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 NL Central, but, in case you missed it: here are the NL West and AL West.
Last season, the Cubs failed in their bid to repeat as World Series champions, but they did manage to get as far as the NLCS for the third consecutive season before being toppled by the Dodgers. They were (and remain) a force to be reckoned with, but this offseason certainly presented them with some challenges. They lost a boatload of pitchers, with Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing and Hector Rodon all hitting free agency. That's two starters, their closer and three of their most valuable relievers. So, yeah, the front office headed into the offseason with a "Pitchers Wanted" sign hanging on their door and GM Jed Hoyer has (unsurprisingly) assembled quite a collection of pitchers this offseason. Let's see how they did.
The first move of the offseason was the signing of RHP Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal (with some incentive bonuses). That is a mess of clams for a pitcher who has undergone two Tommy John surgeries, missed almost all of 2014 and all of 2015 and has never failed to crack 160 IP. His 4.69 BB/9 would have been the worst in MLB last season if he had pitched enough innings to qualify. Folks were predicting something more in the range of three years and $30 million, so what were the Cubs thinking?
They were thinking that Chatwood, 28, was the youngest starting pitcher on the market and that he has stuff that hasn't translated into results, thanks mainly to calling Coors Field home. Since returning to the rotation in 2016, Chatwood has a dramatic home-road split, with a 6.07 ERA in Coors and a 2.57 ERA away. Tyler Chatwood throws hard, with a fastball that in the mid-90s, making him the hardest throwing starter available on the market and his curveball has one of the best spin-rates on his curveball in all of MLB. Coors Field is not kind to the curve, and it's quite likely that Chatwood will find greater control, and thus success, at Wrigley.
The Cubs might have overpaid a bit for Chatwood, but that will largely depend on whether or not he can stay reasonably healthy. He's young enough, throws hard enough and has peripheral stats that suggest that he will likely be successful, as long as he's healthy enough to pitch. The Cubs might have paid a bit more than they should have, but it's not hard to see the upside in signing Chatwood.
While we're on the subject of signing pitchers with injury issues and plenty of upside, the Cubs' next move was to sign Drew Smyly to a two-year, $10 million deal (with an additional $7 million of incentives on the table if Smyly ends up in the rotation next season). Smyly missed all of last season thanks to Tommy John surgery and isn't expected back until mid-to-late in the 2018 season at the earliest. He has a 3.74 ERA, 8.7 K/9 and 3.43 K/BB over 570.1 IP and is basically a bit of a lottery ticket, but it's a reasonable gamble to add some depth down the road.
We're not done talking about pitchers with injury risks, yet, as the first move Hoyer made to address the bullpen was to sign Brandon Morrow to a guaranteed two-year, $21 million contract. Morrow was one of the best relievers in baseball last season and was a one of the reasons the Dodgers came as close as they did to winning it all. In the regular season, Morrow pitched 43.2 innings and his 1.55 FIP was 3rd best among relievers to throw at least 40 innings. He allowed exactly zero home runs, and finished the season with a 2.06 ERA and solid peripherals (10.31 K/9, 1.85 BB/9).
Morrow's fastball almost reached 98 MPH now that he's converted to a reliever and he certainly appears to have what it takes to be a closer. The issue, however, is that he was converted from a starter because of a wide variety of injuries. He carries plenty of upside in the bullpen, but that all depends on his staying healthy. When weighed against the $17.33 AAV that the Cubs' ex-closer Wade Davis is going to receive from the Rockies, though, you can see why the Cubs chose to go this route.
Chicago's next bullpen move was to sign Steve Cishek to a two-year, $13 million deal (with another $1 million of incentives). In his seventh full MLB season, Cishek started things off a little bit down in Seattle (3.15 ERA, 4.81 FIP over 20.0 IP) before moving to Tampa Bay where things improved quite a bit (1.09 ERA, 2.14 FIP over 24.2 IP) and added up to solid results on the year (2.01 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9). Cishek has experienced some velocity loss, but he managed to succeed despite that last season.
The Cubs thereafter re-signed Brian Duensing to a two-year, $7 million deal, who purportedly left a bigger offer on the table in order to stay in Chicago. The 35-year-old turned in a quality 2017 season, with a 2.74 ERA, 8.8 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 over 62.1 innings. Duensing adds a needed lefty to the bullpen and you can't argue with the contract from the Cubs' side of things.
Despite all of the pitching signings Theo Epstein, Hoyer and company made this offseason, there was still one more fish to fry: getting a top-of-rotation arm. They did that when they signed Yu Darvish. We already covered it in detail, but, in summary, the signing it was for less than expected thanks to the state of free agency this year. Darvish still wasn't "cheap," per say, but his addition gives the Cubs one of the best rotations in baseball.
