MLB Free Agency and Trade Rumors: Grading the 50 Biggest Movers of Last Winter
Adrian Gonzalez has but 25 home runs for the Boston Red Sox this season, but he has lived up to or exceeded their expectations in every other way. He has been worth every bit of the seven-year, $154-million contract to which they signed him in April, even after accounting for the talent they had to give up in trade to get him from the San Diego Padres.
Carl Crawford, on the other hand, seems to have taken Theo Epstein to the cleaners in wringing a seven-year deal of his own (worth $142 million) from the Red Sox GM on the free agent market. So it goes in the risky world of big-name baseball transactions. If you succeed more than half the time, you can make it in this game for a long time.
With the offseason fast approaching, and a new crop of free agents and trade targets bracing for big moves, here are our grades for each of last winter's 50 biggest movers.
50. Ryan Theriot
Just three seasons removed from being worth 3.6 wins and getting on base 39 percent of the time for the Chicago Cubs, Theriot could be headed for the scrap heap this winter. After the Dodgers dealt him to the St. Louis Cardinals in December, Tony La Russa announced Theriot would be his starting shortstop and bat near the top of the order.
That didn't last long. Theriot's bat (.653 OPS) sunk him to the eighth spot by mid-season, and his glove (about 10 runs worse than average at shortstop) forced the team to acquire Rafael Furcal in a last-ditch effort to stay in the race. Rather than pay what figures to be a $4-million or higher price to keep Theriot, St. Louis figures to non-tender him at year's end.
49. Kerry Wood
This was a sentimental signing, with the Chicago Cubs bringing back Wood for roughly a third of what he could have gotten elsewhere. It hasn't been the happiest of homecomings, but Wood has continued to strike people out and cut down on the exorbitant walk totals he rang up last season. For $1.5 million on a one-year deal, almost anyone is a bargain, and Wood has helped the Cubs deal with a losing season a little bit more easily.
48. Grant Balfour
Multi-year contracts for relief pitchers are generally a bad idea, but Balfour is at least a steady and projectable hurler. He signed for a steep figure, getting $8.1 million guaranteed through 2012, but he has posted a 2.30 ERA in roughly 55 innings. The A's knew he would be a good fit for their park, and indeed, he remains an extreme fly-ball pitcher in an extreme pitcher's park.
47. Willie Bloomquist
Signed for less than $1 million this winter, Bloomquist got off to a hot start, and injuries have kept him from having to give up much playing time all year. He plays all over the diamond, hits rarely but gets on base occasionally, and might even be back on a $1.1-million mutual option in 2012.
If it feels ridiculous that a sure-fire playoff team would not be headed there without the 0.2 wins contributed by Willie Bloomquist, that's because it is. The Wild Card stinks.
46. Frank Francisco
Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is a genius and all, but sometimes he tries to get too fancy. That's the only explanation for the trade that brought Francisco from Texas for Mike Napoli, right after Anthopoulos had stolen Napoli from the Angels in the crazy-great Vernon Wells deal. Sure enough, Napoli's been terrific this season, and Francisco has been a middling reliever.
Those who remember the whispers in July that the Jays were pursuing Chris Iannetta should also remember thinking, "Huh?"
45. Scott Downs
Downs is a heck of a left-handed asset out of the bullpen. He almost takes fly balls out of the equation, and he avoids walking people. His 1.37 season ERA has as much to do with great luck on batted balls in play as with any particular skill, but Downs has probably been a fair value in year one of a three-year, $15-million deal. It's those other two years that worry you.
44. Jon Garland
They don't call him Jon "Volume over Virtue" Garland for nothing, and if they don't call him that at all, they should. Garland had pitched over 190 innings in each of the last nine seasons before signing with the Dodgers this winter, never throwing all that impressively but never flailing and racking up value by simply taking the ball a lot.
This year, that has not panned out. His nine starts netted 54 innings and precious little about which to be happy. His $8-million option for 2012 looked pretty for him. Now it looks like a missed opportunity.
43. Phil Humber
The Minnesota Twins dealt for Humber when they traded Johan Santana. Dissatisfied with what they found, they let him go to Kansas City, who let him go to Oakland last winter after one season. Oakland waived him about six weeks later, at which point the White Sox picked him up for purposes of depth. Eight months later, he has made 22 starts and posted a 3.55 FIP for them. Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is one of baseball's underrated studs.
