The 10 Worst Transactions Of The Winter

Major League teams are getting smarter. In prior years, we would have had easy pickings like the Barry Zito contract, the Carlos Lee signing, and even last year’s Vernon Wells acquisition. This year, there were some guys who got too much money, but there weren’t many instances of teams just paying through the nose for guys who just aren’t very good. I considered cutting this list down to just five transactions, honestly, as a few of the back-end ones have a decent chance of turning out okay for their respective teams, or the costs just are small enough that they aren’t really going to negatively effect the franchises in a big way. There were only a few deals this winter that I’d say teams are really going to regret long term. But, I said we’d do 10 of each, so here we go.

Like yesterday, the criteria is expected on field production, cost to acquire, and the impact the move will make in both the short run and long run for the franchise. These moves represent transactions where the team gave up something of legitimate value and, in my estimation, aren’t likely to get enough back in return to justify their investment.

#10 – Twins Sign Matt Capps for 1/4.75M

It’s a one year deal, so there’s no long term cost to the franchise. $5 million spent on another player wouldn’t have changed the Twins fortunes one way or another. But, still, it’s hard to understand why the Twins thought they needed to give Capps this kind of contract. He was a below replacement level reliever last year, watched his strikeout rate drop from 19.3% to 12.4%, and gave up home runs in a park where no one gives up home runs. And yet, only six relievers got larger contracts than Capps this winter. Darren Oliver got less. Francisco Cordero got less. LaTroy Hawkins got less. If the Twins wanted to spend $5 million on their bullpen, they could have gotten two or three decent arms for that. Instead, they got one mediocre arm who will continue to remind them that they could have still had Wilson Ramos instead.

#9 – Royals Sign Bruce Chen For 2/9M

Bruce Chen is 35-years-old and has been a below average pitcher for nearly his entire career, and he showed no real signs of improvement last year – his low ERA was essentially just about preventing hits with men on base. There’s no reason to think that Chen has turned a corner at this point in his career, and he’s still just a generic #5 starter nearing the end of his career. Better pitchers than Chen had to settle for minor league contracts. Meanwhile, the Royals decided to throw money at the type of pitcher that the rest of baseball has learned isn’t worth any kind of guarantee. For a team with a limited budget, efficiency is mandatory, and this isn’t a very good way to spend 10% of their overall budget.

#8 – Rangers Sign Joe Nathan For 2/14M

During his prime, Nathan was one of the best relievers in baseball. Then he had Tommy John surgery, spent a year on the DL, and was essentially a replacement level arm during his first year back on the mound in 2011. The velocity was still there and he still got a decent amount of strikeouts, but his extreme fly ball ways turned into a home run problem, and going to Texas probably isn’t going to alleviate that issue. Nathan’s a decent enough bounce back candidate, but that’s why they invented one year deals with incentives. At 2/14, the Rangers should have gotten a sure thing, but Nathan is a high-risk arm who hasn’t been a good pitcher since 2009. If Texas would have shown a bit more patience, they probably could have ended up with Ryan Madson instead.

#7 – Brewers Sign Aramis Ramirez For 3/36M

The Brewers knew they were losing Prince Fielder, and they wanted to sign a good hitter to defray some of the cost of having him walk away. Ramirez posted a 133 wRC+ last year, and at just $12 million per year, he fit into the Brewers budget. However, he’s a lousy defender who is headed for his age 34 season, was basically replacement level in 2010, and blocked off third base from Taylor Green, who probably could have provided some value at the hot corner for the league minimum and allowed the Brewers to spend their money upgrading at shortstop or at first base. Ramirez will probably be worth the money in 2012, but they’ve locked themselves into declining performance at the position for the next several years. There were better ways to spend $36 million this winter than by giving it to Ramirez.

#6 – Marlins Sign Mark Buehrle for 4/58M

The Marlins wanted to make a big splash this winter, and set their sights on most of the big name free agents on the market. Unfortunately for them, C.J. Wilson wanted to stay on the west coast, so they ended up with money burning a hole in their pocket and Mark Buehrle as the most willing recipient of that cash. Buehrle has been a durable pitcher with a long track record of success, but he turns 33 in March and has racked up a lot of miles on his left arm. Committing $14.5 million per year to sign a guy who relies on beating his peripherals is a bit scary to begin with – when you factor in his advancing age, this looks like a deal that could end poorly for the Marlins.

