Wednesday was quite a day on the Hot Stove League. The San Diego Padres finally got somebody to take their money while the Cardinals finally got their catcher.
Here is a quick recap:
- The New York Yankees struck first by securing Aaron Judge, keeping the free-agent slugger away from the San Francisco Giants with a nine-year, $360 million contract.
- The Padres, a team throwing giant money at all the top free-agent targets, finally got a taker – shortstop Xander Bogaerts, on an 11-year, $280 million contract. Previously Judge and Trea Turner had told them no thanks.
- The Boston Red Sox hoped to keep Bogaerts. Instead, that team pivoted to Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida by spending the $15.4 million posting fee and gambling $90 million over five years on his ability to hit big league pitching. Consider that a head-scratcher.
- With Bogaerts and Turner off the shortstop board, Carlos Correa has tremendous bargaining leverage with the San Francisco Giants and other suitors.
- Meanwhile the Cardinals stayed away from the deep end of the free-agent pool as usual, but they made one of the more sensible moves of the offseason by landing catcher Willson Contreras for $87.5 million over five years.
The Cardinals filled two needs with one move, adding another impact hitter while also filling their catching vacancy. They kept all of their good young talent, too, including catching prospect Ivan Herrera.
Contreras adds enough offense to take some at bats at designated hitter and first base going forward, leaving room for Herrera to grow into a role should the Cardinals remain committed to his development.
Thus far the Cardinals have also kept their young DH tandem of Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman and their outfield of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar — with elite prospect Jordan Walker on the cusp and Alec Burleson still adding depth.
So the Cardinals can stay on their draft-and-develop course while showing their fans (and veteran players) that they are willing to boost payroll as well.
Writing for ESPN.com, David Schoenfield gave the Cardinals an A-minus grade for the signing. He wrote:
Contreras is one of the best hitting catchers in the game. Among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances in 2022, he ranked third with a 132 wRC+ after hitting .243/.349/.466, behind only his brother William and Adley Rutschman. Over the last two seasons, he ranks third behind Will Smith and Alejandro Kirk among catchers with at least 500 PAs. He has consistently produced elite hard-hit rates, ranking in the 86th percentile or higher each of the past three seasons. He’s not a hitter who gets cheated on his swings, that’s for sure — and while he’s not a high-average hitter, Contreras draws some walks and his high rate of getting hit (24 times in 2022) has helped him to produce above-average OBPs throughout his career. He’ll be entering his age-31 season, but his offensive game has remained stable and shows no signs of decline — he even had a career low strikeout rate in 2022. I like the chances for Contreras to maintain this level of offense for a few more seasons.
Now the hitch: His defense. It got a bit of a bad rap after the season when reports surfaced that Dusty Baker didn’t want the Houston Astros to trade for Contreras at the trade deadline. No, he’s not Molina, but consider that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak had talked earlier this offseason about how important catcher defense has been for St. Louis’ franchise. It would seem that the Cardinals are comfortable enough with Contreras and his ability to work with a staff to give him this five-year deal. His arm strength is solid (and he loves the back pick to first base, throwing there more often than any other catcher) and according to Statcast metrics, his catcher framing was a net zero runs in 2022 — not much worse than Molina’s plus-five runs saved in about the same number of innings.
How a catcher works with a staff is more difficult to measure but note that Contreras started nine games as a rookie during the Chicago Cubs’ World Series run in 2016 (including five of the seven World Series games). He was the starting catcher on three other Cubs playoffs teams. You can win with him behind the plate. And even if you’re concerned about Contreras’ pitch framing, that might go away in a couple of years if the robot umps come in.
The best part: All it cost the Cardinals was money. Instead of trading, say, Nolan Gorman for Sean Murphy, they retain all their young players and prospects. This gives time for catching prospect Ivan Herrera to develop some more, either back in Triple-A or as Contreras’ backup. This lengthens a lineup that was third in the National League in runs scored. While you can expect some regression from MVP Paul Goldschmidt and they’ll miss what Albert Pujols provided, the Cardinals will be much better at catcher, can look forward to perhaps a 30-homer season from Gorman, and hope for a bounce-back from Tyler O’Neill — and perhaps the arrival of Jordan Walker, considered by most the best hitting prospect in the minors. It’s a strong offense with depth and positional versatility. Given what some of the starting pitchers have gone for, I think the Cardinals found a good way to improve three to four wins without losing anything — without the same injury risk that comes with pitchers. I like this move ending up as one of the best of the offseason when you factor in value, need and cost.
Here is what folks have been writing about the busy conclusion to the winter meetings:
Bradford Doolittle, ESPN.com: “Make no mistake, losing Judge would have represented a loss of stature for the Yankees as a franchise. The loss would not have been irretrievable, but it would have cast a shadow over the team’s quest to snap a 13-year World Series title drought, and not just because Judge might well be the best player in the game right now. The shadow would also be cast by sudden doubts about the organizational culture and the allure of the franchise to free agents. The hallowed Yankees mystique might have been consigned to the history books. Even if Judge isn’t the best player in the game — a good debate for another day — he is probably the game’s biggest star at the moment, coming off a historic 62-homer campaign that across the board was one of the most stunning performances by any player in the history of the sport. Just to point to one example of Judge’s impact: When commissioner Rob Manfred was making his opening remarks at the winter meetings, he cited the trajectory of MLB’s 2022 journey from a labor dispute that threatened the season to a full and memorable campaign. The one specific case he mentioned was the performance put up by Judge. He was the avatar for everything that went right for baseball since the near total calamity of the lockout. All of this extra context is now window dressing meant to highlight just how bad it would have been for the Yankees to lose Judge. But they didn’t lose Judge, and now it seems highly likely that he will join the list of Yankees stars who end up never donning another uniform, another homegrown legend whom fans in the Bronx have all to themselves. The list is long and unmatched … Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra, Jeter … and someday, Aaron Judge could very well look right at home on it.”
