Spring training is upon us (along with baseball that actually counted in Japan!!!) 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 Central, and in case you missed it, here are the NL West, AL West and NL Central.
Cleveland surprised exactly no one last year when they cruised to another division title with 91 wins, but that’s more of a testament to just how bad the AL Central was last year (and will remain in 2019). It also didn’t come as much of a surprise when they then got trounced in the ALDS by the Astros, and swept out of the postseason after being outscored 21-6 in three games. While anything can happen within the small sample size confines of a postseason series, and they’ll almost certainly get another go at it in 2019, it’s certainly not clear that Cleveland did enough to prevent them getting bounced out in the first round again.
There were rumors from the get-go that Indians GM Mike Chernoff was shopping both Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. To be fair, this is a Schrödinger’s pitcher situation, one that makes both absolute sense and no sense at all, both at the same time. The Indians basically have the division on lockdown for now, and Kluber (under team control via options for three seasons at $52.5 million) and Bauer (making $13 million this season with another year of arbitration remaining) are expensive for a smaller market team, even as they provide excess value at their relative costs. Chernoff already locked Carlos Carrasco down to a four-year, $44 million deal this offseason. That is extremely team-friendly deal, given how productive Carrasco has been since he signed his other extremely team-friendly extension back in 2015.
The aforementioned trio of pitchers, along with Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber were either the best rotation in baseball, or a close second after the Astros, depending on your stats of choice, and will probably be up near the top of the list again this year, so if Cleveland could get a proper haul for one of their starters, you can see why they would do it.
While the rotation is set, Cleveland lost talent elsewhere, nowhere more so than in the outfield, where the situation was already not ideal. Last year, the outfield collective hit .270/.327/.397 (94 wRC+, 21st in MLB) and contributed 5.2 fWAR (17th in MLB). Then they went and lost their biggest contributor to free agency in Michael Brantley (.309/.364/.468, 124 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR) to the Astros, along with most of the other outfielders of various levels of production (Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer and Melky Cabrera) gone as well, the outfield needed some work. Cleveland went the whole offseason without really addressing it, only signing Carlos Gonzalez to a minor-league deal this past week, with a $2 million salary and $1 million in incentives if he plays for the Tribe in 2019. The 33 year-old is coming off a decent enough season at the plate (.276/.329/.467, 96 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR), but he hardly seems to be a guaranteed success in Cleveland, as if you can come by those at that price point.
Gonzalez has some serious splits, with a .323/.381/.592 career slashline for a 132 wRC+ at home and .251/.307/.420 and 94 wRC+ elsewhere, and since he’s played all but one of his MLB seasons at Coors Field, it’s safe to assume that that isn’t just noise at this point. He’s also been much more effective against RHPs (.299/.366/.540, 127 wRC+) than southpaws (.261/.297/.434, 81 wRC+).
Leonys Martin, acquired at the trade deadline last season from the Tigers figures to be their everyday starting center fielder, even if he’s probably better off in a platoon situation. Martin missed the final couple of months due to a scary bacterial infection and was having a better season at the plate before that (.255/.323/.425, 103 wRC+), but he’s still a career .248/.303/.369 (83 wRC+) hitter who has hit extremely poorly against LHPs (.234/.278/.334, 66 wRC+). While he’s gotten great marks defensively, there’s still a third outfield spot with a lot of question marks, in addition to the other two we’ve already talked about. Even if Cleveland wasn’t ever going to enter the Bryce Harper fray, they certainly could have found more creative options than where they ended up today.
And their solution to the outfield isn’t the only area of their lineup where they made questionable moves this offseason, as their decision to swap catcher Yan Gomes for prospects also raised raised some eyebrows. While Gomes hit .266/.313/.449 for a 103 OPS+ in 2018, he hit .215/.266/.377 for a 67 OPS+ over the prior three seasons so, in a vacuum, you could see that there was room for an upgrade there. However, Gomes is also an elite defender by most metrics, and widely respected for his game-calling ability, which makes up for some of his lack of hitting (he’s averaged 2.0 bWAR a season in Cleveland).
