Mystery Team, Make Your Move

There are plenty of moves that, from the outside, look fairly predictable. The Tigers want a proven closer, and Joe Nathan is looking for a job shutting the door for a contender. The Giants are looking for another starting pitcher with some upside, and Dan Haren wants to go back and pitch on the west coast again. The Mariners need a leadoff hitter and a center fielder, and Jacoby Ellsbury is looking for his first and probably only long term contract.

There are players and teams that look tailor made for each other, but more often than we might expect, the baseball off-season surprises us. The often mocked “mystery team” has been making more and more appearances of late, with teams signing or trading for players who weren’t such obvious fits at the beginning of the off-season. It’s happened so often that maybe we should begin to expect the unexpected. So, here are three acquisitions that might not seem so obvious from the outlook, but should be candidates for surprise transactions that make sense in retrospect.

New York Mets sign Robinson Cano.

The Mets currently have two players under contract for 2014 — David Wright and Jon Niese — and they account for just $25 million in salary obligations. The team has another 11 players who are up for arbitration, meaning that the Mets control their rights and will be on the hook for some salary north of the league minimum, but even if the Mets brought all 11 of those players back (an unlikely result at best), they’d still only be on the hook for approximately another $25 million or so between them, leaving them with at least $40 to $50 million to spend this winter just to get back to their 2013 payroll levels. If they use some of the money the league has distributed to the teams from the national TV contracts, they could go even north of that, maybe even pushing to $60 or $70 million in additional spending.

The Yankees are dancing with the luxury tax, and seem to have been turned off to long term free agent deals by some of their recent signings. Cano is Jay-Z’s first big client, and as such, he probably isn’t in a position to give the Yankees a big discount. Perhaps the Mets should make everyone happy, allowing Cano to land a monstrous contract while also staying in New York, but letting the Yankees off the hook for another 10 year deal that probably won’t end all that well.

With the ownership’s financial situation hindering the team’s spending in recent years, the Mets fan base could use a jolt of energy, and few things would invigorate Queens like stealing the Yankees best player. While a 10 year, $250 million commitment might appear like an albatross waiting to happen, the Mets have the current budget space and the long term financial capability to make such a bold move work, and Cano would transform a Mets line-up that could desperately use an elite left-handed stick.

The Mets should be one of the most aggressive spending teams this winter, and Cano is the best player on the market. They’ve got the geographic advantage in allowing him to remain entrenched in New York, and have the financial capability to let Jay-Z make his first big splash while showing that he won’t be beholden to the Yankees. They have the need and the cash, and putting Cano on the Mets would would make the Subway Series a fun rivalry once more.

Oakland A’s acquire Max Scherzer.

Billy Beane and his crew have kept the A’s alive by hoarding draft picks and trading stars away before they get too expensive, so they’re not the kind of team you expect to give up the farm to acquire a guy who is a year away from free agency. However, the A’s have a contending roster in place, and just need one more good piece to push them into being a legitimate World Series contender, and Max Scherzer could be that piece.

Even with the expected Cy Young Award in his back pocket, Scherzer’s unlikely to get more than $15 million in arbitration this winter, meaning that he’ll be relatively affordable in terms of salary compared to other elite players at his level. And Scherzer could be a difference maker in a rotation that lacks a front line starter.

Bartolo Colon gave the A’s a miraculous performance in 2013, but when the postseason rolled around, it became clear once again that Oakland didn’t have any arms that could match up against Scherzer or Justin Verlander, and for the second year in a row, the Tigers power arms sent the A’s home in the first round. Now, however, the Tigers probably can’t afford to keep all of their star players for the long term, and might choose to cash in on Scherzer before he commands a $150 million contract next winter. And the A’s should capitalize on the Tigers need to rearrange their roster.

The A’s control the rights to Yoenis Cespedes for another two years, and the Tigers are looking to get more athletic in the outfield. Cespedes is exactly the kind of player that could convince Dave Dombrowski to make Scherzer available, and if the A’s could work in additional pieces to get Andy Dirks coming back to Oakland, they could use their outfield depth to rent-an-ace and make a run at winning it all in 2014. Yes, they won’t be able to sign Scherzer to an extension, but if they acquire him this off-season, they’ll be able to turn his exit into a 2015 draft pick, which has extra value to teams like the A’s who need to build through the draft. Getting a full year of a legitimate ace and then collecting draft pick compensation next winter when he walks should be enough to entice the A’s to make a bold move for a player who could put them over the top.

Kansas City Royals acquire David Price

Last year, the Royals and Rays hooked up on perhaps the most notable trade of the winter, with the Rays sending James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City in exchange for super prospect Wil Myers and a few less prospects not quite as super. It was the Royals declaration that they were tired of losing and tired of waiting for the future, so they were pushing their chips and making a run when they saw the opportunity. They did win 86 games, but finished well behind Detroit and Cleveland in the AL Central race, and now they face a 2014 season that could be Shields’ last year in Kansas City, as he’s set to hit free agency next winter.

So Dayton Moore should go back to the well and make another trade with the Rays to bring in a frontline starting pitcher. This time, the Rays are going to be looking for a buyer for David Price, and the price again is going to be steep. However, the Royals have already pushed their chips into the middle of the pile, and backing off now because of concerns about what it might do to their future could leave them stranded in a position where they’re not good enough in 2014 and not good enough to contend after Shields’ off-season exit. The Myers trade made this their window, and they should do what they can to make sure they give themselves a real opportunity to take advantage of their chance to win.

Maybe it costs them Eric Hosmer, who would certainly appeal to Tampa Bay as a cheap young first baseman. Or maybe it’s Billy Butler and flame-throwing pitching prospect Yordano Ventura headlining the package. Price isn’t going to come cheap, and like with the Shields trade, it’s probably going to require giving up some talent from their 2014 roster in order to outbid other interested suitors. But Hosmer and Butler could be replaced, at least in the short term, while Price would give the Royals another frontline player to allow them to make a serious run at a Detroit team that might be in for a step back next year.

The cost is again going to be painful, but the Royals made the decision to push the gas pedal last winter, and slamming on the breaks right before you go crashing through the wall only leads to a totaled vehicle. At this point, it should be pedal to the metal, and the Royals have the pieces that could get Price. If it works, and a playoff push leads to an attendance surge, maybe they even find a way to re-sign Shields next year, and then can flip Price in 12 months to recoup some of the talent they gave up to borrow him for a year. And if it doesn’t, well, at least they really tried.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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Micah Stupak

Wow…you know, as a Tigers fan, that’s the first scenario I have heard that makes me enthusiastic about Scherzer leaving (even though I know it is a distinct possibility). I mean, I have heard other scenarios that are outlandish in likelihood, even if they are pleasing, but I ain’t gonna get excited about those. This one seems both possible and worthwhile.


Cardinals as a dark horse for Ellsbury?


Robinson Cano to the Mets makes sense to me, despite saying no 100M+ contracts.

They have plenty of money to spend (short and long term), desperately need offense (especially up the middle), plus the need to boost excitement around their fans igniting ticket sales. “Stealing” Robinson Cano from the cross-town, evil empire Yankees would be a marketing dream for them to create a buzz and fill seats.

The Mets currently have young cheap pitching and will not need to hit the open market for a front-line starter anytime soon (knock on wood). Spending to acquire the big ticket starter is certainly one of the most expensive endeavors in baseball today.

Lastly, David Wright is 31 y/o and inked for 8 years and certainly not getting any younger. Adding a player of Cano’s caliber to hit back to back with Wright will get the best out of their current expensive piece and automatically give them a legitimate middle of the order threat starting in 2014.

In Sandy We Trust.