The five best American League off-seasons

All along, the goal was never to be the winner of the offseason. The goal is and always will be to win the World Series.

Two offseasons ago when the Angels acquired Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson — arguably the two best players on the free agent market that winter — they became the overnight consensus to win the October Classic. The result was, however, an 89-win, 3rd place finish in the American League West.

The following year — last season — the Toronto Blue Jays acquired, notably, RHP Josh Johnson, shortstop Jose Reyes and LHP Mark Beuhrle from the Marlins in one of their typical every-five-years fire sales. Their result was less favorable than LAA, as the Jays managed to scrape out only 74 wins, with Josh Johnson recording a mere 81.1 innings on the bump in a lost season, and the injury-prone Jose Reyes to become… well, injured. He played in only 93 games and, mainly thanks to numerous injuries that depleted virtually the entire starting rotation, the Blue Jays went from being the winners of the 2013 offseason to last place in the AL East.

The moral to the story — to keep it brief — is an apparently great offseason does not equate to a division championship or, god willing, a World Series title. In fact, recent evidence suggests the opposite is actually true: The teams who “win” the offseason — according to most pundits — are the ones spending the most money, filling the most holes on its roster. Money solves a lot of problems, but in baseball there’s a distinct difference between spending money just to spend it, and still being smart with it.

With that as a vague attempt at explaining my feelings about the perception and reality of the offseason, below are who I think have had the five best offseasons, starting with the 5th-best:

5. New York Yankees

After signing Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees are undoubtedly considered the “winners of the offseason” in many people’s eyes. Let’s face it, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran — albeit expensive as hell — represent a third of the Yankee offense in 2014, at least in terms of filling up the lineup card. Combine that with a (possibly) healthy Mark Teixeira, a (possibly but probably not) healthy Brian Roberts, as well as Brent Gardner and Alfonso Soriano, and New York should be one of the better offenses in the American League.

The problem, however, is in the pitching. The rotation is either declining or aging — or a complete fucking question mark — but mostly declining. C.C. Sabathia isn’t close to what he once was, Huroki Kuroda is still effective (though how long can you continue hoping for #2 starter production from an almost-40-year-old?), with the question marks being all of Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and, of course, Masahiro Tanaka.

Strictly from a wins-added perspective, the Yankees very likely purchased more wins this offseason than any team in baseball. That has to count for something. Still, if you are adding $432 million in future payroll commitment, I’d prefer it was spent for a team that had a more reasonable chance than they do to make the playoffs. Blowing  money is cool, and getting big name players never gets old, but the Yanks put too much cash in the wrong places, and adding wins doesn’t mean much when all it solves is making it back up to .500.

4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim But No Seriously It’s Really Just Anaheim

The winter started off shaky. Jerry DiPoto traded away Mike Scioscia Doghouse center fielder, Peter Bourjos, for the meager return of former Cardinal 3rd baseman, David Freese. At the time I thought the trade was a little silly for the Angels, but in retrospect it was the only move I could consider “bad” from their offseason.

Trading away Mark Trumbo’s sheer worthlessness in every aspect of the game outside of hitting mammoth home runs, occasionally, while netting LHPs Tyler Skaggs (from Arizona) and Hector Santiago (from Chicago) might be the single most shrewd transaction since the playoffs ended.

They also signed RHP Joe Smith from the Indians for three years and $15.75 million, at least giving them another warm body for their anemic bullpen. (Since 2012 the Angels rank 26th in MLB with +2.2 reliever fWAR.)

We know Mike Trout is amazing, and there’s a decent chance Albert Pujols and/or Josh Hamilton don’t continue to be either injured or sucky, so a rotation of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards could propel them to the second wild card spot in 2014.

3. Texas Rangers

Even while shedding David Murphy, A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman — replaceable parts — going into the offseason the Rangers were still, on paper, probably the best team in the AL West, even in spite of back-to-back runner up finishes. But when you have a star like Yu Darvish, a Hall of Famer soon to be entering the twilight of his career like Adrian Beltre, and an otherwise youthful and talented class of players about to enter the prime of their careers, there’s no time for a general manager to sit back and get fat. These are the years you have to go for it.

