MLB Teams' Huge Risks That Have Blown Up in Their Faces This Year
No risk, no reward.
It sounds good, but try telling that to the MLB teams who took a huge risk this past offseason and had it blow up in their faces.
Whether it was signing a free agent who hasn't lived up to his contract, failing to embrace a necessary rebuild or squandering an opportunity to trade a player when his value was highest, MLB teams will wind up looking back with regret for a number of reasons.
Below are 10 notable examples of offseason risks that did not pay off.
Baltimore Orioles: Signing SPs Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner to Multiyear Deals
After a relatively quiet offseason, the Baltimore Orioles made a late push to improve a starting rotation that was the worst in baseball in 2017 with an unsightly 5.70 ERA.
A slow-moving free-agent market allowed Baltimore to sign Andrew Cashner on February 15 and Alex Cobb on March 21. On the surface, both looked like they could help fill out the starting staff behind Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman.
However, the Orioles ignored some clear regression red flags when they handed Cashner a two-year, $16 million deal. And they were seemingly bidding against themselves with the hefty four-year, $57 million contract they gave to Cobb.
The results from that duo have been underwhelming:
- Cashner: 26 GS, 4-13, 4.86 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 146.1 IP
- Cobb: 25 GS, 4-15, 5.11 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 144.1 IP
Those signings look even worse now the Orioles have since plunged headfirst into a rebuild—an outcome seemingly everyone outside of the Baltimore front office saw coming. They have little use for a pair of high-priced, middle-of-the-rotation starters.
Trading either pitcher will be tough, and the Cobb contract has a chance to join Chris Davis as a payroll albatross amid the rebuild.
Chicago Cubs: Signing SP Tyler Chatwood
The easy answer here would be the Yu Darvish signing. However, he still has the talent to live up to the final five years and $101 million left on his contract if he can get healthy and return to the front-line form he showed in Texas.
Meanwhile, it's hard to envision any scenario in which the Tyler Chatwood signing is anything but a disaster.
With power stuff and promising road numbers (77.1 IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) away from Coors Field in 2017, Chatwood was one of the most intriguing arms on the offseason pitching market. The Cubs wound up bringing him aboard with a three-year, $38 million contract—big money for a pitcher with a 105 ERA+ for his career—but he promptly forgot how to throw strikes.
Always a bit on the wild side with a career average of 4.2 walks per nine innings entering the season, Chatwood has completely lost the strike zone since joining the Cubs. He's walked a staggering 93 batters in 101.2 innings.
That's resulted in a 5.22 ERA, a 1.81 WHIP and a relegation to mop-up relief work.
Going forward, it's impossible for the Cubs to count on him to hold down a spot in the 2019 rotation, so they're essentially left with a $12.5 million long reliever next season.
Colorado Rockies: Spending Big on the Bullpen
One of the biggest reasons the Colorado Rockies were able to reach the NL Wild Card Game last season was a vastly improved bullpen.
The relief corps improved from 30th (5.13 ERA) in 2016 to 20th (4.40 ERA), and the team's win total uncoincidentally improved from 75 to 87.
Maintaining a strong relief corps was thus a priority for Colorado during the offseason, and the front office spent big in hopes of achieving that with the following signings:
- Wade Davis: three years, $52 million plus $15 million mutual option for 2021
- Jake McGee: three years, $27 million plus $9 million team option for 2021
- Bryan Shaw: three years, $27 million plus $9 million team option for 2021
The results from that group have been poor at best:
- Davis: 59 G, 37/43 SV, 4.72 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
- McGee: 54 G, 14 HLD, 6.46 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
- Shaw: 57 G, 13 HLD, 6.31 ERA, 1.83 WHIP
With that high-priced trio struggling, the relief corps has slipped to 27th (4.93 ERA) this year. There have been ramifications beyond just the money owed to those players, though.
Shortly after the Rockies signed those three, they let right-hander Shane Carle go on waivers. The Pittsburgh Pirates claimed him on waivers and then traded him to the Atlanta Braves, where he's gone on to post a 3.05 ERA with 12 holds in 46 appearances and will come with team control through the 2023 season.
The Rockies also likely can't afford to keep Adam Ottavino when he reaches free agency this winter.
The 31-year-old has been the team's best reliever and one of the best relievers in all of baseball this season, posting a 2.01 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings with five saves and 29 holds in 64 games.
Kansas City Royals: Not Selling High on SP Danny Duffy
With a number of core pieces headed for free agency, the Kansas City Royals front office opted to extend left-hander Danny Duffy.
