It's been a long, brutal slog of an offseason. While there are a multitude of reasons it's moved so slowly, some of which don't appear to be going away, we can at least take solace in the fact that the signings have picked up as of late. Regardless of the unsigned state of quite a few free agents, spring training is upon us, which means it’s time to take a look and declare who won or lost the offseason before actual baseball makes us look dumb.
As always, 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 see you, Marlins. Today we’re covering the AL West, but, in case you missed it: here's the NL West.
No team has managed to take home repeat World Series victories since the Yankees completed their threepeat in 2000. There are a multitude of reasons this is the case, from increased parity throughout the leagues to the extra wear-and-tear that playing through the entire postseason imposes on players. Players leave in free agency and players regress, but at least those last two issues are something that a front office can do something about, so let's take a look at what GM Jeff Luhnow and company have done this offseason.
The Astros did lose some players to free agency after winning it all. They lost Mike Fiers (-0.6), Cameron Maybin (-0.1), Luke Gregerson (0.0), Carlos Beltran (-0.6), Tyler Clippard (-0.3) and Francisco Liriano (-0.2). The number after each player's name is his bWAR contribution to the Astros last season, and the total is -1.8 bWAR, so you can see immediately that we're not talking about any serious losses, other than, perhaps, Beltran's clubhouse leadership (and your mileage on that may vary…).
In terms of additions, some of the most notable moves are the ones they didn't have to make. After all, they already traded for Justin Verlander, who is coming off of a 3.36 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 6.3 bWAR season, and Houston will now have him for a full year. Not content to stand pat on their rotation, however, they also made a huge trade with Pittsburgh during the darkest days of the offseason that netted them Gerrit Cole. We already covered this move, but it suffices to say that it drastically improves the Astros' situation.
The Astros now project to have the best rotation in baseball per Fangraphs, with 19.2 fWAR on the board. Obviously things will happen, because we are talking about pitchers, but the Astros rotation is now pretty damn impressive. So much so, in fact, that Brad Peacock, who threw 111.2 innings as a starter last season to the tune of 3.22 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 10.88 K/9, 3.71 BB/9 and 0.73 HR/9, will likely be relegated to the bullpen to start the season. That is a good problem to have.
The Astros did lose some bullpen pieces, including Joe Musgrove in the Gerrit trade, but they also made a couple of acquisitions to shore things up. The first move was to sign RHP Joe Smith to a two-year deal with $15 million guaranteed. Smith was excellent last year (3.33 ERA, 2.10 FIP, 11.83 K/9, 1.67 BB/9, 0.67 HR/9) and has had a mostly successful career, with a 2.97 ERA and 3.52 FIP. The increased strikeouts last year pushed him up to another level, though, and against right-handed batters last year he was unstoppable, holding them to a miniscule 1.56 FIP, making him an extremely worthwhile addition to the bullpen at that cost.
Houston also signed righty reliever Hector Rodon to a two-year, $8.5 million deal. While Rodon struggled with walks last year (3.14 BB/9), he was excellent in his time as a closer for the Cubs over the prior three seasons (and before he lost his job to Aroldis Chapman in 2016). From 2014 to 2016, he saved 77 games and accumulated 2.44 ERA to go along with 9.3 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. He seems like a reasonable gamble for a bit of a bounceback and, again, at the cost, it's hard not to like the move.
On to position players… Wait… Oh, the only position player move the Astros have made this offseason (other than non-roster camp invites), was to trade Preston Tucker to the Braves for a PTBNL. Unless, of course, you count the team's making the extremely-not-difficult decision to exercise reigning AL MVP Jose Altuve's $6 million option. Of course, the Astros didn't need to do anything on the position player front, because pretty much everyone who made net-positive contributions is coming back for another round.
Houston had the best offense in MLB last year (33.0 fWAR) and they (unsurprisingly) project to have the best again this year (30.3 fWAR). Obviously, things will happen that we can't expect. Yuli Gurriel is having hand surgery and is likely to miss 5-to-6 weeks. But the Astros most certainly didn't need to make any moves on the position player front this offseason.
