Offseason In Review Rumors

Offseason In Review: St. Louis Cardinals

by MLBTR's Steve Adams

The Cardinals didn't make any significant changes, but spent big to retain their own players following a season in which they were one game from a return to the World Series.

Major League Signings

International Signings

  • Alex Reyes, P: $950K.
  • Henry Alvarado, P: $150K.

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Cardinals finished the 2012 season with 88 wins, a wild card playoff berth and a trip to the National League Championship Series. That was a strong enough showing for rookie manager Mike Matheny to cause the team to pick up his option for the 2014 season in February.  Wainwright

Rather than investing money and/or prospects in order to pursue middle infield upgrades, the team elected to spend money down the line with extensions for Adam Wainwright and Allen Craig. General manager John Mozeliak was able to secure Wainwright for under $100MM, which many pundits thought would be difficult to do.

Mozeliak correctly determined that Kyle Lohse would turn down a qualifying offer in search of a hefty free agent payday (more on that later). Following the news of Chris Carpenter's season-ending (and career-threatening) injury, Lance Lynn and top prospect Shelby Miller are slated to round out manager Mike Matheny's rotation.

The Cardinals added a second left-hander to his bullpen to complement Marc Rzepczynski by adding Randy Choate on a three-year deal. Three years and $7.5MM for Choate was surprising, but it's hard to deny his dominance over left-handed hitters; in the past four seasons he's held opposing lefties to a .163/.230/.237 batting line.

Ty Wigginton was signed to add some right-handed pop off the bench. The 35-year-old is capable of handling both infield and outfield duty. He appeared at third base, first base and left field for the Phillies in 2012 and has a career .270/.354/.456 line against southpaws. He'll give the team a solid, albeit unspectacular bat off the bench.

Two long-time Cardinals were sent packing this offseason, as Kyle McClellan was non-tendered (he would go on to sign with the Rangers) and Skip Schumaker was dealt to the Dodgers. The two moves saved roughly $3.9MM, as McClellan had projected to earn about $2.4MM as a third-time arbitration-eligible player.

Ronny Cedeno was brough in to compete for infield playing time, but even after the news that Rafael Furcal would miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals elected to release him and go with Pete Kozma as the starting shortstop. Cedeno has since signed with the Astros to be the team's everyday shortstop.

Questions Remaining

The Cardinals made a significant investment in Craig despite the fact that he's played just 238 career games at age 28 and has never topped 112 games in a season thanks to injuries. He'll need to prove that he's able to stay on the field and maintain his impressive level of production from 2011-12 (.309/.357/.532) over the course of a full Major League season.

The Cardinals are set to enter the season with a middle infield consisting of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, following the Furcal injury and Schumaker trade. Middle infield was already a potential weak spot for St. Louis entering the season, but this tandem now looks even more exposed in light of Furcal's injury. Top prospect Kolten Wong is nearly ready for the Majors, but if that trio falters Mozeliak could be in the market for a middle infielder this July.

Lynn and Miller have yet to prove themselves over a full season of starting at the Major League level, but the team has players like Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly as insurance in the event of an injury or poor performance.

Deal of Note

Even after the news of Carpenter's injury, the Cardinals still decided to go with internal rotation options rather than approach Kyle Lohse about a reunion. In a show of tremendous faith in its young pitching, the team decided it valued a draft pick and the resulting boost to its draft bonus pool that would come when Lohse signed elsewhere.

St. Louis watched a division rival — the Brewers — sacrifice value in this year's draft in order to strengthen its team and make a run at the division title or a wild card spot. Should Lohse thrive while this year's Cardinals rotation underperforms, there will be no shortage of people who look back to the month of March and wonder if signing Lohse would have altered the course of events.

Overview

Despite question marks in the middle infield, St. Louis has a deep lineup and enough pitching depth to make a run at a third consecutive trip to the NLCS. They may need to search for a shortstop and/or second baseman come July, but an NL Central Division title isn't out of question for a team that figures to be among the most well-rounded clubs in baseball.


Offseason In Review: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers waited until the eleventh hour to make a splash, but they made a significant upgrade to put themselves in the playoff mix.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

After trading Zack Greinke last July and losing Shaun Marcum to free agency, the Brewers seemed content to head into 2013 without making a significant upgrade to the rotation.  However, Milwaukee decided to give Kyle Lohse a home last week by giving him a three-year, $33MM deal.  Aside from the money, the deal also means that the Brewers have to forfeit their No. 17 pick in the June draft.   Gallardo

You can debate whether or not it was worth it for Milwaukee, but there's no denying that it makes them a better team to open the season.  Lohse joins Yovani Gallardo atop the rotation and their presence is especially important given the lack of experience on the rest of the staff.  Marco Estrada pitched to a 3.64 ERA with 9.3 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 23 starts and six relief appearances in 2012 and the Brewers would love to see something similar this year, but he had just nine starts on his resume prior to last season.  They'll also be counting on Mike Fiers in the No. 5 spot after slotting Chris Narveson in the bullpen.

The Brewers' biggest need was their bullpen and they made major changes in an effort to turn things around.  First, Milwaukee traded Raul Mondesi Jr. to the Rays for right-hander Burke Badenhop.  Then, they picked up a pair of former Nationals in free agent left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez. All three should help the Brewers' cause this season and they should improve upon their NL-worst 4.66 ERA from last season.  

Alex Gonzalez was picked up in February to provide an alternative to Jean Segura, but he'll be serving an even more important role to open the season.  With Corey Hart sidelined until mid-to-late May and Mat Gamel out for the season, Gonzalez will start the season as the club's first baseman.  Which leads us to..

