“It will be a cold winter,” an agent predicted in November when asked how he thought the free agent market would develop.
That was a widely held opinion. After a 60-game season that had many teams claiming huge revenue losses because of the pandemic, nearly 200 players entered the market.
In general, it was a chilly reception. Through Friday, only 10 players received deals worth $32 million or more, with five hitting $65 million or more.
Thirteen free agents landed deals worth at least $34 million last season, with 10 getting at least $65 million.
To be certain, some notable teams cut back on payroll. But it wasn’t a particularly strong free agent class, either, so comparisons to previous seasons aren’t necessarily valid. Teams also have learned over time that free agency is often not a cost-effective way to add talent.
Other clubs chose the trade market to make improvements.
Here’s a view on which teams were winter winners and losers.
▪ Padres: A.J. Preller had a career-making winter, swinging trades for starters Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and Blake Snell without cutting too deep into his prospect depth.
The Padres improved their offensive versatility by signing Korean star Ha-Seong Kim and signing Jurickson Profar. Preller then added Keone Kela and Mark Melancon to the bullpen just before spring training.
To top it off, San Diego signed star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year, $340 million deal. They entered spring training loaded with confidence.
“Certainly with ownership and the front office able to make the moves, we’ve got a lot of belief in the group that we have in that clubhouse,” manager Jayce Tingler said.
▪ Blue Jays: Signing George Springer gave Toronto an accomplished leader who can prod their impressive collection of young talent in the right direction.
Adding shortstop Marcus Semien to play second base should further improve their defense up the middle. Investing $5.5 million in Kirby Yates having a bounce-back season in the bullpen was a good risk.
You do wonder if the Jays will regret not improving the rotation.
▪ Mets: They didn’t get Trevor Bauer. But they did trade for shortstop Francisco Lindor and righthander Carlos Carrasco along with signing sturdy catcher James McCann, a potential No. 3 starter in Taijuan Walker, and a few relievers.
Don’t underestimate what Lindor will do. The Mets needed some personality and leadership and he’ll provide it.
▪ Phillies: For a team that didn’t plan to increase its payroll, the Phillies signed catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Didi Gregorius, utility man Brad Miller, and relievers Archie Bradley, Matt Moore, and Chase Anderson.
Philadelphia was undone by its bullpen last season. The Phillies are in better position to make a long-awaited return to the playoffs.
▪ Royals: Kansas City spent what for their franchise is big money by signing first baseman Carlos Santana (two years, $17.5 million) and lefthander Mike Minor (two years, $18 million), and filled in some gaps with reliever Greg Holland and outfielder Michael Taylor before trading for Andrew Benintendi.
Manager Mike Matheny said he feels a sense of momentum. It’s not a mirage.
▪ Cardinals: They stole Nolan Arenado from the Rockies and retained veteran pillars Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. While the rest of the National League Central largely snoozed, St. Louis acted.
▪ Braves: GM Alex Anthopoulos waited out Marcell Ozuna then signed him for $65 million over four years. Veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly should improve the rotation and if not, they were only signed for one year.
▪ Marlins: Miami overcame an outbreak of COVID-19 to finish 31-29 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2003. They followed that up by … doing almost nothing?
The Marlins spent only $10.8 million in free agency, most of it on outfielder Adam Duvall and reliever Anthony Bass.
Kim Ng waited a long time to become a GM and had to live with a low budget.
▪ Reds: Like the Marlins, the Reds made the playoffs last season and decided that was enough for now. They were never going to keep Trevor Bauer, but trading closer Raisel Iglesias and non-tendering Bradley didn’t seem necessary.
▪ Rockies: Red Sox fans may have hated trading Mookie Betts but at least they got Alex Verdugo and two prospects out of it and unloaded David Price. The Rockies traded Arenado, didn’t get much back, and paid $51 million for the privilege.
▪ Dodgers: A creative deal for Bauer was the talk of the industry and maybe he’ll make what was a powerful rotation unstoppable. Or maybe his me-first attitude will be a stink bomb in the clubhouse.
It made sense to bring back Justin Turner. But two years and $34 million for a 36-year-old could backfire.
Retaining Blake Treinen gives them closer insurance if Kenley Jansen falters.
