2011-12 Offseason In Review Rumors

Offseason In Review: Detroit Tigers

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch spent aggressively on one of the top free agents available to bolster an already formidable offense.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Draft Picks Gained or Lost

  • Lost 27th overall selection to Brewers for Fielder. 

Back in October, the Tigers’ chances of signing a major free agent seemed decent, if not particularly strong.  Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Buehrle and Yu Darvish all made a certain amount of sense for the Tigers, a team without certainty on the left side of the infield or a proven fifth starter. But Prince Fielder? Not a chance.

Prince Fielder - Tigers

Things changed pretty quickly once Victor Martinez tore his ACL during an ill-fated offseason workout. Within ten days, owner Mike Ilitch had approved a $214MM contract for Fielder and, just like that, the 2012 Tigers were a changed team. 

Fielder, undoubtedly one of the top offensive producers in baseball, has averaged 160 games in six full seasons. He brings durability and pure left-handed power to a Tigers lineup that placed fourth in the majors in scoring a year ago. They’ll put up a few runs again in 2012.

Detroit’s infield defense could become a concern as a result of the Fielder signing. Fielder will play first base and Miguel Cabrera will play third, a position at which he has played just 14 MLB games since being traded to Detroit after the 2007 season. Now that the Tigers have promised both superstars an everyday job in the field, they face a potentially difficult situation. Should Cabrera’s defense prove to be a real barrier to the team’s success, manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski will have to find a way to keep him in the lineup at another position. 

When the Tigers’ offseason began, its success seemed to hinge on Dombrowski’s ability to obtain a second baseman and add pitching depth. The Fielder deal pushed Brandon Inge from third to second, where he’s competing for the starting job alongside the versatile Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago, who re-signed in Detroit after testing the free agent market. The Tigers apparently preferred their internal options to free agent second basemen such as Aaron Hill, Kelly Johnson and Mark Ellis.

The Tigers’ rotation features an enviable top four and their bullpen includes a number of proven relievers, but they added less pitching than I expected this winter. They inquired on Roy Oswalt, using the defending Cy Young and MVP as a recruiter, but the choosy right-hander didn’t reciprocate the team’s interest and he remains unsigned. 

Speculation linked the Tigers to left-handed free agent starters such as Erik Bedard, Paul Maholm, Jeff Francis and Joe Saunders throughout the offseason, but the club ultimately passed on every one of them. They’ll go with an internal candidate for the fifth starter’s job, a role for which a group of left-handers are currently competing. 

The Tigers could have added a starter on a minor league deal, even if they believe their young arms are ready to contribute at the Major League level. Most teams go through nine or ten starters over the course of a full season, so the additional depth would have helped. Perhaps the Tigers did show interest and starters such as Francis decided they'd have a better chance at winning a starting job elsewhere.

Dombrowski added Octavio Dotel to the bullpen, and though the veteran reliever is essentially a right-on-right specialist at this point in his career, the one-year deal makes sense. The Tigers traded flame-throwing former first rounder Ryan Perry for long relief option Collin Balester, but didn’t acquire others who are likely to make an impact out of the ‘pen in 2012. The Tigers’ bullpen doesn’t have many openings and the front office apparently determined that major turnover wasn't necessary.

The Tigers arrived at a turning point when the ligament in Martinez’s knee snapped two months ago. They could have made do without the switch-hitter and would have been favored to win the division even if they had allowed Fielder to go elsewhere. Instead, infield defense be damned, they signed Fielder to one of the biggest contracts in baseball history. The deal has its critics, as most nine-figure agreements do, but few will deny that the Tigers are a serious threat to repeat as AL Central champions and play deep into the postseason once again.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.


Offseason In Review: St. Louis Cardinals

The defending World Champions lost a pair of franchise icons this offseason, but they appear poised to contend for another title after signing Carlos Beltran and promoting Mike Matheny as manager.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Scott Linebrink, Alex Cora, Koyie Hill, R.J. Swindle, Eugenio Velez.

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

Draft Picks Gained or Lost

  • Obtained 19th overall selection from Angels for Albert Pujols. Also obtain supplementary first round pick, 36th overall.
  • Obtained 52nd overall selection for losing Dotel. 
  • Obtained 59th overall selection for losing Jackson.

No Albert Pujols. No Tony La Russa. The Cardinals team that takes the field on Opening Day will look a whole lot different than the club that won the 2011 World Series. But GM John Mozeliak's offseason moves have the club ready for another run at the postseason.

There's no replacing Albert Pujols, who has been nothing short of baseball's best offensive player for the past decade. The Cardinals appear to have made a substantial bid for the first baseman, but he left for the Angels' $240MM offer. Even at 32, he's one of the best hitters in the game, as his postseason performance showed. The short-term blow to the Cardinals' lineup is undeniable even though they may be applauding themselves for bidding cautiously five or six years from now when Pujols starts declining significantly.

Former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny took over as the team's new manager following Tony La Russa's retirement. The 41-year-old Matheny inherits a team that's as strong as any rookie manager could hope for. In another significant off-field development, the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals' longtime VP of scouting and player development, as their new GM.

Carlos Beltran represents the Cardinals' biggest offseason investment and he'll join Jon Jay and Matt Holliday in a strong projected outfield that could include Allen Craig at times. Even at 34, Beltran does a lot of things right and the Cardinals did well to obtain him for two years and $26MM.

