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Inside a Surprisingly Eventful Baseball Week

In today's Five-Tool Newsletter, we dig into the unexpected free-agent signings and the awards races from the past few days.

Quick programming note: We'll be taking next Friday off because of the holiday weekend, barring any major news. We'll be back in your inboxes in two weeks, with a lot to discuss following the CBA's expiration.

Before we get into today’s newsletter, I’d like to thank Emma Baccellieri for writing last week’s edition while I was on vacation. I returned to work Monday morning, and immediately, Eduardo Rodríguez signed with the Tigers. I take full credit for this. You’re welcome.

E-Rod’s signing kicked off a surprisingly eventful week of mid-November deals, one that was all the more unexpected because of the seemingly inevitable lockout coming when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in less than two weeks. On Tuesday, José Berríos agreed to a seven-year, $131-million extension with the Blue Jays. A little while later, Noah Syndergaard signed a one-year deal with the Angels for $21 million, despite having pitched just two innings over the past two seasons after having Tommy John surgery in March 2020. Justin Verlander, also coming back from Tommy John, did even better the next day, when he re-signed with the Astros for two years, $50 million, with an opt-out after the first season.

Justin Verlander throwing a pitch.

These deals were far from the only action taking place this week. It was signings by day, awards by night. Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, who made his MLB debut on Aug. 14, 2019, with the Cardinals, won the AL Rookie of the Year, and Reds second baseman Jonathan India, boyhood friend of my college roommate (shouts to Rubes, who is definitely not reading this newsletter!), earned the NL honors. Giants manager Gabe Kapler was named the NL Manager of the Year on Tuesday night after he led San Francisco to a franchise-record 107 wins, and Rays skipper Kevin Cash won his second straight AL Manager of the Year award.

The two closest races were revealed the next two nights: NL Cy Young on Wednesday and NL MVP on Thursday. (Robbie Ray received 29 of the 30 first-place votes to win the AL Cy Young, while Shohei Ohtani was a unanimous selection for MVP.) Bryce Harper beat out his former teammate, Juan Soto, to win his second MVP. This one was exciting, with five different players receiving first-place votes. That said, I’d like to focus on the NL Cy Young race because how it played out offered a compelling window into the state of starting pitching in today’s game.

Each of the top four Cy Young finishers—righthanders Corbin Burnes (Brewers), Zack Wheeler (Phillies), Max Scherzer (Nationals/Dodgers) and Walker Buehler (Dodgers)—had deserving seasons. Would the writers voting choose dominance with less volume or volume with less (but still a high level of) dominance? Burnes and Wheeler were the two extremes of this debate (unless you count Jacob deGrom, whose 15 starts and 92 innings weren’t enough for consideration even this year).

Screen Shot 2021-11-19 at 2.43.19 PM

The way the Cy Young voting works, per the BBWAA’s website, is this: “Ballots, submitted prior to postseason play, were cast by two writers representing each league city. They are tabulated on a system that awards seven points for first place, four points for second place, three points for third place, two votes for fourth place and one point for fifth place.”

Of course, the results didn’t offer any definitive answers. Burnes and Wheeler each received 12 first-place votes—naturally—but Burnes had five more second-place votes than Wheeler and finished with 10 more total points (151–141). I personally would have voted for Scherzer, who was nearly as dominant as Burnes but pitched 12 ⅓ more innings and made two more starts, but really, there wasn’t a wrong choice among the group.

Corbin Burnes

What is clear from the NL Cy Young race and the flurry of deals this week is that we’re relying on starting pitchers less often than ever before, so the few who can carry the workload (even if 150 innings is the new 200) and do so at an elite level are going to be coveted.

Have any questions for our team? Send a note to mlb@si.com.

1. THE OPENER

Justin Verlander’s signing is “a pointed reminder that Houston isn’t going anywhere in 2022, even with the somber, end-of-an-era vibe of its loss in the World Series.”

That’s from Emma in her column on the outlook for the Astros next season after bringing back Verlander. With the expected departure of Carlos Correa in free agency, it looked all but certain that this team would be in transition, even if it still would be competitive. Except, as Emma notes, the band isn’t really breaking up, even if Correa leaves.

(Side note: Yesterday, in a conversation with Emma, I compared the Astros to Fleetwood Mac and Correa to Lindsey Buckingham. The band is touring without him, and aren’t quite the same, but they still freakin’ rock!)

