The Dodgers finished the season as the majors’ best team. Nothing has changed that this offseason.
Is it possible the Padres have traded their way to the second best? Are the Braves third?
Because, if so, the majors’ three top clubs currently reside in the NL. When was the last time that was even a consideration?
The Rays lost the World Series to the Dodgers, getting there behind a rotation Big Three. They traded one of those starters, Blake Snell, to the Padres, who lost in the Division Series to the Dodgers. Another of those starters, Charlie Morton, left in free agency for the Braves, who lost in seven games to the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Tampa Bay annually does more with less, but are worse today without Snell and Morton. The Yankees are still trying to keep DJ LeMahieu and then — and only then apparently — will they address a rotation desperately in need of surer innings behind Gerrit Cole. The Astros — already down two grades last year after losing Cole and their reputation via the sign stealing scandal — will not have Justin Verlander in 2021 and likely not George Springer or Michael Brantley either.
The Blue Jays are trying to improve, but thus far have been unable to give away their money. The White Sox are the lone 2020 AL playoff team to act much (Lance Lynn and Adam Eaton).
There is a long way until the 2021 season begins. A couple of hundred free agents are still unsigned. Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant are available in trades. So a bunch of teams can improve.
But here is a question: If the Mets were to, say, sign Springer, Tomoyuki Sugano, Jake Odorizzi and Liam Hendriks on top of Trevor May and James McCann, would they potentially move up to fourth best in the majors?
Sad NL Central
Jonathan Holder was perhaps the Yankees’ sixth best reliever last year. Maybe seventh or eighth. He was non-tendered and signed for one year at $750,000 by the Cubs. At the moment, he represents the largest signing by an NL Central team.
This is setting up as the NFC East of MLB divisions. It is not just that the teams are not adding. The Cubs traded NL Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish to the Padres in a spruced-up salary dump. The Reds will not be bringing back Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, didn’t tender Archie Bradley, traded Raisel Iglesias and have Sonny Gray on the market. The Pirates dealt Josh Bell. The Brewers traded Corey Knebel. The Cardinals non-tendered Kolten Wong and are playing financial hardball with organizational icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
It appears all five teams are cutting payroll, perhaps rather significantly, for next year after four made the expanded 2020 playoffs. None feels compelled to break from the pack since the division might be winnable at 85 games. All seem to be hoping there are desperate players and team-friendly deals in, what, February?
This is not a good look for the majors — having an entire division act indifferent to improvement.
Tricky trade market
The Darvish trade also potentially had overtones to markets for Arenado, Lindor and maybe Bauer.
Even before the pandemic, teams were hesitant to increase payroll or trade prospects. The ramifications of COVID-19 only exacerbated both ends of that. Most clubs are slicing payroll and the best way to do that is to clutch to young, low-cost pieces.
Since Darvish had three years at $59 million remaining and the Cubs wanted out of it badly, they took a return that lacked a prospect from among the Padres’ best. Instead, they received Zack Davies in his walk year to help offset some lost rotation innings and four mainly far-from-the-majors lottery tickets.
Thus, what can the Indians expect for Lindor with just one year left until free agency at a 2021 cost of about $20 million? Can the Rockies find anyone willing to take even most of the seven years at $199 million due Arenado off of his worst season, much less give them back even a decent lottery ticket or two? Play this game — if Arenado were a free agent in this market, how much would he get? Likely not close to six years at $199 million. So why would any team pay that AND give the Rockies prospects?
Bauer is a free agent. He is the best starter available. Word is he wants if not record money (Cole’s $36 million average is tops), then close to it. Let’s say five years at $150 million, though I would think the request is higher. But if the Cubs couldn’t do better than a C-minus return for Darvish on a reasonable contract ($20 million-ish a year for the next three seasons), how many clubs are going to the top of the financial market for Bauer?
A deserving ‘rock star’
Padres GM A.J. Preller is being hailed as a magician for trading for Snell and Darvish and retaining most of the best of his prospect base. The last time he was positively called something was when Matt Kemp dubbed Preller a “rock star GM.” That came during Preller’s first winter on the job, the 2014-15 offseason, when he went on a spree that netted Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, Will Middlebrooks, Wil Myers, James Shields, Justin Upton and Melvin Upton Jr.
But the 2015 Padres actually lost more games (88) than the 2014 version (85). And history will show that in the spree, Preller traded Max Fried, Yasmani Grandal and Trea Turner.
Preller pivoted to build one of the best farm systems in the majors, and this spree is being built on a much more solid foundation — a playoff team that, among others, featured Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.
His pitching acquisitions — Snell and Darvish — each have three years left on their contracts. The Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim is getting at least four years to play second. Every significant Padre is under control through at least 2022, most for longer than that. This is not a team looking to take just one shot at the Dodgers.
In Snell, Darvish and Dinelson Lamet, the Padres currently are the only team with three starters who averaged at least 11 strikeouts per nine innings last season (minimum 50 innings). Plus, they have Chris Paddack, a host of other talented prospect arms near ready and Mike Clevinger due back from Tommy John surgery in 2022.
Darvish was the big in-season acquisition who could not help the Dodgers win the 2017 World Series, Machado the big in-season acquisition who could not help the Dodgers win the 2018 World Series and Snell dominated the Dodgers — including in the fateful 2020 Game 6 — who nevertheless could not stop the Dodgers from winning their first World Series since 1988. All three now call San Diego their baseball home, and Preller does not appear done at a time when he probably is more deserving of rock star accolades.
Padres-Dodgers is about to become the best rivalry in the game.
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