Questions Remaining

The Brewers scored the most runs in the National League last season (third in the majors) but the Hart injury could hurt them depending on his recovery time.  Hart's slash line of .270/.334/.507 was a big reason for their offensive surge last season but they'll have to get by with Gonzalez in the interim, a player who hit .241/.270/.372 in his last full campaign.  It's cause for concern defensively as well.  Gonzalez has 13,207 2/3 innings of experience of at shortstop but exactly none at first base.  

The trio of Badenhop, Gorzelanny, and Gonzalez should improve the Brewers' bullpen but there are still plenty of question marks about their relievers.  John Axford took a major step back in 2012, posting a 4.67 ERA (versus a 2.26 ERA in the three years prior) with 12.1 K/9 and 5.1 BB/9.  They'll need better than that in 2013 to compete in the NL Central.

Deal of Note

In mid-March, the Brewers gave Carlos Gomez a three-year, $24MM extension that will keep him locked up through the 2016 season.  The deal buys out the first three years of Gomez's free agency and could prove to be a bargain for the club if he continues to progress and hit right-handed pitching.  It also came as something of a surprise since agent Scott Boras typically urges his players to test the market rather than sign an extension with a year to go before free agency.  The 27-year-old posted a .260/.305/.463 batting line in 452 plate appearances with a career high 19 homers as Milwaukee's everyday center fielder last season.  He also provides solid defense at the position, as his career 14.7 UZR/150 shows.

Overview

The Brewers finished the 2012 season in the middle of the pack with 83 wins – enough to claim a .500 record but not enough to play in October.  While things looked stagnant for much of the winter, the Lohse addition gives their starting rotation a boost that cannot be overstated.  As Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently noted, Lohse has 331 career starts to his credit, which is more than the combined 270 starts that the originally planned rotation of Gallardo, Estrada, Wily Peralta, Narveson, and Fiers have made.  

On paper, Milwaukee's starting five should be strong enough to help reduce demand on their potent offense.  If the bullpen can climb out of the cellar, then the Brewers should find themselves in the playoff hunt this year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates were far from the most active team in baseball this winter, but they did make a few significant moves.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

Last season, Rod Barajas started 98 games behind the plate for the Pirates, hitting .206/.283/.343 and posting his worst OPS in nearly a decade.  His defensive play wasn't particularly strong either and one has to assume that Pittsburgh didn't spend too much time deliberating over his $3.5MM option for 2013.  Instead, the Bucs got a significant upgrade behind the plate in Russell Martin.  Martin's two-year, $17MM deal is the largest free agent contract signed during GM Neal Huntington's tenure in Pittsburgh and the Pirates expect to get their money's worth out of the three-time All-Star.  Two years ago, the Dodgers non-tendered Martin after an underwhelming couple of years and replaced him with the cheaper Barajas.  Since then, the 30-year-old has gotten back on track with the Yankees, posting a .224/.317/.405 slash line with 39 homers across two seasons.

Martin

It took a while to get everything hammered out but the Pirates ultimately inked Francisco Liriano to help fortify the rotation.  The two sides originally agreed to a two-year deal in mid-December, but the Pirates backed out after Liriano broke his non-pitching arm at his home in the Dominican Republic.  Everything finally got wrapped up in February, with language in the new deal that protects the team in case Liriano's arm puts him on the DL again.  

The Pirates are highly unlikely to get the 2006 version of the left-hander, but they'll be doing cartwheels if Liriano can give them something in the neighborhood of his 2010 campaign.  Liriano posted a 3.62 ERA with 9.4 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 in that season, but it's the only year out of the last four that he's had a sub-5.00 ERA.  Thanks to the arm injury, Liriano's season won't get underway until May.

The club's other needs were taken care of with more affordable contracts.  The Pirates signed Jonathan Sanchez to a minor league deal in February and he's now penciled in as the club's No. 4 starter due to Gerrit Cole being in Triple-A, Liriano's aforementioned injury, and Jeff Karstens' shoulder issues.  Huntington also added some name players on non-guaranteed deals, including Brandon Inge, who will break camp with the club.  Inge, 36 in May, can provide support off the bench for Pedro Alvarez at third and overall infield depth.

Questions Remaining

If all of the Pirates starters were healthy, they'd be entering the 2013 season with a rotation of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Karstens, and Liriano.  However, the back of the rotation will instead feature Sanchez (8.07 ERA with 6.3 K/9 and 7.4 BB/9 in 2012) and Kyle McPherson/Jeff Locke in the No. 5 spot.  Burnett and Rodriguez are both solid, but the rest of the rotation will be chock full of question marks until the summer when they're back at full strength.  They could use some reinforcements to help tide them over and they're keeping a close eye on the Dodgers' Chris Capuano as the season nears.

The PIrates were a lackluster defensive team in 2012 and were ranked in the lower-third of the majors.  Substituting Barajas' arm with Martin's (24% of runners caught stealing vs. 6%) should help keep everyone honest but they'll need more improvement than that to make signficant strides.

Deal of Note

The Pirates have a great deal of confidence in Jason Grilli so it only made sense for them to flip Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox in December.  The swap allowed Pittsburgh to deal from an area of strength and add first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands, infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr., reliever Mark Melancon, and right-hander Stolmy Pimentel to the organization.  Sands, who was a prized prospect in the Dodgers system before being shipped to Boston in the blockbuster deal, has impressive power and the PIrates obviously believe that the 25-year-old has a high ceiling.

