Indians Release Scott Downs

The Indians have released lefty Scott Downs, Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer reports on Twitter. The 39-year-old was let go so that he can find an opportunity with another club, per the report.

Of course, as an Article XX(B) free agent, Downs also would have cost Cleveland $100K had they kept him stashed at Triple-A. Downs struggled last year after a long run of quality campaigns, but has had strong results this spring and should have no trouble finding a new opportunity.

Minor Moves: Scott Diamond, Sean Furney

Here are today’s minor moves from around the game…

  • Left-hander Scott Diamond has inked a Minor League contract with the Rays, reports Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN (via Twitter). Diamond was a Rule 5 pick of the Twins from the Braves organization back in 2010, and he surfaced with the team to post a strong season in 2012. That year, Diamond worked to a 3.54 ERA with 4.7 K/9, a league-best 1.6 BB/9 and 53.4 percent ground-ball rate. However, as we often see with low-strikeout pitchers, Diamond struggled in 2013 when his control regressed. His K/9 dipped to 3.6 while his BB/9 jumped to 2.5, and his ground-ball rate dropped to 46.9 percent. The result was a 5.43 ERA in 131 innings. Diamond will serve as depth for the Rays staff and hope to get a big league opportunity at some point this season.
  • The Braves have acquired righty Sean Furney from the D-Backs for cash considerations, according to the Braves’ transactions page. The 23-year-old joined the D-Backs organization as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and has pitched to a 3.74 ERA with 7.2 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 182 2/3 innings. Furney worked mostly as a starter at Class-A in 2014, but he did reach Double-A briefly at season’s end, making one start at that level.

Pirates Discussing Extension With Gregory Polanco

The Pirates and outfielder Gregory Polanco‘s representatives at the Beverly Hills Sports Council have rekindled talks on a long-term contract, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

The two sides discussed a seven-year deal last May, which would have been a precedent-setting contract for a young player with no Major League service time. However, Polanco’s camp didn’t bite on the contract, largely due to the fact that it contained three club options with salaries in the low eight-figure range that would’ve maxed out at $50-60MM over its entirety if all three options were exercised. That deal would’ve seemed team-friendly even if Polanco were to develop into an average regular, but many see him destined for stardom.

Polanco, just 23 years of age, was one of baseball’s top prospects heading into the 2014 season and made his Major League debut in June. Though he got off to a torrid start, Polanco eventually cooled, and his overall batting line checked in at a pedestrian .235/.307/.343 in 312 plate appearances. That production came as a 22-year-old in his first taste of MLB, however, and his Minor League track record — Polanco has batted .325/.385/.495 with seven homers and 17 steals in just 71 Triple-A games — is tantalizing to say the least.

The Bucs already have two-thirds of their brilliant young outfield locked up long-term, as both Andrew McCutchen (six years, $51.5MM) and Starling Marte (six years, $31MM) have signed long-term contracts in recent years. An outfield of Marte, McCutchen and Polanco locked up for the foreseeable future would be enough to make any team envious, but Heyman notes that the chances of a deal being completed before Opening Day are unknown.

Long-term deals for players with fewer than a year of Major League service time have been few and far between, as can be seen in MLBTR’s Extension Tracker. The most recent case was Jon Singleton‘s five-year, $10MM contract with the Astros last spring, but that came when he had zero big league service time. Polanco, who has just 103 days of Major League service, would become the highest-paid player ever in his service class where he to sign the type of deal that Heyman outlined above. Of course, it’s not certain what terms and parameters are being discussed by the two sides at this juncture.

Nationals Sign Reed Johnson To Minor League Deal

Though outfielder Reed Johnson was released by the Marlins earlier this morning, his brush with unemployment will apparently be fleeting, as the Nationals announced that they’ve signed him to a Minor League contract. Johnson, 38, will report to big league camp and be in the mix for a bench spot.

