Last week, I wrote up what I thought were the 10 best transactions made this winter, looking at teams that helped themselves the most with quality upgrades. Today, we tackle the flip side of that coin, and look at the moves that I liked the least.
However, because of the significant improvements teams have made in their decision-making processes, the reality is that this list simply lacks the magnitude of the best moves of the winter. It was really quite difficult to find even 10 transactions that I think did real damage to the franchises that made them, and the ones that ended up towards the end of this list are the kinds of boring little moves that most fans aren’t even going to realize happened.
Even at the top of this list, we’re looking at teams spending a little inefficiently on useful players who can help them win, with no real huge overpays or franchise-killing contracts that will be regretted for years to come. There were no “what were they thinking?” trades this year, no insane free-agent signings that show a huge gap between the market’s perception and a player’s on-field value. So, these are deals I liked the least in a winter full of mostly good moves. At this point, every team knows what they’re doing, and they just aren’t giving us much meat for these kinds of columns.
But symmetry says we have to publish it anyway, so here are the 10 moves for which I didn’t entirely care this offseason.
On the one hand, this deal can reasonably be justified by the fact that it was one half of a pair of moves that also landed the team Jarrod Dyson, who could be a very good player for the Mariners in 2017. And by swapping an outfielder for a pitcher in this deal, they felt able to swap a pitcher (Nate Karns) for an outfield upgrade an hour later, and they’re probably right that they’re better off this year with Dyson and Gallardo than Karns and Smith.
But I’m not sold that they had to make this move in order to make the other one. In exchanging Smith for Gallardo, the team actually took on an extra $4 million in commitments ($2 million in 2017 salary and a $2 million buyout on the 2018 option), which could have simply been given to a low-level free agent to fill the not-great-back-end-starter role for which Gallardo is penciled in; Jorge de la Rosa, for instance, got a minor-league deal that pays him just $2.25 million if he makes the big leagues. And had they gone that route to replace Karns, they could have kept Smith and simply deployed him at first base, where he’d very likely be better than Dan Vogelbach.
It says something about how few lousy moves there were this winter that we’re spending time talking about a team downgrading marginal role players, and it’s not like Seth Smith is anything special. But in looking at the Mariners first-base situation, I can’t help but think “Man, they could really use a decent left-handed platoon guy,” which is exactly the role for which Smith is suited, only they gave him away and took on money to get a bad fifth starter. It’s not a franchise-killing disaster, but I think they’d have been better off next year had Jerry Dipoto made one fewer trade this winter.
I’m combining a couple of different moves into one blurb here, as the team’s decision to acquire Tyler Thornburg led to their corresponding move to sign Mitch Moreland to play first base, so this “move” is both a trade and a free-agent signing. And in this pair of moves, I’m not sure the Red Sox actually upgraded much, even though they gave up an interesting prospect in the swap.
To be clear, I like Thornburg a lot, and was advocating for him as an under-the-radar acquisition last July. Thornburg is a good reliever, and should help deepen the Red Sox bullpen. But in looking at this pair of moves, I’m just not sure this was the best use of the team’s resources.
Shaw and Moreland are pretty similar players, both projecting as below-average but better-than-replacement-level platoon guys, though Shaw adds the versatility to cover third base, too, which would be a nice perk for a Boston team now counting heavily on Pablo Sandoval’s career resurgence. To get the older and worse version of Shaw to cover first base, the team spent $5 million in salary, in addition to the $2 million they’ll pay Thornburg this year, so these moves added $7 million to the team’s 2017 payroll, plus cost them a pretty interesting middle-infield prospect.
Seven million dollars doesn’t get you an ace reliever at this point, but that’s what Greg Holland cost the Rockies, and it’s not much less than Brad Ziegler cost the Marlins, though he did get a two-year deal. The point is that the team probably could have kept Shaw (and Dubon) and signed a reliever for roughly the amount of money this series of moves cost them, and instead of having to rely on Sandoval’s resurgence, the team would have an in-house option if their third baseman is still more Panda than Kung Fu. Plus they’d still have Dubon, who could probably fetch them a reliever at the deadline if it proved necessary.
