In some ways, given the recent news about Joel Zumaya, some of the coverage with this post will be a little obvious. But it’s not so much that Zumaya getting hurt made the Twins offseason worse, but that it exposed their complete lack of a contingency plan for what it was. The Twins are among the worst, but other teams certainly did poorly. As with the teams with the best offseasons, I’m consider future health of a club along with the immediate consequences of their moves or lack thereof. With that, let’s get started.
#5: Miami Marlins
With the Marlins, we’ve got a mix of good and bad decisions. No, I’m not talking about their logo. The good: Jose Reyes. The potentially bad: Mark Buehrle. The Ugly: Heath Bell. Reyes signed for 6 years, $106 million. Reyes turns 29 in June, meaning that the contract will take him through his age 34 season at a average of $17.6/season. Reyes has 29.3 refWAR/33.4 fWAR/27.6 WARP through his career. Despite his injury issues in his last three seasons, he played 161, 153, 160, and 159 games from 2005-2008 and managed 133 and 126 games the last two seasons. Though there are legitimate questions about his defense (and legitimate questions as to whether Hanley Ramirez should have switch to their so Reyes could stay at short), Reyes’ broad skill-set of good power and speed at a premier position makes him a good investment to age gracefully.
Unlike many large contracts, the Marlins won’t have Reyes too deep into his 30s and will not be overpaying him either. In fact, I’d suggest that the Marlins, due to Reyes’ injury issues, got a very good deal with his contract. Even if he can’t play whole seasons, he has the potential to give them Barry Larkin-like production for years to come. That’s good, because the Marlins other two major signings are filled with question marks, which is why I have them listed here.
With Bell, it’s easy to analyze what the problem is. Bell is a 34-year-old reliever whose strikeout rate declined greatly last year (7.3 K/9, down from 11 K/9 in 2010), which is backed up by his dwindling swing strike rate (8.3%, down from 10.6% in 2010). Bell’s deal isn’t necessarily the worse given to a closer this offseason, since the Phillies lost their collective minds and gave Jonathan Papelbon 4 years, $50 million. Nonetheless, there is a simple message here: don’t overpay for saves. Bell has been a fine reliever for years, but why pay Bell $9 million for three years when Francisco Cordero, another aging right-handed reliever with a declining strikeout rate, got 1-year, $4.5 million? The Marlins misread the market and overpaid, much like the Twins. On the other hand, you have a team like the Reds, in my best offseason teams, who gave one of the best relievers regardless of saves totals the same amount of years with $9 million less for a pitcher 5 years younger–Sean Marshall.
Buehrle is harder to judge. Buehrle has posted solid ERA/ERA+ numbers for years despite giving up the most hits in the league four times and posting meddling strikeout rates (5.1 K/9 career). When you average over the last 5 years his various WAR numbers (refWAR, fWAR, WARP), he averages 3.2 WAR/season. Surprisingly, by refWAR, Buehrle already has more career WAR than Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez, Chief Bender, Dizzy Dean, Burleigh Grimes, Herb Pennock, Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, and Catfish Hunter. It feels like a overpay for his age 33-36 seasons, but Buehrle has actually been a pretty good and consistent pitcher throughout his 12-year career. It’s even possible that his ERA drops and his strikeout rate jumps some moving to the junior circuit, even if the new Marlins stadium plays as a hitters park.
Analysts have often pointed to the gap between Buehrle’s ERA and FIP as a potential issue, but he’s consistently outperformed his peripherals. As noted in this article, a few things factor into this. Luck and defense are certainly part of it and I’d assumed that on a small level, Buehrle has been able to consistently create weak contact. Otherwise, Buehrle has accumulated the 9th highest ratio of unearned runs since 2002 for pitchers with over 1,000 innings, 10.1% over his career being unearned. The other factor is Buehrle’s defense, particular his pickoff move that averages 7 pickoffs a season. All this, to me, suggests that Buehrle will be awfully hard to project going forward. This contract could work out just fine–Buehrle almost certainly won’t outperform it by a significant margin–or, he could age very quickly and fall apart on the Marlins’ expanded payroll.
