MLB Opening Day 2024: A guide to the offseason chaos

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

The start of the 2024 MLB regular season is just days away following an offseason that was so chaotic that ... well, it hasn't quite ended yet.

Before the shock factor of a World Series featuring a pair of wild-card teams in the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks had completely worn off, the hot stove heated up and provided everything -- from a manager changing sides in one of MLB's best rivalries to a $1.2 billion free agency spending spree by one team. And, of course, the prolonged drama surrounding the free agents who didn't sign until well into spring training -- or, in some cases, remain unsigned heading into Opening Day.

No matter how you spent the winter, you probably know that Shohei Ohtani joined the Los Angeles Dodgers -- and is $700 million richer than when we saw him last fall. But whether you are just realizing that Juan Soto is now wearing pinstripes and that several aces are in new uniforms or you know all the moves butstill aren't sure what to make of them, we've got you covered for when all 30 teams take the field for Opening Day on March 30 (after the Dodgers and Padres get the season started March 20-21 in Seoul, Korea).

ESPN baseball experts Jorge Castillo, Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez and David Schoenfield break down the moves that rocked the offseason. What did they mean for the teams that made them -- and the rest of MLB?

Baseball's most coveted manager switches sides of a rivalry

Date of the deal: Nov. 6 -- Cubs fire Ross, hire Brewers' Counsell as manager

What it means for the Cubs: Beginning with the Leo Durocher tenure in the late 1960s and early '70s, the Cubs have careened between star managers and unproven managers, going back and forth in an ongoing game of skipper pingpong. They've never gone all-in like this: Counsell's five-year, $40 million contract makes him the highest-paid manager in baseball history. That's what being on the short list of the game's top managers gets you these days. Now Counsell just has to prove he's worth it. How? By doing what he did in Milwaukee, where his clubs annually outperformed expectations, showed an uncanny ability to win close games, fielded stout bullpens and generally enjoyed an atmosphere of self-improvement. If that happens and Counsell remains entrenched at Wrigley beyond his historic pact, he'd be the first Cubs skipper to last more than five years at a stretch since Durocher.

How it will shape the 2024 season: If Counsell succeeds, the Cubs will have taken one of the best parts of one of their chief competitors and turned it into their own advantage. The Cubs finished nine games behind the Brewers a season ago. The rosters throughout the NL Central have evolved, but if the Cubs win the division and outperform the Brewers in measures like record in one- and two-run games, execs around the game might reconsider how much value an elite manager adds.

Dominoes: Counsell's stunning decision to move 90 miles to the south not only rewrote the outlooks of the NL Central's top two teams, but it kept him away from other powers looking for a next-level skipper, like the Mets, Giants, Astros and Padres. Whether Counsell would have gone to any of those teams is an open question but, then again, pretty much no one thought he'd end up with the Cubs. The landscape of managers in baseball was rearranged by his decision. -- Doolittle

The Phillies spend big to keep an ace

Date of the deal: Nov. 19 -- Phillies, Nola agree to $172 million contract

What it means for the Phillies: This offseason further proved two things about the Phillies: They value top-tier starting pitching and they're not afraid to spend lavishly. The Phillies advanced deep into October each of the past two seasons thanks in part to having Nola and Zack Wheeler atop their rotation. Keeping the co-aces around for the long haul was their top offseason priority. They quickly locked up Nola, their longtime rotation stalwart, signing him to a seven-year, $172 million contract on Nov. 19. Then in March, they gave Wheeler a three-year contract extension worth a whopping $126 million. The $42 million in annual average value is the richest for an extension in MLB history. That's a $298 million investment in two pitchers in their 30s. The Phillies know championship windows don't last forever -- and they're going for it.

How it will shape the 2024 season: The Phillies are playing for a wild-card spot. That's life in the NL East with the loaded Braves around. And that's fine with them. They reached the World Series in 2022 and Game 7 of the NLCS last year as a wild-card entrant. With Bryce Harperheadlining a veteran lineup plus the strong rotation, the Phillies are back in contention.

