In the lead-up to the MLB winter meetings in San Diego, the buzz was that it could be a wild week of rumors, news and moves — and the meetings delivered all of that and then some.
When the dust settled, we saw a stretch of moves that included Aaron Judge returning to the New York Yankees for $360 million, Trea Turner getting $300 million from the Philadelphia Phillies and Justin Verlander snagging more than $40 million a year to join the New York Mets.
Need a breakdown of everything that happened this week? We asked our MLB experts who were on the scene in San Diego to identify the moves that impressed — and confused — them most and to give their biggest winners and losers of all the hot stove action.
What is your biggest takeaway from Judge’s deal with the Yankees?
Bradford Doolittle: Yankees mystique still matters, especially when it’s bolstered by a third of a billion dollars. Look, the Yankees had to get this done. If they can’t keep a player and personality like Judge in the fold, then they really are just another big market team. And maybe that’s all they are anyway, but as long as Judge is bashing homers in the Bronx, they will remain in the spotlight. He’s a pretty good player, too.
Alden Gonzalez: Simply put: This is what needed to happen. The Yankees have no identity without Judge, no obvious place to pivot to fill what would have become a massive hole both on the field and in their clubhouse. As the process played out, it became clear that the San Francisco Giants were motivated to present the highest offer. The Yankees needed to elevate to a place that felt uncomfortable. And they did.
Jeff Passan: Judge played his free agency to near-perfection, knowing that the pain the Yankees would feel from losing him exceeded the discomfort that comes from the $40 million-a-year price tag over the next nine seasons.
Joon Lee: This might not have been the best move when it comes to building a baseball team for the long term, given how much the Yankees will be paying Judge in the last few years of his contract — but New York needed to close this deal. Sometimes you need to make a move that will make the fans happy at the expense of future financial flexibility, and owner Hal Steinbrenner knew that.
Jesse Rogers: That leverage works. If Judge waited for the Yankees to bid up the price just because he’s Aaron Judge, he’d still be waiting. Players don’t get leverage of this kind often. He used it and it paid off.
What was your favorite move of the winter meetings, aside from Judge’s contract?
Doolittle: The St. Louis Cardinals had to get a starting catcher and I love that they went the free agent route to find a worthy successor to Yadier Molina. Willson Contreras has different strengths from Molina, but his individual winning percentage through age 30 (.517) is actually better than Molina’s was at the same age (.512). He isn’t the defender Molina was — few catchers are or have been — but he’s at least league average by the metric and his bat is a big upgrade. Contreras’ competitiveness will also help replace some of Molina’s omnipresent intensity. The Cardinals haven’t had to worry about catching for a long, long time and now they won’t have to for another half-decade at least.
Gonzalez: Turner’s 11-year, $300 million deal with the Phillies. Not because the Phillies will attain proper value for the length of that contract — chances are they won’t, of course — but because of what it represents. Turner is a perfect fit for them now, as a rangy shortstop who will be dynamic in the leadoff spot of a lineup that looks appreciably more menacing at the moment. The Phillies, who also added to their rotation and their bullpen, did what they needed to do coming off a pennant. The National League East is going to be a lot of fun.
Passan: There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, and to get a player of Cody Bellinger caliber – elite center field defense and a bat that in 2019 was good enough to win the NL MVP award – for $17.5 million, in his age-27 season no less, is the sort of value bet that in this market stands out for its minimal downside and significant upside.
Lee: A move I thought went a little bit under the radar was Josh Bell going to the Cleveland Guardians. Bell struggled once he got to San Diego, but he’s historically a streaky player. Cleveland needed to find some power from someone other than José Ramirez and acquiring a slugger on a pretty reasonable two-year deal for $33 million adds a lot of potential firepower to this lineup, a difference that could have helped the Guardians push past the Yankees in the playoffs in 2022.
Rogers: Oh, it’s definitely Contreras leaving the Chicago Cubs for their archrivals in St. Louis. After he spent 14 years in the organization, the Cubs didn’t make him a single offer this offseason while St. Louis made him rich. They believed in him, and now the Cubs are searching for his replacement. It’ll make for not only some juicy head-to-head matchups over the next five years, but also a motivated player. Fans will undoubtedly have mixed emotions seeing him wear red instead of blue, though time will tell which team got it right.
What one move had you scratching your head the most?
Doolittle: I kind of talked myself into not loving the Jameson Taillon/Cubs fit but even then I gave it a B-. If the Cubs manage to make an even bigger splash or two, the context on that signing would shift and I’m not sure I’d be as blasé about it. I don’t really have a big problem with any of the bigger moves. The Baltimore Orioles made me roll my eyes by signing Nomar Mazara to a free agent deal, but that was just a minor league contract. Good job, baseball.
Gonzalez: The Cardinals’ five-year agreement with Contreras. Contreras is going to provide the Cardinals with far more offensive value, but he is not very well regarded for his game-calling or his overall defense. And he’ll be succeeding one of the greatest ever in those aspects in Yadier Molina. Still: Contreras gives the Cardinals a major boost as someone who will produce in the middle of their lineup while handling a premium position. They needed a catcher. And if it wasn’t going to be the Oakland Athletics’ Sean Murphy, this was the best they could do.