The signing shifts Berkman to Pujols' former position, first base. Berkman doesn't come close to matching Pujols' defensive ability, but the 36-year-old is probably better suited for first base than the outfield at this point in his career.

The Cardinals dealt with their middle infield by re-signing Rafael Furcal, locking Skip Schumaker up for two years, non-tendering Ryan Theriot and letting Nick Punto leave via free agency. Furcal, always an injury risk, wasn't much worse than league average at the plate, even during a down season. He has some offensive potential if he can stay healthy and the Cardinals' investment suggests they believe Furcal can stay on the field in 2012-13. However, $14MM seems like an over-aggressive commitment for a 34-year-old who's missed an average of 70 games per season since 2008.

Even though the middle infield doesn't project to add much to the offense, the Cardinals should score enough runs. They led the National League in scoring last year and figure to be among the league leaders again, even after losing Pujols.

The Cardinals' rotation may be better than the group that led last year's team to the World Series, since Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery (exercising his options was an easy call). They entertained the idea of signing Roy Oswalt, and pursuing the free agent right-hander may become increasingly appealing if the injury currently sidelining Chris Carpenter proves serious. Oswalt's intriguing, especially on a one-year deal, so he figures to be on the Cardinals' radar even as Lance Lynn opens the year in the rotation. Top prospect Shelby Miller will start the season in the minors and could be a mid-summer callup. 

The Cardinals essentially left their bullpen alone this offseason. They've developed and acquired lots of quality relievers over the years and so contented themselves with the signings of J.C. Romero, Scott Linebrink and R.J. Swindle to low-risk deals. The Cardinals' young bullpen looks good on paper, and Mozeliak can add a reliever at the deadline if it falls short of expectations. A major addition to the bullpen wouldn't have made sense for this team.

The Cardinals also locked up Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75MM extension. It's a sizable contract for someone whose knees have been through 1,000 innings per season since 2004, but Molina is emerging as a premium player. Finding an All-Star catcher is difficult, and Molina is just 29, so the deal makes sense for both sides. Back when the Cardinals’ postseason hopes seemed faint, Mozeliak locked up Carpenter and Berkman to deals worth mentioning, even if they technically occurred before the offseason began.

It was an offseason unlike any other in St. Louis. The celebration of a championship, the retirement of a Hall of Fame manager, the departure of one of the greatest hitters in history. But now that the chaos has ended and another season is upon us, the Cardinals are contenders once again.


Offseason In Review: Seattle Mariners

Desperately in need of offense, the Mariners sent promising right-hander Michael Pineda to New York for Jesus Montero in a move that defined the 2011-12 offseason for GM Jack Zduriencik.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Carlos Guillen, Brian Sweeney, Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez, Aaron Heilman, Munenori Kawasaki, Luis Rodriguez, Matt Fox, Guillermo Quiroz, Sean Henn.

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

The Mariners couldn’t do without offense any longer, even though it meant trading away one of their most valuable assets: 23-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda. The 6'5" rookie had more strikeouts than innings pitched last year and remains under team control through 2016. Naturally, the Mariners were reluctant to give him up.

“I think a lot of clubs really try to hang onto the young players,” GM Jack Zduriencik said in January after the trade was announced. “They realize how good those players are for an organization.”

But Seattle, which finished last in the American League in runs scored in 2010 and 2011, had the opportunity to acquire Jesus Montero. Yankees GM Brian Cashman says he's never traded a better player and scouts and prospect analysts agree that Montero will handle MLB pitching. Zduriencik said spacious Safeco Field won’t be an issue for the 22-year-old, who has an .867 OPS as a minor leaguer.

The trade between Zduriencik and Cashman highlighted a Mariners offseason that began tragically when 24-year-old outfielder Greg Halman was stabbed to death in November. Halman joined the Mariners' organization as a 16-year-old and appeared in the Major Leagues in 2010 and 2011.

Zduriencik spent cautiously this winter, committing less than $4MM to players on guaranteed contracts. That didn’t stop the Mariners from obtaining veteran rotation depth in the form of Kevin Millwood and Japanese starter Hisashi Iwakuma (though the latter will begin the season in the 'pen). Seattle's front office believes newcomer Hector Noesi can start at the MLB level and he'll begin his Mariners career in the rotation. Even after trading Pineda, the Mariners have top pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker working their way through the minor leagues. For now, however, the Mariners' rotation looks average, even with Hernandez leading the way.

The Mariners released David Aardsma this offseason and saw Jamey Wright sign with the Dodgers, but they added left-hander George Sherrill and right-handers Shawn Camp and Aaron Heilman, among others. Seattle’s bullpen doesn’t figure to dominate in 2012, especially if Brandon League gets traded this summer. But spending big on middle relievers doesn’t make sense for a non-contending club looking to lower payroll, so I like Zduriencik’s decision to add upside affordably.

The Mariners deflected the usual inquiries on Felix Hernandez — Zduriencik must have the script memorized by now — and League, but they did complete one trade besides the headliner, acquiring catcher John Jaso from the Rays for reliever Josh Lueke. Jaso’s left-handed swing, control of the strike zone and above-average on-base skills should complement Miguel Olivo nicely. Jaso’s presence also allows Montero to focus on his offense. The Mariners figure to ask him to catch here and there, but he’ll be in Eric Wedge’s lineup as the DH most days.

