Baseball doesn't have one “hot-stove league” to fascinate us all winter. It has 30, one per team. They are interlocked in a labyrinth of tactics and intrigue with hundreds of millions at stake and seasons, far into the future, in the balance. Only baseball has a true year-'round season, and some of the most intense games are played right now, just not on the field.
Pennants are won in the winter. You try not to lose them in the summer. It's an old saying and almost true. The Red Sox won this past World Series while snow still covered New England a year ago. That's when they blew up and rebuilt, adding Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster; five of them played in Game 1 of the Series; the sixth, Uehara, pitched in every other game. Case closed.
The core of baseball's booming prosperity, with annual revenues now close to $8 billion, is its intense regional interest, which makes it a local-market and cable TV gold mine. It's addictive and reels us in all 12 months.
No one, except us lunatics, follows the offseason details of every team. But trust me: Many teams and towns, including the Yankees, Rangers and Diamondbacks will be paralyzed until the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan decide whether to grant freedom to a pitcher whose deeds dim those of A.L. strikeout king Yu Darvish at the same age. Darvish got to Texas after his seventh and best Japanese year at age 24: 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA.
Last year at 24, Masahiro Tanaka, 6-foot-2, 205-pounds, ideal size for a pitcher, went 24-0 — that's correct, 24-0 — with a 1.27 ERA in his seventh pro year. He's mythological, married to a pop culture beauty, and the Funky Monkey Babys are his walk-up music. The darn Golden Eagles' owner is ticked off that his cut (“posting fee”) just got sliced from $51 million (Darvish) to just $20 million. So he may not turn Tanaka loose until 2015.
Milder variations of Tanaka paranoia are playing out in a dozen cities now. The Pirates and Reds, playoff teams, and the Royals (86 wins) are modest-market clubs that need to keep their best pitchers, often with a “hometown discount.” But will A.J. Burnett, Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana — all free agents, all vital workhorse rotation fixtures — decide to stay or go? Burnett might retire or even become an Oriole. Nobody knows.
The fate of the Rangers' winter is interlocked with this beautiful mess. Texas traded for Prince Fielder and also got a good young catcher to replace their good old catcher. But they've also lost plenty: their star closer, left fielder, second baseman and soon slugging right fielder Nelson Cruz, too.
The perfect free agent to balance those loses would be the Reds' on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo who may cost $150 million. Why not get it done! Because Texas still dreams of Tanaka! Not enough dough for both. So, wait.
Even among lousy teams, this kind of intrigue matters. The 91-loss Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240-million to leave the Yanks and lose — sorry, live — in Seattle for 10 years. Great, except the M's lost their Nos. 1, 2 and 5 home run hitters from last season — 65 bombs in all. Cano is naked, protected by Logan Morrison? While Texas mulls Choo now or maybe Tanaka later, the M's will try to steal Cruz from them immediately.
The details blur. But the rosters that remain at the end come into focus. That's when every baseball fan forms an offseason overview. We are always wrong. So what?
If you're a fan of the Nationals (Doug Fister, Nate McLouth), Twins (Ricky Nolasco), Mets (Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon), D'backs (Mark Trumbo), Royals (three new pieces) or 111-loss Astros, you're happy. Your team probably just got five (or in your dreams, 10) games better.
But that's an odd group of winners. Only the Nats and Royals were contenders. Arizona was .500. Of the 10 teams that made the playoffs, not one has clearly improved itself so far, and several have probably fallen back.
Four of the game's best teams, the Braves (96 wins), Pirates (94), Tigers (93) and Reds (90) have suffered subtractions, or been so inactive, that, as they stand, they look ready to take a step back toward their pursuers. And all claim they are now finished except for trying to resign their own players.
The Pirates, after making the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, didn't sign any of their late-season rental players: Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd or John Buck. They lost Garrett Jones (15 homers). Their only workhorse (191 innings), Burnett, 37, hangs by a thread; the O's may try to lure him. What have the Bucs added? Zilch.
The Tigers say they are finished. As in “dead?” Two .300-hitting infielders, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante, as well as a .297-hitting backup catcher left as free agents. Detroit got nobody of immediate value for Fister (14-9). Fine second baseman Ian Kinsler arrived in the Fielder salary-dump trade — but there's a gap of 15 homers and 41 RBI between their average seasons. That Fielder “found money” hasn't bought much yet. Old Joe Nathan is in, but closer Joaquin Benoit (2.01) is gone. If Jimmy Leyland saw this coming, no wonder he retired.
The Braves' sensible budget is pinching them. Team leader and catcher Brian McCann got $85 million to be a Yankee. Replacement Evan Gattis hit just .215 after the league had two months to study him. Gattis has never caught more than 57 games in a year at any level. In Georgia, he'll melt.
The Braves also will lose free agent rotation vets Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm. Atlanta still has weapons, but its rotation now has Brandon Beachy on an innings limit after elbow surgery and lefty Alex Wood, 22, who'll be on a first-full-season-in-the-majors innings limit, too. The Braves just signed Gavin Floyd (70-70), coming off surgery and not available until May, as a sixth starter to give them late-season innings. Atlanta has top-of-rotation quality, but they better stay healthy. This is not a deep staff.
The O's have done nothing — nothing right, anyway. They were the A.L.'s seventh-best team last year. As presently constituted, they aren't. Get. Help. Quick.
The Nats, the N.L.'s sixth-best team last year, have probably nudged ahead of the Pirates and Reds. The Braves still look a hair better on paper, bunched with the retooled Cardinals who'll miss Carlos Beltran and the Dodgers who lost Nolasco to the Twins and, as a stop gap, signed . . . Dan Haren.
The Baseball Solstice, the midpoint between the last game of the World Series and the first day of spring training, falls on Dec. 29 this year, a week away. Hold on. And if it helps, pennants are being won and lost right now.