Grading early returns on the MLB offseason's biggest moves

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Friday, May 4, 2018

Grading a hot stove transaction in early May is the baseball equivalent of judging Tiger Woods' round when he's standing on the fourth tee at Augusta National. In the face of such a limited sample size, the numbers are subject to constant re-evaluation.

No player illustrates the fickle nature of early-season snap judgments better than Los Angeles Angels pitcher-DH Shohei Ohtani. In the span of a few weeks, Ohtani went from perceived disaster to infallible world-beater. Now he's just your garden-variety international superstar gutting it out through minor injuries and trying to survive a 162-game season while doing something unprecedented.

How are Ohtani and baseball's other big offseason newsmakers faring so far? While April was setting records for strikeouts and rainouts, some marquee MLB names were making good and bad first impressions in their new environs. Here are some quickie grades for them, a month into the season:

Grading the nine-figure contracts

J.D. Martinez (five years, $110 million from the Red Sox)

The Red Sox waited until late February to lock up Martinez, and he has enhanced their lineup precisely the way they hoped he would. He's slugging .592 against fastballs and cutters and .575 against breaking balls, so he has shown he can do damage against any kind of offering if it's not properly placed. Martinez helped the Red Sox navigate the 15 games Xander Bogaerts missed because of an ankle injury, and he has given the team stability it lacked in the cleanup spot in 2017, when Hanley Ramirez, Mitch Moreland, Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi shuttled in and out of the No. 4 hole in a futile effort to replace David Ortiz.

The one ominous sign: Martinez's 15.0 percent swinging-strike ratio is the 14th highest in MLB. His .441 batting average on balls in play suggests some regression is in order and he's going to hit some stretches when it's not all cheers and love at Fenway Park.

Grade: B+

Eric Hosmer (eight years, $144 million from the Padres)

Hosmer was brought in to provide leadership for a young roster in San Diego. Or in the words of his agent, Scott Boras, shape the Padres' "volcano of hot talent lava" into major league rock. The results have been mixed. Hosmer has exercised patience at the plate and has a .402 on-base percentage, but glimpses of power were fleeting until he took Hunter Strickland deep to the opposite field to give the Padres a 3-2 win over the Giants on Tuesday in San Francisco.

Hosmer's meager total of eight RBIs in his first 109 at-bats is deceptive. The Padres have gotten negligible production from Manuel Margot, Jose Pirela and friends in the leadoff spot, and that has put a crimp in Hosmer's opportunities. He's hitting .313 in 16 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

The Padres rank second to the Brewers among National League teams in defensive runs saved, and shortstop Freddy Galvis and Hosmer have helped solidify the team's infield defense. Both players always have fared better in the estimation of scouts than they do with the advanced metrics.

Grade: B+

Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million from the Cubs)

Darvish swooped in and grabbed the biggest starting pitcher deal of the offseason while Jake Arrieta was still on the market. He has had two good starts and four bad ones while struggling to overcome the perception that he unravels at the slightest hint of adversity.

Darvish appeared to lose his focus after a balk in a start against Atlanta, and another outing against the Rockies went awry when he walked opposing starter Tyler Anderson. Manager Joe Maddon finally reached the point where he felt it necessary to publicly defend Darvish's honor as a competitor. Then Darvish took the mound at Wrigley Field on Thursday and got pummeled in an 11-2 loss to Colorado.

Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood have pitched well enough to keep a revamped bullpen featuring new closer Brandon Morrow from getting overworked, and that has given Darvish the luxury of some time to get on a roll. If the Cubs reach the postseason again, Darvish can go a long way toward changing the industry perception with a big performance in October.

Grade: D+

Grading the big trades

Astros acquire Gerrit Cole from the Pirates for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz and Jason Martin

Cole spent the first month of the season churning through opposing lineups and joined Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling as the fourth pitcher in MLB history to strike out 60 or more batters in April.

Cole has relied more on his slider and curve and less on his two-seamer and changeup, and he's blowing the ball past hitters at 96 mph up in the zone. He's averaging 13.18 strikeouts per nine innings, compared to 7.60 two years ago.

