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February 20, 2013

The Lineup Card

11 Favorite Off-Season Moves

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Indians Hire Terry Francona
There were plenty of blockbuster trades and free-agent signings in the offseason, but the transaction that could ultimately be the biggest difference-maker was the Indians hiring Terry Francona as manager. The Indians made a bold move and struck quickly, shocking the baseball world by bringing in a high-profile manager who won two World Series in seven seasons with Red Sox. Granted, everything disintegrated with the Red Sox in the final month of Francona’s final season in 2011, but he remains everything a team looks for in a modern-day manager—someone who interacts well with the players, handles the ever-increasing media demands, and is open to all form of analysis.

Just as importantly, the Indians responded to the critics—both in their dwindling fan base and even their clubhouse (hello, old friend Chris Perez)—that they were more interested in turning a profit than putting a winning team on the field. It started with the hiring of Francona and continued with the big-money signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. As much as I like former Indians manager Manny Acta, you can be sure having the chance to play for Francona greatly influenced the decision of both players. Considering the Indians are relevant for the first time since their heartbreaking loss to Francona’s Red Sox in the 2007 American League Championship Series, it is ironic he is the man to begin raising the profile of the franchise. —John Perrotto

2. Braves Bring B.J. Upton and Justin Upton Aboard
Baseball Almanac lists just over 100 teammate brothers in baseball history, from the Hall of Fame (Big Poison and Little Poison) to the heartwarming (the Alous) to the surprising—Christy Mathewson and… Henry? (His career line spans three games.) There are plenty to be excited about, like Dizzy and Daffy Dean, but far more of the fraternal teammates have that Mathewsonian lopsidedness: Dick and Hank Allen, Billy and Cal Ripken, Pedro and Ramon Martinez, etc.

The Braves’ off-season pickups of both Uptons—two enormously gifted players, one just entering his prime and the other not even there yet—is cause for major anticipatory excitement. It’s not only that they’re brothers, not only that they are a former first overall and second overall draft pick, not only that they’ll both be playing back home in the South, and patrolling the same outfield. The kicker is that they’ll do it alongside local boy—and top-10 WARP-man—Jason Heyward. In other words, this isn’t just a banding together of brothers; it has the potential makings of a new Braves dynasty. —Adam Sobsey

3. Nationals Acquire Denard Span for Alex Meyer
Washington got the center fielder it had long been craving and the leadoff hitter it had long been craving in one swift, relatively low-salary transaction. Span will be a very good player and very valuable as well with his salary and three more years of team control factored in.

But what I love about this move for the Nationals is more symbolic: the fact that it is the payoff for their aggressive draft strategy. In 2011, the Nationals spent the second-most money in the draft despite having the sixth overall pick. Their round-by-round pulls in the final draft before spending caps were basically Best Player Available, Best Player Available, Best Player Available… It was Anthony Rendon followed by Meyer, whose pick was a freebie from the already good move of letting Adam Dunn walk, then Brian Goodwin then Matt Purke in an over-slot extravaganza. Sure Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have been great, but Washington's recent draft success goes so far beyond that when measured in players like Span and Gio Gonzalez. With Meyer, Tommy Milone, the since-returned A.J. Cole and Brad Peacock, one is seeing why pitching depth in the farm system is such a luxury even when there are no spots open. —Zachary Levine

4. The Blue Jays Hit the "Go For It" Button
One of two things will happen for the Blue Jays this year. If they win the World Series, Alex Anthopolous will be looked at as a genius: A man who saw an opening in the AL East and moved swiftly to capture almost all of the good players on one team, the NL Cy Young winner, and who took a chance on the redemption story named Melky Cabrera. He will then conduct the the post-World Series press conference en Francais and everyone will be amazed because no one has ever spoken French before.

Alternately, the Jays will not win the World Series. In that case, they will have taken on a lot of bloated payroll to get the malcontented Jose Reyes, and the over-the-hill and over-paid Mark Bur... Berl... that guy... traded two key prospects for a guy who throws 70-something mph and had a fluke year last year, and the height of hubris, signed a guy who took steroids. Anthopolous will do his post-mortem en Francais, and everyone will be amazed because no one has ever spoken French before. Here's the thing: No matter what the results are, these were still good moves. None of them are free of risk, but #ThereIsNoUnicorn and the Blue Jays have seized on what appears to be a good opportunity by making some shrewd trades. And it beats the middling "we'll build for 2-3 years from now approach" that always seems to be en vogue among the timid. So my favourite (because it's Canadian) move of the offseason is the Blue Jays being willing to take a calculated risk. —Russell A. Carleton

5. Rays Trade for Yunel Escobar
There are three things we are fairly confident we know about Yunel Escobar: He is an above-average defensive shortstop, he makes a ton of contact at the plate, and he makes bad decisions. It is easy for the bad decisions to overshadow Escobar, the baseball player, in the eyes of both fans and soapbox hoarders, but the Rays simply do not have the financial flexibility to let that get in the way of improving their team.

