Though it might have seemed the case, the 2016-17 offseason wasn’t only about big bucks for free-agent relievers and Seattle Mariners trades.
Still, of the more than $1.25 billion spent on free agents, more than one-quarter was invested in relief pitchers, $228 million on the three who finished among the ESPN Player Rater’s top 50 overall last season. Relievers were at a premium, and as a direct result of this winter’s transactions, 11 teams entered 2017 having made (or potentially made) a significant change to their closer positions.
1. Colorado Rockies signed OF Ian Desmond
Details: The Rockies, on Dec. 13, signed Desmond to a five year, $70 million contract.
Hitter joins Rockies, hitter’s (perceived) fantasy value soars, rinse, repeat. Desmond’s arrival in Coors Field was predictably met with excitement, but the true fantasy impact of the move might be somewhat different than its perception. After all, he played 2016 at another one of the game’s most hitting-friendly environments, Texas’ Globe Life Park, resulting in the second-best fantasy campaign of his career going by Player Rater finish. His No. 37 only narrowly trailed 2014’s No. 33, and barely beat 2012’s No. 38 and 2013’s No. 44. It’s Desmond’s year-over-year variability — he had extremely wide first-/second-half splits in each of the past two seasons, had the fourth-most strikeouts in baseball in the past five years combined and had a 59-point range in his batting average during that five-year span — that should be softened by the move to Coors, a ballpark with spacious outfield gaps resulting in easily the highest batting average on balls in play of any active venue. Ultimately, Desmond’s repeat prospects are what improved, and as the team’s currently projected first baseman, he could pick up multi-position eligibility fairly quickly, plus be a potential emergency fallback at shortstop should Trevor Story miss further time due to injury.
2. Seattle Mariners trade for 2B/SS Jean Segura, Arizona Diamondbacks for SP Taijuan Walker
Details: The Mariners, on Nov. 23, acquired Segura, OF Mitch Haniger and RP Zac Curtis from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Walker and SS Ketel Marte.
Though Seattle’s Safeco Field actually saw more home runs hit last season — a major league-leading 234 — than Arizona’s Chase Field, traditionally speaking, one would rather see the pitcher move to the former, the hitter to the latter. This trade sent the hitter fresh off a massive, sixth-on-the-Player-Rater rebound campaign to Safeco, and the pitcher coming off an injury-marred year to the desert, hurting the fantasy appeal of both players in the process. Segura has hit 32 of his 43 career home runs at Chase, Milwaukee’s Miller Park, Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park and Colorado’s Coors Field, all of them homer-friendly venues, but he’ll probably find repeating his 2016 power output more difficult in Safeco’s more spacious confines. Walker’s higher-than-average fly-ball tendency might prove an equally poor fit for Chase Field, hurting his rebound prospects. In the end, would anyone be surprised if the player involved in this trade whose value improved the most was Haniger?
3. Los Angeles Dodgers traded for 2B Logan Forsythe, Rays for SP Jose De Leon
Details: The Dodgers, on Jan. 23, acquired Forsythe from the Rays in exchange for De Leon.
Like Eaton and Fowler, Forsythe filled two pressing needs for his new team: Second base and the leadoff spot. Though Forsythe’s .333 on-base percentage might pale in comparison to Eaton’s or Fowler’s, he possesses a specific skill that makes him an ideal choice to lead off: A keen knowledge of the strike zone, evidenced by his being the second least-likely to swing at a non-strike last season (19 percent swing rate). Forsythe’s on-base percentage was probably not representative of his true ability, and he gives the Dodgers their first everyday leadoff candidate since Dee Gordon in 2014. Not that the team was hurting for run production in 2016, but a Forsythe-Corey Seager-Justin Turner-Adrian Gonzalez top four represents one of the game’s stronger quartets.
4. San Francisco Giants signed RP Mark Melancon
Details: The Giants, on Dec. 5, signed Melancon to a four year, $62 million contract.
