Final MLB Offseason Winners and Losers Pre-2019 Spring Training
When pitchers and catchers report for spring training next week (starting Feb. 11), it will mark the beginning of the end for Major League Baseball's hot-stove season.
While we have the chance, let's take a last look at the biggest winners and losers of the 2018-19 offseason.
It's been nearly a month since our last check-in, and frankly, not a whole lot has changed. We nonetheless have a list of four winners and five losers—a combination of teams, players and one entire league that have or haven't made out well this winter.
We'll start with the teams and go from there.
Winner: Cincinnati Reds
The Cincinnati Reds lost 95 games last season. If they'd chosen to abide by the usual script for such clubs, they would have spent the winter prioritizing their farm system and keeping their payroll to a minimum.
Evidently, somebody in the Reds front office stood up and proposed a novel idea: "Hey, what if we actually, you know, tried?"
Several trades and free-agent signings later, the Reds look ready to rise. They've outfitted what had been a top-heavy lineup with Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp and upgraded a laughingstock starting rotation with Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. For good measure, they're reportedly adding reliable left-hander Zach Duke to their bullpen, per MLB Network's Jon Heyman.
Though the Reds have extended their 2019 payroll well beyond what they spent in 2018, they've kept their long-term books relatively clean. Meanwhile, a farm system that we had ranked at No. 6 in MLB coming into the year still has its bluest chips.
The Reds have thus loaded up their roster without taking on too much risk. Per FanGraphs, the early projections for 2019 indicate that they'll be rewarded with their first winning season since 2013.
Loser: Cleveland Indians
Elsewhere in Ohio, the Cleveland Indians have been the anti-Reds this winter.
The Indians spent the last three years as one of the heavyweight contenders of the American League, and their payroll grew accordingly. Following their sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros in the AL Division Series in 2018, logic dictated that further growth was in order for 2019.
Instead, cutting payroll has been the driving force behind Cleveland's offseason. Stars such as Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Josh Donaldson have left via free agency. The Indians have also shed Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso through trades.
One bright side is that the Tribe are projected to open 2019 with a payroll south of $120 million for the first time since 2016. Another is that they still project to be the best team in the AL Central.
However, the projections probably underestimate the gap between Cleveland and the AL's three all-powerful superteams: the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Even the Minnesota Twins, who've added Nelson Cruz and others, don't look significantly worse than the Indians.
That faint sound in the air that could be the death rattle of Cleveland's recent run of contention.
Winner: Washington Nationals
Back in the National League, the Washington Nationals have basically done what the Reds have done, except with a much larger budget.
That will be money well spent if Corbin follows through on the 3.15 ERA and career-best 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings he posted last year. He, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg can form perhaps the best top three of any starting rotation.
The Nationals spent another $19 million to add Anibal Sanchez to their rotation. Through a series of signings and trades, they've also added Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier and Matt Adams to their offense and Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to their bullpen.
In the process, the Nats have most likely closed the door on a reunion with 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper. They've nonetheless constructed a team that's projected to win the NL East. In light of how much activity there's been in the division this winter, that's no small feat.
Loser: Chicago Cubs
When we last checked in with the Chicago Cubs, utility infielder Daniel Descalso and Tommy John recipient Kendall Graveman were their only signings.
The good news is that they've made another addition since then. The obligatory bad news is that said addition is Brad Brach, a right-handed reliever who's been riding a series of ups and downs since emerging as an All-Star in 2016.
If the Cubs are to be praised for anything, it's that doling out even $9.9 million for their new guys has put them in line for a harsh luxury-tax penalty in 2019. Their projected luxury-tax bill of $229 million is over the secondary threshold of $226 million.
Otherwise, the Cubs' offseason reeks of disaster. Their minimal improvements have come at a time when the Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals have each made substantial improvements. Though the Cubs project to beat them in the 2019 NL Central race, it's by a dangerously slim margin that any of the three might overcome.
Should the worst happen, the Cubs will find themselves wishing they'd been either more aggressive or more creative with their winter maneuvers.
Winner: New York Baseball
This spot was reserved for the New York Mets in our last check-in. A few weeks later, both New York clubs are deserving of a pat on the back.
Granted, the Yankees haven't had the no-holds-barred offseason that many expected following their first-ever season below the luxury-tax threshold in 2018. They've nonetheless added about $150 million worth of talent, headlined by the likes of James Paxton, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino, DJ LeMahieu and J.A. Happ.
What the Yankees now have for 2019 is a club that projects to push the Red Sox for AL East supremacy. That's as strong an indication as any that World Series championship No. 28 is within their reach.
