Signed 1B/OF-L Mitch Moreland to a one-year, $5.5 million contract. [12/6]
The effort the Red Sox put into replacing David Ortiz got overshadowed by their trades for Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg, but in a small way, Moreland’s signing complements the message sent by those deals: the Sox are emphasizing run prevention this winter.
All indications are that once Boston moved on from any consideration of Edwin Encarnacion and the other high-profile sluggers on the free agent market, their choice for a left-handed-hitting first baseman/designated hitter came down to Moreland or Pedro Alvarez. That’s a stark choice. In two of the last three seasons, Moreland has been a bad hitter. Not a bad hitter for a 1B/DH: a bad hitter. He’s made some progress against southpaws, but at age 31 he’s not likely to suddenly rediscover the form that made him an average-ish first baseman in his mid-20s.
Alvarez, on the other hand, has been a substantially above-average hitter for four of the last five seasons. He’s younger than Moreland, too. Alvarez, however, still has to be protected from most good left-handed pitching, and more importantly, the children who come to big-league games have to be protected from the specter of him in the field, even at first base. With Alvarez, the Red Sox would have had a solid claim to the title of the American League’s best offense, even without Ortiz. However, they would have had a glaring defensive hole at first base, especially since they jettisoned Travis Shaw in the Tyler Thornburg deal.
Moreland has worked hard to become more than a merely serviceable first baseman. He’s downright good over there. Little though the modern understanding of defense weights a first baseman’s fielding chops, a difference is a difference, and the difference between Moreland and any combination of Alvarez or Hanley Ramirez at first base is something like 15 runs. It might be more. Most of that edge over the hypothetical Alvarez acquisition, of course, will be eroded by Moreland’s weak stick for the position he now figures to play fairly often.
Given that, this signing amounts to a bet by Dave Dombrowski on the bats of Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi. Bradley and Bogaerts fell off alarmingly in the second half after superstar starts, and Benintendi is, in the final calculus, still an unproven rookie. As bets on volatile young hitters go, this feels like a safe one. It will only look bad if two or three of them struggle throughout 2017, leaving a hole somewhere in the heart of the Boston batting order. —Matthew Trueblood
Acquired RHP Chris Heston from San Francisco Giants in exchange for a player to be named later. [12/8]
Heston made just a few cursory, mostly rehabilitative appearances during the second half of 2016 after an oblique strain in June added injury to an insult of a season. After a solid rookie year in 2015, Heston fell apart. He was never a star. He’s a sinkerballer who sat at 90 miles per hour at the height of his powers, in the summer of 2015, before his velocity dropped during the final several weeks. He throws the three classic complementary pitches, but none of them distinguish themselves, and he doesn’t seem to have a particular game plan for making the most of them.
If he’s fully healthy, and especially if his velocity bounces back, he can be a solid back-end starter who kills worms and misses just enough bats. If he continues to battle injuries or flat stuff, well, the Mariners didn’t pay much for the right to find out whether it could work. Jerry Dipoto has taken a bit of flak for his offseason strategy thus far, but he deserves praise, instead. Seattle has a stable of stars on hand: Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Diaz, Felix Hernandez (yes, even after his catastrophic 2016, Hernandez goes on this list; for better or worse, the Mariners’ fate is tied to King Felix and his contract). Dipoto has added a player who at least nominally rounds out that core, in Jean Segura, but the bulk of his winter has been an impressive exercise in amassing depth on a relatively tight budget.
Dipoto spoke openly about the need to add right-handed offense, and he’s added Mitch Haniger, Taylor Motter, and Danny Valencia in trades. He spoke about needing relief depth, and has signed Marc Rzepczynski and Casey Fien on the cheap, plus added depth in the high minors with trades like the one that sent Alex Jackson to Atlanta and brought back two arms who could help next year. He’s been willing to trade far-off upside for proximate help, trying to get his team over the hump and back into the playoffs before the window closes. (That’s a relevant concern, given the ages of Cano and Cruz, and the career crisis Hernandez appears to be facing.)
