What’s happening in the baseball world? While We’re Waiting…

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

In the middle of December, the average sports fan isn’t usually thinking about baseball. The NFL and the NBA do a tremendous job of creating non-stop fan excitement 365 days a year with the draft, free agency, and all types of player storylines. The MLB offseason just isn’t quite the same. That’s certainly the case in a football-crazed state like Ohio with a basketball team as good as the Cleveland Cavaliers in season.

In the spirit of knowledge-sharing, this While We’re Waiting post is intended to catch up the average Cleveland sports fan on what in the hell has been happening in baseball recently. Even for the hard-core Indians fans, there may be some tidbits and thoughts that may surprise.

Question No. 1: What’s happening to the entire Cleveland Indians bullpen?!

First, oft-criticized 30-year-old free agent Bryan Shaw signed a three-year $27 million deal with Colorado on Tuesday. Then, 33-year-old side-armer free agent Joe Smith signed a two-year $12 million deal with Houston on Wednesday. That leaves the Indians without two veteran right-handed reliever stalwarts.1

Shaw, who arrived in Cleveland with Trevor Bauer in the December 2012 Arizona/Cincinnati Shin-Soo Choo/Didi Gregorious trade, led MLB with 378 appearances over the last five seasons. He’s not a great reliever, certainly, but a solidly above average one who had excellent durability. Those are valuable on the open market. The $27 commitment was obviously a lot, but his absence will be felt.

Smith, who came back to the Indians via Toronto at the 2017 trade deadline, has averaged over 63 relief appearances in his 11-year career. His deal seemed solidly below market average for a player of his stature and perhaps one that the Indians will regret not matching in some fashion.

The moves leave Cleveland with a lack of established depth behind superstars Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, who will both be free agents at the end of the 2018 season. Dan Otero, Nick Goody and Zach McAllister will be counted upon heavily. Others will need to step up into more consistent roles. It may be shaky at times, but at least through 2018, the Tribe should still remain one of the best in this facet of the game.

Question No. 2: So, where does that leave the Indians for the rest of the offseason?

Not great! Although, maybe not terrible? I’m still pessimistic about Carlos Santana’s return to Cleveland. And the Indians are unlikely to catch some bigger fish than Santana throughout the offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jason Kipnis trade rumors continue to heat up. But it’d be surprising to me if the Indians got a significantly better singular MLB talent back in such a trade. The roster likely will be what it is, perhaps with a few platoon-esque additions.

In total, Cleveland already has $91.7 million in guaranteed 2018 salaries (including Kipnis’ $13.7 million). There is also an estimated $31.9 million owed to arbitration-eligible players still on the 40-man roster. Throw in the non-arbitration-eligible players to fill out the rest of the roster, and you’re talking about a total roster bill of $125 million-plus. That’s pretty significant spending for a Cleveland baseball team.

This is the after-effect of giving such a sizeable deal to Edwin Encarnacion last offseason. It fairly well established (especially after the decently surprising pick-up of Michael Brantley’s $11 team option) that the Indians would have little-to-no financial flexibility in 2018, unless they found a taker in a Kipnis deal or some other move.

Question No. 3: Um, explain the whole Giancarlo Stanton thing. The Yankees? Why?! Are the Indians #doomed in the AL?

Derek Jeter is off to a rough, rough start to his tenure with the Miami Marlins. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan had a pretty scathing article about Jeter’s uninspiring last few months. The Stanton situation certainly left most of the baseball world at a loss for words.

Stanton, who played only about 70 percent of games from 2012 through 2016, missed only three games in his MVP 2017 season, by far his most dominant yet. He only just turned 28 years old last month, so he’s a bonafide superstar in the middle of his prime. The problem for Miami: He’s guaranteed $295 million over the next 11 years, unless he decides to opt out following the 2020 season.

