January 22, 2014
The Lineup Card
Ten Late-Offseason Moves That Made a Difference
1. Tigers sign Magglio Ordonez on February 7, 2005
This contract could have been another Dean Palmer or Juan Gonzalez. But while this team didn’t have a big history of high-priced free-agent signings, Ordonez (and Ivan Rodriguez before him) helped set the tone for the Tigers to transform from the American League’s tomato can to the… I guess, the AL’s largest exporter of quality tomato products? Let’s see if I can make that joke work … ah, the rest of the league couldn’t ketchup. As you were.)
The risk was real: Ordonez was a broken product, missing much of 2004 with something called “bone marrow edema,” a term perhaps odd enough to scare off the laymen. But it was believed to be fixed after an experimental surgery in Austria (which caused him to miss his daughter’s birth. Consequently, he locked down a five-year, $75 million deal with a couple $15 million options tacked on, one which vested.
While not quite as effective as his younger Chicago White Sox days, he did produce his career year in 2007, including Detroit’s first batting title since Norm Cash in 1961. And of course, there was this neat little swing:
I went back and looked if there were other options that year. Only Carlos Beltran, Steve Finley, and David Dellucci signed multi-year deals as free agents that offseason—and they got just two years each. What made general manager Dave Dombrowski look past those guys and determine “we’ll go with the guy coming off a big injury” shall remain in Tigers lore, especially since the previous GM probably would’ve gone with Dellucci. And maybe Beltran would have been better, in retrospect. But it was Magglio, and it was another sign the team had finally changed. —Matt Sussman
2. Mets acquire David Cone from the Royals on March 27, 1987; Blue Jays acquire David Cone from the Royals on April 6, 1995
When I selected David Cone for the Lineup Card, my intention was to write a long, glowing paean to the glorious yesteryear of the 1980s Mets to remind people that the franchise was not always a punch line to a bad joke. However, Cone wasn’t only traded once right before the season started by the Kansas City Royals; he was dealt twice. Both trades brought the Royals back nothing or virtually nothing. Chris Stynes—the most successful player by far acquired by the Royals in either of their Cone deals—had his most successful years for the Cincinnati Reds in 1997 and 2000, after the Royals dealt him and Jon Nunnally to the Reds for Hector Carrasco and Scott Service. Cone, of course, would go on to put up an excellent career mostly in the Big Apple, first for the New York Mets but later for the New York Yankees during their glory years from 1996-2000. For the Mets of the late 80s/early 90s, Cone was a vital piece, pushing them to the playoffs with his breakout 1988 season. For a Royals team that finished over .500 four years between 1987 and 1991, the subtraction of Cone is part of the greater question of what might have been. Instead of possible playoff glory, what is left is a sad series of transactions for Kansas City that leads down a rabbit hole of despair and gloom. —Mike Gianella
3. Marlins sign Ivan Rodriguez on January 28, 2003
Signing a one-year deal with the Florida Marlins was a weird move for the former MVP. The Marlins had finished below .500 the year before and Pudge was still a four- or five-win player. Not that we talked about players in those terms back then, but he was still perceived as rather good. $10 million worth of good. Remember when that was a really big salary? But in retrospect, it looks like a genius move. Rodriguez was paired with a young pitching staff that included Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Mark Redman, Dontrelle Willis, and Josh Beckett, and basically seemed to catch every single game that the Marlins played that year. And it was a pretty good year in Miami that year. Sometimes good things take extra time. —Russell A. Carleton
4. Rays sign Casey Kotchman to a minor-league contract on January 28, 2011, with a $750,000 salary if he earns an Opening Day roster spot
