Major Lessons MLB Teams Learned in the 2013-14 Free-Agency, Trade Season

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Major Lessons MLB Teams Learned in the 2013-14 Free-Agency, Trade Season
Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

It's been a busy MLB offseason. From blockbuster trades to a protracted posting saga, there's been a lot going on during the MLB 2013-14 free-agency and trade season. 

Teams have had ample opportunity to splash out their cash on big-name players. Of course, they've also had plenty of chances to sit back and learn from the clubs that have spent their funds in a less-than-wise fashion.

Here's a look at a few of the major lessons MLB teams have learned during the 2013-14 free-agency and trade season.

 

1. The Opt-Out Clause Is Here to Stay

Dishing out a seven-year, $155 million deal to a pitcher who has never actually thrown a big league pitch entails a ton of risk.

Of course, that wasn't even the riskiest part of the New York Yankees' megadeal with Masahiro Tanaka. No, that distinction belongs to the club's decision to insert an opt-out clause into the deal following the fourth year of the agreement. 

As a result, Tanaka can test the free-agent market after the 2017 season when he'll be 29 years old. So, essentially his deal will be for just four years if Tanaka excels, and for seven only if he ends up being a dud.

Just why exactly would the Yankees ever agree to a deal that so drastically favors the player? 

The answer is that the opt-out clause was a "mandate" from Tanaka's camp, according to Joel Sherman and Dan Martin of the New York Post. The Los Angeles Dodgers "reportedly" offered the former ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles more money than the Yankees did, but not the much-desired opt-out clause, per Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune

The Dodgers, of course, are the team that has popularized the opt-out clause in recent seasons. Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw have both recently landed multiyear deals with built-in opt-out clauses. Like Tanaka, both of those pitchers are represented by agent Casey Close

The opt-out clause is by no means new. Alex Rodriguez had one in the 10-year deal he signed with the Texas Rangers back in 2001. Recently, though, premier players have clearly recognized just how powerful of a tool it can be for wielding leverage in contract negotiations. 

From the club's perspective, there's no doubt that offering an opt-out clause is a major concession. But it's not a concession without benefits. 

For the Yankees, the willingness to offer an opt-out clause allowed the team to sign a player whose skill set is simply unmatched by any other starter on the free-agent market. 

No team would ever voluntarily include an opt-out clause in a new multiyear deal. However, teams will need to become increasingly comfortable with making that concession if they hope to continue signing the biggest stars from around the game. 

 

2. Win-Win Trades Are Definitely Possible

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

It's not often that a trade works out for both sides that are involved.

However, the Detroit Tigers and Rangers swapping Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler provides a blueprint for exactly how to make that happen.

In the deal, the Tigers gained significant financial flexibility while the Rangers snagged the impact, left-handed hitter the club had long been coveting. 

From the Rangers' perspective, the key to making this trade work was dealing from a position of strength. Kinsler is a three-time All-Star, but in Texas he'll hardly be missed with Jurickson Profar sliding in to take over his spot at second base. 

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The obvious downside to the deal is that the Rangers have opened themselves up to some major financial exposure down the line.

While Kinsler has four years and $57 million left on his deal, Fielder is still owed $168 million over the next seven seasons. The Tigers will also be sending the Rangers $30 million to offset the difference in contracts.

Subsequently, the Rangers will be paying Fielder $138 million over the next seven campaigns. That's no bargain, but it's also a fair price based on the current market. After all, Shin-Soo Choo will be earning $130 million over the same period of time and Jacoby Ellsbury will get $153 million from the Yankees over the next seven seasons. 

From the Tigers' perspective, the trade also makes all sorts of sense. Kinsler provides Detroit with a replacement for the departed Omar Infante, and then there's all that money the team saved. 

Now that Fielder's monster deal is off the books, the Tigers can re-direct that money to help re-sign Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera. Scherzer becomes a free agent at the end of the 2014 season, while Cabrera can become one after 2015. 

As with any other trade, there's no question that this deal involves risks for both teams. Still, this move clearly demonstrates that with some creative maneuvering, it's completely possible for teams to strike a deal that benefits both sides. 

 

3. Spending Lots of Money on Free Agents Rarely Pays Off 

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

When it comes to the MLB free-agent market, spending more isn't always better. 

Back in November, Peter Gammons of GammonsDaily.com observed that the biggest free-agent signings have rarely paid off in recent years: "In the last five off-seasons, nine players have switched teams for contracts of more than $90M. None have won a World Series ring with his new team."

This offseason, most teams, but not all, have done an excellent job of not smashing past that $90 million plateau. So far, four contracts in excess of $90 million have been handed out by three different teams. 

The Seattle Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million over 10 years, the Rangers gave Choo $130 million and the Yankees eclipsed the $90 million mark with the deals for both Ellsbury ($153 million) and Tanaka ($155 million). 

Obviously, there's no guarantee that Gammons' trend will hold up in 2014. However, the trend does point to another often overlooked aspect of free-agency spending sprees. 

Having tons of money allows a team to spend more, but it also allows the club to make far more costly mistakes.

 

Note: All salary information via Cot's Baseball Contracts on BaseballProspectus.com. 

If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck

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