NASHVILLE — We made it all the way through the winter meetings without an outfielder on the free agent market signing a contract. It’s been five weeks of radio silence while teams snap up $151 million worth of relief pitchers as if they’re Black Friday doorbusters. Still very much available: Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, Alex Gordon and Justin Upton.
The slowly developing market for outfielders has been one of the more curious developments of this spending season, which still holds far more questions than answers. But if it’s actuality you want instead of speculation, you’ve come to the right place. Here are the lessons we’ve learned from the winter meetings:
1. The Padres are pivoting
If you had any question about San Diego's direction, you learned a lot with the Rule 5 draft, a form of bottom-fishing in which teams try to find a gem among players left off 40-man rosters. San Diego wound up with four Rule 5 picks—three righthanded pitchers and an outfielder.
One of the most aggressive buyers of last year’s market is looking to trade anyone in the name of restocking the system, whether it’s catcher Derek Norris or pitchers James Shields and Andrew Cashner. Said a rival general manager, “They’ve made everyone available.”
Their best asset is pitcher Tyson Ross and his two years of control, though the high price Arizona paid for three years of control of Shelby Miller has chilled the market. “I actually like Ross better than Miller,” the GM said.
2. The National League has two divisions: varsity and JV
With the Padres and Reds joining the Braves, Brewers, Phillies and Rockies in all-out rebuilding mode, the NL is reduced to just nine teams competing for five playoff spots next year—and that’s if you take the Marlins seriously. Think about that: Before a game has been played, the teams actually trying to win in the NL are more likely to make the postseason than not.
The NL Central could be decided by how much the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs dominate the Reds and Brewers. Last year, the NL East champion Mets were 15 games over .500 against the Phillies, Braves and Marlins and three games over against the rest of baseball.
3. The Brewers are getting younger—much younger
They traded first baseman Adam Lind for three teenagers—all righthanded pitchers who are 19 years old.
4. The analytical Astros learned an on-field lesson
Houston held a lead of two runs or more in every game of their five-game ALDS against Kansas City and still lost the series. “If we had a Kimbrel or someone like that, we go to the World Series,” said a team source. So after checking in on closers such as Mark Melancon and Andrew Miller, they paid a steep price in players to get Ken Giles, who nonetheless ranked 48th last season in WHIP for relief pitchers with at least 60 innings.
Here’s how much Houston has prioritized relief pitching: It gave up four players for Giles, and it has made three set-up relievers among the club's six highest paid players. Pat Neshek, Tony Sipp and Luke Gregerson are paid more than $6 million per year.
5. The Giants need a leftfielder who can cover ground
The Giants have seen Angel Pagan's defense in centerfield decline. They talked to Ben Zobrist, but Zobrist admitted he wasn’t comfortable there after a leftfield trial with Oakland and wanted to sign as a second baseman. They looked at Jason Heyward, but they didn’t like him enough for the high price tag. They like Alex Gordon, though he looks like he could be a Cardinal now that St. Louis has lost Heyward to Chicago.
6. The Yankees believe in quantity
Teams in full win-now mode just don’t trade a proven, winning piece like reliever Justin Wilson for two pitching prospects. But New York sent Wilson to Detroit for Chad Green, a 24-year-old pitcher who has yet to pitch in Triple A, and Luis Cessa, a 23-year-old pitcher who made seven starts in Triple A with a 6.97 ERA.
“You have to diversify,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “It’s about inventory. I’m never satisfied with enough. I’ve had teams in the World Series and I’d be sitting there thinking I wish I had done more.”
The Yankees in particular burn through hard-throwing relief pitchers. Last season, they used 23 relievers who did not start a game, more than any team in baseball except the Braves (27), a team in tear-down mode. New York won the World Series in 1998 with only nine such relief specialists and in 2009 with only 15.
7. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto is this year’s A.J. Preller
In his first 10 weeks on the job, Dipoto moved 41 players on or off his 40-man roster. He traded 18 players who were in Seattle's system when he replaced Jack Zduriencik. The net result from such frenzy: Seattle is only marginally better from its 76 wins of last season. The Mariners’ biggest upgrade has to come from two holdover starters, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, who have to be more productive than their combined 4.37 ERA over 236 2/3 innings.
8. The Rockies are a mystery
Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is available in a trade now—just in time for the glut of free-agent outfielders and long after they missed the window of a healthy Gonzalez tearing it up at the trading deadline last July.
Even more oddly, the Rockies DFA’d 27-year-old reliever Rex Brothers, who was gobbled up by the contending Cubs, and signed 33-year-old Jason Motte and 37-year-old Chad Qualls to join 31-year-old Boone Logan in their bullpen—none of whom threw 50 innings last year and all of whom will be pitching on multi-year deals, because apparently one-year deals no longer exist. Motte, for instance, pitched for $4.5 million last season and threw only 48 1/3 innings with a 3.91 ERA, including a 6.00 ERA in the second half. For that he earned $10 million over two years from the Rockies, because apparently they have not drafted and developed any arms that can do even that kind of modest work.
9. Either starting pitchers are underpaid or setup relievers are overpaid
I think it’s the latter. Consider this comparison based on 2015 workload and '16 average annual value, and you’ll see aging setup men are getting paid at the same rate as premium starting pitchers:
COST PER INNING
Boone, Motte, Qualls
Neshek, Gregerson, Sipp
10. This is Olmos hard to believe
The travels of Edgar Olmos, a 25-year-old lefthanded reliever, tell you all you need to know about the fungible nature of relief pitching in this age of specialists—an age when clubs used a record 735 pitchers last season, or 100 more than they needed as recently as five years ago.
Thirteen months ago, the Marlins waived Olmos and the Mariners picked him up. Three months after that, the Mariners waived him and the Rangers picked him up. But eight days later, the Rangers reversed the waiver claim and sent him back to the Mariners. Eight months after that, the Mariners, under Dipoto, waived him last week. Two days later, the Cubs claimed him. Six days later, the Cubs waived him. Then the Orioles claimed him.
To recap: In the past 13 months, Olmos has gone from the Marlins to the Mariners to the Rangers to the Mariners to the Cubs to the Orioles without getting traded. He was waived four times, not including the time he was “reverse waived.” Stay tuned.