2013-14 Offseason In Review Rumors

Offseason In Review: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners made the offseason’s biggest free agent splash by issuing the third-biggest contract in Major League history, but they fell oddly silent in the months that followed.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

  • None

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

With Eric Wedge out of the picture, the Mariners began the offseason by looking for a new skipper. After many interviews — some with old-school managers and some with younger, less traditional candidates — Seattle decided on former Tigers hitting coach and Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon. He fits into the old-school category, but Seattle clearly preferred some experience as opposed to a rookie hiring such as the ones made by the Cubs (Rick Renteria) and Tigers (Brad Ausmus).

Robinsno Cano

With that out of the way, the Mariners sought to address the club’s collective .237/.306/.390 batting line of a year ago. Specifically, Mariners second basemen combined to bat .229/.299/.340 and play sub-par defense in 2013, resulting in a total of -0.1 wins above replacement (per Fangraphs). That glaring flaw set the stage for an ongoing pursuit of the offseason’s premier free agent in Cano. The Yankees showed interest in retaining Cano, but in the end they never came close to matching Seattle’s offer, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else did either. The Mariners reportedly topped the Yankees’ best offer by as much as $65-70MM, and they even went above and beyond their initial comfort levels. Reports on the day of the signing indicated that talks had disintegrated after the two sides were said to be in agreement on a nine-year, $225MM contract. Apparently, agents Brodie Van Wagenen and Jay-Z then upped the asking price to 10 years and $252MM, which caused a breakdown. The exact details of the negotiation will never be known, but the two sides overcame any obstacles and agreed to a $240MM middle ground that tied Albert Pujols for what was then the third-largest deal ever. (Cano’s deal trailed Alex Rodriguez‘s two separate 10-year deals of $252MM and $275MM, and Miguel Cabrera has since surpassed his total commitment.)

Not long after the Cano signing, the Mariners added a pair of wild-card bats in the form of Hart and Morrison. Hart didn’t play in 2013 after undergoing surgeries on both knees, while Morrison’s own knee issues have dampened what looked to be a promising start to the former top prospect’s career. Hart batted .279/.343/.514 and averaged 29 homers per season in a three-year stretch from 2010-12 — his most recent big league action. Morrison, still just 26 years old, batted .259/.351/.460 with 25 homers in his first 185 games in the Majors.  If either one were to return to his peak form, that bat would represent a significant upgrade for the Mariners.

Jack Zduriencik’s second-largest signing of the offseason was made with an eye toward solidifying the ninth inning while allowing Danny Farquhar — who emerged as Seattle’s best reliever last season — to continue to get important outs in high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth inning. Rodney was written off by many before signing with the Rays and rejuvenating his career with a historic 2012 season. His command regressed in 2013, but he still shot off 37 celebratory (imaginary) arrows and posted a strong 3.38 ERA with 82 whiffs in 66 2/3 innings. He’s been a part of a solid Mariners bullpen to this point.

Questions Remaining

For all of the money the Mariners spent, how much has their offense truly improved? Even if Hart hits reasonably well, he wouldn’t be a significant upgrade over Morales, who left via free agency (and is still looking for a job). Cano will be a huge boost at the keystone, and they’ll have a full season of Brad Miller after watching Brendan Ryan toil away for much of 2013. Still, the Mariners have been going with Abraham Almonte in center field along with familiar faces like Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak in the lineup. Almonte has struggled all season, and while Ackley and Smoak started hot, each has come back down to Earth. Mike Zunino has shown some improvement and could be an above-average bat behind the dish, but the team’s offensive output to this point has actually been worse than it was in 2013.

Injuries have run rampant through Seattle’s rotation, as both Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker opened the season on the disabled list. That duo was joined shortly thereafter by promising young lefty James Paxton, and Seattle has scrambled to cobble together a rotation with that trio on the shelf. Cuban rookie Roenis Elias has been an unexpected godsend for the club to this point, making five starts and posting a 3.54 ERA in the process.

Still, the Mariners knew full well that they’d open the season with 40 percent of their rotation on the disabled list, and they were already counting on an inexperienced group beyond Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma (with the possible exception of minor league signee Scott Baker, whom the team released in Spring Training).

All the while, Ervin Santana sat on the free agent market looking for a team, ultimately settling for a one-year, $14.1MM deal with the Braves. Santana seemed set on inking a one-year pact by the time he signed — the Twins had reportedly offered three years and about $33MM in Spring Training — and was said to prefer the National League, but could he have been persuaded by an offer in the $16-17MM range from Seattle? Cano was outspoken in his desire for his new team to sign Santana (and to re-sign Morales), but instead Santana is dominating early in Atlanta, while the M’s have turned to Young and questionable arms such as Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez. Maybe Santana never would have signed in Seattle, but it was curious that the bidding was said to be down to the Orioles and Blue Jays at around $14MM before the Braves emerged as late suitors due to injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy.

One alternative for the Mariners to bolster the offense or the starting rotation could have been to trade displaced top prospect Nick Franklin, who looks to be out of a job with Miller and Cano manning the middle infield. However, Seattle hung onto the 23-year-old and started him off in Triple-A. It’s possible that the decision was made in hopes that Franklin would improve his trade value after a disappointing rookie campaign. Franklin has mashed at Triple-A to start the season, though he struggled in a brief call-up to the Mariners in which he didn’t receive consistent playing time.

One trade that was oft-discussed in the early stages of the offseason was an acquisition of David Price, but the Rays never showed that much of an inclination to trade the former Cy Young winner, and Price’s agent stated in December that his client wouldn’t sign an extension in Seattle were they to make a trade for him. One would think that a package headlined by Franklin and Walker would have piqued Tampa’s interest, but Zduriencik never wanted to part with Walker in a deal, which could be been the reason that talks never really got off the ground.

If money was truly too tight to pursue Santana or a significant bat like Nelson Cruz (to whom they were heavily linked as well), then the Mariners’ modest deal for Bloomquist strikes me as a particularly questionable allocation of funds. Bloomquist has essentially been a replacement-level player throughout his career, yet the Mariners saw fit to guarantee him multiple years (two years, $5.8MM). His $2.8MM salary in 2014 isn’t exactly crushing, but it does make up about three percent of Seattle’s payroll. Meanwhile, the division-rival A’s signed the defensively superior Nick Punto for half that guarantee, and the Pirates inked defensive specialist Clint Barmes for just a $2MM guarantee.

From a defensive standpoint, the Mariners will likely be giving plenty of time in the outfield to Hart and Morrison, which could prove to be a liability. The infield defense should be improved by the addition of Cano and with the definitive decision to place Brad Miller at shortstop over Franklin, who many scouts feel is better suited for second base.

Deal of Note

The news that Cano was signing in Seattle ignited and energized a fanbase that has been starved for quality hitters (while also enraging a great number of Yankee fans). The addition of Hart was a nice followup, as he figured to be a semi-risky but high-reward addition that could be an upgrade at first base or at least a replacement for Morales. Fans were disheartened in the months that followed to hear that the team may not have additional money to spend, though.

With that looking to be the case, it’s now fair to wonder multiple things about the Cano deal. If Seattle was truly spending the overwhelming majority of its offseason budget on Cano, would the resources have been better off divided among multiple assets? That type of money could have, in theory, netted both Santana and Matt Garza while still leaving enough money to add Shin-Soo Choo. That type of second-guessing can always be applied to a significant offseason addition such as this one, but Cano-type deals are usually accompanied by additional, significant moves. That wasn’t exactly the case in this instance, which has led many to ask why a team that needed so much work to contend would spend so wildly on one asset while improving the rest of the team very little.

Additionally, the question has been raised as to who else was a serious player for Cano. While many teams showed some interest, and there was speculation regarding the Rangers following the Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler swap, no team was publicly linked to Cano at the same price level of the Mariners. As I said before, we’ll never know exactly how negotiations panned out, but it seems hard to believe that Seattle had to top the runner-up bidder by $65-70MM. Was another team involved, or did they simply outbid themselves? It’s been speculated that this was the work of a GM who knew his job was in danger and needed to make a splash, but the move required ownership approval as well, and it’s hard to imagine Zduriencik fancied Cano as a cure-all for the team’s many ailments.

Overview

While the club hasn’t hit as well as expected in the early-going, the offense should still be improved over 2013’s weak performance. The rotation, too, could be a solid group if Iwakuma, Walker and Paxton are able to return at full strength. However, it was surprising to see Seattle sit on its hands, even after division rivals such as the Rangers (Derek Holland) and A’s (Jarrod Parker) suffered significant setbacks in their rotations.

The Mariners made one of the most significant moves in baseball history but then followed that up with the type of risk/reward moves one might expect from a rebuilding club (buying low on a former top prospect in Morrison, signing a tradeable veteran to a one-year deal in Hart). Perhaps the club placed too much of a belief in its ability to land Price and didn’t much care for any of the fallback options. Perhaps they looked at the pitching-rich free agent class of 2014-15 and thought they were better served by waiting for a year and adding a James Shields or Justin Masterson over Santana. Or, perhaps Zduriencik and his staff still saw enough promise in the young core they thought they acquired when drafting Ackley and trading for Smoak.

In the end, the offseason sent a confusing message to fans and Seattle’s own players alike. The Mariners don’t look like a playoff team right now, and their fans aren’t the only ones confused by what transpired this offseason.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers made a couple of blockbuster trades and re-worked their bullpen but steered clear of the big free agent signings we've come to expect from GM Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Tigers wrapped up their 2013 season with an ALCS loss to the Red Sox that served as a bittersweet farewell to longtime manager Jim Leyland. Their first order of business was to find a new skipper, and they did so in the form of former big league catcher Brad Ausmus.

Kinsler-Ian-Tigers

However, Detroit's biggest need this offseason could arguably have been to gain some long-term financial flexibility, and the club was able to accomplish that while finding a replacement for Infante all in the same move. In trading Fielder to the Rangers for Kinsler and $30MM, Dombrowski successfully shaved $76MM off the payroll over the next several years.

That savings, perhaps along with some of the money saved in the Fister trade, paved the way for the Tigers to sign Miguel Cabrera to a whopping eight-year, $248MM extension that serves as the second largest deal in history in terms of new money. When combined with the existing two years and $44MM he was already owed, Cabrera's 10-year, $292MM commitment is the largest ever made to a player in Major League history.

Last season, the Tigers experienced an early-season carousel in the ninth inning that led to a short-lived and unsightly reunion with Jose Valverde before Benoit finally solidified the closer's spot. However, Benoit departed via free agency, and the Tigers sought the biggest upgrade the market had to offer, inking active saves leader Nathan to a two-year deal. It's not without risk, given Nathan's age (39), but then again, what multi-year deal for a reliever is? Seeking a more affordable option than Veras for a setup role, Dombrowski brought in Chamberlain on a one-year deal. Chamberlain's struggles in New York were pronounced, but he fits the mold of the typical hard-throwing power arm that Detroit tends to target.

