The Best Transactions of the 2015 Off-Season

With the James Shields signing bringing the off-season to something of a close, it’s time to look back at some of my favorite moves of the winter. A year ago, I was quite high on moves like the Doug Fister acquisition and the Jose Abreu signing, but also the Yankees landing Brian McCann and the Cardinals picking up Peter Bourjos, so you know, grains of salt and all that. Still, I do think there are some moves that appear to be demonstrably better than others, and look likely to push their organizations forward into the future. Below, you’ll find my top 10, plus a handful of other small moves that I liked.

Honorable Mentions

These deals aren’t quite significant enough to really move the needle, but they’re solid moves that I think will help their teams overall.

Blue Jays acquire Devon Travis
Blue Jays acquire Michael Saunders
Astros sign Jed Lowrie (3/$23M)
Rays sign Asdrubal Cabrera (1/$8M)
Pirates sign Jung-Ho Kang (4/$16M, including posting fee)
Indians acquire Brandon Moss
Nationals acquire Trea Turner and Joe Ross
Astros acquire Luis Valbuena
Red Sox sign Justin Masterson (1/$10M)
Dodgers acquire Jimmy Rollins

The Top 10

10. Dodgers Sign Brandon McCarthy
Cost: Four years, $48 million

I have a long history of preferring higher risk pitchers at lower prices over paying for proven durability, and McCarthy is probably my favorite example of spending moderate money on an arm with real upside. There was a lot of focus on the four year guarantee for a guy who just cracked 200 innings for the first time in his career, but the AAV of the deal is low enough that the four year term isn’t a big deal. McCarthy signed for the kind of total commitment that good relievers and mediocre outfielders were getting, but if he can put together even a couple of fully healthy years in out of the next four, the Dodgers should come out ahead here. At this price, they don’t need 200 innings per year from him to justify the contract.

9. Reds Acquire Eugenio Suarez
Cost: Alfredo Simon

My favorite of all the small moves this winter, the Reds somehow turned one year of a below average #5 starter into a fairly interesting young middle infielder. Suarez might top out as nothing more than a utility guy, but even as a part-time shortstop who won’t embarrass himself offensively, he’ll have real value while making the league minimum. And if he’s anywhere near as good as the statistical projections think he might be, then the Reds stole six years of a potentially league average player for an eminently replaceable back-end starter. There might not be the kind of upside in acquiring Suarez that there is in flashier moves, but this is exactly the kind of move the Reds needed to make this winter.

8. Padres Acquire Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft
Cost: Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Mallex Smith, and Dustin Peterson

The Padres did a lot of things this winter, but this was my favorite A.J. Preller move. Upton isn’t the superstar he was projected to be as a prospect, but he’s a solid above average player and a borderline star when he plays acceptable defense. Acquiring one year of a good-not-great player isn’t the home run that it will be made out to be, but landing Upton for a broken pitcher and some spare parts is a pretty solid move. Perhaps Carson’s affection for Jace Peterson will eventually be proven correct, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the draft pick the Padres got for losing Upton proved to be as valuable as any of the four players they gave up to get him in the first place.

7. Blue Jays sign Russell Martin
Cost: Five years, $82 million

Like with McCarthy, it’s best to not focus on what this deal might look like when it ends, as five years for an aging catcher likely means there’s some albatross years coming. In the first few years, though, this should be a big win for the Blue Jays, as Martin’s impact on both sides of the ball could make him the most important player to change teams this winter. At the least, he should be one of the game’s best catchers for the next couple of years, and with the Blue Jays pushing in on 2015 before Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hit free agency, this was the best signing Toronto could have made to try and make a run at the division. $82 million isn’t particularly cheap, but given the size of the contracts handed out to similarly valuable free agents, it’s still a bargain.

6. Blue Jays Acquire Josh Donaldson
Cost: Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Nolin

I don’t see this as the total heist that many others do, as Graveman and Nolin are exactly the kinds of pitchers that I value higher than many, and I’m not giving up on Brett Lawrie just yet. Toss in Barreto’s upside, and the Blue Jays gave up plenty of value, but they also are getting one extremely good chip in return. Even as a Super Two, Donaldson provides four years of team control at discounted prices, and has legitimately developed into one of the best third baseman in baseball. The upgrade over Lawrie didn’t come for free, but these are important wins for Toronto, and there is some benefit to consolidating value within one position. I am fine with this trade from the A’s perspective, but given Toronto’s situation, taking the risk to land Donaldson should prove worthwhile.

5. Red Sox Acquire Wade Miley
Cost: Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster

Miley isn’t sexy, and probably never turns into more than a solid mid-rotation innings eater. That said, that profile currently commands $15 to $20 million a year on the free agent market, and the Red Sox were able to snag three years of team control — then turn it into four years with a nifty new contract — in exchange for two guys who probably profile as relievers. Maybe either de la Rosa or Webster will eventually get their results to match up with the raw stuff, but I’d rather bet on a guy who has shown he can give you 200 perfectly acceptable innings on a regular basis. This move might have lowered the Red Sox ceiling, but it significantly raised their floor, and used up only a tiny fraction of their payroll. Miley won’t get much of the credit for a Red Sox team that should be much better in 2015, but acquisitions like this one are why they project for a big turnaround.

4. Yankees sign Chase Headley
Cost: 4 years, $52 million

Yeah, there are legitimate reasons to think that Chase Headley is not likely to be a +4 WAR player going forward. Defense doesn’t always age gracefully, and Headley’s second half surge might have been mostly about taking advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. But that’s still going to be his home park, and even with the drop in power, Headley’s still been an above average hitter with real defensive value. Given any sort of bounce-back at the plate, he’s a very nice contributor, and if the defensive value sticks around for a little while, as good as players signing for two or three times what he cost. It’s another high floor/moderate upside acquisition that isn’t always in favor, but it’s hard to figure out another way $50 million could have been better spent in free agency this winter.

