The off season is coming to a close and pitchers and catchers will soon report to Goodyear for Spring Training. Most importantly, yesterday’s signing of Prince Fielder puts a wrap on all of the big name talent changing scenery in 2012. I think it’s ripe time to start looking over the transactions that have been completed and determine a hot stove winner. It’s time to evaluate the General Managers and Owners and determine, not necessarily who acquired the most talent or spent the most money to do so, but who got the best bang for their buck and which organization used the resources at their disposal to most effectively maximize the benefit to their club. The expenditure of money isn’t an instant disqualifier, nor is the conservation of it, only the mismanagement of it. I would like to take a look at some of the more active front offices and determine who used their resources most effectively to fill positions of need. It is my hope that in writing this, I will determine Walt Jocketty and the Reds front office used their resources very effectively.
I’m not going to cover every team in Major League Baseball. For the purposes of this study, let’s stick to the handful of teams that have been widely considered the focus of Winter. I am talking about the Rangers, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, Tigers and of course, the Cincinnati Reds. I intend to make a case for why the Reds now find themselves in a position to be the biggest hot stove winners of all.
I’ll start with the new look Miami Marlins, possibly the most interesting organization of all due to the complete overhaul of the entire brand. From a short but significant change in address, to the creation of a new logo, new uniforms and a retooled roster, the Marlins are where it’s at in 2012. Unfortunately, you don’t accomplish all of these things without spending some cash. The Fish are on the hook for the three highest priced free-agent acquisitions signed this Winter not named Pujols or Fielder. With contracts of $106 million over six years (Jose Reyes), $58 million over four years (Mark Buehrle) and $27 million over three years (Heath Bell), Miami has ballooned the payroll from roughly $57 Million in 2011, to a projected 2012 commitment of $120 Million dollars. Miami is expecting much of these costs to be defrayed by increased ticket sales and attendance, merchandise sales, naming rights and other streams of revenue generated by their new diggs. These costs are not guaranteed however, and the success or failure of this project is still very uncertain.
I have no doubt Miami will be vastly improved, and I love what they have done this off season. I am impressed with the whole body of work, the entire rebranding, but I’m not convinced these moves have made the Marlins an NL East Champion, let alone a World Series Champion. I do believe the Fish can parlay these moves into a second place finish in the East and leapfrog the Atlanta Braves in the process. I believe Miami will now compete for a wildcard berth in a suddenly very tough division, but I don’t believe they did enough to edge out the Phillies and dominate the division. With all of the money spent on Reyes and Bell, I think the Marlins failed to address perhaps their biggest concern, starting pitching. The Fish doubled their payroll and added as much as $63 Million dollars in order to obtain a shortstop, a closer and a middle of the rotation arm, and they did so with one of the best shortstops in baseball already on their roster.
Now let’s take a look at what Cincinnati was able to accomplish in their bullpen. The Reds signed Ryan Madson to a one-year $8.5 million dollar contract with an option for 2013. This mutual option allows Cincinnati to defer some of the guaranteed earnings from 2012 into the following year if both the club and player choose to do so. Madson is 31-years old and is coming off a season that saw him post a 2.37 ERA and 62/16 K/BB ratio in 60 innings pitched with Philadelphia. Madson was 32 of 34 in save opportunities. Heath Bell cost the Fish $27 Million, which is only $.5M more than Madson per year, but Miami is locked in for three years on a player that will turn 35 in 2012. Bell posted a 2.36 ERA and 51/21 K/BB ratio in 62 innings pitched with San Diego, and was 43 of 48 in save opportunities with five blown saves. Not only is Madson younger, but his 2011 numbers are actually marginally better. When you consider Cincinnati obtained Madson’s services on a more club-friendly one-year contract with an option, it’s obvious they got the better bang for their buck.
Miami blew a huge portion of their wad on Jose Reyes, and I loved the move. In addition to redefining the look, feel and swagger of the team, the Marlins got in touch with the Latin fan base that shows strongly in that part of the country. This is one of those intangibles that can greatly affect the marketing and branding of an organization and manifest results in the form of marketing and merchandise revenue. There is no way to calculate or quantify what type of impact the tandem of Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez will have in the Miami community, fan base, clubhouse and wallet. Only time will tell whether Reyes was worth the six-year, $106 million dollar contract he got.
