Every offseason, there are some deals that make you scratch your head. Not necessarily for the money paid to the player, but for the return received in trade or how that player actually fits on the roster. The 2013-2014 MLB offseason has been no exception.
Let’s take a look at five transactions where we’re not sure what one team was thinking.
Colorado Rockies trade Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes
Fowler isn’t perfect, but he was the best center fielder the Rockies had. They preferred the upside of Lyles, hoping that they could find another Tyler Chatwood. And perhaps there is logic in that, because they’re both young pitchers who might have been rushed to the majors.
But where Chatwood has a good fastball and gets tons of ground balls, Lyles has neither a good fastball nor generates enough grounders to succeed at high altitude. Last season, among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, just two — Charlie Morton and Samuel Deduno — generated a higher percentage of ground balls than did Chatwood. Lyles, meanwhile, ranked 41st on that list. Perhaps the Rockies can change Lyles’ game, but that’s a big bet when the player you’re giving up is a known and precious commodity — a league-average center fielder.
The issue is that Fowler may be even be more than that. Over the past two seasons, he ranks 10th among qualified center fielders in wRC+, on par with Carlos Gomez. And now that he has left Coors Field, his defensive statistics — advanced and otherwise — will only look better, as the cavernous Colorado ballpark throws off all defensive outfield evaluations. To compound the problem, the Rockies are now hoping to play star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez in center field more frequently, but given the giant pasture there and CarGo’s past knee troubles, that plan looks like a recipe for disaster.
The Astros also gave up Barnes in the deal, but he is likely no better than replacement level, and the Rockies already had two such players in their outfield in Charlie Blackmon and Charlie Culberson. Barnes then became even more irrelevant when the the Rockies traded for Drew Stubbs less than two weeks later. He’ll be lucky to be the team’s fifth outfielder.
Los Angeles Dodgers sign Chris Perez
There’s no way to sucarcoat it: Last year, Perez was terrible. The Dodgers had a full bullpen of better pitchers — particularly Kenley Jansen, Paco Rodriguez, J.P. Howell, Brian Wilson and Ronald Belisario. In addition, rookies Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez were better. Heck, even Carlos Marmol, in his time with the Dodgers, performed better than did Perez in Cleveland. The Dodgers then added to their stable of competent-to-good relievers when they signed Jamey Wright.
With as many as eight competent relievers under contract, surely the Dodgers didn’t need a ninth? And yet, they decided to lock in Perez. This makes little sense, and will probably cost a kid like Withrow or Dominguez a shot at a big league job.
The deal also didn’t really make much sense from Perez’s standpoint, if his end goal is to try to retain a closer’s job. At best, he’ll be No. 3 on the depth chart for saves behind Jansen and Wilson, and the Dodgers will have no reason to trade him to a contender at midseason, since they will already be contenders. If he doesn’t work out in a middle-leverage role, he’ll be cut. And if he does work out, he may have pigeonholed himself back into the far-less-lucrative setup man territory.
The Dodgers are probably hoping for a rebound from Perez, but given that they already had a whole bullpen full of better choices, and the fact that Perez’s average fastball velocity was the lowest of his career last year, there is little reason to expect such a rebound. On top of all that, there was no reason to lock him up for a major league job in early December when they could have waited for cheaper options to emerge. All things considered, this move just didn’t make any sense.
San Francisco Giants sign Joaquin Arias to two-year extension
Like Perez, Arias is a replacement-level player. He has one skill — he is above-average at third base defensively. The Giants have sometimes made use of this skill — Arias started at third base 18 times last season, but the bulk of his work there has come as a defensive replacement.
In his two seasons with the Giants, he has played 129 games at third base, but he has started just 57 of them, and has played a complete game at the hot corner just 51 times. He’s a defensive sub — around when the team wants to give Pablo Sandoval a breather, and on the bench when they don’t. Nevertheless, the team locked him into a two-year deal this week, to cover his last two arbitration years. The cost will be modest, so it’s an easily corrected mistake, but one that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
For one thing, Sandoval is a free agent after the 2014 season, and the Giants’ next starting third baseman might not need to be replaced defensively. Furthermore, Sandoval is once again in shape this year, and dare we say, the best shape of his life. With such improved conditioning, he might not need to be replaced as frequently himself this season. After all, it’s not like he’s a defensive disaster — for his career, he has a positive UZR at the hot corner.
Finally, the team has Nick Noonan available at the league minimum salary. Like Arias, Noonan is a banjo-hitting utility infielder with a good glove. The difference is that Noonan is a lot further from arbitration, and will make less for the foreseeable future.
Having Arias around this year isn’t the worst thing in the world, but given that the Giants don’t know what third base will look like next year and have a league-minimum earner around in Noonan, it wasn’t necessary to lock in Arias for a second year.
Detroit Tigers trade Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for Robbie Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi
The Nationals may have got the steal of the offseason with this deal. Last year, Fister’s 4.6 WAR (per FanGraphs) made him the 12th-most valuable pitcher in the majors, and over the past three years, only eight pitchers have had a higher WAR.
For their trouble, the Tigers got a utility infielder that they didn’t really need and two pitchers who don’t figure to crack their starting rotation and have just a grand total of 31 innings pitched above Double-A. Ray is a decent prospect, but for a team that is trying to win the World Series right now, this was a perplexing move. The Mariners were the first team to be burned when they got too little in return for Fister, and the Tigers will almost assuredly be the second.
Nationals sign Nate McLouth to two-year deal
McLouth is a good player and the Nationals had some depth issues with their outfield last year. So on the surface, this signing makes perfect sense. But then you read things like the team expects to give him “significant at-bats,” and you see that he will be paid more than $5 million a season, which is more than what most fourth outfielders make. And you start to wonder, exactly how is this arrangement going to work?
By signing this contract, the Nationals are essentially saying that they are confident that one of their corner outfielders — Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth — will get hurt at some point. And maybe that will happen. But what if it doesn’t? What if they’re healthy all season? McLouth is a nice player, but any day he spends in the lineup in front of a healthy Harper or Werth is a day where the Nationals don’t have their best team on the field. McLouth on his best day might be as good as Harper or Werth on their worst, but you’d have to squint to see it. In the past three seasons, McLouth’s best wRC+ is an even 100; that is also Werth’s worst. Harper’s wRC+ hasn’t yet dipped beneath 121, and probably won’t any time soon.
Perhaps the Nationals want to play McLouth in center, but that wouldn’t be a great idea. McLouth hasn’t played significant innings in center since 2011, and he hasn’t played well in center since 2009, and that was really the only season out of his five with significant time in center field in which he was actually valuable.
Scott Hairston would be a better bet to play over Denard Span if he needs a breather. For one, Hairston hits right-handed, which better complements Span. For another, he has played a better defensive center field in his career than McLouth. For their careers, Hairston has been worth 3.4 UZR per 150 games in center, while McLouth’s UZR/150 is minus-12.3. And when you throw in the fact that both McLouth and Span hit left-handed and that Span is McLouth’s equal at the plate and clear superior with the glove (Span’s UZR/150 in center is 6.1), it’s hard to see how you would justify playing McLouth over Span at all, never mind in center field.
McLouth is a nice player, but he is inferior to all three of Washington’s starting outfielders, and in certain situations — specifically against left-handed pitchers — he is inferior to Hairston as well. So unless one of the other four outfielders lands on the disabled list, giving McLouth that aforementioned significant playing time will be a mistake.
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