Justin Verlander, Cole and Charlie Morton all have pitched like Cy Young candidates in the first month. The Astros still need to figure out if they want to rely on Ken Giles as their closer in October. But they're going to be very dangerous again in October.

Grade: A

Mariners acquire Dee Gordon from Marlins for three minor leaguers

The Mariners got the jump on Derek Jeter's winter white-flag sale when they acquired Gordon from the Marlins in December. They're ecstatic with the early results. Gordon has brought an infectious energy to the Seattle clubhouse, and the combination of him in the top spot and Jean Segura in the No. 2 hole is a challenge for opponents to navigate. Gordon is hitting .342 with 12 steals in 14 attempts, and the Mariners go as he goes. They're 16-6 when he records at least one hit, and 1-6 when he goes hitless.

Gordon has minus-8 defensive runs saved, 35th among MLB center fielders, but several of his misplays came early and he has grown more comfortable with every game. The Mariners knew there would be bad jumps, misreads and communication breakdowns here and there while Gordon learned to play a new position at the highest level. He has shown the athleticism, desire and aptitude to overcome the mess-ups, and they'll be a lot easier to abide as long as he keeps hitting.

Grade: A-

Cardinals acquire Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins for four minor leaguers

The Cardinals reshaped their outfield over the winter, trading away Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk and bringing in Ozuna. They hoped Ozuna would be a run-producing force in the middle of the order, but he's chasing too many bad pitches and pulling off balls in the effort to yank everything. When opposing pitchers look at that 28-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, it's hard to rationalize giving him anything good to hit. Ozuna's .591 OPS ranks 157th out of 177 qualifying MLB hitters.

But Ozuna is a high-energy player and a good teammate, and he has displayed the occasional flair for the big moment. He contributed a ninth-inning double and scored the winning run in a 3-2 victory over the White Sox on Tuesday. Can a moment like that be a springboard for a big May? The Cardinals certainly hope so.

Grade: D+

Yankees acquire Giancarlo Stanton from Miami for Starlin Castro and two minor leaguers

The good news: Stanton got his Yankee Stadium initiation out of the way early with a pair of five-strikeout games on the team's first homestand. Stanton showed signs of breaking out with a 4-for-4 day against Minnesota last week, only to go 0-for-8 with six strikeouts on consecutive nights against Houston. Then Dallas Keuchel showed up Thursday night at Minute Maid Park, and Stanton clubbed a homer to right and another to left in his first two plate appearances before adding a double off reliever Hector Rondon in the eighth.

The Yankees are putting pressure on Boston because Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are all raking and the pitching staff ranks third in the American League in ERA. Stanton needs to do a better job of making contact if he's going to start making a more consistent contribution to the cause. He has struck out 47 times in his first 121 at-bats as a Yankee. But for all the struggles he has endured, his OPS is just a tick below .800.

"He found a really good place last year where he closed himself off and he had all the timing down to get hips open with his hands back and let it go,'' a scout said. "I've seen him in at least 40 at-bats this year and he hasn't found that but a dozen times. He's gonna have to figure it out, but he's too good an athlete not to figure it out.''

Grade: C-

Grading the team makeovers

Sandy Alderson's winter revamp of the Mets

The Mets spent $88.5 million to add free agents Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak, Jose Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez and Jason Vargas to the roster during the offseason. Frazier is off to the most impressive start of anyone in that group, with an .814 OPS and a 1.2 WAR. But the Mets rank in the middle of the pack in most team batting and pitching categories in the National League.

The Mets have leveled off after an 11-1 start, and too many days the narrative has been driven by Matt Harvey and his shenanigans. But new manager Mickey Callaway has established a more positive tone, and the Nationals' slow start has given the Mets, Braves and Phillies all reason to think the NL East race will be more interesting than anyone expected back in spring training.

Grade: B

Operation 'Get Mike Trout Help'

Angels general manager Billy Eppler won the offseason, in the estimation of many, with a passel of moves.

Eppler's biggest coup was outlasting a group of competitors to land Ohtani in December. It's hard to argue with the early results. Ohtani has a 1.13 WHIP, a 4.43 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 20 innings as a pitcher and a .961 OPS at the plate. Given the magnitude of his learning curve, he's doing fine.

