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April 9, 2015

Pebble Hunting

Every Team Gets One Do-Over

by Sam Miller

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This is a long article to set up another article six months from now to try to answer the question of how often a pennant race turns on one move.

These are the rules: Every major-league team is granted one do-over. Any move your team made, ever if you want, can be undone starting now. There is no retroactive glory—no 27 world championships for Boston if they don’t sell Babe Ruth—and all that matters now is what happens now, as in real life. At the end of this season, we are going to look at the final records, we are going to adjust them with the assumption that the following moves could have been undone today, and we are going to see if any single move affects the standings significantly. The fine print:

*No draft picks can be undone. Cherry-picking from historic drafts is too easy and every team would have the same do-over (not picking Trout). This basically has to rule out “if they hadn’t signed X, they’d have had the compensation pick that was used to sign Mike Trout” logic, too.

*No moves you didn’t make can be un-nondone. We can’t assume any rumor, no matter how credible seeming, is legit, nor can we say with any certainty that even a deal on the cusp of completion would have happened if ink was never pressed; maybe the other team would have gotten cold feet at the last second, maybe a player would have failed his physical. Anyway, it makes almost literally anything possible to suggest, which is lame.

*We are not going to acknowledge the butterfly effect. We will allow that some of these moves would have ripples, which will be considered if appropriate, but we will ignore that undoing one of these moves might also cause the gas line in your home to break, exploding you and your neighbors immediately out of existence.

*Undoing a free agent signing (or extension) frees up the money spent, but that money can’t be allotted to a specific alternative; rather, the money will be credited at the rate of $10 million per win. Teams seem to be spending $8 million per projected win on top free agents this offseason, and we’re not going to assume a team with more money to spend would use it as efficiently as that.

*Any extensions signed after the original deal was made will remain in effect.

*If undoing a move would clearly and unavoidably undo a previous achievement that would have made the move worthwhile by itself, it can’t be undone. In other words: The Royals can’t undo the Shields deal now, because nothing they are likely to gain by undoing it would be cooler than playing seven games in last year’s World Series. The A’s, however, could undo Russell-for-Samardzija, because everything after Samardzija joined the A’s could be crammed into a paper bag and lit on fire on somebody’s doorstep. We’ll try to steer clear of players who have banked enough value that to undo them now would be petty.

*Whether undoing a move will also undo it from the original beneficiary’s perspective (e.g. if the A’s get back Russell, do the Cubs lose Russell when we do our end-of-season math?) is to be determined. Same with whether payrolls have to be adjusted for salaries re-added to the books. The decisions will rely in part on how complicated this gets.

*If I got one wrong, correct me now, before the season gets going.

And now, the undone moves of the 2015 season:

AL West
Angels: I can argue in favor of undoing the Greinke trade—if not for that move, Jean Segura is the Angels shortstop, and maybe Aybar instead of Kendrick gets traded last winter, maybe Aybar brings back an even nicer return, and nobody is counting on Johnny Giavotella. But between the money and the career decline and the injury and the spiteful press releases it’s easier to just say Josh Hamilton. The Angels no longer have Josh Hamilton, and have, instead, $23 million, which the rules of this game forbid us to assign to a four-year, $92 million contract offer to James Shields.

A’s: Not the Samardzija/Russell trade, though that’s a fine option. Rather, they’ll undo the decision to non-tender Edwin Encarnacion. A month earlier they’d claimed him from the Blue Jays off waivers. The Blue Jays then signed him again (for, admittedly, less than the A’s would have been stuck paying him if they’d offered him arbitration), and after a decent year extended him for five years and $35 million. With a team option tacked on, Encarnacion is due just $20 million over the next two seasons. We won’t go so far as to remove Billy Butler’s contract and assign that money elsewhere, but realistically…

Astros: J.D. Martinez. I don’t know whether Evan Gattis doesn’t get traded for or Colby Rasmus doesn’t get signed—probably the latter?—but Martinez at $3 million this year beats either.

Mariners: Could undo Pineda for Montero—PECOTA projects Pineda to be the 15th-most valuable pitcher in baseball this year, even at a conservative innings total—but it’s still probably the Erik Bedard trade. Adam Jones at $63 million more is probably half what he’d get if he were a free agent right now, while Chris Tillman is making $4 million this year, has three seasons until free agency, and has a better ERA+ since 2012 than Jon Lester.

