Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2016-17 MLB Offseason's 1st Month
There hasn't been much action in the first month of the 2016-2017 Major League Baseball offseason. Everyone's been busy tip-toeing around the rather large elephant in the room.
Nonetheless, the time has come for a routine stock-taking. Let us now discuss the winners and losers of the hot stove season so far.
Since it's been an unusual offseason, we're going to look at five winners (players, teams and markets that have done well or are shaping up well) and only three losers (players, teams and markets that aren't doing so hot).
We will proceed in an order that makes narrative sense, starting...
Winner: Brett Cecil
Before this winter, Brett Cecil was an occasionally dominant left-handed reliever who mainly specialized in slaying left-handed batters. His salary peaked at $3.8 million last year.
Courtesy of the St. Louis Cardinals, he's now making more than twice that much per year.
The Cardinals inked Cecil, 30, to a four-year, $30.5 million contract this month. That's not only more than the $18 million MLB Trade Rumors projected for the former Toronto Blue Jay, it's the second-largest contract for a lefty reliever in history behind Andrew Miller's four-year, $36 million deal.
To be fair, this is a case of a good pitcher finding the right fit.
Even the 3.93 ERA Cecil put up in 2016 only raised his ERA over the last four seasons to 2.90. That also comes with a rate of 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings. This is music to the ears of a St. Louis bullpen that lacked depth in 2016.
"We really felt like he would be the key person to help us in securing a very strong bullpen moving forward," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said, per Adam Berry of MLB.com. "You look at what Mr. Cecil's been able to accomplish over the years and how he fits with us, it really works out well."
And as much as Cecil's contract feels like an overpay, it actually fits in MLB's current landscape.
In 2014, FiveThirtyEight's Jonah Keri and Neil Paine covered how relief pitchers have been getting more dominant while taking on a larger share of innings. These trends have only gained steam since, particularly in a 2016 postseason that was characterized by short starts and dominant relief stints.
It's a brave new world, folks. And looking ahead, Cecil certainly won't be the only one to profit from it...
Winner: Relief Pitching Market
The natural first response to Cecil's contract was shock. Then came understanding.
And then came the big realization: If Cecil could get paid that much, just imagine how much the other guys will get paid.
There's a good collection of other guys out there this winter. In Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, three of the game's elite relievers are free agents. There's also Greg Holland, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, Sergio Romo, Joe Blanton and other notables.
Given the role of relief pitching in today's MLB, you could expect a ton of money to be spent on relievers this winter regardless of who sets the market. But Cecil's contract has raised expectations to a new level.
"Already have heard from multiple executives and agents who think Brett Cecil's four-year, $30.5M deal with St. Louis is a market-changer," tweeted Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.
It remains to be seen just how much of a "market-changer" Cecil's deal is. But suddenly, Chapman's desire for a $100 million contract (per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago) doesn't sound so outrageous. Jansen could at least come close to $100 million. If so, Melancon won't be far behind.
No matter what, each of the three should have no problem breaking the current record for a relief pitcher contract: Jonathan Papelbon's four-year, $50 million deal. And in all likelihood, their deals will be part of a never-before-seen rush of multiyear deals worth tens of millions for relief pitchers.
Of course, this is assuming the big hold-up on the winter market is taken care of...
Loser: Big-Ticket Free Agents
Remember that elephant in the room we mentioned at the beginning? That would be the negotiations over the new collective bargaining agreement, which are going down to the wire.
If MLB and the MLB Players Association don't strike a deal by Dec. 1, they could extend talks rather than go into a lockout. But as Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported, a lockout is a possibility.
That's no good for the owners or the players, who've enjoyed two decades of labor peace since the 1994-95 strike. It's also no good for the league's image, which is in a good place after a hit World Series.
But if you want the group that's being actively harmed by the slow march toward a new CBA, look no further than the big-ticket free agents.
The list includes the aforementioned relievers, as well as a cavalcade of hitters led by Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Turner, Ian Desmond, Mark Trumbo, Dexter Fowler and Jose Bautista. They're worth hundreds of millions of dollars but have yet to earn a dime. Yoenis Cespedes has, but he signed an arguably (more on this later) below-market $110 million contract.
