Spring training is almost over, we’ve had real baseball in Japan and the other 28 teams are about to play their first games. And, guess what, almost all the free agents have finally found home!. After so much waiting, we’re finally finishing up 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, AL Central and NL East.
Boston Red Sox
In case you missed it, the Red Sox won the World Series last year and GM Dave Dombrowski spent his winter figuring out how to give his team the chance to do the unthinkable in this day and age: repeat. With a number of losses, especially in the bullpen, the Red Sox had a number of different directions to go in, but Dombrowski took the path of least resistance, mostly just getting the band back together or leaving things as they are.
Boston’s first move of the offseason was to bring back first baseman Steve Pearce on a one-year, $6.25 million deal. Despite coming over to Boston from Toronto in a relatively unheralded June deal last year, Pearce hit .279/.394/.507 (141 OPS+) for them during the regular season, albeit over a limited 165 PAs. But hitting .333/.500/1.167 in a World Series with some well-timed home runs will not only earn you a World Series MVP, but also another contract.
While health is certainly a concern with the soon-to-be 36-year-old Pearce, who has never even made it past the 400 PA mark in his lengthy career, the fact that he’ll be sharing time at first with Mitch Moreland can potentially offset at least some of that issue, and it makes even more sense when considering their platoon splits: Pearce has a lifetime 130 wRC+ vs. LHP and a 103 wRC+ against RHPs, whereas Moreland’s got a 104 wRC+ vs. LHPs and 79 wRC+ vs. RHPs. Given that, along with the fuzzy fan feelings that bring him back in Boston will provide, it’s a perfectly reasonable reunion.
The next signing of Boston’s offseason was RHP Nathan Eovaldi to a four year, $67.5 million deal. Like Pearce, Eovaldi ingratiated himself with Boston fans with some postseason heroics, pitching 22.1 innings over 6 appearances, both starting and in relief, and only allowing 4 earned runs for a 1.61 ERA. As with Pearce, a reunion was always likely, but, unlike with Pearce, there were a bunch of other teams in the running.
The 29-year-old right-hander comes with a number of question marks. He’s already undergone two Tommy John surgeries, and the list of pitchers who have had sustained success after a second is very short. The results have been mixed throughout his career, with some not particularly exciting career numbers, like a 4.16 ERA and 6.78 K/9. But Eovaldi’s fastball averages in the high 90s and he has a cutter that runs into the mid-90s. While his penchant for giving up home runs in Tampa (1.7 HR/9) before he was traded to Boston hurt his overall numbers on the year, his numbers after moving to Fenway were much better, with a 3.33 ERA and 2.88 FIP over 54 regular-season innings and his swinging-strike rates and strikeout rates were the best of his career.
So he has a lot of upside in terms of his arsenal and age, but also a decent amount risk because of his injury history. Of course, that also lowered the cost and years of commitment, as compared to say, Patrick Corbin or Dallas Keuchel (in theory, we’re still waiting for him to find a home as of writing). The Red Sox have the ability to throw their money around and they did so, spending a bit more than folks were expecting, but that was to be expected, given the level of interest in Eovaldi.
The most recent move made by Dombrowski fits both the narrative of the Red Sox’ offseason and the offseason in general: Extending Chris Sale. While this move is worthy of a long article in and of itself (and will surely be revisited by yours truly when I discuss the state of MLB free agency and the many, many extensions that were signed this winter), we’ll at least get into it briefly now.
Sale, who will turn 30 this week, is finally getting his big payday, commiting to a fairly complicated deal that will kick in after he earns $15 million playing out the final remaining option year of the prior extension he signed with the White Sox. Starting in 2020, he’ll be paid him $30 million a year for the next three seasons, with an opt out after the 2022 season. If he chooses not to, he’ll earn $27.5 million per year for 2023-24. There are escalators for Cy Young votes and not finishing a season on the IL (that’s the “injured list,” and what the “disabled list” or DL will be known as going forward) and there’s deferred money.
It’s a lot of money (at the end of the day, it’s basically a five-year, $145 million extension), but it’s going to one of the best pitchers in baseball, who has been worth 39.5 fWAR since 2012, only trailing Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Even though he was limited to 158 innings in 2018 (and used rather judiciously in the postseason), his numbers were still fantastic (2.11 ERA, 1.98 FIP, 6.2 fWAR, 13.50 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 0.63 HR/9). Given the risk of injuries with pitchers (and Sale’s extraordinarily funky delivery), it’s always tough to predict what’s going to happen, but even conservative estimates suggest that he’ll be more than worth the terms of the deal (and we can’t spend too much time on it here, but feel free to head over to Jay Jaffe’s article at Fangraphs for more).
