It's time for Auld Lang Syne and the bubbly as we ring in 2014.
That also means the MLB hot stove is set to heat back up after the holiday lull that followed a frenzied December. With bidding open for Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, the entire offseason market is finally set and the remaining marquee pitchers figure to sign deals in the near future.
But that doesn't mean we have a good idea of who has improved and which team has failed to address their roster needs so far this offseason. The new year means pitchers and catchers report for spring training in about six weeks, so let's hand out some year-end awards for the MLB offseason thus far.
Boston general manager Ben Cherington showed why he's one of the best executives in baseball last offseason, crafting the 2013 World Series-champion Red Sox with a series of shrewd veteran signings.
He did it again with Mike Napoli this winter, signing the slugging first baseman to a two-year, $32 million deal that is fair for both sides. Napoli has earned the big annual payday in today's landscape of rising contracts as a premier right-handed hitter. After making a successful conversion from catcher to first base full-time in 2013, Napoli batted .259/.360/.482 with 23 HRs, 92 RBI, 73 walks and 187 strikeouts.
Napoli was already in line for a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox last winter before hip injury concerns led to a one-year, $13 million deal, $8 million of which was earned by Napoli via incentives. After making a career-high 578 plate appearances in 139 games, delivering in the playoffs and playing a huge role in the team's tight clubhouse, Napoli is a worthwhile investment for Boston.
What makes it so appealing for Cherington and the Red Sox is that the 32-year-old is only signed through 2015. In an offseason where other top free-agent sluggers like Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million) and Shin Soo-Choo (seven years, $130 million) secured massive deals, and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran inked a three-year, $45 million contract, Napoli's signing stands out as a stellar one.
Carlos Ruiz is making a nice living off of his career year in 2012. That's the only explanation for the three-year, $26 million contract the veteran catcher secured this offseason to remain with the Philadelphia Phillies.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. gave the soon-to-be 35-year-old too big of an offer—in terms of years and dollars. At this point of his career, Ruiz might be better served as a platoon catcher, not one who is paid as one of the top players at his position.
In 2012 he batted .325/.394/.540 with 16 homers and 68 RBI, but followed that up with a .268/.320/.368 slash line in 2013, along with five homers and 37 RBI after sitting out 25 games due to suspension for taking stimulants. His 2012 season looks to be an aberration and not something that should be rewarded going into 2014 and beyond, as he has yearly averages of 114 games played, eight homers, 47 RBI and a .275/.359/.411 slash line since 2007.
If you want to look at other catchers who signed this offseason, the 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski produced better numbers in 2013 and agreed to a one-year, $8.25 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has more pop in the bat and is six years younger, signed for three years and $21 million, making Ruiz's deal look even worse than before.
The Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers kicked off the winter action with their blockbuster deal involving slugging first baseman Prince Fielder and proven second baseman Ian Kinsler.
For the Rangers, this deal made sense on multiple fronts.
First of all, they acquired Fielder, an elite hitter in his prime with the chance to put up even bigger numbers with a jet stream and short fence in right field. Detroit also included $30 million in the trade, which brings Fielder's remaining contract to seven years, $138 million, which Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports called a "steal." Trading away Kinsler also opened up an everyday spot for top prospect Jurickson Profar to play at second base for the Rangers, giving the team a cheap player up the middle of the defense with a big upside.
The Tigers addressed two of their biggest needs with this deal.
The club received a reliable veteran in Kinsler during an offseason when it lost both starting middle infielders to free agency, with shortstop Jhonny Peralta leaving for the St. Louis Cardinals and Omar Infante signing with the Kansas City Royals. Detroit also saved $76 million in long-term contract commitments, posturing the team for a strong bid to sign Max Scherzer when he becomes a free agent following the 2014 season.
The Detroit Tigers took a gamble when they traded away fourth starter Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for a trio of players—lefty reliever Ian Krol, minor league southpaw Robbie Ray and utility man Steve Lombardozzi.
From the outside, it appears the team made the move in an effort to get something in return for Fister before he walks as a free agent following the 2015 season. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors estimated Fister would earn $6.9 million in arbitration this winter, which is a bargain at the going rate of free-agent pitching.
The Tigers still have arguably baseball's best trio of starters in Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, but Fister has been solid over the past three seasons with a combined 35-32 record, 3.30 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 6.8 K/9.
Krol and Lombardozzi are expected to contribute in 2014 as role players, but Ray is just a promising prospect with a 4.0 BB/9 rate in three minor league seasons who split 2013 between Single-A and Double-A.
Coupled with the Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler trade that relieved $76 million in commitments, the Tigers look like they are trying to free up some room in an effort to keep Scherzer around beyond 2014. But Fister isn't expensive for a starter of his value, and he would have provided a great insurance policy if Scherzer leaves for another team.
The Nationals got the better of this lopsided deal, securing a solid veteran right-hander to bolster their strong rotation without giving up any major pieces.
The reigning National League champions filled their only glaring need with the signing of shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal this offseason.
Of the top two hitting shortstops available this winter, the reliable Peralta was a much smarter option for the St. Louis Cardinals than the injury-riddled Stephen Drew. Though the big deal was met with some skepticism, especially after Peralta was suspended 50 games for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, others argued that Peralta was offered a fair deal at market value.
In 107 games this past season, Peralta batted .303/.358/.457 with 11 homers and 55 RBI at a key defensive position. He's also been very durable since becoming an everyday player in 2005, with yearly averages of 144 games played, 17 HRs, 75 RBI and a .270/.332/.431 slash line in that span.
The only other major move the Cardinals made this offseason was trading away infielder David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels for speedy outfielder Peter Bourjos. While Freese was certainly a valuable member of the Cardinals, the deal creates a spot for prospect Kolten Wong at second base while Matt Carpenter moves to the hot corner.
But perhaps the smartest thing the Cardinals have done so far is hold onto their impressive core of young pitching, as they were linked with teams like the Colorado Rockies for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki early in the offseason. The St. Louis front office, headed by Chairman and CEO William DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak, deserve a ton of credit for the way they have structured the franchise.
Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps breaking out the checkbook on aging veterans. He has provided the biggest head-scratcher of free agency so far with the three-year, $26 million contract given to catcher Carlos Ruiz, while also failing in his pursuit to unload other bad contracts he negotiated in the past.
Recently, the Phillies have been unsuccessful in their aggressive attempts to deal expensive closer Jonathan Papelbon and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Along with others like Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies are committed to roughly $200 million over the next few seasons for players who are each at least 33 years old and past their primes.
Philadelphia finished fourth in the National League East with a 73-89 record in 2013 and hasn't made any major additions other than signing 36-year-old outfielder Marlon Byrd and struggling starter Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona). That doesn't bode well for the short term or long term of this franchise.
Before the 2013 season ended, Rollins even admitted it's time for the team to start anew.
"That old window's closed," said Rollins, in an interview with CSN’s Marshall Harris. "This is a brand new thing. You've still got the pieces, but this is a brand new thing going forward."
Unfortunately, it looks like much more of the same, if not worse, for the Phillies going into 2014.