Dominoes: Nola flirted with joining the Braves, but the Phillies were always the favorites. The Braves, as a result, would later pivot in a surprising direction. Wheeler's decision will have more of an impact next winter, which was when he was scheduled to hit free agency. The free-agent class is still slated to be strong for starting pitching with Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, and Max Scherzer among the options. -- Castillo

The Cardinals act quick to fill out their rotation

Date of the deal: Nov. 27 -- Cardinals add Gray on three-year contract

What it means for the Cardinals: The Cardinals had the second-worst rotation ERA in franchise history at 5.04, leading to their first losing season since 2007 and worst win-loss percentage since 1995. They were desperate for arms and in less than a week's span in late November signed Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Sonny Gray -- three veterans who each ranked in the top 25 in the majors in innings pitched last season. The Cardinals are historically conservative in free agency, and they remained disciplined here as Lynn and Gibson signed one-year deals with club options while Gray, coming off a second-place finish in the AL Cy Young race, signed for three years and $75 million (with a club option), although his salary will increase from $10 million in 2024 to $35 million in 2026.

How it will shape the 2024 season: While there is some age-related risk here as Gray is the youngest of the trio at 34, the signings should help stabilize the rotation and push the Cardinals back into contention in the NL Central. Let's put it this way: If Gray can reproduce his 2023 numbers -- which is unlikely, but go with us here -- that's a seven-win improvement over what Adam Wainwright provided. That alone won't be enough, however: The Cardinals will still need better offense and better defense.

Dominoes: Nola and Gray had both been linked to the Braves, who were looking to add more starting pitching depth after entering the postseason with an injury-riddled rotation. With those two off the board, the Braves would eventually turn in a more creative direction for rotation help. -- Schoenfield

Fresh off deep October run, the D-backs start winter spree

Date of the deal: Dec. 6 -- D-backs, Rodriguez reach four-year deal

What it means for the D-backs: When the Diamondbacks' magical run to the World Series finally ended, general manager Mike Hazen lamented not adding another starting pitcher before the trade deadline. It wasn't much of a surprise that he ultimately got one this offseason. But signing Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year, $80 million deal offered a deliberate statement: The small-market D-backs were doubling down on their inspired playoff push (and not following the path of so many other teams that used RSN uncertainty as an excuse to limit spending). They added to the Rodriguez signing by bringing back left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., trading for third baseman Eugenio Suarez, and adding a new DH platoon in Joc Pederson and Randal Grichuk.

How it will shape the 2024 season: The D-backs are no longer the young, plucky team that became a feel-good story in October -- they are a legitimate force. They have a good, young core in Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, Gabriel Moreno, Geraldo Perdomo, Brandon Pfaadt and, eventually, Jordan Lawlar, but they also have solid veteran pieces around them. And they play an inspired brand of baseball that gives their opponents fits. In other words, they need to be accounted for. Their offseason proved that.

Dominoes: Rodriguez's contract followed those of Nola and Gray, and it helped set up deals for Shota Imanaga, Marcus Stroman and Lucas Giolito. More importantly: The D-backs' overall aggression might have played a role in what their division rivals ultimately did. -- Gonzalez

The Yankees get their guy in blockbuster with Padres

Date of the deal: Dec. 6 -- Yankees acquire Soto in seven-player deal

What it means for the Yankees: Adding potent left-handed-hitting outfielders to balance their lineup and signing Yoshinobu Yamamoto to place alongside Gerrit Cole were the Yankees' two principal goals entering the offseason. They checked the first box with the best possible option, trading for superstar Juan Soto in a seven-player deal with the Padres on Dec. 6. Trent Grisham, another left-handed-hitting outfielder, was also sent to the Bronx. Michael King, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez, Kyle Higashioka, and prospect Drew Thorpe went the other way. They had acquired Alex Verdugo, a third left-handed-hitting outfielder, from the Red Sox the night before. It was a wonderful start to their offseason. The momentum wouldn't last.

How it will shape the 2024 season: The decision to trade for Soto in his final year of team control before hitting free agency solidified the Yankees' level of urgency. It's always championship-or-bust in the Bronx, but failure this season could have significant repercussions for the people in charge. With Soto and Aaron Judge, the Yankees boast perhaps the best one-two punch in the majors. It lengthens a lineup that was beset by injuries in 2023. Soto and Judge should both compete for AL MVP. The Yankees will score plenty of runs if they stay healthy. That's a big if.

