The Best Transactions of the 2014 Off-Season

Yes, there are still free agents on the market, but with Spring Training officially underway, I think it’s fair to say that the off-season is over. From November through the first half of February, we’ve seen over $2.2 billion handed out in free agent contracts, and that doesn’t even account for the big money being thrown around in contract extensions for players who weren’t yet up for open bidding. We also saw several notable trades, with some big names and big contracts changing cities over the winter.

So, let’s go ahead and do a little recapping, starting off with my 10 favorite moves of the last three and a half months. This is the third year I’ve done this here on FanGraphs, with the 2012 list working out a little better (in retrospect) than the 2013 version, which included praise for deals like the Melky Cabrera and Scott Baker signings. We’ll aim for better results this year.

Keep in mind, just because a trade is listed here as a win for one franchise doesn’t mean that I think the decision was necessarily a poor one for the other side. There are several deals below that I think served both teams interest because I think both teams got exactly what they needed in the transaction. There are win-win deals, so the support for one side of a transaction should not be read as condemnation of the other side. We’ll look at the worst transactions of the winter tomorrow, and it won’t simply be the flip side of the trades listed below.

Also, we’re evaluating not just the deal’s impact on 2014, but the longer term ramifications as well, so larger, more impactful deals will generally get more weight than good deals that only last a year. Short term moves aren’t excluded from the analysis, but it would be easy to create a list of low-risk, short term commitments that could work out wonderfully for the signing team, but the moves that end up having the biggest impacts on a franchise are the ones that have an impact beyond just the upcoming season. There are a few one year deals on this list, but overall, the attempt is to acknowledge teams that made significant acquisitions that will move the needle for their franchise, and not just provide a short term boost.

Before we get to my favorite 10 deals, here are a few that just missed the cut, but I still like quite a bit:

Honoroable Mentions: Mets sign Chris Young, Dodgers sign Paul Maholm, Indians sign David Murphy, Royals sign Omar Infante, Rays acquire Ryan Hanigan, Yankees sign Kelly Johnson, White Sox acquire Matt Davidson.

And now, on to what I view as the 10 best transactions made this winter

10. The Padres sign Josh Johnson.
Cost: One year, $8 million.

Like Scott Baker last year, this is an example of a deal that will probably either be a big win or a big nothing, as Johnson’s value depends almost entirely on whether or not he’s physically capable of taking the mound. If his forearm problem from 2013 is a thing of the past, the the Padres may have signed the most effective free agent hurler on the market, and if it doesn’t work, well, they’re out a little more than what Jason Hammel cost the Cubs. And even on a one year deal, this deal has real potential long term benefits for San Diego, because a bounce back season makes Johnson an easy qualifying offer target next winter, setting the Padres up to either re-sign him at a discount or get a draft pick if he walks. The amount of risk the Padres took on was pretty minimal, but they got a lot of upside in return.

9. The Dodgers sign Dan Haren.
Cost: One year, $10 million.

The Dodgers are making a similar bet on Haren as the Padres are on Johnson, only Haren’s downside is even lower, since he’s been one of the most durable pitchers in baseball over the past decade. Even if his recent home run problem persist, Haren’s likely to be something like an average innings eater, and that alone is worth the $10 million investment, but there’s a good chance that Haren doesn’t keep up giving up home runs at the rate he has lately, and he returns to being an above average starter for the Dodgers. Like with Johnson, the qualifying offer is certainly in play if the rebound happens, so this deal has 2015 value even with only a one year commitment.

8. The A’s sign Scott Kazmir.
Cost: Two years, $22 million.

You may be getting the feeling that I like short-term, moderate cost deals for pitchers with upside. You are correct, and while the A’s took on a bit more risk in betting on Kazmir’s rebirth, I think there is real value in locking in his 2015 season rather than trying to use the qualifying offer to get him to stick around another year. This kind of deal not only gives the A’s a boost in 2014, but if they’re right about his resurgence — and I think they are — it will give them a highly valuable trade chip should they want to shop him around next winter. A bunch of pitchers signed contracts in the 2/$20M range this winter, but for me, Kazmir’s deal was easily the best of the bunch.

7. The Astros acquire Dexter Fowler.
Cost: Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles.

It’s easy to rattle off Fowler’s flaws, ranging from his big home/road splits to his propensity for striking out without offsetting it with a ton of power. However, even with his warts, Fowler has been an above average outfielder for the last three years running, and is just 28 years old, so a short term spike can’t be ruled out. In exchange for two reasonably priced arbitration years of a quality player with remaining upside, the Astros gave up two fringe talents that they won’t miss in any real way. This move flew under the radar because it was completed during the busiest day of the off-season, but the Astros picked up a ton of value in this deal.

