Spring training is here, which means it’s time for the annual winter retrospectives. While teams that have been crowned the “winners of the offseason” are often overrated heading into the next season, the reality is that teams do make significant transactions that can alter a playoff race and, in some cases, can change the entire direction of a franchise. In this post, we’re going to look at the 10 moves that I liked the most this winter, in terms of either pushing a contender towards their goal of winning in the short term or a team making a move to significantly improve their long-term outlook.
Deals that move the needle to a larger degree get more credit on this list, so this isn’t necessarily just about the most efficient allocation of resources. As such, the moves at the top of the list are more of the big-acquisition types, while the round-out-the-roster bargains end up on the bottom of the list or in the honorable-mentions category.
Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the 10 moves I liked the least, and the traffic on these two posts will once again show that you guys like head-scratching far more than back-patting. But today, let’s give some kudos to the teams I think made the best moves this winter.
Braves acquire Jaime Garcia
Angels acquire Danny Espinosa
Dodgers sign Sergio Romo
Rangers sign Carlos Gomez
Brewers acquire Travis Shaw, Mauricio Dubon, Josh Pennington
Angels sign Luis Valbuena
Rays sign Wilson Ramos
Dodgers sign Rich Hill
I like Adam Eaton, who has quietly become one of the best players in baseball. I’m not as high as many others on Giolito, for reasons Jeff covered well before the trade went down. I don’t see this deal as a huge heist for Chicago, or a desperate overpay by Washington; this was a trade of one very good player signed to an exceptionally team-friendly contract bringing back the kind of return that we should expect, given his value.
That said, the White Sox still did well here, taking a player likely near the peak of his value and turning him into a return they probably couldn’t have imagined a year ago. They got two prized young arms for Don Cooper‘s tutelage, both of whom project as potential contributors as soon as this year. And while it’s not too hard to see either Giolito or Lopez as future relievers, this winter just saw teams putting huge valuations on dominant bullpen arms, and so even if all they become is lights-out relief aces, the White Sox might still have doubled their number of quality trade chips in this deal.
Pitchers are always risky acquisitions, and these two are higher risk even as pitching prospects go, but Eaton probably wasn’t still going to be a star by the time the White Sox were good again, and they maximized his present value in a way that could pay off in a huge way if both of them are able to turn into quality starting pitchers.
#9: Indians Spend Big on Slugger
Acquire: Edwin Encarnacion
Cost: 3 years, $60 million
Before the offseason started, I suggested that Encarnacion was a potential free-agent landmine, and at the expected $80-$90 million pricetag, I wouldn’t have been interested. Of course, as it turns out, neither was the rest of baseball, and Encarnacion ended up signing for a much more reasonable $60 million in guaranteed money. I still don’t think this is some kind of huge bargain, given his age and skillset, but Cleveland is in a good position to extract value out of market-value signings of quality players.
With a solid team and few holes on the roster, a play for a potential short-term star without a long-term commitment was the kind of move that could help Cleveland solidify its standing in the American League, and it was good to see the organization consolidate their resources into one better player, rather than simply stockpiling more depth. With a window to win that probably isn’t as long as some other contenders, Cleveland did well to push in on 2017, and Encarnacion should give them a solid boost next year without doing too much damage to the team’s ability to contend down the line.
While there wasn’t a lot of money being thrown around this winter, closers were the one area where teams were getting in bidding wars, and it took four- or five-year deals to land the best bullpen arms on the market. Rather than try to outbid the Dodgers or Yankees for a premium reliever, however, the Cubs used some of their excess talent to pick up another rent-a-closer.
Davis comes with plenty of risks, given his multiple elbow-related DL stints and declining strikeout rates. At some point, it seems likely that his arm is going to give out; the Cubs are just hoping it’s not in 2017. But there’s an advantage to the short-term commitment here, too, as the team can be a bit more aggressive in their usage of Davis in October than they might be if they were the ones on the hook for a significant contract in 2018 and beyond. Not that the team will knowingly abuse Davis, of course, but the Cubs are probably more willing to lean heavily on the closer-of-the-year than they would be if they were trying to protect a long-term asset.
There wasn’t any place for Soler to play in Chicago, so even if you still believe that he’s a star-level bat in the making, it wasn’t happening with the Cubs. To take a player they didn’t need and turn him into a quality relief ace without the long-term commitment was likely a good bet for the Cubs.
