Ahead lies the grand holiday (for baseball fans) known as Pitchers and Catchers. Behind lies one of the strangest offseasons in recent Major League Baseball history.
On the one hand, there was the usual. Trades were made, bargain players were found and more than a few players got overpaid. This is baseball, after all.
On the other hand, there were the oddities. Typically quiet teams were loud. Typically loud teams were quiet. Some new rules altered the market in ways that nobody could have anticipated.
There's still work to be done for many clubs, but we're at a point in the offseason now when it's as good a time as any to look back and take stock of all that's happened, be it good, bad or ugly.
Toronto Blue Jays Go Big, May Not Go Home Until They Destroy AL East
The Toronto Blue Jays share a division with two teams that tend to own the winter headlines. When you live alongside the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, it can be hard to get noticed.
Yet the Blue Jays managed to do just that this winter. All it took was a pair of trades that shook the baseball world to its very foundation.
The first saw the Blue Jays take on Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and millions upon millions of dollars worth of salaries in a mega-deal with the Miami Marlins. Later on, they acquired 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the New York Mets, a condition of which was an extension that will keep Dickey in Toronto for a couple more years.
The Blue Jays had one of the richest deposits of young players in the league at the start of the offseason, but not anymore. Now all their best talent is at the big-league level, and their roster has the look of an army designed to rain fire down on their AL East rivals.
Accumulating talent during the offseason doesn't always translate to regular-season success, but it's hard not to like Toronto's chances. The Blue Jays have a rotation with a true ace on top and plenty of depth behind him, and they added speed to a lineup that already had tons of power.
They should be a major player in the AL East in 2013. In the event that they do bomb, well, oh well. They can always remember the winter headlines.
Dodgers Make It Rain, Arrange Awesome Starting Rotation
It always was a matter of time before the Los Angeles Dodgers made a huge splash this offseason. The only questions were who, when and how much?
The answers: Zack Greinke and Ryu Hyun-jin, December and about $200 million.
The Dodgers inked Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner, to a six-year contract worth $147 million. He is now the most expensive right-handed pitcher in MLB history, which is none too shabby for a guy who nearly quit baseball several years ago due to anxiety issues.
The Dodgers then inked Ryu to a six-year, $36 million contract. That came after they paid $25.7 million just to get him to the negotiating table, of course.
It cost a lot of money to put it together, but there is no mistaking that the Dodgers now have one of the best starting rotations in the league. At the top is Clayton Kershaw, who is easily the top left-handed pitcher in the game. Behind him is Greinke, who has the fifth-best fWAR of any pitcher since 2009 (see FanGraphs). Then there's Ryu, who was a five-time strikeout champion in Korea.
It says a lot that Josh Beckett, who had a 2.93 ERA in seven starts in L.A. in 2012, is the fourth-best starting pitcher in the Dodgers' rotation. He's a solid No. 2 in most other rotations when he's not making like a college freshman and sucking down beer and chicken while playing video games.
The Dodgers have put themselves in a very good position to knock the San Francisco Giants from their perch. If you miss the glory days of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, you should look west in 2013.
Cleveland Indians Sign a Major Free Agent After All-Out Sales Pitch
Big-name free agents don't go to Cleveland. They leave Cleveland.
Nick Swisher was presumably well aware of this, but how was he supposed to resist signing with the Indians after the pitch they made him? They called on master recruiters Thad Matta, Urban Meyer and even Jim Tressel to help lure Swisher to Cleveland, and then there was the finishing touch:
A four-year, $56 million contract offer.
Because Swisher was treated like royalty and then paid like an actual superstar baseball player (which he isn't), he can be forgiven for barely being able to contain himself at his introductory presser.
"This is the place for me to be," he said. "All roads led to Cleveland."
Swisher's coming alone won't make the Indians AL Central champions in 2013, but the decision to go all-out to sign him is nothing if not a delightful change of course for an Indians franchise that has been accused by its fans (and one of its players) of being too frugal in the past.
Now then, all Indians fans have to do is actually show up to the ballpark.
Minnesota Twins Very Quietly Gain Ground in Arms Race
Minnesota Twins starting pitchers were the worst in the American League in 2012, and the organization entered the offseason with no guarantees that help was just around the corner. Their farm system needed arms, and how.
It was arms the Twins sought, and it was arms they got thanks to a pair of trades.
The first saw them trade speedy outfielder Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for hard-throwing prospect Alex Meyer. The next saw them trade fellow speedy outfielder Ben Revere to the Philadelphia Phillies for young right-hander Vance Worley and right-handed prospect Trevor May.
