Rejoice, rejoice, Spring Training games are here! Games that don’t count! Battles for fifth outfielder spots! More “best shape of his life” narratives than you can shake a stick at, but, still, sweet, sweet baseball! which means it’s 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.
The Nationals have haven’t had too hard of a time making the playoffs as of late, with a division title resulting in October baseball every even year since 2012. They have, however, had issues making it deep into the month, as they’ve received the boot in the first round every time. So how did GM Mike Rizzo and company address the roster to add that je ne sais quoi that will not only get to them to the postseason but get them over the NLDS hurdle this offseason? To the roster moves!
The Nationals came out of the gates strong this offseason, as their first move of note was trading Adam Eaton to the White Sox in exchange for a trio of pitching prospects headlined by RHP Lucas Giolito. We’ve already spent a lot of time talking about this move, both when it happened and when we covered Chicago’s offseason moves, so we won’t dig in too deep here. It suffices to say that, despite the knee jerk reaction of some folks that the Nationals gave up too much for Eaton, Eaton has been an excellent player and should continue to provide value to the Nationals, while none of the players they gave up have anything other than prospect pedigree at this point.
One thing that we haven’t discussed yet was some of the fallout from the Eaton trade in terms of how it affects Washington’s lineup. Whether or not moving Eaton back to centerfield will sap some of his value defensively, one thing it certainly does is pushes rookie phenom Trea Turner (.342/.370/.567, 144 OPS+ and 2nd place in Rookie of the Year votes in 2016) to the infield. This made Danny Espinosa expendable (who wasn’t happy about it) and he was shipped to the Angels for a couple of 25-year old pitching prospects. While Espinosa is far from a superstar, he’s a known commodity: an above-average defensive shortstop who usually hits just enough not to still provide value. It’s unlikely that either of the prospects Washington got back will pan out, so they don’t get high marks for this move.
In a lesser, smarter depth move, the Nats brought in Adam Lind on a one-year, $1.5 million deal with a mutual option for 2018. Lind is coming off of a down year after three straight productive years and, at that price point represents a nice insurance policy and some power off the bench. If he does bounce back a bit, this deal could end up a steal.
In an area of more import, the Nationals needed to address their situation at catcher. Incumbent backstop Wilson Ramos, who was coming off the best season of his career (.307/.354/.496, 3.3 bWAR, 3.5 fWAR) but missed the playoffs due to a knee injury, hit free agency. To replace him, the Nationals first brought in Derek Norris by trading RHP prospect Pedro Avila to San Diego. Norris, who was originally drafted by the Nationals, is coming off of a very bad season. His .186/.255/.328 line was not just the worst hitting season of his career, but one of the worst in baseball. Expecting some sort of a bounceback (especially considering Norris’s career low .261 BABIP), is a reasonable move and Norris offers defensive upside at the plate. Washington didn’t give up much to get Norris on the cheap, so you can’t fault them for this move.
About a week ago, though, Washington muddied the catcher waters by signing Matt Wieters to a two-year, $21 million deal (although Wieters can opt out after earning $10.5 million in 2017). Like Norris, the 31-year old Wieters is coming off of a down year (87 OPS+ vs. a career 98 mark). Unlike Norris, Wieters is not widely regarded as a plus-defensive backstop and the move is curious, to say the least, as Washington now has a plethora of catchers to choose from (previous backup Jose Lobaton and youngster Pedro Severino still exist, too). The move looks even more bizarre when you look at the amount of money they are giving Wieters and how they’ve addressed (or, rather, failed to do so) one of the biggest issues facing the club: the bullpen.
Gone from the relief corps is rental closer Mark Melancon to the Giants, but that’s just the beginning. Also gone are relievers of varying import, including Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Belisle, Marc Rzepczynski, Yusmeiro Petit and Felipe Rivero. They combined with Melancon to pitch an awful lot of innings for the Nationals last year and, as of now, Washington hasn’t done much to replace them. While the Nationals were purportedly in on Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman and a trade for White Sox closer David Robertson has reportedly stalled out, not that much actually happened.
Until just this week, the moves to fill the pen were limited to camp invites to the 41-year old Joe Nathan (who hasn’t pitched a full season since 2014) and the 34-year old Matt Albers (who was absolutely torched last year for 6.31 ERA). The signing of the 36-year old Joe Blanton, who has rejuvenated his career in the bullpen and put up a 2.48 ERA over 80 innings last year with the Dodgers, to a one-year, $4 million deal looks like a very smart move, but it’s still not clear that the Nationals have the bullpen depth that they need if they want to hold their own in the postseason.
