In a word, the 2021-22 MLB offseason was, well, ... chaotic.
As soon as the Atlanta Braves were done celebrating their unexpected World Series title, the clouds of a looming lockout gathered over the hot stove season before a 99-day work stoppage split the winter into two frenzied stretches of signings and trades.
Maybe you were one of the fans who stayed up every night waiting to see if your favorite team signed that big-name free agent in November -- or March -- while holding your breath that the players and owners would come to an agreement to salvage the 2022 season. If not, looking at Opening Day lineups might lead to some pretty big surprises. If you're playing catch-up after such a strange and often contentious offseason, we get it.
Whether you are just realizing Freddie Freeman moved to Los Angeles and the mega-class of shortstops led to some superstar infielders in unexpected places, or you know all the moves that went down and still aren't quite sure what to make of them, there's plenty to learn before the games begin. ESPN MLB experts Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield break down the moves that rocked the offseason. What did they mean for the teams that made them -- and for the rest of MLB?
The pre-lockout frenzy
With a Dec. 1 deadline to reach a deal on a new collective-bargaining agreement approaching, an unsure feeling of whether players would sign or wait out the potential work stoppage hung over the sport -- and then, boom, a free-agent frenzy swept through baseball over the final week of November.
Rangers land their half-billion dollar infield
What it means for the 2022 Rangers: The team's first two seasons in Globe Life Field were miserable disappointments, including the franchise's first 100-loss season since 1973 in 2021. To help get the franchise turned around, they committed $580.3 million in guaranteed money to free agents, including $500 million in one day -- a 10-year, $325 million deal for Seager and a seven-year, $175 million deal for Semien. They now have an All-Star middle infield after ranking 27th in the majors in OPS from second base and shortstop last season.
At the time, general manager Chris Young talked about courting free agents and being transparent that they wanted players ready to face the challenge of building from 102 losses.
The Rangers loved the character both players bring. "These guys are not only great players on the field, but off the field," manager Chris Woodward said when both signed. "They want to have an impact. When you hear a superstar player talk about building and wanting and desiring to build a championship ... for us to get two in a 24-hour time period? It's pretty remarkable." The pitching remains thin, but the franchise's first .500 season since 2016 would be a positive result.
How it rocked baseball: The Rangers haven't run a top-10 payroll since 2015, and you don't usually see 100-loss teams doing this, so this was a massive spending spree for a bad team -- or any team, really, since that $580 million is a record-breaking figure for one offseason.
Now, the Rangers have been acting like a mid-market franchise in recent years instead of the big-market team they pretend not to be, so this is a tell-tale sign that a lot of teams have perhaps been underspending in recent years. In fact, even with $58 million for Seager and Semien in 2022, the Rangers' projected $150 million payroll is lower than they ran every season except one from 2013 to 2020 (prorated).
The dominoes: The Dodgers had the ability to shift Trea Turner over to shortstop to replace Seager, but it also meant they could use a left-handed batter in the lineup and had some money to play with. With the DH officially adopted for the NL after the lockout, the Dodgers were happy to swoop in and bring the 2020 NL MVP out west when Freddie Freeman couldn't agree to a new contract with the Braves.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays now had a hole in their infield after losing Semien, and eventually traded for Matt Chapman to play third base.
The surprising domino that didn't fall was Carlos Correa landing a similar contract to Seager's megadeal. Correa, unsigned heading into the lockout, was coming off a better season than Seager and had been expected to receive the biggest deal of the offseason. Seager's contract seemed to set his bar at $300 million-plus, but with the Yankees not interested, Correa found less takers than anticipated and settled for a short-team deal with the Twins.
Mets go all-in with Marte, Canha, Escobar ... and then top themselves with Max Scherzer
What it means for the 2022 Mets: The Mets were in first place in the NL East from May 8 through Aug. 6 before collapsing down the stretch, going 21-37 over the final two months. A 77-85 season was not going to cut it for new owner Steve Cohen, so they were looking to improve an offense that was 13th in the NL in runs ... oh, and why not add a co-ace to Jacob deGrom at the same time. It's World Series or bust for the Mets even if they're playing in the same division as the Braves, although deGrom's shoulder injury in spring training has already put a damper on the start of the season.
How it rocked baseball: Scherzer's three-year, $130 million was stunning for a 37-year-old pitcher, even one coming off a 2.46 ERA and a decade-long run of dominance. The $43.3 million per season demolished Gerrit Cole's $36 million average salary and frankly scared the crap out of Cohen's fellow owners. They see the richest owner in the game, a man worth $14 billion or so, already displaying Steinbrenner-esque qualities and they ... do ... not ... like ... it. The new CBA included a new fourth level of tax tier at $290 million, immediately dubbed "The Cohen Tax."
