When the dust settled on one of the weirdest and most contentious offseasons in MLB history, plenty of familiar faces were headed to new destinations — all of which are still taking some time to get used to. Trevor Story is with the Red Sox? Max Scherzer is a Met? Freddie Freeman is a Dodger??
Many of the biggest hauls went to teams on the cusp of contending for a World Series (or to the Mets). But two of the teams most active in adding new talent were not competitive last season: the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs.1 Between free agent signings and extensions, Chicago and Texas collectively spent more than $800 million in total contract value during the offseason. Among the bigger names hauled in were Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Mitch Garver and Jon Gray (for the Rangers), and Seiya Suzuki, Wade Miley, Marcus Stroman and Yan Gomes (for the Cubs).
As we alluded to in our season previews, those busy offseasons clearly upgraded the talent on both rosters. According to 2021 wins above replacement2 gained from newcomers minus WAR lost from departures, the Cubs and Rangers had the top two offseasons in all of MLB, with each team adding more than 13 WAR worth of new veterans while bidding farewell to little of note.3
|Team||Best Player||Total WAR||Best Player||Total WAR||Net WAR|
|Cubs||Wade Miley||13.6||Matt Duffy||-0.7||+14.3|
|Rangers||Marcus Semien||13.6||Isiah Kiner-Falefa||1.3||+12.3|
|Tigers||Javier Baez||12.0||Matthew Boyd||-0.1||+12.1|
|Marlins||Joey Wendle||9.5||Zach Thompson||-1.8||+11.3|
|Angels||Aaron Loup||7.0||Alex Cobb||-1.7||+8.7|
|Mets||Max Scherzer||20.9||Javier Baez||13.4||+7.5|
|D-backs||Mark Melancon||3.2||Tyler Clippard||-3.3||+6.5|
|Mariners||Robbie Ray||11.3||Kyle Seager||5.4||+6.0|
|Twins||Carlos Correa||9.4||Josh Donaldson||5.5||+3.9|
|Orioles||Chris Owings||0.2||Cole Sulser||-3.2||+3.4|
Now, both the Cubs and Rangers are subjects of interest to see if their shopping sprees actually translate to wins — and, ultimately, shorter rebuilds for a pair of franchises that sold at last year’s trade deadline. It’s an appealing strategy when the alternatives are shameless, multi-year tanking schemes like we’ve seen elsewhere across MLB, though the early returns have been mixed so far.
Winning the offseason is fun, so it can be tempting to think that having a buzzy team in spring training will equal success as the season gets going. But while hot-stove pickups can certainly put a team over the top, our previous research has shown that they tend to be a relatively small part of an overall winning formula. The reasons for this are complicated, including the higher average cost of acquiring players via offseason transactions and the relative difficulty of predicting which players will meet or exceed expectations — even among veterans with long track records. No matter the cause, though, it has traditionally been difficult to turn huge net gains in the offseason into legitimate World Series aspirations the upcoming year.
There are a few exceptions, of course — particularly in recent seasons, as payroll has rebounded to explain a higher share of team success than in the early 2010s (when our hot-stove research was originally conducted). Loading up on established names can be a very effective final step in a rebuild, too, after first creating a strong core through development of homegrown talent. This is why it generally makes sense for teams to pursue free-agent stars tactically, when it might be the difference between making or missing the playoffs, or help push an already solid team into clear championship contention.
What the Cubs and Rangers are doing is different. Both teams spent 2021 pressing the reset button on distinct eras in franchise history: Texas when it sent Elvis Andrus (the last remaining holdover from the 2011 World Series near miss) to the A’s and later shipped Joey Gallo to the Yankees, Chicago when it scattered the core of the 2016 championship club across MLB amidst a season collapsing in on itself. Those types of moves usually signal a franchise direction that has been all too familiar for baseball fans lately — the painful bottoming-out of a long rebuilding process. What they don’t usually point to is an attempt to jump-start the rebuild by winning the following offseason and immediately aim to contend again.
That last part remains a work in progress, even with all the pieces both teams added over the offseason.
The Cubs have started the year by exceeding expectations, winning six of their first 11 games with an exciting offense led by Suzuki and his four home runs (with a 1.478 OPS). The rest of Chicago’s newcomers have been more of a mixed bag, however, with Miley injured and Stroman pitching two up-and-down starts. Despite the solid start, our projections call for the Cubs to go 77-85 with a 22 percent chance to make the expanded postseason, only a slight improvement over their preseason numbers.
As for Texas, things have been much rougher. The Rangers are 2-8 with an MLB-worst 6.24 ERA, including a recent homestand against the Angels in which they allowed seven or more runs three times in four games. While Seager is hitting the ball — and even drew the rare bases-loaded intentional walk last Friday, for some reason4 — Semien (.410 OPS) and Garver (.642) are struggling, and Gray has already served a brief stint on the injured list. With a 68-94 forecasted record and a paltry 5 percent chance to make the playoffs, Texas can already probably give up on any notion of a quick turnaround bearing instant results this season.
Still, the Cubs and Rangers are worth keeping an eye on — both this season and over the next few years — for their accelerated rebuilding blueprints. After big offseason splashes more characteristic of winners than washouts, each team could eventually offer a refreshing substitute for the tedious tanking plans that have consumed so many front offices over the past decade.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.