When a guy who skipped shoulder surgery and then had the worst year of his career is a significant upgrade to your rotation, you know you had a pitching problem. But that’s where the Mariners found themselves, and with limited assets move, the team made a pair of trades that put the team in a position to bet on a bounce back from Drew Smyly.
While his home-run problems aren’t going to go away, Smyly does offer both the ability to miss bats and an elite ability to generate infield flies, which are just as good as strikeouts. If he can get his curveball back to where it was in prior years, there’s some legitimate upside here, and with a couple of low-cost years of control, Smyly fits well into the team’s short-term window to win. With a barren farm system and an aging core that’s not quite as good as the best teams in the AL, Jerry Dipoto needed to make some risky bets on guys who could make a big impact in 2017, and Smyly is a guy who could turn out to be a high-end arm if he gets the home runs under control. Smyly’s a gamble, but he’s the kind of bet the organization needed to make this year.
#6: Brewers Bet on KBO Translation
Acquire: Eric Thames
Cost: 3 years, $15 million
Thames is a fascinating test case in many ways. A busted prospect who went to Korea and became a superstar, his return to MLB can either be seen as confidence in his improvements — he got a three-year contract! — or skepticism about how well he’ll perform — he only got $5 million per year, which is now bench-player money — depending on which part of his contract you focus. In the end, though, I think this deal is going to end up being a big win for the Brewers.
Despite translated numbers that suggest that he has a chance to be one of the better hitters in baseball, Thames is essentially getting paid as if he’s the current version of Brandon Moss, who got two years and $12 million based on a similar-ish skillset. But the projections think Thames is more likely to be three-years-ago Brandon Moss, the guy who drew enough walks to go with the home runs to offset all the strikeouts. And if he’s that Moss, then the Brewers are going to have a very nifty trade chip on their hands this summer.
The nice thing about this deal is that there’s basically no downside. If Thames is current-day Moss, well, okay, he’s making bench-player money on a team that has to spend money somewhere and needed a first baseman. But the upside here seems real, and if he ends up being a high-level hitter, the team will have gotten themselves a real asset without any real expense.
#5: Pirates Keep Breakout Arm
Acquire: Ivan Nova
Cost: 3 years, $26 million
Flawed pitcher goes to Pittsburgh, gets fixed, hits the open market, and leaves for bigger money elsewhere. We’ve seen this story enough times to know how it ends, but this time, we got a twist. Instead of Nova cashing in on his late-season success, the market’s skepticism allowed the Pirates to keep him, and at a price that I still really don’t understand.
Coming off a year in which he at least re-established himself as an average big-league starter — and depending on how much you buy his Pittsburgh breakout, maybe more than that — he signed the same deal that Gerardo Parra got from the Rockies last winter. He got less than Kendrys Morales (who we’ll talk about tomorrow), a mediocre-at-best DH coming off a bad year. For three years and $26 million, you could have signed Nova, or signed Mike Dunn and Jerry Blevins.
Sure, Nova’s not an ace. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy with a home-run problem and a history of arm issues. But in a market short on starting pitching, with plenty of contenders running out far worse options in critical rotation spots, the fact that the Pirates were able to get Nova back at this price remains bewildering to me. Useful innings-eaters have value, and the Pirates got a solid starting pitcher at the kind of price you expect to pay for a much worse player these days.
#4: Blue Jays Bring Back Bat-Flipper
Acquire: Jose Bautista
Cost: 1 year, $18.5 million
It was understandably frustrating for Toronto fans to watch Encarnacion sign with Cleveland for less than what the Jays originally offered, since Toronto felt they were unable to match that offer after overpaying Morales to DH for them instead. But as they say, all’s well that ends well, and in the end, this winter probably went better than the Jays had any right to expect. By not re-signing Encarnacion, the Jays had the flexibility to bring Bautista back after the rest of the league passed, getting a still-terrific hitter at a fraction of what he was asking for a year ago.
As a 36-year-old with arm problems that seem to inhibit his throwing, Bautista is probably moving into the bat-only phase of his career, and isn’t likely to be a star anymore. But still, guys who can hit like this don’t generally sign one-year deals, and Bautista’s underlying numbers suggest an offensive bounce back is likely. While there’s not really any long-term value in this deal — the options are mostly for show, as if he’s any good in 2017, Bautista will decline his half of the mutual option and become a free agent again — the Jays landed perhaps the best hitter on the market for $1 million more than Jeremy Hellickson cost the Phillies. A lot of short-term value with no long-term risk makes this a pretty great deal for the Jays.
