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MLB free agency reset: Moves we liked, ones we didn’t, what’s next

We’re into 2024, and the new MLB season is just a few months away. In the first half of free agency, we had some splashy moves — you might have heard that Shohei Ohtani signed a $700 million deal? — and plenty of smaller pickups. But plenty of MLB stars are still on the market, and lots of teams still have holes to fill. Which moves did we like? Which left us with more questions than answers? We asked ESPN MLB insiders to weigh in — and make one prediction for the deals still to come.

What’s your favorite move so far?

Bradford Doolittle: I should be clear that I’m not thinking of this as the best or most-impactful move. It’s simply the one that I’ve liked the most. And, as someone with a long affinity for life in the middle of the continent, I don’t get really excited when the game’s top players cluster in New York and Los Angeles. So my favorite transaction of the winter was Friday’s trade between Boston and Atlanta, with pitcher Chris Sale headed to the Braves with a briefcase full of cash (that’s how they handle the cash part of trades, right?) for infielder Vaughn Grissom. Even though Grissom isn’t an established big leaguer yet, that’s a real trade between two teams trying to win next season and acquiring players to help them do just that. Yes, money was a big part of the formula for both sides, but there were so many angles through which we could have looked at this player-for-player swap that it was fascinating to mull over. I wish we had a trade like that every week.

Alden Gonzalez: While all the attention — rightly — has been directed at the Los Angeles Dodgers this offseason, I’m going to take this time to celebrate another team in the National League West: the Arizona Diamondbacks — you know, the team that swept the Dodgers out of last year’s NL Division Series? The D-backs are a small-market team that could have easily followed the path of others by using the uncertainty over their regional sports networks (RSN) situation as a reason to cut costs. Instead, they’re capitalizing on an unlikely World Series berth by doubling down on their young core. Eduardo Rodriguez (given $80 million over four years) is a great addition behind Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly in the rotation. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (brought back on a three-year, $42 million deal) and Eugenio Suarez (acquired from a Seattle Mariners team that isn’t acting nearly as aggressively as it should) provide two much-needed right-handed power bats to fortify the lineup. They might not be done, either.

Jesse Rogers: Ohtani joining the Dodgers is too easy of an answer. Instead, I’ll pick the Dodgers’ next move, which established them as the modern-day New York Yankees. Adding pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, along with Ohtani, was a boss move, just like the ones George Steinbrenner used to make in New York. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Yankees for adding Juan Soto. GM Brian Cashman has been on a multiyear mission to add a dangerous lefty and after cycling through names like Joey Gallo and Matt Carpenter, he finally landed one who could balance out his lineup. The Yankees enter 2024 with a fighting chance on offense — something they really didn’t possess the last couple of seasons despite having Aaron Judge and his greatness.

David Schoenfield: Yeah, let’s not overthink this: It’s Ohtani and especially the structure of the contract with all the deferred money that then allowed the Dodgers to go out and sign Yamamoto and trade for Tyler Glasnow (and sign him to a big extension). Yeah, I know, that’s one-point-something billion dollars and you can’t dismiss the risk, but it’s two potential aces added and that’s before Ohtani joins the rotation in 2025. On a smaller scale, I love the Boston Red Sox flipping an injury-prone Sale for six years of Grissom, who looks like a potential .300 hitter and leadoff hitter and should slide in nicely as the starting second baseman.

What move made you scratch your head?

Doolittle: The Chicago White Sox signing Erick Fedde. I’m not bagging on the ChiSox here, because they were far from the only team hot on Fedde. And the contract — two years, $15 million — is a bargain even if all he does is pitch just well enough to hold down a back-of-the-rotation slot and chew up some innings. But if Fedde pitches to his career MLB ERA (5.41) and WAR (almost precisely replacement level), then it’s a bad contract — you should be able to pluck any number of pitchers out of the minors and/or off the waiver wire to produce that. What befuddles me is how a guy with a fairly long track record of, well, not succeeding can remake himself in the marketplace because of one (albeit dominant) season in South Korea’s KBO league. I’m rooting for him because it’s a cool story, and what I’m really scratching my head over is my own confusion. If Fedde succeeds, it’ll be a lesson in … something.

