The Pittsburgh Pirates may not have been good enough for the likes of Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson, but Erik Bedard didn't find the team so unattractive. Pittsburgh locked up Bedard on a one-year deal worth $4.5 million in December.
Those are sometimes the only deals that small-market teams can convince players to sign. For reasons both financial (Rays and A's) and personal (Pirates and Royals), certain teams have little or no chance of signing major stars to the hefty contracts that so bedazzle baseball fans these days. Executives like Neal Huntington and Billy Beane have to get very creative in order to find suitable talent who will sign with their respective clubs.
Every year, one or two of these under-the-radar signings pan out in a really good way. They can be small changes for some teams, but fill critical areas of need for others. Here is the best low-investment deal each team has made this winter. To qualify, the player in question had to sign for less than $5 million in annual average salary.
The Deal: Takashi Saito signed with Arizona for one year and $1.75 million.
Why it Works: Though older and less durable than he once was, Saito remains a very sound seventh- or eighth-inning option out of the bullpen. That was one area in which Arizona could use some extra beef, but it's also one where GM Kevin Towers has a reputation for excellence. He did very well to sign Saito on the cheap.
The Deal: Jack Wilson signed with the Braves for one year and $1 million.
Why it Works: This is, believe it or not, the only addition Atlanta has made to its big-league roster this winter, and it only represents a retention of their incumbent backup shortstop. Wilson changes almost nothing on the field for Atlanta, though he is decent Tyler Pastornicky insurance. His experience could also be of value to Pastornicky as a rookie shortstop.
The Deal: Wei-Yin Chen signed with Baltimore for three years and $11.388 million.
Why it Works: Baltimore needed some low-investment pitching help, and got it in the form of Taiwanese import Chen. It's a risky investment in an unknown quantity, but Chen already fits as their third starter. For $100 million less than the Rangers spent on Yu Darvish, new Orioles executive Dan Duquette added a starting pitcher with some upside.
The Deal: Cody Ross signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox.
Why it Works: See this article for an in-depth look at this move, but the short version of that long analysis is this: For $3 million, Cody Ross is a very good platoon right fielder. He could even be a little more. Signing a longtime regular player with the intent of platooning him lends the advantage of knowing the player will not fall apart if forced to play every day.
The Deal: Paul Maholm got $4.75 million guaranteed on a one-year deal with the Cubs, who also have a club option for 2013.
Why it Works: The new Cubs regime knows as well as anyone that the 2012 Cubs are not going to win anything. They probably know it best. Still, it would not do to spend an entire winter rebuilding and send the fans into next season knowing their team could lose 100 games. That's unnecessary austerity for the Cubs.
Instead of following that course, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod made a number of potentially profitable additions to the 2012 squad. One such player is Maholm, whose 3.66 ERA of a year ago may not be sustainable but who throws strikes and gets ground balls. He's a good clubhouse and community presence, too.
The Deal: Chicago signed Dan Johnson to a minor-league deal.
Why it Works: This move wins by default, because the White Sox have signed just Johnson recently. It is nice, though, to have a man with a knack for big home runs and a Midwestern background as the Triple-A reinforcement awaiting a Paul Konerko injury.
The Deal: Ryan Ludwick signed with the Reds for $2.5 million on a one-year deal.
Why it Works: This was not the most inspired addition the Reds could have made to their outfield. Ludwick bats right-handed; so does incumbent left fielder Chris Heisey. Kosuke Fukudome might have been a better choice.
On the other hand, Ludwick is a pull power hitter, and Great American Ballpark was 33 percent friendlier to right-handed home-run boppers than the average park in 2011. It could work out.
The Deal: Dan Wheeler signed a minor-league deal with the Indians.
Why it Works: Wheeler is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, and as such, intrinsically vulnerable to home runs. Used properly, though, he's a perfectly useful relief pitcher, and the Indians needed a spare arm out there. Few relievers in baseball have command as good as his.
The Deal: Casey Blake got $2 million for one year from the Rockies.
Why it Works: Nolan Arenado is a great prospect, Rockies fans, but he isn't coming up to start the season. He might not reach MLB at all in 2012. Blake is a risky signing, since he's very banged up and might well miss big chunks of the season due to injury. When healthy, though, he should be quite good, especially in Colorado.
The Deal: Ramon Santiago re-signed with the Tigers for $4.2 million over two years.
