8 Offseason MLB Moves Looking Like Steals 2 Months into 2015 Season

Luke Strickland@LSTRICK21Contributor IIIMay 26, 2015

8 Offseason MLB Moves Looking Like Steals 2 Months into 2015 Season

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    Shelby Miller has been electric for the Atlanta Braves.
    Shelby Miller has been electric for the Atlanta Braves.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Every year in MLB, teams make moves in hopes of improving their respective ballclubs. While some of those transactions turn out to be underwhelming flops, many wind up being under-the-radar steals.

    The 2015 season has had its share of bargain buys. Players like Shelby Miller, Josh Donaldson and Dee Gordon have settled into their new homes and performed at a high level.

    There are plenty of factors that go into being a "steal." Contracts, team control, production and trade packages all play into a team's ability to make a shrewd deal.

    The following eight players are making huge impacts with their new clubs. They are among the league leaders in many statistical categories and won't hamper an organization financially for years to come.

Miguel Montero

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    Miguel Montero was a great pickup for the Chicago Cubs.
    Miguel Montero was a great pickup for the Chicago Cubs.Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

    The Acquisition 

    The Chicago Cubs acquired catcher Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks for minor league pitchers Zack Godley and Jeferson Mejia.

    2015 Stats

    .265/.384/.451, 5 HR, 16 RBI, .186 ISO, 126 wRC+

    Why It's Been a Steal

    With three years and $40 million left on his contract before this season, Miguel Montero may not seem like much of a steal on paper.

    But the 31-year-old backstop has bounced back from consecutive down years to return to the conversation about baseball's best offensive catcher. Montero is exceeding all of his career averages at the dish.

    Montero's line-drive rate and home-run-to-fly-ball ratio have both increased, while he's lowered his soft contact to a career best. It's simple—Montero is hitting the ball hard again.

    A fresh start with a new team seems to have done wonders for Montero.

    "It was time for me to get a fresh start someplace else," Montero told ESPN.com's Ron Matejko. "It's not that I wanted to go anywhere. I loved my time with the Diamondbacks organization, but looking back it was the best thing that could happen for me."

    The Cubs, loaded with top-tier prospects, could afford to ship two young pitchers to Arizona and take on Montero's salary. Godley has pitched well for Arizona at High-A but is already 25. Meanwhile, Mejia's strikeout rate has significantly dropped as his ERA has skyrocketed from last season.

J.A. Happ

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    Seattle's acquisition of J.A. Happ was one of the most underrated moves of the winter.
    Seattle's acquisition of J.A. Happ was one of the most underrated moves of the winter.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The Acquisition 

    The Seattle Mariners acquired pitcher J.A. Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Michael Saunders.

    2015 Stats

    3-1, 47.1 IP, 3.61 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 7.23 K/9, 2.09 BB/9

    Why It's Been a Steal

    J.A. Happ is a long way from his standout performance for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 season, but the veteran left-hander is turning back the clock with the Seattle Mariners.

    Happ trails only Felix Hernandez in pitching WAR for the Mariners. His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is currently sitting at a career high, and only 26 percent of contact against him has registered as hard.

    The 32-year-old has done a nice job of mixing up his offerings, as he's used all five of his pitches at least 10 percent of the time each. Opposing hitters have managed just a .157 average against his fastball, which Jake Mailhot of SB Nation believes may be a byproduct of batters not seeing it as often.

    The Mariners had a glut of outfielders before the season, so dealing Michael Saunders made plenty of sense. But with Saunders struggling mightily in Toronto and Happ exceeding expectations in Seattle, that trade has become one of the steals of the offseason.

    "Considering what general manager Jack Zduriencik gave up to get Happ, the Mariners have made out like bandits," said Brent Stecker of 710 ESPN Seattle. "While Happ is excelling, the injury-plagued Saunders is already on the DL for the second time this season and is batting just .194 with no homers in nine games for the Blue Jays."

    The Mariners surrendered a platoon outfielder for Happ, who has turned out to be the club's second-best pitcher. That's a pretty clever move for a team hoping to contend this season.

Kendrys Morales

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    Kendrys Morales has been a key cog in the Kansas City lineup.
    Kendrys Morales has been a key cog in the Kansas City lineup.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The Acquisition 

    The Kansas City Royals signed Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal. 

    2015 Stats

    .302/.363/.494, 6 HR, 37 RBI, .192 ISO, 137 wRC+

    Why It's Been a Steal

    When the Kansas City Royals allowed Billy Butler to test the free-agent waters, Kendrys Morales wasn't exactly celebrated as a potential replacement.