They couldn’t have known just know how soon they would need him. Kotchman went to Triple-A Durham to start the season, but after he played just one game for the Bulls, his contract was purchased on April 8—a roster spot needed filling when Manny Ramirez, whom the Rays signed even later than Kotchman, failed a drug test. Yet Kotchman didn’t wind up filling Ramirez’s giant shoes. Instead, he took over for the struggling (and then injured) Dan Johnson, who was DFA’d and outrighted in May. Kotchman proceeded to have the best year of his career, a renaissance that produced its own Twitter hashtag and two Wins Above Replacement (his career high, and also the only season of the last five in which Kotchman did not post a negative WARP figure). Given the Rays’ need for every single one of their wins to eke their way into the playoffs on the last day of regular season, Kotchman’s occupation of first base turned out to be quite a necessary boon. His success also relegated Dan Johnson to Triple-A until September roster expansion; thus Kotchman indirectly occasioned the dramatic return of the Great Pumpkin: Johnson’s magical, ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike, game-162 home run that salvaged the Rays’ all but extinguished playoff hopes and, in turn, set the stage for Evan Longoria’s extra-inning dinger that redeemed those hopes. The #MagicofKotch was bestowed upon all. —Adam Sobsey
5. Red Sox sign David Ortiz on January 22, 2003
It was 11 years ago today that the Red Sox signed a 27-year-old DH who had been released a month earlier by the Minnesota Twins. On one hand, it's still staggering that Ortiz was available. DH or not, he'd just hit .272/.339/.500 as a 26-year-old in full-time play, and heading into arbitration the former top-100 prospect had made only $900,000 the previous season. Yet it's not as though this was a blunder so immediately apparent that the league fell over or anything. "I really would have liked to deal David, but I couldn't find a taker," Terry Ryan said at the time. It took 37 days before a team signed him, and for only $1.2 million. Ortiz finished fifth in MVP voting that year, and in the most simplistic way of looking at things his 3.3 wins above replacement were the difference between the 95-win Wild Card Red Sox and the 93-win Go Home Mariners. In the 11 years since, he has hit .333/.429/.637 against the Twins, about 100 points of OPS better than his next-most-favorable AL opponent. —Sam Miller
6. Cubs acquire Gary Matthews, Bob Dernier, and Porfi Altamirano from the Phillies for Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz on March 26, 1984
Have you ever stumbled glassy-eyed into a gas station mini-mart right before the holidays and happened upon the perfect last-minute gift sitting between the overpriced gum and 5-Hour Energy? Me neither, but that’s the kind of miracle the Cubs experienced at the end of spring training, 1984, when on March 26th they swapped out pocket lint Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz for Gary Matthews, Bob Dernier, and Porfi Altamirano. Matthews and Dernier joined fellow Phillie expats Larry Bowa, Keith Moreland and Ryne Sandberg in the Chicago lineup, and together they brewed up the exact elixir the Cubs needed to gain 25 games in the standings and play their first October baseball since 1945.
The ’83 Cubs had punted outfield defense, with young sluggers Mel Hall and Leon Durham frequently manning the center pasture with all the style and grace of, well, Mel Hall and Leon Durham “playing” center field. Acquiring the fleet Dernier allowed the Cubs to make sure Durham could take root at first base, and gave Chicago a speed and on-base threat at the top of the order, along with someone to cover for the postage-stamp range of their corner outfielders. This was especially true of Matthews, who registered an almost unimaginable -19.1 FRAA in left field that year, but more than made up for it with his patient bat. Sarge went on to draw 103 walks and get on base at a .410 clip, numbers unheard of for a team that had posted team OBPs of .309, .303, .317, and .319 in the four preceding years.
It didn’t take long to see the difference Dernier and Matthews made to the Cubs lineup, as the duo combined to go 5-for-12 and draw eight walks in a season-opening two-game sweep of the Giants. After years of unbridled hackery, the ’84 club posted a .331 team OBP, second-best in the National League. With Dernier and Matthews solidifying the outfield and setting the table, the surging Cubs were able to include Hall in the package that brought Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe to Wrigleyville, cementing their first division or league title in decades. The less said about their October trip to San Diego the better, but without Dallas Green’s fortuitous midnight ramble* to the corner 7-Eleven on the eve of Opening Day, the Cubs likely would have avoided the postseason altogether.
