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Signed RHP Allen Webster to a minor-league deal. [11/15]

Like Will Middlebrooks, another recent Rangers addition, Webster’s a one-time top prospect who spent plenty of time in the Red Sox’s system. Unlike Middlebrooks, however, Webster has yet to find even fleeting success at the major-league level. After career-worsts in 2015 in FIP (8.39), cFIP (127), and DRA (6.65), Webster had seen enough of the majors (or, more likely, vice versa), so he migrated to the Korean Baseball Association, where things got … just marginally better, at best.

The KBO is an offense-friendly league, but Webster surrendered 47 walks to just 59 strikeouts in 71 innings, and his 5.70 ERA was nearly half a run off the league average. Over a three-start stretch in May, he walked 20 and whiffed six. A last-ditch effort to salvage something useful out of Webster’s stateside career seems obvious: a switch to the bullpen. So far, out of Webster’s 212 professional appearances, only 32 of them have come as a reliever—and 12 of those were back in the Gulf Coast League in 2008.

Teams have yet to give Webster a true audition in the pen, which is odd considering his high-velocity, fastball-heavy repertoire and struggles with lefties, his relatively diminutive size, and his perennial lack of success as a starter. The reliever conversion isn’t an elixir for everyone, of course, and Webster might be beyond the point of repair. But it’s worth a shot. —Dustin Palmateer

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Signed IF-R Lourdes Gurriel to a seven-year $22 million contract. [11/12]

I mean, who couldn’t have seen this coming? Our neighbors to the north have had a far better relationship with Cuba diplomatically over the last 50 years and they’ve taken advant—wait, this is the first notable Cuban player they’ve signed since Adeiny Hecchavarria back in 2010? Well, nevermind then.

The younger Gurriel has been on international radars for years now, and certainly not only because he is part of the most famous baseball family in Cuba. He was a full-time starter in Serie Nacional before he turned 18 and really started to peak after his teen years, hitting .308/.388/.466 as a 20-year-old in 2014 and then following that with a .344/.407/.560 line in his final year in the league. At the plate, he’s a strong contact hitter with developing power—he did touch double digits in home runs in that 2015 season with 10.

Defensively, he has played shortstop and the Blue Jays will reportedly start him at the position in pro ball this year, but the odds of him sticking there are rather small. He has strong enough footwork to move to second, good enough speed to play the outfield, and a strong enough arm to occupy the hot corner. This all gives the Blue Jays some added flexibility.

So why did Gurriel end up getting significantly less money than Yasmany Tomas, Rusney Castillo, and Hector Olivera? The answer to this is two-fold. First, those names themselves are cautionary tales with even the most successful (Tomas) being a below-replacement-level player in each of his first two seasons. We can’t simply ignore the fact that Cuban signings have predominantly disappointed, and teams/evaluators aren’t either.

The second reason is that the process for Cuban signings is so abnormal that the normal rules of baseball no longer apply. Defectors have an incredible amount of time off between their last game action, sometimes as much as a year—and training while they are establishing citizenship somewhere can be challenging to say the least. So when they’re being scouted in these workouts, the players with noticeable tools stand out more, leaving someone like Gurriel—a better baseball player than workout wonder—in a tougher spot. Just ask another recent Cuban defector with similar Serie Nacional stats at a similar age: Aledmys Diaz.

Only time will tell if Gurriel was over-hyped because of his name and bloodlines, or if he was underrated because of his skill set. However, even if he’s not a star (or even a full-time starter), the amount of money the Blue Jays laid out here is a very worthwhile risk, as a high-baseball-IQ utility player who can stand at the six in a pinch would still be worth at least $3-4 million a year. This is a deal that is likely to have other teams shaking their heads in a couple of years and wondering why they let Gurriel go north of the border. —Bret Sayre

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Signed 2B-S Neil Walker to a one year, $17.2 million qualifying offer. [11/14]

Perhaps no simple trade last offseason was as lopsided as the Mets-Pirates Walker-for-Jon-Niese swap; to answer your unspoken question, yes, I’m looking at the Steve Clevenger-for-Mark Trumbo deal. The trade summed up Walker’s years of flying under the radar pretty well, and it turns out he was undervalued by the team that drafted, developed, and benefited from years of average-and-above performance, if not by the rest of the league as well. (Surely, the Pirates could’ve picked up a higher class of fundamentally-flawed left-handed pitcher than Niese, right?)

In 2016, the steady pivot took another step forward, re-hashing his excellent 2014 power numbers, but doing so in 24 fewer games. He bashed 23 homers, did unusual–and possibly unsustainable–damage to left-handed pitching for the first time in his career, and lifted his walk rate slightly to pre-2013 levels (9.2 percent). His defense has always been adequate, if not good, but the defensive metrics looked at his work more favorably than usual, with FRAA giving him a few runs to the positive (2.7) and UZR giving him a few more than that (9.3).

He was a consistent offensive force for a team that went through ugly stretches, though he was plagued on and off by injuries until a back issue wiped him off the lineup card late in the year. He was an almost perfect fit for a Mets team that once needed a one-year stopgap, and now could use something a bit more long term. Giving Walker the qualifying offer may seem strange, considering he doesn’t carry a superstar pedigree like some of the other QO recipients, but it really wasn’t. Three-win players are more than worth their weight in bills, and getting regular production from your middle infield is more a requirement for a playoff team these days rather than a luxury.

