It took less than a day after the Braves won the World Series for the first offseason move to be made. If we've learned anything from offseasons past, there are going to be dozens and dozens more such moves to follow it. As we've regularly done in the past (2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21) we'll catalogue each notable move here, so consider this your running list of the offseason.
Dec. 1, 2021: Dodgers sign IF/OF Chris Taylor
Four years, $60 million, with 2026 club option
This had been a rough few days for Dodgers fans, given the losses of both Corey Seager and Max Scherzer in swift fashion, plus the ongoing knowledge that franchise legend Clayton Kershaw remains unsigned and may have thrown his last pitch in Dodger blue. Against that backdrop -- and the memory that part of their troubles in 2021 were because the vaunted depth they’ve flashed over the last few seasons just wasn’t there, in part because they missed fellow utilityman Enrique Hernández -- bringing back Taylor had begun to feel like less of a luxury and more of a necessity.
It’s not that Taylor will slide in to replace Seager at short, or Trea Turner at second once Turner moves to short, or Justin Turner at third if the 37-year-old sees time as a potential DH, or Cody Bellinger in center should Bellinger spend more time at first base spotting for the injured Max Muncy. It’s that he can do all of those things, and more, with the usual 3-4 WAR he posts probably not actually capturing his entire value to a roster.
It’s true that he struggled in September, though a strong postseason should have washed that issue away; it’s true that his strikeout rate is nearing a concerning level. It’s not like there’s zero risk here. But four for $60 million is roughly the same as the four for $56 million that original version utilityman Ben Zobrist got five years ago, except that Zobrist was four years older and couldn’t play short or center. Given the events of the offseason to date, this was one the Dodgers had to have, and now they do. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: Cubs sign P Marcus Stroman
Three years, $71 million, with an opt-out after 2023
A mere three years and $71 million may seem somewhat paltry considering that Max Scherzer is making $43 million per year, and that the identically aged Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman each received well over $100 million on their deals, but it might be better to look at this in context. Stroman became a free agent for the first time after a 2020 season in which he didn’t even pitch, then accepted the $18.9 million qualifying offer from the Mets, so you might look at him as having made $90 million over four years, which is basically the same annual value that Ray and Gausman just got.
Unless, of course, a bet on himself for the second season in a row works out, and he collects $50 million over the next two seasons in Chicago -- which is, for what it’s worth, Verlander money -- and he returns to the market ahead of his 33rd birthday still in position to collect yet another multiyear deal. There’s merit to making more money over fewer years, and more merit beyond that to having the ability to choose to stay or not stay for that third year depending on how things have gone.
The question, then, is how those things will go. Stroman has never been a particularly gifted bat-misser (in 2021, for example, his 21.7% strikeout rate was below the Major League average of 23.2%), but he succeeds mainly by keeping the ball on the ground and out of the seats, because going back to 2018, only five qualified starters have higher ground-ball rates. But a profile like that demands a quality infield defense, because Stroman’s 3.02 ERA wasn’t quite supported by a 3.49 FIP or a 4.33 xERA or a 4.23 DRA so much as it was by the strong infield defense of the 2021 Mets. The recent Cubs infields of Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo would have been perfect; the 2022 version has considerably more questions.
Ultimately, Stroman probably isn’t going to be part of the next great Cubs team, if only because it’s somewhat hard to see that team arriving in the next two years. (And if he chooses to pass up that opt-out after 2023, it probably means things haven’t gone so well for him.) But that’s OK, because this is a team that still needs to compete (if not quite contend) in 2022, and Kyle Hendricks is coming off the worst year of his career. If this is a bridge contract that helps the Cubs to their next strong roster and Stroman to his next big contract, consider it a win for both sides. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: Padres sign P Nick Martinez
Four years, $20 million
If you’ve been reading this entire ongoing list of transactions -- and thank you if you have -- this might be the first name you come across that generally makes you go “Who? Who just got four years?” Martinez, 31, spent parts of four unmemorable seasons with the Rangers from 2014-17, posting a 4.77 ERA in 415 1/3 innings, before spending the last four seasons pitching in Japan. Even the first three of those didn’t stand out much, but in 2021, pitching for Softbank, he posted an incredible 1.62 ERA in 149 2/3 innings, as well as leading Team USA in strikeouts during the Olympics.
What happened? He reportedly added several ticks on his fastball during his time in Japan, touching 96.9 mph at one point this past season, as well as improving his changeup. We’ve seen Americans struggle in the States, go to Asia, then return as improved pitchers -- just look at Chris Flexen or Miles Mikolas. There’s a path to follow, anyway.
It’s too soon to say how he’ll be used in San Diego, because on name value alone, he’s not cracking a top five of Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger, Joe Musgrove or Chris Paddack. On the other hand, we saw how desperately tattered by injury the 2021 Padres pitching staff was, forcing them to take flyers on Jake Arrieta types. Whether or not Martinez is in the Opening Day rotation or is more of a swingman, there will certainly be opportunity to contribute. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: Red Sox trade OF Hunter Renfroe for OF Jackie Bradley Jr.
Red Sox also receive Minor League infielders David Hamilton and Alex Binelas
Bradley is possibly the finest defensive center fielder to ever grace the misshapen middle of Fenway Park’s outfield; his lone year in Milwaukee, where he hit .163/.236/.261, was without hyperbole one of the weakest offensive years in the post-war history of the sport. Maybe, then, it just wasn’t meant to be in Wisconsin. Maybe the familiar surroundings of Fenway are friendlier ones.
Still, the fit now is a bit of an odd one, because Enrique Hernández was so good in center that Bradley might just take Renfroe’s spot in right, where he A) was so much worse than Renfroe, who had a 112 OPS+ and 31 homers, was and B) adds about $4 million to Boston’s payroll. In some sense, this is about keeping Alex Verdugo from having to spot in left; in another, it’s about buying prospect talent, because Binelas was a third-round pick of Milwaukee just a few months ago, then posted an OPS over 1.000 in his first month of A-ball.
For Milwaukee, the calculus here is much clearer: They needed a bat, especially after the departure of Avisaíl García. Bradley certainly wasn’t going to be counted on to produce; Lorenzo Cain will be 36; it’s anyone’s guess what to expect from Christian Yelich. Renfroe has had some ups and downs himself, because it was only a year ago that he was non-tendered by the Rays after a terrible 2020 season. But generally, he’s a slightly above-average bat, one who should be in the top half of Milwaukee’s lineup. For the cost of a hitter who couldn’t hit and far-away Minor Leaguers, that’s a deal worth making. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: D-backs sign P Mark Melancon
Two years, $12 million
Quick, name the 2021 leader in saves. We’re not sure we’d have gotten to Melancon within our first 20 guesses, which says a little about the prominence of saves as a metric and much more about how Melancon has been quietly humming along as one of the better relievers in baseball for a decade-plus now, donning the uniforms of eight different clubs.
It’ll be nine when he suits for Arizona, coming off a 52-110 season, and surely Melancon alone isn’t going to that around, but the easiest place to make up wins is usually to cut down on the truly terrible losses when your team has a lead. They were 10-31 in one-run games, after all; their bullpen was somehow worth negative-1.2 WAR.
Melancon’s game is the same as it always was, which is to throw almost exclusively 92 mph cutters and 82 mph curveballs. He actually misses fewer bats than you’d expect from a closer, hovering at or below the league average, but he also hasn’t allowed more than four home runs in a season since 2012. That he was able to score just a two-year deal reflects his age (he’ll be 37 next spring) and a walk rate that’s now double what it was during his peak years in Pittsburgh. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: Red Sox sign P Rich Hill
One year, $5 million
There’s simply no more fun fact this winter than the truth that this is the seventh different time Hill has signed with his hometown Red Sox. (We can’t help ourselves; first on a Minor League deal midway through 2010, return engagements for 2011 and ’12, twice in 2014, another late in 2015 ahead of the four-start stretch that revitalized his career, and six-plus years later, here we are again.)
