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November 11, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Language of the Hot Stove League

by Ted Berg

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Ted Berg is an editor at SNY.tv, where he writes a blog, hosts videos, and co-hosts a podcast. He lives in New York and tweets about Taco Bell at @OGTedBerg.

It happens every year: a few days after the World Series ends, legions of baseball-starved fans tune into every media outlet available, clamoring for any remotely feasible tidbit of hot-stove news. Even poorly substantiated rumors that make little sense for all parties involved are turned inside out and flipped around and analyzed from every possible angle.

It can be great fun. Discussing the next season’s makeup of the 30 major-league rosters is as good a means as any for passing the time until pitchers and catchers report. Plus, journalists reporting the rumors reap the spoils of increased page views and provide bloggers, analysts, and talk-radio types with endless fodder for conversation.

But trying to wean actual substantive information from the mire of Twitter-echoed nonsense can be frustrating, and if you follow the fates of your team with the emotional investment typical of the hardcore fan, keeping up with the hot-stove season can grow tiresome. More than anything, it is a study in vague language: trace any rumor back to its source, and you will most likely find it attributed in very qualified terms to some anonymous (and possibly invested) authority.

So with that in mind, what follows is a brief glossary of important offseason terms with interpretations based on hours’ worth of not-at-all exhaustive or extensive research. First, the sources:

“A rival executive”: Rival executives are often available to discuss their opponents’ rosters even though it’s the offseason and presumably they have their own business to attend to. It is unclear how a rival executive benefits from dishing to the press. Gleaning information that hasn’t yet been published? The thrill of seeing his anonymous quotes in print? HINT: If you’re eager to determine which rival executive is anonymously weighing in on your team’s fates, look out for fawning coverage of some general manager from the same reporter. Also, before you put too much stock in the words of baseball executives, remember that for a long time Steve Phillips was a baseball executive. Could be: A GM who doesn’t have time to catch up on all the latest at MLBTradeRumors and will give quotes to the reporter in exchange for a debriefing. Hopefully isn’t: Brian Sabean, angling for a quid pro quo vanity feature.

“A source with knowledge of the negotiations”: I don’t want to speak out of turn here, but when a writer cites “a source with knowledge of the negotiations” in regard to a pending free-agent deal, isn’t that pretty much always going to be the agent or an agent of the agent? If a team source provided the details, he or she would be cited just so, or as “a high-ranking front-office insider.” Obviously the agent doesn’t want the reporter saying where he got the information, but really, why do we keep dancing this weird tango? Could be: The player’s agent. Hopefully isn’t: Rogue phone-company employee.

“A high-ranking front-office insider”: Baseball teams often have a whole section of their media guide dedicated to their legions of vice presidents. They’re all high-ranking front-office insiders, even if they’re in charge of marketing or concessions or security. Presumably a good reporter starts with the front-office insiders that actually have some say in baseball operations, but maybe a shadier one keeps calling phone numbers until he finds the groundskeeping honcho willing to give him precisely the quote he needs to fit the story he has already written. Could be: Upstart GM underling hoping reporter will mention him next time there’s an open GM position. Hopefully isn’t: Some guy who ranks highly in his local Elks Club who just happened to be inside a front office that day.

“A source familiar with the club’s thinking”: When I first started writing about baseball on the Internet, I used to sometimes cite “a source familiar with the Giants’ thinking.” It was my friend Dailey. He’s a stock trader in the Bay Area and a huge Giants fan. I wasn’t lying: he always seemed to have a pretty firm handle on the Giants’ thinking. Could be: Dailey. Hopefully isn’t: Dailey when he’s hungover. He’ll usually rally, but the quotes are never as good.

“Sources”: At once the most vague and yet most authoritative-sounding supplier of offseason information, “sources” could be practically anyone. Maybe it’s a whole coalition of baseball insiders surveyed by the dutiful reporter. Maybe it’s a rough cross-section of talk-radio callers. Maybe it’s a group of the writer’s ancestors who came to him in a peyote-induced sweat-lodge hallucination to inform him of a possible Rockies-Cubs trade. All possible sources. None really any more likely than the others to predict an offseason move with any certitude. Could be: The A-Team. Hopefully isn’t: Entirely made up.

