Winter Meetings Wrap: Recapping the Final Flurry of Deals and Previewing What’s Ahead

Marc Serota/Getty Images

Baseball’s winter meetings concluded with Thursday’s Rule 5 draft, where the Rangers generated some of the biggest buzz of the week by selecting Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. That tells you all you need to know. Team executives left Orlando without any major deals going down, setting the stage for a potentially busy dash to the holidays.

Still, the meetings weren’t totally devoid of activity. Yesterday, we broke down the Mark Trumbo and Brett Anderson trades and the Rajai Davis signing. Now, let’s examine the flurry of minor activity that went down as the meetings drew to a close — including the Mariners bulking up their offense, the Pirates reinforcing their pitching staff, and the Mets landing an intriguing senior citizen &#8212 and explore what might come next.

The Mariners Keep Wheelin’

One week after signing Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract, Seattle reeled in Corey Hart on a one-year deal for just $6 million, with incentives that could increase that figure to $13 million. Hart was one of my five favorite projected free-agent bargains. As I wrote two weeks ago:

Amid a leaguewide drop in power, Hart might have more pop than anyone on the market other than Robinson Cano and Mark Reynolds. From 2010 to 2012, Hart averaged 29 homers per year and slugged better than .500 in all three seasons. … Hart was a 20-20 player earlier in his career, but at this stage, teams will be paying him for dingers and respectable defense, most likely at first base, where he won’t have to run to chase down fly balls. … There’s no guarantee that he’ll approach 30 homers or play in 140 to 150 games after missing an entire season, but as a result his asking price is reduced. … Hell, Hart might even prefer a one-year deal that would allow him to reestablish his value before going after a bigger deal next offseason. If that’s the case, he’d be an even bigger bargain for 2014.

“If healthy” was the caveat for that entire breakdown. Hart missed all of 2013 with knee injuries, so the question is this: Did the Mariners get a fully healthy power hitter in a market nearly bereft of them for pennies on the dollar (relative to prevailing market forces), or are the M’s taking a big risk on a player whose health remains too dodgy for other teams?

The Mariners didn’t stop with Hart, though. They traded for Miami’s Logan Morrison, picking up a slightly lesser hitter than Hart who’s got even more injury concerns. Morrison hit .283/.390/.447 over 62 games in his 2010 rookie season, a mark 29 percent better than league average. Since then, he’s averaged just 100 games played per season, with his power dropping in each campaign. The deal only cost Seattle reliever Carter Capps, so other than paying for Morrison’s arbitration award, this trade isn’t a huge risk. And hey, Old School references are always welcome.

This clearly isn’t the same Mariners team making a few little moves without much realistic hope for contention. The M’s just spent $240 million on Cano. They’ve made overtures toward David Price and have discussed other starting pitching upgrades. They seem determined to be relevant again in 2014 and hopefully contend in a tough AL West. But if anything, that makes the paired acquisitions of Hart and Morrison a bit puzzling, even though the players are cheap.

With those two and Justin Smoak on board, either a useful player is getting benched, or Hart will need to start at a corner-outfield spot, a dicey proposition considering he was already a below-average outfielder before the injury and might have even worse range when he returns. While these are worthwhile gambles, playing guys out of position and sweating injuries are the kinds of variables that matter for teams that fancy themselves contenders.

These moves could also have a larger hot stove ripple effect. Raul Ibanez will not return to Seattle; he’s 41 years old, but he’s coming off a surprising 29-homer season and could be a low-risk pickup for the Angels, who are reportedly close to inking him to a one-year deal. Meanwhile, the market for Kendrys Morales is disappearing fast. The Pirates and the Rays are the two remaining teams with the biggest needs at first base, but neither seems likely to sacrifice a compensation draft pick to snag a good-but-not-great option like Morales. With the Mariners already overloaded with first base/DH types, re-signing Morales isn’t a great fit, either. So … yeah, best of luck to Morales.

Another Reclamation Project in Pittsburgh?

Charlie-Morton

Elsewhere, the Pirates locked up a pair of starting pitchers within a matter of hours Wednesday. First, they announced a three-year, $21 million contract for Charlie Morton, which is essentially a two-year, $17 million extension, since Morton figured to make about $4 million in arbitration for 2014 anyway. Even with MLB revenue sky high, and even with the likes of Joe Blanton pulling two-year, $15 million deals, the Morton contract isn’t necessarily bulletproof given his résumé. He has made just 29 combined starts over the past two seasons, and he has Tommy John surgery in his not-too-distant past. On the other hand, there’s some perverse comfort in having TJ in the rearview mirror.

Moreover, Morton showed in 2013 what can happen when a big-time ground ball pitcher finally gets a strong infield defense behind him. In 116 innings last season, Morton posted an impressive 3.26 ERA, with a 3.60 FIP. Thank the Pirates’ newfound commitment to aggressive infield shifts (plus some great outfield defense from Starling Marte, and maybe a little bit of luck) more than any spectacular individual infield glovemen. If the Buccos sign the slick-fielding, accurate-throwing James Loney to be their first baseman, Morton and his 55 percent career ground ball rate (63 percent in 2013, by far the highest rate in the majors for any pitcher with as many innings pitched) could produce another stingy ERA. On some teams, Morton’s deal would look iffier; on the Pirates, it makes plenty of sense.

