While some of the best moves in baseball over the past calendar year were obvious, like the Braves' decision to keep phenom Jason Heyward on their Opening Day roster, others -- such as the Cubs' acquisition of Carlos Silva -- were panned at the time but have proven to be good calls. It's just further proof that it often makes sense to wait before passing judgment on moves that might have seemed questionable at the time they were made.
With that in mind, here are the 20 best decisions over the past 365 days. (NOTE: the best free-agent signings were listed in this space two weeks ago, so this will be the best decisions in the non-free-agent division.)
1. The Nationals' signing of Stephen Strasburg
Everyone might think this was easy. But the Nationals failed to sign their No. 1 pick, pitcher Aaron Crow, the year before and knew they'd have to pay the biggest signing bonus ever to secure Strasburg. Most folks figured he was a supreme talent but doubts remained because he was a late bloomer from a mid-sized college conference (the Mountain West). Now, he's seen as the savior of the franchise.
Strasburg, who has demonstrated four dominant pitches (two fastballs, a curve and a changeup), is nothing short of a sensation after a record 32 strikeouts in his first three starts. The $15.067-million, while nearly $5 million more than the previous record bonus paid to Mark Prior, must seem like chump change after Strasburg drew sellout crowds of over 40,000 to Nationals Park for his first two home starts and then outdid the ridiculous hype. In his first game, against the Pirates on June 8, he struck out 14 without allowing a walk, he had 8 K's and another win against the Indians in Cleveland on June 13, and 10 K's and no walks in a no-decision against the White Sox on Friday night in D.C.
2. The Cubs' acquisition of Silva for Milton Bradley
Trading away Bradley is a great thing in itself. But to actually acquire a great pitching piece in the process is really a coup. The Cubs made ridding themselves of Bradley their winter priority and finally did it when Seattle figured it could solve its own Silva issue and slide Bradley quietly into that low-key city, hoping Ken Griffey Jr. could guide him. Of course, Griffey is retired now, and while Bradley hasn't been the distraction he was in Chicago, he did miss two weeks while he confronted some personal problems.
Meanwhile, Silva became the first Cubs pitcher since 1967 to start a season 8-0, an incredible beginning for the pitcher who was arguably the worst in baseball over his two seasons in Seattle, where he went 5-18 with a 6.81 ERA. "He never was going to be able to do it in Seattle,'' one source said. But he is doing it in Chicago, even living up to his $48-million, four-year contract by leading the team's starters in wins (8), ERA (3.01) and WHIP (1.079).
3. The Tigers' acquisition of Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer and Phil Coke in the three-team trade with the Yankees and Diamondbacks for Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson.
This was the most unpopular of moves at the time in Detroit. It's way early to say for sure, but as of today it looks boffo, with Granderson starting slowly (.240 average) in New York and Jackson (4-6, 5.05 ERA) doing the same in Arizona. Austin Jackson is a Rookie of the Year candidate, providing Gold Glove-type defense, perhaps the most valuable piece in the deal that saved the Tigers beaucoup bucks. Scherzer has shown only flashes of greatness, and Coke is a middle reliever. But the Tigers look like they received a star, while setting themselves up to improve their offense (by getting Johnny Damon) and bullpen (Jose Valverde) with the money that was saved.
4. The Padres' decision not to trade Adrian Gonzalez and/or Heath Bell
Everyone assumed new Padres GM Jed Hoyer would want to make a big splash and set the team up for the future by trading All-Star 1B Adrian Gonzalez, who could bring a haul with his reasonable contract ($10 mil over two years) and big-time talent. Word supposedly was that Hoyer had an obvious landing spot in his old haunt in Boston, where Hoyer had been an assistant GM and knew the system. That assumption was supposedly bolstered by Padres marketing materials that allegedly omitted Gonzalez.
However, Hoyer and Padres decision-makers held both Gonzalez and top reliever Heath Bell, fortified the rotation by adding stable veteran Jon Garland and kept their fingers crossed. To everyone's surprise -- except maybe San Diego's brass -- the Padres have been at or near the top of the NL West all year. Hoyer didn't disrupt what former Padres GM Kevin Towers built in San Diego to satisfy his ego. Instead, he did the prudent thing. Just because Towers was fired by new owner Jeff Moorad doesn't mean he did a bad job. It turns out there were some very good pieces in place, including what appears to be the majors' best bullpen.
5. The Reds' acquisition of Scott Rolen for Edwin Encarnacion and two others
When the Reds acquired Rolen at last year's trade deadline, no one quite understood why Cincinnati wanted a 34-year-old with a history of recent injuries and a big contract. But Rolen had a year to go on his deal, was thrilled to go to Cincinnati (he's from Indiana) and it shows. "This is the best I've seen him in years,'' one scout said. He's helped the Reds become the biggest threat to St. Louis' supremacy in the NL Central by batting .301 with 14 home runs and 45 RBIs.
