Spring training is just around the corner, which means the MLB offseason is officially coming to a close. This winter was full of notable signings, even more notable releases, and trades that both shocked and awed. So to wrap up these strange past few months, The Ringer’s baseball staff came together to award the winners and losers of this MLB offseason.
Winner: A.J. Preller
Ben Lindbergh: If the Padres had sustained last season’s 100-win pace over a full-length campaign, they would have boasted one of the biggest year-over-year win-total upticks ever. And although they more than earned that much-improved status—their expected record, based on underlying metrics, was the second-best in baseball—history tells us that most teams take a step back after a breakout year. Most teams, however, aren’t operated by Padres general manager A.J. Preller, who’s spent the offseason attempting to defy the plexiglass principle.
At the 2020 trade deadline, Preller solidified his reputation as one of baseball’s busiest deal-makers by importing or exporting an unprecedented total of 26 players in three days. His headline acquisition was Mike Clevinger, whose subsequent Tommy John surgery left the Padres with multiple vacancies in their 2021 rotation. Undeterred by his deadline addition’s fragility, Preller used the offseason to deal for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. Collectively, that group will lead one of the game’s most drool-inducing rotations. Preller also signed Ha-seong Kim and re-signed Jurickson Profar, giving the Padres an enviable trio of multiposition players in Kim, Profar, and Rookie of the Year runner-up Jake Cronenworth. That flurry of moves helped the Padres achieve projected parity with the Dodgers, at least until Andrew Friedman got the last laugh by adding another ace of his own. It also earned Preller a title bump and an extension through 2026.
Rather than set their sights on a wild-card berth and cede the division to the big, bad, defending champs, the Padres took the titans head on this winter. In an offseason in which almost all but the biggest-market teams were intent on cutting costs, Preller convinced ownership to invest in a top-10 payroll. That the Padres’ payroll isn’t even higher is a testament to the cost-controlled core Preller has assembled. And even after surrendering Luis Patiño and assorted lower-profile prospects, San Diego still lays claim to one of the sport’s richest farm systems and an unparalleled seven representatives on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list.
Although a number of other teams (including one in the NL West) have recently traded away face-of-the-franchise stars, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Padres extend Fernando Tatis Jr. prior to Opening Day. Which means that the once-mostly-anonymous and still-title-less Padres should make San Diego a prominent place on the major league map for some time to come.
Loser: Smart, Cheap Teams
Zach Kram: How did the Rays, fresh off a World Series appearance in 2020, update their roster to push past that final obstacle to win the first title in franchise history? They, uh, blew one of the majors’ best rotations to smithereens by trading Snell to the Padres and declining Charlie Morton’s $15 million option. (Atlanta then signed Morton to a $15 million contract for next season.) To be fair, the Rays are set to get back a number of promising pitchers who missed most or all of 2020 with injury, and there’s no better organization at cobbling together pitching depth.
Then again, the only pitchers they added in free agency were Michael Wacha, who’s posted a 5.15 ERA and 5.54 FIP in the past two seasons; Chris Archer, who also had both an ERA and FIP that started with a “5” in 2019, before missing all of last season due to thoracic outlet surgery; and Rich Hill and Collin McHugh, both signed late last week, who both bring potential along with high injury risk.
Oh, and the offense? The Rays didn’t add any new MLB position players this winter. So although they have the majors’ best farm system, they’re taking steps backward at the big-league level—or at least not bounding forward when a team in their position should.
Tampa Bay’s West Coast counterpart has been equally inactive. With Houston possibly reaching a downturn of its competitive cycle, Oakland could have seized control of the AL West with both hands; the A’s even won a playoff series last season for the first time since 2006. With closer Liam Hendriks (MLB’s most valuable relief pitcher over the last two seasons) and shortstop Marcus Semien (the third-place AL MVP finisher in 2019) leaving in free agency, along with a host of other depth players—like most of the bullpen—the A’s had some big holes to fill.
