Ranking the best off-seasons so far

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We’re almost into 2014, which means we’re only about a month and a half away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training — the official start of baseball. Most of the big name free agents are off the board and thus most teams have already finished shopping or have done most of the heavy lifting already. With that said, let’s look over the teams that have had the five best off-seasons to this point.

5. New York Yankees — Any time you add Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Hiroki Kuroda, you have had a productive off-season. The Yankees have committed $328 million in free agency so far and may still spend more depending on how far they get in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. The Yankees were shocked, however, when second baseman Robinson Cano opted to take a ten-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners — a team that has finished in fourth place or worse in eight out of the last ten seasons — rather than continue his legacy in the Bronx. The Yankees’ already old and injury-prone infield became even more uncertain as they seem to be relegated to using Kelly Johnson sans Cano. The Yankees also have a bit of rotation uncertainty to address, but that could be fixed by signing Tanaka. Overall, a mostly productive off-season but the loss of Cano hit them hard.

4. Detroit Tigers — The Tigers have had an interesting off-season to say the least. They breathed a huge sigh of relief when they were able to unload the remainder of Prince Fielder’s nine-year, $214 million deal on the Rangers and get Ian Kinsler to show for it. However, they followed up with one of the more questionable trades in recent memory, trading starter Doug Fister to the Nationals for reliever Ian Krol, infielder Steve Lombardozzi, and Minor League starter Robbie Ray. The Tigers are as in win-now mode as any team out there, so the Fister trade could only have precipitated another shoe dropping, but that shoe has yet to drop. Elsewhere, the Tigers added Rajai Davis and Joba Chamberlain along with new closer Joe Nathan. The Tigers should once again be the favorite to win the AL Central.

3. Texas Rangers — There is no doubt the Rangers got better, but the question is at what cost? Acquiring Prince Fielder cost them Ian Kinsler. While they certainly had the depth to afford to do that, they also had to take on Fielder’s gargantuan contract. The Rangers also committed $130 million to Shin-Soo Choo, who may be a platoon outfielder at best. However, the Rangers will have one of the most powerful offenses in baseball in 2014 and should be a pre-season pick to contend at least for the AL Wild Card if not win the AL West outright over the Athletics.

2. Tampa Bay Rays — The small-market Rays raised some eyebrows when they signed free agent first baseman James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal. In a market flush with first basemen, it was surprising to see the Rays commit three years to a player at a team on the wrong end of the positional spectrum. Loney, however, had a career rebirth in 2013 and the Rays must see a reason for it to continue. Rays GM Andrew Friedman also added reliever Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan in a three-way trade with the Diamondbacks and Reds, relinquishing only two non-prospect Minor Leaguers. The Rays adequately addressed all of their needs and didn’t get bogged down by a big, expensive contract as is their habit. A pretty standard, productive off-season for them.

1. St. Louis Cardinals — The Cardinals had one need: a shortstop who can hit. The free agent market for shortstops was thin, with just Jhonny Peralta and Stephen Drew at the top, but the Cardinals snagged their guy, signing Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal. They also traded David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, a trade that has a lot of upside for the Cards. They have nothing left to do, so they will bide their time until spring training when they will start their quest to win the National League pennant yet again.

What happens with all the players the Braves lost yesterday?

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Yesterday’s unprecedented sanctions leveled on the Atlanta Braves hit them pretty hard, but it also turned a dozen players into free agents. What happens to them now? Who can sign them? When? And for how much?

First off, they get to keep their signing bonuses the Braves gave them. It wasn’t their fault the Braves messed up so it would make no sense for them to have to pay the money back. As for their next team: anyone can, theoretically, sign them. As far as team choice, they are free agents in the most narrow sense of the term.

There are limits, however, because as young, international players, their signings are subject to those caps on each team’s international bonus money which were imposed a few years back. Each team now has a “pool” of finite dollars they can spend on such players and, once that money is spent, teams are severely limited as to what they can offer an international free agent. Each summer the bonus pools are reset and it starts anew.

Which, on the surface, would seem to create a problem for the 12 new free agents, seeing as though a lot of teams have already spent much if not all of their July 2017-18 bonus pools. The good news on that, though, is that Major League Baseball has made a couple of exceptions for these guys:

  • First, the first $200,000 of any of the 12 former Braves players will not be subject to signing pools, so that’s a bit of a break; and
  • Second, even though these players will all likely be signed during the 2017-18 bonus pool period, teams have the option of counting the bonus toward the 2018-19 period. They can’t combine the money from the two periods, but they can, essentially, put off the cost into next year for accounting purposes.

Which certainly opens things up for clubs and gives the players more options as far as places to land go. A club can decide whether or not the guys on the market now look better than the guys they’ve been scouting with an eye toward signing after July 2018 and get a jump on things. Likewise, teams don’t have to decide whether or not to take a run at, say, Shohei Ohtani, burning bonus money now, or instead going after a former Braves player. Ohtani’s money will apply now, the Braves player can be accounted for next year.

The new free agents are eligible to sign during a window that begins on December 5 and ends on Jan. 15. If a player hasn’t signed by then, he can still sign with any club but cannot get a bonus. If a player hasn’t signed anywhere by May 1, 2018, he has the option of re-signing with the Braves, though they can’t pay the guy a bonus either.

Ben Badler of Baseball America has a rundown of the top guys who are now free agents thanks to the Braves’ malfeasance. Kevin Maitan is the big name. The 17-year-old shortstop was considered the top overall international free agent last year, though his first year in the Braves minor league system was less-than-impressive. There are a lot of other promising players too. All of whom now can find new employers.