Those additions, along with the Fister trade, allowed the Tigers to move Drew Smyly into the rotation alongside Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello, with Krol sliding into the 'pen in Smyly's stead. That quintet looks to be one of the most talented groups in the Majors and should give the Tigers a good chance to once again post one of the five best collective rotation ERAs in the game.

In the outfield, Dombrowski sought to add more speed by adding Davis on a two-year deal, and he would have formed a solid platoon with Andy Dirks, had Dirks not suffered a back injury. Dirks is on the shelf for the first three months or so of the season, thrusting Davis, rookie Tyler Collins and utility man Don Kelly into more action than originally expected.

Questions Remaining

While the Cabrera extension clearly filled a need for the near future, it will almost certainly be perceived in a negative light by its completion. Cabrera could very well be the best power hitter on the face of the planet right now, so it makes sense that that Tigers would want to retain him and even lock him up for life, but history has shown that 10-year commitments such as this one (e.g. Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols) aren't likely to pan out. While he has astoundingly never been on the disabled list, Cabrera did battle a groin injury that required offseason surgery in 2013, and the odds of him maintaining his impressive durability through his age-40 season are slim to none.

The bigger question, for the Tigers, will be how many more years of elite slugging they receive from Cabrera before his inevitable decline. For all of Cabrera's accolades at the plate, the same "best hitter on the planet" tag could have been applied to Pujols or Rodriguez at the time of their signings, and they wilted quickly (though Pujols could still experience a turnaround, of course). And, it must be asked if the best way to utilize their newfound financial freedom after escaping Fielder's decline years was to immediately dedicate that money to the decline years of another slugger.

Injuries have ravaged the Tigers' roster, creating a good deal of uncertainty for the 2014 season. For the time being, they've elected to bridge the gap to Dirks' return with internal options, but a waiver claim or some type of minor move to improve that depth early in the season wouldn't be a surprise.

Of longer-term consequence is the fact that Jose Iglesias is likely to miss the season with stress fractures in each of his shins/ The Tigers have, to this point, deployed an unexciting combination of Gonzalez and Romine to fill the void. One has to wonder just how long they can go with that combination before looking for a real upgrade.

The logical connection to make there is that Stephen Drew remains unsigned, and at this point, there may not be a team with a greater need that represents a better fit. Drew is already in the clear in terms of dodging another qualifying offer — any team that signs him would be unable to make an offer, as he didn't spent the entire year on its roster — but the Tigers may prefer to wait until after the June draft to make a move. That strategy would preserve their 2015 first-round pick, but it would also mean about two months of replacement-level production at shortstop as well as the risk that another club swoops in and signs him at an earlier date.

In addition to Dirks and Iglesias, the Tigers also lost flamethrowing setup ace Bruce Rondon to Tommy John surgery. Rondon's departure for the season means that the Tigers will be relying on a patchwork bullpen to get to Nathan in the ninth inning, with Krol, Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque representing the best options for Ausmus.

A final, albeit lesser question mark is whether or not Nick Castellanos can hold down the fort as Ausmus' primary third base option. Castellanos is universally regarded as one of the game's top hitting prospects, but he's still just 22 years old and rocketed through the minor leagues without clearly dominating at any one level. That's not to say he isn't capable of being a plus third baseman in the Majors, but merely to ask if it's a reasonable expectation for the 2014 campaign.

Deal of Note

The Fister trade is still one of the most controversial moves of the offseason, simply due to the fact that most feel Dombrowski — who is generally perceived as an excellent GM in trades — didn't receive a large enough return for his right-hander.

From 2011-13, Fister ranked ninth among all Major League pitchers in fWAR (13.3) and rWAR (12.6). In 586 2/3 innings in that time, Fister posted a 3.30 ERA with 6.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 3.75 K/BB and a 50.9 percent ground-ball rate that ranked 18th among 139 qualified starting pitchers. The Nationals will control him for two more seasons, with a $7.2MM salary on tap in 2014 before one more arbitration raise next offseason.

Essentially, Fister has pitched at a level that is comparable, if not superior to that of James Shields over the three-year term that preceded his to his trade to the Royals (albeit in a weaker division). Shields, who was also more expensive than Fister, posted a 3.76 ERA with 8.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and a 46.6 percent ground-ball rate in that time. He did total an additional 100 innings, and the Rays included Wade Davis in the deal as well, but it seems disproportionate that Shields would net a package headlined by Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi while Fister yielded Ray, Krol and Lombardozzi.

Ray is the jewel of the deal, but he didn't rank among the game's Top 100 prospects per Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus, and he came in at No. 97 on MLB.com's list. Dombrowski has said the trade was made due to the difficulty of acquiring young pitching, noting that Ray was one of 15 pitching prospects who interested the Tigers and the only one with which a rival club was willing to part. Perhaps Dombrowski sensed the impending injury to Fister that has sidelined him to open the season, but he was healthy enough at the time of the trade to pass Washington's physical, so it seems unlikely that any sort of major red flag was present.

With Lombardozzi already shipped off, the Tigers are left with Ray, Krol and one year of Gonzalez to show for Fister, making Ray's development critical to the trade's success. Should Ray fail to pan out, the Tigers would be left with a left-handed reliever and some extra cash that may have helped to facilitate a likely ill-fated contract extension for Cabrera — a tough pill to swallow for Detroit fans.

Overview

Despite question marks in the bullpen and at shortstop, the Tigers boast an elite rotation and a lineup that should score plenty of runs, making them the favorites to take home their fourth consecutive AL Central Division Championship. This team is in a clear win-now mode, although the subtraction of Fister does contradict that thinking to an extent. The Tigers could very well find themselves in the market for a one-year upgrade at shortstop or some short-term help in left field, but even if they stick with in-house options, they're likely to see October baseball once again.

The long-term outlook is more questionable, as after shedding the decline phase of Fielder's contract, the Tigers purchased a larger portion of that same phase of Cabrera's career. They already have a remarkable $83.8MM in contracts guaranteed in 2017, $68MM in 2018 (including buyouts for Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez) and $58MM in 2019. With some potentially restrictive commitments for declining players on the books in the future, the team could be facing a closing window for its first World Series title since 1984.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: New York Mets

As the Mets look to transition from rebuilding to contending, the club made its largest free agent outlay in years, but will go without recovering ace Matt Harvey.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
Extensions
  • None
Notable Losses

Needs Addressed
 
The Mets addressed their biggest issue, perhaps, by finally saying goodbye to two contracts that turned sour. The club paid its final obligations to both Santana ($5.5MM buyout of $25MM option) and Jason Bay ($3MM buyout on $17MM option). Of course, Bay had already been cut loose, and technically will still be paid for some time due to a deferment arrangement. Likewise, the organization has reportedly made headway in moving past the well-documented financial tribulations of its ownership group.
Granderson
 
The major strategic issue facing Alderson was how to deal with the loss of Harvey, one of the game's best arms, who went down to Tommy John surgery. That constituted a major blow to the team's hopes of beginning to challenge in 2014, and raised the question whether spending would once more be put on hold. But the Mets moved ahead, with Alderson setting down a tall challenge of winning 90 games this year.
 
Having cleared the Santana and Bay contracts, the Mets were able to add the fifth-most in guaranteed money of any team in free agency while opening the season with almost $10MM less on the books than last year. Looking ahead, New York has have the following future obligations: $54.05MM (2015); $45.05MM (2016); and $35.5MM (2017). 
 
So what did GM Sandy Alderson and company get for their cash? First and foremost, it added two veteran outfield options in Granderson and Young. Though the team cobbled together a passable unit last year, they traded away the surprising Marlon Byrd (who would have been a free agent anyway) and was rightly disinclined to rely solely on Juan Lagares, Eric Young Jr., and the defensively-challenged Lucas Duda. An upgrade was clearly in order.
 
In Granderson, the Mets added an established power bat (84 home runs between 2011-12) who missed most of last year due to injury. The cost was high for the qualifying offer-bound 33-year-old: $60MM over four years and the 48th overall choice in the upcoming amateur draft (the team's first choice, tenth overall, was protected). For his part, Young did not require a major commitment, and at age 30 is just a few years removed from a pair of 5-win seasons. But he struggled mightily with injury and performance issues last year. Disappointingly, Young's ongoing quad issues have once again reared up early in the year.
 
The second major area of need that was dealt with by the Mets was pitching. Though blessed with a series of promising young arms — Zach Wheeler cracked the bigs last year, while Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, and others wait in the wings — the organization was at least a year away from fielding its full array of new starters. Absent Harvey, the club plainly had some innings to fill, and did so by adding the seemingly ageless Colon (in fact, he's 40), who threw to a 2.65 ERA in 190 1/3 innings in 2013. Of course, New York would be thrilled by a repeat, but more realistically will hope that Colon can carry that innings load at a slightly above average rate.
 
Alderson filled out the rest of the pitching staff with a series of veterans on minor league deals. Matsuzaka and Lannan provide starting depth, though the former is starting off in Triple-A and the latter in the bullpen. And Valverde and Farnsworth were both added to a bullpen that had a decent number of in-house options, some of whom the organization preferred to start out in the upper minors. 
 
Questions Remaining
 
We already covered two glaring roster needs above, but a third — shortstop — remains a huge question. Ruben Tejada, of course, opens the year as the starter after a massively disappointing 2013 in which he only logged 227 MLB plate appearances and put up a miserly .202/.259/.260 triple-slash. Though Tejada is not regarded as a good defender at the position, advanced metrics have not been quite as down on him as might be expected by the perception. (For his career, at short, Tejada has a slightly positive UZR/150 and is pegged at -8 DRS with over 2,000 innings in the bank.)
 
Though Tejada is just 24 and had been viewed as a promising prospect, it seems that the front office has soured on him quite a bit and has serious questions about his work ethic and conditioning. Moreover, player and team remain at odds — last we heard, anyway — over the decision to recall him just one day after he would have been able to reach three full years of service at the end of the season. Free agent Stephen Drew was a widely-pegged target for New York, but the club seems disinclined to give him the multi-year deal that he seeks. Of course, Drew still remains unsigned, and in theory could still be added, though that seems unlikely unless the Mets improve upon their less-than-inspiring start to the year.
 
Another major question mark that remains unresolved is first base, where Lucas Duda and Ike Davis were expected to battle for the starting role (for this year and, possibly, the future) over the spring. With both sidelined by injuries, that contest never really got started, and both made the Opening Day roster. Duda has been given the first chance to seize hold of the job, with Davis reportedly being shopped. Until a definitive step is taken, that situation remains unclear; even if one or the other is sent packing, moreover, the other will still have much to prove.
 
