Creative Fixes for MLB Buyers' Roster Holes
As so many championship teams have proved throughout the years, signing the top free agents on the market is rarely the key to success on the field.
The Boston Red Sox had the payroll flexibility to sign Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke last offseason. They passed. Instead, they spread out the wealth and filled out the roster with several veteran free agents who didn't require more than three-year contracts.
When Mike Napoli's medical exam revealed a degenerative hip condition, they had to get creative to keep him from signing elsewhere by structuring a one-year, incentive-based deal. Stephen Drew was signed for one year at a bargain rate as he aimed to rebuild his value after an injury cost him most of the prior two seasons. Koji Uehara's total cost for 2013-14 will be $9.25 million, which has already proved to be one of the best values of last offseason.
It wasn't a typical offseason plan, but general manager Ben Cherington executed it to perfection.
The small-market Pittsburgh Pirates also did well, freeing up about $6 million by trading Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox for setup man Mark Melancon and three other minor leaguers after signing Jason Grilli to close at a much cheaper rate. Then there's Francisco Liriano's deal, which will pay him less than $13 million for 2013-14. It's an even better value than Uehara's contract with Boston.
With the reported asking prices for some of the top free agents having reached alarming rates, several teams will look to get creative this winter as they try to fill holes on their roster without making the risky big-money deal to land the best players available.
Here are some cost-efficient and creative moves that six contenders could make.
Boston Red Sox: First Base
The Sox have reportedly made a one-year offer to free-agent first baseman Mike Napoli, with a salary exceeding the $14.1 million qualifying offer that he already rejected, according to Jen Royle of the Boston Herald. That probably won't get it done, though. Some team will offer two or three years at around $15 million per season.
With holes to fill elsewhere on the roster, the Sox are unlikely to sign a big-name catcher, first baseman and outfielder. Filling one of the spots by acquiring Mark Trumbo from the Los Angeles Angels would allow them to focus their attention and their pocketbook on the other two areas of need.
Entering his first year of arbitration, the 27-year-old Trumbo, who has averaged 32 homers and 94 runs batted in over his first three big league seasons, will probably make less over the next two seasons than Napoli, Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo or Nelson Cruz will make in 2014 alone.
The Angels require young, controllable starting pitching, and the Red Sox might have as much as any team in baseball. In addition to the payroll flexibility the Sox would maintain, Trumbo's ability to play first base or left field would also give them the option of pursuing a wider range of players to fill the other spot.
Detroit Tigers: Second Base
The Detroit Tigers have a chance to cross two items off of their to-do list with one trade. With Drew Smyly expected to move to the rotation next season, trading Doug Fister to the New York Mets would not only open a spot for him, it could bring back second baseman Daniel Murphy to replace free agent Omar Infante.
Compared to Infante, the left-handed hitting Murphy could have a slight edge offensively, but is a bit of a downgrade defensively. If Detroit can live with that, the Tigers could have themselves a bargain at a projected salary of approximately $13 million over his next two arbitration-eligible seasons before he becomes a free agent. Infante could get $40 million for his ages 32-35 seasons.
The 28-year-old Murphy, who posted a .733 OPS with 13 homers, 38 doubles and 23 stolen bases last season, would help balance out a right-handed heavy lineup and also give the team another option for the top of the order in case it wanted to move Austin Jackson down.
Kansas City Royals: Second Base
While they might not agree, Moore probably has a much better idea of what's available and he might not like his options. He may not be interested in giving three or four years to Omar Infante. He may not want to give up anything of value and take on the remaining four years of Brandon Phillips' contract. He could feel that Mark Ellis is not a big enough offensive upgrade over Emilio Bonifacio.
If he can acquire former All-Star Rickie Weeks from the Milwaukee Brewers, though, without having to give up too much, the Royals can add a potential offensive version of Ervin Santana, a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, in 2014.
With one year and $11 million left on his deal—he also has an $11.5 million club option for 2015—Weeks' salary doesn't affect the team's payroll long term, and he has the ability to turn the deal into a huge bargain if he can bounce back from a rough 2013 season.
Weeks' value is down, and Milwaukee has a capable replacement in-house (Scooter Gennett), so it might be willing to deal the 31-year-old, who posted a .780 OPS with an average of 16 homers and 14 stolen bases per season from 2005 to 2012.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Third Base
The Los Angeles Dodgers have money to spend, yet their biggest hole on the roster is at a position, third base, with very little available on the free-agent market. Re-signing Juan Uribe to a one-year deal isn't the sexy move. But it might be the best they can do without giving up a significant amount of talent to acquire one.
Covering themselves in the event that Uribe reverts to his 2011-12 form, when he posted a .552 OPS in 143 games, would be smart, though.
By signing Southern California native Eric Chavez, who has an .829 OPS with 25 homers in 193 games over the past two seasons while starting 96 games at the hot corner, the Dodgers would get a solid left-handed bat off the bench and someone who could start at least two or three games per week over Uribe.
Staying healthy has been a challenge for the 35-year-old Chavez over the years, but he won't be expected to carry a heavy load if Uribe continues to play well.
Tampa Bay Rays: First Base
The Tampa Bay Rays constantly need to be creative, and general manager Andrew Friedman is one of the best in the business at it. He'll be at it again this offseason.
While Friedman could fill his hole at first base with a low-cost veteran, such as Michael Morse or Mark Reynolds, and hope they have the bounce-back season that James Loney had in 2013, he could also opt for the big-upside acquisition and trade for Ike Davis, who the New York Mets are reportedly shopping, via Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com.
The 26-year-old's value is at an all-time low after a disappointing 2013 season (.661 OPS, 9 HR), so now is the time for Friedman to strike if he wants to land himself a bargain.
At a cost of approximately $4 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility, Davis would fit into the Rays' payroll for at least next season and he'd still be under club control for two more years. If he can revert to his 2012 form when he hit 32 homers and 90 runs batted in, he might price himself out of Tampa Bay by the offseason following the 2015 season, but at least it'd have a nice trade chip on its hands.
Texas Rangers: Catcher
After re-signing Geovany Soto for one year and $3.05 million, the Texas Rangers are still hoping to land Brian McCann, whose price could reach $100 million as the top catcher on the free-agent market. That's a lot of money to invest into one position.
They'd be better off going with the much cheaper option in Dioner Navarro (pictured) and Soto likely having more of an opportunity to earn his salary than with McCann catching regularly.
The $10 to $12 million or so per season they'd save by passing on McCann should help them land one of the top free-agent outfielders or starting pitchers. And who knows? If Navarro's performance since the end of the 2012 season (.834 OPS, 15 HR in last 113 games) isn't a fluke, they'd breathe a huge sigh of relief for not spending big on McCann.
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