Twins Sell Kris Johnson To Hiroshima Carp

The Twins have sold left-handed starter Kris Johnson to the Hiroshima Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball, reports Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. At least six clubs from Japan’s top league showed interest in Johnson, but the Carp submitted the highest bid, according to Wolfson.

The move appears to work out for both the Twins and Johnson, as Wolfson reports in a followup tweet that the Twins will receive a six-figure sum for selling Johnson’s rights, while Johnson himself will have a seven-figure salary in Japan. (Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press tweets the Twins will receive something in the “mid six figures.”)

Johnson, 30, was acquired from Pittsburgh following the 2013 season in exchange for Duke Welker. Johnson and Welker had both been available for the Twins to select as a PTBNL in the Justin Morneau trade. The Twins initially selected Welker, then flipped him back to the Pirates for Johnson in the offseason. (The other player in the trade, Alex Presley, was claimed off waivers by the Astros earlier this year.)

Johnson made three spot starts for the Twins this season, surrendering seven runs in 13 1/3 innings of work with a 12-to-9 K/BB ratio. Though he has very little big league experience, Johnson has six seasons of experience at the Triple-A level and posted a 3.48 ERA with 7.0 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 in 132 innings at that level in 2014.

Johnson offered the following take on his situation to Wolfson via text message: “I’m very excited about playing for Hiroshima and appreciate the Twins making it happen. I talked to different players about how great the fans and team treat foreign players. I was really impressed with the respect they showed me during the negotiations.”

This transaction marks the second time that the Twins have sold a player to a foreign league, as last offseason the team sent lefty Andrew Albers to the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization.

Minnesota also freed up a 40-man roster spot earlier today by declining a $3.6MM club option Jared Burton.


Free Agent Profile: Rafael Soriano

The Nationals gave Rafael Soriano $28MM (half of it deferred) over two years and sacrificed a draft choice to install him at the back of the pen of one of the league’s most talented rosters. Though he was a reasonably productive pitcher, however, Soriano was not the force that Washington had hoped and he ultimately ceded his closer’s role late in 2014. Now entering his age-35 season, the Scott Boras client will presumably look to score another multi-year deal, but faces market competition in maximizing his dollars.

Pros/Strengths

Soriano actually had a stronger overall campaign in his second year in D.C. In particular, he restored his strikeout rate to the mid-8 K/9 level that he had generally maintained over his previous several seasons, after ending 2013 with 6.9 K/9 – his lowest mark by far since his rookie year. While Soriano posted near-identical earned run marks in each of his two seasons with the Nationals (3.11 and 3.19, respectively), he seems to have re-learned to induce whiffs in spite of his reduced fastball velocity. In particular, Soriano seems to have restored some confidence in his slider after it went missing in 2013, increasing its usage and effectiveness. All of those factors would, it seems, bode well moving forward.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins

Buttressing his good-but-not-great recent production level is its place in the overall context of his career. Since 2006, the veteran has recorded at least 60 innings in seven of nine campaigns. And he has only concluded a season with an ERA higher than last year’s 3.19 mark once: his injury-shortened 2011. While he probably no longer offers the hope of double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, Soriano seems a good bet to deliver a full load of solid innings.

And whatever one thinks of the merit of valuing pitchers based on saves and the like, Soriano’s broad experience is a feather in his cap. He now owns 207 career saves, meaning that he has been exposed to a ton of high-leverage situations. And without suggesting anything about its predictive value, it is worth noting that Soriano has a long record of positive “clutch” scores (per Fangraphs). That experience has its value, particularly for a team that expects to contend and wants a veteran presence in the pen.

Teams intrigued by that consistency will surely also notice that Soriano has been fairly good against lefties: for his career, he has held them to a .234/.309/.395 line. Even better, though he was not as dominant against righties as he had been at times in the past, Soriano showed in 2014 that he can be deployed confidently against hitters of both sides. In fact, facing a nearly even number of left-handed and right-handed bats, Soriano held the former to a .273 wOBA (against a .297 mark from righties).

