Friday, February 8, 2013

The off-season's biggest winners, 2012-13: #s 10-6

The 2012-13 off-season has been chock full of surprises, so it is clearly a difficult task to analyze what were ten of the better moves of the off-season. To make this task slightly easier, I have chosen to analyze the biggest winners of this past off-season. The aim was to focus on individuals, but there were a few teams that upgraded so significantly that it was impossible to exclude them from such a list.

With that in mind, I've ranked my ten biggest winners. After the jump, the bottom five. 

6. Jeremy Guthrie, SP, Royals.

Another unexpected member of the off-season's biggest winners, starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie. Confounding all logic, Guthrie managed to lure the Royals into giving him a three-year, $25,000,000 deal to continue to be a strong point in their rotation. The issue, however, is that we cannot be sure that Guthrie will remain a useful member of the rotation over the life of the contract, particularly when his recent history is taken into account.

To put it as simply as possible, the Royals only had to give up Jonathon Sanchez to acquire Guthrie from the Rockies. For reference, Jonathon Sanchez went 1-6 with an ERA of 7.76 and was 47% below the production of a league-average starting pitcher during his time in Kansas City...and after being traded to Colorado, he was even worse, posting an ERA north of 9.00 in three starts (all losses) for the Rockies. So needless to say, Guthrie's stock was at a nadir when the Royals acquired him. While he pitched well for them after his acquisition (5-3, 3.16 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 130 ERA+ in 14 starts with KC), Dayton Moore and the Royals management should have been able to point to Guthrie's poor recent performance during contract discussions. Instead, what appears to have happened is the Royals once again outbid themselves for the services of a player who they likely assumed to be more of a commodity than he was in reality.

On the positive side, the Royals know what they will be getting: an innings-eater who will possess a K:BB ratio of about 2:1, give up a few too many homers, and win about as many games as he'll lose.

Sabermetric projections slot Jeremy Guthrie in as a true #3 or #4 starter, and have him garnering the Royals about 2 WAR in 2013. His contract has him signed on with KC for only $5,000,000 in 2013, so if he meets his expected production, the Royals will be paying a paltry $2.5 million per WAR next season. The issue is 2014, when Guthrie will make $11,000,000 and presumably produce 1.5-1.7 WAR, meaning the Royals will be paying a premium of about $7.3 million per WAR after the upcoming season, and more if Guthrie is hurt or regresses. That 2014 rate is between $1,000,000 and $1,750,000 more than the anticipated dollars-per-WAR league average rate for the 2014 season. Essentially, the Royals got themselves a discount in 2013 only to pay more than they're being discounted in 2014. If he regresses in 2013 or 2014, the Royals will have managed to not only acquire Ervin Santana, but an Ervin Santana clone in terms of production versus salary.

To pull that kind of deal off, Jeremy Guthrie earned himself the sixth spot on baseball's biggest off-season winners.

7. Angel Pagan, OF, Giants.

The off-season this year was full of surprises. One of the bigger ones was Angel Pagan receiving $40 million over four years from the reigning world champions. Owner of perhaps baseball's most intriguing name (and one of the better nicknames, "El Caballo Loco" or "Crazy Horse"), Pagan had earned a total of roughly six million dollars playing for the Cubs and Mets; in the two and one half months following the World Series victory by the Giants, Pagan more than sextupled those career earnings.

Pagan was an underrated player during his time with the Cubs, and perhaps even moreso when he played for the Mets. The Mets managed to acquire him for essentially nothing in 2008 after having originally been drafted by the Mets. Then at the trade deadline this past season, the Mets traded him to San Francisco in exchange for OF Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan went on to post the second-best season of his career, producing 4.8 WAR (mostly on defense and the basepaths) in the regular season, while Torres and Ramirez floundered for the Metropolitans. After the Giants won the World Series, general manager Brian Sabean rewarded Pagan with a $40,000,000 deal, then re-signed both Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez. Thus, Sabean effectively got his team a new center fielder for nothing.