Passan: Signing stars is the sort of thing winning franchises do, so it’s difficult to fault the San Diego Padres’ full-tilt pursuit of Turner and Judge. But $280 million for 11 years of shortstop Xander Bogaerts – who is 30 years old – constituted an industry-rocking contract. The runner-up: Boston giving Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida a five-year deal that, including the posting fee, will cost $105.4 million. Bogaerts is a potential Hall of Famer and Yoshida has All-Star-level talent, but the price tags staggered rival executives.
Rogers: Since it technically happened within the past week, I’d say the Texas Rangers giving all that money to Jacob deGrom. Why five years? Why not three? Ok, maybe four to make sure you got him — but five? Yikes.
Lee: Committing that much to deGrom concerns me. The Rangers are certainly spending a lot of money, but how all of it actually fits together is the actual question. Some of the big-ticket free agents signed over the past few years have a lot of questions for this year and beyond.
Who is the most interesting player who didn’t sign — and where do you see him going?
Doolittle: I think Carlos Correa is perhaps the most interesting guy in baseball who could be like a latter-day Connie Mack if someone just let him do all of the jobs. He hasn’t signed, so there’s my default answer. Rocco Baldelli talked about how engaged Correa has remained with pretty much everyone in the Minnesota Twins organization, from the hitting coaches to the players to Baldelli himself. Maybe I’m reading too much into that, but I feel like if the Twins can match the number Correa gets from the marketplace, they have a great shot of bringing him back. But I’m not sure that the number is going to end up being something they can match.
Gonzalez: I’ll go with Dansby Swanson, simply because Turner and Bogaerts found a home this week. Swanson — unlike Correa — hasn’t been prominently linked to his former team. His market still seems a bit hazy. The Cubs feel like a natural fit, but perhaps the Los Angeles Angels make a run. GM Perry Minasian, who knows Swanson from their days in Atlanta together, said Wednesday that the team would be willing to exceed the luxury-tax threshold for the right player. Swanson would certainly qualify.
Rogers: Carlos Rodon. From questions about his durability a couple years ago to the next best thing after deGrom and Verlander, he’s going to get a huge payday. The Yankees could use him but don’t count out the silly money the Rangers have been throwing around. And there’s always one player that signs with a team that seemingly comes out of nowhere. I give that possibility to Rodon as well. He’s the best of the rest.
Lee: Rodon. Some team is going to pay him like the premium pitcher he’s been the past few years, but I’m curious what kind of length and financial commitment he’ll end up getting, especially with the market blowing up the way that it has and deGrom and Verlander both signing for more money than expected.
Who is your biggest winner — and loser — of the winter meetings?
Passan: The biggest winner: Players. With MLB revenues reaching record levels in 2022 and a new collective-bargaining agreement helping push along the market, big leaguers are poised to set a record for guaranteed money in one offseason. Salaries grow, yes, and inflation is very real, certainly, but nearly every deal exceeded expectations, perhaps portending a sea change in how players are paid.
The biggest loser: Bargain hunters. Perhaps once the best players get off the board, the lower-revenue teams that have been spooked by free agent prices will enter the fray and try to grab players at depressed prices. And yet the lingering specter of FOMO could compel even the tightwads of the game to reconsider their postures, lest they enter the 2023 season with a roster that could deepen the have/have-not divide fomented by teams unwilling to do what the Padres
Doolittle: No one who works in the commissioner’s office will admit this, especially Rob Manfred, but they have to feel like huge winners now that Judge is headed back to New York. Anyone who knows me understands that I write these things as anything but a Yankees fanboy, but I do think it’s good for baseball that Judge will continue to play at Yankee Stadium.
As for the loser, for a while it seemed like the San Diego Padres would have to be it after reportedly trying to blow away the market on perhaps the top two free agents out there, depending how you rank them, and coming away with neither of them — but then San Diego made a huge splash late Wednesday night, bringing in Bogaerts and shifting a lot of pressure to the Boston Red Sox.
Gonzalez: The biggest winner is, of course, Judge. He made a massive bet on himself this season, then won the MVP and secured nearly $150 million more with his massive nine-year, $360 million deal.
Lee: Judge is definitely a winner coming out of these meetings. He’s cemented himself as the face of the franchise and the heir apparent to Derek Jeter.
Rogers: Trea Turner is the biggest winner. There was a time that only .900 to 1.000 OPS players could get $300 million. Now, an .809 mark makes you one of the richest athletes in the country. Granted, he does so much more than slug and get on base. The point being shortstops are now commanding what slugging corner outfielders are getting. That position has come a long way. His deal can’t be something he even imagined a few years ago.
The biggest loser — so far — is the Boston Red Sox. Kenley Jansen? Eh. OK. Masataka Yoshida? We’ll see. And now losing Bogaerts is going to have a lot of fans in Boston wondering what their front office will do from here. They need to get it going.
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