To replace Gomes, the Indians added Kevin Plawecki via trade with the Mets. Plawecki has turned into a better hitter over the last couple of seasons (.225/.330/.379, 97 OPS+), but one who has a lot of defensive issues. Roberto Perez, their internal option, doesn’t hit enough (.205/.298/.340, 70 OPS+) to make up for his defensive assets. While it’s generally thought that they have better prospects in their system after their trades, they might very well be worse off at catcher this season, while their window is still wide open. Ultimately, though, they’ll be saving money, which seemed to be the motivator in all of this.
They also moved around salaries, prospects and players in a three-way trade with the Rays and Mariners that exchanged Edwin Encarnacion for Carlos Santana, along with other players, prospects, draft picks and cash. Encarnacion is owed more this season, after which he’ll been a free agent, whereas Santana is around for two years at a higher total cost, but with a lower hit each year. At 32, he’s also younger, and thus more likely to rebound from a down 2018 (.229/.352/.414, 109 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR) than the 36-year old Encarnacion (.246/.336/.474, 115 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR). They also added Jake Bauers in the deal, who was a well-considered prospect, but only hit .201/.316/.384 for a 95 wRC+ for the Rays in his first MLB season last year.
The addition of Bauers (who is a first baseman but could also potentially take over an outfield corner spot) along with Santana made Yonder Alonso expendable, so Chernoff shipped him out for a 24-year old outfield prospect and some salary relief. They also made some minor league-signings to improve their bullpen (Tyler Clippard and Justin Grimm) and resigned lefty reliever Oliver Perez.
Cleveland still has almost-MVPs in both Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, and they still have an extremely formidable rotation as of the time of this article (although the trade rumors continue). Sure, it’d take a minor miracle from the next team on our list to keep them from winning the division, but it’s unclear that that they really improved at all this offseason, despite making quite a few moves.
While just about every single one of the Indians’ moves came down to trying to decrease the money spent in 2019, the same can’t be said for the Twins, who signed a mess of free agents to contracts, mostly on one-year deals. They may have only won 78 games in 2018, but the season before they surprised with a Wild Card appearance before falling to the Yankees and they seemed intent on recreating that chance with their moves over the winter.
The biggest chunk of change spent an individual player in 2019 will go to Nelson Cruz, who will make $14 million on a one-year deal (with a $12 million option/$300k buyout for 2020). The soon-to-be 39-year old slugger may have declined a bit last year (.256/.342/.509, 135 OPS+) when compared to his previous three years in Seattle (.292/.368/.557, 151 OPS+), but he still hit 37 home runs (with less PAs than the prior years) and his .264 BABIP was the lowest of his career. While he’s slowing down a little bit, he’s still hitting the ball hard, so some bounceback on that front should be expected. Along with the fact that he’s moving to a more hitter-friendly park, it’s extremely likely that Cruz should more than live to up to his end of the bargain and it’s kind of shocking that no other AL team wanted to take a chance on someone who hits as well as Cruz, even given his age.
The Twins also waited out the market on Marwin Gonzalez and signed him to a two-year, $21 million deal in late February. While Gonzalez’s 2018 was full of regression from his 4.3 bWAR/4.0 fWAR 2017, as he lost over 40 points from his .343 BABIP and almost 6% from his 18.1% HR/FB ratio, he was still a valuable player in 2018 with 2.5 bWAR/1.6 fWAR. While Gonzalez logged the majority of his innings in left and right field, he played all over the infield with plus marks everywhere but at shortstop. He gives manager Terry Francona a ton of options every night, and, like Cruz, it’s shocking that there weren’t more teams in on Gonzalez at that price point, especially given every team’s desire for super utility players these days.
Minnesota also nabbed second baseman Jonathan Schoop on a one-year, $8.5 million deal after he struggled to build on his breakout 2017 with the Orioles, where he hit .293/.338/.503 with 32 home runs for a 122 wRC+ and 3.8 fWAR, but he also suffered from a precipitous drop in BABIP to .261 in 2018. He’s likely to rebound a bit from his .233/.266/.416, 80 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR season and should still be good for at least 20 homers.
The Twins also snagged C.J. Cron off of waivers from the Rays to take over at first. Cron is coming off of a .253/.323/.493, 122 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR campaign in 2018 with 30 home runs. While he might not repeat that last feat, given that his home-run-to-fly-ball ration jumped to 21.4% (versus a career 15.8%), he’s still a reasonable add at around $5 million for 2019.
