MLB Offseason Winners and Losers 1 Month Ahead of Spring Training
In less than a month, pitchers and catchers will begin reporting to spring training, and another long, cold MLB offseason will wind to a close.
Teams have spent more freely than we've seen in recent winters, and several free agents exceeded expectations with their new contracts.
However, it hasn't all been good.
A few of the market's top hitters are still looking for new homes, some recent postseason participants have failed to improve after missing the playoffs in 2019, and the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal has given a black eye to the sport.
With all of that in mind, we set out to name the biggest offseason winners and losers as the baseball world starts to turn its attention to spring training.
Loser: Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians' window of contention appears to be rapidly slamming shut.
After claiming three straight AL Central titles from 2016 to 2018, they missed the postseason last year despite winning 93 games.
The Minnesota Twins have added Josh Donaldson, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey and Tyler Clippard to a roster that won 101 games a year ago. All signs indicate they'll open the season as the team to beat once again.
Meanwhile, the Chicago White Sox look vastly improved thanks to the additions of Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Encarnacion, Nomar Mazara and Steve Cishek, along with the impending arrival of top prospect Luis Robert.
While those teams have improved, the Indians have spent the offseason sitting on their hands, selling low on Corey Kluber and showing little movement on the trade rumors that surround superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor.
Adding second baseman Cesar Hernandez, hard-throwing reliever Emmanuel Clase and speedy fourth outfielder Delino DeShields does not move the needle if the Indians are serious about contending.
And if they're not, it's time to pull the trigger on a Lindor deal and focus on the future.
Winners: Philadelphia Phillies
The Philadelphia Phillies entered the 2019 season with lofty expectations after a busy offseason saw them add the likes of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura to the starting lineup.
A mediocre pitching staff largely undercut those additions, and they finished 81-81, good for a distant fourth in the ultra-competitive NL East.
With so much money already sunk into the core of the team, the front office had to continue spending in an effort to get over the hump. The Phillies made a necessary splash by signing starter Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million deal.
New manager Joe Girardi told reporters:
"I think you're going to have a 1 and a 1A with him and [Aaron] Nola. When you look at what he's done the last few years and really throughout his career, he's continued to get better and better. This is a power guy with four pitches where I think he's just starting to reach his potential. I think there is more in the tank there. I think this guy can be more dominant than he's been, and we're looking forward to seeing the top of our rotation."
They followed that move with the low-risk, high-reward signing of shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal.
The 29-year-old struggled to shake off the rust after starting the 2019 season on the injured list recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, he's just a year removed from a 4.2-WAR season with the New York Yankees where he posted a 124 OPS+ with 27 home runs and 86 RBI.
The Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets all look like legitimate playoff contenders, but the Phillies have bridged the gap with their free-agency spending.
Losers: Colorado Rockies
The slide from postseason contender to NL West also-ran was a precipitous one for the Colorado Rockies.
After winning 91 games and claiming a wild-card berth in 2018, they saw their win total plummet to 71, and a wholly inactive offseason has provided little reason for optimism.
The pitching staff deserves a good portion of the blame:
- 2018: 4.33 ERA (20th in MLB), 4.17 SP ERA (18th), 4.62 RP ERA (26th)
- 2019: 5.56 ERA (29th), 5.87 SP ERA (30th), 5.14 RP ERA (28th)
What has the front office done to address that issue?
Jose Mujica and Tyler Kinley are the only additions to the 40-man roster on the pitching side, and neither player is projected to crack the Opening Day roster, according to Roster Resource.
Instead, the team's biggest story is a possible trade of star third baseman Nolan Arenado.
The fact that he's even on the trade block less than a year after signing an eight-year, $260 million extension speaks volumes to the organization's lack of direction.
Winners: Texas Rangers
Despite finishing 29 games back in the AL West standings with a 78-84 record, the Texas Rangers have approached the offseason like contenders.
The biggest weakness on last year's team was a lack of reliable starting pitching behind the stellar one-two punch of Lance Lynn and Mike Minor. These numbers have been referenced more than once this offseason, but they bear repeating:
- Minor/Lynn: 65 GS, 36 QS, 30-21, 3.63 ERA, 416.2 IP
- 17 Other SP: 97 GS, 19 QS, 15-39, 7.22 ERA, 391.1 IP
The additions of Corey Kluber (trade with CLE), Kyle Gibson (three years, $28M) and Jordan Lyles (two years, $16M) to round out the staff could make a monumental difference.
