Ranking the 6 Biggest Steals of the MLB Offseason so Far

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IDecember 10, 2013

Ranking the 6 Biggest Steals of the MLB Offseason so Far

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    Undervalued assets, in dollars or production, are the key to fielding a successful team.

    Thus far, the offseason has been highlighted by contracts in excess of $150 million to Jacoby Ellsbury and $240 million to Robinson Cano, but it's the smaller, less talked about moves that could pay major dividends in 2014. 

    With revenue rising around the sport, free-agent players are receiving eye-opening offers and signing them without hesitation. Due to the cost of those free agents, general managers are holding onto their prospects, hoping for cheap labor to impact the club within a few seasons.

    As the sport takes center stage in Disney World, we await the next major signing or trade, but often, it's the smaller pacts or less publicized trades that go without the coverage they deserve.

    Here are the six biggest steals of the offseason thus far. From one-year contracts to trades, the six players changing addresses all can provide more value than their most recent transaction suggests.

    *All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

Hiroki Kuroda

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    Free-agent contract: One-year, $16 million deal with the New York Yankees.

    Yes, for this pitcher, $16 million for one season qualifies as a steal. 

    Since arriving in Los Angeles for the 2008 season, the now 38-year-old righty has pitched to an ERA of 3.76 or below in every single season. Over the last two years, pitching in Yankee Stadium and the American League East, Kuroda has posted an ERA+ of 125.

    If Kuroda was willing to pitch outside of New York or Japan, two and three-year offers would have come across the desk of his agent, despite his age. Durability and consistency are difficult traits to find in a starter, regardless of attrition or figures on a birth certificate. 

    According to Fangraphs' calculation of value, Kuroda was worth $19.1 million last season as a key member of New York's pitching staff.

Brian Wilson

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    Free-agent contract: One-year, $10 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    For this steal, a caveat applies: If Wilson received $10 million to pitch as a set-up man for a mid-market team, it would be ridiculous.

    However, on the Los Angeles Dodgers, where money is printed in Chavez Ravine, bringing back the healthy, hard-throwing Wilson to act as insurance for closer Kenley Jansen is a steal.

    Wilson was excellent down the stretch of the 2013 season, pitching to a 0.66 ERA in 18 games with the Dodgers.

    Los Angeles' general manager, Ned Colletti, spoke highly of Wilson when the deal was announced. Per ESPN:

    "When all the different people in your organization are unanimous when you talk about whether to bring someone back, that speaks pretty highly to what that person accomplished here," Colletti said. "He brought a lot to our bullpen. He brought stability, he brought veteran leadership."

    During Wilson's best days in San Francisco, he was worth roughly $10 million per season in 2009 and 2010, per Fangraphs' value calculations. Even if he's slightly less dominant now, Los Angeles added a pitcher with the potential for dominance back into their bullpen on a reasonable deal.

David Murphy

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    Free-agent contract: Two-years, $12 million deal with the Cleveland Indians.

    Murphy, after posting a .220 batting average in 2013, was a perfect buy-low option for the Cleveland Indians outfield, and he is poised to be considered a steal by the end of next season.

    Due to an extreme case of bad luck, Murphy slumped to post his worst career season in 2013. Among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, Murphy's .227 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) ranked fourth-worst in the majors, ahead of only Darwin Barney, Dan Uggla and Yuniesky Betancourt. 

    From 2010-2012, Murphy was a much better player, posting a total OPS of .801 during those three seasons in Texas. That mark was good enough for 35th among qualified outfielders, ahead of names like Torii Hunter, Hunter Pence, Adam Jones and Michael Cuddyer.

    If the Indians receive that kind of hitter, $6 million per season is a steal. According to Fangraphs' value calculations, Murphy was worth over $28.5 million from 2010-2012. 

Josh Johnson

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    Free-agent contract: One-year, $8 million deal with the San Diego Padres.

    The San Diego Padres can't afford to sign true No. 1 starters on the free-agent market. If their rotation features one, it was likely cultivated through a trade or draft and development.

    By signing free-agent right-hander Josh Johnson, the organization is attempting to steal an ace off the open market. After a nightmare season in Toronto, the former Marlins star is now trying to revive his career in San Diego.

    Sure, the 6.20 ERA looked awful last season. After pitching 81.1 forgettable innings in the American League, Johnson is poised to return to dominance on a cheap contract in San Diego.

    Why? Look to his K/9 rate and new park. 

    Despite the struggles in 2013, Johnson still fanned over a batter per inning (9.2 K/9) for the Blue Jays, suggesting his stuff has enough life to miss bats on a consistent basis.

    Now, by moving to San Diego, he enters a pitchers park that will allow the fly balls he surrenders to land in outfielders' gloves, not the seats.

    When healthy, Johnson is one of the best pitchers in baseball. From 2008-2012, the now 29-year-old starter posted a 137 ERA+, good enough for fifth-best among pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched. The only starters with better adjusted ERA's over that span: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw and CC Sabathia. 

    If Johnson returns to anywhere near that form, he'll be worth far more than $8 million. According to Fangraphs' value calculation, Johnson was worth over $24 million per season in both 2009 and 2010.

Doug Fister

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    Traded to the Washington Nationals for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and Robbie Ray.

    By sacrificing a role player, reliever and possible mid-rotation starter, the Washington Nationals added one of the most valuable pitchers in all of baseball. 

    Yes, folks, Doug Fister can be considered one of the 10 best pitchers in Major League Baseball. Judging by WAR, he ranks ninth since 2011 with a total WAR of 12.6. 

    That number is better than David Price, R.A. Dickey and CC Sabathia. 

    Considering Fister's current contract doesn't allow him to hit free agency until after 2016, the Nationals brought aboard an undervalued star with two years of team control. 

    Along with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals have the potential to boast the best rotation in baseball.

    According to Fangraphs' value calculations, Fister has been worth $62.1 million over the last three seasons for the Mariners and Tigers. Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors projects Fister to earn just under $7 million through arbitration in 2014. 

Norichika Aoki

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    Traded to the Kansas City Royals for Will Smith. 

    By acquiring Norichika Aoki from the Milwaukee Brewers, the Kansas City Royals added one of the top on-base machines to their lineup for a fraction of what his true value is on the open market. 

    Since arriving in America in 2013, Aoki has posted a .355 on-base percentage and walked more times (98) than he's (95) struck out. How rare is that? The only other players in baseball to match that feat over the last two years are Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion.

    According to Fangraphs' value calculations, Aoki has been worth $19.8 million over the last two years for the Brewers. He'll cost Kansas City a grand total of $1.95 million in 2014.

    As Matt Synder of CBS Sports pointed out, the deal as further impact. By acquiring Aoki for the small sum of Will Smith, the Royals added a hitter that will allow them to move Alex Gordon down in the lineup and into a run-producing spot.

    Who has been the biggest steal of the offseason? 

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