Around the hot stove, and next to the internet

It’s a stretch to suggest that a game can possibly be more fun when it is not being played. But in terms of tactics, intrigue, gamesmanship, and, yes, skullduggery, it is increasingly tough to top Baseball’s hot-stove season, featuring the manic pursuit of free agents for big bucks and the myriad moves and counter-moves thus inspired.

We have a potentially epic example of this odd art form ongoing. It has been riveting in its early hours with much more to come. To keep apace – if that be your foolish fancy – one is required to patrol the internet near hourly.

The conditions are perfect. A major boost of television revenue has every team feeling richer than usual and more anxious to spend. And that includes the small-market weepers and wailers more accustomed to boring us with their tales of woe at this time of year. There’s a sufficiency of fat-cat teams, beginning with the legendary one from the Bronx, that have acute needs and the fat cats always drive the market. Equally important, there’s more than one dumb owner out there, and as you well know it only takes “one.”

Actually, the supply of available talent, while large, is hardly top-heavy with superior quality, and the very best of the best got scooped quickly. But the ranks of the middle-class players, those sturdy, steady, and high-character performers who can patch a roster together, are strong. It’s the card the Red Sox played so well last year when they parlayed what seemed a dubious pursuit of role-players into a remarkable championship. Now everyone yearns to mimic them.

For a team to succeed in this age there are veritable minefields to navigate with talent evaluation being the least burdensome of them. As the point man, the general manager had better be as clever at avoiding the luxury tax as he is at grading his farm system. All of which has made the smart, generally young, necessarily workaholic, and super-nerdy GMs the game’s new breed of superstar. Back in his wunderkind days, Theo Epstein was a big player in the writing of this book and this year his protégé, Ben Cherington, etched a major upgrade.

On the other hand, Theo’s currency in his Chicago incarnation is hardly what it once was. Of which Ben is doubtless well aware. It’s a slippery slope.

In the past, baseball’s annual winter meetings – just beginning as this is written – ignited the heavy wheeling and dealing while establishing the market; but not this year. A furious give-and-take over the fortnight leading to the meetings accomplished all that rather thunderously. More shoes will surely drop, but it’s hard to imagine it getting busier or crazier.

On a single day – the first Friday of December – a near- astounding 13 free agent agreements were reached, including Robinson Cano’s blockbuster coast-to-coast flight. That came on top of the 12 significant deals put together earlier in the week that included the equally noteworthy transfer of Jacoby Ellsbury’s allegiances from the Back Bay to the Bronx.

It’s always a joy to have Red Sox-Yankees animosities at the heart of the matter aroused again. No matter how much more nuttiness is yet to come it won’t offer more potential drama or rancor than the Cano and Ellsbury capers. If both are flawed, the Cano deal more than is widely recognized, they were properly ranked one-two in this year’s market. Combined they have now landed contracts valued at more than $400 million. Considering that neither is close to a Hall of Fame lock midway through his career, that’s absolutely mind-boggling.

The entire conversation about Cano amazes me. He has a heckuva press, but the player I see on the field from year to year but faintly resembles the character so many learned and sophisticated pundits who should know better incessantly describe in their rave notices. There’s an aura of greatness about him, true, but it’s too often unfulfilled, a gap between potency and act, if you will. Nor do I think at this point that that will ever change. He’s a considerable talent, one of the foremost of his times. And he’s also one of the most over-rated players in the game today. There is neither inconsistency nor contradiction in both distinctions residing in the one and same fellow.

In Seattle, Cano is landing the very same contract the Angels foolishly gave Albert Pujols: $24M total for 10. After only two years, that contract is killing the Angels while proving a stroke of genius for the team that refused to pay him so much, the Cardinals. But the point is that when that deal was done, everyone agreed it was reasonable, for in his eleven seasons in St. Louis Pujols had won one batting title, two homer titles, and three MVPs. In nine seasons in the Bronx, Cano has never led the AL in anything.

The Seattle Cano-deal also lands in the same general ballpark as the epic pacts Alex Rodriguez got that are now so widely and properly disparaged. But however dumb all that looks now, likening Cano’s credentials to those of Rodriguez is considerably more ludicrous. Much as you may loathe him you have to admit that A-Rod had at least 10 seasons that significantly exceed anything Cano has ever done. They are not comparable. You should look it up.

There is much that is silly about this entire business. Wisely, Yankee operatives have buttoned their lips, but the guessing here is that their brain trust is pleased with the outcome. Doubtless they’d have loved to have retained Cano at the right price and under the right circumstances, but all that evaporated as the two-month floating circus of a negotiation orchestrated by the rap maestro Jay-Z and his Original Amateur Hour proceeded awkwardly.

This is baseball, not vaudeville. Cano hanging out on the road with such a swinging crowd did not impress the New York Yankees, who remain the most old-guard of all the ball clubs. They’ve always been suspect of players who get stardust in their eyes and “go Broadway.” One senses they knew they’d lost Cano last summer, which is why they’d already committed elsewhere the money they knew they were going to save well before the nitwit Mariners and this year’s certifiably “one dumb owner” supinely capitulated by giving Robbie his $240 million.

Oddly, it seems to me, the Yankees are being heavily second-guessed and nit-picked for having drawn the line on Cano while the Red Sox are being applauded for doing the very same thing on Ellsbury. Indeed, Boston’s low-balling of their talented center fielder was notably more heavy- handed. They had to know $18 million for five years would never get it done with Scott Boras. Keep in mind, the Yankees’ offer to Cano was for more money per year – $25 million – than Seattle offered, albeit for only seven years compared with ten. Mind you, nobody was being insulted here, all the offers being customarily obscene.

The criticism aimed at the Yankees mainly concerns the curious notion that Cano is a much better player than Ellsbury. Better? Yes! Much better? I’m not so sure of that. So far, Cano has displayed greater power while being decidedly sturdier, and that’s a big factor. But the calculation now concerns the future not the past. In Yankee Stadium, Ellsbury has a strong chance to match his peak numbers – that splendid 2011 campaign when he had 212 hits, 32 homers, 364 total bases, smacking .321 – “if” he stays healthy, admittedly a big “if.”

The Yankees’ risk is Ellsbury’s stamina; he has some history. But it’s no greater than the risk Seattle faces of the ever-streaky Cano having his focus slip now that he’s made his score in a much-less pressurized scene under the wing of the merry rappers.  If I were the Mariners, I’d be scared.

As for the Red Sox, they had better hope the Ellsbury that shows up in the Bronx next spring is not the 2011 model. That would not bode well with the Nation’s second-guessers.