One thing to note is the way in which pitchers similar to Buehrle (though without taking into account his unearned runs and pickoff move) have performed from age 33-36. I’ve included his nine most similar pitchers through age 32, since one of them–Dennis Eckersly–became a full-time reliever at that age.
Player 33-36 ERA 33-36 ERA+ 33-36 refWAR
Frank Viola 4.03 117 3.7
Herb Pennock 3.57 111 8.1
Ray Wise 3.74 102 6.0
Johnny Podres 3.75 92 0.2
Mike Hampton 5.12 81 0.0
Jerry Reuss 3.10 114 10.9
Bill Sherdel 5.05 91 2.9
Jack Morris 4.13 97 5.3
Kevin Millwood 4.53 98 5.7
Other similar players, like the once great Brett Saberhagen, didn’t age well into their 30s either. No foregone conclusion can be made here, but one can at least say that similar pitchers often did not age well. And that’s mostly because most pitchers don’t do that well in their 30s, at least compared to their primes. With a strikeout rate declining for years from an already low level, indications are there that Buehrle could join them. He’s a contact pitcher who will be playing in front of a questionable defense. Pitchers who perform well into their 30s tend to be pitchers with much higher strikeout rates. Yes, there is Warren Spahn and even guys like Frank Tanana and Tommy John, and a modern example like Tom Glavine. Maybe Buehrle is Glavine. After all, through age-32, Buehrle has a slightly higher WAR (46.6 v. 41.6) and slightly lower ERA+ (120 v. 122) than Glavine with a similar WHIP (1.28 v. 1.27) and K/9 (5.1 v. 5.6). Maybe Buehrle is more Glavine than we think or more Glavine wasn’t quite as good as we thought. I think it’s probably a little of both.
The future will still be hard to predict and most of the examples suggest we should be leery of how Buehrle will age. Because of that and because of the Reyes contract, I’ve got the Marlins among the more disappointing teams. Reyes was a great deal, but for a team that doesn’t spend much, it still would have been better to sign C.J. Wilson or Edwin Jackson. And overpaying for saves is always an issue for me. That will come up more and more on this list.
#4: San Francisco Giants
The Giants are on here for their inactivity as much as anything else. They traded a top prospect (Zach Wheeler) for Carlos Beltran last summer, a defensible trade given that Beltran was among the best hitters in the NL last year, only to let Beltran go and sign a deal with the Cardinals that among the best this offseason. And they didn’t get free agent compensation since they did not offer Beltran salary arbitration. That’s significant, because getting two high picks would have made losing Beltran more palpable.
Last year, the Giants hit .242/.303/.368. The NL as a whole hit .252/.318/.392, making the Giants a below-average hitting team in all respects last year, and that’s with Pablo Sandoval’s excellent .315/.357/.552 hitting in 117 games and Beltran’s .323/.369/.551 line in 44 games. Sandoval hopefully can take the next step forward and start taking walks, but what about the rest of the Giants lineup? Catcher was a huge issue for the Giants last year due to Buster Posey’s injury, as they gave the majority of bats to players like Eli Whiteside (.197/.264/.310) and Chris Stewart (.204/.283/.309). That kind of wretched “production” sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Even if Posey returns to his Rookie of the Year production, the Giants still failed to address other problem areas. First basemen Audrey Huff remains the starter, despite being one of the worst players in baseball last year, with his . Shortstop is also a issue, as the Giants have young Brendon Crawford, Ryan Theriot and Emmanuel Burriss line to take the at-bats. Crawford couldn’t hit at the majors or minors last year, hitting .234/.291/.327 at AAA (though he still dominated A+) and .204/.288/.296 in the majors. I doubt Burriss will help much either, as he’s hit .285/.348/.344 in the minors, .250/.311/.281 in the majors. And fans have gotten the impression that Theriot is useful before, but he’s not that helpful either–a career .282/.344/.353 hitter.