And go for it Jon Daniels has. It started with the November blockbuster trade, shipping longtime 2B Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for 1B Prince Fielder. I wasn’t particularly fond of the move when it happened, but I acknowledge some of that may have been because Kins was my favorite player. With a couple months to reflect, for the progression of the franchise it was something that had to be done; now Jurickson Profar can play full time and there’s no more logjam in the middle infield. For that, I’ll call the trade a push instead of a The Sky Is Fucking Falling loss for the Rangers.

The other big move was signing outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, the second-best hitter on the market this side of Robinson Cano. If Choo comes even marginally close to his career .288/.389/.465 (135 wRC+) triple slash line, the Rangers have themselves a third quality bat to team up with Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre in the middle of the order.

Conflate these moves by the minor re-signing of Jason Frasor and Craig-Gentry-for-Michael-Choice swap, and Texas looks to be the frontrunner in the AL West, possibly the AL in full.

2. Kansas City Royals

Can you guess who the Royals have used as their 2nd baseman for 449 of a possible 648 games — roughly 70% of the time — since 2010? Who? Chris Getz? Yes. Chris Getz. In return, Getz has been the definition of a replacement-level player, generating just +0.6 fWAR over the last four years.

His replacement, Omar Infante, was signed for four years, $32 million a couple months ago. I’m not crazy about the amount of money Infante will be paid, but just the fact that he’s stepping into a position that almost literally could not get any worse is a positive. Since 2010 Infante has produced +8.2 fWAR, about eight wins better than Getz over the same time frame. I’m not saying Omar is going to be the same player in his age 33-36 seasons as he was in his age 29-32 years between 2010 and 2013, but his defense alone should pay for that contract.

The truly deft move of Dayton Moore’s offseason, though, was sending left-handed relief pitcher Will Smith to the Brewers for OF Norichika Aoki. While Smith posted a very respectable 2.38 ERA (2.35 xFIP) in 29.1 innings, this is clearly the Royals cashing in on an expendable piece from an already dominant bullpen. Aoki is easily a +2.0 win replacement over the consistently-below-average Jeff Francoer, who has generated -2.8 fWAR over the last two seasons.

Their rotation is still a bit of a question mark, with the underwhelming Jason Vargas replacing Ervin Santana, who is probably the best remaining free agent. If their starting pitching can get relatively close to the +12.6 fWAR their starters posted last season, they could compete for the 2nd wild card, especially considering about +4.0 wins worth of replacement value from Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki in the field.

1. Minnesota Twins

This is a bit ridiculous, right? I’m just being a contrarian. I have to be being a contrarian right now.

The Twins could very likely be competing with teams like the White Sox and Astros for the worst record in the American League in 2014. In a way, out of 15 teams that sounds pretty bad. But it’s really not so terrible; it’s really more of a reflection of just how truly deep and talented the AL is as a whole. Even the lesser-tier teams — the ones you wouldn’t expect to compete for a pennant — like Baltimore, Toronto, New York and Seattle… even they should be good enough to be around .500.

Anyway, back to Minnesota.

They aren’t going to compete in 2014, but that doesn’t really matter. In baseball, success is a process, and for some teams it takes many years. For the Twins, it’s seemed like forever since they’ve competed, but with top-5 prospects like five-tool outfielder Byron Buxton and power-hitting 3B Miguel Sano, Minnesota is poised for a roster infusion. It’s coming.

To supplement the position player additions that should be coming by Opening Day 2015, the Twins signed a pair of middle-to-back-end of the rotation starters. First, a 4-year, $49 million commitment to RHP Ricky Nolasco (which looks extra brilliant since Matt Garza got essentially the same contract from Milwaukee), and the true steal of the offseason, Phillip Hughes for three years and $24 million.

Kind of crazy that Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes are going to a part of the oncoming Twins breakout, but it’s gonna happen. They might not be fun to watch next season, but during this offseason, the loser wins.

2 thoughts on “The five best American League off-seasons

  1. I honestly can’t believe Cleveland signed Jeff Francoer. Seriously, I don’t care if it’s a minor league deal. The signing alone boggles my mind.

    1. It’s typical for teams, particularly the good ones, to sign players like Jeff Francoeur. They (a) fill out the minor league rosters, (b) can shed some experience with up-and-coming prospects, and most obviously, (c) he actually COULD be a decent platoon player, if played properly.

      The Cardinals will have terrible outfield defense at the corners next season, so even though I wouldn’t want Francoeur on my team, it’s understandable that the Cardinals took a flier.

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