The Nationals could use some additional outfield depth with Denard Span likely out through mid-May and Jayson Werth unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. As I noted this morning in discussing Johnson’s release, while his overall work with the bat is light, he’s still a solid option against left-handed pitching. Johnson batted .303/.319/.409 in 69 PA against lefties last year and is a lifetime .310/.363/.454 hitter when facing opposite-handed pitching. He has experience in center field but is likely best suited for left field at this stage of his career.

It remains unclear exactly how the Nationals’ outfield situation will play out, but prospect Michael Taylor figures to slide into Span’s spot and receive the bulk of the playing time in center field.

Blue Jays Release Ramon Santiago

The Blue Jays have released infielder Ramon Santiago, manager John Gibbons told reporters, including Sportsnet’s Barry Davis (Twitter link). Daric Barton was also reassigned to Minor League camp.

The 35-year-old Santiago got off to a scorching start this spring with five hits in 12 at-bats, but he unfortunately broke his collarbone about two weeks ago — an injury that was said at the time to sideline him for 10 weeks. Santiago hit .246/.343/.324 with the Reds last season and has significant experience at second base, shortstop and third base.

Barton’s reassignment to Minor League camp would seem to bode well for Justin Smoak‘s case to make the team. Most have expected Smoak to receive a look as a platoon option at first base (hitting from the left side), and with Barton’s hope of making the team now dashed, Smoak should be in line to indeed fill that role.

Mets Acquire Jerry Blevins

The Mets announced that they’ve acquired left-hander Jerry Blevins from the Nationals in exchange for outfielder Matt den Dekker (Twitter link). Blevins becomes the second left-handed reliever added to the Mets’ bullpen today, as the team struck a deal to acquire Alex Torres from the Padres in exchange for Minor League righty Cory Mazzoni and a player to be named later.

Jerry Blevins

Blevins, 31, had a curious season in his lone year with Washington. Though his strikeout rate soared to a career-best 10.4 K/9, he also posted a 4.87 ERA that was the worst full-season mark of his career. The likely culprit in Blevin’s struggles was a dismal 60.5 percent strand rate that checked in about 13 percent below his career mark. Stats such as FIP (2.77), xFIP (3.25) and SIERA (2.93) all feel that Blevins was particularly unlucky and that his ERA should rebound in 2015.

Perhaps more important in this situation, however, are Blevins’ numbers against left-handed hitters. Torres has proven that he can retire both left- and right-handed hitters and has actually been better against righties, so Blevins could be deployed as more of a specialist, whereas Torres will pitch entire innings. Blevins limited left-handed hitters to a frail .160/.202/.217 batting line in 2014 and has held them to just a .212/.264/.330 batting line throughout his career.

Blevins is set to earn $2.4MM this season after avoiding arbitration for the final time this winter. He’s only controlled for the coming year, so he amounts to a bullpen rental.

Of course, the price paid for Blevins isn’t necessarily steep. The 27-year-old den Dekker has played sparingly for New York over the past few seasons, hitting .238/.325/.310 in 237 plate appearances. More of den Dekker’s value is on the defensive side of the game, as he’s capable of handling all three outfield spots. He boasts a nice Minor League track record as well, having slashed .284/.345/.467 in 903 plate appearances at the Triple-A level. Despite that, though, den Dekker was a long shot to make the club. The out-of-options Kirk Nieuwenhuis figures to be the team’s fourth outfielder behind Juan Lagares, Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer, and John Mayberry Jr. will also be in the mix for outfield playing time.

This acquisition does call into question whether or not left-hander Sean Gilmartin, a Rule 5 pick from the Twins, will make the team. Earlier today, reports indicated that Gilmartin was likely to break camp with the team even if the Mets added a left-handed reliever from outside the organization. While adding a pair of southpaws might seem to cloud that situation, manager Terry Collins has indicated that Gilmartin still has a good chance of making the team, per Adam Rubin of ESPN New York, which could then be bad news for veteran right-hander Buddy Carlyle (Twitter links).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Dan Lozano Wins Hearing Versus Former Partners

A panel of three arbitrators has ruled in favor of agent Dan Lozano, president of MVP Sports Group, against his former partners with the Beverly Hills Sports Council, reports Liz Mullen of Sports Business Journal. BHSC had been claiming that Lozano owed the firm $40MM for leaving and taking clients with him, including prominent names such as Joey Votto and Albert Pujols.