"Listen, $290 million is a lot of money to spend overall and I'm OK with it," Cohen told reporters when he arrived at spring training. "I don't feel like it's so confining that I can't live with it."
Ruh-roh. The Mets' payroll sits at $279 million, second-highest behind the Dodgers.
The dominoes: Besides that new tax level, with Scherzer and the others in Mets uniforms, the Braves and Phillies both came out of the lockout looking to upgrade. Even though the Braves let Freeman walk, they traded for Matt Olson and signed Kenley Jansen, Collin McHugh and Eddie Rosario. The Phillies doubled down on sluggers, signing Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos.
Blue Jays start the ace movement with Kevin Gausman
Date of the deal: Nov. 28
What it means for the 2022 Blue Jays: With Cy Young winner Robbie Ray still in free agency at the time, the Blue Jays needed a starter to not only replace Ray, but solidify a rotation for a team many felt would enter 2022 as the AL East favorite. While they finished one game out of the playoffs, the Blue Jays had a much better run differential (+183) than the Red Sox (+80) or Yankees (+42), a good sign for 2022. Projections from ESPN's Brad Doolittle rate the Jays (97 wins) as favorites over the Yankees (94), Red Sox (87) and defending division champion Rays (96).
How it rocked baseball: Gausman's five-year, $110 million contract was the second biggest free-agent contract in Blue Jays history behind George Springer's $125 million. And while it wasn't completely out of line, it was certainly a sign that pitching was going to be expensive. While Gausman had an outstanding 2021 with the Giants (14-6, 2.81 ERA, 192 IP, 227 SO), he faded in the second half (4.42) and had been waived by the Braves in August of 2019. Now he was a $100 million pitcher.
The dominoes: Ray agreed to a five-year, $115 million deal with the Mariners the next day. The Giants, trusting the success they had with veteran pitchers like Gausman in 2021, signed Alex Cobb before the lockout and then after the lockout signed Carlos Rodon, coming off a 2.37 ERA with the White Sox, to a two-year, $44 million deal. (It was a bit of a roll of the dice on Rodon, who saw his velocity dip in the second half and pitched somewhat sparingly in the second half.)
Tigers signal they're playing for now with Javy Baez signing
Date of the deal: Nov. 30
What it means for the 2022 Tigers: Owner Christopher Ilitch called signing Baez to six-year, $140 million deal a "turning point" for the Tigers as the shortstop represents the largest free-agent investment for the team since Prince Fielder's nine-year, $214 million contract a decade ago.
Baez is not a perfect player but he has championship experience, plays Gold Glove defense and brings a swagger to a team attempting to take a big step in the AL central. In spring training, he lockered next to top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene -- automatically having influence over their maturation. Whatever the next six years bring for Detroit, Baez is going to be a big part of it.
How it rocked baseball: Many figured Carlos Correa would unite with his former manager AJ Hinch, but in reality, the Tigers were involved in every free-agent shortstop besides Corey Seager. When the deal was right with Baez, they jumped, shutting the door on the two former Astros getting back together and taking another potential landing spot away from the remaining free agents.
The dominoes: The signing essentially shut the door on Correa as a possibility in Detroit, leading the No. 1 ranked free agent to wait until after the lockout was over to sign with a dwindling list of options.
And then the lockout halts everything
Aaaaand then just like that: It all stopped. When the MLB owners locked out the players on Dec. 2, it meant that teams could no longer negotiate with players on deals. Of course, some teams stayed busy -- but for two months, things got much less chaotic. For 43 days -- from Dec. 2 until Jan. 13 --, the two sides didn't even meet on any core economic issues. By February, the conversations were heating up, and 70 days into the lockout, commissioner Rob Manfred finally spoke. He called the potential of missed games "disastrous," and from that point on, as was appropriate for this wild offseason: Chaos reigned.
A 10-day trip to Jupiter, Fla., to discuss core issues. Multiple missed deadlines set by MLB. An announcement that Opening Day will be delayed. More meetings in New York, where discussions lasted for 10+ hours and went deep into the early morning. Another missed deadline and round of canceled games. A late insistence on an international draft that almost scuttled everything again.
Until, finally, on March 10: A deal, one that saved a full 162-game season. Shortly after the announcement of the new agreement, one more update: Free agency would re-open as soon as the deal was ratified.
The lockout lifts and the spring signing scramble begins
Once MLB's work stoppage finally ended, 99 days after it started -- but who's counting -- the hot stove reheated in a hurry. Between top-flight big-name stars still looking for home and some unexpected trades, the March race to get rosters has continued into opening week in April.
The Reds and A's go into rebuilding mode
Date of the deals: March 13: Reds trade Sonny Gray to Twins; March 14: Reds deal Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker to Mariners. March 14: A's move Matt Olson to Braves; March 16: A's trade Matt Chapman to Blue Jays; April 3: A's deal Sean Manaea to Padres.
