The labor acrimony is over, and now, after nearly two weeks of furious transactions, Major League Baseball’s unprecedented offseason nearly is, too.
With just more than two weeks until Opening Day, every elite free agent has found a home and almost every trade chip has been cashed in. Oh, there are still impact players available, and as the final days draw near, a flurry of waiver claims and minor trades and probably a couple of major ones will pop off.
Yet the landscape is largely reset after the 99-day lockout finally ended and a 2022 season is finally taking form. Who best leveraged this hot stove spring training setting? Which players and teams, with the benefit of hindsight, maneuvered most deftly in the pre- and post-lockout landscapes?
Presenting our winners and losers of this two-week flurry of musical chairs:
Blue Jays: As other clubs piece together rotations or lineups and scavenge for spare parts, the Blue Jays are perhaps the most complete team this side of Dodger Stadium after signing Yusei Kikuchi to be their fifth starter and trading for All-Star third baseman Matt Chapman.
Yes, Kikuchi is their No. 5 and Chapman will hit sixth in a loaded lineup that revolves around MVP runner-up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. In this abbreviated run-up to the season, the energy in Toronto camp was palpable as a 91-win team gears up for what Guerrero calls the “movie” after the trailer. Get your popcorn.
Corey Seager: Sure, Seager agreed to terms with the Texas Rangers way back on Nov. 29, but in light of recent events, his decision to sign before the lockout proved genius. It didn’t hurt that the Rangers dropped a 10-year, $325 million deal on the table, a pact that guarantees him twice as much money and long-term security that fellow shortstops Carlos Correa and Trevor Story did not receive.
Oh, Correa (three years, $105.5 million with the Twins) and Story (six years, $140 million, Red Sox) may yet recoup as large a guarantee as Seager, provided they perform well and exercise opt-out clauses, although Story will have to maintain his value by playing second base for at least one season. But for this vaunted shortstop class, only those fortunate enough to sign early, such as Seager, Javy Baez (six years, $140 million) and Marcus Semien (five years, $175 million), reached their free agent ceilings immediately.
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The AL Central: It would be rude to call this baseball’s flyover division, but it’s also somewhat accurate given that no Central team has won a playoff series since Cleveland advanced to the 2016 World Series. Yet the post-lockout landscape provided some compelling surprises, most notably the Twins’ signing of Correa and their acquisition of catcher/DH Gary Sanchez and third baseman Gio Urshela from the Yankees.
Meanwhile, they’re giddy in Kansas City over Zack Greinke returning home to where his fascinating 18-year career began. Beyond the nostalgia, Greinke will bring a much-needed glue guy presence to an emerging rotation that needs someone to reliably eat innings. And the Royals, Twins and Tigers should provide more than token resistance to a White Sox team that won the division by 13 games last season but lost Carlos Rodon.
The Guardians? They did get their new sign installed at Progressive Field. Hey, progress is more deliberate in some quarters.
NL designated hitters: Gotta love the approach in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are stacking slugger upon slugger and worrying about defense later. The signings of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos gives the club five feared sluggers at the top of the lineup and an eight-deep alignment that may suffocate pitchers.
Defense? Hey, they’ll figure that out later, even if it means the adventurous Castellanos in left and Schwarber perhaps pulling the occasional stint at first.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers with Freeman can get even more creative with their famously flexible lineups, what with Freeman, Muncy, Chris Taylor and a cast of many floating through first base, second base, DH and the outfield. Nelson Cruz will make the Nationals far more watchable, providing crucial lineup protection for the great Juan Soto while giving them a strong trade chip in July if need be.
Borderline big leaguers in Oakland: A’s fans already punished by their club president’s clumsy attempts to hold them hostage for Las Vegas saw the latest generation of young stars shipped away as Chris Bassitt, Matt Olson and Chapman were dealt to the East Coast before the ink could even dry on the new CBA.
