Spring Training camps open in a matter of days, and that ordinarily means baseball is back and life has meaning and purpose again.
But this was no ordinary offseason. While pitcher and catcher report dates always stir the soul, we’re not exactly shaking off the winter doldrums here.
Baseball is coming off an absolutely bonkers winter -- one that didn’t require a single inning of on-field action to make history, create controversy and drive dialogue. I would go so far as to say that this was the most incredible offseason of all time. And though I can’t back up that belief with an objective data point, I can at least present these 10 pieces of evidence:
1. The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal broke
And now not one, not two, but three teams are picking up the pieces. Between the trash cans, massage guns, broken TVs (and reputations) and social-media sleuthing, baseball had never seen anything quite like this.
In the wake of Mike Fiers publicly calling out his former teammates from the 2017 Astros in a November story published by The Athletic and the ensuing investigation by MLB, Houston president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were dismissed -- mere months after the club’s second World Series appearance in three seasons. Red Sox manager Alex Cora (one year after winning the World Series) and Mets manager Carlos Beltrán (two months after taking the job) subsequently parted ways with their clubs because of their roles in the 2017 scandal. And a separate investigation of the 2018 Red Sox is ongoing.
While there had been plenty of whispers about the Astros’ activity in the industry, not one bit of the above was foreseeable the night of Oct. 30, 2019, when the Nationals came back to beat Houston in an epic World Series Game 7. So it won’t be your typical Spring Training report period in West Palm Beach, Fla., where the Astros and Nats share a facility.
2. One-third of MLB teams now have (or will have) a new manager
The unexpected openings in Boston and Houston (and re-opening of the position in Queens) added to what had already been an especially active managerial market.
Put it this way: When the Red Sox get around to hiring Cora’s replacement, Joe Maddon, who was hired by the Angels on Oct. 16, will have a longer tenure with his current club than nine MLB skippers. Dusty Baker (Astros) is back in the saddle at age 70, and Joe Girardi (Phillies), Mike Matheny (Royals), Jayce Tingler (Padres), David Ross (Cubs), Luis Rojas (Mets), Gabe Kapler (Giants) and Derek Shelton (Pirates) join him in taking on new opportunities.
As for the Red Sox, they might be holding their first workout on Wednesday without a manager. Uh, anybody know which field to report to for PFPs?
*3. Mookie Betts is headed to a new team**
Speaking of the Red Sox, they struck a deal to trade arguably the second-best position player in the game. At least, that’s where Betts ranks in Wins Above Replacement in the not-so-small sample that is the last four seasons, trailing only Mike Trout.
Actually, Betts’ career WAR (42, per Baseball Reference) is suspiciously similar to Babe Ruth’s career WAR (39.7) at the time Ruth was dealt away by the Red Sox heading into the 1920 season. But let’s not bring that up in Boston.
The point here is that we baseball fans talk a big game when it comes to blockbuster deals. We’ve whispered (or screamed) about Betts, Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor and Nolan Arenado all offseason. It’s still stunning, though, when a swap of this magnitude actually gets completed … and after the Super Bowl, no less. We hadn’t seen a trade this big this late since Alex Rodriguez was dealt from the Rangers to the Yankees on Feb. 16, 2004.
*This trade is not yet official, but all signs point to it being completed.
4. Gerrit Cole, who is a pitcher, got a nine-year deal worth $324 million
All these weeks later, the number is still staggering. Going into the offseason, Cole was a good bet to break David Price’s mark for the largest pitching pact (seven years, $217 million) … but not by nine figures (Stephen Strasburg also exceeded it, with a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Nationals).
After all, pitchers break. That’s part of the game. And so their total earning power historically falls short of what the absolute top-end position players can command in the free-agent market. But Cole hit that market at an opportune time (and boy, is that putting it lightly) and wound up with a contract comparable in total value to what 26-year-old position players Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million) and Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million) landed just a year ago. It is the highest average annual value in history.
