With the Super Bowl officially behind us, baseball lovers will soon be able to rejoice, as they will no longer have to stare out their windows, anxiously waiting for Spring to start. Most teams have put the finishing touches on their rosters, but there are still a number of free agents who should be on Major League rosters, if not soon, then at some point during the season – Matt Weiters, Joe Blanton and Doug Fister to name a few.
With that in mind, we can begin to review, criticize, and praise all the moves made in the past few months. There are some General Managers who used the winter to drastically change the direction of the team, like the White Sox, and some who only made minor changes, like the Tigers.
Before we jump into it, let's establish what makes a winner and a loser for this list. Not every team can afford the best free agents, so we can't grade the lower payroll teams harshly based on not signing the best players. If they made wise budget moves, then they should be graded based on that. Also, here's a fair warning that teams weren't the only category to make it onto the list. There are players, and player types listed as well. Let's start it off with a team that doesn't typically spend big money on free agents:
15 Winners: Dexter Fowler/ St. Louis Cardinals
It's not often that a center fielder signs for five years and over $80 million, and that's because a center fielder's best asset is generally his speed. Unfortunately, speed is a young man's game, and by the time a center fielder hits free agency, their legs aren't as great as they once were. But being quick isn't the best asset of Fowler's game, and it's not the main reason for why the Cardinals uncharacteristically threw so much money at him.
Since 2013, Fowler has accumulated an on-base percentage of .369 and a walk rate of 13.1%. According to Fangraphs, he had the lowest percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone (19.4%) in 2016. He is exceptional at making a pitcher work and getting on base. Throw in the fact that he can hit close to 20 home runs and steal close to 20 bases and that makes him one of the most well-rounded center fielders in the game. The Cardinals needed a leadoff hitter and center fielder, and they acquired the best one the free agent market had to offer. It's an added bonus that they stole him from the World Series winning and division rival Cubs.
14 Losers: Kansas City Royals
The Royals advanced to the end of the offseason on a high note, signing veteran right-hander Jason Hammel and first baseman Brandon Moss to a pair of affordable two year contracts. But early on in the winter, Kansas City was hit with some tough luck regarding the new collective bargaining agreement that the owners and Players Association agreed upon. The new rule that hurts KC states that teams will not receive first round compensation draft picks if their big name free agent players sign elsewhere. The Royals, a low-budget team who depends heavily on the draft for success, have a number of impending free agents that could have given them first round draft picks when their contracts expired after this season. Now, they'll either have to trade those players away or settle for second round compensation draft picks if they sign elsewhere. And second-round talent is drastically different from first-rounders.
The players who are free agents at the end of the year are Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar. Wade Davis was another player set to hit free agency after the 2017 season, but the Royals parted ways with him in exchange for Jorge Soler of the Cubs. Soler is younger, cheaper, and under team control until 2021. He represents the type of players KC will be looking for as they are another AL Central team who appear to be headed towards a rebuild in the near future, especially if they find themselves out of contention come summer time.
13 13. Winner: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays made some interesting moves throughout the offseason, which include trading away starting pitcher Drew Smyly to the Mariners and second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers. Both trades were able to bring back promising prospects, including pitcher Jose De Leon, and speedy outfielder Mallex Smith. De Leon could be installed into their pitching rotation regularly as soon as this year. And for 2017, Smith projects to either start in the minors or be a back up outfielder in the majors with the Rays crowded outfield. Smith has mostly played center and left field, but the Rays currently have Keven Kiermaier and Colby Rasmus plugged in for those spots.
Speaking of Rasmus, the Rays were able to pull off a few budget friendly moves. Rasmus was acquired for one year at $5 million, while Wilson Ramos signed for two years, $12.5 million, and reliever Shawn Tollenson signed for one year, $1 million. All of these guys are buy-low candidates who could be flipped for prospects at some point. The Rays did an excellent job working around their low budget. They might not be projected to win the A.L. East with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Yankees in their division, but they have put themselves in a position to compete with any of those teams.
12 Losers: Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles starting pitchers as a whole have placed in the bottom 10 among WHIP and ERA over the past two years, and the team has done nothing to change that. They will be relying heavily on Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman at the top of the rotation, but both of those guys have never had an ace type season. Not only did they not make any significant additions to the rotation, but they traded away Yovani Gallardo for Seth Smith. Gallardo wasn't the nearly as effective as he was in his hay day, but can they really afford to be trading starters for platoon players? They really couldn't afford Colby Rasmus, who got paid $5 million from the Rays for one year? Seth Smith makes $2 million more and had a worse 2016 than Rasmus.
They were able to bring back Mark Trumbo on a fairly cheap three year contract, but they could still use some bats. Both Smith and Hyun Soo Kim are left-handed outfielders who should be platooned with a right-handed bat so the team isn't at a disadvantage against lefties.
Overall, the Orioles look like a team destined to finish in the middle of the pack, which is never where you want to be. The Red Sox look like a World Series winning team. The Yankees and Rays both got better this offseason. The Blue Jays are gonna be tough as well. The Orioles are in trouble if they are serious about competing with the rest of the A.L. East, let alone the rest of baseball.