42. Armando Galarraga
Maybe the baseball gods messed with Jim Joyce last June to give us all a chance to see real sportsmanship in action, or to appreciate a humble hurler and a great umpire with a big heart. Maybe they did it because they didn't want Armando freakin' Galarraga to throw a perfect game.
Other than that one night, for which he remains semi-famous, Galarraga just isn't very good. His career FIP is 5.34, and after the Tigers traded him to the D'Backs in January, he lasted just eight starts (in the NL West!) before collapsing in on himself like a dying star.
41. Jason Giambi
Years after Bonds and Clemens and Palmeiro fell from grace, and in the season that saw Manny Ramirez's forced retirement within a month of Opening Day, Giambi keeps right on going as the Steroid Guy Who Admitted It And Lived. He's making an unimpressive $1 million for his work, but it's been fine work. He has 12 homers and a .979 OPS in 134 plate appearances.
40. Brian Fuentes
If Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are vulnerable to a given baseball axiom, so are Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes. You succeed once in the free-agent market, you fail once. For relief pitchers, you're probably lucky if you do that well. Fuentes has burned out even as Balfour has thrived, and it's Fuentes to whom the A's owe $5 million in 2012.
39. Jerry Hairston
Sometimes a GM on a losing team will sign a player just to have a veteran presence until the trade deadline, and to see what he can get for said veteran around the trade deadline. That's exactly what Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo seems to have been thinking when he ponied up $2 million for Hairston.
With Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa both in need of tutoring up the middle, Hairston was a positive impact guy for the Nats, and now, he's a semi-regular on a team ticketed for the playoffs. He's not all that good, but when has that ever stopped a Hairston man?
38. Brandon Webb
You make choices and you accept consequences. The Rangers gambled $3 million on Webb getting healthy and pitching for them in the big leagues this year. Photo Day was as close as he got. No great loss.
37. Edgar Renteria
I can't decide whether it's quaint, romantic or just frustrating that the last two World Series MVP awards have gone to men who could barely play the game anymore, and who immediately moved on without fanfare to other teams. One way or another, it's true, and Renteria's arrival in Cincinnati was as underwhelming as was his departure from San Francisco.
He's still an acceptable but not special defender, and although the playoffs are a special time for Edgar, the rest of the year his bat continues to fade into oblivion. The Reds will not miss him after this year, although it's not as though they have a better idea right now at shortstop.
36. Aaron Harang
Just how much does PETCO Park help a pitcher? Well, if he happens to be an extreme fly-ball guy like Harang, it can restore him to his peak level of effectiveness even five years after that time has passed. Harang posted ERAs of 3.76 and 3.73 in 2006 and 2007. His next three years were terrible. In San Diego in 2011, he's back down to 3.74, and has a 13-5 record.
35. Ryan Vogelsong
Vogelsong's career ERA has dropped over a full run in 2011, partially because 2011 now represents some 30 percent of his career playing time. His 2.62 ERA on a minor-league contract is pretty easily the best value anyone has gotten out of a winter acquisition all season, though giving Brian Sabean credit for it is a bit like patting the back of a lottery winner for their scratching skills.
34. Matt Guerrier
The amount of money invested in relief pitchers this winter made savvy fans put palm to forehead. Guerrier, though, is another exemplar of players earning their keep out of the bullpen despite being overpaid. Never mind his 3.59 ERA: He's been missing more bats and has kept the ball in the park better this year.
33. Jesse Crain
Crain has a good slider, but after signing for big money, most pitching coaches might have counseled that he throw it less. After all, no pitcher in baseball relied so heavily on his slider last season as Crain, and some guys (Carlos Marmol comes to mind) definitely have better ones.
No Don Cooper. Under Cooper's tutelage, Crain has thrown the slider even more, fully half the time this year. That, along with the development of a change-up he can use to be less susceptible against lefty swingers, has helped Crain strike out over a batter per inning for the first time in his career. His 2.24 ERA is a bit suspicious for an extreme fly-ball pitcher at U.S. Cellular Field, but even so, Crain has been everything for which the White Sox could have hoped this year.
