Friday, February 8, 2013

The off-season's biggest winners, 2012-13: #s 5-1

Continuing with my list of the off-season's biggest winners, we have the top five, after the jump.

 5. Shane Victorino, OF, Red Sox.
 Here's one I don't think anyone expected to have occur. Victorino, coming off his worst statistical season since 2006 and the lowest-OPS season of his career (.704 OPS in 2012, .667 with the Dodgers), managed to procure a three-year deal worth $39,000,000 from the Boston Red Sox to participate in their drive back to respectability after what was one of, and perhaps the, most tumultuous seasons in Boston baseball history in 2012.

As a Phillies fan, I can attest to the notion that Victorino is best suited to be a platoon player at this stage of his career. He may have been a switch hitter, but at this point he's really only hitting lefties. Against LHP in 2012 he posted a slash line of .323/.388/.518 with an OPS of .906. Against RHP in 2012, he posted a slash line of .230/.295/.332 with a .627 OPS. He posted highly similar numbers in 2010, so this is not a random occurrence. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, they chose to sign another lefty-only masher (Jonny Gomes) rather than a platoon mate who hits righties well, so Victorino will be out there in right field for most games in 2013.

While not an old man by any means, Victorino is primarily a speed player, and entering his Age-32 season he may very well see his stolen-base numbers decline precipitously from the 39 he swiped last season. His on-base percentage dropping thirty points from 2011 does not bode well for the next three seasons either, though Boston is known to resurrect careers for some hitters (J.D. Drew, Jonny Gomes and Jason Bay thank the Green Monster for helping them secure fat contracts).

While he is not the Gold Glove defender of his Phillies heyday, he can still hold his own in the outfield. The question is whether that defense will hold up for the life of the contract, particularly if the Red Sox move Jacoby Ellsbury (an upcoming free agent represented by Scott Boras), which could potentially force Victorino into center-field duty if top outfield prospect Jackie Bradley is not prepared to take on the role. In the meantime, he will have Ellsbury to help cover up some of his diminishing range, though this could be offset by the fact that Ellsbury will also have to account for Jonny Gomes' iron glove in the Boston outfield too.

For managing to buck the trend of aging speed players getting less money than anticipated, Victorino earns a spot on the off-season's winners board.

4. Zack Greinke, SP, Dodgers.

Coming into the off-season, it was all but a done deal that Greinke would sign a deal in excess of one hundred million dollars to pitch for a new club. Many expected him to set a new record for the largest contract ever given to a starting pitcher, which had been set when the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to a $161,000,000 deal.

The question was really who was going to be the winner of the Zack Greinke Sweepstakes. That answer was given quickly by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who secured Greinke's services by showing up with a six-year, $147,000,000 deal (with incentives that could take it into the neighborhood of $160,000,000).

For a long time, the knock on Greinke was his potential inability to handle the spotlight of a big city, having dealt with anxiety issues that almost forced the man into retirement at a very young age during his tenure in Kansas City. However, such a notion should have been dispelled after his performance in the half-season that he spent with the Angels (6-2, 3.53 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 107 ERA+ in thirteen starts). While he is highly unlikely to ever replicate his anomalous 2009 numbers (16-8, 6 CGs, 3 SHO, league-leading 2.16 ERA, league-leading 1.07 WHIP, league-leading 205 ERA+, career-high 229 1/3 innings pitched, AL Cy Young winner) and equally as unlikely to truly live up to the kind of production expected of him following his massive contract, he will be a steady hand in the Dodgers rotation behind their ace Clayton Kershaw and should combine for one of, if not the, best 1-2 starting pitcher combinations in the game today.