On the heels of a breakout 2016 season, the Royals gave Duffy a five-year, $65 million extension in January 2017. Despite dealing with some elbow issues, he still pitched well in 2017, posting a 3.81 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with 130 strikeouts in 146.1 innings.
Those solid numbers, a clean bill of health and a team-friendly contract made him a popular trade target this past offseason. In January, one team official described interest in Duffy as "brisk," according to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.
However, no one was willing to meet the Royals' lofty asking price, so Duffy stayed put.
With the Royals potentially headed for a 100-loss season and squarely in the midst of what most expect to be a lengthy rebuild, it looks like they might have missed their chance to sell high on one of their most valuable assets. This season, the 29-year-old Duffy has gone 8-11 with a 4.72 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and 141 strikeouts in 154.1 innings.
His FIP (3.46 to 4.60) and walk rate (2.5 to 4.0 BB/9) have both moved significantly in the wrong direction. Suddenly, his $15.3 million salary for next season looks more like a hindrance than a selling point.
The Royals now need to be careful that they don't do the same thing with Whit Merrifield.
Los Angeles Angels: Selling Low on 1B C.J. Cron
The logic behind trading C.J. Cron was solid at surface level.
The Los Angeles Angels had won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, and with the Japanese phenom expected to play designated hitter at least part time, Albert Pujols would man first base.
That left Cron without a place to play, and the Angels shipped him to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for infield prospect Luis Rengifo.
"With the construction of our roster and the personnel we have in place for this upcoming season, we have to place a premium on flexibility and maneuverability within our position player group," general manager Billy Eppler said, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register.
In three seasons as a semiregular with the Angels, Cron posted a 107 OPS+ and averaged 19 doubles, 16 home runs and 59 RBI in 407 plate appearances.
Weak on-base skills and limited defensive value limited his ceiling, but his right-handed power has always played. This year, it's had a chance to shine via Cron's everyday role with the Rays.
The 28-year-old is hitting .256/.323/.492 with 25 doubles, 26 home runs and 61 RBI in 486 plate appearances, good for a 123 OPS+ and 1.8 WAR.
He's making just $2.3 million this season and is under team control through the 2020 season.
It's worth noting Rengifo has turned some heads this season as well with a .299/.399/.452 line that includes 49 extra-base hits and 41 steals over three minor league levels.
Still, Cron's bat would have been welcomed by the Angels lineup this season as Los Angeles once again failed to build a contender around Mike Trout.
New York Yankees: Trading SP Taylor Widener and 2B Nick Solak
The New York Yankees could look back on this series of events in a few years and cringe:
- Feb. 20: The Yankees acquired Brandon Drury from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team trade, sending Taylor Widener to the Diamondbacks and Nick Solak to the Rays.
- July 26: After Drury missed time to injury and struggled to a .176/.263/.275 line over 57 plate appearances, New York packaged him with Billy McKinney in exchange for rental starter J.A. Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays.
While Drury's time with the Yankees was brief, his acquisition cost could sting for years to come.
Solak looks the part of a future big leaguer who could fill a role similar to what the Yankees were hoping they'd get from Drury. He's hitting .281/.382/.447 with 19 home runs and 75 RBI in Double-A while splitting his time between second base and the outfield.
MLB.com ranks him as the No. 11 prospect in a deep Tampa Bay system.
Widener, 23, was a 12th-round pick by the Yankees in 2016. He became a full-time starter last season, and he's taken off this year with the D-backs.
Also playing in Double-A, he's posted a 2.75 ERA and 1.03 WHIP while striking out an impressive 176 batters in 137.1 innings. He's also lowered his walk rate from 3.8 to 2.8 per nine innings and is looking more and more like a future middle-of-the-rotation starter with a chance to be more.
MLB.com ranks Widener as the No. 3 prospect in the Arizona system.
That's a steep and regrettable price to pay for a player who spent barely five months with the Yankees before he was flipped for a two- or three-month rental.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Selling Low on SP Gerrit Cole
Gerrit Cole was one of the best pitchers in baseball during the 2015 season, going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings to finish fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting.
He failed to duplicate that success over the next two seasons, however, and the Pittsburgh Pirates traded him to the Houston Astros during the offseason.
The return was interesting.
Third baseman Colin Moran and right-handers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz had MLB experience and stepped into roles on the MLB roster, while outfielder Jason Martin was a second-tier prospect with some upside.
Not a bad haul but what most would consider selling low on a 27-year-old starter with two years of control and ace upside.
