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Toolshed: What latest deals mean for prospects

How Springer, Semien, Realmuto signings will impact younger stars
George Springer is staying in the American League, but moving to the East with the Blue Jays. (Michael Wyke/AP)
January 29, 2021

There's always a trickle-down effect. Don't worry, this isn't another column about the state of the economy. But the statement is true about baseball's free-agent market. Sticking with the typical Hot Stove metaphor, the dial on that specific appliance was turned up from low to medium-high in the past week

There's always a trickle-down effect. Don't worry, this isn't another column about the state of the economy. But the statement is true about baseball's free-agent market.

Sticking with the typical Hot Stove metaphor, the dial on that specific appliance was turned up from low to medium-high in the past week with free agents inking contracts left and right. Some were previously known deals that only became official in the past few days. Others were new moves that came across the wire just before the calendar flips from January to February, the month in which players are meant to report to Spring Training.

While it is good to have free-agent deals grab headlines in an offseason previously known for trades (like those for Francisco Lindor, Blake Snell and Yu Darvish), it also provides an opportunity to evaluate what effects they will have on some of the game's top prospects during the 2021 season and beyond. This edition of Toolshed does that with some of the biggest free agents signed in the past week, organized (with one exception) in order of total fWAR since the start of the 2019 season.

George Springer, OF, Blue Jays (8.4 fWAR)

Overview: Coming off their playoff-bound 2020 campaign, the Jays were known players on the free-agent market this offseason, hoping to add to the core of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Hyun-Jin Ryu and others. It seemed like they would play the role of second fiddle in many of those chases until they went over the top to sign Springer to a six-year, $150-million contract that became official last Saturday. The three-time All-Star immediately assumes the center-field spot in Toronto and could move into a corner by the end of the contract. He brings good slugging ability and ample postseason experience to a young club trying to chase down the Rays and Yankees in the American League East. In essence, just what Toronto needed.

Major prospect(s) affected: Austin Martin -- We know what you might be saying at home. Martin was the fifth overall pick out of Vanderbilt last year, and despite an advanced college pedigree, he was highly unlikely to make a Major League debut in 2021. With that in mind, the Springer signing likely doesn't have an immediate effect on his development. Fair enough. But given the length of the deal, it is worth wondering what it could mean for Martin in the short and long term. One of the biggest questions facing the 21-year-old is his defensive home. Martin played multiple spots in college -- in fact, everywhere but right field, catcher and pitcher -- and there are some who believe he'll move to center long term. For now, the Jays are calling him a shortstop, where he will play in Bo Bichette's shadow. It's possible Martin's ascent lines up with Springer's move to the corner. But for now, expect him to see more time on the dirt than he would have perhaps otherwise before the signing.

Marcus Semien, 2B/SS, Blue Jays (8.8 fWAR)

Overview: We said this would be organized by fWAR in the 2019 and '20 seasons, but it felt odd to put Springer below Semien, who signed on for one year at $18 million from the same club. Once again in a need to add whatever talent they could this offseason, the Blue Jays were willing to make a big-money, short-term investment on a player who was one year removed from being an AL MVP finalist. Toronto is betting Semien can be closer to his 2019 self, when he hit 33 homers and posted a 138 wRC+, than his 2020 self with a 92 wRC+ in the shortened season. The 30-year-old is expected to move over from shortstop to second base in deference to Bo Bichette and should make the Jays lineup even longer with evidence his recent struggles truly are in the past.

Major prospect(s) affected: Martin -- Even more so than the Springer situation, this only affects Martin in the short term if he had any shot of getting Major League time in 2021. That was always highly unlikely. Instead, the Semien signing on a one-year deal likely indicates Toronto is willing to reevaluate the second-base job a year from now when Martin will be closer to the Majors. Given his skill set as a potentially plus-plus hitter with good speed, it's not out of the question that the former Commodore ends his first full Minor League season at Double-A or even Triple-A. With Springer in center and Bichette at short, the Jays might start to think about getting Martin more reps at second base the closer he gets to Toronto. It's not the act of Semien signing that could affect Martin. It's the length of the deal that does, and it specifically could affect his long-term defensive home.

DJ LeMahieu, INF, Yankees (7.8 fWAR)

Overview: It didn't take long for LeMahieu to feel like a steal when he first signed with the Yankees prior to the 2019 season, and after hitting .336/.386/.536 with 36 homers over his two seasons in the Bronx, the right-handed slugger became virtually indispensable to the Bombers as he entered free agency. New York made sure the 2020 MLB batting champ was going nowhere by officially signing him to a six-year, $90-million deal Wednesday. LeMahieu remains the club's starting second baseman for now, but could slide over to first base over the length of that deal. Either way, his bat is back at Yankee Stadium, and those in pinstripes are better off for it.

Major prospect(s) affected: None -- Right now, the Yankees farm system's strengths are in right-handed pitching and ... well, Jasson Dominguez. The top infield prospect is 20-year-old shortstop Oswald Peraza, whose best skills are defensive and will likely keep him at the six. There is a case to be made that 2020 first-rounder Austin Wells will have to move from catcher to first base in time, and maybe then he would bump into LeMahieu on the depth chart. But looking at the current state of the farm -- and discounting graduates like Tyler Wade and Miguel Andújar -- it's even easier to see why the Yanks needed LeMahieu back.

