At long last, we’ve arrived at spring training and the end of our journey looking into the different divisions and all the teams’ individual moves. As you know by now, this is that time where we take a look and proudly declare who won or lost the offseason before actual baseball does its thing and makes us all realize how naive and foolish we once were. For teams that appear to be attempting to contend, we’ll be looking at whether the moves they made should help them do so. For rebuilding teams, we’ll be looking at whether they are getting enough for the players they are trading away. And then there are the teams that don’t seem to know what they’re doing or otherwise don’t fit into either of those categories, but don’t worry, we’ll address them, too.
Boston Red Sox
The big story going into Boston’s offseason, without a doubt, was the retirement of David Ortiz. Ortiz is the final holdover from the beginning of Boston’s current dynasty, the last player on the roster who was there for their 2004 World Series title and around for all three of the current millennium. Coming off a season where he was the best hitter on the team, with a .315/.401/.620 line where his .620 SLG was the best in MLB, his departure leaves a big (Big Papi-sized?) hole in the middle of the lineup that there was going to be no easy way to replace.
If you look at Dave Dombrowski and company’s decision to sign Mitch Moreland to a one-year, $5.5 million deal as the sole solution to Ortiz’s leaving, you probably aren’t going to be absolutely thrilled. When there were options like Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli available on the open market, it might seem like signing a 30-year-old, .254/.315/.438, 100 OPS+ career hitter coming off a disappointing .233/.298/.422, 87 OPS+ season to take the place of your best hitter would be a big mistake, but that fails to take into account the other big move the Red Sox made this offseason.
That move was clearly the trade that netted Boston Chris Sale, and this move alone should make up for the loss of Ortiz. As our own Andrew Perna covered when it went down and we discussed when talking about the White Sox’s offseason moves, the prospect package was pricy, but that’s what you have to do if you want to get three years of very cheap team control over a pitcher who has failed to rank below 6th place in Cy Young voting over the past five seasons. When you consider that the reigning Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello, will be in pitching out of the third spot in the rotation, that gives you an idea of how terrifying Boston’s top-three starters will be for opposing hitters.
From a straight-up WAR perspective, Ortiz was worth 4.4 fWAR and Sale was worth 5.2 fWAR. While that’s a really, really rough way to calculate what’s going to happen this year, it gives you an idea of Boston’s thinking and their failure to make any big additions to address their lineup situation. When you combine that with the fact that Boston had the best offense in baseball last season and, frankly, it wasn’t even close, that further drives home the point.
Boston also underwent a serious bullpen transformation this offseason, as righty relievers Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler all hit free agency and headed elsewhere. To address the newfound lack of right-handed relief depth, Boston brought in Tyler Thornburg. Thornburg, a former starter, had a breakout year last year last year in Milwaukee, with a 2.15 ERA and 12.1 K/9 over 67 innings.
All that being said, Thornburg is controllable and cheap for three more seasons, so he wasn’t inexpensive for Boston, who sent third baseman Travis Shaw plus prospects to the Brewers, which raises questions for them at that position. Pablo Sandoval is currently in the middle of another “best shape of his life” spring training and, while it might be reasonable to expect something better than his lone full season in Boston (.245/.292/.366, 75 OPS+), it’s certainly too early to assume that he’s going to win Comeback Player of the Year.
Sure, Boston is (yet again) playing in the toughest division in baseball, but they also look like favorites to win the division again. While the loss of Ortiz certainly stings, Boston made up for that loss in the rotation and looks like their moves were reasonably calculated to take some losses in some places and make up for them in others. They might not completely bludgeon opposing pitchers into submission like they did last year, but their young core of position players is still there and the rotation now looks like the kind that will give opponents fits in a postseason series, and success on that front is clearly the endgame for Boston.
Toronto Blue Jays
If Boston had a difficult offseason to navigate thanks to the loss of Big Papi’s production, the Blue Jays faced similar difficulties in addressing their lineup losses. Toronto, however, was not limited to the loss of a single player, as both Encarnacion and Jose Bautista hit free agency at the same time, taking a serious bite out of Toronto’s potential production. While we’ve been talking about this since last offseason, the moment of truth arrived and neither player had reached a deal to stick around.