As Mullen writes, MLBPA certified agents are prohibited by MLBPA rules to sue one another in federal or state court. Instead, claims filed against one another are brought to a panel of arbitrators, which is overseen by the MLBPA.

Lozano left BHSC after more than 20 years with the firm in 2010, starting up his own agency — MVP Sports. Both Pujols’ 10-year, $240MM contract and Votto’s 10-year, $225MM extension were negotiated by Lozano shortly thereafter, in the 2011-12 offseason.

In addition to Pujols and Votto, MVP Sports represents a number of high-profile MLB players, including Josh Donaldson, Carlos Beltran, Manny Machado, Derek Norris, Nick Swisher, Fernando Rodney and the recently retired Michael Young, among others. A larger list of clients for each agency can be viewed in MLBTR’s Agency Database, which contains agent info for more than 2,000 Major League and Minor League players.

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Mariners Release Kevin Correia

The Mariners announced that they have released right-hander Kevin Correia, who was in camp on a Minor League contract. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports tweeted earlier today that Correia was planning to opt out of his deal after being reassigned to Minor League camp.

Correia, 34, struggled to a 5.44 ERA in 154 innings between the Twins and Dodgers in 2014 — the second season of a two-year, $10MM pact he had inked with Minnesota prior to the 2013 campaign. Correia pulled his weight in the first year of the deal, registering a 4.18 ERA in 185 1/3 innings, but his middling strikeout rate (4.8 K/9 over the past two seasons) and hittable arsenal appear to have caught up with him in 2014.

Still, despite his stumbles, FIP and xFIP feel that Correia’s ERA could’ve been a bit lower, pegging him at 4.67, and the veteran righty has shown very good control over the past four seasons (2.3 BB/9).  Recently, Heyman noted that even though Correia was a longshot to make the M’s, injuries elsewhere would likely lead to significant interest from other clubs.

Kris Bryant To Begin Season In Minors

The Cubs announced today that wunderkind Kris Bryant has been assigned to Minor League camp, indicating that he will not make the team’s Opening Day roster out of Spring Training. Second baseman Javier Baez was also optioned to Triple-A today.

The Bryant decision was widely expected, as the Cubs’ long-term benefit by optioning Bryant is almost impossible to ignore. Keeping Bryant in the Minors for even 12 days will leave him with 171 days of Major League service time this season, or one day shy of a full year. In other words, rather than controlling Bryant from 2015-20, the Cubs would gain an extra year of control and have the rights to Bryant through the 2021 season.

Oftentimes, teams will be willing to bring a player north to open the season because they plan on trying to negotiate a long-term deal eventually anyhow. The Cubs may well have interest in extending Bryant — why wouldn’t they? — but Bryant is also a client of agent Scott Boras, who traditionally encourages his players to go year-to-year through arbitration and test the free agent market as early as possible. While there are exceptions — Carlos Gomez, Jered Weaver and Carlos Gonzalez each come to mind — the Cubs have to know that their odds of buying out any of Bryant’s free agent years in advance are considerably thinner than they would be if Bryant had different representation.

Boras has been very vocal on the matter, which has been one of the most oft-discussed storylines this Spring Training. Boras told Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports that the Cubs had to make a choice regarding Bryant: “Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? [Cubs owner] Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.” Boras would go on to argue that Bryant should have been promoted last September when the rosters expanded.

