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for the most innings thrown by a Dominican-born pitcher. He needs to throw 45.2 more innings to pass Marichal, which should be doable even if he makes a team as a temporary fill-in for a starter who’s going to spend 6-8 weeks on the DL to begin the season.

  • Can one or multiple rebuilding clubs complete the process and become elite?

Ever since analytically-driven front office personnel rose to power across the league during the middle of this decade — and particularly since the Cubs and Astros blew it all up and went on to win the World Series — more teams each year have jumped on the bandwagon and chosen to totally rebuild. At this point, there are as many as 12 teams that could legitimately be described as being in some stage of a rebuild, with another few that are lurking at the bottom of the standings and are restructuring but haven’t necessarily torn it all down yet. This has led to some horrible competitive balance, with three teams winning at least 100 games and three losing at least 100 last year, with another two winning at least 95 and another four losing 95 or more. On the bright side, the Braves completed a rebuilding process in 2018 and look like they’ll be one of the league’s most exciting teams for years to come.

The rebuild market is more than infiltrated now — the 95-loss Reds will pick seventh in this year’s draft after basically tanking the 2018 season, and the 95-loss Rangers (who, to be fair, actually kind of tried) will pick eighth. With this in mind, it’d be nice if some of those rebuilding teams actually rose to prominence again, because it’s going to get much harder in the coming years to tear it down and then rise from the ashes again.

The NL Central may be too good for Cincinnati to make the playoffs this year, but the Reds are clearly in the final stages of their rebuild and may finally be ready to take the next step after adding Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and Yasiel Puig via trade this offseason. They could still use more pitching depth, particularly in the rotation, but with mashers like Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez already in the lineup, they look like a club that is primed to finish above .500 for the first time since 2013.

After winning 80 games last year — their most since they went .500 in 2012 — the Phillies are making serious strides in their attempt to earn their first winning season since 2011. They’ve traded for Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio, and James Pazos while signing Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson, and they’re believed to be among the most serious suitors for both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Even if they miss out on both of the top free agents on the market — a possibility that almost seems unlikely at this point — their veteran additions should make the team significantly better, as should the move of Rhys Hoskins from left field to his natural position of first base. Now, it’s just a matter of their young core being good enough — and that’s a legitimate concern, because Hoskins, Aaron Nola, and a few of their young bullpen arms are the only players they’ve developed that look like elite contributors right now.

In an NL West that will likely feature a worse Dodgers team, a Rockies club that still has holes, and Giants and Diamondbacks teams that are taking clear steps backward as their competitive windows come to a close, it’d also be nice to see the Padres take a big step forward. They still lost 96 games last year, even as they tried to accelerate the rebuilding process a bit by signing Eric Hosmer, but if they can get better-than-expected contributions from emergent young players like Dinelson Lamet, Cal Quantrill, Austin Hedges, Francisco Mejia, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Luis Urias — as well as veteran additions like Garrett Richards and Ian Kinsler — perhaps they’ll surprise us.

Finally, in an AL Central where the Indians haven’t made much of an effort to improve this year, it’d be nice to see any one of the Twins, White Sox, Royals, or Tigers outperform expectations and challenge them for a division title. The Twins have gone through more of a restructuring process than a rebuild, largely keeping the same young core in place that led them to a playoff berth in 2017, and they seem to be the most likely to challenge the Tribe since they haven’t endured a full-on rebuild under their current leadership. The Royals and White Sox have gone through the most authentic rebuilds in the division but appear to be making strides towards completing those processes rather quickly, while Detroit is basically in purgatory and is waiting for a few prospects to present themselves as the faces of the next great Tigers team. Every one of those non-Indians teams struggled significantly in 2018, and even with as much intrigue as guys like Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, Brad Keller, Reynaldo Lopez, and Daniel Palka showed last year, it’s going to be tough for Chicago and Kansas City to make up enough ground to push for a playoff spot after they each reached the 100-loss mark last year.

  • Is the Nationals’ run as a perennial contender over?

Along with the Cardinals and Giants (ironically, two teams that have been forced to change their identities a bit over the past few years), the Nationals have been one of the most consistent teams in the National League during the 2010s. They’ve gone a combined 786-671 since 2010 — including a 637-497 record since 2012, when Bryce Harper made his debut — and they’ve won four NL East titles over that stretch despite failing to win a playoff series. Obviously, the Nats are in line to take a hit if they end up losing Bryce Harper. Of similar significance, however, they’ll be faced with trying to replace Daniel Murphy — unquestionably their best hitter during their 95-win 2016 campaign, and arguably their best during their 97-win 2017 season — as well as the key members of their pitching staff that they’ve traded away over the last six months: Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, and Shawn Kelley. Yes, it’s true that all six of the aforementioned players regressed in 2018, and it showed as the Nats finished with their worst record (82-80) since 2011. But every one of them made contributions to a division-winning Washington team at some point, with Murphy and Gonzalez being legitimate core pieces. To their credit, they’ve made efforts to replace those players, adding Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez to the rotation, Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to the bullpen, and Brian Dozier at second base. There’s legitimate reason to be concerned about all of those additions, though; Corbin was the top starter on the free agent, but he’s coming off his first season where he pitched like a legitimate ace and has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in the past. The 34-year-old Sanchez was quite arguably the worst pitcher in the majors in 2017 before miraculously turning things around with the Braves last season. Rosenthal hasn’t pitched since ’17 due to Tommy John surgery and has had major command issues over his last two seasons. Barraclough and Dozier both struggled in 2018, with Barraclough throwing for a 4.20 ERA and Dozier posting a .696 OPS while playing subpar defense and hitting 21 homers — his lowest total since 2013. Credit the Nationals’ front office for being proactive and replacing their departed players with veterans who have a history of success, but they’re banking on quite a few things to go right.

On the plus side, they’ve made some legitimate upgrades over the past year. Their new catching duo of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki is eons better than the Matt Wieters-Spencer Kieboom one they employed last season, and if Victor Robles is as good as advertised, an outfield of Juan Soto, Adam Eaton, and Robles with Michael Taylor as the No. 4 has the potential to be as good across the board as any one they ever had while Harper was around. And if Harper returns, they’d certainly have the deepest collection of outfield talent in the league.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, it appears the NL East will be at least as competitive as it’s been since the early 2010s, if not as good as it’s been for the entire decade, so they’re going to have to hope that everything goes right this year. With the Braves looking to build on last year’s division-winning success, the Phillies looking to take another step forward after supplementing their young core, and the Mets hoping to get back in the hunt after adding a bevy of talented veterans, the Nationals are going to have plenty of competition, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can hang with those teams, or if they sink to fourth place — particularly if they lose the guy who’s been their franchise player for the majority of the decade.