Over the last two years with the PIrates, Grilli has looked like a brand new pitcher, posting a 2.76 ERA with 12.5 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9.  The 36-year-old was one of the better available relievers this winter and figures to slot in nicely as the Bucs' closer.  Unlike other closing options, Grilli didn't require a three-year pact and his two-year, $6.75MM deal amounts to less than Hanrahan will earn in 2013 alone.  However, it's worth noting that Grilli has limited experience in the role, finishing just 15 games across the last two seasons.  

Overview

The Pirates certainly have promise for the future with the likes of Cole, Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, Gregory Polanco, and Luis Heredia in the fold.  However, the 2013 Bucs don't appear to be world beaters.  However, they do have the talent to win 82 games and snap their 20 year losing streak.  After all, they came just three games shy of hitting that mark even after their late season collapse in 2012.

Manager Clint Hurdle believes that his club has improved across the board, even if most of that improvement comes in the way of the younger players having another year of experience under their belt.  It's hard to see the Pirates finding their way into the playoffs, but they can certainly crack the .500 mark.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Offseason In Review: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs were heavily involved in free agency, adding four starting pitchers as well as relief and outfield depth.

Major League Signings

International Signings

  • Armando Rivero, P: $3.1MM.
  • Chang-Yong Lim, RP: $5MM.
  • Kyuji Fujikawa, RP: two years, $9.5MM. $5.5MM Club option for 2015. 

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

Last year the Cubs gave a total of 54 starts to Chris Volstad, Justin Germano, Chris Rusin, Brooks Raley, Jason Berken, Randy Wells, and Casey Coleman.  With the injury to Matt Garza and trades of Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm, a rotation that seemed decent at the start of the season was exposed for its lack of depth.  By signing four starting pitchers this offseason — almost an entire rotation — the Cubs are better-equipped to handle injuries and potential trades.  President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer committed $73.5MM to Jackson, Villanueva, Baker, and Feldman, and did not have to surrender a draft pick or young player in the process.

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The Cubs ran parallel pursuits of my second and third-best free agent starters of the offseason, Jackson and Anibal Sanchez. From the team's point of view, both pitchers are young enough to help the next good Cubs team, and neither required surrendering their second round pick.  Ultimately the team landed Jackson, giving him the sixth-largest free agent contract of the offseason.  Before signing Jackson, they'd taken a run at a hurler who became my fourth-best available free agent, Dan Haren, then of the Angels.  Shipping walk-happy, $9.8MM closer Carlos Marmol to the Halos for Haren seemed like a big win for the Cubs, who balked over medical concerns.  If Haren does stay healthy and somewhat effective, the Cubs will be second-guessed for killing the trade.

Villanueva, 29, set a career-high last year with 125 1/3 big league innings for Toronto.  His 3.44 K/BB in 92 innings as a starter was promising, though he allowed 18 home runs in that span.  He'll be a useful swingman.  Feldman allowed 130 hits in 110 innings as a starter last year for Texas, though he seemed serviceable otherwise.  He pitches to contact generally, so the Cubs' infield defense will be put to the test.  Baker had Tommy John surgery in mid-April of last year, and I think the Cubs' expectations for the former Twin early in the season were low.  It's concerning that he's still experiencing elbow issues, however.  With Baker and Garza set to open the season on the DL, the Cubs will use Feldman, Villanueva, and Travis Wood from the outset.  If eventually all seven starters are healthy at once, that'll be a good problem to have.

Fujikawa landed a two-year deal to serve as Marmol's setup man, at least until the Cubs move Marmol or his contract expires.  I like the pickup.  Japanese relievers have had success in MLB, and Fujikawa was quite good with the Hanshin Tigers.  Camp was retained at a small salary, but the bullpen is still a weak spot for the Cubs.  International signing Armando Rivero could move quickly through the minors given his professional experience in Cuba, though Ben Badler of Baseball America says the pitcher has just "middle relief potential."  Like Fujikawa, Korean reliever Chang-Yong Lim is another successful NPB closer.  However, Lim is sidelined into 2014 due to Tommy John surgery.  The Cubs are clearly thinking short-term here, as the righty is 36.

The Cubs took an affordable platoon approach to right field, and it might work in terms of getting some pop out of the position.  Nate Schierholtz hit .270/.334/.440 against right-handers over the last three years, while Scott Hairston is at .263/.308/.464 against lefties.

The Cubs re-signed Stewart for $2MM, saving a little money versus tendering him a contract.  Stewart's wrist is finally better, but now he's nursing a quad injury.  His non-tender mostly closed the thread on the Cubs' December 2011 deal that sent Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu to Colorado for Stewart and Casey Weathers.  At the time I sensed that Epstein and Hoyer moved Colvin without much regard because he wasn't one of their guys.  Elsewhere in free agency, the Cubs snagged Navarro on a big league deal to be their backup catcher, though he played only 24 games in the Majors last year.

Questions Remaining

With major question marks in the offense and bullpen, the Cubs don't seem to be making a big push to contend in 2014 despite their rotation expenditures.  They still seem much more likely to be sellers than buyers at the July trade deadline, stripping the team down again for another ugly finish.  Cubs fans seem fine with another punted season from the new front office, if it will bring long-term success.  I think fans will require a strong contender by 2015, after enduring an intentional two or three-year rebuilding project in a major market.

On a smaller level, the Cubs were unable to extend 2012 breakout starter Jeff Samardzija.  Samardzija is a Jim Hendry guy who worked out, but the new front office deserves credit for giving him a shot in the rotation.  In October I suggested a four-year, $27MM deal for Samardzija, similar to one signed by the Reds' Johnny Cueto in January 2011.  The Cubs did make a five-year offer, though the amount is unknown.  Another good year will likely send the price tag north of $50MM on a five-year deal.

