Spring training is almost over, we’ve had real baseball in Japan and the other 28 teams are about to get things going this week. And, guess what, almost all the free agents have finally found homes. After so much waiting, we’re finally almost done with 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, NL Central and AL Central.
No division in either league improved as much as the NL East did this offseason, and it’s going to be an absolute grind to here next season. We’ll start with the favorites from last year, who woefully underperformed and missed the postseason entirely, the Nationals. That was especially disappointing, given that the 2018 season was when the doomsday clock on Bryce Harper hit midnight after years of failed attempts to agree on an extension. But, while they may have lost Harper, they made a lot of other moves and, as we’ll see, they may be just as well off without him (for the time being).
The marquee move of the Nationals’ offseason was the signing of lefty starter Patrick Corbin on a six-year, $140 million deal. We’ve already covered this in detail, but the TL;DR version is that it’s almost certainly an overpay for a pitcher without a sustained track record of success and one who has dealt with injuries in the past, including Tommy John surgery. The counterpoint to that is that Corbin was excellent last year, and his improvement was due to a change in his repertoire and is likely repeatable. Corbin looks like an ace, and the Nationals went out and got one. Corbin, along with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, gives them one of the best top-threes in the National League.
But that wasn’t the only move they made in the rotation, as they shipped out Tanner Roark to the Reds for a 25-year-old relief prospect Tanner Rainey. Roark has reliably eaten innings in Washington since 2014, pitching more than 180 innings every year except 2015 (when the Scherzer acquisition bumped him out). The last couple of seasons, however, have seen him take a step back in terms of results, as he’s posted a 4.50 ERA, 4.20 FIP.
But he’s still a valuable piece in the back of the rotation and the move would have looked strange had GM Mike Rizzo not gone out and added another arm a week later, bringing in Aníbal Sánchez on a two-year deal. Roark is making $10 million in his final year arbitration, whereas Sánchez make $6 million in 2019 and $7 million in 2020 plus up to $4 million in incentives (along with an $18 million option/$6 million buyout for 2021). Sánchez may be 35, but he’s learned to work with lower velocity and was quite successful last year, with a 2.83 ERA, 3.62 FIP and 2.5 fWAR that all top Roark’s output (although Roark did pitch more innings). If Sanchez is able to continue that sort of performance and the Nationals can turn the other Tanner into a MLB-caliber reliever (which is certainly possible, given the Reds’ seeming inability to develop pitching talent lately), then these moves will have been extremely successful.
Rizzo’s final move to round out the rotation was a $1.3 million deal (plus up to $4 million of incentives based on number of starts) to bring back Jeremy Hellickson for another year. Hellickson put up a 3.45 ERA, 4.22 FIP and 1.2 fWAR over 91 innings of work for the Nationals last year, and the contract checks out for a fifth starter.
All of those starters are going to appreciate another of Rizzo’s moves: trading a toolsy outfield prospect in Daniel Johnson and two lower-value prospects to Cleveland in exchange for catcher Yan Gomes. Gomes hasn’t been the hitter he was in 2013-2014 (.284/.325/.476, 122 OPS+) as of late, but he’s coming off his best hitting season since then (.266/.313/.449, 103 OPS+). He does everything else so well, from throwing out runners to blocking pitches, framing pitches to calling games, that he remains a valuable piece even when he’s not hitting that much.
Earlier in the offseason, Washington acquired a partner for Gomes behind the plate in Kurt Suzuki on a two-year, $10 million deal. The 35-year-old backstop has been a much better hitter over the last couple of years (.276/.341/.485, 117 OPS+) and, given that Gomes is 31 himself, they’ll probably both need some days off. And speaking of needing time off, Ryan Zimmerman only got into 85 games last year, so the Nationals brought back Matt Adams (.239/.309/.477, 105 OPS+) on a one-year, $4 million deal to back him up and provide some power off the bench.
The final major lineup move Rizzo made was signing Brian Dozier on a one-year, $9 million deal. Dozier is coming off his worst full season ever (.215/.305/.391, 92 OPS+, 1.0 bWAR), but we learned after the season that he was playing through a severe bone bruise all season. Given that he hit .254/.338/.476 (120 OPS+) and averaged 4.6 bWAR over the prior four seasons, he’s as good a bet as any for a bounceback in 2019. That’s an absolutely reasonable price to pay for him to hold down a spot for a year for the highly ranked Carter Kieboom.