Dominoes: Soto was, by far, the best position player on the trade market. And the Yankees were, by far, the likeliest destination for him. The next-best left-handed-hitting option for teams that missed out on both Soto and top free agent Shohei Ohtani? Cody Bellinger. Landing Soto affords the Yankees the opportunity to convince him that playing in pinstripes for the rest of his career is the right move before reaching free agency next winter. It'll ultimately come down to money. But it doesn't hurt if Soto loves his time in the Bronx. -- Castillo

Ohtani deal starts Dodgers' $1.2 billion -- yes, billion -- offseason

Date of the deal(s): Dec. 9 -- Ohtani signs 10-year, $700 million contract

Dec. 14 -- Dodgers and Rays agree to Glasnow trade

Dec. 21 -- Yamamoto goes to Dodgers for 12 years, $325 million

What it means for the Dodgers: The Dodgers' front office has acted aggressively at times in prior years, but they've never been exorbitant. Not like this, at least. They signed Shohei Ohtani to an unprecedented 10-year, $700 million contract (with an astonishing $680 million of it deferred), and that triggered a wild string of follow-up additions.

They acquired Tyler Glasnow, arguably the best starting pitcher on the trade market, then signed him to a five-year, $136.56 million extension. They signed Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Japan's most accomplished pitcher, for $325 million. They added Teoscar Hernandez, free agency's best corner-outfield bat, for $23.5 million. And they brought back the likes of Jason Heyward, Ryan Brasier, and of course, Clayton Kershaw. What does it all mean for the Dodgers? It means they had better win the World Series.

How it will shape the 2024 season: Los Angeles, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts put it, is now "the epicenter of sports and baseball." Their spring training, packed to the gills with fans and media on a daily basis, merely offered a taste. The Dodgers will have the proverbial target on their backs this season, even more so than ever before, and Dodgers officials have accepted that they'll have to take on the villain role whenever they go into opposing ballparks. Perhaps Mookie Betts said it best: Every game against the 2024 Dodgers will qualify as their opponents' "World Series." It's hyperbolic, certainly, but not by much.

Dominoes: The Dodgers added the two best free agents -- by a pretty significant margin -- in a span of 12 days. And teams like the Giants, Mets, Yankees, Cubs and Blue Jays -- in on Ohtani or Yamamoto or both -- were left scrambling. At a time when some key big-market clubs were cutting costs and some of the best free agents were notably flawed, the Dodgers' dominance might have also helped trigger a lull in the offseason.

Bet you didn't expect to see the Royals on here

Date of deal: Dec. 15 -- Wacha, Renfroe join Royals

What it means for the Royals: They are trying. The Royals lost 106 games last season and own a bottom-10 minor league system. That's not a great combination. And yet they spent more in free agency than any other American League team, adding a number of midlevel veterans during the offseason. That list includes pitchers Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, Chris Stratton, Will Smith and hitters Hunter Renfroe, Adam Frazier, Garrett Hampson and Austin Nola, all via free agency. They also traded for relievers Nick Anderson and John Schreiber, as well as the injured Kyle Wright for a future rotation spot.

That's a bold offseason for a bottom-feeding club. A cynic might say the team's effort to lock down a new ballpark development might have played a part in the aggression. An optimist might note that in raising the floor of the roster with the new veterans, Kansas City at least has a shot at reaching .500 which, in the AL Central, is contention. The Royals are the one team in its division that took such an aggressive short-term stance.

How it will shape the 2024 season: All of the newcomers are capable of being contributors on a good team. Even as a group, it isn't the kind of collection that's going to carry a team to 90 wins. The Royals must make real improvement at the minor league level but they also need to polish off the development of its key young players in the majors -- Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, Nick PrattoandDrew Waters. That is where any true upside to this roster is found. If that happens, and Bobby Witt Jr. turns his last two months of 2023 into a full season of stardom, the Royals could be a lot more interesting this season.

