By their own standards, the Yankees’ offseason has been strangely quiet. Has the team’s offseason to date flown under the radar? They’re simultaneously busy and quiet, signing two reasonably high-profile free agents and engineering two trades for everyday players. They’re both smart, imminently defensible trades but they don’t quite qualify as Yankee-scale blockbusters.
The team improved, but as it currently stands, New York trails the Blue Jays and Red Sox in terms of talent. Steamer Projections rank the Rays and Yankees as equals, forecasting an offense that marginally outscores the runs their defense and pitching allow. The offseason is far from over, but the Yankees are clearly taking their club into another direction.
The Yankees, against all odds, are getting younger. In doing so, they’re adding an element unseen in the Bronx for many years: uncertainty.
For years, fans of rival AL East teams waited on the mighty Yankees to age, decline, and finally collapse like an Old Vegas hotel rigged with dynamite. For the most part, those fans never got their wish. The Yankees had some down years, but they always had the resources to paper over their mistakes, to throw good money after bad and put together a competitive team. The second wild card spot kept the 2013 and 2014 Yankees within shouting distance of the playoffs when the talent on hand suggested they didn’t belong.
But the one thing the Yankees and their core of established talents always have is known commodities. With all their money and ability to spot a salvage job worth undertaking, the Yankees always manage a reasonably high floor for their talent. They traffic in big leaguers with little mystery. The opposite of the 2015 Chicago Cubs, in other words.
The recent veteran-laden Yankees teams came with long resumes and a whole lot of plate appearances to look back on when looking to their future. Especially over the last few seasons, the Yankees bent but never broke. They won 85 and then 84 games in the past two seasons, unable or unwilling to blow up their roster. It was never stars and scrubs as much as stars and plugs – upmarket scrubs preventing the Yankees from wallowing in rebuild seasons and netting higher draft picks.
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The 2014 season was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster for the Texas Rangers. Injuries destroyed a promising club and left them in the basement of the American League West with a 67-95 record, losing more games than even the lowly Astros.
As easy as it might be to write 2014 off to injury, the Rangers as currently constructed don’t appear much better than the club that limped to those 95 loses. With 2015 just around the corner, the biggest move of their offseason so far was the one to acquire Ross Detwiler from the Nationals and decline their contract option on Alex Rios, making him a free agent.
The Rangers front office believes it can better with the some health and the absence of “cursed by a coven of witches” bad luck. Their two huge acquisitions ahead of 2014 — Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder — were both known for their durability and production before coming to Texas. Both players ended up vastly underperforming and managed just 700 plate appearances combined, where they hit a meagre .243/.345/.370 with 16 home runs – replacement level production from two superstars paid $38 million for their troubles.
Both players can’t help but improve on their 2014 seasons but what does that net the Rangers? Three more wins? Maybe four? They used 40 different pitchers (including three different position players) as the wide-ranging injuries pushed green players into positions they were not prepared to fill. They won’t have Martin Perez back until late this season (if at all) but the team as constituted looks like Darvish and Holland and pray for rain.
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The Baltimore Orioles are good at many things. Their greatest skill is probably confounding expectations. The rest of the league zigs and then the O’s zag their way into the playoffs, twice in the last three seasons.
While the rest of their division — the rest of baseball, really — gears up for a run at the playoffs, the Orioles sat back. Their off-season to date can best be described as “somnambulant”, They lost Andrew Miller, Nick Markakis, and Nelson Cruz to free agency, declined some options and added, um, Wesley Wright? That’s it.
Considering the state of their disabled list at the end of the season, returning Matt Wieters and Manny Machado from injury (and Chris Davis from suspension) will go a long way to improving their club. But there’s another reason the Orioles haven’t rushed out to apply quick fixes to their club – the unlikely emergence of Steve Pearce.
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Everybody remembers the movie Inception, right? Nice visuals, convoluted premise, and that killer score – a more than sufficient popcorn delivery system. Fun fact: the main plot point of inception, that an idea can be planted in someone’s subconscious without them realizing, is real!
At some point this summer, exasperated Texas Rangers writer/blogger/fanalyst Jamey Newberg tweeted something to the effect of “Alex Rios is one of those players whose production will never line up with his numbers.” At first, I was offended. A player produces what he produces, his numbers reflect his….production. But the thought, the idea that a player is less than his final stat line, it stayed with me. I couldn’t shake it.
Then the offseason rolled around. The crop of available outfielders is charitably described as “very much ungood” and then a bunch of guys signed. One of those signees, Nick Markakis got four years and an AAV north of $11 million, to the surprise of many. And then, piling shock on top of shock, Rios himself signed a one-year deal with the Royals for $11 million.