32. Cameron Maybin
Dear Major League front offices,
You have SO MANY strengths, that, one thing you might want to work on, is not giving up meaningful assets (money, talent) to acquire middle relievers.
Case in point: Larry, do you remember when you traded Cameron Maybin (a fast, gifted defender at a premium position, with some offensive upside to boot) for a couple relief pitchers whose names most people already forget? That was SO NICE of you, but remember, you're trying to help YOURSELF win, not do favors for other GMs.
I really look forward to getting your feedback on this, and if you guys feel differently, please do not get behind the wheel.
Everyone Who Can Do Your Job Better
P.S. Jed Hoyer, you're good.
31. Kyle Farnsworth
- They can go from very good to very bad simply because of random variation, as Farnsworth did on an alternating basis from 2001-06.
- They can go from very bad to very good very easily, so picking up a guy on a one-year deal does not mean you will not find gold in your sifter.
Farnsworth perfectly embodies the best reasons not to tie oneself to relievers for the long term:
Farnsworth has accomplished that transition by trading in some strikeouts for the ability to throw strikes, and by adding a cutter that makes it really hard to square him up. He makes just $2.6 million this season, with a very affordable club option Yet advanced metrics tell us Farnsworth is a top-25 reliever in all of baseball.
30. Melky Cabrera
Tools are fickle baseball bedfellows. In the Royals outfield this season, though, there is some sort of tent revival going on for toolsy guys who never panned out.
According to the FanGraphs calculation of WAR, Alex Gordon, Jeff Francoeur and Cabrera form the fifth-most formidable outfield in baseball this season. No sense in repeating, because this is a written piece, but please re-read that and come back.
Yep. It's true. And Cabrera alone has been worth more than three wins, a better figure than more heralded Adam Jones, Drew Stubbs and Austin Jackson. This is the guy the Yankees waited four years for.
29. Jeff Francoeur
[See previous slide]
Only Francoeur plays right field, and is therefore slightly less valuable.
28. Bobby Jenks
Eesh. Have I mentioned, yet, that signing relief pitchers for more than one year at a time for mid-seven-figure salaries is a bad idea? To that admonition, let me add this one: Signing fat guys 30 years or older to multi-year deals is a bad idea. And this one: Signing stupid people to multi-year deals is a bad idea.
When the Red Sox signed Bobby Jenks, they hit an ugly (no pun intended) trifecta.
27. Juan Uribe
Signing Uribe for three years and $21 million might have been a bit rich, but the Dodgers got one of baseball's underrated players for that investment. Uribe can field every infield position smoothly. He hits for power, though not for average. He doesn't draw walks or run well, but he does some things very well and people tend not to value his skill set they way they should. He flopped in 2011; Los Angeles gets two more turns with him.
26. Joaquin Benoit
I promise, I am not dwelling on this relief pitching thing. It was the league that dwelt on them all winter, doling out eight-figure deals spread over two and three years. Benoit got that ball rolling with a very fast deal with Detroit, and you know what? He hasn't been half bad. Maybe the Tigers knew something. Maybe they got lucky.
25. Rafael Soriano
If the Yankees win the World Series, it has to go down as the most remarkable recovery from near-offseason implosion in big-league history.
On top of the flinty negotiations with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera; along with the never-ending off-field distraction of Alex Rodriguez; there was a reverse palace coup of sorts in which GM Brian Cashman's superiors (okay, let's search for a different term) overrode him and committed $35 million to Rafael Soriano.
Actually, if the Yanks win, we'll remember it largely as a recovery from signing Soriano.
24. Adam LaRoche
After years adrift, LaRoche finally got a multi-year commitment to play in Washington, and he likely would have come around and hit fine if it had not been for the injury that shelved him for the year. Mike Morse seems to be headed back to the outfield to accommodate LaRoche in 2012, so it would be premature to pan this deal. LaRoche is a steady, if forever unspectacular, workman at first base.
23. J.J. Putz
Betting on a reliever should never involve a question about his effectiveness. If you're going to jump off that cliff and sift through the abyss for a bullpen arm to whom to give $10 million, grab a guy who will be either good or hurt.
That sums up Putz in a nutshell. He should easily be worth what Kevin Towers committed to him, and to top it off, the Diamondbacks have a club option for 2013 on Putz.
