Yesterday, I ran down my 10 favorite moves of the winter, highlighting the acquisitions that I thought were the best combination of return on investment and franchise impact. Today, we’re going to tackle the flip side of that coin, and look at the 10 moves I wasn’t quite as high on.
This side of the list has become increasingly difficult in recent years, as the people running MLB teams have become much more efficient with their decisions, and there are many fewer obvious mistakes than there used to be. These days, the worst moves of the winter are more marginal, with teams spending a little too much money for a still useful player here or there, or trading something from their farm system that perhaps should have brought back something more impactful.
We don’t see that many franchise-crippling moves anymore, however, so a transaction appearing below isn’t condemnation of that franchise; it’s more just that these teams may have had better options rather than going down the path they ultimately decided upon. And since there aren’t as many candidates for this part of the list, we’ll skip the dishonorable mentions, and get right to the ten moves that I didn’t really care that much for.
A year ago, I didn’t really understand why the A’s saw it necessary to throw $30 million at Billy Butler, given his limited skillset and poor 2014 season. This year, I don’t entirely understand why the A’s had to surrender a talented young lefty — who held batters to a .260 wOBA after getting shifted to the bullpen — for the limited skillset of Yonder Alonso. His lack of power for the first base position makes him a below average player, and if there are signs he’s about to break out at age-29, I don’t see them.
Alonso is a low-ceiling +1 WAR player with just two years of team control remaining, so while he has some usefulness as a depth piece, giving up a potentially good young bullpen arm for this kind of player doesn’t necessarily strike me as the kind of trade the A’s should be making. It’s not like the A’s mortgaged their franchise here or anything, but I’d rather have Pomeranz than Alonso, especially with how much relief pitching cost on the open market this winter.
#9: Tigers Pay High Price for Depth
Acquire: Mike Pelfrey
Cost: Two years, $16 million
While Mike Ilitch has made it clear that the team will spend money to put a good team on the field, their selection of a fifth starter is an odd one. Mike Pelfrey probably shouldn’t be counted on as a rotation member for a team trying to win, and giving him two years at $8 million per season suggests a value that it’s not clear Pelfrey can live up to. He’s not really an innings eater — he hasn’t cracked the 200 IP mark since 2010 — nor does he hold teams from scoring, and at 32, it’s hard to see him getting much better.
If you’re fishing in these kinds of waters for a back-end starter, it would have seemed better to bet on an injury reclamation with a bit of upside. Or if money is really no object for the team’s owner, then spend a little bit more and get a pitcher with a higher floor. Giving pitchers like Pelfrey multiple years is the kind of thing that teams quickly come to regret.
#8: Reds Blow International Budget
Acquire: Alfredo Rodriguez
Cost: $6 million signing bonus; $6 million tax, future signing restrictions
Blowing your bonus pool can be a very good strategy in MLB right now, as other teams have shown by going on ludicrous spending sprees. But the Reds decision to blow their bonus pool out of the water in January — after most of the best players available in this period have already been signed — in order to bring in a player who Ben Badler described as a “third-to-sixth-round” talent is a curious one for a team in need of an infusion of young players.
Setting aside Rodriguez specifically, since I don’t feel qualified to make a judgment on his future, the Reds decision to go over their bonus pool this year dramatically limit their ability to sign players the next two years, since the penalty includes a restriction on signing players for more than $300,000 during that time. The Reds will have the second largest bonus pool for this coming July 2nd period, and given their Major League roster, will probably have one of the largest pools again in 2017 as well. Rather than using their extra spending ability to load up on talent during those classes, the Reds will now have to trade away much of their bonus pool allocation since they won’t be in the market for elite international talents.
Like with Arizona’s decision to sign Yoan Lopez a year ago, there seems to not be enough of a return on this investment to justify the penalties associated with going over their pool allocation, and the Reds can’t really afford to be leaving talent on the table right now.
On the one hand, criticizing the Reds for not getting enough for a guy that everyone knew was available is tricky; if other teams were willing to pay more for Frazier, they certainly could have. And the fact that the Dodgers also traded Frazier to the White Sox, rather than finding another party to give them even more of a finder’s fee for facilitating the deal, suggests that Chicago may really have made the highest bid for the third baseman. But the Reds decision to take the closer-to-the-majors package the Dodgers were offering is a bit curious, given the fact that they’re nowhere near contending, and Peraza’s short-term value is diminished by the club’s inability to open up a spot for him in the line-up.
Taking less long-term value to acquire Brandon Phillips replacement, before you ensure that Phillips would indeed waive his no-trade clause to play elsewhere, means that the team took a lighter package than they could have gotten from the White Sox directly, but also don’t get the benefit of having Peraza play everyday in 2016. And at these prices, the team may have realistically been better off holding on to Frazier, hoping he had another big first half, and then seeing what his market looked like in July. Instead, the team sold low on one of their best trade chips, and now their path back to contention looks even longer.
Like with the A’s-Padres trade, this deal involves a swap of a team trying to upgrade their stock of hitters by acquiring a guy who isn’t that good of a hitter, and giving up a pitcher I’d rather have in the process. But the D’Backs upped the ante a bit on their version of this deal by also selling a quality young prospect in Isan Diaz. The team saved about $6 million by dumping half of Aaron Hill’s contract, but then turned around and gave Tyler Clippard a two year, $12 million contract, so realistically, this deal allowed them to turn an interesting prospect into one year of a decent setup guy, making the cost-savings side of the deal difficult to justify as well.