Hill has been around for so long that in his Major League debut, Miguel Cabrera was playing left field for the Marlins. The Florida Marlins. He’s been around for so long that in his Red Sox debut back in 2010, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz and Victor Martinez were still there. Oh, and he can still pitch a little, too. At 41 years old, he just threw 158 2/3 innings for the Rays and Mets, his most since 2007. He no longer has the strikeout stuff that fueled his borderline-ace run for the Dodgers, but few teams wouldn’t take a 3.86 ERA over nearly 160 innings; between Hill, Michael Wacha and James Paxton, Boston is clearly taking the approach that if you sign all the old pitchers, at least some of them will work out. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: Giants sign P Alex Cobb
Two years, $20 million, with a club option for 2024
The Giants may have been coming off of 107 wins, but they still needed to staff 80% of a rotation for 2022, given that Kevin Gausman, Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani and Johnny Cueto were all headed off to free agency. They moved quickly to retain DeSclafani and Wood, and now they’ve added Cobb as well, giving them a decent top four led by breakout star Logan Webb.
Maybe “decent” is underselling it slightly, because they’re now ranked as the No. 9 rotation at FanGraphs, though that assumes a lot about the ability of Wood and Cobb to stay healthy and contribute, because the depth here is still thin. Cobb, for example, has thrown all of 158 innings across the last three seasons, though his 2021 concerns were more minor issues like a finger blister and a sore wrist.
In parts of 10 seasons in the Majors, Cobb hasn’t yet thrown 180 innings in a single season, and no one should expect him to do it for the first time at age 34. That said, there’s so much here that screams “the Giants are going to make him better.” In three seasons with Baltimore, he had a strikeout rate of 16%, but that jumped to 25% with the Angels last year. It’s not hard to see why, since his sinker was humming at a career-high 92.7, while also throwing his best pitch, his splitter, a career-high 37% of the time.
If “take your best pitch and throw it more” sounds like another former Oriole, Gausman, then it does to us, too. If Cobb takes another step forward in 2022, credit the Angels at least a little bit for showing it to be possible. -- Mike Petriello
Dec. 1, 2021: Red Sox sign P James Paxton
One year, $10 million, with a club option for 2023-’24
As we said when the Red Sox signed Michael Wacha, we’re not trying to cover every one-year deal -- sorry, Clint Frazier! -- but when a deal comes along like this that, if both options are exercised, could turn it into a three-year, $35 million pact? That’s worth our time.
That’s exactly the kind of deal that might make you think it’s for a pitcher who is unquestionably talented yet semi-consistently injured, and that sums up Paxton pretty well. After a pair of good, mostly healthy seasons for the Mariners & Yankees in 2018-19 (311 innings, 3.79 ERA), Paxton tossed only 21 2/3 unimpressive innings (6.65 ERA) for the Yankees and Mariners (in that order) in 2020-21. He won’t be available to start 2022 for Boston, either, because after throwing all of 21 pitches in his first appearance of 2021 on April 6, he injured his elbow and required Tommy John surgery.
At his best, Paxton is -- was? -- one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters in the game, regularly sitting at 95-96 mph. It’s anyone’s guess what he’ll be when he returns, though the goal here is clear. If he can return midseason and help reinforce a top-heavy but depth-light Boston rotation down the stretch or in the playoffs, that’s worth the $10 million by itself. If he shows enough to make picking up the 2023-24 option worth it, they have that choice, too. And if not? Then Paxton takes his cool $10 million and moves on, and the Red Sox aren’t committed to worrying about his arm for two more seasons. It's the kind of deal that reflects his talent, and the concerns around his ability to showcase it. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 30, 2021: Angels sign P Raisel Iglesias
Four years, $58 million
“Pitching, pitching, and pitching,” shouted Angels fans headed into the winter, citing the long-running inability to get Mike Trout into October baseball, and while GM Perry Minasian’s job isn’t quite complete on that front, returning one of the best relievers in baseball while adding Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Loup and Michael Lorenzen is a pretty decent start for the first month of the season. None are the Robbie Ray nor Kevin Gausman they needed, but there’s also no such thing as acquiring too many quality arms for a team that simply did not have enough of them.
Iglesias, for what it’s worth, represents a continued success from one of Minasian’s first big moves after being hired as Angels GM last winter, when he swapped Noé Ramirez to Cincinnati for Iglesias, then watched Iglesias pick up some down-ballot Cy Young support (thanks to a massive 103/12 K/BB in 70 innings) while Ramirez didn’t even make the Reds roster and wound up right back with the Angels anyway. (Briefly, because he appeared in only two games and then moved on to Arizona.)
By a'ny measure, Iglesias was one of the best relievers in the game, ranking in the 99th percentile in whiff rate and the 85th percentile in hard-hit avoidance rate. Think about it this way: Entering his age-32 season, Iglesias got four years, $58 million. Last winter, entering his age-32 season, Liam Hendriks got four years, $54 million. It’s the going rate for top-end relievers. It tells you how highly the Angels valued Iglesias’s services. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 30, 2021: Rays trade IF Joey Wendle to Marlins
Rays receive outfield prospect Kameron Misner
Tampa Bay’s impending 40-man roster crunch had been coming for months, and in order to add newly signed pitchers Corey Kluber and Brooks Raley to the team, moves were going to have to be made. While Wendle had been a valuable part of the Rays for the past few years, they’re well-covered at the non-first-base positions in the infield with Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Yandy Díaz, Taylor Walls and Vidal Bruján, so swapping the 31-year-old Wendle for Misner, the 35th pick in the 2019 Draft, made sense enough.
It makes even more sense for the Marlins, though. As has been stated ad nauseum, Miami has a quality young starting rotation that a terribly weak offense was unable to support, and if GM Kim Ng hoped to make the most of that rotation, finding some bats in the lineup was an absolute must, right now.
She got off to a good start by adding veteran outfielder Avisaíl García on a four-year deal, and while the trade for Pittsburgh catcher Jacob Stallings doesn’t do much for the offense, it does a great deal to support those pitchers from behind the plate. Now, there’s Wendle, who isn’t really a star so much as he is a defensively gifted player who can play multiple spots (mostly second and third base) while contributing an average-to-above bat (112 OPS+ the past two seasons).
It's not the big thumper they needed, and still need. But Wendle is a solid Major League bat, and Miami’s offense was so dreadful in 2021 that simply adding that is a big deal for them. Given that he swings lefty, he’s an easy platoon partner for Brian Anderson at third, or possibly even just pushes Anderson to the outfield. The Marlins still need another outfield bat -- maybe this is Eddie Rosario’s landing spot, or Joc Pederson’s -- but so far, Ng has had a quietly productive offseason, and she still hasn’t had to trade any of those young pitchers yet. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 30, 2021: Marlins trade C Jorge Alfaro to Padres
Marlins receive cash or player to be named later
While reportedly also being busy on deals for relievers Luis Garcia (from St. Louis) and Robert Suarez (from Japan), the Padres made a quietly interesting deal for a catcher who might not be a catcher who almost certainly would have just been non-tendered by Miami anyway. Got all that?