In the early going, the biggest roster challenge that has arisen is certainly in the bullpen, which has had a rough start to the year. Young power arm Vic Black had been expected to seize a set-up role, but struggled so much in the spring that he was optioned to Triple-A. Then, closer Bobby Parnell suffered a partial tear of the MCL which will require Tommy John surgery. In the immediate term, the question becomes whether Valverde can fill in and whether the rest of the pen can hold things together. Though promotions for younger arms seems to be on the horizon, the Mets must balance their need at the big league level with the desire to keep the focus on an appropriate development timeline for its prospects.
 
Likewise, the starting rotation figures to see its share of flux over the course of the season. Jenrry Mejia got a crack at a role with a solid spring and a need for protection as Jon Niese works his way back, and could stick for the time being. But the 24-year-old has never thrown more than 108 2/3 frames in a professional season, and will certainly face a strict innings limit. Likewise, the pitchers waiting in the wings are not expected to be allowed to carry full starting loads over the entire season. While a late-season return for Harvey remains a theoretical possibility, the club will surely be hesitant to gamble with his future.
 
Deal of Note
 
Granderson unquestionably makes the club better now, but the deal carries some doubt when looked at from other angles. For one thing, the overall commitment is not dissimilar from that given Bay. While the struggles of Bay mean nothing for the outlook of Granderson, that fact illustrates the risk at hand. (Of course, it is fair to think that inflation makes the more recent deal a much-less-significant one in relative terms.) Likewise, the Mets' relatively early strike ended up looking more questionable when the dust finally settled on Nelson Cruz, who ultimately cost just $8MM. While he is a less flexible option, especially for a National League club, and has not matched Granderson's overall production, Cruz required less than 15% the total outlay that the Mets laid out.
 
Of course, the Mets may not have viewed a player like Cruz as a comparable option to Granderson, who the team obviously sees as a valuable long-term piece who fits its expected development arc. "It was what we had to do," said COO Jeff Wilpon. "It was something we wanted to do. It fit well with the plan. And it's a commitment on our part to have him around. He wanted to be around to see the team turn the corner and be a part of it moving forward." Likewise, Alderson cited Granderson's value in impacting the organization's culture. 

"No. 1, he brings a tremendous amount of professionalism," Alderson said. "He brings a personality. He brings credibility. He brings experience. And he brings talent. I think all of those things will be important. I really like the mix of players we have character-wise, personality-wise. I think he will enhance that mix. He's a gregarious, infectious personality."

Ultimately, the deal is not without its risks, but how many free agent contracts are? As Eno Sarris of Fangraphs argued in the aftermath of the signing, Granderson should be a solid-enough defender with a switch to the corner, should be able to stay valuable at the plate, and ultimately may not have received a "glaring overpay." If nothing else, of course, the signing represents the clearest sign that the Mets are ready to supplement their slate of attractive young arms with free agent spending, an important development for an organization that has been in a holding pattern while its owners dealt with the fallout of the Bernie Madoff scandal.

On the other hand, Granderson is already 33, missed much of last year due to wrist injuries, and has seen his strikeout percentage rise quite sharply in recent campaigns. In his limited action last year, Granderson's power dropped back significantly: he landed with a .178 ISO mark, after putting up .290 and .260 marks in 2011 and 2012, respectively. And Granderson, who has never reached base at a consistent clip, is carrying a sub-.320 OBP over the last two seasons. While baseball's inflationary environment means that the deal carries less relative risk than did the Bay contract, it could be that New York is spending a lot of money for a non-impact player who will be well on the decline by the time the team is ready to compete.

Overview

One could say that the team did not make enough of an immediate impact with its free agent signings to warrant the cost. After all, with Harvey out, a jump to playoff contention seems a tall order. But the Opening Day payroll is well shy of last year's tab, and New York can reasonably expect to be better. Given the restlessness of its fans and the organization's hope of building off of a young core to contention in the very near term, it made some sense to put a decent product on the field now while avoiding any truly massive deals that might have stung down the line. The question, of course, is whether that might have been accomplished at a cheaper price, and whether any of the recent commitments will have an impact on future needs.

At present, it is hard to view the Mets' offseason as being fully complete, in large part because major questions (with both short and long-term ramifications) are still open for answers. First base, shortstop, and the back of the bullpen could all see significant moves in the coming months. The true test of Alderson and his staff could well be yet to come, as he navigates the decisions at those spots, manages the team's young arms, and plots the final moves to ready the team for full-on contention.

Photo courtesy of Brad Barr/USA Today Sports Images.



Offseason In Review: Houston Astros

As their lengthy rebuild continued, the Astros added several veteran pieces and beefed up a payroll that had just one player earning $1MM or more at the end of the 2013 season.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

  • None

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Astros have finished with the game's worst record in each of the past three seasons, but despite that gloomy reality, they didn't enter the offseason with as many needs as one would think. Altuve and 2013 breakout catcher Jason Castro are locked into the lineup for the foreseeable future, and Jonathan Villar will get the opportunity to prove himself at shortstop while Houston awaits the arrival of former No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa. At third base, Matt Dominguez is certainly a player that the team likes (more on him in a bit), and a number of top prospects are nearing the Majors.

Fowler-Dexter-Astros

Houston entered the offseason with a clear need in the rotation, however, as none of its top pitching prospects are MLB-ready at the beginning of 2014. As such, GM Jeff Luhnow made a relatively large splash on the free agent market, adding Feldman on a three-year deal that exceeded my own expectations for the underrated right-hander. Feldman's career has been slowed by injuries — namely microfracture surgery on his right knee — but he's posted solid ground-ball rates and walk rates when healthy throughout his career. Paying him $10MM annually for his age-31 to age-33 seasons raised some eyebrows, but Feldman has the talent to make that look like a bargain if he can remain healthy.

Feldman will be trailed in the rotation by Jarred CosartBrett Oberholtzer, Lucas Harrell and Dallas Keuchel, but Luhnow and his staff also added some insurance by snatching up Williams after he was somewhat curiously non-tendered by the division-rival Angels. His modest $2.1MM salary wouldn't be detrimental to any club, and Williams can absorb some innings throughout the season as Houston looks to limit the workload of its young quartet of starters. Brad Peacock could also see some starts at some point this season, as he finished the 2013 campaign quite well as a part of the rotation (3.64 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings) and is a former Top 100 prospect with the A's.

The additions of Feldman and Williams should help a revamped bullpen lessen its workload, although the added quality to the relief corps could make the thought of overusing the 'pen in Houston a bit more tolerable. Last season, the Astros had the worst bullpen in the Majors, and no team was particularly close to their collective 4.92 ERA (the Mariners were second-worst at 4.58). If you think that's bad, their 5.09 FIP suggests things could've been even worse, and their 4.64 xFIP was 30 points higher than the next-worst unit (the Cubs). Qualls and Albers add veteran stability and a glut of ground-balls to the mix. Crain was one of baseball's best relievers in 2013 prior to getting hurt and could be a power arm to add to the closer mix when he returns from the DL in late April. Houston also pursued a reunion with former closer Jose Veras, though he ultimately signed with the Cubs. They may not have one of the best bullpens in the league, but there's no question that this group is improved.

Fowler's addition gives the club a productive veteran to slot at the top of an improving lineup, and he'll be controlled through the 2015 season via arbitration. He's not cheap ($7.35MM in 2014 plus one final arbitration raise next winter), which will lead some to speculate that he could become trade fodder with a solid performance in the season's first half. His career 12.3 percent walk rate and .365 OBP are attractive assets, even if one has to wonder how well he can handle Tal's Hill in center field at Minute Maid Park (defensive metrics regularly peg his glove in center as below average).

While the Astros didn't complete any extensions this offseason, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. Houston is still said to be working on long-term deals for Dominguez as well as left fielder Robbie Grossman, and the team made an eye-popping seven-year, $23MM contract offer to top prospect George Springer before he even set foot on Major League soil. Somewhat controversially, Springer was optioned to Triple-A to open the season, prompting many to criticize baseball's service time structure and prompting Springer's agents to consider a grievance. The question of course being: If Springer is good enough to merit a $23MM contract offer, why then, is he not good enough to open the season with the team? (The obvious answer is to gain additional years of team control by stashing him in the minor leagues, thereby delaying his service clock.)

Questions Remaining

For a team that accomplished quite a bit this offseason, there are still plenty of questions remaining. Such is the nature of existence as a team that could improve by 11 wins in 2014 and still lose 100 games. Not all of Cosart, Peacock, Harrell, Oberholtzer and Keuchel are going to be long-term fits in Houston's rotation; Mark Appel and Mike Foltynewicz are on the fast track to the Majors, and they'll look to claim two of those rotation spots, possibly as soon as this season. Cosart may have the inside track due to his former prospect status and strong finish in 2013, but the same could be said about Peacock, and Oberholtzer was also impressive down the stretch.

The Astros prioritized first base this winter but came up empty despite making a reportedly solid offer to James Loney, heavily pursuing Jose Abreu and Mike Morse while also expressing interest in names like Mike Carp on the trade market. Instead, the club is going with a patchwork solution at first, using a combination of Guzman, Chris Carter and Marc Krauss. That's not an inspiring trio, but they figure to be merely keeping the seat warm for top prospect Jonathan Singleton. He, however, will have to hit his way to the Majors after slumping in 2013 and struggling with substance abuse issues.

Mid-season extension talks clearly don't bother the Astros, as they hammered out a long-term deal for Altuve last summer. As such, they could look to do the same in 2014, continuing their negotiations with Dominguez, Grossman and Springer. Could they look to lock up Castro before he begins to become too expensive? I'd wager that they're interested in doing so after last year's breakout.

Also of critical importance to the Astros is their failing television deal with Comcast SportsNet Houston. Owner Jim Crane has filed a lawsuit against former owner Drayton McClane, Comcast and NBC, accusing the trio of fraud and civil conspiracy. The lawsuit also accuses McLane of selling "an asset (the network) they knew at the time to be overpriced and broken" and claims that Crane was provided with "knowing misrepresentations" and "falsely inflated subscription rates" prior to agreeing to the purchase. CSN Houston is available to only about 40 percent of Houston-area homes, thereby limiting the earning potential and hampering the Astros' future financial outlook. In February, a federal judge placed CSN Houston's parent company under federal bankruptcy protection.

