Mayhem at Winter Meetings

by Conway West 12.16.14

Sometimes GMs do not Appear to Have the Best-Laid Plans

This year’s winter meetings saw a flurry of moves that was one of the more impressive transaction periods of the past 10 years. At this point, you can find analysis on every move out there. This article focuses on a few of those moves, and fallacies in the plans (or lack-thereof) of MLB GMs.

Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I know baseball executives are all really smart. Some are Ivy League educated, like Padres new GM A.J. Preller. Some have law degrees, like Theo Epstein of the Cubs. Some are just master manipulators like the Tiger’s Dave Dombrowski. But sometimes, with so much data and value out there proving otherwise, they make deals that just don’t make a ton of sense. Here are some of the pitfalls that I dislike, and some of the example teams this off season:

“We are looking to get younger and more athletic”

Culprit: Athletics

There are very few times I disagree with Billy Beane. One of the brightest GMs in baseball, Beane doesn’t seem to make a lot of mistakes with personnel choices, and makes more with less than almost anyone in baseball.

However, this offseason has confused me. Just 9 days after signing one of the least athletic players in baseball, the A’s trade their best player to the Blue Jays, discussed here. I don’t love this trade for the A’s, and I think it puts far too much faith in Brett Lawrie. But the most confusing part is Billy Beane’s quote: “we had to do something … that gave us a team with a chance to do better each day as opposed to one that was maybe starting to deteriorate”. Building off of that, the most inevitable trade piece of the offseason was Jeff Samardzija. In his trade to the White Sox, Marcus Semien headlines the return package (unless you like backup catchers or bullpen arms). Semien could play shortstop for the new-look A’s, which could be far worse than Jed Lowrie last year, who was fairly average. These moves in conjunction don’t accomplish saving the A’s money (Donaldson is set to make $4.5 M, and Samardzija $9.5 M, which is close to Butler’s $10 M) increasing their athleticism or value. Time will tell if Beane’s moves will pan out or not.

“We are in a ‘win-now’ mode”

 Culprit: Mariners, Marlins, Cubs, and the entire AL Central (except the Twins)

One of the biggest themes this offseason is the shear number of teams that are trying to become competitive. As teams adjust to the new postseason format, the new strategy for many front offices is to just be good enough for a shot at the playoffs. Once the playoffs start, anything can happen. The Giants won 88 and won last year, and the Royals won 89. Meanwhile, the Red Sox and Rangers went from great to awful. Teams are trying to just be good enough to be in the running.

Latos

Will trading away prospects hurt the Marlins long term?

I will talk about the Mariners below, and I like that the Cubs signed Jon Lester – his contract was huge, but they had the money to spend and look to win with youth – but I want to focus on the Marlins. Long heralded as great at player development, the Marlins traded away lots of young home-grown players to get some immediate “upgrades”. First, they traded for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren, giving up Andrew Heaney and several lower-end prospects (Austin Barnes, Chris Hatcher, and Kike Hernandez). The move looks to improve the 2014 Marlins slightly (with no real 2b options in house), but hurts their future, and doesn’t improve them as much as you’d think. Heaney is cheap and should be moderately effective at the back end of a rotation for several years. Gordon had a .290 wOBA past April, and is an average defender at best. So The Marlins traded a ton of future talent for an average player, a deal that doesn’t help the present or future much. Mat Latos was also acquired, a pitcher with huge injury risk and one year left on his current deal. I happen to be a Latos fan, and he should be worth 2-3 wins next year if healthy, but the Fish lost another couple young players, Anthony DeSclafani and Chad Wallach (who really crushed A ball last year). For a team that needed a lot of wins to become competitive, these moves look to set the Marlins a little farther back in 2016 and beyond.

“Signing an extra player, we can now deal from strength”

Culprit: Red Sox, Mariners

I wanted to point out this strategy, because it drives me nuts. Every offseason, teams acquire players where they already have healthy, effective options, and then state they “want to deal from a position of strength”. The Red Sox did this by signing Hanley Ramirez and immediately labeling him as a left fielder. Now, what to do with Yoenis Cespedes, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Rusney Castillo, Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley Jr, and Daniel Nava? That outfield is a teensy crowded. Fortunately, the Sox found the Tigers in need of a high power, low contact outfielder that may never live up to his potential. Out goes Cespedes, in comes Rick Porcello, a young, durable arm that I love. This is a rare case where this strategy appears to pay off, and I think the Red Sox made out like bandits here, considering they have 5 options to replace Cespedes.

So often this thought process leads to what the Mariners did, which is buy an overrated player (Nelson Cruz), and assume he will be enough to trade away from “a position of strength”. The Mariners unloaded Michael Saunders, a cheap, young, effective option in the outfield, for JA Happ, a back-end starter who is not as cheap, young or effective. Last week, I said I liked the Cruz signing for the Mariners. Unfortunately, I feel an even dumber trade compounded the riskiness of the Cruz move. Now, the Mariners claim they need an outfielder after trading Saunders. But I thought they were dealing from a position of strength?

Notes: 

In contrast to most of the teams above, a couple teams look like they have a plan. I love what the White Sox are doing. A 73-win team in 2014, but were a very curious 73-win team: they had team-friendly deals with a top-5 starter (Chris Sale), an elite righty power bat (Jose Abreu), and trio of high-quality options in team-friendly deals (Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and Alexei Ramirez). With all their wins tied to a select few inexpensive players, the pale hose had dire needs coming into the offseason, but roster flexibility to address them.

The AL Central will be a strong division after a busy winter meetings.

The AL Central will be a strong division after a busy winter meetings.

And address them they have. Armed with a hideous bullpen with the worst walk rate in the majors, the Sox first signed Zach Duke. Duke has gone from middling starter to LOOGY now to shutdown arm out of the pen, and is actually in a fairly team-friendly deal for signing so early (as a rule, the earlier someone signs, the better the deal is for the player). Adam Laroche’s deal is not quite as team friendly, but the deal gives them another high power bat in their lineup. The big splash comes this week, with David Robertson, Jeff Samardzija, and now Melky Carbera coming their way. Robertson will surely be a 2-3 win improvement from their current situation in late innings, and Samardzija gives the Sox a top heavy rotation that may trump the vaunted Tigers, depending on Detroit’s moves this offseason. Melky is an underrated offensive player, one with good line drive ability and consistent contact skills, who will be a massive improvement over Dayan Viciedo, one of MLB’s worst last year. These deals immediately vault the White Sox into the ranks of contender.

A friend of mine pointed out that stars are not fetching as much the past calendar year as they have in the past. Looking at David Price, Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Kemp trades, this appears to be the case. Gone are the days of Randy Johnson fetching 4 MLB caliber players for a 10-week rental, or Ken Griffey past his prime giving a team several cheaper, valuable options. I think teams saw the James Shields trade involving Wil Myers and see the difference in value between the two moving forward, and shy away from those large prospect packages.

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