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Hot Stove League simmers this winter

By Staff | Jan 25, 2018

Nearly every town or crossroads had them.

Opinionated conversations held in feed stores, hardware stores, pool halls, luncheonettes, barber shops, automotive dealerships and bakeries were taken as seriously as a last-place finish in either the American or National League.

Well-worn wooden chairs were circled around a potbellied stove, which was stoked with kindling, small logs and some coal to keep the debaters warm and the talk concentrated on baseball.

It was the era of the Hot Stove League.

There were only 16 major league teams. Free agency was unheard of and players were bound to their teams like indentured servants were to the overseers on farms, New England mills and plantations.

How was a favored team going to improve on its previous standing unless its farm system provided help or a meaningful trade could be made?

Those gathered in the warmth of the stove had their ideas, most based on a fervent allegiance to their team of choice.

After all, it was January and their boys couldn’t lose any more games until April.

Arguments flared over each team’s quality of pitchers. Were there any rookies who might be of some help? How about a veteran rebounding from a subpar year at age 34?

Adults came in from the cold to claim their seats. Sidewalks had been shoveled, parking spots had been cleaned. And now the five or six men could get away from the issues of making a living or staying a step ahead of the next snowfall and solve some of the real problems of life – how to get their team out of third place and into a six-month challenge of stepping past the Yankees or Dodgers.

Ideas were bounced off the walls and statistics were woven into conversations.

But little was settled. Tomorrow was another day. And Jake had some beef jerky he could bring and Ted could donate his homemade chili to the day’s arguing.

There are still Hot Stove Leagues in today’s analytics-driven baseball, where 30 teams vie for recognition and free agency dominates player movement from team to team.

Rosters can change overnight. Trades usually don’t happen until Spring Training, but players’ new-team travels have become a way of life.

After only a few mind-bending changes so far this winter, there are plenty of free agents casting about for three-, four- or five-year contracts.

Baltimore was a last-place creature in its division.

And since that much-smudged September swoon the team put on, there has been nothing done to delight its long-suffering fans. Welington Castillo was lost to free agency. Zach Britton tore his achilles tendon and will miss at least half the 2018 season. J.J. Hardy, Seth Smith, Chris Tillman, Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Gentry and Ryan Flaherty are all free agents.

Of course, Flaherty, Jimenez, Miley, Tillman and Smith are five of the reasons the Orioles finished in the cellar and looked up from the dungeon at Toronto, Tampa Bay, New York and Boston.

Are there any course-changing free agents left for the Orioles to sign?

Only a scant few could make much difference at all.

J.D. Martinez had over 40 homers last season. The outfielder won’t likely cast a covetous eye at a Baltimore contract. The same can be said for pitcher Yu Darvish. Pitcher Alex Cobb would be a viable addition to Baltimore’s mostly miserable group of starting pitchers. Three players last seen with Kansas City – outfielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas – are more talented than almost all the others drifting in the winter wind.

Could Jake Arrieta return to Baltimore? Not likely. Logan Morrison had over 100 RBIs for Tampa Bay. Lance Lynn, a starting pitcher, was a help for the Cardinals.

Is Baltimore’s usually barren farm system capable of producing any players for the 2018 season?

Chance Sisco, a catcher, could be the most valuable of a bunch with little or no value.

It’s a sure thing that some pitchers who toiled unceremoniously in the minors in 2017 will inhabit places of the 25-man roster.

Even the most vocal and most vain of Hot Stove speakers will have trouble convincing anybody the Orioles will be breaking from the starting gate and rolling downhill through the coming season.

The team will patch where it can, use at least 15 different starting pitchers before the season ends and limp through five- and six-game losing skids along the potholed way.

Roll out the orange carpet and blow up the orange, white and black balloons for Opening Day.

But don’t run low on kindling, dry wood and coal needed to stoke the stove, because in this Hot Stove League most any team in baseball has as much cause for optimism as “Baltimore’s Finest.”