The Royals went out and traded multiple top prospects to acquire James Shields from the Rays, to become the Royals first "ace" since Greinke was traded away. The Brewers did not find any potential Greinke replacements on the market and will hope that Yovani Gallardo can take a step forward and distinguish himself amongst NL starting pitchers. The Angels, who traded away a top shortstop prospect to acquire Greinke at the trade deadline, will attempt to replace Greinke's presence in the rotation (as well as those of Dan Haren and Ervin Santana) with Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. This paragraph alone speaks to how valuable a presence Greinke is in a team's rotation and help to justify his new deal. He may never be as dominant as he was in his Age-25 season in 2009, but a steady, true #2 arm is a valued piece of any contending ball club.

For Greinke to get well over one hundred million dollars, to join a contending team, and to remove some of the pressures that had been expected to be placed on him by signing with a team who already has an established ace present (Clayton Kershaw), Greinke places himself among the five biggest off-season winners. 

3. Edwin Jackson, SP, Cubs.

In somewhat of a surprise, one of baseball's younger journeymen comes in as the third-biggest winner of the off-season, getting himself a four-year deal worth $52,000,000 (AAV of $13,000,000).

Edwin Jackson has always had a lot of talent and an abundance of "stuff" on the mound; the issue has always been continuity. When he is on his game, he is unhittable; when he is off his game, his pitches are all over the place and his confidence plummets. Even when Jackson tossed a no-hitter against the Rays in 2010, he managed to walk nine batters. Perhaps some of this is composure-related; Jackson began his career in the majors a decade ago as a nineteen-year-old phenom prospect with the Dodgers, and a lack of minor-league seasoning may be one reason that E-Jax is so erratic.

Despite that, he is an innings-eater with a lot of upside, having tossed no less than 189 2/3 innings in any season since 2009, including multiple 200+ IP seasons. In that time, his ERA+ has never been more than 32% than the league, but also was not worse than 2% below league-average pitching. It is presumably for this reason that Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs were comfortable with giving Edwin Jackson the first long-term contract of his career. After spending three years each with the Dodgers and Devil Rays, he spent a year with the Tigers, a season and a half with the White Sox, half a season each with the Diamondbacks and the Cardinals, and a season with the Nationals, Jackson will spend the next four seasons in Cubby blue, at a premium price.

Jackson may never meet the high expectations that were set in the early millennium years as he made his way through minor-league pitching, but he will provide a useful innings-eater presence on the North Side of Chicago on a revamped rotation sporting E-Jax, Scott Baker (returning from Tommy John surgery), Matt Garza (recovering from an elbow injury of his own), breakout starter Jeff Samardzija, and one of Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman, and prospect Arodys Vizcaino (acquired from Atlanta in the Paul Maholm trade at last season's deadline). Presumably one of Baker or Garza (and perhaps both) will be shipped out to new teams in exchange for prospects at some point this season, as Epstein and company continue to replenish a farm system that was ravaged in the make-it-rain tenure of former general manager Jim Hendry. He will remain a useful piece and may make himself a fan favorite over the life of the deal if everything breaks just right for Edwin.

After years of nomadic wandering around the league, to attain that financial and geographic security that every player searches for and to get a significantly larger contract than any "experts" or "pundits" as well as league upper-management types anticipated, Edwin Jackson is the game's third-biggest winner of the 2012-13 off-season.

2. Josh Hamilton, OF, Angels.

Slotting in as the off-season's second-biggest winner is none other than baseball's modern incarnation of The Natural (or at least that's how the media enjoys portraying him), Josh Hamilton.

Coming into the off-season, two of the biggest questions were who was going to sign Josh Hamilton, and how sizable the contract would be. Many speculated that given his injury history, his tendency to relapse (publicly, two times and counting), his public proselytizing, and his most recent issues (vision issues, caffeine withdrawal, tobacco chew withdrawal), Hamilton would not be able to get the kind of long-term contract he was seeking. For a period of time, the market was as dry as the Sahara desert. Hamilton rejected an offer by the Mariners, and it appeared for a while that his best bet was re-signing with the Texas Rangers.

