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 East, but, in case you missed them: here are the NL West, AL West, NL Central and AL Central.
Cue the first paragraph from last season's Nationals offseason commentary:
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?
The good news is that the Nationals broke their even-year streak, won 97 games and made it to the postseason in an odd-numbered year. The bad news is that they lost in the Division Series yet again, this time to the Cubs. They had no problem winning the division, because it was the weakest in baseball and they thus had the easiest schedule. The second best team (the Marlins, no less) clocked in at 77 wins and the average number of wins from the non-Washington teams in the division was 71.2.
Unshockingly, they're pretty much a lock to win the East again this year, as well. This is, however, Washington's final year before Bryce Harper hits free agency (as does Daniel Murphy, with Anthony Rendon to follow in 2019) and, even if Buster Olney thinks there's a good chance that Harper ends up back with the Nats (or on a certain up and coming division rival), there's no certainty about what the coming offseason will hold. We can, however, look back and see if Washington approached this offseason with the sense of urgency that they probably should have.
On the plus side, the Nationals didn't lose too many important pieces this offseason. On the position player front, they didn't lose a single of their starting eight and only two players of import hit free agency. The first was Howie Kendrick, who came over from the Phillies mid-season and had a serious return to form in 2017 as he hit hit 315/.368/.475 (119 OPS+) over 334 PAs.
The Nats could certainly use a solid bench candidate at second base, as Daniel Murphy is coming back from knee surgery. Even though Kendrick had a career high .378 BABIP last year and might be due for some regression, the terms of the contract (two years, $7 million) are hardly onerous for a player with his history of success (a 111 OPS+ dating back to 2011). Sure, he's getting older, but the cost is far from prohibitive.
The other position player to leave was Adam Lind, who served as Ryan Zimmerman's backup at first. They replaced Lind with Matt Adams (one year, $4 million with $500k of incentives). Lind is a career .272/.330/.465, 111 wRC+ hitter with serious platoon splits: .217/.263/.329, 56 wRC+ against LHPs and .288/.348/.504 against RHPs. Adams is a career .271/.315/.469, 111 wRC+ hitter with serious platoon splits: .206/.236/.357, 58 wRC+ against LHPs and .286/.333/.495, 123 wRC+ against RHPs. They're remarkably similar players except that Adams is five years younger. We don't want to spend too much time analyzing a deal for Ryan Zimmerman's left-handed backup at first base, but the deal certainly checks out from the Nationals' perspective.
In terms of pitching, they didn't lose any important starters this offseason, but they did have a few important pieces hit free agency in the bullpen (Brandon Kitzler, Matt Albers and Oliver Perez), even if losing Joe Blanton wasn't going to cause much of a problem.
They re-signed Brandon Kintzler to a two-year deal where he is guaranteed $10 million but could earn as much as $16 million (it's complicated…). The 33-year-old RHP doesn't strike out many folks (career 6.10 K/9), but he's been able to outperform his FIP the last couple of seasons by getting ground ball after ground ball. If he's able to keep that up the deal will look pretty good (especially when compared to some of the other deals that have been handed out for relievers this offseason).
They signed Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $1 million deal with another $1 million of incentives. Benoit is coming off of a rough season by his standards (4.65 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.25 HR/9) but the 40-year old didn't lose any velocity last season. He's generally been very reliable dating back to 2010 (2.64 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 9.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.98 HR/9). At the level of commitment they gave him, I can't find anything to argue about here. But that's it for the moves that the Nationals made in the bullpen and on the entire roster.
While it's probably not too wise to spend too much time worrying about a fifth starter, the Nationals probably could have upgraded in that department, too. They didn't need a Jake Arrieta or a Yu Darvish, but they probably could have handled picking up a Lance Lynn, given the way that the markets developed this offseason. They don't have much in the way of depth if one of their top-four goes down.
Barring some shocking developments, the Nationals are going to win their division again easily this year. Newsflash: the baseball gods love shocking developments. But, realistically, they're going to be just fine in terms of making the postseason, especially if they get a full season of Adam Eaton. But even if their NLDS ticket is already pretty much punched, they didn't do too much to upgrade for what happens when they get there, which is a little disappointing for a team that can't seem to get past that hurdle and has some of its best players hitting free agency after this season, especially given the relative commitments that some of the available players got this offseason.
