In this weird and wild winter, believe it or not, there were some winners.
There are a few teams that are trying hard, and even doing well (though I’d agree with Dodgers star Kenley Jansen that a few more should be trying).
And yes, there were players that beat free-agency expectations – though they were mostly the new fair-haired boys of the sport, the middle relievers, who used to be seen as a dime-a-dozen (but now go for considerably more than that, as we saw).
But there were some surprise losers, too. And there are many incompletes.
There are still at least a half-dozen players out there who were expecting a big multiyear deal. Some of them will still get that deal, but in some cases, perhaps not quite for what they were looking for. As nutty as it still seems, those middle-inning guys were all the rage, while sluggers – and some stars – got left behind.
This column usually comes a lot earlier, but the winter continues even today, with several very good players among 40 or so free agents still jobless. But we’ve waited long enough. Without further ado, this year’s winter winners and losers …
One competing GM who made the final round of seven for Shohei Ohtani and thought they were the perfect spot for him (many others did, as well) called the Ohtani decision a “gift from God” for the Angels. In retrospect, it makes sense that it’s an AL team (so he can DH), that he knew Arizona from his Japanese team training and that his marketing guy and agent are both in L.A., which is (sort of) where the Angels are.
It didn’t hurt that GM Billy Eppler had long ago established a rapport with him, starting in Eppler’s Yankees days, but the other factors were key, too. The Angels are the place to be. They were also selected by second baseman Ian Kinsler, who somehow had all three teams that wanted him on his smartly-constructed no-trade list of 10 teams – the Brewers, Mets and Angels – and decided he liked what was going on in L.A./Anaheim best.
The Angels also decided to take All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart to play third base, and he should work well there. And for good measure, Albert Pujols had his first healthy winter in three years and seems to ready to be the main first baseman again.
The one question remains: who will close?
They were already the World Series champions, then they got Gerrit Cole, who should love the jump back into relevancy. As one rival pointed out, they were pretty good to start last year, when they had neither Cole nor Justin Verlander. Also, Charlie Morton wasn’t yet a World Series hero. This team looks as stacked as they were empty five years ago, spawning copycats that think they can turn awfulness into greatness. Hey, it ain’t as easy as it looks. For nitpickers (they are as close to you can come to perfect): Brian McCann could use a little more rest, and they may need a little help on the back end of the bullpen.
3. Tommy Hunter
There’s a trend to build bullpens with pitchers who can do multiple innings, which has turned middle relievers from roster fillers to necessities. And sure, he throws pretty hard. But no one could have predicted a $9 million annual salary for the oft-injured former bullpen filler.
They had to get under the luxury tax threshold to reset themselves for a year from now so they can set themselves up for a superstar. And somehow, while doing this, they got themselves a superstar this year. Giancarlo Stanton gives the Yankees a lineup to rival the legendary 1961 team – or maybe even the 1927 team – and has made the Yankees must-watch entertainment. Their ticket sales are said to be up to upward of 500,000 at this time (though they caution that that doesn’t mean they will finish with a half-million more patrons). Anyway, the buzz is something else.
5. and 6. Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw
Teams have “to pay a little more” to get pitchers to go to Colorado. But this much more? (I predicted $12 million for two in my annual free agents predictions, which turned out to be a bad guess, among many). McGee was already there. And the $27 million deal seems outta whack. Shaw also got the Rockies bump, getting the same $27 million for three years, but at least he has a very good track record of consistency, durability and effectiveness (of course that could cut both ways, as he’s thrown more innings than just about any reliever the past few years).
Overall, the strategy to spend on the pen makes some sense for Colorado since they have very young starters and pitching at Coors remains a chore. Overall, they spent $106 million, including $52 million on new closer Wade Davis.
7. Giancarlo Stanton
The full no-trade clause put him in excellent position to go where he wanted, and the 59 home runs and MVP didn’t hurt, either. The Yankees, probably his second choice in a top four that had his hometown Dodgers first and the Cubs and Astros on the list, as well, didn’t need a right fielder, as they already had their own version of him in right in Aaron Judge. But they all made it work when hardly anyone saw this coming, even after we wrote last July and again at the GM meetings that the Yankees had some interest. He’ll have to play some left field (and it was an adventure on his first try in Tampa), but for the first time in eight years in the big leagues, he is on a team that’s likely to play in October.
8. and 9. Aaron Boone and Alex Cora
A year ago Boone was on ESPN’s Sunday Night baseball lineup showing off his batting stance impression and playing third fiddle to Dan Schulman and Jessica Mendoza, and now he occupies the spot where Miller Huggins, Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and other legends made their Hall of Fame bones. The Twins interviewed him for an interesting front office role and the Cubs considered him for their coaching staff, where he might have been a manager in waiting. But this way he doesn’t wait.
As Theo Epstein told him, he couldn’t blame him for taking Yankees manager over Cubs quality control coach.
Cora, meanwhile, parlayed his one-year apprenticeship as Astros bench coach under A.J. Hinch into a managerial job with the only team over the luxury-tax threshold.
