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 them: here are the NL West, AL West and NL Central.
The Indians were just a win away from winning it all in 2016, and won 102 games last year before falling to the Yankees in the ALDS. Getting into the over-100 club, however, required a ridiculous 22-game winning streak in late August, and we shouldn't forget that they failed to create any separation in the standings for most of the season. Whether there was any World Series hangover effect last season or not, it seemed pretty clear that GM Mike Chernoff was going to have his work cut out for him this offseason.
While there is still a strong core group of players in Cleveland that we should expect great things from in the 2018 season, the Indians aren't the same team that won all those games last year. They lost a number of players, of varying degrees of importance. They lost Craig Breslow (0.1), Joe Smith (0.3), Bryan Shaw (0.6), Boone Logan (0.1), Carlos Santana (3.4), Austin Jackson (1.9) and Jay Bruce (0.2) to free agency this offseason. Those numbers after each player were the respective bWAR contribution each player made in 2017, and they total 6.6. While you can't just say that the Indians are now a 95.4-win team, both because you can't win 40% of a game and because that's not how these things work, you can say that the Indians certainly lost a lot of contributors, especially at first base and in the bullpen.
First baseman Carlos Santana has been a remarkably consistent performer during his seven full seasons in Ohio, playing an average of almost 153 games per year, never missing serious time and never straying far from his career average .365 OBP. He's been worth an average of 3.2 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR each season. In a down year on the free agency market, he was unsurprisingly one of the best free agents on the market and, depending on your view of Eric Hosmer, arguably the best first base option available. That he ended up on the Phillies was a somewhat shocking development (that we'll address when on our next stop in the NL East), but, regardless of that, he was off the table for the Indians.
Although Chernoff and company had attempted to re-sign Santana, that ship sailed and Cleveland instead signed Yonder Alonso to a two-year, $16 million deal with a club/vesting option for a third year. Alonso is coming off a career-best season in Oakland and Seattle, where he hit .266/.365/.501 for a 132 wRC+ and put up 2.4 fWAR. Alonso changed his hitting approach to attempt to lift the ball and went from a prior career high of nine home runs to 28 on the season, leading to his being dubbed the "poster boy of the flyball revolution."
Alonso's season was definitely split in two halves, however, as he hit .275/.372/.562 (146 wRC+) with 20 home runs in the first half and .254/.354/.420 (113 wRC+) with a paltry 8 dingers in the second. The left-handed hitter also has some serious career platoon splits, which didn't go anywhere last season, as he hit just .181/.263/.417 (80 wRC+) in 72 PAs against LHPs. The A's and Mariners shielded Alonso from facing them too many times for a reason, and it's likely that the Twins will have to do the same if they want to get the most out of Alonso's bat.
Alonso's defense at first is certainly questionable and his value is going to be determined by limiting his ABs against same-handed pitching (something the Indians have a great deal of experience with as of late) and whether he is more of the player from the first half of 2017 or the second going forward. One thing is clear, he's certainly not the same caliber of player that Santana was, and it's definitely a downgrade at first for the team.
But, well, that's it for the Indians' offseason. There were the usual NRIs (perhaps headlined by an interesting Melvin Upton, Jr. invite), but nothing else. Nothing to address the loss of depth in the outfield of Jackson or any of the bullpen losses they sustained. Shaw, in particular, will be missed, as he was extremely helpful out of the pen in 2017.
We can still safely say that the Indians will easily win their division with as much certainty as we ever can. Even after losing Santana, they still have an enviable group of position players. They didn't lose any of their excellent starting rotation. Despite those losses in the bullpen, they still have Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. But, they certainly have a lot less depth in the bullpen than they did.
The Indians don't have as much payroll to play with as, say the Cubs (who also sustained serious losses this offseason), but they didn't do much of anything this offseason, creative or otherwise. While it's a virtual certainly going to make it back to the playoffs next season, they didn't do anything to ensure that they'll make it any further than the Division Series again. Even if it seems like they'll be beating up on their division for the immediate future and they should just play things safe, things change quickly in baseball. Just like in life. You'll never know what might have been, Cleveland.
Speaking of things changing quickly, let's talk about Minnesota. If the Indians were preordained to make the postseason last year, the same cannot be said for the Twins. Although they fell to the Yankees in the Wild Card game, the fact that they went 85-77 and made it that far was a pleasant surprise, given that they lost 103 games in 2016. They did it mostly on the backs of their position players (24.2 fWAR, 9th in MLB, 4th in AL), as their pitching was a bit less impressive (7.7 fWAR, 22nd in MLB). Things are going to be even rougher in the earlier goings of the season, though, with Ervin Santana missing the first month of the season recovering from finger surgery. So, pitching needed, indeed.