*Dallas Green certainly wasn’t drunk, seeking munchies, making a stop en route to a booty call, or shoplifting a copy of Oui magazine when he engineered the Matthews/Dernier trade, and we apologize if we gave that impression. —Ken Funck
7. Athletics sign Frank Thomas on January 31, 2006
Frank Thomas had just completed another injury-riddled campaign with the White Sox, appearing in just 34 games in his 16th and final season on Chicago's South Side. Thomas had played in just 108 games combined between 2004 and '05, prompting the White Sox to decline their $10 million option for the 2006 season, and at age 37 he appeared to be on the verge of the end of his storied career.
The Athletics were coming off of consecutive second-place finishes in the AL West as they entered the off-season of 2005-06, with a four-year run of declining win totals. They had not had a 30-homer hitter since 2002, and with the off-season winding down, Oakland took a chance that Thomas could provide some pop from the DH spot. Despite the dearth of playing time, the Big Hurt had mashed 30 homers over the previous two seasons combined, with a .400 OBP in 435 plate appearances. Thomas signed for a paltry $500,000 on the last day of January, marking the A's final roster addition of the offseason.
Thomas was a revelation for the Oakland faithful, leading the A's power attack with 39 homers and 114 RBI during that 2006 season. He played in 137 ball games and teamed with Nick Swisher to form an imposing presence in the middle of the Oakland lineup. The Hurt's .926 OPS was the highest mark on the team by 62 points, and he epitomized the cliché of carrying the club on his broad shoulders with a monster performance over the final month of the season, including 11 bombs and 35 RBI after the calendar flipped to September. Thomas' performance was critical to the team's bottom line, and his 3.8 WARP may have been the difference between playoff baseball and early tee times for a club that outpaced the Angels by four games to win the West. —Doug Thorburn
8. Red Sox sign Mike Napoli to a one-year deal on January 22, 2013
This entry pushes the boundaries of the topic—both because the deal was struck on the first possible day that would qualify, and because the team and player had come to (different) terms six weeks earlier. On December 3, 2012, the Red Sox agreed to pay Napoli $39 million over three years, but their doctors flagged a hip concern during his physical and left the sides in limbo deep into January. Finally, the deal was trimmed to a one-year, $5 million pact loaded with incentives, which Napoli met to earn an additional $8 million. Perhaps his biggest moment came in Game Three of the American League Championship Series, when Napoli accounted for the only tally in a 1-0 Red Sox victory over Justin Verlander, which paved their way to the pennant and eventually the World Series championship. By delivering 2.7 WARP in 139 regular-season games, Napoli more than made good on Boston's $13 million investment—and the organization repaid him with an additional $32 million commitment over 2014-15. —Daniel Rathman
9. Cubs sign Reed Johnson to a one-year deal on March 25, 2008
The 2007 Cubs were Division Champions. Amazingly they repeated this feat in 2008 despite entering spring training without a center fielder. On March 25, 2008, this was still the case—or so we thought.
Jim Hendry was picking up an erstwhile Blue Jay named Reed Johnson. Seemingly a minor pickup, Johnson's value became apparent when the Padres discarded Jim Edmonds in May. Johnson and Edmonds combined for a .283/.363/.483 slash line in a CF platoon for the Cubs. A gaping hole turned into an impact position. —Harry Pavlidis
10. Red Sox add Wally the Green Monster in the spring of 1997
It is unknown when the Red Sox signed Wally, but it must have been shortly before the season began because the announcement came in April. April 13, 1997, to be exact. That was Wally's first day. The Red Sox were 4-6 before that and hadn't won a World Series in a billion jillion years. They were starting Will Cordero on the same ground that Yaz and Teddy Ballgame patrolled. That day they beat the Mariners 7-1, and since then they've won three World Series. Wally hasn't actually played in any of them, but he is a person in a big green booger suit so that probably helped. Also, a quick look at the stats clearly shows numbers. So there. To sum up: before Wally? Losers. After Wally? Winners! Yay winning! —Matthew Kory