Reassessing the biggest '20 offseason moves

September 5th, 2020

The distractive nature of shiny objects has made fools of us all at one time or another. So it is with offseason analysis that naturally focuses more on stars and less on supplemental or unproven pieces.

Of course, it doesn’t help that, quite often, baseball players simply take us by surprise, too.

With that in mind -- and with this shortened season already in its home stretch -- let’s take a look at what we meant to say about some of last winter’s transactions.

WAS: “The Yankees signed Gerrit Cole!”
IS: “The White Sox signed Dallas Keuchel!”

With the obvious/necessary caveat that we’re basing this -- and every -- suggestion off a very limited amount of results, the winter’s two financial-record-setting arms -- the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg (seven years, $245 million) and the Yankees’ Cole (nine years, $324M) -- have not yet delivered the expected impact. Same goes for Madison Bumgarner (five years, $85M) in Arizona. On the other hand, the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler (five years, $118M) and the Blue Jays’ Hyun Jin Ryu (four years, $80M) have been two of the more effective pitchers in baseball.

Keuchel deserves a spotlight, though, for pairing with Lucas Giolito atop the Chicago rotation and pointing the White Sox into the playoff race after signing a relatively low-key three-year, $55 million deal. The industry turned its back on Keuchel’s asking price in the winter of 2018-19, and he wound up having to wait until after the June Draft (when he was no longer tied to Draft pick compensation) to sign with the Braves. Last winter, he finally got a more palatable long-term deal with the Sox, and he’s delivered one of the top 10 ERAs (2.42) and ERA+ marks (183) in the Majors. This wasn’t one of the sexiest signings of the offseason, just one of the best.

WAS: “The Padres traded for Tommy Pham!”
IS: “The Padres traded for Jake Cronenworth!”

No disrespect to Pham, whose broken hamate bone will keep him off the field for another few weeks. But whereas Pham struggled in his first 23 games before that injury (.207 average, .608 OPS), Cronenworth, who was a bit of an afterthought, has put himself in the National League Rookie of the Year Award conversation.

If there was much intrigue with Cronenworth prior to the season, it rested in his ability to potentially function as a two-way player, pitching in blowouts. Instead, he quickly established himself as the regular at second base for an almost-certainly-playoff-bound Padres club, with a .346/.403/.598 slash. To date, the trade hasn’t worked out nearly as well for the Rays, with whom Hunter Renfroe (.601 OPS) has labored.

WAS: “The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts!”
IS: “The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts ... but at least they got Alex Verdugo!”

There is no escaping the fact that, as part of an organizational reset, the Red Sox traded away a franchise player in Betts, a pending free agent who wound up signing a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers. But while Betts’ absence will be felt for the foreseeable future, Verdugo’s early performance in Boston lessens the sting of that swap.

When the Red Sox acquired Verdugo, he came with plenty of questions, not the least of which was a stress fracture in his back that prevented him from swinging a bat in the original Spring Training. But by the time things started back up again, Verdugo was ready to go, and his .310/.368/.507 slash, dynamic defense and general enthusiasm have been bright spots for Boston.

WAS: “Brusdar Graterol is damaged goods!”
IS: “Brusdar Graterol is good!”

The Betts trade -- originally envisioned as a three-way swap between the Red Sox, Dodgers and Twins -- was held up nearly a week when Boston balked at Graterol’s medicals.

Graterol was to go from Minnesota to Boston in the deal. Though his shoulder issue was a known issue in the industry, its effect on his long-term starting potential scared the Sox away. So the Dodgers ultimately said, “All right, we’ll take him.” And now, with a 0.93 WHIP, 7.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and one of the lowest barrel percentages (2.3%) in the league, he's a key piece of one of MLB’s best bullpens.

WAS: “The Braves lost Josh Donaldson!”
IS: “The Braves added Marcell Ozuna!”

A full-throated celebration of the Ozuna acquisition was difficult to deliver, given that he had put up a fairly pedestrian .800 OPS and 109 OPS+ in 2019. While the Statcast metrics insisted Ozuna had hit into bad luck with St. Louis, there was no guarantee fortune would be more in his favor and that he’d be a worthy heir to the spot in the batting order behind Freddie Freeman. Furthermore, his negative defensive rating threatened to give back some of what he brought with the bat.

Ah, but while Donaldson’s cursed calf cost him the month of August, Ozuna, who signed a one-year deal, has had an excellent start with his new squad (.309/.401/.633 slash, 12 homers, nine doubles, 32 RBIs). And the unexpected availability of the designated hitter in the NL eliminated the defensive dilemma. In a perfect world, the Braves would have both players (as it stands, they’ll face a similar decision with Ozuna in his pending free agency to the one they faced with Donaldson last year), but the bottom line is that they patched a huge hole in the lineup nicely.

WAS: “The Twins added Josh Donaldson!”
IS: “The Twins added Kenta Maeda!”

Donaldson returned to the Twins’ lineup this week, and it says here that Twins fans will again be overjoyed to have added him before long. For now, though, there’s no denying that this club’s most impactful acquisition -- and one of the most impactful acquisitions in all of baseball -- has been Maeda.

Unable or unwilling to make a bigger splash in the free-agent starter’s market, the Twins targeted the experienced Maeda in trade. With the Dodgers, he preferred to be a full-time starter, but was used almost exclusively out of the bullpen in the postseason. The Twins gave him an opportunity to lock into his favored role, and he’s seized it. Maeda turned in one of the best starts we’ll see this season, and as of this writing he’s top 10 in the AL in ERA (2.53), adjusted ERA+ (169) and K/BB ratio (6.9) and first in the Majors in WHIP (0.75).

WAS: “The Angels traded for Dylan Bundy.”
IS: “The Angels traded for Dylan Bundy!”

Third baseman Anthony Rendon and manager Joe Maddon were the Angels’ splashy acquisitions. But it was still an open question whether they had done enough to improve the rotation. The answer, sadly, is a resounding, “No!” But at least the Bundy trade, which at the time was a low-profile move viewed as a potential precursor to a bigger signing of Cole or Strasburg, has panned out.

Bundy, a former No. 4 overall Draft pick, arrived to Anaheim lugging a career 4.67 ERA. But with his new club, he’s increased the use of his secondary pitches and he has been far less reliant on a four-seamer that got bashed in Baltimore. The result is that Bundy is near the top of the league leaderboard in every metric that matters -- ERA (2.47), ERA+ (179), innings (43 2/3), WHIP (0.94), etc. And when you look under the hood at his Statcast metrics, it’s no fluke, for Bundy is in the upper percentiles in all the expected outcomes.