It might be difficult to imagine Melancon’s fantasy value improving with his move to San Francisco — he and Zach Britton were the only two closers to finish among the top 70 on the Player Rater in each of the past three seasons — but his decision indeed stabilized his chances at again finishing within that group, and perhaps even repeating his No. 28 overall finish of a year ago. San Francisco’s AT&T Park is one of the game’s most pitching-friendly, and the Giants have placed among the game’s top 10 in save opportunities in each of the past three seasons. In addition, Melancon’s departure from the Washington Nationals clears the closer role for a probable competition among Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover and Joe Nathan.
5. Oakland Athletics sign RP Santiago Casilla
Details: The Athletics, on Jan. 20, signed Casilla to a two year, $11 million contract which includes incentives.
First off, don’t ignore that Casilla finished 2016 on a poor note, blowing four of eight save opportunities with a 6.57 ERA in his final 15 appearances. The move to Oakland, however, clouds the Athletics’ closer picture, where manager Bob Melvin said in January he was undecided on his pick of Ryan Madson, Casilla, Sean Doolittle or perhaps even Ryan Dull. With the exception of Dull, the least likely to emerge in the role come Opening Day, none of these pitchers is a trusted enough source of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts over the 162-game schedule to warrant a hefty investment. It looks like guesswork will be required with this bullpen, and it’s possible that as many as three or four different pitchers will shuffle through the role in 2017.
6. Athletics sign OF Rajai Davis
Details: The Athletics, on Jan. 4, signed Davis to a one year, $6 million contract which includes incentives.
Davis’ career high in stolen bases came during his previous stint with the Athletics — he swiped 50 with them in 2010 — but this is still a team that is traditionally conservative on the base paths. More importantly, the Athletics call a pitching-friendly environment (O.co Coliseum) their home, which is a negative for Davis after his unexpectedly huge 2016. He’ll receive regular playing time in center field for his new team, but home-run regression was inevitable, and at 36 years old, he’s at greater risk for a sudden loss of speed than a younger player would be.
7. Houston Astros trade for C Brian McCann
Details: The Astros, on Nov. 17, acquired McCann and cash considerations from the New York Yankees in exchange for SPs Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman.
Yankee Stadium was a brilliant venue for McCann’s extreme pull-conscious, power-oriented approach, and it should not be ignored that the distance down the right-field line at Houston’s Minute Maid Park is 12 feet deeper. He has only continued to show signs of being affected by the aging curve, his contact rate dropping and his platoon split widening, and he’s also now on an Astros team that has more competition for at-bats at catcher, first base and DH than he’d have faced with the Yankees. McCann’s days of exceeding 525 plate appearances might be in his past.
8. Los Angeles Angels sign 3B Luis Valbuena
Details: The Angels, on Jan. 24, signed Valbuena to a two year, $15 million contract with a 2019 option.
Valbuena’s signing with the Angels had to be met with audible groans amongst fantasy owners, but it’s mostly because of the impact of his arrival upon three other players — Albert Pujols, C.J. Cron and Yunel Escobar — rather than Valbuena himself. General manager Billy Eppler quickly announced that he viewed Valbuena as an everyday player against right-handed pitching after the signing, which means someone from that bunch will suffer a noticeable loss in playing time. Did it signal Pujols’ plantar fascia surgery being more serious than initially anticipated, perhaps resulting in a DL stint of a month or two to start 2017? Did it hint that the team wasn’t as optimistic about Cron’s breakthrough prospects as his 2016 numbers suggested? Did it mean that the team viewed Escobar as more of a utility infielder or right-handed platoon partner rather than regular? Perhaps spring training will provide us some hints, but as things stand, all four project to lose a handful of at-bats.
9. Athletics sign 3B Trevor Plouffe
Details: The Athletics, on Jan. 18, signed Plouffe to a one year, $5.25 million contract which includes incentives.
As with Davis, Plouffe’s power will take a hit at O.co Coliseum, which is a below-average venue for right-handed power, whereas Minnesota’s Target Field is above-average. Plouffe’s arrival, however, also clouds the immediate future of Ryan Healy, one of the more promising breakthrough stories of the second half of 2016. Healy might now have to fight for playing time at third base, first base and designated hitter, and he can’t be projected for regular at-bats as a result.
By Tristan H. Cockcroft