Was Dylan Cease to Padres a surprise? Not quite; Can the Rangers repeat as champs?

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Today’s season previews: Texas, Boston and Minnesota. Plus, Ken fills us in on the long-awaited Dylan Cease trade — he’s headed to the Padres. I’m Levi Weaver here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to the Windup!

Bullpen bolstered, but what about the rotation?

ZiPS projected record: 86-76
2023 record: 90-72

The Rangers are finally off the list of never-won-it teams. So, can they repeat? The lineup — counting Evan Carter, who supplanted Robbie Grossman in October — is almost completely intact. The only departure was DH Mitch Garver (who might be replaced by prospects Justin Foscue or Wyatt Langford).

But they still need to address the rotation. Yesterday, Ken told you they had spoken to the White Sox about Dylan Cease (more on him shortly). This quote stood out:

As a Rangers person, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Have you seen our rotation in the first half?”

Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Tyler Mahle aren’t expected back until mid-season, so right now it’s Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, Dane Dunning, Andrew Heaney and Cody Bradford unless there’s a pivot plan now that Cease is off the table. If not, they’ll have to hope they can stay competitive until the trio is good to go, since Jordan Montgomery’s return appears to be a casualty of the Bally Sports saga.

One thing they have addressed: the bullpen. David Robertson and Kirby Yates join Jose Leclerc and Josh Sborz.

Key departures: LHP Aroldis Chapman, DH/C Mitch Garver, SP Jordan Montgomery, SP Martín Pérez, LHP Will Smith, RHP Chris Stratton

Key arrivals: C Andrew Knizner, RHP Tyler Mahle, RHP David Robertson, RHP Kirby Yates

Prospect corner: Carter and Langford are great. Alas, their pitching has faltered, with names like Jack Leiter, Cole Winn and Owen White struggling. Here are Keith Law’s top 20 Rangers prospects.

Ken’s Notebook: There are no surprises with A.J. Preller

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Was it really a surprise that Dylan Cease wound up with the Padres? (Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In our news story on the Dylan Cease trade, Dennis Lin and I wrote his landing spot was a surprise.

Can we take that back?

When it comes to San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller, no deal ever should be considered a surprise, not even when it comes on the eve of his team departing for Seoul, South Korea.

Major trades late in spring training generally are rare, for most teams anyway. For Preller, they are not particularly unusual. Back in 2015, his first full season as GM, he demonstrated he would not follow convention, pulling off a blockbuster for Atlanta Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel and outfielder B.J. Upton on the eve of Opening Day.

Preller was at it again in 2022, acquiring Sean Manaea from the Oakland A’s and Taylor Rogers from the Minnesota Twins shortly before the season started. Granted, the circumstances were different. The sport was coming off a lockout that ended in mid-March. But Preller will trade with any club at any time, as the Cease deal reinforced.

The Padres still need outfield help. The rotation, though, now will include Cease, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Michael King. In the view of one rival executive, who was granted anonymity in exchange for his candor, the trade gives San Diego “a real shot to make the postseason as a fifth or sixth seed.”

Another rival exec noted that for all the young players Preller trades, he always seems to come up with more. The Padres acquired Cease without moving any of the four prospects in Keith Law’s top 100 — catcher Ethan Salas (3), center fielder Jackson Merrill (23), right-hander Dylan Lesko (35) and lefty Robby Snelling (72).

Right-hander Drew Thorpe, the centerpiece of the package the Padres sent the White Sox, was not part of Law’s top 100. However, he ranked No. 58 on Baseball America’s list and No. 85 on MLB Pipeline’s, an indication of the varying opinions he elicits in the industry. The Padres initially acquired him from the New York Yankees in the Juan Soto trade.

A number of evaluators viewed the White Sox’s four-player return as solid, if not spectacular. The trade ultimately will be judged by how Thorpe and the two other prospects in the deal, right-hander Jairo Iriarte and outfielder Samuel Zavala, develop. The fourth player, righty Steven Wilson, is an established reliever.

The question is whether the White Sox could have extracted a greater haul earlier in the offseason, when they could have involved more bidders, or at the trade deadline, when Cease still would have been available for two pennant races. The risk of waiting, though, was that Cease might get injured, or perhaps even pitch ineffectively in the first half.

The latter seems unlikely considering Cease’s performance this spring — a 2.16 ERA in 8 1/3 innings, with 14 strikeouts and two walks. As Dennis Lin writes, he was especially dominant Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds, with Preller and others from the Padres’ front office in attendance. That performance sealed it. Preller was going to get his man.