The Twins first move of the offseason didn't make headlines, but it was certainly an interesting and savvy one, as they converted their international bonus pool dollars into prospects after they were eliminated from the Ohtani sweepstakes. The second also wasn't particularly exciting, but it's worth mentioning, as they signed RHP Michael Pineda to a two-year, $10 million deal ($2 million this year and $8 million next, with a few million of innings-based incentives), just a day after the Cubs signed Drew Smyly to a very similar deal.
Like Smyly, Pineda is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won't be back before late in this season at the earliest. Pineda has been a tough nut to crack since his 2011 rookie year with the Mariners (171 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 3.2 fWAR), thanks to control, home run and injury issues in the years since. He's still been a useful pitcher when healthy, putting up 6.7 fWAR in his 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Yankees. Even if he won't be doing anything other than pitching out of the bullpen this year, it still looks like a decent bet on an arm for team in need of lots of them.
After that, GM Thad Levine and company went after bullpen improvements, signing Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed and Zach Duke. Rodney, who will soon turn 41, is coming off of his 16th season in MLB, this time as the closer in Arizona, where he saved 39 games and thus earned himself a guaranteed $4.5 million for 2018 (plus $1.5 million of incentives). His fastball still reaches the mid 90s and he still strikes out a lot of folks (10.57 K/9), but he also still walks an awful lot of folks (4.23 BB/9). In the year of the juiced ball, he managed, at least, to limit the long ball damage (0.49 HR/9) en route to 4.23 ERA, 3.03 FIP and 1.4 fWAR. It's always a wild ride when he comes in, and thankfully (for the fans) not the only move the Twins made.
Duke received a $2 million guarantee (plus another $1.5 million of incentives. So many incentives this offseason...). The 34-year old lefty returned from Tommy John surgery late in 2017 and threw 18.1 innings for the Cardinals (5.89 K/9, 2.95 BB/9, 1.47 HR/9, 3.93 ERA, 5.28 FIP). It's a small enough commitment and, again, the Twins need help
In the coup for Minnesota's front office, they signed the 29-year old righty Reed a two-year, $16.75 million deal. Reed was widely expected to procure a three-year deal, thanks to the fact that he has maintained solid strikeout (9.8 K/9) and walk (1.6 BB/9) rates over the last two seasons with the Mets and Red Sox, and accrued a 2.40 ERA/2.81 FIP over 153.2 IP over the same period. He was one of the better, more reliable relievers available on the market and purportedly chose the Twins and play in the Midwest at a discount. He'll be a steadying presence in a bullpen that could surely use one.
With some bullpen fiddling accomplished, the next move was to address the rotation situation, with the first move coming via a trade with the Rays for Jake Odorizzi. Odorizzi is coming off the worst full season of his career, as his walks (3.8 BB/9) and home runs (1.9 K/9) rose to their highest point and his strikeouts (8.0) stayed steady. He made a couple of trips to the DL and ended up with a 4.14 ERA and 5.43 FIP (with a career low .227 BABIP keeping that ERA well below the FIP).
While that's not exactly in the realm of ace-hood, the Twins only gave up a not particularly highly regarded prospect in shortstop Jermaine Palacios. The Rays were mainly looking to shed payroll and the Twins were happy to take the $6.3 million Odorizzi will make in 2018 (with another year of arbitration in 2019 before he hits the market) off the Rays' hands. In the prior two seasons, Odorizzi had a 3.53 ERA/3.98 FIP over 357 innings, so it's a decent bet that the 27-year old pitcher could turn things around if he could keep the ball down in the zone a bit and stop giving up home runs, and the cost was minimal.
Then, just this week, the Twins grabbed one of the best free agent pitchers on the market (who came in at number 10 on my rankings of all available free agents) for a song when they signed Lance Lynn to a one-year, $12 million deal. As with our other grades we've handed out, we're going to ignore the labor implications of this bizarre offseason and focus on the Twins specifically. Presumably every other team in need of pitching (and that wasn't already up against the luxury tax) had the opportunity to sign Lynn, but the Twins were the team to do it.
In Lynn's first four full seasons with the Cardinals from 2012 to 2015, he posted a 3.38 ERA, 3.39 FIP and 112 ERA+ over an average of 189 innings per season. Then he had Tommy John surgery after the 2015 season and missed all of 2016. He returned last year and started 33 games. While his 3.43 ERA looked solid enough, he also notched a 4.82 FIP and his strikeout dropped to 7.39 K/9 (vs. career 8.46) and the home runs ballooned to 1.30 HR/9 (vs. 0.79 for his career). But, there may have been some bad luck involved in the latter, as his home-run-to-flyball rate also jumped to a ridiculous 14.2% on the season (versus 9.1% for his career).