The Nationals also made a trio of major moves to strengthen their bullpen, the most important of which might have been signing RHP Trevor Rosenthal to a one-year, $7 million pact. Rosenthal missed all of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the former Cardinal closer was a force during his time in St. Louis and he’s reportedly throwing at 100 MPH again. Rizzo sent some international bonus pool money to Miami for Kyle Barraclough in the hopes that he can limit the home run damage (he was one of the best relievers in baseball in the first half but then started surrendering them at a ridiculous clip). They also recently added Tony Sipp on a one-year, $1.25 million deal (plus a $2.5 million mutual option for 2020). Sipp’s success also seems to ride on whether he’s able to keep the ball in the park. If he can (he only allowed one last season), he’s a steal at that price.
Whereas the past couple of offseasons from the Nationals have received some pretty tepid takes from yours truly, the same can’t be said this offseason. Scherzer, Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton are pretty good ingredients to start with, and even though they lost Harper, they might be a better team this year with all of the moves they made. That’s before you even get to the fact that they’ll be seeing what Victor Robles can do over a full season.
Philadelphia, the team who ended up taking Harper away from Washington, underwent some extreme lineup shuffling this winter. I already wrote a whole bunch of words about the Harper signing, and none of that has changed. He’s a special player who was always going to command a lot of money, and he’s got it now, and the contract is structured in a way that should allow Philadelphia to remain competitive before the contract almost certainly gets ugly at the end. When you get the chance to sign generational talents, you should usually shoot first and ask questions later.
Any discussion of the Phillies’ offseason begins with the Harper signing, but it certainly doesn’t end there. They made another impact move when they traded for former Marlin catcher JT Realmuto. When we covered the deal, it was hard to know what to make of it because they hadn’t yet spent that stupid money on Harper. Now that they have, it looks pretty darn good. To summarize, though, they got the best catcher in all of baseball for the next couple of seasons, and they gave up a catcher (Jorge Alfaro) who isn’t as good as the one they received, a very exciting pitching prospect in Sixto Sanchez (but who remains, nonetheless, a prospect, and one with injury issues) and a lesser prospect and some bonus money.
But while those were the biggest moves GM Matt Klentak made to improve the offense, they weren’t the only ones. They also replaced made a big deal with (no surprise) Seattle, acquiring Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to the Phillies for J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana. We already covered this one, too, but Segura, an excellent hitter who tends to get overlooked in this Golden Age of Shortstops, is a definite upgrade over Crawford at shortstop. Santana might have some bounceback in him, but the Phillies’ experiment with playing Rhys Hoskins in the outfield didn’t work out last season, so they moved Santana to find a place for their younger slugger.
To cap things off in their lineup, they added Andrew McCutchen on a three-year, $50 million deal that fills the void left in the outfield by moving Hoskins back to first. McCutchen isn’t going to win another MVP, but he still gets on base a lot and just turned in a quite respectable season (.255/.368/.424, 120 wRC+) The Phillies’ outfield was an issue last year (4.3 fWAR, 22nd in MLB), but with Harper, McCutchen and a bounceback season from Odubel Herrera, that doesn’t appear to be the case this year.
With all the offensive upgrades, it’s easy to forget that they also made a smart move to shore up their pen, signing righty reliever David Robertson to a two-year, $23 million deal (or a third year for another $10 million). Robertson will turn 34 just after the season starts, but he has been outrageously consistent for the last nine years, putting up between 60 and 70 innings and really solid career surface stats (2.88 ERA, 2.81 FIP) and peripherals (11.97 K/9, 3.56 BB/9, 0.77 HR/9). He’s lost fastball velocity, but he’s adjusted accordingly and successfully incorporated more offspeed stuff. This could end up being a relative bargain, given the going rates and time commitments for elite relievers in free agency these days.
The farm is definitely a little thinner with the loss of Sanchez, and the Phillies committed a bunch of money this offseason, but they’ve improved on offense so much this offseason that it’s hard to complain, especially since we know they’ve got the money to do so. Time will tell whether it all works out, but it’s hard to nitpick any move Philadelphia made this offseason. They just might have had the best winter in all of baseball, and Harper’s new team looks poised to challenge his old one for the near future.
New York Mets
If the Phillies’ big spending didn’t come as a surprise, well that of the the next team on our list certainly did. The Wilpon-owned team has been the butt of many, many jokes over the years, but with the hiring of GM Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets stormed into the offseason, signing players, making trades and taking on salary like nobody’s business and giving the Mets a complete overhaul not unlike that of the Phillies.