6. The White Sox's decision last August to claim Alex Rios and his $12-million-a-year contracton waivers
This looked like a tough one last year when Rios struggled at his new home on the South Side of Chicago, batting just .199 with a paltry 9 RBIs. But he has been brilliant this year, hitting .320 ("with any luck, it could be .400,'' one scout said) for a suddenly resurgent team. Rios is proving he deserves an All-Star spot.
7. The Rays' decision to trade for closer Rafael Soriano
The Rays needed to find a true closer and the Braves wanted to be rid of Soriano's contract after he surprised them by accepting arbitration because there weren't big deals for closers -- even good ones -- to be had on last years market. The move worked great, as Soriano has done his job as closer (with 16 saves in 17 chances and a 1.40 ERA.
8. The Cardinals' decision to give their No. 5 starters' job to Jaime Garcia
Going into spring it was a three-way battle with Rich Hill and Kyle McLellan, who are now in the minors and bullpen, respectively. No surprise, a Dave Duncan team made the right pitching call. Despite underwhelming velocity, Garcia has been pretty dominant in an unreal year for rookies, going 6-3 with a 1.59 ERA.
9. The Rangers' decision to stick with manager Ron Washington
The temptation to fire Washington was there when he admitted to taking cocaine (and subsequently failed an MLB test for it) last July, but the Rangers stuck with Washington. They wound up winning 87 games and finishing second in the AL West, their best record in five years. After Washington's mistake became public on SI.com in March, the team banded together. Team leader Michael Young told Washington they all had his back right after Washington tearfully admitted his error in a team meeting in spring training, and it seems they have as they are in first place in the AL West.
10. The Braves call to keep Heyward with the big league club this spring
The move may have seemed obvious, but lots of teams save money by delaying players who are ready for the big time. The Braves only delayed announcing Heyward's ascension until the end of spring training, when it was clear he was the best player on a solid team. He's proved he deserved the promotion by ranking second on the team in home runs (11), RBIs (44), on-base percentage (.383) and slugging percentage (.481). As good a call as taking him with pick No. 14 in the 2007 draft, where apparently at least 13 mistakes were made.
11. The Tigers' decision to let Magglio Ordonez's contract vest
Ordonez's $18 million extension for 2010 was tied to at-bats and games started and it looked like an albatross and a half midway through last year, when manager Jim Leyland began benching a slumping Ordonez on occasion. They could easily have not played Ordonez to save themselves a lot of money, but they did the proper thing by fielding their best lineup, which included Ordonez, as they tried, ultimately without success, to secure a playoff spot.
After amassing just nine home runs and 50 RBIs all of last year, he has rewarded the Tigers' right thinking by responding with a year more typical of his talents, with nine homers and 47 RBIs to date, to go with a .333/.408/.522 batting line. His wife was going through a cancer battle last year, so Ordonez understandably underperformed. And the Tigers did the right thing by standing by him.
12. The Mets' decision to retain Jerry Manuel after an abysmal 2009 season
Manuel was put on warning, but Mets ownership never seemed close to firing him, even after the team started poorly in 2010. To Manuel's credit, a more confident, positive feeling in the clubhouse has aided the team's rather stark turnaround to the top of the wild card standings. Manuel has a very thick skin (a necessity in New York) and a knack for developing a positive feeling, even when things appear down. He has an option for about $1.5 million for 2010, but a multiyear extension is in order.
13. The Yankees' call to put Phil Hughes in the rotation and Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen
Hughes has proven to be one of the league's better starters (he's 10-1, though offensive support has helped a bit there) while Chamberlain has struggled in the pen, going 1-3 with a 5.52 ERA. In fact, Hughes' performance is such that no one's complaining anymore that he wasn't traded for Johan Santana a few years ago.
14. Adrian Beltre's call to turn down Oakland's multiyear offer to sign with Boston for one year
It might have worked out in Oakland, but Beltre had already lived through five seasons in a pitcher's park, and Fenway fits his talents perfectly. He rejected a firm $16-million, two-year A's offer that probably could have become a three-year offer for similar annual money to take one year and $9 million from Boston, a rare gamble in baseball today. Beltre had spent his entire career on the West Coast and initially didn't want to go to Boston, but eventually made the right call. Now he'll be that much more valuable on this year's free-agent market.
15. The Braves' decision to give Martin Prado the second base job
Kelly Johnson had been a pretty good player for them, so this was no obvious call. But Prado has developed into an excellent hitter, and in a big year for pitchers is actually leading the NL in hits (101), runs (51) and batting average (.339). Johnson, it turns out, has been a bright spot for the Diamondbacks, as well, with 13 home runs.
16. Andy Pettitte's decision to return for one more year
The Yankee's lefty has been one of the league's best pitchers again, and appears all but certain to become the first pitcher ever to pitch in 16 seasons without even one losing campaign. Now 8-2 with a 2.47 ERA, he has enhanced the Yankees' chances and possibly also his Hall of Fame chances -- but those may depend upon his willingness to return for a couple more years. While yet another return doesn't seem probable now, it has seemed like he's been retiring for years now. And he hasn't.