The Mets, meanwhile, have signed lefty reliever Justin Wilson since our last check. Following the additions of Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, Jeurys Familia, Keon Broxton and J.D. Davis, that's a nice finishing touch on an offseason renovation that ought to put the Mets in the thick of the NL East race.
Ultimately, it should surprise nobody if New York enjoys two 90-game winners for the first time since 2006.
Loser: Yasmani Grandal
Speaking of the Mets, Yasmani Grandal might have been a part of their offseason haul at a price that would have made him one of the richest catchers in baseball.
According to Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times, Grandal turned down a four-year, $60 million offer from New York. Per Robert Murray of The Athletic, Grandal got multiyear offers from three other clubs as well.
Instead, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers for one year and $18.25 million.
In Grandal's defense, the 30-year-old told Murray he had altruistic motivations for accepting Milwaukee's one-year offer: "I wanted to keep the line moving and set a bar for the younger guys coming up."
If Grandal maintains an elite level of play—he posted an .815 OPS, slugged 24 home runs and finished second among catchers in Baseball Prospectus' version of WAR in 2018—he might continue to use free agency to further escalate his salaries and ultimately make more than $60 million in a four-year span. That could indeed have a beneficial impact on future free-agent catchers.
It's fair to wonder, however, if he might be hiding the truth that Milwaukee's one-year offer was the best on the table at the time he accepted it. Even if he is telling the truth, it won't do his peers much good if his stardom begins to wane and his salaries start to diminish accordingly.
Winner: Patrick Corbin
It's been nearly two months since the Nationals signed Patrick Corbin, yet it's still the most player-friendly contract of the winter.
The lefty's $140 million deal is worth twice as much as the next-largest contract found on the open market: Nathan Eovaldi's four-year, $68 million pact with the Red Sox. Moreover, that $140 million figure is well above what Corbin was projected to get by MLB Trade Rumors, FanGraphs and Fancred's Jon Heyman.
At least for now, Corbin's deal is a flicker of hope for free agency as an institution. It's proof that multiyear deals worth nine figures aren't yet a thing of the past. From here, he merely needs to illustrate how such deals can indeed benefit the team as well as the player.
To this end, he and the Nats are a good fit. They're better equipped than most to give Corbin the same catching and defense advantages he enjoyed with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year. His first postseason assignment likely isn't far off, and it shouldn't be his last.
Of course, Corbin's deal is bound to be overshadowed whenever Bryce Harper and Manny Machado find contracts. But about that...
Losers: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado
Between them, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have made 10 All-Star teams, clubbed 359 home runs and played in 42 postseason games in seven major league seasons. And both are still only 26 years old.
By all rights, Harper and Machado should be holding record-sized contracts by now. Instead, both have been regarded with a baffling degree of indifference on the open market.
According to Jon Heyman, Machado is so sour on his offers that he's holding out hope for the Yankees to circle back after they seemingly closed the door on him with the DJ LeMahieu signing. Failing that, hunting for a one-year deal might be Machado's best play.
Harper, meanwhile, has eight teams still checking in on him, per Heyman. But Heyman indicated that some of those teams are eyeing an opportunistic short-term contract, not the kind of long-term megadeal that Harper and agent Scott Boras set out for.
It seems increasingly probable that neither Harper nor Machado will top Giancarlo Stanton's record $325 million contract. Maybe that won't compel everyone to weep for them, but it's nonetheless a major concern that the two most desirable free agents in a generation aren't resetting the bar for future generations.
Loser: Major League Baseball
Three years ago, teams invested a whopping $3.8 billion in free agency. The following winter produced only $1.4 billion in free-agent expenses. A tick up in the 2017-18 offseason only went so far as $1.5 billion.
This was partially related to how neither the 2016-17 nor 2017-18 free-agent classes were all that special. Surely, a class consisting of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and more would get things headed back in the right direction.
But this was only ever going to happen if MLB's owners were willing to play ball. And whether their excuse is the luxury tax or something else, most are resisting. Presently, free-agent spending is barely over $1 billion.
Naturally, players are sounding alarms. Take what Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon said of free agency, per Jack Etkin of Forbes:
"That's always been the bedrock, the foundation of the way baseball players operate. That's like the end goal. And to have that all of a sudden be a completely different experience is really going to change the way players feel about baseball and the agreement at which they show up to the park and play the game and get paid. So I'm very concerned."
This is merely a public relations inconvenience for Major League Baseball for now, but dark times loom on the horizon. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the threat of a work stoppage in the near future is becoming "palpable."
If one does indeed come to pass, we'll look back on this winter as the crisis that cemented its necessity.