Deal of Note

The Cubs' push for two of the better available starters this offseason was surprising.  They paid about market value for Jackson, which could net a profit if he improves.  The contract will make more sense to me if the Cubs aim to contend in 2014.  Otherwise, they won't get a lot out of the first half of the contract, when Jackson is closest to his prime.  A contract of this nature might have been a better move during the 2013-14 offseason, when the team will be presumably closer to winning.

Overview

Fourth place seems to be the best case scenario for the Cubs, who will probably remain more focused on acquiring young talent and could certainly finish last.  ESPN's Keith Law ranks their farm system fifth in baseball, while Baseball America had them 12th.  Epstein and Hoyer may sell off pieces one more time this summer, particularly Garza, Marmol, and Alfonso Soriano, and then it will be time to create a Major League winner.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Washington Nationals

The Nationals signed the best available reliever, re-signed their slugging first baseman, and made strong choices for center field and their rotation.

Major League Signings

  • Rafael Soriano, RP: two years, $28MM. $14MM vesting option for 2015.
  • Adam LaRoche, 1B; two years, $24MM. Mutual option for 2015 with a $2MM buyout.
  • Dan Haren, SP; one year, $13MM.
  • Zach Duke, SP; one year, $500K.
  • Total Spend: $65.5MM 

International Signings

  • Neivy Pilier ($225K)

Notable Minor League Signings

Traded and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

In November, the Nationals agreed to a new contract with manager Davey Johnson.  It seemed an easy choice for both parties, after Johnson guided the Nats to the playoffs in 2012.

The Nationals wisely made a qualifying offer to first baseman Adam LaRoche, ensuring they'd receive a draft pick if he signed elsewhere.  Perhaps the team also anticipated that the attached draft pick would cause difficulty for LaRoche on the open market.  It took until January, but ultimately GM Mike Rizzo was able to retain the 33-year-old on his terms: a two-year, $24MM deal.  With Mike Morse under contract, Rizzo was able to remain patient with LaRoche.

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Rizzo did not extend a qualifying offer to Edwin Jackson, preferring not to get locked in (presumably, Rizzo thought there was some chance Jackson would accept the one-year, $13.3MM proposal).  This decision surprised me, because it seemed unlikely Jackson would pass up a chance to find his deserved multiyear deal for the second consecutive offseason.  As it turned out, Rizzo was saving his money for Haren, who signed in December.  In November, the Cubs had nearly acquired Haren from the Angels, with the intent of exercising his $15.5MM club option and unloading ineffective reliever Carlos Marmol.  The Cubs reportedly killed the deal over concerns with Haren's health.  Rizzo did not share those concerns, and Haren (pictured) seems hellbent on returning to his innings-eating days.  The Nationals were thinking big for their rotation vacancy, and were willing to spend much more on Haren than teams spent on other one-year deal starters like Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Joe Saunders, and Brett Myers.

It was thought the Nationals would make a push for a free agent center fielder such as Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton, but instead they swung a deal with the Twins for Span.  Rizzo found an established center fielder who can get on base and play the position well, and can be under contract affordably for three seasons.  He surrendered a quality pitching prospect in Alex Meyer, but creating assets to trade for Major Leaguers is one purpose for the farm system of a contending club.  The Nats had not yet re-signed LaRoche at the time of the trade, which further reduced the first baseman's leverage against them.

Once Span and LaRoche were both in tow, Rizzo was free to trade Morse.  He chose to restock his farm system, acquiring Cole, Treinen, and Krol.  Having drafted Cole in 2010 and sent him to the A's in the Gio Gonzalez deal, Rizzo was happy to get the pitching prospect back into his organization.  It seems a solid return for a year of Morse, who has his warts.

The Nationals non-tendered Gorzelanny and lost Burnett and Gonzalez to free agency.  The trio of lefties had accounted for a third of the team's bullpen innings at a 2.74 ERA, so the Nats saw a match with closer Rafael Soriano still available in mid-January (more on that later). 

Questions Remaining

Considered one of the most complete teams in baseball, the Nationals are light on question marks. They've got a righty-heavy bullpen, but that's not necessarily a concern.

The Nationals signed arbitration eligible players Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to one-year deals.  It's always nice to lock up young talent and grab a few free agent years in the process, but it's not clear what the players were seeking.

Deal of Note

Soriano seemed to have few suitors entering the new year, but Scott Boras is tight with Nationals' ownership and brokered a two-year, $28MM deal with heavy deferrals and a vesting option.  It's top dollar for a reliever, but the term is short, and Soriano is very good when he's healthy.  The Nationals also had to surrender their first-round pick, which would have become the 28th overall.  At this stage in the team's competitive cycle, it makes sense to swing the pendulum toward Major League talent over prospects or draft picks.

Overview

It's plain to see why the Nationals are often named the best team in baseball.  The entire roster just seems to be overflowing with talent and depth, phenoms and veterans.  It'll be fun to see if the World Series predictions come true, but for now, the Nationals have assembled a potential juggernaut.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners locked up their franchise player with a record-setting contract and added a number of bats this winter.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

After finishing last in the league in scoring for three consecutive years, the Mariners focused on adding offense this offseason. The team started by moving in the fences at Safeco Field in an attempt to make the ballpark more hitter-friendly. Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik followed up by adding a number of established hitters through free agency and trades.

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The middle of the Mariners' lineup will look much different in 2013. Michael Morse (pictured) has established himself as a productive MLB hitter since the Mariners traded him to Washington in 2009. He'll add welcome right-handed power to Eric Wedge's lineup, though he's a below average defender who's one year away from free agency. The Mariners sent lefty masher John Jaso to Oakland in the deal, only to sign righty masher Kelly Shoppach two weeks later. 

