Major League teams are getting smarter. In prior years, we would have had easy pickings like the Barry Zito contract, the Carlos Lee signing, and even last year’s Vernon Wells acquisition. This year, there were some guys who got too much money, but there weren’t many instances of teams just paying through the nose for guys who just aren’t very good. I considered cutting this list down to just five transactions, honestly, as a few of the back-end ones have a decent chance of turning out okay for their respective teams, or the costs just are small enough that they aren’t really going to negatively effect the franchises in a big way. There were only a few deals this winter that I’d say teams are really going to regret long term. But, I said we’d do 10 of each, so here we go.
Like yesterday, the criteria is expected on field production, cost to acquire, and the impact the move will make in both the short run and long run for the franchise. These moves represent transactions where the team gave up something of legitimate value and, in my estimation, aren’t likely to get enough back in return to justify their investment.
#10 – Twins Sign Matt Capps for 1/4.75M
It’s a one year deal, so there’s no long term cost to the franchise. $5 million spent on another player wouldn’t have changed the Twins fortunes one way or another. But, still, it’s hard to understand why the Twins thought they needed to give Capps this kind of contract. He was a below replacement level reliever last year, watched his strikeout rate drop from 19.3% to 12.4%, and gave up home runs in a park where no one gives up home runs. And yet, only six relievers got larger contracts than Capps this winter. Darren Oliver got less. Francisco Cordero got less. LaTroy Hawkins got less. If the Twins wanted to spend $5 million on their bullpen, they could have gotten two or three decent arms for that. Instead, they got one mediocre arm who will continue to remind them that they could have still had Wilson Ramos instead.
#9 – Royals Sign Bruce Chen For 2/9M
Bruce Chen is 35-years-old and has been a below average pitcher for nearly his entire career, and he showed no real signs of improvement last year – his low ERA was essentially just about preventing hits with men on base. There’s no reason to think that Chen has turned a corner at this point in his career, and he’s still just a generic #5 starter nearing the end of his career. Better pitchers than Chen had to settle for minor league contracts. Meanwhile, the Royals decided to throw money at the type of pitcher that the rest of baseball has learned isn’t worth any kind of guarantee. For a team with a limited budget, efficiency is mandatory, and this isn’t a very good way to spend 10% of their overall budget.
#8 – Rangers Sign Joe Nathan For 2/14M
During his prime, Nathan was one of the best relievers in baseball. Then he had Tommy John surgery, spent a year on the DL, and was essentially a replacement level arm during his first year back on the mound in 2011. The velocity was still there and he still got a decent amount of strikeouts, but his extreme fly ball ways turned into a home run problem, and going to Texas probably isn’t going to alleviate that issue. Nathan’s a decent enough bounce back candidate, but that’s why they invented one year deals with incentives. At 2/14, the Rangers should have gotten a sure thing, but Nathan is a high-risk arm who hasn’t been a good pitcher since 2009. If Texas would have shown a bit more patience, they probably could have ended up with Ryan Madson instead.
#7 – Brewers Sign Aramis Ramirez For 3/36M
The Brewers knew they were losing Prince Fielder, and they wanted to sign a good hitter to defray some of the cost of having him walk away. Ramirez posted a 133 wRC+ last year, and at just $12 million per year, he fit into the Brewers budget. However, he’s a lousy defender who is headed for his age 34 season, was basically replacement level in 2010, and blocked off third base from Taylor Green, who probably could have provided some value at the hot corner for the league minimum and allowed the Brewers to spend their money upgrading at shortstop or at first base. Ramirez will probably be worth the money in 2012, but they’ve locked themselves into declining performance at the position for the next several years. There were better ways to spend $36 million this winter than by giving it to Ramirez.
#6 – Marlins Sign Mark Buehrle for 4/58M
The Marlins wanted to make a big splash this winter, and set their sights on most of the big name free agents on the market. Unfortunately for them, C.J. Wilson wanted to stay on the west coast, so they ended up with money burning a hole in their pocket and Mark Buehrle as the most willing recipient of that cash. Buehrle has been a durable pitcher with a long track record of success, but he turns 33 in March and has racked up a lot of miles on his left arm. Committing $14.5 million per year to sign a guy who relies on beating his peripherals is a bit scary to begin with – when you factor in his advancing age, this looks like a deal that could end poorly for the Marlins.