What it means for the 2022 Reds and A's: They're cooked. The A's currently have the second lowest payroll in the league with little offense left after the Chapman and Olson trades. The Reds still have Luis Castillo and Joey Votto, but the former could be traded and the latter is likely winding down his career. Otherwise, they are void of stars on the mound and at the plate -- though the Reds can build around reigning Rookie of the Year Jonathan India and some intriguing prospects like flame-throwing Hunter Greene.
How it rocked baseball: Maybe teardowns from these two teams weren't completely unexpected, but to see so many star-level players jettisoned immediately after the lockout -- with tanking an oft-mentioned subject during CBA negotiations -- was certainly stunning for baseball, especially with so many of these players under team control for multiple years.
The dominoes: The trades took at least four teams out of the mix for remaining free agents. Seattle no longer needed hitters after acquiring Suarez and Winker while Atlanta found its replacement for Freeman. Toronto was looking at free-agent third basemen -- like Kris Bryant -- but found their guy via trade in Chapman. In fact, Bryant was on the Mariners' radar as well, so his list of suitors shrunk considerably after the trades.
The Braves find their star first baseman ... and his name isn't Freddie Freeman
Date of the deal: March 14.
What it means for the 2022 Braves: Alex Anthopoulos' voice cracked when he first addressed the media about the Matt Olson trade. It should've been a momentous occasion. The Braves' GM, after parting with four of his best prospects, had acquired one of the best first basemen in the sport, setting up an eventual eight-year, $168 million extension. But it also meant he'd be saying goodbye to Freddie Freeman, the face of the franchise for about a decade.
Olson is four years younger than Freeman and at least comparable with his defense and with his power. Given his age, there's at least a decent chance his next five years will look better than Freeman's next five years. But this trade signified so much more than that. In Freeman, the Braves were losing the soul of their clubhouse, a pillar in their community, a man who seemingly set the tone for an entire organization.
The difference in immediate salary allowed the Braves to make additional moves to improve the roster. They'll still be very good, perhaps even better.
But they'll also be drastically different.
How it rocked baseball: This move, perhaps more so than any other, shocked people throughout the sport because of the timing. The Braves had replaced Freeman before Freeman had even decided on his next team. But Anthopoulos clearly didn't want to get caught in his heels with such an important hole in his lineup. Freeman said the Braves called him only once after the lockout was lifted merely to check in -- Anthopoulos disputes that -- and described feeling "blindsided" by the Olson acquisition. He and everybody else.
The dominoes: Two of the most wealthy teams in the industry were greatly impacted by this stunning trade. The Yankees were very clearly in the market for a left-handed-hitting first baseman and suddenly had to pivot elsewhere, ultimately signing Anthony Rizzo. The Dodgers were very clearly interested in adding Freeman -- despite the presence of Max Muncy at first base -- and suddenly had a clear opening.
The Phillies put together a slow-pitch-softball lover's dream lineup
Date of the deals: March 16: Kyle Schwarber; March 19: Nick Castellanos
What it means for the 2022 Phillies: Lots of homers and lots and lots of runs scored. Castellanos has a career 1.013 OPS at Citizens Bank Park while Schwarber's power plays anywhere in baseball. The Phillies are likely to be a station-to-station team with some holes on defense but the thump they bring to the plate can overcome a lot of deficiencies.
How it rocked baseball: Signing Schwarber made sense, but no one thought Dave Dombrowski would ask ownership to blow past the luxury tax just a few days later to nab Castellanos. If it works out, this move could signal a shift in National League roster-building due to the universal DH. Sure, only one of Castellanos or Schwarber can DH at a time -- but it gives the Phillies two impact bats while only needing to worry about where one of them fits in the field.
The dominoes: Call it the Steve Cohen factor. It can't be a coincidence the Phillies started spending some serious cash in the same offseason the Mets inked a $43 million player. It raised the stakes in the NL East where it has clearly become a three-horse race between Philly, Atlanta and New York.
Kris Bryant joins the Rockies. Yes, you read that right
Date of the deal: March 16
What it means for the 2022 Rockies: Even after adding Bryant on an unexpected $182 million deal (remember, the two players listed above, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos got $179 million COMBINED), the Rockies are still likely looking up at the Dodgers, Giants and Padres in the NL West this season -- and for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, this move shows that Colorado isn't going to follow the tanking/rebuilding cycle like Oakland/Cincinnati did -- and brings a new star to Coors Field, following the exits of Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.
How it rocked baseball: It was a huge contract (seven years, $182 million) in a time when other teams were giving out shorter deals with opt outs. But Bryant wanted a home for his growing family and targeted Colorado the whole offseason. With some injuries piling up for Bryant over the last few years, some rival executives felt a shorter deal was in the cards.