Sure enough, the change of scenery has worked wonders. Cole is squarely in the American League Cy Young Award conversation, having gone 13-5 with a 2.86 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and an AL-leading 243 strikeouts in 176.1 innings.
Six months after the Cole trade, the Pirates dealt Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz to acquire Chris Archer from the Rays in hopes of riding a surprise hot streak into playoff contention.
Archer hasn't pitched anywhere close to how well Cole has, Pittsburgh has fallen out of contention, and Glasnow is finally starting to turn potential into production with Tampa Bay.
A tough series of events for a budget-conscious franchise that relies on young, high-end talent to contend.
San Diego Padres: Signing 1B Eric Hosmer
The San Diego Padres' decision to sign Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract looked like a mistake from the get-go.
As his first season in San Diego winds down, that hasn't changed.
The 28-year-old has followed a career year at the plate by hitting .252/.316/.390 with 13 home runs and 56 RBI on his way to a meager 0.7 WAR.
Spacious Petco Park can't be blamed for the downturn in production, as Hosmer's actually hit better at home:
- Home: 300 PA, .280/.347/.439, 8 HR, 30 RBI
- Away: 282 PA, .223/.284/.338, 5 HR, 26 RBI
It also can't be blamed for a confusing regression in his approach at the plate:
- 2017: 9.8 BB%, 15.5 K%
- 2018: 8.6 BB%, 22.2 K%
And while Hosmer has been struggling, prospect Josh Naylor has enjoyed a breakout season at Double-A, hitting .297/.383/.447 with 22 doubles, 17 home runs and 74 RBI.
So not only did Hosmer push Wil Myers off first base, but he's also blocking an up-and-coming first baseman who has mostly played left field this year.
The Padres have a wealth of young talent rising up the ranks, and it made sense to invest in a veteran player to serve as a leader and cornerstone for the rebuild.
Hosmer just wasn't the right guy.
San Francisco Giants: Trading for Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria
The San Francisco Giants looked like the fourth-best team in the National League West heading into the offseason.
After swinging a pair of trades to acquire Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, they still looked like the fourth-best team. At no point did giving up quality young talent in exchange for those two aging superstars look like a good idea, and at no point did this look like a team that was going to contend.
Sure enough, the Giants are 68-71 and eight games back in the division.
They gave up outfielder Bryan Reynolds and right-hander Kyle Crick to acquire McCutchen—a pending free agent who they dealt to the Yankees for minor leaguers Abiatal Avelino and Juan De Paula—from the Pirates.
Reynolds ranks as the No. 8 prospect in the Pittsburgh system and is hitting .302/.380/.439 with 28 extra-base hits in Double-A.
Crick, a former top prospect who struggled with command issues, has been a staple in the Pittsburgh bullpen. The 25-year-old has a 2.45 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 55 strikeouts in 51.1 innings, tallying 13 holds and two saves in 55 appearances.
The Longoria deal cost young infielder Christian Arroyo as well as prospects Stephen Woods and Matt Krook. The Giants also dumped Denard Span's contract, and since he was traded by the Rays to the Seattle Mariners in May, he's enjoyed a resurgence with a 125 OPS+ in 266 plate appearances.
The big blow is Longoria's remaining contract.
The 32-year-old has four years and $68.2 million left on his deal, of which the Giants are on the hook for $57.2 million as well as a $5 million buyout on a $13 million team option in 2023.
With his .244/.281/.426 line this season and 0.6 WAR, it's hard to imagine Longoria coming anywhere close to living up to that contract, especially as he moves further from his prime.
Toronto Blue Jays: Not Trading 3B Josh Donaldson in the Offseason
If teams don't want to meet our asking price now, we can just wait and trade him at the deadline. We might even get a better return from a desperate contender.
That was no doubt the logic the Toronto Blue Jays used to justify not trading Josh Donaldson ahead of his final year of team control. It sounds good in theory; the Orioles took a similar approach with Manny Machado and walked away with an impressive package of prospects in a July trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But Donaldson got hurt and has been sidelined since May 28 with a calf injury.
As a result, he wasn't traded in July for a package of blue-chip prospects that could help the Blue Jays better navigate an upcoming retooling period.
Instead, he was traded Aug. 31, after clearing waivers, for a player to be named later "with some value," according to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.
That outcome would have been unfathomable during the offseason. That's the risk that comes with waiting to trade a valuable asset.
The Blue Jays were never going to contend this season. They no doubt had an opportunity to move Donaldson before the start of the season for a sizable return.
They instead opted to hold out in hopes of finding a team that would meet their asking price, but that never happened. It was a huge risk, and it blew up in their face.