MLB hot stove: Five early storylines as baseball’s offseason of uncertainty arrives

The World Series has ended, which means Dodgers fans will spend the next few weeks celebrating and Rays fans will spend the next few weeks wondering where it all went wrong (in the sixth inning, eh?). 

Everyone else, though, is very ready for what should be a fascinating offseason to get going already. Here are the five storylines everybody will be talking about — six, if you want to count the Justin Turner discussion that isn’t going away anytime soon.

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The owners will say they have no money

This, of course, has already started. 

And, there’s no denying that the bottom lines for baseball team owners — a group with overall healthy bottom lines — have not been helped by their baseball holdings this year. This week, commissioner Rob Manfred — who, it’s always relevant to point out, works for and answers to the owners — gave an interview in which he talked about the massive debt taken on by MLB ownership during this season. From that piece, in Sportico:

Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs have amassed an unprecedented $8.3 billion of debt from their various lenders and will post $2.8 billion to $3 billion in operational losses this year, Commissioner Rob Manfred told Sportico Monday in an exclusive interview.

The debt was accrued so the clubs could fund their businesses during this COVID-affected season without fans in the stands and negligible ballpark revenue.

“We are going to be at historic high levels of debt,” Manfred said. “And it’s going to be difficult for the industry to weather another year where we don’t have fans in the ballpark and have other limitations on how much we can’t play and how we can play.”

We have also seen teams fire hundreds of lower-level employees to curtail some of those losses. It’s not been pretty. But it’s relative. 

The players will not really believe them

This, of course, has already started. Exhibit A is Francisco Lindor. 

The contract Lindor is referring to is the seven-year, $3.2 billion rights deal TBS and MLB agreed to, a deal that kicks in for the 2022 season and is a 40 percent increase in annual value. TBS gets the rights to more games — regular-season and postseason — and that’s a lot of money heading to MLB owners.  

Exhibit B is the Mookie Betts contract; he agreed to a 12-year, $365 extension with the Dodgers, a deal that was agreed to in late June, long after the 2020 season had been derailed and before anyone knew if the restarted season would last. That turned out pretty well in Year 1. 

And then there’s the qualifying offer for free agents this offseason. It’s up, from $17.8 million to $18.9 million. That number is determined by the average of the top 125 contracts for the 2020 season (full-season, not the prorated salaries of the COVID-shortened campaign). Teams have five days after the end of the World Series to extend qualifying offers to their own potential free agents, and the players have a week to decide what they’re going to do. So we’ll know very quickly what value teams put on players — and potential draft-pick compensation. 

Opportunistic teams have an advantage

At least a few teams should be concerned more with winning than pocketing profits, and those teams will have an opportunity to sign players early without getting into bidding wars with teams opting to hold a harder line on spending money for player acquisitions. 

Act quickly, be bold and be rewarded. It won’t happen often — lots of good players figure to still be on the market into January or February — but early signings could prove key to how the 2021 season plays out. 

One-year deals could be common

Trevor Bauer has long promised to take a unique approach to free agency. Instead of shopping for a long-term deal, his stated plan is to sign a series of one-year deals every offseason. He sacrifices the security that a long-term deal offers, but if he stays healthy and productive, he should make more money. Teams are, generally, more willing to pay $25 million for one year (just picking a number, not projecting what he’d get) than $90 million over four years. It’s less risk for them, should the player get hurt. 

But this is a strange offseason, with a lot of uncertainty, and it’s very possible Bauer won’t be alone in this approach, at least for now. Typically, one-year deals have been reserved for players coming off injuries and attempting to rebuild their value, like Josh Donaldson with the Braves for the 2019 season. This offseason, it makes sense that other free agents — guys like George Springer, Marcus Stroman and others — might opt to sign one-year deals hoping that MLB regains a more stable financial base after lost revenue in 2020, and that they can cash in with a more lucrative long-term contract next offseason.

And you can bet teams will, in many cases, probably prefer this option, too. 

Who’s getting traded? 

The crop of free agents after the 2021 season is absolutely stacked, and several of those players could be moved this offseason. Lindor tops that list — there’s no reason to believe Cleveland will offer him a fair-market long-term contract — and he’s joined by guys like Trevor Story, Michael Conforto, Khris Davis, Salvador Perez and the Cubs quartet of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo.

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