In 2013, Francisco Liriano, Koji Uehara, Russell Martin, Bartolo Colon, James Loney, and Marlon Byrd were the poster boys for that reality. They all had flaws that led to relatively low-price contracts, but wound up delivering big. Teams underrate defense and overrate offense. Too often, franchises focus on a poor recent season instead of considering a three-year sample, discounting that players in their late twenties and early thirties are still capable of bouncing back from off campaigns.
So who will these players be in 2014? Two have already signed amid a flurry of early activity. Three more remain there for the claiming with the winter meetings still two weeks away.
These five undervalued players look poised to help their new clubs reap big rewards in 2014, and possibly beyond.
A flurry of moves over the past few days has the hot stove firing earlier than usual this offseason. With the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler blockbuster swap already thoroughly examined, let's explore what these other trades and signings mean for the teams, the players, and the rest of the winter.
New York Yankees
What they've done: The Yankees signed catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract with a vesting option that could take the deal to six years and $100 million.
What it means: McCann gives the Yankees' offense a big boost. A few years ago, the Bombers fielded a lineup stuffed with power hitters and big on-base threats, the kind of attack that would wear down opposing pitchers and bash teams into submission, making up for New York's sometimes shaky run prevention. That formula unraveled in 2013, with major injuries knocking multiple boppers out of the lineup, reducing the Yankees' offense to no. 28 in baseball on a park-adjusted basis. Chris Stewart, the team’s primary receiver, hit an abysmal .211/.293/.272. Since 2006, McCann’s first full season, only four catchers have delivered more offensive value. Strip out Victor Martinez and Mike Napoli, who no longer catch, and McCann trails only Joe Mauer and Buster Posey; and once the 2014 season starts, Mauer won't be catching, either.
In the first blockbuster trade of this offseason, the Detroit Tigers sent Prince Fielder and $30 million to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. This deal makes a ton of sense — for both teams.
Still, a one-for-one trade has rarely been so complicated. Given all the repercussions likely to follow, let's simplify this by examining the impact one team at a time.
What This Means for the Tigers
The Tigers had the most inflexible roster in baseball last year, and it wasn’t even close. In Miguel Cabrera, Fielder, and Victor Martinez, they carried three designated hitters who all needed to be in the lineup. That meant Fielder playing below-average defense at first base and Cabrera showing statue-like range at third. It all came to a head during the playoffs. Groin and abdominal issues further degraded Cabrera’s already poor defense, but the Tigers couldn’t shift their injured but still potent star to DH with Martinez raking and Fielder providing their biggest source of left-handed power. Trading Fielder loosens that logjam. Now Cabrera can move back to first base, where he’ll do less harm to Detroit’s defense. And if new manager Brad Ausmus decides to give Cabrera a bit of a breather, he can slide the two-time MVP to DH and let Martinez play first base, a position he has shown he can play semi-competently.
This was Mariano Rivera's last home game at Yankee Stadium, and for most of it, the crowd was dead silent. At the start, the Bleacher Creatures performed their roll call ritual, chanting "MA-RI-A-NO!" to close it out. Then, silence. That can happen when Alex Cobb is throwing a one-hitter against you for seven innings, when your team's been knocked out of the playoffs on the way to being swept by a ballclub with a payroll one-quarter the size of yours.
Throughout Thursday night's Yankees-Rays contest, the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium showed various "Thanks, fans" messages. David Robertson's head popped up. CC Sabathia's. Curtis Granderson's. On through the roster the thank-yous went, until Rivera's face flashed onto the screen. This was the next burst of life, a moment more than two hours in, when the near-capacity crowd finally roared its approval.
It all began building to a crescendo after that. In the top of the eighth, Rivera got up and starting warming up in the bullpen.
Jonah Keri talks to San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser about the streaking A's. How has Oakland gone from league doormats to odds-on favorites to win two straight AL West titles? Who's the face of the franchise when you have a mostly anonymous roster? If there's a new Moneyball, what is it? And what does the future hold for the team's stadium saga? We cover all that, plus examine the role of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, with help from the BBWAA's acting president.
This week's Best of Grantland Sports podcast features the return of the Jalen Rose Report, The NFL Podcast previewing the 49ers-Seahawks game, Men in Blazers discussing the big win for Men's US Soccer, Jonah Keri talking to Rays outfielder Sam Fuld, and an interview with former linebacker Shawne Merriman.
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The game looked like it was in the bag. The Yankees led the Red Sox 8-3 through six innings on September 6. Boston had its eighth and ninth hitters due up in the seventh, and a foot injury had knocked Jacoby Ellsbury out of the lineup (and leadoff spot). The Yankees just needed to get through that seemingly easy stretch to take a five-run lead to the ninth inning, where Mariano Rivera would loom if necessary.
The Yankees … did not get through that stretch. Boston tallied a run to trim the lead to 8-4, loading the bases with two outs to bring Mike Napoli to the plate. One of the streakiest hitters in the league this year, Napoli was red-hot at the moment, with an opportunity to turn the game with one swing of the bat. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Napoli got an offering on the outside corner and drove it to right. In any other ballpark, the ball would almost certainly have been caught, or been at most a double. In Yankee Stadium, however, it was a 335-foot wall-scraper, a grand slam that tied the game 8-8. One inning later, Boston right fielder Shane Victorino, who was nearly as sizzling, cranked a two-run homer to left, giving the Sox a 10-8 lead.
In the latest edition of the Jonah Keri Podcast, L.A. Times writer Bill Shaikin checks in with thoughts on the Dodgers and Angels. Then the two ex-Montrealers consider the fate of the Expos and whether baseball could ever work again in la belle province. Up next, Rays outfielder Sam Fuld talks about his team's top-secret postgame dance parties, the loosest clubhouse in the league, the frustration of the team's recent losing streak, and the memories of Game 162.
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