And while throwing away the remaining controllable years of probable role players with limited upside isn’t a huge deal to a team like Boston, the team lost a decent chunk of long-term potential here without getting a huge short-term upgrade in the process. If you’re going to surrender a bunch of years from guys with enough skills to be useful big leaguers, then you want to make sure the team is getting better in the short term, and I’m not sure having Thornburg and Moreland is significantly better than just playing Shaw at first base and throwing the money at a free-agent reliever instead.
#8: Rockies Pay Premium for Non-Premium Reliever
Acquire: Mike Dunn
Cost: Three years, $19 million
Pitchers are going to charge the Rockies more to sign with a team that plays at altitude, so yeah, I get why every Colorado free-agent signing looks expensive relative to what we expected that player to get from any other team. But three years for Mike Dunn? And $19 million for a run-of-the-mill lefty when the better lefty reliever he’s replacing, Boone Logan, got $5.5 million on a one-year deal a couple of month later? How many more of these free-agent overpays are the Rockies going to attempt before they give up on trying to buy veteran arms in free agency, when the premium is this high?
Dunn isn’t without his uses, but given what the market was paying guys like Logan and Jerry Blevins, he should have gotten like 1/$5M or something. The Rockies don’t have enough money, nor do they have enough expectation of value from short-term wins, to be dramatically overpaying seventh inning relievers. Throwing money at Chad Qualls didn’t fix the bullpen last year, and this year’s odd decision to make Mike Dunn a very rich man won’t either.
#7: The Twins Keep Their Second Baseman
Cost: To Be Determined
Okay, I’m cheating. This isn’t a transaction, so technically, this doesn’t belong here. But there was so much smoke around a possible Brian Dozier for Jose De Leon (and stuff) trade that I think we can somewhat safely assume that it was on the table for the Twins if they wanted to make that deal, only they couldn’t find common ground with the Dodgers on what the other stuff should be. And I have to wonder if, when all is said and done, they’ll wish they hadn’t been quite so picky.
Of course, there are reasons to have legitimate reservations about De Leon. He doesn’t have a great breaking ball. He’s had arm problems, including last year. He was bad in his big-league audition. The team that knows the most about him was willing to give him up.
But the Twins were in a bit of a unique situation, with a win-now contender looking specifically for a power-hitting right-handed second baseman to round out their roster, and willing to pay more to get a lower-salary guy to keep their luxury-tax payments down. With the Dodgers having moved on to their fallback option, it’s not entirely clear that the Twins will ever have another chance to move Dozier for the kind of value he could have fetched this winter.
As Gerald Schifman and Tony Blengino have written recently, there are plenty of reasons to think Dozier’s offense is likely to come back to earth a bit next year, and with just two years left on his contract, he’s getting close enough to free agency that his value is inevitably going to go down. The Twins probably aren’t contenders this year and even 2018 is a stretch, so unless they think they can re-sign Dozier again, there’s a good chance he’ll hit the open market before the Twins are ready to capitalize on his value.
Are they likely to get far more than a big-league ready top-30 pitching prospect at the trade deadline, especially if Dozier is slugging .450 instead of .550? I don’t see it, especially with the Dodgers likely out of the bidding. Maybe they’ll be proven right that De Leon wasn’t worth cashing in their best trade chip now, but this looked like the winter to trade Dozier, and I remain skeptical that they’ll have another chance to convert him into more value than they did this past offseason.
#6: Giants Fix Ninth Inning, They Hope
Acquire: Mark Melancon
Cost: Four years, $62 million
The Giants signing one of the brand-name free-agent closers this winter was the most predictable event of the offseason, given how historically their bullpen melted down in the second half of last year. When the team gave up four runs in the ninth inning to end their season in the NLDS, a guaranteed payday for a ninth-inning specialist became inevitable.
Melancon fit the bill as the cheapest of the big three closers on the market, and as a guy who throws strikes and induces a lot of weak contact, he also fits right into the Giants’ style of pitching. There’s no questioning how well he’s pitched over the last four years, and as long as his stuff holds up, he should continue to be among the best relievers in the game.