Alfaro was once seen as Miami’s catcher of the future when he was included in the J.T. Realmuto deal prior to 2019, but his bat stagnated (69 OPS+ the past two years) and despite a very strong throwing arm, his defense behind the plate wasn’t strong enough to keep the Marlins from putting him out in the outfield at times this season, prior to a season-ending calf injury. Meanwhile, the Padres already have three catchers, in Austin Nola, Víctor Caratini, and Luis Campusano.
On the surface, it's an odd fit, though the history here is obvious, because Alfaro was originally signed by the Rangers when San Diego GM A.J. Preller was part of the scouting department there. (Alfaro was sent to Philadelphia in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade.) But it’s a bet on talent, because Alfaro still has top-end hard-hit skills; over the past three years, his hard-hit rate is similar to Joey Gallo or Tyler O’Neill. It’s a bet on catching depth at a position that is paper-thin, perhaps setting up a future trade.
It's a bet, too, on roster flexibility. The Padres like Nola, but he’s been available for only 75 games over the last two seasons, and he’s capable of playing first and second base, too. Caratini hasn’t hit at all the last two years (78 OPS+), and he can play first base. With Tommy Pham a free agent, San Diego doesn’t really have a left fielder, where Alfaro gained experience in 2021, and if the DH comes to the NL, Alfaro fits there. Considering the cost was almost literally “nothing,” the deal that at first seemed odd makes at least somewhat more sense. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 30, 2021: Cubs sign C Yan Gomes
Two years, $13 million
Let the Willson Contreras trade watch accelerate, because when a Cubs team that has just a ton of holes signs a 34-year-old catcher to a multiyear deal despite already having one of baseball’s best catchers at the position, and in a catching market so weak that anyone with a backstop to trade should be able to do well, it’s not hard to connect the dots here. It’s also not hard to, you know, read Contreras’s tweets.
A decade into his career, Gomes profiles best as a backup or job sharer, which would still fit if Contreras doesn’t go anywhere and gets some at-bats at first base or DH, should that come to the National League. He’s had an extremely up-and-down last five years, but generally he’s an average-to-slightly-below hitter (which is really quite good for catchers these days) who’s also an average-ish framer behind the plate.
Gomes is, generally, a nice player to have on your team, because it’s hard to find quality catching right now. We imagine there will be quite a bit more certainty on his role soon, though. If Contreras stays, Chicago has one of baseball’s best catching situations. If he goes, the Cubs will probably need another catcher, since their best catching prospect, Miguel Amaya, is expected to miss most or all of 2022 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 30, 2021: Tigers sign SS Javier Báez
Six years, $140 million, with opt-out after 2023
This one, we think, is a candidate for “most divisive contract of the winter,” so far. It’s not at all surprising that Detroit would go out and add a big shortstop bat; that’s been an obvious target this winter for some time, because a young team that just played well over the final few months of the season and has some big-time hitting prospects nearly ready in Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, and just added Eduardo Rodriguez on a five-year deal, was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the deep, talented shortstop market.
In that sense, they succeeded. Báez turns 29 on Dec. 1, meaning this takes him only through 34, considerably shorter than Texas signing Marcus Semien through 37. He is, by any measure, a huge upgrade over recently cut Niko Goodrum, who had a 90 OPS+ over the last four years, while Báez had a 113, in addition to obviously superior defense. Put Báez in the top half of a lineup with Torkelson, Greene, Robbie Grossman, Jeimer Candelario, Akil Baddoo and Jonathan Schoop, and all of a sudden you’ve got something there, especially if his glove helps support all that young pitching, too. (Don’t worry about Comerica, which is a better hitters' park than you think.)
Taken for all that, and considering that this contract required less than half the financial commitment that Seager got and Carlos Correa will get, it’s nothing less than a win in Detroit. The question, though, is what the next six years of Báez look like. Only two qualified players struck out more than his 33.6% in 2021; no qualified player struck out more than his 30.9% over the last three seasons. He has, in fact, increased his strikeout rate four seasons in a row, and he’s already pretty close to the top of what’s acceptable right now. That's in part because he chases everything; it's in part because he was already being beat by good velocity.
That’s a flaw you can look past if he’s hitting for power and playing exquisite defense, and in 2022, neither is a concern. (When he made contact in 2021, the quality of that contact was similar to Paul Goldschmidt or Freddie Freeman.) Yet it’s not hard to wonder if we’ve already seen the best of his defense, because Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average agree very much on his three-year trend. By DRS, he was +31 in his great 2019, then +6, then +3 most recently. By OAA, he was +32, +9, and +3, meaning that in 2021, his defense was more “above average” than great.
Again, this makes the Tigers better, more interesting, more exciting, more fun than they’ve been in many years, and perhaps all we’ve done is explain why other shortstops are getting deals twice as large as Báez is, because he's a 3-WAR player, and they might be 6-WAR players. There’s just a limit to how much you can strike out, though, and that skill doesn’t generally improve when you’re in your 30s. If it does improve, he might just be gone in two years anyway. If it doesn't? The risk here is a large one. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 29, 2021: Braves sign P Kirby Yates
2 years, $8.25 million with club option for 2024
“The Night Shift” helped fuel Atlanta to a World Series title, and they’ll never have to pay for a meal in Georgia again because of it. Of course, you can’t simply assume that what you saw for three weeks in October is what will be maintained over a full season, in part because the 2021 regular season Atlanta ‘pen was more of an average unit than a great one.
Enter Yates, who was a journeyman through age 29, then an incredibly dominant, near-best-in-baseball closer from 30-32 with San Diego (279 strikeouts in 180 1/3 innings). Of course, that was several years ago at this point, because he threw only 4 1/3 innings in 2020 before requiring elbow surgery; then, after signing a one-year deal with Toronto in January, ended up missing the entire season after requiring Tommy John surgery in March.
That procedure means that Yates won’t be ready to start the 2022 season, making him more of a midseason addition. Maybe that’s OK, really, because Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and A.J. Minter will all be back. It’s all but certain one or more of them will need some time off after the deep, exhausting postseason run, and if that’s when Yates can step in, all the better. At 35, coming off his second Tommy John surgery (he had one in 2006), expectations should be kept low. But so long as that deadly splitter, the best one in baseball in 2019, is still there, he’s a nice depth add. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 29, 2021: Rangers sign SS Corey Seager
10 years, $325 million
Three days ago, you could argue, the 2022 Rangers had zero above-average players on their roster, befitting a team that scored the third-fewest runs in 2021 and allowed the seventh most. That changed considerably on Sunday when they signed Marcus Semien and Jon Gray; it changed considerably more on Monday when they managed to keep 40% of the “Big 5” shortstops all to themselves by giving Seager a massive contract, considerably more than the 7-8 years most expected he’d get.
Seager, 28 in April and the 18th pick in the 2012 Draft, was the consensus second-best free agent on the market behind only Carlos Correa, who must certainly be adding multipliers to his own asking price right now. Despite some injury issues and shortstop defense that’s generally considered more “competent” than “great,” as he was a negative-6 Outs Above Average last season and negative-17 since 2017, he’s posted a 131 OPS+ over the last three years, which exactly matches the 131 OPS+ he’s posted for his career. You can reasonably argue he’s a top-3 hitting shortstop in the game. It’s also possible that, like Semien, his time at shortstop is nearing an end, though that seems several seasons off.
Presumably, this keeps Semien at the second base spot where he was so successful for Toronto in 2021, and it’s deeply difficult to overstate how much an upgrade Seager/Semien will be over Nick Solak, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Andy Ibáñez, and the rest of the 2021 Rangers middle infield. We’ll try, anyway:
It also probably moves Kiner-Falefa to third, at least until top prospect Josh Jung is ready, and the point is, they have options now, which they did not have before.
