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Five takeaways from MLB’s virtual Winter Meetings

by Chris Brown

During the 2019 MLB Winter Meetings, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg both signed seven-year, $245 million contracts, Strasburg with the Nationals and Rendon with the Angels. At the 2020 Winter Meetings, the biggest signing was … two years, $17.5 million for Carlos Santana to become a Kansas City Royal. Not quite as exciting.

The Hot Stove was pretty cold during this year’s event, held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The top free agents, Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, DJ LeMahieu and George Springer, remain on the market, which given the expected nature of this offseason shouldn’t really be a surprise. Nonetheless, there were a handful of notable moves during the week, a few with the potential to have significant impacts for the 2021 season. Here are five takeaways from this week’s Winter Meetings:

1) The White Sox made the biggest move of the Winter Meetings but followed it up with a head-scratcher.

The South Siders, who emerged as a force in the AL in 2020, making the postseason for the first time in 12 seasons, had a clear need in their rotation for a reliable No. 3 starter behind Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. In Game 3 of the AL Wild Card Series against the A’s, that role went to their 5th-ranked prospect, right-hander Dane Dunning, who didn’t make it out of the first inning of that game. Dunning, a consensus Top 100 prospect not long ago, wasn’t ready to be that big game pitcher yet, and with Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa now at the helm, it’s clear this team is in win-now mode.

With that mentality, the team earlier this week dealt Dunning and left-handed minor leaguer Avery Weems to the Texas Rangers for a veteran starter more than capable of being that big-game pitcher: Lance Lynn. The 33-year-old has emerged as one of the better starters in the game over the last few seasons with the Rangers, finishing top 6 in AL Cy Young balloting in both 2019 and 2020. Lynn is also an absolute workhorse, as he has thrown the most pitches and most innings in the majors since the start of the 2019 season. He also trails only Jacob deGrom in WAR among pitchers during that span. 

Lynn is a perfect fit for the White Sox in that he improves the rotation from middle-of-the-pack to roughly top 10 in MLB, can be that dependable third starter in a postseason series and also will complement a young back of the rotation with his consistent ability to work six or seven innings. The loss of Dunning is certainly significant, but this is the kind of move you have to make to acquire a big-name starter via trade, and the White Sox have several other young starters that are a big part of their long-term plans.

Roughly 12 hours after the news of the Lynn trade came out, we learned the White Sox had made an addition via free agency, signing veteran outfielder Adam Eaton to a one-year, $7 million contract to serve as their everyday right fielder. It’s a reunion between the two sides, as Eaton played for the team from 2014-16, hitting .290/.362/.422 while averaging roughly 145 games played per season. 

Paying a veteran outfielder with a long history of production $7 million for one season isn’t inherently absurd, by any means, but there are a number of reasons why this signing was, to put it mildly, quite odd. Eaton was productive the last time he was with the team and in his first few seasons with the Nationals in the years following, but he’s clearly a much worse player at this stage of his career. The 32-year-old has been roughly league average at the plate over the last two seasons, hitting just .226/.285/.384 in 2020, and has also regressed significantly on defense. Statcast data also reveals a player who’s striking out more and making weaker contact, both of which are obvious trouble signs.

In a market currently full of corner outfield types with more upside and fewer red flags, the signing of Eaton — who also developed a reputation as a negative clubhouse presence his last time with the club — at that cost makes little sense. A bounceback is absolutely possible, but it seems like the team could have gotten much more certain production and less risk of problems at a similar cost.

2) The Rangers unquestionably made the right move in trading Lance Lynn.

It was a real head-scratcher when the Rangers didn’t deal Lynn prior to this past season’s trade deadline, but now it appears there was a logical reason. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently reported that Lynn and his agent informed the team he would opt out of the remainder of the season if he was traded somewhere he didn’t want to go.

And so the Rangers waited until the offseason, trading a veteran with one year remaining on his contract for a young former consensus top 100 prospect who’s under team control for six years. Texas is not going to compete for a playoff spot in 2021, and the presence of Lynn was not going to change that. So it made all the sense in the world for them to trade him for a young pitcher who could be a big part of the next contending Rangers team in Dunning. 

The White Sox weren’t confident in Dunning’s ability to be a big-game pitcher right now, but the Rangers don’t have to worry about that. The 25-year-old’s upside is thought to be that of a mid-rotation starter, and while that would be great from Texas’ perspective, Dunning doesn’t even have to reach that level for this to end up as a win for the franchise. 

