Spring training is upon us and almost all the free agents have finally found homes. After so much waiting, we can finally get down to our annual tradition of declaring who won and lost the offseason. 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’re going to spend some quality time with them as well. Today, we’re covering the AL West, and in case you missed it, here’s the NL West.
The Astros may have failed in their quest to repeat as World Series champs, but they still entered this offseason as not only the best team in their division, but one of the best in all of baseball, even if they did literally nothing. While they suffered a number of losses to free agency, the real reckoning won’t come until after this season, when both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole hit the market. Still, every team has needs, so let’s see how Houston handled theirs.
One the biggest holes the Astros needed to fill heading into this offseason was at catcher, with Brian McCann hitting the market along with midseason pickup Martin Maldonado. While Houston was repeatedly linked to J.T. Realmuto, they were probably wise to back away, given the hefty cost that such a trade would have incurred, as the Astros are hoping that either or both of the requested overall top-ten prospects RHP Forrest Whitley and outfielder Kyle Tucker will start contributing this year. Realmuto is a great player, as discussed when the Phillies signed him, but that would have been a high price to pay for a couple years of his services.
But the fact that their solution to not coming away with Realmuto was signing the 34-year-old Robinson Chirinos to a one-year deal at $5.8 million is probably less than ideal. Chirinos had a better 2018 (.222/.338/.419, 1.6 fWAR) than any Astro backstop did, but the Astros certainly could probably figured something else out. Specifically, this is the obligatory reference the fact that any team with a need for a catcher and a little bit of money to spend should have been in on Yasmani Grandal and his one-year, $18.25 million deal from the Brewers. The Astros surely could have bettered that, and they’re worse off for it. Still, as we said, Chirinos doesn’t make the Astros any worse, even if he fails to improve them a whole lot either.
The other big position player loss this offseason was Marwin Gonzalez. While Gonzalez was less effective at the plate last year (.247/.324/.409, 104 wRC+) than he was during his stellar 2017 season (.303/.377/.530, 144 wRC+), he still provided an above-average bat and extreme defensive versatility. He played all over the infield (with plus marks everywhere but at shortstop) and logged the majority of his innings in left and right field. With Josh Reddick in right, Houston needed to sort out left field, so they signed Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million deal.
The 31-year-old Brantley is coming off a .309/.364/.468, 124 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR season that made him one of the more attractive outfield options on the market (non-Harper division). The biggest question going forward is Brantley’s health, as he played in just over 100 games in the prior two seasons. Brantley only struck out in 9.5% of his plate appearances last year, the second best mark in baseball, and he’s another dangerous lefty added to a lineup that skews towards the other side of the plate.
Given that the Astros lost their Swiss army knife in Gonzalez, they also made a move to acquire a player who could possibly fill that void. They sent 25-year old RHP prospect Trent Thornton to the Blue Jays in exchange for Aledmys Diaz. After a breakout 2016 with the Cardinals (.300/.369/.510, 132 wRC+), which seemed to be fueled by a .312 BABIP and 8.9% walk rate that have since fallen back to earth, Diaz has alternated between being terrible and OK for the last couple of seasons. He’s likely to end up in a super-utility role, platooning with Houston’s lefties in the outfield and backing up the entire infield. If he can start hitting for average again, he’ll be a worthwhile addition.
While Verlander and Cole are still around for another year, there were rotation losses to address. Dallas Keuchel is still waiting to find a home, Charlie Morton headed to the Rays in free agency and Lance McCullers is out after Tommy John surgery. The biggest move the Astros made to address the rotation was signing Wade Miley to a one-year, $4.5 million pact. While one’s initial reaction to a contending team signing a 32-year pitcher who only struck out 5.58 hitters per nine last year and has struggled to remain healthy, effective or both might be McKayla-esque, I already wrote about how Houston is probably the best fit for Miley’s skillset and repertoire and is a perfect signing for them at that cost.
Houston is purportedly still in the mix for Keuchel, and with Josh James dealing with injuries again, they could probably use him if they want to have any hope of having possibly the best rotation in baseball again this year. But, with James, Colin McHugh, Brad Peacock and Whitley on the way, there actually is already quite a bit of depth in the system already, so they’ll probably be just fine in the end.
There’s a fine line between acting urgently and acting stupidly, and I think the Astros may have hovered somewhere right in the middle, which is, I guess, good? They spent a little (on Brantley), took a creative chance (on Miley) and made a reasonable trade for depth (with Diaz). Houston projects as a great team next year and they’ve kept themselves flexible to make other moves and didn’t decimate their farm. That’s a pretty good offseason, even if they probably could have gone a little crazier.
