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Paul Sullivan: For most of baseball, it looks like another slow-moving offseason

Chicago Tribune — By Paul Sullivan Chicago Tribune

Nov. 29-- CHICAGO-By this time in 2006 the Cubs already had signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million deal in addition to bringing in free-agent second baseman Mark DeRosa and re-signing Aramis Ramirez and Kerry Wood.

General manager Jim Hendry had promised to be aggressive after a disastrous last-place finish that year.

"We won 66 ballgames," he said. "We damn sure better be aggressive."

Hendry's offseason splurge, which later included the signings of free-agent starters Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, sent a message to fans the Cubs planned to contend in '07 and for years to come.

The White Sox sent a similar message last week when they signed free-agent Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million deal and re-signed Jose Abreu to a three-year, $50 million deal after Abreu had accepted their qualifying offer. The future is closer than you think.

But Hahn wasn't ready to make any statement about contending in 2020, leaving it to the media to "interpret messages and all that stuff" as he continues to try to improve the roster.

"We know we have more work to do," he said. "I can say it sends this type of (contending) message out there, and it's, frankly, going to ring hollow if we don't reinforce that with further acquisitions."

That's encouraging to Sox fans, especially if the reinforcements include a front-line starter and a power-hitting right fielder. Their next step should be even bigger and bolder, though when it will happen is anyone's guess.

The Sox are one of three teams, along with the Braves and Padres, to get an early jump on the market. More than three weeks into free agency there has been little movement, even after all the talk at the recent general managers meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., about a faster-developing market.

Maybe everyone is waiting for the annual winter meetings, which will be held Dec. 8-12 in San Diego, or perhaps baseball's offseason will drag on into late January or early February again, as it has the last two offseasons.

What once was a blip may now be the norm.

It's a subject that frustrates baseball fans, who want to know their teams are looking to improve, and baseball beat writers, who used to count on the post-Christmas period as a slow time to unwind before the next season.

Cubs President Theo Epstein told fans at last year's Cubs Convention that things used to pick up at or just after the winter meetings, but now "it almost seems like everything has shifted back four to six weeks," meaning the bulk of the bigger signings occur after the holidays.

"I think there are a number of factors that contribute to that," he said. "One is that it's kind of a new breed of GMs in the game now, from different backgrounds and different ways of looking at the game, a little more analytical, I think. They're placing a greater value on sort of every dollar and every decision, and wanting to find value in every transaction, as opposed to-and I can speak firsthand (to) this-15 years ago or so where teams were more apt to fill in holes and didn't care as much about value and there weren't as many methods to discern exactly how much impact you were getting for each dollar.

"Now you can quantify it a lot more. It's made the whole process a little more methodical, I'd say. No doubt it's tough on players."

After signing a one-year, $4.35 million deal with the Cubs last Feb. 11, the day before spring training, free-agent reliever Brad Brach called the slow offseason "stressful."

"You hear about interest the first week and then you don't get any offers until late December/January and you're just kind of wondering what's going on," he said. "Teams say they like you, but they're not making any offers. And then you finally get offers and six or seven teams are giving you the same offer, so it's just kind of a weird process and nobody really knows what's going."

The analytics proved to be wrong about Brach's perceived value. He was released by the Cubs in August after posting a 6.13 ERA and eventually signed with the Mets.

The age of analytics, when every player's value can be compared with everyone else with a similar metric, is a primary reason for the slow-moving offseason, agent Scott Boras suggested at the GM meetings. Boras, who has several of the biggest free agents as clients, including Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, said interested teams generally explore the trade market first, delaying the free-agent market, while tanking teams don't want to pay for pricey free agents anyway.

Boras said the implication is that GMs are telling themselves: "I don't endeavor into the free-agent market until I go to the trade market, because in the trade market my analytics team are the smartest people in the world that can dupe these other teams into making poor trades, (and) I will win the 'WAR' battle. I just got a one-WAR advantage over them.'

"In the free-agent market, that's the sucker's bet," he continued. "You're going to pay a predictive WAR value for a player that is in many ways not wanted, because I don't want to win. And the second thing is (GMs say) 'I don't really want that player to help me advance possibly to getting from 70 to 78 wins. He may do that. He may help us, (but) I want to have a team that goes from 75 wins to 90 wins or I don't want him at all."

The White Sox, theoretically, will attempt to jump from 72 wins in 2019 to 90 or so in '20, which would at least have them in contention in the American League Central, a division that figures to have only two other contending teams in the Twins and the Indians. More than most teams they needed to make a quick move this offseason because they have several holes to fill and their fan base is tired of watching the team lose after seven straight sub-.500 seasons.

But several other teams have holes to fill and impatient fan bases, so hopefully the pace will pick up by the winter meetings. Recall that former White Sox owner Bill Veeck once sat in the lobby of a Miami hotel during the 1975 meetings, along with general manager Roland Hemond, after putting up a hand-painted sign that read "Open For Business. By Appointment Only." They stayed there 14 hours and made four deals with a crowd of onlookers cheering them on.

Perhaps some enterprising GM can replicate Veeck's publicity-creating move in San Diego and bring some life back to baseball's winter. A hot stove league with no action is as useless as non-alcoholic beer.

Epstein, in his lament to Cubs fans during the convention, admitted there's a "vacuum created when there (are) not a lot of moves" or rumors for the media to digest and discuss.

"The media is used to writing about big trades, big free-agent signings," he said. "When that's not there, they have a job to do, and I don't think they're speculating wildly, but they're trying to piece things together with the few smoke signals there are. Sometimes they can be accurate. Other times that kind of speculation isn't as accurate, and that makes it even tougher on the player.

"The offseasons probably ran a little more smoothly 10 years ago, but with the new collective bargaining agreement (after 2021) and with a feeling-out period between players and agents and a sort of new baseball economy, I think we'll get back to more entertaining offseasons for players, for media and for front offices too."

If MLB wants to create the excitement and intrigue of past offseasons, let's hope they don't wait until after 2021 to start.

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