The Marlins Maneuver, the Tigers Retool, the Phillies Accept Fate, and Other Stray Winter Meetings Moves

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Major League Baseball’s winter meetings came to a close Thursday, but not without another torrent of transactions. We’ve analyzed the Dodgers’ day of trade/signing insanity and the Red Sox’s new, unsexy starters. We’ve told you about the White Sox’s surprising additions and the Cubs’ predictable ones. We’ve even devoted an entire article to the Indians’ acquisition of Brandon Moss.1 Which leaves — well, a lot, actually. Let’s run through some of the other major story lines from San Diego as we wrap up a hectic week:

The Marlins Make Moves

andrew-heaney-marlins-triAlex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Marlins were one of the busiest teams as the meetings wound down, first sending top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney and three other players to the Dodgers for Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, and depth, and then trading Anthony DeSclafani and catching prospect Chad Wallach to the Reds for starter Mat Latos. Last month, Miami convinced Giancarlo Stanton to stick around and accept a heavily backloaded contract by promising to spend some of the savings to surround him with enough talent to contend. Given Jeffrey Loria’s strained relationship with the truth, it was easy to imagine the Marlins owner telling Stanton to suck it and buying another Picasso as soon as the slugger signed. From Stanton’s perspective, this week’s activity surely seems like an encouraging sign.

For all the roster turnover, though, it’s not clear these moves made the Marlins much better. A year ago, Gordon had a .256/.301/.312 career line through 181 major league games, and the Dodgers were so skeptical about his ability to start at second that they exhumed Chone Figgins and Brendan Harris to compete with Gordon (and others)2 for the job. Gordon’s five triples in spring training convinced the Dodgers to trust him in 2014, and, initially, their faith was rewarded: Gordon hit .344 in April, slumped in May (but stole 21 bases), and bounced back with another five triples in June. In the second half, however, his plate discipline suffered (four walks, 47 strikeouts) and he slumped to .284/.300/.348.

Gordon is an adequate fielder, an asset on the bases, and adept enough at bunting and slapping grounders to the left side to sustain an above-average BABIP. Moreover, the Marlins weren’t bursting with better options: Miami second basemen batted .236/.303/.334 last season, and the best hitter it had at the position, Derek Dietrich, was demoted because of his defense. However, Gordon will be hard-pressed to replicate the moderately successful season he just had. The Marlins also received starter Dan Haren, who exercised his $10 million 2015 option in October but has threatened to retire if sent out of Southern California. Miami probably won’t be dismayed if he does, because his production has plummeted along with his velocity. By Baseball-Reference WAR, Haren has been replacement level or worse for three consecutive seasons.

For that, the Marlins gave up Heaney — who was considered the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball entering 2014 and still ranked as their best prospect last month — as well as useful reliever Chris Hatcher, utility man Enrique Hernandez, and Austin Barnes, a 24-year-old catcher who slashed .296/.406/.507 at Double-A (and also played second and third). Not everyone believes in the 23-year-old Heaney, and the Marlins have plenty of young pitching, but this still seems like a subpar return for the ninth overall pick in 2012, whom the Dodgers then flipped to the Angels for Howie Kendrick. While it would have meant fewer years of team control, the Marlins might have been better off trading Heaney for Kendrick directly rather than laundering him through Los Angeles. Of course, that would have meant absorbing salary, something the Marlins didn’t have to do in this deal, because the Dodgers sent them $10 million (which isn’t conditional on Haren’s decision) and agreed to cover Gordon’s arbitration cost.

Miami did better to acquire Latos, a potential top-of-the-rotation type who’s projected to make $8.4 million in his final year of arbitration. However, the 27-year-old’s 2014 season was full of red flags, including knee and elbow surgery, sinking peripherals, and one of the steepest velocity drops in the game. Latos has been durable and highly effective before, but the projections are scary. If Haren retires, the Fish will have saved money this week, so they haven’t necessarily made good on their promise to Stanton yet. But they’re working on it.