In the outfield, the did make a couple moves. They traded Andres Torres for Angel Pagan and they traded Jonathan Sanchez for Melky Cabrera. I’d say that Pagan might be more likely to help. Pagan never had much power in the first place and he had several injuries last year that likely played into his regression offensively and defensively. His .262/.322/.372 line last year was below average, but his BABIP was .285, versus a career .314, suggesting some bad luck. He also still stole 32 bases. Cabrera was on the other end of the spectrum. He had a career year seemingly out of nowhere, hitting .305/.339/.470, good enough for a .349 wOBA, 4.2 fWAR. Unlike Pagan, Cabrera seemed to get lucky last year, posting a .332 BABIP versus a .299 career BABIP.
Cabrera’s batted-ball profile didn’t really change last year. His 1.44 GB/FB ratio was right in line with his career 1.52. His contact percentages didn’t change much either, though he was more aggressive, if that’s possible. I wouldn’t say that means that Cabrera will completely revert, but there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of whether Cabrera can continue his success. Because of that, I’m not sure how much Cabrera’s addition will aid the offense. However, trading Sanchez wasn’t that bad of a decision, since despite his strikeouts, he’s a 28 year old who has yet to get control of his pitches, which will likely continue to limit his productivity. It’s a loss in depth, which could be a potential issue, and it does mean that Barry Zito might come back to haunt the Giants more.
On the other hand, the Giants gave Ryan Vogelsong a 2-year, $8.3 million extension with a 2014 option. Vogelsong almost certainly wasn’t as good as his 2.79 ERA last year might have suggested, but he gave the Giants plenty of value and for just over $4 million a year, that’s a fine deal. Nonetheless, not signing a extension with Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain was failure for the Giants. One thing I’d note is that Cain may be the smarter target if the Giants could sign one. Cain is trending one direction–strikeout rate remains above-average while the walks are down–and Lincecum is losing strikeouts while gaining walks.
#3: Philadelphia Phillies
Yes, this is largely a judgment on the Phillies for their signing of Jonathan Palpelbon, but it is also about the Phillies inability to resign Cole Hamels or Shane Victorino long-term and their inability to do anything about their offense more than resigning Jimmy Rollins, as they’ve replaced the awful Raul Ibanez with the younger, but still bad Laynce Nix in left field. Yes, signing Jim Thome was solid, but with Ryan Howard out indefinitely with a setback from his recover from a Achilles injury, Thome can’t be expected to play everyday at first and be productive. At 41, he’d be likely to wear down.
As for Palpelbon, paying $50 million for four years from a closer will almost always be a bad overpayment. He’s 31 and while the strikeout rate remained very high last year (12.2 K/9), his control had been poor over the previous two seasons. It’s hard to know exactly what you’ll get, but at most, you’ll get 65 very good innings. Considering that the Phillies also got a great deal with Chad Qualls on a one-year, $1.15 million deal, it’s odd how badly they played the market with Palpelbon. The Phillies closer from last year, Ryan Madson, got a one-year, $8 million deal from the Reds and Madson isn’t that far off the effectiveness of Palpelbon.
As mentioned, they also did little to deal with their offensive issues in left. Laynce Nix is a career .244/.288/.430 hitter. Sure, he’s much better against righties, but he’s still a .253/.296/.451 career hitter against righties. Maybe things will be better if the Phillies give Dominic Brown a longer stint there, but they probably could have used another bat. And I don’t think Ty Wiggington will be of much help to anyone. I do give credit to the Phillies for resigning Rollins to a 3-year, $33 million deal, which doesn’t overpay him and isn’t too lengthy a deal given that Rollins remains a above average shortstop at 33. Nonetheless, this is a old team that didn’t get much better for a team that’s been losing it’s offensive power for years.
Again, I also am holding it against them that they didn’t manage to resign long-term Hamels or Victorino. Victorino was the Phillies best position player last year, hitting .279/.355/.491 for a 129 OPS+/.372 wOBA with 19 steals and good defense in center, good for a 5.1 refWAR/5.9 fWAR/5.3 WARP. Victorino wants a 5-year extension and maybe that seems high for a 31-year old, but Victorino’s broad skill set should at least age well. I’m not sure I’d go 5 years, but a 3-year extension would be worth it.
