Cooking with Chas: A Weekly Look at What’s on the MLB Hot Stove

Welcome to the first installment of a new weekly series taking a look at the happenings of Major League Baseball’s “second season”, otherwise known as the Hot Stove League.

In this first week, I’m going to ease into things by simply giving a rundown of the major stories that are sure to make this off-season quite intriguing.

Will MLB institute any major rules changes?

With the General Managers Meetings convening this week in Southern California, there is speculation that there will be some discussion regarding two major potential rules changes: further use of instant replay and the move of future World Series to neutral sites. While it seems to me that the former will get more serious consideration, it doesn’t appear that the use of instant replay will extend beyond determining home run calls and fair/foul controversies. As far as moving the World Series to a neutral site is concerned, it’s not happening under Bud Selig’s watch, nor should it.

One less major, but certainly not insignificant, change that it appears will come out of the GM meetings is a new tiebreaker system to determine home-field advantage when a one-game playoff is necessary to decide who gets to the post-season and who goes home. This year, the Minnesota Twins won 10 out of 18 regular season meetings versus the Chicago White Sox, yet Chicago got the home field in their playoff game by virtue of a coin flip. It looks like MLB GMs will vote at next month’s winter meetings in Las Vegas to change this, and to award the home field to the team that won the season series. I’m not sure if this would really qualify as a tiebreaker system, and if it would revert back to a coin-toss if the season series was a tie, but this simple measure is pretty much a no-brainer, in my opinion.

What future Hall of Famers will retire?

How special would it be for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to all be inducted into the Hall of Fame together? Could it happen? Yes. Will it happen? Probably not. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz all face decisions about their future, but Glavine, who will turn 43 before the start of 2009, and Smoltz, who will turn 42 next May, will likely have a difficult time retiring following seasons in which they both missed almost the entire second half due to injury. Maddux, less than a month younger than Glavine, has filed for free agency, so it doesn’t appear he’s ready to call it a career just yet.

Randy Johnson is 45, but was still inarguably an above average pitcher in 2008, and posted a 2.41 ERA and an almost 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half. So, there’s certainly plenty of ammunition left in his arsenal, and sitting on 295 career wins, it is unlikely that he’ll retire either.

Barry Bonds still hasn’t officially announced his retirement, and I’m not really certain what Roger Clemens’ status is, but neither played at all in 2008, so their names would appear on the Hall of Fame ballot a year earlier than those who retire this off-season. Of course, there’s another issue hanging over their heads that could seriously affect their chances of enshrinement, but that’s last year’s big Hot Stove story. So, don’t expect that dirty word to find its way into this column.

Frank Thomas and Trevor Hoffman have both filed for free agency as well. While it seems unfathomable to picture Hoffman in anything other than a Padres uniform, it doesn’t appear that he’s ready to call it quits. With the Padres actively shopping staff ace Jake Peavy and shortstop Khalil Greene, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him opt for a chance to play one more season with a contender, even if it’s not in the closer’s role.

Thomas was plagued by injuries last year, including two separate stints on the DL, the last of which cost him the season’s final month. He wasn’t that good when he played, posting a .723 OPS in 240 at-bats, and considering he hasn’t played in the field since 2004, the skills are definitely declining. He still seems determined to play, though, but he may suffer the same fate that Mike Piazza did last year, and be forced to retire due to a lack of interest.

Ken Griffey Jr. wants to retire as a Mariner, so he’s expected to return for another year, although there’s still the matter of working out a deal that will bring him back to Seattle. Mike Mussina’s 20 wins in 2008 provided a huge boost to his Hall of Fame credentials, and considering how well he pitched last year, it appears he’ll look to add to that resume.

So, despite the fact that six Cooperstown locks will be older than 40 entering the 2009 season, don’t count on the Hall of Fame Class of 2014 being nearly as impressive as it could be.

Where will the most prominent free agents land?

Following Tuesday’s historic presidential election, the question isn’t just where Manny Ramirez, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia will sign, but also when? Free agent season doesn’t officially open until November 14, when players are free to shop their services to any team, but with such highly paid stars facing the reality of paying more than $40,000 in additional taxes on every million they earn, will there be a rush to sign, and earn signing bonuses, before Barack Obama takes office? Will players look to back-load long-term deals in order to outlast a 4-year term? Don’t worry, I’m not going to focus as much time on answering these questions as I am on discussing the actual signings, but this shift in the balance of power could make for an exciting final month and a half of 2008.

In addition to the big four, A.J. Burnett, Ben Sheets, Derek Lowe, Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster, Bobby Abreu, and Pat Burrell are among the biggest names looking for a big payout, in what is shaping up to be one of the strongest free agents classes in years.

What else is Cooking?

I was planning on discussing some of the major trade rumors here as well, but in the interests of easing into this, I’m going to save that for next week. Other questions that I’ll be discussing in future installments of this column include, but are not limited to: How will the Yankees respond to their first off-season in the haves/have nots era following a playoff-less October? Will the NL West fold? How bad are the Padres that they’ve already decided that they can’t compete in the weakest division in baseball? Will players be able to survive the financial impact of an Obama tax increase? I’ll probably also do a little dissecting of this year’s post-season awards.

I hope to generate some discussion here, so if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about in future entries, feel free to say so with a comment. Thanks, and I’ll see you right here next week.

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