You can look ahead and see the start of spring training approaching. Or you can look behind and see the enormous cloud of dust kicked up by the first three months of the Major League Baseball offseason.

It’s been a busy one, alright. Probably a lot busier than any of us figured it would be, which makes putting it all in proper perspective that much harder.

But darn it, we’re going to give it a shot anyway. 

Though the offseason isn’t finished just yet—the unofficial end will come whenever James Shields finally signs—the key takeaways of it all are pretty much set in stone at this point.

Of those, there are plenty worth discussing. There’s how Scott Boras is still very much “Mr. January,” the ongoing trend of first-time managers, Joel Sherman of the New York Post‘s point about the Kansas City Royals inspiring big spending on the relief pitching market and Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated‘s take on the widespread move toward roster flexibility.

The four big ones in my eyes, however, begin with…


Hey Look, No Qualifying Offer Drama!

If the term “qualifying offer” is alien to you, dear baseball fan, you need to catch up. I recommend a rundown at MLB Trade Rumors and columns by Sherman and C.J. Nitkowski of Fox Sports.

The Cliffs Notes version, however, is this: Free agents who reject qualifying offers become attached to draft-pick compensation, and that led to problems in the first two winters of the program.

Among those who had issues shopping their services were Michael Bourn, Adam LaRoche, Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano, Nelson Cruz and Ervin Santana, all of whom lingered on the market and ultimately signed disappointing contracts. Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew had it worst of all, as their ties to draft-pick compensation had a hand in them remaining unsigned into the 2014 season.

So yeah, the first two years of the qualifying offer system were a mess. A big enough mess, even, to suggest that the system needed either major tweaking or a full-on demolition.

But this winter? In a pleasant surprise, things have taken a turn for the better.

Of the 12 players who received qualifying offers, only Shields remains unsigned. The others all signed multiyear deals ranging from $21 million to $210 million. And with Shields rumored for a nine-figure deal, it looks like this year’s qualifying offer experience will be decidedly pain-free for a change.

Granted, this has a lot to do with how there’s a lot of money in the game now and how more teams have been willing to spend it—we’ll have more on that later. But it also seems that players have figured out the key to avoid being hurt by draft-pick compensation:

Just go ahead and sign early.

Michael Cuddyer got the ball rolling, signing for two years and $21 million with the New York Mets before the deadline for qualifying offer decisions even arrived. After that, everyone but Scherzer and Shields signed in November and December.

It’s not hard to imagine future qualifying offer players following suit. For though the risk of signing early is losing out on a few million bucks, that’s better than possibly losing tens of millions of bucks by trying to play the waiting game with the weight of draft-pick compensation.

We’ll see what happens next winter. But for now, it seems that the solution for the qualifying offer problem has been found.


Spending on Cuban Talent Is Still Bonkers…But for How Much Longer?

You might have noticed that MLB teams have gone a little nutty over talent from Cuba in recent years. First, it was Aroldis Chapman for $30.25 million in 2010 and then Yoenis Cespedes for $36 million, Yasiel Puig for $42 million, Jose Abreu for $68 million and Rusney Castillo for $72 million.

And on it goes this winter.

Though he didn’t quite get the $100 million contract he was rumored for, Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas still squeezed $68.5 million out of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s basically the going rate for a talented Cuban defector on the free-agent market, but there’s also been some noise on the amateur market.

The Los Angeles Angels set a record when they inked Cuban shortstop Roberto Baldoquin with an $8 million bonus, only to see it broken when the Diamondbacks gave right-hander Yoan Lopez an $8.27 million bonus.

Before the offseason is finished, there could be a bonus for a Cuban amateur that utterly demolishes those two figures. There’s a 19-year-old phenom named Yoan Moncada who should soon be available, and Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports expects his bonus to be in the range of $30-40 million.

These are signs of the times figuratively just as well as literally. Escaping Cuba to chase a major league dream became a lot more appealing for Cuban players when Chapman signed five years ago, and the success of him and others has changed the perception of Cuban talent in MLB front offices.

“It’s been a revelation that these guys are pretty much major league-ready. That may not have been [the thinking] when Cuban players started signing,” said San Francisco Giants President and CEO Larry Baer to Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today.

At the rate things are going, you wonder when the bubble is going to burst. 

Well, maybe soon, actually.

