The offseason won't technically end until the first glorious, meaningless pitch of the MLB exhibition slate is thrown. We're getting close, though. Pitchers and catchers are packing their bags. Groundskeepers in the Sunshine and Grand Canyon States are rumbling into action.
Baseball's coming. Can you feel it?
Before we dive into the cocktail of stretching, double switches, injury updates, non-roster invitees and position battles that is spring training, let's take a look back at the winter that was.
Every offseason can be classified as "wild," in the sense that marquee players inevitably swap uniforms and at least a few Scrooge McDuck deals are always inked. But the past few months have been especially impactful, with repercussions both immediate and far-reaching.
While we can't possibly rehash every offseason twist and machination without turning your eyeballs to goo, here are five significant takeaways with notes on the inevitable fallout.
Slap on some pine tar, limber up your hammies and dig in.
Pitching Got Paid
It was a great winter for aces and the agents and accountants who serve them.
Take the $217 million the Boston Red Sox gave David Price, the $206.5 million the Arizona Diamondbacks tossed at Zack Greinke, the $110 million the Detroit Tigers slipped Jordan Zimmermann and the combined $220 million the San Francisco Giants handed Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and you're talking about five arms reeling in almost as much dough as the gross domestic product of Samoa.
Even more tellingly, all five pitchers fell off the board well before the new year, while top hitters like Chris Davis, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton had to wait well into January for the market to thaw.
That may seem counterintuitive. In today's pitching-dominated MLB, you'd think sluggers would be the most coveted commodity.
But with next year's expected free-agent pool bereft of No. 1 options outside of Stephen Strasburg, clearly clubs with front-line rotation needs understood this was the time to strike and strike hard.
Opt-Outs Are In
Speaking of those whopping pitching paydays, both Price's and Cueto's deals feature opt-out clauses, which is fast becoming standard operating procedure for free agents in their prime.
That's not entirely new. While Greinke's deal with the D-backs doesn't feature an opt-out, he became a free agent this winter only because of the opt-out built into his Los Angeles Dodgers contract.
Likewise, Cespedes has an opt-out after one year in his three-year pact with the New York Mets, an advantageous addition, as MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby outlined.
"Sure, the $25 million a year average value of the three-year free-agent deal Cespedes agreed to … is impressive," Ringolsby wrote. "But more than anything, what sold the 30-year-old on re-signing with the Mets is an opt-out clause at the end of the upcoming season."
That's because, as mentioned, the 2016-17 free-agent class is weak overall, meaning Cespedes could cash in if he crushes it like he did down the stretch for the Mets last year.
Then again, if he falters or endures a prolonged trip to the disabled list, he's got the cushion of a longer contract to fall back on. That explains the popularity of the opt-out among players. It's the definition of a win-win.
It's also why MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations about the practice, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal:
The logic of opt-out clauses for the club escapes me. You make an eight-year agreement with a player. He plays well, and he opts out after three. You either pay the player again or you lose him.
Conversely, if the player performs poorly, he doesn't opt out and gets the benefit of the eight-year agreement. That doesn't strike me as a very good deal. Personally, I don't see the logic of it.
The logic, obviously, is that it works. Opt-outs add the extra enticement it takes to lure a top-shelf free agent. And they can benefit the team as well, in the sense that a player may give a few prime years to one club, then net an even heftier payday elsewhere and proceed to stumble off a cliff.
Often, long-term deals are about eating cash on the back end for production up front. An opt-out clause can allow the original signing team to avoid those albatross years, if it plays it wisely.
Either way, as long as they're allowed, opt-outs are here to stay. Or not stay, as the case may be.
A Qualifying Offer They Couldn't Refuse
This winter marked a watershed moment for the qualifying offer. Namely, three players accepted it, and in the process, they became the first ever to do so. Think of them as the Neil Armstrongs of contract machinations.
In 2014, 12 players received the qualifying offer of $15.3 million, and all 12 rejected it. That followed the pattern established in 2012 and 2013, when nine and 13 players got QOs, respectively, and all said, "Thanks, but no thanks."
