10 Offseason Moves Shaping the 2021 MLB Playoffs

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2021

10 Offseason Moves Shaping the 2021 MLB Playoffs

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    The MLB offseason is a golden opportunity for teams to add missing pieces, plugging the holes that kept them from achieving the ultimate goal the previous year.

    Whether it's a splashy free-agent signing, a blockbuster trade or an under-the-radar move that pays major dividends, contenders are built in the winter.

    Entering Game 5 of the NLDS on Thursday, five teams remain in the hunt for a World Series title in 2021.

    Focusing on those clubs, we'll count down the 10 moves that have had the greatest impact on this year's playoff picture, taking into account how they addressed needs and the impact the players' production has had on their respective rosters.

    First things first: a few honorable mentions.

Other Key Offseason Additions for Playoff Teams

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    Tommy La Stella
    Tommy La StellaIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Other Key Moves for Teams Still Alive in World Series Hunt

    • ATL: Signed SP Drew Smyly (1 year/$11M)
    • ATL: Selected OF Guillermo Heredia off waivers from NYM
    • ATL: Signed IF Ehire Adrianza (MiLB deal)
    • BOS: Acquired RP Adam Ottavino, P Frank German from NYY in exchange for PTBNL or cash
    • HOU: Signed C Jason Castro (2/$7M)
    • LAD: Acquired RP Corey Knebel from MIL in exchange for SP Leo Crawford
    • LAD: Acquired RP Alex Vesia, SP Kyle Hurt from MIA in exchange for RP Dylan Floro
    • SF: Signed C Curt Casali (1/$1.5M)
    • SF: Signed 2B Tommy La Stella (3/$18.75M)
    • SF: Signed SP Alex Wood (1/$3M)

Honorable Mention: Assembling Baseball's Best Bullpen

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    Dominic Leone
    Dominic LeoneRobert Gauthier/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants had baseball's best bullpen during the regular season, with the relief corps posting a 2.99 ERA to finish just ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers (3.16) and Tampa Bay Rays (3.24) for the top spot.

    That represents a massive improvement over the 2020 season when their bullpen checked in 12th in the majors with a 4.24 ERA and 11 blown saves in 24 chances.

    Camilo Doval has emerged as a force in the late innings, and submarine pitcher Tyler Rogers has been rock solid all year, but the bullpen's improvement can also be traced to four offseason additions who have all played a major role.

    Veteran Jake McGee signed a two-year, $5 million deal after a solid season with the rival Dodgers, while fellow southpaw Jose Alvarez signed a one-year, $1 million deal that includes a $1.5 million club option for 2022. Meanwhile, Dominic Leone and Zack Littell settled for minor league pacts with invites to spring training.

    Here's how those four fared in 2021:

    • Jake McGee: 62 G, 31/36 SV, 2.72 ERA, 8.7 K/9
    • Jose Alvarez: 67 G, 8 HLD, 2.37 ERA, 5.8 K/9
    • Dominic Leone: 57 G, 15 HLD, 1.51 ERA, 8.4 K/9
    • Zack Littell: 63 G, 7 HLD, 2.92 ERA, 9.2 K/9

    Props to the San Francisco front office for retooling a relief corps without breaking the bank.

10. Astros Sign RP Ryne Stanek

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    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    Ryne Stanek was a key member of the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen in 2018 and 2019 before he was traded to the Miami Marlins at the 2019 deadline. The hard-throwing right-hander scuffled down the stretch in Miami following the trade and then posted a 7.20 ERA in nine appearances in 2020. That led to his being non-tendered this past offseason.

    In need of bullpen help, the Houston Astros took a chance, signing him to a one-year deal. 

    The 30-year-old quickly emerged as a key late-inning arm, leading the team in appearances (72) and holds (21) while posting a 3.42 ERA and 10.9 K/9 in 68.1 innings.

    Not bad for a guy who earned $1.1 million in 2021, and he's still controllable via arbitration for two more years.

9. Giants Acquire 1B/OF LaMonte Wade Jr. from Twins

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    In a trade that was largely overlooked at the time, the San Francisco Giants sent right-hander Shaun Anderson to the Minnesota Twins for outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr. on Feb. 4.