The easy argument to make about why the trade made perfect sense for the Rays is purely about value. PECOTA projects Escobar to be worth three wins in 2013, which when attached to a $5 million salary (and options for the same in 2014 and 2015), makes for a shrewd acquisition—especially at the cost of a prospect (Derek Dietrich) that has a ceiling of a second-division third baseman. The domino effect of the signing hits the Rays both on and off the field. On the field, Ben Zobrist can slide over to play a combination of right field and second base, where he is much stronger defensively than at shortstop. Off the field, it gives the Rays more flexibility to keep Wil Myers in Durham until June—potentially avoiding the dreaded Super Two status.

In the end, it is a low-cost and low-risk option that fits in almost perfectly with the makeup of the team. With a pitching staff that had the second-highest ground-ball rate in all of baseball during 2012, improving the infield defense provides even more value to the team. Offensively, Rays shortstops not named Ben Zobrist hit .235/.290/.327 in 438 plate appearances last year—and there are no reinforcements coming internally. In other words, it is just another day at the office for Andrew Friedman. —Bret Sayre

6. The Marlins Trade for Most of the Blue Jays' Farm System
The Fish began this offseason with a team that wasn’t very good and had a number of long-term commitments to players exiting their primes. Given their situation, their massive deal with the Jays isn’t so bleak. They gave up a lot of talent, but they brought in high-upside youngsters in Jake Marisnick and Justin Nicolino, low-upside players who should contribute in 2013 in Henderson Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Jeff Mathis, and a solid trade chip in Yunel Escobar. Bringing talent into the system is great, but by eliminating several long-term financial commitments, the Marlins will really get to start over. —Hudson Belinsky

7. The Red Sox Sign Koji Uehara
The Red Sox have made numerous missteps in recent years in their effort to solidify a persistently porous pitching staff—from signing John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract to dealing Josh Reddick and multiple prospects to the A's for Andrew Bailey—but this winter, they appear to have gotten at least one move right. The Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan additions may have received more press, but Boston's one-year, $4.25 million deal with Koji Uehara could prove to be one of the offseason's best bargains.

Early in the offseason, the Dodgers reached a three-year, $22.5 million pact with Brandon League, a move that many expected to pave the way for a severely player-friendly relief market for the rest of the winter. Yet, as evidenced by Uehara's short-term deal and the two-year, $12 million hitch that his former teammate, Mike Adams, landed from the Phillies, teams that waited a bit longer instead found bargains waiting to be snatched. A perennial K:BB-title contender, Uehara may have seen his value depressed by a lat strain that cost him 66 games and marked his first trip to the disabled list since 2010. However, the 37-year-old righty returned from that injury and cruised through a remarkable September, in which he allowed just one hit over 9 1/3 innings while issuing only one walk and racking up 17 strikeouts. Uehara proceeded to strike out the side in his wild-card playoff game appearance against his former team, the Orioles, and entered his second tour of domestic free agency as one of the best available relievers.

Uehara's pitching style, which relies heavily on his ability to fill up the strike zone, leaves him vulnerable to home runs, but if he made it work in Arlington, he can make it work at Fenway Park. And, if Uehara can stay healthy, Farrell's late-inning crew should look a lot more imposing than Bobby Valentine's did. —Daniel Rathman

8. The Diamondbacks Sign Brandon McCarthy
Arizona GM Kevin Towers, for all of his idiosyncracies (Upton. Must. Be. Moved.), knows pitching. So when he inked Brandon McCarthy to a two-year deal in December, this wasn't one of those "Wait, why did they sign Cody Ross when they already had Jason Kubel?" moments.

McCarthy posted solid numbers in his two seasons with the A's, ranking fifth in the majors with 1.6 BB/9 and 10th with a 4.0 K/BB ratio over that period (minimum 250 innings). He can pitch, and at age 29, he should be in his prime. The bad news is that McCarthy has qualified for the ERA title just once in his career. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2007, he has averaged 17 starts and 101 innings per season... and that doesn't include 2010, when he didn't pitch in the big leagues at all due to shoulder issues. So yes, there is downside. But there's also a lot to be said for a pitcher who throws strikes and keeps the ball in the yard. If he can make 25-30 starts in each of the next two years—and that's a big if, since we're talking about something he's never done—McCarthy could end up giving Towers and the Diamondbacks an excellent return on their investment. —Geoff Young

9. Cubs trade Tony Campana to Arizona For Two Living Homo Sapiens
This is how you know Theo Epstein is a heartless, calculating bastard. Sure, Campana can’t “hit” or “get on base” or “play baseball” in a major-league sense, but he was so f’n cute. Seriously, it’s as if Ollie from “Hoosiers” left the farm and signed with the Cubs, and showed up at the ballpark in the back of a pickup truck. Campana has the strangest build of any ballplayer I’ve seen, even more so, and in a very different way, than Sidney Ponson, whom I had the misfortune of seeing in a towel. Campana is all arms and legs. He’d have the build of a hurdler if only the hurdles weren’t so danged high. He acted the way he looked, carrying that aw-shucks demeanor over to his oh-so-precious encounters with the media.