The Angels negotiated an extension with Justin Upton, signed Zack Cozart in free agency and traded for Ian Kinsler over the winter, but the team's offense has surprisingly lagged. All three of those hitters are muddling along below .230 and Upton was 3-for-28 with runners in scoring position before delivering the winning single in a 3-2 victory over the Orioles on Tuesday.

Eppler's offseason activity binge failed to resolve one nettlesome question. Angels starters are averaging 4 innings per outing, and manager Mike Scioscia needs to get more length from them soon if he doesn't want to burn out his bullpen by June.

Grade: B

Milwaukee Brewers' outfield

The Brewers enjoyed one of the most productive days of the offseason when they signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract and acquired Christian Yelich from Miami for outfielder Lewis Brinson and three minor leaguers.

Manager Craig Counsell has plugged his new outfielders into the 1-2 spots in the batting order, and they've been solid. Cain leads the Brewers in hits, steals and on-base percentage, and Yelich got off to a strong start before missing 12 games with an oblique injury.

Surprisingly, the Brewers rank 12th in the National League in runs and they've had trouble scoringwhen they're not hitting homers. But the pitching staff ranks second in the league with a 3.19 ERA and has drastically exceeded expectations through April.

Grade: B

San Francisco Giants' lineup

The Giants -- clearly in "go for it'' mode -- acquired third baseman Evan Longoria from the Rays for outfielder Denard Span, infielder Christian Arroyo and two pitchers before adding Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates for pitcher Kyle Crick and outfielder Bryan Reynolds during an active offseason.

The early numbers are underwhelming. McCutchen has drawn his share of walks and he leads the Giants with 17 runs, but that .717 OPS could stand some improvement. His 51.3 hard-hit ball percentage -- fourth best in baseball -- is an encouraging sign. McCutchen willingly moved off center field upon arrival in San Francisco, and he has looked comfortable handling the big right field at AT&T Park.

After 10 seasons with Tampa Bay, Longoria has had to acclimate to switching leagues, changing coasts and adjusting to a new array of ballparks and opposing pitchers. He already has made six errors at third base, but he has picked up the pace offensively over the past two weeks and and ranks second to Brandon Belt on the team with 52 total bases.

Grade: C

Colorado Rockies' bullpen

The Rockies spent a record $106 million on relievers in conjunction with their winter bullpen revamp, and it has been a mixed bag. New closer Wade Davis has been solid, but Bryan Shaw has a 6.75 ERA in 17 appearances and Jake McGee has a 10.38 ERA in five games at Coors Field.

McGee could get away with throwing his fastball 90 percent of the time when he was rushing it up there at 96 mph, but he might have to tinker with his approach now that he's clocking in at 92.5 on the gun. Shaw, a workhorse in Cleveland, is still trying to get his mechanics in order.

"He's got a rubber arm and he loves to throw,'' a scout said of Shaw. "But that can be a high-maintenance delivery. When his front side opens up, his cutter can get flat.''

The Rockies are fortunate to be getting some terrific work from Adam Ottavino, who's pitching like an All-Star. But they need Shaw and Mike Dunn to straighten things out and McGee and Chris Rusin to contribute some effective high-leverage innings if they plan to ease the burden on Ottavino and Davis.

Grade: C-

Pitchers who are showing that spring training is overrated. Or maybe not.

Jake Arrieta, Phillies

Arrieta, who signed a $75 million deal March 11, has lived up to his mandate to set a positive example for the young starters in Philadelphia.

"Jake is one of the best leaders I've ever been around,'' manager Gabe Kapler said after Arrieta beat Zack Greinke and the Diamondbacks in a recent showdown of 2015 Cy Young competitors. Arrieta has been building up his innings and was looking progressively stronger until he took a step backward with a 3-inning, 79-pitch clunker this week in Miami.

Grade: B

Alex Cobb, Orioles

The Orioles signed Cobb to a four-year, $57 million deal March 22, rushed him into the rotation, and he responded with three straight stinkers out of the chute. After 11 innings, he had allowed a staggering 30 hits and sported a 13.11 ERA.