Bounce-back seasons from Ichiro, first baseman Justin Smoak and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez would help Seattle improve on last year’s 67-95 mark. But Gutierrez is out with a right pectoral injury and Ichiro won’t be leading off for the first time since 2001. The 38-year-old enters the final year of his contract with the knowledge that he’ll be removed from the leadoff spot, where he has played 1722 of his 1749 MLB games.

The Angels added the best player in baseball and the Rangers are arguably better on paper than they were in 2010 or 2011, so the Mariners don’t figure to contend in 2012. Their offense, while improved, still projects as below average. The 2009 Mariners won with tremendous run prevention and a weak offense, but don't count on a repeat performance from this year's team. Even though Zduriencik successfully added depth to the pitching staff plus a controllable young bat, the most likely outcome for the 2012 Mariners seems to be 70-75 wins and a third or fourth-place finish.



Offseason In Review: Colorado Rockies

The Rockies made changes at catcher, second base, third base, and right field this offseason, and many rotation spots are up for grabs.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

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The biggest move of the Rockies' busy offseason was the Cuddyer signing.  Though he's below-average defensively at the position, Cuddyer is penciled in to replace Smith and Spilborghs as the Rockies' right fielder.  Smith is defensively-challenged himself, and as a left-handed hitter he's the inverse of Cuddyer offensively.  Pairing Smith with a better platoon partner like Jonny Gomes, as the A's did, would have equaled or exceeded Cuddyer's production at a fraction of the commitment.  There is an intangible side to the Cuddyer signing, as the Rockies like the leadership he brings.

Smith was fairly popular on the trade market, and Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd eventually pulled the trigger for a pair of back-rotation arms in Moscoso and Outman.  Chatwood, acquired for catcher Chris Iannetta, has more upside than those two but was rushed to the Majors last year by the Angels.  Iannetta had more value to the Rockies than to any other team, because he gained the ability to void his 2013 club option only if traded.  The Rockies controlled Iannetta for two years, but the Angels probably control him for one.  O'Dowd still did well in getting six years of Chatwood for Iannetta, a player of whom he did not seem terribly fond.

Though the Rockies won the Iannetta trade from an actuarial standpoint, they downgraded at catcher in 2012.  Ramon Hernandez is inferior defensively and is probably incapable of catching 100 games in his age 36 season.  Perhaps the Rockies feel the short-term dropoff in their catcher swap is insignificant, and wanted a more experienced backstop for a young pitching staff.  

Some of O'Dowd's intended upgrades required payroll flexibility, so he shipped out unneeded veterans Street and Wigginton.  Unloading $7MM owed to Street was a masterstroke, and ditching $2MM on Wigginton was also a win.  These were O'Dowd's questionable contracts in the first place, but at least he was able to cut his losses.  O'Dowd added a pair of new contracts in the extensions for relievers Betancourt and Belisle.  Each received one extra year at the market rate for a solid setup man, which is favorable to letting both reach free agency after 2012.

The Rockies' newfound payroll flexibility allowed for the acquisition of Scutaro.  The Rockies acquired a quality infielder on a salary dump, and only had to make a one-year commitment.  With an average throwing arm and declining range, Scutaro is better-suited for second base as he enters his age 36 season.  There will be a defensive loss compared to Ellis, but he required a two-year commitment.  An OBP north of .350 from Scutaro would be a big improvement over the .304 mark compiled by the team's second basemen in 2011.  

With a below-midpoint $8.2MM salary, Guthrie will cost less than Hammel and Lindstrom, who are owed $8.55MM in 2012.  Hammel flashed potential in 2009-10, but he's not a 200-inning workhorse like Guthrie.  Prior to the Guthrie acquisition, the closest to a sure thing in Colorado's rotation was 24-year-old Jhoulys Chacin, who led the NL in walks in 2011 and showed up to spring training overweight.

For the remaining rotation spots, the Rockies' options were so numerous that they deemed Slowey expendable.  The Rockies acquired the non-tender candidate from Minnesota in December for reliever Daniel Turpen, and then flipped him to Cleveland about a month later for reliever Zach Putnam and $1.25MM.  It was a middle reliever upgrade for the Rockies, at the cost of $1.25MM.  Juan Nicasio and Drew Pomeranz probably slot into the Rockies' rotation behind Guthrie and Chacin, but there will be heavy competition all year.

Stewart and Weathers were shipped to Chicago in a change of scenery deal.  Weathers' trade value was probably minimal, as he would eventually clear waivers with the Cubs.  The Rockies' third base situation may remain dicey in the short-term, as Blake, Chris Nelson, Wood, and/or Harris will keep the seat warm for top prospect Nolan Arenado.  The Rockies received Colvin and LeMahieu for Stewart, two useful big leaguers who may fall short of everyday duty.

After all the offseason activity, are the Rockies a better team?  Last year's rotation posted a 4.73 ERA, so that bar is set low.  The bar is low at the hot corner as well, and the Rockies definitely improved at second base.  With full seasons from Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler, the offense could be a powerhouse.  The Rockies must hope a potentially downgraded defense and an inexperienced rotation can keep them in games.

