Hot Stove is living up to its billing this offseason

By Anthony Castrovince
12/18/12 9:40 AM ET

They call this time of year the "Hot Stove League" because it conjures up an image of baseball fans keeping warm in the winter months by hovering around a warm stove and talking ball.

Clearly, it's an outdated term, as a decent percentage of rooms aren't, in fact, heated by stoves, and those of us talking ball are more likely to gather around our smartphones and tablets than, you know, other human beings.
Worse than being outdated, though, is being flat-out incorrect. We throw around the "Hot Stove" term in my line of work because it's catchy and easily identifiable, but baseball's offseason is more typically a slow burn. A deal here, a deal there, a preseason picture gradually, but surely, coming into focus and fruition.
But it's no exaggeration to say that, in recent days, there's been a flurry of activity worthy of the "Hot Stove" label. From the James Shields trade to the Zack Greinke signing to the Reds/D-backs/Indians three-headed monster to the Josh Hamilton stunner to the R.A. Dickey deal (just to scratch the surface), this has been an especially entertaining time to be a baseball fan.
Now, obviously, the blockbuster free-agent signings happen every year. But in recent years, we've seen the big spending become more widespread. We've seen how regional television deals have helped teams like the Dodgers, Angels and Rangers become the sort of superpowers the Yankees and Red Sox once were on the spending front and how the Yankees' and Red Sox's recent adherence to the limits of the luxury tax, combined with the influx in cash all teams will enjoy with the new national TV contracts, have only made the dynamics of the dollars all the more fascinating.
On the trade front, though, this winter -- just these last couple weeks, really -- has ushered in a newer and equally intriguing trend. For we've seen an advance in aggression on the part of general managers, and it is no doubt tied to the new playoff format, the more ample availability of an October dance card.
Just a year ago, I spoke with several GMs about the frustration of the trade environment. Teams were valuing their prospects to the point of stagnation in the marketplace. The game's greatest currency, it was widely determined, was cost-controlled talent, even if that talent was unproven at the Major League level. And the fear of trading away the "next big thing" seemed to be outweighing the need to improve in the immediate.
As Dodgers GM Ned Coletti put it at the time, "People are always looking for a reason to say no."
Now, not to say the entire model has been turned on its head. Cost-effective upside is still every bit as valuable now as it was a year ago.
The difference is that, with a better understanding of the Wild Card dynamics, we're seeing less reluctance to part with that talent if it can bring back a hole-plugging piece.
In short, the previously "untouchables" are being touched.
Look at the Blue Jays as one example. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos made it clear he's going for it in 2013 when he pulled off that mammoth move with the Marlins. But bringing in Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle was as notable for the costs assumed as it was for the prospect talent yielded.
More stunning was the deal for Dickey, in that it forced Anthopoulos to fork over a catching prospect, Travis d'Arnaud, very highly regarded in an industry that is always on the search for a backstop boost. And the other prospect headed to the Mets, Noah Syndergaard, is also well-regarded -- a tall Texas kid with plus velocity and good feel for his secondary stuff. That he hasn't pitched above low-A ball is the caveat, of course.
Royals GM Dayton Moore is taking the same tact as Anthopoulos. Moore senses an opportunity within his division, even though that division holds the defending AL champs. He sees the seeds of a contender within his club, but he knew his rotation needed a major upgrade.
The problem, of course, is upgrading a rotation in a market like Kansas City and in a winter in which a guy like Greinke, who the advanced metrics tell us has only been slightly better than league average in his career, commands $147 million. It's just not doable for the Royals.
So after spending what money Moore could on what players he could (taking the Ervin Santana project off the hands of the Angels and re-signing Jeremy Guthrie), Moore decided to dip into the depth provided by his highly touted farm system and reel in the proven arm of James Shields and the calculated gamble that is Wade Davis. The costs could prove particularly punitive, as power-hitting Will Myers is one of the top position player prospects in all of baseball and right-hander Jake Odorizzi, lefty Mike Montgomery and outfielder Patrick Leonard all have big league potential.
Only time will tell if Moore gave up too much for too little. For now, that he gave it up at all is indicative of the more enterprising trade environment GMs are currently operating in.
D-backs GM Kevin Towers has always gravitated toward that environment. He's an old-school sort unafraid to make a swap.
But Towers was bold even by his own standards last week. Because if prospects are valuable currency, high-upside pitching prospects like Trevor Bauer are worth their weight in gold. So for Towers to deal Bauer not for an established commodity but a fellow prospect in shortstop Didi Gregorius raised an eyebrow or two. Even if the D-backs had soured on Bauer, Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti was far from the only GM who would have willingly pounced on the chance to steer him right.
For those of us observing from the outside, these trades are made all the more thought-provoking by the ever-advanced accessibility of prospect data. Some of these guys are household names before they even make their debut.
We recognize, then, how difficult it can be for a club to part with a prospect, and this ought to give us an even greater appreciation of the aggression being shown this month.
Front-office types have talked a lot in recent years about "contention cycles" and the importance of knowing when you're on the good or the bad end of one. For the smallest of small markets -- those who don't have a multi-billion dollar TV deal coming anytime soon -- those cycles will always exist and will always matter. But the "contention" bar has been lowered. The A's and Orioles demonstrated last year how quickly a club can leap from afterthought to attraction. The late surges of the Brewers and Phillies reminded us to respect the length of the season and understand the value of merely hovering in the vicinity of .500.
Several clubs have jumped at the chance to take advantage of that environment, no matter the costs. And as a result, the "Hot Stove" is living up to its billing.