Something very odd happened this MLB offseason: Nothing.
It was a star-studded group of free agents, highlighted by two of the game's premier players, one of baseball's best relievers and three top-quality starting pitchers. One of those, Patrick Corbin, signed before the calendar turned to 2019. The others had to wait a bit longer.
It was an offseason about nothing, and Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez all had to wait until games were already being played to sign with major league teams. Totally bypassing spring training has worked out almost exactly how everyone thought it would: injuries, ineffectiveness, question marks and more.
Is there correlation between missing spring training and what's happening with these guys? Maybe. I'm not a doctor, I just play one at SportingNews.com, and there seems to be something related there. Who knows?
No free agent is ever perfect. To be fair, seldom do free agents live up to their billing or contract — "overpaying" is the name of the game in free agency, after all — but It seemed as though the cries condemning MLB teams' lack of drive to win were louder than ever before this offseason: Justin Verlander, Justin Wilson and others spoke out against the slowness of the offseason. What's the fix? Another question for another day.
But for now, let's check in on some of the midseason additions:
2019 stats: 5.68 ERA (6.77 FIP), 14 games, 12 2/3 innings pitched, 1.658 WHIP
The Cubs signing Kimbrel was a no-brainer. The Cubs signing Kimbrel so late was brainless.
The Cubs, somewhat thin in the bullpen, could have used more arms this offseason. Luckily, their rotation is full of innings eaters, but before Kimbrel's signing they pitched the fourth-fewest innings in baseball.
In the words of the immortal Billy Mays, "But wait! There's more!"
Not only did the Cubs have the fourth-fewest innings pitched in baseball, they had the second-most blown saves. Do the math. That's a pretty bad ratio.
Adding a proven closer like Kimbrel certainly made sense on paper, even after a shaky October with the Red Sox. In two seasons with Boston before signing with Chicago, Kimbrel was lights out: 2.06 ERA (2.23 FIP), 0.830 WHIP. In a nutshell, pretty good!
But Kimbrel is on the IL now with knee inflammation. Is it fair to say that was caused by "rushing" to get ready? You know what they say about those who assume — they're usually wrong. That's the saying, right?
Injuries can happen at any time to anyone, but being away from the game for so long with a surgically repaired knee (Kimbrel had meniscus surgery in 2016) without the proper time to get ready around a major league squad … well, that can lead to some assumptions.
Kimbrel won't have to worry about finding a new deal this offseason because the Cubs inked him to a three-year deal, and we'll see the rest of the season whether he can rebound. But this seems like another situation in which causation might be correlation.
2019 stats: 3.35 ERA (3.17 FIP), nine starts, 45 2/3 innings pitched, 1.182 WHIP
The Yankees signed Gonzalez to a minor league deal (Haha, what a ridiculous sentence to write.) earlier in the season. New York decided it didn't need Gonzalez's help (Haha, what a ridiculous sentence to write.) despite apparent rotation issues. The Yankees didn't have a spot for Gonzalez (Haha, what a ridiculous sentence to write.), so he elected free agency and signed with the Brewers, with whom he had success in 2018.
Gonzalez isn't a flamethrower, so building up his arm to get where it needs to be can be dangerous. Relying on low-velocity pitchers to find their movement and location is a risky game to play, especially so when the decision to sign him without a full spring training is made.
While Gonzalez has been the best of the three pitchers to sign during the season, there's a small (big) catch: He's been on the shelf once with shoulder fatigue, and was removed from his last start with shoulder tightness. Gonzalez could make his next start, but another flag up for Milwaukee.
But let's ask the question again: What took so long? Milwaukee seems to be fading in the NL Central race and could have used an extra arm before the season started to begin with. *Shakes fist at cloud.*
2019 stats: 3.86 ERA (4.75 FIP), nine starts, 56 innings pitched, 1.250 WHIP
Keuchel has been pretty good for the Braves, though there are some questions surrounding his small-sample-size performance.
— His BB/9 is up. Though still only nine starts deep, he's allowed 3.1 walks per nine innings, the highest that number has been since his second year in the majors.
— He's giving up more home runs. But in his defense, who isn't? Keuchel has given up home runs in six of his nine starts, giving up two home runs in two of those starts.
— His hard-hit percentage is way up, at 37.8 percent. That number is by far the highest it's been in his career.
Really, Keuchel has been overall pretty good for the Braves, even through some of those numbers. Some can be attributed to rust, others can be attributed to the juiced baseball. Adding a veteran presence to the rotation is something the Braves needed. Why didn't it come in the offseason?
The bottom line
Maybe this all should serve as a cautionary tale for MLB teams: Sign your damn players during the winter.
Everyone knows that baseball players are creatures of habit; they're fine-tuned machines that need to get in a rhythm, figure out their bodies and get the process going, all of which take place during the spring, you know, before the season.
Asking players, especially pitchers, to ramp up the process quick and get in game shape off schedule — at a different time then they're used to — just seems like a recipe for disaster. You know, common-sense type stuff.
On the other hand, maybe teams will continue to stand pat and use ineffectiveness as a way to skirt the issue.
"The problem is they will (use pitchers' ineffectiveness) as a way to not sign the players at all," a current MLB free agent told SN. "Every time a player struggles with a late start, it gives them an out with their fan base. And they can use that as leverage to force players to take bad contracts.
"I get the strategy. I think it’s bad for the game, though."
Bad for the game, bad for the teams, bad for the fans.