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.


Offseason In Review: Kansas City Royals

The Royals sat out the trade market for top starting pitchers, instead adding a pair of short-term lefties to their rotation, supplementing their bullpen, and extending a couple of up-the-middle position players.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

The Royals aren't quite ready to pounce.  In an offseason that included trades of starting pitchers Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and Michael Pineda, Royals GM Dayton Moore settled for stopgaps Jonathan Sanchez and Bruce Chen.

Melky Cabrera wasn't part of Moore's long-term plan, despite an age 26 career year for the Royals in 2011.  Though Lorenzo Cain turns 26 himself in April, he'll be a defensive upgrade over Cabrera in center field and remains under team control for the full six years.  Allowing Cain to take over in center and taking a one-year look at Sanchez in the rotation is a better fit for Kansas City.  The 29-year-old Sanchez tantalizes with big strikeout rates, and is at least useful when he's healthy and keeps his walk rate below five per nine innings.

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Chen, 34, received the first multiyear deal of his career to return to the Royals' rotation.  A back injury cost him over a month in 2011, limiting him to 25 starts.  Chen (pictured) posted a 3.77 ERA last year, but his peripheral stats suggest his ERA will come in a full run higher.  Rather than jump on Chen for two guaranteed years in November, the Royals would have been better served to go bargain hunting for starting pitchers on one-year deals in late December and January, around when Jason Marquis, Paul Maholm, and Bartolo Colon signed.  The departed Jeff Francis, who was no worse than Chen in the Royals' rotation, signed a minor league deal with the Reds in late January.   

A hunting trip with Ned Yost, Jeff Francoeur, and Jeff Foxworthy on the comedian's property helped secure Broxton on a reasonable one-year deal.  The huge righty is a year removed from relief dominance.  Along with Greg Holland, the Royals have the talent to survive the late innings without closer Joakim Soria if his spring elbow soreness proves serious.  Southpaw Mijares was signed on the cheap for lefty matchups.

The Royals' other minor moves were led by the signing of Betancourt, who started at shortstop for the club for a year and a half before being traded to Milwaukee in last offseason's Zack Greinke trade.  The Royals' press release made sure to stress Betancourt's utility role.  It remains to be seen how Betancourt's poor shortstop defense will carry over to second and third base.  Of the team's minor league signings, Gutierrez is a fairly interesting 2013 play once he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

The Royals extended catcher Salvador Perez with just 50 days of Major League service time, taking a page from the Rays' playbook.  Unlike Evan Longoria and Matt Moore, Perez profiles as more of a solid regular than a star.  With three club options and a guarantee of just $7MM, it'll still be hard for the Royals to lose money here unless Perez completely flames out.  Perez is off to a rough post-contract start, with knee surgery knocking him out for 12 to 14 weeks.  The injury necessitated the acquisition of Quintero.  We'll have to see the player to be named to properly judge that deal.

Escobar isn't similar to Perez, as the shortstop has over two years of Major League service.  Upon locking up Escobar, Moore noted the payroll is "going to get a little sticky for us, it's going to get a little hairy as we get into 2014-15-16."  That doesn't apply much to Escobar, whose fantastic defensive skills wouldn't have been highly-compensated in arbitration in '14 or '15.  Instead, this contract gives the team affordable club options on two free agent years.

The team and left fielder Alex Gordon have mutual interest in an extension, but they've been unable to find common ground.  Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports says Gordon will "almost certainly will want more than $55 million," the current club record.  From the Royals' point of view, I'd be looking to do more of an improved Corey Hart-type deal: $9MM for his final arbitration year (2013) and $22MM for a pair of free agent years (2014-15).  For Gordon to set a team record, the Royals will have to buy out at least four free agent years.  That kind of commitment is a gamble until Gordon proves his 2011 levels of health and performance are sustainable.

The Royals are poised for another step forward at the big league level, especially if players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Luke Hochevar, and Felipe Paulino expand upon partial seasons of big league success.  The Royals have at least three potential front-rotation starters in the farm system in Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, and John Lamb, but only Montgomery has a 2012 estimated time of arrival.  GM Dayton Moore seems to have an eye on truly contending in 2014, telling MLB.com's Richard Justice, "We're not there yet.  We won 71 games last year. I do feel we're going to win more games in 2012 and 2013 — and a lot more in 2014."  Perhaps Moore will make a play for an ace starting pitcher prior to the '14 season, after which his own contract will be up. 

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.


Offseason In Review: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers won't replace Prince Fielder's offense in 2012, but they have newcomer Aramis Ramirez at third base and — despite a months-long scare — a full season of defending National League MVP Ryan Braun.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Jay Gibbons, Corey Patterson, Seth McClung, Brooks Conrad, Cesar Izturis, Travis Ishikawa, Mike Rivera, Erick Almonte.

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Draft Picks Gained or Lost

  • Obtained 27th overall selection from Tigers for Price Fielder. Also obtain supplementary first round pick, 38th overall.

As expected, Prince Fielder signed elsewhere, but beyond that the Brewers' winter was far from routine. Most notably, Ryan Braun tested positive for a banned substance before contesting the 50-game suspension and winning the appeal.

