The winter isn’t quite over, and there are still some big-time players left (Matt Wieters and a bevy of sluggers come to mind), but enough moves have been made to put together a reasonable list of MLB winners and losers. One note: While this annual column has been called winners and losers in the past, I am making it a New Year’s resolution to try to be nicer, so that second list will henceforth be dubbed non-winners. Anyway, here goes …
1. Indians. Not only did they add the most dynamic offensive player on the market, they showed for the first time they are serious players on the free-agent market. The surprise signing of Edwin Encarnacion was a true Christmas miracle, just the latest in the Indians’ marvelous year. Plaudits for owners Larry Dolan and company to give out an unprecedented $20-million-a-year deal despite their small market and low revenue, giving the Indians a superb lineup to go along with a wonderful pitching staff. American League favorite.
2. Top closers. Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon all surpassed the previous top contract for a reliever of $50 million for four years for Jonathan Papelbon four winters ago. They are three special pitchers, but deals for $86 million, $80 million and $62 million are still extremely good for one-inning pitchers, even great one-inning pitchers. Jansen got his deal despite the draft-pick attachment if he signed elsewhere and Chapman got his despite a strong intention to avoid the West Coast (thus, virtually eliminating one of three main pursuers, and keeping Miami as the main competition to the Yankees). But Melancon gets special notice here as a 33-year-old late-blooming pitcher. Only a few years ago he was one of four to go in trade for Joel Hanrahan, who just retired.
3. Red Sox. No surprise, GM Dave Dombrowski acted bravely and decisively to add Chris Sale, one of baseball best pitchers under one of baseball’s better contracts. Sale, signed for $38 million over the next three years, is well worth the loss of top prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech (plus two others). Dombrowski also did well to acquire top reliever Tyler Thornburg just as the reliever values started going through the roof. Mitch Moreland adds some lefty power. They also managed to stay under the luxury-tax threshold by offloading the eminently fragile Clay Buchholz after picking up his $13.5-million option. Just a couple quibbles: Pedro Alvarez would have been a slightly better choice than Moreland at quite possibly a fairly similar price, and why not add some third base insurance (Trevor Plouffe, Luis Valbuena?).
4. White Sox. The White Sox have been hanging around .500 for far too long, and needed to do something bold. Which is exactly what GM Rick Hahn did. He also acquired a prospect stash to end all others at a time prospects are overvalued by many, bringing in Moncada and Kopech plus a startling trio that includes the coveted Lucas Giolito for the solid Adam Eaton. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t exactly sound enthused about a rare rebuilding shortly after the big trades, humorously pointing out that if you acquire four can’t-miss prospects, you’ll be lucky to have one hit. And we understand that sentiment, even intended as a witty observation. Nonetheless, the Chisox did an amazing job in this prospect-loving environment.
5. Ian Desmond. The multitalented player made up for the well-reported $100-million gaffe he made with the Nats, getting most of that money back in a very good deal with the Rockies, who did intend to play him at first base. That could change if they get a better deal on a first baseman and a nice trade for center fielder Charlie Blackmon. But Desmond, after generally playing very well with the Rangers (but hitting .237 in the second half), got an obvious overpay with his $70-million, five-year deal in a tough market for hitters. His versatility and positive clubhouse rep helped. But this was still quite a special deal, especially considering the draft pick attachment.
6. Josh Reddick. He smartly signed early, getting $52 million for four years from the Astros in what turned out to be a wise and decisive play in a mostly tough market for outfielders. Reddick slumped badly in the second half with the Dodgers, but it didn’t seem to hurt his market for some reason (having no draft pick attached was obviously a plus). He’s a good fellow who plays a nice outfield, but this turned out to be a major overpay in my book. It’s also the latest example of how silly the qualifying offer rule is. By virtue of being traded, he didn’t have a draft choice attached to him. Had he had the choice, he would have been lucky to get half that.