If you think Gio Gonzalez’s ERA the last two seasons are more indicative of what we should expect going forward, then the Nationals made a nice trade and this will work out well for them. I’m more of the mind that he’s due for a pretty significant step backwards, though, which makes him more of a good pitcher than any kind of ace, and the command problems offer enough risk of collapse to be a real concern. And, for me, the cost of acquiring that kind of high risk arm was too high, especially when you factor in Gonzalez’s Super-Two status, which necessitated a 5 year, $42 million extension to buy out his arbitration years. It’s one thing to give up three good prospects and a potential back-end starter for a guy who provides a lot of value at a low cost, but Gonzalez is no longer all that cheap. The Nationals could have spent $40 million in free agency and walked away with a +3 win player while maintaining depth on the farm. Unless Gonzalez takes a big leap forward, this looks like an overpay to me.
#4 – Rockies Sign Michael Cuddyer For 3/31M
Cuddyer gets a lot of bonus points in the game for his versatility and his leadership. Unfortunately, he just plays a lot of positions poorly, and his character doesn’t make up for the fact that the Rockies spent $30 million to tread water in the outfield. Cuddyer is a marginal upgrade at best over Seth Smith, who was shipped out for some magic beans after losing his job when Cuddyer was signed to play right field. He’s an okay but not great hitter who will be 33 when the season begins, and he’s never shown much value with the glove. The Rockies needed to make some real improvements this winter, but instead, their primary acquisition was just a more expensive, older version of what they already had. They could have simply kept Smith, gotten a real platoon partner for him, and then spent the remaining money upgrading third base or the rotation. As it is, they’ve locked themselves into a mediocre player headed into his decline phase.
#3 – Marlins Sign Heath Bell for 3/27M
This deal doesn’t really make sense from a baseball perspective, as Bell’s declining strikeout rates, advancing age, and need to sustain low HR/FB rates while leaving Petco Park make him a guy with numerous red flags. In fact, the only argument I’ve seen in favor of this deal were that Bell was brought in as a lure to show other free agents that the team was serious about winning. Even on that criteria, though, the deal didn’t work – Wilson and Albert Pujols both went to Anaheim instead, and the Marlins certainly didn’t get a discount on signing Buehrle because Bell was going to be his teammate. The Marlins didn’t need to give Bell three years to land a quality reliever, and there’s a good chance they’ll regret this contract sooner than later.
#2 – Tigers Sign Prince Fielder for 9/214M
Prince Fielder is a good player, but this is three years and about $70 million too much for what he brings to the table. Yes, the Tigers are in win-now mode, and yes, Fielder makes them better in the short term, but the reality is that if the Tigers had this kind of payroll flexibility, they should have simply been far more active earlier in the off-season, as they could have improved their roster significantly more by spreading the cash around to bring in multiple players and fill a number of holes. Instead, the team overreacted to the Victor Martinez injury and compromised the long term health of the organization for a short term gain in the standings. The fact that Mike Illitch might not be around to see the end of the contract doesn’t make the deal any less damaging to the Tigers franchise – it just means that the current owner is borrowing from the next owner’s pockets in order to achieve his own personal goal. Of all the moves made this winter, this is the one that has the potential to really cripple a franchise – they need it to pay off in 2012, because the long term costs of this deal are going to be extremely harmful to the organization.
#1 – Phillies Sign Jonathan Papelbon for 4/50M.
The Tigers overpaid and got a star. The Phillies overpaid and got a reliever, then had salt rubbed in the wound when the reliever they were replacing ended up signing with another NL contender for 17% of the guaranteed money they gave Papelbon. The list of big contracts for free agent relievers that have turned out well is extremely short, and while Papelbon has been a very good reliever thus far in his career, he’s not without his own set of risks. For a team that had other holes to fill, this just wasn’t a good use of resources, especially with the glut of relievers on the market. By exercising a little more patience, the Phillies could have walked away with a good closer, a real answer in left field, upgraded their bench, and had enough left over to convince Roy Oswalt to return. Instead, they decided to go all-in on a ninth inning upgrade that might not even turn out to be a big upgrade.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.