New York Mets
It might surprise you to learn that the Mets, a team not exactly known for signing players (Yoenis Cespedes excepted), actually signed more players to guaranteed contracts this offseason than they lost to free agency. Full disclosure: that fact fails to account for the fact that they traded away a large number of players in advance of the deadline (Jay Bruce, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker and Addison Reed), after they fell apart and sat at 14 games back by the trade deadline en route to a 70-92 record and 4th place in the division.
There's clearly plenty of room for optimism in New York, given that candidates for the rotation include Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler. However, pitcher after pitcher on that list has question marks when it comes to his health (and there are even recurring questions about how the team handles injured players), so it would probably be wise for the Mets to take out an insurance policy and perhaps upgrade where they can elsewhere.
The lone rotation signing this offseason was Jason Vargas to a two-year, $16 million deal. Vargas is coming off of his best season since 2014, where he accrued a 4.16 ERA/4.67 FIP over 179 IP. Vargas was also one of the best pitchers in baseball in the month of April and, while he crashed back down to earth through the rest of the season, he still reliably ate innings for the Royals, which is something that the Mets could clearly use in case of a need for Plan B, C and/or D. Vargas himself is only one season removed from Tommy John surgery and is currently recovering from hamate bone surgery (although he might be back in time to start the season), so it's not as if he is a risk-free acquisition. Regardless, though, the Mets needed some depth and they at least got someone who showed some upside last season to provide it.
The only MLB-ready bullpen move that GM Sandy Alderson made this offseason (he did swing a small trade with Pittsburgh for a bullpen prospect) was to sign Anthony Swarzak to a two-year, $14 million deal. Until last year, that sort of deal would have been pretty much unthinkable for the right-handed reliever (4.52 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 5.8 K/9, 91 ERA+ over 484 IP from 2009 to 2016), but he turned in a stellar campaign (2.33 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 10.59 K/9, 2.56 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9) over 77.1 innings that landed him in the 8th spot amongst qualified relievers by fWAR (2.2). While the first thought would rightly involve something about sample sizes, Swarzak seems to have made a genuine step forward in his 8th year in MLB, as his velocity actually increased, he started relying on his slider more and started allowing far less contact and generating far more strikeouts. Swarzak now slots in as one of the best arms in the Mets' bullpen, who could certainly use the help, given that they were 26th in MLB by fWAR last season (1.2) and traded away their closer Reed prior to the deadline.
In terms of position players, the Mets made headlines when they re-signed Jay Bruce to a three-year, $39 million deal in mid-January after trading him prior to the deadline. It was big news because it was the second biggest contract handed out this offseason when it was signed and, well, because it was the Mets doing such a thing. Bruce is coming off his best performance in years (.254/.324/.508, 118 wRC+). He increased his flyball percentage rate by almost 6% with only a negligible decrease to his home run to flyball ratio and hit a career-high 36 home runs.
Whether Bruce is able to maintain that sort of performance or not will go a long way to determining whether the Mets get a positive return on their investment, because they certainly spent quite a bit on him, given the market for sluggers this offseason. That's also before you get to the fact that the Mets currently have a crowded outfield, with Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo all in the mix. There have been Lagares trade rumors and Conforto is coming off of a serious shoulder injury, and the Mets have mentioned that Bruce might receive time at first.
Of course, that came before the Mets also signed Adrian Gonzalez to a one-year deal where he will make the major league minimum (and we'll have more on that shortly). Gonzalez just had the worst season of his long career (.242/.287/.355, 69 OPS+) Despite the fact that he's currently struggling in the admittedly miniscule sample size confines of spring training (.216/.273/.294 as of the time of this article). Given that Gonzalez has a lifetime .288/.359/.488 slashline and the level of financial commitment, it's not a bad backup plan in the event that Dominic Smith doesn't develop as quickly as they would like, but it does complicate the Bruce situation a bit.