As much as Victorino is key, Hamels is younger (28) and is also getting better. I’m sure that the Phillies don’t want to pay the next luxury tax, but that’s a problem of current decisions (Palpelbon’s contract) and past mistakes (yes, I’m referring to that absolutely perplexing Ryan Howard extension that starts this year). Hamels had a 2.79 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 3.02 xFIP, 138 ERA+, 5.4 refWAR/4.9 fWAR last year, posting a 8.1 K/9 with a career best 1.83 BB/9 and a 52.3 GB%. If the Phillies get a extension on Hamels done, it would make me change the rating. However, the way things stand and how good Hamels is at this point, it only adds to a bad offseason for the Phillies.
#2: Minnesota Twins
I’ve already taking time to write about the Twins offseason here. While through the first week of spring training, reports on Justin Morneau’s condition have been positive, it remains to see what that actually means going forward. The Twins still lack a backup plan, which given the seriousness of Morneau’s concussion issues, is a serious issue. Chris Parmelee still could continue to surprise, but that seems like a lot to expect.
The real problem was of course exposed by Joel Zumaya’s recent UCL injury that has taken him out of the bullpen equation. Suddenly, the Twins have done absolutely nothing to deal with their bullpen issues from last year other than to overpay Matt Capps to be a average at best closer. Zumaya’s deal was still a smart one, but he was always a injury issue waiting to happen and the Twins needed to take a few more low-cost chances. Yes, they signed guys like Matt Maloney and took Terry Doyle in the Rule 5 draft, but that’s not even close to enough. Maloney was destroyed last year in limited time pitching while Doyle is yet another low-strikeout, control-type.
As I documented in my earlier post, there were many cheap relief options that other teams managed to find. I didn’t even mention guys like Takashi Saito, always underrated, who signed for 1-year, $1.75 million with the Diamondbacks. Sure, he’s 42, but he can still pitch effectively. Jonathan Broxton got 1-year, $4 million from the Royals. Mike MacDougal got 1-year, $1 million with Dodgers. Scott Linebrick, Jeremy Accardo, Juan Cruz, Aaron Heilman, Pat Neshek, Vincente Padilla, Chris Ray, and Jamey Wright got minor league deals. Kerry Wood got 1-year, $3 million. George Sherill got 1-year, $1.1 million. Fernado Rodney got 1-year, $2 million. There were far too many good options out there, and all notably for less than Capps got.
I also noted that while I liked the deals given to guys like Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, and Jamey Carroll, it’s likely not going to be enough to replace Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, and Michael Cuddyer in the lineup. And that’s from what was already a ugly offense last year. Once again, it all seems to depend on the ability of Mauer and Morneau to return to their glory days. And, with regards to the starting rotation, signing someone like Jason Marquis is not going to make any meaningful difference. Instead, it seemed like the offseason of a team mired in muck that may be closer to rebuilding than they think or care to admit.
#1: Detroit Tigers
This is also territory that I’ve been over before in the last month. The longer I’ve thought about it, the more I dislike the Fielder deal. One thing most people suggest is that while long-term, it’s a bad deal, it will make them more of a contender this year. That might be true, but I think they overestimate the immediate effects of the deal. Fielder is a great hitter, but he’s a one-dimensional who will hurt them in the field whenever he’s out there. In fact, so long as the Tigers abide by their announced plan of playing Fielder and Cabrera together in the field, I believe they’ll have the worst defensive infield around. Again, as I’ve mentioned, that might not hurt a pitcher like Justin Verlander but it will certainly harm guys like Doug Fister and Rick Porcello.
Signing Octavio Dotel to a one-year, $3.5 million was solid, but Dotel is only effective against righties. Righties hit .154/.198/.211 off him, but lefties teed off at a .236/.345/.500 rate. He’s a righty-killer, so he’s only as effective as he’s used. Otherwise, that was mostly the extent of the Tigers offseason. Because of that, it can be judged by Fielder’s contract. Given that, as mentioned, Fielder might not even be a Top-3 first basemen and given that he’s replacing a hitter like Victor Martinez, he may not have quite the expected impact. And for that price and lengthy, that may be a real miss that the Tigers will regret for a long time.