The 8 Most Impactful Moves of MLB's 2021-22 Offseason So Far

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 9, 2021

The 8 Most Impactful Moves of MLB's 2021-22 Offseason So Far

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    With Major League Baseball's 2021-22 offseason on hold because of the lockout, now's as good a time as any to rank the most impactful moves of the winter so far. 

    Lest anyone think so, this is not the same as simply sizing up the splashiest deals of the hot-stove season.

    We could talk about, say, the Texas Rangers' $500 million splash with Corey Seager and Marcus Semien or the Detroit Tigers' $140 million pact with Javier Baez, but not endlessly so. Trouble is, the money isn't record-setting, and there are still questions about those club's contention timelines.

    Rather, the moves we're after are the ones that just feel like legit difference-makers. Maybe the fit is good. Or the money is substantial. Or the sheer boldness is admirable. Or some combination of all of the above.

    We have eight to get to, ranked according to just how much they move the needle for us, subjectively speaking.

8. Chicago White Sox Sign Kendall Graveman

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Starting in the American League Central, the Chicago White Sox's three-year, $24 million pact with Kendall Graveman is the kind of move that didn't make headlines but perhaps should have.

    The 2021 season was the veteran's first as a full-time reliever, and what a proof of concept it was. Graveman appeared in 53 games for the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros and pitched a stellar 1.77 ERA.

    Graveman's moneymaker was an upper-90s sinker that quietly nestled among the most effective pitches in the game. He threw it 548 times, yet opposing batters hit just .177 with one home run against it.

    On paper, Graveman is an ideal setup man for ace closer Liam Hendriks on the South Side. That's something they struggled to find after the trade deadline this year, mostly because Craig Kimbrel (5.09 ERA) and Michael Kopech (6.92 ERA) couldn't live up to their earlier performances.

    With this need taken care of, the White Sox now have the excuse they need to stretch Kopech out and see what he can do as a starter. If he can so much as give them five good innings every time out, he'll be a fine complement for a rotation headed by aces Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn.

7. St. Louis Cardinals Sign Steven Matz

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    A mid-level contract for a mid-level starting pitcher? What's so special about that?

    For one, the St. Louis Cardinals filled perhaps their only true need when they signed Steven Matz to a four-year, $44 million contract. For two, his particular skillset is a glove-like fit for what the team did best amid its run to a National League wild-card berth this past season.

    Even if starting pitching wasn't necessarily a weakness for the Cardinals in 2021—their starters' 4.01 ERA ranked 11th in MLB—things were dicey in their rotation after Adam Wainwright. Whereas he made 32 starts, nobody else started more than 21 times, and eight total hurlers made double-digit starts.

    After a year in which he pitched to a 3.82 ERA in 29 outings for the Toronto Blue Jays, Matz should bring some stability to St. Louis' rotation. And while his pitch-to-contact style would be an issue on other teams, it should work just fine in tandem with a defense that led the majors in outs above average this year.

    Given good health and enough good fortune, St. Louis' starting five of Wainwright, Matz, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas could be elite in 2022. What's more, Wainright is the only one not under contract past next season.

6. Minnesota Twins Extend Byron Buxton

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    Just as there are swing states in politics, there are also swing contracts in baseball.

    It really seemed like the Minnesota Twins could have gone either way with Byron Buxton. After a shocking 89-loss season and ahead of his final year under club control in 2022, Dan Hayes and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Twins were prepared to trade Buxton if they couldn't extend him.

    By way of a seven-year, $100 million contract extension, the two sides ultimately walked through Door No. 1.

    If nothing else, the deal itself is worthy of intrigue. A nine-figure guarantee is an awful lot for a guy who's yet to fully break out after seven seasons, yet the incentives in Buxton's contract—he can earn upwards of $25.5 million per year—underscore his upside as a dynamic five-tool talent and an MVP-level producer.

    Granted, merely retaining a player they already had isn't going to push the Twins to the top of the American League Central. The deal nonetheless lends credence to their promise that they wouldn't rebuild despite their letdown of a season, so don't be surprised if they make some noise on the other side of the lockout.

5. San Diego Padres Hire Bob Melvin

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    Derrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    Because he was the man in the middle of a hugely disappointing 79-83 season and the clubhouse discord at the end of it all, the San Diego Padres had little choice but to fire manager Jayce Tingler.

    The apparent problem at the time was a shortage of available candidates who were clearly better choices to manage the Padres. Yet they pulled a fast one by hiring one who wasn't available: Bob Melvin.

    It's impossible to quantify how much of Melvin's success in 11 seasons with the Oakland Athletics was because of him, yet his knack for communication was certainly key. It was also equitable, as Matt Chapman said: "He treats everybody the same, whether it's a young guy or a vet."