Earlier in the offseason, the Mariners dealt from an area of depth — the rotation — to complete a trade with a different division rival. They acquired Kendrys Morales from the Angels for Jason Vargas in a deal that should work for both clubs. The switch-hitting Morales bounced back nicely in 2012 and should provide power again in 2013. Like Vargas, he's a year away from free agency, so neither team surrendered a long-term piece.

After trading Vargas the Mariners had a void in their rotation, which they later filled by signing Joe Saunders to a one-year deal. Zduriencik's patience paid off, as he signed Saunders to a contract worth $6.5MM instead of overpaying early in the offseason. This deal gives the Mariners stability at the back of the rotation in 2013 without saddling them with a cumbersome long-term contract.

The Mariners also turned to free agency, expressing varying degrees of interest in Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Ultimately the most prominent free agent position player they signed was former Mariner Raul Ibanez. The 40-year-old should continue to produce as long as Eric Wedge mimics Joe Girardi's strategy of limiting Ibanez's exposure to left-handed pitching.

Zduriencik remade his bench this offseason, with Shoppach, Ibanez, Robert Andino and Jason Bay. It's been a while since the 34-year-old Bay added value on offense, so it won't be surprising if the Mariners end up releasing him. Even so, the British Columbia native required just a $1MM commitment.

The Mariners acquired Andino, non-tendered him and re-signed him. Every team needs a utility infielder for its bench, and Andino won’t be worse than Munenori Kawasaki. Still just 28, Andino posted a .327 on-base percentage in 511 plate appearances in 2011.

Seattle had considerable pitching depth entering the offseason, so the front office didn't need to spend aggressively on pitching. Newcomers Kameron Loe and Jon Garland joined the pitching staff on modest free agent contracts. 

Questions Remaining

The Mariners scored 619 runs in 2012, a dropoff of more than 100 runs compared to the average American League club (721). In other words they must improve considerably to measure up to their rivals. Morse, Morales, Ibanez and others will make a difference, but the group doesn't include an impact bat. There's potential for a breakout season from someone like Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero, and the dimension changes could help. Still, the Mariners' offense remains a question mark until the lineup proves otherwise.

Determined to add offense, the Mariners acquired a number of players — Ibanez, Morse, Bay and Morales for example – who have questionable defensive skills. Incorporating a number of these players into the lineup at once will be a challenge for Wedge, especially with Michael Saunders in right field and Justin Smoak at first base.

Finally, many of the team’s additions will hit free agency this coming offseason. The contracts for Joe Saunders, Morse, Morales, Ibanez, Bay and Shoppach expire after the season. Even if Zduriencik’s plan works, this team will face another busy winter a year from now.

Deal of Note

The Mariners extended Felix Hernandez with a record-setting seven-year, $175MM extension last month. The deal establishes a new record guarantee for pitchers, so it’s hard not to like it from the perspective of Hernandez and his representatives at Octagon. The Mariners were never going to get a substantial discount on an extension covering only free agent seasons. Record contract or not, the Mariners do well to keep one of the top pitchers in baseball in the organization. 

The contract includes a noteworthy eighth-year option. Once some concern emerged regarding Hernandez's elbow, the sides agreed to add a $1MM option that triggers if he sustains a specific elbow injury and misses substantial time. This provides the Mariners with a measure of protection against the possibility that Hernandez’s elbow issues will linger.

Overview

The 2013 Mariners won’t be mistaken for the 2012 version of the club. They should score more runs than in years past, and with multiple career years and good health they could win more games than they lose. Even so, the most realistic outcome for this club seems to be a fourth place finish in the AL West.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Los Angeles Angels

The Angels added the top position player available and rounded out their rotation after narrowly missing the 2012 playoffs.

Major League Signings

  • Josh Hamilton, OF: five years, $125MM.
  • Sean Burnett, RP: two years, $8MM. $4.5MM Club option for 2015.
  • Joe Blanton, SP: two years, $15MM. Club option for 2015.
  • Ryan Madson, RP: one year, $3.5MM.
  • Ervin Santana, SP: one year, $13MM. Club option exercised. Later traded to Royals.
  • Total Spend: $164.5MM.

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

Teams seeking bargains don't shop for elite free agents. Fortunately for Angels fans, owner Arte Moreno seems more concerned about adding impact players than uncovering bargains. For the second consecutive offseason, Moreno and general manager Jerry Dipoto landed the top free agent position player. Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $125MM deal after being pursued by division rivals Seattle and Texas.

Josh Hamilton - Angels (PW)

On the field, Hamilton makes the Angels a markedly better team. He has tremendous power and his high batting averages drive his on-base percentage well above league average. The top of the Angels’ batting order will now intimidate even more teams. The off-field questions surrounding Hamilton are well-documented, and $125MM represents a massive commitment. The Angels are assuming considerable risk with this deal. But as a large market team they can afford take on risks, so the decision to spend on MVP-caliber talent is defensible.

After declining the club option for Dan Haren and re-directing Ervin Santana to the Royals, the Angels needed to acquire starting pitching depth. They signed one pitcher and turned to the trade market for two more additions.

In Blanton the Angels added a dependable back-of-the-rotation arm. A two-year, $15MM commitment strikes me as fair value for both sides considering Blanton offers durability but limited upside. Angel Stadium has ranked among the ten most difficult home run environments in MLB for each of the past three seasons, which could benefit Blanton, a pitcher who struggles to limit homers.

Vargas is a fly ball pitcher who could also benefit from the depressed home run environment and the Angels' speedy outfield of Hamilton, Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos. Dipoto acquired Vargas from the Mariners for Kendrys Morales in a deal that makes sense for the Angels and their AL West rivals. Vargas should provide steady innings in the middle of the team's rotation, something the Angels can use more than Morales' bat, especially after the Hamilton signing.