Yet as is usually the case in the free agent market, someone is generally willing to bite the bullet in order to acquire potentially game-changing talent. That is exactly what general manager Jerry DiPoto, owner Arte Moreno and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim chose to do this off-season, one year removed from making the biggest splash of last off-season in signing both SP C.J. Wilson and 1B Albert Pujols. Hamilton managed to procure a five-year, $125,000,000 deal from the Angels.

The Angels now sport one of the league's most dynamic and dangerous lineups, featuring Alberto Callaspo, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout, Pujols, Hamilton, Mark Trumbo, and the league's highest-paid bench player, Vernon Wells (who is due $21,000,000 in 2013 and 2014). Bringing in Hamilton added a new dimension of potency to the Angels' offense, and should make up for any potential shortcomings suffered by Mike Trout or Mark Trumbo next season.

In the short term, this should be a major coup for the Angels, especially if they can convert all this talent into a World Series victory by 2015. However, this is both a long-term and short-term victory for Josh Hamilton: he places himself smack-dab in the middle of yet another potent lineup after spending a few years in Arlington in the middle of a potent Rangers lineup (one which helped him win an AL MVP award) and he re-establishes his odds of winning a World Series title, a status that proved elusive in the two consecutive World Series trips that the Rangers made.

Over the life of the contract, it can be presumed that Hamilton's body will begin to further betray him and his production will suffer alongside that (though hopefully not in the same way it occurred with Vernon Wells after his monster contract) as the payroll of the Angels becomes bloated with aging players not earning the money they're being paid. The deal he just signed will likely be the last major contract (if not last contract overall) in his career and provides him a salary of $25,000,000 per season, so his future is secure and all that is left to do is win a title to cement his baseball legacy. If he can deliver that, in the eyes of Angels fans and ownership, Hamilton will have validated his contract. Either way, his somewhat tumultuous off-season ends with him as the second-biggest winner and biggest winner amongst position players.

1. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners.

In light of yesterday's announced contract extension between King Felix and the Mariners, he is undoubtedly the off-season's biggest winner. It takes an almost-unparalleled level of talent to secure $175,000,000 from a team that has gone 584-712 with two 101-loss seasons and four 90-plus-loss seasons since his career began in 2005 (and in that time frame, also becoming the first team with a payroll over $100,000,000 to lose 100+ games in a season). As one of the American League's premier starters, Hernandez possesses that level of talent, having won 98 games, an AL Cy Young and 3 All-Star appearances in the past four years, as well as pitching the club's first-ever perfect game last season.

From the perspective of the Mariners, they have locked up their most valuable and most marketable asset for the foreseeable future, and throughout his prime years as a pitcher to boot. He will be the man the Mariners will build around, a plan which has been implemented slowly but surely over the past two to three seasons. It also provides a new base for Seattle's marketing team. Ichiro Suzuki was traded to New York midway through last season, and his twelve-year run as the unquestioned face of the franchise in both the United States and abroad came to a close. Now, Hernandez has the opportunity to establish himself as Seattle's first marketable pitcher since Freddy Garcia. If his cards are played correctly, he should become the northwest region's biggest sports star outside of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks.

From the perspective of they say, "it's good to be the King." Hernandez now has more money coming to him than he may know what do with, and more than any other pitcher in the history of professional baseball. Needless to say, financial security is now something that he can cross off his bucket list. Hernandez has the opportunity to lead what could be one of the AL's best rotations within the next couple of years, with Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton all making their way up to the majors (and Mike Zunino on the fast track to being their catcher, as well). If the trio meets expectations in the same way that Felix did after he arrived in The Show, this could soon be a ball club to be reckoned with.

In the meantime, Felix will continue to toil away in Seattle during their extended rebuild, heading a rotation of himself, Joe Saunders, Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez, and Blake Beavan. An improved offense should result in a few more wins this coming year, but there are still some bumps in the road to be expected before the Mariners can return to respectability, let alone contender status. The Mariners also moved in the fences at SafeCo Field somewhat, so it will be interesting to see how this shift in park factors away from an ultra-pitcher's-park will affect Hernandez's peripheral stats, if at all.

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