They made an ingenious move to get below the luxury-tax threshold a year before many figured they could by sending Adrian Gonzalez and three others to the Braves, where their old friend Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ new GM, was hoping to move money forward – the opposite of the Dodgers, who needed to cut big bucks for 2018 to get below $197 million.
Oddly enough, the accounting trick brought back Matt Kemp, who they were happy to excise two winters earlier due to his big contract, receding defensive abilities and clubhouse questions. Well, Kemp returns as nothing more than an accounting trick, and while he’s still among the loudest in the room, he’s a new man in some respects: He is willing to take extra outfield practice now as he may be a bit humbled to have gone from lineup star to payroll savior. Anyway, the Dodgers remain the World Series favorite (at least according to Las Vegas) while setting themselves up nicely to keep franchise pitcher Clayton Kershaw or maybe even make a play for Bryce Harper.
They needed two starters, including one ace, and they used a free-agent market that included only about a half-dozen real starting options and only two top-of-the-rotation starters to fill their vacancies with Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, who both may do better where they are. The Cubs also managed to stay under the luxury-tax threshold, thanks to giving Darvish an extra year (and extra $1 million) — $126 million over six years vs. the $125 million for five he was asking for late.
Who’d have thought the Padres would get the top free agent on the market? They made Eric Hosmer their No. 1 priority, and lo and behold, they landed him. And who’d have thought the Padres would give out the biggest free-agent deal? Probably no one thought either of those things possible. But the Padres made it happen, and they seem comfortable with a $144 million deal that’s 75 percent more than their previous high (Will Myers, $83 million). They believe in intangibles like leadership and clubhouse chemistry, and they believe in Hosmer. Speaking of …
13. Eric Hosmer
It wasn’t necessarily an easy winter for any big free agent, and that includes Hosmer, who had to wait into the new year to get his first offer but wound up with the big deal of the winter. And while he didn’t go to one of the big-market teams he probably expected, he goes to a team that appreciates him and has the potential to be special sooner than folks think. And he’s in San Diego, which isn’t bad, either.
They certainly upgraded their offense, adding Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to an already talented outfield, and they should be better. The quibble here is: What about that rotation? As of today, Jhoulys Chacin is a No. 3 starter (by comparison, Yu Darvish will be starting Game 3 for the rival Cubs). We’ll put them on the winners list with a bullet, but we are assuming they will come up with something for the rotation – either Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb would help.
15. Juan Nicasio
The Mariners outbid the incumbent Cardinals and others and spent $17 million on a player who was designated for assignment last summer. OK, he shouldn’t have been DFA’ed. But then again, he shouldn’t have gotten $17 million over two years, either
16. Carlos Santana
He grabbed an early $60 million, three-year deal, a very nice annual salary and 50 percent raise after his old Indians team initially offered $36 million for three years (they might have gone up a bit, but not that much!). They love him in Philly for his consistency and durability, but also his leadership.
17. San Francisco Giants fans
The Giants always seem to try to do right by fans. It’s hard to see here how their two big upgrades – Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria – put them over the top. Nothing against those two, it’s just that they won an NL-worst 64 games, so they have a long way to go. The Giants probably did the right thing going for it, even off that paltry victory total, just because the rebuild looked like it might take eons considering how bare their system is. Tony Watson was a nice add, too, but the pen is still a bit worrisome off last year’s debacle.
18. Red Sox
Maybe J.D. Martinez didn’t get the $200 million he aimed for, but he did get $110 million over five years with a record three opt-outs, and he goes to Boston where he should take advantage of the Green Monster like maybe no one since Hall of Famer Jim Rice. The foot injury they must fear could be chronic delayed completion of the deal by nearly a week, but by some miracle, he wound up with a better deal after they reworked it — with that fourth-year opt-out added to the first two. The Red Sox also protected themselves in case that exact injury fells him. It’s a big get for Boston, which needed someone to replace Big Papi (no one can, but JDM is their best hope); the Red Sox started at $100 million, bumped it to $110 million and stayed there, as president Dave Dombrowski resisted bidding against himself. The D-Backs, as it turned out, wanted even more protection even before a physical, with their own opt outs instead of a complete guarantee, though they thought they might get him at times (see Inside Baseball notes).
19. Curtis Granderson
In a market that was death for outfielders, veterans and players who faded late last year, Granderson managed to find an admirer north of the border. How he got $5 million guaranteed in this market may never be explained.
He waited for that MLB deal, and he finally got it, from his old friends with the Mariners, thanks to the injury to Ben Gamel. He is a marvel, no doubt. But there are skeptics. One AL executive coolly noted how the Mariners were supposed to be getting younger. “Like Griffey in 2010, this will not end well,” the exec predicted.
21. Mike Minor
He has a chance to start. But most importantly, he signed early, capitalizing on a big 2017 after previous injuries, to get $28 million for three years. He’s in the mix for one of six spots for Texas, along with another fellow who’s mostly done relieving, Matt Bush. It was a nice winter for JET Management, which won its arbitration case (Zack Wheeler) to go 3-0 lifetime in that process, and signed all four of its free agent relievers to very good multiyear deals
22-24. Chris Iannetta, Alex Avila, Welington Castillo
It looks like it was better to grab a deal on the early side for catchers, as the second-, third- and fourth-best catchers out there all inked two-year contracts. Meanwhile, Lucroy, who is the best of the bunch, is still out there. Lucroy had a rough first half in Texas, and apparently didn’t love it there, but that’s only a half year in an otherwise-stellar career. Very strange.
