A UK based social commentator on all things American Sport? #12 Breaking down the early embers of the MLB Hot Stove.

December is a big month for North American sport; the MLS season came to a close as Toronto FC got revenge over Seattle Sounders, righting the result of last year’s final, the NBA season enters the busy holiday schedule and second third of the season, as well as trade season heating up, the NFL play-off picture becomes ever-clearer and finally the MLB off-season gathers pace post GM and Winter Meetings. All winding down for the holiday season, then.

Having made a few predictions in POST #3 about where some of the big Free Agent and trade pieces may land, now that meeting season is over and clubs are starting to make moves, we thought it would be a good time to check back in with the Major League and see if any of our early predictions have been fruitful whilst ranking the 3 best off-season’s thus far.

First: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The off-season seemed to chug along at a painfully slow pace at first, largely due to there being a Japanese Babe Ruth available for all to bid on. A unique case from start to finish, not only was the entire league interested in signing two-way star Shohei Ohtani, but there was originally the small matter of MLB owners agreeing on a posting agreement with the Nippon Professional Baseball League before any guarantee Ohtani would land in the Majors for 2018. We broke down some of the reasons why Ohtani ruled out some clubs earlier than others, as well as what they may do next in POST #9, but now we subsequently know that the NPB star will be heading to Anaheim to play for the Los Angeles Angels organisation.

Of the last seven teams left, the Angels were one of the least talked about. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports was making a lot of noise about the San Diego Padres and their Arizona Spring Training facility, apparently that of which Ohtani had used whist part of the Nippon Ham Fighters – in hindsight it’s easy to say that was reading too much into Brian Cashman’s comments about the New York Yankees being on the wrong coast and too big a market. Though we may never know the true ‘last two’, trade activity with the Minnesota Twins for international signing money by both the Angels and the Seattle Mariners suggest they were under the same illusion that they had a good chance to land him if they could offer a larger signing bonus than they originally could. In the end Billy Eppler outlasted Jerry Dipoto to land his target. Eppler told Buster Olney on the Baseball Tonight podcast that he felt his interest and knowledge of Ohtani from his time in New York paid off.

Eppler said that Mike Trout had taken time out from his wedding preparations to FaceTime with Ohtani, and once announced the 100mph man was going to pitch (likely as part of a six-man rotation) and hit (likely as DH on off-days), Fangraphs and Steamer projections were working overtime to work out the WAR those two could out together just themselves.

Enter once again Mr Billy Eppler…

Not content with having the best player in the game on his roster, and now having the best prospect in the game according to MLB Prospectus, Eppler wanted to strike while the iron was hot and make this Wild Card favourite team a serious World Series contender. Here at East Atlantic Look, we thought Zack Cozart would fetch $36MM/3 years – the Angles have just signed him for $38MM/3 years, so we weren’t miles away. Not only does Cozart offer solid offensive pop, but he’s also a gold glove calibre infielder. With Andrelton Simmons at shortstop and Luis Valbuena slated to start at first, all the Halos needed was a second baseman to assemble one of the most solid defensive infields in baseball. How about trading for a four-time all-star? Ian Kinsler is a career .273 hitter with over 200 home runs, who though 35, is a huge upgrade for the Angels at second base.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eppler add another arm to his rotation alongside Ohtani, but even if they don’t make any more moves, Eppler has likely already won the off-season. Could he win best off-season of all time? Maybe if he persuaded Albert Pujols to retire early and join the coaching staff, but that’s maybe a conversation for the 2018 winter.

Second: Miami Marlins

Were the Miami Marlins ever going to contend? No. What should teams that can’t contend do? Begin building for the future. What happens when you move the reigning MVP off your roster? The other egos in the clubhouse start wanting out. What have Derek Jeter and the new owners done? Opened their own ‘pawn shop’ according to Scott Boras – the most expensive, and arguably successful, pawn shop in history.

So what they’ve stripped the house down? They needed to clear the payroll and Stanton had all but planned a move away. That move was never about bringing in talent, it was simply clearing payroll, and for the most part that’s what they’ve done. Dee Gordon was traded to the Mariners to play in the outfield and pulled in two prospects ranked in the Marlins top 15. Stanton wanted to move to the west coast, the Marlins allowed him to move up the east coast to the Bronx to clear money and pulled in a 100mph plus prospect in Jorge Guzman and a man they can ship for more talent later in Starlin Castro. They’ve moved gold-glove outfielder Marcell Ozuna to St Louis Cardinals, acquiring 3 of St Louis top 15 prospects in the process.

With the payroll now cut to a position the Marlins owners can manage financially, the Florida franchise are in a unique position that they can either settle and head into 2018 with what they’ve got, or re-open the pawn shop for business to see what other prospects they can bring in. With Castro almost certainly moving on – he probably hasn’t even bother looking for a house in Florida yet – the Marlins are also listening to offers on Christian Yelich, who many believe will want to leave having seen the rest of his outfield colleagues walk out the door; the Padres have reportedly inquired on his availability. Brad Ziegler has one year left on his Miami deal having signed for $16MM/2 year in 2016 – there are a number of clubs that may think trading for one year of him is a better option to pursue than paying over the odds on the Free Agent market.

Third: Oakland A’s

Oakland A’s top 3 in something?! And well deserved too. This should likely be a shared third place with the Cardinals for their part played, so a huge credit to both clubhouses; Stephen Piscotty is moving closer to home, and closer to his mother who was recently diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – the subject of the viral ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ from recent years.

In an off-season fuelled with rumour and high spending, a feel-good story such as this is well needed, and very welcome. It’s no secret that the Cardinals had/have a surplus of outfielders, and it’s less of a secret that the A’s aren’t too special on the pitch – but this story is special; it’s not about suiting the St Louis needs to clear players, nor is it about Piscotty’s talent being a fit for Oakland, it’s about Piscotty moving back home. Originally from Pleasanton in Northern California, 30 minutes from the Oakland Coliseum, he will be able to not only be nearer to his mother during home-stands, but also a potentially more travel friendly schedule in the AL West.

It’s well documented that Stephen Piscotty enjoyed his time in St Louis having been drafted in 2012, and working 3 years of Major League service since 2015, however both John Mozeliak – Cardinal’s president of baseball operations – and Gretchen Piscotty – Stephen’s mother – described the move as ‘bittersweet’ – with the latter saying to John Becker that she guesses ‘it’s a good thing’.

There’s a good feeling around both clubhouses this off-season, with no hard feelings left in St Louis, and open arms at the Oakland Coliseum, and it’s a credit to both, especially Oakland in their pursuit, for making the trade work, not for baseball and not for Stephen Piscotty, but for his mother, Gretchen; she has her son back for Christmas, and much more.

Worst: Seattle Mariners

 On a list of bests, there is always a need for context; some honorary mentions or a ‘worst’. Because I don’t want to give too much credit to Brian Cashman, new manager Aaron Boone and the most powerful line-up in baseball, I won’t go into depth about why the New York Yankees have done well this winter (if they re-sign Gerrit Cole without having to give up Clint Frazier then they would be challenging the Angels for ‘best’). After a blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Braves for Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers haven’t done enough to ‘win’ this off-season, but they’ve made terrific financial moves to set themselves up for a good run at winning the 2018 Free Agent mega-class off-season. Clearing nearly $50 million worth of wages for 2018 by moving 4 players not only gets them under the luxury tax, but also rectifies the difficult Adrian Gonzalez issue – he waived his no-trade on the understanding Atlanta will designate him for assignment as they already have Freddie Freeman to play at first.

So who takes home ‘worst’? One winner – the aforementioned Seattle Mariners. It seems they put all their eggs in the Ohtani basket, and ultimately came up short leaving them with little more than a lot of international spending pool and less prospects. The flagship deal Dipoto did manage to pull through was a pick-up from the Miami car-boot sale; Dee Gordon. A former gold glove winner at second base, Dipoto reportedly traded for Gordon without him knowing that the plan is for him to play in the outfield in 2018.

Gordon isn’t known as ‘Flash’ just because of the film, he’s also rapid. It is feasible that he may work at centre field – a position where pace seems to be as important as anything else – and though he is still a plus dWAR player in the infield, the lack of information to Gordon about plans of how to use him in the upcoming season makes for some serious questionings of how Dipoto is managing his business. Without over speculating, maybe the Ohtani group saw something similar on the cards for him.

Hold tight, James Dawne.

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