▪ White Sox: Signing closer Liam Hendriks and trading for starter Lance Lynn improved the pitching staff and adding outfielder Adam Eaton balanced out the lineup.
Chicago is a team loaded with youth and talent and is ready to take the next step. But they took a risk naming Tony La Russa as manager. He last managed in 2011.
JAYS FLYING AROUND
Red Sox could skip Canada again
The Red Sox are scheduled to play the Blue Jays on the road May 18-20, July 19-21, and Aug. 6-8. Where those games will be is the question.
To limit its exposure to coronavirus, the Canadian government has not yet opened its border with the United States, so the Blue Jays will play home games at their spring training stadium in Dunedin, Fla., through May 2.
The NBA’s Toronto Raptors are playing in Tampa this season for the same reason.
If the border remains closed, Blue Jays games could be shifted to Sahlen Field in Buffalo in June.
It’s possible the Sox could play the Jays in Florida, New York, and Toronto this season.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Alex Cora should print out the list of the top 10 catchers as determined by MLB Network and place it in Christian Vázquez’s locker at JetBlue Park as motivation.
Vazquez has hit .278/.327/.472 over the last two seasons and has been a standout defensively, but wasn’t included.
Oakland’s Sean Murphy, who has played 63 games in the majors, was fifth. San Diego’s Austin Nola, who wasn’t a full-time catcher until last season, was sixth.
▪ The Bill James Handbook projects Franchy Cordero for a .760 OPS with 15 homers, 10 stolen bases, and 47 RBIs over 112 games. The prediction for Hunter Renfroe is a .743 OPS with 21 homers and 54 RBIs over 119 games.
The Handbook is high on Alex Verdugo (.829 OPS) and Rafael Devers (.822 OPS with 29 homers and 103 RBIs). It also has Bobby Dalbec hitting 37 homers and striking out 176 times. Wow.
J.D. Martinez is down for a .907 OPS and 35 homers.
As for the expected rotation mainstays, Eduardo Rodríguez (9-7, 3.95), Garrett Richards (9-8, 4.24), and Nate Eovaldi (8-7, 4.31) have good outlooks with Chris Sale at 7-3, 2.97 in 17 starts.
James isn’t seeing it for Martín Pérez (9-11, 5.01).
▪ The Fangraphs.com projections have the Sox at 82.2 wins with a 46.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. That seems about right.
The Orioles were listed as the only team in the majors without any chance of making the playoffs. They received a Bluto Blutarsky 0.0 percent.
Even the Rockies (0.2) and Pirates (0.3) were higher.
▪ It’s safe to say Andrew Benintendi was a popular player among the fans during his five seasons with the Red Sox. He also was a key member of arguably the best team in franchise history in 2018.
But since being traded to Kansas City on Feb. 10, Benintendi has yet to post any sort of message to Sox fans via Instagram or Twitter.
Benintendi isn’t much for using social media, but it does seem a little odd.
Big changes down on the farm
The minor league schedules are wild. To reduce travel, teams will play mostly six-game series this season.
Teams in the Northeast Division of Triple A East, which includes Worcester, are scheduled to play each other at least 24 times with some season series going 36 games.
This is expected to be a one-year accommodation because of the pandemic.
When compared with the International League format in 2019, teams will travel an average of 4,771 fewer miles this season.
The Southeast Division of Triple A East has Jacksonville and Charlotte scheduled to play 42 times. Jacksonville also is scheduled to face Norfolk 42 times.
All teams will have Monday off outside of Triple A West, which will have Wednesday off.
Organizations are presently capped at 190 domestic-based minor leaguers. The limit drops to 180 on minor league Opening Day.
Only Triple A is scheduled for an All-Star Game. It remains uncertain if there will be playoff games.
For now, Triple A is expected to open April 6, but that is likely to be pushed back. That decision will be made by March 15.
Salaries went up for players, as did roster limits. Triple A and Double A will be allowed 28 players, with 30 at Single A. Every level was 25 previously.
The minimum weekly salary at Triple A will be $700, a jump of $198. Double A players will make at least $600 and Single A players $500.
As part of its hostile takeover of the minor leagues, MLB also has given the new leagues it formed rather bland names as placeholders for now.