Tommy Hanson took a step back in 2012, both in terms of traditional stats and fastball velocity. At $3.73MM he is no longer the bargain he once was. It's not clear what Hanson can offer, especially now that he has encountered triceps soreness. This isn't the only injury question with Hanson, who has recently dealt with back and shoulder issues. Nevertheless I like the decision to acquire Hanson for hard-throwing 25-year-old Jordan Walden. The Angels should have a capable bullpen without Walden, and if Hanson pitches poorly he can be non-tendered a year from now.

Dipoto added to his bullpen, spending on free agents Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. Burnett, one of the top left-handed relievers available in free agency, obtained a two-year, $8MM deal. He and lefty Scott Downs will give manager Mike Scioscia plenty of flexibility late in games.

It appears that Madson will start the season on the disabled list as his recovery from Tommy John surgery continues. The results have been troubling so far, yet the decision to invest $3.5MM in a reliever as accomplished as Madson was justifiable.

Questions Remaining

The Angels' rotation remains questionable entering the season. Hanson represents an injury concern, and there doesn't appear to be much depth beyond Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards. As long as Kyle Lohse remains available in free agency he could be a tempting option for Dipoto. The Angels already gave up their first rounder to sign Hamilton, which lessens the impact of signing players linked to draft pick compensation. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote in January, Lohse does a lot of things well.

Vernon Wells, now a bench player, surfaces in trade rumors from time to time when rival teams are looking for veteran right-handed bats. At this stage it looks as though Wells is staying put. Whether the Angels trade him or not, they'll be responsible for nearly all of the $42MM remaining on his contract.

Deal of Note

It doesn't appear that Mike Trout will obtain a long-term deal just yet, and the team's seemingly patient approach looks prudent. Trout had a historic 2012 season, which means potential comparables are either in the Hall of Fame or Cooperstown-bound. For this reason the outfielder would have a strong case for a record-setting contract for players in his service class — potentially $100MM plus. If Trout repeats his performance then the Angels will eventually pay him at that level. Yet they will have avoided an unprecedented commitment if he’s less exceptional in 2013.

On a related note, the recent hand-wringing over Trout’s 2013 salary seems unwarranted to me. Yes, baseball’s most recent collective bargaining agreement depresses salaries for inexperienced players. But this structure is hardly new. The MLBPA signed off on the CBA, so the suggestion from agent Craig Landis that Trout should be paid more than $510K isn’t convincing (not that it hurts to ask!). We don’t often see players renouncing salaries when they’re overpaid, and we shouldn’t expect owners to pay players extra when teams have the chance to take advantage of a collectively bargained benefit.

Overview

The Angels are poised to contend for the postseason after another winter of aggressive spending by Moreno. With a strong offense and a capable pitching staff they project as one of the most complete teams in the American League.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Oakland Athletics

The A’s made modest forays into free agency and completed a number of trades after winning the AL West in 2012.

Major League Signings

International Signings

  • Jean Carlo Rodriguez, IF.
  • Miguel Mercedes, 3B.
  • Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS. two years, $6.5MM. $5.5MM Club option for 2015.

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Athletics addressed their infield this offseason, acquiring the versatile Jed Lowrie and signing a veteran Japanese infielder. Billy Beane also added pitching depth in an offseason that wasn’t quite as dramatic as his exceptionally productive 2011-12 winter.

The A's acquired Lowrie from the Astros for Chris Carter and prospects Max Stassi and Brad Peacock. Though Beane gave up lots of long-term value in the deal, Lowrie helps the Athletics now, addressing their biggest offseason need at a time that free agent infield options were limited (more on his deal later).

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In Hiroyuki Nakajima (pictured) the Athletics added an accomplished Japanese hitter who projects to replace Stephen Drew as the team's everyday shortstop. The A's are paying Nakajima like a backup, so financial considerations won't prevent the team from making a change if his production in the U.S. doesn't compare to his NPB line of .310/.381/.474. The A’s also had interest in re-signing Drew, who ultimately signed a one-year deal with Boston.

The A's gave up three prospects, including A.J. Cole, to Washington in the three-way deal that sent John Jaso to Oakland. Jaso, who's controllable through 2015, hits right-handed pitching really well. Manager Bob Melvin didn't hesitate to use platoons in 2012 and he has the making of a new one in Jaso and Derek Norris.

Early on in the offseason the A’s acquired Chris Young for Cliff Pennington in yet another deal with the Diamondbacks. The A’s did well to obtain an up-the-middle player with some offensive skills for Pennington, even though they don’t presently have a starting role for Young. Teams tend to find opportunities for talented bench players over the course of a six-month season, so expect Young to contribute.

Bartolo Colon re-signed with the A's on a one-year, $3MM contract that provides the team with additional depth. The 39-year-old will begin the season on the restricted list to serve a suspension for violating MLB's drug policy. Once he serves the final five games of his suspension he'll be able to contribute as a back-of-the-rotation starter. At $3MM this is a worthwhile low-risk, low-reward expenditure.

The A's added to their bullpen, exercising Grant Balfour's 2013 option and sending minor league right-hander Zach Thornton to Pittsburgh for Chris Resop. The 30-year-old Resop provides the A's with a durable arm; he made 60-plus appearances in both 2011 and 2012 with the Pirates.

Questions Remaining

The middle infield remains a question for the club, as it’s not clear how much Nakajima, Scott Sizemore and Jemile Weeks can contribute. Beane is a deal-maker and could obtain an upgrade midseason if necessary. However, there are rarely many above average middle infielders available in trades and the asking prices on the few quality players tend to be high.