Sale was already going to be there next year regardless, and bringing back Eovaldi and Pearce help ensure that Boston is still set to have an excellent rotation and lineup again next year, but Dombrowski has basically decided to let the bullpen sort itself out. Given the year-to-year volatility of bullpens, there’s certainly an argument to be made that it’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s not clear that it’s actually a good argument. The way things are currently set up, after the departure of Joe Kelly to the Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel still a free agent, it appears that the highest profile innings will be going to either Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier.
Brasier had the best ERA on the team (1.60), but he only pitched 33.2 innings and had a ridiculously low .198 BABIP that indicates some regression is due. Barnes was very good in his 61.2 innings of work (3.65, ERA, 2.71 FIP, 14.01 K/9), but he walks a lot of hitters (4.52 BB/9), and that latter fact could lead to some scary situations with traffic on the bases late in games. To be fair, Kimbrel did that last year (4.48 BB/9) and he still saved 42 games in the regular season.
We’ve seen recent success of the “closer by committee” approach, and in our more analytically-minded age, there’s certainly a strong argument to be made for flexibility and not being tied to strict roles. But the issue is that, for that sort of approach, you need to have a a collection of solid arms to choose from and, well, the projections right now are not very good. Boston’s bullpen comes in 27th in MLB over at Fangraphs. And while things could certainly change, either by a last-minute signing (unlikely given Boston’s luxury tax situation) or a trade at some point, right now things look a little iffy at best. After all, they might have used Sale to close out their World Series victory, but they can’t do that during the regular season.
The Red Sox were an amazing team last year, one that set a franchise record for wins and brought home yet another title for Boston. But the decision to dance with the ones that brung them hasn’t worked out for a while now, and the failure to shore up the bullpen a bit could come back to haunt them next year. But the other moves they made check out and they’re still a great team, just one that could suffer from the lack of trustworthy arms in the late innings.
New York Yankees
Where their archnemesis was content to bring back the same players in the rotation and lineup and hope that the bullpen just builds itself, New York decided to make some aggressive moves to challenge them for the throne. The biggest move that the Yankees made this offseason was the trade that brought them James Paxton over from Seattle way back in November. What I wrote before remains true: Paxton gives them a legitimate ace to pair with Luis Severino and, although he has a history of injuries, they’re all more or less of the flukish sort, with nothing indicating that he will have any problems going forward. They gave up a prospect package headlined by LHP Justus Sheffield, a highly touted pitching prospect with command issues, but now they’ve got a proven pitcher to shore up their rotation for a couple of years.
The other rotation moves Cashman made this winter both brought back familiar faces. Cashman’s first move of the offseason was to bring back CC Sabathia on a one-year, $8 million deal. The 38-year-old made 29 starts with 153 innings of 3.65 ERA ball and his best chase and swinging-strike rates since 2012. It’s a perfectly reasonable move for the back of the rotation, especially with the addition of Paxton hopefully limiting the necessity of relying on Sabathia in the postseason.
New York also re-signed J.A. Happ on a two-year, $34 million that also includes a vesting option for a third year at another $17 million deal. Happ was extremely successful during his time in New York after arriving from Toronto, pitching 63.2 innings of 2.69 ERA ball over 11 starts. He’s been good for around 3 WAR per season, with an average of 3.6 bWAR/3.0fWAR per season. The vesting option for the 36-year-old lefty means that New York won’t be on the hook for his age-38 season if he falls off a cliff, and makes the move perfectly palatable.
While the rotation needed some tweaking going into the offseason, one area where New York was presumably was all set was in in the bullpen. Their relief group collectively led MLB in fWAR (9.2) and K/9 (11.40) and came in near the top in ERA (3.38, 5th) and FIP (3.33, 3rd). The only departing relievers of import were David Robertson and Zach Britton, and Cashman re-signed the latter on a three-year, $39 million deal (with the option for the Yankees to extend him to a fourth year or Britton to opt out if they don’t after the second). While there is some reason for concern with Britton, notably a decrease in velocity since his ridiculous 2016 that has limited his Ks, he’s still only 31 and has lots of upside, and the Yankees can afford the risk.
That might have been enough for most teams, considering they still have Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Jonathan Holder, but Cashman still added another arm of interest in Adam Ottavino on a three-year, $27 million deal. On the Rockies last year, Ottavino rebounded from a rough 2017 to the tune of a 2.43 ERA with 12.98 K/9, striking out over 36% of the hitters he faced in 75 appearances pitching for the Rockies. The price is right and the Yankees once again have a bullpen of death. Remember how we talked about how low the Sox ranked on Fangraphs’ bullpen projections? Well, the Yankees are unsurprisingly ranked first overall.