While certain areas of the lineup look better off than they did last year, and Eaton certainly makes the lineup better, other areas certainly look worse. While I’d wager that Bryce Harper will do better this year than he did in 2016 and the rotation still projects to be one of the best in baseball, the bullpen remains the biggest question for the Nationals and their potential to make the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history and advance past the NLDS for the first time since moving to Washington. The fact that they made fairly minimal moves to address it and spring training is already underway doesn’t seem to bode well.
New York Mets
If one team stands to gain from the Nationals failure to do too much this offseason, it’s the Mets. After suffering the indignity of losing the play-in game last year after making it all the way to the World Series in 2015, surely the Mets would make some changes over the offseason and level up for 2017, right? Instead, the Mets had a very interesting offseason in its own right, by taking the whole “getting the band back together” thing pretty seriously and not adding a single player who wasn’t already on the roster.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean that the Mets just sat on their thumbs this offseason. First and foremost, in one of the earliest big moves of the offseason, GM Sandy Alderson re-signed Yoenis Cespedes after he opted out of his current contract with the Mets, this time to a four-year, $110 million deal. We already covered the signing, but, just in case, TL;DR: Cespedes was the best free agent on the market this year, the Mets couldn’t afford to lose him and, while they paid quite a bit to retain his services, it was necessary and a good call.
The other substantial “move” of the offseason was the extension of a qualifying offer to second baseman Neil Walker. Walker was excellent for the Mets last year, with a .282./347/.476 slashline for a 118 OPS+ and, if you go by fWAR (and use its UZR for Walker’s defensive performance), was ahead of even Cespedes as the most valuable position player in New York with 3.7 fWAR. That he was the MVP of the lineup while only playing in 113 games speaks to the quality of his campaign, but also serves as a reminder that he missed the last month of the season after undergoing back surgery. Were it not for the injury, Walker likely would have been able to secure a multi-year deal, but that’s a non-issue at this point. The real issue is how he recovers from the injury and, while Walker is already taking at-bats in spring training, that is a big chunk of change if things don’t work out.
The Mets also brought back lefty reliever Jerry Blevins on a one-year deal with a team option for 2018, and he will make $6.5 million for one year of work or $12.5 if he sticks around for both. Blevins had an excellent 2016 (2.79 ERA, 11.14 K/9) and the contract terms seem pretty reasonable. Also back in the bullpen is righty Fernando Salas, who was also excellent for New York last year (2.08 ERA, 0.635 WHIP) after coming over from the Angels at the trade deadline. His one-year, $3 million deal is, again, quite reasonable.
In terms of starting pitching, the Mets didn’t really do anything. Bartolo Colon left for a one-year deal in Atlanta (see below) and, while he would have served as a nice insurance policy in the event that they experience the sort of pitcher health issues they were by the end of last season. There is some definite good news at this point, with Zack Wheeler throwing batting practice and potentially working his way into the Mets plans finally, but it’s a little early to get our hopes up too much on that front. New York needs healthy seasons from Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz if they’re going to have any hope of making a deep playoff run, but it’s not clear that they could or should really do much to upgrade in the rotation other than pray that their starters stay healthy this year.
While the Mets were smart to hold on the players that they did, and especially Cespedes, they were still a middle-of-the-pack team offensively: 16th by wRC+ (97), tied for 16th by wOBA (.315) and 11th by fWAR (20.4). You certainly can’t give them any marks for improving this offseason, though, as it’s basically the same team, just with no Big Sexy this time around (sad face). If the Mets’ starters stay healthy, they’re probably going to give Washington a run for their money and make the playoffs one way or another, but there isn’t a lot of margin for error and their offseason wasn’t exactly exciting apart from the return of Cespedes.
For exciting offseasons, we can often look the the Marlins. Not necessarily the “good/smart baseball moves” kind of exciting, more the “I smell something burning, did I leave the oven on? Nope, there’s a pile of burning tires in my front yard” kind of exciting. Still… Exciting! How about this offseason? Gone are some of their questionable moves of the recent past (Andrew Cashner, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Francouer, et al.). The elephant in the room is the loss of their best player in Jose Fernandez last September, which was a true tragedy and, obviously, there’s no easy way to replace him. Still, the Marlins need to put a product on the field while Jeffrey Loria purportedly works towards selling the franchise.