Jay Jaffe, FanGraphs: “Judge’s age stands out in that table as much as the dollar value. A late bloomer given that he won AL Rookie of the Year honors in his age-25 season, he almost certainly would have netted more — with more teams bidding — had he hit the market at a younger age. The last player to sign a mega-deal entering his age-31 season was Robinson Canó (10 years, $240 million from the Mariners starting in 2014); that one aged poorly due in part to the second baseman’s two PED suspensions. The Yankees re-signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $275 million contract entering his age-32 season, and while he helped them to their most recent World Series win in 2009, that didn’t age so well either due to injuries, a year-long PED suspension, and an in-season retirement in his ninth year after one more burst of glory. Counting Cole, the Yankees are the second team to sign two $300 million free agents after the Phillies (Bryce Harper and Turner). They’re the first to roster three $300 million players, with (Giancarlo) Stanton, whom they traded for in December 2017, the other. Judge earned this deal with perhaps the greatest walk year of all time. He rejected a seven-year, $230.5 million package prior to Opening Day, then went on to lead a very inconsistent Yankees team to the AL East title, hitting .311/.425/.686 with 62 homers and 131 RBI. While he missed winning the traditional and slash-stat Triple Crowns by about five points of batting average, he set an American League record with his home run total, eclipsing Roger Maris’ 61-year-old mark of 61, and won the MVP award.”
Will Leitch, MLB.com: “On Tuesday night, thanks to a scattering of reports, it sure looked like Aaron Judge was going to be a San Francisco Giant. It obviously did not turn out that way, but you can absolutely see why the Giants pushed so hard: It sure does look like they have a giant Aaron Judge-sized hole in their lineup. While the Giants might benefit in, say, 2031, by not having an old Judge, they definitely could have used this version. There are no players like Judge on the market — there are no players like Judge in the sport — but the Giants desperately need to find some more bats, and soon. Because they look like a third-place team right now, and maybe a fourth-place one. Pivoting to one of the available free-agent shortstops seems like a distinct possibility.”
Lauren Theisen, The Defector: “Chicago front-office boss Jed Hoyer, as I see it now, is being kind of sneaky. After a couple of 70-ish win seasons overshadowed by the departures of almost all of their best and most beloved players, the Cubs have now at least made a few recent choices that stopped them from going all-in on a tank job. Scoring Seiya Suzuki for $85 million and Marcus Stroman for $71 million last offseason was part of that, and adding a serviceable starter in Jameson Taillon on a four-year deal further indicates that they’re at least trying to field a real baseball team. (They did just lose Willson Contreras to the Cardinals, but we’ll see what comes of the rumblings that they want a marquee shortstop.) In previous eras of MLB, they would still almost definitely be short of relevancy. But in 2023, with the expanded postseason, it is cynical but not unrealistic to believe that the Cubs are trying to do the bare minimum that could give them a shot at lucking into something like the 87 wins that got the Phillies all the way to the World Series last season. I don’t particularly love the idea of aiming for marginal competitiveness, but Bellinger himself should have reason for optimism. His lingering ailments are hopefully healing a little more this offseason; he won’t have to worry about extreme defensive shifts in this upcoming campaign; and if the Cubs play a cold first half, he’s an appealing candidate to be traded to a contender at the deadline. Everything is set up quite nicely for him to step into this new scenery and find, if not an MVP, a more effective player than he’s been in years. Still, these amenable conditions won’t matter one bit if (Cody) Bellinger doesn’t hit. He’s staking a lot on his belief that he can.”
Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus: “The Dodgers are not pursuing top free agents, shortstop Carlos Correa among them, in part because the specter of (Trevor) Bauer’s salary is still hanging over them. If the pitcher’s appeal of his two-year suspension for violating the league’s sexual assault and domestic violence policy is sustained (an arbitrator is expected to rule by the beginning of next year at latest), then the $60 million remaining on Bauer’s 2021-2023 contract would be restored. Worse for the Dodgers, that money might count against their luxury tax bill, bringing the total cost to something approaching $100 million. Bauer’s suspension also might be upheld, in which case they’ll owe him nothing. The problem is they don’t know, so they feel obligated to keep their purse closed until they know how much will be in it . . . Last month the Dodgers non-tendered Cody Bellinger, which made sense—he had reached the end of his useful life with the team. Perhaps the Cubs will figure out how to get him going again, or maybe they’ve replaced the old Jason Heyward with the new Jason Heyward—either way it was the right time to part. Defrocked closer Craig Kimbrel is also gone; they’re probably not too unhappy about that. Shortstop Trea Turner took the Phillies’ money and is gone forever. Surprise All-Star pitcher Tyler Anderson headed down to Anaheim, which is probably also okay—‘Let’s see him do that again.’ Like Davy Crockett, Andrew Heaney has gone to Texas, not that you could rely on him. Justin Turner, a career .296/.375/.490 hitter while wearing the blue, is a free agent. Fading or not, he still needs to be replaced. They all do in some sense, and if one wants to keep winning 100-plus games a year—and more than any other team, the Dodgers seem to care about putting a great product on the field—they can’t be replaced lightly.”
“In our market, we’ve realized this is how we’re going to have to operate. I don’t always find it frustrating. I think it’s the world we’re in. I’m good with it, and we’re good with it. What it means is that our offseason doesn’t look like this other team’s offseason. And that’s OK. But I think we’ve shown, and everybody in our organization has shown, we can still find a way to put a really good team out on the field.”
Brewers manager Craig Counsell, on his team’s cost-cutting.
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