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Read Emma’s entire column here.

2. ICYMI

Didn’t get a chance to read the best SI MLB stories from this week? Let’s get you caught up:

Tigers State Their Intent With a Savvy Signing by Emma Baccellieri
It may not seem like it on the surface, but Eduardo Rodríguez turned in the best season of his career in 2021.

Philadelphia Failure to Giant Success: Inside Gabe Kapler’s Transformation by Stephanie Apstein
Once depicted as a muscle-bound hippie and out of place in baseball, the San Francisco skipper won 107 games and emerged as the presumptive NL Manager of the Year.

Syndergaard's Signing Signals an Active Market for Starters by Emma Baccellieri
The Angels topped the qualifying offer for a starter who's pitched just two innings over the last two seasons.

Thor Gets a Halo ... Now What? by Nick Selbe
Noah Syndergaard alone won't stop the Angels' pitching staff from sinking yet again.

Verlander's Singular Ceiling Keeps Houston Among Contenders by Will Laws
He’s the last of a dying breed of workhorses who gives the Astros exactly what they were missing in the World Series.

Miss out on our profiles from September on this year’s two MVPs? Here you go!

The Ohtani Rules by Tom Verducci
The most amazing thing about the greatest season baseball has ever seen? The Angels' two-way sensation doesn't act like being a pitcher and a hitter is anything special.

Bryce Harper Needs Your Doubt by Tom Verducci
Once castigated as overrated, the former prodigy has become one of the more underrated players in the game. That’s exactly how he likes it.

3. WORTH NOTING by Matt Martell

No team had more players receive MVP votes than the Blue Jays, a team that didn’t make the playoffs. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien finished second and third, respectively, while Bo Bichette, Robbie Ray and Teoscar Hernández also appeared on ballots. More interestingly, none of the six players who finished top three in their league were on postseason teams.

Oct 8, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (1) hits a double and drives in a run against the Chicago White Sox during the seventh inning in game two of the 2021 ALDS at Minute Maid Park.

4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR from Matt Martell

Will any of the top free-agent position players sign before the collective bargaining agreement expires and the all-but-guaranteed lockout begins? It’s hard to picture Freddie Freeman in another uniform, so of all the top players, he’s the one I’d feel most comfortable predicting his destination. However, considering the likelihood that he’ll return to the Braves, Freeman could decide to wait until the new CBA is ratified, just in case the financial structure of the sport changes.

Other players, then, could be more willing to sign before December, perhaps choosing security over the uncertainty of what’s to come. Could teams follow the route that the Angels took in signing Noah Syndergaard and address one particular roster hole that is so glaring? The Tigers seem like the perfect team for Carlos Correa because their window for contention is just beginning to open, they are managed by A.J. Hinch and have the flexibility to offer a long-term deal. We also know Correa isn’t going to accept a deal less than the 10-year, $341 million contract Francisco Lindor signed with the Mets. Imagine the chaos if Correa and the Tigers agreed to something like 10 years, $350 million before the CBA’s expiration. Detroit would lock up its franchise shortstop ahead of the expected shutdown, leaving the rest of the clubs scrambling for the other available All-Star shortstops amid the calamity of a weeks- or months-long labor dispute. I’m not saying this is going to happen (it almost certainly won’t!), but my goodness, I hope it does.

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

A tiny joy of awards season is the weird-but-well-utilized 10th-place vote. The final spot on the ballot doesn’t really matter—it couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be affecting the overall standings. There are 10 spots mostly because 10 is a nice, round number that nine is not, and the last one is not really set up to make a difference. So there’s something delightful about a 10th-place vote that goes to a player whose primary appeal lay in that his season was fun, or interesting, or otherwise memorable in a way beyond simply being good. This is different from a joke or troll vote: It can’t be a player who was bad. It has to be like the two that baseball saw Thursday: A 10th-place NL vote for “Late Night” LaMonte Wade, Jr., of after-dark, walk-off fame, and a 10th-place AL vote for Mike Zunino, the sorely underappreciated veteran catcher.

MVPs? Of course not. But MVP vote-getters? Now no one can take that away from them.

That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox in two weeks. As always, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions or comments, shoot us an email at mlb@si.com.