That the Rangers have spent more than a half-billion dollars and still aren’t clearly even a .500 team, much less a serious contender, tells you a great deal about just how far away they were. “I think that we have needs everywhere,” GM Chris Young said at the end of the year, and he wasn’t wrong.
At this rate, it seems foolish to look at the 2022 Texas roster and think that it’s a finished product, that they won’t keep moving, whether that’s for Clayton Kershaw or Carlos Rodón or Seiya Suzuki or others, so we won’t attempt to settle the ‘22 standings right now. As Jon Daniels has said, he’s aware that the reason the Alex Rodriguez deal didn’t work out is because they failed to surround him with talent, and that mistake won’t be repeated.
But it’s because they were such a weak roster that it’s important to keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to take what they had and make them a winner right away. This makes them better in 2022, clearly, considerably more watchable and interesting, but it’s not about 2022. It’s about this year’s class being much deeper than future years. It’s about setting them up to be ready to support prospects Jung, Jack Leiter and Cole Winn, rather than rely on them to be the ones to pull the team up from last place. It’s incredible to think about what the team has done so far. It’s more incredible to think that they might not be done yet. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 29, 2021: Pirates trade C Jacob Stallings to Marlins
Pirates receive P Zach Thompson and two prospects
Earlier this month, we talked about how thin the free-agent catcher market would be, and pinpointed not only the Marlins as a team that needed to find a backstop, but Stallings as a potential trade target to fill it. Score one for obviousness, we guess, though he’s certainly not going to do terribly much to help add the pop the Miami offense so desperately needs.
What he can do, however, is help make the very good young Marlins pitching even better. Stallings is probably the best defensive catcher in baseball, not just for allowing zero passed balls, but also because he tied Carlos Correa for the most Defensive Runs Saved (+21) at any position. At 32, he’s not a long-term solution, necessarily, but he fits a significant need for the Marlins. This will look considerably better if they can land another bat at another position.
As for the Pirates, trading away a 32-year-old catcher makes sense enough, though it’s not clear the return is worth it. Neither Kyle Nicolas nor Connor Scott was among the Top 15 Marlins prospects, and the 27-year-old Thompson was signed as a Minor League free agent last year and made his debut in June. He did manage a 3.24 ERA in his first 75 innings in the Majors largely due to his very good cutter, though with a below-average strikeout rate. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 29, 2021: Mariners sign P Robbie Ray
Five years, $115 million, with opt out after 2023
“Seattle could use an ace above [Marco] Gonzales,” we wrote when previewing each team’s winter on Nov. 4, “and a depth starter or three.” They could still use those depth starters, but consider the ace box checked off, because the 2021 American League Cy Young winner is coming to town.
Ray, who turned 30 in October, rebounded from a frustrating 2019 (4.34 ERA) and a disastrous 2020 (6.62) to throw a career-high 193 1/3 innings, striking out a Major League-leading 248 hitters along the way, while also cutting his walk rate from 18% to 7%. What changed? Not a new pitch, not better velocity, not any of the usual go-tos.
Instead, he credited the Blue Jays pitching staff, who helped him improve his mechanics, which in turn allowed him to throw his fastball and slider for strikes -- and when you have a fastball and slider like he does, nibbling around the edges is not required. Ray’s consistency might be a question (although it’s not like he wasn’t an All-Star in 2017), but his durability is not; over the last six seasons, only a dozen pitchers have thrown more innings. If his 2021 is for real? Good for him, he can get back on the market after 2023. If it's not? Good for him too, he's got five guaranteed years.
In order to add a new No. 1 to their rotation, Seattle will surrender their third-highest Draft Pick, because Ray had received and declined the Qualifying Offer. But as we wrote a few weeks ago, a new ace was a must, especially because the 2021 Seattle rotation had a 4.61 ERA, 12th highest in baseball. With top-quality pitching quickly falling off the board, Seattle’s options if they didn’t get Ray were going to be limited, and while a top three of Gonzales, Logan Gilbert and Chris Flexen didn’t exactly inspire fear alone, turning them into a rotation quartet led by Ray changes the conversation considerably.
The Mariners have now added Ray and second baseman Adam Frazier, acquired from San Diego over the weekend, and they haven't really lost anyone of note from the 2021 team aside from longtime third baseman Kyle Seager, who is a free agent. They can rightfully expect more from their young outfielders going forward. They're clearly better. Yet the offense, which had the fifth-weakest slugging percentage in baseball in 2021, still feels a bat short. Might signing one Qualifying Offer player open the door to going in on a second? -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 29, 2021: Mets sign P Max Scherzer
Three years, $130 million, with opt-out after 2023
First things first, Mets fans: Congratulations. This is exactly the way you’ve wanted your massive-market team to act for years. Scherzer’s $43.3 million average annual value isn’t just a new record, it’s a new record by a lot, besting Gerrit Cole’s $36 million per by a full 20%. It’s difficult to recount just how many times over the years that the Mets were also-rans or runners-up for big ticket free agents, which makes this success stand out more. A year after being the team to trade for and sign Francisco Lindor, they’re the team that has Scherzer, too.
Scherzer, despite the fact that he’ll turn 38 in July, has shown little signs of on-field decline; you may remember that after being traded to the Dodgers, he allowed all of six runs in his first nine starts. There’s no meaningful decline in fastball velocity, which still hovers in the same 94-ish range it always has, and his 34.1% strikeout rate in 2021 is essentially exactly what it had been from 2017-20 (34.3%). Time will come for Scherzer eventually, as it does for us all, but he’s still performing at something like peak efficiency.
Plus, to add a guaranteed Hall of Famer in Scherzer next to a making-a-strong-case-for-Cooperstown ace in Jacob deGrom atop the 2022 starting rotation is nothing less than stunning. It’s the best 1-2 in baseball. It’s potentially not even particularly close.
… If they’re both healthy, of course. Yes, here’s the buzzkill part of this. Scherzer is about to be 38, and he was last seen being unable to make his NLCS Game 6 start due to a “dead arm.” Meanwhile, deGrom didn’t pitch after July 7 due to arm trouble that's still an open question until he proves it isn't. All three of the hitters the Mets signed last week (Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Mark Canha) will be 33 years or older themselves when the season begins, making all of this a tremendous bet on health and immunity to the effects of age, at least for the short-term.
None of which is to understate the fact that the Mets just signed literally Max Scherzer, one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, still at or near the top of his game, and if things go right, which is to say “Scherzer and deGrom stay healthy,” then this team has a chance to be something really special. And if they don’t? Then the identity of the back-end innings eater they still need, and likely will still get, doesn’t matter so much, does it? -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 29, 2021: Rays sign P Corey Kluber and P Brooks Raley
One year, $8 million (plus incentives) for Kluber
Two years, $10 million for Raley
Signing Wander Franco to an 11-year extension is obviously the big news in Rays-land right now, but Franco was going to be on the 2022 Rays regardless, making this pair of new (old) pitchers a little more timely.
The Kluber deal is essentially this year’s version of signing Rich Hill or Chris Archer last winter, in that they’re hoping a talented older pitcher (Kluber will be 36 in April) can stay whole for long enough to give them 80-100 strong innings. It’s that expectation that’s key here, really, because Kluber has thrown 116 2/3 innings combined across the last three seasons, so not only is it unreasonable to expect he’s suddenly a 200-inning starter now, he’d be earning a considerably larger contract than this if he was likely to be one. (Incentives push this to $13 million, if he reaches them.)
When Kluber was available last year, he did basically what the Rays might hope for, which is 80 innings at a 3.83 ERA (3.85 FIP), or a nearly 1:1 replacement for Hill. It’s not that the Rays are without pitching talent; with various combinations of Shane Baz, Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Ryan Yarbrough and Luis Patiño available to start, they never are. But without the injured Tyler Glasnow, they always need more innings. Kluber’s issues are generally more about health than effectiveness.
