MLB 2012 Season Preview
21 Winter Moves
As the Major League Baseball offseason winds to a close, the time has come to look back at the winter’s most significant, and potentially significant, moves. From $200 million-plus contracts for slugging first basemen to under-the-radar trades for hidden gems, it has been an offseason of surprises and dramatic power shifts. Here we discuss the 21 most intriguing moves of the offseason, and find out who has won before a pitch has been thrown.
Albert Pujols and C. J. Wilson to the Angels
Last winter the Angels were licking their wounds after missing out on Carl Crawford. He was to be their new franchise player, but he signed with the Red Sox. It sounded like a Red Sox victory back then, but Crawford had his worst-ever season in 2011. A player that talented will surely come back, but now the Angels have to feel pretty good. The money they would have spent on Crawford made them the clear winners of the 2012 off-season. They signed the best pitcher, C. J. Wilson, to lead their rotation, and they signed the best hitter, Albert Pujols, to become the face of their franchise. Pujols is not only the best hitter in the free agent pool, but there are those who would call him the best hitter in baseball…history…ever. He is 32, and whether his 10-year, $240 million contract will look good five years from now is a question. But if the Angels win it all at any point during his contract, then it will all feel worthwhile. There are also the intangibles of injecting such hope and enthusiasm into a large potential fan base, southern California, which has not always embraced the Angels. The team’s accountants will also factor in t-shirt sales and TV rights, and I’m guessing that a lot of that $240 million will come back into Angelic coffers. Smart moves to win over fans and put the Angels back on the baseball map.
Prince Fielder to Detroit
This mountain of a man exemplifies why we love to watch baseball. He plays with joy and has a bit of John Kruk about him—he doesn’t look like an athlete, and he’s got an “everyman belly,” but the dude can mash’em. He is one of a handful of truly elite hitters who can change a team overnight. Slip him into the #3 or 4-slot in the batting order and watch the RBIs pour in. Is he worth $214 million over 9 years? Detroit seems to think so, signing him quickly after learning that Victor Martinez was out for the season with an injury. In six years, Fielder’s deal might not look so good, but if they can win in the next three years, they’ll feel that the signing is well-justified. This was a passion signing—octogenarian Tigers owner Mike Ilitch wants to see his team win while he is healthy enough to enjoy the victory. It’s his money and he’s entitled to spend it as he pleases. It helps to encourage a win-now mentality if an owner is as elderly, and wealthy, as Ilitch is. Tigers fans are certainly thrilled, and with good reason. Fielder-Cabrera is double-trouble for pitchers, about as good a tandem as any ever to play, including the recent dynamic duo, Manny Ramirez-David Ortiz, and even old-timers like Ruth-Gehrig.
Yu Darvish to Texas
The ace of the Japanese league signed a six-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers to further strengthen their rotation and to off-set the loss of ace C. J. Wilson. Texas had to fork over $51.7 million just for exclusive negotiating rights with Darvish, but team president Nolan Ryan knows an ace when he sees one. Darvish has a better build than Daisuke Matsusaka, who starred for the Red Sox in his first season but has been unable to match the production since then. A tall, powerful, hard-thrower who is only 25, Darvish has the makings of a true, old-school ace. Whether he suffers the same fate as Dice-K remains to be seen.
Derek Lowe to the Indians
The Atlanta Braves sent ground-ball-inducing workhorse Derek Lowe to the Indians. Lowe works hard, keeps the ball in the park, and will give you 200 innings, keeping you in ballgames. He solidifies a young Indians rotation that could offer some surprises.
Manny Ramirez Un-Retires
The slugger, one of the best hitters in baseball history, has un-retired. That means that he will have to wait out a 50-game suspension for having tested positive for PED, and he has been a notoriously problematic figure in the clubhouse. But the man can hit. He will make a stellar DH for some team will to take him on and consider him a mid-season acquisition after his suspension ends. Possible destination: the A’s seem to like the cut of his jib.
Marco Scutaro to the Rockies
Scutaro was rock-solid for the Red Sox last year, and everyone assumed that he would be their starting shortstop this year. Defense prodigy Julio Iglesias (no relation to the lounge singer) is too lightweight a hitter for the majors, and he’s so young that he could do with another year or two of seasoning. But then they shipped off Scutaro to clear a bit of payroll room, not wanting to encroach on the dreaded Luxury Tax threshold, but still keen to sign an outfielder (Cody Ross) and starting pitcher (still hoping for Roy Oswalt). Scutaro is a great acquisition for the Rockies. He plays ball the right way, with guts and dirt under his nails, and his power will improve with Colorado’s mile-high atmosphere. The Red Sox, meanwhile, will look for a stop-gap solution and hope that Iglesias can man-up and hit just enough to warrant his inclusion in the Bigs. He only has to bat about .260, steal a few bases, and float in the #9 slot, and the Sox will be happy. They’ve got plenty of pop elsewhere, and love his defense. The job is really his to lose, but the Rockies are winners on this one.
Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs
After acquiring Rizzo as the centerpiece of the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox, the Padres surprised everyone by shipping him off to the Cubs. Sure, Rizzo had struggled in the Majors, but he ate Triple-A pitching alive, he’s young, and he has enormous upside. The Padres acquired another young, slugging first baseman who somehow leapt Rizzo in the pecking order. It’s an odd decision, since San Diego needs young bats. But they packed him off anyway for a good pitcher, and all of a sudden former Sox GM Theo Epstein has reacquired the jewel of his old franchise, a player who now becomes the first baseman of the future for the Cubs. It looks awfully good for Chicago, but only time will tell if a player of such promise blossoms into the star that most scouts project him to be.
Joe Nathan to the Rangers
This winter featured a glut of quality closers. Joe Nathan was one of the best, moving as a free agent from Minnesota to powerhouse Texas. Texas had a rock star closer, of course, in Neftali Feliz. But Feliz is trying his hand in the starting rotation, and Nathan will slide into the closer role. He throws hard and has had consistent results. He got a two-year deal, and his Tommy John surgery slowed him down a bit, but he should be a good signing whose presence allows Feliz to strut his stuff in the rotation.
Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies
GM Ruben Amaro almost re-signed closer Ryan Madson to a four-year, $40-plus million deal. But the Phillies owner stepped in and argued that, for that kind of money, they should get the best closer on the market, perhaps the second best closer in the baseball (nobody beats Mariano Rivera, much as a Sox fan hates to admit it). They snapped up Papelbon, who had led a hugely successful career with the Red Sox. Papelbon got the paycheck he wanted, the Phillies got the best possible closer, but they paid a pretty penny for him. If Papelbon continues to do what he has done in past seasons, destroying 9th inning opposition (with a few scares thrown in to keep fans on their toes), then the Phillies did well. But the price is had to swallow.
Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals
The Nationals, like the Marlins, are trying to build a consistent winner, but have trouble attracting the big names. As a result they’ve had to overpay for talent. Jayson Werth is a good hitter, but hardly the man you’d like to build your franchise around. Yet he got a $126 million contract, far more than he would’ve gotten elsewhere, because the Nats had to start somewhere. They have good young talents in Ryan Zimmerman and up-and-coming Bryce Harper. And they were able to trade for Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez. Like Michael Pineda, snatched by the Yankees, Gonzalez is an established, young, inexpensive talent who will immediately provide a great #2 behind Nats ace Stephen Strasburg. The price in prospects was high, but the Nationals understand that they might have to overpay in the short term to attract bigger names in the long run.
Grady Sizemore Stays Put
Sizemore has been all potential, and has put together some very good seasons. But injuries have hampered what should have been a starry career. It still could be. Sizemore should put up numbers along the lines of Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2011 season, when the hard-nosed center fielder batted leadoff but also ripped 32 home runs. When you get cleanup-hitter power out of a leadoff man who is also stealing bases, hitting for average, and playing solid defense, that’s about as good a situation as anyone could hope for. Remember back in the 90s when Baltimore’s sideburn-sporting Brady Anderson bashed 50 homers from the leadoff spot? Sizemore could chase such goals, but he has to stay healthy. He had offers from the Red Sox and elsewhere, but chose to remain in Cleveland, trying to rebuild his career and value in a place where he’s comfortable, and where he’s assured of playing time. If he stays healthy, Sizemore will have an Ellsbury-ian season.
Jimmy Rollins Remains in Philly
Speaking of staying put, some of the most interesting moves this offseason were those that did not require a moving van. Jimmy Rollins, like many post-30-year-old players, realized that his greatest value was in staying put. He was comfortable in Philadelphia, and appreciated there. He is not young enough or good enough to be a centerpiece, franchise player around which another team will build. We fans tend to forget that uprooting your family after years and moving to a new city isn’t as easy as it sounds, even if you’re a millionaire. How many teenage children would be happy about leaving all of their friends every few years when Dad signs a contract with a new team? There’s a lot to be said for staying put, remaining loyal, and recognizing a place where your value is far higher than it would be elsewhere, based on your numbers alone.
