The top free agents are off the board and MLB’s lockout-delayed spring training is now moving full speed ahead toward an April 7 opening day.
The interrupted offseason came together in two frenzied blasts of transactions, one in November and one in March. The way it shook out, well, no one saw coming. The esteemed shortstop class saw the two richest deals handed out by the same (last-place) team. World Series hero Freddie Freeman wound up in Los Angeles, Carlos Correa took a short-term deal in Minnesota and perennial October ace Max Scherzer is testing the laws of nature by suiting up for the New York Mets.
Now, we can take the lay of the land. These judgments are sure to be wrong on many fronts once the games actually start. But still, a starting point is necessary. Who should be riding high heading into opening day? And who should gird for a stressful summer?
Maneuvering in a baseball offseason is too often just that, maneuvering. Twitter jokes abound about how difficult it can be to comprehend the grand scheme of an MLB team’s winter. The Twins, though, came through with a serious payoff.
After a whirlwind 36 hours of deals that saw them both acquire and trade away former Rangers shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Twins looked destined to pull the all-too-familiar gambit of keeping their prospects of contention similar while getting cheaper.
But then! A wild Carlos Correa appeared! With the league’s top free agent languishing on the market as spring training kicked into gear, the Twins pivoted from a rumored Trevor Story pursuit and landed an elite talent. The three-year, $105.3 deal gives Correa the option to re-enter the market after this season or next, and includes an average annual value that sets a new bar for infielders. It is clearly a transitional state for Correa before he decides on a long-term home in a winter without a lockout, but for the Twins it’s a rare opportunity.
They will now pair Correa, a potential MVP contender and proven winner, with a promising young lineup highlighted by the jaw-dropping-when-healthy Byron Buxton. Nearly a decade after Correa famously went No. 1 overall ahead of Buxton in the MLB draft, the two will share the same roster. And Twins fans will enter opening day with as much excitement as any fan base in the league.
It’s at least a little bit about the optics. In what world do the New York Yankees serve as conduits for the Minnesota Twins — their frequent October pushovers — to sign the biggest free agent on the market?
But it’s more about the actual team on the field. A short-term Correa deal … like the one he signed … would have solved the Yankees’ biggest need without even diminishing their favorite excuse for not signing him — two strong shortstop prospects rising in the minors. Instead, they revamped the left side of the infield with Josh Donaldson (still a great hitter, but aging and expensive) and Kiner-Falefa, the defense-first shortstop who the Rangers rendered expendable with not one, but two big-ticket free agents.
The Yankees still project as a 95+ win team, likely the best in the AL East. It just doesn’t feel that way. The Blue Jays, especially, are treating the four-way division battle as an arms race, and the Yankees just aren’t acting like a team that’s ready for a fight.
Winners: Powerful corner outfielders
Kris Bryant scored a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Colorado Rockies, who indicated he will play left field instead of bouncing around the field as he had done for the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants. Nick Castellanos parlayed strong seasons in Cincinnati into a $100 million pact with the Philadelphia Phillies. And Kyle Schwarber also joined the Phillies on a $79 million deal.
The Phillies duo figured to benefit from the expansion of the designated hitter into the NL, and it appears they did. Each of these sluggers entered the winter with long-term deals on the radar, but less than assured. Thanks to a variety of factors, they connected with career-defining contracts.
Loser: Baseball universe logic
Not all of those factors were totally sensical for the teams.
The Rockies have been an affront to reason for a while, but the Bryant signing underscored just how detached from reality Colorado’s front office seems to be. Adding Mike Trout to their roster wouldn’t get them close to contention. Adding Bryant gives them a big name and a consistent source of home runs, but otherwise puts them back on the same unfinished roller coaster track they disastrously flew off of with Nolan Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki and other star-level players who expected the team to supplement their contracts with the pieces to win.
The Phillies are not on a different planet like the Rockies, but they are certainly attempting to shoot the moon. Instead of rearranging their roster to solve an atrocious fielding unit, or patch holes at center field and shortstop, Dave Dombrowski and company went all in on sluggers. It’s true that 9-7 wins count the same as 6-2 wins, but the plodding, imbalanced roster around Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto still doesn’t feel like a real threat to the Braves or Mets.
Winners: Matt Chapman and Matt Olson
The cornerstones of recent Oakland A’s contenders were very publicly told they wouldn’t be getting the extension money to become actual franchise players. After carrying a thrift-first, wins-later franchise to the playoffs three times in the last four years, they were squarely on the trade block this winter for the offense of simply getting too close to requiring money. It’s a miserable loss for the raucous A’s fan base, but the Matts landed in the most exciting destinations imaginable.
In Atlanta, hometown kid Olson will be under a microscope as the surprise replacement for Freddie Freeman, but also a new member of a thrilling, championship-winning young core. In Toronto, Chapman joins the Blue Jays as a missing piece for a young team on the rise. Olson already got his big extension, and Chapman will have a huge stage to make the case for his value.
Speaking of franchise cornerstones, the Los Angeles Angels are rolling in them. Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon sound like some sort of baseball Monstars starter kit, and yet the Angels can’t sniff October.
With a black hole of production in the middle infield — they project for bottom-eight production at both second base and shortstop, per FanGraphs — the Angels didn’t even factor into discussions for the major players in a deep, star-studded shortstop class. Nor have they matched with the rebuilding A’s or Reds on any of the six to eight established starting pitchers who could add stability to a constantly teetering rotation. Instead, they leaned into the risk that has burned them for years on end by signing Noah Syndergaard (or may or may not be able to throw breaking balls) and Michael Lorenzen (a reliever who wants to be a starter).
At this rate, Trout and Ohtani’s best chance of dazzling in the postseason together may be campaigning for another round of playoff expansion.
Winners: Braves, Dodgers and Mets
Los Angeles and Atlanta, the National League favorites and 2021 NLCS combatants, solidified their status in surprising and intertwined ways. Freeman is wearing Dodger blue. Kenley Jansen will backstop the Braves bullpen. Yet in the end, both clubs appear steeled for continuous contention. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see an NLCS rematch.
The team that may have the most to say about that is the New York Mets. After adding Max Scherzer and an array of outfielders before the lockout, new GM Billy Eppler jumped at the chance to grab Chris Bassitt amid the A’s teardown, bolstering the Mets’ pitching staff with a deft deal for a steady starter primed to succeed in Citi Field.
Losers: Giants, Padres and Brewers
The challengers to the NL status quo didn’t make many inroads this winter.
They made moves, to be sure. The Giants restocked a rotation that seemed almost magical in 2021 — “just add water and microwave for a breakout ace” — with the intriguing Carlos Rodon. The Padres dealt for excess Yankees bat Luke Voit. And the Brewers signed Andrew McCutchen to fill their new DH slot.
All could have used more drastic upgrades to feel confident going toe-to-toe with the Dodgers. The Giants are essentially hoping lightning strikes twice, or else are content to take a step or two back and await the arrival of a prospect wave. The Padres are banking on rebounds and improved health for their pitching staff, but already lost Fernando Tatis Jr. for several months. The pitching-rich, power-challenged Brewers were the single most obvious destination for Schwarber or Castellanos, yet they passed on those surefire boosts for McCutchen, a useful and respected veteran who shouldn’t be the whole solution at this stage in his career.
Honorable mentions: Bold Blue Jays, Seiya Suzuki’s Cubs, the Nationals and whichever contender winds up with Nelson Cruz this August.
Dishonorable mentions: Rebuilding Reds and A’s, Mariners’ half-measures, stars and scrubs in Texas.