3. Dodgers Acquire Yasmani Grandal and Joe Wieland
Cost: Matt Kemp and Tim Federowicz

I didn’t really hold back when this trade was announced, comparing the trade to the Blue Jays dumping Vernon Wells on the Angels prior to the 2011 season. That was a bit of an extreme example — Wells complete collapse should not be the expectation for Kemp in San Diego — but there are a lot of similarities here, perhaps especially when looking at the catchers that went to the team dumping the salary. Like Mike Napoli’s inclusion in the Wells trade, Grandal is an under-appreciated piece of this deal, and could prove to be more valuable going forward than Kemp himself. Catchers who can hit reasonably well don’t have to be defensive aces to be worth playing, and Grandal’s framing numbers suggest he isn’t Ryan Doumit behind the plate either. To dump $75 million in future salary and pick up an interesting pitching prospect for the right to exchange a defensively challenged player they didn’t need for one that filled a clear hole makes this a big win for Los Angeles.

2. Dodgers acquire Howie Kendrick, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes, and Chris Hatcher
Cost: Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Miguel Rojas, cash

While it wasn’t technically a three way trade, the two Andrew Heaney deals are best viewed as one larger transaction, with the Dodgers using Gordon and Haren to land a significant second base upgrade and a pair of prospects who both might be better than Gordon long-term. To this day, I still can’t entirely figure out how the Dodgers managed to turn Gordon into Kendrick — probably a +2 or +3 WAR upgrade in short-term value — and receive a couple of prospects for the right to make that swap. Yes, they gave up some team control, but Gordon is exactly the kind of player that you don’t want to be giving arbitration raises to, and Hernandez can probably replace most of the value lost by not having Gordon on the roster going forward. Toss in Barnes, who is an odd but potentially very useful role player, and I expect the Dodgers to get more future value from the players they acquired than the one they gave up. Toss in the big short-term improvement, and this deal was a total home run for LA.

1. Dodgers Acquire Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi
Cost: Cash

The last two moves only exist because of this one, and so while I hesitate to put a front office hire ahead of every player transaction, it’s impossible to ignore that this move was directly responsible for all the other good moves that came afterwards. A year ago, the Dodgers were a a financial behemoth that was wasting its resource advantage on lousy relievers and overrated outfielders; now they’re maybe the best team in baseball while simultaneously getting younger and improving their farm system. That’s no small accomplishment, and the dramatic turnaround began when the team decided to use their capital to overhaul their front office instead of buying more broken closers. It was the best decision they could have made, and now the Dodgers are probably the scariest organization in baseball. That isn’t solely because of their two new hires, but no team changed course more dramatically than the Dodgers this winter, and it began with the hiring of Andrew Friedman.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

Wasn’t a fan of the Samardzija deal for the A’s? A one for one deal for Semien would’ve been excellent for the A’s going by the Steamer numbers, and they got a bunch of interesting extra pieces as well.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

I like Semien a lot, I think he’ll be a good bit better than Suarez. But prospects are dumb, so I see your point. I suppose it comes down to what you think of the lottery tickets that are Chris Bassitt and Rangel Ravelo.

Forrest Gumption
9 years ago
Reply to  yolo

I think Beane’s best trade for Oakland in terms of him fleecing another team, was Derek Norris & a 24 year old A-ball pitcher for sure-bet types Jesse Hahn & RJ Alvarez. That was a fantastic haul for Oakland, unless you view Norris as a 1B-only Mike Napoli-type, which SD does not, yet.

Randy Jones
9 years ago
Reply to  yolo

This is a response to the guy below. I’ll definitely give you Alvarez who will be a closer one day. Excellent arm. Hahn is a good pitcher but a guy like that coming off TJ who snaps off so many 12-6 curveballs has to be a major risk. I really loved him in SD and was sad to see him go but we’ll see how his health holds up.

9 years ago
Reply to  yolo

“I like Semien a lot,”

I bet you do.

Sabean Wannabe
9 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

This article makes me think of the line in Pulp Fiction when Harvey Keitel has overseen the cleanup of the car and the guys are amazed out how clean it is;

“Let’s not start sucking each other’s d*cks just yet”

Freidman and Zaidi are smart guys who earned their reputations. However, they walked into a situation with the largest payroll in the majors (15% higher than #2 and almost 50%!! higher than the #5 team). And in their first handful of transactions they are allowed to get ZERO return for $38 million (paying $18M on Kemp, $10M on Haren and $9.5M on Wilson) and could conceivable get little production out of another $22 million ($12M for McCarthy and $10M for Anderson) based on injury histories. How many other teams could take those kind of gambles on those two pitchers? It’s not exactly brilliance, it’s simply having more money than others and thus being able to eat the losses if they occur. I’m sure those pitchers were on other GM’s radars, they just couldn’t take the risk.

Question: Given the highest payroll in MLB and the authorization to kill as much as $60M more, how many other GMs could have done a good job? I’m guessing most of them.

9 years ago
Reply to  yolo

The A’s didn’t get very much for Samardzija, outside of Semien who is probably a utility player. This past November Kiley McDaniel ranked Ravelo the 16th best prospect in a thin White Sox system. Bassitt didn’t crack the top 22. Phegley, who turned 27 today is nothing more than organization filler.

The draft pick the White Sox will get if they offer Samardzija a QO will probably be a better prospect than anything they gave up. Plus they received a lottery ticket in Ynoa.