As salaries continue to rise and the demand for immediate results continues to build, MLB‘s offseason has morphed into one gigantic, expensive crapshoot.

For all of the analytics, videos, scouting reports and statistics front offices study and scrutinize before deciding which available players to pursue, the whole premise of a sure thing or a safe bet has proved to be nothing more than a myth.

Yet each offseason decision that gets made provides a learning opportunity for every team in the game. As the saying goes, if we don’t learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them.

So what did we learn in last year’s offseason that can be applied this time around?

Let’s take a look.


Spending Big on a Free-Agent Closer Is a Bad Idea

Of the nine relief pitchers who received deals of at least $10 million, three—Grant Balfour (Tampa Bay), Joe Nathan (Detroit) and Fernando Rodney (Seattle)—were paid to be their respective teams’ closers.

Only one of them lasted the entire season in the role, and their combined numbers leave little doubt as to why:

For veteran relievers who were supposed to lock things down in the ninth inning, the fact that they managed to convert only 88 percent of their save chances—for a combined $36 million over six years—is terrible.

When you remove Rodneywho led baseball with 48 saves and made his second All-Star appearancefrom the equation, the ERA jumps to 4.86, the WHIP rises to 1.49 and the save percentage drops to 82.5 percent.


So what does that mean for this year’s crop of free-agent closers?

The unquestioned gem of the group, David Robertson, is entering his age-30 season—significantly younger than any of the three veterans we just looked at. Their struggles shouldn’t impact his earning power.

The same can’t be said for the likes of Casey Janssen and Francisco Rodriguez, who are headed into their age-33 seasons, or Rafael Soriano, who celebrates his 35th birthday in December. There’s simply too much risk involved in making a big-time, multiyear investment in any of them.


Choosing Experience over Youth Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Minnesota dropped $73 million in the span of four days on a pair of starting pitchers last November. The team’s addition of Ricky Nolasco was lauded, while its addition of Phil Hughes was lambasted.

It was understandable why that was the case: Nolasco was the established, steady veteran, while Hughes was the former prized prospect whose star had faded. A year later, we can definitively say that nearly everyone had it wrong.

A number of teams were in need of starting pitching last winter, and they all passed on Hughes, many deciding to go for a more established veteran arm instead.

Not counting Masahiro Tanaka, who came over from Japan, take a look at how the three highest-paid free-agent starters fared last season compared to Hughes:

In terms of both value and production, Hughes was the far wiser investment. Does anyone doubt that Baltimore, if it had the chance to do it over again, would opt for Hughes instead of Ubaldo Jimenez?

Me either.

Taking a chance on former top prospects who have had some success and are still relatively young can be a far better decision than signing the older, more established veteran. Hughes still had some upside at the time of his signing, while Garza, Jimenez and Nolasco did not.

So this winter, while teams are falling over themselves to sign the likes of Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and other veteran outfielders available as free agents, the team that decides to pass on the higher-profile talent and takes a shot on, say, Colby Rasmus, stands to reap the benefits.

Like Hughes, Rasmus is a former top prospect who has had some success in the big leagues (two seasons with an OPS above .835 and three 20-plus home run campaigns). He’s not going to command anywhere near the kind of money his older counterparts will, but he could provide far more value.


Don’t Be Scared Off by Past Links to PEDs

From not wanting to add a potential distraction to questions about a player’s character and whether he’ll use again, there’s no shortage of legitimate reasons why a team would look to avoid a player who has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs in the past.

But by doing so, a team could be robbing itself of a chance to add a really productive player.

Three of the more well-known names associated with the Biogenesis Anti-Aging Clinic scandal in 2013—Bartolo Colon, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta—all found themselves on the free-agent market last winter. They all proved to be productive, valuable additions to their new clubs.

Now, Cruz finds himself a free agent once again and is looking to cash in on his success in Baltimore, “seeking a four-year deal for big bucks,” according to’s Jon Heyman.

There’s more than one reason why teams would balk at signing Cruz this time around, from his contract expectations to his age (35) and his defensive limitations in the outfield. His link to PEDs, however, shouldn’t be one of them.

Fellow free-agent outfielder Cabrera’s embarrassing PED-related suspension came down two years ago, but he serves as a cautionary tale. While each of his two seasons in Toronto has ended prematurely due to injury, Cabrera has proved he can be productive, hitting a combined .293 with a .761 OPS.

As with Cruz, there are legitimate reasons why a team might not want to pursue Cabrera this winter.

But to point to his PED-related history as the primary reason is foolish.


Key Contributors Can Be Found Everywhere

Last winter, 119 players agreed to minor league deals, all of them coming with relatively modest salaries should the player make the cut in spring training and be added to the major league roster.

While the vast majority of those players never made an impact in the majors with their new teams, those who found success did so in a big way. Take a look at some of the more notable contributors:

  • Emilio Bonifacio set a modern-day record with nine hits in the first two games of the season for the Chicago Cubs.
  • Milwaukee found its starting first base platoon of Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds, with Reynolds hitting 22 home runs and providing insurance at third base for Aramis Ramirez.
  • Scott Atchison was one of four Cleveland relievers to appear in at least 70 games and pitch to an ERA below 2.80.
  • Aaron Harang won 12 games for Atlanta while tying staff ace Julio Teheran for the team lead in quality starts with 25, the sixth-highest total in all of baseball.
  • Pat Neshek made his first All-Star appearance and was a key component of the St. Louis bullpen.
  • Delmon Young was terrific off the bench for Baltimore and delivered yet another clutch postseason hit, winning Game 3 of the ALDS against Detroit with one swing.

While these players make up only 5 percent of the group teams took a flier on, their success proves that the reward for teams far outweighs the risk involved.


Unless otherwise linked/noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. All contract information courtesy of Cot’s Contracts.

Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR.

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