Dominoes: For all the praise the Royals have earned for their offseason splurge -- and they deserve it -- Kansas City remains a postseason long shot. They did, after all, lose 106 games last season. But if the Royals were to manage a surprise run to the AL Central title, the lead execs who tore down (like the White Sox) or took measured approaches to the offseason (Twins, Guardians, Tigers) will have a lot to answer for in their cities. -- Doolittle

Braves upgrade rotation in unexpected winter blockbuster

Date of the deal: Dec. 30 -- Braves acquire Sale in trade with Red Sox

What it means for the Braves and Red Sox: Since closing out Boston's 2018 World Series title with a three-strikeout ninth inning and then signing a huge extension with the Red Sox the following spring, Chris Sale had made just 56 starts -- missing time to a litany of injuries including Tommy John surgery and shoulder inflammation that cost him two months in 2023. When healthy, however, he was solidly effective in his 20 starts last season: 4.30 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 125 strikeouts in 102 innings. His stuff still plays as more than a back-end starter.

Entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, the Red Sox had perhaps tired of Sale's injuries and decided to cash in on his remaining trade value. They needed a second baseman and flipped Sale in late December for Vaughn Grissom, a promising young infielder blocked in Atlanta by Ozzie Albies.

How it will shape the 2024 season: With the additions of Sale and Reynaldo Lopez, the Braves now have more depth to line up behind Spencer Strider, Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder. Assuming they once again run away with the division title, they can carefully monitor Sale's innings and have him ready for October -- which, after all, is what this trade was all about for them. For the Red Sox, Grissom will get a chance to play regularly for the first time. (Although he's likely to miss Opening Day with a groin injury.) He hit .330 in Triple-A with nearly as many walks as strikeouts and while there probably isn't much more than 15-homer upside, the Red Sox can hope for much better production up the middle with him and a full season of Trevor Story at shortstop.

Dominoes: A few days after this trade, the Red Sox signed Lucas Giolito to fill Sale's slot in the rotation. Unfortunately, Giolito injured his elbow early in spring training and underwent an internal brace procedure and will miss the season. Will there be a domino to the domino? It all depends on whether the Red Sox -- intent on a much lower payroll this season -- will find any money to sign one of the free-agent starters still out there. -- Schoenfield

Astros improve their bullpen with one thing in mind: October

Date of the deal: Jan. 19 -- Hader, Astros agree to record $95 million contract

What it means for the Astros: One of the more unappreciated facets of Houston's ongoing run of success has been its ability to maintain deep bullpens with back ends dynamic enough to stand out in the postseason. This winter, Houston lost Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek and Phil Maton in free agency and Kendall Graveman to injury. Even so, Houston still features experienced power arms, a quality veteran closer in Ryan Pressly and a number of interesting internal options. Adding depth seemed like a likely path but instead Houston splurged for the best reliever on the free agent market in Josh Hader on a five-year contract. The hierarchy of Joe Espada's first bullpen as a big-league manager was shuffled for the next half-decade.

How it will shape the 2024 season: The vision is not hard to conjure: Hader flinging a high, hard one past a failing NL batter for the last out of the 2024 World Series. That's what this move is all about. Pressly's presence means that Espada won't have to overextend Hader if high-leverage ninth innings begin to pile up. Because, as with so many moves made by elite clubs, the motivation for this acquisition is all about how it works in October -- and early November.

Dominoes: Two of the Astros' primary contenders in the AL needed closers, or at least back-end bullpen help. If and when Houston clashes with Texas and Baltimore this fall in the playoffs, the fact that Houston ended up with Hader -- and those teams did not -- will be a leading storyline. -- Doolittle

The Orioles land their ace in deal with Brewers

Date of the deal: Feb. 1 -- Orioles acquire former Cy Young-winner Burnes

What it means for the Orioles and Brewers: The Orioles coveted an ace to help them take the next step in their resurgence coming off a 101-win season. The Brewers sought to flip Corbin Burnes before he inevitably left in free agency next winter. Both got what they wanted in a Feb. 1 trade that sent Burnes to Baltimore for infielder Joey Ortiz, left-hander DL Hall, and a draft pick.