Los Angeles Angels
Last offseason, the Angels were the talk of the town, thanks to the Shohei Ohtani signing and a slew of lower-key moves, most of which improved the team (sorry, Zack Cozart). The big question mark last year was the rotation, and that remains the case this year, especially with Ohtani recovering from Tommy John surgery and out of the rotation for the season (although he’ll be back to DH at some point). The only pitcher to throw more than 130 innings last year was Andrew Heaney (4.15 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 2.8 fWAR), and their second most valuable pitcher, the oft-injured Tyler Skaggs (125 IP, 4.02, 3.63 FIP, 2.4 fWAR), is currently missing spring training starts due to forearm issues.
GM Billy Eppler did address his team’s need for depth this offseason, by adding Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill both on one-year deals, with $11 million plus incentives going to Harvey and $9 million headed Cahill’s way. Both pitchers were more effective last year than they had been in the prior couple of seasons. Harvey bounced back from a horrendous 2017 (6.70 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 92 IP) to throw 155 innings of 4.94 ERA/4.57 FIP ball last year, although his velocity is down and his strikeouts don’t appear to be coming back. Cahill went from a 4.93 ERA/5.28 FIP over 84 innings in 2017 to a 3.76 ERA/3.54 FIP over 110 innings in 2018.
While both pitchers are, in a vacuum, reasonable investments on one-year pacts at that cost, adding pitchers with lots of injury history to help back up an often-injured rotation is far from the safest gamble. I know that the Pujols contract ties their hands a bit, and we shouldn’t have expected them to sign Patrick Corbin, but rooting through the bargain bin might not be the best way to build a team around Mike Trout.
They made one signing to bolster their bullpen, bringing in Cody Allen on a one-year, $8.5 million deal (that could reach $11 million if he closes enough games). Before his 2018 season, Allen looked set to be one of the best relief arms on the market, but then he had the worst season of his career, as his walk rate jumped (4.43 BB/9) and he put up a 4.70 ERA/4.56 FIP that made him a much less trustworthy option to finish games. While he’s still only 30 years old, his velocity has been dropping every year since 2014. Just like with the rotation, I don’t have a problem with this move by itself, it’s just not likely that it’s going to change the fate of the team.
Catcher was another spot where the Halos had a need, and they signed Jonathan Lucroy to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. We’re now a couple of years removed from Lucroy being anything of a power threat and, while he’s still defensively excellent, his 70 wRC+ last season (and 81 the year before) mean that’s likely the extent of the value that he’ll be providing his team.
They also picked up Justin Bour (.227/.341/.404, 107 wRC+) on a one-year, $2.5 million deal that’s perfectly respectable. Given that Angel first basemen collectively put up a 80 wRC+ last year, that’s certainly an improvement. But it’s another move that won’t move the needle that much.
All in all, that’s about $35 million committed to old players, many of whom are obviously declining and have rich injury histories. They also made some curious trades, including lefty reliever Jose Alvarez to the Phillies in exchange for right reliever Luis Garcia, who was less effective but will (surprisingly) cost less.
The Angels were never going to go after Harper or Machado, they didn’t have the funds for that, especially if they’re trying to extend Trout again. But if they’re going to actually make that happen, they probably need to figure out a creative way to get him back to the postseason in the next couple of years before he hits the market. Any one of these moves wouldn’t be a problem for the Angels, but, taken together, it’s a pretty unremarkable offseason.
While the Angels were the winners of last year’s offseason, the Athletics were the winners of the actual season, with 97 victories and a Wild Card berth, even if they made it no further and were bounced by the Yankees. Given that we’re currently living in a Golden Age of baseball analytics, one in which (almost) every team seems to have wisened up to the varying factors that make players valuable, it makes it harder for front offices to take advantage of each other. As usual, though, Billy Beane, GM David Forst and company made some smart moves to make up for their losses in free agency this year.
The A’s lineup was stacked last year, but they lost a key contributor in second baseman Jed Lowrie (.267/.353/.448, 122 wRC+, 4.9 fWAR) to the Mets in free agency. To fill the void at second, they acquired Jurickson Profar in a very complicated three-team deal with the Rays and Rangers that involves lots of prospects, international bonus pool money and an Oakland competitive balance pick.
Profar is coming off of his first successful season (.254/.335/.458, 108 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR), despite the fact that he is a former top prospect was first called up back in 2012 at the age of 19. A combination of injuries and being blocked by the Rangers’ infielders meant that this was the first year in which he got anywhere close to full season’s worth of PAs, with 594.
Profar just turned 26 and is controllable for two more seasons at a very reasonable cost ($3.6 million this year), turned in very respectable walk (9.1 BB%) and strikeout rates (14.8 K%) last year and is eight years younger than Lowrie and just entering his prime make him a reasonable candidate to turn a change of scenery into some success on the A’s behalf. They gave up a reliever in Emilio Pagan, an infield prospect in Eli White, a draft pick and a bunch of international money to get him, so it’s not as if he came over for free, but I still think it’s a reasonable move on the A’s part.