It marked the second consecutive intrigue-filled offseason for Brewers fans. They watched a year ago as GM Doug Melvin traded for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, but the club relied primarily on free agency this winter.

Though his destination of choice proved to be a surprise, Fielder's free agent departure had seemed inevitable for months, if not years. Even after setting an attendance record and making it to the NLCS, a $200MM commitment would not have made sense for the mid-market Brewers. They've steadily raised payroll under owner Mark Attanasio, but other, more affordable options existed for Melvin and the rest of the Brewers' front office.

They turned to the free agent market to improve the left side of their infield, signing Aramis Ramirez for three years and $36MM and agreeing to terms with Alex Gonzalez on a one-year, $4.25MM deal. The duo offers power, but at 33 and 35, respectively, Ramirez and Gonzalez may soon start to decline. Gonzalez remains an excellent defender, so he should help make up for Ramirez's less-than-stellar glovework. Meanwhile, the Brewers expect Ramirez to replace some of Fielder's offensive production.

“We needed some power back in our lineup missing Fielder even though we’re not going to get it all back,” assistant GM Gord Ash told MLBTR.

Instead of pursuing a free agent first baseman, the Brewers have handed the starting job to 26-year-old Mat Gamel. They cleared space for him by sending Casey McGehee to the Pirates for reliever Jose Veras and seemingly had little interest in Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman and other free agent first basemen. Despite Gamel's struggles with the Brewers, he has had limited opportunity at the Major League level and his minor league stats are excellent. Various models project Gamel to have an on-base percentage of .330 or so along with a slugging percentage of .440 or so in 2012 — an outcome the Brewers would surely welcome. Plus, the Brewers may be better off defensively with Gamel at Fielder's old spot.

In a surprising development, reliever Francisco Rodriguez accepted the Brewers' offer of arbitration. His salary diminished via the arbitration system, but the Brewers probably weren't expecting to spend $8MM on the right-hander in 2012. Spending that kind of money on a setup man seems excessive for the Brewers, and finding a way to anticipate the reliever's decision and withold the offer of arbitration may have been preferable.

With Rodriguez back for another year and Veras now in the bullpen mix, manager Ron Roenicke should have enough quality right-handed relievers in 2012. The Brewers will be short on left-handed relief unless Zach Braddock pitches better or Manny Parra returns to health. They may lock John Axford up long-term, and doing so could create savings for the closer's arbitration years.

The Brewers' top five starters accounted for all but seven of the team's starts a year ago, and none of the five were eligible for free agency, so Melvin essentially left the rotation alone this offseason. The club showed interest in deepening its starting staff with minor league deals, but it's difficult to convince free agent starters to join a rotation with five established pitchers.

“They tend to gravitate to places where there are a few more openings,” Ash said. “They say ‘we don’t see the same opportunity here that we see somewhere else’ and they sign with another team.”

Shoulder issues have sidelined Marcum temporarily and if he's out for longer than expected swingman Marco Estrada will provide rotation depth. Top prospect Wily Peralta has the potential to start in the Major Leagues at some point relatively soon, though he may not presently be ready.

The Brewers signed Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki to a modest two-year deal, and added Jay Gibbons and Corey Patterson just in case. Corey Hart may miss Opening Day, so the depth may prove useful even though Braun is eligible to play the entire season.

The Brewers lost one of the game's top power hitters this offseason, but their window for contention didn't collapse when Prince Fielder left. By strengthening the left side of the infield and adding complementary pieces up and down the roster, Melvin increased the chances that the Brewers will return to the postseason in 2012.


Offseason In Review: Miami Marlins

The Marlins quieted skeptics by signing three of the top 20 free agents, improving the chances of a winning season under manager Ozzie Guillen as their new ballpark opens.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

The Marlins made some noise this winter.  They've associated with Miami rather than all of Florida, marked by an interesting new logo.  They've finally got a baseball-only stadium, complete with a retractable roof and an aquarium behind home plate.  They've got baseball's most colorful manager, too.  The team's eventful offseason began with a trade to acquire manager Ozzie Guillen from the White Sox for a trio of prospects.  Jhan Marinez and Osvaldo Martinez aren't considered top prospects, but they are potential useful pieces.  The commitment to Guillen was probably as much about generating buzz as it was about finding the best possible leader.

Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest clearly had a mandate to push the team's payroll to new heights by signings the best players available.  Extra money was suddenly burning a hole in the Marlins' pocket, but they were limited to what was available in the store this particular winter.  I mentioned in October that the Marlins' biggest needs were the rotation, center field, and third base, but the best two free agents were first basemen.

The Marlins kicked off the Winter Meetings by overpaying Heath Bell.  The 34-year-old closer continued to rack up saves last year, but his strikeout rate dropped signficantly.  Beinfest, typically so good at finding cheap closers, paid a major premium for the save statistic for a reliever who may have begun his decline.  Jonathan Papelbon was the only other reliever to sign for three or more years this offseason.

In the case of Jose Reyes, the Marlins' creativity was wise.  They pursued him aggressively, pushing Hanley Ramirez's questionable shortstop defense to the hot corner.  Ramirez seems better-suited for third base at this point in his career, and a decent season from him would top any third baseman the Marlins could have acquired.  Reyes represented the rare available shortstop in his prime, and he'll be worth the money if the Marlins can just keep him moderately healthy.

