These 9 moves have altered the season

The winter deals that may pay off this October

July 7th, 2021
Tom Forget /

The All-Star Game is mere days away and the Trade Deadline is hurtling toward us with remarkable speed. The baseball season is about to leap into hyperdrive as the postseason races heat up and teams on the fringe decide whether to push in or rebuild, while the front-runners load up for a World Series push.

With the season at the midpoint, now is also a great time to look back at the offseason moves that have made a massive difference in the standings this year. After all, we spend enough time debating, discussing and dissecting these moves in the winter when there's no baseball around, so it only makes sense to do the same during the season.

Here are nine of the players who have made their GMs look like geniuses and have kept their teams' fans happy.

All stats through July 5

1. Garrett Whitlock, Red Sox: Selected in the Rule 5 Draft

Chaim Bloom, who owns the best job title possible (forget GM, Bloom is the Red Sox's Chief Baseball Officer), should be pretty proud of the work he did this winter. His offseason moves have played a huge part in the Red Sox's surprise return to the top of the AL East, as Adam Ottavino has solidified the bullpen and Hunter Renfroe has started to hit like his doppelgänger, too.

But Whitlock could be the one that Red Sox fans talk about for years to come.

Obviously, part of it is his performance. Armed with a devastating changeup that lives at the bottom of the strike zone -- batters are hitting just .152 against the pitch -- Whitlock has posted a 1.54 ERA in 41 innings. And that's only the start: The Red Sox are expected to convert Whitlock back to starting after the season.

But the part that makes Red Sox Nation just absolutely giddy? Boston got him from the Yankees in exchange for a measly $50,000. After Whitlock had missed all of the 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery -- and with the 2020 MiLB season canceled -- the Yankees didn't add Whitlock to their 40-man roster. That allowed Boston to swoop him away for the low, low price of $50,000. Now, he probably won't ever do enough to make up for the sale of Babe Ruth, but it's a good start.

2. Marcus Semien, Blue Jays: Signed for one year, $18 million

After Semien struggled last season, Oakland declined to give him a qualifying offer. Even the budget-conscious A's probably regret that decision, as it allowed the Blue Jays to sign Semien and move him over to second base.

Turns out, yeah, the guy who finished third in voting for the 2019 AL MVP Award is still pretty dang good. The move to second has helped him defensively -- his +5 outs above average are 16th best -- while Semien's batting numbers are remarkably similar to the batting line he posted in '19.

Semien's acquisition has also turned the Blue Jays' infield into an absolute juggernaut that should strike fear into the heart of every pitcher that has to face them. With Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio lining up around Semien, the Blue Jays' infield has posted a Major League-best .356 wOBA.

3. Kevin Gausman, Giants: Accepted qualifying offer

This wasn't how the NL West was supposed to shake out. We were all expecting a SoCal showdown with the super-powered Dodgers and Fernando Tatis Jr.-led Padres battling for the division title. And sure, those matchups have been must-see baseball that resembles the spectacular finale of a Marvel movie, but for all that talk, it's the Giants who have found themselves on top of the NL West with a half-game lead entering Tuesday's action. There's no way that happens without Gausman.

Originally the No. 4 pick in the 2012 Draft, Gausman had turned in a productive-but-not-spectacular career spanning four teams entering this year. But now Gausman's fulfilled all those dreams scouts had nearly a decade ago. His 1.74 ERA is second in the Majors behind some guy named Jacob deGrom, and he's allowing the fourth-lowest hits per nine innings behind deGrom and the Brewers' Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff. You can thank a split-finger that baffles batters for that:

4 and 5. Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker, Mets: Stroman accepted qualifying offer; Walker signed for two years, $20 million

While we were trying to limit this to just one player per team, both of these moves turned out to be necessary given the Mets' injury-depleted pitching staff. After all, without Stroman or Walker, the Mets wouldn't be leading the NL East.

Not that there wasn't risk. Stroman declined to play last season, and though he was an All-Star in 2019, he posted a 5.54 ERA with the Blue Jays the year before. This year, Stroman -- who may be the most confident player in the sport -- is putting up a career-best 2.60 ERA. There have been lots of reasons for him to show a little swagger while walking off the mound:

Meanwhile, Walker had pitched only 67 1/3 innings from 2018-20 due to injuries. While there's still some concern that he could require rest later this summer, the former first-round pick (and taco enthusiast) has posted a 2.44 ERA with over a strikeout per inning across 85 frames. With those two alongside deGrom, the Mets have a Major League-best 2.96 ERA from their starting staff.

6. Kolten Wong, Brewers: Signed two-year, $18 million deal

Though Wong was just put on the IL for the third time this year, he's been a vital part of the Brewers' lineup whenever he's taken the field. Despite playing in only 53 games this year, Wong has hit seven home runs, stolen six bases and has been the Brewers' second-most-valuable position player, according to bWAR.

Though the Brewers currently hold first place in the NL Central, they'll eagerly welcome him back to the lineup. The team has one of the Majors' weaker defenses, with the infield -20 runs below average without him. Meanwhile, the winner of back-to-back Gold Gloves is +4 this season and can regularly make defensive plays that defy belief.

7. Justin Turner, Dodgers: Re-signed for two years, $34 million

Though Turner wasn't originally a Dodger, it's hard to imagine Toomgis' doppelgänger playing anywhere else. The third baseman joined the team in 2014 and posted an .886 OPS with 116 home runs over the next seven seasons. After finally securing his World Series ring this past October, there was some concern that the two wouldn't reunite for 2021. Was Turner interested in playing elsewhere? Were the Dodgers concerned that the 36-year-old Turner -- the oldest regular third baseman in the game -- was due for drop-off?

Turns out there was no reason to worry; Turner has been his usual self. His .294/.386/.479 batting line is right in line with his career norms, and his OPS is second best on the Dodgers' roster behind Max Muncy.

8. Charlie Morton, Braves: Signed for one year, $15 million

Thirteen years ago, Morton made his big league debut with Atlanta, posting a 6.15 ERA in 15 starts before he was traded to Pittsburgh ahead of the 2009 season. No one then could have predicted that he would be crucial to the team's postseason hopes in 2021.

With Max Fried struggling following his return from a hamstring injury this spring and Mike Soroka out for the season after re-injuring his Achilles, Atlanta's pitching staff has been pretty thin. Fortunately, the 37-year-old Morton and his unhittable curveball -- he throws it more often than any other starting pitcher this side of Rich Hill, and batters hit it to the tune of a .142 average -- has given Atlanta a second pitcher it can count on besides Ian Anderson.

Despite being two games under .500, the Braves are still just a few hot weeks away from the division lead. They can thank Morton for staying in spitting distance.

9. Kyle Schwarber, Nationals: Signed for one year, $10 million

There was never any question that Schwarber could smash the baseball. He looks like the reincarnation of Babe Ruth and could hit it nearly as far. The issue was always if he could do that often enough. So, after hitting just .188 during the shortened 2020 season, Schwarber was let go by the Cubs. The Nationals were ready with open arms.

After starting slowly -- mirroring the Nats team as a whole -- Schwarber got historically hot in June. Thriving in the leadoff spot, the outfielder smashed 12 home runs in 10 games -- tying a mark set by Albert Belle in 1995. That helped the Nationals go 19-9 in June and get within two games of the first-place Mets before the month was out.

Unfortunately for Washington, Schwarber recently injured his hamstring, and there's no timetable for his return. If the Nats can stay in the race until he's ready to come back, Schwarber could end up slugging Washington into the playoffs and fulfilling its destiny as a second-half team.