Deal of Note

The Fowler trade was surprising to a number of people for a number of reasons. For one, it was strange to see a rebuilding team such as the Astros swing a deal for a pricey veteran center fielder with only two years of team control remaining. On the other side of the coin, many felt that the Rockies didn't receive much of a return on Fowler and should've cashed in that trade chip a year earlier with Fowler coming off of a monster 2012 season.

The key piece traded for Fowler was Lyles, a former supplemental-round draft pick that was rushed to the Majors at the age of 20 despite having fewer than 100 innings at Triple-A under his belt. Houston likely felt that it had the pitching depth to move Lyles, especially considering the fact that his strange handling will likely lead to Super Two status. thereby driving up his price tag.

If the Astros trade Fowler fora greater return or sign him to a long-term extension, the deal will make more sense. As it stands, it's a bit curious for a team in their position to trade away controllable assets for two years of an expensive veteran when the team is likely more than two years away from contention. While Lyles' prospect star has clearly fallen from the time when he was Baseball America's No. 42 prospect heading into the 2011 campaign, he's still posted a 2.24 K/BB ratio and 48.8 percent ground-ball rate in his career, and he's also seen his average velocity rise each season in the Majors (his fastball averaged 92.2 mph in 2013).

Overview

Overall, the biggest question for the Astros at this point is simply: When do the kids arrive? In Correa, Appel, Springer, Singleton and Foltynewicz (among others), Houston has an enviable crop of prospects that are nearly MLB-ready and could take the Lone Star State by storm in the near future. An arduous rebuild could be drawing close to an end, but while there's a light at the end of the tunnel, the Astros will be hard-pressed to climb out of the cellar in 2014. At the very least, they could be positioned for another No. 1 overall pick in 2015, giving them an unprecedented four consecutive No. 1 picks.

Photo courtesy of Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Oakland Athletics

Fresh off their second straight AL West Division Championship, the Athletics spent a significant amount of money to invest in what is now a stacked bullpen.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

  • Coco Crisp, OF: Two years, $22.75MM with a $13MM vesting option ($750K buyout).

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

After a disheartening defeat at the hands of Justin Verlander and the Tigers in the 2013 ALDS, the A's entered the offseason facing the reality that top starter Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour would likely command more dollars than the team was comfortable committing. The always active Billy Beane sought to fill these gaps on the free agent and trade markets, and baseball's most famous GM had one of his most active offseasons to date.

Kazmir-Scott-Athletics

Scott Kazmir (pictured) was signed to a two-year deal that was actually $2MM more expensive than the two-year, $20MM deal that Colon inked with the Mets, but Beane and his staff appeared more amenable to the risk associated with Kazmir's injury history than Colon's age. Kazmir comes with significant upside, as ERA estimators FIP, xFIP and SIERA all feel that his performance was more indicative of a 3.35 to 3.50 ERA than the 4.04 mark he finished with. Kazmir's 10.1 percent swinging-strike rate and 92.5 mph average fastball velocity both ranked in the Top 25 in baseball among pitchers with 150 or more innings pitched. He was sidelined with a minor triceps issue this spring, but looked to be in good form in his first outing of the year (7 1/3 shutout innings with 5 strikeouts, no walks, and just three hits).

Many expected Balfour to sign a two- or three-year deal with a significant average annual value this offseason. The A's likely thought the same and deemed it too rich for the their taste, though apparently only in terms of contract length and not AAV. Oakland acquired Jim Johnson in exchange for Jemile Weeks and David Freitas in what amounted to a salary dump designed to free up payroll for the Orioles. It wasn't exactly a move that most would expect of Beane and his regime, as Oakland has long subscribed to the theory that closers are made, not born. (Balfour himself had just eight career saves prior to signing with Oakland.) When the A's have spent on a closer, it's been a more modest annual investment, such as their two-year, $10.5MM deal with Brian Fuentes prior to the 2011 season.

As if adding Johnson's $10MM salary wasn't enough, the A's doubled down on expensive relievers by flipping Seth Smith to San Diego in order to acquire one of the NL's best setup men — Luke Gregerson. Each player had one year left on his deal, though Gregerson will end up earning roughly $750K more than Smith after agreeing to a one-year, $5.065MM deal to avoid arbitration.

After seeing their acquisition of Chris B. Young result in a mere .200/.280/.379 batting line, the A's looked elsewhere for a lefty-mashing fourth outfielder and acquired Craig Gentry in an intradivision trade with the Rangers. In Gentry, Oakland secured one of baseball's best defenders and fastest runners — two skills that typically aren't rewarded through arbitration. That was unequivocally apparent when Gentry's first trip through arbitration resulted in a $1.145MM salary despite a healthy 6.2 fWAR over the past two seasons. That's nearly $10MM less than Young earned in 2013; suffice it to say, while Michael Choice was a reasonably steep price to pay, Oakland greatly improved its outfield depth for the next three years in a way that won't cost them financially. By acquiring Lindblom in the deal, they also gained another bullpen arm or potential rotation option, which has proven to be crucial this spring (more on that later).

Beane also acquired some future upside, though it doesn't come without risk; in Drew Pomeranz, he landed a former No. 5 overall draft pick (by the Indians) who has yet to flourish in the Major Leagues despite reasonable success at the Triple-A level. Pomeranz has opened the season in the Oakland bullpen after a strong Spring Training. Also acquired was the speedster Billy Burns, whose 10 steals in 26 Spring Training contests drew comparisons to another fleet-footed Billy — Billy Hamilton. Burns has averaged 76 steals per 162 games in the minors and has a career .420 OBP, and he's likely not too far from Major League ready.

Questions Remaining

Beane and his staff were able to make all of these moves without losing too many of the major pieces from last year's club. The loss of Colon, in theory, will be offset by the acquisition of Kazmir. Johnson and Gregerson are designed to replace Balfour at the back end of the bullpen, and while the loss of Anderson defintely sent some talent out the door, he pitched just 44 2/3 sub-par innings last season in a year when the A's won 96 games.

The question, then, becomes just how much — if at all — the A's improved. It's certainly curious to see Oakland spend this type of money on its bullpen, given the team's modest payroll. In Johnson, Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty (who won't even pitch until midseason), the Athletics are spending more than $16MM. For a team that's in record-payroll territory despite an overall commitment of roughly $82MM, that's a significant amount of money to spend on late-inning relief.

Even before the benefit of hindsight regarding Jarrod Parker's Tommy John surgery, one could argue that some of those funds would have been better allocated to the starting rotation. Though Oakland starters finished ninth in the Majors in ERA last season, they finished 19th in FIP and 23rd in xFIP, and that was including the departed Colon. A full year of Sonny Gray will help those numbers, but a full season of Kazmir is far from a safe bet. Talented as Kazmir might be, he's topped 160 innings just twice in his career and logged 158 last season in his comeback with Cleveland. From a WAR standpoint, he may only need 250-300 innings to justify the value of his contract, but the A's are probably hoping for a higher total than that, which is no sure thing.

The question marks surrounding Kazmir's workload are magnified by the injuries to Parker and A.J. Griffin. Oakland has begun the season with Jesse Chavez in its rotation, and Lindblom has already been needed for a spot start. An early injury to Kazmir could push Lindblom into the rotation full-time and leave the club with little depth.

When everyone was healthy, adding two veteran starters might've seemed unnecessary, but perhaps they could have done so and moved a starter to address other needs. The team pursued a reunion with Tim Hudson this offseason and finished runner-up to the Giants; I wonder if foregoing the trade for Johnson could have left them with the financial wherewithal to add both Hudson and Kazmir.

That could've led to a trade to shore up their second base situation. For all of Eric Sogard's popularity — he nearly won the #FaceOfMLB contest this offseason due to his overwhelming popularity with the fans — the fact remains that he's a career .240/.295/.341 hitter. He and Punto provide strong defense at the keystone, and Sogard is a valuable member of the Oakland clubhouse, but a second base upgrade could have been beneficial. Had things shaken out differently, perhaps a second intra-division trade of the offseason could have been struck to add Nick Franklin to the fold. It won't be a surprise if the A's are in the market for a more potent bat up the middle this summer.

Deal of Note

While the Kazmir signing and the Johnson acquisition are both a bit out of character for the A's, perhaps the most interesting move the club made was its extension for Crisp. Beane and the A's are known for signing young, core players to long-term deals (and often trading them a few years into those deals), but an extension for a veteran player such as Crisp is of the utmost rarity for Oakland. The closest thing we've seen to a deal such as this one from Beane is Mark Ellis' two-year, $11MM signed following the 2008 season. Ellis was set to hit free agency following that season, while Crisp would've been a free agent following the 2014 season (Crisp's previous two-year deal with Oakland was signed in January 2012 as a free agent).

It's certainly a gamble, to an extent, on a 34-year-old whose game is largely based on speed, but Crisp has been worth at least two fWAR and 2.7 rWAR in each of his four seasons with Oakland. While he's not likely to play in 150 games per season, Crisp has been an underrated commodity in Oakland and should live up the value of his deal even when he faces some inevitable power regression (Crisp's average home run distance in 2013 was 353 feet, per BaseballHeatMaps.com, and Hit Tracker lumped eight of his 22 home runs from 2013 into the "Just Enough" category).

Overview

When coming off a 96-win season, it's difficult to find ways to definitively improve a club. Late injuries to Parker and Griffin have muddied the picture when looking at Oakland's roster, but heading into Spring Training, this looked to be a club that would challenge its record from 2013. Though the team could stand a few upgrades, Beane and his staff constructed a solid roster, top to bottom. It's possible that their spending spree on relievers was simply due to the fact that they had money to spend but so few glaring holes on the roster that they put the excess funds toward the only area that they felt needed a good deal of work.

The loss of Parker hurts, and Oakland has a lot of eggs in the fragile basket of Scott Kazmir's left arm. However, the club also has the depth to replace him, especially once Griffin returns to the mound. Injuries have ravaged the Rangers as well, somewhat lessening the blow of their own DL-related woes. While the Astros, Mariners and Angels all look to have improved, they're all still chasing the 2012-13 AL West Champions, and the A's figure to make a strong push for a divisional three-peat in 2014.

Photo courtesy of Ed Szczepanski/USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies brought in more veterans to supplement an already-aging core, and it is fair to wonder if the club is chasing good money after bad.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims 
Extensions
  • None
Notable Losses

Needs Addressed
 
Before addressing its roster, the Phillies set about formalizing what had already been expected: namely, that Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg would take over as the skipper after serving as interim manager for the tail end of 2013. Guaranteeing Sandberg three years, the club made a clear commitment to his efforts to increase the hustle of a veteran-laden ballclub.
 
In off-the-field matters, the organization wrapped up a substantial new TV deal that figures to provide it $2.5B (and more) in revenue over the next 25 years. As I explained shortly thereafter, that deal should allow the club to maintain its place among the game's highest-revenue clubs, though it does not promise to advance the Phils beyond the other upper-echelon clubs.
 
