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MLB Spring Training Preview: Top free agents remain on market as teams prepare for season

Keith Allison | Flickr

With pitchers and catchers reporting to their respective spring training camps, baseball season is finally beginning after nearly a three-and-a-half month offseason. In that time, there have been many moves made between teams, some big free agent signings and some head-scratching moments.

Trades flooded this offseason, as fans saw different teams take different routes on what they wanted their future to be. The Seattle Mariners were the biggest sellers during the offseason, which puzzled many because the team made moves the season before to attempt to contend for a playoff spot.

The Mariners made multiple blockbuster trades, but the two biggest were both with New York teams — the Yankees and the Mets. Ace James Paxton was shipped off to the Bronx for top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield and two other prospects. The Mets, who were the most improved team during this offseason, traded away veteran outfielder and first basemen Jay Bruce, reliever Anthony Swarzak, along with two top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn in exchange for Robinson Canó and Edwin Díaz.

Díaz was arguably the best reliever in all of baseball last year and received the Mariano Rivera American Reliever of the Year award. The eight-time All-Star Canó spent his first nine seasons in New York with the Yankees and is arguably one of the best second basemen in the history of the MLB. This move alone improves the Mets’ playoff chances greatly and the overall difficulty of winning the National League East.

Sticking with this division, the Mets were not the only team to make splashes. Although the Washington Nationals were not yet able to retain Bryce Harper, they were able to add free-agent pitcher Patrick Corbin to a massive six-year deal to solidify their starting rotation. The Philadelphia Phillies added possibly the top catcher in the league, J.T. Realmuto, to their lineup, along with former MVP Andrew McCutchen. The Miami Marlins continue their rebuild as they are not expected to contend in this division for many years.

The biggest surprise was the Atlanta Braves offseason. After winning the NL East in 2018, many believed this team would put all its money into a star-studded free agent class. However, they signed two veterans, former MVP Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann, to one-year deals. These moves are low-risk moves for the team but do not seem to help the Braves repeat their success from last year.

Along with the NL East, the NL Central is a division where there are three different teams that have the firepower to make the playoffs between the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals made the most improvements after failing to make the playoffs last year. They made a blockbuster trade for perennial all-star first basemen Paul Goldschmidt, who is constantly in the MVP conversation for the National League. They also added reliever and closer Andrew Miller to strengthen their bullpen.

The NL West is going to continue to be competitive between the top two teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, but the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres will continue to be middle- to bottom-of-the-pack teams. The Dodgers made a big trade with the Cincinnati Reds, which shipped off Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to Cincinnati and opened up a spot in the outfield for top prospect Alex Verdugo. The Rockies lost their starting second basemen DJ LeMahieu to the Yankees in free agency but were able to add Daniel Murphy to take his spot in the lineup and, with the Coors Field effect, he is expected to have one of the best years of his career.

The American League has the most competition, as the 2018 season has three teams with over 100 wins. The first of those three teams were in the AL West, the Houston Astros. The Astros still have their 2017 World Series core together but were able to add veterans Michael Brantley and Wade Miley to their lineup and rotation. They face competition from the Oakland Athletics, who were a big surprise last year but did not make any big moves this offseason to show that they will catch up to the Astros.

The Los Angeles Angels still have the best player in the league, Mike Trout, but are still missing a supporting cast to help them contend for a playoff spot. They signed veterans Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill for their rotation but will be missing two-way star Shohei Ohtani from their rotation for the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery. Ohtani, however, will still be in the Angels lineup for the year. The Texas Rangers don’t seem to be competing in this division for another year, but their young and powerful core in the lineup will be fun for fans to watch.

The AL Central is arguably the weakest division in the entire league, even though the dominance of the Cleveland Indians will continue. They made one big move, where they were involved in a three-team trade with the Tampa Bay Rays and Mariners but did not receive any true improvements. The team will continue to have Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez in their lineup with a strong front three rotation of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco but it is hard to determine if this is close to enough for them to make it back to the World Series again.

The Minnesota Twins made many moves during this offseason, and after they made the AL Wild Card game in 2017, they had a very disappointing 2018 season. The bulk of their moves were confusing, as they signed players like C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz to contracts, but they have Miguel Sanó on their roster, who many believed would take over the everyday DH role. Sanó had difficult performing at third base last year and was sent down to the minors at one point in order to bring him back to his senses. The Twins bringing in Cron and Cruz automatically stick those two players at first base and DH, the two places that would benefit Sanó most.

The division that some believe to be the most competitive is the AL East, which is home to the defending World Series Champion Red Sox. The Red Sox did practically nothing so far this offseason, as their biggest move was re-signing Nathan Eovaldi to a four-year deal. The Sox are hoping, however, that closer Craig Kimbrel — who is currently a free-agent — would be able to just fall into their lap due to the FA Market. Bringing Kimbrel back would help the Red Sox case for a possible repeat.

The Yankees and Rays made moves to bolster their rosters this offseason. The Yankees won 100 games last year, but that was not enough. They looked to add to their rotation, and they were able to make the trade for Paxton, along with re-signing J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia. They even strengthened their already dominate bullpen by retaining Zack Britton and signing Adam Ottavino. These were the most important moves, as playoff pitching was a big issue for the Yankees.

The Rays were possibly the biggest surprise last year, winning 90 games. To go with reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell, they signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal, after revitalizing his career in Houston. Tampa was infamous last year for using “The Opener,” so they only have two true starting pitchers in their rotation. They were even able to add catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Avisail García to their lineup.

This MLB offseason has been filled with ups and downs and has shown many different talking points and much speculation.

This speculation has mainly revolved around two of the game’s biggest stars: Harper and Manny Machado. Harper and Machado are perennial all-stars in the MLB, and Harper even won the NL MVP in 2015, but they have yet to sign with a team before spring training.

The issue is that teams do not want to pay either of these players what they believe that they are worth, or even what many believe they are worth, which is nearly or more than $300 million.

Both players were initially looking to receive deals that were greater than Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal, but neither has received offers that measured up to their expectations.

It was rumored that Harper has been offered two contracts valued at the $300 million point, but he has continued to meet teams. The initial contract he was offered was by the Nationals at the end of last season, but he turned that deal down with his mind set on leaving Washington for good.

The other offer was from the Phillies. Many believed he would take this deal, but it went on the back burner again and very little has been said about it since.

Machado has not received these offers yet, although it has been rumored that some deals have been presented to him. Some believed that the Chicago White Sox offered him a seven-year, $170 million deal, which undercuts his expectations greatly. There was another rumored offer made by the Yankees, which was a seven-year, $220 million deal.

Both players are sticking with wanting $300 million long-term deals, but teams are not budging. It is speculated that either player could take one-year deals and hit free agency again in 2020, in hopes they will receive their contracts by then.

It is hard to determine where they may end up because in the past week, there has been very little news about the two players. Some believe that both are waiting for one team to break the bank on both of them and spend nearly $700 million to bring in both players.

The list does not just end with Harper and Machado, as other players including Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and Mike Moustakas are still without a team just days before they have to report to spring training. With late offseason signings seeming to become a recurring trend in the MLB, it would not be surprising if players were to strike against team owners.

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