Heston is another move in the same mold. He provides some safeguard against the rotation’s injury risk, a slightly above-replacement replacement who could help the team stay in just one extra game long enough for the bullpen and the offense to win it. The old Branch Rickey slogan—quality from quantity—is a lot harder to make work under MLB’s modern roster rules than it was in Rickey’s time. Dipoto’s thorough work over the last month, though, suggests that he has a real handle on how to do it. He’s acquiring depth with options remaining, some with no big-league experience at all, and will be in a position to fill holes as they open without leaking talent and ending up too thin at the end of the marathon. —Matthew Trueblood
Signed RHP Fernando Rodney to a one-year, $2.75 million contract. [12/9]
During the past five seasons, 45 pitchers have thrown at least 300 innings while working primarily as relievers. Rodney’s 3.26 FIP in that span ranks 14th, nestled between Pedro Strop and Tony Watson. Despite his inconsistent command, unfortunate knack for prolonged periods of struggle, and advancing age, Rodney remains one of the best right-handed relievers in baseball. He still throws 95 miles per hour and still has a devastating changeup.
Ever since joining the Rays in 2012, Rodney has used his sinker as a primary fastball. He junked his slider that first season in Tampa Bay. With this simpler approach, he misses bats more than ever, but also minimizes the formerly problematic walk rate. Rank those same 45 relievers by ERA during the last five years and Rodney is between Brad Brach and David Robertson. Line them up by strikeout rate, and he falls between Brach and Francisco Rodriguez.
He’s more likely to be an above-average reliever than a below-average one in 2017, and more likely to be a dominant one than to be a disaster, yet here he is, collecting less than $3 million for the fourth time in six years. Sure, he’ll be 40 before Opening Day, and teams hate volatility in the bullpen, but Rodney is the kind of bet more teams ought to be eager to make in their relief corps. The Diamondbacks, who seemingly haven’t done one thing wrong since they stopped doing absolutely everything wrong, got a great deal on The Silver Shooter. —Matthew Trueblood
Signed C-R A.J. Ellis to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. [12/7]
Signed LHP Jeff Locke to a one-year, $3.025 million contract. [12/7]
Ellis has survived for parts of nine years in the big leagues thanks to a .340 on-base percentage and a longtime personal catching assignment for Clayton Kershaw. For each of Ellis’ shortcomings—hitting for average, hitting for power, framing pitches—there’s seemingly a mark in his favor. The on-base skills make his offense playable, particularly in a backup role. Among the 53 catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2010, Ellis ranks 12th in OBP and fifth in walk rate. Defensively, while the framing numbers have ranged from ugly to so-so, Ellis has earned a reputation for calling a good game and working well with pitchers.
The biggest concern might be that the Dodgers decided to trade him last summer against the wishes of their ace and franchise cornerstone, all for the marginal upgrade of Carlos Ruiz. Ellis will be 36 in April, and while veteran presence generally ages wonderfully, sometimes the offensive skills of an old backstop crater in a hurry. Luckily for the Marlins, Ellis will be utilized in a backup role behind improving young catcher J.T. Realmuto, where they can hopefully mask the offensive decline while getting the most out of his secondary skills. —Dustin Palmateer
There’s a special place for pitchers who don’t succeed under the tutelage of Ray Searage in Pittsburgh. It’s called “Triple-A.” Locke’s best year as a Pirate was 2013, his first full season, when he posted a respectable 3.90 DRA in 166 innings. His DRA has gone up in every year since, spiking to 5.73 in 127 innings last year as he managed a career-worst 5.2 K/9. Locke’s fiddled with his pitch mix all the while, but the results have general been the same: He’s a back-end starter when things are clicking and something far worse when they aren’t.
The scary thing for Miami--which has assembled an interesting group of young position players and a workable bullpen--is that they appear poised to potentially rely on Locke as a regular starter. A lot can happen between now and spring training, but if Locke ends up in the Opening Day rotation next to names like Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler, and Wei-Yin Chen, things could go south quickly. In a vacuum, Locke might make sense as a depth piece given the modest price tag, but he’d better not be the last rotation arm the Marlins add if they’re serious about competing in the NL East. —Dustin Palmateer