Last year was his first season back post-TJS and he stayed healthy, even if he wasn't as precise as he's been in the past. It'd be entirely reasonable to expect some improvements in 2018. While there are certainly some things to be concerned about going forward, those things do not really apply given the contract that Lynn signed with Minnesota. As long as we're just talking about the potential value that the Twins got out of this signing, this was an unquestionable win on their part.
As we mentioned previously, the Twins' position players were the reason they made the postseason last year, and they didn't suffer any major casualties to free agency (although they might be without Miguel Sano for some time if there are repercussions for his alleged assault of a photographer). There just weren't many needs on the offensive side of the ball. But they still made one upgrade when they signed first baseman Logan Morrison (likely to spend most of his time at DH thanks to Joe Mauer) to a one-year, $6.5 million contract with some complicated vesting features that could take it as high as a two-year, $16 million deal.
Even if Alonso was deemed the "poster boy" for the "fly ball revolution," that honor could just have easily gone to Morrison. He posted a career .245/.325/.416 line (104 OPS+) from 2010 to 2016 over 2753 PAs, but, in his walk-year in 2017, he changed his approach and tried to elevate the ball more and was rewarded with a .246/.353/.516 slashline (135 OPS+) over 601 PAs. He had an ISO of .270 ( vs. .188 for his career) and hit 38 home runs (vs. a career high of 14 in 2016). Where he had only once cracked the 2 bWAR threshold, he was worth 3.6 last year.
Like Alonso, Morrison also dropped off a bit in the second half of the season, as 24 of those home runs came in the first and his wRC+ dropped from 143 to 112. Still, even if the second half is the new normal for Morrison, he'll still be upgrade over the Twins' DHs from last season, Robbie Grossman (.246/.361/.380, 102 wRC+) and Kennys Vargas (.253/.314/.444, 98 wRC+). The Twins, again, took advantage of the market this year and upgraded on the cheap.
And that's more or less the theme of Minnesota's offseason. Say what you will about the state of free agency in 2018 (and we'll have plenty to say later), but at least the Twins have taken advantage of it. They still are unlikely to catch Cleveland. But they were unlikely to make the Wild Card last season and they've improved quite a bit, and that's before you even get to the quality of competition in their division.
Kansas City Royals
We all knew it was coming. This offseason, the Royals were going to undergo a mass roster exodus, with Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas all reaching free agency (as well as Jason Vargas and Alcides Escobar). Their farm system is in shambles, with not a single top 100 prospect in sight. To be fair, they reached the World Series two years in a row and won it all once. So, while I'm sure there aren't any regrets, they was probably some future-pondering going on heading into the offseason.
Before we get to the free agent signings, let's first address a couple of smaller trades GM Dayton Moore saw fit to make. The first was a three-way trade with the Dodgers and White Sox that saw them move relievers Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander in exchange for a couple of prospects, shortstop Erick Mejia and RHP Trevor Oaks, and was mostly about ditching Soria's salary, although they gave up an intriguing relief arm in Alexander in the trade. The second trade sent Brandon Moss, lefty reliever Ryan Buchter and some cash to the Athletics for RHP Jesse Hahn and pitching prospect Heath Fillmyer. Again, not much to talk about with this one, except to say that Hahn was an interesting pick-up who has since landed on the DL.
In terms of signings, the Royals did bring back a couple of players. First they signed Alcides Escobar to a one-year, $2.5 million deal that can reach $4 million by PA-based incentives. Although Escobar is ostensibly part of the Royals "core," having been with the team since 2011, he hasn't been one of its biggest contributors. Although he's never hit very much (career 74 OPS+) he's at least played solid enough defense in the past to provide value and remain an everyday player. But the last three seasons he's hit .256/.286/.343 for a 68 OPS+ and put up a total of 0.9 bWAR.
In addition to the fact that Escobar is probably not very useful as an everyday player anymore, he also blocks Raul Mondesi Jr.'s continued development at that position. To be fair, Mondesi has struggled mightily in his first forays against MLB pitching in 2016 (.185/.231/.281 in 149 PAs) and 2017 (.170/.214/.245 in 60 PAs), but he's been one of the Royals' top prospects and excelled in AAA in 2017 (305/.340/.539). But, you could also make the argument that Escobar is cheap enough to cut or not play anyway, so we'll have to see how manager Ned Yost rolls with his roster.
