Recent late-winter deals a mixed bag of bargains and busts
With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in roughly two weeks, the free agent market still features several prominent names, including outfielder Nelson Cruz, shortstop Stephen Drew, designated hitter Kendrys Morales and pitchers Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Ubaldo Jimenez, Fernando Rodney Ervin Santana. The cost of a draft pick has slowed or shrunk the market for many of those players (all but Arroyo, Burnett and Rodney from that aforementioned group), and that in turn may be causing a ripple effect, as some teams wait to have their minds made up for them by dwindling options. Others may simply be hoping for prices to fall so that they can find room in their tight budget.
Recent history is full of examples of teams signing players in February or even March — not the kind of last-legs, lucky-to-get-a-non-roster-invite moves that permeate those months but deals of more substance. Some of them were prominent free agents whose markets were slowed by the cost of lost draft picks, others were role players who had to wait their turn while general managers chased bigger names. What follows here is a look at the most notable late-winter deals — some that turned out great, some that were disasters — of the last five years. With one exception, all of them took place in February or March.
Oliver Perez, Mets: The Mets’ Feb. 2 signing of Perez to a three-year, $36 million deal is one for The Big Book of Bad Ideas. Though the enigmatic southpaw had resurrected his career in 2007 and ’08, delivering 63 starts with a 3.91 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine, he was utterly brutal upon returning to the fold, managing just 112 1/3 innings of 6.81 ERA work (-3.2 Wins Above Replacement) before being released in March 2011.
Ty Wigginton, Orioles, and Juan Cruz, Royals: Also working out suboptimally were a pair of two-year, $6 million deals for these respective journeymen, the former an infielder and the latter a reliever. The Orioles gave Wigginton more than 1,000 PA over the life of his deal, getting a combination of .258/.313/.409 hitting and shaky defensive work en route to 0.0 WAR. Cruz, a Type A free agent after putting up a 2.88 ERA with 12.6 strikeouts per nine for Arizona in 2007 and ’08, signed with the Royals on Feb. 28. Rocked for a 5.72 ERA in 50 1/3 innings, he was released in April 2010 after just five more appearances.
Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson, Dodgers: These two former All-Stars helped the Dodgers repeat as NL West champions and advance to the NLCS. On Feb. 6, they inked veteran lefty starter Wolf to a one-year contract worth just south of $5 million, about two-thirds of what they paid him on a similar deal two years earlier; he delivered 34 starts and 214 1/3 innings with a 3.23 ERA and 3.9 WAR. On Feb. 20, they added Hudson, a Type A free agent who took a pay cut from $6.25 million to $3.38 million plus incentives that could raise the total to $8 million. The O-Dog hit .283/.357/.417 en route to 4.0 WAR, earning All-Star and Gold Glove honors at second base.
Jim Thome, Twins: No Type A or B free agents slipped into the late winter this time around, and in fact the most notable late-winter deal actually took place on Jan. 25, not in February. That deal was a bargain basement one that panned out: the one-year, $1.5 million contract to which Minnesota signed 39-year-old slugger Jim Thome. In just 340 plate appearances, he mashed a team-high 25 taters, with a .283/.412/.627 line, good for 3.4 WAR, a showing that helped the Twins capture the AL Central.
Kevin Gregg, Blue Jays: Toronto signed the much-traveled righty reliever to a $2.75 million deal on Feb. 5. He saved a career-high 37 games with a solid 3.51 ERA that year and parlayed that performance into a contract with the Orioles in January 2011.
Joaquin Benoit, Rays, and Livan Hernandez, Nationals: Both of these righthanders made good on minor league deals. After missing all of 2009 due to rotator cuff surgery, Benoit resurrected his career by delivering a 1.34 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts and 1.6 walks per nine, a 2.3 WAR performance that springboarded him to a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Tigers the following winter. Hernandez, torched for a 5.74 ERA with four teams in 2008 and ’09, re-signed with Washington and posted a 3.66 ERA across 33 starts and 211 2/3 innings, good for 3.2 WAR.
Vladimir Guerrero, Orioles: Coming off a superficially solid 29-homer, .300/.345/.496 showing that helped the Rangers to their first World Series berth, Guerrero looked as though he still had some good years left in his bat. A Type A free agent, he wasn’t offered arbitration, so his signing didn’t carry the penalty of a lost draft pick. Though he sought a three-year contract, he was ultimately forced to settle for a one-year $7.6 million deal with Baltimore on Feb. 18, 10 days after his 36th birthday. His performance slipped to .290/.317/.416 with 13 homers, his WAR from 2.4 to 0.5, and despite no shortage of rumors as to further interest from teams — and a minor league deal with the Blue Jays — he never played another major league game.
Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez and Luis Ayala, Yankees: New York general manager Brian Cashman was a busy man in this February, adding three role players in the space of three days. He signed Jones to a $1.5 million deal as he came off a solid part-time showing with the White Sox, and the 34-year-old responded with a .247/.356/.495 line — his best slash marks since 2006 — with 13 homers in 222 plate appearances.