While it’s not surprising to see an agent advocating for the promotion of his player, it’s also hard to dismiss Boras’ comments as those of a biased party. Bryant batted a ridiculous .325/.438/.661 with 43 homers between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he crushed nine homers in just 44 spring plate appearances while slashing .425/.477/1.175. Ranked by several outlets as the game’s top prospect, Bryant has certainly made a case that he belongs at the Major League level, and it’s difficult to compose an argument that he is not ready for the Majors, from a baseball standpoint.

The Cubs, of course, will not indicate that service time plays an issue in the decision. (Doing so would open the door for a grievance.) However, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein pointed out to reporters that he has never once taken a prospect north to open the season if it meant making his Major League debut, as he feels that Opening Day is a difficult time for a young player to debut. He also cited a belief that it’s good for players to be in a rhythm when called up to the Majors for the first time.

Needless to say, the service time rules that frequently cause teams to stash prospects in the Minors to delay their free agency or to avoid Super Two status figure to be a major talking point in the next collective bargaining agreement. Last year, there was plenty of controversy around the promotion timelines for prospects Gregory Polanco, Jon Singleton and George Springer, among others. MLBPA executive director has called the tactic “unfortunate,” though certain playerss, including Andrew Miller, have voiced an understanding that it’s part of the game.

In the case of Baez, it’s perhaps not surprising to see him begin the year in the Minors. He hit just 169/.227/.324 last season and struck out in more than 40 percent of his plate appearances, and this spring he batted .173/.218/.231 with 20 punchouts in 55 PA. Baez racked up 55 days of service time last year, and he’ll need 117 additional days in 2015 to reach one full year of big league service time.

Mets Acquire Alex Torres

The Mets announced that they have acquired left-handed reliever Alex Torres from the Padres in exchange for Minor League right-hander Cory Mazzoni and a player to be named later.

Alex Torres

Torres, 27, will give the Mets a much-needed left-handed option in the bullpen. Josh Edgin, who had projected to be New York’s top southpaw reliever, underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this month, leaving the team precariously thin in this department. Since that time, rumors have circulated about potential matches for the Mets, who have been linked to Baltimore’s Brian Matusz as well as J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez and Adam Liberatore of the Dodgers. Colorado’s Rex Brothers was also suggested as a fit.

In Torres, New York receives a pitcher that has posted a 2.49 ERA with 9.1 K/9, 4.3 BB/9 and a 44.7 percent ground-ball rate over the past two seasons. Torres has benefited from a perhaps unsustainbly low homer-to-flyball ratio of just 3.1 percent, though Citi Field’s generally pitcher-friendly dimensions may help him to sustain an above-average rate in that regard.

Torres does come with some control issues, as he averaged 5.5 walks per nine innings pitched in 2014. That, combined with some correction for his good fortune on home runs, leads sabermetric ERA estimators to peg him for an ERA in the mid-3.00s rather than to sustain his sub-3.00 mark.

Somewhat curiously, most of Torres’ control problems come against left-handed hitters. Right-handers have batted a meager .175/.260/.251 against Torres dating back to 2013, while lefties have exploited his lack of control and gotten on base at a .341 clip against Torres. Of course, they’ve also batted just .213 and slugged .276, so if he can rein in his control, he could post dominant overall numbers.

With one year and 141 days of service time under his belt, Torres can be controlled via arbitration through the 2019 season. However, because he’ll end up with two years, 141 days next offseason (assuming a full year of service time is accrued, as one would expect), he’s a likely Super Two player, meaning he will be arbitration-eligible four times as opposed to three.

The 25-year-old Mazzoni was New York’s second-round pick back in 2011 and is generally ranked as the Mets’ 15th-20th best prospect, per Baseball America, and Fangraphs. Mazzoni split the 2014 campaign across four levels, spending the bulk of his time at Triple-A where he worked to a 4.67 ERA with 49 strikeouts against just 12 walks in 52 innings. Mazzoni has spent much of his career as a starter, but most feel that he’s likely destined for relief work if he surfaces in the Majors, where his low 90s fastball will instead reach the mid-90s, serving as a complement to an above-average slider.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports first reported (via Twitter) that the Mets had acquired Torres.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Reds Release Paul Maholm

The Reds announced that they have released veteran left-hander Paul Maholm (Twitter link). Cincinnati told Maholm a week ago that he wouldn’t earn a spot in the team’s rotation, but at the time, Maholm was still uncertain about exercising the out clause in his contract.

