Return to Sender: Offseason MLB Moves That Will Come Back to Haunt Teams
It's always easy to dissect MLB offseason moves with the benefit of hindsight. It's a bit trickier to pinpoint potential front-office missteps before recently acquired players even suit up for their new teams, but that's exactly what we're setting out to do.
Ahead we've highlighted seven offseason moves that could come back to haunt teams.
It's a mix of free-agent signings, trades of MLB players, deals featuring notable prospects and even a nod to the Rule 5 draft.
Which teams could come to regret the decisions they made this winter?
Let's take a look.
Washington Nationals: Leaving Sterling Sharp Unprotected
The Washington Nationals have one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball, with little in the way of potential impact talent behind infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia.
While he doesn't offer a star-caliber ceiling, Sterling Sharp was one of the more promising arms in the system, and leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft could be a decision the Nationals come to regret.
The 24-year-old closed out a successful 2019 season with a stellar run in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.50 ERA and 0.92 WHIP with 24 strikeouts in 24 innings over six starts. That was enough to convince the Miami Marlins to select him with the No. 3 pick in the Rule 5 draft, and he could emerge as a key contributor out of their bullpen.
"A two-sport standout who could have played college basketball, Sharp's tremendous athleticism translates and gives him big upside on the mound," MLB.com wrote. "The 6-foot-4 right-hander has an exceptional sinker—it has an average spin rate of about 1900 rpm—that sits in the low 90s and nets him ground balls at an elite clip."
As Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill told reporters, his ground-ball skills caught the team's attention:
"We got a lot of good feedback from him. This is not a high-velo guy. This is a different skill set and tool package than other guys in our pen. This is a guy who can put the ball on the ground, has a solid average to above-average change-up and can command his fastball. We’ve gone the route of the power arms and 100 mph fastballs that couldn’t throw strikes. We’re about trying to be efficient, pound the strike zone and get outs."
Meanwhile, the Nationals are scrambling once again to piece together a viable relief corps. If Sharp makes an immediate impact in the majors, Washington could quickly come to regret this one.
Chicago White Sox: Trading Steele Walker
To this point in his MLB career, outfielder Nomar Mazara has failed to live up to the hype that followed him as a prospect in the Texas Rangers farm system.
In four seasons, he's hit .261/.320/.435 for a middling 93 OPS+ while averaging 20 home runs and 77 RBI. That offensive production, coupled with his below-average defense in the outfield (minus-19 DRS), has made him worth just 1.8 WAR in 537 career games at the MLB level.
The 24-year-old still offers some intriguing upside, and after the Chicago White Sox received a brutal .220/.277/.288 line from the right field position last year, it's not hard to envision him being a significant upgrade.
That said, the South Siders paid a steep price to acquire him.
One of the top collegiate bats in the 2018 draft, Oklahoma outfielder Steele Walker ended up going No. 46 overall after hitting .352/.441/.606 with 13 home runs during his junior season with the Sooners.
In his first full professional season, he batted .284/.361/.451 with 51 extra-base hits in 528 plate appearances between Single-A and High-A. The 23-year-old doesn't have one clear carrying tool, but he does everything well and has all the makings of a solid MLB regular.
Unless Mazara changes his approach drastically, there's a very good chance Walker will be the better big leaguer a few years from now.
Oakland Athletics: Non-Tendering Blake Treinen
Rather than pay Blake Treinen a projected $7.8 million in arbitration, the Oakland Athletics opted to non-tender the 2018 All-Star earlier this offseason.
It wound up being a beneficial decision for Treinen. The 31-year-old found a robust free-agent market and signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December.
While he was ousted from the closer's role in Oakland in favor of Liam Hendriks last season, he's just a year removed from one of the best seasons by a relief pitcher in recent memory.
In 2018, Treinen converted 38 of 43 save chances with a pristine 0.78 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 68 appearances, finishing with a 4.2 WAR that was the highest single-season mark by any relief pitcher during the 2010s.
After posting a 4.08 ERA in 30 appearances through June last year, he was removed from the closer's role and scuffled to a 6.17 ERA in 27 games the rest of the way.
"I'm going to sit here until I'm blue in the face and tell you guys it's not who I am as a pitcher," Treinen told reporters. "And I believe the rest of the league believes that as well."
He was such a weapon when he was at his best in 2018 that his $7.8 million price tag would have been a worthwhile roll of the dice for a contending Oakland team. He'll be pitching with a chip on his shoulder in 2020, and the A's will be kicking themselves for pinching pennies if he bounces back.
Milwaukee Brewers: Signing Avisail Garcia
After being non-tendered by the Chicago White Sox last offseason, Avisail Garcia made good on a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The 28-year-old hit .282/.332/.464 for a 111 OPS+ while slugging a career-high 20 home runs and finishing second on the team with 72 RBI in a 2.0-WAR season.