In 2015, finally, the process reached a breaking point. MLB clubs dangled qualifying offers of $15.8 million in front of a whopping 20 players, with the offering teams presumably banking on rejections and the attendant free draft picks.
Instead, catcher Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles, left-hander Brett Anderson of the Los Angeles Dodgers and outfielder Colby Rasmus of the Houston Astros took the money and didn't run.
You can argue which, if any, of that trio was worth such an investment. The larger point, however, is that the qualifying offer itself will never be the same.
With the idea that players might take the bait now hanging heavy in the air, teams will almost surely be less apt to offer it up. Which means that, after four years of trending upward, the number of QOs should go down next year.
At the same time, players like right-hander Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler, each of whom rejected qualifying offers and are tied to draft-pick compensation, are still unemployed as of this writing. That could make players even more likely to accept QOs and try to build their value.
It's also possible the system will change. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, meaning the rules might be rewritten. But even if the QO process stays the same in theory, it'll be drastically and irreversibly altered in practice.
Return of the Home Run King
Barry Bonds is going to be a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins. It cannot be overstated how weird and perfect that is.
On the one hand, it's odd that any team would invite the walking distraction and inscrutable enigma that is Bonds into its clubhouse. Particularly a team like the Marlins, who are recovering from a dysfunctional campaign that went off the rails when they fired manager Mike Redmond last May and installed general manager Dan Jennings in the dugout.
On the other hand, this is Miami, where odd is always on the menu.
And let's not forget that, performance-enhancing drug stains aside, Bonds is among the most gifted men ever to pick up a bat. And, along with new skipper Don Mattingly, he has a chance to mold a lineup bursting with raw ability. Heck, he'll have the ear of Giancarlo Stanton, one of the best pure power hitters to come along since, well, Bonds himself.
Like all things Marlins, this experiment could go horribly, comically wrong, or it could somehow work despite the hurdles and inherent craziness.
If you're taking bets, lean toward the former. Mostly, though, pop some popcorn and enjoy the show.
Parity in the AL, Imbalance in the NL
With all the big free-agent pieces signed and presumably all the pre-July blockbuster trades consummated, we have a pretty clear picture of the balance of power in both leagues.
In the case of the American League, "balance" is the operative word. In the National League, not so much.
Let's start with the AL, which can be broken down as follows:
- Will almost surely contend: Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays
- Will quite possibly contend: Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays
- Probably won't contend but you wouldn't be shocked: Oakland A's
Really, who among that bunch is the overwhelming favorite? The Red Sox are retooled but coming off a dreadful season. The 'Stros and Rangers are the favorites out West, but both were surprises last year, and neither made major upgrades over the winter. And the Jays, while still owners of baseball's most potent offense, lost Price to the Sox.
After that, you've got a whole lot of increasingly flawed hopefuls, with no obvious front-runner and no hopeless doormat.
In the Senior Circuit, meanwhile, the stratification is more pronounced. Here's how things shape up over there contention-wise:
- Yep: Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals
- Maybe: Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins
- Nope: Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres
That's seven legit hopefuls, two teams on the bubble and six clubs with a snowball's chance in Scottsdale.
The Cubs are young and loaded. The Cards and Pirates are nipping at their heels. The pitching-rich Mets are looking to build on 2015, while the face-lifted, still-talented Nats are trying to forget it. The Dodgers remain the big-spending left-coast bullies, even minus Greinke, and the Giants have new arms and an even-year wind at their back.
As for the bottom feeders? Call it rebuilding. Call it tanking. Call it what you will. By any name, the NL in 2016 will be a league of haves and have-nots. And while it's possible some of our "yep" clubs could regress or fall off, it's almost impossible to picture any of the "nope" squads slipping into the race.
There's nothing wrong with that, inherently, unless you're a parity purist or a fan of one of those no-hope clubs harboring unrealistic spring delusions.
Speaking of which: Is it spring yet?
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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