Instead of re-signing either Encarnacion and/or Bautista, the first big move to the major league roster of GM Ross Atkins’ second season at the helm was to sign Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million contract. Morales was one of the best hitters on the 2015 World Series Champions Royals, but he took a step back last year in his age 33 season (.263/.327/.468, 108 OPS+). He can’t field, so he’s limited to the DH spot, and he’s been one of the worst baserunners in the league for the last couple years, so that further limits his value once he’s on base. While he’ll definitely benefit from the move to a more hitter-friendly park and should hit a bunch more home runs, he’s going to be a poor substitute for Encarnacion in the short term and they probably shouldn’t have gone to three years on the deal.
Of course, the reason that we’ve been comparing Morales to Encarnacion, rather than Bautista, is that Toronto was able to re-sign Bautista on a somewhat complicated, one-year deal with options. We already covered the signing, and it still looks like a really smart move to keep one of the best players in baseball around for just a year rather than run the risk of paying him for years as he declines.
In terms of other additions to the lineup, the Jays also brought in Steve Pearce on a two-year, $12.5 million deal. While Pearce carries serious platoon splits, and has dealt with some health issues as well, he’s still been a .267/.347/.493 hitter over the last three seasons, highlighted by his 2014 campaign (5.9 bWAR/5.4 fWAR in only 383 PAs in 102 games). The fact that he can play first, second and either corner outfield spot gives Toronto a lot of platoon options and makes the deal a no-brainer at what they’re paying for Pearce’s services. If Pearce is able to stay even relatively healthy, this might end up being one of the best deals of the offseason.
The excellent rotation is back from last year, minus R.A. Dickey, but Francisco Liriano should be able to take over the fifth starter spot from Dickey plenty adequately, so there wasn’t much need to address anything there. The bullpen, however, did undergo some changes, as RHP Joaquin Benoit and LHP Brett Cecil both headed elsewhere. To replace them, Atkins brought in RHP Joe Smith and LHP J.P. Howell. Smith has been quietly effective through most of his 10 year career, but last year saw his K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 all headed in the wrong direction. He also made multiple DL trips last year thanks to hamstring issues, but the $3 million commitment reflects the risk and reward.
Howell got the same $3 million for his one-year deal and is also coming off a rather rough season, albeit for different reasons. While he put up a 4.09 ERA in 2016, his peripheral stats mostly looked pretty similar to his 1.43 ERA 2015. Howell suffered from a BABIP-fueled (.375) beating at the hand of left-handed hitters, who hit .302 in the AVG department against him, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to to expect that to come back to earth again a bit this season. Still, he’s lost some velocity and, as with Smith, the commitment level reflects the risk.
One last thing: You’ll note that there was a caveat at the beginning of the discussion of Morales’ signing wherein we said “the first big move to the major league roster.” That’s because the actual first big move of the offseason was signing Cuban infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to a seven-year, $22 million deal. While we’ll refrain from discussing the merits of the current international system and the process for Cuban players (and for a more thorough discussion of Gurriel’s travels to the United States, I would direct you here), we’ll just say that Gurriel was a good bet and tip our caps to the Jays for landing him.
The Blue Jays certainly don’t look as good on paper as Boston, and they’re clearly trending downward with their current aging players, but they did well enough this offseason. It was going to be tough to replace both Bautista and Encarnacion or bring them both back and, at least for next season, Toronto looks like they’re good enough to be in the hunt for a third consecutive playoff appearance, even if it comes by way of the Wild Card for the second year in a row.
The team that Toronto bested last year in the Wild Card game, like both the aforementioned teams, faced a similar conundrum to the prior teams, with their best hitter not named Manny Machado hitting free agency. With 47 home runs in 2016, Mark Trumbo wasn’t just the Orioles biggest dinger donor; he was the Director of MLB’s Dinger Department. Unfortunately, as we discussed at the time of the signing, there are some red flags in his peripherals. When you combine that with the fact that he negates much of his offensive value with his inability to reach base and his baserunning ability when he does, and the fact that he’s pretty much a DH because he’s a minus-defender, the three-year, $37.5 million that GM Dan Duquette plunked down for Trumbo looks a little sketchy.
The only other big move of note for Baltimore was the trade with the Mariners that netted them outfielder Seth Smith in exchange for RHP Yovani Gallardo. We already went over this one, too, but to summarize: Gallardo looked like a liability in the rotation and Duquette was able to turn him into an affordable and reliable, if unexciting, contributor in Smith. On paper, this is another one of the most lopsided deals of this offseason, so credit to Duquette for doing better than he did with the Trumbo signing.