22. Brett Lawrie
Half of a fairly quirky deal made in December, Lawrie has delivered perhaps even faster than the Blue Jays expected. He will not be a third baseman for long, but he should hit for as long as he plays, and he should play for a long time. Toronto is building an offensive nightmare for the rest of the American League.
21. Shaun Marcum
True win-win trades are rare. It's possible only when the dealers have utterly divergent objectives. In this case, the Brewers—having made up their minds to go for broke in 2011—dealt for a pitcher who would make that run a realistic goal. The Blue Jays, knowing 2011 would be another year of mediocrity, sought an asset who could brighten their future. Both sides got what they wanted.
20. Tsuyoshi Nishioka
Solid defensive middle infielders do not need to do that much else in order to have value. Throw out this season. The transition involved in coming to the United States is singularly difficult. A serious injury helped derail Nishioka's season.
He fields very well, whatever the numbers say. He will eventually get on base enough to be a solid piece for the Twins, who essentially spent $15 million to have him for three years. It's a bad situation right now, but it will get better.
19. Hideki Matsui
Hideki Matsui has become one of the most boring players in baseball. He hits a little, draws a few walks and hits for ever-dissipating power. At the reasonable price Oakland paid ($4.25 million), it's not a bad idea to bring in a guy like Matsui. It also does not make much difference for your team. Oakland might have done better to save that money, combine it with all the cash they threw at relief pitchers and get more of an impact player.
18. Russell Martin
The fact that the Red Sox and Yankees were the only serious bidders for Martin's services this winter suggest one good reason they win all the time: They are smarter and richer than everyone else.
Martin is an underrated player, a catcher who can hit for occasional power and whose OPS has been 17 percent better than average since the All-Star break. The Yankees did really, really well to acquire him.
On a tangent here: Martin's face is just THE classic Yankee face, isn't it? He looks like a composite of Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Yogi Berra, and that's cool.
17. Derrek Lee
16. Vernon Wells
The worst trade in baseball history saddled the Angels with Wells for a preposterous sum over four years. At least, though, one might have assumed Wells would be a league-average corner outfielder with thump in his bat.
15. Carlos Pena
The Cubs didn't expect a .900 OPS from Carlos Pena, and they haven't gotten one. But they have gotten exactly what they DID expect. Pena has a good shot at 30 homers and 80 RBI, has fielded first base as well as all but four or five others in the game, and is a clubhouse presence non pareil. He is the perfect baseball person, in terms of comportment and attitude, in terms of clubhouse chemistry, and he was well worth what the Cubs paid for him.
14. Mike Napoli
If the Rangers win the World Series, will someone please give Jon Daniels a belt buckle or a bull's skull or whatever Texans prize most? He is a genius, maybe the best GM in baseball, definitely in the top two. And if it's true that to be the best, you have to beat the best, Daniels might be the Alpha dog, because he took Alex Anthopoulos for a RIDE in this trade. To say Napoli has enjoyed hitting in Texas is like saying Billy Beane has enjoyed Brad Pitt comps.
13. Dan Uggla
The Braves swindled the Marlins in making this trade. They really got them good. For Omar Infante, who would start for very few teams other than the Marlins, and a couple spare parts, the Braves got a studly slugger who could reinvigorate their crummy offense and outhit his defensive liabilities for a year. It was a brilliant trade. Give them a D for the five-year contract extension they gave him, but as for the original acquisition...
12. Johnny Damon
Signing Damon was half of the double-whammy with which the Rays hit their AL East rivals this winter, having waited most of the signing period to pounce on the remaining free agents. Damon has 14 home runs and 14 stolen bases, so that's neat, but otherwise, he's been remarkably low-impact.
That said, I have no doubt that his leadership has helped the Rays keep plugging and get back into the AL playoff hunt. I'm not in favor of signing players with makeup or chemistry too close to the forefront, but in this case, it might just work out.
11. Manny Ramirez
This is the most recent photo in our database of Ramirez. It was taken April 3.
P.S., Don't do drugs, kids. It will force you into a shameful retirement and totally spoil your Hall of Fame cred.