Turning to the club's player assets, as I wrote back in October, Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro Jr. faced a clear set of priorities, in the sense of roster areas where an MLB-ready player was needed. The club entered the offseason in the market for a corner outfielder, catcher, a couple of starters, and perhaps an arm for the bullpen.
 
Amaro tackled that list head on. He acted quickly to lock up a rejuvenated Byrd to play right field and to re-sign the longtime backstop Ruiz, plugging the two glaring holes in the everyday lineup. Having already decided to tender a contract to starter Kyle Kendrick, Amaro then rounded out the rotation by picking up a bounceback candidate in Hernandez and jumping on the opportunity to sign the aging-but-excellent Burnett. With several minor league signings to build out the team's bench options, the club wrapped up a straightforward offseason that — on its face — addressed most of the team's needs.
 
Questions Remaining
 
According to the thinking of Amaro, the big question facing this ballclub is simply the health of key players like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley. "If the club we believe is going to break camp is able to stay on the field, we're a contending team," Amaro said. "My job is for us to try to be a contending team every year. Our payroll should allow us to do that. We had a couple of crappy years because we couldn't get guys on the field and couldn't get the performances we're accustomed to. Doc Halladay not being healthy crushed us. It's not his fault. It's just part of the game. When it happens to guys you are counting on with huge contracts, you can't just buy your way out with mediocre players."
 
But is that really the case? Those three have been relatively healthy over the spring, with each getting at least 46 plate appearances in Grapefruit League action. Other expensive, older players like Ruiz, Byrd, Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon have not suffered any injury issues, while costly setup man Mike Adams seems to be progressing well in his return from injury.  
Ruiz
 
Nevertheless, questions persist. It remains difficult to see where the team will make up the production deficit that left it only about halfway to the WAR total posted by the lowest-level playoff teams in 2013.
 
To some extent, the continued uncertainty is due to bad luck, with injuries striking at the portion of the roster that was not considered most susceptible. One of the team's few seemingly sure things, co-ace Cole Hamels, has struggled to get off the ground in the spring. The so-far disappointing Cuban signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, along with important younger arms like Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin, have suffered shoulder problems as well. Various ailments have cropped up amongst some younger bench options like Darin Ruf and Freddy Galvis.
 
Of course, some share of the blame here must also go to the organization's general lack of depth. While the bullpen looks to be in decent shape, the paper-thin starting depth has left the club looking to O'Sullivan, Manship, and David Buchanan as possible rotation candidates. The bullpen includes out-of-nowhere youngster Mario Hollands. And the team was looking at filling out its bench with names like Abreu (the 40-year-old version) and Brignac (lifetime .221/.262/.311 hitter) before settling on Gwynn and dealing for Nix for the final slots.
 
Even if the once-great core of Howard, Rollins, Utley, and Ruiz finds the fountain of youth, and even if Byrd and Burnett can somehow maintain their own late-career surges at 37 and 36 years of age, respectively, it still is not clear that this team has the pieces to be a contender. Even the more promising, younger big leaguers have unanswered questions, ranging from Domonic Brown's defense to Ben Revere's ability to get on base.
 
The real question entering the offseason was never just about the health of guys who once led Philly to a World Series. And it was never about what positions on the field needed additions, which was obvious enough. Instead, the offseason posed the question of how those open slots would be filled.
 
As I wrote at the outset, the organization appeared to face a tough choice between aggressively buying or aggressively selling. Choosing once again to supplement its veteran core without changing the team's trajectory, I suggested, carried a significant risk of fielding an expensive, injury-prone, low-ceiling ballclub.
 
The decisions that were ultimately made — adding mostly mid-level free agents in their mid-to-late thirties on relatively short-term deals — carry precisely the risk that I noted. The club is carrying a record payroll. It is already riddled with injuries (and, more importantly, largely lacks the upper-level minor league talent to cover for those injuries), all before those players most susceptible have entered the grind of the season.  And projection systems and scouts alike have been down on the Phillies all spring.
 
One could say that the biggest question for the Phillies in 2014 is whether they can somehow find the fountain of youth that seems necessary to get prime-level production from their many post-prime (albeit still-talented) players. But it may be that the true question facing Philadelphia is simply when it will begin to sell off pieces. 
 
Amaro seems to appreciate that the time may come for a teardown — he said recently that, if the team does not win, he will need to "figur[e] out what's the transition move." But it is eminently arguable both that the team should already have some plan in place, and that the point for action has already been reached. (When asked if he ha a "disaster plan" in place, Amaro said his "thought process is to stay positive," while acknowledging that, "we also can't be so blinded to the fact that if this doesn't work out we're going to have to make some tough decisions.")
 
To be fair, the Phillies are already said to have tried and failed to move Papelbon and Rollins. The latter has once again become the subject of some trade speculation after apparently landing in Sandberg's just-constructed doghouse. And the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino show that Amaro is willing to deal away veteran talent. (Of course, those may or may not have been the right pieces to move. In the above-cited piece, Amaro said he would "probably not" handle things differently in retrospect and explained that he believes "they were more solid complementary players than superstars.")
 
But as things stand, several of the team's contracts seem completely immovable, others would require Philly to eat significant chunks of the future outlay, and virtually all are complicated by the generous no-trade protection that the team included. If Amaro finally comes around to what many observers have suggested — looking to offload some of the club's worst contracts for whatever prospects and/or salary relief he can find — it may be difficult for him to find much value at all in return.
 
Deal of Note
 
It is difficult to choose a single deal to highlight, because essentially all of the Phillies' offseason moves seem predicated on roughly the same idea of adding support pieces to an existing core. But the Ruiz deal comes with the most risk (and, in some ways, the most upside). A brief scroll through MLBTR's list of catcher contracts of three or more years reveals that none of those players were anywhere near Ruiz's age (35) when they inked their deals. And Ruiz is coming off of a clear down year, with concerns ranging from health to performance.
 
But the real issue is not how this deal will look if it does not pan out, but how it will look even if it does. Will the 2016 Phillies have a need for a 37-year-old Ruiz? 
 
The Ruiz contract marries Amaro's commitment to the players most closely tied to the Phils' former glory and his recent tact of spending large but not monumental sums of money on aging complementary pieces. Last year, of course, Adams and Michael Young were the two key additions, along with the younger Revere, with Lannan, Delmon Young, and Chad Durbin all getting guaranteed deals as well. While Byrd and, especially, Burnett are much more significant upgrades, the rest of the roster is all a year older now.
 
It remains to be seen whether the club can make one or two more runs at glory, but it seems a near certainty that the longer it waits to reload — instead spending cash and adding players to try to field a winner — the more painful that process will be.
 
Conclusion
 
It is hard to argue with Amaro's core thesis: "My job is for us to try to be a contending team every year. Our payroll should allow us to do that." Whatever else one may say about the embattled GM, he (and, perhaps more importantly, team ownership) have shown every willingness to plunk down serious coin to deliver a winner. One result, of course, was a great run of division titles and a championship.
 
But the World Series win came in 2008, and the last division title was had in 2011. The NL East belongs now to the Nationals and Braves, with the Marlins and Mets both showing signs of future health. Philadelphia is caught in the middle, and seems to have ground to make up after only recently delving into modern analytics.
 
Fortunes can change quickly, of course, and the Phillies have the financial clout to effect a quick turnaround. But what model are they following? Last year's Red Sox had already taken a heavy dose of pain in dealing away their big contracts. This year's Yankees spent an immense amount of money in an effort to buy their way out of their own declining roster logjam, locking up nine players at an average annual value of $16.24MM. Philadelphia signed five players for eight total years at an AAV of just $7.95MM, with the average age of those player-seasons falling just shy of 36.
 
Until the Phils choose a strategy that offers a clear path forward, the organization faces the risk of a continued slide not only in the standings but also in the attendance rankings. The difficulty, of course, comes in deciding upon that strategy. The Cubs' recent experience shows that a full rebuild can be quite painful, even for a team with resources.
 
So, what should the Phillies have done this past offseasion and what is the path forward? I won't claim to know the answers to either question. It could be that there is little value to be had in shipping out the team's most undesirable contracts and that the team's recent commitments won't hamstring future spending. But I can't help but feel that a more decisive direction would have better served the club. Trading Lee, Utley, and/or Rollins while foregoing Byrd, Ruiz, and/or Burnett might have brought back some young talent and built up the organizational war chest to be an opportunistic buyer of high-priced, somewhat younger players. Alternatively, adding a longer-term, impactful free agent or two (players like Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo, and Matt Garza would have been fits) might have made the team a likelier contender in the near-term. Either way, the club would be headed somewhere; as presently constituted, it seems stuck in neutral while carrying the league's third-highest payroll.
 
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Atlanta Braves

After a quiet start, the Braves made a fascinating play to lock up multiple young stars, then reacted boldly when two top pitchers were lost to their second UCL tears.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed
 
It is not often that a division-winning ballclub exits an offseason with more needs than when it entered it, but that seems to be the case to some extent in Atlanta. Of course, that is probably not the fault of the Atlanta front office, which seemed to have pretty well wrapped up its offseason affairs when two key pitchers — Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy — were deemed in need of a second Tommy John procedure.
Santana
 
Fortunately, one very appealing arm — the draft compensation-bound Santana — remained unsigned. Rather than pay a high cost in MLB-ready prospects while taking on salary through a trade, GM Frank Wren made the seemingly wise decision to snatch up Santana one a one-year deal at the value of the qualifying offer, giving up the club's first overall choice (26th overall) in the process. 
 
But having already committed to pay Medlen ($5.8MM) and Beachy ($1.45MM) for the coming season, there was probably only so much that Wren could do at that point. Rather than making another significant addition that might have offset the loss of those two arms, Wren simply shipped out one aging veteran (Garcia) in favor of another (Harang) in a move that seemed motivated as much by possible cost-savings as anything else. In the end, the team will still move forward with a rotation that will ultimately feature some good arms in Santana, Teheran, Mike Minor, and Alex Wood while awaiting the anticipated mid-season return of Floyd. David Hale represents another internal option for the club.
 
Going into the offseason, the largest hole seemed to have been created by the departure of longtime backstop McCann. Short of re-signing him, there was little that could have been done to replace his overall production. Atlanta will go with a promotion of last year's miracle story, Evan Gattis, who will be joined behind the plate by Gerald Laird and (to a lesser extent) trade acquisition Doumit, who figures primarily to serve as a bench bat. Of course, this group figures to be a hold-over while Christian Bethancourt finishes his development in Triple-A.
 
