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How MLB’s Biggest Offseason Moves Are Looking So Far in 2021

Almost a quarter of the way into the season, some winter acquisitions—like the Padres’ pitcher frenzy, the Nolan Arenado trade, and the Trevor Bauer signing—look like slam dunks. Others, well, may need a little more time.

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Thirty-odd games might seem like too short a time to evaluate the previous offseason’s major transactions ... and, to be totally honest, it is. But this was an odd offseason that saw teams like the White Sox, Mets, and Blue Jays make significant win-now moves, the Dodgers and Padres attempt to consolidate their positions atop the NL West, and an odd lack of movement from most of the rest of the league. Only four of the top 14 free agents on my November ranking—George Springer, Trevor Bauer, Marcus Semien, and Charlie Morton—moved from one MLB team to another. Two of the remaining 10—Ha-seong Kim and Masahiro Tanaka—either entered or left MLB, and the other eight re-signed with their previous clubs.

So, at this early juncture, what’s become of the teams that went out of their way to improve over the offseason?

San Diego Padres: Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Ha-seong Kim, and Mark Melancon

No team was busier this offseason than the San Diego Padres. Last year’s rotation—which included Zach Davies, Chris Paddack, Mike Clevinger, and Dinelson Lamet—could have put together a killer group Halloween costume as the cast of Almost Famous. But playoff-quality pitching in playoff-quantity innings, less so. Clevinger and Lamet had injury concerns over the latter half of the season, and Paddack regressed from a superb rookie season in 2019. So Padres GM A.J. Preller traded Davies to Chicago in a package for Yu Darvish, and sent prospects to Pittsburgh for Joe Musgrove and Tampa Bay for Blake Snell.

Now, Musgrove is having the best season of his career, with a 2.82 DRA in seven starts, and he recorded the first no-hitter in Padres history. Darvish is striking out 32.8 percent of opponents and has a 2.27 ERA. Snell’s been a little slower to adjust, continuing to get the early hook he received routinely during his time in Tampa: He’s pitched into the sixth inning just once in seven starts. But Snell (4.15 ERA, 42 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings) hasn’t been terrible on the whole—just not as good as Darvish and Musgrove.

And while the Padres have done pretty well for themselves on big-name pitching acquisitions, their ability to reinforce their depth has been just as important. Consider the White Sox, long viewed as an AL parallel to the Padres, who have already suffered enough injuries to key players this season that the “can Yermín Mercedes play center field?” jokes get less jokey by the day. San Diego, on the other hand, has had no such shortage of competent big leaguers.

Víctor Caratini, who came over from Chicago with Darvish, filled in ably behind the plate when Austin Nola missed the start of the season. Ha-seong Kim is hitting just .190, but as one of the top free agent shortstops on the market last offseason, he’s a credible backup for Fernando Tatis Jr.—a luxury that briefly appeared to be a necessity when Tatis dislocated his shoulder early in the year. And somehow, Preller, who already had an exceptional bullpen, managed to land Mark Melancon for just one year and $3 million guaranteed (including the buyout of his 2022 club option). So far in 2021, Melancon has allowed just one earned run in 15 innings. More than that, he has more saves (11) than base runners allowed (seven). This wasn’t the biggest move of the offseason, but we might look back on it as one of the best bargains.

St. Louis Cardinals: Nolan Arenado

In eight seasons with the Rockies, Arenado posted a 121 OPS+ and averaged 5.8 bWAR per 650 plate appearances. This past offseason, the Cardinals extricated Arenado from Denver for a middle reliever and a bunch of prospects nobody had heard of. Thirty-five games into his St. Louis tenure, Arenado has an OPS+ of 139 and has 1.4 bWAR in 147 plate appearances, or a 6.2 bWAR/650 PA pace. Maybe Arenado will cause some kind of financial havoc by opting out after the season, or maybe one of the prospects the Cardinals traded for him will win an MVP down the line. But so far, so good. Many trades are difficult to understand or evaluate. This isn’t one of them.

New York Mets: Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, and James McCann

Speaking of complicated trades. When the Mets sent four players to Cleveland in January for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, I wrote that this deal was even more lopsided than the Mookie Betts trade. I stand by that opinion, even though the first six weeks of the season have been a disaster for Lindor, who’s hitting .194 and got into a fight with his double-play partner during a game last week. That’s exacerbated by the fact that Carrasco, who’s nursing an injured hamstring, has yet to even play in a Mets jersey, and that the team’s other big offseason acquisition, catcher James McCann, is hitting .210/.273/.247.

And yet, somehow, the Mets are in sole possession of first place in the NL East. Even when the Mets are good, they don’t make it easy.