Unless Segura figures out how to hit for some power or gets his plate discipline back to an acceptable level, Arizona will have paid a high price to acquire a player who isn’t significantly better than either Nick Ahmed or Chris Owings.
Dave Dombrowski wanted a dominant closer to help turn the franchise around, and he certainly got one; even if he’s not quite what he was a few years ago, Kimbrel remains one of the elite relievers in baseball today. Unfortunately, I think he just overpaid, even in a market where reliever valuations were skyrocketing. Prospect valuation models suggest the Red Sox surrendered something like $50 million in future value with the players they surrendered, and the team also took on the remaining $24 million (or $37 million, if his third-year option is exercise) left on Kimbrel’s contract.
There’s basically no way Kimbrel is actually worth $75 to $90 million over the next two or three years, and the organization likely would have been better off just outbidding the Orioles for Darren O’Day and using their prospects to acquire an upgrade elsewhere.
I’m combining two moves into one, because the trade with the Rays was the fruit of the Gerardo Parra signing, and I’m still struggling to figure out what prompted the Rockies to make this series of moves. Parra is a nice role-player, a fourth outfielder on a good team or a starter on a roster with some problems, but he’s probably worse than Corey Dickerson, and is a couple of years older to boot. But the Rockies apparently wanted to get more athletic in the outfield, and not being a fan of Dickerson’s defense, they decided to spend $27 million to replace him with a guy who may or may not actually be any better.
Instead of just moving Dickerson to first base, where they don’t have any real options, they then traded him — and one of their best young hitting prospects — to Tampa Bay for two years of an injury-prone reliever and a less interesting pitching prospect. The Rockies aren’t in a position to take advantage of McGee’s short-term value, and unless they can flip him for a high price at the deadline, they ended up downgrading their stockpile of future assets as well.
#3: Royals Throw Money at Innings Eater
Acquire: Ian Kennedy
Cost: Five years, $70 million; opt-out after second year.
It’s easy to see why the Royals saw Kennedy as a fit for them; a strike-throwing flyball pitcher fits well in a front of an elite defense, and the team certainly needed to add rotation depth if they were going to keep themselves in contention in the AL Central. But the price remains shockingly high. When you factor in the surrendered draft choice and the value given to the player through the opt-out, Kennedy cost as much as Mike Leake, a demonstrably better pitcher who also happens to be quite a bit younger, and who wasn’t exactly a bargain himself.
Or, put another way, Kennedy signed for more money than John Lackey and J.A. Happ got between them; I’d rather have either one without even factoring in the cost. I’m sure the Royals are beyond caring what we think of their transactions at this point, but it seems to me that there were a lot of different ways they could have upgraded their rotation without giving Ian Kennedy $70 million.
#2: Orioles Overpay Aging Slugger
Acquire: Chris Davis
Cost: Seven years, $161 million
There’s essentially one defense for this deal; Peter Angelos knowingly overpaid for his star first baseman, but was willing to authorize additional payroll to cover the costs because he puts a high personal value on having Davis on his team. If that’s the case, and re-signing Davis doesn’t hider the team’s ability to acquire other players, then it’s not the end of the world, even if it’s not the best way to run a franchise. But with the Orioles facing a number of deficiencies around the roster, if Davis’ contract is held up as a reason the team can’t make other necessary upgrades, then this could be the most harmful free agent contract signed in years.
That there was no other real market for Davis this winter suggests that he’ll be very difficult to trade if things don’t work out in Baltimore, and given the track record of players like this, that’s a very real possibility. The Orioles could quickly find themselves needing to rebuild if 2016 goes poorly, only they’ve now saddled themselves with a significantly over-market contract right as they head into a period where they might need to start focusing on the future. Bringing Davis back could work if other upgrades are made and the team can catch lightning in a bottle again, but there’s a huge risk here, and the downside if it doesn’t work is too high to justify the reward.
You knew this was coming. Not every trade that’s a big win for one side is definitely a big loss for the other, but in this deal, Arizona just got fleeced. In talking with people in the game in the aftermath of the trade, it became clear that there was a strong market for Inciarte, and the Diamondbacks could have turned him into a quality starting pitcher in something like a one-for-one trade had they pushed in that direction. Instead, their pursuit of Jose Fernandez apparently led them to believe that the Marlins ridiculous asking price set the price for acquiring a rotation upgrade, and the Braves took advantage of that perspective to rob them blind.
Miller is a quality pitcher, but the upgrade in the rotation only makes the team marginally better when you account for the downgrade in the outfield, leaving the organization in a position of surrendering two of their best assets for little actual gain. Swanson and Blair are not guaranteed to turn into anything, of course, but they had clear value to many teams around the league, and even if the D’Backs were set on trading them this winter, they could have gotten significantly more in return.
With Zack Greinke, Paul Goldschmidt, and A.J. Pollock around, the D’Backs have three outstanding players, and if they get enough support from their role players, they might make a run at the postseason. But that’s not the position you should find yourself in after surrendering a huge chunk of your organizational asset pool; the team would need to be in a much better position to capitalize on their short-term upgrades in order to justify the long-term costs. And even if they were in a better position, there still would have been numerous other paths that could have helped the team improve their big league roster this winter in more substantial ways. Unless Shelby Miller is on the verge of becoming a dominant #1 starter, this is the kind of deal may haunt the D’Backs for years to come.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.