MLB Contenders Choose To Play Margins

Teams such as the Brewers & Mariners look for financial efficiency.

MLB’s new-look postseason format that went into effect last season couldn’t have played out better. In three of four Wild Card series, the underdog came out victorious — underdog, at least, in terms of the team with a lower seed in the best-of-three matchup.

That trend spilled over to the Division Series, where two of the four series were upsets. The Philadelphia Phillies, the last team to qualify for the postseason as the No. 6 seed in the National League, made it all the way to the World Series, losing in six games to the Houston Astros.

So while some teams spent big this offseason to bolster their rosters (chiefly, the San Diego Padres and New York Mets), others who either made the playoffs or just missed in 2022 didn’t make a huge move that would theoretically improve their chances in 2023. Call it playing the margins of roster-building.

One transaction epitomizes that stance. That took place Dec. 2, when the Milwaukee Brewers shipped second baseman Kolten Wong to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Jesse Winker and infielder Abraham Toro. On the surface, the Brewers, who finished one game behind the Phillies for that last NL playoff spot, were dumping Wong’s $10 million salary just shortly after exercising a club option for this season. However, it wasn’t that big of a salary savings, as Winker is making $8.25 million and Toro $1.25 million in 2023.

This move was part of a Brewers strategy to shed some salary as they entered the offseason with 13 players eligible for salary arbitration. It came at a good time, as Milwaukee had a handful of young players who appeared ready to at least challenge for a spot on the Opening Day roster. The trade worked for both teams, as Winker struggled in his only season with the Mariners, who were a Cinderella story as they made the playoffs for the first time since 2001 and have an abundance of outfielders.

The Wong-Winker deal came a few days after the Crew dealt right fielder Hunter Renfroe ($11.9 million) to the Los Angeles Angels for three unproven or prospect pitchers: Janson Junk, Elvis Peguero, and Adam Seminaris. So Winker essentially replaced Renfroe, leaving an opening at second base.

One possibility in the offseason was shifting Luis Urías from third base to second and letting Mike Brosseau get a bulk of the time at third. But prospect shortstop Brice Turang, a first-round draft pick in 2018, was primed to crack an MLB roster for the first time.

To bolster those positions, the Brewers signed former Miami Marlins‘ third baseman and outfielder Brian Anderson (one year, $3.5 million) and acquired infielder Owen Miller ($731,100) from the Cleveland Guardians for a player to be named later. Milwaukee also had outfield prospects Sal Frelick and Joey Wiemer knocking on the door. And what seemed like the biggest bargain move was acquiring All-Star catcher William Contreras as part of a three-team trade with the Atlanta Braves and Oakland A’s for minor-league center fielder Esteury Ruiz.

On the other side of the Brewers-Mariners deal, Winker’s departure re-opened the door for former top prospect Jarred Kelenic, who struggled mightily in the majors in 2021 and 2022. However, the Mariners also had previously acquired outfielder Teoscar Hernández ($14 million) from the Toronto Blue Jays for pitchers Erik Swanson and Adam Macko.

Surprisingly, the Mariners were otherwise quiet this offseason. While Seattle did re-sign ace Luis Castillo (five years, $108 million), who was acquired at the trade deadline, trade-meister Jerry DiPoto didn’t wheel and deal his way to a stronger roster, instead shoring up the roster with outfielder A.J. Pollock, infielder Tommy La Stella and catcher-first baseman Cooper Hummel in hopes that the team is more like what it showed in the second half of 2022. That is in addition to getting Wong to take over at second base.

Another team that is not typically a big spender and has to build on the margins of the roster is the Minnesota Twins. Setting aside the signing of shortstop Carlos Correa due to the circumstances of his failed agreements with the San Francisco Giants as well as the Mets, the Twins had a little more work to do than the Brewers and Mariners.

Gone were catcher Gary Sánchez, first baseman Miguel Sanó, pitcher Dylan Bundy and third baseman Gio Urshela. Of all these teams, the Twins made the splashiest moves with signing Correa, dealing for right-hander Pablo López, and sending AL batting champion Luis Arraez to the Marlins. Minnesota also traded for Cincinnati Reds infielder Kyle Farmer and infielder Michael A. Taylor, while signing catcher Christian Vázquez, outfielder Joey Gallo, and infielder Donovan Solano. In 2022, the Twins finished eight games behind the AL’s No. 6 seed, the Tampa Bay Rays.

We are just more than a week into the 2023 season, so no absolute judgments can be made. The Brewers and Twins have had good starts; the Mariners, not so much. But for these teams and others who can’t afford to miss with a budget-busting signing, they have to seek out the players who don’t necessarily grab headlines, but instead provide solid play, fit into the culture and philosophy, and boost the floor of prognostications.

Steve Drumwright

Steve Drumwright is a lifelong baseball fan who retired as a player before he had the chance to be cut from the freshman team in high school. He recovered to become a sportswriter and have a successful journalism career at newspapers in Wisconsin and California. Follow him on Twitter and Threads @DrummerWrites.

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