In the end, when the Yankees desperately want you, you’re in good shape.
5. Free agency came roaring back to life
It is true that players north of 30 who don’t have favorable future projections still aren’t attracting the interest they once did. But as was the case when Machado and Harper scored record deals a year ago, free agents with considerable future value can still fare well in this process. It just so happens that the offseason of 2019-20 offered a pretty strong class of guys coming off enticing walk years, and it led to more than $2 billion in guaranteed commitments in a Hot Stove season with a much more rapid pace of pacts than its two predecessors.
What made this free-agent market so fun was the number of non-playoff teams from 2019 prominently involved, improving their odds and invigorating their fan bases. In fact, non-playoff clubs (shown in italics) occupied six of the top 10 spending spots (counting only guaranteed Major League deals):
- Yankees: $336.5M
- Nationals: $316.8M
- Angels: $260.9M
- White Sox: $201.5M
- Reds $165.8M
- Twins: $151.8M
- Phillies: $133.5M
- Braves: &117.8 M
- D-backs: $109.7M
- Blue Jays: $109M
6. Derek Jeter’s name was checked on 99.7% of Hall of Fame ballots
We’ve seen great players -- legends -- fall short of unanimity. And last year, for the first time ever, we saw a player achieve unanimity, with Mariano Rivera’s selection.
But we had never seen a player fall one measly vote shy of 100%. Never had one voice in the wilderness become such a source of curiosity. We don’t know the identity of the non-Jeter voter. We likely will never know since this person was one of a small portion of BBWAA members who chose to keep their ballot anonymous. So the offseason gave us history, and it gave us mystery.
7. And Larry Walker completed the biggest Hall voting surge of all time
Walker went from being named on just 15.5% of ballots in 2016 to 76.6% (he made the cut by just six votes) in 2020. That’s an unprecedented leap. Walker was also just the second player to go from less than 60% one year to election the next, joining Ralph Kiner (inducted in 1975).
Oh, and Walker wore a Spongebob Squarepants shirt as he found out he was selected, just to add to the oddity of it all.
8. Women broke major barriers
Alyssa Nakken, a former all-conference first baseman for the Sacramento State University softball team who had worked with the Giants for several years, was made an assistant on Gabe Kapler’s staff. She becomes the first female coach in big league history. Though she won’t be in the dugout during games (teams are limited to seven coaches in the dugout), Nakken will assist the Giants with pregame outfield work and batting practice, among other duties.
In addition to Nakken’s revolutionary role, the Cubs hired Rachel Folden as a hitting lab technician, and the Yankees made Rachel Balkovec their first full-time female hitting coach in the Minor Leagues.
Back in 2015, Justine Siegal became the first woman to coach for an affiliated team, with the A’s instructional league club in Arizona. That knocked on the door. And this winter, finally, it was kicked open.
9. A Double-A player got a contract extension
Speaking of firsts, we’ve seen players sign extensions in advance of their debut, but we had never seen a player sign an extension before his Triple-A debut. Mariners first baseman Evan White, a 23-year-old who spent 2019 with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, appears poised to leap over that level after inking a contract with a six-year, $24 million guarantee.
10. There might be more to come
It’s true that trades the magnitude of what we just witnessed with Betts and Price are rare this time of year.
But it’s also true that the Cubs have been exploring potential Kris Bryant trades, and he might still move between now and Opening Day, with the NL East’s Phillies, Nationals and Braves all a potential fit.
It's true, too, that Nolan Arenado publicly voiced displeasure with the Rockies, who did explore trade possibilities for their star third baseman less than a year after inking him to a $260 million extension. So we can’t totally rule out a trade there, either (and you can add the Cardinals to the list of perceived fits).
Whether either of these potential deals actually goes down remains to be seen. And whether they would qualify as “winter” or “spring” swaps is a matter of semantics. What we know for sure is that a deal of either player would fit right in with the most explosive offseason in MLB history.