However, in recent seasons, his performance has largely been tied to his BABIP luck:
- 2016: 453 PA, .245/.307/.385, .309 BABIP
- 2017: 561 PA, .330/.380/.506, .392 BABIP
- 2018: 385 PA, .236/.281/.438, .271 BABIP
- 2019: 530 PA, .282/.332/.464, .340 BABIP
His .340 BABIP this past season was well above the league average and ranked 19th among qualified hitters, so some regression is to be expected in 2020.
As a player who does not have elite power and does not provide much defensive value (minus-24 DRS for his career), his value is heavily tied to his batting average.
Another one-year deal at a similar price point would have been a worthwhile investment. Instead, the Milwaukee Brewers handed him a two-year, $20 million contract that includes a $12 million club option for 2022 with a $2 million buyout.
The Brewers don't often splurge in free agency, and this seemed like an unnecessary risk.
San Diego Padres: Signing Drew Pomeranz
Drew Pomeranz was completely dominant in a relief role last season. He faced 106 batters out of the bullpen and struck out 50 of them en route to a 1.88 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 28 appearances.
However, that doesn't completely erase his recent struggles.
After a terrific 2017 season in the Boston Red Sox rotation, he scuffled to a 6.08 ERA over 74 innings in a contract year the following season. As a result, he had to settle for a one-year, $1.5 million contract from the San Francisco Giants last offseason, and he struggled to a 6.10 ERA in 72.1 innings before he was relegated to the bullpen.
While that seemed to unlock something in the southpaw, it's still an extremely limited sample size.
In a thin market for free-agent relievers, a multiyear deal was expected. But the four-year, $34 million contract he signed with the San Diego Padres exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
The 31-year-old does have a chance to be a vital piece of a young team's climb back toward contention.
"We see him as a guy that can pitch at the back end and pair with [closer Kirby] Yates to give us a really top-notch combination, right- and left-handed," general manager A.J. Preller told reporters. "Obviously the quality of what he did during the last few months [had an impact]. We're clearly buying into him as a guy that can be part of a dynamic back of the bullpen."
However, he could just as easily be the next Brett Cecil, who has struggled mightily since signing a four-year, $30.5 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 2017 season.
It feels like an unnecessary risk for a team that was not one piece away.
Cleveland Indians: Trading Corey Kluber
Between early ineffectiveness and a fractured forearm that prematurely ended his season on May 1, Corey Kluber suffered through a lost campaign in 2019. He finished with a 5.80 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in 35.2 innings, making him one of the biggest question marks in baseball heading into the 2020 season.
Despite those struggles, there's no ignoring that he was recently one of the best pitchers in the sport.
In the five years prior to his throwaway 2019, Kluber posted a 2.85 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while averaging 218 innings and 246 strikeouts per season. He won two AL Cy Young Awards during that span and finished third in the voting two other times.
It made sense for the cost-conscious Cleveland Indians to shop him and his $17.5 million salary, but selling at a rock-bottom price point was a head-scratcher.
The 33-year-old was shipped to the Texas Rangers in exchange for MLB outfielder Delino DeShields and reliever Emmanuel Clase.
DeShields, 27, brings speed and capable defense at all three outfield spots, but he probably profiles best as a fourth outfielder on a contender and has just two remaining years of team control.
Clase, 21, has a big arm, and he showed well in a second-half audition last year. He averaged 99.4 mph with his fastball, according to Brooks Baseball, and he backs it with a wipeout slider that gives him late-inning upside.
Both players can be solid contributors for the Indians in 2020. But if Kluber comes even close to returning to his pre-injury form, the return will have been a fraction of what he would have potentially been worth at the deadline.
Tampa Bay Rays: Trading Tommy Pham
The Tampa Bay Rays won 96 contests last season and took the Houston Astros to five games in the American League Division Series. With a good young core in place and one of the deepest farm systems in baseball at their disposal, they appeared well-positioned for present and future success.
That's why the Tommy Pham trade didn't make much sense.
Here are the full details:
- To TB: OF Hunter Renfroe, IF Xavier Edwards
- To SD: OF Tommy Pham, IF/RHP Jake Cronenworth
For the Rays, the biggest gains here are that Renfroe has two additional years of control compared to Pham and Edwards is a more highly regarded prospect than Cronenworth.
However, those are things that a rebuilding team should be worrying about, not an organization coming off an excellent season and poised to contend once again. All that should really matter here is Pham vs. Renfroe, and it's clear the Rays downgraded in that regard:
- Pham: 119 OPS+, .273/.369/.450, 56 XBH (21 HR), 25 SB, 3.7 WAR
- Renfroe: 102 OPS+, .216/.289/.489, 53 XBH (33 HR), 5 SB, 2.6 WAR
While Renfroe provides some additional over-the-fence power, Pham is a more complete offensive player, and he also adds speed on the bases and the defensive ability to play center field if needed.
It's a head-scratcher from the Rays' standpoint unless they think Edwards is a future star or Renfroe is capable of significantly refining his approach at the plate.