If the Twins were really going to make a run at the division, they probably needed to do more work than they did on improving their pitching sitch, which was limited to adding Martin Perez and Blake Parker on one-year deals. But they certainly got better this offseason, and all of their signings are on short-term deals. If things don’t work out, and the Twins are unable to dinger themselves into the Wild Card competition while feasting on the teams we’re covering below, they’ll probably have something they can use for bait come the trade deadline.
Kansas City Royals
And now we enter the portion of this article where it’s extremely unlikely that any team will be making any sort of a run at the postseason. Like a divine act of the baseball gods unlikely. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be entertained by any of these teams. Just as the Twins set out to mash their opponents into oblivion, the Royals also mostly focused on one particular skill set this offseason: speed.
The biggest commitment of GM Dayton Moore’s offseason was a one-year, $5.25 million pact with outfielder Billy Hamilton. Hamilton was non-tendered by the Reds this offseason, after a season where he, as usual, didn’t hit (.236/.299/.327, 69 wRC+), but still provided positive defensive and base running skills en route to 1.3 fWAR. Hamilton has a .245/.298/.333 slashline (70 wRC+) that makes him one of the worst qualified hitters in baseball since his first full season in 2014. But unlike the other players around him on that list, he’s still managed to contribute via WAR (9.4 fWAR over that time) thanks to those other skills. From 2016 to 2018, he swiped 57, 58 and 59 bags. Since 2014, no other player has more than his 264, and he’s been successful over 81% of the time. He might not get on base very often, but he’s extremely fun to watch once he does (and he also plays an excellent center field).
After a year with the Cubs, Terrance Gore is returning home to Kansas City, where he never provided value like Hamilton thanks to being unbelievably bad at the plate (.063/.211/.063, -8 wRC+) over 63 games. At $650k for one year, I probably wouldn’t mention this except that it fits into the theme here, since he’s stolen 27 bags in those games. Not fun to watch hit, but sure fun to watch on base. Infielder Chris Owings might not be as fast as Hamilton or Gore, but he’s still a legitimate threat to steal 20 bases.
They also extended All Star second baseman Whit Merrifield, who is coming off of a very successful 2018 campaign (.304/.367/.438, 120 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR). The 30-year old wouldn’t have reached reached free agency until after the 2022 season, when he’s 34. It’s a team-friendly, four-year, $16.25 million deal that provides Merrifield with some security and the Royals with a potential discount and is entirely reasonable. Like everyone mentioned before him, Merrifield is fast (stealing 45 bases last year), and will add some excitement to a Royals team that figures to be pretty unexciting.
When news broke that Salvador Perez was going to need Tommy John in early March, Moore grabbed Martin Maldonado on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Maldonado has never hit very much (.220/.289/.350, 72 wRC+ for his career), but he’s a plus defensive catcher and a good grab at that price.
They also made some smaller bullpen moves, RHP Brad Boxberger (who struggled with walks and home runs last year) on a 1 year/$2.2 million deal and LHP Jake Diekman (who struggled only with walks) on a one-year, $2.75 million. Both of those pitchers have the potential to be trade chips come July.
K.C. was never going to be extremely active this offseason, given the state of their farm system, their MLB talent and their division, but they did make some interesting moves, at least. Stocking the roster with fast position players and bullpen arms is as good a way as any to give yourself a chance at grabbing some lottery tickets come the trade deadline.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox have lots of potential stars in their system, but they’re lacking in current stars, something they tried to make up for by going after Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, with the former being their intended primary target. So much so, in fact, that they seemingly brought specific players to the South Side in the hopes it would help to lure Machado their way. Unfortunately, they didn’t offer up enough in term of years and dollars that it didn’t work out and Machado ended up in San Diego. Their other moves won’t do anywhere near as much to change the team’s fate as Machado would have, but let’s see how they worked out individually.
As mentioned above in the Indians’ section, Chicago’s GM Rick Hahn acquired Yonder Alonso for an unexciting outfield prospect in Alex Call. The move might have seemed curious, given the fact that Alonso is a first baseman and the White Sox already have Jose Abreu there. While the exciting part of the trade was that Alonso is Machado’s brother-in-law and hopes were raised, we’ve already covered how that didn’t work out. Alonso’s .250/.317/.421 (97 wRC+) aren’t particularly exciting for a first baseman, but he did have a solid 2017 (.266/.365/.501, 133 wRC+). If he’s able to hit like that again and move Abreu to the DH spot, then it would be an upgrade. If not, well, the White Sox didn’t give up much except for taking on some salary.