“A baseball person”: Though he prefers to remain anonymous in news stories, there is only one baseball person*. The jig is up, Mr. Met. Could be: Like I said, Mr. Met. Hopefully isn’t: An imposter. There can be only one.

“People in baseball circles”: Readers probably assume this phrase just gets bandied about by reporters eager to demonstrate their access to important people in the baseball world. But it just sounds that way because you don’t know about the ongoing cult proceedings. The people in question are actually inside ceremonial circles made of baseballs. Usually whatever quotes you see attributed to them were chanted. Could be: The leader. Nice pull! Hopefully isn’t: One of those litigious cults, or else you better save your voice-recorder files.

Next, a look at some other frequently used offseason terms:

“Kick the tires”: Teams reportedly kick the tires on old or frequently injured players. You don’t want to kick the tires on a prized free-agent because those are expensive tires and the last thing you want to do is scratch them up. Still, I question the logic of kicking the tires on players like Grady Sizemore, given the frequency with which the tires have already been repaired. You might want to be a little gentler with those tires. Likelihood it actually happens: Slim. Kicking any part of a baseball player is not a strong way to recruit him to your club, regardless of whether you plan on offering him multiple millions of dollars.

“Take a flyer on”: You learn some things when you edit a television network’s website, and one of them is that teams absolutely do take flyers on players. Technically, they take tiny little pieces of flyers—the little tear-off strips on the bottom, carefully cut by some earnest agent. Pure inside info: at the Winter Meetings in Dallas, there’ll be a big bulletin board full of flyers advertising the services of various less-coveted free-agents, and sometime during the week every team’s GM will send an assistant to walk past and grab a flyer if there’s any player worth investigating.  Actually, at the Dolphin Hotel in Orlando there still hangs a lonely flyer from last year’s meetings with no strips torn off, a photo of David Eckstein’s face in black-and-white looking hopefully from the goldenrod-yellow copy paper. Should’ve sprung for color printing, maybe. Likelihood it actually happens: High.

“(Team X) is willing to trade (player X) for the right price”: This is always true! Think about it: What wouldn’t you trade for the right price? Now you’re thinking, “Well, my husband. I love my husband and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.” But that means that no price you could receive in return would be the right price for your husband. Let’s break news right here: the Angels are willing to trade Mike Trout for the right price. Just heard that from a baseball person. It so happens that the right price might very well be five or six of the best players in the game in their primes signed to reasonable contracts, but hey, they’re willing to do it if someone ponies up. Likelihood it actually happens: Doesn’t really apply. Rethinking this format.

“Have considered”: The unchecked mind of a busy GM overwhelmed by offseason obligations can wander to various dark and terrifying places. General managers are human beings, after all, and we’re all burdened with our own strange fears and odd fantasies, not to mention the mind’s more mundane digressions and daydreams. So it is likely safe for any baseball writer to report that Jack Zduriencik has considered and will again consider trading Felix Hernandez, in the same way he could safely assert that 80 percent of high-ranking front-office insiders have at various points in their lives considered arson—if not in practice, then at least in concept. Likelihood it actually happens: All the time.

Finally, the great wild card:

“A mystery team”: Inevitably, at some point this offseason—probably during the Winter Meetings—someone will report that some free agent is being sought by some very specific list of teams “and a mystery team.” There are a variety of going theories on the mystery team’s identity. Some say it’s entirely fictional, an invention of the player’s agent to try to drive up the player’s price tag. Others argue it is a built-in safety valve for reporters who want to write with conviction but can never be sure of all the teams pursuing a free agent. Still others claim it’s the Washington Nationals. Which is it? No one knows. That’s why it’s a mystery, brother.

 *- Yeah, internet, I know all about Mr. Red and Mr. Redlegs. Those aren’t baseball people, they’re just guys in costumes. C’mon.

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