Every year, as Spring Training winds down, a GM somewhere will look around and come to the conclusion that his teams needs, for lack of a better term, something extra. Perhaps an injury recovery is taking longer than expected, or maybe a rookie didn’t pan out quite the way everyone thought. This is usually the time to scour the growing free agent pool, as some veteran or expendable “quadruple A” guy will inevitably be given their walking papers when teams shore up their rosters. This is a perfectly acceptable way to find a 25th man — a bench bat or a lefty specialist. But if there’s nothing to be found in the recently-waived, or if a team has to make a move fast, a rare Spring Training trade might happen.
Dave Dombrowski needed to — or at least thought he needed to — make a move fast, when it became clear that shortstop Jose Iglesias would be out for a significant amount of time with stress fractures in both legs. He traded for Austin Romine, and then for Alex Gonzalez. The Gonzalez move, especially, came off as a bit of a head scratcher as Gonzalez was a non-roster invitee for the Orioles, and frankly, hasn’t really ever been good. But it’s fairly clear that Dombrowski was willing to take a bit of a hit in exchange for bodies he could install at short. While this particular move doesn’t seem that great, trades that happen during Spring Training aren’t usually impact trades in the first place.
Going back five years, I looked back at all the trades that happened between February and the beginning of April. The Retrosheet transaction database hasn’t been updated for 2013 yet, so I relied on some illicit Googling to find as many from 2013 as I could. I discarded any player that did not have a major-league plate appearance or inning pitched for that season. This left me with a list of 35 players since 2009. Twenty one of those players provided positive value the year of the trade, two were right at replacement level, and 12 were below replacement level. The list averaged .67 WAR, with the median being .4. These were not huge shakeups for the most part, but there were a few Spring Training trades that provided significant value for teams.
1. Jason Hammel, Tampa Bay to Colorado, 2009, 3.7 WAR
Coming into the 2009 season, the Rays had two pitchers for the fifth rotation spot, and both were out of options. Tampa Bay decided to keep Jeff Niemann, and sent Hammel to Colorado for a reliever. Hammel was an interesting case for Colorado, due to Hammel’s slight penchant for giving up homers. But he was a groundball pitcher, and did a good job keeping the ball in the park in 2009, posting a career-low HR/FB rate. Career bests in strikeout and walk rates played well for Hammel over 176 innings, as he helped the Rockies make the postseason.
2. Nyjer Morgan, Washington to Milwaukee, 2011, 3.6 WAR
In 2011, Carlos Gomez was not the Carlos Gomez we now know, and so Milwaukee went looking for a little outfield depth as a bit of an insurance policy. In Washington, Morgan had worn out his welcome after some crazy-person behavior made him a bit of an unwanted presence. Milwaukee might have assumed a change in scenery would be good for Morgan, and, at least as far as on-the-field stuff goes, they were right. Morgan ended up playing all three outfield positions, providing stellar defense and value on the basepaths. A spike in power and contact rate allowed him to log a 115 wRC+ which was good for fifth best among Brewers hitters. The Brewers reached the NLCS that year, as Morgan proved that, though he was thought to be a failed prospect of sorts, there was still some value to be mined.
3. A.J. Burnett, Yankees to Pittsburgh, 2012, 3 WAR
In 2009, the Yankees signed Burnett, then 32, to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. Burnett would pitch fairly well in 2009, but started to fade after that. While still remaining durable, he saw a drop in strikeouts while his flyballs and home runs went up. His FIP-, constantly better than league average in the past, spiked to 113 and 115 in 2010 and 2011. New York became disenfranchised with Burnett and shipped him to Pittsburgh while also covering around $20 million of his remaining salary. The National League allowed Burnett to flourish. The strikeouts and ground balls returned, and his ERA and FIP fell to levels not seen since his days as a Marlin. The Pirates would fall short in 2011, but in 2012 Burnett would help lead them to their first playoff appearance in 20 years.
4. Jason Hammel, Colorado to Baltimore, 2012, 2.6 WAR
Well, well, well. Look who came back for more. After two good and one OK season in Colorado, the Rockies, Hammel was once again sent away during Spring Training, this time as part of a package that brought Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado. Hammel, who owns a career 16.6% strikeout rate, saw a crazy spike in 2012 — up to 22.9%. This correlated to career lows in FIP and ERA, and to Hammel providing 2.6 WAR, even in a season shortened by a knee injury. Hammel fell off the table a bit in 2013, but his 2012 performance — even if short-lived — helped Baltimore crack the playoff barrier.
5. Michael Wuertz, Cubs to Oakland, 2009, 2.3 WAR
The Cubs saw Wuertz as the odd reliever out after they acquired Kevin Gregg, so the sent Wuertz to Oakland for a pair of minor leaguers. Wuertz was certainly serviceable for the Cubs over a little over four seasons, but he unexpectedly exploded in 2009. His strikeout rate shot up to 33% and he averaged 11 punchouts per nine innings. He held opposing batters to a .185 average, and allowed less than one base runner an inning. The change in home park seemed to help as well, as Wuertz saw his HR/FB rate drop to a career low. Wuertz suffered a shoulder injury in March 2010, and he was never quite the same again. He provided two poor seasons after his banner 2009, and hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since 2011.
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I’ve included the whole list for those interested.
If a team is looking to do a blockbuster trade, they’re probably not going to wait until Spring Training to pull the trigger. These types of trades are for window dressings, not foundations. But that doesn’t mean they are throw-away transactions. They can provide value, even unexpected value every so often. Alex Gonzalez is most likely not going to provide unexpected value — or likely any value at all — but 2014 might find a diamond in the rough somewhere. Hey, Vance Worley just got traded! You never know!
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