All three of those pitchers come with question marks. Kluber missed the bulk of last season with a fractured forearm, Gibson posted a 4.84 ERA in 160 innings and Lyles has never eclipsed 150 innings in a season.
They also provide reasons for optimism. Kluber was one of the best pitchers in baseball pre-injury, and his acquisition cost was minimal. Gibson is a year removed from posting a career-best 3.62 ERA over 196.2 innings. Lyles finished on a high note with a 2.45 ERA in 11 starts with the Milwaukee Brewers.
On paper, this looks like the best rotation the Rangers have had since they claimed back-to-back AL pennants with the likes of C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison to anchor the staff.
Veteran slugger Todd Frazier also has a chance to be one of the best bargains of the offseason after he was added on a one-year, $5 million contract. The team received a brutal .699 OPS from the third base position last year, while Frazier had a respectable .772 OPS with 21 home runs in 499 plate appearances.
At the very least, this team looks like a wild-card contender.
Losers: Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna
The last top-tier domino of this year's free-agent market fell when Josh Donaldson signed a four-year, $92 million deal with the Minnesota Twins earlier this week.
A pair of impact bats are still available in the form of Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna, though players come with significant downsides.
Castellanos has a brutal defensive profile that includes minus-64 defensive runs saved at third base and minus-36 DRS in the outfield over parts of seven seasons in the majors.
For Ozuna, the dreaded qualifying offer hangs around his neck like an anchor, scaring away more than a few teams that don't want to part with a valuable draft pick to sign an offensive-minded player who has a 107 OPS+ over the past two seasons.
What's ahead for the top two remaining free agents on the market?
Castellanos could still land something close to the four-year, $58 million deal that MLB Trade Rumors predicted for him at the start of the offseason. He's just 27 years old, and for an AL team that can hide him at DH, his 121 OPS+ and 88 extra-base hits last season hold plenty of appeal.
Things are decidedly less bright for Ozuna.
According to Neftali Ruiz of CDN 37 (via Hector Gomez of Z 101), Ozuna listed the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers as the two favorites to sign him. However, there's a good chance he will wind up somewhere below the $17.8 million figure he turned down at the start of the offseason in terms of AAV.
Neither of these players is in-demand enough to have much leverage, so they're at the mercy of the few remaining teams that need an impact bat.
Winners: 2nd- and 3rd-Tier Free-Agent Starting Pitchers
As expected, Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324M), Stephen Strasburg (seven years, $245M) and Zack Wheeler (five years, $118M) were all paid handsomely this offseason.
However, several of the second- and third-tier guys also landed better-than-expected paydays. Here's a look at some notable free-agent pitchers, what they were initially predicted to sign for by MLB Trade Rumors at the start of the offseason, and what they ended up signing for:
- Madison Bumgarner, ARI: Prediction (4/$72M), Reality (5/$85M)
- Hyun-Jin Ryu, TOR: Prediction (3/$54M), Reality (4/$80M)
- Dallas Keuchel, CWS: Prediction (3/$39M), Reality (3/$55.5M)
- Kyle Gibson, TEX: Prediction (2/$18M), Reality (3/$28M)
- Tanner Roark, TOR: Prediction (2/$18M), Reality (2/$24M)
- Cole Hamels, ATL: Prediction (2/$30M), Reality (1/$18M)
Several others have managed to secure guaranteed one-year deals, when in years past they may have been forced to settle for minor league pacts and spring training invites:
- Kevin Gausman, SF: $9 million
- Homer Bailey, MIN: $7 million
- Martin Perez, BOS: $6 million
- Gio Gonzalez, CWS: $5 million
- Brett Anderson, MIL: $5 million
- Alex Wood, LAD: $4 million
- Rich Hill, MIN: $3 million
- Kendall Graveman, SEA: $2 million
- Ivan Nova, DET: $1.5 million
All things considered, it's been a lucrative market for starting pitchers this winter.
Losers: Chicago Cubs
A middling 84-78 record left the Chicago Cubs a distant third in the NL Central in 2019. That helped convince the front office to part ways with manager Joe Maddon at the end of his contract.
The hiring of David Ross as the new bench boss kicked off what was expected to be a busy offseason of retooling. Instead, it's been nearly three months since the Ross hire, and stagnation hangs over the franchise.