6. The White Sox acquire Adam Eaton.
Cost: Hector Santiago and Brandon Jacobs.

In an era where teams are putting a higher value than ever on young, cost-controlled talent, the White Sox still managed to pick up a 25 year old center fielder who they control for the next five years, and they did it without giving up anything of serious value. Santiago is a major regression candidate who probably fits better in the bullpen than the rotation, and Rick Hahn managed to sell high on his artificially low ERA and turn that into a guy who could be a quality regular for the rest of the decade. This is perhaps the very best example of buying low and selling high of any trade this winter.

5. The Yankees sign Brian McCann.
Cost: Five years, $85 million.

Of the big splashy free agent signings this off-season, this is the one that I think has the best chance of working. McCann is an underrated player whose core skills have showed few signs of decline, and his left-handed pull power should play extremely well in Yankee Stadium. Even if he’s only a catcher for the next few years before moving to 1B/DH as he gets older, he’ll accumulate a ton of value in the first few years of the contract, and is a good enough hitter to provide some value at the end of the deal, Victor Martinez style. Similarly valuable players were going for $50M to $100M more this winter, so $85 million for McCann looks like a great price compared to other premium free agents.

4. The White Sox sign Jose Abreu.
Cost: Six years, $68 million.

Yes, another White Sox deal. I really liked their off-season, if you haven’t noticed. And I think this is the deal that has the potential to turn out to be the best move any team made all winter, even though it comes with some pretty decent sized risk. $68 million in guaranteed money is a lot for a bat-only guy who has never played in the U.S., but if the White Sox are right about his offensive potential, this deal will be a massive bargain over the long term. Rather than just focusing on the $68 million, keep in mind that the White Sox just signed up for an $11 million AAV, which in today’s dollars gets you in the bidding for a guy like Bronson Arroyo. Even if Abreu is just an average first baseman, this contract probably works for Chicago, and if he turns into a monster, they’ll be one of the few teams with a locked-in bargain rate on premium power.

3. The Tigers dump Prince Fielder.
Cost: $30 million, plus Ian Kinsler‘s remaining $62 million.

While the Prince Fielder era in Detroit wasn’t a total disaster, it was clearly time for the experiment to end, and Dave Dombrowski did a great job of not only getting out of the worst years of one of baseball’s worst free agent signings in recent years, but of acquiring a similarly valuable player in return. There’s a pretty good case to be made that Kinsler is likely to be more valuable over the next four years than Fielder is, and the Tigers managed to drop $70 million in committed salary while getting a player that isn’t a demonstrable downgrade, and allows them to move Miguel Cabrera back to first base. I didn’t love the rest of their off-season, but this move was a great one for the Tigers.

2. The Cardinals acquire Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.
Cost: David Freese and Fernando Salas.

While Jon Jay isn’t a bad player, watching him try to run down balls in the post-season was pretty painful, and the Cardinals correctly identified their outfield defense as an area where they could make a major improvement. In landing Bourjos, they now have one of baseball’s truly elite fly catchers, and a guy who is a better offensive player than he’s given credit for. Like with Eaton, the Cardinals didn’t just acquire a quality upgrade for 2014, but also multiple years of team control over an underrated player who probably won’t be properly compensated by the arbitration process. And by keeping Jay around, the Cardinals aren’t counting on Bourjos to play 160 games, so his injury issues aren’t the liability they would be for a team with less depth. Freese had some real value, so they didn’t get Bourjos for free, but this move allowed them to get Kolton Wong into the line-up and improve their outfield at the same time. Big win for St. Louis.

1. The Nationals acquire Doug Fister.
Cost: Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Krol.

You probably knew this was coming. I’m going to guess that this move will show up at the top of every best-transactions-of-2014 list, as the Nationals basically stole Doug Fister from the Tigers in a trade that no one still understands very well. When you look at the prices being commanded for quality starting pitchers, getting Fister — who will make less than $20 million over the next two years, most likely — for a trio of bit pieces is a huge theft. We haven’t seen a player this good get traded for this little in years, and it’s mystifying how Mike Rizzo managed to get Fister for this price. This deal put the Nationals right back in playoff contention, and it did so for such a low cost that I still haven’t found anyone who thinks the Tigers made a good trade. When a deal is universally accepted as a heist, you’ve done something very right.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.