Yet he was really fun to watch, there is no denying that. His Cubs uniform was too floppy and his hat a size too big, and when he got going, he was as fast as any player in the game. His inside-the-park homer on a grounder up the left-field line in 2011 was electric. Once then-Reds outfielder Yonder Alonso overran the ball in the corner, Campana exploded on the basepaths. He could have scored and made it back to second base. He also seemed to be able to steal bases at will, even though every pitcher and catcher in the league knew that his entire value was wrapped up in that skill.

Somewhere along the line, you’d have thought that someone would have told Campana that under no circumstance was he to swing at a ball outside of the strike zone. Not that there was any reason for opposing pitchers to avoid the zone—I’m not sure Campana can actually hit the ball over a major-league fence. Still, he has an inconceivably aggressive approach at the plate. Yet for all his shortcomings, there is value in a player like him, if you have the roster spot. The Cubs aren’t at a place to get that value, but if you’ve got a solid, balanced four-man outfield core, then Campana makes an ideal complement with his game-changing speed and range in the field.

As the ultimate underdog, Campana connected with the Cubs’ fan base in a big way. During introductions at the team’s annual fan convention last month, Campana might have received a bigger ovation than Ernie Banks. It was really close. Yet, Epstein and his cronies apparently believe that actual organization building outweighs the fact that Campana is the kind of player grannies like to bake for. Cynical pricks. —Bradford Doolittle

10. The Rays Snag Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi from the Royals
The Royals have long been pundits' dumping ground for snark among AL Central teams, and this offseason was no different. Things finally seemed to be looking up for Kansas City, armed with a young, cost-controlled core that has not yet entered its prime. Furthermore, Jeff Francoeur was about to make way for the Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers. But then Dayton Moore happened.

Searching for rotation upgrades, the Royals' GM got ahold of the Rays' Andrew Friedman, who was known to be shopping James Shields. Naturally, Kansas City's farm system would take a hit by acquiring a front-end starter, but Moore wound up gutting Royals fans by dealing Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Patrick Leonard and Mike Montgomery for Shields, Wade Davis, and a player to be named later (Elliot Johnson). Yes, Shields will help stabilize the Royals' rotation, but the team is not going to be competing for the crown in 2013. They probably won't in 2014, either, when Shields is due to become a free agent.

The Royals needed to improve both their offense and pitching this winter, but by dealing Myers, they lost their best chance at an impact bat. The Rays breathed a great deal of life into a farm system that has been depleted due to player graduation by acquiring two of the top six Royals prospects, and Friedman will have yet another potential star under control for at least six years. —Stephani Bee

11. The Indians Pick Up Trevor Bauer from the D-Backs in the three-way Shin-Soo Choo trade
Bret beat me to the Rays’ trade for Yunel Escobar, so I’m going with the move about which I had some of the nicest things to say this winter: the Indians’ acquisition of Trevor Bauer. When that one went down, I gushed (this is gushing, for me):

For Cleveland and Chris Antonetti, the deal comes down to this uncomplicated calculus: the Indians traded one year of Shin-Soo Choo and three years of Tony Sipp for six years of Bauer, three years of Stubbs (non-tender potential aside), and five years of Shaw. (The years of Anderson and Albers don’t much matter.) Team control-wise, this is a blowout. And in Cleveland’s case, team control is mostly what matters.

This isn’t Colon for Lee, Phillips, and Sizemore, but it might be one of the best swaps the Indians—who have a somewhat spotty recent trade record—have made since. It’s rare that I have no reservations about pronouncing a trade an unqualified win for one team—there’s so much info we’re missing about most transactions that I get twitchy just typing that—but this is one of those times. Cleveland just made the kind of move that should help shorten the dry spell between competitive Indians teams.

A few months later, I still subscribe to that view, despite Miguel Montero’s harsh comments about Bauer and, worse, Bauer’s recent rap track. There were other off-season deals, aside from some of the ones above, that tickled me in my transaction parts—the Mets’ low-cost signing of Shaun Marcum, the Pirates’ power play for Russell Martin—but the addition of Bauer, a player who’d worn out his welcome with his old team and might have been a bargain because of it, for an expiring asset in Choo stands out as one of the winter’s shrewdest moves. —Ben Lindbergh

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