There are plenty of reasons to scoff at the big outfielders contract. Entering his age-34 season, Rios comes off a rough season in Texas. He produced right at replacement level in 2014, displaying a worrisome lack of power (just four home runs and a career-low .118 ISO) and he missed time with injury, as older players are wont to do.
But more than most players, Rios’ problems are matters of perception. There are many reasons to not like Rios as a player or this signing in a vacuum, all factors that I believe contribute to the shrugs and disbelief when news of his Kansas City contract broke.
Most pressing, the concern expressed by the Rangers fan above: does his production lag behind his numbers?
Unpopular opinion time: the Miami Marlins are the not a band of penniless rubes ready for the exploitin’ by the Dodgers slick-talkin’ front office army. The Marlins are a lot of things, but clueless is not one of them. They don’t have much in the way on field success — minus a couple of championships — but the Marlins could very well have the best player development record in baseball. The Marlins never-ending prospect churn seems to have produced more than its share of talent, and that’s probably not an accident.
At some point, even the thrifty Marlins decided to roll up their stake and make a move. The moves are still Marlins-sized, but this isn’t your typical Marlins deal. This time, the Marlins are trading pre-arb players OUT and bring established players IN, so this is not the run-off-the-mill Marlins sell-off. Something is afoot. Something is amiss. Could they be making their team…better?
Are the White Sox going For It? A move like signing Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal might have looked like advanced place-holding with a chance of contention, but signing a reliever (Zach Duke) to a long-term deal (three years!) sends a slightly different message, especially when examined together.
Adding Jeff Samaradzija looks entirely different. Trading a solid prospect like Marcus Semien for an upper-middle class rotation stalwart just one year from free agency suggests the White Sox have designs on something greater than just existing in 2015. Signing a high-priced closer like David Robertson to a long term deal? That’s an act of aggression, a shot across the rest of their division’s bow and signal of intent to all Wild card comers. They didn’t just add a closer, they added one of the better relief pitchers in baseball, a valuable strikeout machine who looks like he can survive when his fastballs wanes.
Adding more good players? That’s a recipe for a good team. But is it enough?
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a whopping, surprising five-year contract that paid the mercurial outfielder $125 million dollars. The deal came one year after the Halos signed Albert Pujols in perpetuity for a twice-weekly fistful of diamonds, so Hamilton’s mammoth contract came as a shock.
After his two seasons in Anaheim, the deal doesn’t exactly look like a winner. Hindsight being what it is, is it easy to say the signing was doomed from the start. A look back through the archives both here at Fangraphs and at MLB Trade Rumors shows a lot of first guessing and some otherwise hilarious comments from around baseball. There were plenty of red flags around Hamilton, from his health to his performance and just about everything in between.
At the time of the deal, Hamilton was headed into his age-32 season and coming off a 43 homer year. He was unquestionably talented but also eminently questionable. The approach, the off-field history, the spotty medical records; all of it made for a bizarre free agent pursuit. The team that knew him best wouldn’t guarantee a fifth year, according to reports. The Angels rushed in with five years and no strings, much to the chagrin of Rangers GM Jon Daniels.
With two years of history on our side, we can see flippantly say this contract was doomed from the start. The biggest question is this: did Jerry Dipoto and the Angels front office offer Hamilton this deal knowing it was bad the moment he signed it?
After the 2011 season, it seemed improbable that the Blue Jays would ever trade Brett Lawrie. He was the native son who exploded onto the scene, bounding his way into the hearts of baseball fans from Victoria to Corner Brook. Always a great hitter in the minor leagues, Lawrie hit .293/.373/.580 with 9 home runs in a 40-game big league tease that set completely unrealistic expectations .
Three injury-ravaged and underwhelming seasons later, Lawrie and three prospects are gone and Josh Donaldson is the new starting third baseman in Toronto as the Blue Jays try to accomplish one goal: reach the playoffs for the first time in a generation. No passport or sentiment will stand in their way as they try to end a long streak without playoff baseball.
Adding Donaldson is a significant upgrade for the Jays, as any team would expect when they pick up one of the premier players in baseball. Conservatively, switching out Donaldson for Lawrie is about a two win upgrade on talent alone. Lawrie’s spotty injury history and inability to translate his minor league offense at the big league level suggest it might be an even bigger gulf.
With two top-ten MVP finishes and 53 total home runs in the last two years, the Jays get a star – a star moving from an offensive sinkhole to a very friendly space for right-handed power hitters. Donaldson is an older player, heading into arbitration for the first time (he’s a Super Two) as well as his age-29 season. Unlike the A’s side of the deal, the four years of control that come with Toronto’s new third baseman is purely secondary to his ability to help them win in 2015.