Cobb looked significantly better in a 3-2 loss to the Angels on Tuesday. But with the Orioles so buried in the standings that Manny Machado trade speculation is in full bloom -- and a rebuild on the horizon -- his $57 million contract doesn't look like such a great fit in Baltimore.

Grade: F

Lance Lynn, Twins

Lynn is throwing his fastball at 92 mph, and he touched 96 in his last outing, but his command has been horrific. He's tied withBryan MitchellandLucas Giolitofor the major league high with 23 walks, and he's lacking any kind of deception. Left-handed hitters have a 1.188 OPS against him in his first five starts. He's looking like a guy who simply needed more time after signing March 11.

Grade: F

It's early, but ...

Carlos Santana, Phillies

Santana has been drawing his share of walks, and his .173 BABIP suggests he has been hitting into some bad luck. But that .151/.295/.274 slash line reflects his inability to drive the ball with authority, and it was noteworthy when Kapler dropped him from second to fifth in the batting order this week.

Santana is a true professional who works hard and is a positive example for Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco, young teammates who've been criticized at times for their lack of focus. But his arrival prompted Rhys Hoskins to move to left field and created some additional challenges for Kapler to keep everybody on the Philadelphia roster happy and productive.

Grade: D-

Logan Morrison, Twins

The Twins thought they snagged a bargain when they signed Morrison, fresh off a 38-homer season, to a one-year, $6.5 million deal in February. Morrison suffered a glute injury in spring training, and Minnesota fans have seen too much of him jogging back to the dugout after hitting yet another rollover ground ball into the opposing team's shift.

Morrison's .157/.263/.253 slash line hasn't tempered his feistiness. Yankees fans didn't like it when he criticized MLB for picking Sanchez to participate in the Home Run Derby last summer, and they booed Morrison when the Twins visited the Bronx last week.

"They didn't like the Gary Sanchez thing with the Home Run Derby," Morrison told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "but you can't fix stupid, you know?''

Grade: F

Carlos Gomez, Rays

The Rays signed Gomez to a $4 million deal in spring training and plugged him into the No. 3 hole to start the season. Gomez had a chance to make an impact in a Tampa Bay lineup that was decimated by the departures of Longoria, Steven Souza, Morrison and Corey Dickerson. But his contact issues and feeble .578 OPS prompted manager Kevin Cash to drop him to seventh in the order Wednesday, and he'd better pick up the pace if he wants to continue to get regular at-bats.

Grade: F

Four low-cost signings that merit high grades

Bartolo Colon, Rangers

Tim Lincecum, another long-shot signing by Texas, is on the 60-day disabled list with blister issues, but Colon continues to craft heartwarming moments. He grabbed everyone's attention with a perfect-game bid against the Astros, and he has produced a 2.87 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in his first six appearances.

"There are pitchers who could learn a lot from watching him and Kyle Hendricks," a scout said. "They just get the ball, they attack hitters and they're not afraid.''

Ryan Flaherty, Braves

After Flaherty lost out to Pedro Florimon in the Phillies' utility-man competition, lots of people expected him to return to Baltimore -- where he was a popular teammate and a Buck Showalter favorite for six seasons. Instead, the Braves snagged Flaherty for $750,000, and he's hitting .310 in his first 26 games.

Flaherty eventually could lose some playing time at third base depending on how Jose Bautista progresses in his minor league stint. But his versatility and selflessness still make him a nice fit for an Atlanta team that has been making waves of late.

Jeremy Jeffress, Brewers

Something happens to Jeffress when he puts on a Brewers uniform. He saved 27 games as Milwaukee's closer in 2016, and he has resurrected himself this year with a 0.51 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP in 17 appearances for the Crew. Jeffress pitched 3 scoreless innings to record saves against the Reds on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tyler Clippard, Blue Jays

Clippard is 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 15 innings for Toronto. Not bad for a guy who was hanging out with Luke Scott, Steve Clevenger & Co. at the MLB Players Association's camp for free-agent orphans in Sarasota, Florida, in early March.