With Spring Training officially open, we can just about close the book on the 2010-2011 off-season. Sure, there are still guys like Kevin Millwood, Nick Johnson, and Jeremy Bonderman on the market, but most free agents have found homes and the trading season has just about passed. So, before we turn our attention forward to the thrill of weigh-ins and stretching, let’s take a look back and hand out some hardware for the best moves of the winter – we’ll deal with the worst deals in a few hours.
In order to evaluate the moves, I’ve attempted to look at the potential impact each transaction could make on their organization. I’m a big fan of the Jeff Francis signing for the Royals, but he’s unlikely to significantly alter the AL Central race this year, and as a guy who signed a one year deal, his impact on future seasons won’t be determined until next off-season. Priority was given to moves that impact a pennant race or a team’s future chances of contending, or at least had a significant impact on the market.
Without further ado, let’s go to the awards.
Best Signing – Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 2B/SS, Minnesota Twins
In a winter with runaway pricing on players of all shapes and sizes, the Twins found a place to invest a small amount of money while still receiving the chance to get a significant return. For just a $5 million posting fee and $9 million over three years (with a friendly team option for a fourth year), the Twins got a potential starting middle infielder for the cost of a middle reliever – literally. The $14 million that Nishioka cost the Twins puts the price right in line with the likes of Bobby Jenks, Matt Guerrier, Scott Downs, and Joaquin Benoit. While these guys are perfectly serviceable relief pitchers, few would argue that a setup man is as valuable as an everyday middle infielder, especially given the shortage of shortstops in Major League Baseball right now.
While he might not have the overall skillset to be a star, Nishioka profiles as the kind of player who is often undervalued. Patrick Newman – who knows Japanese baseball as well as anyone – called him a guy with “great range”, and even if arm strength limits him to second base, he could still be a defensive asset at the position. At the plate, he’s said to lack power but has enough speed and contact abilities to succeed at the little man’s game that the Twins adore, and realistically, he doesn’t have to hit much at all to justify his salary.
The Twins are essentially paying for about one win per year from Nishioka – the bar for a +1 WAR second baseman is really low. For comparison, Gordon Beckham hit .252/.317/.378 with defense that UZR judged as about average and was a +1 win player in 2010. That’s the bar that Nishioka’s salary has set, and given his performance in Japan and how well similar players have made the jump across the ocean, we should likely expect Nishioka to clear that with relative ease. Even Kaz Matsui, who is widely regarded as a bust, has averaged +1.3 WAR per 600 PA in his Major League career. If Nishioka hits more like Tadahito Iguchi or Akinori Iwamura did in their debut seasons, the Twins will have the steal of the winter.
They control his rights for the next four years, and yet they’re paying about the same in annual average value to the price the Rockies paid to acquire Ty Wigginton. The Twins decision to swap out middle infields in the winter after winning the AL Central has been questioned, but I’m guessing that Nishioka will silence many of those critics. In a time of often crazy inflation, the Twins found an answer up the middle for the price of a decent bench player. Not bad at all.
Best Trade Acquisition – Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox
While the Red Sox surrendered a lot of highly thought of talent in the deal, Gonzalez should be worth it. As a large revenue team in the ridiculously competitive AL East, wins are worth more to Boston than they are to most teams, and Theo Epstein found a way to add a lot of wins in a hurry. Freed from the bonds of Petco, Gonzalez’s opposite field power should thrive in Fenway, giving the Red Sox another legitimate All-Star bat in the middle of a line-up that will scare the bejeezus out of opposing pitchers.
Along with signing Carl Crawford, the Gonzalez acquisition tipped the scales Boston’s way to the point that they’re now the favorite in the AL East, despite being the team that missed out on playoff baseball last year. Gonzalez solved a lot of problems that were going to be challenging to fix in any other way, and he’s a perfect fit the Sox in both 2011 and the future. To compete in that division, you need premium players, and the Red Sox found a way to get a premium player at a reasonable cost.
Gonzalez wasn’t cheap, but he’s worth it, especially if he’s the difference between October baseball and another year of staring up at the Yankees in the standings. Given the potential Gonzalez has, that is exactly the kind of impact he could make.
Best Move Overall – Trading Vernon Wells, Toronto Blue Jays
While there were some nice moves this winter, nothing tops the shock and awe of the Jays getting out from under the Vernon Wells contract. Thought to be an unmovable albatross, the Jays reclaimed a huge chunk of their future by shipping Wells’ bloated deal to Anaheim. For the money they saved, they’ll be able to make a big push for legitimate stars in future off-seasons, and they didn’t even make their 2011 team appreciably worse in the process. When the Jays land someone like Prince Fielder next winter, this deal will essentially be viewed as a straight up swap of talent, and the Jays will almost certainly come out ahead after being given a chance to reallocate that money.
It’s hard to explain just how significant moving Wells was, but the word cloud says it best.
That’s the sound of a fan base invigorated by a single move. No one did more to help his franchise this winter than Alex Anthopolous, who made perhaps the best “addition by subtraction” deal in the history of the game.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.