Moving on to the position player side of things, shortstop Didi Gregorius underwent Tommy John surgery during the postseason, so Cashman needed a stopgap solution (if they weren’t going to sign Manny Machado), and ended up signing Troy Tulowitzki to a minor-league minimum deal after he was released by the Blue Jays. Tulo didn’t play a single game last year and his health remains a serious issue, of course, and while we don’t want to put too much stock in spring training, he’s reported to be moving well and is hitting for power again (.531 SLG), so it could end up being a bargain.
The two-year, $24 million deal to DJ LeMahieu provides some insurance in case it doesn’t though, as LeMahieu is a Gold Glove second baseman who has been good for a couple of WAR for the last four seasons (except for his much better 2016 where he hit for a 130 wRC+). His presence in the lineup allows them to move Gleyber Torres to short if the 2019 Tulo experiment doesn’t work out.
The Yankees had a very respectable offseason, even if they opted not to spend stupid money and sign Machado or Bryce Harper, as we sort of all expected. They’ve upgraded their rotation and bullpen and I think they’ve done enough to give the Red Sox a run for their money in 2019.
Tampa Bay Rays
Where the Yankees were making their moves to ensure that they can make a deep run in the postseason, the Rays were pulling their usual shenanigans, trying to make smart, low key moves that can allow them to squeak into a postseason spot in a division with two of the toughest teams in baseball. The Rays won 90 games last year, but that wasn’t enough in a world where the A’s won 97, so let’s work our way through the changes Tampa made.
The first and only major signing was Charlie Morton on a two-year, $30 million deal that also contains a vesting option for a third year that means Morton could stick around for the 2021 season for somewhere between $1 million and $15 million, depending on how much time he spends on the IL. The option at least allays some of the injury concern over Morton, who turned 35 this offseason and has had a litany of injuries throughout his career, but he’s been rather excellent over the last couple seasons in Houston and just hit 30 starts for the first time in his career.
While the start of his career was rather uninspiring, both due to those injuries and a 4.54 ERA over nine seasons with the Braves, Pirates and Phillies, over the last couple of years, Morton has started throwing harder and relying more heavily on his curveball to great success. The results of those changes have turned him into a pitcher who was released by the Phillies into a pitcher that was trusted to pitch the final four innings in the Astros’ World Series Game 7 victory. Aside from health issues, there’s not really any reason that Morton couldn’t repeat his 2018 (3.13 ERA, 3.59 FIP) in Tampa, and the contract reflects the risk. While Morton might not be the sexiest of signings, he’s the kind of pitcher that the Rays can afford and he offers upside at the cost.
The same goes for outfielder Avisaíl García, who the Rays signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal (plus incentives that could take it north $6.5 million) after he was non-tendered by the White Sox this offseason. García has long been an enigma, full of promise, but he’s coming off a season where he posted a .281 OBP that was, shall we say, not great. His 2017, on the other hand was great: .330/.380/.506, 137 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR. So, yes, there’s plenty of upside, and the risk is just a little money.
And of course there were trades, lots of trades. The first was a deal with a Mariners that sent outfielder Mallex Smith to Seattle in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino. After trading Wilson Ramos to the Phillies last year, the catching situation in Tampa was, shall we say, not very good. In the second half, Rays’ catchers hit .223/.258/.321 for 58 wRC+ and -1.2 fWAR that was the worst mark in baseball.
The 27-year-old Zunino, who has two years of control left, is coming off a .201/.259/.410, 85 OPS+, 1.9 bWAR season after putting up much better offensive numbers in 2017 (.251/.331/.509 for a 125 OPS+, 3.3 bWAR). While I wouldn’t have been ready to part ways with Smith so easily, especially after his breakout .296/.367/.406, 117 wRC+ 2018 (and considering he has four years of team control left), the Rays needed catching badly and Zunino certainly improves the situation on that front.
Then, there was the three-way swap with the Indians and Mariners which we’ve already talked about twice, but now we’ll cover from the Rays’ perspective. Out went Jake Bauers and in came 29-year-old relief prospect Cole Sulser and third baseman/DH Yandy Diaz (and his biceps). At 23, Bauers is younger than the 27-year-old Diaz, but both have the same amount of service time remaining (6 years). While Bauers was the more highly touted prospect, he hit just .201/.316/.384 (95 wRC+) in his first call up last year, whereas Diaz hit .312/.375/.422 (115 wRC+). This one checks out, too.