The massive investment was too much to handle for Derek Jeter’s Miami vision, so they found an eventual taker on Stanton’s trade-acceptance list. The return was generally considered to be meh. And it situates the Yankees as having a ginormous middle-of-the-lineup with Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, as well. Those Baby Bombers, plus the defending World Series Champion Houston Astros, will be enormous competition for the Tribe in the American League playoffs. But, as I say every year, anything can happen in the do-or-die moments of October baseball. …

Question No. 4: The Shohei Ohtani stuff happened too quickly for most to follow. What’s new? What did we learn?

Ohtani, only 23, is the biggest rock-star to arrive from Japan this decade. He’s an arguable once-in-a-generation talent who unabashedly wants to both hit and pitch in the big leagues. The Los Angeles Angels could conceivably have two of baseball’s best all-around players if Ohtani is able to live up to the hype alongside God-like 26-year-old Mike Trout.

The big concern now: Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that Ohtani has a sprain in his right elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament, aka the ligament that is sorta gruesomely reconstructed in Tommy John surgery.  The scare is real and although many elite pitchers have fully recovered from the surgery, the report places a sizeable dent in the near-term hype.

One of the more interesting facets of the Ohtani craze was the lengths to which teams went in their pitches for the future MLB star. I was particularly intrigued by the efforts of the Cincinnati Reds, who shared their materials with the Cincinnati Enquirer. The team must’ve known they hardly stood a chance, but their staff spent months on materials for Ohtani’s representatives. Perhaps it was more so for the fans, but it was still a really neat peak behind the curtains.

Question No. 5: Wait, how did Alan Trammell and Jack Morris get into the Hall of Fame? In some special vote?

In 2016, the Baseball Hall of Fame did a massive reorganization in the way it considers currently inelgible players and other contributors for induction. The shake-up followed mild controversy on back-to-back years of no additional members to the Hall, alongside the annual December vote. Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe had a great explainer on the topic at the time. In short, the intent was to siphon off more distinct eras, vote more frequently on recent contributors who may have missed the cut, and open the gates for more people to make the cut.

The 2017 edition covered Modern Baseball (1970-87) contributors and led to the induction of beloved Detroit Tigers stars Trammell and Morris. The two may not have been the most dominant performers of their ages — Trammell only had one top-6 MVP voting season and Morris had a ghastly career 3.90 ERA — but their inclusion should continue to clear the ways for other long-due members to make it in the years to come. The biggest snub seemed to be former MLBPA head Marvin Miller. But for now, I’m content with the Trammells and Morrises as long as it rewards the ’90s players eventually.

Question No. 6: So, what are the realistic, updated odds on Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel making the Hall of Fame?

As always, you should be constantly following Ryan Thibodaux’s work in tracking down known Hall of Fame votes. He’s built up quite the reputation over the years and his spreadsheet is the best way to know the actual realistic odds of induction.

Thome, ye’ of 612 career home runs, is looking quite good early on. Out of 46 known public and anonymous ballots (about 11 percent of the total voting population), Thome has been named on 45. That’s the top mark so far, besting Chipper Jones (44), Vlad Guerrero (42), Trevor Hoffman (38), Edgar Martinez (38), Mike Mussina (34), Rogers Clemens (34), Barry Bonds (33) and Curt Schilling (31). The magic number is 75 percent of the vote. So, Thome is looking pretty good so far. I’d put him at an impressive 80 percent odds for first-year induction, with near-certain likelihood soon after that.

Vizquel, on the other hand, despite a few ceremonious nods here and there from the Bill Livingstons of the world, only has been named on 18 of 46 ballots. That should be enough to keep him on track to stay on the ballot for a long period of time. But until all of those players above with 30-plus votes and more get inducted, it’s just tough to see a path for Omar. There will be plenty more big names coming on the ballot in the years to come and a .272/.336/.352 batting line won’t come close to cutting it in comparison to his peers. I’d go on record saying a 20 percent chance Vizquel ever gets in.

  1. The Indians have also traded Shawn Armstrong, waived Kyle Crockett, and both Boone Logan and Craig Breslow are free agents. []