The other Manny-centric move Chicago made was the signing of Jon Jay to a one-year, $4 million deal. Jay is a close friend of Machado and trains with him (and Alonso) over the offseason. Again, this didn’t do as much as offering a bigger contract would’ve, but Jay can still be a useful role player at that price, even if a decrease in his atypically high BABIP last season led to a decrease in his value.
In non-Machado related moves, Hahn signed reliever Kelvin Herrera to a two-year, $18 million deal. Herrera was an important part of the Royals bullpen of doom during their runs in 2014 and 2015, but his last couple of seasons have seen his velocity drop and a fall from his top form. While his ERA last year (2.44) looks great on the surface, he had a ridiculous 92% left-on-base rate that is almost certainly unrepeatable and meant that his FIP was much closer to 4.00 at 3.95. He’s a decent enough addition, but it was probably a slight overpay given Herrera’s track record.
To further shore up the relief situation, Chicago traded for Alex Colome from the Mariners. The former Rays closer was very successful in that department, notching 84 saves in 2016 and 2017. He’ll likely (occasionally) get those opportunities again in Chicago, but, while Colome comes with plenty of upside, the cost to get him was catcher Omar Narvaez. Narvaez just hit .275/.366/.429 for a 122 wRC+ in 97 games in Chicago. While Narvaez has some work to on the defensive side of his game, he hasn’t even reached arbitration yet, with four years of control remaining, whereas Colome will be a free agent after the 2020 season (and will make over $7 million this year). This was more of a win-now move that doesn’t seem to mesh with the way the rest of the Sox’ offseason has played out.
Hahn did add an innings-eater in Ivan Nova from the Pirates in exchange for a young pitcher and some international cap space. He also just this week made news by extending top-prospect Eloy Jimenez on six-year deal, with $43 million guaranteed and a pair of options that cost $32 million together. It’s a new watermark in extending players who have yet to make their MLB debuts, and clearly worth noting, although we won’t really be able to judge whether it was successful or not for some time.
The White Sox have some players with high prospect pedigree who have failed, as of yet, to break out (see: Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito) and a lot of top prospects set to make their debuts over the next couple of seasons. However, we’re looking at another year (at least) before the really pose any sort of a threat to the division. The real question looming over the offseason is why the front office didn’t allocate the money they put aside for all of their signings and acquisitions, none of whom will move the needle that much, and attempt to go all-in on Machado. This offseason wasn’t as exciting as it could’ve been, and now we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with player development over the next season to see where the Sox go from here.
GM did not trade second baseman Nick Castellanos, despite his purported demand, there you have it, your Detroit Tigers 2018-2019 offseason.
I kid, but it wasn’t a great offseason for the rebuilding Tigers. They don’t have a lot to work with, other than Castellanos, so there’s a certain amount of waiting around to see what happens with the prospects they do have built into the game plan. But you’d hope they would make some sort of moves, at least.
And, well, they at least met that goal. They added southpaw Matt Moore on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. Since 2015, Moore has a 5.22 ERA to go with a 4.64 FIP. They added righty Tyson Ross on a one-year, $5.75 million deal. In the last two seasons, Ross has a 5.03 ERA and 4.83 FIP. Both pitchers have had good-to-great seasons in the past, just not recently. So, OK, why not.
GM Al Avila also added a couple of ex-Pirates on one year deals, shortstop Jordy Mercer (.251/.315/.381, 91 OPS+ in 2018) for $5.25 million and (.250/.293/.363, 80 OPS+ in 2018) for $2 million. Again, both of those players have had better seasons in the distant past, so, OK, why not.
But that was basically it for Avila’s offseason. The likelihood of those players turning into tradebait is fairly low and it’s unfortunate that they couldn’t find internal replacements, but oh well.
So, yes, we don’t have much to say about Detroit. They’re going to have to wait and see what happens with their prospects, especially the pitchers in their system like Matt Manning and Casey Mize. They’re going to lose a whole lot more often than they’re going to win, and it’s going to be ugly for a bit.