With spring training underway, it’s time to get back into the baseball groove. Coming off my article about Chris Sale, I figured I would provide a more comprehensive recap of the MLB offseason like I did last year–before Check Down even existed as a website.
Admittedly, I think I deserve a pat on the back for most of my predictions regarding last year’s top free agents. After a season in which he went 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA, I said that Zack Greinke would underwhelm in his first season in Arizona, primarily because he had never been as consistent as some of the other top-tier starters as well as the fact that he had set a career-high in innings pitched, potentially leaving the 32-year-old more susceptible to injury. Sure enough, Greinke threw nearly 80 fewer innings and posted a 4.37 ERA. Moreover, I thought that the Red Sox would second guess making 30-year-old David Price the highest paid pitcher in baseball history. I understood he was coming off a terrific season with the Tigers and Blue Jays, but hadn’t Boston learned from past mistakes, like Carl Crawford and Pablo Sandoval? And did they take a look at his playoff record? In short, Price let Red Sox nation down, bookended by his horrible performance in Game 2 of the ALDS.
One of the underlying themes of that article was how many major offseason acquisitions tend to fall short of expectations. Why is this so? In short, teams overpay players based on past performance. For instance, everyone praised the LA Angels when they signed a 32-year-old Albert Pujols to a $250 million plus deal before the 2012 season. Four years later, they have yet to win a playoff game with the future Hall of Famer in an Angeles uniform and are now stuck with the worst contract in baseball.
Even worse than the Pujols deal, though, was Los Angeles’ decision to give 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton a 5-year, $125 million contract. Alongside Pujols and the emerging Mike Trout, the Angels’ front office probably thought they had assembled the best lineup in baseball. Nearly five years later, though, Hamilton, who played only one full season for Los Angeles, is out of baseball after another off-the-field relapse, and the Angels, at last check, were still on the hook for nearly $70 million.
I feel like I’m harping on the Angels, but there are countless other examples, too. Of course, there’s that infamous $275 million deal the Yankees signed with Alex Rodriguez that they spent years trying to void. Meanwhile, the Twins are still paying off an $184 million deal for Joe Mauer, who’s hit no more than 12 home runs in a season and finished no higher than 19th in AL MVP voting (I didn’t even know they had a 19th place!) since signing that enormous contract in 2011. You could almost certainly categorize signings like the $240 million contract the Mariners gave to Robinson Cano in 2014, the $225 million deal the Reds signed with Joey Votto that same year, the $214 million deal the Tigers gave to Prince Fielder in 2012, and the aforementioned Crawford and Sandoval signings as regrettable decisions as well.
The point of this exercise was to illustrate how teams that are categorized as offseason “winners” are usually that–offseason winners. So with this in mind, let’s breakdown the six most notable offseason acquisitions from last winter and determine whether these moves will pay dividends. Ironically, you’ll find that I am actually far less critical of these transactions as I have been of past year’s.
Note- the part upcoming regarding Chris Sale is taken from an article I wrote published last weekend.
Red Sox make splash by acquiring Chris Sale
Boston undoubtedly made the biggest move of the offseason by sending prized prospects Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, and others to the White Sox for ace Chris Sale. On paper, this gives the Red Sox a decided edge in the AL East, as they now have arguably baseball’s strongest pitching rotation with Sale joining reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and the aforementioned Price.
Sale’s coming off a down season by his standards. Despite tying a career-high with 17 wins, Sale’s ERA was a respectable, but certainly not elite 3.34. However, his Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures a pitcher’s ability to control strikeouts, walks, and home runs, increased from 2.73 in 2015 to 3.46 last season. His strikeout per 9 innings ratio took a tumble as well, dropping from a league-leading 11.82 in 2015 to 9.25. Granted, this could be attributed to a noted change in his pitching philosophy, which allowed him to work deeper in games. Nonetheless, his home run per 9 innings figures did not improve, either. Considering that he will now be pitching in an even friendly park for hitters now that he’s in Boston, it’s a tad unnerving to think that Sale is coming off a season in which he allowed home runs at a 59% greater clip per nine innings than he did in 2014 (0.67 HR/9 in 2014 compared to 1.07 in 2016).
Despite a few doubts surrounding Sale’s recent performance, I’m still quite optimistic about his ability to be successful as Boston’s ace for the next couple of years for four reasons. Reason #1: In contrast to some of the noted duds discussed earlier, Sale has largely avoided long stints on the disabled list. That makes him a pretty good bet to remain healthy.
Reason #2: He’s still in his prime. Sure, he might not have performed quite as well last season as he did in the two years prior when he was one of baseball’s very best pitchers. But he still managed to finish in the top 10 in FIP. It’s not like he had a bad season, by any stretch. Considering that Sale is only 27, the Red Sox should be able to maximize his potential for at least a couple of seasons.
Speaking of which, reason #3 as to why I think Sale will pay huge dividends for Boston is that the Red Sox have him under team control for a manageable price. He’s only owed $12 million for next season, and no more than $13.5 million until his contract expires in 2019. In short, the Red Sox have an elite pitcher who isn’t paid like an elite pitcher. Not only does that make Boston one of the most imposing teams in the AL, but it even gives general manager Dave Dombrowski flexibility to make necessary roster upgrades, if need be. And say Sale is a bust. They’re not paying him Albert Pujols or David Price money. They can pick up and move on relatively easily, with their only regret being that they gave up a couple highly-touted prospects.
Yet the last reason why Sale will succeed in Boston goes beyond his relatively thin injury history, his age, and his contract situation. Simply put, I think he’s going to pitch well. Since 2013, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have added more value in Wins Above Replacement than Sale. He’s widely regarded as one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in all of baseball, and he even combines his high strikeout per 9 innings total with a relatively low walk rate.