There were quite a few more trades, of course, but those are the ones that stand out as likely to impact the Rays’ 2019 season. They probably could have used an impact bat like Nelson Cruz, and I definitely think they should’ve settled their situation at catcher by shelling out for one year of Yasmani Grandal rather than trading away Smith for Zunino. Finding a way to succeed in this division makes things particularly difficult for the Rays. While I like enough of their moves to grade them above average, I’m certainly not confident that they did enough to even give them a chance to be anything other than a deep sleeper pick for a Wild Card spot.
Toronto Blue Jays
On to the teams that are clearly punting for 2019. The Blue Jays have one of the best farm systems in all baseball, headlined of course by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who we will mercifully see later this year once the Jays have manipulated his service time in order to get another year of team control made sure he’s finally ready for the big time. Vlad Jr. is thought to be one of the best hitting prospects ever, and there are a number of other highly touted prospects, including shortstop Bo Bichette, who should be debuting this year as well, and catcher Danny Jansen, who hit an impressive .247/.347/.432 (115 wRC+) in his first 31 MLB games last season. So, yes, Toronto is playing the waiting game, as expected, but it’s OK to do that thing that rebuilding teams do and add some players that might surprise and be worthy of a trade come July.
First and foremost, Toronto is going to need some arms to help out in the rotation, as J.A. Happ was the only Toronto starter who made it past 150 innings and he crossed that threshold post-being traded to the Yankees. They made a number of moves, including bringing in Matt Shoemaker, who’s pitched 100 innings over the last two seasons, on a one-year, $3.5 million deal (plus innings-based incentives), and most recently, Clay Buchholz, who’s coming off a 98-inning season, on a one-year, $3 million deal. Both pitchers have put together good seasons in their careers and the commitments were small enough that they’re worthy enough options for filler.
If that was all they did, I’d be worried, but they also brought in some pitchers via trade, including Clayton Richard, who has at least eaten innings for the past couple of years (although there are many seasons where that hasn’t been the case). The most interesting might be the move they made that sent Aledmys Diaz to Houston for prospect Trent Thornton. The 25-year-old righty has velocity and spin going for him, and we know how popular those are these days, but he’s still got a little work to do to see whether he ends up in the back of the rotation or as a middle reliever.
They also brought in David Phelps on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. The 32-year-old missed all of 2018 after Tommy John surgery, but he had a good run in the two seasons prior (2.72 ERA, 11.1 K/9 over 142 innings) after being converted to a reliever. In terms of position players, they traded away Russell Martin for so-so prospects. They also released Tulo as discussed above.
Toronto is going to have to wait and see how things play out with their top prospects before they do anything too aggressive, I suppose. I think things could get ugly quick in the pitching department, despite all the moves they made this offseason, but I guess they aren’t going to care about making any moves that will help them until next offseason at the earliest. They at least did something, which is more than we can say for the final team on our list.
The Orioles lost an MLB-leading 115 games last year with a -270 run differential that rightfully earned them some nods as one of the worst teams in the history of the sport, as their .290 winning percentage has only been topped once since1952 (the 2003 Tigers). That being said, at least they made a number of non-player changes this offseason. With Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter out the door, they brought in in an analytical ex-Astro Mike Elias as the new head of baseball operations and Brandon Hyde as their new manager. They’ve subsequently revamped their entire analytics and scouting departments. That’s good news for the rebuild, but it’s also all there is to talk about.
The lone free agent signing of the offseason was Nathan Karns on a one-year, $800k deal. Karns’ last close-to-full season came in 2015, where he started 26 games in Tampa, pitched 147 innings and notched a 3.67 ERA and 4.09 FIP. Since then, he’s struggled with injury issues and didn’t pitch at all last year. It’s a reasonable gamble for the back-end of the rotation, and the kind of move that the Orioles should have made more of.
In our newfound era when it seems like every team is leaning into the tank, making it more difficult for any one team to accrue consecutive first round picks, I guess we could maybe give the Orioles credit for just really, really leaning in. Both PECOTA and Fangraphs have Baltimore projected to cross the 100-loss threshold again, and it’s easy to understand why, considering they won’t have a half-season of Manny Machado this year. Given the state of things, no one is expecting the Orioles to do anything other than lose right now, but they should probably at least be acquiring some assets that could potentially flip at the deadline.
If it wasn’t for the front office moves, they’d earn themselves an absolute F, but they did pretty well on that front. Now, we just have to see whether Baltimore can turn the first round picks they’re collecting into a Sports Illustrated cover and then into a World Series title like Elias’ former team did.