7. Dexter Fowler. He bet on himself, taking a one-year deal with the Cubs last year after he got caught in the qualifying-offer issue (but could have gotten a three-year deal with the Orioles, as we know), and it paid off handsomely with an $82.5-million, five-year Cardinals deal that only looks like a bargain compared to Jason Heyward’s $184-million contract going the other way. I admire Fowler for taking that gamble, and good for him he made it work after helping the historic Cubs to a wonderful and historic World Series championship.
8. Jeremy Hellickson. For a while he was leaning toward declining the $17.2-million qualifying offer. But he certainly made the right choice to take it and stay with Philadelphia, a place where he thrived in 2016. His stats are similar to Ivan Nova, who didn’t have the draft choice attachment and will be making almost exactly half as much per year ($26 million, three-year deal with the Pirates). Had he rejected the QO he’d probably still be out there in a starting pitching market that has generally been a major disappointment.
8B. Neil Walker. Coming off back surgery, and with so few second-base openings even after his fine season in New York, he also made the right choice to take the $17.2-million qualifying offer.
9. Brett Cecil. Sure, he’s somewhat more talented than the other top left-handers on the market. But $31 million for four years? Even though he had never even been to St. Louis, he had to jump all over that one.
10. Justin Turner. He had the handicap of the qualifying offer in a market that looked brutal for third basemen, and got to stay home with a $64-million, four-year Dodgers deal. And good for him. Four years ago, he had to sign a minor-league deal with the same Dodgers, and he turned himself into a star, the No. 3 hitter on a perennial contender.
11. Mike Dunn. He’s a solid lefty out of the pen, but $19 million over three years seems quite a bit strong, even after the Cecil deal.
12. Carlos Gomez. To get $11.5 million after a year in which he had one very good month wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it may be the top deal for a player released for performance-related issues the season before. He also gets a manager, Jeff Banister, who is said to love him, and the team for which he thrived (albeit for that month).
13. Yoenis Cespedes. He was wise to sign early, and while $110 million seems fair (we picked that one exactly in the pre-winter predictons) in a market unkind to sluggers, it was definitely the way to go. Good thing, too, because he has shown he likes to spend.
14. Marlins. Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa markedly upgrade a decent bullpen at a time when the pen is finally starting to be appreciated. Kyle Barraclough, A.J. Ramos and David Phelps round out one of the better pens. And maybe they benefit by saving the $80 million that could have gone to Jansen or Chapman. A.J. Ellis should help a young staff, too.
15. Wilson Ramos. The brutal knee injury ended the hopes of a $100-million deal, but he recovered to get a deal that guarantees $12.5 million and could easily be worth $18.25 million with makeable incentives in Tampa Bay. He’s still only 29, so look for him to cash in two years from now.
16. Daniel Hudson. He came back from two Tommy John surgeries to get an $11-million, two-year deal from the Pirates. Kudos to him.
17. Pirates. If Ivan Nova can repeat his 2016 performance for them, that will prove to be a bargain. One negative: For some odd reason Andrew McCutchen didn’t have the trade value of Eaton, and they’ll likely have to inform him he’s moving from center field (in any case, whether they do or not, McCutchen will do what it takes to prove last year was an offensive aberration for him).
18. Andrew Cashner. He gets $10 million after a simply dreadful season off the promise that his potential will play soon. He also gets to re-grow a beard that makes him look a lot tougher. The third CAA client on this list, after Desmond and Cespedes.
19. Ender Inciarte and Odubel Herrera. An old adage to “never turn down your first fortune,” seems wise for two solid youngsters who will have the advantage of not having to worry about their futures now. The odds are that they turn out to be good deals for the teams, too. Hat tip to the Braves for getting seven years of Inciarte, six of Dansby Swanson, six of Aaron Blair and one of Shelby Miller for one year of Heyward and two of Jordan Walden (plus, they signed back Walden on a non-roster invite deal).
20. Cubs. The World Champions acquired a great closing option in Wade Davis, albeit for only 2017, while only parting with spare outfielder Jorge Soler, who was going to be out of their outfield picture anyway.
