A surprising aspect of this Hot Stove season is that, with camps beginning to open(!), we’re still in the thick of it.
You don’t need to be reminded that some of the top free agents of the winter -- Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Jordan Montgomery and reigning NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell -- are still without baseball homes. They don’t need to be reminded, either.
But just because this has been an oddly paced market doesn’t mean it hasn’t been an active or interesting one. As usual, the Hot Stove has yielded its fair share of surprising signings, swaps and storylines.
Here are the eight biggest surprises of them all:
1) Shohei Ohtani’s deferred deal
As the first two-way free agent in history -- coming off an MVP year, yet one that necessitated a second major elbow surgery -- Ohtani was bound to wind up with an unusual contract. Industry speculation pointed to opt-outs and other provisions galore.
But Ohtani floored us with unprecedented deferrals in his record deal. He is, in literal terms, the first $700 million player in the history of professional sports. But a staggering $680 million of that money is deferred to as late as 2043.
Raise your hand if you thought Ohtani’s contract would call for him to make half as much ($2 million) as Guardians backup catcher Austin Hedges in 2024.
Though other stars in this and other sports have put their present-day financial interests off to the side to give their teams the flexibility to build around them, no one has taken that idea to the extreme the way Ohtani has with the Dodgers. Even his opt-out clause is unusual: If controlling owner Mark Walter or president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman are no longer with the Dodgers at the end of any particular season during Ohtani’s tenure, he can elect to enter free agency.
2) Big investments in (MLB) inexperience
This free-agent class was loaded with intriguing international players coming over from Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan and the Korea Baseball Organization, and it’s no surprise that those players were valued in the open market.
What’s surprising, though, is just how much those signings have dominated the overall activity in a slow-paced winter. When given a choice between the known output and warts (and, in some cases, attached Draft pick compensation) of established MLB players vs. the unknown and the upside of the international talent, teams have generally gravitated toward the shiny new objects.
We knew right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who is only 25 years old and projected by many teams to be, at worst, a mid-rotation starter in MLB, would fare well. But he wound up breaking Gerrit Cole’s record for a free-agent pitcher with a 12-year, $325 million deal (the Dodgers also had to pay a $50.6 million posting fee to Yamamoto’s former club, the Orix Buffaloes).
As of this writing, Yamamoto, Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee (six years, $113 million with the Giants and Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga (four years, $53 million with the Cubs) have signed three of the top eight deals, in terms of total value, this winter. Right-hander Yariel Rodriguez (four years, $32 million with the Blue Jays) and left-hander Yuki Matsui (five years, $28 million with the Padres) are also among the top earners of the offseason.
3) The Cubs’ managerial change
No one was more surprised by this one than David Ross, who was touted as “our guy” by team chairman Tom Ricketts at the outset of the offseason only to be replaced by Craig Counsell a month later.
In the final year of his Brewers contract in 2023, Counsell made it clear he would test the open market, and many of us wondered if he might wind up leaving his native Milwaukee to break the bank with the Mets.
Well, he broke the bank ... 90 miles south. The division-rival Cubs pounced when Counsell’s market dragged on and gave him both the proximity to family and the financial parameters (five years, $40 million) he sought. Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer had to meet with and orchestrate the deal with Counsell in secret and then flew to Florida to give Ross the unexpected bad news in person.
4) One of the longest deals of the winter went to ... a GM.
Since his pre-2018 arrival under adverse circumstances, Alex Anthopoulos has done a masterful job of taking a talented Braves core and supplying it with the necessary pieces to be a perennial championship contender. He operates a roster on which Ozzie Albies (team control through 2027), Ronald Acuña Jr. (through '28), Sean Murphy and Spencer Strider (through '29), Matt Olson (through '30), Michael Harris II (through '32) and Austin Riley (through '33) are all locked in for the foreseeable future.
But now Anthopoulos is locked in himself, after signing a seven-year extension through 2031. Though it was a foregone conclusion that Atlanta would not let A.A. get away, there is no known precedent for a front-office figure getting such a lengthy contractual guarantee. Like Counsell, Anthopoulos set a new benchmark for people in his position.
5) The Royals’ wild winter
None of us circled the small-market, fifth-place Royals as a team to watch going into the winter. But kudos to owner John Sherman and executive vice president of baseball operations J.J. Picollo for a no-stone-unturned offseason that likely raised the floor of the Major League roster and, most importantly, cemented a franchise cornerstone by extending shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
The Royals surprisingly struck early and often in free agency with deals for starters Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, relievers Nick Anderson, Chris Stratton and Will Smith and outfielder Hunter Renfroe. They still need a lot to go right to contend even in the murky AL Central, but they appear much more stable than before. And with Witt now signed to an 11-year, $289 million pact, the team has a behemoth of a building block and the fans have a guy whose jersey they can buy with confidence.
Now, attention turns to a potential new ballpark in K.C.
6) Marcus Stroman’s pact with the Yankees
You know it’s an unusual free-agent contract when it comes accompanied by an apology.
During the discussions that led to the Yankees and Stroman reaching a two-year, $37 million agreement in January, general manager Brian Cashman personally said sorry to Stroman for his 2019 comments in which he said the right-hander was not enough of a “difference-maker” to target in a midseason trade.
At the time, Stroman took umbrage with that remark in a since-deleted social media post that said: “Besides [Gerrit] Cole, there's no current Yankee pitcher who will be anywhere in my league over the next five-to-seven years.”
So, no, the Yankees and Stroman were not obvious fits entering the winter. But $37 million later, the bridge has been repaired.
“We kind of laughed about it,” said Stroman, “and we moved on.”
7) Josh Hader is back with the Astros
While Hader entered the offseason hoping to vie for something similar to Mets closer Edwin Díaz’s record-setting relief deal (five years, $102 million), the Astros were not seen a suitor. Though they had key relievers Hector Neris, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek reach free agency this winter, the Astros weren’t expected to do a top-of-the-market deal to fill in any blank spots behind closer Ryan Pressly.
But when Kendall Graveman experienced renewed discomfort in his throwing shoulder after resuming his throwing program and required surgery, likely sidelining him for the entire season, the Astros changed course dramatically. Their five-year, $95 million pact with Hader was negotiated in a surprising span of just 72 hours.
It would also have been surprising to be told of this deal eight and a half years ago, when Hader was a Double-A prospect dealt from Houston to Milwaukee as part of a package in the Astros’ midseason trade for Carlos Gómez and Mike Fiers.
These are big names, but they weren’t on a lot of people’s big board when it came to 2023-24 trade candidates. The Red Sox sorely needed to add, not subtract, starting pitching, so Sale was not widely expected to be moved, and the 2021 AL Cy Young winner Ray was not on the trade Ray-dar, given that he had Tommy John surgery in May.
Ah, but when Anthopoulos and Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto are involved, anything can happen.
Dipoto dealt Ray to the Giants, who have had trouble attracting big names in free agency, in order to free up some cash, bring back outfielder Mitch Haniger and give their rotation a nearer-term rotation option in Anthony DeSclafani.
Oh, and Anthopoulos and Dipoto managed to make a surprising swap with each other, too, swinging a five-player trade at the onset of the Winter Meetings that featured one-time top prospect Jarred Kelenic going to Atlanta.