The 10 Most Undervalued Moves of the 2014 Offseason So Far
When the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves pulled off a seven-player deal involving Justin Upton and Martin Prado last January, Chris Johnson was barely worth a mention in the write-ups that followed. He wasn't quite a "throw-in," but he wasn't expected to play a major role with the Braves as Juan Francisco's platoon partner at third base.
The Diamondbacks simply had no room for him with Prado in the mix, so it was a no-brainer to include him in the trade. Little did they know he'd be just as big a reason why the deal could ultimately weigh heavily in the Braves' favor.
By early June, Francisco had been traded, and it was obvious that Johnson was going to be an integral part of the team's success. He finished the season with a .321 batting average, good for second in the National League, to go along with 12 homers, 34 doubles and 68 runs batted in.
Johnson's acquisition as a secondary piece in that blockbuster trade was one of several offseason moves that were extremely undervalued at the time.
Marlon Byrd and Scott Kazmir each had terrific seasons after signing minor league deals. Jason Grilli, with no closing experience in parts of 10 big league seasons, was re-signed to a two-year, $6.75 million deal by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was an All-Star closer in 2013 and a huge part of the team's success.
Sometimes, it's the seemingly little things that help win games. Sometimes, those little things occur in the offseason.
Here are 10 of the most undervalued moves of this offseason.
Braves Acquire Ryan Doumit
All eyes will be on Evan Gattis in 2014 as he looks to fill the shoes of longtime Atlanta Braves star Brian McCann as the team's everyday catcher. If he can continue to improve to the point where he's at least average defensively while hitting 20-30 homers per season—he hit 21 in 354 at-bats in 2013—he could be a perennial All-Star.
What is being overlooked is Gattis' importance to the team as a part-time player who was a dangerous weapon off the bench when he wasn't in the starting lineup. That hole appears to have been filled adequately, however, when the team acquired Ryan Doumit (pictured) from the Minnesota Twins for pitching prospect Sean Gilmartin.
While Gilmartin could eventually be a solid No. 5 starter in the majors, it wasn't a huge price to pay to ensure that the team had plenty of depth at the catching spot behind Gattis and veteran backup Gerald Laird, to go along with some much-needed power off the bench.
The 32-year-old Doumit has a .737 OPS in 107 career at-bats as a pinch hitter. In addition to being an occasional starter behind the plate, he can also play first base and the corner outfield spots. He's essentially filling the role that Gattis had in 2013.
Dodgers Re-Sign Brian Wilson
If a setup man is making $10 million per season, it usually means that he was demoted after being given a contract to be the team's closer. That's not the case with Brian Wilson, who the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed to a one-year, $10 million deal to be the primary setup man for Kenley Jansen.
In 24 appearances after signing with the Dodgers late last season, including six in the playoffs, Wilson did not record a save. His role was clear: get the ball to Jansen in the ninth inning. After pitching very well in that role, the 31-year-old was expected to sign a free-agent deal with a team that would make him its closer.
Instead, he's returning to Los Angeles in the same role. At this price tag, it's much more likely that he'll be viewed as overpaid and not undervalued. But on a team with a $200-plus million payroll and World Series aspirations, it's a small price to pay to ensure that a lead is in safe hands late in the game.
Marlins Sign Casey McGehee
The third-base market was extremely thin this offseason, and the Miami Marlins were one of a few teams looking to fill that void. The Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed Juan Uribe to a two-year, $15 million deal. The New York Yankees signed Kelly Johnson, who has made 12 career starts at the position, to a one-year, $3 million deal to be part of a platoon timeshare with Eduardo Nuñez and others.
The Marlins took the "outside the box" approach, which meant signing a player who was flying well below the radar after playing the 2013 season in Japan. For $1.1 million, the Marlins picked up 31-year-old Casey McGehee, who had a promising start to his big league career (.823 OPS, 20 HR, 83 RBI per season from 2009-2010) before his production dropped off the next two seasons, and he ended up heading overseas in 2013.
Not that it means very much, but he did have an .891 OPS with 28 homers for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. It could be a confidence booster. On the other hand, a return to the majors after facing inferior talent for a season could have set him back.
In either case, it's a rather safe investment for a player who shouldn't have much trouble improving upon last year's production (.615 OPS, 3 HR) from a group of third basemen that included Placido Polanco and Ed Lucas.
Nationals Acquire Doug Fister
At the end of the 2014 season, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Washington Nationals were being crowned as the World Series champions. Despite their disappointing 2013 season, their 25-man roster is one of the best in baseball. Doug Fister probably won't be one of the Nationals players everyone is talking about, but it's very likely that he would've made a significant contribution to the team's turnaround.
Acquired from the Detroit Tigers last month for utility man Steve Lombardozzi, lefty reliever Ian Krol and pitching prospect Robbie Ray, Fister has a 3.30 ERA with 1.8 BB/9 and 6.8 K/9 over the past three seasons. And he's still under club control for two more seasons. This deal has the potential to be extremely lopsided down the road.
As one-sided as the deal appears on paper in the Nationals' favor, the acquisition of the 6'8" right-hander isn't a move that is considered an offseason splash. He's the type of pitcher, though, who could help push a team into the playoffs and beyond because of his reliability (69 percent quality-start rate in 2013) when he takes the mound every five days.
Padres Acquire Seth Smith
The Padres traded away one of the most reliable setup men in the game, Luke Gregerson, to acquire outfielder Seth Smith and fill the team's need for a left-handed hitting outfielder. The 31-year-old isn't expected to play everyday, which makes his $4.5 million salary for 2014, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, a bit bloated for a small-market team.
