Hot Stove Heating up in MLB Offseason

by Conway West 12.08.14

The 2014 MLB offseason has started out faster than any in recent memory. Here is a summary of my favorite moves to date:

Favorite move so far:

Cardinals acquire Jason Heyward and Jordan Waldon.

Braves acquire Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins

Let me start saying I understand why the Braves made this deal. I get that Shelby Miller is young and throws hard. The Braves look to be in rebuilding mode. Jason Heyward is a valuable trade chip, and some think he has underperformed during his time in the majors (which sounds a bit silly to me – 21 wins in your first 5 years is not too shabby).

Heyward brings solid defense and an excellent on base presence to the Cardinals outfield.

Heyward brings solid defense and an excellent on base presence to the Cardinals outfield.

But I love what the Cardinals get in this deal – Heyward is entering his age-25 season with patience, some power, elite defense, and room to grow. Even for those who are skeptical of defensive metrics, Heyward has a career wRC+ of 120, and it is clear he could hit for more power consistently. Meanwhile, they successfully got rid of one of my least favorite starters in the game (read here for more). I recognize that Shelby Miller had a great August. I also know he throws pretty hard. But he was bottom five in BB/K Ratio, and a .256 BABIP. That’s not good. He doesn’t get a ton of grounders, and has a below average home run rate. Also not a good thing. His numbers look a lot like Jeremy Hellickson from a few years ago, when Hellickson vastly outperformed his peripherals for a season and a half. For some reason, I keep envisioning Miller lost in middle relief for the Mets by 2017, which is DEFINITELY not a good thing (More on the Mets later). The icing on the cake for the Cardinals is Jordan Waldon, who can be a dominant righty arm out of the pen. This trade is an easy win for the reigning NL Central champs.

Most out-of-place move:

Billy Butler to Athletics (3 year contract for $30 million)

“Country Breakfast” made a ton of sense for a team in desperate need of a right-handed bat with money to spare (see the Mariners below), a profile that doesn’t really fit the Athletics. Do not be immediately misled by Billy’s disappointing 2014, where he was well under replacement level. Butler has had 5 remarkable consistent years of smashing line drives around the yard, and WAR inadvertently penalizes DH’s. You know what you are getting with Butler – liners, some patience and contact – and you know what you aren’t getting – practically anything else.

Butler fills a hitting need for the As but doesn't bring much else to a club looking to get more athletic.

Butler fills a hitting need for the As but doesn’t bring much else to a club looking to get more athletic.

This move was surprising instantly, given the A’s propensity to be afraid of spending any money. $10 million a year to an unathletic DH, who is turning into a ground ball machine? Doesn’t exactly scream Moneyball. This move was proven more out of place after the Donaldson trade (see below). Billy Beane stated he “wanted to get younger and more athletic”. And you hope to accomplish this by signing Billy Butler?

Most desperate move:

Nelson Cruz to Mariners (4 years, $57 million)

As a Mariner fan, I am painfully aware of how bad the Mariner’s offense has been for the entirety of this century. The Seattle core is changing that, and the Mariners missed the playoffs by one game in 2014. Looking poised to jump into the AL West race, the Mariners saw that their in-house options for both DH and LF were well below replacement level. That cannot be overlooked when analyzing this deal. So the Mariners threw an extra year at Cruz, and outbid other teams with a desperation move: win now, or waste money trying. Cruz led the majors with 40 homers, and the M’s hope he can continue with his 2014 form, which saw improvements in walk rate, K rate, and ISO.

Nelson Cruz brings immediate power but may hamstring the Mariners payroll flexibility in the latter years of his contract.

Nelson Cruz brings immediate power but may hamstring the Mariners payroll flexibility in the latter years of his contract.

This move shapes up to be pretty terrible in 2017 and 2018. Cruz has a skill set that does not age gracefully, is already 34 and will need to be worth 4 wins in his 37 and 38 seasons to make this a good value. Contract aside, I happen to like this deal: The Mariners have a lot of wins tied up in positions that are hard to develop (second, short, third and catcher), and needed to find an offensive spark. It’s not always the best business people who win in baseball. It’s sometimes deals like these that can boost you into contention for a couple years, even at the expense of some cash flow a further years down the line. The Mariners now have three hitters who are well above league average, something they haven’t been able to say in almost 15 years. Now it’s time to win.

Most surprising move:

Josh Donaldson to Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolan

To continue on a theme of “moves that only the A’s would dream up,” Beane totally threw the AL for a loop by trading one of the most valuable players in baseball to the suddenly potent Blue Jays.

Two things make this deal rather strange for me:

  • The Jays appear to make out like bandits here, giving away dimes on the dollar for an elite player still with 3 years under team control. I know arbitration gets expensive these days, but even as Donaldson moves into his 30s, he will still be an effective/elite 3b who hits for a good amount of right-handed power with above average contact. That’s pretty rare, and hard to justify for two back-end starter types and a 5’8” minor league coin flip at shortstop.
  • A part of me thought Brett Lawrie, a native Canadian, would die a Blue Jay. Lawrie has the most talent in this deal, but has just not shown much since his .293/.373/.580 slash line in a 2011 cup of coffee. Unfortunately for him, he moves to a place that is a dearth for righty power. Good luck Brett.
The Blue Jays made out with THE elite third baseball in all of baseball

The Blue Jays made out with THE elite third baseball in all of baseball

Other notes:

  • Russell Martin (5 years, $82 million) is a great player, with awesome on-base ability and pitch framing skills. His deal is not that outrageous, and I believe will look better and better as the offseason moves along, as teams get more desperate.
  • The White sox have proven to be analytically intelligent, frugal, and value-finding very quickly here this offseason (The White Sox!). Both Adam LaRoche (2 years, $25 million) and Zach Duke (3 years, $15 million) are solid signings. I am excited to see how the fill out their roster.
  • With the signing of Michael Cuddyer (2 years, $21 million), the Mets have proven they have absolutely no clue what they are doing. They look to be competing with the Phillies for who is more clueless running an MLB team. Cuddyer would have fit perfectly in the AL, where his statue-like defense never would appear on the field. Now Mets fans can look forward to even more washed up older guys on their roster! I see this as a challenge to Juan Lagares: let’s see if you can catch every ball hit to the outfield if Curtis Granderson and Cuddyer get out of the way and stand on the foul lines.
  • I love high contact, high walk type guys. This is a fading breed in professional baseball, but one that may gain a lot of popularity in the coming years as the Royals (high contact) and the SABR (high walk) strategies meld. This is why I love Tommy La Stella, who was traded from the Braves to the Cubs for international signing rights. The worst part of this deal is that La Stella will now be a backup bat, hardly getting a chance to show that his skills matter at the Major League level. Here’s hoping he can break out, much like Michael Brantley did in 2014 with a similar skill.
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