We are less than a week away until the Pitchers and Catchers report on February 18th. As the major sprees of the off-season are behind us, and arbitration settlements slowly shrinking within every clubhouse, now is the time we recap the big moves and questionable calls that have etched the foundations of an exciting 2015 regular season. Edward Overend wrote a stellar piece recently upon the Top 20 moves of the baseball off-season; I follow up this write up with an outlook of all 30 teams’ individual off-season performances.
Big contract signings, key arbitration agreements, crushing departures via free agency and monumental trades shall all be summarised within a single grade. Who do I think struck gold and orchestrated the A-grade winter; who succumbed to the pressure and withered in the corner for a D-grade disaster; we break down each team by division, offering an early look at the state of each division heading into Spring training. (Note: statistics in brackets denotes 2014 regular season; batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage; pitching win-loss record, earned run average)
Houston Astros: B+
Owner Jim Crane made the emphatic claim recently that his Houston Astros are capable of making the playoffs. After suffering three consecutive 100-game losing seasons between 2011 and 2013, 2014 showed an immense improvement. Their foundation of young, farmed prospects began to culminate into a strong chemistry team, earning 70 wins last year. With the break-out of young stars such as DH Chris Carter and rookie stand-out OF George Springer, not to mention the soaring development of All-Stars 2B Jose Altuve and C Jason Castro, you begin to see where Jim Crane is generating his confidence. GM Jeff Lunhow has matched his owner’s expectations by adding serious talent to take the Astros to the next level.
Perhaps the most impacting move from the get-go is OF/1B Evan Gattis (263/317/493), traded from the Braves for a trio of prospects, including the Astros’ #3 prospect in RHP Mike Foltynewicz. Gattis quickly established himself in his two years in Atlanta as a very raw, exceptionally strong hitter, with a career slugging-percentage at .487. Adding his power potential to the line-up will do wonders towards piling up more runs for Houston. The only circumstance that will hinder Gattis’s playing time is the progression of 1B Jon Singleton, who could force a rotational system between Gattis and Carter at DH and LF.
But getting guys on base will maximise the potential of Gattis and his impact in the batting order. SS Jed Lowrie (249/321/355) returns from Oakland, on a 3-year $23 million deal. Lowrie is the go-to Shortstop, regardless of the progression of #1 prospect Carlos Correia, but his numbers in Oakland can be deceiving on the surface. His extra-base hits and walk-rate have both increased during his tenure with the Athletics, but his isolated power (.106 ISO in 2014) has dropped significantly due to the increase in plate appearances (1228 in last two seasons) . In addition, his runs created ratio (3.9 RC/G) did slide in 2014. The advanced stats show severe dents in Lowrie’s armour, though he is a solid calibre player to have with his glove and defensive ability. Depending on whether his power statistics can improve back to his 2012/13 numbers, I see Lowrie hitting lower down in the line-up.
Still focusing on the starting line-up, Lunhow made two medium-key yet potentially impacting additions, that will undoubtedly throw at least two starting positions wide open in Kissimmee, FL this Spring Training. OF Colby Rasmus (225/287/448) is bought in to fill the void made by the trade that sent veteran OF Dexter Fowler to the Chicago Cubs.
Rasmus signs an $8 million, 1-year deal; a real roll of the dice in the short-run for an exceptionally powerful, yet incredibly inconsistent player. Though, it is worth pointing out the favouring of Rasmus in the eyes of GM Jeff Lunhow, who drafted him 28th overall in the 2005 MLB Draft whilst with the St. Louis Cardinals. Rasmus has hit 53 home runs since 2012 in Toronto, which is very impressive considering his erratic batting average (under .225 in both 2012 and 2014, yet .276 in 2013). But given his OPS of .728 while in Toronto, you can certainly give Rasmus a chance near the top of the line-up, especially batting behind Altuve in the #2 spot.
It’s also worth pointing out the crowded room in CF now, with Rasmus most likely booting rookie star George Springer to RF, and forcing strong defensive OF Jake Marisnick (249/281/326) as a rotational bench player between the two spots.