But while the lineup in Oakland looks to continue to mash, the pitching side of things certainly needed some work. The rotation as a whole was fairly effective in terms of results, with a collective 3.82 ERA (11th in MLB) but a 4.18 FIP, and a general lack of health, with only Sean Manaea (who’s currently recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery) and Cahill (who’s now on the Angels) crossing the 100 innings mark (although midseason acquisition Mike Fiers did so across two teams), so something needed to be done.
Oakland brought back the oft-injured Brett Anderson (4.48 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 0.9 fWAR) on a one-year, $1.5 million deal (with up to $1 million in incentives). Anderson’s 2018 was up-and-down, both in terms of health and results, but it’s a reasonable cost for a some rotation filling. They also brought back Fiers (3.56 ERA, 4.75 FIP 1.4 FIP) on a two-year, $14.1 million pact, and that was after non-tendering him and managing to save some money in the process. Fiers was one of the few bright spots down the stretch for Oakland, so this was another solid move.
The “new” pitcher they brought into the fold to help provide depth is the rather old 35-year old Marco Estrada, who’s coming off one of his rougher seasons to date (5.64 ERA, 5.44 FIP, 0.5 fWAR). As it’s just a one-year, $4 million deal, and the culprit seems to have been his 1.82 HR/9 which was well above his career average (1.41), which should be helped by moving from Rogers Centre to Oakland Coliseum. While Estrada’s age is a concern, the change of locale might mean the A’s are able to wring some excess value from him in his new home at that cost.
All in all, though, the A’s have to hope that overall top LHP prospect Jesus Lazardo develops quickly, that no. 4 top LHP prospect A.J. Puk recovers from Tommy John and that Manaea comes back soon, too. Because the this group of starters doesn’t give them that high of a ceiling and the floor could well be littered with broken pitchers come the All Star Break.
While the rotation was a bit of a mess last year, the same can’t be said for the bullpen. Oakland’s relievers put up 5.7 fWAR (5th in MLB) and were the best in either league by WPA (12.50). They did, however, lose midseason theft Jeurys Familia to free agency and hit the market, signing Joakim Soria to two-year, $15 million contract. The 34-year old veteran is coming off arguably his best season to date (3.12 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 11.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.59 HR/9). Despite his relatively advanced age, he upped his swinging-strike rate to 14.4% and it’s a pretty standard contract for a reliever who appears to still have some life left in his game.
Everything considered, the A’s did a decent enough job of working with what they have. They kept costs down while staying as competitive as possible. There are a lot of questions in the rotation, but Oakland wasn’t going to be able to get in on the frontline starter market, so they’ll just have to cross their fingers and hope that the reinforcements arrive and they can stay in the mix until they do.
While it’s all fun and games to wax about the inventive techniques that the A’s employ, we’ve now arrived at, for better or worse, seemingly the most creative man in baseball: GM Jerry Dipoto and his Mariners. Every offseason, I dread writing about Dipoto’s team because he always makes seemingly a million moves, often involving so many pieces that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what to make of them. And guess what, this offseason was no different, as Dipoto finally decided to call it a day and engage in more serious roster rebuilding.
About a week after the time the World Series ended, Trader Jerry was at it, doing his annual Mariners-Rays trade, and sending out catcher Mike Zunino in exchange for a outfielder Mallex Smith. There were prospects involved, too, but the Mariners’ section of this article is going to turn into a Tolstoy novel if we dive too deep. The 27-year old Zunino has two years of control left and is coming off a .201/.259/.410, 85 OPS+, 1.9 bWAR season. Those hitting numbers aren’t great, but they’re fine for a defensively solid catcher and he hit .251/.331/.509 for a 125 OPS+ and 3.3 bWAR the season prior.
Headed back to Seattle is Smith, a 25-year-old center fielder with four years of team control left. Smith hadn’t been the recipient of much playing time until last year, when he broke out, hitting .296/.367/.406 for a 115 OPS+ and 3.5 bWAR. Smith swiped 40 bags and, per Fangraphs BsR stat, was the the 9th most valuable player in MLB once he was on base (and adding him also mercifully ends the Dee Gordon center field experiment). Obviously, we have to wait and see what the future holds for Smith and Zunino, but you can make an argument that both teams won this trade, given their respective needs and the years of service time involved.
The next big move, and the first hint that the Mariners were, in fact, truly changing course, was the deal that sent James Paxton to the Yankees in exchange for a trio of prospects in LHP Justus Sheffield, RHP Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams. We went over this in depth already, but the prospects headed back to Seattle are quality and could be contributing soon, making it a reasonable move for both sides and one that could pay dividends for Seattle relatively soon.