Instead, they traded for erstwhile Ranger Elvis Andrus … and that’s it. Andrus himself is no sure thing to replace Semien; over the last three seasons, he ranks 162nd out of 164 qualified hitters in production at the plate. Per FanGraphs, the A’s rank 22nd in projected second-base WAR and 24th in projected shortstop WAR, and they rank last among all AL clubs in projected designated hitter WAR. There was plenty of depth to go around this winter, if only the A’s had deigned to participate in free agency.
Winner: The Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado Heist
Michael Baumann: Two offseasons ago, the Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt, one of the most consistent middle-of-the-order hitters in baseball, in a trade with Arizona. In return, St. Louis sent back a package that was headlined by catcher Carson Kelly and righthander Luke Weaver. These two talented young big leaguers had plenty of upside, but both played at positions of relative strength for St. Louis, and the deal was widely seen as a coup for the Cardinals.
Now, that trade looks positively even given what the Cardinals gave up to acquire Nolan Arenado, a superior player to Goldschmidt, from the Rockies this winter. For a top-end defensive third baseman who has averaged 41 home runs per 162 games since 2015, St. Louis gave up a decent young big league arm—Austin Gomber—and four prospects, none of whom were among the team’s top 10, according to Baseball Prospectus. And the Cardinals got Colorado to subsidize up to $51 million in future salary for the five-time All-Star.
George C. Parker, the flim-flam man who “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge to unsuspecting marks at the start of the 20th century, just popped out of his grave, dialed up St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, and asked how he pulled off such a heist. Have the Cardinals infiltrated the NL West and replaced all their GMs with impostors? Do they have blackmail on higher-ups in the Rockies’ front office? (Possibly!) Even if nabbing Arenado isn’t enough to put St. Louis back atop the NL Central’s empire of dirt, this trade is a win all by itself.
Loser: The Dream of Luken Baker in Coors Field
Baumann: In 2016, I watched a TCU freshman named Luken Baker absolutely dominate a college tournament at Minute Maid Park. (I can already hear Ben Lindbergh yelling at me to shut the hell up, so I promise I’ll be quick.) Baker was one of the biggest teenagers I’d ever seen, and in addition to being the best pitcher in a crop that included a couple of future big leaguers, he hit a home run that left the stadium altogether. If the roof had been closed it would have banged into the left-field windows not far from where Albert Pujols took Brad Lidge deep in the 2005 NLCS. This was 80-grade power, with room to spare.
Fast-forward five years, and Baker is a first base and DH prospect in the Cardinals farm system, and the first rumored iteration of the Arenado trade had him going to Colorado. By the time the actual deal was announced, however, Baker was no longer on the list, dashing the dream of putting the gigantic Texan in the pipeline to hit full time at altitude and turn the Rocky Mountains into his own personal driving range. What a devastating disappointment. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover.
Winner: A New Era in Mets Fandom
Bobby Wagner: When Steve Cohen’s purchase of the Mets went through, I expected them to become one of the most relevant and talked-about teams in baseball. But not even I could’ve anticipated that it would happen so fast. In one calendar year (granted, this felt like the longest calendar year in the history of humankind), the Mets have gone from thumping their chests about having the “deepest rotation in the league” because of the signings of Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha to setting “World Series within the next three years” expectations—and backing it up by completing a blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco.
I can’t lie: The day that the Mets acquired Lindor is the single greatest day in the history of my fandom. But what really feels different about this offseason is that the Mets are spending the money and investing the time to make savvy depth moves, like signing reliever Trevor May and inserting themselves into a three-team trade to snag Padres pitcher Joey Lucchesi. And they showed interest in building sustainably by joining the Andrew Benintendi three-team deal; they got Khalil Lee, a top outfield prospect, in exchange for a bullpen arm that barely cracked their own top 30 prospects.
The Mets finally shed their anticompetitive owners just in time to take advantage of a league littered with them. This new era is subject to change, or short squeezes, or the arc of baseball ownership bending toward penny-pinching. But for now, I’m awash in the glow of rooting for a real, big-market baseball team.