In terms of fielding a full rotation, the biggest move by GM Michael Hill was signing Edinson Volquez to a two-year, $22 million deal. Since 2012, he’s averaged 187 innings pitched a season. Of course, over that time frame he’s got an ERA of 4.32 and an ERA+ of 89, so it’s an issue of quantity over quality with the exception of his 2014 and 2015 seasons (3.03 ERA, 118 ERA+ over 393 innings). Still, Volquez provides something that the Marlins with a pitcher who should eat innings, and, to be fair, there weren’t a lot of exciting options and Volquez does at least come with some upside.
To further fill out the rotation, the Marlins traded for Dan Straily, sending three prospects to Cincinnati in return. The 28-year old is coming off an excellent, if unexpected, 2016, where he pitched 191 innings to the tune of a 3.76 ERA, 113 ERA+ and 4.3 bWAR. However, Straily was claimed by the Reds on waivers at the beginning of the 2016 season at no charge, as his prior track record over the prior three years (4.60 ERA, 84 ERA+ and 0.5 bWAR) and his age didn’t exactly leave other teams enamoured. With a FIP (4.88) more than a full run over a his ERA last season and BABIP (.239) which was low even by Straily’s career number (.255), there’s reason to worry about whether his 2016 is repeatable, but at least the move to a pitcher-friendly park shouldn’t hurt.
The prospects they sent to the Reds were some of the best in their system, RHP Luis Castillo (who was rated #2 by Baseball America and #5 by MLB.com), RHP Austin Brice (who was rated #9 by MLB.com) and outfielder Isaiah White (who was rated 15th by MLB.com). Miami’s farm system was already notoriously thin and it’s not clear what they got back in exchange for Straily, even if he’s under contract for four more years.
Miami also signed Jeff Locke to a one-year deal worth $3 million, but it’s not clear whether he will start or relieve after the two aforementioned acquisitions. In other, definite relief moves, the Marlins also gave out two-year deals to both Junichi Tazawa, for $12 million, and Brad Ziegler, for $16 million. These moves came after Miami failed to land Jansen, which would have certainly rattled some cages. Tazawa and Ziegler are both relievers with plenty of upside signed to reasonable contracts in an offseason where relievers were getting paid, so the contracts make enough sense even if they might seem like an odd way to allocate money for a team that isn’t a reliever away from the postseason.
Then again, the Marlins wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in baseball if they were in the hunt for a playoff spot or anything. They have one of the best outfields in baseball, and All Star seasons from Dee Gordon and Martin Prado wouldn’t be surprising, so it wouldn’t take an awful lot to make it in on the Wild Card. That being said, the starting pitching depth is still woefully thin, but it’s also not really clear what Miami can do about it right now, as the market is thin, too. While the Volquez signing is reasonable enough, and the bullpen moves make sense, the Straily deal drags down their overall grade, as it certainly seems like they bought high on him.
One of the reasons the starting pitching was thinner than even expected this offseason was the fact that the Phillies started off their offseason by extending a qualifying offer to Jeremy Hellickson, which he accepted, probably to the great surprise of GM Matt Klentak who was presumably expecting to get a fairly high draft pick instead. Hellickson was coming off of a solid year (3.71 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 111 ERA+) after a few bad ones (where his ERA+ averaged out to 81), and was likely one of the better available options in free agency (which says quite a bit about the thickness of the free agent market). The Phillies probably aren’t stoked about paying Hellickson $17.2 million, but, then again, Ryan Howard finally came off the books, so they can certainly afford it.
Besides Hellickson, Klentak also brought RHP Clay Buchholz into the rotation via trade. Buchholz was pushed into depth territory when Boston acquired Chris Sale in December. Rather than pay Buchholz’s $13.5 million option which they exercised earlier in the offseason, they shipped him to Philadelphia in exchange for second base prospect Josh Tobias, a 24-year old who is still in the lower minors. Buchholz’s career has been a bit schizophrenic, as he’s had some excellent seasons (and even picked up Cy Young votes for his 2010) and some mediocre to terrible ones. His 2016 (4.78 ERA, 5.06 FIP, 95 ERA+) was more in the latter camp, but he was excellent as recently as 2015 (3.26 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 132 ERA+). In terms of what the Phillies gave up for Buchholz (read: not much), this looks like a great move for them, as Buchholz has plenty of upside.