The Marlins needing starting pitching badly, with Javier Vazquez showing no interest in playing in 2012.  They targeted Buehrle or C.J. Wilson, and Wilson's agent Bob Garber said the Marlins "would not let it go."  The Marlins were rightly willing to commit significantly more to Wilson than Buehrle, but Wilson took a discount to go to the Angels.  That left Buehrle as the best available free agent starter, but only for a couple of days until Yu Darvish would be posted.  The Marlins were never connected to Darvish, preferring the dependable, unspectactular Buehrle.

The Winter Meetings also included the Marlins' pursuit of Albert Pujols.  Acquiring Pujols would have meant trading Gaby Sanchez, and a useful trade chip would have been welcome given the team's remaining needs.  The Angels overshadowed the Marlins' Meetings by inking Pujols and Wilson on the final day.  The Marlins were apparently willing to offer $200MM+ to Pujols, but showed little interest in Prince Fielder.

Buehrle would effectively replace Vazquez in the team's 2012 rotation, but Beinfest (and perhaps Guillen) couldn't resist pulling Zambrano out of an ugly situation in Chicago.  Despite Zambrano's complete lack of trade value, the Marlins gave up a pitcher of value for him in Volstad.  Maybe everyone wins from a change of scenery, but Volstad is probably the better pitcher right now and is under control for 2013.  This trade was a head-scratcher from the Marlins side. 

Center field was addressed internally with Emilio Bonifacio, a reasonable gamble given the lack of alternatives on the market.  The Marlins pursued Yoenis Cespedes aggressively, but they wanted a commitment of more than four years.  Plus, Cespedes doesn't necessarily fit with a win-now mentality.  The Reyes signing certainly improved the Marlins, and losing Vazquez and Volstad for Buehrle and Zambrano is probably a wash in the rotation.  Although the Marlins overpaid for Bell, they needed some kind of bullpen addition since Juan Carlos Oviedo (the former Leo Nunez) is a question mark due to identity fraud.  With healthy seasons from Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins should be in the thick of the NL East race.


Offseason In Review: Toronto Blue Jays

As speculation and rumors about splashy acquisitions continued to swirl, the Blue Jays opted for bullpen improvements this offseason.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Tim Redding, Omar Vizquel, Kyle Phillips, Nelson Figueroa, Robert Coello, Brian Bocock, Aaron Laffey.

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

The Blue Jays will have a better bullpen in 2012 and their offense was strong to begin with, yet it’s unclear if the back of their rotation will be effective enough to vault the club into contention this year.

To the surprise and frustration of many Blue Jays fans, GM Alex Anthopoulos passed on Prince Fielder, C.J. Wilson, Ryan Madson and the rest of the offseason’s top free agents. The Rangers won the bidding for Yu Darvish, but the Blue Jays appear to have placed a relatively competitive bid for the right-hander and at times it seemed that he would be headed to Toronto. The Blue Jays were also reportedly in on trade talks for starters Michael Pineda and Gio Gonzalez, but didn't appear to feel comfortable with the asking price for controllable, young pitchers.

Instead, the back of the Blue Jays’ projected rotation contains one pitcher who has appeared in five MLB games since 2008 and another pitcher who has appeared in ten big league games over the course of his entire career. Dustin McGowan has tremendous stuff and Henderson Alvarez impressed in his late-2011 cameo, but baseball’s best teams have more certainty at the back of their rotations. I still believe acquiring one more starter with the stuff to succeed in the AL East would have reduced risk without preventing the organization's best prospects from developing.

Highly-regarded Double-A starters Chad Jenkins, Deck McGuire and Drew Hutchison provide the team with promising internal alternatives that presumably affected the Blue Jays' willingness to bid aggressively on available pitching this winter. The prospects could be called on if a Blue Jays starter suffers an injury, but they probably need at least a couple more months of minor league development first. In the meantime, Aaron Laffey and Kyle Drabek provide rotation depth, but given Drabek's command issues last year (55 walks in 78 2/3 innings) additional Triple-A seasoning seems to be in order. 

The bullpen, an ongoing source of concern in 2011, received a makeover. Anthopoulos traded for Sergio Santos, re-acquired Jason Frasor and signed Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero. Though Oliver is now 41, the left-hander remains effective. And though Cordero showed signs of decline in 2011, the Blue Jays aren't asking him to close or paying him like a closer.

It mustn't have been easy to send minor league starter Nestor Molina and his 148K/16BB ratio to Chicago, but the Santos deal seems likely to pay off for Anthopoulos. Santos, a former shortstop prospect in Toronto's system, excelled as Chicago's closer in 2011 and is under team control through 2017. Similarly, parting with Myles Jaye and Daniel Webb to re-acquire Frasor makes sense for a prospect-rich team seeking late-game stability. Toronto's front office improved the bullpen considerably over the winter.

The Blue Jays extended their control over Brandon Morrow with a three-year, $21MM extension and locked Casey Janssen up for two years and $5.9MM. The Blue Jays believe Morrow can reach another level after showing promise in his first two seasons out of the rotation, so extending him and creating potential savings for two free agent seasons was a natural choice. Even if his performance remains constant, the Blue Jays should enjoy extended control at a reasonable rate.