#5 – Nationals Acquire Gio Gonzalez For Brad Peacock, Derek Norris, A.J. Cole, and Tom Milone

If you think Gio Gonzalez’s ERA the last two seasons are more indicative of what we should expect going forward, then the Nationals made a nice trade and this will work out well for them. I’m more of the mind that he’s due for a pretty significant step backwards, though, which makes him more of a good pitcher than any kind of ace, and the command problems offer enough risk of collapse to be a real concern. And, for me, the cost of acquiring that kind of high risk arm was too high, especially when you factor in Gonzalez’s Super-Two status, which necessitated a 5 year, $42 million extension to buy out his arbitration years. It’s one thing to give up three good prospects and a potential back-end starter for a guy who provides a lot of value at a low cost, but Gonzalez is no longer all that cheap. The Nationals could have spent $40 million in free agency and walked away with a +3 win player while maintaining depth on the farm. Unless Gonzalez takes a big leap forward, this looks like an overpay to me.

#4 – Rockies Sign Michael Cuddyer For 3/31M

Cuddyer gets a lot of bonus points in the game for his versatility and his leadership. Unfortunately, he just plays a lot of positions poorly, and his character doesn’t make up for the fact that the Rockies spent $30 million to tread water in the outfield. Cuddyer is a marginal upgrade at best over Seth Smith, who was shipped out for some magic beans after losing his job when Cuddyer was signed to play right field. He’s an okay but not great hitter who will be 33 when the season begins, and he’s never shown much value with the glove. The Rockies needed to make some real improvements this winter, but instead, their primary acquisition was just a more expensive, older version of what they already had. They could have simply kept Smith, gotten a real platoon partner for him, and then spent the remaining money upgrading third base or the rotation. As it is, they’ve locked themselves into a mediocre player headed into his decline phase.

#3 – Marlins Sign Heath Bell for 3/27M

This deal doesn’t really make sense from a baseball perspective, as Bell’s declining strikeout rates, advancing age, and need to sustain low HR/FB rates while leaving Petco Park make him a guy with numerous red flags. In fact, the only argument I’ve seen in favor of this deal were that Bell was brought in as a lure to show other free agents that the team was serious about winning. Even on that criteria, though, the deal didn’t work – Wilson and Albert Pujols both went to Anaheim instead, and the Marlins certainly didn’t get a discount on signing Buehrle because Bell was going to be his teammate. The Marlins didn’t need to give Bell three years to land a quality reliever, and there’s a good chance they’ll regret this contract sooner than later.

#2 – Tigers Sign Prince Fielder for 9/214M

Prince Fielder is a good player, but this is three years and about $70 million too much for what he brings to the table. Yes, the Tigers are in win-now mode, and yes, Fielder makes them better in the short term, but the reality is that if the Tigers had this kind of payroll flexibility, they should have simply been far more active earlier in the off-season, as they could have improved their roster significantly more by spreading the cash around to bring in multiple players and fill a number of holes. Instead, the team overreacted to the Victor Martinez injury and compromised the long term health of the organization for a short term gain in the standings. The fact that Mike Illitch might not be around to see the end of the contract doesn’t make the deal any less damaging to the Tigers franchise – it just means that the current owner is borrowing from the next owner’s pockets in order to achieve his own personal goal. Of all the moves made this winter, this is the one that has the potential to really cripple a franchise – they need it to pay off in 2012, because the long term costs of this deal are going to be extremely harmful to the organization.

#1 – Phillies Sign Jonathan Papelbon for 4/50M.

The Tigers overpaid and got a star. The Phillies overpaid and got a reliever, then had salt rubbed in the wound when the reliever they were replacing ended up signing with another NL contender for 17% of the guaranteed money they gave Papelbon. The list of big contracts for free agent relievers that have turned out well is extremely short, and while Papelbon has been a very good reliever thus far in his career, he’s not without his own set of risks. For a team that had other holes to fill, this just wasn’t a good use of resources, especially with the glut of relievers on the market. By exercising a little more patience, the Phillies could have walked away with a good closer, a real answer in left field, upgraded their bench, and had enough left over to convince Roy Oswalt to return. Instead, they decided to go all-in on a ninth inning upgrade that might not even turn out to be a big upgrade.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.



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fjmanuel
Guest
fjmanuel

ilitch’s own personal goal is to win the world series. that’s every team’s goal. the goal isn’t to have the best $/WAR ratio. the criticism that this money should have been available since the beginning of free agency so that they could have made other moves is valid, but who knows what ilitch was willing to do? it makes him a bad owner to use his money to go above budget to sign a premier bat?

i’m sure if the tigers win the world series in the next few years they’ll really be upset that ilitch did such horrible damage to the franchise.