So what is there to say about Lindor? Well, if you really want to be worried about his first-quarter performance, you can find reasons. According to Baseball Savant, his expected wOBA, batting average, and slugging percentage are lower than in any previous season, and his xBA, xSLG, and xISO are all in the lowest quartile of MLB hitters. In plain terms, he’s not hitting the ball as cleanly as he has in the past. Lindor’s walk and strikeout rates are by far the best of his career, but there’s an argument to be made that this is evidence of a more passive batting approach. I don’t find that conclusion convincing over such a small sample, but it’s a possibility. His in-zone swing percentage—63.9 percent—is by far the lowest of his career and down 8.4 percentage points from what it was in 2019 and 2020.

What’s more likely, though, is that Lindor will break out of this slump sooner rather than later. He’s a new father who just changed teams for the first time in his career, and he’s likely still adjusting to his new environment—not to mention that he’s attempting to do so during a period of historic societal stress and uncertainty.

More than that, Lindor is getting catastrophically unlucky, to an extent that even his reduced expected batting average can’t explain. Lindor’s BABIP right now is .205, seventh worst among qualified hitters. The league-average BABIP is .285, and his career BABIP is .295. Lindor’s HR/FB% is 5.7; league average is 13.4, and his career average is 14.2. The Mets just fired their big league hitting coaches; if Lindor’s numbers still look like this six weeks from now, they should hire an exorcist.

The other important thing to remember is that Carrasco is signed through 2023, McCann through 2024, and Lindor through 2031. This is a long-term project to say the least. Giving up on Lindor now would be like giving up on eating a pizza after the first bite burns the roof of your mouth. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, take a sip of water, and wait for the cheese to cool off a minute. Then you eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Toronto Blue Jays: George Springer and Marcus Semien

Springer missed the first month of the season with an oblique strain, then hit two home runs in four games, then landed right back on the IL with a strained quad. Not an ideal start, but just like Lindor and Carrasco, Springer is a long-term acquisition.

Semien, however, has been a rousing success. The Blue Jays took a moderate risk signing the veteran to a one-year deal to play in the middle of a developing infield, and so far, he’s been one of the Jays’ best players. After struggling with nagging injuries in 2020, Semien has started 32 of Toronto’s 33 games and come off the bench in the other. And after a slow start at the plate (he was hitting below .200 as late as April 21), Semien has caught fire of late. He’s reached base in each of his past 17 games—a span that includes five multi-hit games—and is tied with Bo Bichette for the team lead in home runs (eight) and stolen bases (six). A one-year bounceback deal doesn’t always pay dividends, but Toronto got a very good player for relatively little long-term financial commitment.

Chicago White Sox: Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks

Hendriks was unhittable in 2019 and 2020, but has been less so in 2021. Over 13 appearances so far, he’s blown two saves and allowed four home runs (after surrendering just six in 2019 and 2020 combined). He’s been good, but perhaps not as good as one would hope given that he’s the highest-paid reliever in the game. With that said, it’s a little unfair to judge a free agent signing on 12 2/3 innings, particularly when said player is a relief pitcher playing for Tony La Russa.

Lynn, however, has been as reliable as ever. A brief IL stint notwithstanding (he only missed one start), the big righty is second among White Sox starters in ERA, behind the surprising Carlos Rodón but ahead of Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and established ace Lucas Giolito. I’m not sure what else anyone expected.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Trevor Bauer

For all the caveats about how a quarter of a season is nowhere near enough time to judge even a one-year signing, the Dodgers have gotten a note-perfect microcosm of the Trevor Bauer Experience.

Bauer, whose $40 million salary is the highest in baseball this season, has had a busy three months. He’s gotten into it on Twitter with Mets pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman, hit a batter while trying to pitch with one eye closed, accused Tatis of peeking at the catcher’s signs before Tatis homered off the Cy Young winner, and been investigated for potentially doctoring the baseball. Antics like these kept Bauer in the headlines even when he was going through spells of ineffectiveness with Cleveland—but in 2021, they’re obscuring how well he’s pitched for a pretty disappointing Dodgers team.

You see, the Dodgers entered the season with a legitimate shot at the all-time single-season wins record. After 36 games, however, the defending champions sit just two games over .500. The Dodgers have had to contend with injuries to star outfielder Cody Bellinger, talented young starter Dustin May, and a bullpen that’s blown a league-high 12 saves. But some of that has been offset by a blazing start from Bauer. He’s struck out 67 hitters in 50 1/3 innings (both numbers lead the NL) and posted a 151 ERA+, which leads a Dodger rotation that also features Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and a rejuvenated Clayton Kershaw. Excellent high-volume pitching and a series of annoying sideshows: That’s the Trevor Bauer guarantee.

All stats current through Monday’s games.