The MLB offseason, notorious for moving incredibly slow, has seen about four months of free agent signings squeezed into a solid three-week period. The free agent frenzy has seen big names go off the market left and right, with many stars leaving for new teams. With hundreds of millions of dollars spent, it’s only natural for some teams to have gotten unequivocally better.
First, let me explain my criteria for the biggest winners of the off-season. I am basing it on which teams made the biggest improvements to put themselves in post-season contention. I focused on non-playoff teams who have made additions supplementing their needs that can lead to a postseason run. I know we have this new system of the “Mickey Mouse” expanded playoffs and one of the teams listed could have made it under the new CBA, but I find that irrelevant.
Before I start with my winners, I want to name some honorable mentions. I’ll start in the AL, analyzing the Tigers, Angels, and Bluejays.
In Detroit, there is a deep farm system that has its young pitching core developing at the major league level. Matt Manning, Casy Mize, and Tarik Skubal have been terrorizing minor league lineups on their way to the show. In addition to their promising young rotation, the Tigers have two highly-touted position players, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Green, scheduled to arrive soon. Both have been crushing it in the minor leagues. To complement their rising stars, the Tigers front office brought in veteran leadership in Javier Baez, Andrew Chafin, and Eduardo Rodriguez to captain the field, bullpen, and mound, respectively. I know this team needs to go through growing pains before becoming a World Series competitor, but I am excited to watch the Tigers continue to develop this season.
In Anaheim, the Angels had a veteran-loaded lineup with no pitching, their traditional fatal flaw. So, what did the front office do this off-season? They signed five free agent pitchers and resigned Raisel Iglesias, the shining star in their trainwreck bullpen of the past few seasons. I do not think there is such thing as a bad one-year deal, so I am a fan of the Angels taking a flier on Noah Syndergaard. Realistically, I expect 150 innings from him, sitting with a low to mid threes era. To reinforce Iglesias, they added three established relievers in Ryan Tepera, Archie Bradley, and Aaron Loup, who will hopefully hold leads and pitch in crucial moments. Loup and Tepera are coming off the best years of their careers and show signs of being able to continue that momentum in the 2022 season. The signing that I am most curious about is that of Michael Lorenzen, a middle-tier pitcher who left the Reds in free agency and signed with the Angels because he wanted to try to be a two-way player. I love this, especially as one of the few fans who like the idea of pitchers hitting. I hope he can be successful at it and help pave the way for more players to do this. It should be an exciting year for the Halos, considering they have a loaded lineup. Maybe they can sneak into playoff contention and get Mike Trout to the playoffs. Please, for the love of baseball - get Michael Nelson Trout into the postseason!
And onto the Toronto Blue Jays. My goodness, what a lineup. If that’s not a postseason lineup, I don’t know what is. The reason why I did not include the Jays as a big winner is that I think much of their progress will come from internal development from players like Vladimir Guerro Jr., Alek Manoah, and Teoscar Hernandez. I acknowledge that they have signed two starters to replace Robbie Ray, but I do not think that Kevin Gausman or Yusei Kikuchi are going to be the frontline ace that Ray was. Who knows? This take might age quite poorly. In terms of getting better, I would argue the two pitchers will match Robbie Ray’s impact, and their addition will be a net neutral. As for position players, I am excited to see Matt Chapman in a full stadium, with fans who will appreciate his defensive talent. Unfortunately, the platinum glove winner will struggle to fill the void of Marcus Semien’s bat. That trade-off of offense for defense doesn’t make the Jays any better or worse. I do not have much of a view of the recent trade of Randal Grichuk for Raimel Tapia. The Jays shed some payroll that will hopefully be put towards extending their young core. The Blue Jays are a scary team, and I think they have the best shot at stealing the AL East crown from the Tampa Bay Rays.
As for the NL, I want to make sure I acknowledge all the moves the Philidelphia Phillies have made to try and compete with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. The additions of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos fortify the lineup and make it harder to pitch around Bryce Harper. This past season, Castellanos continued to demonstrate that he can bat at an elite level, and Kyle Schwarber lit the league on fire, hitting home runs at a Bonds-Esque pace for three weeks. He showed flashes of what Cubs fans thought he would be after the 2016 World Series. The Achilles’ heel of the Phils is their pitching, more specifically, their bullpen. I acknowledge that they have tried multiple times under Dave Dombrowski to add depth to the pen, but those efforts have been fruitless. Hopefully, the signings of Brad Hand, Corey Knebel, and Jeurys Familia can reverse that trend. Corey Knebel has been a consistent reliever for the Dodgers and has shown versatility in playing a role as a high leverage reliever or opener. But part of me wonders how much will these signings help the Phillies, since they, too, suffer from being in a loaded division. The NL East has a case for the most competitive and deep division in baseball. I would argue that there are four quality teams: the Braves, Mets, Phillies, and Marlins. Yes, I know I will catch flak for the Marlins take, but it is hard to ignore their starting pitching talent. It will be interesting to see what the NL East shapes up to be this season.
