In Hot Stove, It's Cookin'

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 16, 2005

Baseball in spring and summer is fairly sleepy. One night's games blend into the next. From Opening Day until Labor Day, major events are scarce. Being in the ballpark is the central pleasure. But truly big news, the kind that changes the long-term future of a franchise or the shape of a whole division, or even alters the balance of power at the very top of the sport, is fairly rare. You can wait months with no such fundamental event. That's because, in baseball, most of the important things occur now -- in the offseason. Regular season games are great. But they blur. Truly crucial decisions about personnel and payrolls, about the entire character of organizations, even about the future location of teams, happen after the first deep freeze.

Winter is when baseball is crazy, fast-paced and transformative. By convention, we analyze the sport intensely for seven months then, during November, December and January, we act as if what we're watching is mere Hot Stove League chit-chat. Yet every insider knows the truth. The winter usually defines the summer. Since Oct. 26, when the White Sox won the World Series, what has happened in baseball that is of genuine significance? A better question might be, what hasn't happened? Everything has knocked our socks off.

The Florida Marlins, one of the most talented teams in the sport, have been exploded and dispersed. Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Delgado, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Paul Lo Duca and Mike Lowell, all of them core stars of the '03 World Series champions or else highly coveted all-star level talents, have been divvied up throughout the sport. When Connie Mack sold off his world champion A's in the '30s, that was bigger. When the Marlins blew up their '97 Series winners, it was similar. But in more than 100 years, there is little else that's comparable.

In their place, the Fish now have "prospects" such as Gaby Hernandez, Sergio Mitre, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, Renyal Pinto, Yusmeiro Petit, Hanley Ramirez and Mike Jacobs. The Nats finished last in the NL East last season. They won't next year. That job vacancy has been filled. Send Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera a holiday wish. They're lonely, very lonely.

The White Sox, instead of going into hibernation for another 88 years, have actually improved themselves, adding Javier Vazquez, 29, to a rotation that was already the best in the game, and making Jim Thome their designated hitter. For generations, the Cubs have owned Chicago. Within a year, Wrigley Field may be the confines of the second team in the second city. Such shifts of power in America's two-team mega-markets are rare. And yet something similar may be happening in New York, too.

For the first time since George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1972, Yankees decision-making has actually been handed to the team's general manager, Brian Cashman. As a result, the Yankees now make no decisions! For decades, baseball's offseason has been defined by "What did the Yankees do?" These days, they abstain. They wait. They watch. After doing nothing at the winter meetings last week, Cashman said, "I wasn't optimistic coming into it and it's lived up to its expectations."

Eventually, Cashman will act. But, first, he would like to halt the panic room mentality. The Yanks lost setup man Tom Gordon. No one was signed to replace him -- at twice market value -- the next day. And the world didn't end. That's Cashman at work -- or, rather, busy not working. Right now, the only rumor afloat is that free agent Nomar Garciaparra, who is either semi washed-up at 32 or the sport's best value stock, may play first base in the Bronx next year. Say what?

"It was weird enough just playing with Alex [Rodriguez], and now Nomar!?" Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said this week. "Maybe we can get [Miguel] Tejada to start and [Omar] Vizquel as middle relief."

Meantime, Mets General Manager Omar Minaya has had the best winter of anybody in the sport. He has added slugger Delgado, 100 mph southpaw closer Billy Wagner and three-time all-star catcher Lo Duca, who will replace Mike Piazza. The Mets aren't as good as the perennially delusional Big Apple media thinks they are. But summer in The City could be delicious.

The Red Sox, after enduring a variety of dysfunctional front offices since the 1950s, finally got their act together under GM Theo Epstein, culminating in their first title since (stop me if you've heard this one) . . . Well, Theo's gone. Only in "As Fenway Turns." He walked, hit the road, went free agent. Did he want more money, crave more privacy or fuss with Larry Lucchino? Nobody knows. Tight-lipped, enigmatic Theo makes Garbo look like Imus.

All Boston knows is that he's young, brilliant and gone. Except, of course, when he isn't. Which is frequently, since the Red Sox say that Epstein has actually been consulted (sort of) since he left his job and may still be retained in the future on a quasi-consulting basis. So, what does Theo think about Boston getting Beckett? If he had still been around, would free agent Edgar Renteria have left town? Who plays shortstop now? Can the Sawks re-sign Johnny Damon? Or trade Manny Ramirez for Tejada? Or even try to sign Roger Clemens -- yes, Clemens, who says he'll pitch for America in March at the World Baseball Classic, but, as yet, has not picked a team for April. Such questions. Change that New England T-shirt to read: "What would Theo do?"

So, as you can see, not much happens in the offseason. For example, look how relaxing the Nats' winter has been. Esteban Loaiza, Hector Carrasco and Brad Wilkerson are gone. Alfonso Soriano and his 35 homers and 30 steals have arrived. Which means that Jose Vidro may eventually be traded. Meantime, Manager Frank Robinson was rehired.

And that's just the warmup. The real drama is about to arrive. The future of the Nationals -- even whether they have much of a future in Washington -- will presumably get decided during this holiday season. Hand me the triple-spiked eggnog, please.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company