After months of speculation, the Blue Jays didn't end up adding a big-name bat such as Fielder or David Ortiz. Yet they ranked sixth in MLB in scoring a year ago and should still be powerful in 2012. Two-time defending MLB home run leader Jose Bautista anchors a lineup that will also include Brett Lawrie, Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus for a full season. The Blue Jays retained two powerful players by exercising Edwin Encarnacion's option and offering Johnson arbitration.

Anthopoulos chose to rely on Adam Lind at first base and either Eric Thames or Travis Snider in left field. Lind needs to get on base more and the Blue Jays need to find out what they have in Snider and Thames. Though there's some hope at first base and left field, the Blue Jays will have to move on at these positions in 2013 if Lind, Thames and Snider don't hit.

The Blue Jays lost a highly-regarded defensive catcher in Jose Molina and acquired another one in Jeff Mathis. There's every reason to expect unimpressive offensive numbers from Mathis, a lifetime .194/.257/.301 hitter. But someone has to spell J.P. Arencibia and top prospect Travis d'Arnaud needs to play every day to further refine his game. If d'Arnaud impresses at Triple-A he could earn a callup when rosters expand in September.

The AL East doesn't look any easier this year, but three of its teams could qualify for the playoffs under baseball's new postseason system. That gives the Blue Jays legitimate hope for 2012 and beyond. There's a sense that the Blue Jays are set to end their run of mediocre finishes and emerge as a contending team before long. If enough breaks right it could even happen this year.


Offseason In Review: Los Angeles Angels

The Angels stole Winter Meetings headlines by signing the offseason's best free agent hitter and pitcher in the course of a few hours.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

In August, MLBTR surveyed dozens of baseball people for their GM candidates.  Former big league reliever Jerry Dipoto was mentioned more than anyone else.  After a thorough search, the Angels named Dipoto as Tony Reagins' replacement in late October.  Dipoto came with a great drafting track record, and also had made several excellent trades as Arizona's interim GM in the summer of 2010.

Shortly after his hiring, Dipoto told ESPN's Jim Bowden catcher was one of multiple positions for which he wanted to improve the Angels' on-base percentage.  Several weeks later, Dipoto backed up his words by acquiring Iannetta for Chatwood.  Iannetta has a .357 career OBP, and The Fielding Bible considers him a "terrific defensive catcher."  Though the Rockies may not have appreciated Iannetta, they extracted a solid bounty in Chatwood, who Baseball America ranked the 76th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season.  Given Iannetta's ability to void a $5MM club option for 2013 because of the trade, the Halos may have acquired only one year of control in exchange for six of Chatwood.  This was the first sign the Angels were embarking on a win-now offseason.  The Iannetta acquisition made non-tender candidate Jeff Mathis expendable, so Dipoto picked up Mills to essentially replace Chatwood down the rotation depth chart. 

Even in November, Dipoto warned Bowden not to assume the Angels had no interest in Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols.  However, many assumed Angels owner Arte Moreno would continue to drop out of the bidding on top free agents, and that Moreno's expected $130-140MM payroll precluded signing multiple impact players.

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The Marlins had shocked baseball by committing $191MM to free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell during the 2011 Winter Meetings, and they were in play for Pujols as well.  The Rule 5 draft typically signals the conclusion of the Meetings, but just as it began Yahoo's Tim Brown posted a tweet that required a double-take: the Angels had signed Pujols to a ten-year deal.  The contract was worth $240MM, a figure that rose to $246.8MM once the present-day value of ten-year, $10MM personal services contract was considered.  In baseball history, only Alex Rodriguez has signed for more.

With a .421 career OBP, Pujols was the best fit for Dipoto's OBP mandate.  One concern, however, is that Pujols' unintentional walk rate dropped to 7.1% in 2011, after staying above 9% in almost every other season.  The Angels are betting that at age 32, Pujols has many more elite, durable seasons ahead of him.  Pujols is about four years older than Fielder, but is probably the game's best defensive first baseman while Fielder might be the worst, according to The Fielding Bible.  The Angels signed the better player for 2012, but will Pujols still be a superstar in 2015?  His backloaded contract averages a $27MM salary over the last seven years.  Pujols will likely be a $30MM designated hitter by 2021, but the Angels are planning on celebrating milestones in his final playing years.  Even if Pujols' contract becomes burdensome, an unceremonious breakup seems unlikely given the personal services commitment.

The Pujols signing had a ripple effect on the Angels' depth chart.  First basemen Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo will move to designated hitter, reducing Bobby Abreu's playing time.  Trumbo is also an option at third base.  Vernon Wells, a below-average defensive left fielder, cannot be pushed to the DH spot to clear a starting outfield position for top prospect Mike Trout.  Dipoto told Bowden in November Wells "deserves a chance to bounce back," but since that trade was Reagins' mistake, I expect a short leash.  Torii Hunter is 36, Wells is 33, Abreu is 38, and Morales is coming off a broken ankle, so it's possible an injury will help sort out this logjam.  If not, I think Dipoto will have the authority to release or bench Wells and/or Abreu to ensure the best possible lineup is on the field.  If $2-4MM of Abreu's $9MM commitment can be cleared via trade, that route should be pursued aggressively.