The last major position player signing of the offseason was the Todd Frazier two-year, $17 million deal that we already covered in depth. Long story short, though, this was an absolute steal for the Mets at that cost, and at a position where they could definitely use some assistance.
The Mets are definitely a better team than they were going into the offseason. Whether or not they are in the mix for a Wild Card spot will largely be determined by how healthy and effective their rotation is. While that's true for every team in baseball, it's especially true for the Mets. They made some value signings and a perhaps signing of questionable value in Bruce, but overall the moves the Mets made this offseason look alright, all things considered.
If the Mets surprised everyone with their offseason free agent acquisitions, the Phillies politely asked them to hold their extremely overpriced stadium beer. The Phillies finished 2017 in an even worse spot than the Mets, with a 66-96 record. Unlike the Mets, the Phillies have been rebuilding, and the different set of expectations that come with that. We know that the Phillies are lumbering behemoth when it comes to their payroll, so it was only a matter of time before they started flexing their financial might. That it would come this offseason after they just lost almost 100 games and with so many developing players, however, came as quite the shock.
Three of the four moves GM Matt Klentak made on December 15 were innocent enough, as he traded away shortstop Freddy Galvis and signed RHPs Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. Freddy Galvis was an acceptable defense-first shortstop with one year of team control remaining. The return for Philadelphia was RHP prospect Enyel De Los Santos, who is projected as a middle-to-back of the rotation starter. The trade was questionable from the Padres' perspective, but not so much from the Phillies'. They have a top prospect ready to take over the position in J.P. Crawford. Crawford may have struggled (.214/.356/.300) in his limited PAs (87) last year, but he is already a plus-defender and the 23-year old has plenty of room to improve and they got a solid prospect in exchange for clearing a roster spot for him (or potentially Cesar Hernandez, depending on what happens with Crawford and second base prospect Scott Kingery).
The Phillies made their first reliever move when he signed the 37-year-old Neshek to a two-year $16.25 million deal (with a club option for 2020). His 2017, which started in Philly before he was traded to the Rockies, featured career-best numbers in ERA (1.59, 4th among qualified relievers in MLB), FIP (1.86), K/9 (9.96), BB/9 (0.87, 1st), HR/9 (0.43, 9th) and fWAR (2.5, 5th). Neshek has never thrown hard, so his age isn't necessarily an issue and, if his newfound success against lefties continues, he could be a great pickup for Philadelphia. Regardless, some veteran help for their young bullpen was certainly not a bad call, even if they weren't going to start transitioning towards contending.
Klentak brought in some help when he signed Hunter to a two-year, $18 million contract. Hunter received a minor league deal from the Rays last season after dealing with injuries in 2016, but he put up legitimately great numbers for Tampa Bay, with a 2.61 ERA (29th among qualified relievers in MLB), 3.07 FIP (35th), 2.28 BB/9 (22nd), 0.92 HR/9 and 1.2 fWAR (tied for 34). With an increased reliance on his cutter, he was able to get more batters out than ever before, with 9.82 K/9 versus 6.8 from 2013 (when he converted to a reliever) to 2016.
The multiple-year deals for relievers certainly indicated that the Phillies were starting to make moves that could help them to contend in the near future rather than be flipped at the deadline, but it really hit home when, on the same day, they signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million deal (with a $17.5 million club option for a fourth year). Santana has been an extremely consistent performer in seven full seasons with the Indians, never missing serious time, playing an average of around 153 games per year and always getting on base around his career average of .365 OBP. Over that same time frame, he's been worth an average of 3.2 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR each season.
Barring a catastrophic drop off in production from the soon-to-be 32-year-old, made slightly more unlikely due to his excellent eye and power (the latter of which should only increase with his move to Citizens Bank Park), Santana will almost certainly live up to the contract and probably provide surplus value, even considering that the contract exceeded expectations a bit and that the Phillies' will lose their second round pick thanks to the Indians' qualifying offer. But even if Santana lives up to the terms of his contract, that doesn't mean there aren't any lingering questions.
