Buyer Beware

With free agency kicking off tomorrow, the off season is just about to kick into high gear. Teams are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire new talent, and potential contenders are going to be trading away young players to acquire the proven star to put them over the top. If you think your team has a chance to win in 2009, you’ll probably witness a press conference where your GM introduces you to the guy who will make the difference – the final piece of the puzzle.

As you’re watching, keep in mind that the hyperbole rarely matches reality. Let’s take a look at the big moves last year, and how the teams both gaining and losing the star performed in 2008.

Mets acquire Johan Santana from Minnesota for a group of prospects.

After winning 88 games and losing the division to Philly thanks to a late season collapse in 2007, the Mets went out and got the game’s best pitcher in order to shore up their rotation. The cost was four prospects and a $140 million contract, but it was Johan Santana

The Mets won 89 games and lost the division to Philly thanks to a late season collapse.

The Twins, meanwhile, had struggled to just 79 wins in 2007, and were looking at a rebuilding effort. Santana was traded away, Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva left via free agency, and the team had to replace a lot of production with unproven minor leaguers.

The Twins won 88 games, a ten win improvement, and missed the playoffs by a single game.

Mariners acquire Erik Bedard from Baltimore for Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and a group of prospects.

I don’t know that I can write about this trade again without punching a wall, so here’s the short version – the Mariners collapsed, the Orioles improved, and it’s going down as one of the worst trades in franchise history. Let’s just move on.

Diamondbacks acquire Dan Haren from the A’s for a group of prospects.

The D’backs had just won 90 games and the N.L. West, so by adding Dan Haren to bolster their rotation behind Brandon Webb, the hope was that he’d be the guy who could make them a legitimate World Series contender. Instead, they won 82 games and ceded the division crown to the Dodgers.

Meanwhile, the A’s had won just 76 games with Haren the year before, but kicked off a big rebuilding by dealing away a lot of major league talent. After replacing them with prospects and low cost acquisitions, the A’s won 75 games, almost equaling their win total with Haren.

Tigers acquire Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis for Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, and a group of prospects.

Coming off an 88 win season, the Tigers wanted to track down the division winning Indians and added one of the game’s best young hitters in order to do so. Cabrera’s presence was supposed to make Detroit’s offense the most feared in the game, allowing them to just go toe to toe with their opponents and win by slugging. Instead, the team fell apart, the offense underachieved, and the Tigers won just 74 games, a huge step backwards from 2007.

The Marlins, perennial cost savers, had won just 71 games in 2007, even with Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez providing an offensive spark. With his big payday coming, they moved their best hitter and the team’s highest profile starting pitcher for a bunch of guys who weren’t quite major league ready. This step back in talent led to a 13 win improvement, as the Marlins won 84 games and hung around the wild card race for most of the summer.

Four big trades of all-star caliber players, and in every single case, the rebuilding team either held steady or got significantly better while the contender didn’t improve at all, and in some cases, got a lot worse. Clearly, this isn’t to say that the new players were the cause of the change in performance, but it should be an object lesson – teams are not built around one or two players. You need a good roster, not just a single all-star, to be a true contender.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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David Foy
15 years ago

Other than the trade for Dontrelle Willis, none of these trades seems as bad as you make them out to be. While the results were not what the GMs hoped they would be, when are they ever. The Johan trade was a steal for the Mets as other then the money they gave up almost nothing for him. The Bedard stills seems like a good move to me. While the rest of the team is a joke it doesn’t then make this trade a bad one.
Overall i agree with your thesis that the off-season is filled with GMs telling their fan base that this one player is going to make all the difference when in reality a smart fan should know that one player never is the answer. (just ask rangers fans that watched the team when they has A-Rod) But that fact doesn’t seem backed up by these trades. Even looking back on these trades it seems clear that they would done again even with hindsight.