The other familiar face coming back to the Royals comes with far less caveats, at least in terms of the value he'll provide to the team. Mike Moustakas just this week agreed to return to Kansas City on a one-year, $6.5 million guaranteed deal (with incentives and a player option that can earn Moustakas as much as close to $23 million). If Lynn's deal was shocking, then this one was an absolute jaw dropper.
The 29-year-old Moustakas (who ranked 7th on my best free agent list this offseason) is coming off of a .272/.314/.521 season (114 OPS+) where he hit 38 home runs. You can argue all you want about Moustakas' potential future value as a player and what kind of contract he should have received. Maybe you would prefer to debate about the way the market for third basemen (and his market in particular) developed this offseason and how the qualifying offer the Royals extended to him hurt that market. Perhaps you want to have a congenial discussion about the offers he turned down to get to this point and how Scott Boras overplayed his hand in general this offseason. Doesn't matter.
This is a travesty of a contract and the biggest sign yet that there's a storm a-comin' with labor relations in MLB. But, yeah, the Royals are bringing back a very good player at a contract which is basically insulting. If there happens to be a contending team in need of a third baseman or DH come the trade deadline, don't be surprised to see Moustakas on the move and the Royals nab prospects. So, good job, I guess and at least Royals fans will get spend time with a treasured Moose.
Moore has been busy elsewhere improving the team at bargain basement prices as well. In the last couple of weeks, he's also signed Jon Jay and Lucas Duda to one year deals. Duda's was for $3.5 million (plus $1.3 million in incentives). Although Duda struggled with certain parts of his game last year (.217 AVG, 27.5 K%), he also hit 30 home runs and posted a 113 wRC+. While the fans will miss Hosmer, the contract he received certainly didn't make sense for the Royals at this point, and Duda is a perfectly adequate replacement for a team that's likely about to enter a rebuild, given the cost of the contract.
The same goes for Jon Jay, who is coming off of a .296/.374/.375, 1.1 fWAR season and signed for $3 million with up to $1.5 million in incentives. While the 32-year-old outfielder's power is all but non-existent these days, and his defense has been declining, he's still a bargain at that price. Kansas City also signed RHPs Wily Peralta and Scott Barlow to one-year deals, but I really don't have much to say about that.
One thing is clear from the Royals' offseason, they are definitely not going full tank. They committed small amounts of money on one-year deals while shedding salary in trades and actually improved quite a bit. They aren't going to contend in 2018, but they no longer look like a team that's going to lose 100 games. We'll have to wait and see what the long-term plans are for the team, but, all things considered, they could have done a lot worse this offseason.
If the Royals' plans were not clear coming into this offseason, Detroit's certainly were. After sending away all the Justins (Verlander, Upton and Wilson), J.D. Martinez and his own son last season, GM Al Avila was clearly waving the white flag and beginning a true rebuild in earnest.
There weren't a ton of attractive trade targets left on the roster, though, for one reason or another, and the only player to leave via trade this offseason was second baseman Ian Kinsler, who went to the Angels in exchange for outfield prospect Troy Montgomery and RHP prospect Wilkel Hernandez. While neither of these prospects are particularly highly regarded and not much to get excited about for a player of Kinsler's pedigree, the Tigers' hands were a bit tied due to Kinsler's 10-team no-trade clause, his age and the fact that his final season under contract will cost his team $11 million.
Detroit did make some interesting signings, though, probably headlined by their one position player signing, Leonys Martin. Martin is coming to the Tigers on a one-year, $1.75 million deal that also includes $1.1 million of incentives. The 30-year old outfielder was a highly regarded prospect after he defected from Cuba and was signed by the Rangers. He's never had much success at the plate and last year represented a new low for him as he hit .172/.232/.281 over 138 PAs. Still, he's a player who was worth 6.5 fWAR in the 2013 and 2014 seasons and, regardless of his recent and long term struggles, is an extremely fast plus-defender. Given that Detroit was in the bottom third of MLB last year by both UZR and DRS, their pitchers will certainly be grateful. Martin is also an intriguing piece to add because of his contract situation. He's controllable for one further season via arbitration, so if he does find any success in the 2018 season, that would increase his trade value come the deadline.
Detroit signed another non-tendered player in RHP Mike Fiers to a one-year, $6 million deal. Fiers threw 153.1 innings of 5.22 ERA/5.43 FIP ball last season for the Astros, a disappointing run thanks to a ballooning 1.88 HR/9. If Fiers is able to keep balls in the park, he'd likely be a trade target for teams looking to acquire pitching at the deadline, both because of that extra year of control via arbitration and the fact that he's stayed healthy, with an average of 29 starts over the last three season. He's a reasonable candidate for a bounce back and thus a reasonable investment for Detroit.