Loser: The NL Central
Kram: Even the Cardinals’ theft of Arenado from the Rockies isn’t enough to make up for this division’s lackadaisical offseason. Does any team here really want to win?
This winter, St. Louis traded for Arenado, retained Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, and added nobody else. Milwaukee’s only addition of note was Kolten Wong, whose option the Cardinals curiously declined at the start of the offseason. Chicago—last year’s division winner—traded away Yu Darvish, effectively substituted Joc Pederson for Kyle Schwarber, and then ignored its catastrophically shallow rotation. Cincinnati didn’t bother trying to replace the departed Trevor Bauer, salary-dumped a high-quality closer in Raisel Iglesias, and seemingly forgot that shortstop is even a position. And Pittsburgh gave up just about every worthwhile major leaguer that was left on its roster.
It was, in essence, a reverse arms race, with each team thinking: As long as my competitors aren’t trying to improve, then I don’t need to try to improve, either.
The result is five clubs that range from really bad to merely kind of bad. Based on FanGraphs’ predictive measure of team strength without accounting for schedules, all five NL Central teams would project below .500 if they didn’t get to play all the other bad teams in their division.
NL Central Projections
Of course, somebody from this motley crew has to make the playoffs. But given how poorly each individual roster projects, it’s hard to imagine the winner will do much in October: Combined, all five NL Central teams’ World Series odds total just 3.6 percent, per FanGraphs. No other division’s combined title odds are below 10 percent.
Lindbergh: More than a year after Mike Fiers came forward and blew the whistle on the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, baseball fans still aren’t done dissecting and digesting the scandal. Multiple books about the Astros are due out in 2021, and TV treatments may make their way to our screens. But this offseason cemented what already seemed mostly certain: no former Astros will suffer any serious consequences because of their associations with the team. George Springer, whose at-bats yielded the second-most audible “bangs” on the 2017 team, signed the winter’s most lucrative free-agent deal, a six-year, $150 million pact with Toronto. A.J. Hinch (the manager who failed to stop the sign-stealing scheme) and Alex Cora (the former bench coach who helped engineer it) returned to dugouts as soon as their single-season suspensions were over. The Tigers called Hinch half an hour after the end of the World Series and eventually hired him as their skipper, and the Red Sox brought back Cora in his old managerial role.
Former high-ranking Astros front-office members who weren’t implicated in the scandal have migrated to media outlets or other teams. Even disgraced, fired, and suspended ex-assistant GM Brandon Taubman quickly found work as the CIO of a Houston-area “data-driven real estate investing” company devoted to streamlining “previously inefficient processes.” And while former GM Jeff Luhnow—last heard proclaiming his innocence and complaining about MLB’s investigation—hasn’t landed another job in baseball, he seems to be managing just fine. Luhnow and the Astros likely reached a settlement of his wrongful termination suit, and after spending 2020 working with “multiple investment groups targeting investments in baseball, soccer, and e-sports,” he’s serving as the chairman and co-CEO of SportsTek Acquisition Corp., a blank-check business that intends to raise $125 million in an IPO. The Astros’ behavior may have made them heels, but after ducking the boobirds during a season without fans in the stands, they’ve continued to find new ways to win.
Loser: Boston’s Killer B Outfield
Baumann: When the Red Sox won the AL East in 2017 and went on their dominant championship run in 2018, their outfield was a major strength. That group featured not only Mookie Betts, the best player in the world not named after a fish, but also defensive wizard and ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr. and young left fielder Andrew Benintendi. All three, at their best, are dynamic two-way players, exciting athletes, and infectiously joyful personalities on and off the diamond. In 20 years, we’re going to look back and marvel that there was a Boston sports institution that was simply impossible to hate.