First baseman Rhys Hoskins emerged as a legitimate power hitter last season (.259/.396/.618, 18 HR, 158 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR in 50 games), but the Santana signing means they're going to have to move Hoskins to the outfield. Perhaps in preparation for such a move, Hoskins put in 30 games in left field last year, where he graded out as basically league average. That's a good sign, but it doesn't mean that it will be the case over a larger sample size, what with the unpredictability of defensive stats. Those concerns aside, though, Santana certainly makes the team better now, even if he alone won't open the Phillies' window of contention.
After those signings, Philadelphia had an extremely quiet offseason through mid-March, when they brought in another big free agent to pry the contention window open, signing Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract with an opt-out after the 2018 season and a team-friendly, voiding option on the opt-out clause. It's complicated, but it's basically a two-year, $55 million deal that could go as high as five years and $135 million if Philadelphia is impressed over the next couple of seasons. While they also gave up their 3rd pick in the draft (number 79 overall), that's a small price to pay for a pitcher like Arrieta.
Arrieta hasn't been the Cy Young winner he was in 2015 over the past couple of seasons, but he's still been a very good pitcher. He started 30 games in 2017, with a 3.53 ERA and 4.16 FIP. Like so many other pitchers last season, he got bit by the home run bug and posted a 1.23 HR/9 (vs. a career 0.84). His 123 ERA+ doesn't compare to his 215 ERA+ from 2015, but, if it did, Philly wouldn't have been able to sign him to this sort of contract. It was a weird year for free agency, but Arrieta finally found a home, even if it wasn't on the team we were thinking, or for as much money as we were expecting.
The combined moves they made this offseason aren't going to be enough to put the Phillies in contention without the continued development of their young players. But, if things do break correctly, they could already be in Wild Card contention come this summer and, given their financial commitments and payroll history, they'll still be ready and willing to take on a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado-sized contract next offseason. Getting the best free agents to come requires a show of faith that you intend to field a competitive team, which is what they've done this offseason. While there's certainly no guarantee that everything will work out ("lol," sayeth yonder baseball gods), the Phillies have a lot of money to spend and it's good to see them making the team better.
While the Phillies have decided to turn the corner on their rebuild a little early, the same cannot be said of the Braves. They already had one of the best farm systems in MLB coming into the offseason, but they're still waiting and hoping that some of the first round picks they've spent on pitching (in a classically Brave fashion) will pan out. To be honest, the Braves haven't done much of anything this offseason, but here we go (and don't worry, it won't take very long).
They shipped out right-handed reliever Jim Johnson, his $4.5 million salary in 2018 and $1.21 million of international bonus pool money to the Angels in exchange for soon-to-be 25-year-old LHP prospect Justin Kelly. Kelly isn't a highly regarded prospect, but this was a salary dump, so that's to be expected.
They participated in a trade with the Dodgers that would have been far more exciting had it happened in the not-too-distant past when they sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson and some cash to the Braves in exchange for Matt Kemp. The Braves took on more salary in 2018 to help the Dodgers spread their commitments over the next two years and stay under the faux salary cap this year, while the Braves are increasing their payroll this year but will be more free to spend on 2018's (superior) free agent class.
They also get a year of Kazmir and McCarthy in their rotation. Kazmir has been dealing with injuries and up-and-down performances throughout his 12-year MLB career. Last year was certainly far from great (88 ERA+ over 136.1 innings in 2017), but given the financial implications of the trade, why not see if there's a little bit of his first half of 2015 in Oakland (164 ERA+ over 109 innings) left in the tank to move come the deadline? McCarthy comes with the same injury and inconsistent performance concerns as Kazmir, but he was actually pretty good in his limited innings last season (105 ERA+ over 92.2 innings). As with Kazmir, it's only a year, so why not?
The final piece of the trade that's still on the team (since they promptly DFA-ed Gonzalez and made him available to the Mets for the minimum) is Charlie Culberson. His postseason performance for Los Angeles last year aside (.455/.417/.818 over 11 ABs in the NLCS and 3-for-5 with a home run in the World Series), he has a career .231/.272/.324 line for a 57 OPS+ and shouldn't figure heavily into Atlanta's plans.