The biggest moves of the offseason for Atlanta did nothing to impact the club's present construction. As I wrote back in September, the club had a broad group of outstanding arb-eligible and pre-arb talent that looked prime for extensions. As I explained then, Wren had not extended a single player who had less than five years of MLB service time at the time of the deal during his entire tenure as GM. 
 
Things kicked off, we now know, with the surprise announcement that the Braves had reached agreement on a new stadium deal that created new revenue opportunities. The impact of that agreement became clear only after the dust settled on a flurry of extensions that drastically changed the club's long-term complexion. First baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, starter Julio Teheran, and closer Craig Kimbrel were all given lengthy new deals. When combined with the two-year contract for outfielder Jason Heyward, which did not extend team control, the total guarantees reached $280.7MM — quite a sum for the conservative-spending franchise.  
 
Questions Remaining
 
Driven by the ongoing rotation issues noted above, the organization's overall pitching depth could be tested in 2013. Atlanta has other starting options behind those already touched upon, but most come without the prospect pedigree or experience that would inspire confidence. Hale is a well-regarded youngster who will start out in the rotation. Otherwise, after sending out Gilmartin in the Doumit deal, the Braves will be left to pull from upper-minor arms like Cody Martin, Yunesky Maya, and Aaron Northcraft
 
The key pieces of the bullpen from last year remain in place, led by Kimbrel. The four most-used set-up relievers from last year — Anthony Varvaro, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, and Luis Avilan — all return as well. But the Braves lost the services of their three next most tapped bullpen arms, with Luis Ayala and Scott Downs leaving via free agency and Cory Gearrin going down with the team's third notable UCL tear. Atlanta also said goodbye to the Tommy John-recovering O'Flaherty, once a staple at the back of the pen. Filling in those innings in middle relief, at least to start the year, are a trio of rookies: Ian Thomas, Ryan Buchter, and Gus Schlosser. Thomas and Buchter join Avilan as lefties in the pen, at least until the club receives a boost from a couple of southpaws working back from elbow injuries in Jonny Venters and the recently-signed Luis Perez. Of course, the Braves will hope to move Hale into a pen role if they can gather up enough healthy starters, and can still turn to some of the arms who lost the battle over the final slots during the spring.

Otherwise, the major concerns for Atlanta are those that the team expected to face going into the year. Will high-dollar veterans B.J. Upton (center field) and Dan Uggla (second base) do enough to justify regular roles, if not their contracts?  If not, the team may be forced to turn to other, far-from-certain options (such as Jordan Schafer and Tommy La Stella) to supplement or replace those veterans. Will the Gattis/Laird combination behind the dish be serviceable over a full season, and/or can Bethancourt force his way into the bigs? And can Chris Johnson approximate his surprising 2013 at third? 

Deal of Note
 
While it is tempting to highlight one of the team's newly-minted extensions, it is tough to pick just one: big dollars for the game's best closer and best defensive shortstop? A $135MM contract for a young first baseman that has meaning for the broader extension market? As bold a stroke as were those successive contracts, however, another signing was an even greater departure for a front office and ownership that has kept a tightly-controlled budget: the signing of Santana.
 
For a team that has experienced its share of disappointment in reaching and advancing through the post-season in recent seasons, and had carefully planned its expenditures to keep together a strong core for years of contention to come, the sudden loss of two key rotation members posed a dilemma. Adding Santana tacked on an additional 14% in payroll on top of the team's prior commitments for the year, bringing the final tab to a new team record of over $112MM for direct player obligations.
 
That expenditure carries no future benefits, of course, and required the sacrifice of the 26th overall pick in the upcoming amateur draft. (Though Atlanta may hope to recoup that pick next year, if Santana declines a qualifying offer from the club.) Fans wondering whether the organization would extend payroll when needed to put a winner on the field may have their answer, and that stroke — along with the team's somewhat controversial new park and sizeable new long-term commitments — is cause for optimism (both this year and moving forward) from a competitive perspective.
 
Conclusion
 
Somewhat like the World Series champion Red Sox, the Braves did not allow a successful 2013 season to deflect the club from its broader plans for building and maintaining a competitive roster. Though exception was made to bring in Santana at the last minute, Atlanta charted a course of supplementing its current roster construction and developing its player assets for future seasons. While some believe that the club is a less likely champion this year than it might have hoped to be coming into the 2014 season, it nevertheless has the pieces both to challenge for the division and make the post-season run that has been so elusive in recent memory.
 
Image courtesy of Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images

Offseason In Review: Toronto Blue Jays

After a very quiet offseason, the Blue Jays will rely on internal replacements and hope for better health in order to get back on track in 2014.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

After star prospect Travis d'Arnaud was traded to the Mets as part of the R.A. Dickey trade, it seemed like J.P. Arencibia had a clear path as the Blue Jays' regular catcher for years to come.  Instead, Arencibia wasn't even tendered a contract following a disastrous 2013 campaign that saw him hit only .194/.227/.365 with 148 strikeouts over 497 PA, not to mention below-average defensive statistics.

To fill the hole behind the plate, the Jays made Dioner Navarro their only notable free agent acquistion of the offseason, signing the veteran to a two-year, $8MM contract.  Navarro's last starting role came with the Rays from 2007-09, and he served as a backup from 2010-12 with the Rays, Dodgers and Reds before enjoying a solid season with the Cubs in a platoon with Welington Castillo last year.  The switch-hitting Navarro hit .300/.365/.492 with about three-quarters of his 266 plate appearances coming against right-handed pitching, even though he performed much better against southpaws (and over his career, has a .778 OPS against lefties and just a .650 OPS against righties).

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Navarro will get the bulk of playing time against both types of opposing pitchers as backup Josh Thole will largely be limited to games when Dickey is on the mound.  Thole's experience with the knuckleball helped him keep the backup job over new acquisition Erik Kratz, despite Kratz swinging a red-hot bat during Spring Training.  No matter how the catching situation ends up shaking out, it almost can't help being an area of improvement given that Toronto catchers combined for -1.2 fWAR last season.

As expected, the Blue Jays exercised their team options on Adam Lind ($7MM) and Casey Janssen ($4MM), bringing the club's primary DH and closer back for another season.  The Jays also picked up Mark DeRosa's $750K option, but the veteran instead decided to retire.  Toronto fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki was also re-signed on a minor league deal and he'll begin 2014 at Triple-A Buffalo.

Questions Remaining

Last September, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos cited his team's starting rotation as "the most glaring hole on this team and that’s the most glaring area we need to address."  With Opening Day upon us, the Jays begin the 2014 season having added not a single notable starting pitching option to the roster.  The most notable arm Toronto signed this winter ended up being Roy Halladay, who inked a one-day ceremonial contract so he could officially retire as a Blue Jay.

Anthopoulos ultimately didn't find any rotation help despite exploring several avenues for pitching upgrades.  He almost finalized a trade with the Athletics that would've seen reliever Sergio Santos go to Oakland in exchange for left-hander Brett Anderson, but there was enough uncertainty over the oft-injured Anderson's health that the Jays eventually backed away (the A's later dealt Anderson to the Rockies).  The Jays explored trading for Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija, though the Cubs' demands for both Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez ended negotiations.  There were talks between the Jays and Masahiro Tanaka's representatives, yet Toronto didn't submit a $20MM bid to officially negotiate with the Japanese ace.

Toronto holds both a protected top-10 draft pick (ninth overall) and a bonus selection (at 11th overall) for failing to sign top choice Phil Bickford last summer.  Owning a pair of top-11 picks could've made the club more open to giving up their second-rounder to sign a free agent starter with draft compensation attached, yet this perceived advantage in the free agent pitching market never materialized for the Jays.  They targeted available pitchers with draft compensation attached (Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez) or without (A.J. Burnett, Bronson Arroyo), but didn't make any deals.

As Anthopoulos explained to the media prior to Spring Training, the Jays simply weren't willing to pay a big price (either money-wise or player-wise in trades) since the club already felt it had quality rotation options in the organization:

“We wanted to add to the rotation, to add depth. But again, where some of the price points were, whether it was years or dollars or some of the acquisition costs in trades, I wouldn’t have felt good standing in a scrum and saying ‘We didn’t believe in the acquisition cost, we just did it but we don’t feel good about it.’ You need to feel good about those moves.”

“A guy like Drew [Hutchison] is not proven or established but you’re ultimately weighing how much better will these other guys be? Certainly they’re more established. But then you start talking about that many more years and that many more dollars. Does it make sense to do that? If we didn’t have guys we felt were talented and could contend for those (rotation) spots and could end up putting together good seasons for us, we might have said we’re going to go well beyond where we want to go (on free agents) because we have to."

Hutchison posted a 4.60 ERA (4.03 xFIP, 4.09 SIERA) with a 2.45 K/BB rate and a 7.5 K/9 in his 2012 rookie season before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of that year.  He returned to pitch in 10 minor league games last season and, after an impressive Spring Training, earned himself a spot in Toronto's rotation.  J.A. Happ had been penciled into a rotation spot but suffered through a rough spring and is now on the DL, leaving long-time Blue Jay Dustin McGowan as the current fifth starter.

Given McGowan's lengthy injury history and Hutchison's short track record, this wasn't the rotation overhaul that the Toronto fanbase was hoping for back in October.  Anthopoulos' strategy seemed to be using the qualifying offer system to his advantage, waiting until the asking prices for pitchers like Jimenez and Santana had been drastically reduced, and then sign one (or even both) at a team-friendly cost.

The strategy seemingly almost worked in Santana's case.  The veteran righty had reportedly agreed to a contract with Toronto, but, before he took his physical with the Jays and officially signed his deal, the Braves made a late offer and Santana instead signed a one-year, $14.1MM contract to go to Atlanta.  (Anthopoulos hinted that this was the timeline of events in a recent interview with the Toronto Star.)  This scenario outlines the risk that Anthopoulos took in playing the waiting game, as the Braves weren't even in the market for pitching until Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen both underwent season-ending Tommy John surgeries.

Beyond pitching, the Jays did nothing to address their hole at second base.  The team explored a big splash at the position in Ian Kinsler, though talks with the Rangers never turned into anything serious, especially since Texas asked for Edwin Encarnacion.  (As it happened, the Rangers indeed landed their desired slugging first baseman for Kinsler when they swapped him to the Tigers for Prince Fielder.)

With no notable new faces, the Jays look to be going with the unheralded Ryan Goins as the primary second baseman, with Maicer Izturis getting the bulk of starts against left-handed pitching.  Goins projects as a below-average hitter (a .679 OPS in 418 Triple-A plate appearances, and a .609 OPS in 121 PA with the Jays last season) but will provide value with his glove if he displays the same excellent defense he showed in 2013.  Izturis, meanwhile, is looking to rebound from a dreadful -0.9 rWAR season.  The second base situation looks to be below-average at best, and perhaps the weakest position on any contending team at worst.