The thing is, big-money free agents are the ones that come with the most risk. And until the final details—specifically the luxury-tax threshold—of the new CBA are worked out, teams don't know how much risk they can handle going forward.
“There’s certainly uncertainty until they do [reach an agreement],” mega-agent Scott Boras said this month, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. “I’m sure they’re going to want to know the impact of it. Why wouldn’t you?”
Once the new CBA is in place, it will be open season on the big free agents. But they'll be negotiating in a window with less time left before spring training, putting them at a leverage disadvantage. That's only a good thing if you're rooting for the owners, which is like rooting for the house in blackjack.
There is an exception, though: You can't help but feel bad for owners who would love to get some starting pitching for their teams...
Loser: Starting-Pitching-Needy Teams
Once upon a time, Stephen Strasburg was going to be a free agent this winter. That figured to be a lot of fun, as he would have been the lone ace in a market mostly populated by mediocre-to-bad starters.
But then Strasburg signed an extension with the Washington Nationals in May. An already bad offseason market for starting pitchers took a turn for the worse. More recently, it took another when Jeremy Hellickson responded to a rebound season in 2016 by accepting his $17.2 million qualifying offer.
With those two off the board, the list of quality starters available this winter consists of a talented-but-fragile Rich Hill and question marks like Ivan Nova, Jason Hammel and Derek Holland.
Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez and Andrew Cashner were also in that basket of question marks, but they've already been snatched up. Their average earnings: $9.7 million per year.
That's a solid indication that teams aren't going to stop spending good money on starting pitching—even if the options available are about as satisfying as a glass of pond water in the middle of a desert. That sure seems related to how the trade market is responding to the conditions on the open market.
The Arizona Diamondbacks had to give up Jean Segura just to make an upside play on Taijuan Walker. Between that and the dearth of good starters on the open market, it boggles one's mind to think about what the Chicago White Sox could get for Chris Sale or Jose Quintana. Or what the Tampa Bay Rays could get for Chris Archer. Or what the Detroit Tigers could get for Justin Verlander.
Of course, this puts those teams and other clubs with spare starters in a position to be big winners this winter. But because teams in need of starters could just as easily decide not to give in to the huge demands on the trade market, we'll hold off on declaring them winners for now.
However, there are teams that are actively doing well on the winter market...
Winner: Houston Astros
With the CBA talks slowing everything down, most teams have been biding their time and waiting for the offseason market to take shape.
So hats off to the Houston Astros for having the cojones not to dally around.
The Astros started with smaller moves, picking up payroll space by trading Pat Neshek and finding outfield depth by claiming Nori Aoki off waivers. They then moved on to bigger moves: acquiring Brian McCann in a trade with the New York Yankees and signing Charlie Morton and Josh Reddick as free agents.
If he stays healthy, Morton's the kind of pitcher who will fit right in with a rotation that values ground balls. He could easily be worth the club's $14 million investment.
McCann and Reddick will cost the Astros a bit more. They're paying $23 million of the $34 million remaining on McCann's deal, and they gave Reddick $52 million over four years. They are, however, two quality left-handed bats for a lineup that needed both depth and balance.
"This lengthens our lineup out quite a bit," Houston GM Jeff Luhnow said while introducing Reddick, per Richard Dean of MLB.com. "That was a goal in the offseason. Pitchers are not going to have too many soft spots in our lineup, day in and day out."
Although the Astros failed to make it two straight trips to the playoffs in 2016, they still won a respectable 84 games. With their new additions joining Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, they already have the goods to make a run at the AL West title in 2017. And more could still be on the way.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the AL West...
Winner: Seattle Mariners
In the race to unseat the Texas Rangers as the two-time reigning AL West champions, the Seattle Mariners have kept pace with the Astros.
The Mariners never needed to worry about losing any key members from an 86-win team that just missed the playoffs in 2016. That freed up GM Jerry Dipoto to focus on adding missing ingredients. And add missing ingredients he has.
