Reviewing top 2011-12 offseason moves
More than 300 players (and counting) changed teams over the offseason. Most were free-agent signings, some came via trade and others were waiver claims. Many, if not most, of these moves are largely insignificant, both in real-life and fantasy. After all, lots of these players were signed to serve as organizational depth in the minors, and many others are fringe talents who will fall short in their attempts to win utility or middle-relief jobs this spring.
Not all of the offseason's moves are irrelevant, however. Many of them do matter. A lot. And not just for the teams that held large press conferences to show off their shiny new toys or committed to paying a 41-year-old $30 million a good 10 years from now (not that I'm naming names). Many of these deals are significant in fantasy, too. As we all know, not all ballparks are created equal, and a hitter's or pitcher's new supporting cast can matter a great deal, too.
So with hundreds to choose from, here's a look at the 10 biggest moves of the offseason, as well as the 10 moves that were the most intriguing, even if there wasn't as much hoopla surrounding them. For the latter 10 moves, note that in a few cases the situations the highlighted players are leaving behind are more noteworthy than the situations they're entering. With that out of the way, it's time for our feature presentation:
10 biggest offseason moves
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, signed with the Los Angeles Angels: It took a 10-year, $240 million contract to lure Pujols away from St. Louis, where most assumed he'd spend his entire career, but the Angels now have a new face for their franchise. Pujols batted .299-37-99 and was a top-15 player in a "down" year in 2011 (which is nothing short of amazing, really), but we did finally see a few chinks in his armor. His 9.4 percent walk rate dropped significantly from 2009 (16.4 percent) and 2010 (14.7 percent), and he swung at pitches outside the strike zone 31.8 percent of the time (compared to 22.9 percent in 2009 and 27.5 percent in 2010), according to Fangraphs.com, indicating his plate discipline is slipping. Ultimately, Pujols is still arguably the No. 1 fantasy pick overall, and there's little reason to worry about him having to adjust to a new league and ballpark (Busch Stadium and Angels Stadium rank similarly), but it's possible that, at 32 years old, his decline has begun.
2. Prince Fielder, 1B, signed with the Detroit Tigers: Fielder's presence immediately makes the Tigers a legit contender in the American League. The big man's power is prodigious, but 24 of his 38 home runs came at Miller Park last year, and he hit 54 points higher at home (.326) than on the road (.272). Those splits are even more damning when you consider that, according to the ESPN Stats & Info blog, nine of Fielder's home runs at Miller last year wouldn't have been homers at Comerica Park, which is significantly less favorable to left-handed power hitters. Fielder is still clearly a top-five first baseman, but it wouldn't be a surprise if his power production dipped slightly in his new home ballpark. It's also important to note that Fielder's arrival moves Miguel Cabrera to third base, which gives a slight boost to Cabrera's fantasy value.
3. Jose Reyes, SS, signed with Miami Marlins: Not only do the Marlins have a new look aesthetically speaking (note that I didn't say their new threads looks good), but the roster also has a new look, thanks to the franchise's new commitment to spending. Reyes, who won the batting title in 2011 with a .337 clip, was undoubtedly the team's biggest offseason acquisition. The Mets scored more runs than the Marlins last year, but with Hanley Ramirez -- who moves to third base to make room for Reyes at shortstop -- supposedly healthy after battling shoulder issues last year and Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison still trending upward, Reyes has better support behind him in Miami than he would've had in New York. And while we don't yet know how the Marlins' new park will play, it's not like Citi Field is a great place for hitters. That said, health remains the biggest question for Reyes, as he hasn't played in more than 133 games since 2008.
4. C.J. Wilson, SP, signed with the Angels: Wilson ranked as the No. 12 starting pitcher in fantasy last year, and leaving Texas for Los Angeles could actually help him improve in 2012. Texas Stadium is one of the least pitcher-friendly parks in the majors -- it ranked first in runs and home runs last year, according to ESPN Park Factors, while Angels Stadium ranked 25th and 27th, respectively. Wilson's numbers last year bear that out, too, as he was more effective on the road (2.31 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) than at home (3.69, 1.23). While the Rangers' 855 runs in 2011 were 188 more than the Angels scored, the Halos' new No. 3 hitter, the aforementioned Pujols, will help close the gap this season, so run support shouldn't be a problem.
5. Michael Pineda, SP, traded to the New York Yankees: In arguably the biggest Yankees trade since George Costanza was dealt to Tyler Chicken in exchange for a fermented chicken drink, the Yanks shipped Jesus Montero to Seattle as part of a package for Pineda in January. The 23-year-old is leaving behind Safeco Field, one of baseball's best pitchers' parks, where he held a 2.92 ERA and 1.01 WHIP last year (4.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP on the road). However, any value lost by moving to Yankee Stadium will be more than offset by his newfound win potential. Despite a terrific rookie campaign, Pineda won just nine games with the Mariners, thanks to the 3.9 runs of support he received per nine innings, which ranked 72nd (among starting-pitcher qualifiers) in baseball. The Yankees, meanwhile, had three starters ranked in the top 15. We don't know how he'll react to the pressure of pitching in New York, but Pineda is one of baseball's best young pitchers, and his fantasy value should flourish with this deal.
