This year's Major League Baseball free agent class was headlined by perhaps the most exciting collection of bullpen talent to ever hit the market at once—which could do only so much to redeem the fact that there was very little else exciting about it. There is, after all, not much drama to be reasonably expected when the list of available starting pitchers is Rich Hill plus a slew of undistinguished mid-rotation guys, and the list of available infielders is Justin Turner plus the equivalent.
But with six weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the offseason has still provided enough player movement to change how the upcoming season might play out. The Los Angeles Dodgers spent big to keep their core intact; the Cleveland Indians chased after a big free agent for once; the Chicago White Sox finally decided to stop hemming and hawing, and tore everything down. Several of last year's contenders upgraded, and a few of the teams on the fringes have clarified their direction.
It's fitting to begin at the end, in a sense, by focusing on the closers. After a season in which relief pitching brought back unprecedented prospect packages at the trade deadline and a postseason in which bullpen strategy was a focal point, it should have been clear that relievers' prices could climb higher than ever this winter. And while that might have been true regardless of who was available, it was especially so in a market that included three of baseball's best bullpen arms: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon.
The trio quickly made the previous record for the largest contract given to a closer look quaint, a $50 million relic from a time, 2011, when the bullpen was seen more as a complement to a winning team rather than its foundation. Melancon was the first of the three to sign and so the first to break that record, going to the San Francisco Giants for $62 million. That San Francisco was the first team to jump for a closer this winter was wholly unsurprising. Relief pitching was their most glaring flaw last season, particularly in the second half, when a volatile bullpen built largely out of worn-out veteran spare parts ranked near the top of the leaderboard for blown saves, and subtracted more win probability than it added. Mark Melancon can't fix the Giants' pen all by himself, but his presence will go a long way toward hiding the blemishes.
Three days after Melancon signed, Chapman blew his record contract out of the water, agreeing to a five-year, $86 million deal to rejoin the New York Yankees. Bringing Chapman back pushes the Yankees out of an extremely abbreviated rebuilding period and into their next competitive window. The Yankees were already somewhat flush with young talent, and flipping Chapman (and others) for prospects at the deadline last year only gave them more. Their farm system went from not being on MLB.com's top-ten farm system ranking at all before last season began to holding the number two spot after the trade deadline. Most of their top prospects should be ready for the majors within a season or two, and by locking Chapman and his triple-digit fastball down for five years, they're ensuring that they'll have a top bullpen whenever their lineup matures.
Meanwhile, Jansen flirted with offers that would have allowed him to surpass Chapman's record contract, but he ultimately chose to take slightly less money in order to stay put—getting $80 million over five years to remain with the Dodgers. Taken on its own, the deal showed the Dodgers locking down one of the best closers in the game for half a decade; taken with their other moves, it showed the Dodgers willing to pay up in order to retain the core of a team that came within two games of the World Series last year. On the same day that they re-signed Jansen, the Dodgers also reached an agreement with Turner; a week earlier, they had struck a deal with starting pitcher Hill. Those contracts were a way of holding onto some of the team's best talent long-term, and at the same time, signing the best players available at their respective positions.
The New York Mets followed a similar blueprint on a smaller scale, retaining Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker (who accepted the qualifying offer) to hold key parts of last year's playoff team in place. And while the Dodgers and Mets worked to keep their bands together, the White Sox saw the chance to tear theirs down. First came a blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox for Chris Sale, giving Boston three years with one of the game's best pitchers while Chicago took away a talent-laden prospect haul headlined by phenom second baseman Yoan Moncada and fireballer Michael Kopech.
For the Red Sox, who already had baseball's best offense, it was a major upgrade to a rotation that still includes David Price and reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. (And Sale, whose claim to that Cy Young was arguably as strong as Porcello's, is coming off his fifth straight year of being deserving but unrewarded—a half-decade in which he's posted a 3.04 ERA with a 3.06 FIP and a K/9 rate of 10.0.) The move makes Boston a near-lock for the AL East, and a favorite as a pennant contender as well.
For the White Sox, it was a first move in stepping away from trying to contend in the present and toward stocking up on top prospects for the future. The White Sox doubled down on that commitment by shipping outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals for another set of prospects. The move gives the Nationals a better shot at contending in the two years remaining before Bryce Harper hits free agency, though the price was high—in return, the White Sox got two of the game's top 10 right-handed pitching prospects in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, plus last year's first-round draft pick, Dane Dunning.
Eaton should provide a nice immediate payoff in some areas where the Nationals dearly needed help last year. Washington got less production out of their leadoff spot last season than any other part of the batting order (save the pitcher's slot), and Eaton will fix that, with a .791 OPS over the last two years. On defense, he brings both talent and stability to a center field that was fairly lacking in both last year, with rookie Trea Turner forced to convert to the position from his native shortstop mid-season. Center field hasn't traditionally been Eaton's strongest place—that would be right field, where he played last year—but he's manned center in the past and will still be a boon to the Nationals overall.
While the White Sox were a fringy team that decided to step back into rebuilding this offseason, the Colorado Rockies were one who seemingly decided to step forward into contention. Signing Ian Desmond for $70 million and declaring an intention to convert him to first base is probably not the most effective path to success, but it's an indication that they want to try doing ... something.
Meanwhile, the long-time contender St. Louis Cardinals tried re-establishing themselves as playoff-worthy by signing Dexter Fowler to anchor their outfield. The defending champion Chicago Cubs, looking to keep them away from the NL Central crown, added relievers by trading for Wade Davis and signing Koji Uehara—neither quite what they once were due to injuries and age, respectively, but both legitimate bullpen depth.
And Cleveland, which fell just short of the Cubs in last year's World Series? They acted out of character by going after a big free agent, giving the biggest contract in franchise history to slugger Edwin Encarnacion at $60 million for three years. Encarnacion—the only player to hit more than 30 home runs in each of the past five seasons— can make an already solid lineup into a scary one, and in terms of both production and stability, he'll be a marked upgrade as a replacement for Mike Napoli. The signing shows that Cleveland's serious about repeating last year's run, and is willing to pay to do it.
Of course, there's still time and some talent available this winter—Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo are still up for grabs, and the rumors of a Brian Dozier trade might come to fruition yet. But for now, this is the lay of the land. It would take something major to upend our expectations going into Spring Training. So of course we can count on exactly that happening.
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