The 13 biggest surprises so far this offseason
OK, so this has definitely not been the rip-roaring, head-spinning, "nine figure contracts handed out like Halloween candy" offseason we promised and prophesied several years back. The free-agent market obviously changed in a big way in a short time, and that's impacted everything.
But as slowly as the market has moved this offseason, it has still managed to provide the art of surprise, likely with plenty more still to come.
With precious few actual "offseason" days remaining before Spring Training camps open next week, let's review some of the trends and transactions that caught us off guard:
1. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still free agents
Harper and Machado have compiled north of 30 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) apiece (via the FanGraphs calculation) through their age-25 seasons, which is pretty rare statistical territory (only 34 other hitters have done it, and 25 of them are in the Hall of Fame). So a lot of us figured that if any players were going to inspire aggressive bidding, even in our increasingly analytical age, these would be the two players to do it.
Of course, Harper's agent, Scott Boras, has been known to wait the market out as long as possible, and each player undoubtedly wants to surpass the contract received by the other. There are dynamics happening beneath the surface that we are not yet privy to. So it's complicated.
But I, for one, was naïve enough to think the complication would be resolved by the end of January.
2. The Mets hired a player agent as their general manager
At a time when Ivy Leaguers and database architects are the de facto executive appointees, the Mets made the stunning decision to fill their GM vacancy with Brodie Van Wagenen, the co-head of Creative Artists Agency's baseball division who had never previously worked a day in a front office. Beyond the unconventionality of the agent-to-GM move, Van Wagenen's arrival came mere months after he had publicly proposed that players boycott Spring Training and that the Mets should either sign his client, ace Jacob deGrom, to an extension or trade him.
So yeah, this one came out of nowhere.
In the time since, Van Wagenen has busily addressed the Mets' roster with a trade for Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz, and the signings of Jed Lowrie and Wilson Ramos. Cano and Lowrie are former Van Wagenen clients, but, notably, the deGrom extension still hasn't happened.
3. The 95-loss Reds are in win-now mode
Others have spent more, but Cincinnati has been the most aggressive team in baseball in terms of the onus its new additions place upon the 2019 season. Though the Reds did work out a three-year extension with Sonny Gray upon his arrival from New York, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and Matt Kemp are all pending free agents.
Having lost north of 90 games four straight years and with Joey Votto entering his age-35 season, the Reds have all the reason in the world to want to turn the corner this year. Still, they have been more active than many expected, and it will be interesting to see what gains they can make in a deep division.
4. We had the first Tanner-for-Tanner trade in MLB history!
When the Reds acquired Tanner Roark from the Nationals for Minor League pitcher Tanner Rainey, it was a victory for sunless bronzer supporters everywhere. And believe it or not, these weren't even the only Tanners traded this offseason. The A's acquired right-hander Tanner Anderson from the Pirates in November.
5. Lance Lynn signed a one-year deal for 2018, had a down year ... and then got a three-year deal
As of this writing, there have been just 11 free-agent deals this offseason with more than two years guaranteed. Lynn waited and waited and waited last winter before signing a one-year, $12 million deal with the Twins, then posted an ERA+ below league average. He's also entering his age-32 season. So for him to be one of the 11 is pretty extraordinary.
The Rangers bought into some changes Lynn made midseason, when he made a slight mechanical correction and moved a bit more toward the third-base side of the rubber and saw an uptick in success after a trade to the Yankees. He also wasn't tied to Draft pick compensation like he was a year ago. Still, this contract stood out.
6. Zach Britton is now Zack Britton
What the "H"?
7. The Yankees went off the grid in their infield pursuits
The Yankees gave Machado a tour of Yankee Stadium, took him out to a lovely dinner in Manhattan (something even better than Shake Shack), and then signed ... Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu? What in the name of Johnny Hustle is going on here?
Maybe Machado-to-the-Bronx still happens, but, with Didi Gregorius on the mend and Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres both on-hand, it would take a lot of heavy lifting to make it happen. The Yankees are paying the Major League minimum to see if Tulo can revitalize his career in pinstripes, and they'll have the defensively sound LeMahieu play all over the place. Maybe that's the way they drew it up, but it's not the way the rest of us thought this would go.
8. Jerry Dipoto made a trade from a hospital bed
Dipoto developed blood clots in his lungs and had to be hospitalized during the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, but that didn't stop him from executing his end of the three-team deal that brought Edwin Encarnacion to the Mariners. Even for the deal-loving Dipoto -- who took his bent toward barters to a new level by almost totally remaking the Mariners' roster this offseason -- this was an extreme reinforcement of the stereotype.
9. Mariano Rivera got into the Hall of Fame unanimously, and Harold Baines got in, period
The public release of ballots on social media in the weeks leading up to the actual announcement has sapped a lot of the surprise from the Hall of Fame election process. But because we've seen so many instances of blank protest ballots that count against player's totals, strategic voting in which writers leave a no-doubt Hall of Famer off so that they can use one of their 10 spots on a player who needs the vote more, and just general argument about whether relievers should even be in the Hall of Fame, Rivera's unanimous induction was definitely a pleasant surprise.
As for Baines, well, he said he was "shocked" when the Today's Game Era Committee selected him alongside Lee Smith at the Winter Meetings, and he was far from the only one. Baines had never garnered more than 6.1 percent support on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, and his career WAR ranks 304th all-time.
10. Oliver Drake finally cleared waivers
Drake, a right-handed reliever, set a single-season record in 2018 by pitching for five different teams, and that was only the beginning of Oliver's odyssey. The Rays claimed him on waivers from the Twins on Nov. 1, the Blue Jays claimed him on waivers from the Rays on Nov. 26, and the Rays reacquired him from the Blue Jays for cash on Jan. 4.
When the Rays needed a 40-man roster spot later in January, they again exposed Drake to waivers. For the first time in an absurd saga that stretches back more than a year, Drake went unclaimed and accepted an outright assignment to Triple-A. But something tells us he'll be back before long and headed for a transaction wire near you.
11. Yasmani Grandal signed a one-year deal with the Brewers
Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million offer from the Mets and wound up with a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers.
By WAR and by wRC+, this was the second-most valuable catcher in baseball in 2018 (behind J.T. Realmuto), and he's betting on himself to better the Mets' offer in the coming years. Coincidentally, the postseason defensive issues that seemingly hampered Grandal's market value were most prominent against the Brewers in the National League Championship Series.
12. Paul Goldschmidt is no longer with the D-backs
Players move around a lot, and there was a fair amount of warning that the D-backs were retooling and that Goldy was on the block in the lead-up to the deal that sent him to St. Louis.
Still, when a franchise icon -- perennial All-Star and MVP candidate -- changes teams for the first time, it's jarring.
13. The 88-year-old Jack McKeon got a new job
Against the backdrop of an industry that has largely spurned old-school scouting for modern math, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo (an old-school scout himself) brought McKeon aboard as a senior advisor, nearly 60 years after McKeon last worked for Washington (the Senators, that is).
Hey, maybe this is all a precursor to a bigger surprise -- McKeon getting another midseason managerial opportunity.