That goes for Raley as well, though he’s strictly a reliever. A veteran of only four Major League seasons at 33 years old -- he spent five years in Korea from 2015-19 -- Raley spent 2021 putting up just the most misleading 4.78 ERA you can imagine for Houston. After all, striking out 65 in 49 innings, walking only 16, is fantastic; a 3.27 FIP and 3.84 xERA look a little better. No pitcher in baseball had a lower hard-hit rate allowed than his 21.5%, too; you can believe Tampa Bay is looking at that a lot more than an inflated ERA. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 28, 2021: Rangers sign 2B/SS Marcus Semien, P Jon Gray, and OF Kole Calhoun
Seven years, $175 million for Semien
Four years, $56 million for Gray
One year, $5.2 million for Calhoun
Welcome to possibly the most consequential (non World Series) day in Texas Rangers history. The Rangers front office made it clear at the beginning of the winter how seriously they planned to be big players in the market, and they’ve certainly backed that up and then some, doing what absolutely everyone expected they would do, which is to sign both a quality starting pitcher and one of the “Big Five” middle infielders in the span of a few hours on Sunday evening.
But what we didn’t expect them to do was to sign the oldest of them, because Semien turned 31 years old in September, and he’s joining a 102-loss team that needs help absolutely everywhere on the roster. This was the weakest AL team this side of Baltimore in 2021, and even with Semien (and Gray, and Calhoun, a 34-year-old coming off an injury-plagued 81 OPS+ season with Arizona who is probably best served as a platoon bat on this righty-heavy team at this point), they’re still likely the weakest team in the AL West, still a good two-to-three years away from true competitiveness things stand, which is why one of the younger infielders figured to land here.
Of course, “as things stand” in that paragraph is doing a whole lot of work, because you don’t make a move like this without planning more, and the Rangers waited all of about two hours after the Semien news broke before it came out that they'd also be adding Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, who is probably better than the 4.59 career ERA he's coming to Texas with might show, given that all of that time came calling Coors Field home. (Though, as we investigated recently, his home/road splits aren't exactly what you expect, especially that his home FIP and road FIP stand at an identical 3.91.) Gray immediately becomes the ace of a still-thin Texas rotation.
It is, unquestionably, a good day for the Rangers, who not only added a post-Coors pitcher with upside, but in Semien, one of the truly elite players in baseball, a player who leads position players in WAR since 2019, a testament not only to his skill but his durability. Semien just finished third in the MVP balloting, and for all the talk about his age, it’s not like there’s anything about his game that screams decline is coming or that he’s not a good bet for the next four-to-five years. (We’ll kindly refrain from years six and seven at this point.)
While he’s probably not hitting another 45 homers – do note that he had a .933 OPS in home games in hitter-friendly Dunedin/Buffalo and a more mortal .824 OPS back in Toronto – there just aren’t many Gold-Glove winning middle infielders with power like this, and it’s not like much from 2021 didn’t resemble what he’d done in his breakout 2019 anyway.
And yet despite the team committing more than $230 million here, we still can't help but wonder "what's next." Maybe that’s the pitchers they still badly need, even beyond Gray; maybe it’s Japanese import Seiya Suzuki, who they have been linked to; maybe it’s even yet another shortstop, since Semien could just remain at second base, pushing the defensively gifted but offensively limited Isiah Kiner-Falefa to a utility role. You might remember the time they signed Alex Rodriguez to a $252 million deal, saw him mash 156 homers and provide three top-six MVP seasons … while the team finished last each year, due to a total lack of talent around him. They can’t let that happen again, and it seems clear they won't.
What this does, which is the entire point, is move up the timeframe for contention. It gives them a much stronger core for when Jack Leiter, Josh Jung, and friends arrive. It also puts the Rangers on the clock, in a way they weren’t yesterday. Before signing Semien, they hoped to be good by 2023 and competitive by 2024. Now, they all but have to be – and there’s considerable work to do to get there. Maybe that's tomorrow's concern, though. Today's mood ought to be nothing but celebratory in the Metroplex. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 28, 2021: Blue Jays sign P Kevin Gausman
Five years, $110 million
Two weeks ago, the Jays gave José Berríos a seven-year extension worth $131 million, positioning him alongside 2021 breakout rookie Alek Manoah and the final two years of Hyun Jin Ryu’s contract as the building blocks of Toronto’s short- and long-term rotation. Now, they’ll all be joined by Gausman, who spent years trying to justify his lofty position as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 Draft before finally realizing all that talent with a long-awaited breakout in San Francisco over 2020 and ’21. All the focus in Toronto, even without the now-departed Marcus Semien, has long been on their young, exciting lineup. Now, they have the rotation to match.
Just as you could mostly ignore Semien’s career numbers when he arrived in Toronto – given that he’d been mostly average or slightly below for years with Oakland before his 2019 breakout – do the same for Gausman, who had all sorts of uninteresting numbers for Baltimore, Cincinnati and Atlanta between 2013-19 that we will not share here because they do not matter.
What matters is that in 251 2/3 innings for San Francisco, he pitched to a 3.00 ERA, with a nearly identical 3.02 FIP. What matters is that there was a clear reason for it happening, which is that he stopped trying to mess around with third and fourth pitches that didn’t work and instead just ran with his very good four-seamer and splitter – the latter being the third-most valuable pitch in baseball this past season. It matters that he struck out 30% of hitters with the Giants after a mere 21% in his first six seasons in the Majors.
It matters, too, that his first half (1.73 ERA) was much better than his second half (4.42), though perhaps less than you might think. For one thing, thinking he or just about anyone was pitching to a 1.73 ERA all season long is more than a little unrealistic; for another, he did have a 2.97 FIP over the final two months. For Blue Jays fans, it might matter that Gausman reportedly turned down more from the Mets to choose to head up to Toronto.
We always knew the Jays would try to bet on an inconsistent pitcher who had a shocking breakout, but we figured it would be Robbie Ray. Instead, it’s Gausman, who returns to the AL East as an entirely different pitcher from the last time we saw him here. The 91-win, fourth-place Jays lost Semien earlier Sunday, and may yet lose Ray as well. Consider this an impressive step toward replacing one of those huge losses. We imagine they'll find themselves an infielder sooner than later, too. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 28, 2021: Marlins sign OF Avisaíl García
Four years, $53 million
You just knew the Marlins were going to have to find some kind of offense to support their young pitching, because there was no other option but to do so. The 2021 Marlins scored the second-fewest runs and had the second-weakest slugging percentage (.372), and even that overstates the situation, because it includes contributions from their Opening Day outfield of Starling Marte, Adam Duvall and Corey Dickerson, who combined to slug .443 before all three were traded during the season.
The Marlins were reportedly attempting to bring Marte back right up until the time he signed with the Mets, so instead they pivot to García, who slugged 29 homers for Milwaukee in 2021 while posting a 117 OPS+. Twenty-nine homers may not stand out in today’s game, but only four Marlins have hit more since Giancarlo Stanton left after 2017. That’s total, across four seasons, not in a single year. We cannot overstate how desperately starved this team has been for power.