Fangraphs currently projects the Astros to win 101 games, which is absolutely crazy. It's always going to be extremely hard to win back-to-back World Series, because winning that many games in the postseason is extremely difficult, and things will happen that we can't predict. But Houston made all the right moves this offseason to at least make sure they've got the best possible chance at another round of rings.
Los Angeles Angels
Perhaps no team has undergone a more drastic revamping this offseason than the Angels. Coming off another season where the Angels failed to break .500 and once again missed the playoffs, despite having one of the biggest advantages in all of baseball in the form of Mike Trout. GM Billy Eppler had his work cut out for him if he was to turn the team's fortunes around, and if it doesn't work out, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.
Any conversation of the Halos' offseason has to start with the Shohei Ohtani signing. At the beginning of the offseason and before he signed with Los Angeles, I wrote about the reason that he was the most sought after player on the market, and all those things remain true.
If the Angels had an advantage with Trout, well, they got another one with Ohtani. True, he's just started his first spring training and we have yet to see him adjust to facing MLB batters in actual MLB games. True he had some elbow issues last fall (which were disclosed to all the teams as they pursued him). But none of that matters, because Ohtani is on a minor-league contract (minus the $2.3 million signing bonus that is but a drop in the bucket). Ohtani was the prize of the offseason and the Angels came away with him.
But getting Ohtani (while still having Trout) wasn't going to be enough alone to save the Angels' offseason. The Angels were had issues at multiple positions last year, and were particularly hurting at second base (-0.3 fWAR, 28th in MLB). Eppler addressed the need there by trading outfield prospect Troy Montgomery and RHP prospect Wilkel Hernandez to Detroit in exchange for Ian Kinsler.
Kinsler is coming off of a down season where he hit .236/.313/.412 (90 OPS+) and contributed 2.4 fWAR for the Tigers. However, in the three prior seasons, Kinsler had been one of the best second basemen in baseball, hitting .286/.332/.443 for a 112 OPS+ (and averaged 5.9 bWAR per season). Kinsler's 2017 saw his BABIP drop to .244 (versus a career line of .286). Kinsler has run out BABIPs that low before, in 2011 (.243) and 2009 (.241), but there's plenty to suggest that he hasn't just fallen off a cliff because he's 35. His defense has still been solid, as well, although we never know when to expect a decline there. Regardless, though, he's an immediate upgrade of almost three wins, even if he just repeats his 2017 and doesn't bounce back at all.
That's before you even get to the return that Detroit got in exchange for him. Montgomery and Hernandez aren't throwaway prospects, but it certainly seems like Detroit GM Al Avila could have done better. Kinsler's 10-team no-trade clause made things a bit more difficult for him and he only has one year left at $11 million, but this deal certainly improves the Angels quite a bit, and at a very modest cost.
Third base wasn't quite the black hole that second was, but Angels second basemen (mostly Yunel Escobar and Luis Valbuena), were only good for 2.0 fWAR (21st in MLB). Eppler's solution there was to sign shortstop Zack Cozart to a three-year, $38 million deal. Cozart is coming off of a breakout season, where he hit .297/.385/.548 for a 141 OPS+, and was worth 5.0 fWAR, which was 18th overall in MLB and 3rd among shortstops. While Cozart hasn't had a year with the bat like that in the past (and he ran out a .312 BABIP versus a .280 mark for his career), we certainly could have expected a larger contract for him in a normal year, as he's an above average defensive shortstop that showed some serious progression as a hitter in the last season.
While the Angels are set at short with Andrelton Simmons, there weren't contending teams looking for help there either, however, and Eppler took advantage of the weak market early in the offseason to nab an upgrade at a reduced cost. With Kinsler at second, Simmons at short and Cozart at third, the infield defense in Anaheim (minus first base) is going to be something to behold, and they made it happen on the cheap.
Another big move that the Angels made this offseason was re-signing Justin Upton to a five-year, $106 million deal. Upton, who came to the Angels from Detroit prior to the trade deadline, was deciding whether or not to exercise his opt-out on his current contract this offseason, which had four years and $88.5 million remaining. In essence, the Angles added an extra year for $17.5 million, and Upton will remain in Anaheim through his age-35 season.