Burnes gives the Orioles a premier starting pitcher to complement their deep core of young position players. The move came after the Orioles addressed the back end of their staff by signing veteran Craig Kimbrel to a one-year, $13 million deal with a club option for 2025. The Brewers, meanwhile, are not afraid to trade a star in his prime. They did it with Hader at the 2022 trade deadline before fumbling away a division lead down the stretch. A year later, they were back in the postseason.

How it will shape the 2024 season: Trading Burnes is a blow, but Milwaukee made the move expecting to still compete for a playoff spot again. Those chances took another hit last week when All-Star closer Devin Williams was ruled out for three months with two stress fractures in his back. It'll be an uphill climb even in a relatively weak NL Central. As for the Orioles, they just might be the favorites to repeat as AL East champions -- especially now that Gerrit Cole, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, has been ruled out for at least a month because of an elbow injury. With Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 prospect in the sport, expected to join the likes of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson at some point this season, the future -- 2024 and beyond -- is bright in Baltimore.

Dominoes: The move left several teams still seeking starting pitching help -- the Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Red Sox and Padres among them -- and just one obvious trade candidate: Dylan Cease. Of course, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery were (and in Montgomery's case still is) free agents without homes. The game of musical chairs wasn't over. -- Castillo

Bellinger finally returns to the Cubs

Date of the deal: Feb. 25 -- Bellinger, Cubs agree to three-year deal, with opt outs

What it means for the Cubs: After winning NL MVP in 2019, Bellinger had been one of the worst stretches in the majors across the 2021-22 seasons. That's not stretching the facts: His adjusted OPS was dead last among players with at least 900 plate appearances over those two seasons. The Dodgers non-tendered him and the Cubs signed him to a one-year deal. Bellinger tweaked his swing mechanics, focused on putting the ball in play with two strikes, and cut his strikeout rate from 27.3% to 15.7%. Better numbers followed as he hit .307/.356/.525 with 26 home runs.

He was the best offensive player on the Cubs and produced 4.4 WAR in 130 games ... but the huge nine-figure offers failed to arrive during free agency, with teams not completely sold on Bellinger's performance. In late February, Bellinger went back to the Cubs on a three-year, $80 million deal that includes opt-outs after both 2024 and 2025.

How it will shape the 2024 season: Top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong as the Cubs' center fielder of the future. He is viewed as a Kevin Kiermaier-type 80 defender, but he'll start the season in the minors. Bellinger should be the regular center fielder, perhaps with a little time at first base mixed in. If Crow-Armstrong's bat develops, Bellinger could slide to first or right field thanks to his defensive versatility. More importantly: If Bellinger hits like he did in 2023, the Cubs' offense should remain stable (they ranked third in the NL in runs) and they should contend for the NL Central title. If he falters, the Cubs won't be a lock for the postseason -- and they'll be stuck with Bellinger for the season at a high salary.

Dominoes: This was the big move the Cubs needed to make, as they had gone through a relatively quiet offseason, replacing Marcus Stroman with Shoto Imanaga, trading for bat-first infielder Michael Busch and signing reliever Hector Neris.

Though it took well into spring training, Bellinger was the first of the five remaining big-name Scott Boras clients to sign and Matt Chapman soon took a similar three-year deal with opt-outs with the Giants. Bottom line: Boras overplayed his hand this offseason as teams just saw too much risk in these players to offer long-term deals. -- Schoenfield

Chapman signing caps Giants' sneaky-big offseason

Date of the deal: March 2 -- Chapman, Giants agree to three-year deal with opt outs

What it means for the Giants: It's no secret that the Giants had been clamoring for a star. They struck out on Aaron Judge, rescinded their offer to Carlos Correa and came up short on Shohei Ohtani. And though Jung Hoo Lee and Matt Chapman aren't at the same level as those three, their presence will greatly bolster a lineup and a defense that desperately needs it. Lee, signed for $113 million over six years, settles into center field and should be an effective leadoff hitter. Chapman, one of the best defensive third basemen in the sport, will significantly improve a defense that committed the most errors in baseball last season. Add inJorge Soler, Jordan Hicks and Robbie Ray, the latter of whom could bolster their rotation in the second half, and the Giants actually had a solid offseason. They needed it.