García has long been a tools darling, because he’s faster than you think (88th percentile, per Statcast) and hits the ball harder than you think (98th percentile in max exit velocity), yet he’s been infuriatingly inconsistent, since he’s been very good in 2017, ’19, and ’21, yet terribly unimpressive in ’18 and ’20. That the Marlins had to get up to four years to get him, when most projections had him getting two or three, tells you just how focused they were on not missing out on one of the better outfield bats. Expect his power numbers to drop slightly, going from a solid home run park for righty batters to a difficult one. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 28, 2021: Blue Jays sign P Yimi García
Two years, $11 million, with a vesting/team option for 2024
Despite larger-profile needs in the rotation and the infield this winter, the Blue Jays were always going to have to invest resources in a leaky bullpen that nearly single-handedly sidetracked an otherwise strong 2021 team, and so the first step -- presumably of multiple steps -- is to add the useful García, who began the year as Miami’s closer and ended it as a setup man in Houston after a midseason trade.
It might seem like García was much worse for Houston, should you look just at ERA, which jumped 3.47 to 5.48, though considering he struck out more for the Astros, walked fewer, and had his home run rate stay the same, there’s just as strong an argument that he pitched better after leaving Miami. (It’s worth noting that the Astros immediately had him develop a new sinker, using his slider less.) Such are the inconsistencies of small-sample ERA numbers for relievers.
García probably isn’t a closer on a contending team, but he won’t be asked to in Toronto, instead adding badly needed depth alongside Trevor Richards, Adam Cimber, Julian Merryweather and others ahead of Jordan Romano. So long as he throws strikes -- and he generally has, walking only 2.1 per 9 in his career -- he’ll be useful. “Useful” might not stand out. It’s still a considerably valuable thing to have for anyone who saw the first-half Blue Jays bullpen. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 27, 2021: Astros sign P Héctor Neris
Two years, $17 million
Houston had a need in the bullpen, given that Kendall Graveman, Yimi García, and Brooks Raley are free agents, and Cristian Javier might see more starts in 2022 than he saw in ’21, but they were also returning more arms from last season than you’d think. Ryan Pressly is still one of the better closers in the league; Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek, Blake Taylor, Rafael Montero and Pedro Báez should still have their uses in various other roles.
Still, they were always going to need someone, and Neris is an intriguing target after parts of eight up-and-down seasons in Philadelphia, including losing and regaining his closing job within all of two days this past June. At his best, Neris misses bats, collecting 520 strikeouts in 407 2/3 career innings, thanks to a diving splitter; at his worst, he’s surprisingly homer-prone, with only five relievers having allowed more homers over the last four seasons. In 2021, at least, part of his issue was the dreadful Phillies defense, because no pitcher in baseball was hurt more by poor fielding behind him than Neris was.
Whenever a pitcher signs with the Astros, you wonder what specifically they like, and what they think they can help the pitcher do better. No secret here on the first part; over the last five seasons, only two pitchers have had a higher rate of swinging strikes per pitch on their splitter. The second part is easy to guess at; Neris has been toying with a slider for years, with Phillies manager Joe Girardi showing frustration this year that his closer wouldn’t throw it more. Here’s to guessing the Astros have a plan for that. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 27, 2021: Padres trade 2B/OF Adam Frazier to Mariners
Padres receive Minor Leaguers Ray Kerr and Corey Rosier
For parts of five seasons in Pittsburgh, Frazier was a useful high-contact, low-power, multi-positional piece, with all the ups and downs you'd expect from a profile that depended on all those batted balls finding grass or dirt. Sometimes he was very good (2018). Sometimes he was poor (2020). Mostly he was average (2017, '19, and his overall Pirates tenure). But then in the first half of 2021, as the regular second baseman, Frazier had the run of his life. He hit .324/.388/.448. He started the All-Star Game. Then, he was gone, traded to the Padres in a deal that was a bit confusing on the surface (like Jake Cronenworth and Eric Hosmer, the other right-side infielders, Frazier hits lefty) and unsuccessful in the end (he hit only .267/.327/.335).
Now he's on the move again, traded to Seattle in another move that admittedly seems less-than-clear on the surface. It's quite clear Seattle needs a big bat if it wants to continue its 2021 momentum into 2022, but since the Mariners have stated they expect J.P. Crawford to remain at shortstop, that would seem to position second base as the right spot to add, like a Marcus Semien or a Javier Báez, with Abraham Toro covering third. Frazier's a useful piece to have around, but he's still the same player he's always been, which is to say he makes a ton of contact with very little power behind it, and he shouldn't be a roadblock toward adding a more powerful bat. Frazier is an upgrade today, which is worth the effort. He's not exactly what Mariners fans were hoping for, though.
Then again, we're considering the Mariners lineup as it stands today, Nov. 27. One can only assume that president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has 15 more moves up his sleeve. He always does. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 27, 2021: Mets sign OF Starling Marte, OF Mark Canha and IF Eduardo Escobar
Four years, $78 million (Marte)
Two years, $26.5 million (Canha)
Two years, $20 million (Escobar)
Let's cover these all at once, because in the span of a few hours on Thanksgiving weekend, the Mets completely remade their 2022 lineup, checking off all sorts of boxes on the way. For a team that had been far too left-handed, the second-most lefty-heavy team in 2020-'21? Two righties and a switch-hitter. For a team that had been unfathomably poor on the bases the last two seasons, the second-worst in baseball? Marte, who stole 47 bases for Miami and Oakland in 2021, was baseball's single most valuable baserunner. For a team that had continually tried to fit left fielder Brandon Nimmo into center -- where, to his credit, he was better than most thought he'd be -- now you have Marte, who has been +6 in outs above average the last two seasons. For a team that ran into serious depth problems last year? Canha and Escobar can, between the two of them, handle any non-catcher/shortstop spot.
All three had strikeout rates better than the league average last year; combined, the Mets added about 11 wins above replacement in one day. Which is not, to be clear, saying that's what will happen in 2022, that these moves are all without risk. That starts with their age, because Canha is the youngest, and he turns 33 in February. (Escobar does in January; Marte did in October.) Escobar's track record is full of inconsistency; Canha had a career year in 2019, and has trended downward in the two years since. This is a gamble, in part, on short deals getting the Mets in and out before it's too late. But they have three more good players today than they did yesterday, and none of the deals seem unreasonable.
The larger question, then, is what comes next. This seems to all but officially end Michael Conforto's tenure with the club. It considerably lessens the need to return Javier Báez, though that still might happen. It opens a lot of questions about which of J.D. Davis, Jeff McNeil, or Dominic Smith gets traded, to say nothing of the ever-uncertain status of Robinson Canó. But mostly, it points out that none of these moves were for pitchers, which the Mets desperately need, considering that Jacob deGrom has much to prove in the doctor's office and Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker have much to prove on the mound. These aren't moves you make unless there's more moves coming. We're guessing those come on the mound, and soon. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 27, 2021: Red Sox sign P Michael Wacha
One year, $7 million
We're not generally going to cover every single one-year deal to veteran journeymen here -- sorry, Yoshi Tsutsugo -- but Wacha is at least worth noting here because of the late-season change he made in an otherwise unremarkable single season in Tampa Bay. It's been many years now since he really looked like the ace-in-progress that St. Louis envisioned, back when he was posting a 3.21 ERA from 2013-'15, though even then dealing with shoulder trouble. It wasn't quite so good the next four years (4.39 ERA), a disaster with the Mets in 2020 (6.62 ERA), and not, on the surface, much better in 2021 with the Rays (5.05 ERA). If even the Rays can't get much out of you, then what are other teams supposed to do?