If Ryan Madson is Cincinnati’s answer to Heath Bell, Mat Latos would be the appropriate comparison for Mark Buehrle. Latos is a younger player with a smaller body of work and will cost the Reds somewhere in the ballpark of league minimum. Buehrle will be 33-years old in 2012 and cost the Marlins roughly $14.5 Million per year over four years. Latos is also four long years away from free agency, and instantly joins Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Johnny Cueto and Jay Bruce as Cincinnati’s core nucleus. There’s no doubt Buehrle is the bigger name right now, he has been the White Sox opening day starter for nearly a decade, but there is also very little debate about which player has a higher ceiling moving forward. Latos was acquired via trade, Buehrle was acquired via free agency, so this isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison and it becomes difficult to quantify the exact cost of each of player to their respective clubs, but if you look at just dollar figures, Cincinnati is the clear winner. When you consider that Miami could have saved the money they spent on Buehrle and traded for Latos as the Reds did, you begin to wonder if Walt Jocketty didn’t just dominate by thinking outside of the box. If the hot stove season is a battle of creativity, I have to give the nod to Cincinnati on this one. From a sabermetric point of view, Buehrle is marginally more valuable. With a WAR of 3.7, the former Southsider is worth approximately one more win than Latos who sports 2.6 wins above replacement.
Now let’s take a look at the AL West. The Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels essentially spent the hot stove season morphing into the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The Halos spent a hefty fortune on King Albert and locked him in well into his geriatric years. They also acquired C.J. Wilson, weakening the rival Rangers rotation, except not really, because Texas subsequently broke the piggy bank on Yu Darvish. At the end of the day, a whole bunch of money got spent, but Texas is only marginally better off with an unknown quantity in Darvish than they were with C.J. Wilson, assuming Darvish performs up to expectations. At best, Yu Darvish will be an Ace quality pitcher, Wilson is already a proven “Co-Ace” type pitcher. If Darvish only achieves marginal success in America, based on expectations, it will likely result in numbers that are equal to or worse than Wilson’s. Texas had to spend $51.7 Million in posting fees to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters just for the rights to offer Darvish a 6-year, $60 million dollar contract, this is twice as much money as Texas was willing to pay C.J. Wilson.
It seems as though the Rangers and Angels have cannibalized each other to some degree. The Halos overspent to get C.J. Wilson, forcing the Rangers to overspend on Darvish. Ultimately, Texas was the class of the division before and I’m not certain the mere presence of Albert Pujols in Anaheim changes that. There is no doubt the Angels spent the Winter making what amounts to two blockbuster deals in an attempt to catch up to Texas, but they probably didn’t expect the Rangers to match them dollar for dollar on Darvish. At the end of the day, I see two teams that spent a ton of money to turn the AL West into the new AL East.
Since the Rangers failed to sign Prince Fielder, all they essentially did was swap Wilson for Darvish and spend a nice penny doing it. They were already stacked, so merely keeping up with Anaheim isn’t enough to be declared champion of the hot stove season. If the Rangers had acquired Fielder, and done so with a market driven and club friendly contract, Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels certainly could have made a case for having the best off season. Unfortunately they didn’t land Prince and the sum of their hot stove improvements adds up to one Yu Darvish. Ultimately, if the Rangers can take the next step and win a World Series instead of simply winning the American League pennant, and Yu Darvish is a big part of that process, Texas can declare their hot stove season a success. If they fail to lock down a championship, people will question whether signing Wilson for less wasn’t the better move.
