If we're being honest with ourselves, this will probably turn out to be one of the dullest and most irrelevant hot stove seasons in recent memory. Yeah, there was the fun Blue Jays-Marlins blockbuster last month, and Justin Upton's extended stay on the trading block might bring us a multi-team deal that will be fun to diagram and break down. But for the most part we're looking at a market topped by two players in Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton who most teams can live without (at least at the prices they'll command) followed by a host of good but not great players who are going to benefit anyway from a market flush with cash.
Quick! Raise your hand if you're terrified your team is going to give someone like Anibal Sanchez or Kyle Lohse or Nick Swisher way too much money.
Hey, not every offseason can feature an Albert Pujols or a Prince Fielder or a Cliff Lee to put on your Christmas list. And some of the bigger markets — anyone awake in New York? Chicago? Hello? — aren't always going to be this dormant. There will again be a hot stove season in which Hall of Fame talent and under-30 game-changers will be on the market because their existing teams can't (or won't) pay them.
But with baseball's new world order, the humdrum 2012-13 hot stove season is going to repeat itself more often than not. Almost every team is now in a place where its emphasis is on cultivating cheap farm talent and then locking the best of their best into long-term deals before they can even think about free agency. Check out this list of players who would have been available this winter had they not signed extensions some time in the past year:
Maybe there isn't anyone with enough star power to drive Pujols-type headlines or move a few thousand season ticket sales in that group, but there's no question this market would be a lot more interesting if Hamels and Cain were out there fielding offers instead of letting Greinke be the lone option on the dance floor. (It's also worth wondering what might have been had Melky Cabrera not turned in a positive drug test or injuries hadn't submarined Grady Sizemore's great potential.)
Looking ahead, the prospects of warmer winters don't seem all that likely. Talent like Matt Kemp, Ryan Bruan, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and others are locked into deals that will keep them in the same uniform for a long, long time. Top-level aces like Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez look like they're headed that way.
Looking ahead to the 2013-14 class, Adam Jones and David Wright have already been removed from the line of potential free agents. Robinson Cano and R.A. Dickey could join them. That leaves a crop that will likely be headlined by Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Tim Lincecum, Brian McCann and Josh Johnson. All very good players, yes, but all who will enter the market with reasons for fans to temper their enthusiasm.
There have always been reasons to worry about adding high-priced free agents, sure, but the average baseball fan is more informed about the perils these days. Maybe that means we're moving toward a hot stove season where we get jazzed over the value-laden runoff and the bargain deals that get struck in the weeks before spring training.
But where's the fun in that? I always find it enjoyable to watch other teams spend exorbitant amounts of money no matter if it was good for them or not. I like seeing familiar players put on unfamiliar uniforms, causing a dramatic shift in not only how we view the players themselves but also how we view the franchise they left and the franchise they're joining. I like seeing fan bases re-energized and pep rallies held as the new star arrives in town, even if the future means big paychecks for small performance.
We may still get those scenes, but they're going to be fewer and further in between.
Unless someone wants to throw a parade for Nick Swisher this holiday season, of course.