But his value cannot be measured with the assumption that he will be on the bench more often than not with Carlos Quentin in left field and Cameron Maybin in center field. The reality is that both Quentin and Maybin aren't going to be healthy at the same time very often.
Quentin has averaged 84 games per season since being acquired prior to the 2012 season, and Maybin missed most of 2013. Even if Maybin can stay healthy, his inconsistent production at the plate makes it difficult to pencil him into the lineup regularly despite his ability to cover a ton of ground in spacious Petco Park.
With Smith, they pretty much know what they'll be getting—a solid left-handed hitter to place in the middle of the lineup against right-handed pitching. If he's not playing for Quentin in left field, he'll be in right field with Will Venable shifting over to center field in a situation where Maybin is out of the lineup.
In 2013, the Padres posted a well-below average .668 OPS versus right-handed pitchers. Smith has a career .844 OPS versus right-handed pitchers.
The offense should be much better with Smith being a big part of it.
Rangers Re-Sign Colby Lewis
Prior to elbow and hip injuries that have kept him out of action since July 2012, Colby Lewis had proven that he was a very good major league pitcher with a 3.93 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 8.1 K/9 in three seasons for the Texas Rangers after spending the 2008 and 2009 seasons in Japan.
The long absence dropped him off the radar, however, which is probably why the Rangers were able to retain him on a minor league deal that will pay him only $2 million if he's in the majors with an additional $4 million in incentives, according to Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas.
With Derek Holland's knee injury likely to keep him out until at least midseason, Lewis' return takes on an even greater importance as the team looks to fill out its rotation after Yu Darvish and three pitchers—Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez—who missed significant time in 2013 with injuries.
Relievers Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers will prepare as starters in spring training, giving the team a couple more options aside from Nick Tepesch and whoever else they bring in between now and the start of the season.
But if Lewis is healthy and shows that he's at least close to his previous form, the solution is pretty simple. The 34-year-old will be in the rotation, and the Rangers will look like geniuses for keeping him in the mix for another season.
Rays Acquire Ryan Hanigan
The Tampa Bay Rays really like Jose Molina. He's one of the best, if not the best, pitch framers in the game and does an excellent job working with the pitching staff. And he's never cost them more than $2 million per season. Despite his inability to provide much offense, he's a great asset to their ballclub.
That great asset is getting up there in age, however—Molina will turn 39 in June—so the Rays went out and acquired Ryan Hanigan, a catcher with similar defensive skills to Molina, a bit more hitting ability (.740 OPS from 2010-2012) and five years younger.
The 33-year-old Hanigan also comes at an affordable rate for the small-market Rays, who will pay him less than $11 million for the next three seasons to be their primary catcher with Molina moving into a backup role.
Royals Acquire Norichika Aoki
In an early December trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Kansas City Royals acquired Norichika Aoki, a leadoff hitter who can get on base, hit for some power and steal bases (.355 OBP, 18 HR, 57 2B, 50 SB in two big league seasons), play solid outfield defense and will make less than $2 million in 2014.
The price was a lefty pitcher, Will Smith, who wasn't even a lock to make the team as a middle reliever. Sure, the Brewers get a pitcher who, at least, should be a pretty good lefty specialist out of the bullpen with six years of club control. Aoki is a free agent after the season.
But barring a drastic decline in performance, the 32-year-old Aoki could prove to be the missing piece to an offense that has plenty of talented young hitters but have lacked enough consistency over the course of a full season.
With Aoki setting the table in front of Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer, the Royals could take the next step forward in 2014 and earn a playoff berth for the first time in 19 years. And the move to acquire Aoki, as much of an impact as it will have had, will always fly under the radar.
White Sox Sign Felipe Paulino
When the Kansas City Royals acquired right-hander Felipe Paulino from the Colorado Rockies in May 2011, he was still a work in progress. He had a major league arm but still had yet to come anywhere close to putting it all together at age 27.
He showed promise after being inserted into the Royals rotation, however, posting a 4.26 ERA with a 3.6 BB/9 and 8.7 K/9 in 20 starts. Through seven starts in 2012, he appeared on the brink of a breakout season with a 1.67 ERA, 3.6 BB/9 and 9.3 K/9 in 37.2 innings pitched. But a season-ending elbow injury, which required Tommy John surgery, ended any thought of that.
Whether that seven-start stint was just a small-sample fluke or whether Paulino was just starting to figure things out, the Chicago White Sox are investing $2 million to find out.
The 30-year-old will make $1.75 million in 2014 with a $250,000 buyout on a $4 million club option in 2015. While his ceiling isn't quite as high as Francisco Liriano, who signed a similar deal (one-year, $1M w/ $8M club option) with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season—it wouldn't be a surprise if the Sox got a solid season from Paulino in 2013 and the chance to retain him at what would appear to be a very team-friendly salary in 2015.
Yankees Re-Sign Brendan Ryan
Shortly after Derek Jeter agreed to a one-year deal for the 2014 season, the New York Yankees made sure a much-needed backup plan was in place. Brendan Ryan, widely considered as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, was re-signed to a two-year, $5 million deal.
Because Jeter expects to return healthy after he had an entire offseason to recover from ankle surgery, the move to bring back Ryan isn't very newsworthy. Ryan's career .619 OPS also plays into why his re-signing didn't draw much attention.
But even if Jeter, who will be 40 years old in June, can avoid the disabled list after a season in which he was limited to just 17 games, he'll likely get a lot more rest than he ever has during his long career.
Whether that's on the bench or as the designated hitter, the 31-year-old Ryan will be manning the shortstop position when Jeter isn't. And that might be as many as 40 starts even if Jeter isn't hampered by an injury.
The Yankees lineup, top to bottom, should be strong enough to make up for Ryan's offensive limitations, as will Ryan's ability to save runs on the field.
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