Gonzalez: The reason came into clearer focus in the ensuing weeks, but I was legitimately shocked to learn — on the first night of the winter meetings — that the Mariners had traded away Jarred Kelenic to the Braves, using their once-prized outfield prospect mostly to shed the contracts of Evan White and Marco Gonzales. It was an early stunner that set the tone for their offseason (so far, at least). Seattle is an up-and-coming team that needs to fortify the top of its roster in hopes of competing in the AL West with the Texas Rangers, the reigning champions who could be even better this year, and a Houston Astros team that has been to seven consecutive American League Championship Series and returns almost the entirety of its 2023 roster. To do so, the Mariners desperately need impact hitters. So far, they’ve dealt Kelenic and Eugenio Suarez, opted against giving Teoscar Hernandez the qualifying offer and, as far as we know, haven’t really been in on Soto, Ohtani or Jung Hoo Lee. It appears, though president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto is certainly capable of surprises, that they’ll try to improve on the margins. Their payroll seemingly will stay right around where it finished this past season.

Rogers: My head-scratcher actually involves a team that hasn’t made a single major league move to their roster this offseason: the Chicago Cubs. Perhaps it’s just an issue of timing — there are plenty of players still available and more trades are bound to happen — but the calendar has turned and the Cubs haven’t signed or traded for a single player. Not one. After adding Craig Counsell as their manager, many assumed more action was to come. But the organization has stated that it’s a bit stuck in the middle; a decent prospect base is still a year or so away from producing in a big way. But an 83-win team — in a winnable division — needs corner infielders and a pitcher to just be competitive. The clock is ticking.

Schoenfield: It’s collectively what the Cincinnati Reds have done in signing Jeimer Candelario, Frankie Montas, Nick Martinez and Emilio Pagan for a combined $53 million in 2024 salary. Yes, we criticize small-market teams like the Reds for never spending and here they are, finally signing some free agents — and we’re saying we don’t like the moves. The truth is, I’m just not a big fan of this group. While the four players combined for 5.8 WAR in 2023 (with Montas injured for all but one relief appearance), they combined for just 2.4 WAR in 2022. Candelario is an odd fit for a team that already had infield depth and his batted-ball metrics in 2023 weren’t that good (expected batting average of .236); Pagan is a flyball reliever going to a home run park. If Montas is healthy and finds his 2021 form, maybe he turns into a steal, but I think the Reds are spending $53 million for about three wins in 2024. I hope I’m wrong, because I’d love to see the Reds compete for the NL Central title — but for $53 million you should be getting at least one star player.

What do you expect is the next domino to fall?

Doolittle: I’ve noticed the same thing as Jesse with the Cubs’ acquisition shutout, and I just can’t see it continuing much longer. So, the next domino is that the Cubs will make a move — any move. I thought hiring Counsell was a genius stroke (if more than a little cold-blooded), writing at the time that “On the first day of free agency, when available players can sign with new teams, the Cubs have already possibly made the highest-impact move of the winter.” There have been some awfully big moves this winter and I’m not sure the statement holds up, but I do know this: When I wrote it, I certainly didn’t expect it to be the Cubs’ only move of the offseason. As of now, the Cubs have neither signed an MLB free agent or traded for an MLB player. Every other team has done at least something. I’m sure president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and his staff have tried to position themselves for a splash and they have been rumored to be in on some of the biggest names in the market. But the end result is what is: In terms of players, the Cubs own a big, fat zero at the moment. I expect that to change, and soon.

Gonzalez: This is more of a hunch than anything else, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the free agencies of Blake Snell, Josh Hader and Cody Bellinger drag out a little longer. They’re all searching for big paydays, and I don’t know that that type of money is readily available for them at the moment. On that note, I’ll go with Yariel Rodriguez, the 26-year-old Cuban right-hander who has big stuff and could fit teams as either a starter or a reliever. Our own Enrique Rojas reported on Friday that the Toronto Blue Jays had emerged as favorites to land him. Baseball fans in the United States might not be all too familiar with Rodriguez, but he could end up as a nice value play for whoever lands him. So can another international pitcher — Japanese left-hander Shota Imanaga. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel had Rodriguez and Imanaga signing four-year contracts valued at $30 million and $68 million, respectively, at the start of the offseason.

Rogers: The easy answer is Imanaga, considering his negotiating window is closing soon. He has about a week to decide where he wants to pitch and when that happens, the pitching market should be on the move. It might take time for the biggest names to find new homes, but pitchers will start coming off the board. Imanaga’s signing should also activate the trade market, allowing teams to make their final pushes for hurlers like Dylan Cease and Shane Bieber.

Schoenfield: Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Bellinger are all represented by Scott Boras and he’s not afraid to ride negotiations out until the start of spring training. Still, it feels like the Giants are still desperate to spend some money beyond center fielder Jung Hoo Lee, so I think they’re going to open up the checkbook for Snell. It’s a gamble given Snell’s inconsistent results and durability in his career, but the Giants are in a position where they have to gamble on upside and, as a two-time Cy Young winner, Snell is that guy.


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