The first major move of Van Wagenen’s tenure was a blockbuster trade with (as always, surprise) the Mariners, with Seattle sending Robinson Canó, 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. We already went over this, but we’ll review. Canó is coming off a short season (thanks to a PED suspension) where he hit .303/.374/.471 for a 136 wRC+ and contributed 2.9 fWAR in 80 games. He’s a middle-of-the-order threat right now, even if he’s going to be an absolute drag come 2023 when he’s 40 and the savings from moving Bruce aren’t helping any more.
Díaz was one of the best relievers in baseball last year, and the Mets only gave up really young prospects to get him. Again, they might feel the burn later on, but they’re making a run at things right now, and Díaz (who struck out 15.22 hitters per nine and notched 57 saves) will certainly help them on that front.
Not long after bringing Díaz into the bullpen, they also decide to bring back Jeurys Familia on a three-year, $30 million deal. As long as you can ignore the domestic violence issues and the fact that New York got a little hosed on their deal with the A’s prior to the deadline last year, it’s a relatively normal contract for a erstwhile closer/top-notch reliever to make sure their bullpen is competitive. With the two-year, $10 million deal to Justin Wilson, along with the already-there Seth Lugo, this bullpen could be one of the best in the National League this year.
But we haven’t even gotten to Van Wagenen’s position player signings yet. The first of those happened right after the Familia signing in mid-December, when New York signed catcher Wilson Ramos to a two-year, $19 million guaranteed contract (with an option for third year that will max it out at $27.5 million). Ramos was the second best catcher available in free agency (after Yasmani Grandal), and he’s coming off a season in which he hit .306/.358/.487 for a 131 wRC+ that led all catchers with at least 400 PAs and topping Realmuto by 5 points. Of course, the fact that we have to limit the PAs there hints at what you know is coming: his health.
The 31-year-old Ramos has only made it to 500 PAs twice in his career, and he’s dealt with a ton of lower body injuries that are concerning for a backstop. When he’s healthy, though, he offers offensive upside that few other catchers available can. The contract is what makes it a win for the Mets, as it beat expectations by quite a bit (although clearly not quite like Grandal’s…). That and the fact that, last season, Mets catchers had a 79 wRC+ (11th in the NL) and -0.5 fWAR (worst in the NL), so Ramos is clearly un upgrade, even if he’s certainly not catching 162 games. They also traded catcher Kevin Plawecki to the Indians for a couple of prospects to free up a spot for Ramos.
The Mets also added Jed Lowrie on a two-year $20 million deal that, like Ramos’s, came in at less than folks were predicting. The soon-to-be 35-year-old infielder has hit .272/.356/.448 (120 OPS+) over the last couple of seasons and contributed 9.0 bWAR/8.5 fWAR as well. He’s played all over the infield, which is certainly a necessity, given the earlier acquisition of Canó and the fact that Lowrie has spent most of his time recently at second. Lowrie’s versatility and high OBP makes him a worthwhile investment at the cost, even if it gives the Mets a crowded infield situation.
If there’s any bone to pick with the Mets’ offseason, it’s why they waited this long to do it, what with the service clock ticking on their impressive rotation. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, because the past is just that. The Mets had an extremely respectable offseason and I wouldn’t be surprised if any one of the three teams we’ve covered won the division, with the other two playing each other in a Wild Card game. We all know that won’t happen because, well, baseball, but that’s a pretty good indication to just how well all three teams, including the Mets (even if it still feels strange to say so) did this winter.
Grade: B+ (maybe an A- for effort)
Of course, the fact that the three teams we’ve already covered did so well this offseason means some bad news to at least one team on this list. While the Marlins could care less about how many games they win, the Braves are coming off an NLDS appearance thanks to the arrival and development of some of their much heralded young talent. The question was how they would approach this offseason, given that they have still have one of the best farm systems in baseball, even though they’ve already graduated some excellent players.
The winning move of the Braves’ offseason was signing Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal. Donaldson has been dealing with injuries over the last couple of seasons, but, from 2013 to 2017, he was the most valuable player, non-Mike Trout player in baseball, putting up 34.4 fWAR and slashing .282/.377/.524 (148 wRC+) and winning the AL MVP in 2015. Thanks to shoulder and calf issues, he only received 219 PAs in 2018, but he looked like himself down the stretch, hitting .280/.400/.520 (146 wRC+) in 60 PAs after he was traded to Cleveland at the end of August. The injuries, of course, make him a risk, but when you can acquire a hitter like Donaldson on a one-year deal, you should jump at the chance.