21. Astros. Their offense certainly is much improved with the deals for Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, though I’d argue that two of the three were overpays (Beltran wasn’t). I’d also wonder about a pitching rotation that seems thin. If they can somehow acquire Jose Quintana (or someone similar), move them up 15 spots.
22. Padres. I like their new plan to sign international stars and fill out a rotation with some decent deals, like $1.75 million apiece for Clayton Richard and Jhoulys Chacin.
23. Kendrys Morales. He probably will benefit by jumping on that early $33-million, three-year deal from the Jays. He’s a switch hitter who hit 30 home runs in tough Royals Stadium, but in a very difficult market for hitters, this works.
24. Charlie Morton. He made the right move to take the $14 million early from the Astros. A surprisingly weak starting pitching market and his past fragility meant he would not have done better had he waited.
25. Dodgers. They returned their three free agent stars – Turner, Jansen and Rich Hill – giving themselves an excellent chance to contend for their first title since 1988. They’re still working on the long-running Brian Dozier trade talks, and that would be a plus, too, if they can work it out (move ‘em up 15 spots if they work it out, and they should). They’d still have a little work to do in their pen, but that’s baseball president Andrew Friedman’s specialty. Folks forget what a great job Joe Blanton did for them last year leading up to the NLCS vs. the Cubs.
26. Jason Castro. Pitch-framing paid off big, to the tune of $24.5 million over three years.
27. Mark Rzepczynski. He’s even harder to spell than hit, but $11 million over two years in Seattle is quite good for this lefty specialist.
28. Ben Revere. That $4 million guarantee plus $2.25M in incentives for the Angels is quite a haul for a guy who had such a rough season in Washington (an uncharacteristic .217, which isn’t easy to do, considering his speed).
29. Backup catching market. Jeff Mathis (the third Jet Sports Management player mentioned here, after Morton and Hudson) got $4 million for two years, Drew Butera $3.8 million for two and Alex Avila $2.5 million for one. Not bad. Though, there are several to go, including Chris Iannetta, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Dioner Navarro, Geovany Soto, Hank Conger and Ryan Hanigan.
30. Mets. They did what they had to do, bringing Cespedes back into the fold. Although, they still need to beef up the pen (Jeurys Familia is likely to be suspended for some length of time) and get a lefty, and also figure out what to do with their three left-handed corner outfielders. The likelihood is that Jay Bruce goes, but not for quite what they wanted.
Special Category of Winner
1. Hall candidates with PED links/whispers. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are polling at just over 70 percent, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker (@NotMrTibbs), which appears to put them in position to make the Hall in coming years, and Jeff Bagwell, with only whispers and not clear public link (though he once admitted to taking Andro in an interview with the Houston Chronicle), is over 90 percent. So he’s almost certain to make it this year, even with the usual 5-10 percent dropoff from early polling.
1. Sluggers. The market has been unkind so far to some of the better sluggers, with Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, Mike Napoli, Michael Saunders, Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez as just a few of many power hitters still looking for work. It may work out for many or even most of them in the end, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of chairs left. The trade market isn’t so hot, either, with the Mets unable to get much to this point for Bruce.
2. Older sluggers. If those guys are taking awhile, you have to wonder if former MVPs Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau will find anything at all.
3. Nationals. GM Mike Rizzo has a long record of great trades (Trea Turner/Joe Ross is a prime example) but the deal for Eaton leaves a lot of us scratching our heads. I get that they were down on Giolito, but Eaton isn’t the type of player who should cost three top prospects, no matter how long his management-friendly deal lasts. And while he is great in right field, where he earned his 6 WAR, he’s probably only about average in center field.
4. Ex-Phillies icons. Jimmy Rollins got a minors deal with a major-league invite from his hometown Giants, but Chase Utley and Howard remain without work. Utley did a nice job for the Dodgers before seeming to wear down on his everyday schedule late last year, so he should be able to get something, even in a tough second-base environment. But we have to wonder about Howard, who’s probably a DH vs. righties only at this point. It could be the end of the line for him and Shane Victorino, who’s said to be still deciding about a comeback.