Shortly after the Pujols signing, the Angels continued their spending spree by signing top free agent starter C.J. Wilson to a five-year deal.  At $15.5MM per year, Wilson gave the Angels an irresistible hometown discount.  With a front four of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Wilson, and Ervin Santana, they continue to boast one of the best rotations in baseball.

Dipoto allocated the least resources toward the bullpen, grabbing serviceable free agent Hawkins and taking a flyer on Isringhausen on a minor league deal.  With minimal losses and quality arms in Jordan Walden, Scott Downs, Hisanori Takahashi, and Rich Thompson, the need never seemed dire.

Dipoto a finishing touch on his offseason by signing second baseman Kendrick to a four-year extension, months before the player entered his contract year.  With arbitration savings and three free agent years at $9.2MM each, Kendrick's extension provides good value to the Angels.  The Angels have been unable to find common ground with another impending free agent, shortstop Erick Aybar.  The Fielding Bible suggests Aybar has never been Gold Glove-worthy despite his 2011 win, and maybe the best course of action is to try prospect Jean Segura in 2013 if he has all-around success in the minors this year.

The Angels' heavy spending makes them a 2012 contender, in what might be a two-horse AL West race.  They have a fantastic rotation backed by strong defense, and the league's tenth-best 2011 offense will be on the rise.

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.


Offseason In Review: Arizona Diamondbacks

The defending NL West Champs added a top young starter to their rotation, signed an outfield bat and spent aggressively on bench help.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Mike Jacobs, Cody Ransom, Jensen Lewis, Rusty Ryal, Chris Jakubauskas.

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

The Diamondbacks improved by 29 wins and vaulted from last to first following their first offseason under Kevin Towers. This winter, the Diamondbacks raised payroll to unexpected heights, improving their pitching staff in the process.

Towers traded top pitching prospect Jarrod Parker and two others to the Athletics to obtain Trevor Cahill. The 24-year-old averaged 194 innings in his first three MLB seasons and is under team control through 2017. Operating with a modest payroll, the A's preferred Parker, who's just nine months younger than Cahill and under team control for the same period. But the Diamondbacks could afford Cahill's upcoming raises and were understandably drawn to the promising 24-year-old.

“While we were excited to add a guy like Cahill, we weren't going to mortgage the future for someone close to free agency," assistant GM Billy Ryan told MLBTR. "We weren't excited to give up Jarrod Parker. We think he's going to be a very good pitcher in the Major Leagues."

Faced with the possibility that Joe Saunders would earn $8.5-9MM in arbitration, the club non-tendered the left-hander. After spending a month on the open market, Saunders agreed to terms with the Diamondbacks on a one-year deal worth $6MM. His peripheral stats suggest he's a 4.50 ERA pitcher and that his 2011 mark of 3.69 isn't sustainable, but he can contribute 200 league average innings, so it's understandable that Towers asked to expand payroll to accommodate his salary. 

Saunders, Cahill, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson each completed 200 innings last year, which gives manager Kirk Gibson a strong, durable projected front four. Josh Collmenter rounds out the rotation and top prospects Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs could make an impact as starters later on this year.

The signing of Jason Kubel puzzled many since left fielder Gerardo Parra posted a .784 OPS in 2011, winning a Gold Glove. Kubel offers more power than Parra, but his defense is not highly-regarded and he's a lefty hitter, like Parra, so they aren't natural platoon partners. It makes sense for the Diamondbacks to consider trades for Parra, but they seem likely to keep him as a late-game defensive replacement and left-handed bat off of the bench.

If $11MM sounds like a lot for a player who has a .225/.285/.375 line in his past 1151 plate appearances, recall that Aaron Hill hit well after the Diamondbacks acquired him last summer and that free agent infielders Clint Barmes and Mark Ellis signed comparable deals. It's not a steal, but the D'Backs needed someone to play second base and they expect Hill's offense to rebound to an extent in 2012.

"We still think he can be a good offensive second baseman," Ryan said. "But he doesn't have to be the guy for us."

The Diamondbacks discussed a long-term extension with catcher Miguel Montero, who will be eligible for free agency after the season. The sides tabled talks late last month and it now appears that Montero will test the open market. Kennedy and Hudson are also candidates for long-term deals, and talks could continue into the spring.

After reconstructing his bullpen a year ago, Towers contented himself with two major additions this offseason. The Diamondbacks signed Takashi Saito, who remains effective at the age of 42, and traded for Craig Breslow, an affordable left-hander who has averaged 63 innings per season since 2008.

Towers addressed his bench proactively, signing Blanco, Overbay, McDonald and Bloomquist to Major League contracts relatively early in the offseason. While two-year deals for bench players like McDonald and Bloomquist reduce roster flexibility, shortstop depth is especially important for the Diamondbacks, as Stephen Drew continues recovering from last summer's ankle injury. Overbay's left-handed swing will provide Gibson with an option off of the bench and complement Goldschmidt as he enters his first full season in the Majors (we'll ignore Goldschmidt's reverse platoon splits based on the tiny sample size).

Some of the Diamondbacks' moves were confusing when they happened, but now that the roster is in place, it's clear that Towers improved this team. Last year's club won 94 games without comparable pitching depth or as many weapons on offense. Health permitting, the 2012 Diamondbacks figure to contend again.