Generally speaking, it’s a Judge Smails “Well … we’re waiting!” kind of offseason. But while that “Caddyshack” moment (and its ensuing GIF) sums up the Hot Stove and a bunch of teams are faced with a tall “To Do” pile, some clubs have done their part to liven up the winter.
These six teams have been the busiest of the bunch, so far.
When it comes to offseason activity, the Padres are in a world all their own right now. There are so many justifiable reasons to explain the slow-moving market in this time of uncertainty, but the Padres have cut through all of them to put together what is currently projected to be the best rotation in baseball and to deepen their position-player core with an intriguing import.
The Yu Darvish and Blake Snell additions understandably attract the most interest, but the Ha-Seong Kim signing is the kind of roster redundancy (a left-side-of-the-infield player by trade joining a team that already has Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.) ordinarily reserved for only the heavyweights. The Padres are acting and acquiring like heavyweights, and it’s a fun and beautiful thing to behold. Kim gives San Diego the flexibility to move breakout second baseman Jake Cronenworth to the outfield; or perhaps Kim himself is made into a super-utility type.
Whatever the case, the Padres took a team that had the third-best record and second-best run differential in MLB in the shortened season and made it demonstrably better. And with so much still available and at stake this offseason, the bullpen and bench still areas of interest and GM A.J. Preller having proved to be one of the more trade-happy executives in baseball, who’s to say they’re done?
We’re in a strange place with the Mets. The arrival of new owner Steve Cohen had fans filling out wish lists as if they were writing letters to Santa Claus, and that created an obvious air of expectation. To date, the Mets simply haven’t lived up to it. They have not signed a front-line free agent or traded for a superstar.
And yet, the Mets have crossed three significant items off their to-do list. Marcus Stroman accepted the qualifying offer, which means the Mets addressed one of their rotation spots with a player who, despite missing all of 2020, might have qualified as the free-agent market’s second-best offering behind Trevor Bauer. The Mets also signed catcher James McCann to a four-year deal, eschewing the obvious choice in free agent J.T. Realmuto for a guy who has greatly improved his hard-hit rates and framing metrics in the last two seasons. And to the bullpen, the Mets have added Trevor May, who struck out 39.6 percent of opposing batters last season.
Because Stroman is not Bauer and McCann is not Realmuto and May is not free-agent closer Liam Hendriks, none of these moves, on their own, scratched the itch of the fan base. Taken collectively, though, they do have the Mets projected by FanGraphs to be in striking distance of the defending division-champion Braves (a .534 winning percentage to the Braves’ .538 mark). The Mets have more work to do, and Bauer remains an ideal fit for a rotation that could use more certainty beyond Jacob deGrom. But credit where it’s due: The Mets have already accomplished more than most.
You might not love the approach of a pennant winner that has traded away its most accomplished starting pitcher (Snell). But nobody could accuse the Rays of being inactive. They are clearly approaching this offseason in a very Rays way, with a dispassionate pursuit of roster resourcefulness. It’s not good for jersey sales, but on the whole, one would have to say it’s been good for the Rays. So instead of focusing on what they’ve lost (not just Snell but reliever Jose Alvarado, who was dealt to the Phillies, and first baseman Nate Lowe, who was dealt to the Rangers), let’s focus here on what the Rays have added.
Tampa Bay’s haul, to date, includes seven prospects, four of whom -- right-hander Luis Patiño, right-hander Cole Wilcox, catcher/outfielder Heriberto Hernandez and catcher Blake Hunt -- were instantly inserted into their Top 30 Prospects list by MLB Pipeline. Patiño, who ranks No. 23 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects overall, is the headliner -- a 21-year-old who has dominated in the low Minors and gotten his feet wet in the big leagues.
But for a club that was light on catching, the addition of Francisco Mejía -- in tandem with the re-signing of Mike Zunino -- presents immediate potential. We tend to give up on prospects when they don’t light the world aflame instantly upon arrival. But while there are valid questions about Mejia’s long-term fit behind the dish, the switch-hitter showcased elite bat-to-ball skills in the Minors, is only 25 and has barely gotten any opportunity in the big leagues. He’s exactly the sort of player we’ve seen flourish in Tampa Bay.