Maholm, 32, spent last season with the Dodgers, working to a 4.84 ERA with 4.3 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 70 2/3 innings between their rotation and the bullpen. Though he’s struggled over the past two seasons, Maholm was a more than serviceable rotation arm for the Pirates, Cubs and Braves from 2011-12, recording 351 1/3 innings of 3.66 ERA ball in that time. He also pitched well this spring, yielding only three runs in 12 1/3 innings, although his 5-to-3 K/BB ratio in that time leaves something to be desired.

The Reds’ rotation figures to include Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Anthony DeSclafani and a yet-undetermined fifth starter, with Raisel Iglesias and Jason Marquis possibly still in the mix. Cincinnati made the surprising decision to shift Tony Cingrani to the bullpen earlier this spring.

NL East Notes: Phillies, Mets, Gilmartin, Johnson, Janssen

The Phillies may be preparing to add their fifth starter from outside the organization, according to a tweet from Jayson Stark of ESPN. Stark spoke with an executive who asked the Phillies who their fifth starter was expected to be and received a reply of, “He’s not here yet.” A number of rotation options have been released over the past few days, including Jhoulys Chacin, Scott Baker and Felix Doubront. More releases figure to come soon, and other rotation options will be placed on waivers as we get late into camp. I’d be surprised if the Phillies made any form of significant move, but adding someone with a bit of upside, such as Chacin, could prove beneficial if they can get him back on track. The Phillies will go with Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, David Buchanan and Jerome Williams in their first four rotation spots.

Here’s more from the NL East…

  • The Mets are confident that they can land a left-handed reliever before Opening Day, but even if they do bring in someone from the outside, Rule 5 lefty Sean Gilmartin has a good chance of making the club, per ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin. Gilmartin, 25 in May, was the Braves’ first-round pick in 2011 but was traded to the Twins for Ryan Doumit last offseason. Gilmartin posted a combined 3.71 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 in 145 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A for the Twins last season, but they made the at least somewhat curious decision to leave him unprotected in this year’s Rule 5 Draft. With the Mets this spring, Gilmartin has allowed five runs in 8 2/3 innings with an 11-to-5 K/BB ratio. Last year in the Minors, Gilmartin held lefties to a miserable .201/.219/.235 batting line.
  • Marlins manager Mike Redmond tells Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post that he “lost a few nights of sleep” over the decision to cut Reed Johnson, who was released earlier this morning. Redmond spoke highly of Johnson’s influence on the team’s young hitters last season and voiced an opinion that while he expects Johnson to get picked up by another club, he also can see him transitioning to a coaching or even managerial role in the future. Redmond called the 38-year-old Johnson “a guy who has truly earned everything he’s been given in this game.” D’Angelo notes that Jordany Valdespin, Don Kelly, Donovan Solano and Reid Brignac are competing for the final two bench spots in Miami. The Marlins are prioritizing taking someone who can play shortstop for one of the two spots.
  • Tom Schad of the Washington Times spoke to Nationals right-hander Casey Janssen and was told that the setup man isn’t sure if he’ll be ready for Opening Day. Janssen underwent an MRI on his right shoulder yesterday and while the results haven’t been released yet, Janssen said he doesn’t believe the test indicated a significant injury.

Mets Remain Open To Trading Dillon Gee

Though right-hander Dillon Gee is expected to open the season in the Mets’ rotation and there are no active trade talks surrounding him at this time, the team may still trade him within a month’s time, ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin reports.

Gee is slated to be the team’s fifth starter to open the season, but he has his dissenters within the organization who prefer Rafael Montero in the rotation, Rubin hears. The Mets, of course, also have a wealth of young pitching in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues, including Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Even with right-hander Zack Wheeler out for the year, it does seem that the Mets would have enough pitching depth to move Gee and his $5.3MM salary.