    After all, Morales hit just .218 last season for the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins. Because of that decline in production, Morales only commanded a two-year commitment for a reasonable amount of money.

    So far, Morales has been worth every penny. He ranks third in OPS and wRC+ for a Royals team that ranks third in MLB in runs scored.

    Morales' BABIP has increased from a .244 mark to .329 due to a significant increase in line-drive rate. The 31-year-old has also cut his amount of soft contact down from 16.5 to 10.3 percent.

    As K.C. is still considered a small-market team, Morales represented a perfect bounce-back candidate to gamble on, according to Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star:

    As the people who hated the Morales signing showed, predicting the future is kinda hard. I have enough trouble figuring out what has happened, much less what will happen. Small-market teams with a limited budget have to look for bargains and that includes bounce-back players: guys who played at a high level, then for one reason or another had a bad year, and are looking to bounce back. Pick the right guy and you have a talented, motivated player with something to prove.

    Gambling on Morales has paid off so far. Butler, who earned a three-year, $30 million deal this offseason, has been significantly worse than his replacement this season. Sure, this move had plenty of risk attached to it, but general manager Dayton Moore deserves plenty of credit for how it's played out.

Alfredo Simon

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    Alfredo Simon has pitched well for the Detroit Tigers.
    Alfredo Simon has pitched well for the Detroit Tigers.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Acquisition 

    The Detroit Tigers acquired pitcher Alfredo Simon from the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Eugenio Suarez and pitcher Jonathon Crawford.

    2015 Stats

    5-2, 57.1 IP, 2.67 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 5.97 K/9, 2.51 BB/9

    Why It's Been a Steal

    Alfredo Simon doesn't throw hard. He doesn't strike many people out. He's not flashy.

    But what he does do is mix up his pitches to generate minimal hard contact. Simon's 28.7 percent hard-contact rate has allowed him to get away with unimpressive strikeout numbers.

    Simon has also shown an ability to wiggle out of jams throughout his career. The 34-year-old's 75.6 percent strand rate is well above average, and that mark has inched toward 80 percent in 2015.

    For Detroit, Simon trails only David Price and Shane Greene in pitching WAR, and it's not by that much. His performance has been vital for a Detroit rotation that's tied for 18th in starters' ERA. Simon is only under team control for a year, but he could be a difference-maker for a team many think can win the American League.

    As for what Detroit gave up, Scott Strandberg of FanGraphs doesn't believe the Tigers should be too worried:

    For Tigers fans, I can understand the frustration with this deal. In giving up Jonathon Crawford and Eugenio Suarez, Detroit gave up quite a bit for one year of Alfredo Simon. Still, let's not overstate who those guys are. Crawford is a good — but not great — pitcher, and Suarez's ceiling is likely that of a super-utility type. Guys like that are nice to have, but I highly doubt Tigers fans are going to be kicking themselves five years from now, desperately wishing they never would have traded perennial All-Star Eugenio Suarez.

    Detroit is in win-now mode, so taking a chance on Simon was worth the services of Crawford and Suarez. Considering how important he's been to the Tigers in 2015, Simon should be considered one of the steals of the offseason.

Dee Gordon

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    Dee Gordon has continued to develop into one of baseball's top table-setters.
    Dee Gordon has continued to develop into one of baseball's top table-setters.Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    The Acquisition 

    The Miami Marlins acquired infielder Dee Gordon, pitcher Dan Haren, infielder Miguel Rojas and a player to be named later or cash to the Miami Marlins for pitcher Andrew Heaney, pitcher Chris Hatcher, infielder Enrique Hernandez and catcher Austin Barnes.

    2015 Stats

    .373/.404/.449, 26 R, 18 SB, 134 wRC+

    Why It's Been a Steal

    The Los Angeles Dodgers decided to go with a more proven second baseman in Howie Kendrick this season. While Kendrick has been great for L.A., Dee Gordon's fantastic play in Miami might give Dodgers fans nightmares for years to come.

    Gordon leads all of MLB in hitting and boasts a plus-.400 on-base percentage. He's also tops in MLB with 18 stolen bases.

    The speedy infielder saw improvements last year due to a significant hike in his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. That mark has increased even more this season, as Gordon ranks first in baseball in that statistic. He also leads the league in infield hits.

    Of course, Gordon can't sustain his .429 BABIP all season, but those batted-ball statistics bode well for continued success.