How it will shape the 2024 season: The Chapman signing essentially made the NL West a four-team race. Yes, the Dodgers, division champions 10 out of the last 11 years, are head and shoulders above everybody else, but the Giants joined the D-backs and the San Diego Padres as legitimate playoff teams. Go ahead, try to come up with the three wild-card teams in the NL. It's not so easy.

Dominoes: Chapman agreed to join the Giants on the first day of March, following the Bellinger blueprint by signing a three-year, $54 million deal that allowed him to opt out of every season. It was symbolic of what had been a trying offseason for some of the sport's best players. And, of course, it didn't end with him. -- Gonzalez

The Padres trade for an ace (because of course they do)

Date of the deal: March 13 -- Padres acquire Cease in deal with White Sox

What it means for the Padres and White Sox: The Padres have been trying to thread a needle all winter. On one hand, after the long-term payroll prospectus became bloated by the organization's aggression over the last couple of years, San Diego needed to streamline its payroll. On the other hand, the Padres can't exactly punt on the season, not when stars like Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts are still around. Losing NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell to free agency was a major hit but it's one now somewhat mitigated. Cease joins Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove in a reconstituted rotation big three for the Padres.

As for the White Sox, this has been the strategy going back to last year's deadline, even before new lead exec Chris Getz took over: Flood the system with quantity. In the short run, Chicago looks like a surefire draft lottery team but perhaps this had to be done. The process may not be over, either.

How it will shape the 2024 season: This doesn't change the landscape much in the AL. In the NL, it rearranges the league's wide middle. You have the Dodgers and Braves on top, and the Rockies and Nationals at the bottom. As for the 11 teams in between, there is no order of finish that would qualify as a major surprise. However, adding Cease nudges the Padres to the upper end of that group in terms of baseline expectation. And, perhaps, it buoys the spirits of a fan base that has dealt with a lot of disappointment since last season began.

Dominoes: In the days before Cease was finally traded, the rumor mill was spinning with whispers about teams the White Sox were talking to. Cease is good enough to help any rotation and a number of teams that sure could have used him didn't get him. That list might be topped by the entire AL East. That Cease moved when he did was probably music to the ears of super agent Scott Boras as he continues his quest to find new (or old) homes for Montgomery and Snell. -- Doolittle

And the Boras Two still remain

Date of the deal(s): ????????

What it means for MLB:As of Monday night, we mean a different Boras Two -- Jordan Montgomery and J.D. Martinez -- after Blake Snell agreed to a two-year, $62 million deal with the Giants (with a player opt-out after 2024). Snell's deal certainly falls short of what other Cy Young winners or contenders received in free agency in recent seasons -- just a year ago, Carlos Rodon, another risky lefty with concerns about his durability, signed with the Yankees for six years and $162 million. Snell couldn't even get half that, although the opt-out will give him another chance to hit free agency and angle for a big deal if he pitches well again.

Bottom line:This offseason, we've seen a little more risk aversion from teams. Boras prefers to label it non-competitive behavior from owners, but consider what happened to the Texas Rangers last season: They gave the big deal to Jacob deGrom, he blew out his elbow after six starts -- and the Rangers won the World Series anyway. Why make those long-term, high-risk investments if you can win a World Series without them?

How it will shape the 2024 season: The Giants get Snell on a relative bargain and can add him to a rotation with Logan Webb, the Cy Young runner-up to Snell. It remains unlikely that the Giants can keep up with the all-powerful Dodgers in the NL West, but a playoff rotation with Webb and Snell could do some damage -- and even knock out some superior teams in the postseason if the Giants get in.

Dominoes:We've already seen the domino effect with Bellinger and Chapman having to take short-term deals and betting on themselves to produce with opt-out clauses. The superstars like Ohtani -- or Aaron Judge last offseason or Juan Soto next winter -- will always manage to bag those long contracts. But while Yamamoto and Aaron Nola received long-term deals this offseason, it's possible we'll start seeing fewer of those types of contracts for pitchers given the inherent injury risks. -- Schoenfield

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