The dominoes: The deal happened in a bit of a vacuum, so it didn't have a huge impact on others. The Rockies weren't really searching around for big splashes all over the diamond, and Bryant's market may have shrunk due to trades of Suarez, Winker and Chapman. In other words, his signing didn't lead to another team settling for a different player. It just kind of happened on its own.
Freddie Freeman lands on the star-studded Dodgers
Date of the deal: March 18
What it means for the 2022 Dodgers: Anyone who thought the Dodgers might sit back and watch the madness from afar were clearly mistaken. Despite Muncy's presence at first base, and in the middle of a lineup that was already among the best in the sport, they signed Freeman to a six-year, $162 million contract that would take him through his age-37 season.
Now Freeman will hit between Mookie Betts and Trea Turner in the No. 2 spot of what might be the best lineup in the majors. After them will be Muncy, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor, a group that will once again make the Dodgers the predominant favorites to reclaim their spot atop the NL West -- a division they won eight consecutive times before a 107-win Giants team just barely overtook them in 2021.
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was noticeably cautious while trying to make the payroll more manageable early in his tenure. In recent years, though, he has acquired the likes of Yu Darvish, Manny Machado, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner via trade, while signing Betts, Freeman and Trevor Bauer -- who is currently facing a potential suspension in the wake of sexual assault allegations -- in free agency.
How it rocked baseball: The collective expression from opposing players in the wake of the Freeman signing can basically be summed up as: Seriously? The Dodgers are one of the richest teams in the sport but also one of the smartest. Their player-development staff continues to churn out high-impact young players, and their front office continues to acquire elite major league talent. The offseason began with the Dodgers facing the potential for lots of turnover, with Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor all headed for free agency. Turns out they're as dominant now as ever.
The dominoes: The Yankees signed Rizzo a couple days earlier, so the Dodgers seemed like the obvious fit here. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, Padres and, most notably, Rays, reportedly made a late push for Freeman, but only Boston ultimately turned elsewhere for a high-priced position player.
Bet ya didn't see Carlos Correa to the Twins coming
Date of the deal: March 19
What it means for the 2022 Twins: Following a disappointing 89-loss season in 2021, in which they traded ace Jose Berrios to the Blue Jays even though he was under team control for 2022, the Twins quickly reversed from rebuilders to contenders post-lockout after a series of moves -- the biggest being signing Correa to a three-year, $105.3 million that includes opt-outs after 2022 and 2023. They get one of the best all-around players in the game in the prime of his career, as Correa is coming off a career-high 7.2 WAR. The Twins get the Gold Glover at a position where they hit just .233/.298/.323.
How it rocked baseball: The Twins? For a short-term deal that barely pays more than the average salary the Rangers gave Seager for 10 years? The ultimate question here was why nobody else was jumping in on this action at a slightly higher price -- including the Astros, who had reportedly still been in negotiations. But with the Yankees and Red Sox apparently not interested, Correa's options were surprisingly limited. Correa did receive the fourth-highest AAV behind Scherzer, Cole and Mike Trout, and perhaps this deal will start a new trend of players signing shorter-term deals with higher AAVs.
The dominoes: This was actually the final domino for the Twins. They had traded Josh Donaldson and the recently acquired Isiah Kiner-Falefa to the Yankees a few days earlier, jettisoning the $49.5 million they still owed Donaldson to have more payroll room to sign Correa. (And Kiner-Falefa had himself been acquired from the Rangers, who had replaced him at shortstop with Seager.) It also left Trevor Story, the last remaining of the big free-agent shortstops, scrambling for a team since he had been in talks with the Twins to fill their shortstop hole.
The final star shortstop lands in Boston -- as a second baseman
Date of the deal: March 20
What it means for the 2022 Red Sox: By signing Trevor Story, Boston added a player who ranks sixth in WAR among position players since 2018. The catch is Story will move to second base with Xander Bogaerts continuing to occupy shortstop, which also allows the Red Sox to keep Enrique Hernandez in center field on a full-time basis -- a position Kiké excelled at defensively in 2021. Story didn't have his best offensive season in 2021, but a shoulder injury may have affected his production. As a pull hitter, he should thrive at Fenway Park.
How it rocked baseball: While the Yankees spent the offseason refusing to spend money in free agency, the Red Sox got better the old-fashioned way: signing a free agent. Story's six-year, $140 million contract is close to what the prognosticators expected back at the outset of free agency -- it's just not many of them would have predicted in November that Story would land with the Red Sox.
The dominoes: Let's see how this affects Bogaerts, who can opt out of his current contract after 2022 -- a likely scenario since he would make $20 million per season from 2023 through 2026, a figure he would exceed as a free agent. The Red Sox could now slide Story to shortstop to replace Bogaerts, with hotshot second-base prospect Nick Yorke perhaps ready in 2023. That means the 2023 free-agent class might include Bogaerts and Correa. Who's ready for another round of offseason chaos?