Other teams could inquire about players like Young given the Athletics’ outfield depth. The team seems content to keep all of their outfielders for now, but could strike a deal if a need emerges in Oakland midseason.

Deal of Note

The A's entered the offseason in need of help on the left side of the infield. Lowrie, an oft-injured 28-year-old, represents an upgrade for the Athletics whether he plays shortstop, third base or second. They surrendered an intriguing collection of talent to acquire Lowrie, who's under team control for two more seasons. Even though he doesn't appear to be a long-term piece, Lowrie gives the A's what they need now. For a team set up to contend in 2013-14 this exchange makes sense. While the team assumes some risk here, the free agent market for shortstops was barren besides Drew, another player with recent health issues.

Overview

The A’s did a tremendous job at preventing opponents from scoring in 2012. With many of the same players back for another season, the club should stay in most games and contend again in 2013.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Houston Astros

The Astros’ patient approach to building a contender won’t lead to many wins at the MLB level in 2013. The club remains focused on developing a strong base of prospects and young players for future seasons.

Major League Signings

  • Jose Veras, RP: one year, $2MM. $3.25MM Club Option for 2014.
  • Carlos Pena, 1B: one year, $2.9MM.
  • Total Spend: $4.9MM.

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

There’s reason to believe general manager Jeff Luhnow will build a contender in Houston. He has a track record of success, the support of ownership, and even an endorsement from Bill James. Be that as it may, Luhnow doesn’t have much proven talent at the MLB level. And as the Astros enter their second full season under Luhnow and owner Jim Crane, they’re expected to finish with the fewest wins in baseball for the third consecutive time.

Carlos Pena - Astros (PW)

The Astros took advantage of their status as a non-contender this winter, acquiring players with upside in the hopes that some become part of the team's core. Chris Carter could be one such player for the Astros. Acquired along with prospects Brad Peacock and Max Stassi, Carter provides the Astros with a powerful bat coming off of his strongest season to date. And unlike Jed Lowrie, the primary piece headed to Oakland in the deal, he's controllable for the long-term. The 26-year-old Carter won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. Lowrie's a talented player, but given his injury history (career high in games: 97), cost ($2.4MM) and proximity to free agency (two years of team control remaining) it made sense to trade him for a controllable player with power such as Carter.

Houston added pitching depth with a series of low-risk acquisitions. Though Alex White struggled as a member of the Rockies' rotation, the former top prospect offers a hint of upside. The Astros parted with Wilton Lopez to acquire White with another decision that emphasizes youth over experience. Luhnow also traded for Peacock, who entered the 2012 season as the 36th-ranked prospect in MLB, according to Baseball America. Like White, Peacock struggled in 2012, posting an unsightly 6.01 ERA in 134 2/3 innings at Triple-A. There's also John Ely, who had a strong season with the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in 2012 and now provides Houston with depth as a long man in the bullpen or extra starter. 

A team in the Astros’ position must take advantage of the waiver wire, and Luhnow did just that, claiming players often when 40-man roster space became available. Houston used its Rule 5 draft pick to add Josh Fields a 27-year-old right-hander who struck out 78 hitters in 58 1/3 innings in the upper levels of Boston's minor league system in 2012. The 2008 first round selection might never succeed at the MLB level, but the Astros are much better positioned to find out than a club that hopes to contend in 2013. Credit the team for identifying a promising player and giving him the chance to stick.

The Astros claimed Philip Humber, who struggled down the stretch in 2012 after pitching a perfect game in April. With a salary of just $1.3MM and recent success as an MLB starter, Humber is worth a look at the back of the rotation. Erik Bedard, who signed a minor league contract with the Astros, provides intrigue with the familiar ‘health permitting’ caveat.

Luhnow rounded out the team’s roster with veterans such as Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel and Jose Veras. These players aren’t here to make a long-term impact. Instead, they’re stopgaps who could be flipped for valuable long-term pieces at the 2013 trade deadline. Luhnow, who acquired Matt Dominguez for Carlos Lee last year, could look to make similar trades this coming summer.

Questions Remaining

The Astros' roster is full of question marks, and that’s by design. In order to determine what they have, they must see their players at the MLB level. Luhnow told Keith Law on ESPN's Behind The Dish podcast that he’s ready to embrace the unpredictability of young players and acknowledged that an inexperienced roster means lots of variability (the entire interview is worth a listen). Acquiring too many established players could also prevent younger players from getting the playing time required to develop.

Virtually all of Houston's lineup, rotation and bullpen includes question marks. The roster includes a handful of veterans, and some relatively young players such as Jose Altuve and Bud Norris who have established themselves as productive Major Leaguers. However, most others on this team have lots to prove.

The Astros now face the question of how soon to begin selling. Some owners would find it unseemly to consider trades before June or July, but Crane could be an exception. Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris are already drawing interest and veteran players such as Pena could soon generate interest as well. The Astros could enjoy additional leverage in early-season trade talks, when most teams are dreaming of making a run at the Wild Card and few clubs are willing to sell.

Deal of Note

Like most of the Astros’ recent additions, manager Bo Porter joined the organization because of what he can offer in the long term.  Luhnow recently told the New York Daily News that he can envision Porter leading the Astros "for decades, not just years.” For now the former Nationals third base coach has been tasked with creating a culture of opportunity in Houston. “I believe that the number one job you do as a manager is to do what you can to let players play to their potential,” he explained at the Winter Meetings. If Porter can accomplish his goal with Luhnow’s new acquisitions, the Astros will be that much closer to contention.