The Cubs are currently projected to win 94 games by Fangraphs and look like they have the NL Central on lockdown for a third straight year. They may not have had to worry about any key departures in the position player department, but, man, they had a lot of work to do coming into this offseason to beef up their pitching. While there are certainly a few question marks, there always will be with pitchers and they added enough and spread around the risk enough that they look poised to make another deep postseason run.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals didn't sustain as many losses in free agency as the Cubs, but that didn't mean they didn't have their work cut out for them. After their sustained dominance in recent years and making the postseason for five straight years from 2011 to 2015, they finished third in the division and missed the postseason again in 2017. Mike Girsch's first offseason as GM was going to test his mettle and see if he could do enough to get the Cardinals back to playing October baseball, no small feat for a club playing in the same division as the Cubs.
The first move was to attempt a trade for Giancarlo Stanton, which, as with the Giants before them, fell apart when Stanton exercised his no-trade clause. Unlike with the Giants, however, St. Louis didn't stop there, and swung a trade to procure one of Miami's other valuable outfielders, in the form of Marcell Ozuna.
Ozuna is coming of his strongest season to date, where he hit .312/.376/.548 for a 142 wRC+ and was worth 4.8 fWAR/5.4 bWAR (as DRS was slightly more bullish on his defense). He had a successful season in 2014 (.269/.317/.455, 4.5 bWAR/3.9 fWAR), but not this successful. While some of that was due to a career high (and just plain high) .355 BABIP that is almost certainly unsustainable and an also sky-high 23.4% home run to flyball ratio, he also showed much more selectivity at the plate and posted a career best 9.4 BB%, which is sustainable. He's controllable for a couple more seasons and instantly gives Cardinals the potential next-level hitter they need to get back to the postseason, so the big question is what they sent back to Miami.
It was a quartet of prospects, headlined by RHP Sandy Alcantara. Alcantara debuted for the Cardinals last season in relief, albeit unsuccessfully. Although he struck out a lot of batters (10.80 K/9), he also walked an insane number (6.48 BB/9) and gave up a lot of home runs (2.16 HR/9) and ended up with a 4.32 ERA/6.04 FIP in 8.1 innings of work. This is, of course, an extremely small sample size, but he's had control issues at all levels, even if he throws absurdly hard (mid-to-high 90s as a starter and hitting 101 as a reliever).
Outfielder Magneuris Sierra was the other bigger piece in the trade, and he comes with some extremely serious questions about his ability to contribute at the plate. He's very fast, but that hasn't translated into plus-defense yet, either. RHP Zac Gallen is a 22-year-old pitcher who is basically the opposite of Alcantara in that he doesn't have plus-stuff but has command over his repertoire and might end up as a back of the rotation starter. The final piece, LHP Daniel Castano, was more of a throw-in. How the trade works out depends on whether Ozuna comes close to repeating his last season and whether Alcantara is able to figure things out. If I'm the Cardinals, however, I certainly would have done it.
Because they acquired Ozuna for the outfield, the Cardinals now had a glut of outfielders on the roster, so they made some moves. We already covered the Stephen Piscotty trade when discussing the A's, but they got back a couple of decent infield prospects (Max Schrock and Yairo Munoz rank 10th and 12th respectively in the Cards' prospect rankings on MLB.com) and helped send Piscotty to the Bay Area where he can spend more time with his sick mother, so it was an all-around good move.
A little later in the offseason, St. Louis shipped out another outfielder, Randal Grichuk, to the Blue Jays in exchange for right-handed reliever Dominic Leone and RHP prospect Conner Greene. Grichuk had a very impressive breakout campaign in 2015, hitting .276/.329/.548 for a 138 wRC+ over 103 games for 3.1 fWAR. In the two seasons since, though, he hasn't been able to maintain the power that he showed that season or the elevated BABIP (.365 vs. .313 for his career), and he's continued to strike out a lot, limiting his value as a hitter (103 wRC+ in 2016 and a 94 mark last season). Still, he plays solid defense in all three outfield positions and is only 26 years old. The acquisition of Ozuna, along with the existence of Dexter Fowler and Tommy Phan on the Cardinals' roster, meant he wasn't going to get much of a chance in St. Louis, even if there was still some upside and he's controllable for three more seasons.
