The off-season isn’t technically over yet, as there are still a few free agents to be signed, and there’s a chance we could see another significant trade before spring training opens. However, most teams have essentially finished their off-season shopping at this point, and now we can look back and see which teams did the best in terms of adding talent to their organizations, or made a good move that pushes them closer towards serious contention without doing long term damage to their franchise.
Keep in mind, just because a trade is listed here as a win for one franchise doesn’t mean that I think the decision was necessarily a poor one for the other side. There are several deals below that I think served both teams interest, and in fact, one deal is listed twice, because I think both teams got exactly what they needed in the transaction. There are win-win deals, so the support for one side of a transaction should not be read as condemnation of the other side. We’ll look at the worst transactions of the winter tomorrow, and it won’t simply be the flip side of the trades listed below.
Final disclaimer: only transactions made after free agency began were considered. While Jake Peavy and David Ortiz re-signed to team friendly deals, we’re excluding them from the discussion, as they came before the off-season began.
If you’re interested in such things, here’s the list of moves I liked from last off-season. The teams listed below are probably hoping that their moves turn out more like the Carlos Beltran signing and less like the Michael Pineda acquisition. On to this year’s recap.
The Blue Jays last big move gets the last spot on this list, mainly because the cost to acquire Dickey was pretty substantial. Having to surrender two highly regarded prospects to get Dickey from the Mets makes this less of a steal and more of an aggressive upgrade, but it’s an aggressive upgrade that has a real chance to pay off. Dickey makes the Blue Jays a top notch AL East contender, and because they were able to sign him to a below market extension, it’s not simply a one year rental. Much is going to be made of his age and the fact that he only has had one elite season, but the idea of Dickey as a one year wonder is a total myth, and even the 2010-2011 version of Dickey would be a nice acquisition for the Blue Jays. Toss in the chance that he might have another ace like season left in his belt, and the acquisition of Dickey may have been the biggest upgrade any team made all winter.
Like with the Dickey trade, the acquisition cost holds this one back a bit, as surrendering Martin Prado in the process makes it more of a long term gain than a short term upgrade. However, I’m a believer in Upton’s potential, and it’s hard not to like acquiring the age 25-27 seasons of a guy who has flashed the skills to be among the best players in the game. Getting three years of team control is a big plus, and with his brother signed for five years, a below market extension seems more possible for Atlanta than any other franchise, so this deal could have longer term value than just the next three years. The Braves will miss Prado, but Upton gives them another young star to build around.
8. The Indians sign Nick Swisher for 4/$56M.
This move would probably be a few spots higher had Swisher signed with a team that is more likely to be in the playoffs in the next few seasons, but just in terms of overall production for the cost, it’s a win for the Indians. Swisher has been an underrated player for most of his career, as he collects value from being strong across the board rather than specializing in one particular area, and now he’ll take that skillset to Cleveland on a pretty nice contract for the Indians. I still chuckle every time I hear a suggestion that Andre Ethier, who signed for $85 million last summer, is a nice piece of trade bait, when Swisher is a superior player and signed for $30 million less as a free agent over the winter.
7. The Cubs sign Scott Baker for 1/$6M
It’s a one year deal, and there’s a chance that Baker might not even be healthy for the first part of the 2013 season, so it’s really more of a one-half-of-one-year deal. So, why the love for a short term contract on a rebuilding team? Because, if Baker returns to prior form as a well above average starter, this is likely to result in another contract between the two, providing even more value to the Cubs in the future. Players tend to be loyal to teams that give them paychecks while they’re rehabbing, and the Cubs have essentially bought an opportunity to convince a healthy Scott Baker to stick around in Chicago instead of hitting free agency again next winter. If he’s not healthy, they haven’t risked much. If he is, his next contract with the Cubs could be a huge steal, and this short term deal gives them a chance to land that deal before Baker becomes a free agent again.
On the one hand, I don’t love the Rays making their present roster worse in the same year that the Yankees are essentially abdicating the throne in the AL East. If ever there was a year for a lower revenue club to go for it in that division, this is that year, so the Rays lose points on this trade for giving up present value in exchange for future value. That said, they got so much future value back that it’s impossible to not like this deal for Tampa Bay, and there’s a strong chance that Myers will end the season as their starting right fielder anyway. They have the starting pitching depth to survive Shields’ loss, and getting a premium young hitting prospect like Myers for two years of a pitcher who was starting to price himself out of their budget was a huge win for Tampa. When you add in Odorizzi and the two lottery tickets, this is the kind of trade that should allow the Rays to remain competitive for several more years, and that justifies the present day downgrade.