    After Wade saw just 24 plate appearances over the first two months of the season, injuries to Brandon Belt and Alex Dickerson opened the door for him to get regular playing time in June, and it was off to the races from there.

    The 27-year-old finished the season with a .253/.326/.482 line that included 17 doubles, 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 381 plate appearances. He split his time between right field (52 games), left field (42 games) and first base (31 games), and finished with a 117 OPS+ and 1.3 WAR.

    With club control through the 2025 season, he has a chance to be a long-term piece for the Giants, and his versatility makes him a great fit as a bench piece capable of stepping into an expanded role as needed.

    For the record, Anderson had a 9.35 ERA in four appearances with the Twins before he was designated for assignment in June. He also spent time with the Orioles and Padres, finishing with an 8.49 ERA in 23.1 innings.

8. Astros Re-Sign LF Michael Brantley

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    The Houston Astros were an offensive juggernaut this year, leading the majors with 863 runs scored and 5.3 runs per game even after George Springer departed for Toronto in free agency.

    Would the offense still have been potent if Michael Brantley also walked?

    Sure, but it wouldn't have been nearly as good, and the impact he has on the team from a veteran leadership standpoint is also tough to quantify.

    After making good on his initial two-year, $32 million deal with the Astros, during which time he hit .309/.370/.497 for a 127 OPS+ and tallied 6.4 WAR in 194 games, Brantley signed an identical two-year, $32 million pact on Jan. 25.

    It was business as usual for the 34-year-old in 2021.

    He hit .311/.362/.437 with 40 extra-base hits in 121 games to finish second in the AL batting title race, and he also made a smooth transition back to playing more regularly in left field after splitting his time between the outfield and DH last year. 

7. Dodgers Re-Sign RP Blake Treinen

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    After a historically good 2018 season closing games for the Oakland Athletics, sinkerballer Blake Treinen regressed considerably the following year. He settled for a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers when he hit the open market before the 2020 season in hopes of rebuilding his value.

    He did just that with a 3.86 ERA and nine holds in 27 appearances, adding one save and three holds in 11 outings during the team's World Series run while again showcasing the electric stuff that made him so effective in Oakland.

    The Dodgers brought him back on a two-year, $17.5 million contract last offseason, and he was worth every penny as one of baseball's best setup relievers. The 33-year-old finished with a 1.99 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 10.6 K/9 in 72 appearances.

    Along the way, he tallied seven saves and an MLB-leading 32 holds, and with Kenley Jansen headed for free agency this winter, he could be asked to slide back into the closer's role in 2022.

6. Red Sox Sign RF Hunter Renfroe

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    Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Hunter Renfroe slugged 33 home runs in a 2.4-WAR season with the San Diego Padres in 2019, but he flopped in his lone season with the Tampa Bay Rays after joining last year's AL pennant winners as part of the Jake Cronenworth/Tommy Pham trade.

    He hit just .156/.252/.393 for a 79 OPS+ with eight home runs in 139 plate appearances and was an 0.0-WAR player for the Rays, so it wasn't surprising when the cost-conscious club designated him for assignment last offseason. His estimated $3.5 million arbitration salary would have made him one of the highest-paid players on the team.

    When he went unclaimed on waivers, the Boston Red Sox signed him to a one-year, $3.1 million deal on Dec. 14, and that helped pave the way for the three-team trade that sent Andrew Benintendi to the Kansas City Royals.

    The 29-year-old went on to hit .259/.315/.501 for a 112 OPS+ with 33 doubles, 31 home runs and 96 RBI, and he also racked up 16 outfield assists on his way to a 2.4-WAR campaign.

    Even though he signed a one-year deal, he has two more years of arbitration eligibility, so he'll likely be back in 2022.

5. Red Sox Select RP Garrett Whitlock in the Rule 5 Draft

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    G Fiume/Getty Images

    The New York Yankees selected Garrett Whitlock in the 18th round of the 2017 draft, and he ranked as the No. 18 prospect in their farm system at the start of the 2019 season, per Baseball America, following a breakout performance the year before.

    He began the 2019 season strong at Double-A, but an arm injury forced him to the sidelines and he underwent Tommy John surgery. His prospect star faded, and he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft last offseason.