6. Carlos Beltran, OF, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals: Beltran's knee issues are well-documented and will be the biggest determinant of his fantasy value in 2012. He managed 142 games last year after playing in just 81 and 64 games in 2009 and 2010, respectively, so it's fair to doubt whether he can remain unscathed for the second straight year. With the health disclaimer out of the way, Beltran, who batted .300/.385/.525 between the Mets and Giants last season, should fit in just fine in St. Louis. He is expected to bat second for the Cardinals, and he'll have much better protection than he had in either New York or San Francisco last season, with Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and David Freese hitting behind him.
7. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers: Last season marked the first time in the past three years Ramirez registered 500 at-bats. While another healthy season is far from guaranteed, the real question with A-Ram is how he'll fare away from Wrigley Field. Over the past five seasons, Ramirez has hit 69 homers at Wrigley compared to 50 on the road. In that same time frame, he batted .330 at Wrigley Field and just .256 on the road, a 74-point difference. To be fair, according to Park Factors, Miller Park ranked 11th in homers and sixth in hits last year, both of which were better than Wrigley. However, the ballpark switch, along with the ever-present durability concerns, mean Ramirez is no sure bet to repeat his production from last year, when he batted .306 with 26 dingers and 93 RBIs.
8. Mat Latos, SP, traded to the Cincinnati Reds: Latos' move to Cincinnati parallels Pineda's move to the Bronx. Although the right-hander's home/road splits last year weren't drastic, he's still leaving arguably the most favorable pitcher's park in baseball for one of the most hitter-friendly. The good news is that he should receive substantially better run support in Cincinnati than he had in San Diego. The Reds scored the second-most runs in the National League last year; the Padres scored the second-fewest. All told, Latos, who proved he was over last season's shoulder problems by posting a 2.87 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in the second half, is one of the best young arms in the game, and with this trade he probably holds even more upside now than before. Let's just hope manager Dusty Baker doesn't overuse him.
9. Yu Darvish, SP, signed with the Texas Rangers: Darvish's signing with the Rangers was undoubtedly one of the offseason's biggest moves. It's also the move that leaves us with the most uncertainty about what to expect. The competition in Japan doesn't compare with the level of competition Darvish will face in the big leagues, and the track record for Japanese pitchers coming to the States and having prolonged success isn't good. Still, Darvish is the most highly regarded Japanese pitcher to come to the major leagues since, well, ever, and he's coming off a 2011 season that saw him post a 1.44 ERA and 0.82 WHIP with 276 K's in 232 innings. In fact, he has never posted an ERA above 1.88 in five seasons in Japan. Can he adjust to the new level of competition, handle the Texas heat and pitch every five days instead of every six? That all remains to be seen. If you're willing to take on the risk, though, there's ace potential here.
10. Gio Gonzalez, SP, traded to the Washington Nationals: Acquired from Oakland in a six-player deal in December, Gonzalez has shown a strong affinity toward the Oakland Coliseum the past two seasons. He posted an 18-8 record with a 2.63 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 33 starts there compared to 13-13 with a 3.79 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 32 road starts. Thus, leaving the pitcher-friendly confines in Oakland isn't ideal. However, going from the AL to the NL, where there's no DH, is clearly a positive, and it's not like Nationals Park is a bandbox. The Nats' lineup should also provide more run support than what he would've received in Oakland, where no hitter on the roster hit more than 15 home runs last season.
10 Most intriguing offseason moves
1. Jason Kubel, OF, signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks: Kubel missed significant time last season because of a sprained foot and was likely hampered by the injury even when he played. So the fact that he's returning to full health in 2012 is a positive in itself. However, his two-year, $16 million contract with Arizona makes him an even bigger rebound candidate. In its brief existence, Target Field has been very hard on left-handed power hitters -- it ranked as the least favorable park for home runs last year -- and Kubel batted just .254 there the past two seasons. Chase Field, meanwhile, is decidedly more hitter-friendly, ranking top five in hits and top 10 in runs in 2011. We saw Kubel's upside in 2009, when he hit .300-28-103 in the Twins' final season at the Metrodome, and he carries similar potential in his new digs.
2. Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, signed with the Colorado Rockies: Kubel isn't the only player leaving Target Field for more favorable conditions. After 11 seasons with the Twins, Cuddyer signed a three-year, $31.5 million pact with the Rockies. Coors Field may not be the bandbox it once was, but it still ranked as the most favorable park last year in terms of hits and second in home runs and is a huge upgrade over Target Field. We may not see Cuddyer match the 32 home runs he hit with the Twins in 2009, but this move undoubtedly increases his value and gives him a touch more upside than he has had in years past.