But: Perhaps they did. Over Wacha's final seven outings of the season, he had a 2.88 ERA. He struck out 36 in 34 1/3 innings, and walked only seven. Absent any other information, you might think it just a well-timed hot streak, and maybe it was, except it came exactly when he stopped throwing his cutter, which had been torched to a .586 slugging percentage in 2021:
If he no longer has what's long been one of his three primary pitches, you might have some concerns about how deep he can go into games. Then again, he's got a long history of shoulder trouble and just signed for one year and $7 million, so there should be no expectation that he's going deep into anything. If the Red Sox can eke 80-100 league-average innings out of Wacha, in a back-end or swing-man role, that's a risk worth taking. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 24, 2021: Cardinals sign P Steven Matz
Four years, $44 million (sources)
Four years, for a pitcher who as recently as August was still battling to merely maintain a spot in the Toronto rotation. (No, really.) That's underselling Matz somewhat, who has generally been either solid (2016, '18, '19) or dealing with arm trouble (2017, '20) for most of his career, before we get to a generally confounding 2021, his first and only season with the Blue Jays. That's because you might look at his first half ERA (4.72) compared to his second (2.91) and see a pitcher who had a great improvement down the stretch. Maybe you'd think there's some big reason for the huge ERA drop.
Perhaps so, but that also came with a big drop in strikeout rate, from 25% to 20%, which is not usually what you expect, and the likely truth is that he was neither as bad as he was in the first half nor as good as he was in the second half. Statcast, somewhat hilariously, sees that in the second half, he dropped his home run rate (good), dropped his strikeout rate (bad), and thinks he pitched exactly as well in the first half as he did in the second. Which is probably overstating it a little, but maybe not really by that much.
But if there was anywhere for a pitcher like this to go, it's hard to think of a better place than St. Louis. The Cardinals have baseball's best defense, and are likely to return most or all of it. Busch Stadium is quietly one of the most difficult parks to hit in, and it's at least worth noting that Matz's second-half run prevention improvement coincided with the Jays escaping Dunedin (where he allowed a .950 OPS) and Buffalo (.860) on the way back to Toronto (.617). He also, late in the season, moved where he stood on the mound. Putting a pitcher who gets grounders and doesn't have elite strikeout skills in a park like that, in front of a defense like that? Matz is the 2022 early front-runner for the biggest ERA overperformer of the season.
For the Cardinals, Matz is not the top-end starter they needed, or still need. But Adam Wainwright, for all his brilliance, is 40 years old. Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty, and Miles Mikolas combined to throw 131 2/3 innings in 2021. They need an ace. They needed this, too. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 23, 2021: White Sox sign P Kendall Graveman
Three years, $24 million (sources)
Ten months ago, Chicago signed Liam Hendriks. Four months ago, the Sox traded for Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera. On Tuesday, they were busy finalizing terms with Graveman, who had a breakout 2021 as a reliever after years of struggling to stay healthy and established as a back-end starter. The White Sox, clearly, covet collecting high-end relievers, and considering that they also return Aaron Bummer, who had an All-Star caliber season of his own, as well as Michael Kopech and Garret Crochet, at first glance this seems more luxury than necessity.
Then again, there's a lot of moving parts here. Tepera is a free agent, Kopech is likely to move to the rotation in 2022, and Kimbrel, who was unreliable for the White Sox, seems for all the world a trade candidate after having his $16 million option picked up. Through that lens, there's definitely more of a need for a reliable reliever to set up for Hendriks, though it's fair to point out that despite being in the Majors since 2014, Graveman's track record of success is a limited one. From 2014-'20, he had a 4.44 ERA, mostly for Oakland, around multiple arm injuries. In 2021, split between Seattle and Houston, he added a slider, and his sinker velocity, which had been in the 92-93 range as a starter, did, well, this:
It's that velocity jump (and a clear reason for it happening) plus the improved secondary pitches that give Chicago confidence that his out-of-nowhere 2021 wasn't a fluke, though it does raise questions about Kimbrel's near-term future. Just six weeks after Tony LaRussa accused Graveman of intentionally throwing at Jose Abreu in the playoffs, they're now on the same side. That, at least, ought to be interesting. -- Mike Petriello
**Nov 22, 2021: Giants sign P Anthony DeSclafani
**Three years, $36 million
Despite the stunning 107-win 2021 season, the Giants entered the winter with a ton of work to do, and we don't just mean replacing the retired Buster Posey. Other than Logan Webb, the entire starting rotation was headed to free agency, and even Webb, for as great as he was in October, hasn't had a full season in the rotation yet. Bringing back DeSclafani and likely Alex Wood, who is close to a two-year, $10 million deal, according to a source, who combined to start 57 games (and throw 306 1/3 innings) for the Giants this past season, doesn't fully fix that issue, but it does provide badly-needed depth.
In a way, the paths of DeSclafani and Wood -- as well as their teammate on the 2019 Reds, Kevin Gausman, who is still unsigned -- tell you a lot about what it is that the Giants did so well, which is to identify talented-yet-underperforming players and get the most out of them. DeSclafani had a 4.29 ERA in parts of six seasons for Miami and Cincinnati; he posted a 3.17 with San Francisco, in some part due to changes in his pitch mix, using his slider as his primary offering for the first time. Wood had posted some strong years with the Braves and Dodgers, but had managed only a 5.96 ERA across 48 1/3 injury-plagued innings in 2019 and '20 before throwing 138 2/3 quality frames for the Giants.
That DeSclafani's deal is larger despite the fact that Wood is a year younger likely tells you a little about how he's been more durable and can be counted upon for more innings. Still, San Francisco's official depth chart for the rotation now reads 1) Webb, 2) DeSclafani ... and that's it. Maybe Wood gets finalized, behind them. Maybe Alex Cobb joins up, as has been rumored. Maybe this is just a good start, with a considerable amount of work yet to do. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 22, 2021: Angels sign P Aaron Loup
Two years, $17 million
Two years ago, after a pair of seasons wrecked by arm injuries, Loup had to settle for a Minor League contract with Tampa Bay. He was good in the shortened season for the Rays, which earned him a one-year deal from the Mets for 2021, where he was absolutely fantastic (0.95 ERA), which in turn has now earned him a two-year deal for real money from the Angels. It's long been clear the Angels needed to find at least six new pitchers, and they weren't all going to be starters; Loup, along with fellow ex-Met Noah Syndergaard, makes for some nifty pre-holiday shopping, though he's not a replacement for free-agent star closer Raisel Iglesias.
It should be noted that if you're expecting another 0.95 ERA from a pitcher who is about to be 34, you'll be disappointed -- he had a 2.45 FIP and a 3.15 xERA, still quite good -- but even when (not if) that ERA rises, Loup can still be a solid addition to a needy bullpen so long as he continues his ability to avoid the loudest contact. Thanks in part to his sidearm-ish release point as well as a sinker/cutter mix that can be difficult to pick apart, Loup allowed just six extra-base hits all season long, thanks to a barrel rate (or barrel avoidance rate, if you prefer) in the 99th percentile. (Even the lone homer he allowed came to Juan Soto, which hardly seems an outcome worth stressing over.)
The Angels aren't done improving their pitching, or even close to done. But early on this winter, they've made more progress than most. -- Mike Petriello
**Nov. 17, 2021: Astros sign P Justin Verlander
**Two years, $50 million, with opt-out after 2022
Verlander turns 39 in February and he's thrown all of 73 pitches across the last two seasons, having undergone Tommy John surgery 13 months ago, and yet the Astros still handed him not only a guaranteed $50 million if he wants it, but also the choice to walk away from the second year if he thinks he can do better. On top of that, because he'd received and rejected the Qualfying Offer, and players can be issued that just once, he won't have to worry about it the next time he's on the market.