Despite having a reputation for being a streaky hitter, Upton has been a very solid hitter since 2009. He's had a couple of down years, but some really great ones as well, including his most recent one (.273/.361/.540, 137 wRC+, 5.0 fWAR). We're running out of time for the Angels, but it suffices to say that this is a fair contract for both sides, providing a little bit more security for Upton while still being reasonable for the Angels. And before we run out of time, it's worth mentioning that they've also made room for Otani to get more PAs through a series of recent smaller moves.
The Angels are far from a perfect team. They have a host of question marks in their rotation, but they've at least improved where they could this offseason. They're still likely playing for a Wild Card spot this season, due to the likely continued dominance of Houston in the AL West. But they at least look like they have a damn good chance to secure a Wild Card spot.
It goes without saying that of course Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto made the first trade of the offseason, because he can't stop, won't stop trading. He sent shortstop prospect Alexander Campos and right handed reliever Emilio Pagan to Oakland in exchange for first baseman Ryon Healy. Healy has played two seasons in Oakland. While his 2016 (.305/.337/.524, 132 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR over 283 PAs) certainly showed some promise, his exposure to more PAs in 2017 (.271/.302/.451,100 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR over 605 PAs) didn't really build on his prior season. Any value that Healy provides will come via his bat and there are some clear issues with his game, even if he hit 25 home runs last year. He is controllable through the 2022 season and still a ways away from more expensive arbitration years, however, and if they're able to take advantage of his platoon splits (career 135 wRC+ v. lefties and 102 against righties), he'll still provide value, especially considering that Seattle will no longer have Nelson Cruz at DH after this season.
The main player that went to Oakland in return was Emilio Pagan, who is coming off of his first season of MLB relieving at age 26. It was a fairly successful one, as Pagan finished with a 3.22 ERA, 3.28 FIP and 10.01 K/9, although he did struggle with giving up long balls, with 1.25 HR/9. It's also worth noting that Pagan was called up in May, and came into 34 games, pitching 50.1 innings (almost 1.5 innings per game), so he could be called on to get multiple outs, time and time again. The rising cost of relievers seems to have inspired Oakland to make a deal like this, as we don't have travel far back in time to find a time when a deal like this would have been laughed at. But, here we are, and you can see the reasoning on both sides of the deal.
The next move Trader Jerry made was to send RHP prospect Thyago Vieira to the White Sox in exchange for international bonus pool money. Obviously, this was in the hopes that they would be able to entice Otani to a different home on the West Coast, but that was not to be.
The most interesting move of the Mariners' offseason was their next, sending RHP Nick Neidert, RHP Robert Dugger and SS Chris Torres to Miami for second baseman Dee Gordon (and some more of that sweet international bonus pool cash). The trade was interesting mainly because the Mariners already have the most expensive second baseman in MLB in the form of Robinson Cano, who may not have been as good as either Jose (Altuve or Ramirez) in 2017, was still one of the better ones in either league.
The Mariners, however, quickly announced that they were acquiring Gordon to play center field. With Jarrod Dyson departing in free agency, the Mariners didn't have any internal options ready so there was certainly a need to address. The question becomes whether Gordon will actually cut it in center field, as he's never played a single inning there in his MLB career.
Gordon will turn 30 in April, and he's now a couple of seasons away from his .333/.359/.418 season in which he got MVP votes. He rebounded from his PED-suspension shortened 2016 (.268/.305/.335 in 79 games) to hit .308/.341/.375 last season. While the lack of power has always been an issue for Gordon, he's made up for it with his ability to reach base and his exceptional speed once he's there: he's led the league in steals since 2014 (except for his suspension-shortened 2016). That speed is the reason that Seattle feels comfortable taking a chance on Gordon and his ability to roam in center field, as he would have been the 4th fastest center fielder last year.
While there is certainly reason to believe that Gordon could make the transition to center, there's also the issue that he's owed $38.5 million over three seasons (with a $14 million option or $1 million buyout in 2021). That's a rather sizable investment considering that Gordon's biggest asset is his speed and his value will plummet if he loses a couple of steps. Two of the four prospects that went back to Miami were upper-tier prospects in the Mariners hurting farm system, so there was a cost there, as well. While we'll have to wait and see how the positional move plays out, there's certainly a lot of risk in this move from a number of different angles, so it's hard to be too thrilled about it.