Rangers: The consensus when I asked around was that Fielder for Kinsler isn’t bad enough for this spot, and that even if the outlook was worse than it is the sheer sensibleness of it at the time would outweigh our undoer’s power. So it’s Shin-Soo Choo, whose deal had loud critics before he had a career-worst season in the first year of it.

NL West
Diamondbacks: A bunch of things have made the Mark Trumbo trade look more regrettable as the months have passed: Adam Eaton turned out to be as good as his champions said, and signed a long extension; Tyler Skaggs did a convincing no. 4 impression; Trumbo got hurt; the Diamondbacks around him got terrible; and, what should have been obvious—that he least fits on an NL team with the best first baseman west of Chicago—is more obvious. He’s not a financial burden (though he does have those expensive arb-friendly-type stats) but is no replacement in a team’s five-year plan for Eaton. Only issue here is that the same overlap between Eaton and Pollock would exist, but that’s more fixable than what Arizona is now.

Dodgers: The answer in a vacuum probably remains the Casey Blake for Carlos Santana deal, as all these years later Santana still has only four years of service time, a club option for 2017, and he’s one of the best players named on this page. But where does he play on the Dodgers? He’s probably not catching, he’s not playing third, and if he’s playing first then Adrian Gonzalez never happens and this whole universe ruptures. So he got traded somewhere down the line, probably by Ned Colletti, probably for something worthless today, and we can’t undo that trade, too, so we’re still stuck with no Santana.

But everything else here would just be money, like getting rid of the Alex Guerrero signing, or the Brian Wilson signing, or the Arruebarrena signing, or the Ethier extension, and what the Dodgers need is not money, for goodness sakes. The Kemp extension would qualify, but, again, untangling it is weird now that he’s been traded. All that said, Ethier’s unmoveable and owed more than Brian Wilson, so it’s that.

Giants: Don’t trade Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran. Likely trade Gary Brown for Carlos Beltran, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. Have Zack Wheeler, be super pissed off that he had to have Tommy John surgery, probably work out a cash deal with the A’s to acquire Barry Zito.

Padres: Take back Corey Kluber from the Indians; give back those two partial years of Ryan Ludwick. Get whistled for excessive celebration.

Rockies: The Rockies errors have been in the draft or counting on the human body to hold up, so the best option is the Carlos Gonzalez extension. He’s owed $53 million over the next three years, and has a decent shot at making us regret the do-over.

AL Central
Indians: Unsign Nick Swisher, get back $15 million in 2015.

Royals: Hardly worth it for 2015 alone—he’s only owed $7.5 million this year—but they’re underwater on the Omar Infante contract.

Tigers: If they didn’t sign Justin Verlander to his extension, they might well have kept Max Scherzer, but we don’t get to say that. Still, it probably has to be Verlander at this point—getting rid of the five years and $140 million he’s owed would be more valuable in the long run than having Doug Fister (instead of Shane Greene, acquired for Robbie Ray) back.

Twins: The Twins did win a division with J.J. Hardy, but not clearly because of Hardy, and they were immediately swept in the ALDS, so I don’t think this falls under the James Shields Rule prohibition. So the Twins will take back Carlos Gomez.

White Sox: The White Sox come out looking really smart in this exercise; the best we can come up with is not trading Eduardo Escobar for Francisco Liriano at the deadline in 2012. Escobar's probably worth a win, some years.

NL Central
Brewers: CC Sabathia, however, does fall under the James Shields Rule prohibition, so even though the Brewers might strongly consider taking Michael Brantley back (especially if we decide they’re now without Carlos Gomez), they can’t. Instead they reclaimed Brett Lawrie, who they turned into Josh Donaldson, and now they have Josh Donaldson.

Cardinals: Is it… the Justin Masterson deal? Is that the best we can do? Do the Cardinals really not have a single bad contract (Jaime Garcia’s is arguably)? Have they not traded away a single prospect who turned into something good? Have they not lost a single trade in the past few years besides the Masterson one, the extent of its damage already probably in the past? Are the Cardinals really going to use their undo pick to reclaim a non-top-100 prospect? I think so. AMENDMENT: Cardinals take back Adam Ottavino.

Cubs: Undo the trade that sent 21-year-old Josh Harrison to the Pirates for Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow.

Pirates: Don’t trade Jose Bautista to the Blue Jays for Robinzon Diaz. Don’t trade for anybody named Robinzon, ever.

Reds: Who do you want?