But given that Melancon is a cutter-heavy pitch-to-contact guy, there’s real risk here when the stuff starts to degrade. The Giants are hoping Melancon can give them enough elite years at the front end to make the deal worthwhile, but relievers are fickle enough that you just never know. I don’t think Melancon for $62 million is a huge disaster or anything, but I probably would have just spent that money on a less-premium reliever and used the savings to get myself a real left fielder instead.
#5: Cardinals Pay High Price for Outfield Upgrade
Acquire: Dexter Fowler
Cost: Five years, $82.5 million
I like Dexter Fowler, and I think he’s going to be a good player for the Cardinals in 2017. And probably 2018. But while Fowler definitely increased his market by putting up the best year of his career in 2016, he still appears to be mostly the same guy the market rejected a year ago, and yet the Cardinals still had to spend over $80 million to land his services this winter.
And that’s just a little too risky for me. Fowler was terrific last year, but he turns 31 before Opening Day, and this is still a guy who has reached 600 plate appearances in a season just once in his career. In three of the last four years, he’s played between 116 and 125 games, and based on his injury log, he’s missed time with injuries to nearly every bone, muscle, and joint in his lower body at some point in his career.
Betting on Fowler to be an everyday player in his mid-30s, when he wasn’t really one in his 20s, goes against most of what we know about how the body works these days. And while Fowler is a really nice hitter for a center fielder, and his defensive value has likely improved with the Cubs repositioning efforts, $82.5 million is still a lot for a guy on whom you can probably only count for 130 to 140 games a year for the next few years, and probably a lot less than that in the final few years of this contract.
Toss in the fact that the Cardinals are chasing down a juggernaut and may have to settle for a Wild Card berth the next couple of years, and I don’t know if betting big on Fowler aging well was the right call for this team. The health and performance risks, combined with the team’s reduced odds of making the division series thanks to the Cubs existence, make this a contract with a lot of downside risk and less chances for a short-term payoff than I’d be comfortable with.
#4: Orioles Get Discount on Someone They Didn’t Need
Acquire: Mark Trumbo
Cost: Three years, $37.5 million
To be honest, if Mark Trumbo had signed this same deal with a team that didn’t already have Chris Davis, it probably wouldn’t have made the list. In a vacuum, $12.5 million per year for Trumbo on a mid-term contract is just fine, and is nowhere near the landmine contract we were expecting him to get before the winter began.
But Trumbo’s value is maximized as a first baseman, where he’s historically been above average defensively. In Baltimore, Trumbo isn’t going to play much first base, since the team gave Davis $161 million last winter. In Baltimore, Trumbo is going to be relegated to either DH work (where the bat isn’t that special) or the outfield (where the glove is anti-special), and used in either of those ways, it just seems like the Orioles probably could have done better.
Trumbo is a significant liability in the outfield, so assuming he plays out there against all left-handers, the team will be forfeiting a good chunk of his offensive value on those days. As a DH against right-handers, well, the team probably could have gotten the same level of production from re-signing Pedro Alvarez, who still doesn’t have a home, and certainly won’t get a three-year deal. Trumbo’s ability to avoid being platooned has some value from a roster standpoint, but he’s less valuable to Baltimore than just about every other team in baseball. So while the contract is mostly just fine, and Trumbo is a decent enough player, this just isn’t a great pairing; the Orioles should have spent this money on starting pitching instead.
#3: Dodgers Make Cheap Second Baseman Expensive
Acquire: Logan Forsythe
Cost: Jose De Leon
I know, you get it: I like Jose De Leon. This is now the third blurb I’m writing in this series about a pitching prospect who got torched in the big leagues last year. This is getting to be overkill.
But while I get why they liked Forsythe as a Dozier alternative, I just don’t see enough of an upgrade here to justify the cost. Forsythe is probably an above-average second baseman, but he’s played more than 130 games in a big-league season exactly once, so there’s a lot of risk here for a guy whose upside still is more good than spectacular.
