Best & worst moves of the early MLB offseason

Best & worst moves of the early MLB offseason

Phillies Nation: Best moves of the MLB offseason

November 26, 2013, 12:00 pm
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Brian McCann (left) agreed to a five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees. (USA Today Images)

There has been more movement than usual in MLB free agency leading into Thanksgiving, with a blockbuster trade and 16 multi-year signings already having taken place.

By this date last year, four trades had been made. Heath Bell was dealt to the Diamondbacks, Ervin Santana went to the Royals, the Marlins unloaded Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to the Blue Jays, and Toronto traded manager John Farrell to the Red Sox.

Santana had a career year and is the top starting pitcher in this year’s market. Farrell won a World Series in his first year as Boston’s manager. The Toronto mega-deal didn’t work out.

But, as far as signings went, the only notable moves were Torii Hunter going to the Tigers, Hiroki Kuroda re-upping with the Yankees and Dioner Navarro signing an unheralded deal with the Cubs.

So far this offseason, we’ve already seen Brian McCann sign for five years in the Bronx, Jhonny Peralta and Jason Vargas find four-year pacts, relievers Javier Lopez and Joe Smith land three-year deals, starting pitchers Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum agree to pricey two-year contracts with the Giants and, of course, Marlon Byrd and Carlos Ruiz sign deals with the Phillies that cost a combined $42 million over five years.

Let’s take a look at the best and worst moves of an unusually busy free-agency period:

BEST

1) Yankees sign Brian McCann

Even though McCann’s deal cost the Yankees $85 million over five years, it will probably be the best move made by any team this offseason.

Why? Because the Yankees just turned a glaring weakness into a major strength. Yankees catchers last season -- we’re talking Chris Stewart, Austin Romine, Francisco Cervelli and J.R. Murphy -- hit .213/.289/.298 with eight homers and 43 RBIs.

In 164 fewer plate appearances, McCann hit .256/.336/.461, with 20 homers and 57 RBIs.

There’s also an enormous ballpark factor that must be accounted for. McCann moves from spacious Turner Field to impossibly small Yankee Stadium, where the right field stands are just 314 feet from home plate. That’s 16 feet shorter than McCann’s former home. It’s not unrealistic to expect 30 home runs from the soon-to-be 30-year-old catcher.

2) Tigers acquire Kinsler, free up money

By exchanging first baseman Prince Fielder for second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers filled a hole, opened up a more realistic defensive spot for Miguel Cabrera and saved $76 million.

They can spend those savings to re-sign Cy Young winner Max Scherzer or to add a top-tier free agent such as Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson. As far as blockbusters go, it’s hard to top this one for Detroit, which also opened up a spot at third base for previously blocked prospect Nick Castellanos.

3) Padres sign Josh Johnson to one-year deal

There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, and that’s especially true for a player with as much upside as Johnson.

Attempting to rebuild his value after a dismal 2013 in which he went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA and again failed to finish the season healthy, Johnson wanted to pitch for a west coast team playing in a pitcher-friendly park. Petco Park fits that description perfectly.

Johnson is only two years removed from a remarkable run -- from 2009-11 he went 29-12 with a 2.64 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 8.6 K/9 in 70 starts. Health is always an issue, but the Padres are protected from the worst-case scenario -- if Johnson makes fewer than seven starts in 2014, a club option triggers which returns him to San Diego in 2015 for the affordable price of $4 million.

A well-negotiated move by a team that had leverage. Johnson preferred San Diego and San Francisco, but the Giants filled out their rotation in other ways.

WORST

1) Giants give Lincecum $35 million

Tim Lincecum was in roughly the same position as Johnson -- former ace coming off a few down years. But instead of waiting around for a one-year deal, he found a two-year, $35 million contract from the Giants almost immediately.

To fully understand this move, you have to consider Lincecum’s impact to the city of San Francisco. He’s an extreme fan favorite by the bay and was a part of two World Series-winning teams. He wouldn’t have found that $35 million guarantee anywhere else, but the Giants cared more about compensating him and keeping him than they did “winning” the contract.

But still, it’s a ton of money for a guy who over his last 65 starts has a 4.76 ERA, leads baseball in wild pitches (28) and has the fifth-highest walk rate (3.9 per nine).

2) Angels trade Bourjos for Freese

The Angels didn’t have a ton of options, but their swap of speedster Peter Bourjos for third baseman David Freese didn’t necessarily make them a better team than they were in July.

It just feels like the Halos are making things up as they go along. They dealt Alberto Callaspo, a serviceable third baseman/second baseman, to the Athletics at the 2013 trade deadline for infielder Grant Green.

Then, they filled that self-inflicted third base vacancy by dealing Bourjos, a dynamic but oft-injured centerfielder, for Freese, who isn’t as valuable as you might think.

Freese hit .293 with an .839 OPS in 2012, a year after dominating postseason pitching. But he took a huge step back in 2013 with both the bat and the glove. He managed only nine homers and cost the Cardinals 14.9 runs on defense, according to Fangraphs. That graded out lower than even Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Zimmerman, who had trouble throwing the ball on a straight line to first base.

Freese is projected to make $10-12 million the next two seasons through arbitration, which isn’t exorbitant for a starting third baseman. But he’s pricier than Callaspo and probably just as valuable overall, and cost matters for a team that still has to pay Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton $322 million. Extending Mike Trout for an other-worldly price is also a priority in the Halos' not-so-distant future.

Finally, Bourjos could have fetched the Angels a prospect or package of prospects they desperately needed. The Angels have, as Baseball America minor-league expert John Manuel put it, the worst farm system since the historically awful 2009 Astros, who replenished their system by making a few deals with the Phillies.

The Phils had long coveted Bourjos, but even if he’s more dynamic than Ben Revere he’d have been a redundancy here.

When looking at the totality of the Angels’ dealings these last six months, it’s hard to say they’re better off than they’d have been if they just hung on to Callaspo and instead dealt Bourjos for some minor-league depth.

On the other side of this trade is St. Louis, an organization that always seems to have a plan for the future that doesn’t involve huge contracts. These are two teams with truly different philosophies trending in opposite directions.