A bummer for fans, but a godsend for veterans hanging on and young players hoping for a chance. Infielder Kevin Smith, acquired in the Chapman deal, might get 500 at-bats after being ticketed for platoon duty, at best, in Toronto. Right-hander Paul Blackburn, who has a 5.74 ERA in parts of five seasons, is now penciled into the rotation. Many more could follow him if top starters Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas are moved.
Freddie Freeman: Fantastic deal (six years, $162 million) with a fantastic team (Dodgers), but Freddie deserved a better departure from Atlanta than virtual radio silence and jockeying from both sides to try and win the narrative. The Braves love their budgets and largely stick to them; acquiring Matt Olson and signing him to an eight-year extension that will pay him $6 million less ($21 million to $27 million, not counting deferrals) than Freeman does allow them to do other things (Hello, Kenley Jansen).
Yet Freeman’s departure was a particularly brutal reminder that baseball is a business, as if the world didn’t already have 99 days to ponder that.
Kris Bryant: Oh, Bryant wins in so many ways by joining the Rockies. He received a $182 million guarantee and a no-trade clause, perhaps lighter than you imagined when he was a second-year MVP for the Chicago Cubs, but a great haul for a 30-year-old star in today’s game. It’s just unfortunate that such a unique talent and charismatic fellow has to spend the back nine of his career with a Rockies franchise that lurches forward and back, devoid of vision. Quality of life should be strong for Bryant and his young family; hopefully the baseball matches it one day.
Giants: After three years of occasionally painstaking rebuilding that yielded a stunning, 107-win season, Giants fans were giddy that one of the game’s coastal superpowers would once again fire up the checkbook and add a superstar (or at least retain Bryant or No. 2 starter Kevin Gausman).
Alas, baseball ops chief Farhan Zaidi stayed true to his disciplined game, loading the rotation with buy-low options like returnees Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood, bounceback veteran Alex Cobb and a $44 million splurge on Carlos Rodon.
While the Giants figured to stay out of the high-end shortstop market after extending Brandon Crawford at the end of 2021, the hindsight that Story signed for a mere $140 million stings; he and Crawford would have formed a tremendous pairing up the middle while adding a power-speed element to a lineup that will instead bank on returns to form from guys like Mike Yazstrzemski, continued magic from “Late Night” LaMonte Wade and hopeful bets on veterans Brandon Belt and Joc Pederson.
It worked wonderfully in 2021. It looks a bit more daunting in 2022, especially since the Dodgers won 106 games themselves and just added Freeman.
Yankees: It is stunning that in a winter Correa received just $105.5 million guaranteed and Story just $140 million that the Yankees’ big move would be taking on the $50 million of Josh Donaldson’s contract while plugging in the respected but not elite Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop. The Yankees were not bluffing in their determination to cling closely to shortstop prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza. But the Blue Jays adding a rejuvenated Chapman to boost a deep rotation and the Red Sox’s massive improvements in all phases with Story means the price of poker went way up in the AL East.
In 2021, the Blue Jays won 91 games – and finished fourth. It’s not hard to imagine the Yankees meeting that fate this season – while hoping the expanded playoff format bails them out.
COVID-19: The lockout might have ended acrimonious labor talks, but the global pandemic rumbles on. Yet the industry’s resumption revealed that at least a handful of players opted to get vaccinated during their down time, most notably Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Others seemed to indicate they had, in so many words. Meanwhile, New York’s inclusion of baseball clubhouses as “indoor workplaces” may force the Yankees and Mets – the latter with many unvaccinated players – to capitulate if they wish to be eligible to play in their home ballparks come April 7. (Or play in Canada, at all).
For those who opted for vaccine protection after a winter of doing their own research, bravo. It will go far toward neutralizing the virus in Year 3. At the least, it’s clear, players, fans and media alike are beyond tired of playing the “is he or isn’t he?” game.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB hot stove winners, losers: Who prevailed in post-lockout frenzy?
Source: Yahoo Sports