The Worst Transactions of the 2015 Off-Season

Yesterday, I covered the moves of the winter that I liked the most. Today, we look at the moves that I like less, though I’ll note that this year simply doesn’t have the collection of clear mistakes that last year’s list had. While there were some transactions this winter that probably won’t work out that well, the risk associated with a lot of these moves is significantly lower than the ones we saw a year ago. No team really screwed themselves this off-season the same way the Rangers did last year with their Prince Fielder/Shin-Soo Choo acquisitions, and the free agent overpays seem to be getting smaller each year.

So, in reality, most of these moves are more suboptimal than outright disasters. Perhaps there were better alternatives each case, but the downside potential is often limited here, and a good amount of these will probably end up not having a major negative impact on their clubs.

In that spirit, no (dis)honorable mentions this time around; let’s just get straight to the moves that I didn’t particularly care for this off-season.

The Bottom 10

10. Royals sign Alex Rios
Cost: One year, $11 million

On the one hand, it’s basically impossible to screw up a franchise with a modest one year deal. And Alex Rios isn’t entirely worthless, so the negative marginal cost of this move is probably only a few million here or there. But this move is just so pointless. Rios is worse than Nori Aoki, who he is replacing, and worse than Jarrod Dyson, who he is displacing. Aoki signed for $5 million guaranteed, and his total potential earnings over two years are barely more than what Kansas City gave Rios for one year. The Royals don’t have the kind of budget that allows them to light money on fire, but that’s essentially what this deal did. They overpaid for a fourth outfielder and will now have a financial motivation to play him too often. It’s not the end of the world or anything, but there was no real reason to give Alex Rios $11 million this winter.

9. A’s sign Billy Butler
Cost: Three years, $30 million

In the wake of the A’s surprising expenditure on a DH, Eno made a case that this move wasn’t totally crazy. I remain unconvinced, however. Yes, it’s possible that current WAR estimates punish DHs too much, but even if we reduce the DH penalty, he’s still a below average player coming off a terrible year. $30 million doesn’t buy what it used to buy, but it feels like the A’s should have been able to get more for their money here. Signing bat-only players with unspectacular offensive performances to three year contracts is almost certainly not the new market inefficiency.

8. Twins sign Ervin Santana
Cost: Four years, $55 million

For what Santana is, the price is mostly okay. This is what durable league average starters are going for these days, and that’s clearly the mold that Santana belongs to. However, this is just the wrong team to be handing out a four year deal to an aging pitcher, especially with draft pick compensation attached. The Twins are going to be lousy again in 2015, and probably won’t be contenders for several more years, by which time Santana probably will be a drag on the payroll. Yes, bad teams need veteran placeholders, but better for them to bet on upside than pay for stability. Signing Phil Hughes last winter was a great example of what the Twins should be doing. This is just a run-in-place maneuver with minimal potential, however, and enough downside that the Twins will probably end up regretting this move.

7. Royals sign Edinson Volquez
Cost: Two years, $20 million

Back in November, I included Volquez on a list of “free agent landmines” to be avoided. To Dayton Moore’s credit, he did sign Volquez for a little less than the 3/$27M I expected, but even at 2/$20M, this probably wasn’t a good use of funds. Volquez’s breakout was entirely a mirage, fueled by a .262 BABIP from a guy with a career mark of nearly .300. His underlying skills remain mediocre at best, and while Volquez might use the Royals defense to imitate a serviceable fifth starter, low-revenue clubs shouldn’t be spending $20 million on guys like this. Volquez is exactly the kind of guy you want to go year to year with. Maybe a team with a larger payroll could justify the overpay as a rounding error, but between Volquez, Rios, and Kendrys Morales, the Royals committed nearly 30% of their payroll to a trio of +1 WAR free agents. Ick.