11 Winners: Toronto Blue Jays
Heading into the offseason, the Jays were one of the teams with the most questions. They had a number of free agent eligible players, none bigger than Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, two of the most feared right-handed batters over the last six years. The chances of the Jays keeping both of those bats, along with one of their few left-handed bats, Michael Saunders, and left-handed reliever, Brett Cecil, seemed slim. But they were able to bring back Bautista while also signing free agents Kendrys Morales and Steve Pierce to fill the void that Encarnacion will leave. Left-hander J.P. Howell was also signed late to replace Cecil out of the bullpen, and they also added submariner Joe Smith.
Signing Morales to a three-year deal was a wise move as he will cost about $8 million less than Encarnacion. He is also a switch hitter which will play well in the middle of of their heavy right-handed lineup. Morales also didn't cost a draft pick, and since Encarnacion signed with the Indians, the Jays will get their first round pick as compensation. Overall, the Jays appear to have avoided what could have been a disastrous offseason and should be competing for a Wild Card spot in 2017.
10 Losers: Washington Nationals
At different points in the offseason, the Nationals were rumored to be targeting Chris Sale, Andrew McCutchen, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon. What they ended up with was Adam Eaton in a trade that has been highly scrutinized for the level of young talent they gave up. On top of that, the team still has legitimate concerns in a number of different areas. There are question marks at the catcher position with the departure of Wilson Ramos. They have a depth problem as Dave Cameron pointed out in a recent Fangraphs article. Lastly, their bullpen is pretty thin, despite the team signing a number of journeymen relievers to minor league contracts. Their closer at the moment is Shawn Kelley, a 32-year-old reliever who has recorded 11 saves in his career.
The Nationals were not a World Series team last year. They weren't even a team that advanced to the NLCS last year. There is no clock in baseball, but time is running out for their recently frugal owners. They have Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy until 2019, so that would have to be their window to bring Washington it's first title. With every NL East team getting better this offseason except the Nats, the owners shouldn't expect to be as good as they were last year, especially with how they've gone about improving the team.
9 Winners: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers headed into this offseason as the NL version of the Blue Jays. By that, I mean the team had a number of key players set to hint the free agent market, and you'd have to have a really optimistic mindset if you expected almost all of them to return. But the Dodgers, yet again, flexed their money muscles and signed their three biggest impending free agents, Rich Hill, Justin Turner, and Kenley Jansen, to stay in L.A. for three, four, and five years, respectively.
There was also a need for an upgrade at second base, but with the free agent market lacking in talent at the position, the Dodgers decided to explore trade options. There was a lot of speculation surrounding Brian Dozier of the Twins, but the Dodgers ultimately thought the asking price was too high, and decided to make a move for the Rays versatile second baseman, Logan Forsythe. The Dodgers were wise not to give in to the Twins offer and were able to part ways with a prospect that the front office didn't regard as highly as others in the farm system.
8 Losers: Colorado Rockies
It's hard to rank the Rockies as losers when they made their biggest free agent signing since Mike Hampton – but bringing a Centerfielder/Shortstop to play first base seems like a bit of a waste. On one hand, he can be moved into their outfield every time a left-handed starter is on the mound, since their outfielders all bat left-handed. On the other hand, that money could have gone to one of the many cheaper options that were available to play first base, along with a platoon outfielder. Going that route probably would have suited the Rockies check book better.
The biggest problem with the Rockies has always been pitching, and they didn't do anything to address the starting rotation. Jorge De La Rosa will not be returning (not that that's a bad thing), but it does open up a spot to add a starter. Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, Chad Bettis, and Tyler Chatwood all posted a WAR of 2.0 or better, which is good for a group of young starters in the hitter friendly Coors Field. They could benefit from adding a veteran free agent pitcher like Doug Fister, but they may have maxed out their budget with the additions to the bullpen to go along with Desmond. The Rockies appear to be going for it in 2017, but I'm not sure how they can without a true ace or a solidified rotation.
7 Winners: Cleveland Indians
The Indians made it to the World Series without Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, and Carlos Carrasco in the playoffs. Now, with all of them for the 2017 season, they have a good chance to end what is now the longest World Series drought in baseball. The Indians are a franchise that typically doesn't spend big money in free agency, so most analysts saw them bringing back Mike Napoli. Instead, they went out and spent a little more to get Encarnacion for three years.
It was a surprising move considering the Indians, a team who builds through the draft, would have to give up a first-round draft pick in order to sign the 34-year-old. Now they have a core group of guys singed through 2020 including Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Yan Gomes. They also have Andrew Miller and Michael Brantley through the 2018 season while young guys like Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez won't hit free agency until 2021 and 2022, respectively. They are set up to compete for a few more years. They also added left-handed reliever Boone Logan to take some of the innings off Miller's precious arm.
