Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws against the Houston...

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, in Houston. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

After winning the World Series for the first time in franchise history — Expos or otherwise — the Nationals have the most to lose this winter as the Hot Stove season gets underway Monday with the general managers' meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is faced with the proposition that both World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg — who opted out of his current deal the day of the D.C. parade — and the presumptive runner-up, Anthony Rendon, will be lured away by more lucrative offers. Based on their importance to Washington’s championship march, the loss of either would seem to put a serious dent in Rizzo’s hopes of repeating.

Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon celebrates with the trophy...

Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon celebrates with the trophy in the locker room after Game 7 of the World Series against the Houston Astros on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

Then again, wasn’t it a year ago at this time that we had trouble imagining the Nationals without Bryce Harper as he entered free agency?

Crazy things happen. Such as Harper signing a $330 million deal with the Phillies just to finish in fourth place. Or Manny Machado going to the Padres for $300 million, or Nolan Arenado ($260M) and Mike Trout ($430M) choosing to stay put rather than testing free agency at all in the future.

The rough parameters for some of those blockbuster deals can be sketched out at the GM meetings as dozens of agents mingle with front-office staffs on the resort’s grounds. The framework for big trades, too. Remember, the Yankees completed their swap for James Paxton only 11 days after last year’s meetings wrapped. The first rumblings of the Mets’ interest in Robinson Cano also were picked up on site at the Carlsbad (California) campus that November.

Beyond the player moves, however, loom larger questions, such as the glacial pace of baseball’s free agency and the bad blood that continues to percolate on both sides of the labor fence  with another two seasons left before the current CBA expires. Expect some of that to be addressed during the coming week, and as such, we’ll include that among our things to watch  in Scottsdale.

Collusion? Or illusion?

Union chief Tony Clark has a short fuse these days on the eve of free agency, and for good reason. He’s been taking a ton of flak for the deep freeze of the past two winters because of a stagnant market that has richly rewarded an elite few while members more toward the middle find themselves out in the cold.

So it was no surprise last week that Clark responded aggressively to relatively benign comments by Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, whose apparent crime was mentioning that he spoke with his counterparts on other clubs in preparation for his offseason plans.

“Every day you get more information,” Anthopoulos said on a conference call with reporters. “And we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs — obviously the Astros and [Nationals] being in the World Series, they were tied up. But we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.”

While that sounds like standard operating procedure for MLB teams, the quote immediately triggered Clark, who took the opportunity to say the union would investigate the Braves because of what he termed “a clear description of club coordination” that was “egregious.” Clark also said in the email release that Anthopoulos’ statements “call into question the integrity of the entire free-agent system.”

That’s some loud saber-rattling on Clark’s part, and enough to prompt the Braves to tweet another statement from Anthopoulos.“At no time during any of those calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free-agent market,” he said. He also apologized for any “confusion” regarding the matter.

Whatever the fallout, that clash was just another indication of the recent cold war heating up into something more dangerous in the months ahead. With all 30 GMs gathered together this week, and certainly talking at length, consider Clark’s policing effort to be more a preemptive strike for his constituency.

Deadline blues

MLB officials recently made a pitch to the union about establishing a deadline for free-agent signings, a source confirmed, and it was targeted for right after December’s winter meetings in the hope of creating a frenzy at the sport’s biggest offseason event.

The union rejected the proposal, however, fearful that the smaller window would negatively impact the market overall. Given that the notoriously patient Scott Boras represents a sizable chunk of this year’s free-agent class, including two at the top in Gerrit Cole and Strasburg, there is concern that this winter’s pace could be slower than ever and drag contract talks with multiple players into spring training, as it did for Harper -- a Boras client -- last year.

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches during the first...

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches during the first inning against the Mets at Citi Field on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Boras believes that playing the long game works to his clients’ advantage, and it’s hard to argue with his results, at least at the top end of that spectrum. The problem is that MLB has grown envious of the NBA and NFL for their ability to generate a ton of attention (and ratings) by squeezing their free agency into just a few days rather than baseball’s four-month (and sometimes longer) period.

There is a good reason for that, however, and it’s just plain economics. The NBA and NFL operate with salary caps and legislated payrolls, so it just comes down to where they want to play. MLB teams are restricted only by their own desire to spend —  with penalties tied to exceeding the luxury-tax threshold — and as Boras likes to point out, that thinking can change over the course of the offseason (as well as into spring training).

Until both sides can agree to changes in the sport’s salary structure, settling on a deadline doesn’t seem feasible. Still, it does remain a priority for MLB and could gain increasing support from agents, even as Boras continues to be a holdout.

More data in dugout

Last week’s hiring of Matt Blake as the Yankees’ pitching coach was another move in a trend that’s bringing more data-driven influence to on-field personnel. And with other teams looking to fill coaching staffs for the  2020 season, you can expect that to be among the topics when the GMs gather this week.

Blake, 33, was promoted by the Indians to be their pitching coordinator only days before accepting the Yankees’ offer, even though his only coaching experience was with Lincoln-Sudbury (Mass.) High School and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League in 2015. The primary allure for the Yankees, however, was the analytical mindset he developed, in part, by working as the pitching coordinator for Cressey Sports Performance, which focuses on video analysis and other cutting-edge tech.

New hires such as Blake now seem to eliminate any middlemen between the data-crunchers upstairs in the front office and the dugout — or at least make the communication more seamless. As as much as the Yankees are trying to be out front on this transition, other clubs won’t be far behind.

An offer that can be refused

The GM meetings wrap up Thursday, which also happens to the deadline for free agents to accept qualifying offers from their respective teams, something that rarely happens.

This year’s qualifying offer is $17.8 million — down $100,000 from 2018, as MLB’s average salary has dipped — and 10 players reportedly received them: Cole, Strasburg, Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Jose Abreu, Jake Odorizzi, Madison Bumgarner, Marcell Ozuna, Will Smith and Zack Wheeler. That’s up from last year’s seven, a record low.

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler delivers against the Los Angeles...

Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler delivers against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning of an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only player to accept it last November, making him only the sixth to do so out of 80 free agents since 2012. If a player declines the offer and signs elsewhere, he comes attached with draft pick compensation, a nettlesome issue that not only has delayed new contracts but hurt market value.

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