What used to be known as the Pacific Coast League is now Triple-A West. The old Eastern League is now Double-A Northeast and so on.
MLB plans to work with teams to decide on permanent league names. The league offices, which are essentially defunct, own the old league names but hopefully something can be worked out.
The PCL has been around since 1903. The league’s alumni include Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr. History like that shouldn’t be discarded.
Connelly and greatest hits will be missed at Fenway
Fenway Park music director TJ Connelly left the Red Sox on Wednesday to further pursue his digital radio venture, UncertainFM.
Here’s wishing him well. But he’ll be missed.
If music and baseball are among your passions, it was easy to appreciate Connelly’s timing for playing exactly the right song to enhance what had just happened on the field.
A few that stood out from the front row of the press box:
Oct. 23, 2013: The Sox turned a 1-2-3 double play in Game 1 of the World Series. Connelly had “ABC” by The Jackson 5 ready to go.
June 8, 2019: The Sox get the final out of the second inning against Tampa Bay when right fielder Mookie Betts threw to the plate too late to get a runner, but catcher Sandy León fired to Rafael Devers at third base to nab Tommy Pham trying to advance.
Score it 9-2-5 and Connelly was quick to play “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton.
Sept. 15, 2016: The garage door down the left field line somehow got stuck and a game against the Yankees was delayed for a few minutes until it was closed.
Connelly casually played, “Close The Door” by Teddy Pendergrass.
July 7, 2012: A sudden rainstorm that sent fans scrambling for cover was accompanied by “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.
April 5, 2014: As a game against Milwaukee went into extra innings and midnight approached, we heard “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
April 21, 2016: Prince died earlier in the day and Connelly played “Let’s Go Crazy” in the first inning. Organist Josh Kantor followed up with his rendition of “Little Red Corvette” a few innings later.
They split Prince tunes all night and the fans loved it.
2013 playoffs: Connelly’s best moments were perhaps the plate appearances Shane Victorino had during that postseason run. Victorino’s walk-up song was “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley and Connelly would let it play a little longer. By the World Series, the entire crowd was singing the lyrics.
“Those were special moments,” Victorino said at the time.
They were, and Connelly helped make it happen.
The regular season doesn’t open for another 39 days and you’d like to think MLB and the Players Association can come to agreement on the universal DH. Both sides want it and most everybody in the game feels it’s time. But it has become a bargaining chip for other issues. Beyond bringing more offense to the game, the value of starting pitchers is such that having them flail away at the plate or run the bases makes little sense. Consider the Red Sox, who have 10 interleague road games scheduled. Nate Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, Eduardo Rodríguez, and Chris Sale likely will be instructed to stand at the plate and take three strikes given their respective injury histories. What fun. Padres righthander Yu Darvish offered this joking suggestion: “I wish they had some kind of rule that said pitchers over 33 have the right to decide whether they want to hit or whether they want a DH. Bottom line is I’m not very fond of hitting.” Darvish, of course, is 34 … Betty, an alert reader, emailed to point out that the Mets will be finished paying off Bobby Bonilla’s contract deferrals in 2035, a year after Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year contract with the Padres will expire. Bonilla last played for the Mets in 1999 … Aaron Loup on the idea of being an opener for the Mets: “If they need me, I am more than willing. Who wouldn’t want to be the guy to start the game and then sit in the clubhouse and drink a few brews on the back end and watch the rest of it?”… Domingo Germán returned to the Yankees after serving an 81-game suspension for domestic violence, one of the longest handed down by MLB. “Sometimes you don’t get to control who your teammates are,” said Zack Britton, the team’s player rep. Just release him. The Yankees should be able to win without Germán and if they can’t, is that how they want to win? … Happy birthday to Jack Billingham, who is 78. Like Juan Marichal, David Cone, Jamie Moyer, and Tom Seaver, Billingham was a notable pitcher who spent a brief time with the Sox. He appeared in seven games in 1980, going 1-3 … It has been two years since Nick Cafardo died during spring training and he’s on my mind every time I file one of these columns. Nick will be posthumously honored with the BBWAA’s Career Excellence Award at the Hall of Fame in July.