The Reds Rebuild — or Do They?

alfredo-simon-reds-tigers-triJohn Sommers II/Getty Images

Many things went wrong for the 2014 Reds. Joey Votto missed most of the season with a quadriceps strain and was clearly impaired at the plate when he was active. Jay Bruce, who had been a model of offensive consistency from 2010 to 2013, mysteriously started pounding balls into the dirt and posted one of the least valuable seasons in the sport. Latos, as mentioned, missed half the season and showed signs of strain upon his return. After winning 90 games and qualifying for the wild-card game in 2013, the Reds sank to 76 wins and finished fourth in the NL Central.

One option for GM Walt Jocketty was to stand pat and hope his trio of disappointing players would return to form and meld with Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, and Aroldis Chapman’s 60-something unhittable, high-leverage innings to create a contender. Instead, shortly after the Cubs went on the offensive and the Pirates re-signed Francisco Liriano, Jocketty appeared to punt on next season, trading Latos to Miami and Alfredo Simon, one of Cincinnati’s most effective starters this past season, to Detroit.

But maybe that’s the wrong interpretation. Simon is almost 34, had no previous success in the rotation, and beat his FIP by almost a full run over the course of the season, pitching more like his usual self in the second half. For selling high on a single season of Simon, the Reds got a better option than incumbent Zack Cozart at short in Eugenio Suarez, and a potential back-of-the-bullpen arm in Tigers 2013 first-rounder Jonathon Crawford. The return for Latos was less impressive, but not unreasonable given his makeup, health, declining stuff, and salary. The payroll relief Cincinnati got from these trades might allow Jocketty to add to the team rather than subtracting further.

The Phillies Part With Players(!)

jimmy-rollins-phillies-dodgers-triMitchell Layton/Getty Images

It’s been evident for years that the Phillies needed to strip their roster for parts rather than bank on returns to form from fading veterans. Repeatedly, however, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. insisted that the Phillies could win with their aging core, passing up (or failing to pursue) opportunities to trade veterans at the past two trade deadlines. Perhaps prodded by interim CEO (and architect of the 2008 title team) Pat Gillick, Amaro sounded slightly more resigned last month to a lack of short-term success, although reports still suggested he was shooting too high in trade talks.

This week brought apparent confirmation that Amaro is out of denial, as the Phillies dealt Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers and Antonio Bastardo to Pittsburgh for a total of three prospects. That’s a start. Philly has also at least talked to teams about trading Cole Hamels, Marlon Byrd, and Chase Utley, as well as looked for someone willing to pay something, anything, for Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon. In November, a rival executive said the Phillies were “trying to blow the whole thing up.” At the winter meetings, they at least lit the fuse.

The AL Central Acts

ervin-santana-twins-triKevin Liles/Getty Images

The White Sox made the most noise, but every AL Central team did something in San Diego. The Tigers traded one player entering his walk year for another, sending starter Rick Porcello to the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes, and then filled their vacant rotation spot with Simon, an older, inferior version of Porcello. Cespedes fills a hole in left field, completing an overhaul of what was one of last season’s worst defensive outfields and ensuring that the heart of the Tigers’ lineup will stay scary even if the team’s hard-hitting Martinezes regress. The Tigers’ lineup and rotation look mostly set, although they’ve done nothing to patch the bullpen that helped usher them out of October. Bruce Rondon’s scheduled return from Tommy John surgery and a full season from Joakim Soria should help, but the only high-profile free-agent reliever remaining is Sergio Romo, and the Tigers reportedly haven’t inquired about him.

Although the bidding for Max Scherzer is (eventually) bound to be intense, a return to Detroit for the fifth-place Cy Young finisher would enable Simon or Shane Greene to pitch in relief and also strengthen a rotation that’s currently counting on Justin Verlander to an unsettling degree. The Tigers, who have few prospects to speak of, already have $92 million committed to their 2018 payroll, most of it owed to a 35-year-old Verlander, a 35-year-old Miguel Cabrera, and a 39-year-old Victor Martinez. Dave Dombrowski might not be eager to make the approaching reckoning worse, but Dombrowski hasn’t always had final say on expensive Scott Boras clients. The Tigers are pointed toward a cliff, and it’s probably too late for them to turn around. Mike Ilitch might as well press the accelerator.