The only big pitching move that the Mariners made this offseason was signing Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 million deal. Nicasio may have had a wild ride from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and then to St. Louis late in last season, but the former starter was putting up some of the best numbers of his career (2.61 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 17.9 K-BB%) over 72 innings pitched in relief. Nicasio looks like a good bet to step into the setup role and could improve a bullpen that was middle-of-the-pack last year.
That's it, other than a minor trade with new York that netted them RHP Nick Rumbelow. The last major roster move was the Nicasio signing, which came in the middle of December. So, all in all it's been a relatively quiet season for Dipoto, even if it still demonstrated his desire to make creative moves. While all it would likely take is some pitcher health in 2018 to give Seattle a realistic chance at duking it out with the Angels (and assorted others) for a Wild Card spot, the Gordon move is questionable enough to put a bit of a damper on the Mariner's offseason.
The Rangers aren't rebuilding yet, but they are certainly at a precipice. They went 78-84 and finished 4th in the division last season, and Adrian Beltre is the only position player projected at over 2.5 fWAR next season. The farm is hurting and they might be going full rebuild before we know it, but they're not there yet. The only thing we knew for sure was that the Rangers definitely needed pitching going into the offseason, and they needed it badly.
The Rangers rotation was good for 6.7 fWAR (25th in MLB) last season, and Yu Darvish, who they traded before he hit free agency, was actually the Rangers most valuable pitcher (2.4 fWAR). Nobody can be sure whether Cole Hamels is going to bounce back or continue to decline. Andrew Cashner, the Rangers' third best starter also hit free agency this year and, after Martin Perez, there was nothing but replacement level pitching on the platter, so, yes, the Rangers needed bodies in the rotation.
Rangers GM Jon Daniels' first move of the offseason was a first step to address the rotation, as he signed Doug Fister to a one-year guaranteed deal with a club option or buyout for the 2019 season and some performance bonuses that means he will earn somewhere between $4.5 million for one year and $11.5 million for two. The now 34-year old had a couple of rough years with the Nationals and Astros and wasn't able to procure a starting gig in 2017 until Boston claimed him on waivers mid-season, but he showed lots of promising signs down the stretch, as his velocity increased to the levels that it was at when he was at his best with the Tigers.
Fister is a 34-year-old pitcher with a couple of bad years of declining stuff on his resume and one year that suggests that he may still have enough in the tank. The deal very well might not work out, but, at only one year and $4.5 million guaranteed, it's modest enough in the cost department that it's an extremely smart signing for a team in need of pitching.
About a week later, Daniels made another move, signing Mike Minor to a three-year, $28 million deal. As with the Fister signing, this move isn't without its risks, albeit different kinds of risks. Minor was one of the most valuable pitchers in the majors last year, but that's only if you limit your queries to relief pitchers, and the Rangers signed him to pitch in the rotation.
Out of the bullpen, Minors numbers from last year are extremely impressive, with a 2.55 ERA (25th out of 155 qualified relievers), 2.62 FIP (18th), 0.58 HR/9 (25th) and, thanks to the fact that he threw the 9th most innings (while remaining that effective), 2.1 fWAR (9th). Minor was one of the best relievers available this offseason, but he'll be starting in Texas, at least to start. It might not work. Minor has had some serious injury issues in the past, and there are questions about whether he can handle an increased workload and whether his stuff will play as well. But regardless, he's getting paid as an elite reliever (which he appears to be), so it's not a huge deal for Texas if he fails to convert back to a starter and ends up back in the bullpen. Again, there's plenty to like about the deal.
The Rangers also grabbed another reclamation project from the Giants in Matt Moore. Moore is coming off the worst healthy season of his career (5.52 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 1.39 HR/9), but the package that Texas sent back wasn't massive (read: a couple of not-too-impressive pitching prospects), thanks to San Francisco's need for salary relief in order to avoid that damned luxury tax. Is it likely that Moore bounces back in Arlington? Probably not. Was he worth a flyer as a cost-controlled starter with a high ceiling at that cost? Quite possibly.