Buchholz wasn’t the only veteran that Klentak brought in via trade, though. Howie Kendrick came over from Los Angeles and will likely play left field (although his versatility is a large part of his appeal). Kendrick was coming off of a down year by his standards (90 OPS+ in 2016 vs 114 OPS from 2011 to 2015). That, combined with the fact that Kendrick had asked to be traded and the fact that the Dodgers could stand to shed some payroll, meant the Phillies didn’t have to give up much (30-year old minors stalwart Darin Ruf and 26-year old prospect Darnell Sweeney). The fact that it’s only a one-year commitment, combined with the fact that (1) Kendrick’s BABIP (.301) was well below his career average (.337) and (2) the Phillies have money to burn, makes this move a no-brainer on Philadelphia’s side.
Michael Saunders also signed a one-year pact with $9 million guaranteed and an option for 2018. Saunders has dealt with health issues throughout his career, but was good for 140 innings last year. His overall hitting numbers were very good (.253/.338/.478, 115 OPS+), but his first and second half splits might be cause for concern about what to expect going forward. Still, he represents a good investment at that price point for a rebuilding team with dollars to distribute.
On the bullpen front, Philadephia brought in veteran relievers Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek. Benoit signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal and Neshek came over from Houston for a PTBNL or cash. Short, reasonable contracts for veterans that fill out the roster and can potentially be flipped at the trade deadline... Notice a trend?
All in all, the Phillies brought in some veteran arms to go along with their intriguing young starter trio of Aaron Nola, Vince Velazquez and Jerad Eickhoff. They also added veterans in their lineup, a lineup that scored the fewest runs in MLB last season, but they didn’t sacrifice future payroll or important prospects to make it happen. The smart bet is that some of these folks will be gone at the trade deadline for prospects, but that’s clearly by design, as the long game on the Phillies’ rebuild is still playing out.
Speaking of rebuilds, we close out the NL East with the Braves, who are following a similar template to the Phillies this offseason. GM John Coppolella pounced early this offseason and snatched up a couple of seriously veteran pitchers. One year deals were given to both R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon at $8 million and $12.5 million. We already went over this when the deals went down, but these are the prototypical pitcher deals for rebuilding teams: short term deals to reliable innings eaters so you can develop your youngins, with the added bonus of Big Sexy.
To further deepen the rotation and make sure those youngins get even more seasoning, they sent a trio of lesser prospects to Cincinnati for Jaime Garcia, who is coming off of a rough season and has one year of team control left. Garcia had a rough season statistically last year (4.67 ERA. 4.48 FIP and 88 ERA+) but he also pitched over 170 innings, something he hadn’t done since 2011. He comes with plenty of upside (see: his 2.43 ERA/161 ERA+/1.049 WHIP over 129 innings in 2015) and Atlanta didn’t give up a huge haul for him (although they certainly gave up more than Philly did for Buchholz).
In terms of position players, one of the earlier moves the Braves made was to add Sean Rodriguez, who was coming off a career year (126 OPS+ compared to a career 90 OPS+) on a two-year, $11 million deal and would presumably take over at second base but could literally play anywhere but at catcher. This looked like an incredibly deft move, as Rodriguez’s improvement was quite possibly due to changes to his batting stance, and at that sort of price, it’s a worthwhile gamble, especially with a player with that sort of defensive versatility. Unfortunately, after the signing, Rodriguez was in a horrifying car accident involving a stolen police car, underwent shoulder surgery and there isn’t a timetable for his return. Hopefully Rodriguez returns and builds on what he was doing and we certainly can’t dock the Braves for what looked like a really smart move at the time.
To take Rodriguez’s place, Atlanta completed a trade with Cincinnati to bring them Brandon Phillips, who had previously used his no-trade clause to block a deal between the teams. As we talked about when we analyzed the Reds’ offseason, the players that went to Cincy in exchange weren’t particularly impressive, so Atlanta made the best of a bad situation to grab Phillips, even if the 35-year old’s All Star seasons are behind him, as it’s a one year commitment for a team that can afford the dollar amount.
All of the big moves that the Braves made look like well-thought out moves for a team that will hopefully have its rebuild in the rearview soon. The only way they might have done it better was to pick up a few low-salary-risk, high-tradability-reward bullpen arms, but maybe some non-roster invites will do the trick and they’ll save on the salary commitments. Still, all in all, it was a quite good offseason for the Braves.