With Snell and Charlie Morton gone, free-agent signee Michael Wacha likely won’t be the only starting-pitching target for the Rays. Though Wacha’s expected ERA (4.45) was far better than his actual ERA (6.62) in 2020, it still wasn’t much to get excited about. We’ll give the Rays the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Here’s a team that had every reason to lay low. Since their World Series glory in 2015, the Royals have not finished higher than third place in the American League Central. They finished fourth in 2020. They have a very strong farm system but not one expected to change the fortunes of the big league ballclub overnight. And principal owner John Sherman purchased the Royals for a reported $1 billion just before a global pandemic totally upended the industry.
So, no, the Royals were not expected to be one of the more aggressive acquirers of talent this offseason. To date, though, they have been. All things are relative, and Kansas City won’t be a player for the top-end free agents. But signing left-hander Mike Minor for the rotation and first baseman Carlos Santana for the lineup brings credibility to the clubhouse. Santana puts up some of the best at-bats in the big leagues, and when combined with Whit Merrifield, he gives the Royals another veteran who can offer examples to the kids in the crowd. Minor gives the rotation another veteran staple to pair with Danny Duffy. And the Royals also added outfielder Michael A. Taylor, maintaining an organizational emphasis on defense, and they brought back reliever Greg Holland after his bounceback 2020.
Under GM Dayton Moore, the Royals have never been concerned with industry consensus and groupthink. They trust their scouts and their methods. Whether these moves will help speed up the Royals’ timetable remains to be seen. But give credit to Kansas City for not taking the path of least resistance here.
Another surprise entry. Like the Royals, the Rangers won’t readily be counted as contenders in 2021. And like the Rays, the Rangers have made some major subtractions in trading away staff ace Lance Lynn (White Sox) and reliever Rafael Montero (Mariners). But they have not wasted the opportunity presented by the offseason to set themselves up for the future.
For one, it wasn’t even expected that the Rangers would be among the teams in the market for a new general manager this winter. But lo and behold, the Rangers lured former pitcher Chris Young away from his influential role in the league office to help rebuild his hometown team.
That rebuild will include Elvis Andrus’ move from shortstop to make way for Isaiah Kiner-Falefa. That internal move is joined by the external additions of outfielder David Dahl, who had been non-tendered by the Rockies, and first baseman Nate Lowe, who was acquired from the Rays. Dahl might have been the most intriguing of any non-tender, because he’s only 26 and a year removed from an All-Star season. The Rangers give Dahl, whose career has been sidetracked by injuries, an opportunity to flourish, and they give Lowe a more legit opportunity for regular at-bats than he had in Tampa Bay.
The signing of Japanese right-hander Kohei Arihara should help offset the innings total (at the least) that the Rangers gave up in the Lynn trade. That Arihara threw 132 innings in 2020 gives him a leg up on MLB pitchers coming off the shortened season. And the Lynn trade brought the rotation upside in the form of Dane Dunning, a 26-year-old who had a 113 ERA+ in 34 innings in his first big league opportunity with the White Sox.
We are at a still-early juncture in which any team that has made multiple noteworthy additions to the big league roster could be listed here (the Giants, Mariners, White Sox, Angels and Red Sox all qualify).
But the fact that the Braves have taken on $26 million in new 2021 spending to sign starters Morton (one year, $15 million) and Drew Smyly (one year, $11 million) makes them the most active team on that particular financial front during this pandemic. Morton has an established track record of October performance, and Smyly’s whiff and strikeout rates were both elite in 2020. So the Braves have brought a lot of pedigree and experience to a rotation that was ravaged by injury and instability this past season but still possesses tons of young talent. The Braves also brought back swing man Josh Tomlin on a one-year deal.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Braves are done. Their cleanup hitter (Marcell Ozuna) has reached free agency, and that’s an obvious area to address between now and Spring Training. But GM Alex Anthopoulos has demonstrated an affinity in winters past for the quick strike and the short-term commitment, and he applied that approach again to the rotation.