A four-day sprint at Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings last week in San Diego saw teams dole out more than $1.5 billion on free-agent players. And that is a “B” in billion. Some of the best teams in the league knew what they needed and grabbed it.
But a $10 million hitter for one team may be a $2 million hitter for another. Context matters. The Yankees probably won’t spend $300 million for an outfielder any time soon because they have two of those already, even if another team would. (We can except A.J. Preller from this guideline because he’s calling in from another planet lately.)
Similarly, year-to-year comparisons for players require context. Kyle Farmer, for instance, may see his counting stats drop next year after the Reds traded the infielder to the Twins, but he’s moving from an extreme hitter’s park in Cincinnati to a more neutral home in Minnesota. Location isn’t the only factor. Josh Bell had to be just about everything for the low-rung Pirates and Nationals in recent seasons, but in contending Cleveland, he won’t have to hit all of their home runs. And sometimes, status quo makes for an upward projection.
After those wild four days, here are four players whose fantasy stock went up after the Winter Meetings and three more whose outlook dimmed for next season. Four up, three down:
RF Aaron Judge
For a tense period, it appeared the reigning American League MVP was headed to the opposite coast to join the Giants. And San Francisco roster boss Farhan Zaidi certainly was interested in signing the slugger. But after the fire of that rumor was extinguished, Judge landed back where he started, in New York with the Yankees. It was meant to be.
It would be unfair, frankly, to demand that Judge repeat his outlandish 2022 season, one in which his 11.4 WAR, according to FanGraphs, was the highest in a season since Barry Bonds’ 2004 year, an output on par with peak Mickey Mantle. And yet, maybe he will! His average fWAR the past two seasons is nearly 8.5, which would still leave him as the best position player in the game.
Still, even though Judge hits the ball harder and farther than any other player in the game, based on exit velocity and hard-hit data from Baseball Savant, his power numbers would almost certainly have dropped playing half his games in San Francisco. The Giants’ home park, once thought to be an extreme pitcher’s park, is now nearer to league average, but not its home run numbers. It’s difficult to hit the ball to the seats in that park. And while Judge hits the ball hardest to his pull side, he is adept at hitting home runs to all fields. And at Yankee Stadium, with his short porch in right field, that provides a clear benefit.
If you’re seeking counting stats, the best outcome for Judge was to play in New York. In this case, remaining a Yankee puts his stock on the rise because the potential alternatives sent his projections downward. The status quo means he is back to being a potential 1-1 player.
SS Trea Turner
As a power hitter at a more premium position, Turner can compete with Judge as a top pick idea. His three-year fWAR total lists Turner as the best shortstop in the game since the shortened 2020 year, better even than Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts over that span, the second-best in baseball at any position. First, he did it on a bad team with the Nationals, then on a World Series contender with the Dodgers. While the sets spun around him, Turner remained consistent.
So we can start with an outlook based on that consistency, then add in the context. After signing with the Phillies, Turner will return to the NL East, a familiar division for him, and join a team with friendly faces, including his friend from the Nationals, Bryce Harper. He will reunite with his favored hitting coach, Kevin Long, whom he also knew in Washington.
His speed suggests Turner might function well as the Phillies’ lead-off hitter. But it’s a bit beside the point. In a stacked lineup full of power bats, Turner will find protection just about anywhere in the order. With the Dodgers, Turner was something like a mercenary. He played that role into elite numbers. Now he has a long-term home, a place where he can just be himself. And for Turner, that probably means a lot of production.
OF Masataka Yoshida
Opinions on Yoshida’s move to MLB are mixed. This stems only from a lack of evidence. We know what Yoshida accomplished with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, with an impressive .335/.447/.561 slash line last season over more than 500 plate appearances. And his plate discipline is incredible, with the second-highest walk rate and second-lowest strikeout rate in the NPB. That kind of hitting know-how can play anywhere. It’s why Adam Jones called him the “Japanese Juan Soto.”
Still, others wonder if he is better built for the NPB than MLB. There’s some unfortunate arrogance here. Just because he hasn’t hit stateside doesn’t mean he can’t. But we wonder often about a player having to adjust moving from the AL to the NL or vice versa, and in this case, Yoshida will have to learn both. Seiya Suzuki, for comparison, hit 38 homers for the Hiroshima Carp in 2021 and 14 for the Cubs last season in his first year in MLB.
Yoshida’s underlying hit profile says he can adjust quickly. A tight eye at the plate plays anywhere, in any league. And it is one of the best traits we can find when looking for valuable hitters. The best plate discipline in the majors last season belonged to Juan Soto, Max Muncy and Alex Bregman. Yoshida’s calm approach, high contact and low whiff rate combined with an offensive park in Boston where doubles multiply like tribbles make him an attractive option, especially for standard 5×5 leagues as hitters who deliver high batting averages have become harder to find.
RP Carlos Estévez
The Angels didn’t break the bank signing Estévez, a two-year, $13.5 million move that sneaked under the radar in a busy week. “Angels sign middle reliever” isn’t a splashy headline. And Estévez’s traditional stats don’t exactly scream for a parade, not with a 4.59 ERA over six seasons. But like any pitcher coming out of Colorado, a Coors Field asterisk is necessary.
Estévez isn’t going to Anaheim as the pitcher he was. The Angles want the pitcher he can be. And removing Coors Field will almost certainly boost him into prominence. Even pitching a bulk of his games in the thin air of elevation, Estévez boosted his park-adjusted ERA from 110 in 2021 to 135 last season (where 100 is league average and higher is better), according to Baseball-Reference. In other words, he was 35 percent better than league average last year. And his traditional ERA dropped year-over-year by more than 90 points. He’s trending in the right direction anyway and now he can pitch in a more normal environment.
Late in August of 2021, Estévez took over as Colorado’s closer and, in a tight game at Dodger Stadium, he struck out Max Muncy, Corey Seager and AJ Pollock for the save. Two days later, he struck out two more Dodgers in the ninth for another win. He’s finished 96 games in his career, with 25 saves. And it appears the Angels will at least consider him as a closer. He may be a sneaky good down-round pick.
SS Xander Bogaerts
On the surface, moving from a hitter’s park in Boston to a pitcher’s park in San Diego might trend a player like Bogaerts in the wrong direction, even if he remains just as valuable to his new team. And while Bogaerts might find a softer landing than other players, and may retain his overall value for the Padres, his offensive counting stats are sure to slide.
The ballpark comparisons aren’t so obvious. Fenway Park is certainly an offensive spot overall, but for home runs, it’s about league average. Doubles are the name of the game there, not cheap homers, especially for a righty — Fenway’s left field wall taketh as much as it giveth away when it comes to home runs, and the Pesky Pole in Right Field is more conducive to lefty homers. The shots Bogaerts took there were earned. And anyway, his 2022 season, worth about 6.1 fWAR, was built on a more rounded game than any ol’ slugger. He boosted his value in the field. At the plate, Bogaerts hit 15 homers last season, his fewest in a full year since 2017.
There is some context working against Bogaerts. He’ll have to learn a new league. And the Padres have been a volatile bunch in recent years, between the big contracts and big suspensions and suddenly-big expectations. As one of the smartest hitters in the game, Bogaerts seems especially prepared to gain some steam on his new team. But by leaving Fenway Park, he will almost surely hit fewer doubles with a lower batting average without any apparent coming boost in power numbers. He’s a great player whose fantasy value needs some caution.
C Willson Contreras
Player movement between the Cubs and Cardinals is always interesting. Fan favorite one day; mortal enemy the next. The rivalry is real. And we will have to see through the static to gauge Contreras’ new advantages and disadvantages after he signed with St. Louis for five years and $87.5 million. Replacing Yadier Molina is an impossible task and the spotlight will be bright. But in a vacuum, what can he do?
Contreras remains one of the best offensive catchers in the game, ranking third by wRC+ last year behind only his brother, William Contreras, and Adley Rutschman. His 22 homers tied for fourth. He was fifth in runs scored. And he will immediately boost the Cardinals’ offense, even if his defense is a big step back from Molina.
The problem here is his catching competition. We are living through a catching desert in recent years. There just aren’t very many good catchers. And if you have to fill that spot, Contreras has been a great option. Suddenly, though, there are other catchers gaining steam. Rutschman was great as a rookie for the Orioles last year. Travis d’Arnaud and William Contreras settled in in Atlanta before the latter was traded to Milwaukee. Will Smith continues to gain hitting steam for the Dodgers. The Blue Jays might trade one of their catchers to give the other two more at-bats. Oakland’s Sean Murphy was an understandable trade target before landing in Atlanta.
In other words, Contreras can be just as good with his new team, but less valuable among the catching landscape now that other younger catchers are growing into their roles.
RP Josh Hader
Hader certainly found a rough go after his trade from Milwaukee to San Diego last season, losing the closer’s job as his ERA ballooned from 4.24 to 7.31 with his new team. It was ugly, let’s be honest. But by the postseason, Hader was back in form. In 5 1/3 innings in the playoffs, Hader gave up just one hit and no runs. He struck out 10 and walked just 1. He was a perfect 4-for-4 in save opportunities. That’s the Hader the Padres traded for.
Meanwhile, though, the Padres signed reliever Robert Suarez to a five-year, $46 million contract last month. His deal is heavy on incentives that could put him up to $61 million depending on save opportunities. After the Padres pushed all-in again during the Winter Meetings, it’s clear that they are serious about not only winning the NL West but making a run at the pennant and finally overcoming the Dodgers. Their focus, though, was not on the bullpen. So what we see is what we’ll get.
And it seems as if the Padres expect Suarez will be their closer, if not immediately, then at least eventually. So Hader might lose some ninth-inning opportunities, even if his form makes him a reliable option in higher-leverage situations earlier in games.
(Top photo of Xander Boegarts and A.J. Preller: Denis Poroy / AP Photo)
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