The Jays wanted an upgrade and, according to Alex Anthopoulos, it was the inclusion of Lawrie in the talks that brought this deal to life. They sell low on Lawrie, who always hit before struggling (mightily at times) at the big league level. He’s as talented a player as there is, one Oakland hopes they can reshape into a more well-rounded big leaguer.
His talent is undeniable, Lawrie is perhaps the defensive equal of Donaldson at third base, and like Oakland’s Fielding Bible Award winner, Lawrie is a former catcher. Perhaps Oakland can get the countless moving parts of his swing in order and awaken the one tool that brought him to the big leagues at 21.
Toronto also gives up a very promising international free agent in Franklin Barreto, a shortstop at 18 with his stock on the rise, fast-rising pitcher in Kendall Graveman, and slightly stalled prospect in Sean Nolin. In terms of bulk control years, the Jays give up a lot. But that future surplus value finishes a distant second to the chance the Jays are building the best team in their division.
Some might look at the Jays rotation and wonder if they have the talent to win a championship. To that I say: look around. The state of the game swung so heavily in favor of pitchers, adding Donaldson’s bat to the likes of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista — to say nothing of Russell Martin — suggests the Jays believe the road to the postseason is paved with extra base hits.
Like the Red Sox, the Jays seem focused on piling more offense on top of their already-deep pool of sluggers. In Donaldson the Blue Jays add another home run threat who actually strikes out at a below-league average rate. As the league heads in one direction, it appears Toronto is headed in another.
It is easy to search for additional meaning in this trade and the Blue Jays interest in Josh Donaldson. Simply put, they targeted a great player they thought could help their team win a division title and more. They added a player who saved more than 30 runs with his glove since 2012 while putting up a 125 wRC+. His 14 WAR over the last two years trails only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. Rather than hope their third baseman realized his potential, Toronto acquired one of the best in the game.
It also signals Toronto is serious about overhauling their clubhouse culture, though there is no better cure for a divided clubhouse than a whole pile of wins. Any team that boasts Reyes-Martin-Bautista-Encarnacion-Donaldson at the top of their batting order figures to give pitchers fits, though another left-handed bat in that mix (Reyes switch hits, the rest are all righties) must be a priority.
There is still work to do in Toronto, as huge questions loom in left field as well as second base. Their presumed starting center fielder is 43 big league plate appearances into his career (barely 200 PA above A-ball for Dalton Pompey, another Canadian.) They might not be done yet, but adding an elite ballplayer for the second time in two weeks is a nice way to head into the Winter Meetings.
Deals like this are how teams climb from the 80-85 win treadmill to the 90-win tier of World Series favorites. As they did with Russell Martin, the Blue Jays looked at a decent (and affordable) spot on their roster and thought they could improve it. They gave up a chunk of their identity and whole lot of prospect capital to do it, but it looks like these aren’t your older brother’s Toronto Blue Jays – though I’ve said that before.
The Boston Red Sox, as you might have heard, currently have an outfield glut. There is ten pounds of outfield meat in their five pound bag. Something has to give, and that something is likely Yoenis Cespedes.
When the Sox acquired Cespedes from Oakland in the Jon Lester trade, it felt more like a rental than a long-term investment in the player. Cespedes’ unique contract allows him to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, so Boston put themselves in an enviable position. They received an established big leaguer in exchange for their walk-year ace and got an up-close and personal look at a potential big free agent bat.
Whether or not a look under Cespedes’ hood informed their decision to sign both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, that’s the route they went down. Now Cespedes is trade bait, the precious “right-handed power” commodity in a marketplace clambering for those skills. He’s headed into his age-29 season, he’s owed $10.5 million this year, and there’s going to be a line around the block to bid for his services. Where might he land?
Nick Swisher is, in a word, divisive. His larger-than-Brohio personality tends to overshadow his abilities on the field. Put another way: almost everybody has an opinion on Swisher, few of which are based solely on his playing ability.
After you post a .208/.278/.331 line with 8 home runs in just over 400 plate appearances, perhaps you want more folks focused on your broisterous off-field brosona than an injury-plagued disappointment.
If the rumors drifting out of the GM meetings are to believed, Cleveland isn’t swayed by their popular player’s personality, instead focusing on what it might take to be rid of the remaining two years and $30 million (plus a $14 million vesting option for 2017) left on the contract he signed in ahead of the 2013 season. Ken Rosenthal intimates that Cleveland would like to free themselves of Swisher’s deal, perhaps taking a different bad contract coming back the other way.
Is there any daring or deep-pocketed team out there willing to roll the dice with Swisher’s age-34 and 35 seasons? Is $30 million of their precious payroll worth the gamble that Swisher returns to his previous levels of production?