5. Cardinals. Sure, they got a bit better. But somehow I have to think $113.5 million could have been better spent than Fowler and Cecil. The Cardinals were right not to overpay for icon Albert Pujols or Heyward, but they still do better drafting and developing than in free agency.
6. Rockies. They got better, but like the Cardinals, they paid through the nose. The total of $89 million seems like quite a pretty penny for Desmond as a first baseman and lefty reliever Dunn. A plus: Alexi Amarista, who has agreed for a year and an option, can play six positions, which may have separated him from a bevy of utility players on this year’s market. They are also taking a risk going with the kid catchers when they just may be ready to contend, though Tom Murphy has great potential.
7. Jason Hammel. Great personality and pretty fair pitcher, but what’s he doing changing agents mid-winter? That’s nothing more than a tell that things aren’t going well. The nice narrative that the Cubs did him a favor turning down his $12-million option has turned out not to be true, with only the Mariners connected to him thus far. He’d happily take that now, undoubtedly.
8. Jays. There’s still time, but there’s really no way to make up for the loss of Edwin Encarnacion and quite possibly Jose Bautista. The guess is that at least one of EE and Joey Bats would have been retained under the old regime. But the new guys like to avoid the mega deal. Obviously some early effort was made in Encarnacion’s case, but while the $80-million, four-year bid was eminently reasonable, it’s hard to imagine anyone thought he’d accept the initial offer without first shopping around. They tried for Fowler, making another reasonable offer of about $60 million over four years. And they saw their fine lefty specialist Cecil leave after they made reasonable efforts to keep him, too. Sometimes, being so reasonable doesn’t pay – though it’s possible it will pay off in the long run.
9. Starting pitching market. It went about as expected considering it was the thinnest crop in years, with Rich Hill scoring the biggest deal, at $48 million for three years, and following the signing with a very heart-warming press conference in D.C.
10. Very veteran starters. Jered Weaver and Jake Peavy are still looking around, and the hunch is that one of them will go to the Padres (they may favor Weaver despite Peavy’s past ties to the team). Weaver and Peavy still know how to pitch, and win, and the hunch here is that whoever signs them will be pleased. The same goes for Colby Lewis, who wins more than he has a right to every year, it seems. Tim Lincecum is still looking to come back, and perhaps he needed that first year back after hip surgery.
1. Rangers. It doesn’t look good for Texas to make up for what it lost with three starters – Carlos Beltran, Desmond and Moreland – gone already. They’ve retained Gomez, and Napoli remains a possibility, though he was thought to have a mystery team in the mix as well. Hidden loss: Longtime assistant GM Thad Levine left for the Twins and a GM job title.
2. Orioles. Trumbo is still out there, and they seem to remain in the mix, though it’ll be interesting to see if they are still willing to do the same four-year deal (for $50 million plus) they originally offered. Matt Wieters’ ability to work with the young staff may be missed, but Welington Castillo can hit and had a 2.4 WAR last year, providing hope that his career’s on the upswing. The Orioles look set up for a possible late bargain, something they’ve done better than anyone in the past (Nelson Cruz, Pedro Alvarez), but it’ll be hard to replace Trumbo’s league-leading 47 home runs.
3. Tigers. We thought they were going to offload some contracts in order to have a payroll in line with their revenues. But Tigers owner Mike Ilitch remains one owner willing to consistently spend beyond his baseball means. Kudos to him for that.
4. Royals. Hard to question their baseball acumen after so many trades have worked to their advantage. But you have to wonder about Soler since the also smart Cubs group seemed to lose faith. Late pickup Peter O’Brien from the D-Backs could turn out to be a diamondback in the rough (sorry for the bad pun).
5. Phillies. They picked up some vets with one-year commitments (Buchholz, Howie Kendrick, Joaquin Benoit), so they should be a bit better. Still searching for a lefty bat.
6. Giants. It didn’t come without quite a cost, but Melancon is just the one they needed, especially after just missing out on him at the deadline. They seem OK letting their in-house candidates duke it out for left field, but Eduardo Nunez may work better as a super utilityman than a third baseman, as he now stands.