Overview

Building a contender takes years, and the Astros need more time to become relevant again. Even so, 2013 will be an important year for the Astros as they look to uncover some core pieces for future seasons. They'll select first overall in the upcoming amateur draft and should have a top selection again a year from now. Don’t expect many victories at the MLB level though. This year’s Astros project as one of the worst teams in baseball.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Texas Rangers

The Rangers lost significant contributors this past offseason, and while they countered by adding some newcomers, the gap between the Rangers and the rest of the AL West has disappeared.

Major League Signings

International Signings

  • Todd McDonald, OF: $475K.

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

It's easy to focus on what the Rangers lost — Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Michael Young and Ryan Dempster, among others — and overlook their offseason additions. In fact, GM Jon Daniels added two prominent free agents. While neither player figures to become a long-term piece for the Rangers, both add value for 2013.

In Lance Berkman, the Rangers obtain an aging but accomplished hitter who projects as their primary designated hitter. The club considered other DH options, including Mike Napoli and David Ortiz before adding the 37-year-old Texan. Though Berkman missed most of the 2012 season with knee problems, he hit 31 home runs with a .301/.412/.547 batting line as recently as 2011. If healthy, he’ll offer power and on-base skills (more on Berkman’s deal later).

If a team had signed Pierzynski to a lucrative, multiyear deal on the basis of his career-best 27 home runs, I would have criticized the move. A repeat performance seems unlikely at the age of 36. However, a one-year, $7.5MM commitment for a catcher as durable as Pierzynski seems more than reasonable. The longtime White Sox backstop has averaged 132 games played since becoming the Twins' full-time catcher in 2001. At that price, Pierzynski will be a worthwhile addition provided he stays healthy and comes reasonably close to matching his career norms.

The Rangers also re-signed Geovany Soto days after non-tendering him. It's a $2.75MM deal, approximately $2MM less than Soto would have made through the arbitration process in the estimation of MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz. The Rangers are paying Soto more than most backups earn, and getting more upside in return.

Joakim Soria continues rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but that didn't stop the Rangers from signing the 28-year-old to a two-year, $8MM contract that includes a club option for 2015. Soria has successfully limited home runs and walks at the MLB level, while averaging more than one strikeout per inning. Given his pedigree, age and the frequency with which pitchers make full recoveries from ligament replacement surgery, Daniels did well to sign Soria for these terms.

Daniels also signed Jason Frasor to a one-year deal worth $1.5MM. The veteran reliever generates lots of strikeouts and should continue to add value as a middle reliever. Josh Lindblom can also strike out lots of hitters and, unlike Frasor, he's under long-term control. Acquiring Lindblom made sense, even though it meant moving a fomer star in Michael Young. The Rangers didn't have a role for Young, and they got salary relief by sending him to Philadelphia.

Questions Remaining

Early in the offseason, most questions about the Rangers centered around potential acquisitions. Now that Spring Training is well underway, many questions relate to a potential loss. Nolan Ryan, the club’s CEO, could leave the organization as a result of a change in the team's power structure. Should the Rangers let him go, or work to retain him? That’s for others to determine. What’s apparent is that an internal conflict went public and created an unnecessary distraction for the team.

The Rangers appeared to consider major acquisitions this winter. Name a prominent free agent and he was probably connected to the Rangers during the 2012-13 offseason. Outfielders such as Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton were viewed as potential fits in Texas. Free agent starters like Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse seemed like possible targets for the rotation. Others, such as Adam LaRoche, negotiated with the team, but none of the players signed in Texas. The Rangers maintained a disciplined approach, choosing not to overpay for players whose asking prices exceeded their own valuations.

Texas had the most prolific offense in the American League last year. After losing Hamilton and Napoli the lineup seems less potent. In particular, center fielders Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry project as below average offensive contributors. In my view it would have made sense to sign a free agent (Bourn, Upton and others were available) or complete a trade (Denard Span was on ther market) at a time that the center field market was unusually flush with options.

The Rangers’ rotation also seems vulnerable. Not only did Dempster and Scott Feldman depart as free agents, Martin Perez will miss the beginning of the season. Trading for a pitcher like James Shields, David Price or R.A. Dickey would no doubt have meant surrendering top prospects. At the same time, teams such as the Cubs, Royals and Blue Jays remade their entire rotations. Surely the Rangers could have managed to add one pitcher as insurance to round out an offseason of relatively modest spending. Instead, they'll await the return of Colby Lewis, who should provide the rotation with a midseason boost once he recovers from flexor tendon surgery.

Some wonder if the Rangers will trade from their enviable shortstop depth sooner, rather than later. Daniels maintains that he’s content to keep Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar, and that stance makes sense given that Profar just turned 20. 

Deal of Note

Games played often correlate pretty well with free agent paydays. To play in lots of games, players must be healthy and reasonably productive, which increases their earning potential. Last offseason 22 position players signed for $10MM or more (including club options exercised). All but one of those players had appeared in at least 90 games in 2012. The lone exception obtained a one-year, $11MM contract from the Rangers following a season in which he appeared in just 32 games: Lance Berkman.

The deal stood out at the time, because teams so often pay players based on their most recent performances. Berkman had an unproductive, injury-plagued walk year and obtained a substantial guarantee nonetheless. This doesn’t make the Rangers’ decision a poor one, though. The switch-hitting 37-year-old had a heavyweight offensive season as recently as 2011 and seems capable of reaching base and providing power as he nears his 40th birthday.

Overview

The Rangers are a good team, even though they now seem vulnerable. They lost significant pieces this past offseason, and there’s no doubt that the Athletics and Angels represent serious threats. Expect the Rangers to contend in 2013, but don’t count on them to stand apart from the competition.