    The rival Boston Red Sox scooped him up, and not only did he win a spot on the roster, but he was also one of the most valuable relievers in baseball in 2021.

    The 25-year-old went 8-4 with two saves and 15 holds while logging a 1.96 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 in 73.1 innings. He recorded more than three outs in 31 of his 46 appearances and pitched at least two full innings 19 times, helping to prop up a shaky starting rotation during the first half of the season.

    All of that was worth 2.9 WAR, which trailed only Josh Hader (3.3) and Jonathan Loaisiga (3.3) among all relievers in 2021.

4. Giants Sign SP Anthony DeSclafani

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Anthony DeSclafani was quietly excellent in 2019, going 9-9 with a 3.89 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 166.2 innings for the Cincinnati Reds.

    That made him one of the more intriguing buy-low candidates on the free-agent market last offseason, even though he struggled to a 7.22 ERA in 33.2 innings during an injury-plagued and pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.

    The San Francisco Giants gave him a one-year, $6 million deal, and he rewarded them with the best season of his career.

    The 31-year-old went 13-7 with a 3.17 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 152 strikeouts in 167.2 innings, tying his career high with 31 starts while tying for 14th among NL starters with 4.1 WAR.

    A lucrative multiyear deal is coming this offseason, and regardless of whether that comes from the Giants, it's hard to imagine them winning the NL West title in 2021 without him.

3. Dodgers Re-Sign 3B Justin Turner

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    Wally Skalij/Getty Images

    Justin Turner tested the free-agent market during the offseason, hoping to land a four-year deal. But when that market never developed, he returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers on a two-year, $34 million pact that includes a 2023 club option.

    At 36 years old, he's lost a step defensively at the hot corner, but his bat still plays.

    He hit .278/.361/.471 for a 123 OPS+, tallying 22 doubles, 27 home runs and 87 RBI while earning his second All-Star selection.

    One of the most productive postseason hitters in Dodgers franchise history, he's gone just 1-for-17 through the first four games of the NLDS, but he hit a big solo home run off Adam Wainwright in the NL Wild Card Game.

    In 77 career playoff contests, he's a .280/.375/.488 hitter with 13 home runs and 42 RBI.

2. Braves Sign SP Charlie Morton

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    Edward M. Pio Roda/Getty Images

    Where would the Atlanta Braves be without Charlie Morton?

    With Mike Soroka suffering through another lost year, the Braves needed someone alongside Max Fried at the top of the rotation while Ian Anderson, Huascar Ynoa, Touki Toussaint and a handful of other young arms handled things at the back of the staff.

    Morton answered the call, going 14-6 with a 3.34 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 216 strikeouts in 185.2 innings.

    The 37-year-old signed a one-year, $15 million contract during the offseason after a terrific two-year stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he brought with him valuable postseason experience.

    The Braves handed him the ball in Game 1 of the NLDS, and he delivered six innings of three-hit, two-run ball with nine strikeouts as the tough-luck loser. He returned for Game 4 on short rest and worked 3.1 innings before turning it over to the bullpen in the series-clinching win.

1. Red Sox Sign 2B/CF Enrique Hernandez

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    Winslow Townson/Getty Images

    Anyone who has watched Enrique Hernandez the past several years with the Los Angeles Dodgers is not the least bit surprised he is making such a significant impact for the Boston Red Sox.

    Still, few would have predicted him to tie with Xander Bogaerts at 4.9 WAR for the top spot on the team in the first season of a two-year, $14 million contract.

    The 30-year-old continued to wear out left-handed pitching while adjusting to life as an everyday player, hitting .250/.337/.449 for a 107 OPS+ with 35 doubles, 20 home runs, 60 RBI and 84 runs scored.

    He was also brilliant in center field (14 DRS, 12.1 UZR/150) while seeing semi-regular action at second base as well.

    He went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored in the AL Wild Card Game, then turned in a 9-for-20 performance in the ALDS that included a pair of home runs and a five-hit effort in Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Rays.

    Hitting primarily out of the top two spots in the Boston lineup, he'll need to continue to be an offensive catalyst as the Red Sox chase a trip to the World Series.

                  

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Arbitration estimates via MLB Trade Rumors

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