Coming into this offseason, the Mets’ other options at second base were deeply-flawed, from the one-tool T.J. Rivera to the unproven, low-ceiling Gavin Cecchini. The other second basemen on the free market? Not exactly high-end options; aside from Chase Utley, the class mostly consists of players who could perhaps hit but were ill-equipped for the position, or can’t hit a lick. For a team on the fringes of the playoff picture, with a lot to lose, Walker’s qualifying offer was a low-risk, high-reward move that they had to make.

From Walker’s perspective, accepting the QO was a no-brainer, especially considering that he has more information than anybody else about the status of his balky back. Injury eliminated him from the tail end of the Mets’ season, and his status to begin 2017 is anything but certain. If he can prove his health and continued performance this coming year, he’d likely be in line for a payday similar to another former Mets second baseman–the three-year, $37.5 million deal Daniel Murphy earned. If he can’t stay healthy this year, at least he banks $17.2 million and can try to recoup his value on a cheaper one-year deal in 2018.

Each offseason, we’re mystified by the moves that are made, and it’s hard to exactly predict anything as players cross teams during the winter. However, there are a rare few moves that simply make too much sense, and go exactly according to plan. Neil Walker accepting the qualifying offer is one of those; sometimes there’s a best deal for both player and team that’s too tempting to go any other way. —Bryan Grosnick

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Signed RHP Jeremy Hellickson to a one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer. [11/14]

There comes a time in your life when you have to look yourself in the eye and search your soul: are you down on a baseball player’s performance for good reason, or are you a hater? This is that moment for me. For years, I’ve been very, very down on Hellickson; between 2013 and 2015, he was bad, injured, or both. Of 122 starters with more than 300 innings over that period, Hellickson was the eighth-worst by ERA (4.89) mostly on the weakness of his rate of giving up 1.27 homers every nine innings. That’s a recipe for disaster, and going to Philadelphia wasn’t supposed to help.

So how did he improve to become a qualifying offer-worthy pitcher this year? You can ask Eno Sarris of FanGraphs, who did an excellent job of breaking it down a couple weeks ago. He was long a homer-prone flyball pitcher without enough strikeouts to make up the difference. In 2016, he upped his strikeout rate and dropped his walk rate while inducing more weak popups. While the popups may not be the most sustainable change in approach, it could have emerged from a new/old cutter that tore up left-handed hitters.

With Hellickson taking the qualifying offer this year, he bets on himself while also guaranteeing the kind of cash that you only get when you pull off the Lufthansa heist. It’s the Phillies who are caught in a tough position, though. You can completely understand why they offered Hellickson the QO, as they’d love to get something else out of his recent performance spike, but if he regresses to his 2015 self or gets injured, he’ll be an expensive deadweight and may fail to bring back anything at the trade deadline. And while the Phillies can use an effective starter this year, they certainly should be looking toward 2018 rather than 2017.

Truthfully? I’m no longer sure he’ll just regress to his old self. I’m convinced that some, if not all, of the growth he showed this past season could stick around, and I’ve come around to the fact that every-fifth-day guys may have more value to a team than their simple WARP calculation allows. This deal can’t really hamstring the Phillies–they have more disposable income than most teams, and it’s just a one-year contract. Still, they’ve got to be hoping for the best-case scenario here: at least another half-season of sustained average pitching. If they can’t get that, perhaps the list of Hellickson haters will grow. —Bryan Grosnick

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Signed LHP Brett Cecil to a four-year, $30.5 million contract. [11/19]

It’s important to remember that this type of thing happens every offseason. There’s some sort of contract–often offered to a relief pitcher of some stripe–and pundits look at it and say this is crazy, that is way too much money. Exhibit A this year is Cecil, a strikingly effective left-handed reliever of too little note, who just inked a contract only slightly less rich than the one Andrew Miller signed between the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Of course, the bespectacled lefty coming out of the north shares more than a few similarities to the ALCS MVP. Both had just a handful of saves as relievers before their big deals; they certainly did not qualify for the “Proven Closer” tag. Both were starters with flashes of effectiveness before moving to the ‘pen who succeeded thanks to a whiff-inducing breaking pitch–for Miller it was his slider, for Cecil his vicious curve.

But make no mistake, the guy the Cardinals just picked up is not as good as Miller. Cecil’s strikeout rate doesn’t match the lofty heights of Miller’s, there’s no sub-2.00 ERA here, and he’s slightly older than Miller was at the time of his long-term deal. The two are similar, but not the same. Cecil is more of a specialist–despite nearly splitting innings between lefties and righties in 2016, his worst season of the past four–than the type of person you’d cast as an elite closer.

But the Cardinals are in need of great relief pitching, and Cecil is pretty great. Few relievers can claim upwards of five WARP over a four-season period, but Cecil can. And perhaps the most interesting part of this deal is the reported full no-trade clause that came along with the contract. That’s a move that indicates not just that the Cardinals have full confidence in the southpaw’s abilities, but in their own window for contention. (After all, being able to flip an effective reliever once you fall out of contention has proven to be a time-honored rebuilding strategy.)

The dollar amount may seem high, but the market is always changing (and swelling), and the Cardinals have a need like everyone else for better-than-average relief pitching. While this Cecil deal may look like an overpay at first glance, the team may be getting 60-75 percent of Andrew Miller at roughly 75 percent of the cash price. I rated Cecil as the sixth-best relief pitcher in a well-stocked pool of options, in a league where relief pitcher usage is not only up, but relied upon in a way that it never has before. In a league where Andrew Miller is such a highly-valued commodity, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Not Andrew Miller would be valued highly enough to rate four years, a boatload of money, and a no-trade clause as well. —Bryan Grosnick

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