Slartibartfast
Guest
Slartibartfast

It’s going to be an albatross of a contract from 2015-2020 no matter what. The only way it’s justified is if they win in the next few years. Everyone knows Illitch is trying to win before he dies… that’s great for him – it’s just a horrible way to run a franchise.

Me? I’ll take the opposite front office strategy ala Tampa Bay.

fjmanuel
Guest
fjmanuel

yea, i love tampa! never spending any money, despite the clear need of it in certain situations. a strategy for every franchise to emulate!

NEPP
Guest
NEPP

Mike Illitch is 82 years old…he doesnt give a damn about 2015-2020. He just wants to win a WS before he dies.

rea
Guest
rea

Well, he’s getting the money that went to Ordonez and Guillen last year to sit on the DL. The Tigers can afford it, hell it’s less than 43 million Hot ‘n Ready Pizzas!

Dandy Salderson
Member

This. Gotta respect an owner willing to do what Ilitch did, especially in the city he is in.

Slartibartfast
Guest
Slartibartfast

…seriously? He basically shit all over the city and said: “I don’t give a fuck what happens after I die, you guys can lose 100 games and get moved to New Jersey for all I care, I just want to win while I’m still alive. PS – being a billionaire is awesome, you guys can suck it”

fjmanuel
Guest
fjmanuel

are you really so stupid as to say that an owner spending hundreds of millions of his own money is saying fuck you to a city?

i mean honestly, how dumb can you be?

Slartibartfast
Guest
Slartibartfast

You must not understand the meta-game that baseball front offices play. That’s ok. Keep reading Fangraphs and other great baseball sites. There’s a lot of good info out there. Start with the glossary here.

chuckb
Member
Member
chuckb

Shouldn’t there have been more respect for a guy had he gone out and attempted to fill several holes early in the offseason without crippling the team’s chances of competing long after he’s around to bear the brunt of the city’s frustration?

glenstein
Guest
glenstein

@Slartibartfast, wow. If you’re not careful, Ilitch is going to choke to death from all those words you’re putting in his mouth.

The Real Neal
Guest

I hope at some point someone points out that the Fielder contract is does not really “compromise the long term health of the franchise”. It’s hyperbole, backed by no evidence whatsoever. The Giants won the world series with Barry Zito’s contract. The Red Sox payed Carl Crawford a lot of money to be a replacement level player last year.

Yes, if Fielder ages poorly, it could be a contract that makes things difficult five years from now. It’s not determined to be franchise crippler.

Slartibartfast
Guest
Slartibartfast

Spending money inefficiently is a franchise crippler in high quantities. Is one contract alone enough to sink a franchise? Of course not. But it’s still damaging in the long run. Can you overcome that damage? Yes. Is it still bad and avoidable? Yes.

Ari Collins
Guest
Ari Collins

Slart’s last comment is right on.

And Crawford’s deal, while it should look better with some regression in performance, is a bad deal that IS crippling Boston. Without Crawford’s deal, they’d have Jackson or Oswalt right now. Or Reyes. Or anyone else who could help them more.

Of course, the contract that has really hurt Boston is Lackey’s, one that was a clear mistake at the time and is really biting them on the ass now.

suicide squeeze
Member
Member
suicide squeeze

@ The Real Neal: Yes, the Giants won with Zito, but in general having a huge contract on the books will limit your ability to spend elsewhere. While the Giants show that it may not “cripple” you, it sure doesn’t help. Lots of other teams with those large contract (eg. Cubs with Soriano) don’t do well.

Llewdor
Member
Llewdor

@fjmanuel:

It’s not Ilitch’s money, it’s the team’s money. It’s money the team will need in 2015-2020, but they won’t have it because their former owner gave it away.

Tigers fans are going to have to suffer through several years of that albatross contract just to grant Ilitch’s dying wish.

Desert Rat
Guest
Desert Rat

I’m looking forward the end of the fad in which people simply write “this” and think it amounts to intelligent commentary.

The Real Neal
Guest

Let’s just say that I find it extremely amusing that everyone is 100% sure that Fielder will be a league average hitter only capable of playing DH in 3 years.

You’ve got to learn to take Dave’s opinion with a grain of salt. Dave was sure that Matt Garza and Aaron Harang were the same pitchers last off-season. He is sure that UZR correctly values players defensive skills (which is a large part of his anti-Fielder rhetoric and pro-Reyes crusade and the same belief that was the downfall of his beloved Mariners 2 years ago). He belittled Dempster’s 2004 contract, which by his own calculations yielded about $20 million in surplus value.

He thinks the Phillies could sign Oswalt, an established closer, a starting left fielder and a useful bench player for $12.5 million. Someone give me the names of those three other players.