And I just don’t really buy the idea that the Dodgers couldn’t have gotten value from De Leon this year. They have a lot of starting-pitching options, but they don’t have a lot of dependable starting-pitching options, and De Leon is better than some of the guys on whom they’re now going to count a bit more. And even if you think the lack of a breaking ball makes him a likely reliever, the Dodgers could certainly use a strike-throwing, bat-missing, right-handed bullpen arm. Even if he had less value to LA than other clubs, due to their rotation depth, his value to the 2017 Dodgers was probably not zero.
To give up six years of De Leon’s value for two years of Forsythe’s contributions, I think you have to be completely sold that the upgrade is dramatic. I don’t see it, not with other semi-useful infielders around and whatever possibility there is that Willie Calhoun improves enough to challenge for the second-base job sooner than later. Forsythe makes them a bit better, but I don’t know that lineup balance and improvements of this magnitude are the kind of thing for which you give up a guy like De Leon.
#2: Blue Jays Jump a Non-Existent Line
Acquire: Kendrys Morales
Cost: Three years, $33 million
When Edwin Encarnacion wouldn’t take their money, the Blue Jays quickly pivoted to Plan B, not wanting to get outbid by whatever other team was super excited to give a three-year deal to a below-average (and aging) designated hitter. But while I don’t think we can judge the Blue Jays’ signing solely by the fact that the market for bat-only players immediately crashed after that move, I do think it’s fair to wonder why they were so anxious to lock up a mediocre player.
Sure, they wanted a left-handed bat to balance out the lineup, but it’s not like Morales was the only left-handed hitter out there. Or even the best left-handed hitter out there. If the Jays released him tomorrow, he still wouldn’t be the best left-handed DH available in free agency, since Pedro Alvarez remains unsigned even after spring training has begun.
Given what the market did to similar hitters this winter, Morales probably should have ended up with a one-year deal. He’s Brandon Moss without defensive value and less speed, and Moss got 2/$12M only by taking a back-loaded contract. Why the Jays felt the need to give Morales an early-market three-year deal with a host of alternatives sitting out there remains a bit unknown to me, and given what transpired after that decision, I would imagine they’d already take a mulligan if offered one.
The good news is that losing Encarnacion allowed them to retain Jose Bautista, so it worked out in the end, but had they played their cards a little better, perhaps they could have had Bautista and someone actually worthy of a three-year deal.
#1: Rockies Pay Premium for Non-Premium Infielder
Acquire: Ian Desmond
Cost: Five years, $70 million
The other nine moves — okay, eight deals and one non-trade — on this list are here despite the fact that I can kind of see what the team was thinking; I just don’t necessarily see it the same way. They are moves where I value one guy a little more or less than the acquiring team does, and think the production doesn’t quite align with the cost, but in basically every situation, it’s not very hard to make the case that the team is right and I’m the one missing the boat.
This one, though? I don’t know anyone who understands this move. In a market flooded with first-base options, where anyone who wanted a quality player at the position could get one for a fraction of the expected price, the Rockies somehow managed to pay significantly more than expected for a non-first baseman to play first base. This still feels just too weird to be true.
You could probably argue that Desmond is worth $70 million as an outfielder, since he made a pretty decent conversion from shortstop last year, and was a good player for the Texas Rangers at his new spot. You could even argue that he’s worth $70 million back in the infield, where his athleticism would probably let him play a good enough second or third base, even without any experience there. But it’s really hard to see how Desmond is worth $70 million as a first baseman, where his physical abilities are least valuable, especially given what teams were paying players with actual experience at first base this year.
Then, you add in the fact that the Rockies surrendered the most valuable draft choice that can be surrendered in order to sign Desmond, and the real cost to the franchise is more like $85 or $90 million, given the expected value of the 11th pick. With the value of the draft pick included in the price, it’s fair to say that Desmond was probably the second-most expensive free agent signing of the winter. All so he could learn another new position, but this time, learn one that makes him even less valuable.
I know the Rockies value character quite highly, and Desmond is one of the most respected and well-liked players in the game. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, we’ll find out that the Rockies had quantified leadership and clubhouse dynamics before anyone else, and this move will be the evidence of their breakthrough. Maybe they really do know something no one else does.
Or maybe the Rockies just do weird things, and this is the weird thing they did this year. At this point, I’d just have to bet on the latter.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.