For a team coming off two injury-plagued seasons in a row, the Jays have very little depth.  Valuable backup outfielder and stolen base threat Rajai Davis departed for a two-year contract with the Tigers, and the Jays' four current bench players are either coming off terrible seasons (Izturis, Thole) or are unproven commodities (Kratz, Moises Sierra).  This is an under-the-radar deficiency that leaves the Jays particularly reliant on good health, especially considering that their four AL East rivals are regularly able to find production from bench players and minor league signings.

It was also a quiet winter for the Blue Jays on the extension front.  Colby Rasmus is the team's most prominent extension candidate as he enters his last year under contract, yet Anthopoulos said the team is comfortable waiting until later in the season to decide about offering the center fielder a new deal.  Rasmus was reportedly on the trade market for pitching this offseason, so it seems like the Jays aren't totally sold on him as a long-term piece (or they don't think he'll re-sign).

Deal Of Note

Casey Janssen doesn't have the eye-popping fastball or strikeout numbers that usually mark a top closer, yet he has excelled in the role since taking over as closer during the 2012 season.  Janssen has quietly been one of baseball's best relievers over the last three seasons, posting a 2.46 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 4.47 K/BB in 172 IP between 2011-13, and notching 56 saves in 2012-13.  With this track record, picking up a $4MM team option on Janssen's services for 2014 was a no-brainer for the Blue Jays. 

The righty's name didn't surface in any trade rumors this winter, as while a number of teams were looking for ninth-inning help, the closer market was rich with several experienced free agent names.  This isn't to say that Toronto would've wanted to trade Janssen anyway — it was Santos, after all, who was almost dealt twice (once for Anderson, and once as part of a three-team deal involving the Rangers).  The Jays' deep bullpen has a few potential closing options waiting in the wings, so if the team falls out of the race by midseason, Janssen could be a name to watch at the trade deadline.  Santos will get an early shot at saves since Janssen will begin the season on the DL with a back strain.

Overview

In a way, Anthopoulos took a lesser risk in swinging those major trades with the Marlins and Mets in the 2012-13 offseason than he did in making virtually no moves this past winter.  Nobody expected the Jays to generate as many headlines this offseason as they did with last year's blockbusters, yet it was a surprise to see the club do so little to address what are still major question marks at second base and in the rotation.

Anthopoulos denied speculation from the media (and agent Scott Boras) that Rogers Communications, the team's ownership group, was limiting payroll.  While nobody expected the Jays to have another $35.5MM payroll boost, only the Pirates spent less on free agents than the Jays did this winter.  Since Toronto also didn't add any big salaries in trades or via contract extensions, the team was significantly outpaced by all four of its division rivals in terms of winter spending, even the small-market Rays.

Rather than a lack of funds, it would seem that Anthopoulos simply couldn't connect on most of the moves he wanted to make this offseason.   Will the lack of transactions keep the team in the AL East basement?  As I wrote in my Toronto offseason outlook last October, "the Jays believe they already have the nucleus of a winning team….the Blue Jays may not be as far away from contention as they seem if they get some good health luck," so just getting the first-choice lineup on the field might be the biggest key to the season.

That, of course, is easier said that done.  The Jays had the second-most DL stints of every team in baseball last year, and the fourth-most player days lost to the disabled list altogether.  They have a veteran team with an overall checkered injury history, and the team plays its home games on an artificial surface.  While it's likely Toronto will cut down on injuries just by avoiding flukes (i.e. Melky Cabrera's spinal tumor), the lack of roster depth means that the Jays' season could essentially be ruined by one major injury.

The Blue Jays certainly aren't perceived to be World Series contenders as they were a year ago (though many of the same faces are returning), yet on paper they're also better than their 74-88 record from last season.  Even an average performance from the rotation will get the Jays back over the .500 mark, but challenging for a playoff spot in a stacked division will be a taller order.

Photo courtesy of Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images


Offseason In Review: Washington Nationals

After adding an impact starter and a few veteran pieces, the Nats will look to make a strong run at a division title after falling short in 2013.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
Extensions
Notable Losses

Needs Addressed
 
This is what things look like when an organization makes a few tweaks to an already-strong roster. Returning the vast majority of last year's disappointing second-place club — most of whom were part of the core of the team that won the NL East in 2012 — the Nationals had few areas of real need.
 
First and foremost, the club needed to resolve its managerial situation after the venerable Davey Johnson followed through on retiring after the year. GM Mike Rizzo narrowed things down to familiar options, ultimately choosing longtime major leaguer Matt Williams to take over as a rookie skipper. In addition to his reputation for intensity, Williams brings a dedication to employing an analytical approach to defense with him to D.C.
 
On the roster, a few problem areas from 2013 looked prime for new acquisitions. Rizzo had already begun re-working his bench late last season, adding Scott Hairston to the mix. And he acted even more decisively on the free agent market, making a significant commitment to Nate McLouth to draw the speedy left-handed hitter into a reserve role when he might have found a more regular gig elsewhere. Then, with just days to go before Opening Day, the club added Phillies castoff Kevin Frandsen to play a utility infielder role. Beyond that, the organization has former starter Danny Espinosa working as the primary middle-infield backup, with options like first baseman Tyler Moore, shortstop Zach Walters, catchers Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, outfielders Eury Perez and Steven Souza, and the versatile Jeff Kobernus stashed away in Triple-A.
 
The second major roster construction issue that raised concerns last year was the team's lack of left-handed relief options. After letting three southpaw relievers leave for MLB deals elsewhere, the Nats opened with just one ineffective option (Zach Duke) and ultimately struggled to find southpaws that Johnson felt comfortable using for key outs in late innings. While Rizzo explored the free agent market, he found prices to be out of control. Instead, he pursued a familiar trade route, picking up two years of control over the affordable Blevins in exchange for the breakout prospect Burns, who did not have much of an organizational role in a Nationals system that features several other speedy outfielders. (Depth options include Xavier Cedeno and Mike Gonzalez, from the left side. Rookie Aaron Barrett will join an otherwise set bullpen from the right side, with Ryan Matteus, Christian Garcia, Manny Delcarmen, and Josh Roenicke among the righty relievers in the minors.)
 
The organization employed a similar tact in filling its open reserve catching spot, dealing from a position of depth (young, MLB-ready pitching) to bring in the relatively youthful and affordable Jose Lobaton, who comes with four years of team control. Though sacrificing a good arm in Nate Karns was not easy to do, the Nats were able to recoup prospect value by adding two well-regarded pieces who had off years in Rivero and Vettleson.
 
Trading on changes in perceived prospect value appears to have become one of Rizzo's calling cards, and that was never on display more than in the signature move of the Nats' offseason. In a deal that drew rave reviews from all quarters, the Nationals added a quality, affordable starting pitcher in Fister for the seemingly low price of young lefties Robbie Ray and Ian Krol along with utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi. Fister has been one of the most productive starters in the game in recent seasons, should benefit from playing in front of a better defensive infield given his strong ground ball tendencies, and is set to earn just $7.2MM this year before reaching his final year of arbitration in 2015.
 
As I noted in my outlook post for the Nats, the rotation was the area that seemed mostly likely for the team to make a truly impactful addition, with young arms and bats available to be dangled in a possible trade. Of course, it seemed unlikely that Washington would give up its few premium-level youngsters, which made it all the more surprising when the club was able to land two years of Fister without doing so. Though seemingly minor injuries appear to have the generally durable righty pegged for a DL trip to start the year, his addition remains a clear coup for Rizzo.
 
Questions Remaining
 
How things shape up at the back of the rotation remains to be seen, though the team has given some answers by moving Ross Detwiler to the pen, where he should have a chance to be quite a force. Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark remain locked in competition for the fifth starter's slot, though that battle now figures to extend into the regular season with Fister slowed in his build-up and dealing with elbow and lat issues.
 
Of course, if Fister (or another starter) were to miss a more significant amount of time, the questions would begin to become somewhat more pressing. While the Nats have about as much depth as one could hope for — presumably, Detwiler could move back into the rotation, giving the team seven reasonably attractive options to start the year — there is less behind that group than there was going into the offseason. Karns and Ray were probably the most advanced of the team's remaining rotation arms, Ross Ohlendorf is now on the 60-day DL, and the best-looking minor league signee, Chris Young, has signed with the Mariners.
 
Of greater consequence, though, are the mid-term strategic decisions facing the front office. The club did complete extensions with shortstop Ian Desmond and starter Jordan Zimmermann, but they were not quite as long as might have been hoped. Though the pair of two-year deals avoid arbitration battles this year and next while providing some cost deferral and certainty, they did not extend team control. It remains a pressing issue for the team to sort out how it will manage its young core as it nears free agency. (The division-rival Braves, of course, just resolutely dealt with their own, similar situation by locking up four key players to long-term deals.)
 
On the field, there are perhaps two situations most worth watching for the Nationals. At the corner infield, rumblings have persisted about the possibility of Ryan Zimmerman moving across the diamond to play first. While it appears that nothing is imminent, you can expect increasing chatter if Zimmerman's throwing woes and/or LaRoche's struggles at the plate carry over from last year.
 
Likewise, another free agent signing made last year — the partially deferred, two-year, $28MM pact given to closer Rafael Soriano — could carry intrigue in 2013. To begin, Soriano's 2015 option would vest if he finishes 62 games in the coming season (he finished a career-high 58 last year). More importantly, perhaps, is what would happen if the 34-year-old's evident decline worsens. Though he ended up with a solid 3.11 ERA last year, Soriano saw declines in his fastball velocity, swinging-strike percentage, and strikeout rates. (Though we all know that spring stats are not to be trusted, Soriano has been hit hard, though he has also struck out eight and walked none in 4 2/3.) If things don't go well, the presence of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in the pen could lead to some difficult decisions that the club would rather not deal with.
 
Deal of Note
 
Widely praised around the industry, the trade for Doug Fister just made a ton of sense for the Nationals. As I wrote at the time of the trade, the timing of the deal (in several different respects) allowed Rizzo to achieve outstanding value. And as I argued later, adding Fister delivered significant hidden value to the Nats because he gives the team an alternative extension candidate, provides a hedge against injury in the mid-term, and creates significant flexibility for a club looking ahead at numerous rich man's problems. 
 
Of course, Fister's injury issues this spring could be cause for a healthy pump of the brakes on the celebration. Pitchers break, of course, even when they have thrown a lot of innings without significant injury concerns. It could be that Fister misses a few starts and comes back fine, but there is reason for some concern now that a reportedly tight elbow has given way to a lat issue. While these matters could ultimately downgrade what Washington is able to achieve from the swap, it does not change the calculus that made it a good call for Rizzo in the first place.
 