10. Matt Garza
The Cubs overpaid to get Matt Garza, and were in position to take advantage of the great season he has had. Still and all, he's a heck of a hurler. The raw stuff here is jaw-dropping. If he can ever overcome bad luck, a bad defense and some temperament issues (blown out of proportion by narrative mongers), he could be a true ace. In the meantime, he's an NL Central ace, anyway.
9. Adam Dunn
And that was just this year falling on the Sox. The other shoe is soon to drop, and it is a size three-more-years and weighs $44 million.
8. Lance Berkman
It's still a myth that the Cardinals are contenders. It's a scary story Bud Selig is telling you to get you to care about the Wild Card. That said, the Cards would have been shuffled into the deck of losers months ago if not for the inspired decision to forgo defense in right field and take what Berkman can give with the bat. He's given them the world in return.
More teams should recognize this inefficiency, because a huge part of the declines in run scoring lately is sheer selection bias. Teams willing to give up 10 defensive runs to get 30 at the plate will thrive until the league balances itself.
7. Zack Greinke
Targeted contention—deciding when your optimal chance will occur and preparing to pounce—is an under-utilized method of team building in baseball today. The White Sox represent its huge risk and drawbacks. The Brewers represent the potential for glory when things go right. Greinke and his mates have made them a juggernaut capable of seriously threatening, and maybe toppling, the Phillies this season.
6. Victor Martinez
When Martinez became the first big-name signee of the winter, you had to wonder how it would work out for the Detroit Tigers. In order for a guy like Martinez to be worth four years and $50 million, he would need to catch at least sometimes, right?
They've put that to the test now that Alex Avila has taken over so convincingly behind the plate. Sure enough, Martinez looks a bit overpaid. Even so, he's hit really well this season, even better than he usually had, and he was always a great hitter. His power is down, so putting him ahead of Miguel Cabrera might be a good idea (he's gotten on base at a .374 clip this year).
5. Adrian Beltre
Beltre is such an excellent defender that he only needs to be good—good, not great—in order to earn a five-year, $80-million deal. He has that kind of defensive value. Injuries have curtailed him this season a bit, as they sometimes do, but when Beltre has played he has been well worth the Rangers' investment.
Give Daniels credit, again, for putting together Beltre, Michael Young, Napoli and company and trusting manager Ron Washington to sort out playing time for those talented pieces.
4. Jayson Werth
Confirmation bias has made it easy to flay the Nationals for the seven-year, $126-million contract to which the team signed Werth in December. His batting line for the year does look ugly.
Here's the dirty little secret: He really has not been all that bad, and he's getting better. Werth does many things well. He runs the bases extremely efficiently, fields well in the outfield (even center field, albeit in a mere smattering of innings lately) and sometimes gets on base and hits for power. Since the All-Star break, he has an .810 OPS. It's still a tenuous investment, but it's not indefensible.
3. Carl Crawford
- Crawford's defensive value is diminished playing alongside Jacoby Ellsbury and in Fenway Park's cramped left field.
- Crawford's success over the past two seasons was not invulnerable to the ravages of regression.
- Speed is a tricky thing to project, because it can fade (even temporarily) without warning. The cliche that speed never takes a day off is nonsense.
Crawford's struggles this year highlight the risk of big-money signings. There weren't great warning signs here; Crawford simply collapsed. Injuries probably played a bigger role here than anyone cares to admit. Still, it's clear that:
One year down, six to go. Crawford had better get better fast.
2. Cliff Lee
When discussing the Yankees earlier, did I mention that they were spurned for less money by their absolute, number-one-with-a-bullet priority target on the free-agent market?
Lee has had some brief glimpses of mortality this year, but in general, he's been so good as to make his $24-million AAV look downright affordable. He does everything well, and does it for eight or nine innings every time he takes the mound. If the Phillies still had an elite offense, we could call the season now and ESPN could stop pretending to care about something other than the NFL.
1. Adrian Gonzalez
If Adrian Gonzalez had been told he would hit just 25 home runs his first 645 plate appearances in a Red Sox uniform, would he have felt as good about the move? We'll never know.
The Sox locked him down in April for seven years, and though Gonzalez hasn't hit 50 home runs the way some thought he might, he has MORE than made up for that lack of homers by clanging balls all nonchalant off the Green Monster. He might win a rare sweep of the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at first base, which are usually split between the two best hitters at the position.