As for Weems, the 23-year-old lefty is considered a bit of a wild card. He had very poor numbers at the University of Arizona but pitched to a strong 2.09 ERA in roughly 60 innings at rookie ball level in 2019 after being picked in the sixth round of that year’s draft. 

It’s always interesting to see what type of return a team can get in exchange for a one-year “rental” player these days, and while the payoff for the Rangers doesn’t figure to be immediate, it certainly seems like a reasonable haul for a team likely at least a few years away from truly contending again.

3) The Reds appear to be in retreat mode.

In the first major move of the Winter Meetings, Cincinnati traded closer Raisel Iglesias and cash to the Angels in exchange for reliever Noé Ramirez and a player to be named later on Dec. 7. It was a clear salary dump, as the Reds parted ways with one of better closers in baseball in exchange for an OK middle reliever with seemingly limited upside to save the majority of the $9 million Iglesias was set to make in 2021.

This came after the Reds non-tendered another proven late-inning arm, Archie Bradley, just last week. The 28-year-old former Diamondbacks closer, who was acquired prior to the 2020 trade deadline, was projected to make a very reasonable roughly $5 million in arbitration. Between that move and the Iglesias trade, the Reds have gone from having two great closers at relatively affordable costs to zero in order to save roughly $15 million.

The Reds are about to enter year two of four in their contracts with Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos, the largest given out in franchise history. The time to compete is now, and despite underachieving in 2020, the foundation for a great team is definitely in place. But the Reds instead seem to be actively making themselves worse in order to cut costs. It seems unlikely that Trevor Bauer will return, the back of the bullpen has been gutted and Sonny Gray could be traded as well. The NL Central is up for grabs and no team appears willing to make the moves in order to distinguish themselves, including Cincinnati. The picture could certainly change if the Reds start spending elsewhere, though, as it’s much too early to judge a club’s offseason.

4) The Angels have begun addressing their biggest area of need.

The team was amongst the most disappointing in baseball in the shortened season, and it’s clear the front office’s first priority should be upgrading its pitching staff. Starters not named Dylan Bundy posted a cumulative 6.23 ERA and the Angels bullpen posted a 4.63 ERA while blowing an MLB-high 14 saves. 

It’s going to take several significant moves to properly address these deficiencies, but the Angels are off to a good start in tackling the back end of the bullpen with the addition of Iglesias, whose posted a 2.95 ERA and struck out 11 batters per nine innings over the last four seasons while logging 100 saves. 

That move followed the Angels’ recent acquisition of shortstop Jose Iglesias (no relation) to fill the hole left by free agent Andrelton Simmons. Both additions help build a more complete team, but there’s still plenty of work to be done this offseason as the front office looks to improve a club looking to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. 

5) The Royals are one of few teams actually spending money thus far.

“We’ll make moves this offseason. And we’re going to be better, a better baseball team, once we report to spring training.” Those were the words of Royals GM Dayton Moore earlier this offseason. They clearly weren’t empty words, as the team has since signed outfielder Michael A. Taylor, starting pitcher Mike Minor and first baseman Carlos Santana, with the latter move coming during the Winter Meetings. 

Make no mistake, none of these moves are likely to significantly move the needle in 2021 for a Royals team still in the midst of a rebuild, but with teams throughout the central divisions largely cutting payroll (or at least not likely to spend much this winter) these are notable developments. The Royals became the first team in baseball to twice go above the expected contracts for two free agents, and that in and of itself is highly significant. 

The 32-year-old Minor, who previously pitched for Kansas City in 2017, was inked to a two-year, $18 million deal and should be able to add some stability to a young rotation. The lefty is coming off a rough 2020 (5.56 ERA in 56 ⅔ IP) but impressed with a 3.59 ERA and roughly 200 strikeouts in 2019. 

Santana landed the biggest contract of the Winter Meetings, agreeing to a similar two-year, $17.5 million deal. The veteran slugger hit just .199 in 2020 with the Indians and is in his mid 30s, but he led the AL in walks with 47 (.349 OBP) compared to just 43 strikeouts. Santana’s Statcast numbers also reveal some likely bad luck, as his expected batting average was .253 and his expected slugging percentage (.450) was 100 points higher than what he posted. 

The Royals moves to this point haven’t been bold, but it’s possible that as clubs across the majors (even major market teams) look to cut expenses, organizations willing to spend anywhere close to normal amounts could find this offseason is the right time to be somewhat aggressive, even if that doesn’t ultimately result in the signing of a true superstar.

Photos by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Eaton), Erik Drost / Flickr (Santana),  Not the Fake Nate / Flickr (Iglesias)

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