Of course, that’s where Duquette basically called it a day. Baltimore signed Welington Castillo to take over at catcher for Matt Wieters. While the decision to part ways with Wieters after his 87 OPS+ 2016 certainly makes sense, it’s not immediately clear how much of upgrade the replacement is. While Castillo wasn’t a complete disaster at the plate in 2016, at least by catcher standards (.266/.322/.423, 93 OPS+), his ability behind the plate resulted in his being non-tendered by Arizona. The deal (a two-year, $13 million deal with an opt-out after one year and $6 million earned) isn’t overly onerous, but it’s not entirely clear that it’s even an upgrade over internal option Caleb Joseph, even if they’re trying to keep the seat warm for amazingly-named prospect Chance Sisco, who will likely make his debut this year.
They also brought back Michael Bourn on a minor league deal (he’ll earn $2 million if he makes the roster and can go as high as $5.5 million with incentives). And,well, that’s it... Apart from the litany of non-roster invites and other minor league deals, those were the moves that the O’s made this offseason, unless you want to include the non-move of letting Pearce go to a division rival on the kind of deal that Toronto gave him.
At the end of the day, it’s not clear that the Orioles really got any better or worse with the few moves they made this offseason, as they didn’t really do much. The Smith-for-Gallardo deal looks like a win, but the Trumbo deal is probably going to look pretty rough pretty soon. While there is enough power in their lineup to make them dinger appointment viewing, it’s tough to imagine them as being much better than a team that gets a Wild Card spot and makes an early exit from the postseason, a la last year, and they could certainly fare much worse than that in the cutthroat AL East. Not exactly exciting stuff.
New York Yankees
On to the kings of the exciting offseason. That is, until last year, where they made exactly zero free agent signings. But the Yankees were back to business this year, as they jumped right back in with the most expensive contract ever given out to a reliever when GM Brian Cashman inked Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal.
As long as we limit our area of inquiry to the non-ethical, the Yankees unquestionably killed it with Chapman-related transactions leading up to the deal. First, when they took advantage of Chapman’s precarious legal situation traded for him on the cheap and then, again, when they sold him for a ransom to the Cubs. Mediocre prospects went out and top prospects came in. Regardless of the epithet you attach to “empire,” these were the kinds of moves that would help return it to its former glory.
This time around, though, New York had to shell out for Chapman, with the deal approaching $90 million, with an opt-out after three years and full no-trade protection until then.
In spite of that, there’s reason to believe that it’s not as insane as it might sound at first, especially with the contracts that went to Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen. Chapman just turned 29 at the end of February and, while it’s unlikely that he’ll continue to average 100 MPH on his fastball through the duration of the contract, Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs pointed out that he’s been extremely successful with lesser velocity in the past, even if it’s not success at his current level. Again, from a purely baseball perspective, the move makes sense.
While the Chapman signing was the biggest offseason move, it wasn’t the first. That was the trade that sent catcher Brian McCann to Houston in exchange for a couple of hard-throwing prospects. We already covered it, but, to rehash, this was more about clearing some salary and freeing up PAs for rookie phenom Gary Sanchez than what the Yankees got back.
The first position player signing of the winter was Matt Holliday’s one-year, $13 million deal, previously covered admirably by Andrew Perna. Like the man said, Cashman was wise to go the one-year route rather than a more costly option and, if Holliday manages to stay healthier, he’d likely be an interesting trade chip at the deadline if the Yankees again find themselves failing to fully contend.
Chapman’s most recent move was the signing of Chris Carter to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Carter had trouble finding a home this offseason, despite the fact that he was tied for the lead in home runs in the NL with Nolan Arenado with 41. He also, as usual, posted above-average patience at the plate (11.8% BB/9 in 2016 vs.11.6% for his career), but that’s where the pluses end, as every other aspect of Carter’s game leaves something to be desired (his 33.1% career K% and negative value defensively and on the basepaths, in particular). Which is how, despite all those dingers, he was able to only be worth 0.9 bWAR/fWAR and sit unsigned until mid-February in a market that has come to value power less than it has in the past.