Why it Works: The Tigers needed to make this move even more than it appeared they did at the time. Santiago is a glove whiz, so the team might be able to make up for some of the runs lost by Miguel Cabrera's sojourn back to third base. Of course, that's only if Jim Leyland figures out to DH Ryan Raburn and play Santiago.
The best scenario still has Santiago playing every day. Detroit should plug him in as the shortstop, slide Jhonny Peralta to third base and DH Cabrera.
The Deal: Chris Snyder signed with the Astros for one year at $1.25 million.
Why it Works: When healthy, Snyder is an above-average hitter for the position and a solid catch-and-throw backstop. He's rarely healthy, which firmly capped his value, but the Astros might have a pleasant surprise coming in Snyder.
The Deal: Jonathan Broxton got $4 million from the Royals on a one-year deal.
Why it Works: The price tag seems a bit steep given Broxton's recent problems, but if he returns to anything like his former All-Star form, the Royals have a bargain.
This deal helps in two indirect ways as well. It could make a midseason Joakim Soria trade more feasible, while in turn reloading the team for 2013 and beyond. It could also provide sufficient right-handed depth in the bullpen to facilitate moving Aaron Crow to the starting rotation.
The Deal: LaTroy Hawkins and the Angels agreed on a one-year, $3 million deal.
Why it Works: This offseason was hardly about bargain-hunting for Arte Moreno and company, but they did reach into the barrel of right-handed relievers and pull up their favorite for relatively little. Hawkins should be a capable setup man for Jordan Walden, and that bridge was sometimes tough for the Angels to cross in 2011.
The Deal: The Dodgers signed Jerry Hairston Jr. to a two-year, $6 million contract.
Why it Works: It doesn't work yet, as the Dodgers do not seem to plan to play Hairston. If they get over their unreasonable crushes on Mark Ellis and Adam Kennedy (whom they signed to similar contracts) and give Hairston the starting second base job, they'll have done a fair job of addressing the infield.
The Deal: Aaron Rowand signed a minor-league deal with the Marlins.
Why it Works: The magic is gone for Aaron Rowand. He's not a good hitter, or even a tenable one, anymore. He's a slow-footed outfielder who only remains viable in center because of his plus instincts.
On the other hand, right now, the Marlins have Emilio Bonifacio slated for center field. If they can add depth at all, they ought to, and if it can come in the form of a very athletic former star center fielder, so much the better. For Miami, at least, this deal defines low-risk, high-reward.
The Deal: After posting a $2.5 million negotiating fee, the Brewers signed Norichika Aoki to a three-year, $8.6 million deal.
Why it Works: Aoki is listed (not coincidentally, I think) as a left fielder on the Brewers' transaction page. It remains to be seen where he will actually play, but he's certainly the leading candidate to replace Ryan Braun during Braun's likely suspension to begin the season. The Brewers needed another outfielder because of that situation, and found one at relatively low cost in Aoki.
The Deal: Joel Zumaya signed a one-year, $850,000 contract with the Twins.
Why it Works: Zumaya is a potential closer. He has electric stuff, even after a string of serious and sometimes gruesome arm injuries. His delivery will be different and his velocity will be down, but he was a very smart risk to take for a Twins team that must stay healthy in order to compete.
The Deal: Scott Hairston signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract with the Mets.
Why it Works: Call me a sucker for a good Hairston; I don't care. The Mets got the lesser of the brothers, but Scott flashes more with the bat than Jerry and is the perfect fourth outfielder.
New York made some terrible decisions this winter, but retaining Hairston was not among them. He could hit double-digit homers if Lucas Duda or Jason Bay see time on the DL.
The Deal: Andruw Jones agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with the Yankees.
Why it Works: Jones has carved out a nice second career as a lefty-mashing, power-hitting corner outfielder/DH, and still has the athleticism to play those corner spots with aplomb. Do not expect him to hit a home run every 17 plate appearances again, but Jones should fill in just fine at DH unless and until the Yankees find (at least) a left-handed platoon partner for him.
The Deal: Bartolo Colon took $2 million on a one-year deal to join the A's.
Why it Works: Pitching on a minor-league deal that paid him $900,000 last season, Colon posted a 4.00 ERA and struck out 135 in 164.1 innings. He is due for all kinds of regression, not the least on that strikeout rate, but pitching in Oakland should really help the hefty fly-ball man.
The Deal: Juan Pierre took a minor-league deal with the Phillies.