As soon as it was announced in December that the United States and Cuba would be restoring full diplomatic relations, what it meant for the flow of talent from Cuba to MLB became an immediate question mark. And though it will likely be a while before anything is set in stone, you can take it from Ben Badler of Baseball America that there will be changes.

Though the need for Cuban players to defect in order to chase a job in MLB should thankfully be a thing of the past in the near future, Badler writes:

It’s highly unlikely, however, that there would be a sudden free-for-all on Cuban talent. MLB doesn’t want that. Neither does the Cuban government. Both sides would want to establish some order to what would be an extremely complicated process for all sides to navigate…

In other words, the flow of talent from Cuba to MLB will likely be heavily regulated. Presumably, that will go for both experienced veterans like Chapman, Cespedes and Abreu and for amateurs like Baldoquin, Lopez and Moncada.

So if you’re just getting used to the wild spending on Cuban players, don’t dwell on it. It’s been fun, but the times will likely be a-changin’ soon.


The AL’s Unfair Advantage on the Hitting Market

Pitching is king in today’s MLB. And when pitching is king, everyone needs hitting.

Trouble is, one league can’t acquire free-agent hitters quite as easily as the other.

Though it’s noteworthy that teams haven’t gone too crazy spending on hitters this winter, nine hitters have signed for at least $40 million, and 16 have signed for at least $10 million. In all, those 16 hitters’ new deals combine for $734 million. 

And of those 16, 13 are now on American League clubs.

Maybe you’d think that’s owed to AL clubs having more money to spend than National League clubs. But as I highlighted in December, that’s not the case. The real culprit is something else:

The designated hitter.

Because the National League doesn‘t have the DH, it never had a shot at landing Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez, Billy Butler or Kendrys Morales. There’s also been buzz that the DH was a factor in Pablo Sandoval jumping ship from the NL to the AL, and it seems to have played a similar role with Hanley Ramirez, Adam LaRoche and Russell Martin.

One National League general manager has already gone on record—Doug Melvin of the Milwaukee Brewers to’s Jayson Stark in 2013—with laments about how the lack of the DH makes it hard for NL teams to attract free-agent hitters, and here’s guessing he’s not alone. When you need hitting and you’re at a disadvantage in acquiring hitting, well, that sucks.

For now, new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred doesn‘t sound too concerned about this particular issue. But this offseason has made it clear that it is indeed an issue. And at some point, it will have to be addressed.

On the bright side…


The Golden Age of Parity

It’s no big revelation to say there’s a lot of parity in Major League Baseball these days.

Heck, we just saw two sub-90-win teams play each other in the World Series. And if you’re thinking MLB’s parity can’t match, say, the NFL’s, Stark has all sorts of goodies for you. Further, Jon Morosi of Fox Sports made a case for MLB as the standard-bearer for parity among all four of North America’s major professional sports leagues.

Nonetheless, it has to be said: This offseason really, really, really drove the point home. Like, really.

To be sure, usual suspects like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals have generated a lot of headlines this winter. But generating just as many, if not more, headlines have been unusual suspects.

Think of the Miami Marlins inking Giancarlo Stanton to a $325 million extension and then making a series of signings and trades designed to get them to October in 2015. Think of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs acting like the big-market teams they are for the first time in years. Think of the San Diego Padres going all out to acquire Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, among others.

Don’t overlook what’s happened elsewhere, either.

The Seattle Mariners made a big-ticket signing for the second year in a row with Nelson Cruz. So did the Minnesota Twins with Ervin Santana. The Oakland A’s dropped $30 million on Billy Butler. The Pittsburgh Pirates spent close to $50 million on Francisco Liriano and Jung-ho Kang. The Houston Astros sacrificed $60 million on four free agents and also traded for Evan Gattis and Luis Valbuena.

You could go on and on. Really, the only way you can’t go on and on is by shifting gears and trying to pinpoint teams that weren’t aggressive making improvements. There are the Philadelphia Phillies, the Atlanta Braves, the Colorado Rockies and…well, that might be it.

There are reasons for this, of course.

Thanks to the incredible amount of money in the game today, there really aren’t any poor teams anymore. And with the second wild card granting returns to the postseason for the Orioles, Pirates and Royals in the three years of its existence, teams have gotten the message that contention is more within reach than it’s ever been. This offseason was thus a collision between increased resources and enhanced motivation to use them. 

It wasn’t all that long ago that the baseball landscape was dominated by a handful of teams that had all the money and used it to win all the games. Baseball has come quite a long way since then.

And that’s pretty cool.


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