3B Luis Valbuena (249/341/435) was the player bought into Houston via the Dexter Fowler trade, and he immediately takes over as the regular man on the hot corner as Matt Dominguez requires an improvement on his OBP. Valbuena hit 16 HR last year in Chicago, but does hold a 23% strikeout rate. It will be interesting to see how much of a competition there is between the two third-basemen entering Spring Training.
Shifting the focus onto the mound, and the most significant additions for Houston were relievers Luke Gregerson (5-5, 2.12 ERA) from Oakland, and Pat Neshek (7-2, 1.87 ERA) from St. Louis. Both were exceptionally stellar as set-up men for their respective ball-clubs in 2014, especially noting that both allow very few walks between them (24 combined in 140 innings). Add these two great signings with the rumours of 2014 RP Jose Veras (4-0, 3.03 ERA with Houston in 2014) being head-hunted by Lunhow once more, Houston will enter 2015 Spring Training with one of the best bullpens in the AL West, and the CP spot in the bullpen is anyone’s to win.
SP Dan Straily (1-3, 6.75 ERA), a once promising prospect in Oakland yet plagued by the long-ball, was signed by Houston as a potential 4th or 5th starter in their rotation. It’s not an ideal signing considering his rough 2014 campaign, but he still holds a lot of upside from his major league outings in the bay area from recent years. C Hank Conger (221/293/325) was also acquired from the Angels to provide a very solid back-up behind the plate.
Beyond not providing a veteran signing into the rotation, Houston made some impressive signings this winter. However, you always have to be weary of the floury of top prospects coming in from Houston’s exceptional farm system, particularly SS Carlos Correia, and more importantly SP Mark Appel. Competition will be ignited by the majority of their key additions, and this will only make this ball-club stronger as they aim to reach that next level in the win-column.
Los Angeles Angels: C
In a division in which Houston, Oakland and Seattle made splashes towards bolstering their talent levels, Los Angeles struggled in bringing in that extra impact player over what they had to begin with. Then again, with arguably the most talented team in the American League; spearheaded by Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Jared Weaver, finding further additions wasn’t the top priority for the Angels this winter.
The most impacting move was bringing in 2B/SS Josh Rutledge ( via a trade with Colorado for prospect RHP Jairo Diaz, essentially to replace long-time 2B Howie Kendirck who took the trip up the I-5 and joined the north-side Dodgers. Despite playing the majority of 2014 at SS, current starter Eric Aybar is still a safe choice, so Rutledge fits in immediately as the team’s starter at second.
The only other significant move this offseason in regards to the line-up for the Angels was the addition of OF Matt Joyce. Joyce will most likely pick up DH role depending on how Mike Scioscia wants to handle youngster C.J. Cron, which will ultimately dictate how many at-bats Albert Pujols receives at either 1B or DH.
Finally, former top prospect for the Marlins RHP Andrew Heaney (0-3, 5.83 ERA) eventually wound up in Anaheim following two trades in the span of five hours (first to the Dodgers and then to the Angels). Hoping to prove his potential after a rough 2014 campaign, Heaney joins fellow youngster SP Nick Tropeano; another former top prospect (Houston), who was also picked up this winter to compete with stuttering lefty SP Hector Santiago.
It was somewhat of a quiet, sombre winter in Anaheim. Yet the team chemistry is still sharp; their key contributors remain and the talent level is still in the same spot since last fall, when they tallied 98 wins in the regular season.
Oakland Athletics: D
A rocky and wild winter for the Athletics saw them lose more talent than what they salvaged amidst a sea of trades and multi-team deals. Both core players 3B Josh Donaldson (Toronto) and 1B Brandon Moss (Cleveland) are gone, Their once deep chain of catchers has thinned down to just one (Steven Vogt), through the departures of Jon Jaso (Tampa Bay) and Derek Norris (San Diego). SS Jed Lowrie (Houston) is another departure, as well as IF Albert Callaspo (Atlanta). All in all, the A’s line-up looks very different, and not particularly for the better.