Onto the big winners. It is hard to talk about off-season moves and not think of the Mets and the Mariners.
Anointed as “America’s team,” the Mariners are coming into the season with a lot of hype. I do not know if many realize this, but last season, the Mariners finished the season with a negative 51 run differential and were still in the wildcard hunt in the final days of the season. To remedy their deficient hitting, they traded for two of the best young hitters in the game: Adam Frazier and Jesse Winker. Both young studs hit .305 last season, with Frazier posting a .368 OBP and Winker adding a .395 clip. To complement the addition of the two on-base machines, they also acquired Eugenio Suarez in the Winker trade, who demonstrated immense power early in his career, hitting 49 homers in 2019. The acquired bats should serve to improve the lackluster offense of 2021. On the mound, the Mariners signed Cy Young-winning pitcher Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115 million contract. This is a great signing because he will be able to influence young arms on the staff, such as Chris Flexen, Logan Gilbert, and Marco Gonzales. Ray’s impact in Seattle could be similar to Justin Verlander’s influence on him when they were both a part of the 2014 Tigers rotation.
To add to the excitement, the Mariners have one of the best farm systems in baseball, which has the potential to supply baseball’s number three prospect, Julio Rodriguez, as an early-season reinforcement. Later in the season, Emmerson Hancock and George Kirby, both top 40 prospects, can be brought in to supplement the bullpen for a playoff push. Worst case scenario, the Mariners can utilize the value within their farm system to acquire high-end trade deadline talent. It is exciting to have such an outlook for a small market team, especially one that has not been to the postseason since their historic regular season in 2001, where they won 116 games, only to lose to the Yankees in the ALCS. The moral of the story is that this team is on the rise. They came out of nowhere in 2021 and surprised people. Heck, they surprised their own front office. That out-of-nowhere success led the Mariners to acquire talent to supplement their weaknesses and do it without going over the luxury tax. Unlike the Mets...
Uncle Steve Cohen decided he wanted to create a new threshold above the luxury tax that would make George Steinbrenner shed a tear. Before I get into their free-agent signings, I want to praise Steve Cohen and Billy Eppler for bringing in Buck Showalter. He is the right manager for this team. He is the perfect mix of old-school and understanding the new-school analytics. Now, onto the players, they signed “Mad” Max Scherzer to the highest average annual value contract in baseball history. Three years, $130 million. Many viewed him as the top pitching free agent, despite being 37 years old. In addition to adding another ace to complement Jacob Degrom, the Mets acquired Chris Bassitt from the Oakland Athletics. Wow, the starting rotation for the Mets is deep: Jacob Degrom, Max Scherzer, Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, and Carlos Carrasco. If that rotation can stay healthy, it will be among one of the best in baseball, if not the best. To strengthen their bullpen, the Mets inked hometown kid Adam Ottavino, who you might remember for being a shutdown reliever for the crosstown Yankees in 2019 before being traded to the Red Sox last season. Yes, the bullpen is still the weakest link on the team, but the rest is stacked.
As for the lineup, they brought in speedster and on-base specialist Starling Marte. I love the way he plays the game, and he is an above-average centerfielder that steals bases. In addition, the Mets also acquired Mark Canha, who will serve as an outfielder with Brandon Nimmo and Marte. Canha is an upgrade from Michael Conforto, who, along with Javier Baez, left this offseason in free agency. Eduardo Escobar will serve as a comparable replacement for Baez and offer some variety in pitching matchups as a switch hitter. Oh, how could I forget to mention that Robinson Cano is back and will potentially serve as their DH. In case you forgot, Cano has serious power and will help fuel an offense that was known to be lethargic at times last season. Steve Cohen is looking to keep his bold promise to win a World Series within the first five years of taking ownership of the Mets. Is he done spending? Who knows? All I know is that next season, he is going to be writing checks out the wazoo if his Mets somehow do not make a deep playoff run.
To summarize, I am very excited for this upcoming season. For the first time in a while, it feels like more teams are trying to compete than to tank, which is great for the sport. Not every team went out and spent money as the Mets did, but many teams made themselves more competitive. I know that I only listed a few teams, but I count 19 teams that are trying to compete this season. As for the Mariners and the Mets, I am curious to see which approach to strengthening their weaknesses is going to work best, as well as if an offseason championship can translate to on-the-field success.