Why it Works: Pierre gets a bad rap from sabermetricians at times. I know; I'm a sabermetrician, and I used to give Pierre bad raps.
He is not what he once was. Nor, when he was at his peak, was he what many perceived him to be. He was a poor defensive center fielder because of his dreadful arm. He was overrated because he stole bases and hit for average, but did not draw walks or have any power.
Still, the hate has gone too far. Pierre remains viable as a fourth outfielder, yet he nearly went without a deal altogether. It's worth noting that in each of the last three seasons, his OBP has been better than the league average. Pierre might well be of use to the Phillies, and soon.
The Deal: Erik Bedard signs with the Pirates for one year and $4.5 million.
Why it Works: The spectrum of possibilities for Erik Bedard is not, in fact, a spectrum. It's a binary condition: He will either be good, or he will be hurt. Credit Pittsburgh, a team in need of a pitching upgrade and some reinforcements after letting Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf go, for taking a good gamble.
The Deal: Micah Owings signed a $1 million, one-year deal with the Padres.
Why it Works: In an offseason characterized by trade mania, the Padres found time for very few signings of free agents. One player they did add that way, though, was Micah Owings. After going an improbable 8-0 as a reliever with the Diamondbacks in 2011, Owings headed to the greenest pitching pastures in baseball.
It's doubly important for Owings. He's a fly-ball pitcher almost without equal in baseball today. For him to succeed, he needs to cut back drastically on his career 1.20 homers per nine innings. His stuff will not make that happen magically, though, so his best bet was to take shelter in San Diego. Owings might actually be a good addition.
The Deal: Eli Whiteside and the Giants reconciled with a $600,000, one-year contract.
Why it Works: Someone has to back up Buster Posey, and after the Giants initially cut Whiteside loose this winter, it was unclear who that would be. Whiteside is no great shakes, but he can manage a game and keep opponents largely in check on the bases, so San Francisco has a typical backup backstop on very cost-effective terms.
The Deal: Hisashi Iwakuma signed with Seattle for $1.5 million for one year, with double that available in performance bonuses.
Why it Works: That price is approximately 10 percent of the going rate for Iwakuma last winter. He had arm trouble and lost velocity in the interim, but might still have cost substantially more had he not made the negotiation mistake of a lifetime. He said he wanted to play only in Seattle.
The Pirates must have been livid when they heard.
The Deal: J.C. Romero accepted $750,000 on a one-year deal from the Cardinals.
Why it Works: Romero and the Cards are a natural fit. The Cardinals were looking for a secondary lefty specialist to complement, but not supersede, Marc Rzepczynski. Romero was looking for, you know, a job.
Romero is hardly a star, or he would not have taken a deal that small that soon in the Hot Stove season. He is, however, a useful left-handed reliever St. Louis needed to add to its bullpen.
The Deal: Jose Molina signed a one-year, $1.8 million deal with the Rays.
Why it Works: Molina won't make anyone forget John Jaso with the stick, but he is a game-caller, pitch-framer and running game-stopper non pareil. He's cheap, smart and experienced, and he might just be able to coach Robinson Chirinos up into a suitable replacement for Jaso.
The Deal: Brad Hawpe signed a minor-league deal with the Rangers.
Why it Works: Mitch Moreland scuffled badly toward the end of 2011 for Texas. Grabbing Hawpe gives the Rangers a left-handed alternative who has an extensive track record for hitting the ball really well against right-handed pitching in a good hitters' park. Rangers Park at Arlington certainly fits that mold. Hawpe is a low-risk, possibly high-reward signing.
The Deal: Toronto signed Francisco Cordero for one year and $4.5 million.
Why it Works: Cordero was a leftover on the oversaturated closer market, and the Blue Jays wisely coaxed him in. He's hardly a co-ace for the bullpen, but he provides a solid setup presence for new closer Sergio Santos, and has a wealth of experience in the closer's role if Santos struggles there. Francisco rounds out a bullpen that needed a lot of help, and got it from GM Alex Anthopoulos.
The Deal: Lidge signed for $1 million on a one-year deal with Washington.
Why it Works: At which end of the offseason ought one buy relief pitchers? The cases of Lidge and Joe Nathan make the answer clear. Lidge got his measly deal, while Nathan got two years and nearly $15 million from the Rangers in late November. Lidge joins Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez and Drew Storen in a very formidable bullpen for the Nats.