J.T. Realmuto, C, Phillies (7.5 fWAR)

Overview: A match made in cheesesteak heaven. The Phillies pushed in a lot of chips (including Sixto Sanchez) to acquire Realmuto from the Marlins prior to the 2019 season, and he lived up to his billing as the best catcher in baseball over two seasons with the club. (Yasmani Grandal was the only backstop with an fWAR above 5.0 at 6.9 over 2019 and '20.) Recognizing his contributions, Phillies players -- including most notably Bryce Harper -- pushed for the club to re-sign Realmuto, and that deal was finally done this week for a reported five years and $115.5 million.

Major prospect(s) affected: Rafael Marchan -- You might quibble with calling Marchan a "major prospect," and that would be fair enough. But the truth is the Phillies' No. 7 prospect factored into three games in the Majors last season and could have been in line to be Andrew Knapp's backup behind the plate, if Philly lost out on Realmuto and didn't make any other moves to address the position. Instead, the 21-year-old is headed back to the Minors. His greatest strengths remain on the defensive side, and with little power to speak of, he is likely ticketed for a backup role long-term anyway. By showing a little more offensive upside in the upper Minors (where there's less pressure), he could reach that ceiling this summer or even the second year of Realmuto's five-year deal.

Michael Brantley, OF, Astros (5.5 fWAR)

Overview: It was a dramatic couple of minutes there when it seemed like Brantley might be joining Springer on the way from Houston to Toronto, but the 33-year-old outfielder ended up staying put on a two-year, $32-million contract. With wRC+'s of 134 and 135 in two seasons with the Astros, the left-handed hitter brings back a consistently good bat to the center of the Houston lineup. He'll again assume left-field duties and could get plenty of looks at DH over the course of the deal.

Major prospect(s) affected: None -- The Astros aren't deep when it comes to Brantley's position on the farm system. Chas McCormick was on the playoff roster (though he never officially debuted in the postseason), but even the 25-year-old outfielder ended last year as the No. 21 prospect in the Astros system. With an above-average speed tool and good defense on the grass, he fits more of the role of the utility outfielder off the bench. There is a reason why the Astros should be players for Jackie Bradley Jr. as the best outfielder still on the market.

Andrelton Simmons, SS, Twins (2.2 fWAR)

Overview: Think Minnesota seemed settled with Jorge Polanco at shortstop? Think again. The defending AL Central champs dipped into the free-agent well to sign Simmons to a one-year, $10.5-million contract this week. (The deal is still yet to be officially announced.) Pay little attention to that WAR figure since Simmons opted out of the 2020 season early and was limited to 30 games. He immediately brings a Gold Glove-caliber glove to the six for the Twins, and with him, Polanco at second and Byron Buxton in center, Minnesota might have the best up-the-middle defense in baseball. Even if Simmons can't provide much value with the bat, the risk is minimized by the short contract, and the glove should be more than good enough to make up for it over that span.

Major prospect(s) affected: Royce Lewis -- The 2017 first overall pick is undoubtedly one of the highest-profile prospects who could have benefited from a normal 2020 season. Lewis went through a roller-coaster 2019 in which he posted just a .661 OPS between Class A Advanced and Double-A during the regular season and rebounded to win Arizona Fall League honors in the autumn. A regular 2020 campaign could have shown that the now-21-year-old was more his AFL self than the Pensacola or Fort Myers version and thus pushed to the brink of the Majors. Instead, those questions remain, even after he spent last year at the Twins' alternate site. Lewis' need to show off his skills in game settings necessitated the Twins' signing of Simmons in the short term. If the prospect can break down the door early in 2021, then he might need to do so at another position; he played third base and center in the Fall League. If he simply continues his progress but doesn't look quite ready for the Majors, then it's possible Simmons is just keeping his seat warm at short.

Corey Kluber, RHP, Yankees (0.6 fWAR)

Overview: Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ were all free agents this offseason, meaning the Yankees were going to have to be on the market for starting pitching. So far, they've picked up two arms in Jameson Taillon (via trade) and Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner who pitched only one inning for Texas in 2020 due to a shoulder injury. After impressing scouts in a heavily attended January throwing session, Kluber chose to sign a one-year, $11-million deal. It's a wager by the Yankees, to be sure, considering the recent injury history and the right-hander's age at 34. But there are worse bets to make than one on a pitcher who was among the best of the latter half of the last decade.

Major prospect(s) affected: Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt -- The Yankees do have a strength in right-handed pitching prospects, and if they weren't in such a win-now mode, there would be a temptation to let it ride with the younger arms. Garcia and Schmidt made their Major League debuts in 2020 with differing results. The former mostly held his own with good control and was better than his 4.98 ERA over six starts would indicate. The latter got only 6 1/3 innings in, giving up five earned runs before the season ran out and he couldn't improve the numbers. Before Kluber's official signing, Garcia seemed like a lock for a rotation spot, and Schmidt had at least an outside shot. Now Garcia should be in a competition for the No. 5 role and could see a little extra Triple-A time instead while Schmidt's the lock to move back down a level. That's not a bad thing. It plays into the depth needed to become a championship team, and Yankees fans should expect to see Garcia and Schmidt back in the Bronx in 2021. They just have another hurdle to climb to get there first.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.