Bargain hunting: Five smart under-the-radar moves
Rangers, Bucs found catchers, while Cubs, Brewers, Red Sox got hurlers at good prices
It's been a winter of big deals in baseball. Twelve players agreed to contracts of two or more years at eight figures per year. Stars including Jose Reyes, Justin Upton, R.A. Dickey, and James Shields were traded.
Often, though, it's the smaller deals that swing close races. Players like Josh Reddick, Eric Chavez, Nate McLouth and Edward Mujica all had big impacts on pennant races in 2012, and none of them garnered all that many headlines when they were acquired. Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, Upton and Shields drew the most attention this offseason, but they're not the only players who will make a difference in '13.
So here's a look at five lower-key acquisitions that could look awfully smart by the end of the year. They're not necessarily all the cheapest or smallest deals -- just moves that were under-the-radar relative to much of what happened this offseason.
A.J. Pierzynski to the Rangers: Yes, Pierzynski is 36. Yes, he's coming off a career year, a year he's almost certain not to repeat. No, he's not considered an exemplary defensive catcher.
OK. That all you've got? Because even if Pierzynski reverts to his pre-2012 form, this is a fine move by Texas. The Rangers spent just about all of last season looking for help behind the plate, and that was before they lost Mike Napoli as a free agent. Their lineup was also becoming exceedingly right-handed, thanks to Josh Hamilton leaving for Anaheim.
Pierzynski answers both of those needs. He's a respectable hitter in a normal year, with adequate power and a nice ability to hit for average even though he doesn't walk much. He's a capable defender, even if he's not a Gold Glover.
Oh, and he got a one-year deal for less money than he made with the White Sox in 2012. Pierzynski certainly doesn't make up for all Texas is losing on offense. But for value at a position of need, he ranks as one of the best signings of the entire offseason.
Contract: $7.5 million, one year
Russell Martin to the Pirates: This is the biggest contract on the list. For the team involved, it's historic, the biggest given to a free agent in at least two decades. Still, relative to the splashy moves many other clubs made this winter, it's relatively small.
The reason it's on the list is that it represents a massive upgrade for Pittsburgh. Rod Barajas had a terrible year both at the plate (.283 on-base percentage) and in the field, and he's 37. Martin, who turns 30 this month, was a much better hitter even in a year in which he had freakishly bad luck (a .222 batting average on balls in play), and he's a much better defender than the declining Barajas.
Martin likely represents a three-win upgrade over Barajas in 2013, at a very reasonable price. He also pushes Michael McKenry into a more limited role, where McKenry may thrive. McKenry, excellent for the first four months of the season, faded as his playing time increased.
Contract: $17 million, two years
Scott Feldman to the Cubs: It's one thing when Greinke gets nearly $25 million per season. He's a Cy Young Award winner. But this winter, mid-rotation starters saw their prices skyrocket. Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Dempster, and even Jeremy Guthrie hit it big. Are they all better than Feldman? Sure. Are they all much, much better than Feldman, so much so as to justify the difference in salary? No way.
Over the past four seasons, Feldman has been a slightly-worse-than-league-average pitcher (his adjusted ERA+, where 100 is average, was 96 during that span). He's a few days shy of his 30th birthday. He is not going to be a star for Chicago, but he can be expected to deliver a decent performance, and he'll do it at a bargain price.
Plus, Feldman signed a one-year deal. If the Cubs are out of contention in July, he can be flipped to a contender for more pieces in the ongoing rebuilding process at Clark and Addison.
Contract: $6 million, one year
Mike Gonzalez to the Brewers: Once a dominant full-inning reliever, Gonzalez isn't much more than a specialist at this point. But he's a very good specialist, he went to a team that desperately needed left-handed relief help, and he came cheap. That's a good combination.
In a market where Randy Choate got a three-year deal with the Cardinals and Sean Burnett got $8 million guaranteed from the Angels, Gonzalez signed a one-year contract worth $2.25 million. His incentives are based on games finished, so if he's closing, he could make as much as $400,000 more. But if he's closing and they're paying him less than $3 million, the Brewers will probably be happy.
Gonzalez struck out nearly a third of the left-handed batters he faced in 2012 (23 of 75), walking seven and allowing one homer. That's right in line with what he did against lefties the year before. Gonzalez should be kept away from right-handed hitters, but that's fine. They're not paying him to rack up 70 innings. They're paying him to shut down left-handed hitters. He can and will do that.
Contract: $2.25 million, one year
Koji Uehara to the Red Sox: When Uehara is discussed, the magic words "if healthy" have to be part of the conversation. That's fine. He's worth the risk.
There might be only a handful of relievers -- in either league -- more dominant than a healthy Uehara. His peripheral stats are Craig Kimbrel-esque. For his Major League career, Uehara has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just under 8-to-1. Since being moved to relief, it's better than 10-to-1. He's struck out more than a third of all batters he's faced as a reliever in the Majors.
And he's done it while pitching in a couple of very difficult home environments: Baltimore and Texas, hitters' parks in tough divisions. He won't be fazed one bit by pitching at Fenway. Even if the Red Sox only get 40 innings from him, they should get more than their money's worth.
Contract: $4.25 million, one year
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.