Then the gates truly opened, with Seattle moving Robinson Canó (and his extremely large contract), Edwin Díaz and cash to the Mets in exchange for Anthony Swarzak, Jay Bruce and a trio of prospects in Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista. Dipoto followed that up
immediately with a deal sending Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to the Phillies in exchange for J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana. We already went over both of these as well, and they were more about clearing salary off the books while Dipoto retools in earnest.
Those deals alone could constitute an offseason, but we’re not done yet. They shipped out Carlos Santana in a three-way trade with the Indians that brought back Edwin Encarnación and a draft pick. Santana is four years younger than Encarnacion and thus a safer bet to provide a better return next year, but this deal was all about the money the Mariners are getting off the books and a draft pick they’re stockpiling. Given the direction that Seattle is heading, it checks out.
Taken as whole, Dipoto did a good job of shedding future salary commitments putting some new talent in the farm and adding younger pieces with more team control over the offseason. The Mariners have the unenvious role of sharing their division with the Astros and they’ve gone so long without a postseason berth that you can certainly argue that that something drastic needed to be done. We can probably expect the Mariners’ roster to look fairly different come the end of the trade deadline, as long as you accept the premise that a rebuild was necessary, Dipoto did a pretty decent job getting it started this offseason.
While the Mariners’ move towards a rebuild was at least somewhat surprising, we were all expecting the 67-95 Rangers to be punting on the immediate future and attempting to figure out how to pick up some prospects and quality controllable talent. Texas’s rotation was a big part of the problem last year, with a 5.37 ERA (29th in MLB) and 5.18 FIP (tied-28th). Having traded away Cole Hamels prior to the trade deadline, Mike Minor is basically the only thing the Rangers had going for them, so some acquisitions were in order.
The centerpiece of the Rangers’ rotation moves this offseason was the signing of Lance Lynn to a three-year, $30 million deal. I have as much fun as the next guy poking fun at the deal in other articles, but it checks out for the Rangers, more or less. Lynn, who got screwed over last offseason thanks to a variety of factors, put up a 3.38 ERA/3.39 FIP for a a 112 ERA+ and 11.0 bWAR in four full seasons from 2012 to 2015. Then he missed all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery and came back and put up a 3.43 ERA/FIP 4.82 season in which all of his peripheral stats trended in the wrong direction. Last year, the results weren’t quite there (4.77 ERA vs 3.84 FIP), but his strikeout rate was the best since 2012 (9.25 K/9).
With the exception of his missed year, Lynn has been a reliable innings-eater and the results have been pretty respectable. Sure he’s 31 years old, but the Rangers need arms and, if Lynn is anything like his old self, there’s a decent chance that the Rangers turn him into a prospect or two. While I wouldn’t recommend it for a team that’s in need of certainty, it’s a reasonable enough move from GM Jon Daniels even if a slight overpay, all things considered.
Daniels also went the tried and true route of collecting a slew of bounceback candidates. One of whom, Shelby Miller, signed a one-year deal for $2 million (with an additional $3 million of incentives). Caught up in all of the flack we’ve given to Arizona over the last few years for their trading for Miller is the fact that Miller was, at the time, a really good pitcher. Then he was bad, and then he had Tommy John and missed almost all of the last two seasons. The cost is low, so why not.
The 36-year-old Jason Hammel has had a rough couple of years (5.59 ERA), but he’s long been a reliable innings eater, something that the Rangers need. And speaking of ex-Cubs, they also swung a deal with them for Drew Smyly. The Cubs need more reliable arms in their rotation given that their actually trying to win, and the fact that Smyly hasn’t pitched since 2016,
thanks to Tommy John surgery, made him expendable. In exchange for taking on his salary ($7 million) and a PTBNL, Texas gets to hope that Smyly returns to being the pitcher he was up until the year before his injury (3.24 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 124 ERA+), which is another reasonable buy-low shot that may very well not work out but is a smart move.
On the position player front, there wasn’t much in the way of additions. There were some subtractions, perhaps most notably the retirement of Adrian Beltre after his first below average season at the plate since 2009 (miss u). We talked about Profar’s moving to the A’s already, but it’s worth noting that he was the Ranger’s most valuable player last year by fWAR. Given the Rangers’ likelihood of contending during Profar’s two remaining years of arbitration, it certainly made sense to move him. The deal brought back a trio of Tampa Bay prospects in LHPs Brock Burke, LHP Kyle Bird and RHP Yoel Espinal and an infield prospect Eli White and $750,000 in international bonus money from Oakland. The prospect gurus are high on Burke as a mid-to-back of the rotation starter, and we’ll have to wait and see how Texas uses those funds, but it checks out in general.
Texas comes away from the offseason with a bunch of arms they can hope on and some more younger players for the farm. It wasn’t particularly exciting (and Lynn might be an overpay), but it grades out as slightly better than average given what the Rangers need to do in order to work their way back into being competitive.