6. Marlins acquire Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, and Miguel Rojas
Cost: Andrew Heaney, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes, and Chris Hatcher

I get that they’re down on Andrew Heaney, and don’t see him as a big loss. That’s fine. Pitching prospects are variable enough that they very well may be right, and maybe all they traded was a collection of spare parts. But there still plenty of people who believe in Heaney — as seen by the Dodgers ability to immediately turn him into an actual good player — and Hernandez and Barnes had real value to teams who put stock in minor league performances, and in exchange for some pieces that had legitimate trade value, the Marlins got a bad-to-maybe-okay second baseman and an aging pitcher who doesn’t really want to pitch for them. Sure, they also got the Dodgers to pay the salary add-ons too, but that just makes this deal look like they sold talent for cash because they were too cheap to spend any of their own. Maybe they’re right about Heaney, but they’d have been better off just shipping him to Anaheim themselves and keeping their prospects instead of betting on Dee Gordon repeating what will very likely turn out to be a career year.

5. Mets sign Michael Cuddyer
Cost: Two years, $21 million

When the Mets struck early, surrendering the 15th pick in the draft to sign an aging outfielder who might not really be able to play the outfield anymore, there seemed to be one obvious explanation; they were definitely going to sign another compensation-attached free agent, so the pick surrendered to add Cuddyer would be their less valuable second rounder instead. Under that scenario, 2/$21M for Cuddyer isn’t all that bad, especially if the other addition pushed the Mets into Wild Card territory. Instead, the only other free agent the Mets signed this winter was John Mayberry, and now it really looks like they punted a valuable draft choice for the right to pay $10 million a year to a guy whose best position is occupied by Lucas Duda. There are scenarios where Cuddyer at this price would have been reasonable; the Mets making him their only off-season acquisition is not one of those scenarios.

4. Mariners sign Nelson Cruz
Cost: Four years, $58 million

Yes, Nelson Cruz had a great year in 2014, and if he does anything close to what he did in Baltimore, the Mariners will be fine with this deal. But his pre-Baltimore track record is filled with mediocrity, and there is no worse place in baseball for an aging right-handed slugger than Safeco Field. Perhaps he’ll give the Mariners enough production to justify the salary for 2015, and maybe even for 2016 if they’re lucky, but the last two years of this deal are likely going to be a disaster, and there just isn’t enough value at the front to make up for it. Seattle decided they wanted a very specific skillset, except that skillset isn’t worth what it costs on the open market. Now, they’re left to hope that Cruz can keep having career years in his mid-30s rather than reverting back to the average (or below average) player that his track record suggests.

3. Nationals sign Max Scherzer
Cost: Seven years, $210 million

Because of the deferred money, MLB actually values this the same way they would a 7/$190M contract, or about $2 million more per year than I guessed he’d get at the start of the winter. This isn’t some kind of crazy overpay, and Scherzer is an excellent pitcher, but it’s a really weird fit given Washington’s already strong pitching depth and the amount of unsigned young talent they have heading towards free agency. Having Scherzer in 2015 makes them slightly better, but was this really the best use of $200 million for a team that is likely to let a significant amount of their young core leave in free agency? Unless the signing portends that the Lerner’s are going to open the vault in order to keep all their homegrown talent, this deal might not look so great when Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span are playing elsewhere next year.

2. Braves sign Nick Markakis
Cost: Four years, $44 million

This deal just doesn’t make sense for so many reasons. The Braves spent the winter blowing up their roster, admitting that they’re likely non-contenders for the next several seasons, and are going to attempt to rebuild a winner by the time their new stadium opens in 2017. So why, in the middle of going young, would you outbid win-now teams for the services of a mediocre low-ceiling outfielder who, by the way, happens to need neck surgery? Markakis fits as the 6th or 7th best position player on a winning team, the kind of solid role player that helps fill a hole, but there’s no reason for a rebuilding club to win an auction for his services. The Braves would have been better off betting on an upside play, going with a short-term commitment that might land them a guy they could flip at the deadline for more young talent. Markakis’ deal is going to make him difficult to ever trade for value, so instead, they’re just going to be stuck with a declining veteran taking up a significant amount of the payroll.