The Twins will be able to control the 25-year-old Worley through at least the 2017 season, and Meyer and May already rate as two of their best prospects. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com has them ranked third and sixth in Minnesota's farm system, respectively.
The addition of these arms won't make the Twins division champs in 2013, or in 2014 for that matter. They may even still be dreadful by the time 2015 rolls around.
But this is a franchise that has had a knack for turning young pitchers into steady contributors. If that reputation holds true, the Twins will be back on their feet eventually.
Kansas City Royals Sell the Farm to Open Window to Contend Just a Crack
The Kansas City Royals had to do something to fix their starting pitching this winter, and general manager Dayton Moore decided to go about doing it by rolling the dice.
In December, the Royals agreed to a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays that brought right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City. Going to Tampa Bay were top prospect Wil Myers and several other youngsters.
In and of itself, the trade wasn't the total disaster for the Royals that many made it out to be. They did give up a high-ceiling hitter in Myers and a couple other promising prospects, but they got one of baseball's most underrated pitchers (Shields) and a 27-year old (Davis) who was once one of the best prospects in baseball.
The bigger issue with this trade is the timing. The Royals made a "win now" trade despite the fact they're not quite ready to win now. Even with the additions of Shields and Davis, the Royals still have a flawed starting rotation to go along with an offense with a fair share of holes in it.
The Royals will be better in 2013. But if they don't win the AL Central in the next couple years, jobs are going to be lost and the new bosses will find themselves in front of a drawing board.
Arizona Diamondbacks Turn Trevor Bauer Into Didi Gregorius
The Arizona Diamondbacks decided that they needed to find a long-term answer at shortstop this winter, and nothing was going to stop them from acquiring one.
Not even reason.
The D-Backs made one of this offseason's most puzzling moves when they agreed to trade top prospect Trevor Bauer to the Cleveland Indians in a three-team trade that netted them shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius from the Cincinnati Reds. They got a lefty reliever and a first-base prospect as well, but the deal boils down to them swapping a high-ceiling prospect for a low-ceiling prospect.
Bauer struggled in the four starts he made at the major-league level and rubbed some people the wrong way while he was in town, but the consensus about him is that he is one of the elite prospects in baseball. Mayo has him ranked fifth out of 100 in his rankings, for example.
Gregorius is a good prospect, but certainly not an elite one. Beyond his defense—which is excellent—he doesn't bring much to the table.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today and others have suggested that Bauer was dealt because of his attitude, not his talent. And that's fine. It's perfectly OK to trade a kid if you don't think he's a good fit for your organization from the shoulders up.
But if you do that, you better do better than an all-glove, no-bat shortstop.
B.J. Upton's Deal with the Atlanta Braves
B.J. Upton signed a five-year contract with the Atlanta Braves worth $75.25 million earlier this offseason. For that, the Braves are getting the only player in baseball with at least 80 home runs and 150 stolen bases since 2009.
It's too bad they're not also getting patience and plate discipline.
Upton's physical tools are off the charts, but his days as one of baseball's most promising young hitters are in the past. Upton compiled a very solid .286/.384/.452 slash line between 2007 and 2008, but in four years since his slash line is a mere .242/.316/.420.
The low on-base percentage is the most concerning part, and there are good reasons for why it's so low. Upton isn't walking as often as he did in 2007 and 2008, and he's striking out roughly 25 percent of the time he comes to the plate.
These are problems that can be corrected, hence the reason the Braves went ahead with their monster contract offer. If they didn't think Upton could be straightened out, they wouldn't have bothered.
Nonetheless, they're gambling. Upton is being talked about like he's still a 23-year-old kid, when in reality he's a 28-year-old major-league veteran with six full seasons under his belt. It could be that he is what he is, and that's a guy who's a better athlete than he is a baseball player.
The Braves are hoping to make a baseball player out of Upton. If he remains a mere athlete, they'll be spending a lot of money for a limited amount of production.
Shane Victorino's Deal with the Boston Red Sox
The Braves may be paying for production that might not be there with Upton, but at least they're not paying for production that wasn't there at all in 2012.
That's what the Boston Red Sox are doing with Shane Victorino, who they signed to a three-year, $39 million contract in December. That's a lot of money to commit to a guy who's coming off the worst season of his career.
Victorino saw his OPS tumble all the way to .704 in 2012, and he was particularly useless after he was traded to the Dodgers in July. He managed only a .667 OPS in 53 games with them.