Here's a look at the additions to the 40-man roster:
- SP Jharel Cotton (Trade, via OAK)
- RP Trevor Megill (Rule 5 draft)
- RP CD Pelham (Waivers, via TEX)
- RP Ryan Tepera (FA, 1/$900K)
- RP Dan Winkler (FA, 1/$750K)
Meanwhile, trade rumors continue to swirl around star third baseman Kris Bryant, while the team cries poor and sits on its hands.
"We're not going to force anything," team president Theo Epstein told reporters at the winter meetings. "We're not going to make a change just for change's sake. I do think we could benefit from some change in certain areas, and we are interested in pursuing some opportunities to get better immediately and opportunities to make our future healthier as well. But you can't force anything."
While the teams around them have worked to improve, the Cubs have stood pat on a roster that came up short. At this point, a fourth-place finish in the NL Central seems just as likely as a return to the postseason.
Winners: Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox went all-in on Manny Machado last offseason but came up short.
Despite that missed foray into the deep end of the free-agent pool, the team improved its win total by 10 to 72-89 in 2019. With an exciting young core and more in-house help on the way, they entered the offseason looking to make a splash once again.
This time around, they didn't pin their hopes on one player, and they walked away with an impressive haul of talent:
- C Yasmani Grandal (FA, 4/$73M)
- SP Dallas Keuchel (FA, 3/$55.5M)
- DH Edwin Encarnacion (FA, 1/$12M)
- RP Steve Cishek (FA, 1/$6M)
- SP Gio Gonzalez (FA, 1/$5M)
- RF Nomar Mazara (Trade, via TEX)
Along with those outside additions, they inked Jose Abreu to a three-year, $50 million extension. They also locked up top prospect Luis Robert with a six-year, $50 million deal that should open the door for him to win a spot on the Opening Day roster.
A rotation that ranked 24th in the majors with a 5.30 ERA has a chance to be at least average thanks to the additions of Keuchel and Gonzalez, while Cishek gives the bullpen an experienced late-inning option with closer experience. Don't underestimate the impact Grandal could have on the staff as well given his reputation as one of the game's best pitch-framers.
Offensively, Grandal and Encarnacion are both capable of filling middle-of-the-order run-production roles. Mazara should provide a significant upgrade in right field after the position produced a brutal .220/.277/.288 with just six home runs last year.
Improving by another 10 to 15 wins and making a run at a wild-card spot seem doable, and that's the tip of the iceberg for a team on the rise.
Biggest Losers: Houston Astros and Alex Cora
The sign-stealing scandal has been resolved, and the Houston Astros are on the hunt for a new general manager and manager after Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch were suspended for the 2020 season and consequently fired.
However, a cloud still hangs over the Houston organization, and it will not dissipate anytime soon.
While the punishment handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred did not make the team vacate its 2017 World Series win, that title will never be viewed the same way again.
The club will also lose its first- and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021. After Houston gutted the farm system to acquire Zack Greinke at the trade deadline this past summer, the ramifications of that lost talent will be felt for years.
Then there's Alex Cora, the now-former manager of the Boston Red Sox, who was identified as a ringleader in the sign-stealing operation.
His promising managerial career has come to a screeching halt and left the Red Sox scrambling to fill the manager's seat less than a month before pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
It's possible Hinch (45 years old) and Cora (44) will never manage again, while Luhnow (53) will be hard-pressed to find another front-office gig.
While some free agents signed for less money than expected and some teams failed to address pressing needs, there are no bigger losers this offseason than the Houston Astros and Alex Cora.
Biggest Winners: Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon
In a sport wherein contracts are fully guaranteed, that's how much Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon banked this offseason.
Cole is the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history after inking a nine-year, $324 million contract. He joins a New York Yankees team that will likely begin the season as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series after adding the AL Cy Young runner-up to a roster that won 103 games in 2019.
Strasburg began the offseason by opting out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract, which was the right decision. His new seven-year, $245 million deal briefly made him the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history before the Cole contract. It also keeps him with the only organization he's ever known.
Rendon set career highs in OPS+ (153), home runs (34) and RBI (126) during a 6.3-WAR season. While the Nationals decided to focus their resources on Strasburg, he was able to find a matching seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Who wouldn't want to have their name penciled into the lineup alongside the best player in the world, Mike Trout?
After the free-agent market moved slowly last offseason, this trio helped jump-start a busy winter that saw a number of players exceed earning expectations.
They have also set the bar high for guys like Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto, Marcus Semien, George Springer, Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer, who are set to hit the open market next offseason.