And now it’s gone. Betts, of course, is off to a title-winning start with the Dodgers, and Benintendi was traded to Kansas City last week. Bradley remains a free agent, but he has priced himself out of Boston’s newfound, Brewers-with-higher-property-taxes teambuilding structure. It’s the sad end of an era in Boston, and a reminder that teams are more than their record or financial ledger. They are the sum of their players, and the interactions and relationships between those players—all of which can be dissolved and dispersed on a whim.
Winner: Pitchers, Writ Large
Kram: Perhaps the most impactful news of the winter didn’t involve a transaction or any single team. Last week, The Athletic reported that MLB, via Rawlings, plans to slightly deaden the baseball this season, making it a tad lighter and less bouncy. This change might not matter much; The Athletic’s report quotes one analyst who estimates that home run rates will drop by just 5 percent, the equivalent of “adding five feet of outfield walls to every wall in the big leagues.”
But as the last few seasons have demonstrated, even minor changes to the baseball’s composition can wreak havoc on its performance. A couple seasons ago, the Korean Baseball Organization saw home run rates decline by 40 percent when it deadened the balls (though the KBO increased, rather than decreased, the ball’s weight)—far more than the 15 percent reduction one team had simulated.
If MLB sees a dinger decrease of anything close to that magnitude, pitchers across the league would enjoy the lowest run environment since before the introduction of the designated hitter. Strikeout rates continue to rise every season; homers are the only ballast keeping offenses afloat. Tweak that balance even a smidge, and there’s no predicting how low batter slash lines and pitcher ERAs might fall.
Loser: People Who Had Homegrown Stars’ Jerseys
Lindbergh: Remember when Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies in 2019 and legions of Nationals fans adjusted their jerseys to obscure the surname of the homegrown star? A few other fan bases have had cause to consider similar alterations this offseason, as several prominent players who’d spent their whole big league careers with one team either chose to sign elsewhere or—much more commonly—were kicked to the curb in exchange for financial flexibility. Among free agents, Springer, a career Astro, went to Toronto, while Dodgers draftee Joc Pederson decamped for the Cubs. But many more fan favorites departed as a result of trades or declined team options, from stars such as Arenado, Lindor, Carrasco, and Snell to lesser (but still significant) players like Andrus, Wong, and Benintendi.
Turnover among productive players has been a constant since the Seitz decision, and it’s fine for free agents to pursue opportunities elsewhere or for non-contending teams to ship out aging veterans for promising prospects. But it’s a slap in fans’ faces when teams that could afford to keep their media-guide cover models instead choose to trade superstars primarily for salary relief. At least the Cubs kept Kris Bryant (for now) and the Cardinals brought back Molina and Wainwright. Long may Molina and Wainwright climb the career leaderboard of most starts by a battery; some jerseys never go out of style.
Winner: Nippon Professional Baseball
Lindbergh: It’s not a stretch to say that two of the three best starting pitchers to hit the open market this offseason signed with Japanese teams. Outside of Bauer, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, this winter was light on high-impact, free-agent arms. And the pitcher pickings grew slimmer still after Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman both accepted qualifying offers with their respective teams. The most appealing arms on the market beyond Bauer were Masahiro Tanaka and Tomoyuki Sugano, who placed 11th and 13th, respectively, on ESPN’s free-agent ranking. Yet rather than re-up with the Yankees or join another MLB team, the 32-year-old Tanaka returned to his old NPB club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The 31-year-old Sugano, a two-time MVP and Sawamura Award winner with a career 2.34 ERA in Japan, was posted by the Yomiuri Giants but ultimately re-signed with the team, spurning several MLB suitors who hoped he would follow in the footsteps of previously posted NPB aces such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Darvish, and Tanaka (in 2014).
In recent years, NPB teams have gotten more aggressive about wooing MLB veterans who’ve suffered from the sudden dissolution of free agency’s middle class. But it was still surprising to see high-profile players like Tanaka and Sugano—who aren’t far from their primes—opt to return to or remain in NPB. “Tanaka’s decision may not have been earth-shaking, but Japan definitely rocked,” journalist Jim Allen wrote last month.