3. Yonder Alonso, OF, traded to the San Diego Padres: From a pure ballpark standpoint, Alonso's move from Cincinnati to San Diego is a big negative, as his offensive upside likely will be limited in the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park. However, what Alonso does get in this trade is opportunity, something he wouldn't have gotten in Cincinnati with 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto entrenched at first base. Alonso established himself during his stint with the Reds in 2011, hitting .330 with five home runs and 15 RBIs in 88 at-bats, and he'll be the Padres' everyday first baseman in 2012. Don't count on a breakout campaign in his first full season, but he should hit enough to make an impact right away.
4. Sergio Santos, RP, traded to the Toronto Blue Jays: Santos will serve as the closer in Toronto following the December trade, but it's the bullpen situation he left behind in Chicago that's intriguing. The ninth-inning duties for the White Sox will come down to Matt Thornton and Addison Reed. Thornton was handed the closer gig early last year and failed to hold down the role, but he settled down after a rough April and was effective the rest of the way. Reed, meanwhile, made only six big league appearances last year but boasts a 12.9 K/9 rate and 1.7 BB/9 rate over 56 minor league games, which shows his potential upside in the closer role. My money is on Reed earning the closer gig in spring training, but this is a situation to watch either way.
5. Edinson Volquez, SP, traded to the Padres: Volquez struggled in his first season following Tommy John surgery -- 5.71 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 20 starts -- but things are looking up for the right-hander. The cavernous Petco Park should do wonders for Volquez, who was the victim of a career-worst 20.7 home run to fly ball ratio last year. And while control issues have long plagued him, hopefully being even further removed from surgery will help bring down last year's 5.4 walk rate. Volquez may never return to the numbers he posted in 2008, when he won 17 games and had a 3.21 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 9.5 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate, but he's definitely entering a good situation and could be an undervalued commodity on draft day.
6. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, signed with the A's: It wasn't as if the A's needed another outfielder -- by my count, they'd already acquired approximately 37 this offseason -- but that didn't stop them from signing Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal. The Cuban import is a phenomenal athlete and hit .333 with 33 homers and 99 RBIs in just 90 games in Cuba last year. How will those numbers translate to the big leagues? That's a good question. While Cespedes has phenomenal tools and could conceivably establish himself as a legit middle-of-the-order bat with 30-plus-homer power, the truth is we have little way of knowing what kind of player he'll be at the big league level. Odds are he'll begin the season in the minors, though the A's won't hesitate to promote him as soon as he's ready, as he's already 26 years old. While Cespedes' potential upside makes him intriguing, caution is warranted. Because of the uncertainty regarding how he'll adjust to the big leagues, he's more of a late-round gamble than someone to build your team around.
7. Casey McGehee, 3B, traded to the Pirates: With Fielder gone and McGehee now in Pittsburgh, the Brewers are giving Mat Gamel an opportunity to lock down the everyday job at first base. Gamel has struggled in his limited big league exposure (.222/.309/.374 in 171 at-bats), but he batted .310 with 28 homers and 96 RBIs in 128 Triple-A games last year and struck out just 15.4 percent of the time, his best strikeout rate since Low-A ball in 2006, which tells us he is in fact showing growth. It remains to be seen whether his minor league production will translate to the big leagues, but Gamel is finally getting an opportunity, and that alone makes him intriguing.
8. Ramon Hernandez, C, signed with the Rockies: Hernandez's power is slipping as he nears the wrong side of 35, and moving to Coors Field could help mask some of his regression. What's most interesting about Hernandez leaving Cincinnati, however, is that it opens up playing time for Devin Mesoraco. The rookie, who hit .289 with 15 dingers and 71 RBIs in 120 games at Triple-A in 2011, may have to split time with Ryan Hanigan initially, but he's the Reds' catcher of the future and could establish himself as a legit mixed-league option by the end of the season, if not sooner.
9. Huston Street, RP, traded to the Padres: Street is heading for greener pastures after three years in Colorado. And there certainly won't be any lost love for Coors Field, where he posted a 5.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 2011 (compared to a 2.15 ERA and 1.02 WHIP on the road). Meanwhile, with Street officially out of the picture, Rafael Betancourt becomes the unchallenged closer in Colorado. Betancourt finished last season in the closer role when Street faltered and did have success in the role. In fact, his 10.5 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 show elite skills. The 36-year-old shouldn't be one of the first closers taken on draft day, but that doesn't mean he's without that kind of top-tier potential.
10. Trevor Cahill, SP, traded to the Diamondbacks: Leaving the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum for the hitter-friendly Chase Field would be a huge negative for most hurlers, but Cahill should actually thrive in his new environment. Cahill's ground ball tendencies make him a good fit in Arizona -- his 55.9 ground ball rate last year ranked sixth in all of baseball -- and he'll benefit from facing light-hitting pitchers instead of designated hitters. He'll also have more win potential in Arizona, as the D-backs scored the fourth-most runs in the National League last year. In other words, this year Cahill could produce something closer to his 2010 numbers (18-8 record, with a 2.97 ERA and 1.11 WHIP) than 2011 (12-14, with a 4.16 ERA and 1.43 WHIP).
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