On the mound, it doesn’t get better. Pitchers Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs), Jeff Samardija (Chicago White Sox), Tommy Milone (Minnesota) and Jason Hammel (Chicago Cubs); four of their five starters in the rotation from 2014 are now gone after the winter meetings. Despite the solid acquisitions and prospects picked up this winter, as well as the holes opened up for future prospects (particularly 1B Matthew Olson, IF’s Renato Nunez and Matt Chapman), too much talent has been lost. A major step backwards in their hunt for contention in 2015. Bob Melvin can count himself fortunate that he had such a dense pitching staff to fall back on in 2014. Rotational starters Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz will feature as full-time starters after solid campaigns last season.
Their biggest landings through their wave of trades are 2B Ben Zobrist (272/354/395) and 3B Brett Lawrie (247/301/421). Zobrist presents a very solid hitter that can be best utilised at the top of the batter order due to his solid on-base percentage (.354). Lawrie has the potential to be a power hitter in the bay area, hitting a career-high 12 HR’s in only 259 at-bats. Ike Davis (233/344/378) and Billy Butler (271/323/379) were also acquired this winter to fill the vacant spots at 1B and DH respectively. Oakland were desperate for hitters with potential power to fill at least some of the power outage left behind by Donaldson and Moss. Butler is coming off a down year as he bowed out of Kansas City, and Davis is still a powerful slugger who posts a pitiful batting average, which still hinders his talent levels.
Unfortunately due to the rotator cuff injury to current closer Sean Doolittle- that continues to put his status for Opening Day in jeopardy- Billy Bean went out and acquire even more talent to fit into their already stellar relief staff. RP Tyler Clippard (7-4, 2.18 ERA) was picked up via a trade with the Nationals for brief SS Yunel Escobar (previously with the Rays). The 2014 NL All-star reliever enters the fray as the favourite to be the closer come April if Doolittle remains on the shelf. Clippard has been one of the most consistent relief pitchers in the majors during his 7-year stint with Washington (2.68 ERA, 1.04 WHIP), and if his long-running stellar form continues, he can play his way into earning save opportunities upon Doolittle’s return.
Outside of the stellar bullpen addition, Oakland have taken two steps back in their quest to regain dominance in the West. Seattle and Anaheim now seem to tower over them. They still hold many key contributors from their division-title years, such as Coco Crisp, Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir. But trading away some of their biggest names and greater talents for a flurry of prospects couldn’t have come at a worse time in regards to their contention hopes for 2015. With nearly every AL West team seeing major upgrades from 2014; Oakland stuck themselves into neutral, and are now sitting ducks in the wild west.
Seattle Mariners: B
When you make a big splash and land an All-Star with 40 home runs to his name in 2014; this grade was always going to be high. DH Nelson Cruz (271/333/525) was signed for a 4-year, $58 million deal that immediately brings the unpredictable Mariners’ offense to life. He immediately enters the batting order at #4 behind stellar hitters Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano. Cruz was one of the leaders in slugging percentage last year (.525), as well as RBI’s (108). Pair up those monster numbers from 2014 with Cano’s 187 hits and .382 on-base percentage; expect Cruz to be a big reason behind Seattle’s surge in runs scored this season.
Speaking of 3B Kyle Seager (268/334/454), the 2014 AL All-Star and Gold Glove winner at 3B signed a lucrative 7-year, $100 million contract. Breaking out last season after some intriguing power-led numbers since 2012, Seager gets a deal that reflects his popularity and progression as an all-round hitter at Safeco Field. 25 home runs and 96 RBI in 2014 showcased his value to the Mariners. And GM Jack Zduriencik didn’t have to break the entirety of the bank to lock him in. The $95 million Pablo Sandoval (Boston Red Sox), posted a combined WAR of 4.9 less than Seager over the course of the last three seasons.
Two trades round off Seattle’s short but intense offseason splash. OF Michael Saunders was traded to Toronto in order to pick up SP J.A. Happ (11-11, 4.22 ERA). Happ’s numbers are slowly beginning to develop into a solid level coming out of the big-hitting AL East. But his long-ball prone 2014 does raise a red flag (22 HR allowed). Nonetheless, he is a decent pick-up at the bottom of the rotation and will contend with the struggling Erasmo Ramirez for a starting role. Saunders’ injury woes are the main reason as to why Seattle sold so low on a player projected to have a bounce-back campaign this summer.