Gee, who will turn 29 in late April, is under control through the 2016 season. He pitched to a 4.00 ERA in 137 1/3 innings last season with the Mets and has turned in a 3.91 ERA with 6.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a 45.6 percent ground-ball rate in 639 2/3 innings over parts of five seasons in New York.

From a purely speculative standpoint, the Rangers, Phillies, Braves, Blue Jays, Astros, Yankees, Dodgers and Rays all make some degree of sense, as each has either dealt with pitching injuries or was open to adding depth late in the offseason. The Mets are known to be seeking left-handed relief options, but they’re apparently reluctant to move Gee for such a pitcher.

It’s somewhat rare to see a regular player or rotation option moved in the season’s first month, but it does happen from time to time, and Mets GM Sandy Alderson is no stranger to such moves; the Mets matched up with the Pirates on a trade for Ike Davis on April 18 last season.

Red Sox Acquire Sandy Leon; Christian Vazquez Placed On 60-Day DL

9:05am: The Red Sox announced that they have acquired Leon from the Nationals in exchange for cash considerations. In order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, Vazquez has been placed on the 60-day disabled list with a sprained right elbow.

7:05am: Catcher Sandy Leon tells James Wagner of the Washington Post (Twitter link) that he has been traded to the Red Sox. The 26-year-old Leon was out of options and unlikely to break camp with the Nationals, and the Sox have a need behind the plate with Christian Vazquez‘s immediate future uncertain as he deals with an elbow injury.

Leon, a switch-hitter, has played sparingly over the past three seasons, totaling 107 plate appearances in the Major Leagues and hitting just .189/.280/.253 in that extremely small sample. Leon’s track record in Triple-A — a .257/.358/.414 triple slash — is more impressive, but it, too, has come in a small sample of just 257 PA. Overall, Leon is a .236/.324/.329 hitter in the Minors, but he’s been a dominant force behind the plate when protecting against the running game, as he’s gunned down 45 percent of base stealers in his Minor League career.

Vazquez is slated to meet with Dr. James Andrews this week after an MRI has led to speculation that he could require Tommy John surgery. The move would be a significant blow to the Sox and devastating news for Vazquez, who was in line to see significant time behind the plate this year. Boston has already acquired Ryan Hanigan this winter, and he figures to receive the bulk of the playing time behind the dish.

The wild card in Boston’s catching situation is top prospect Blake Swihart, whose name has continually surfaced in Cole Hamels trade rumors. However, the Sox have steadfastly refused to consider trading Swihart, who is regarded as a Top 20 prospect in the game. Swihart batted a combined .293/.341/.469 between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he’s had an excellent spring, hitting .296/.345/.444. Some have speculated that the 23-year-old could break camp with the club if Vazquez has a serious enough injury, but the addition of Leon gives the Red Sox the ability to give Swihart a bit more time to develop in the Minors if they wish. Swihart played just 18 games at the Triple-A level last season, so it would be understandable if Boston was yet uncertain about rushing their prized prospect to the Major Leagues.

Marlins Release Reed Johnson

The Marlins have granted Reed Johnson his unconditional release from a Minor League contract, tweets Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald.

The 38-year-old Johnson was in camp as a non-roster invitee after spending the 2014 season with Miami as a backup outfielder. Last season, he batted .235/.366/.348 in 201 trips to the plate for the Marlins. Miami signed Ichiro Suzuki as their fourth outfielder behind Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton this offseason, leaving Johnson to compete for the team’s fifth bench spot. The veteran Johnson batted .205/.225/.231 in 40 plate appearances this spring.

Though his bat has deteriorated with age, Johnson is a career .310/.363/.454 hitter against left-handed pitching and batted .303/.319/.409 in 69 PA against lefties last year. He can now seek an opportunity to latch on with another club.