    Melvin's communication skills also held true, even as Oakland's limited budgets necessitated constant payroll turnover. Indeed, he was the only connective tissue between the playoff teams of 2012-2014 and those of 2018-2020.

    In spite of this year's struggle, the roster that Melvin is now in charge of in San Diego is an eminently talented one headlined by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado. So as long as he does his thing, the players should elevate the franchise back to the top of the National League in 2022.

4. Toronto Blue Jays Sign Kevin Gausman

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Is it weird that the Blue Jays signed Kevin Gausman for five years, $110 million when they potentially could have re-signed AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray for just $5 million more? A little bit, yes.

    But is Gausman's contract nonetheless a major positive for the Blue Jays? Also, yes.

    Though the right-hander fell 1.5 rWAR shy of Ray while pitching for the San Francisco Giants in 2021, that might not be the statistic to which the Jays were drawn. Maybe they were simply looking at ERA and innings pitched for this season:

    • Ray: 2.84 ERA, 193.1 IP
    • Gausman: 2.81 ERA, 192.0 IP

    To these extents, the two hurlers basically had the same season. And if the Jays were further motivated to sign Gausman with the belief that his ability to suppress home runs would carry over to the American League, his ground-ball-magnet splitter is a legitimate reason in which to place those hopes.

    So even if it was preemptive, the Blue Jays nonetheless replaced a No. 1 starter with another No. 1 starter. Thus, they avoided a substantial setback after a 91-win season that left them just short of the playoffs.

3. Tampa Bay Rays Extend Wander Franco

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Even more so than Buxton's $100 million extension with the Twins, Wander Franco's 11-year, $182 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays ought to have made you say, "Wow."

    The money is obviously a big reason why. Franco only has 70 major league games under his belt, yet his new contract nearly doubled the previous record for a player with less than a year of service time. And that one was a $100 million contract signed by Ronald Acuna Jr. just two years ago.

    The Rays' confidence in Franco isn't misplaced. He's only 20 years old, yet he's already made history with a 43-game on-base streak. He was the team's best hitter by the end of 2021, especially in the playoffs, when he went 7-for-19 with two home runs in a losing cause to the Boston Red Sox.

    Plus, these are the Rays we're talking about. 

    They're more generous with extensions than they are with free-agent deals, but even for them, Franco's contract is a game-changer. He's now guaranteed to make about three times what the Rays spent on their Opening Day payroll in 2021, so mark another L for the notion that "small-market" teams simply can't spend.

2. New York Mets Sign Max Scherzer

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The sheer risk that the New York Mets signed up for when they agreed to pay Max Scherzer $130 million over the next three seasons can't be understated.

    If you can bring yourself to ignore his accomplishments, what stands out the most is that he's 37 years old. Recent history suggests that he'll no longer be able to live up to his average of 6.1 rWAR over the last nine seasons. Heck, no 37-or-older hurler has even managed a 5-rWAR campaign since 2013.

    Nevertheless, the possibility of the three-time Cy Young Award winner continuing to pitch like his usual self is nothing if not intriguing, even more so when taken in tandem with the similarly humongous upside of his new rotation mate, Jacob deGrom. Together, the two of them could be a modern Johnson-Schilling duo.

    In addition to tremendous promise, the Scherzer signing also brought some much-needed credibility to the Mets. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that they didn't even have a general manager after an 85-loss dud of a 2021 season. Once Scherzer signed, they threw their hat into the ring of World Series contenders.

    Meanwhile, Scherzer's fellow players now have a new financial standard to chase. It's because of him that a $43.3 million average salary is no longer the stuff of dreams.

1. Seattle Mariners Sign Robbie Ray

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Even if their playoff drought ultimately extended to 20 seasons, the Seattle Mariners officially put themselves on the radar as postseason contenders in 2021.

    Sure, it took some luck for them to win 90 games in spite of a minus-51 run differential. But you could see them establishing a promising core in real-time, which is all the more exciting given that they're not nearly finished mining talent from their No. 2 farm system.

    When the Mariners signed Ray to a five-year, $115 million pact, they took care of the perhaps the only ingredient that wasn't forthcoming any time soon.

    Though Ray missed out on a unanimous victory by one first-place vote, there isn't any question that he was the best pitcher in the American League this year. He led the AL in rWAR, ERA and innings pitched, as well as all of MLB with 248 strikeouts.

    Now, he joins a team whose starters had just a 45-45 record and a 4.61 ERA. He's precisely the pitcher who could have vaulted them into the playoffs this year, which should make him exactly the guy they need to finally get there in 2022 and beyond.

               

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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