If you’re just going to regurgetate Fangraph WAR values, like the be all end all, you’re not really adding anything to the conversation. We can all look those up.

MisterE
Guest
MisterE

Ilitch has given back a lot to his economically devasted city, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that his interest in winning a World Series is as much about sharing it with the citizens of Detroit and being able to enjoy that much-needed victory with them. It’s not just about one rich man’s ego trip. Sure, it makes bad baseball sense in the long run, but the people of Detroit won’t savor a championship any less because of what might happen four or five years from now. Maybe the city will be in better shape then, and they won’t need the emotional lift of a championship as much as they could use it now. I’m not going to bash the guy for wanting to see his city share some joy.

suicide squeeze
Member
Member
suicide squeeze

@ The Real Neal: Yes, Dave and other sabremetricists have been wrong before. We expect that to happen because we know forecasts by definition are wrong. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the data that can lead us to making educated guesses. Aging curves for players of Prince’s physique don’t shine an optimistic light on his future. And he already can’t play 1B well, so he’s basically a DH right now. I just don’t think you can make a reasonable claim that Fielder will live up to the contract,

Nathan
Guest
Nathan

@Slartibartfast

You have every right to criticize the move from a baseball/financial perspective. But you have no right to say that Ilitch doesn’t care about the city.

I’m guessing you’re probably from somewhere halfway across the country. If you were born and raised in Michigan, especially southeast Michigan, you would know how critically important Ilitch has been to this community. A lot of businesses have cut and run from Michigan, and Ilitch has always stayed and pumped money, and via the Red Wings and Tigers, good vibes into the community.

It might sound silly to you, but it means a whole hell of a lot to those of us that have grown up Red Wings and Tigers fans, and more importantly, even if he never bought those clubs, those of us that grew up and live in the area, and see all the other things he does with his cash around our towns.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

If I were a philanthropist with $214M lying around, I think I could find more beneficial ways to use it than giving it to a ballplayer.

Kevin
Guest

Spending money doesn’t make it a bad contract – spending money inefficiently does. Detroit could have signed Reyes (a better fit for that team) for half the money, used the excess to fill other holes in a very thin roster and came away significantly better than they are now.

fjmanuel
Guest
fjmanuel

maybe ilitch didn’t make the money available at that point, but after seeing how martinez’s injury may have significantly harmed the tigers chances of winning, he decided he’d make more money available.

byron
Member
Member
byron

If all of this money became available when Martinez got hurt, some of it should have been available before, when Reyes was available for half the price.

chuckb
Member
Member
chuckb

@ fjmanuel — that’s exactly the point. If the $ was there, he should have made it available early. If it wasn’t there, why did he loot the vault to throw it at a guy who won’t be valuable at all in 4-5 years?

The Fielder signing was an overreaction to Martinez’s injury. That’s a poor decision. He panicked when his DH got hurt and threw $200 M + at the problem.

q
Guest
q

“maybe ilitch didn’t make the money available at that point, but after seeing how martinez’s injury may have significantly harmed the tigers chances of winning, he decided he’d make more money available.”

That is not at all consistent with the theory that Ilitch is in “win-now” mode due to his age. Before Martinez got hurt, Detroit was not anywhere close to World Series favorites. If Ilitch truly wanted a World Series win before he died, he could have ponied up the money for Pujols AND Reyes.

The Real Neal
Guest

Maybe Detroit wants players who actually, you know play the game, instead of sitting on the bench during the playoffs because of injured legs.

Nate
Guest
Nate

In response to those who think Ilitch just pulled $$ out of his pocket when Martinez went down, sometimes teams have insurance policies that they can cash in on when a player gets injured. I’m not saying they did, but if they did, maybe that’s where the extra dough came from.

byron
Member
Member
byron

Nate, everyone reported that insurance was picking up somewhere between half and 100% of Martinez’s 2012 salary. That’s a nice chunk of change to put towards picking up a player, but it’s not denting $214 million.

Stan
Guest
Stan

I can see your points on Fielder, but how can you put his deal on there and ignore Pujols’ deal? Almost 70% of ESPN’s readers thought the Fielder deal was better than the Pujols deal. Obviously I’m one of them. Sure the Fielder deal is an albatross, but since he’s at least 4 years younger than Pujols its actually much more reasonable.

CFIC
Guest
CFIC

espn? heh

Lanidrac
Guest
Lanidrac

I agree. 9 years for a 27 year old is much better than 10 years for a 32 year old, even considering Fielder’s more husky frame.

Casey
Guest
Casey

Guy on the internet probably knows better than the billionaire entrepreneur and sports mogul.

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