    Sure, the Marlins gave up a good bit of talent in order to acquire Gordon, but he's under contract through 2018. As Gordon continues to play to his strengths, he's developing into one of the game's top table-setters.

A.J. Burnett

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    A.J. Burnett has proven he's still got something left in the tank in 2015.
    A.J. Burnett has proven he's still got something left in the tank in 2015.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The Acquisition 

    The Pittsburgh Pirates signed pitcher A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $8.5 million deal.

    2015 Stats

    4-1, 59 IP, 1.37 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 8.08 K/9, 2.75 BB/9

    Why It's Been a Steal

    After revitalizing his career in Pittsburgh three seasons ago, A.J. Burnett returned to the Pirates on a one-year, $8.5 million deal.

    Burnett has turned out to be quite the bargain, as the right-hander has the lowest ERA in baseball. He's struck out over 23 percent of the batters he's faced, but he's reduced his walk rate to under 10 percent.

    Opponents are hitting the ball on the ground more frequently off Burnett this season, which has resulted in a significant decrease in his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio. Burnett has primarily used his sinker and knuckle curve to achieve increased ground-ball contact.

    Burnett has said that 2015 will be his final season. The veteran hurler is going out in style, dominating opposing hitters like he did in his prime. For whatever reason, the Pirates seem to bring out the best in Burnett.

    "It's fun to pitch for them," Burnett told Adam Berry of MLB.com. "It's fun to be around them, and they definitely bring so much out of me. I don't know what it is that these guys bring out."

    A one-year, $8.5 million commitment to a pitcher leading the league in run prevention seems like a pretty good piece of business for the Pirates.

Josh Donaldson

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    Josh Donaldson has fit right in with the Toronto Blue Jays.
    Josh Donaldson has fit right in with the Toronto Blue Jays.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The Acquisition 

    The Toronto Blue Jays acquired third baseman Josh Donaldson from the Oakland A's for third baseman Brett Lawrie, pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin and shortstop Franklin Barreto.

    2015 Stats

    .300/.363/.533, 10 HR, 29 RBI, .233 ISO, 147 wRC+

    Why It's Been a Steal

    The Blue Jays added one of the game's premier power hitters in the middle of his prime in Josh Donaldson this winter.

    Donaldson leads the Blue Jays in WAR and is slugging well over .500 in his first season with Toronto. Donaldson hasn't seen a drop-off in power as his average has increased nearly 50 points this season.

    Unfortunately for Toronto, Donaldson seems to be one of the only Jays getting it done. The All-Star third baseman let off some steam in a recent interview.

    "I can only control what I do, the guys beside me can only control what they do, it's really just about going out there and getting the job done," Donaldson told Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca. "This isn't the try league, this is the get it done league. Eventually they're going to find people who are going to get it done."

    Donaldson is backing up his words on the field. He's under team control longer than the younger Brett Lawrie and should be the focal point of the Toronto lineup for years to come.

Shelby Miller

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    Shelby Miller has arguably been the best pitcher in the National League.
    Shelby Miller has arguably been the best pitcher in the National League.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Acquisition 

    The Atlanta Braves acquired pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins from the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher Jordan Walden.

    2015 Stats

    5-1, 60 IP, 1.50 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 7.20 K/9, 2.70 BB/9

    Why It's Been a Steal

    Shelby Miller has arguably been the steal of the offseason for the Atlanta Braves.

    Miller has a 1.50 ERA in nine starts. The right-hander has gone at least five innings in every outing this season, including two complete games.

    Miller has always had swing-and-miss stuff, but he's creating much more ground-ball contact in 2015. He's also seen improvements in his soft and hard contact rates.

    There's been a significant change in Miller's usage rates as well. He threw his fastball over 60 percent of the time last season, but that number has dropped to a 34 percent mark this season. To replace those fastballs, Miller has used his sinker and cutter substantially more in 2015.

    Owen Watson at FanGraphs believes this is an important development for Miller:

    Times are looking up for Shelby Miller: his greater inclusion of the sinker in his repertoire has given him what amounts to a new fourth pitch, one that allows him to get ground balls and increase the effectiveness of his other offerings. His cutter has also had great success in 2015 despite no real change in velocity and movement.

    The Braves passed on the impending Jason Heyward sweepstakes for four seasons of Miller. So far, it's turning out to be one of the best moves of the offseason.

    Advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs. Stats accurate as of games played May 25.