A little over two months after what was arguably the best World Series ever, between the Cleveland Indians and the world champion Chicago Cubs (go ahead, say it again: world champion Chicago Cubs), Major League Baseball’s front office folks gathered just south of the nation’s capital to conduct off-season business and begin the national pastime’s next New World Order.
Before the first snows hit, MLB execs, lawyers and labor reps spent the first week of December hammering out pro baseball’s latest collective bargaining agreement, revisiting core issues while also making necessary tweaks like implementing a ban on rookie hazing rituals and nixing the All-Star Game winner’s lock on the World Series home field advantage. MLB’s annual winter meetings also pitted the game’s dealmakers into the powwows and conference calls that result in some of the player trades that make history. Coming off one of the biggest seasons in the history of the game, baseball is looking to capitalize on the massive popularity of the Cubs as well as the sport’s youth movement spearheaded by young stars like Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor and Mike Trout. The big market teams like the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and the defending champs all look to be strong heading into the season, Cleveland could very well break the World Series drought the team came close to ending against the Cubs and baseball looks like it’s in a position to try and reclaim its spot as America’s sport that some believe football took over.
Barely a blip on baseball’s radar in 2016, the Chicago White Sox were the first catalyst of it all. One of the American League’s biggest major market un-contenders, the Sox dominated the headlines with what looked less like the fire sale anticipated, and more like a ledger of opportunistic, market-timed trades that would make Gordon Gekko proud.
Chicago’s South Side club traded pitching ace Chris Sale, who they acquired in 2010, to the Boston Red Sox, the very club system where Chicago’s private eyes scouted him in the first place. In turn, the White Sox nabbed four total players, including a potential game-changer in young infielder Yoan Moncada and three pitching prospects. The Sale trade was the first act in the Chicago Sox’s hasty and ambitious rebuild. Act Two dealt Chicago outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals for three young first-rate arms in a trade that leave some thinking the Nats got fleeced.
That same week word circled around Chicago that the White Sox wouldn’t listen to offers from their crosstown rivals at Wrigley, while the Sox look, ironically, to be following the same sort of disciplined, prospect-fueled reconstruction blueprint that helped the Cubs win their first Series since 1908. Clubs on the opposite side of those White Sox trades, the Nationals and Red Sox, are both aiming to strengthen good rosters with additions that might push them a level up next postseason.
In Los Angeles, the Dodgers re-signed top vets that include their closer Kenley Jansen, 32 year old veteran third baseman Justin Turner and starter Rich Hill, who will be 37 on Opening Day. The Cubs took a different strategy, seeing centerfielder Dexter Fowler go free agent and sign with their downriver rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs also ended up trading underused outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City for closer Wade Davis, while confidently letting their late season 2016 closer, Aroldis Chapman, walk and go sign a big multi-year deal with the Yankees.
Just like the Cubs, Cleveland also saw one of their homegrown talents really shine in shortstop Francisco Lindor, while their other position players equally outperformed. Let’s not forget that the Tribe came up just one run short of beating the 103-win Cubs in the Series without outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitchers Carlos Currasco and Danny Salazar, who were all sidelined with injuries. This was no small feat for Cleveland, who really hit their stride late-season, just before sweeping Boston and making short work of the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS. Underrated or whatever you might call them, the Cleveland Indians look nearly as strong in the American League as the Red Sox, especially after opening the checkbook to sign free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, an upgrade to their designated hitter spot or first base role.
Baseball’s winter moves so far stir up a lot of excitement for 2017 plus questions. In re-signing Jansen, Hill and Turner, are the Dodgers confident enough in team chemistry, familiar talents and basically the same Dodgers roster? Is Boston’s depth now enough to neutralize the much-hated Yankees for years to come? How underrated are the Indians? Moreover, like with the NFL, is there a taste within baseball for something else — a burst of nostalgia, a return to the way the game was originally “meant to be played”?
Whatever is happening in baseball in its turn toward a more complete, more exciting all-around game, much has to do with the what happens off the field. Baseball’s owners and the professionals who run their clubs are more analytical, more detail-oriented in filling up the clubhouse. Many baseball experts have been saying for the last few years since “Moneyball” that clubs are smarter now than decades past.
Thanks to wider use of sabermetrics over the last decade, major league teams can be more precise with draft picks, player trades, and above all, money. Heading into 2017 fewer ball clubs are likely to pony up just for home runs as they did 15 years ago when, in 2001, Barry Bonds led with 73 dingers, or even a decade ago when Phillies slugger Ryan Howard hit 58 past the wall. The December’s trades that didn’t happen – the ones for big bats like Blue Jays right fielder José Bautista and 2016 home run leader Mark Trumbo of the Baltimore Orioles – signal that baseball isn’t simply swinging for the fences.
The best clubs also invest heavily in their farm systems, not just the next player trade. In 2016, the success of the Cubs under Theo Epstein showed this. In turn, the farm system’s return to the spotlight makes minor league baseball as important as college football has always been for the NFL. And worth watching too.
But there is more to it than that. Baseball people are excited about the nitty-gritty of the game again. Little things that effect the end result of each inning and each game played, like defensive play and base running, matter. We get stoked about a shortstop’s footwork, or the sixth sense your catcher has in picking off a steal attempt. Baseball’s greatest minds know this.
Take it from Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hit leader and should-be Hall of Famer. This fall Rose came out of the wilderness to join Fox Sports. And, just before Game 5 of the NLCS, Rose gave viewers and his colleagues a quick lesson on the foundations of hitting that left two other legendary hitters, Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez, who both towered over him, silent and hanging on every word.
“Never change your swing,” Rose said to A-Rod and The Big Hurt. “Your swing is what got you to the big leagues.” Rose, who has been banned from baseball for over 25 years, didn’t hesitate in dishing out tips on gripping the bat, foot placement, and plate stance with the acuity of the best in-practice big league batting coaches.
A decade ago baseball’s conversations weren’t so much about plate fundamentals or fielding prowess as much as big swings. But going into 2017, big league clubs seem to be committed to basic elements of the game and sustainability. They’re also building well-rounded teams with well-rounded players, not just expensive big names. Now, when a franchise can’t compete in the short run, they rebuild for the long run, and get to it quick.
Baseball’s relatively new return to the smaller but equally glorious parts of the game is as paramount as the metrics that help baseball better project which players, prospects, and teams shine. Still, baseball’s best-crunched algorithms still can’t ultimately predict which teams come alive late in the season, and which ones go all the way. And yet baseball’s pendulum swing between the measurable and the totally unpredictable is one more aspect that makes next season – and the future of Major League Baseball – all the more exciting.