Speaking of ex-Giants now on the Rangers' roster… In case you haven't heard, the Rangers have officially signed Tim Lincecum to a one-year deal. It's not going to break the bank ($1 million plus incentives), and, rightly so, considering Lincecum hasn't pitched since 2016 and hasn't looked like the two-time Cy Young winner of yesteryear since 2011. The good news is that the Freak is jacked and his velocity has improved. As as a baseball fan who lived in San Francisco from 2004 to 2015, I might be displaying some bias here, as I saw peak-Freak in person. But I also saw how bad things got towards the end, so I know very well how this could turn out. I still think it's a smart move, given the cost, to see if Lincecum can figure it out as a reliever, now that he's a proper beefcake.
There were other potentially high ceiling bullpen-bolstering moves made, as well, with Jesse Chavez and Tony Barnette joining the club, but those are just more deals with question marks. There are so, so many question marks by what the Rangers have done this offseason. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. If enough of these things go right, they might have enough for a shot at a Wild Card spot. If just a couple do, at least they might have some interesting pieces to move to teams who have legitimate shots. And if, in the worst case scenario, absolutely nothing works out, they didn't spend a ton of money and can get started on a proper rebuild. Signing a mess of low-investment, high-ceiling pitchers was probably the smartest thing to do this offseason, given the Rangers' situation, and that's pretty much what they did.
And now we arrive at the Oakland Athletics, who won 75 games last year, improving slightly from 2016, but were still in last place in the division for the third year running. The farm has been caught in limbo over that time frame, as well, with no clear stars developing quite yet (with Matt Chapman is showing some promise, however). The team did start to look up down the stretch last season, with the team going 17-7 in the last weeks of the season. That being said, there will be no massive free agent deals in this section.
In fact, Oakland GM David Forst's only free agent signing of the winter was a two-year, $10 million guaranteed contract with a team option for 2020 to Yusmeiro Petit. When we were talking about the Angels earlier, we didn't mention that their best pitcher was quite possibly a reliever, that reliever being Petit. He made 59 relief appearances, of which 33 lasted longer than an inning, and sometimes went two or three innings. Petit was asked to eat high leverage innings, and he did so extremely successfully, even saving some games by the season's end. If Petit is able to continue doing what he did last season, he'll provide quite a bit of value for the A's and it's a modest, smart-looking deal in our current environs.
We already mentioned the Healy trade in the Angels' section, and all of that remains true, but there's some additional things to talk about from the A's perspective. The A's have plenty of high-power, low OBP options for the corner and DH positions, and moving Healy allows them to give Khris Davis more time at DH than in left, which makes sense. In the deal, the A's got a reliever who, like Petit, has the ability to eat innings, and can provide some much needed support to their developing, not yet reliable rotation. Alexander Campos was far from a throw-in prospect. An 18-year old out of Venezuela, he was rated 10th in the Mariners organization by Baseball America in their mid-season rankings.
The first high profile trade the A's made this offseason sent a couple of infield prospects, Max Schrock and Yairo Munoz, to St. Louis in exchange for right fielder Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty is coming off of a difficult season, for a number of reasons. He signed a six-year, $33.5 million deal in the spring with St. Louis after a successful 2016 in which he hit .273/.343/.457 (116 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR). He struggled with a hamstring injury, and then a groin injury, last season (and spent some questionable time in AAA) and ended up with .235/.342/.367 line (92 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR). Another reason that Piscotty's 2017 was difficult is that he learned that his mother is suffering from ALS. He's originally from the Bay Area and he'll be able to spend more time with his family, so this trade is an unadmitted win in the off-the-field department, as well.
After acquiring Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins, the Cardinals had far too much depth in the outfield. The A's currently have plenty of infield depth and, while the prospects sent to St. Louis weren't total fringe prospects, they weren't top prospects either. Piscotty is a reasonable bet to bounce back in Oakland and immediately looks like he might be the best outfielder in their system. All in all, this trade makes perfect sense for both sides.
As with all the non-Astros team in this division, things weren't going to be easy for the A's coming into this offseason. They showed some promise down the stretch and needed to figure out how they could improve without spending heavily or giving up too much. The moves they made fit the bill and, while they aren't going to catch Houston right now, you don't have to squint that hard to see them making a run at a Wild Card spot if they catch some breaks. Not a bad offseason, all things considered.