Bobby Valentine: Red Sox Manager
It was a shock when the Red Sox parted ways with Terry Francona. The best manager in Red Sox history, he seemed to have been a calm, balanced manager for a team that is very hard to manage. The Boston atmosphere is both exciting and exhausting for players and managers, with hyper-interested, passionate, and sometimes venomous fans. Francona knew how to handle it. When he stepped down, there was a gaping hole in that manager’s office. Good candidates were interviewed, but in the end the ownership called for someone who was not part of the initial interview process—Bobby Valentine. Valentine has had great success in Japan and as the Mets manager, but he is best known as an intelligent, outspoken ESPN analyst. He seems to divide fans quite sharply—many can’t stand him and many think he’s fantastic. He says what he thinks, which is always a good thing, and he is charismatic enough to absorb the Boston spotlight and never allow himself to be pushed around by players. Everyone agrees that Bobby V is a very smart, acute baseball mind, and he’s done all the right things in the offseason—he logged hundreds of miles, traveling to meet with Sox players at their homes and speaking with fans and the media. He’ll put on a good show and could be just the man for one of the most difficult manager jobs in baseball.
Beltran to the Cardinals
How do you fill a Pujols-shaped hole in the lineup? You don’t, simple as that—even a Prince Fielder-size bat would not have been adequate in St. Louis, where Pujols was an institution. So the Cards signed Carlos Beltran, the best outfield bat on the market, though an aging one. Beltran will team up with Matt Holiday and revitalized Lance Berkman, offering a very solid 3-4-5 in the World Series lineup. The Cards have gone from stellar to solid, but should still be able to compete—and to invest that $200 million they’d saved for the future. It can buy two teams’ worth of talent, and while Cards fans will be sad to see Prince Albert go, the money saved can lead to whole lot of baseball luvin’.
Aramis Ramirez to the Brewers
A Prince Fielder-sized gap in the lineup is only slightly smaller (and perhaps stouter) than a Pujols-shaped one. The Brew Crew had their chance last season, with Fielder-Braun bashing their way through the National League. They had a good run, but couldn’t quite make it to the World Series. With Fielder gone for financial reasons, they’ve added Aramis Ramirez. It’s hardly an even exchange, but Ramirez offers pop and should hit .270 with 30 home runs if he stays healthy.
Mat Latos to the Reds
It’s easy to forget about Cincinnati, but they have some real stars in Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto. They needed pitching, and got a potential strong #2 starter type in Mat Latos. It cost them, shipping 1st base prospect Yonder Alonso to the Padres. But Alonso was blocked by Votto (whom the Reds may struggle to keep as a free agent)—ironically, Alonso, who seemed slightly more finished than Padres 1st base prospect Anthony Rizzo, bumped Rizzo out to the Cubs, in a chain of events whose “winner” cannot yet be determined. All three players have loads of talent but have yet to prove themselves Major League stars.
Theo Epstein to the Cubs
For a Red Sox fan (guilty as charged) the biggest off-season gossip was about Epstein—would he leave the Red Sox after a failed season, or would he stay with his boyhood team and only allow himself to leave on a high note. He took the Cubs job. We Sox fans can only thank him for the wonders he achieved with our team, and wish him the best with the Cubbies. If anyone deserves a Red Sox-style makeover, courtesy of Epstein, it’s the Cubs. The Red Sox and Cubs were the two hard-luck teams in baseball, both with huge, enthusiastic fan bases but neither having won a World Series in decades. Then Epstein came along and, with Terry Francona, won two of them with the Red Sox, whooping the Yankees in the process. The Red Sox ghost was banished, and all of a sudden the Sox were the team to emulate, outdoing the Yankees for a number of years. The Cubs could use some of that good mojo, and they deserve it. Now if the Cubs would just fulfill their promise to provide a “significant” player as compensation to the Red Sox for allowing Epstein to leave his contract a year early…
Michael Pineda to the Yankees
The Yanks were awfully quiet this off-season, and that was a year after Brian Cashman had admitted that the Red Sox had “won’ the 2011 off-season. But of course the quiet ones often pack big sticks. Cashman stepped it up, re-signing C.C. Sabathia and then making a huge trade that could have a major upside. Most thought that Mariner’s pitcher Michael Pineda was untouchable. Young, inexpensive, and with knock-out stuff, he would form the core of the Seattle rotation. But the Yankees had the big bat that Seattle felt they needed. Jesus Montero, thought to be an untouchable Yankees prospect, was sent to Seattle. A mediocre catcher but a potentially Pujols-esque, fearsome DH, Montero may have had something about him that made the Yankees wary—otherwise why dangle him in a trade? But he smashed Major League pitching during his brief stint in the Bigs last year, and most scouts think he could be a perennial 30-home-run, 4 or 5-slot basher. The difference in this trade is that the Yankees got an established young star, while the Mariners got a potential young star. I’d guess that both teams will end up very happy with this trade, but in the short term, you’ve got to hand it to the Yankees.
Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes to the Marlins, Hanley Ramirez Moves to Third
The Marlins want to win, and are willing to spend big in order to do so. They’ve got a shiny new stadium, a new name and logo (that’s Miami Marlins to you, buddy), and they want to be players. They were in on Pujols and C. J. Wilson, they’re still in on Yoenis Cespedes, the promising Cuban outfielder. They’re not afraid to spend. And so they signed who they could—it can sometimes take awhile before a proactive ownership can attract the big-name stars to their team (see Washington Nationals as an example), but the Marlins got some solid soldiers. Jose Reyes is a sparkplug hitter who won a batting title and plays great defense. Mark Buehrle is the definition of the over-used pitcher’s term “workhorse.” He doesn’t produce flash, but he’ll give you 200 innings and keep you in ballgames. That’s precious these days. The Marlins’ star, Hanley Ramirez, has agreed to shift from shortstop to third base. He may have grumbled a bit en route, but having him in the lineup with Reyes is a must for the Marlins to succeed. They are an up-and-coming team with owners making good calls. They even took on one-time ace, but frequent basket-case Carlos Zambrano from the Cubs, who will eat most of his contract. That’s a high up-side if new manager Ozzie Guillen can harness Zambrano’s remarkable talent.
Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon to the Red Sox
The Red Sox let their all-star closer, Jonathan Papelbon walk on over to the Phillies for a four-year, $50 million contract. Papelbon had been looking forward to cashing in as a free agent, and cash-in he did. Is he worth $50 million? If the Phillies win the World Series in the next four years, and if Papelbon continues to dominate as he has, then sure. But that $50 million could be spent in many different ways. The Sox decided to replace Papelbon with two closers under-30, one an all-star. Andrew Bailey came over from the A’s and will slot in as the Red Sox closer, and the former Astros closer, Mark Melancon, will be his set-up man. The Sox have another former closer, Bobby Jenks, recovering from surgery, and should be well-covered in the 8th and 9th innings, all at a sliver of Papelbon’s price.
Michael Cuddyer to the Rockies
This off-season saw a handful of middle-level outfielders score big contracts and get hyped up perhaps more than their numbers, and impact, warrant. Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, and Cody Ross are all solid, and sometimes super, outfielders. But the feeding frenzy of attention that Cuddyer above all received was a surprise. Their numbers are not as consistent as the attention seemed to indicate. They strike many as 3rd/4th outfielder types, best suited to the role that Cody Ross will play in Boston (filling in for injured Carl Crawford and then platooning with new acquisition Ryan Sweeney when Crawford is back), rather than a centerpiece of your lineup. Could you imagine any of these guys hitting in the 3-4-5 slots in a stacked lineup? They got a lot of money and attention for a good #6 hitter, but Cuddyer particularly, the best of the group, could blossom in the thin air of Coors Field.
This sort of ranking system comes with a warning in the form of my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. The Sox were universally acclaimed as the victors of the 2011 offseason, having traded for Adrian Gonzalez and signed Carl Crawford for $142 million. They started off with a stumble out of the gates, struggling for the first month of the season. But then they rallied and ended the season with a terrific record, despite the consistent struggles of their big-bucks-signing left fielder, Crawford, who batted a “whopping” .255. Theirs was an almost-triumphant season. The Red Sox pulled everything together, and played great ball through many injuries and a poor performance from Crawford, who was meant to push them over the top, not to mention a disastrous campaign from workhorse John Lackey. They did win an impressive 90 games—usually enough to make the post-season. But then, on one fateful night against lowly Baltimore, the Sox lost and, as a result, the mighty Boston Red Sox did not make the playoffs. The world shifted against them, and what looked to be a terrific season, with great post-season prospects, came crashing down. The moral? Winning the off-season guarantees you nothing. Thankfully for us baseball fans, the new season is fast approaching.