Now, Pagan is certainly no scrub. However, much of his talent is predicated on speed and defense, two areas that tend to decline heavily as you age. Pagan will be entering his Age-31 season in 2013 and will be going on thirty-five years of age when this new contract ends. In 2012, he played outstanding defense in the outfield and combined with Gregor Blanco to be one of the game's best defensive outfields in 2012, which certainly aided them in their run to the World Series title. Pagan also stole 29 bases, and is projected to swipe about the same number of bags in 2013.

The main question at hand is how fast Pagan's skill set will decline in relation to the contract length. If he begins to peter out halfway through the deal, this will be looked upon as somewhat of a redux of the Aaron Rowand deal. If Pagan can continue to produce 3-5 WAR for the next two to three years, a major drop-off at the end of the contract will not be as big of a deal.

Especially important to note in this case is that the Giants do not really count much on the offense of Angel Pagan as much as they do the defense. Pagan could afford to let his average slip a bit and see his OBP, SLG and stolen bases diminish slightly for a couple of years provided that he continues to play above-average center field defense. This team is assembled around strong starting pitching and a few key contributors on offense (namely Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval), and thus Pagan's defense is valued more highly than if he ended up on a team like the Tigers.

This will be an interesting contract to watch unfold over the years, as it has about a fifty-fifty shot of biting San Francisco in the behind, or it could prove to be a sage move by Sabean. Either way, for Angel Pagan to jump up about $6,000,000 in annual salary and increase his career earnings more than six-fold is enough to earn him a spot on the list of off-season winners.

8. The Toronto Blue Jays.

Easily the off-season's most-upgraded team, the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in a position they have not witnessed in twenty years: favorites to reach the World Series. The last time they got there, the team featured players such as Roberto Alomar, Tony Fernandez, John Olerud, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Pat Hentgen (currently their bullpen coach), Jack Morris, and of course "Touch 'Em All" Joe Carter. This alone makes them the off-season's biggest winner as far as clubs are concerned.

In a flurry of unprecedented moves, Alex Anthopoulos put his reptuation as baseball's resident "boy genius" on the line. He acquired SS Jose Reyes, SP Josh Johnson, SP Mark Buehrle, SP and reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, C Josh Thole (Dickey's personal catcher), utility IF Emilio Bonifacio, and C Mike Nickeas in trades in exchange for 2B/SS Adeiny Hechavarria, SS Yunel Escobar, C John Buck, C Jeff Mathis, SP Henderson Alvarez, and prospects (SP Justin Nicolino, OF Wuilmer Becerra, OF Jake Marisnick, P Anthony DeSclafani, C Travis d'Arnaud, and SP Noah Syndergaard). In acquiring numerous stars, Anthopoulos gutted the upper end of his farm system, trading away half of his top ten prospects as well as lesser prospects to bring in the talent. He did, however, manage to retain OF Anthony Gose, right-hander Aaron Sanchez and right-hander Asher Wojciechowski, as well as former top prospects SP Drew Hutchison and SP Kyle Drabek (both recovering from Tommy John surgery).

Also arriving in Toronto for the 2013 season is the PED-disgraced OF Melky Cabrera (two years, $16,000,000), infielders Maicer Izturis (three years, $9,000,000 with a 2016 club option for $3,000,000 or a $1,000,000 buyout) and Mark DeRosa (1 year, $775,000 with a 2014 club option at $750,000), as well as backup catcher Henry Blanco (minor-league deal).

On paper, this is arguably the league's most stacked all-around team (on paper being the qualifying term), but there have been plenty of outstanding rosters assembled in the past few seasons that have fallen prey to less-talented but more-determined and cohesive ball clubs when the playoffs arrived. As with any club, however, question marks remain:

  • How will Buehrle perform pitching out of his element for the first time in his career?
  • Can Josh Johnson return to his pre-Tommy John form?
  • Will R.A. Dickey sink or swim in his transition from the NL East to the AL East?
  • Was Edwin "E5" Encarnacion a one-year wonder, or is his power surge for real?
  • Can Colby Rasmus take the next step forward, or will he remain a streaky talent with tantalizing upside?
  • How will Jose Bautista recover from wrist surgery, a surgery that tends to sap a player's power significantly?
  • How will the speed of Jose Reyes be affected, if at all, by the artificial turf in Toronto?
  • Can Brandon Morrow stay healthy enough to pitch a full season and show his true talent level?
  • Can Ricky Romero recover the missing couple MPHs on his pitches, or is he really just a #5 starter?
  • Will Sergio Santos, coming off of shoulder surgery, reclaim the closer's job from the incumbent Casey Janssen?
By June of this year, we should have some inkling as to the future success of the aforementioned players as well as the Blue Jays as a whole team, but for now, all we may do is speculate. One thing is for sure: this promises to be the most electric season in Toronto since the early 90s, and they have a chance to claim that AL East crown which has eluded them for so many years as the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays each took turns dominating the division.