Still, at the price that New York paid for Carter, he provides a worthwhile option to platoon with the left-handed Greg Bird as they see what they have in right-handed youngster Tyler Austin. With Bird missing all of last season to a shoulder injury, he’s also a reasonably priced insurance policy, and one that makes the Trumbo signing look even more questionable in terms of dollars and commitment.
In terms of overall strategy, the Chapman signing seems to suggest that Cashman envisions the Yankees to be true contenders within the three year window of Chapman’s NTC. The younger players still need some seasoning, but the building blocks are all there, and they didn’t really make any missteps. There are still some players (Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner) that could be moved. The rotation is in need of help, but there weren’t a lot of palatable options to upgrade this offseason anyway. All of this suggests that, while they’re still a fringe contender this season, the Yankees are going to be ready to throw their weight around in the next couple far superior free agent classes and be ready to step back into their traditional role amongst the cream of the AL East soon enough.
Tampa Bay Rays
Back at the beginning of our time together, when we mentioned that the AL East projects to be the toughest division in baseball, this is why: we’ve gotten to the last team in the division in the Rays and, unlike every other division in baseball, we don’t have a single team that would truly shock us if they made the playoffs this year. Like the other teams before them, the Rays probably aren’t a threat to challenge Boston for the division, but they are certainly aren’t out of the picture for the play-in game and they made some typically Rays-ish smart moves this offseason to keep that mojo working.
First and foremost among those deals was the signing of Wilson Ramos to a somewhat complicated two-year deal with $12.5 million guaranteed and up to a little north of $18 million in incentives. The incentive part is crucial, given the fact that Ramos is coming off of a season-ending ACL injury. Prior to that injury, Ramos was coming off of his best season by far, where he hit .307/.354/.496 for a 124 wRC+, which put him ahead of Jonathan Lucroy to lead all catchers. After an injury like Ramos’s, it’s not clear when or if he will be catching again. There’s also the fact that this was a breakout year for Ramos, and purportedly was the result of his undergoing Lasik surgery (which actually checks out, as much as these things can). Even if Ramos can’t catch again and has to DH in Tampa, this could still end up a steal and this the kind of smart gamble that teams like the Rays have to make.
The other biggish signing of Tampa’s offseason was Colby Rasmus to a one-year, $5 million deal with a couple million in incentives. Rasmus is coming off a terrible year where he couldn’t hit (.206/.286/.355, 76 OPS+) and missed a bunch of time. Of course, a big part of his time missed was due to an ear cyst which shouldn’t be a problem going forward. Unlike with, say, Chris Carter, Rasmus brings value to his team defensively and running the bases. Enough that, even with his terrible performance at the plate last year, he was still worth 2.2 bWAR/1.4 fWAR. He’s got enough upside that, like Ramos, this was a deal that makes too much sense for the Rays not to make, even if it’s a risk. The only bad news is that Rasmus has already shaved off his absolutely fabulous neckbeard and, if you want to get a petition going for him to bring it back, I will gladly sign my name.
Tampa also made a couple of big trades, the first of which sent Drew Smyly to Seattle in exchange for a trio of prospects in outfielder Mallex Smith, infielder Carlos Vargas and LHP Ryan Yarbrough. Smith was the big piece acquired by Tampa. In 72 games for Atlanta last year, he hit .238/.316/.365 en route to 1.0 bWAR/0.5 fWAR. He’s very, very fast (stole 88 bases in the minors in 2014), but it’s not entirely clear that his ceiling is particularly high as a hitter. He comes with more team control, which was obviously the modus operandi here, and the other players aren’t likely to make an impact yet. Smyly has dealt with injuries and effectiveness, but he’s been a useful pitcher nonetheless, and his absence might be missed.
The final big move of the Rays’ offseason was the trade that sent second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers in exchange for for pitching prospect Jose De Leon. As we went over when the deal went down, this was the kind of high-upside trade with service time considerations that the Rays are smart to make given their salary limitations. They’re definitely walking a tightrope in the starting pitching department, though, and have to be hoping that this wasn’t a whiff, as they don’t have much in the way of rotation depth after the Smyly trade.
The Rays have, seemingly as usual, cobbled together an interesting set of players considering how very little they are putting in their payroll. Whether or not they make the playoffs depends on how their risky moves play out, but that seems to be the case every year and you can make a strong argument that all of their moves, with the possible exception of the Smyly trade, made complete sense. Now, enough with the looking back, can we please have real baseball now?