The Twins made the division’s second-biggest splash involving a starting pitcher, signing Ervin Santana to a franchise free-agent-record four-year, $55 million contract that will also cost them a second-round draft pick. Santana settled for a one-year, $14.1 million contract last winter; this time, he cashed in despite being a year older and having been no more valuable in 2014 (2.8 FanGraphs WAR) than he was the previous season (2.9). Maybe that’s a sign of inflation, or maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that Santana is a second year removed from his woeful 2012.

Santana’s stats over the past two seasons bear a striking resemblance to Ricky Nolasco’s over the two seasons preceding the four-year, $49 million deal Minnesota gave him a year ago:

Pitcher IP ERA- FIP- K% BB% GB% HR/9 WAR
Nolasco, 2012–13 390.1 106 94 17.4 5.6 44.9 .81 5.6
Santana, 2013–14 407 94 96 20.3 6.8 44.6 .93 5.7

Santana, who turns 32 today, is a year older than Nolasco (who turns 32 tomorrow) was then. Despite Phil Hughes’s success, Minnesota’s rotation had the worst ERA in the majors for the second straight season in 2014, although their starters’ peripherals improved. The Twins will hope for a better first season from Santana than they got from Nolasco. Whatever happens, they can brag about spending on a higher level than the Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Royals recognized their need for offense but went about obtaining it in a perplexing way, signing Kendrys Morales to fill the DH slot formerly occupied by Billy Butler. Other than Allen Craig, the only players who hit as poorly as Morales in as many plate appearances last season were up-the-middle defenders. Admittedly, starting the season late may have caused or exacerbated Morales’s (and Stephen Drew’s) offensive struggles, and that possibility made Morales worth signing — on a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Compared to the two years and $17 million he actually got, the $11.5 million it would have cost the Royals to retain Butler3 for one year instead seems like a more tolerable risk. Both players are coming off down years, but Butler is entering his age-29 season, and Morales will turn 32 in June.

2015: The Year of Reduced Despair?

Recent events have forced us to look at some of baseball’s perennial losers in a new light. The Astros strengthened a bad bullpen by signing setup men Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek; like the Twins, who also have a strong set of prospects, they’ve probably put the worst behind them. The post-reconstruction Cubs and White Sox might be ready to contend right now. The Marlins, for the moment, are truly attempting to win. The Mets have so much pitching that they’re trying to trade some. Three of last decade’s laughingstocks — the Pirates, Royals, and Orioles — are defending playoff teams. The low-payroll Padres actually added some salary by acquiring Matt Kemp, even if the expected payoff isn’t totally clear. And while the A’s have been the offseason’s most active sellers, they’ve asked mostly for major league players in return, and they’re still too talented to dismiss.

So which fan bases still have reason to stare at their rosters and farm systems with despair? The Phillies are already out of the race, although at least their front office’s eyes are open. The Rockies changed GMs but have hardly tampered with the team. The Diamondbacks had baseball’s worst record last season and seem likely to break Tony La Russa’s heart in 2015. All three of those teams were similarly hopeless last season, but no new teams seem to have slid into their pit of despondency to replace those that have left. We’re still a long way from spring training, but the parity we saw this past season seems likely to extend to next year.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Winter Meetings, MLB Hot Stove, MLB Trades, MLB Free Agency, MLB Free Agents, MLB Contracts, Money Matters, MLB Stats, Miami Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Dee Gordon, Andrew Heaney, Mat Latos, Dan Haren, Jeffrey Loria, Giancarlo Stanton, Alfredo Simon, Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro, Jimmy Rollins, AL Central, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Ervin Santana, Yoenis Cespedes, Dave Dombrowski, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Bullpens, Kendrys Morales, Billy Butler, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

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Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

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