The MLB-ready piece in the trade, Leone, is coming off of his strongest season to date, after posting a 2.56 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 10.36 K/9, 2.94 BB/9 and 0.77 HR/9 in 70.1 innings of work (2.2 bWAR). He's had a breakout season before, though, back in his rookie season with Seattle in 2014, before struggling for a couple of seasons. If he's able to continue to limit the home runs, which were a problem in the prior two seasons, his ability to get out hitters on both sides of the plate could land him in the closer role. As he's controllable for four more years, you can see why St. Louis made the deal, even if it's not without risk. The other piece, Greene, is a 22-year-old who struggled with his command in AA last year and, while he might have what it takes to make the rotation if he can gain some control, is, at this point, just as likely to end up in the bullpen.
This wasn't the first deal between the Cardinals and Jays this offseason, though, as that honor went to the Aledmys Diaz trade which netted the Cards outfield prospect J.B. Woodman. Diaz was coming off a surprising breakout season in 2016 (.300/.369/.510, 133 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR in 111 games), where he picked up Rookie of the Year votes. His follow up to that season did not go as well (.259/.290/.392, 78 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR in 79 games) and a demotion to AAA followed. Paul DeJong emerged in his absence and the rest is history.
It's worth noting that Diaz was dealing with a hand injury last year and St. Louis might have jumped the gun on trading him. The Cardinals' return, Woodman, was Toronto's second round pick in 2016. He's simply an attempt to reload the outfield for the future now that they've parted ways with some of their younger players, but it might very well be the case that they sold low on Diaz, even if he was possibly going to be blocked by DeJong, who, like Diaz before him, has only a year of big league experience.
To bolster their rotation, the Cardinals are taking a flyer on RHP Miles Mikolas with a two-year, $15.5 million commitment. Mikolas, 29, struggled in MLB previously from 2012 to 2014, but has enjoyed a high level of success in Japan the last few years, logging a 2.18 ERA over 424.1 innings. It's a worthwhile gamble at that cost and if you're interested, you can read more about him.
The final moves of the Cardinals offseason were a couple of signings to shore up the bullpen. The first was to sign Luke Gregerson to a two-year, $11 million deal. The 33-year old righty had long been a stabilizing force in the bullpen, but last season saw him give up home runs at a never-before seen clip (1.92 HR/9 vs. 0.78 for his career) and he ended the year with a 4.57 ERA and 4.62 FIP and without the trust of Houston's manager A.J. Hinch. If his newfound ridiculous HR/FB ratio (23.6%) returns to anywhere near normal (10.6% for his career), this could end up being a steal in the newly ridiculous reliever market. But he's also got a lot of years of mileage on his arm, so there's risk there as well.
The same goes for the other move Girsch made in the bullpen, signing Bud Norris to a one-year, $3 million deal. Sexy? Nope, but Norris' newfound reliance on his cutter made him a threat out of the bullpen last year, even if the results didn't quite match his peripherals. At that cost, it's a worthy investment on St. Louis's part.
There are things to like about St. Louis's offseason, for sure. The bullpen moves mostly check out and you probably do that Ozuna trade every day. They might have sold low on Grichuk, though, and it's quite probable that they did on Diaz. Regardless, though, they certainly look like a strong contender to make the Wild Card race interesting, even if they couldn't improve enough to keep up with the Cubs.
If the Cardinals' goal in the offseason was to make upgrades, big or small, that would give their roster an edge in their bitter, ongoing war with the Cubs, it wasn't so clear what the goal of the Brewers would be. They're coming off an extremely surprising season in which they contended for a Wild Card spot until September 30 (when they were downed by the Cardinals, of course), based on breakout seasons from a large number of players. It wasn't immediately clear whether GM David Stearns was going to drink heavily from the hot stove well or maybe give his young team another year to show that they could build on what they did in 2017 before making large commitments.
The Brewers made their intentions fully clear when the biggest moves of their offseason occurred back-to-back as they traded a bushel of highly regarded prospects to the Marlins for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain to an $80 million, five-year deal. I already wrote a bunch of words about these moves, and, in sum, I like the Yelich deal a lot, even if it was expensive, and have some reservations about the Cain signing, even if he does make the team a lot better now.
Other than those two moves to (seriously) upgrade the outfield, Milwaukee has made a quartet of pitcher signings, none of which were quite so impressive as those on the position player side of things. The first two moves occurred on the same day in mid-December, when Stearns inked Yovani Gallardo and Jhoulys Chacin to deals.