Plus, he has never had run support, nor a defense, in Chicago like he’ll project to have in Boston. Sale managed to win 17 games last season, and 70 over the previous five seasons, despite playing for a team that finished with the league’s worst offensive WAR from 2012-2016. And on the defensive side, Sale will finally have a respectable unit behind him. Chicago managed to finish 16th in fielding according to Fangraphs last season. For them, however, that was a huge accomplishment, considering they were baseball’s worst fielding team in 2015, and the third-worst in 2014.
Sale still managed to shine given these horrific circumstances. Now he’ll join a team that scored nearly 200 more runs than the White Sox to pace all of a baseball in 2016. He’ll also finally play on a team that isn’t just respectable defensively, but is objectively one of MLB’s best.
Provided he stays healthy, Boston’s new herky-jerky lefty is about to take away some buzz from their other exciting talents like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. And with David Ortiz’s departure potentially creating a void in the Red Sox’s lineup, Sale’s presence in the starting rotation, along with Porcello and Price, will allow Boston to return to the playoffs, likely for an even deeper run.
Cleveland adds top bat on market with Edwin Encarnacion
Clearly the Indians want to make amends for blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series, so they snagged one of baseball’s best sluggers for three years and $65 million. That’s a steep price for a player who finished just 48th in Wins Above Replacement among position players last season; but in fairness to Encarnacion, WAR factors in his value as a fielder, too. Although Terry Francona hasn’t officially announced it yet, the former Blue Jay should be Cleveland’s primary designated hitter, meaning he can focus on upping his 42 home run total from 2016.
The Indians didn’t really need as much of an offensive boost as people thought. They finished last year with the league’s 4th best offensive WAR, while ranking sixth in batting average, tied for seventh in OBP, and ninth in slugging percentage. Yet it helps to add a player who has the second most home runs over the past three seasons, particularly when the downsides to this signing are minimized. As mentioned, he should be their primary DH, meaning Francona won’t have to rely much on his subpar defense. He’s also only under contract for three years, so the Indians aren’t obligated to him long-term.
Encarnacion will upgrade Cleveland’s already dynamic offense; and combined with the return of starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, who missed the postseason due to injuries, the Indians remain on the short-list of World Series contenders.
Aroldis Chapman finds his way back to the Bronx
Was it GM Brian Cashman’s plan to resign Chapman this offseason after trading him away for a couple of highly-touted prospects last July? I guess so. Even though the Cubs were certainly thankful to have the services of the league’s hardest throwing pitcher (although, they probably aren’t going to miss him too much, considering that Chapman would have been the scapegoat for blowing Chicago’s three-run lead in Game 7), the Yankees came away like bandits from that trade. Not only do they now have one of the top prospects in all of baseball in shortstop Gleyber Torres, but, of course, they have Chapman again.
Signing the 28-year-old Cuban will help strengthen a bullpen that no longer has Andrew Miller, who New York also traded at last year’s trade deadline. Paired with Dellin Betances, the Yankees once again have two of MLB’s best relievers, as both rank first and second respectively in WAR over the past three seasons. Reaffirming their bullpen strength isn’t necessarily a sure-sign of success for the Yankees in 2017, but adding Chapman will certainly keep them in the Wild Card conversation. And considering how well positioned the Bronx Bombers are for future success thanks to a series of trades made last summer, the future is bright for the proud franchise.
Carlos Beltran reunites with the Astros
Beltran inked a one-year, $16 million deal with the same team he helped guide to the 2004 NLCS back, and there’s no doubt that Houston can use his services. The Astros’ offense dipped in WAR last season, going from from 5th in 2015 to 13th in ’16. They also batted just .247 as a team (24th in MLB) despite stellar seasons from Jose Altuve and George Springer. The soon-to-be 40-year-old is obviously past his prime, but he’s still getting it done at the plate: His .513 slugging percentage last year was his highest figure since 2011. Plus, while Beltran adds almost nothing defensively, Houston will use him primarily as their designated hitter. For one year, adding the potential Hall of Famer to reinforce the lineup won’t necessarily send shockwaves throughout the league, but it will prove to be a smart move nonetheless.
Nationals make surprising deal for Chicago’s Adam Eaton
Who is Adam Eaton, you ask? Only one of baseball’s more underrated players. The former White Sock batted .284 with 14 home runs last year, but still finished 11th among all position players in WAR. This is attributed primarily by what the outfielder brings to the defensive side, as Eaton ranked 6th among all defenders–and 2nd among outfielders–in fielding, according to Fangraphs. Fortunately for Washington, they can use some help in this area. The Nationals ranked last in fielding among teams that appeared in the divisional round last season, finishing 14th overall. Eaton’s presence will improve their defense, and if Washington can replicate what they did at the dish (7th in WAR) and on the mound (2nd in WAR), the Nationals will be an even greater World Series threat.
Cubs replace Chapman by adding Wade Davis
You might remember Davis for being one of Kansas City’s key players during their consecutive American League title-runs in 2014 and ’15. Despite making his second All-Star appearance last year, Davis’ impact slightly declined, largely because he landed on the DL for an extended period of time. But for that reason, I think this will prove to be a great buy-low decision by the Cubs. Davis might not be Aroldis Chapman, but he actually has a lower ERA over the past three years than the flamethrower. Actually, let me amend that: Davis has the lowest ERA (1.18) of all relievers since 2014. Considering the fact that a) Chicago unequivocally had baseball’s best defense last season and b) all they gave up to get Davis was Jorge Soler, a promising yet ultimately replaceable player given how loaded the Cubs’ lineup is, Davis is quietly the most significant offseason addition that no one is talking about.