Baseball's winter meetings have come and gone, and most of the key free agents have been snapped up. As the calendar prepares to flip to January, baseball fans typically start counting down to the day that pitchers and catchers report to spring training. (It's 42 days as of Monday, by the way.)
But there are still moves to be made, and some could be the difference between mediocrity and playoff contention. Last offseason, only nine multi-year deals were signed after the New Year. Five of those nine -- and five of the six most expensive -- went to players who declined the qualifying offer (then in its first year of existence). Expect to see a similar trend this year. Aside from Masahiro Tanaka, most of the best free agents remaining -- Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz and Ervin Santana -- were all tagged with the qualifying offer and will therefore cost a draft pick to sign. The question, then, is who will be there to take advantage of the league's reticence to sacrifice a future asset to sign these players.
Of the 10 teams with a protected draft pick in 2013 -- meaning they only had to sacrifice a second-round pick instead of a first to sign a free agent tagged with the qualifying offer -- just two made the playoffs. One was Boston, a team that still had much of a solid core in place (David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester). The other was Cleveland, a team that used its protected pick status to make key signings.
On Jan. 3 last year, Cleveland inked Nick Swisher to a four-year, $56 million deal -- well shy of the $126 million Jayson Werth-type deal he was chasing -- and only forfeited the 44th overall pick in the draft. Then, on Feb. 11, the club completed its shopping with centerfielder Michael Bourn on a four-year, $48 million contract for a player many thought could equal or surpass B.J. Upton's five-year, $75.25 million pact with Atlanta. To sign Bourn, Cleveland relinquished the 69th pick, its "competitive balance round B" selection.
Worth the sacrifice? For context, consider that the 44th pick in the draft has produced 20 major leaguers in 49 chances, according to Baseball Reference. Twelve have been replacement level or above, and three (Joey Votto, Jon Lieber and Bob Wickman) produced at least 10 WAR in their careers. The 69th pick has produced 22 major leaguers, 15 at replacement level or above, and again just three with at least 10 WAR (Tim Salmon, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Davis). Compare that with some of the earlier unprotected picks, like the 14th (12 players above 10 WAR), 15th (nine above 10 WAR) and 16th (12 above 10 WAR), and the difference between protected and unprotected status is stark.
Cleveland improved by 22 games from 2012 to 2013, and only Boston's improvement (28 games) was larger. Neither Bourn nor Swisher played at All-Star levels, but they combined for 6.2 WAR over 1,109 plate appearances as part of one the deepest lineups in the major leagues, and as Cleveland won the first AL wild card by just a single game over Texas and Tampa Bay, their contributions were crucial. There won't necessarily be a team to strike in the same way this year, but it isn't tough to imagine a relatively large market team like Seattle, Toronto or the Mets make a splash or two on this type of player thanks to their protected status -- especially considering the Mariners and Mets would be on their second such player after signing Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson respectively.
But aside from free agents tagged with the qualifying offer, teams will also be doing some scavenging. After Jan. 1 last year, 28 players signed one-year deals, and none was worth more than $10 million.
This is the land of potential, of former stars hoping to recapture glory, and of contracts heavily laden with incentives and vesting options. Most of them in 2013 -- Shaun Marcum, $4 million with the Mets; Lance Berkman, $10 million with the Rangers; Delmon Young, $750,000 with the Phillies; Travis Hafner, $2 million with the Yankees -- were either failures or non-factors. But the best dollar-for-dollar signing of the offseason came from this group -- Pittsburgh's $1 million pact with Francisco Liriano, which paid nearly $5 million in incentives and included an easy $8 million option for the 2014 season.
There were other successes as well. Tampa Bay got a .241/.326/.415 line and 1.3 WAR from infielder Kelly Johnson on a $2.45 million contract. Cincinnati found a 3.33 ERA (116 ERA+) over 46 innings from lefty reliever Manny Parra on a $1 million deal. Right-hander Jason Frasor gave Texas a brilliant 2.57 ERA (161 ERA+) over 49 bullpen innings for $1.5 million. And Mike Napoli was fantastic for Boston, as he contributed a .259/.360/.482 line and 4.1 WAR on a $5 million pact, but I hesitate to include him with this group as his short and cheap deal was largely the result of renegotiations following issues with his physical.
All of these teams were either in the playoffs, or in Texas's case, a Game 163 victory away from them. The players, overlooked for much of the hot stove frenzy, were as critical (if not more critical) to their teams than some of the bigger moves of the early offseason.
Media focus will be on Masahiro Tanaka until he signs, and rightly so -- he is by far the best player available on the free-agent market. But baseball, with its long and grinding schedule and the unique way in which it can demand as much from role players as it does from stars in key situations, rewards depth like few other sports can. These smaller signings as the offseason winds down are worth paying attention to -- you never know which one could swing the season and turn an afterthought into a World Series contender.