By Scott MacLean
The Spring Training part of the Major League Baseball season is just around the corner, where teams start putting the action on the field. Off it it’s been another busy winter as teams gear up – or down as the case for some – for the year ahead.
(All figures in approximate $NZ)
Pitching pitching pitching
It’s been a good offseason to be a free agent pitcher with several signing lucrative deals as teams covet quality arms and the market next year looking quite barren. The former Ray, Tiger, and Blue Jay David Price snared the biggest deal, a 7yr/$335 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, who desperately needed someone to front their rotation to lead them back to the postseason, though Price’s 0-7 playoff record is a talking point. Zack Greinke was the other to top $300 million, spurning both of the rival Los Angeles Dodgers (his last team) and San Francisco Giants to surprisingly sign a heavily deferred 6yr/$318m deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Giants reacted by dipping into the market twice, signing both Johnny Cueto – the ex-Red coming off a World Series title in Kansas City – and Jeff Samardzija for 6ys/$200m and 5yrs/$140m respectively, while the Dodgers spent $100 million to sign Scott Kazmir, re-sign Brett Anderson, and another $85 million in contract and fees to bring in Kenta Maeda from Japan.
Ex-National Jordan Zimmermann (Detroit 5ys/$170m) and another former Red, Mike Leake (St. Louis 5yrs/$123m) also topped $120m in free agency. Darren O’Dea, who went into the offseason as the top-rated reliever available, chose to remain in Baltimore with a 4yr/$48m pact.
With the top-tiers of free-agents quickly exhausted other teams used trades to add to their staffs. Arizona struck here too, bringing in Shelby Miller from Atlanta, while Boston acquired closer Craig Kimbrel from San Diego. The headline pitching trade though was the New York Yankees acquiring flamethrowing lefty Aroldis Chapman, aka ‘The Cuban Missile’, from Cincinnati despite Chapman getting himself into legal difficulties that caused an earlier trade to the Dodgers to collapse. He along with holdovers Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances give them possibly the best bullpen front three in the majors.
Meanwhile on the hitting market….
With pitching being the main focus, the position player market took some time to develop. One team that didn’t wait though was the Chicago Cubs, signing both coveted outfielder Jason Heyward – who’s 8yr/$285m deal was partly a function of his rare young age (26) for a free agent – and the versatile Ben Zobrist (4yrs/$87m coming off a World Series triumph with Kansas City) at the Winter Meetings.
It then took weeks before others started to sign, and interestingly enough Alex Gordon (Kansas City, 4yrs/$115m), Chris Davis – who’s 126 home runs over the past 3 seasons leads MLB (Baltimore on a deferral-laden 7yrs/$250m), and Yoenis Cepedes (NY Mets, 3ys/$115m) all wound up returning to their last teams. Justin Upton (Detroit, 6yrs/$205m) and Daniel Murphy, whose Ruthian postseason tear took the Mets into the World Series (Washington, 3yrs/$85m), were the notables who switched clubs.
The trade market was marked by an absence of real blockbusters. Defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons was traded by Atlanta to Anaheim as the Braves pare payroll; and the Chicago White Sox swung a pair of deals, with Oakland for infielder Brett Lawrie and for slugging third baseman Todd Frazier, winner of last year’s All-Star Game Home Run Derby, from Cincinnati. Elsewhere Oakland reacquired Jed Lowrie (from Houston), the Mets traded for Neil Walker (from Pittsburgh), and Washington sent unsettled reliever Drew Storen to Toronto for speedy outfielder Ben Revere.
A feature of the free agent contracts has been the number with opt-out clauses, where at an agreed point in the deal the player can choose to terminate it and seek a new deal, or remains where they are. Interestingly though a number of players remain unsigned.
The War in the Central
With three teams – St Louis, Chicago Cubs, and Pittsburgh – all winning at least 97 games and making the playoffs last year the National League Central was baseball’s best performed division. Of the three it’s the Cubs – still seeking their first title since 1908 – who took the biggest strides forward. Baseball Operations President Theo Epstein has
strengthened his club while simultaneously weakening his main rivals in signing two players away from the Cardinals in Heyward and veteran starter John Lackey (who Epstein also signed in 2009 when he was with the Red Sox), while Zobrist will be a veteran influence on their talented young infield as well as reuniting with his former manager Joe Maddon. In contrast, the Cardinals only major move has been the Leake signing, while Pittsburgh may again be reliant on their farm system and the work of pitching guru Ray Kearsage bearing fruit.
With only the 19th-highest payroll last year and being one of MLB’s smaller markets the Kansas City Royals have remained prudent. Consensus was that they would be doing well to bring back any of the three free-agents (Gordon, Cueto, Zobrist) that helped them to the title; in the end Gordon signed the largest contract in team history, later adding pitcher Ian Kennedy on a 5yr/$108m as well. Other than that they’re very likely to look the same starting this season than last, with GM Dayton Moore now turning his attention to which of the clubs core contributors they can sign long-term.
From the Far East
Over the past two decades a number Japanese players have crossed the Pacific to try their luck in America, some with success – Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui notably – and others being complete disasters. While the Dodgers signing of Maeda continues that, it’s another Asian league – Korea – that’s attracting attention, particularly after Pittsburgh got good value out of Jung-Ho Kang last year. Minnesota, Baltimore, and Seattle are amongst those trying their luck this year, signing first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, and former KBO MVP Dae-ho Lee (who has more recently been playing in Japan) respectively.
The 2016 Major League baseball starts with three games on April 4 NZ Time, with all teams in action the next day on Opening Day.
Follow Scott on Twitter