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Sport Paul Sullivan: It's nice to see baseball's hot stove warm back up with major free-agent deals

17:20  13 december  2019
17:20  13 december  2019 Source:   chicagotribune.com

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SAN DIEGO — The three biggest free agents — Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon — signed megadeals during the winter meetings this week, a significant change from the last couple of years, when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and others went all the way to February or March before finding a deal.

Scott Boras wearing a suit and tie: Agent Scott Boras in attendance before the Houston Astros play the Milwaukee Brewers at Minute Maid Park on June 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas.© Bob Levey/Getty Images North America/TNS Agent Scott Boras in attendance before the Houston Astros play the Milwaukee Brewers at Minute Maid Park on June 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas.

That change affected the rest of the market, as teams quickly pivoted to other options.

It’s a breath of fresh air for baseball’s hot stove, which was in danger of being extinguished by the slow-moving market.

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“It’s a bit of reaction from last year,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said.

Last year the market was so inactive, it drew charges of collusion and even a prediction of a players strike by Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright.

There will be no such talk this winter after Cole, Strasburg and Rendon signed contracts worth a combined $814 million.

Of course, all three are clients of agent Scott Boras, whose influence on the market is incalculable. He’s on pace to ink more than $1 billion worth of contracts for his clients, making him the undisputed king of agents.

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When Boras moves, the market moves with him.

“It doesn’t seem to be the type of winter where folks are waiting around or trying to use time as a weapon: ‘I’m just going to sit and wait and make people nervous,’ ” Epstein said. “It’s more that folks are engaging a pretty steady flow of transactions. Teams, when something gets crossed off their list, they’re quickly turning to the other options and exploring what’s possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if next week is pretty busy.”

White Sox general manager Rick Hahn laughed about moves he and executive vice president Ken Williams considered making on the third day of previous meetings that always fizzled out by the final day, when the Rule 5 draft occurs.

“We were joking (Tuesday) night when we got this thing that was sort of intriguing that, ‘Hey, this is a day early,’ ” Hahn said. “There is a notion that there’s a fever pitch here, an excitement and eagerness for teams to get something done. But as I stated from the start, there’s nothing magical about acquiring somebody today versus a week from today.”

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The teams spending wildly in San Diego were the Yankees, Nationals and Angels, while small-market clubs such as the Brewers and Rays have focused more on the trade market until prices come down for the mid-level free agents.

But even the Tanner Roarks are cashing in — the 33-year-old pitcher signed a reported two-year, $24 million deal with the Blue Jays — making it harder for some GMs to dive in.

A $250 million contract isn’t a possibility for many small-market clubs, even those that remain competitive thanks to creative GMs and managers who think outside the box such as the Rays’ Kevin Cash and the Brewers’ Craig Counsell.

“We have an economic system that has produced a remarkable level of competitive balance over a very long period of time,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Big market, small market — we had a number of small markets last year that had really remarkable seasons, Tampa and Oakland among them.

“Do I deny that Tampa can’t sign a pitcher for $326 million? I don’t deny it. That’s a fact. Having said that, there are other areas in our system that allow those smaller markets to compete. And Tampa and Oakland are two good examples — Minnesota is another good one — who take advantage of parts of the system and put very, very competitive teams on the field.”

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So is everything back to the norm for the hot stove? And if so, will that affect negotiations in the collective bargaining agreement that comes up again after 2021?

Manfred said the existing system, with the luxury tax and revenue sharing, is working well for players and teams.

“Markets are going to be up and down,” he said. “That’s what happens in markets. It depends on what players are out there, what financial constraints clubs are under particular to the season. But over time it’s important to drop back and remember we have the freest free agency in professional sports.”

Manfred pointed to the lack of a salary cap or franchise tag that curbs spending.

“None of that,” he said. “And it has produced the largest amount of guaranteed dollars for players in any professional sport.”

He mentioned several big-ticket signings in the last year, including Harper, Machado, Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado, as examples of how the system works.

“And then the activity we’ve had already this year, that’s a really robust market,” he said. “And the fact you have markets up and down over a short period of time, I don’t think is an indication that we need to throw out something that’s worked for 30 years and make fundamental changes in the system.”

The $208 million luxury-tax threshold can be considered an artificial salary cap, but a few teams, like the Yankees, blow past it without looking back.

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Manfred’s argument that the system works has been helped by some teams pivoting from trading veterans for prospects in a rebuild to signing prominent free agents, such as the Reds giving Mike Moustakas a four-year, $64 million deal and the White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal for four years and $73 million.

The Sox struck out on Machado last year but seemingly are backing up Hahn’s promise in February to use the savings down the road instead of banking it.

The Sox are seeking a front-line starting pitcher, though prices have jumped in this market.

“It would be awfully foolish to say we’re going to go out and spend (the reported $250 million they offered Machado) immediately,” Hahn said. “The point of that comment was more that there are other ways to allocate this money.”

Hahn pointed to the extensions for Eloy Jimenez and Jose Abreu and the Grandal signing, and he could’ve added the $120 million offer that free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler rejected.

“For me it’s more knowing we have these resources available to allocate toward player acquisitions, and that’s what it’s going to be used for,” he said.

“That (Machado) offer was over an eight- to 10-year period. So to say it’s all going out the door in Year 1 just because it’s sitting there? Maybe, but it’s got to be for the right players.”

No matter how it winds up for the Sox, it was nice to see the hot stove lit again.

MLB’s thank-you note to Boras is in the mail.

———

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