The Pirates will hope for similar sunshine and lollipops after signing right-handed starter Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million deal. Yes, that’s the same Volquez who has the highest walk rate in the majors over the past three seasons. The good news is that he’s made 32 starts in each of the past two seasons (albeit averaging less than 5⅔ innings per start) and owns a 48 percent ground ball rate, giving the Pirates a sliver of hope that Volquez could be a half-decent no. 5 starter for a low price. Just don’t count on it happening.

The Mets Take a Gamble

Bartolo-Colon

Elsewhere, Bartolo Colon agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal to join the Mets, thus setting up a potential battle of former Expos if Colon and newly signed Jays reclamation project Tomo Ohka face each other for the first MLB game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in a decade.

Colon is a mystery. On numbers alone, this looks like a fine deal, with Colon coming off a season in which he fired 190⅓ innings of 2.65 ERA ball, which, even when paired with a 3.23 FIP, makes him look like a steal. The key to Colon’s success was his ability to pound the strike zone: Only three other starters flashed lower walk rates in 2013. Colon made that approach work by slinging fastballs on 85.5 percent of the pitches he threw last season, by far the highest rate for any starting pitcher.

Of course, recent success does not guarantee future success. We’re talking about a 40-year-old pitcher who didn’t throw a single pitch in the big leagues in 2010. With one of the lowest strikeout rates in the league, Colon relies heavily on that fastball to induce weak and/or well-placed contact. Leaving O.co Coliseum could threaten that approach’s success, though at least Citi Field is also a pitcher-friendly park. At any rate, it’s good to see the Mets and their bamboozled owners spend a little dough this winter, adding Curtis Granderson and now Colon to augment a very thin roster.

What’s Next?

Brett-Gardner

Still, what stood out about these winter meetings was the sheer lack of high-impact moves. With blockbuster deals like Ian Kinsler–Prince Fielder and major signings like Cano off the board before the baseball world descended on Orlando, there weren’t many big-ticket players left on whom to bid. Here’s the latest on what might come next:

• The Reds and Yankees have been engaged in trade talks, with the most obvious fit being a deal centered on Brandon Phillips (who’d serve as an able replacement for Cano at second base in New York) and Brett Gardner (who’d give Cincinnati one of the biggest year-over-year defensive improvements of all time in center field if he replaced the likely-to-sign-elsewhere Shin-Soo Choo). According to CBS Sports, the Yankees rejected a Gardner-for-Phillips offer, presumably because Phillips is signed for four more years at $50 million, while Gardner faces a fairly cheap arbitration award in his final season before free agency.

• The Mariners are reportedly still interested in Nelson Cruz, which seems loopy after acquiring Hart and Morrison, unless they can change baseball’s rules to allow 19 players to man the corners at once, with no one up the middle. Cruz’s camp reportedly wants something close to five years and $75 million, while the common thought is that he’ll get something closer to four years for $60 million. Either of those contracts would almost certainly prove to be a bust for the team that acquires Cruz. We’re talking about a 33-year-old player who has managed more than 128 games in a season just once in his career, who plays defense so badly that the most famous moment of his career is looking awful on a play that would’ve clinched the World Series for his team, and who would be leaving the AL’s friendliest park for hitters for a stadium that will zap his power stroke. Pray that your team targets someone else.

• The first-base market has grown terribly thin, which is a problem for three teams still in hot pursuit of a solution at that position. The Pirates, Rays, and Brewers all need a starting first baseman, and Loney has emerged as easily the best available player. He’s another free agent whose value isn’t easy to pinpoint: In 2012, he hit just .249/.293/.336 as he shuttled from the Dodgers to the Red Sox. Then the Rays signed him, waved whatever magic wand they use to resuscitate seemingly crummy players, and squeezed a .299/.348/.430 mark out of Loney to go with his usual excellent defense at first base. In a more robust market for first basemen, teams might’ve appreciated Loney’s 27.6 percent line-drive rate over the past two seasons (second behind only Joey Votto) but scorned him anyway, given the scant 13 homers Loney hit in 2013 and his generally limited power at a position that usually demands more.

Beggars can’t be choosers, though, which means Loney’s probably going to get a multiyear deal for good money. The Pirates seem the most likely candidate to land his services, given the Rays’ aversion to signing free agents for anything more than pocket change, and the Brewers not having as pressing of a need since they’re probably not contending in 2014.

• The starting pitching market still needs that first domino to fall before we see the inevitable blitz of moves. With the Japanese posting system discussions resolved, teams are waiting to see if the Rakuten Golden Eagles post star right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Once that decision is made, expect Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, and Matt Garza to move quickly, and for the Rays to finally make a call on whether to trade Price. Having so far failed to land the type of power bat they wanted (or even the kind of speed they craved, after Davis signed with the Tigers), the Rays do presumably have enough money left in the war chest to keep Price if the offers for him aren’t quite up to snuff.

• Meanwhile, the Dodgers say they “have no plans to move” Matt Kemp, which is code for “ante up if you want a shot at the guy”; Choo is going to get his Scott Boras–brokered money, but it might take a Fielder-like game of chicken before a team blinks; and Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, Adam Lind, and Smoak might be on the move to fill whatever first base and DH gaps remain.

But, hey, Orlando wasn’t completely fruitless. Jack Morris bought rounds of drinks for a group of stathead writers. Two agents scrapped in the parking lot over a client. One friend of Grantland spotted Brady Anderson at the meetings hotel and then challenged him to a foot race, which Brady handily won. The big deals, apparently, could wait.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, MLB Hot Stove, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri