WHAT’S UP WITH WHAT WENT DOWN

Marcell Ozuna

The Winter Meetings have come and gone, the offseason is half over and we’re little more than a slim month and a half from the beginning of Spring Training (Pitchers and catchers begin reporting February 17).  Opening Day this year is Thursday, March 29.  We have so much to think about and so little time. So, let me begin my series of season preparation articles with an overview of what’s up and what went down in the months since we crowned the Houston Astros the Champions of the baseball world.

For me, two teams have positioned themselves as far and away the winners of the offseason buzz trophy.  Baseball teams do not live by buzz alone, but by good pitching, good hitting and good defense.  Each of these teams can proudly move from buzzing to bragging.  Each of these teams became legitimately more dangerous because of moves they made this winter.  And another team lurks in the background screaming “Me, too.”  “Don’t forget about us.”

THE NEW YORK YANKEES

Imagine being a pitcher and having to face a lineup that has Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge hitting in the three and four holes?

If the combined 13 plus feet of firepower these two giants represent isn’t enough, there are more lumberjacks in the daily lineup to navigate. Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Greg Bird and probably Gleyber Torres will be rattling the nerves of pitchers before they get back to their dugout to take a breather. It’ll be a daunting task game in and game out.  Judge was a handful without the presence of Stanton. With Stanton, we now have Mantle and Maris or maybe even Ruth and Gehrig.  These should be incredibly exciting times in The Bronx.

C.C. Sabathia

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

And that’s just on offense. The pitching has been stabilized with the return of C.C. Sabathia for at least one more year.  I’ve said before that C.C. was only so-so for a couple years until he reappeared as a dominant starter again last season. He was awesome in the postseason. He was virtually unhittable. And he’ll be pitching with Sonny Gray, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery in the rotation for the entire year.  And I can’t forget Masahiro Tanaka returns to take his place on the mound every fifth day.  By the time you read this, the Pirates Gerrit Cole may be wearing Yankee pinstripes as well.

Yes, I think the addition of Giancarlo Stanton was huge. Huge, huge, huge. If he stays healthy, Stanton can put the team on his broad and wide shoulders and carry them for weeks at a time. But he’ll have to get the team off the back of Judge, who may be leading the Yankees for weeks at a time himself. Stanton and Judge. Judge and Stanton. What a duo. And, like I said, the rest of the lineup certainly isn’t chopped liver.  They’re outstanding in their own right.

And the Yankees aren’t finished yet. Nope. They’ll likely have a new third baseman or second baseman or maybe another pitcher (Cole?) or two.

The Yankees are coming. The Yankees are coming. Not true. The Yankees are already there!

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

The Angels’ renaissance began when they acquired outfielder and slugger Justin Upton. Then they extended his contract by breaking their own bank.  Owner Arte Moreno seems to spend money in spurts. Years ago he went all in and spent a fortune on Albert Pujols and others. Then he went dormant for a few years and watched his team scuffle.  But he dusted the cobwebs off his checking account and has started spending again. Enter the most hyped prospect to come stateside from Japan in years-Shohei Ohtani.  Ohtani appears to be the real deal when it comes to being a power-armed, dominating starting pitcher with a fastball that can hit 100 miles per hour.  Tall and slender, Ohtani’s fastball grades out as an 80, the top of the scouting scale.  He also throws a slider, splitter, changeup and curveball.  Not only does Ohtani pitch like a future All-Star, but he can hit like one as well.  A left-handed hitter, it appears the Angels will allow Ohtani to hit on his non-pitching days. Chances are he’ll see time at designated hitter.

The whirlwind around Ohtani was tempered somewhat by the news that he has a slight tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament.  A barking elbow can derail the Ohtani train, but so far the Yankees Masahiro Tanaka has pitched with a similar condition, as have many others.  Will Ohtani hold back knowing one pitch could separate stardom from Tommy John surgery? Time will tell.

But Ohtani and Upton aren’t the only reasons for joy in Orange County.  The Angels now have Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler as two huge upgrades in their heretofore-dismal infield.  Those two parts of the equation can’t be underestimated. Both can hit. Both will add spark and sizzle to their lineup.  And with Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, the infield defense will be outstanding.

Even with Ohtani, the Angels need more pitching to compete with the Astros in the American League West.  They need starting depth and they need to shore up a shaky bullpen.  Jim Johnson is a new member of the pen, but they need more. And yes, they really really need Ohtani to match his advance billing.

But in my opinion, the Angels improved themselves the most so far as the offseason progresses.

There were other teams that helped themselves with an important move or two.  But there is much, much more on the way.  We haven’t even begun to see the logjam of free agent signings that I think will roll out soon. And there are more trades on the way as well.  But here are a couple other winter winners.

THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Marcell Ozuna

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

If I’ve learned anything in my years in baseball I have learned that the St. Louis Cardinals should never be written off as an “afterthought”.  No way.  This coming year they are a “before thought”.  And before the season begins it is crucial to recognize what a great player Marcell Ozuna has become. That one move, the move that brings Ozuna to the Cardinals puts their team directly in the center of the National League Championship universe.  This past season he hit .312 with 37 home runs and 124 RBIs in a difficult hitter’s park.  He isn’t going to a much friendlier place to hit, but he will be in an environment that celebrates winning. That was not the case in Miami.  Especially since new owners have taken over the club. The tradeoff in the Cardinals outfield was Stephen Piscotty for Ozuna. Piscotty was dealt to the Oakland Athletics for infield prospects Max Schrock and Yairo Munoz.  Piscotty had a bad season. He’s a much better hitter than .235/9/39.

CHICAGO CUBS

We don’t always get excited about relief pitching when we hear of offseason trades. But relief pitching is becoming a crucial component of winning baseball. The Cubs have spent their offseason shoring up their bullpen.

Brandon Morrow

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Steve Cishek has closed games in his past.  Brandon Morrow is capable of closing games and has pitched in almost every slot on a major-league roster. He is beyond capable. He’s really solid.  Tyler Chatwood can step into the rotation and be a quality starter to help fill the void left by Jake Arrieta if he signs elsewhere.  Drew Smyly was signed as a future asset. He’s an insurance policy, if you will.  Still rehabbing from injury, Smyly was given a two-year contract with the second year being the one targeted by the Cubs for the lefty to pay his real dividend.

The Cubs also signed Leonys Martin to a one-year contract. He has a chance to show that he belongs as part of their outfield.

I believe we’ll see even more action from the Cubs in the days ahead.

What the Cubs have done to address their pitching needs is admirable. I like a couple of the moves (especially Morrow) but I still think we’ll see a marquee name land with the south side club. Perhaps it’ll be Yu Darvish. Although I think Darvish signs with Texas.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Former first baseman Carlos Santana will leave the Cleveland Indians and join the Phillies as a free agent. That’s a major signing for a team in the midst of rebuilding.

Carlos Santana

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

The addition likely moves Rhys Hoskins, one of my favorite prospect players from first base to left field. Hoskins played an equal number of games in left, center and first base last year.

As of this early transition to the outfield, Hoskins has shown he is a “work in progress” as a left fielder. I saw footage of some brutal plays he made last season in the outfield, so he has work to do. Frankly, I don’t think it is fair at all to ask a good first baseman like Hoskins to change positions to accommodate Santana’s bat. However, Hoskins is a good athlete. In time he will improve. However, I sure would have liked to have seen Hoskins stick at first base and not have to carry defensive concerns to the plate with him.

The addition of Santana with his good work ethic and team-first approach will be important to the young Phillies.  Especially to Maikel Franco who can use a positive role model to help him realize his potential.  The bloom has fallen off the Franco rose, and I really believe Santana can help him get his swagger back. Santana gives 100% effort to his team.

The Phillies also signed pitchers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek to contracts.  Both are capable of helping their young but outstanding pitching staff reach their potential.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

The Giants front office should be arrested for robbery. In my estimation they literally stole Evan Longoria from the Tampa Bay Rays.  Longoria, the longest tenured player in Rays history and the “face” of their franchise was dealt to the Giants.  In return the Rays received prospect Christian Arroyo, outfielder Denard Span, and prospect pitchers Matt Krook and Stephen Woods.

Longoria, 32, was a very good third baseman for the Rays. He was never a superstar in my evaluation, but he is a good solid player. He will bring stability to a Giants team desperate for consistency at third base. He can hit the gaps and drive in runs, something the team needs.  However, he shouldn’t be considered a home run threat.  He’s a good solid player who comes to beat the opposition each and every game.

Christian Arroyo

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Arroyo is the centerpiece of the trade for the Rays. A shortstop, third baseman and second baseman, Arroyo’s best tool is his ability to hit for a good batting average.  He is a line drive hitter with marginal power, at best. An average infielder, he doesn’t have much speed. On some clubs he would be fighting for an everyday job. With the Rays, unless something goes astray, he will be their regular third baseman.  He is coming off left hand surgery and is expected to be ready by mid-season.

A former first-round draft pick, Arroyo, 22, has an uncomplicated swing and has the ability to use the entire field. He is a good enough athlete to play the outfield if needed.

Matt Krook is a 6-4, 225-pound, left-handed pitcher. He was the Giants 4th round pick in 2016. He had been selected in the 1st round by the Marlins in 2013 but went to the University of Oregon instead.  He throws a low to mid-90’s fastball, a slider and a curveball.  In 2017, Krook went 4-9 at Class-A Advanced San Jose in the California League.  He struck out 105 hitters in 91.1 innings pitched.  But he walked 66, and that’s the issue so far. He has command and control problems that seem to haunt left-handed pitchers a bit longer in their development than right-handers.  His lack of control led to a 1.55 WHIP to go along with a highly inflated 5.12 ERA.  The Rays staff is excellent working with pitchers. They will have a solid candidate to mold with Krook.

Right-hander Stephen Woods was an 8th round pick of the Giants in 2016 out of the University of Albany.  At 6-2, 200 pounds, Woods spent 2017 at Class-A Augusta in the South Atlantic League.  He started 23 games and threw 110 innings. Woods finished with a record of 6-7, an ERA of 2.95 and a WHIP of 1.42.  Like Krook, his walk rate was way too high as he allowed 64 walks while striking out 113.

Span, 33, hit .272/12/43 with 12 stolen bases for the Giants this past season. His stolen base numbers have been stuck at 11 and 12 the past three years.  At this point in his career, it becomes a question if Span can play every day for the Rays. He profiles more as a utility outfielder at this point.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

After losing Carlos Santana to the Phillies, the Cleveland Indians signed first baseman Yonder Alonso to take over the large part of the platoon at first base with Edwin Encarnacion.

Last season Alonso played for Oakland and Seattle and hit a combined .266. He transformed his swing as did many major-league hitters and saw immediate results. Going for greater loft using more uppercut, he hit 20 first-half home runs.  He tailed off markedly in the second half, dropping to eight for a season total of 28 home runs.  He drove in 67.  Much better against right-handed pitching, the left-handed hitting Alonso hit .282 with 23 homers against righties and only .181 with five home runs against left-handers.  It is likely the Indians will play Alonso, an average quality defensive first baseman, against right-handed pitching.

The Indians have lost relief ace Bryan Shaw to the Colorado Rockies and mid-inning reliever Joe Smith to the Houston Astros.

Outfielders Austin Jackson and Jay Bruce are also free agents and seem to be in demand. Losing Bruce as well as the already departed Santana could forge a huge hole in the Tribe’s lineup.

The bullpen losses of Shaw and Smith don’t help either.

Perhaps the greatest loss for the Indians in the offseason has been pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who is taking over as the manager of the New York Mets. Callaway did an outstanding job helping the Tribe’s pitchers reach their potential.

FLORIDA MARLINS

I include the Marlins in this piece today because I am totally disgusted and upset with the manner in which new ownership has begun to once again dismantle the team. Their offseason has been a dismal testament to what bad ownership looks like.

Giancarlo Stanton

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

The new ownership, including Yankees legend Derek Jeter certainly knew the contract status of Giancarlo Stanton and others the team has traded away (including Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon) before they bought the franchise.  The great people of Miami and the surrounding area deserve better. Much better than having their franchise taken apart piece by piece once again by ownership unwilling to pay for major-league talent.

This is at least the third Marlins fire sale I can remember.  By the way, it was the community citizens, the people of the county that built the beautiful new stadium. Taxpayers. Not the owners. The people.  Now, these same people who have helped the rich get richer are being robbed of good, and in some cases, great players.  It’s a shame.  And I blame Major League Baseball for poor vetting of the new ownership’s intentions prior to handing them the keys to the franchise.

In all the transactions the Marlins made, the best return they have received is second baseman Starlin Castro.  Castro is a solid player.  He can hit and play defense.  However, it would not surprise me if the Marlins flipped Castro in another cost-cutting move. I think pitcher Jorge Guzman, who also came from the Yankees, does have solid upside.

I realize many people reading this are great fans of Derek Jeter. I get that. I was a terrific fan of Jeter as a player and as a Yankees leader. But I am sickened at the approach he has taken as an owner of the Marlins. Before the deal was finalized, Jeter had staff inform baseball icons working in the Marlins organization that they would no longer have a role with the team.

Outgoing team president David Samson was asked by Jeter to show Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tony Perez the exit door.  Dawson and Perez, along with 2003 World Series Championship manager Jack McKeon and “Mr. Marlin” Jeff Conine were informed their contracts would not be renewed.

Apparently, after much negative publicity, the new owners ultimately relented and offered Dawson and Perez contracts. But according to Dawson and Perez they were to be at a 75% pay cut.  Dawson and Perez declined the offers. The entire situation left a horrible first impression of the new Marlins regime, including the role played by Mr. Jeter.

Jeter did not attend the Winter Meetings personally when the press wanted to question the Giancarlo Stanton trade.  Subsequently, the media has skewered Jeter and his business partner, owner Bruce Sherman for their handling of their new franchise.  Feeling intense heat from Marlins fans and the media himself, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has publicly defended the new owner’s actions.

It would not surprise to see additional Marlins players moved in an effort to trim the payroll even more. Ultimately, it is possible that the Major League Players Association will intervene on behalf of the players regarding the cost-cutting measures.  They have done so in the past.

What an embarrassment the Marlins ownership is to the good people of the Miami area and to the game of baseball. And Derek Jeter’s reputation has taken a huge hit.  Rightfully so.

I am very concerned that baseball is once again headed for a stark contrast between teams with high payrolls and greater resources than teams choosing to be more frugal. I do not feel sorry for any baseball team ownership. I believe they all have enough financial resources to compete. But we are once again heading to a time when parity is a wish and not a reality.  We are heading to a time when more than half of our baseball teams have zero chance of making the playoffs before the first pitch is even thrown.

There is so much money in baseball from so many different sources it is difficult to believe every team’s ownership can’t infuse sufficient resources into a winning product. That’s why I firmly believe there must be a baseball payroll “floor,” a dollar figure the team must spend annually on payroll.  But that’s a topic for another day

I want to take this opportunity to wish you and your loved ones all the best of health and great happiness in this joyous holiday season. I am grateful to you for reading my work. I am grateful to my outstanding Clubhouse Corner manager, leader, editor and friend Doug Hall.  It is a privilege for me to write and share my thoughts with wonderful readers like you on this tremendous site.

Happy Holidays everyone. And take care of each other!

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff