Will baseball's eyebrow-raising offseason moves work out?

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Saturday, January 28, 2017

Intrigue is a funny concept. Off the tongue, to call something intrigue or to say it's intriguing seems like a compliment. But that isn't necessarily the case. It merely means to arouse one's fascination or curiosity. I always think of Spock's raised eyebrow in any number of old Star Trek episodes as the physical manifestation of it. It is by no means a value judgment.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite transactions from the winter, chosen mostly by what they might or might not signify for the months to come. In other words, in no case am I saying a move was for good or bad. These moves all resulted in at least a metaphorical raised eyebrow, which makes them stories worth following during the soon-to-arrive season.

Mariners trade OF Seth Smith to the Orioles for SP Yovani Gallardo

This wasn't the splashiest offseason maneuver from Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto, nor was it the first or last. But it might have been the most emblematic for a team that underwent a makeover in style. Whether substance will emerge from that, we'll find out.

At its essence, Dipoto's plan was to keep the Mariners' core in place while changing the pieces around it. Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Leonys Martin, etc., are still around to anchor the roster. The rest of the picture is greatly altered, as the Mariners moved to become deeper, more athletic and better defensively. The Smith-Gallardo deal typifies that initiative -- not so much in the acquisition of Gallardo but in the dealing away of Smith.

Gallardo fills a rotation hole opened up by the trade of Taijuan Walker to Arizona in exchange for two players who could figure into the everyday lineup: SS Jean Segura and OF Mitch Haniger. Segura moves to the top of the Seattle lineup, whether in the one- or two-hole, and adds much-needed punch in front of the Cano-Cruz-Seager heart of the order.

Meanwhile, the little-known Haniger will figure into an outfield mix that now includes former Royals speedster Jarrod Dyson and former Yankee farmhand Ben Gamel. Along with Guillermo Heredia, this gives Dipoto an outfield depth chart comprised entirely of guys who have recent and significant experience playing center field.

Last season, the Mariners' outfield defense was abysmal, finishing with minus-28 defensive runs saved as a group, per baseball-reference.com, to rank 12th in the AL. Aside from Martin, the group looks light to average on offense, but perhaps the Mariners can withstand that through their dynamic offensive infield, the presence of Cruz at DH and a hopeful first-base platoon of Dan Vogelbach and Danny Valencia.

After landing Gallardo, Seattle filled out its rotation by acquiring Drew Smyly from the Rays. Smyly is one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers around, and he should benefit more than anyone from the influx of outfield athleticism, though of course he left behind a pretty good defense in Tampa Bay.

To make this happen, Dipoto parted ways with a lot of upside: Walker, disappointing outfielder Alex Jackson and starter Luiz Gohara, among others. The Mariners finished just three games out of the wild-card race in the AL last season, and it has now been 15 years since Seattle was in the postseason. Clearly, Dipoto is in win-now mode. Whether this winter's reshuffling will work remains to be seen, but you can't accuse him of running in place.

Rockies signed free agent Ian Desmond to a five-year, $70 million contract.

This move generated a lot of analysiswhen it happened. It isn't that signing Desmond was a bad idea in a vacuum or even that the contract was unreasonable. It's that it looks like Rockies GM Jeff Bridich really did sign Desmond to play first base. This move continues to fascinate me because it still feels like there is something that I'm missing.

Desmond is 31 years old -- he turns 32 in September -- and over eight big league seasons, he has posted an OPS+ of exactly 100. That's league average. That number has been arrived at with a lot of variance: His past six years go 80, 126, 113, 103, 82, 104. His baseline abilities don't seem to change that much, in terms of isolated power, contact rate or plate discipline, and his output is pretty much correlated with the vagaries of balls in play.

In moving from Texas to Colorado, Desmond is going from one of the better hitting environments in baseball to the runaway leader. That means we'll have to dig around under the hood a bit to get an accurate gauge on his performance. For what it's worth, he hit .330/.368/.497 at home and .241/.305/.398 on the road last season for the Rangers.

All that might be fine if Desmond were slotted to play pretty much any spot but first base. The long-time shortstop started 128 games in center field and another 27 in left for Texas last season. In both cases, his bat played fine. But at first base? His 104 OPS+ from 2016 would have tied for 18th among the 34 big leaguers who made at least 100 appearances at first base.

On the other hand, Colorado's first-sacker last season,Mark Reynolds, had an OPS+ of 100. So maybe the Rockies will get a modest upgrade at the dish. Or maybe Desmond's BABIP will crater and actually get worse. Or maybe Desmond will prove to be a dynamic defensive first baseman. We don't know how he'll do because the next major league inning Desmond plays at first base will be his, well, first major league inning at first base.

Maybe the Rockies will end up moving Desmond around. Maybe their scouts think he'll become a right-handed Keith Hernandez at first. In any event, I'm intrigued to find out because it feels like I'm missing something.

The non-moves: Trade bait still on the hook

The offseason isn't over. There are some (possibly) impactful free agents left on the market, such as Jason Hammel, Matt Wieters, Mark Reynolds, Mike Napoli and Chris Carter. However, there are some particularly interesting names who dangled on the trade market through the winter and, as of now, have not been moved. That will make the fortunes of their current teams interesting early in the season, as these could turn out to be game-changers in this year's playoff races.

-- Brian Dozier: His trade value might never be higher, and his personal timeline doesn't seem to fit with the Twins' path toward a return to contention. His most obvious landing spot was the Dodgers, who acquired Logan Forsythe to play secondearlier this week. So who will it be: Arizona? St. Louis?

-- Jose Quintana: As stunning as the White Sox's offseason haul of prospects has been, the system is still only deep enough for Chicago to climb to No. 10 in Keith Law's organization rankings. That, as much as anything, is why it makes sense for Rick Hahn to cash in Quintana for another gaggle of talented young players. He doesn't have to rush into it, but just about every team in contention will have room for a starter of Quintana's caliber. This will be a hot name in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline -- if Hahn waits that long to move Quintana, that is.

-- Everybody on the Tigers: Weren't the Tigers going to cut payroll? Or at least do something? The only sound out of Motown this winter has been crickets. Detroit might be the only real competitor for Cleveland in the AL Central, or it might simply be the best of a mediocre bunch that will watch the Indians lap the field. If the Tigers falter early, GM Al Avila could become a popular guy. On the other hand, if Detroit looks like it can give Cleveland some trouble, then Avila could be on the spot to land a premium center fielder or bullpen help. Either way, it feels like the Tigers are headed into a crossroads season.

Cardinals get creative with Trevor Rosenthal

Rosenthal saved 93 games in 2014 and 2015 before running into trouble last season and finishing with a 4.46 ERA during an injury-plagued 2016. He's still only 26 years old, but instead of trying to reintroduce Rosenthal to the back end of the bullpen, the Cardinals are rethinking his role entirely.

We're all kind of wondering what effect last postseason's bullpen extravaganza will have on relief pitcher usage going forward, and Rosenthal's case might be a bellwether for whether this becomes a regular-season trend. Whether he's used as a spot starter or a long reliever or a two-inning closer or all the above, Rosenthal might be at the vanguard of a new era of pitching staff deployment. That could be hyperbole, but then again, the Cardinals are a pretty smart organization that tends to be out in front of these kinds of trends.