It is, in most every way, an enormous win for a pitcher who already has a spot reserved in Cooperstown. It's also a tremendous risk for the Astros, who are banking a great deal on the fact that at 39 (and potentially 40), Verlander can pitch as well as he did from 34 through 36 for Houston. The good news, anyway, is that we'd yet to see any real signs of decline before the injury; after all, Verlander did win the 2019 Cy Young, then added 35 1/3 more innings in the run to the World Series. That'll be more than two years in the past by the time the 2022 season begins, though clearly he was impressive enough in early November when he threw a workout and was touching 96 MPH.
We're in the midst of a turnover in the Houston rotation, because the names fueling this half-decade run -- Keuchel, Cole, Morton, etc. -- are gone, it's likely Zack Greinke is on his way out too, and even Lance McCullers Jr. comes with questions about the health of his arm. It's meant that relative newcomers Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Framber Valdez have begun to shoulder more of the load, and they've been quite good, though they were never going to do it alone. If 2022 Verlander looks anything like the version we saw before his injury, a quietly good Houston rotation could be among baseball's best. Again. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 16, 2021: Angels sign P Noah Syndergaard
One year, $21 million (per sources)
If $21 million, plus the loss of a 2022 second round Draft pick, sounds like a whole lot of risk for a pitcher who has thrown two innings in the last two seasons, then perhaps that shows you that the Angels are finally, finally serious about adding pitching to support Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani on their path back to the playoffs.
Last year, the Angels had a 4.68 ERA, ninth-worst, but even that undersells the problem, because their two best non-Ohtani pitchers (Alex Cobb, 3.76 ERA, and Raisel Iglesias, 2.57 ERA) are each currently free agents. Conservatively, this team was going to need something like a half-dozen new pitchers at a minimum, and if you need that much pitching, well, risk comes with the package. Syndergaard is a piece of the puzzle, not the full solution to it, though the Angels rotation at least looks more interesting with him alongside Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez, Reid Detmers, Jaime Barría, and Griffin Canning, in whatever chunks of innings their health and productivity will allow.
Besides, while it's unreasonable to expect Syndergaard to come in and suddenly be a 200+ inning horse -- a mark he never reached in his best years anyway -- talking about how little he pitched over the last two years doesn't exactly tell you the story of his 2022, either. By Opening Day, he'll be more than two calendar years off his March 2020 Tommy John surgery, and he did manage to get back on the mound for two late-season appearances. The one-year deal allows him to get back on the market next year, without another Qualifying Offer, and having made more in 2022 than he would have if he'd accepted the $18.4 million from the Mets. It's a win/win for Thor, aside from just getting to play with Trout and Ohtani.
But really, the big winner here is any free agent pitcher who enters the market healthy, because if this is what Syndergaard gets, those with more recent track records might be excited. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 15, 2021: Braves sign C Manny Piña
Two years, $8 million (with a team option for 2024)
It's easy to forget now, but there was a game in early May where the Braves lost both of their catchers (Travis d'Arnaud, Alex Jackson) to injury, forcing them to scramble over the summer with veterans Jeff Mathis, Jonathan Lucroy, Steven Vogt, and Kevan Smith, as well as rookie William Contreras. d'Arnaud returned and should be the starter in 2022, while Jackson was traded to Miami for Adam Duvall, but what they returned was that the rest of it just wasn't good enough, at least not for next season.
So, instead of rushing Contreras or prospect Shea Langeliers, the Braves added some badly-needed depth in Piña, who hit a little in parts of six years with Milwaukee (91 OPS+, 42 homers) but is mostly prized for his defense, mostly his lethal throwing arm and also his above-average framing. That goes beyond what can be quantified, anyway, because part of Milwaukee's recent success has been the progression of Omar Narváez behind the plate -- an improvement he credited in large part to Piña. Seems like just the kind of guy you want to spend Spring Training with a pair of young catchers, doesn't it? -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 15, 2021: Tigers sign P Eduardo Rodriguez
Five years, $77 million (per sources)
It's been clear for months that this was going to be the winter that the Tigers were going to make some moves to support their improving young core, and with all due respect to catcher Tucker Barnhart, he alone was not going to be it. While there's a lot to like about young starters Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, the truth is they're a lot more about potential than production at this point, and with Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull each recovering from arm surgery that will cost them chunks of 2022, a quality veteran starter was always going to be a must-have addition for Detroit.
Now, how much Rodriguez qualifies as a "quality veteran starter" might depend on how exactly you perceive pitchers, because on the surface, maybe you're confused. Rodriguez finished sixth in 2019 Cy Young balloting, but did not pitch in 2020 while recovering from myocarditis after a bout with COVID-19, and then in 2021, he posted a 4.74 ERA, which is hardly impressive. Except, of course, that teams don't just look at ERA these days, especially when there's an absolute ton of evidence that the Boston infield behind him was just wretched:
You can really throw that 4.74 mark out the door, and realize that based on the underlying metrics -- like the 185/47 K/BB in 157 2/3 innings, like the fact that he was in the top 13% in avoiding hard-hit contact -- he really pitched a whole lot more like Robbie Ray ... who might win the Cy Young. You can't pretend the 4.74 ERA didn't happen, of course, but you can certainly see how it's not entirely a reflection on the way he pitched. Rodriguez doesn't even turn 29 until just after Opening Day, making this a five-year deal that ought to align perfectly with what Detroit hopes is their contention window, which is in part why they were OK with giving up a Draft pick to sign a player who received a qualifying offer. (He can also opt out after 2023 if he wants, putting added pressure on Detroit to win now.)
Now: Who's next? -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 9, 2021: Dodgers sign P Andrew Heaney
One year, $8.5 million
Nearly seven years after Heaney was first briefly a Dodger -- and we do mean briefly, because he was there for a matter of minutes in the midst of two deals that sent him from the Marlins to the Dodgers to the Angels -- he's the first free agent to sign with a new team, and there's just so much about this signing that tells you what modern baseball is about. Heaney has had his moments, but with more downs than up, because little is impressive about a career 4.72 ERA, or one season of more than 130 innings, or pitching so poorly after the Yankees traded for him last summer (7.32 ERA, 13 homers in 35 2/3 innings) that they simply stopped using him in September.
So: What on earth, then, is the appeal? It's because teams like the Dodgers, Giants, Astros, and others like them love to find an underperforming pitcher with at least one thing to like and make them better. (Like Kevin Gausman, for example.) In this case, the One Thing To Like is that Heaney gets more strikeouts than average, and he walks fewer batters than average, and over the last four years, the list of pitchers who have done those things better than he has is a list of baseball's best pitchers. While the Robbie Ray comparisons we're already hearing don't really work, because Ray's stuff is simply more overpowering than Heaney's, it's also not that hard to see the Dodgers helping him reshape his curveball or add a slider, because even a mild decrease in home run rate could make him interesting.
Or, it could completely not work at all. But that's the point. The Dodgers are wagering just a one-year deal to find out. That they jumped on him so quickly indicates they are confident. -- Mike Petriello
Nov. 3, 2021: Reds trade C Tucker Barnhart to Tigers
Reds receive Minor League third baseman Nick Quintana
Cincinnati might have non-tendered Barnhart rather than pay him the $7.5 million he's due in 2022, so instead they traded him for a relative non-prospect. Whether you think the Reds ought to have kept him generally depends on how you value veteran catchers, because Barnhart is a below-average hitter (75 OPS+ across 2020-21) who was in the process of losing his starting job to 25-year-old Tyler Stephenson, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2015 Draft.
That's a hefty salary for a defense-first backup catcher, but that's also exactly why the ready-to-improve Tigers were interested -- if the long-running rebuild they're hoping to escape from is going to succeed, it's going to require young pitchers Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal to show more than they have so far. Forget how well or at all Barnhart hits. That is why he's here. -- Mike Petriello