Gallardo, 32, is returning to the club where he started out back in 2007 on a one-year, $2 million deal with up to $2 million of very specific incentives. During his eight seasons before heading to Texas via trade in 2014, he was, well, just fine there overall, with a 3.69 ERA/109 ERA+ and 211 games started. The last couple of seasons in Baltimore and Seattle, however, have not been so kind to him, as he's notched a 5.57 ERA and 77 ERA+ in 51 games and Seattle opted to buy out his contract this offseason rather than bring him back for 2018.
Those two poor years were marred by injuries, including a shoulder injury, that certainly affected his abilities. While I'll be the last to suggest that pitchers in their thirties who decline due to injuries are a safe bet, there were at least some encouraging signs in his most recent season. Gallardo experienced a velocity increase and posted his best swinging-strike rate (8.3%) since 2011. While the results weren't there last year, there's certainly potential for a better season from him, and the modest cost reflects that.
The Chacin deal was a bit more of an investment, as the 30-year-old will receive $15.5 million for two years of work. In his nine years in MLB, Chacin has a 3.93 ERA/111 ERA+ which is, as with Gallardo's previous time in Milwaukee just about fine. In 2017, Chacin had his most successful season in years in San Diego, with a 3.89 ERA and a 49.1% ground-ball rate, as he relied more on his slider and received better results. There are concerns here, but Chacin's younger age and potential for tweaks that could further improve his results make him an reasonable enough bet, especially given the moderate cost and the Brewers' extra need for arms while their ace, Jimmy Nelson, is sidelined and recovering from shoulder surgery.
Stearns' next move was to sign lefty reliever Logan Boone to a one-year deal with $2.5 million guaranteed with a club option that will make it worth $6 million for two years plus $3.2 million of incentives in each year. Boone, 33, has pretty extreme career splits against right-handed hitters that have effectively rendered him a LOOGY, but the incentive-based nature of the contract reflects that. It's a small commitment to add some left-handed bullpen help for a team that had very little of that last season, so there's not really anything to complain about here.
The final move of the Brewers' offseason was to sign Matt Albers to a two-year, $5 million contract with $1 million worth of incentives each year. The 35-year-old right-handed reliever experienced an extremely painful 2016 (51.1 IP, 6.31 ERA, 5.80 FIP, 5.26 K/9, 3.33 BB/9, 1.75 HR/9, -0.9 fWAR) but bounced back with the Nationals last season and delivered the best season of his career (61 IP, 1.62 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 9.30 K/9, 2.51 BB/9, 0.89 HR/9, 0.8 fWAR).
There are certainly some things to be concerned about. When you see an FIP almost two whole numbers higher than an ERA and then see that his BABIP was .203, it's probably not a smart bet to imagine that he'll repeat his 2017 season again. Relievers, small sample size, age, etc. Was it a reasonable gamble? Sure, why not.
In terms of the big picture, the Brewers' whole plan right now is a bit of a gamble. They are counting on the continued development of players who don't have a lot of major league experience. They're counting on Nelson returning to his ace-like form after his injury. They're counting on the Cain contract not to hurt them too much in the future. But they certainly got a lot better with their big offseason moves and their smaller ones aren't onerous enough to do any damage.
They still have some work to do, but they also have quite a bit of payroll to play with, given their pre-rebuild numbers, and they're likely going to be trading some outfielders at some point with those big moves. It may not work out, but they didn't do anything too stupid and it's good to see a team (besides the Yankees) pivot out of a rebuild when they think they've got a chance.
While we're on the subject of pivoting and rebuilding, we arrive in Pittsburgh. Like every other GM in the league, Pittsburgh's Neal Huntington faced some tough questions heading into the offseason. But, on some level, these were serious, nigh existential, questions about the immediate future of the Pirates' franchise, for a fanbase that seems to have lost faith in the ability of the front office to do anything to push the team into an extended period of contention.
It all started with the rumors that Gerrit Cole was on the block, and then he was indeed traded to Houston in exchange for a three-player package. We already covered this move in detail, but the moral of the story is this: While Huntington may have caught a lot of flack for the move, it wasn't necessarily a bad move from a baseball perspective, given the Cole's recent performance and contract situation and the package that came back to Pittsburgh.
Of course, things were made even worse when face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen was traded to San Francisco before the fans had even had a chance to fully process the Cole trade. We also already covered this move, but (again) to summarize: The return for McCutchen wasn't quite as impressive as with Cole, but that's mainly due to the amount of money McCutchen was owed, his age and the fact that there's only one year left on his contract. That last part is important, as well. Given the Pirates current situation in their division, it was going to be extremely difficult for them to reach the postseason in 2018. It was always likely that McCutchen wouldn't be on the Pirates come the trade deadline, and the return they got was totally reasonable.