Conclusion
 
It appears to have been a strong and balanced offseason from the Nats. Needs were addressed without giving up the team's best young talent or taking on onerous long-term obligations, and the players acquired all figure still to be in or around their prime. Meanwhile, Rizzo continued to trade away prospects whose value has risen based on recent performance history while nabbing those whose stock has fallen. That strategy has worked out beautifully with respect to the haul from the Michael Morse trade (A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, Krol), though it remains to be seen whether Rivero and Vettleson will make up for the loss of Karns, whether Ray will turn into a strong big leaguer, and whether Burns will have an impact in Oakland.
 
Everything looks pretty good for the Nationals, but that was the case last year, as well. Though the team's core is young enough to envision a large contention window, the opportunity for winning before difficult choices have to be made on new contracts for some of those players actually probably ends this year. Regardless of how the year goes, it will be fascinating to see how Rizzo navigates the contract situations of players like Desmond, Zimmermann, Fister, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper over the coming years.

Offseason In Review: Boston Red Sox

The World Series champions will use some of their well-regarded young prospects to fill holes left by a pair of notable departed free agents.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The heralded 2012-13 Red Sox offseason not only gave the Sox the depth they needed to capture last year's World Series, but also left the team with relatively little to do this winter besides discuss extensions with two long-time franchise stars and address four major free agents.

The one of the four free agents who did re-sign was the one perhaps most vocal about his desire to return to Boston.  Mike Napoli received at least one three-year offer from another team, but instead accepted a two-year, $32MM deal to remain as the Sox first baseman.  The Red Sox did explore other first base options, most notably chasing Jose Dariel Abreu before Abreu ultimately signed with the White Sox.

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It's worth noting that, of the positions played by the free agent quartet, first base was the only one that didn't have a Major League-ready prospect on the horizon or ready for 2014.  The Sox likely would've found a right-handed hitter to platoon with Mike Carp at first had Napoli gone elsewhere, but still, it could be argued that Napoli was the free agent that was most necessary to re-sign for the short term.

Speaking of prospects, with Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez scheduled to arrive within the next couple of seasons, the Red Sox were only comfortable bringing back catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia for two years at the most.  As such, Saltalamacchia took more security in the form of a three-year, $21MM deal from the Marlins, leaving Boston in need of a short-term starter behind the plate.  The solution ended up being a one-year, $8.25MM contract for A.J. Pierzynski.  The veteran pairing of Pierzynski and David Ross will handle the catching duties for 2014; Vazquez had an impressive Spring Training and could have the early lead on the 2015 job if he performs well at Triple-A Pawtucket this season.

There were rumors that Boston could look to trade from its starting pitching depth given that the club entered the offseason with six starters for five rotation spots, plus swingman Brandon Workman and top prospects who have already gotten a taste of the bigs like Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster.  Ryan Dempster's decision not to pitch in 2014, however, ended those rumors.  Rather than dip into their younger depth options, the Sox acquired another veteran in left-hander Chris Capuano, who will serve as a reliever and spot starter.

Capuano also adds a southpaw bullpen arm to replace Matt Thornton, whose $6MM team option was declined by the Sox in November.  Boston addressed the pen by trading for groundball specialist Burke Badenhop and signing righty Edward Mujica, who performed well for a time as the Cardinals' closer last year but will return to his usual setup role in backing up Koji Uehara.

While the Red Sox will go young to replace Jacoby Ellsbury and (the likely departed) Stephen Drew, that didn't stop them from adding some veteran depth in Grady Sizemore and Jonathan Herrera.  While Herrera seems clearly tabbed for a utility infield role, Sizemore's strong Spring Training may have earned him at least a share of the starting center field job.  If Sizemore stays healthy and performs at even a fraction of his 2005-08 form, the Sox will have found another incredible bargain given that Sizemore is only guaranteed $750K for the season (though with $5.25MM in incentives).

David Ortiz has been vocal about the lack of long-term security in his last couple of contracts (a one-year deal for 2012 and a two-year deal covering 2013-14) but the franchise icon could now remain in Boston through his age-41 season thanks to a new extension.  The deal is officially a one-year extension through 2015 but an $11MM option for 2016 will vest if Ortiz reaches at least 425 PA in 2015, plus there's a team option for 2017 as well.  While it wouldn't be a shock if a 38-year-old slugger suddenly declined, Ortiz still looks as dangerous as ever, as his .959 OPS and World Series MVP trophy would indicate.

Questions Remaining

The Red Sox at least explored re-signing Ellsbury, but since they weren't keen on going beyond five years or more than $100MM, the club didn't come close to the seven-year, $153MM contract that Ellsbury received from the Yankees.  While it remains to be seen if Ellsbury will stay productive over the life of that deal, his loss is a double short-term blow for Boston.  Not only did the Sox lose one of their best players to their AL East arch-rivals, their planned replacement (Jackie Bradley Jr.) hasn't lived up to expectations in Spring Training.

Bradley, who turns 24 in April, has a .297/.404/.471 line over 989 minor league PA and is regarded as an excellent defender.  While he only had a .617 OPS in 107 PA in his Major League debut last season, Bradley is still considered one of the game's top 100 prospects (ranked 33rd by MLB.com, 50th by Baseball America, 51st by ESPN's Keith Law) and he was expected to get the lion's share of playing time as Boston's new center fielder this season. 

Instead, however, Bradley's struggles during the spring have allowed Sizemore a chance at the job — center field becomes a question mark either way, given that Bradley is unproven and Sizemore hasn't played a professional game since 2011.  Shane Victorino could potentially play center in a pinch with Mike Carp taking over in right, or the Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes platoon could shift from LF to RF with Carp playing left field, or Nava could play center while Carp replaces him in the platoon with Gomes.  Such a shakeup seems unlikely, however, as it would weaken the outfield defense.

The left side of the Red Sox infield will be manned by Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third, as the club hopes that the former will live up his high prospect pedigree and the latter will find consistency in his third Major League season.  Baseball America, Law and MLB.com all rank Bogaerts as the sport's #2 prospect and the 21-year-old has already made an impact with the Sox, posting an .893 OPS in 34 postseason PA and taking over as the starting third baseman for the World Series.

That third base job, of course, belonged to Middlebrooks heading into the playoffs but a mediocre postseason just added to his frustrating 2013 season.  Middlebrooks hit only .227/.271/.425 in 374 PA, though he did show off some pop by hitting 17 homers.  At age 25 and only two years removed from being a highly-touted prospect himself, it's far too soon for the Sox to give up on Middlebrooks, though they're exploring creative backup options like Carp at third.

Exercising Jon Lester's 2014 option was the easiest move the Red Sox made all winter, but signing the southpaw to an extension has been a bit tricker.  Lester has expressed his preference to remain in Boston for the rest of his career and even said he'd be willing to give the Sox a bit of a discount on a new contract, so this may not be a "question remaining" as much as it just a matter of time before a deal is reached.  The club hopes to have an extension worked out by Opening Day, though Lester has said he's willing to keep negotiations going into the season if the two sides are close.

If Lester is retained, the Sox will have both removed one of next winter's top free agents arms from the board and kept its longtime ace in the fold for several years to come.  Lester could end up being the mound equivalent of Ortiz as a staple player who bridges a few different generations of Red Sox championship contenders.

Deal Of Note

It might seem odd to dub merely extending a qualifying offer as one of the most notable moves of an offseason, yet Boston giving such a one-year, $14.1MM to Stephen Drew ended up having far-reaching consequences.  When Drew rejected the offer, it meant a team with a non-protected pick would have to surrender its first-round draft pick to sign him, and a protected-pick club would have to give up its next-highest draft choice (be it in the compensation round or second round).

With draft compensation attached, Drew's market has been drastically limited.  The veteran shortstop is one of several qualifying-offer free agents who were available for much longer than expected this winter, and of that group, only Drew and Kendrys Morales still remain unsigned.  Scott Boras, who represents both men, says his clients are willing to wait until June to sign if need be, as they'll get around the draft pick compensation simply by sitting out until the draft has passed.

How would this impact the Red Sox?  As MLBTR's Tim Dierkes and FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal point out, such a maneuver could put more pressure on Boston to re-sign Drew since otherwise, they'd lose out on a first round pick.  You'd think that certainly, some team would develop a need at shortstop and sign Drew before June, but then again, you also wouldn't have thought that Drew would still be available less than a week from Opening Day.

Until Drew is officially in another team's uniform, there's at least a chance he could return to Boston.  GM Ben Cherington has been in contact with Boras about the shortstop this winter, though the two sides haven't spoken in weeks and the Sox reportedly offered Drew only a one-year deal.  It's also possible that the Red Sox themselves could be that team who needs some shortstop help, in case Bogaerts and/or Middlebrooks can't handle their jobs.

That said, Boston's confidence in these two promising young stars is why the Sox felt comfortable in letting Drew leave in the first place.  Transitioning top prospects into regulars is a key aspect of the team's operations, as Cherington tells MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince: "We recognize that our goal is to be as good as we possibly can be in 2014 but also 2015 and 2016 and beyond.  To do what we want to do, year in and year out, there has to be integration of young players. We're not going to force that unless we're reasonably confident those guys can contribute right away." 

Overview

After rebuilding the roster by adding several mid-tier free agents last winter, the Red Sox had the flexibility to focus on short-term, middle-term and long-term moves this offseason.  For the coming season, they shored up their roster holes by replacing Saltalamacchia with Pierzynski, Dempster with Capuano and Thornton/Andrew Bailey/Franklin Morales with Mujica and Badenhop.  In the near term, the club virtually ensured that Ortiz will retire in a Red Sox jersey.  As for the future, in issuing qualifying offers to Ellsbury and Drew, the Sox ensured at least one extra compensation draft pick (currently 33rd overall) and likely another once Drew finally signs elsewhere.

The biggest long-term move, of course, is entrusting Bogaerts, Middlebrooks and (potentially) Bradley with three positions that combined for 9.9 fWAR in 2013.  Though obviously the Red Sox fully expect to be contenders, it's possible this season could be the so-called "bridge year" that the club expected to have in 2013 should the young trio have growing pains.  Boston also enjoyed relatively good health and above-average performances from almost the entire roster last season, so a bit of regression is probably in store.  (Plus, losing some of the facial hair could be bad karma.)

That said, with Boston's track record of developing homegrown talent, it's also easy to believe that any or all of these three prospects could immediately become solid contributors.  With the bulk of the championship core returning, the Red Sox are still deep and talented enough to challenge for another title.

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