Some are for the "Better Than You Think" file. In trading for Carlos Ruiz, Dipoto acquired a veteran catcher who still smashes left-handers and could be the Yoda to Mike Zunino's Luke Skywalker. In trading for Danny Valencia, Dipoto acquired another lefty smasher who can play multiple positions.
Then there's the move that belongs in the "Blockbuster" file: the trade that brought Jean Segura from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
That trade cost the Mariners Taijuan Walker, who was an elite pitching prospect as recently as 2014, and Ketel Marte, a young infielder who may yet develop into a capable player. So, they are risking something.
But Segura is worth it. After a couple of rough seasons, the 26-year-old shortstop found himself again in Arizona by hitting .319 with 20 homers and 33 steals. If he maintains that atop Seattle's lineup, he'll be the perfect guy to set things up for Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.
The Mariners aren't done yet. They could use some starting pitching depth, and perhaps some bullpen depth as well. But their offseason is already resembling the one Dipoto put together last winter, when he made a series of crafty moves that gave the team much-needed depth.
To find the other standout team this winter, we must now head east...
Winner: New York Mets
The New York Mets went into the winter knowing that Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey would be recovering from significant surgeries. The last thing they needed was to then lose key members of their 2016 roster to free agency.
Well, they have lost one. Bartolo Colon, who gave the Mets a 3.43 ERA in 191.2 innings, left for the Atlanta Braves. Mets ace Noah Syndergaard was understandably (and hilariously) upset about that.
Since then, however, the Mets have scored a couple of key victories.
The first came when Neil Walker decided to stick around, accepting the $17.2 million qualifying offer rather than risk his market being ruined by his ties to draft-pick compensation. In him, the Mets retained a second baseman who gave them an .823 OPS and 23 homers in 2016.
A far bigger victory came Tuesday. Despite some well-founded hand-wringing about him possibly departing for greener pastures, the Mets brought back Yoenis Cespedes on a four-year, $110 million contract. He'll stay in the same place where he's provided a .903 OPS and 48 homers since the 2015 trade deadline.
Some of us (namely me) are perfectly fine with Cespedes' deal. However, the Mets may have gotten him for less than the market valued him. MLB Trade Rumors predicted he would get $125 million over five years, and there was some buzz that suggested that's indeed where he was going to end up.
The Mets still have some finer points to see to, but they've successfully avoided disaster by bringing back Walker and Cespedes. They're positioned to stick with what worked in 2016, which was good enough to put them in a second straight postseason.
To find the anti-Mets, we must now go back out west...
Loser: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers haven't done anything wrong. They just haven't done anything, period, which is more concerning for them than with the winter's other do-nothing teams.
A roster that produced 91 wins and a fourth straight NL West title in 2016 has some major holes in it. Justin Turner and Chase Utley are absent from their infield. Kenley Jansen is absent from their bullpen. Rich Hill is absent from their starting rotation. Josh Reddick has already been lost from their outfield.
Normally, it would be fair to sit back and wait for the Dodgers to flex their financial muscles. After all, this is the same team that has spent over $1 billion in payroll since 2013.
But a recent report from Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times raises questions about the Dodgers' spending power. According to him, they're seeking to cut spending as they try to satisfy a mandate from MLB to get their debt under control.
“We’re not talking about, ‘Let’s reduce our payroll by $40 million and we’ll be compliant,’” a person familiar with the team’s finances told Shaikin. “They have hundreds of millions in debt.”
Mind you, Doug Padilla of ESPN.com has a report that characterizes this as much ado about nothing. But if nothing else, the debt issue could be just another excuse for president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to continue his mission to make the Dodgers younger and cheaper.
That could turn them away from their free agents and toward the trade market instead. That's where they could encounter a whole other problem: teams with veteran talent demanding that the Dodgers hand over the young talent they're supposed to be cultivating.
Nobody's saying the Dodgers are doomed. But for now, they have yet to give any indication of how they're going to get out of the tight spot they find themselves in.