The final move of import this offseason was a one-year, $4 million deal to Francisco Liriano. Liriano is coming off of a season that he started as a starter in Toronto and finished in the bullpen in Houston, without much in the way of trust from manager A.J. Hinch. His stats (5.66 ERA 4.64 FIP, 7.89 K/9, 4.92 BB/9) don't look all that impressive, but he was much better against lefties than righties, and has always been. Even if it doesn't work out as a starter (as Detroit plans to use him), he might entice another team to take a chance on him as a lefty-specialist come the trade deadline.
The Tigers picked up a few interesting pieces, but it might have made sense for them to cast a bit wider of a net, given where they're at in their rebuild. We'll have to wait and see what happens in the near future before we judge any of their actions too harshly, though, because things are still pretty unclear in Detroit.
Chicago White Sox
While it's been very busy offseason over on the other side of Chicago, the White Sox have been relatively quiet. This was largely to be expected, as they started their rebuild in earnest last offseason and were among the biggest sellers at the trade deadline. They emptied out their bullpen in 2017, with David Robertson, Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle, Dan Jennings and Tyler Clippard all headed to contending teams.
GM Rick Hahn made one of the first trades of the offseason when he sent $500k of international bonus pool money to the Mariners in exchange for RHP Thyago Vieira. The Brazilian can throw 104 MPH and has a great story, to boot. He's had issues with control throughout most of his time in the minors, and he did again during his two appearances in Spring Training (he's given up 4 runs in 1 inning of work for a 36.00 ERA) and has already been optioned to AAA. Still, he has an insane fastball and (80-grade per multiple scouts), and if he's able to improve his command and secondary stuff a bit, he'll be a great addition as a middle-reliever. With the ceiling of a lights-out closer, though, this was a great move for a bit of bonus pool money.
We've already discussed the three-way trade with the Royals and the Dodgers from their perspectives, so now it's Chicago's turn. They sent second base prospect Jake Peter out and ended up with RHP Joakim Soria and LHP Luis Avilan, who are both more ready for MLB action than Vieira. The 33-year old former closer Soria might be returning to that role in Chicago, depending on what happens with Nate Jones. He's coming off his best season in years, where he struck out 10.29 batters per nine and only allow 0.16 HR/9 (1 home run in 56 innings!), even if the walks were a little higher than they were in his best seasons (3.21 BB/9). His 3.70 ERA might not look all that great, but the 2.23 FIP to go with it certainly does.
Avilan hasn't been very consistent in his time in MLB, but one thing that had happened the last couple of seasons was that his FIP had been far better than his ERA. His 2017 corrected that, as he put up a 2.93 ERA to go with his 2.96 FIP. His peripherals were all very good, except that he continued to walk too many hitters (10.17 K/9, 4.30 BB/0, 0.39 HR/9). The fact that he posted all those numbers while allowing a sky-high BABIP of .342 definitely suggests that there could be good things in store in 2018.
In exchange for a couple of relievers who now look like the best in Chicago's bullpen, and who are both under control for a couple more seasons, Chicago shipped out Jake Peter, a 25-year old second baseman who hit a respectable .279/.344/.417 in AA and AAA last year, but also struck out quite a bit (around 24% of the time). With Yoan Moncada holding down his position and not looking like he's going anywhere, this was a good call to replenish the bullpen.
The last pitching addition focused on the rotation and brought back a familiar face in Miguel Gonzalez, who had been in the organization for a couple years before he was traded to the Rangers last year. Gonzalez's numbers from last season (4.62 ERA, 4.88 FIP, 5.77 K/9, 3.17 BB/9, 1.27 HR/9) weren't anything to write home about, but he's also averaged 153 IP over the last five seasons, and having an innings eater on staff while the young rotation develops is certainly worth a $4.75 million, one-year deal.
The only position player signed this offseason was catcher Welington Castillo, to a two-year, $15 million contract with an $8 million club option 2020. Castillo has been a decent catcher throughout his career, but 2017 saw him hit better than ever before (.282/.323/.490, 113 wRC+) while also improving on defense. The 30-year old backstop might not be around for the next contending team, depending on his production and defense over the next couple of years, but adding a veteran signal caller to help their young staff makes a lot of sense, and that's before you get to how little money the White Sox have committed right now.
The farm is still stocked and the White Sox just have to let things ride a bit and see how all of their young players develop. They're certainly right not to trade Jose Abreu or Avisail Garcia unless the returns are overwhelming, because it's really not that hard to see them back in the mix for the postseason as early as next year with a little youth development.