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Tue, Jan. 28

Kobritz: The hot stove league is a misnomer
BEYOND THE LINES

Baseball’s offseason is referred to as the Hot Stove League, a phrase first used in 1886 in “Spirit of the Times.” It refers to baseball fans gathering around a hot stove during the cold winter months discussing their favorite baseball teams and players.

Pre-1975, fans would anxiously await trades and then debate their relative merits to both teams. Post-1975, free agency has added to the anticipation of offseason moves. But thanks to the moguls, agents and union lawyers who run the game, the past two winters have been anything but hot – trades have been few and free agent signings have dragged on interminably.

Unlike MLB, the NBA and NFL have deadlines for signing free agents, which results in a frenzy of signings when free agency opens. The urgency benefits everyone - players, owners, fans and the media. MLB has deadlines for signing draft picks and making in-season trades. Why not have deadlines for signing free agents and offseason trades?

Admittedly, the NBA and NFL are structured differently than MLB. NBA players have restrictions on how much money they can receive and NFL teams operate on a strict salary cap. Therefore, it behooves players and agents to sign quickly while teams still have money to spend. Another difference is MLB teams can make one-year qualifying offers to their own free agents. If players sign with another team, their new team loses a draft pick, a highly valued commodity teams are reluctant to give up. If they wait until the June draft, compensation vanishes, which encourages teams to drag their feet.

Last year it took more than seven months for the two highest rated free agent pitchers, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, to sign contracts. By then, the season was 40 percent over and neither pitcher was in condition to provide much help to their team.

This year MLB owners made a proposal to the Players Association to establish a deadline for signing free agents. But the union decided – for reasons only misguided lawyers can understand – it would benefit the owners so they shot it down. Creating the same level of excitement and urgency that exists in the NBA and NFL would force both parties to be more reasonable, result in quicker signings and maintain fan interest.

There are tentative signals this year may be different. Atlanta quickly signed free agent closer Will Smith to a three-year, $40 million contract, forfeiting a draft pick in the process. The move signifies at least one team values the right player at the right price over a prospect.

In his annual speech to the media at this year’s general managers meetings, bombastic agent Scott Boras, who represents most of this year’s top free agents, said his phone has been more active than it was in the past two years. Given Boras’ ability to create a market when none exists, and his penchant for dragging out the free agent process, it remains to be seen whether additional signings will occur quickly.

If they don’t, perhaps we should rename baseball’s offseason the Cold Stove League.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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