The warning signs were there for the Red Sox to see, with the most damning of the bunch being Victorino's splits against right-handers. He hasn't managed an OBP over .333 against right-handers in any of the last three seasons, and this past year saw him slug just .332 against righties.
This is more than a little alarming seeing as how the bulk of Victorino's at-bats will come against right-handers. Also alarming is the fact that Victorino isn't getting younger at the age of 32, meaning there's a greater likelihood of him getting worse rather than better.
The Red Sox have made worse signings—an understatement if there ever was one—but at least some of them seemed like good ideas at the time. The same can't be said of Victorino's deal.
The Destruction of Mike Napoli's Three-Year, $39 Million Deal
The Red Sox finally signed Mike Napoli this week, inking him to a one-year deal worth $5 million.
This result is good for both sides to the extent that it's a resolution to what was a sticky situation for over a month. The Red Sox have to be happy that they finally have a new starting first baseman, and Napoli has to be happy that the hip troubles that held up his deal didn't cost him a shot at signing a contract of any kind.
The bummer where he's concerned is that he thought he was set for life not too long ago. The deal he initially agreed to was worth $39 million over three years, a not insignificant chunk of change. If he doesn't satisfy the incentives that will push his 2013 salary to $13 million, his partnership with the Red Sox will end up being for $34 million less than he anticipated.
As for the Red Sox, they figured they had a three-year solution at first base who would help them contend in the AL East by mashing at Fenway Park. Now, Napoli may only be a one-year solution, and his bad hips may keep him from mashing in Boston at all.
Clearly, Napoli and the Red Sox had better things in mind when they first shook hands in December.
Justin Upton Is Still a Diamondback Even Though He Shouldn't Be
Justin Upton is still a member of the Diamondbacks. He shouldn't be, but that's the way it is.
Arizona GM Kevin Towers has flip-flopped on his intentions for Upton, but the various reports spilling out of the rumor mill on an almost daily basis all suggest that he would love nothing more than to move the right fielder. All it would take is the right offer.
The asking price for Upton is, understandably, very high. But as Grantland's Jonah Keri suggested recently, the D-Backs may be lacking in leverage because of Upton's inconsistent production and the club's clear desire to move him.
However, Upton deserves some blame for his still being in Arizona as well. The D-Backs were set to make a killing for him in a proposed trade with the Seattle Mariners, but Upton blew it out of the sky using his limited no-trade clause.
The entire situation is now a mess with no obvious solutions. The D-Backs probably won't be able to find another offer as good as the one they got from the Mariners. Even if they do, Upton may have the power to reject another trade.
If nothing happens and Upton is still a Diamondback in 2013, the D-Backs will have to unscramble a crowded outfield while repairing the scorched bridge between them and Upton.
Some partnerships just aren't meant to be. This is one of them.
The Dire Consequences of Draft-Pick Compensation
When baseball's new collective bargaining agreement was first revealed in November of 2011, there wasn't much of a fuss made over the new protocol for top-level free agents. How big of an impact could qualifying offers and draft-pick compensation really have on the free-agent market?
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Nine players received qualifying offers worth $13.3 million for one year, and all nine of them rejected theirs in favor of testing the market. Two players—David Ortiz and Hiroki Kuroda—quickly re-signed with their teams. The others entered a market with no notion of just how unkindly it was about to treat them.
B.J. Upton, Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher all managed to find multi-year deals without too much fuss, but things ended up being a lot harder for Adam LaRoche and Rafael Soriano.
LaRoche ended up settling for a two-year deal from the Washington Nationals in part because he couldn't find a three-year deal on the open market, and he didn't even get $13.3 million per year in his new deal. Soriano did get more than $13.3 million per year in his deal with the Nats, but he only got two guaranteed years. He was said at the start of the offseason to be seeking four years.
Meanwhile, speedy center fielder Michael Bourn and veteran right-hander Kyle Lohse are still looking for contracts. Their ties to draft-pick compensation have certainly played a part in their long ordeals on the open market.
When MLB came up with the idea for the new protocol for top-tier free agents, the idea was to make things more fair for teams. What the league apparently didn't anticipate is that it would make things more unfair for the players.
Some of them are missing out on money just because they didn't want to settle for one-year deals. Had they hit free agency any year before this one, they would have had an easier time finding the contracts they're seeking (or were originally seeking).
In a way, it's like they're being punished for being good. That's not right.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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