The Braves also plugged a hole in the outfield by resigning Nick Markakis to a one-year, $4 million deal (plus a $6 million option/$2 million buyout for 2020). Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ender Inciarte are an excellent start, but with no internal options available, Markakis is an unexciting, if decent player, especially at that price. Markakis is coming off his best hitting season (.297/.366/.440, 114 wRC+) since 2012, although that was largely due to a strong start and he hit just .258/.332/.369 (88 wRC+) in the second half. He’s extremely durable, topping 155 games in every single season except for his 2006 rookie year (147) and 21012 (104). It was a solid move, given the cost, but then that was basically it, except for a for bring back old friend and catcher Brian McCann on a one-year, $2 million deal and some (extremely) minor moves.
It just seemed like every day, we were hearing about how the other teams in their division were engaged in an arms race, and the Braves were just sitting by quietly. They were supposedly in the running to try and land Realmuto, but refused to give up one of their top prospects to do so. Clearly there are different ways to look at their decision to hold on to them.
While they didn’t give up stupid prospects for Realmuto, stupid money for Corbin or, really, do anything stupid, and I like the moves they made, I’m not sure whether to applaud them or question why they didn’t do more. There’s certainly an argument to be made that, since last year’s division title was a bit of surprise, they were wise to wait and see what happens, given the fact that 3/5s of the division has decided now is their time. But I can’t give them too much credit.
And then there’s the Marlins. The biggest story of Miami’s offseason was the trade of JT Realmuto, as discussed above in the Phillies and previously when it went down. They got a MLB-ready catcher with potential in Jorge Alfaro, an interesting arm in LHP prospect Will Stewart and, most importantly, Sixto Sanchez, one of the most highly touted pitching prospects in all of baseball (2nd among RHPs at Fangraphs and 7th per MLB.com). Sanchez has the stuff to be an ace (he’s drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez), but he’s had injuries over the last couple of seasons. He’s now the best prospect in the Marlins’ system and they’ll have to wait and see if the 20-year-old can stay healthy and live up to his potential .
The only prospect besides Sanchez to crack MLB’s Top 100 list is Victor Victor Mesa, who comes in at Number 98. Miami signed him and his younger brother Victor Jr. (both of whom are sons of legendary Cuban outfielder Victor Mesa), with signing bonuses of $5.25 and $1 million, respectively. Even though they signed the brothers, who defected from Cuba last year, in October, before the offseason started, we’ll give them credit for it here, because otherwise we won’t have much to talk about. The older Victor is 22 and is purported to be near-MLB ready (unlike the 17-year-old Victor Jr.). They were able to make those moves because of the money they got in the Realmuto trade, as well as the Barraclough trade with the Nationals. Hard to argue with their investment on either.
In terms of signings this offseason, Miami only made a couple of them, Sergio Romo on a one-year, $2.5 million deal Neil Walker on a one-year, $2 million deal. I lived in San Francisco during the Giants’ run of World Series’ successes and was a huge Romo fanboy in my time, and I also thoroughly enjoyed the Rays’ opening up the opener door with him (even if that may be raising some interesting questions when it comes to arbitration and salaries), so I will just say that this deal is perfectly fine. Romo has lost a lot of velocity, but he’s not getting paid that much, you know the drill.
Walker is, by far, a more interesting signing. He’s coming off a season in which he didn’t sign with the Yankees until mid-March, then put up a none too impressive .219/.309/.354 line (81 wRC+) for the year on the whole. However, he hit a much more respectable .247/.346/.442 (112 wRC+) in the second half. He can field acceptable at all three corners in the infield, and also spent a chunk of time in the outfield last season (where DRS approved of his work but UZR did not). That defensive versatility, combined with the potential to him to be an above average hitter (from 2010 to 2017, he hit .273/.342/.439 for a 114 OPS+), make him an excellent bet to turn into a trade chip come the trade deadline.
There were some other minor trades, but none really worth talking about that much. With the departure of Realmuto, the Marlins have, thankfully for us, finally finished unloading all of their top talent to other teams, and now the waiting game begins. In terms of how to grade them this offseason? I would have liked to see them take some more fliers on bounceback candidates, but that would actually cost money, and we can’t have that. Still, I do like all of the moves they actually made, so that puts them a tad above average.