9. The Tampa Bay Rays.

One of the less-heralded franchises in baseball, the Rays have effectively created a perpetual baseball machine under the guidance of Executive VP/General Manager Andrew Friedman and manager/guru Joe Maddon, carving their own path to AL East respectability through outstanding scouting and prospect-raising, as well as (mostly) sage moves in free agency. In recent years, the team has seen a few of their off-season signings blow up in their faces (Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui all failed in the Rays' chase for a competent designated hitter), but still retain a high success rate.

This off-season, the Rays cemented their status as a winner, extending Evan Longoria through the decade on what is easily the largest contract in team history (six years, $100,000,000). Then, in a coup the Rays managed to acquire Wil Myers, the league's best hitting prospect not named Jurickson Profar, as well as pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery in exchange for tenured starter James Shields and starter-reliever Wade Davis. Despite trading two potential starters, the Rays still feature one of the American League's deepest rotations with David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, and one of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Odorizzi, and Fausto Carmona Roberto Hernandez (brought in on a 1 year, $3,250,000 deal). It is anticipated that Chris Archer, Mike Montgomery, and Jake Odorizzi will spend most of the year in the minors barring injuries to the rotation, but could see time in the bullpen down the stretch.

The team lost BJ Upton to free agency (he went on to receive a $75,000,000 deal from Atlanta), but acquiring Wil Myers from Kansas City mitigates that issue, and Desmond Jennings will shift to center field in the meantime. Myers should be up at some point in 2013, if not from the season's start.

In addition to the Myers/Odorizzi trade, Longoria extension, and Carmona Hernandez signing, the Rays brought Luke Scott back as a platoon DH on a one-year, $2,250,000 deal; brought in 2B Mike Fontenot on a minor-league deal; signed speedster OF Jason Bourgeois to a minor-league deal for speed and depth; James Loney on a one-year, $2,000,000 deal to man 1st base; and SS Yunel Escobar from Miami in exchange for minor-leaguer Derek Dietrich. They also brought back reliever Kyle Farnsworth on a one-year deal to pitch the late innings setting up for the suddenly-otherworldly Fernando Rodney, plus relievers Jamey Wright (minor-league deal) and Leo Núñez Juan Carlos Oviedo (minor-league deal; recovering from Tommy John surgery). Additionally, they brought in 2nd baseman Kelly Johnson (1 year, $2,450,000).

Hitting will continue to be the thorn in the side of the Rays. If they can get a full season from Longoria, Jason-Bartlett-like production from Yunel Escobar, a modicum of above-average production from Kelly Johnson, and a step forward from both Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers (upon the call-up of the latter), the Rays will have little to worry about. The odds of all of these conditions occurring, however, is unlikely, so the Rays will have to play to the advantages of platoons, make sure to field with a high rate of success, and hope that their abundance of talented young pitching can get them over the hump and back into the playoffs via a wild-card berth if not the division title. Joe Maddon is not short on positional options, with many players on his team able to slot into different positions (Ryan Roberts, Ben Zobrist, Jennings, etc.).

It speaks to the incredibly efficient manner in which this team is run that their star third baseman was willing to forego free agency and potentially fifty to one hundred million extra dollars to continue manning the hot corner in Tampa Bay. The Rays are highly unlikely to retain the services of star SP David Price beyond the next two years, however (particularly in the wake of Felix Hernandez's massive contract extension), so the time to make the moves necessary to win a World Series or at least return to the Fall Classic is now. The Rays must strike while the iron is hot. Between the big moves and the smaller moves this off-season, Friedman and Co. have positioned the Rays to do just that, making them the 9th-biggest winner and 2nd-biggest-winning club of the 2012-13 off-season.

