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Throughout the long cold winter, we endured nearly daily discussion of how the slow free agent market would affect labor negotiations, a lot of discussion on the plight of the 30+ year old player, and detailed description of team’s competitive balance tax situation down to the decimal point. Basically, an offseason of this:
What received much less focus was the subtle shift in the balance of power that took place between the two leagues over the course of the off season action that actually did take place.
We’re almost conditioned by now to assume the monsters of the AL will step in and dominate the winter headlines — the Yankees will swoop in on the Giancarlo Stanton talks and steal him away; the Red Sox dip into their financial might to bring David Price to town or their prospect might to acquire Chris Sale; the Astros flex their organizational muscle and bring in Gerrit Cole using prospects they’d forgetten they ever had within minutes of making the deal. Last year even the Angels got in on the action, adding the sensational Shohei Ohtani to them one of the most compelling one-two punches in baseball.
But this winter, American League clubs mostly yawned and hit the snooze button. Wake me up on Opening Day. For years the Yankees had been assumed as an eventual landing spot for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but when the free agent market opened NY never answered the bell, satisfying themselves with a nip and tuck to their pitching staff. The “In their Championship window” Cleveland Indians shrugged off an OF depth chart not all that significantly superior to San Francisco’s and a bullpen situation that had imploded its way through 2018, clearly calculating that no team in the sorry AL Central could compete with them whether they improved or not. Half the league was in full-on tank, and the rest couldn’t much be bothered.
But over in the Senior League — a league that had clearly been inferior just last fall — an arms race rather shockingly took place. The Mets of all teams kicked things off, taking on the contract — and the production — of Robinson Cano, and they continued to add on throughout the winter, spurring a flurry of moves that has made the NL East (not you Miami) look like the most competitive and exciting division in baseball. Following closely behind came St. Louis’ power move, acquiring Arizona superstar Paul Goldschmidt and helping turn the NL Central into a close competitor of the East.
By the end of the winter, nearly every star acquisition of the offseason involved an NL club, and extension fever to stars like Nolan Arenado and Jacob DeGrom intensified the feeling that a shift in the long running balance of power was taking place.
So what happened? How did the winter of 2019 turn into an NL Ascension Party?
Phillies owner John Middleton opened the winter by declaring that the Phillies were willing to spend, and even be “a little stupid about it.”
For much of the winter this appeared like it might be an empty boast, but by Opening Day it was clear that National League had a greater willingness to spend this winter. The free agent class once thought to be the greatest ever saw just three nine figure signings, with Patrick Corbin adding to Washington’s strong rotation, Manny Machado tying his future to a resurgent Padres organization, and Bryce Harper exciting a Phillies fanbase that had already seen the acquisition of Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and one of the offseasons biggest trade targets, Catcher J.T. Realmuto.
In all, National League teams signed five of the six biggest deals with MLB free agents on the market, and by at least one observer, ended up with seven of the eight best players plucked from the market thus far (not counting the absent Dallas Keuchel). This doesn’t even count the Dodgers deal with Clayton Kershaw, forestalling his journey to the market. Even the Braves who mostly stayed away from the NL East arms race, were willing to extend themselves on a 1 year/$23 million deal with erstwhile AL star Josh Donaldson.
As noted above, other teams used financial might to acquire contracts like Cano’s or Goldschmidt’s, while Colorado (which has quietly home grown one of the finest rotations in baseball and quite possibly its best left-side infield) took a chunk out of next year’s market by locking up Arenado long term.
Defying Conventional Wisdom
Going against the tanking grain, most of the teams in the NL made strong efforts to put their best team on the field this year, even when the odds of their competing this season seemed long, to put it mildly.
Nowhere was this more evident than in San Diego and Cincinnati. For the second year in a row, the Padres handed out a nine figure salary, adding Manny Machado to last year’s Eric Hosmer contract despite conventional wisdom suggesting they were still a couple of years away from building a contending roster with their deep well of elite prospects. The Pads then doubled-down by foregoing the standard service time manipulation tricks and opening the year with Fernando Tatis, Jr. in their lineup and Chris Paddack in their rotation. Perhaps their braintrust was signalling that they don’t believe the current system will be in place six years from now so it doesn’t matter whether they steal a year of control from their young talent. But perhaps they thought telegraphing an intent to compete was the priority for a franchise with a long history of irrelevance.
Possibly even more shocking were the moves that Dick Williams and GM Nick Krall made to try and craft a winning roster for the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are, at this point, on the far side of a rebuild that seems to have gone awry. There are some interesting and exciting pieces in the Reds system for sure, particularly Nick Senzel and the MVP of last year’s Future’s Game, Taylor Trammell. But four or years into a rebuild that has veered into the Tanks Only lane at times, there’s no sense that a contending core of talent is forming in the Reds system, while the talent on display in Great American Ballpark has left both long-time Reds fans and owner Bob Castellini.
Still the Reds decision to go out and acquire three expiring contracts — Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Alex Wood — from the Dodgers for decent prospects was astonishing. They added to their one-year only mix by signing a one year deal with former Nats starter Tanner Roark, and avoiding arbitration, but not extending, Scooter Gennett. Finally, they dipped into their prospect inventory yet again to acquire Sonny Gray, fresh off his “avert your eyes” trip to New York.
Conventional wisdom says the Reds are behaving foolhardy, spending potential long-term assets on a quixotic attempt to insert themselves into the suddenly hotly competitive National League 2019 race. But like the Padres, Cincinnati is signalling that their days of tanking are over. There is a path to contention for Cincinnati, which legitimately boasts a potent offense. It may not be a well manicured path, but with a little imagination and some luck you can make it out. And that was enough to inspire bold action.
In all, 12 of the 15 National League teams can make a case that they are putting a competitive —- or at least exciting and improving in the Padres’ case — team out on to the field in 2019. Thanks to this both the East and the Central look to be punishing gauntlets for whoever takes their crown. While the less competitive West still has two strong clubs at the top. With literally half the American League not even feinting towards a competitive stance, you can make a case that the NL features 7 of the 10 best teams in baseball.
It’s not inconceivable to imagine that some team left out of the NL playoffs altogether might be a 95 win juggernaut if they had the good fortune to wake up tomorrow morning in the AL Central.
The two biggest FA deals in history, a full slate of competitive teams, and a bevy of exciting young stars — it wasn’t the story of the offseason, you may not even have noticed, but the moves made this winter sure guarantee that the baseball world is focused on the National League throughout the coming summer.