1. Padres acquire Matt Kemp and Tim Federowicz
Cost: Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland, Matt Kemp’s contract

Buy-one-get-one sales are great, so long as you actually want two of the thing you’re buying. An example of a thing you shouldn’t be excited to get two of: arthritic hips. Especially when you’re paying $75 million for the right to hope that the guy your division rival is getting rid of isn’t about to have a total physical breakdown in his 30s. Kemp’s athleticism is essentially gone at this point, leaving him as a bat-only player with an inconsistent offensive track record. In many ways, he’s not that different from Nelson Cruz, only the Padres took on an even larger salary commitment and surrendered real talent for the right to do so. Even if you don’t love Grandal as a catcher, it still cost San Diego an interesting arm in Jesse Hahn in order to fill the hole that trading him opened up. Even if Kemp can sustain his career average offensive performances, he’s still not good enough to justify the cost, both in salary and in talent, and the physical problems make it unlikely that he’ll age well. In this move, the Padres spent a lot of money to not get any better, making this my least favorite move of the off-season.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

Signing Scherzer wasn’t just about 2015. The Nationals obviously made a decision to Scherzer instead of Jordan Zimmermann. They had a problem with losing two starting pitchers in the next offseason and so they added one. It makes losing Zimmermann and Fister not as big of a deal.

You can debate the merits of Scherzer or Zimmermann at their respective costs, but you’re looking at it a sort of weird way.

9 years ago
Reply to  David

And any deal they could make to sign Desmond, who already rejected a $107m extension offer and has a profile that’s very worrisome in the longer term with his increased difficulty making contact, would almost certainly rate pretty highly on the worst list.

9 years ago
Reply to  emdash

The Nats have done a lot to tacitly suggest they are fully prepared to have to part ways with Desmond, especially trading for Escobar and making Espinosa go RH-only.

9 years ago
Reply to  hscer

and with Turner, who will probably be ready to take over at SS at some point in ’16/’17.

9 years ago
Reply to  hscer

yes, I knew I was missing one, thanks

9 years ago
Reply to  David

And they expect Giolito next year. So a rotation of Scherzer, Stras, Gio, Roark, and Giolito is tentatively penned in for 2016. So really is, as David said, its expected value of Scherzer versus Zimmermann. Which makes the “worst” signing appearance a bit puzzling. What may be more apt would be NOT trading a SP for future value as a “worst” signing.

9 years ago
Reply to  David

There’s tons of pitching on next year’s market. If the Nationals were only concerned about next year then they should have waited til next year, when Grienke, Price, Shark, Porcello, and Cueto are all set to be free agents (in addition to Zimmermann and Fister).

That deal only made sense if they did some house-cleaning following it. Say, trading Zimmermann and Desmond for prospects, and Strasberg for Betts. That would leave them just with Span and Fister leaving after this year, both players that should get QO’s barring a very weak 2015, and with no position player holes to fill this year, and just needing to add a 5th starter until their high minors pitching is ready to fill in.

In my opinion the Nationals missed a great opportunity to really reload for the ’16-’19 seasons, and instead will be stuck just with comp picks for significant values in Zimmermann and Desmond.

9 years ago
Reply to  BMarkham

I’d eat my hat if every one of those pitchers were on the “open” market as opposed to at least one quickly re-signing with their team. Exhibit A would be Grienke.

9 years ago
Reply to  BMarkham

They could still flip any one of those guys mid-season. I even heard rumblings of moving strasburg at one point so don’t be so convinced they missed a great opportunity…. More times than not, the cost for a front rotation arm mid-season is higher than it is during the off-season so they’re likely to get more back by waiting til mid-season, anyway.

9 years ago
Reply to  David

A decision I don’t agree with. Scherzer is one of the more overrated pitchers out there, while Zimmerman is one of the most underrated, and I expected the Nats of all people to see that. Zimmerman was the right choice.

9 years ago
Reply to  EnricoPalazzo

They still might extend Zimm and trade Strasburg in his place. Do I think it’s likely? No, but they’re in a good position to trade a guy mid-season and pull a ransom compared to what they would have gotten in the off-season. By signing sherzer, they are essentially buying themselves whatever bounty they get back if/and when they do flip someone.