6 Loser: Wilson Ramos
After having the best offensive season of his career, Wilson Ramos was only able to land a two year, $12.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays who will most likely use him as a trade piece. He was on his way to being the best catcher available in free agency until he suffered an ACL tear near the end of the regular season. The injury diminished his value since he will likely miss the first half of the 2017 season.
The contract Ramos signed does include incentives that could earn him up to $18 million, but that money isn't guaranteed and it falls well short of what he could have made had he not suffered such a serious injury. Ramos will once again have to prove himself for when he hits the market after the 2018 season at the age of 31.
5 Winners: Relievers
The big name closers that dominated the market weren't the only one-inning pitchers who cashed in this offseason. Left-hander Brett Cecil got a four year, $30.5 million deal with the Cardinals. Mike Dunn, another lefty, got a three year deal valued at $19 million from the Rockies. Joaquin Benoit got one year, $7.5 million from the Phillies, and Brad Ziegler got two years, $16 million from the Marlins. Miami also got Junichi Tazawa for two years, $12 million. All of these guys are making over five million a year.There are a handful of starting pitchers who signed for less money and will throw for a lot more innings. And I haven't even mentioned the three biggest names.
Aroldis Chapman (five year/$86 million), Kenley Janson (5 yr/$80 million), and Mark Melancon (four year/$62 million) will all be making over $15 million annually to pitch the ninth inning. It sounds crazy, but teams are placing a high value on relievers since a number of World Series winning or contending teams had at least one elite arm out of the pen. The Cubs (Chapman), the Indians (Andrew Miller, Cody Allen), and the 2015 winning Royals (Wade Davis) are recent examples of that.
4 Losers: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are an old and expensive team that just missed the playoffs last season with 86 wins. Heading into the offseason, it seemed as if they were going to shed some payroll by trading away their higher priced players, but instead, it appears they will be trying to make another playoff push with their core group of guys. They could have went the same route the 2016 Yankees did by trading away key pieces for prospects while also remaining competitive on the major league level, but it appears they will be content with their current situation.
With the White Sox joining the Twins as another rebuilding team in the AL Central, the Tigers should be able to pick up a few more wins against them, but will they be able to compete with the Royals, Indians, and other AL teams fighting for a playoff spot? The Tigers appear to be giving themselves until June/July to figure out what they want to do. My prediction is they want to try and sell a few more tickets before they dismantle the team, because ownership should realize this isn't a World Series contending team and their farm system is depleted.
3 Winners: Boston Red Sox
Boston didn’t acquire Edwin Encarnacion like they were expected to, but they did bolster the roster by making a surprise trade to land Chris Sale of the White Sox. Sale gives them a third top of the line starter to complete what is now one of the best rotations in baseball, and arguably better than the Indians starters – the team who swept them in the ALDS. The Red Sox had to give up two of the best prospects in all of baseball to acquire one of the southpaw ace, but their farm system is an embarrassment of riches anyways. They still have one of the best prospects in Andrew Benintendi.
They also signed first baseman Mitch Moreland to a cheap, one year/$5.5 million deal that will allow Hanley Ramirez to play DH. They still need to sure up their bullpen after losing Brad Ziegler, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa. They will have Craig Kimbrell closing out games, and they signed Tyler Thornburg, but they could use another arm out of the pen. All things considered, they've had a nearly perfect offseason.
2 Losers: Home Run Hitters
In the age of sabermetrics, home runs don't mean nearly as much as they used to, and it showed this offseason. Teams are placing a higher value on the upper class relievers than they are the upper class power hitters, which is crazy to think about when you consider the playing time differential between these two types of players. Take Mark Trumbo for example. He led the league in home runs, yet he will make less money than Aroldis Chapman, despite the fact that Chapman will be used in less than half the teams games and Trumbo will participate in nearly every game. He played in 159 games last year compared to Chapman's 59.
Sabermetrics is one aspect that can be looked at as a reason for why this is happening, since teams are placing higher values in other areas, such as the ability to get on base or play a multitude of positions. But another factor that has troubled these power hitters is the over-population of them on the market. As a result, Edwin Encarnacion wasn't able to get the five year, $125 million deal he was looking for, and instead settled for three years, $60 million. Brandon Moss signed for just two years, $12 million. Mike Napoli (recently signed with Texas) and Chris Carter (recently signed with the Yankees) went into February without a contract, and Carter was rumored to leave for Japan despite leading the National League in home runs. The fact that these guys had such a hard time finding a job speaks to how devalued power is in modern day baseball.
1 Winners: Chicago White Sox
The General Manager that won the winter meetings was Rick Hahn of the White Sox. In just two days, he was able to acquire four of the top 40 prospects according to MLB.com. Chris Sale and Adam Eaton are the two players who were able to net the impressive return of young talent, but the ChiSox aren’t even close to finished. They’ve still got Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Melky Cabrera who could and should all be traded at some point in 2017 for mid to high level prospects. The White Sox probably won’t win the regular season, but they won the offseason by making an aggressive transition into rebuild mode, which could potentially turn them into a powerhouse to rival the Cubs across town.