25. Yu Darvish
So he didn’t get the $175 million, seven-year deal he aimed for. The $126-million, six-year deal, which also enabled the Cubs to stay somewhat comfortably under the luxury-tax threshold, was more than fair considering his stark World Series troubles (see Inside Baseball notes). He also wound up with a team he preferred over the Brewers and Twins — the other two teams that were able to go to nine figures (the Dodgers’ offer, which was for just under $100 million guaranteed, was contingent on moving other money, though they were probably willing to go higher had Darvish been willing to gamble and wait).
While they didn’t do all that much – Brandon Kintzler for $10 million over two years looks pretty good, especially since he had offers for much more elsewhere – the rest of their division looks like a pack of also-rans. Jansen said there’s one team competing for the title in the NL East. And we certainly know which one.
27. Mitch Moreland
He doesn’t look like he’ll have too much playing time after the Red Sox landed Martinez and Hanley Ramirez is expected to get the bulk of the time at first base. But he did come up with a great deal, at $13 million for two years. It’s uncertain whether he was partly signed as leverage for Martinez talks, but it doesn’t look like he fits perfectly – at least not as a starter. He could get some innings as a defensive replacement and bat vs. the occasional righty, and he does add to their depth. So that part is fine for the team. You just wonder how he’s going to occupy his time.
28. Pat Neshek
Yet another of the high-paid middle relievers. He got $16.25 million over two years from the Phillies, but word is, he could have gotten even more from the Rockies, who chose to gut nuts for pen help in a year where the competition was fierce.
29. Lorenzo Cain
There have been very divergent results so far with the three stars Royals free agents, but Cain survived the tough market beautifully. Some are leery of over-30 speed players, but it helped Cain that he grew up with the Brewers and they knew him and loved him. There’s a concern in some parts that players who rely on speed don’t age as well (Michael Bourn types), but there are notable exceptions, such as Kenny Lofton, Tim Raines and, of course ,the incomparable Rickey Henderson). In any case, the $80 million, five-year deal looks quite good in this environment.
30. Marcell Ozuna
Even though he didn’t particularly want to leave Miami (he’s the one!), he landed in a good spot in St. Louis with a chance to win immediately. He also got $9 million in arbitration.
1. First basemen
Hosmer and Santana came out great (see above), and Moreland got an inexplicable deal in a market stocked with solid-to-good first basemen with big power. Yonder Alonso took a two-year deal (which might be in line considering last year was his first really good one) but certainly was no home run, Logan Morrison had to settle for $6.5 million guaranteed, Lucas Duda got $3.5 million, Matt Adams recovered to get basically what he would have gotten in arbitration after being non-tendered, Adam Lind took a minor-league deal, Mike Napoli is having a nice tryout with his old Indians team and Mark Reynolds, who had a superb year in Colorado, is still out there.
This is along those lines. But home runs don’t seem to matter all that much. Morrison and Mike Moustakas, who is still out there (link), hit 38 home runs, and Duda, Napoli and Reynolds all his 30. Oddly, as my friend Tyler Kepner from the New York Times pointed out, it only mattered if someone didn’t hit a lot of them in what pitchers are calling “the juiced ball year.” Jon Jay had to settle for a $3 million deal with $1.5 million in incentives.
3. Older free agents
Granderson got a $5 million miracle (nice job, Matt Brown) and Ichiro somehow ended up with an MLB deal after enduring a winter of rejections (agent John Boggs said he felt like it was giving birth to an elephant), but Jayson Werth, Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday, Andre Ethier and John Lackey are still looking.
I feel like I’ve picked on them a lot lately. And I don’t blame their baseball people one iota, as they’ve put together a team with speed, defense and some pitching (though the Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon Tommy John news is crippling) that will do better than most think. But how exactly do they expect to win big public funding and sponsorships for a team that looked like it was semi-disbanding this winter. “Would you be their partner?” wondered one rival
The Braves bragged to the Atlanta Journal Constitution that they made $124 million more in revenue (sources say that is an exaggeration and it might be closer to half that) but did almost nothing this winter except change out utility-men and bit players beyond moving out Matt Kemp, who was a disaster there by the end, and moving money forward to plan for bigger moves next year.
They did, however, take Mike Foltynewicz into an arbitration hearing room, beating him for the grand total of $100,000 (he got $2.2 million instead of the $2.3 million he requested, though Atlanta did offer to split the difference seeing how it was so low and he had his first baby on the way – he did get back to see Michael Jett Folty born). Hopefully, we don’t imagine the celebration was too extensive for that one. They are already a plus-$124M in the back anyway!
Whatever; word is at least one big veteran player is quite upset with what’s going on, and it’s hard to blame him.