17. The Braves' re-signing of Tim Hudson
It seems like a couple of the Braves' high-profile moves haven't necessarily worked big for either side (the trades to acquire Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera, to name two). But the Braves obviously have done a lot right lately. This was one of their best calls. Hudson, who was signed to a $27-million, three-year extension in November even though he'd made just seven starts since late July of 2008, is back to being one of the best pitchers in baseball.
18. The Red Sox call to go for pitching and defense
Some might say the opposite, that they haven't bought the type of run prevention they bargained for. However, look at it this way: Their offense apparently was plenty good enough. In fact, they lead the league in runs scored. So why devote their efforts to finding more hitters? They did the right thing, and they are right there in the AL East race because of it, tied with the Rays just one game behind the Yankees.
19. The Twins' decision to build a new outdoor ballpark
Of course, this decision wasn't made this year. But this is the year when it went into effect, and Target Field has opened to rave reviews and has helped increase their revenue $40 to $50 million. In the past, they've had to rely on superior hustle on the field and scouting off it. But this year they were able to sign reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer to a $180-million contract, expand their payroll past that of even the Dodgers to $95 million and provide hope for even more to come.
20. The Phillies' trade for Roy Halladay
No one can argue with this move, as they got an anchor to their iffy rotation and quickly signed him to a pretty reasonable $60-million, three year deal. Halladay has met lofty expectations, at the very least, by pitching superbly, with an 8-6 record that includes a perfect game, and a 2.43 ERA. The reason this isn't higher on the list was their simultaneous decision to send Cliff Lee to Seattle for prospects to replenish the system after prospects had been dealt to Toronto to get Halladay. It's easy to say it in hindsight now, but if they needed the money for Lee's $9-million salary, they would have been better off letting go of Joe Blanton, who was instead signed to a superfluous $24-million, three-year deal. While Blanton had no trade value and they would have been left without the three prospects they received from Seattle, the general belief is they would have been better off with a dynamic one-two punch of Halladay and Lee and three fewer prospects.
Even before the Mariners won three straight games this weekend to move within 13 games of first in the AL West, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said by phone, "This division is not out of line yet. We're back a long way. But all of a sudden, we (win) six of seven, we have Lee and Felix Hernandez, we get (Erik) Bedard and (Doug) Fister coming back. We have to see in the next couple weeks.''
Still, it looks like a major long shot to keep Lee past the deadline considering the Mariners their divisional deficit, even after their recent hot streak. But Zduriencik doesn't seem tempted yet.
"People are calling,'' he said. "I have to listen. But I have to give us a chance.''
Over the offseason, the Mariners incorporated a very logical strategy of building the team around pitching and defense, but their offense has been too abominable to compete, with several players -- including Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman -- well below their career norms.
Eventually, their battle looks extremely uphill. And Lee would be, by far, the prime pitcher on the free-agent market considering his recent performance, his postseason resume, no history of arm trouble and a desirable, expiring contract that pays him $9 million for 2010. The Yankees look like a favorite to sign Lee in the winter considering: 1) their vast wealth, 2) the potential loss of free agent Javier Vazquez and possibly Pettitte from the rotation, 3) their general admiration for Lee and 4) the Lee connections of CC Sabathia (a former teammate in Cleveland) and A.J. Burnett (he and Lee have the same agent), but it's difficult to predict who'll get him now considering the $4-$5 million he'll be owed could be afforded by most contending teams.
The Mariners are thought to have some extra interest in a catcher, which could give the edge to the Twins (Wilson Ramos) or Yankees (Austin Romine, Jesus Montero and Francisco Cervelli). But the Yankees don't appear to have an overwhelming need for a top-of-the-rotation starter, but will make a call, just in case they like Seattle's asking price. The Dodgers, Rangers, Twins, Angels and Mets are among other possible contenders for Lee.
Every executive interviewed said they believe Lee will be merely a rental, and that he'll wait to sign as a free agent, no matter where he goes. Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, said that decision will be made on a "case by case basis.'' But Braunecker is the same agent who negotiated two monster free-agent deals for Burnett, isn't squeamish about negotiations and barely blinked at the Phillies' offer, which is believed to have been for more than $50 million over three years. Of course, that number will probably be no more than half Lee's asking price as a free agent.
Power prodigy Bryce Harper, whom the Nationals took two weeks ago with the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, will surely seek a record signing bonus, according to a competing NL executive. While the number $12 million is floating in baseball circles, Harper will be aiming quite a bit higher, according to several sources. While Strasburg set a record last year at $15.067 million, he has been a major bargain, and that reality could play into the negotiations even though they are vastly different players of different backgrounds and ages.
There seems to be a smidgen more uncertainty here than there was with Strasburg since Harper is only 17, but one NL scout, referencing the scout's scale that ranks players from 2-8 on various abilities, said, "You just don't see a 17-year-old with 7 or 8 power.'' In fact, there's a lot of awe among scouts about Harper's talents (the aforementioned power is almost off the charts his arm strength is said to be superb as well).
Harper is programmed to be a pro, so it's hard to see him not signing. But he is only 17 and has time.