10. The Los Angeles Dodgers.

Rounding out the list of biggest winners is the team which now possesses the league's highest payroll. The 2013 Dodgers will carry a payroll that is over eighty million ($80,000,000) higher than the 2012 version. The scars of the Frank McCourt era were whitewashed by the new Guggenheim-Magic Johnson ownership group, in the process establishing a new identity as baseball's west coast incarnation of the Yankees.

Out went first baseman James Loney (Boston, then Tampa), 1B/OF Jerry Sands (Boston), utilityman Juan Rivera (NY AL), backup catcher Matt Treanor (retirement), backup utility infielder Adam Kennedy (perhaps retirement?), relief pitcher Jamey Wright (Tampa Bay), relief pitcher Todd Coffey (free agency), and half-season acquisitions Joe Blanton (LA AL), Randy Choate (St. Louis), and Shane Victorino (Boston). Along with them went prospects: SP Allen Webster (LA's #2 prospect in 2012, off to Boston), SP Rubby de la Rosa (LA's #3 prospect in 2011, also to Boston), SP Nate Eovaldi (LA's #3 prospect in 2012, exiled to the Marlins), P Scott McGough (along with Eovaldi in Florida), and IF Ivan DeJesus Jr. (also to Boston).

In a whirlwind of monster contracts, in came SS/3B Hanley Ramirez, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, LF Carl Crawford, SP Josh Beckett, IF Nick Punto, and IF Skip Schumaker (from St. Louis). Following them in free agency were reliever and presumed closer Brandon League (3 years, $22,500,000), South Korean right-hander Ryu Hyun-Jin (6 years, $36,000,000), reliever JP Howell (1yr, $2,850,000). Also arriving on minor-league deals are reliever Mark Lowe (1yr, $1,500,000 with incentives to take it to $2,100,000), reliever Peter Moylan, and catcher Jesus Flores. Over the course of a calendar year, the Dodgers went from also-rans to contenders and from a mid-level payroll to a new echelon of payroll.

While the Dodgers have reloaded in an unprecedented and insatiable manner, there are still plenty of question marks spread across the field in the City of Angels. Among them, a closer battle would appear to be imminent; Kenley Jansen throws faster than all but a handful of pitchers in the league, and until his heart arrythmia late last season, he was one of the league's best closers, and a significant upgrade from Javy Guerra. However, the Dodgers have invested significant money in Brandon League, an erratic closer who had his share of highs and lows on some lowly Mariners teams in the past few years since coming over from Toronto in the Swap of Brandons (League for Morrow). Will League's salary keep his spot in the closer's chair secure, or for this team, will salary be less important than on-field accountability?

What will the Dodgers do with their excess starting pitching? The rotation as assembled leaves 2012 starters Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly all fighting for a shot at pitching in a rotation of Kershaw, Greinke, Hyun-Jin, and Beckett. Compounding matters is the fact that top prospect Zach Lee could be ready as early as this season, though a call-up is unlikely.

What will the Dodgers do with Dee Gordon? Having gone from top prospect and local sweetheart to one-dimensional, one-category baseball player and persona non grata in Los Angeles, will he toil away in the minors, serve as a backup infielder/pinch runner, or will he be afforded the opportunity to show off his skill set in another city? If so, what might a prospect like Gordon fetch in return?

Even if things don't pan out as the Dodgers would like them to (and make no mistake, anything short of a World Series title will be considered a failure for this club), the team and their new ownership group have, at the least, restored their standing, credibility, and commitment to winning in Los Angeles. If things go smoothly and the team begins to fire on all cylinders, there should be a high level of competition in the NL West, particularly between the Giants and Dodgers. Moreover, baseball relevance in California should be at its highest since the 1980s, with the A's, Angels, Dodgers, and Giants all primed to perform with success in 2013.

However, if Lady Luck chooses to send her daughter Miss Fortune to Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers may have hamstrung themselves financially for at least another few years. If Hanley's best years are indeed behind him, if Carl Crawford can't recover fast enough from Tommy John surgery, if Adrian Gonzalez's power does not reappear, if Josh Beckett's velocity isn't recovered, and if any of the new prime pieces suffer injuries (knock on wood), the Dodgers will be looking up at one or more teams in the NL West in 2013.

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