Less successful was a $1.5 million deal for Chavez, his first contract after 13 seasons in Oakland; the oft-injured 33-year-old third baseman hit just .263/.320/.356 in 175 plate appearances. A minor league deal with Ayala, a reliever who had been terrible in 2008 and ’09 and out of the majors entirely in 2010, paid off handsomely; the 33-year-old righty salvaged his career by giving the Yankees a 2.09 ERA in 56 innings en route to 1.5 WAR.
Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andy Pettitte, Yankees: Cashman was again the king of the late winter. On Feb. 21, he signed Ibanez, who was coming off a miserable −2.1 WAR season with the Phillies, to an incentive-based one-year deal with a $1.1 million base salary. In his age-40 season, Ibanez responded by bopping 19 homers in the regular season and playing a surprisingly serviceable leftfield, then added a trio of dramatic late-inning homers in the postseason. That same day, Cashman also re-signed Chavez to a deal with a $900,000 base salary plus incentives. For the first time since 2007, the oft-injured infielder avoided the disabled list, hitting .281/.348/.496 with 16 homers in 313 PA en route to 1.6 WAR.
Making waves but ultimately having less impact was the stealth comeback of Andy Pettitte after sitting out 2011. His $2.5 million deal, signed on March 16, yielded just 12 regular season starts due to a broken fibula, though he did deliver a 2.75 ERA, not to mention a pair of strong starts in the postseason.
Yoenis Cespedes, A’s: The biggest late-winter deal went to Cuban outfielder Cespedes, whom the A’s signed to a four-year, $36 million contract after the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued him an unblocking license, the paperwork necessary for a team to sign a Cuban defector. In his first year stateside, Cespedes hit .292/.356/.505 with 23 homers and 3.7 WAR, helping Oakland shock the baseball world by snatching the AL West from the Rangers.
Ryan Ludwick, Reds: Ludwick was an All-Star in 2008 and drove in 97 runs in 2009 for the Cardinals, but he slipped to a .244/.318/.391 showing with three teams in 2010 and ’11. He inked a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Reds on Feb. 8, then rebounded to hit .275/.346/.531 with 26 homers, his highest total since 2008, for NL Central champion Cincinnati.
Luis Ayala, Orioles: Ayala again signed late, this time getting a $925,000 deal with the Orioles on Feb. 10. He made good again too, with a 2.64 ERA in 75 innings en route to 1.8 WAR.
Casey Kotchman, Indians: Kotchman had resurrected his career with a strong showing in Tampa Bay the previous year, earning a $3 million deal with the Indians on Feb. 3. He slumped badly in Cleveland, however, finishing with a .229/.280/.333 line with −0.8 WAR in 500 plate appearances.
Michael Bourn, Indians: The change from the Type A/B compensation system to the qualifying offer one left two big-name free agents lingering into late winter. The first to sign was Bourn, whose market was likely slowed by rumors that he sought a $100 million deal. Instead, he settled for a four-year, $48 million contract with the Indians on Feb. 15. Alas, the 30-year-old centerfielder fell off to .263/.316 /.360 for his lowest OPS since 2008 and his lowest stolen base total (23) since 2007, when he was a bench player.
Kyle Lohse, Brewers: The second big-name to remain available the entire offseason was Lohse, who was coming off a career-best 4.3 WAR via a 2.86 ERA in 211 innings for the Cardinals. Despite that showing, Lohse had to wait until March 25 before landing a three-year, $33 million deal with Milwaukee. He didn’t join the team until near the end of spring training but still wound up making 32 starts with a 3.35 ERA, good for 3.3 WAR.
Joe Saunders, Mariners: Among the non-stars last offseason, Saunders waited until Feb. 12 to land a one-year, $6.5 million deal from the Mariners. Though he made 32 starts, his 5.26 ERA across 183 innings was 0.3 wins below replacement level.
Scott Hairston, Cubs: This two-year, $5 million deal looked like a headscratcher when it was completed on Feb. 10 and doesn’t look much better now. Hairston wound up playing just 52 games before being dealt to the Nationals, and in all hit just .191/.237/.414 in 174 plate appearances, a showing that was 0.8 wins below replacement.
Marlon Byrd, Mets: This may have been the best bargain of the past five years. Byrd got a minor league deal after a 2012 in which he hit just .210/.243/245 in 47 games for the Cubs and Red Sox and served a 50-game suspension for PEDs. All he did in 2013 was rebound to hit 21 homers with a .285/.330/.518 line for the Mets, who then traded him to the Pirates on Aug. 27, netting New York a pair of prospects. Pittsburgh got a .318/.357/.486 showing for the rest of the regular season, as Byrd not only helped them make the playoffs for the first time since 1992 but clubbed a two-run homer off Johnny Cueto in the team’s Wild Card Game win.