7. Yankees. They’d be a clear winner if not for what their main competition did. They saw the Red Sox, who beat them by quite a bit as it was last year, improve in a year they are mostly going young. The very good news is there does appear to be help on the way, as the Yankees’ system is suddenly one of the best in the bigs, thanks to their big trades last winter (Gleyber Torres was the Arizona Fall League MVP at 19) and judicious recent drafts. Matt Holliday is a very nice add, at $13M, and will be a plus for all the new kids in the clubhouse as well as in the lineup. They also made a nice trade with McCann, getting two prospects while offloading $23 million. Though they say they have gotten offers for Brett Gardner that don’t involve them offsetting the $25 million to go, they are obviously not very enticing offers to date. Chase Headley appears to have had little to no market.
8. Angels. They went for defense again, adding Danny Espinosa to play second base, and it just could work. While they never contended last year, they were only outscored by 10 runs on a year when their rotation was decimated. Something tells me they badly underachieved.
9. A’s. Rajai Davis is a plus for anyone’s clubhouse. And they certainly made things interesting in the Encarnacion sweepstakes, bidding $25 million a year on a two-year deal. It’ll be just as interesting to see whether they prove to be real players for Trumbo, too.
10. Trumbo, Wieters, Bautista, etc. Trumbo would be a great add for almost anyone, as he’s versatile (he showed he can play the outfield as well as first base) and a clubhouse plus, with the Orioles or A’s appearing most likely at this point. Wieters could be an NL East battle, with the Nats and Braves (the Mets seem content to go with Travis d’Arnaud), though the Angels, Rockies and others could benefit from a veteran catcher. The draft attachment is a tough pill for Bautista, but let’s not forget he could easily come back with another MVP type season at 36 (he was great in the playoffs and is said to be working harder than ever).
Around the Majors
— The A’s are making things interesting, and they are now looking at Trumbo, as was first reported here, after their spirited run at Encarnacion, when they offered a $25-million-a-year guarantee ($50 million over two years).
— The Orioles don’t seem to have given up on Trumbo. They originally offered him about $50 million for four years, and while they took that off the table, they seem to be open to a reunion.
— Bautista has circled back to Baltimore since GM Dan Duquette told them he didn’t think it would work due to fan response toward Bautista. Doesn’t appear the Orioles have had a change of heart, however.
— The Jays do not seem anxious to bring Bautista back, as it seems their goal all along was to get the draft pick when he signs elsewhere. The one chance for a return would seem to be if there’s no deal forthcoming elsewhere.
— In addition to the $60 million guarantee on three years and an option for Encarnacion with the Indians, there are up to $1 million a year in attendance bonuses. Normally, attendance clauses wouldn’t be worth much in Cleveland. But the excitement there is palpable.
— While the Phillies are considered a “long shot” for Bautista, they are looking closely at Saunders, Brandon Moss and other lefty bats.
— Tyson Ross visited the Rangers on Wednesday, as was first reported here, with his decision down to about a half-dozen teams. The Cubs, Indians and Pirates are among other teams linked to Ross, who’s coming back off thoracic outlet syndrome. The Padres have been linked to him, as well, but it would seem unusual to go on a tour if he’s just going to return to San Diego. Jeff Passan of Yahoo has suggested the Rangers and Cubs are favorites.
— I can understand why the Twins want to give Brian Dozier a break and figure out soon whether Dozier will be traded to the Dodgers (or elsewhere), or remain with the Twins. If we are all tired of it, imagine how Dozier feels! The Dodgers have plenty of good prospects to pair up with righty pitcher Jose De Leon, so the sides should be able to figure it out.
— It still would make sense for the Chisox to deal Jose Quintana. The Pirates, Astros and Yankees are among teams known to be involved. Houston needs a veteran starter.
— While Todd Frazier is a fine player, it is probably hard to find a taker in this market. Here are two things not to be in this market: 1) A power hitter, and 2) a third baseman. That may explain why he hasn’t been linked to any teams in trade.
— Teams still interested in a lefty reliever include the Mets, Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays.
Happy New Year.