As I said above, I like this deal for Toronto, and I think there was a case to be made for the Mets keeping Dickey signing him to an extension themselves. But, in D’Arnaud and Syndergaard, they were able to get a couple of pieces in return that could have much more long term value to the Mets, and D’Arnaud is close enough to the Majors that they could start seeing a return on the move this season. Because Dickey was willing to take a discount on an extension, the Mets were able to pry a premium return from Toronto, and having these two guys around is probably better for their future than having Dickey under contract through his age 40 season. This wasn’t the Mets only option, but when you see what they were able to command in exchange for the reigning Cy Young winner, it makes the decision to trade him more understandable.
4. The Diamondbacks sign Brandon McCarthy for 2/$16M.
McCarthy’s not the healthiest dude around, as his arm forces him to the DL every year and his season ended after taking a line drive off the skull in September, but when he’s on the mound, he’s quite good, and the Diamondbacks got a steal by signing him for this kind of price. McCarthy signed essentially the same contract as Joe Blanton. He signed for less than Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Broxton, and Brandon League. He didn’t even get the same AAV as Jeremy Guthrie, and Guthrie got an extra year to boot. McCarthy is a prime example of the over-discounting teams engage in with injury risks, as the Diamondbacks will get their money’s worth even if McCarthy only throws 140 innings for them next year. They will have to be ready for the inevitable DL stints, but McCarthy should pitch well enough in between to easily justify this contract.
While most of the attention surrounding this trade was scorn aimed at the Marlins for blowing up their team again, kudos to Alex Anthopolous and his crew for having the stones to make such a big trade. The four players Toronto acquired in this deal could easily add +10 WAR to the Blue Jays just by themselves, and this is the kind of monstrous step forward that the Jays needed to make in order to put themselves in position to make a big run this year. They took on a decent amount of money and gave up some real prospects to make the trade happen, but this was a game-changing trade for a franchise that needed to stop treading water. The Jays saw an opportunity to take the AL East and reenergize their fan base, and they took advantage of the best chance they had to make 2013 a winning season. Good for them.
2. The Blue Jays sign Melky Cabrera for 2/$16M.
It’s easy to draw a firm connection between Cabrera’s monster 2012 season and the fact that he failed a drug test, admitting that he used PEDs during the season. It’s easy to assume that a drug free Cabrera won’t be anything close to the player he was in San Francisco. But at $8 million a year, the Blue Jays aren’t paying Cabrera to be anything close to the player he was last year. They’re paying him to be a roughly average outfielder, and anything he does above that is gravy. This is a guy who was a +4 win player without failing a drug test in 2011. A guy who got to the Major Leagues as a 20-year-old, and was an average player for the Yankees at age 21. A guy headed into his age-28 season. You have to believe that PEDs are the sole reason that Cabrera has been an effective hitter the last two seasons to think that he can’t be an average player for the Blue Jays the next two seasons, and if he any of his improvement wasn’t PED related, then the Jays are going to get a massive bargain.
1. The Nationals acquire Denard Span from Minnesota.
Denard Span is a +3 win player, maybe even a bit better than that if you put more weight on his offensive resurgence after recovering from concussion-related issues. He’s under team control for his age 29-31 seasons for a grand total of $21 million. And, yet, the Nationals were still able to acquire him for the cost of one A-Ball pitching prospect who may or may not be able to stick in the rotation long term. When you look at what other +3 win outfielders were signing for this winter, or what other above average players with multiple years of team control were commanding in trades, Span looks like an outright theft by the Nationals.
Let’s put it in this context – the Nationals gave up about the same value in terms of prospects to acquire three years of Span as they received when they shipped off one year of Michael Morse, the guy who Span pushed out of the line-up to begin with. Washington got a better outfielder with two extra years of team control and didn’t really sacrifice much from their farm system to make the upgrade. In a winter where guys like Shane Victorino were signing for 3/39, giving up one low-level prospect for Span stands out as the best deal anyone made all off-season.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.