#3: Dodgers Retain Bearded Star
Acquire: Justin Turner
Cost: 4 years, $64 million
Speaking of underpriced free agents, the lingering suspicion surrounding Justin Turner also feels a little strange. Not only are we now three years into Turner’s breakout — a stretch during which he’s run a 138 wRC+, putting him ahead of Jose Abreu, Buster Posey, and Robinson Cano, among others — but he’s shown no real signs of slowing down. Even his minor regression down to a 124 wRC+ last year was mostly due to playing through an early-season knee problem, which sapped his power in April and May. From June 1st through the end of the regular season, he ran a 139 wRC+, then put up a 171 mark in the postseason.
Turner has turned himself into one of the game’s best hitters, and he’s an above-average third baseman, which should have made him a rich man in free agency. Instead, he basically got the Mark Melancon deal. He got just over half of what Yoenis Cespedes got, and there’s a real argument that he’s better than Cesepdes. While there are reasonable arguments for why lesser bat-only players found an inhospitable market for their services this winter, Turner shouldn’t have been lumped into the overly crowded right-handed bat market. He was one of the few impact players available this winter, and I think 29 teams may end up regretting letting the Dodgers bring him back.
After bringing back their three key free agents, the Dodgers had one weak spot left on the roster: second base. After chasing Brian Dozier for a few months, they finally moved on to their Plan B, Logan Forsythe, who isn’t all that different from Dozier himself. But while I understand why the Dodgers traded from their surplus of arms to make a win-now upgrade, I think the Rays did exceptionally well to land De Leon for a good-not-great player.
I encouraged the Twins to take De Leon while they could, noting that his minor-league numbers suggest that he might already be close in present value to the veterans he was getting shopped for. But De Leon isn’t just one of those guys who puts up good numbers with mediocre stuff: he ranked 29th on Baseball America’s Top 100, and 33rd on MLB.com’s version of the list. De Leon is considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball no matter how you evaluate him, and he’s essentially big-league ready right now.
To turn two years of Forsythe into six years of De Leon should prove to be a big win for Tampa as long as he stays healthy. It’s the kind of move that makes the team significantly better in the long run without making them much worse in the short term. And if De Leon is close to what the projections think he could be, then this could end up being one of the best moves the Rays have ever made.
For the second year in a row, my favorite move of the winter features a rebuilding team trading a starting pitcher for a package of quality young players. Unlike last year’s Shelby Miller heist, though, this year the seller is surrendering an actual ace. Because Sale is legitimately one of the best pitchers alive, the buyer is unlikely to regret this deal as swiftly as Arizona regretted their go-for-it blockbuster, but if you’re a White Sox fan, you still have to be pretty thrilled with what the team got back for their franchise arm.
And I say that as someone who maintains a bit of skepticism about Moncada’s short-term offensive value, given his elevated strikeout rates. Swinging through minor-league stuff can be a legitimate red flag, and Moncada may very well take the Byron Buxton path, struggling for a while while the hype dies down. But the upside combination of Moncada and Kopech — whom I’ve heard compared to Noah Syndergaard this winter — is the kind of package you don’t pass up if you’re looking long term.
Like with the Eaton trade, it’s easy to see risk here. Maybe Moncada ends up as a good athlete but with only average power, a strikeout problem, and questionable infield defense. Maybe Kopech never improves his command. These guys are definitely not sure things, and both have to improve on critical skills to be quality big leaguers.
But again, even the downside scenarios here don’t seem all that bad. If Moncada doesn’t improve his glove at second base, then maybe his athleticism takes him to center field, where his skillset would look a bit like the recent version of Carlos Gomez, who is still a useful player. If Kopech can’t stick as a starter, then we just get to see him air it out at 100 mph for 15-20 pitches a night, and maybe become one of the game’s best relievers. The physical skills these guys have leave a lot of room for them to not hit their potential and still become valuable contributors.
And like the guys acquired in the Eaton trade, if the best case scenarios turn out, the White Sox hit a home run. Moncada could be a franchise player. Kopech could be a frontline starter. These guys could be the two best players on the next good White Sox team, and made this the right deal for the White Sox to finally part with their ace.
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