As Allen explained, “Most Japanese major leaguers only return to Japan when offers back home far outweigh the available MLB options.” And although sentimental ties and COVID concerns probably contributed to both players’ decisions, MLB clubs’ austerity helped make up their minds. The Yankees, Tanaka’s first choice, passed on the pitcher partly because of their desire to stay under the competitive balance tax threshold. And Sugano said he stayed put in part because “the market wasn’t moving” and “players weren’t being signed who should have been.” Although both pitchers signed multi-year deals—two years and approximately $17 million for Tanaka, and four years and $40 million for Sugano—each can opt out and consider MLB offers again as soon as next offseason. For now, though, penny-pinching MLB teams’ missed opportunities mean more time in Japan for two pitchers worthy of wearing no. 18.
Loser: NL Teams That Needed the DH
Wagner: Setting aside how confounding it is from a process perspective, and how complicated it is from a collective bargaining agreement perspective, having no universal DH in 2021 creates quite the logjam for a lot of NL teams.
The Mets have four outfielders with a career OPS+ above 115, all of whom should probably play in left, and none of whom should play in center. The Phillies’ defensive equation is just as tricky: Top prospect Alec Bohm is questionable at the corner infield spots, veteran Andrew McCutchen is slowing down in left, and slugger Rhys Hoskins hasn’t excelled in any of the aforementioned positions. The Nats might believe in Kyle Schwarber working his way toward being an above-average left fielder, but they also added Josh Bell (-32 career defensive runs saved) to start above Ryan Zimmerman at first base. (Zimmerman is actually serviceable at first, despite not being able to throw anymore.) And the Braves re-signed Marcell Ozuna because he’s an extra-base-hit machine—unfortunately for them, so is everyone batting for the opposing team while he’s playing the outfield. That’s just the NL East.
The Giants don’t have a natural defensive spot for Wilmer Flores, who raked in 2020 and remains a lefty-killer in a division featuring Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Julio Urías, Madison Bumgarner, and now Snell. One of San Diego’s many exciting offseason additions, Ha-seong Kim, is blocked up the middle by Jake Cronenworth and this guy named Fernando Tatis Jr. Matt Carpenter just got bounced off the diamond by Arenado. Wait, that one worked out for St. Louis.
I’m as much of a National League purist as anyone, but it sure does seem like teams thought the toothpaste was out of the tube on this rule, and now they suddenly have to put it back in. That could get messy.
Winner: The Yankees, of Course
Baumann: The Yankees didn’t do much more than tread water this offseason, trading away reliever Adam Ottavino and losing free agents Tanaka, James Paxton, and (presumably) Brett Gardner. But holding serve is better than what most teams did. New York was able to snatch Jameson Taillon in a trade with the Pirates and sign Corey Kluber off the free-agent wire for peanuts; both are coming off injuries but have huge upside. The Yankees dillied and dallied on a new deal for D.J. LeMahieu, but ultimately brought back their star second baseman. And the other holes created by outgoing players have clear and immediate internal replacements.
This in contrast to the Rays, who ran away with the AL East last year on a rock-bottom payroll, then decided to trade Snell and let Morton walk. That’s the baseball version of the scene from Speed where Keanu Reeves tells Sandra Bullock that he punched a hole in the bus’s gas tank, and she asks if he thought he needed another challenge. The Red Sox are heading into the third straight season of their “Winning Is Just Too Mainstream, Man” world tour, and while the Blue Jays are coming fast and hard, they aren’t ready to challenge for the division just yet. The rest of the AL isn’t much better off. Cleveland is selling its stars off for scrap; the Astros let Springer walk in free agency and likely won’t have Justin Verlander in 2021; and Oakland is hemorrhaging talent like a soccer team that just got relegated from the Premier League.
Is the Yankees’ roster better than last year’s, in absolute terms? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s absolutely better relative to the competition.