The also traded a PTBNL to Houston for Preston Tucker, a 27-year-old outfielder with a career .219/.274/.403 line (86 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR) in 146 games, and sent some cash to the Rays for Ryan Schimpf, a 29-year old third baseman who is a four-true-outcomes player (walk, strikeout, home run and pop fly) and posted a .158 AVG with a 35.5 K% last season. He has power, yes (.297 ISO in the last two years) and patience (13.7 BB%), but when you strikeout and don't hit the ball out of the park more frequently, your value is going to be seriously hamstrung.
And, well, that's pretty much it for the Braves' offseason. In fact, the biggest stories of the offseason might have been the prospect scandal that resulted in the firing of former GM and the hiring of Alex Anthopoulos as the new GM, as well as the loss of 13 international prospects, and, most recently, the hubbub surrounding the manipulation of Ronald Acuna's service time.
Where the Phillies made bold moves, the Braves decided to play it safe and basically prepare for the next offseason. It isn't necessarily the wrong move on their part, but it would have been nice to see them improve a bit more than they did.
After discussing a couple of rebuilding teams, now we arrive at the Marlins, who single handedly screw up the whole grading curve. While I might have predicted that the Marlins and Jeffrey Loria were finally going their own ways before last season, I certainly didn't predict that the new ownership would immediately have yet another Floridian fire sale and be just as weird and awful as the old one. Since we're ostensibly grading the Marlins' offseason, we'll do that first before we get get too far into general screed territory.
The dominos started to fall when they sent Dee Gordon to the Mariners in exchange for a trio of prospects. We already wrote extensively about Gordon when we covered the Marlins, so we won't dig too deep into it and just say that he's been very good. Not superstar good, but very good. He was also owed $38.5 million over the next three seasons (with a $14 million option or $1 million buyout in 2021) and that's far too much money to pay a professional baseball player, so they traded him. The former number one pitching prospect in the Mariners' not-that-great system (RHP Nick Neidert) is now in the Marlins', while the other prospects aren't worth much of your time.
Less than a week after Gordon was moved, the Stanton trade saga finally came to an end, with the Yankees taking on his salary and potential Hall of Fame career in exchange for second baseman Starlin Castro, who will ostensibly replace Gordon (although who knows how long he'll be on Miami's roster), and prospect scraps. We already went over this in detail, but to summarize: Shame. On. You. They didn't get much back in the deal because it was all about clearing salary and Stanton had a lot of that, but that's what happens when you're one of the best players in the game these days.
With no more Stanton, we knew other deals were coming, and come they did. The first post-TMGS trade sent Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis for four prospects. We covered this one from the Cardinals' perspective already, but from the Marlins' point of view it was, again, about clearing the $20-plus million Ozuna will make over the next couple of years. The prospect return wasn't great, but it was at least defensible, even if the Cardinals look like the winners at the moment.
The final domino was the trade of Christian Yelich, who has a ridiculously team-friendly contract relative to his production and thus actually netted the Marlins some top notch prospects from the Brewers. I covered this one after it went down in detail, but, TL;DR, the trade was reasonable, as long as you look at it in isolation and pretend like the Marlins didn't start the offseason with one of the best outfields in baseball.
Since they had a "Help Wanted" sign hanging in the outfield (and probably want to keep the MLBPA off their backs), they did actually make one free agent signing this winter: A one-year, $3.75 million deal for Cameron Maybin. Good job?
If you analyze most of the individual trades in a vacuum, you can at least make an argument that they check out, more or less. Miami traded a player and got back a not-totally unreasonable return on said player, given such player's contract considerations. The problem is that they just broke up arguably the best outfield in the game. Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna put up 16.1 fWAR in 2017 and only missed the first place Yankees' 16.2 by 0.1 WAR, which is basically a rounding error. But those players cost money and the ownership group has debt, so they gots to go.
While MLB is ultimately a business, every team is ultimately a business and Stanton's contract certainly made figuring out how to operate that business difficult, the Marlins' owners knew what they were signing up for when they made the business decision to purchase the team. Whether you want to talk about what happened with the roster or some of the happenings in the office (culminating with the firing of a longtime scout who was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery), it's been business, yes, but it's been ugly business. There might be a light at the end of tunnel yet, but it's looking like it's going to be an extremely long tunnel.