Votto projects to be worth around 22 wins in that stretch, but you’ve got to believe that he really projects to be worth around 22 wins in that stretch. Phillips is the worst of the group, but he’s paid to be about what he is: An average, or slightly worse, middle infielder. Bailey’s a combination of the two: Not as good as Votto, not as healthy as Phillips, and paid in between. I wasn’t expecting to do this, but the Reds undo Bailey and keep Votto.

AL East
Blue Jays: There’s a case for undoing the Dickey deal, and PECOTA loves Travis d’Arnaud so much it’s a very tempting case, but these things follow a simple rule: If the throw-in to a small trade becomes an All-Star, that’s your undo. The Blue Jays undo Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers.

Orioles: The crazy thing about undoing the Scott Feldman deal is you could almost justify it as a pick based solely on losing Pedro Strop, a pretty good setup man. But the other guy in the trade, a 27-year-old right-hander with a 5.46 career ERA and 4.72, is a sleeper Cy Young candidate less than two years later. So the Orioles undo Jake Arrieta (and Strop) for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.

Rays: Should we break the rules and undo a draft pick here? We’re not getting wildly speculative: We know that Buster Posey was, basically, the other option for the first overall spot, we know the Rays had nobody stopping them from taking him, we know it came down to a relatively small amount of money, and we probably know that it’s going down as one of the worst first-overall picks ever. But if we do this do we have to give the Padres Verlander instead of Bush? The Astros Jeter instead of Nevin? Do we give the Rockies Longoria instead of Reynolds and take him from the Rays? We have no choice but to stay within the rules, which means this is going to get very dull: Grant Balfour. Very, very, very dull. He’s due $7 million. He’d probably get $5 million as a free agent. What a dull pick.

(Nominations were made for the Matt Moore extension and the David Price trade.)

Red Sox: Ruling out Anthony Rizzo on undoing-a-World-Series grounds; it’s complicated, but if they hadn’t traded Rizzo and others for Adrian Gonzalez, they might not be able to dump Crawford and Beckett, they might not have Napoli and Uehara and Gomes and all those short-contract guys they signed before 2013, so it’s hard to credit them with a World Series. (They also certainly wouldn’t have Wade Miley.) Instead we go small, and the Red Sox undo Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey.

Yankees: It’s not going to be ARod, okay? There’s a real good case for ARod—and, if the no-rumors rule didn’t prohibit it, a real good case for “sign Robinson Cano instead of Ellsbury and McCann”—but even at $62 million and very little guaranteed value Rodriguez isn’t the do-over. Instead, it’s Jose Quintana, who was granted free agency by the Yankees after making his short-season debut (but re-signed), then was granted free agency against after making his High-A debut. Given a second chance, the White Sox signed him, and the very next year he produced more WAR (B-Ref) than all but two Yankees starters; he would have led the Yankees in each of 2013 and 2014, and over the three years (one of which he spent part of in Double-A) he more or less matched Hiroki Kuroda’s value. It’s real, real close, but ARod’s front-loaded contract and Quintana’s six-year extension push it to the pitcher.

NL East
Braves: Don’t sign B.J. Upton. Don’t have to trade Melvin Upton. Have instead Craig Kimbrel, or tremendous return in a trade for Craig Kimbrel.

Marlins: It’s not that onerous, but Saltalamacchia wasn’t worth anything last year, he’s older this year, and I’m betting on his WARP including framing runs by the time I do these calculations at the end of the year.

Mets: It’s not really a joke to say “don’t invest with Madoff,” but it’s also very hard to say what that would be worth in WARPs at the end of the year. If the division is close and I have to pick something to do math with, I’ll consider giving them back Carlos Gomez. Or at least J.J. Hardy. AMENDMENT: Mets keep Collin McHugh

Nationals: Gio Gonzalez has been good for the Nationals, and he’s owed $23 million for two years, $35 million for three or $47 million for four, all good deals. Is that better going forward that Derek Norris, plus whatever they could have got for Mike Morse (instead of having to reacquire A.J. Cole), plus the mediocre innings-eating of Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone? And do Gio’s contributions so far (including to two division winners) rule him out here? Probably, so we’re left with a case for Jayson Werth, who has been a down-ballot MVP candidate the past two years and is only on the books for three more. Or Zimmerman, whose extension kicked in last year and still requires $76 million over five years. That’s probably do-overable, now that he’s a first baseman with Neil Walker’s bat, so we’ll do it over and say Zimmerman left as a free agent after 2013.

Phillies: Ryan Howard.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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