Well, we covered the Cole and McCutchen trades, so it's time to move on... To the only other move of the Pirates' offseason. Pittsburgh sent RHP Daniel Hudson, infield prospect and some cash to the Rays in exchange for left fielder Corey Dickerson, bringing to an end the curious tale of Dickerson's recent DFA at the hands of Tampa Bay.
Dickerson's numbers on the season as a whole (.282/.325/.490, 120 OPS+ in 629 PAs) do not immediately make one think "DFA that man." His season was really a tale of two seasons, with him hitting for a 139 wRC+ in the first half and an 80 wRC+ in the second. He's put up four solid seasons on the whole though, with a .282/.326/.509 and a 121 OPS+ that suggest that he should be able to come back from his struggles 2017's second half.
The players that went to the Rays were a struggling veteran reliever in Hudson (2017: 4.38 ERA/4.34 FIP, 0.1 fWAR, 61.2 IP), who may have better peripherals than his results have suggested, and an unranked, 21-year old prospect in lower A-ball. The Pirates had a hole to fill in light of the McCutchen trade, and Dickerson certainly does that. There's enough upside here for Pittsburgh that it's easy to make the call on this one in their favor.
But that's it. Pittsburgh hasn't signed a major-league free agent this offseason. This is certainly not a good look for a team that has the image problems that Pittsburgh already has. Then, there's the fact that they're one of the four teams (along with the Rays, Athletics and Marlins) that are currently involved in a grievance filed by the MLBPA over a lack of spending.
There is a lot of pain to be had in Pittsburgh for Pirates fans right now, and the symbolism of the loss of Cole and McCutchen was brutal. From a baseball perspective, all of the moves the front office made were actually pretty reasonable, even if there haven't been enough of them. It's a hard knock life for the Pirates right now and for their fans, and I feel for them. I'm not, however, ready to say that the front office actually did anything wrong this offseason, from a baseball perspective.
What happens with the prospects and young players Pittsburgh picked up in their trades this offseason will go a long way towards determining the path that the Bucs go down in the immediate future. The existential questions about the long-term future of the franchise haven't gone anywhere, but the moves the team made this offseason weren't necessarily bad baseball moves, which is what we're here to discuss.
We now arrive to the Reds, who have have served up a heaping helping of nothing this offseason. That's not entirely true, because they did sign a couple of righty relievers in Jared Hughes and David Hernandez. I'm tempted to skip writing about the Reds and instead discuss the changes that we're witnessing in the way that front offices do business. That's not why we're here though (and we'll surely have plenty of time for that in the future), so I guess we should address the moves, small in number and stature that they may be.
Hughes signed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract (with incentives). He's coming off of a 3.02 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 69.2 IP season with the Brewers, who non-tendered him this offseason. In the prior three seasons, he only struck out 5 batters per 9 innings, so he's not exactly a lights-out reliever. But he's been good for a lot of innings and his ERA has consistently outperformed his FIP, so he's worth a flyer for a team whose bullpen was good for a 4.65 ERA, 4.67 FIP and 0.9 fWAR (28th in MLB) last season.
Hernandez signed to a two-year, $5 million contract (with incentives). Hernandez started off his season with the Angels and was oh-so extremely successful (2.23 ERA, 1.86 FIP, 9.2 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9, 36.1 IP). After a trade to Arizona, balls started to leave the park, he stopped getting as many strikeouts and things generally didn't go as well as a result (4.82 ERA, 4.82 FIP, 7.2 K.9, 0.5 BB/9, 1.9 HR/9, 18.2 IP). Even if the most recent sample size is a little troubling, over the past three seasons, he's pitched 161.1 innings, with a 3.68 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9. Again, another worthwhile addition to help out in a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last year.
That's it, though. That's the entire offseason of the Reds, unless we want to dig into the non-roster invites. I suppose you can look at it in a number of different ways. They've filled up their 40-man roster and are calling it a day. With the way that teams value younger players versus older players these days, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. But the Reds' payroll has dropped from around $115 million in 2015 to around $90 million today, so it's a little shocking that they didn't do anything else.
The Reds are coming off of a season where they had the 10th best offense in baseball by fWAR (22.7), but they had abysmal pitching. And, sure, they lost Zack Cozart just as he appears to have blossomed into a fear-inducing hitter, but Eugenio Suarez appears to have made a serious stride forward. They shouldn't spend money just for the sake of spending it, and they should certainly make sure that they're playing players who need time to blossom against major league pitchers or hitters, but they also might have been smarter to invest a little bit more in bringing in some other pieces. It's been a very, very boring offseason in Cincinnati.