The Red Sox have had a dismal off season and it’s almost laughable to include them in this list, but there are people out there who believe Boston made some great moves this hot stove season and deserves recognition. Let’s start, not with player movement but executive movement, and first discuss the loss of Theo Epstein and firing of iconic manager Terry Francona. This is a pair that led the Sox to multiple World Series titles after 76 years of futility. The loss of Epstein, widely considered among the best GM’s in baseball and the man who built the Red Sox into perennial contenders, came with no compensation from the North Side of Chicago. If the executive mismanagement wasn’t enough, Boston then sent two top hitting prospects in Josh Reddick and Myles Head to Oakland for Andrew Bailey when they could have simply paid Jonathan Papelbon to remain in Boston. The Red Sox then jettisoned both Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie, leaving a gaping hole at the shortstop position. Boston acquired pitcher Clayton Mortensen in the trade with Colorado, but essentially Scutaro was a salary dump made to remain under the luxury tax threshold of $178 million. Essentially, the Red Sox lost Theo Epstein, Terry Francona, Jed Lowrie, Marco Scutaro and Jonathan Papelbon and gained Ben Cherington, Bobby Valentine, Clayton Mortensen, Cody Ross and Andrew Bailey. Sorry Red Sox Nation, but Boston isn’t a hot stove champion by any definition with that catch. Andrew Bailey should be serviceable, but it’s obvious that remaining under the luxury tax threshold was a much greater priority for Boston than improving their club.
Finally we come to the Detroit Tigers and the recent acquisition of Prince Fielder. While I do commend Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch on the nine-year, $214 million deal with Prince, I have to wonder if this singular splash amounts to anything more than what the Texas Rangers accomplished with Yu Darvish. Just as Darvish became the eventual replacement for C.J. Wilson, Fielder arrives in Detroit to replace Victor Martinez who was lost to a season-ending knee injury. The Tigers already had a crowded house at the DH spot prior to Fielder’s arrival, now they will have three players (upon V-Mart’s return) that are more suited for DH than positional play. The Tigers had a potent lineup despite the loss of Martinez, as was the case for Texas, there wasn’t a whole lot of improvement to be made. This is where comparing transactions becomes an inexact science, because if a team only has one or two holes to fill, the addition of one or two players could be all that’s required to enjoy a successful hot stove season. Simply acquiring the most prestigious (or expensive) commodity at those positions however does not guarantee a successful hot stove season. Adding a commodity at an existing position of strength also seems counterproductive from a defensive standpoint. Of course, from an offensive standpoint, there’s no arguing that Fielder will be a force in the middle of that Tigers order, and could mean the difference between Detroit becoming American League champs or becoming World Series champs. As is the case for Texas, time will tell. If Detroit parlays the addition of Fielder into a championship, it will be hard to argue that this wasn’t the single most important move of the hot stove season. This can also be said of the Angels.
The Reds acquired one of the best, if not the best, closers on the market in Ryan Madson. Cincinnati also acquired the best set-up man available in Sean Marshall. In Mat Latos, the Reds have a legitimate top of the rotation arm that cost the team only prospects. Walt Jocketty continued filling areas of need with the signings of Ryan Ludwick and Wilson Valdez. When you look at what the Reds gave up in all of this, the hit to the farm seems steep initially, but a deeper look at the prospects offered shows a group of young players that were blocked in development by current roster stalwarts. Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso were both considered hefty prices to pay by many pundits, but Grandal was blocked by Devin Mesoraco and Alonso had zero positional flexibility and was blocked by Joey Votto at first base. When you consider the current roster, it becomes obvious that Walt Jocketty made a series of moves that were not only cost effective, but balanced the roster and filled positions of need. Cincinnati’s payroll in 2012 was $76.2 Million, the projected payroll for 2012 is roughly $80 Million, so Bob Castellini and Walt Jocketty have accomplished these moves while staying within their budget. The Marlins, Angels, Rangers and Tigers all had to spend massively for their returns, and in most cases those returns amounted to one or two dominant players, not multiple players.
Cincinnati didn’t acquire the top free agent this Winter, or even one of the top three, but they did add three excellent players, including a potential ace and one of the best closers in the game, to an already solid roster. If Texas, Detroit and Anaheim are judged on a more forgiving scale because they were already loaded with talent, what scale should Cincinnati be judged on? The Reds are only a season removed from a National League Central division title and a trip to the MLB postseason. Cincinnati didn’t throw money away by replacing equally talented players with marquee names and they didn’t add players at positions that were already solidly filled, they added players that fit the plan and they did it on the cheap. Walt Jocketty didn’t jump to make headlines at the Winter Meetings, he chose to sit back, watch the market and pounce on the right player at the right time. The moves Jocketty and company made were calm, calculated and they made logical sense, this is why I believe Cincinnati is this season’s hot stove winner.