Saunders’ departure left a big hole in RF, which was eventually filled by the trade of Padres OF Seth Smith (266/367/440). Seattle, already with a good bullpen coming into Spring Training, were in a solid spot to let go of RP Brandon Maurer within this trade. Smith joins Justin Ruggiano (281/337429) in a battle for the open RF spot in the starting line-up, though it’s more of a question of how much time Ruggiano can salvage over the former. Ruggiano excelled with the Cubs as a bench player in the outfield (224 AB), while Smith posted solid numbers during a full-time starting role (443 AB).
Seattle’s final addition to their 25 man roster is currently on the verge of completion, with the potential signing of 2B Rickie Weeks (274/357/452) on a 1-year, $2 million deal that could potentially end up as $4 million based on incentives during the regular season. Weeks will need to take a physical within the next day or so to finalise the deal. It’s an odd move considering that Cano is without question starting 2B, but it is a low-risk manoeuvre on the part of Zduriencik financially. A former all-star who has proven his worth but in a streaky fashion (.809 OPS in 2014), Weeks may have to chew on the offer the threw back at the Brewers in 2014 and move out of his natural position and into the outfield in order for his power hitting to be fully utilised.
While some may wonder exactly how much Seattle could have gotten for Michael Saunders with Toronto considering their woeful outfield depth, it doesn’t largely affect the overall success of their offseason. Despite the risk with his age, Nelson Cruz brings the batting order full-circle, and provides that final, pivotal source of power to potentially sky-rocket Seattle into October baseball.
Texas Rangers- C+ On the surface, the winter in Arlington was unspectacular and uninspiring. But when you open your eyes at the bigger picture- most importantly at the farm system- the Rangers’ offseason was ultimately played towards something beyond 2015. Optimism should take over the immediate negative vibe when you look at the lack of quantity, and quality of acquisitions. Texas did lose some key contributors coming off a disastrous 2014; most notably the departure of ex-skipper Ron Washington, for reasons that dominate over any baseball commitment. 49 year-old Jeff Banister got the nod as the new manager in Arlington, who holds an impressive 29 years’ coaching within the Pirates’ minor league system, and is a clear figurehead for the development of youth.
OF Alex Rios (Kansas City) is the only key departure regarding the starting line-up, but it is a move that deservedly opens up the opportunity for a platoon in the outfield that will include youngsters Ryan Rua (295/321/419 105 AB), Michael Choice (182/250/320) and Jake Smolinski (349/391/512 86 AB). Plenty of excitement awaits the outfield as Spring Training comes right around the corner.
The presence of several young talents in 2014 influenced the severe lack of veteran additions to bolster depth. Second baseman Rougned Odor (259/297/402), who did an excellent job in filling in the potentially huge void left by Jurickson Profar’s season-ending shoulder injury, had his position left unharmed this winter. It’s a clear sign that Odor has impressed the Rangers’ front office, and look for him to excel in 2015 in a more significant role in the batting order.
Following significant setbacks to starting pitchers Derek Holland and Martin Perez (who is still recovering from Tommy John Surgery, May 19th), as well as trading away Robbie Ross for prospect Anthony Ranaudo (Boston), the Rangers set up a dream return home for SP Yovanni Gallardo (8-11, 3.51 ERA) via trade with the Brewers, who was scouted by the team when he was still in Trimble Tech High School in Fort Worth, TX in 2004. Gallardo will undoubtedly serve as a veteran presence for the rising wave of prosperous talent coming through the starting rotation.
Ross Detwiler (2-3, 4.00 ERA) joins the potential rotation after a decent year pitching between starter and reliever in Washington. Join that with the re-signing of Colby Lewis on a $4 million, 1-year deal, and you have two rather low-par, low-impact signings that will do very little towards bringing the rotation back to a fit state.
The ceilings have certainly been illuminated for the next crop of farmed stars; ready for Arlington’s next big things to smash the barriers set by a remarkably low-key offseason. The inevitable introduction to 1B Joey Gallo, C Jorge Alfaro, RHP Luke Jackson, OF Nick Williams and RHP’s Alex Gonzalez and Anthony Ranaudo ignites the optimism behind the somewhat stale winter in Texas. The stage is set for their future.
Up Next: National League East