More Cease: You want trade grades? We’ve got trade grades.

Not quite a full-throttle offseason for Red Sox

ZiPS projected record: 79-83
2023 record: 78-84

Red Sox fans must be sick of hearing the words “full throttle” after Boston made just one noteworthy pitching acquisition this offseason: Lucas Giolito, who will now miss the season recovering from elbow surgery.

Giolito was meant to replace Chris Sale, who was traded to the Braves for second baseman Vaughn Grissom … who is now recovering from a groin strain.

On the upside: Isaiah Campbell and Rule 5 guy Justin Slaten were nice bullpen moves. Same for Liam Hendriks once he’s back (August). And they extended Brayan Bello, which was big.

Tyler O’Neill seems like a prime change-of-scenery candidate, and a healthy Trevor Story should boost the lineup. Maybe Masataka Yoshida bounces back, Jarren Duran really breaks out, Ceddanne Rafaela sticks in center field and they all join Triston Casas and Rafael Devers as part of a pretty good lineup.

But that’s a lot of maybes. And when they [ahem] mashed that gas pedal, a whole lot of guys fell off the back of the truck. With all those departures, plus the Giolito injury, I don’t see much to indicate an ability to leapfrog any of the other four teams in a brutal AL East.

None of that is manager Alex Cora’s fault, but with an expiring contract, he’d probably feel a lot safer with a stronger roster.

Key departures: OF Adam Duvall, RHP Corey Kluber, LHP James Paxton, LHP Chris Sale, RHP John Schreiber, 1B/3B Justin Turner, INF Luis Urías, OF Alex Verdugo

Key arrivals: RHP Isaiah Campbell, RHP Lucas Giolito (sorta), INF Vaughn Grissom, RHP Liam Hendriks, OF Tyler O’Neill, RHP Justin Slaten

Prospect corner: The system is heavier on hitters than pitchers, but that’s what trades are for, right? Here’s Keith Law with his list of the top 20 Red Sox prospects, led by Marcelo Mayer and Roman Anthony.

Will a creatively compiled bullpen work out for the Twins?

ZiPS projected record: 85-77
2023 record: 87-75

Like the Rangers, the Twins fell prey to the Bally Sports fiasco. Perhaps related: They lost two starting pitchers — Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda — who heavily contributed to their 2023 AL Central title.

Unable to play at the top of the starting pitching free-agent market, they got creative, building a relatively inexpensive bullpen they hope will pick up the slack.

Lineup-wise, a lot is riding on the health of oft-injured players. Royce Lewis played just 70 games over the last two years. Byron Buxton hasn’t played more than 100 in a season since 2017. Carlos Correa is a question mark until he isn’t. All three should be All-Stars if they’re healthy, but …

One player who should be solid: Edouard Julien, who had a pretty good rookie campaign.

We’ll see if the bullpen experiment works, but with a top-heavy rotation that likely goes Pablo López, Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, newly healthy Chris Paddack and probably newcomer Anthony DeSclafani, there should be questions about their ability to repeat.

But it’s the AL Central. Who beats them?

Key departures: RHP Dylan Floro, OF/1B Joey Gallo, INF/OF Nick Gordon, RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Kenta Maeda, RHP Tyler Mahle, RHP Emilio Pagán, 2B Jorge Polanco, INF Donovan Solano, OF Michael A. Taylor

Key arrivals: RHP Anthony DeSclafani, RHP Jay Jackson, OF Manuel Margot, LHP Steven Okert, 1B Carlos Santana, RHP Josh Staumont, RHP Justin Topa

Prospect corner: As Keith Law tells us in his top 20 list, it’s not a bad farm system for a contending team. Walker Jenkins and Brooks Lee head up the list.

Handshakes and High Fives

Yankees Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole is expected to miss one to two months with an elbow issue. He’s headed to California for more extensive tests. In his absence, the pressure on Carlos Rodón has intensified.

In other injury news, Brewers closer Devin Williams is expected to miss around three months with multiple stress fractures in his back.

Ken has a column on the Cardinals’ four veteran starters, who say they aren’t listening to the doubters.

Sam Blum and Britt Ghiroli explore life after Ohtani in Angels camp.

Stephen Nesbitt’s annual “Wild-Card Era franchise rankings” piece has landed.

C. Trent Rosecrans gives us a great profile of new Brewers manager Pat Murphy.

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(Top photo of Nathan Eovaldi: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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