Cons/Weaknesses

It is not terribly surprising that Soriano has seen some decline in his fastball velocity, but it nevertheless must be accounted for. He has maintained his heater in the 91+ mph range over the last two seasons, after sitting between 92 and 93 earlier in his career. He has seemingly compensated for that fact by increasingly utilizing a mix of four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastballs, though pitch-recognition mechanisms Baseball Info Solutions and Pitch F/X disagree as to his actual mix amongst those three offerings. But the bottom line is that that Soriano’s days of rearing back and throwing it by hitters are probably over. Meanwhile, he has increased his slider velocity to over 84 mph, the highest level of his career, decreasing further the separation for his primary offspeed offering.

One additional factor to consider is Soriano’s tendency to induce a significant number of fly balls, which has spiked back toward the well-above-average rates he maintained earlier in his career. In 2014, Soriano generated only a 31.6% groundball rate while permitting flies at a 49.1% clip. Though a meager 4.8% HR/FB kept the damage to a minimum, Soriano’s career mark sits at nearly twice that level. A few more balls leaving the yard could put a big dent in Soriano’s bottom-line productivity.

It bears mentioning that Soriano’s late-season struggles led to a demotion from the closer’s role — in part due to his inability to keep the ball down — which certainly does not help with perception as he enters the market. And that move was not without statistical basis: Soriano posted a 6.48 second-half ERA after marking his first 37 innings with an impressive 0.97 mark. And those numbers, in turn, had their source in Soriano’s declining peripherals: his strikeout percentage dropped significantly (26.7% to 19.7%) while his rate of line drives allowed went up (14.8% to 24.1%).

Finally, while Soriano has been healthy of late, he does have a deeper injury history that could come into play in a multi-year scenario. Soriano underwent Tommy John surgery early in 2004, returning late in 2005 after a long recovery. Since, he has seen flareups from time to time and even underwent an ulnar nerve transposition and bone spur procedure on his right elbow back in 2008. Most recently, he missed 66 games in 2011 for inflammation. Though his overall recent health has been good, there has to be at least some consideration for the fact that Soriano has a decade or so of mileage on his replacement UCL.

Personal

Soriano is married and has two children. The Dominican native also enjoys a special relationship with his mother, with whom he speaks by phone twice a day, per an interesting profile from James Wagner of the Washington Post.

Soriano persevered through a poor economic upbringing and early difficulties in his career. His quiet disposition belies a warm personality, according to Wagner. But there is no question that a new club will not be getting a boisterous, rah-rah presence. By the same token, Soriano is generally stoic on the hill and does not (visibly, anyway) seem to be overly affected by pressure situations. Though at times he has had a less-than-stellar clubhouse reputation, Soriano seems not to have left that impression in D.C. even after his demotion from the closer role, according to a recent report from the Post’s Adam Kilgore.

Market

As I explained back in early September, Soriano is one of many similarly situated veteran relievers. Though I said at the time that he was one of the few to have maintained his value coming into the year, that assessment was based in part on his poor 2013 and came before his late-year struggles were fully manifested.

At this point, Soriano looks to face a tough market, with plenty of competition on the supply side. His precise placement is subject to debate, but he probably falls in the same general tier as other veteran arms such as Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, and Casey Janssen.

It is difficult to assign possible landing spots for a sub-elite reliever. But in Soriano’s case, one major factor is his pronounced flyball tendency, which could make him more appealing to a club that plays in a more spacious park while reducing the level of interest from teams with more home run-friendly environments.

Expected Contract

Soriano faces a wide range of plausible outcomes, given his warts, the healthy supply of veteran late-inning arms, and the ever-present volatility of a market with so few actors. But he does have a rather extensive track record of finishing off wins, and that can still boost a player’s earning capacity. Though Soriano may have slightly more upside, and perhaps even more downside, I see him landing a two-year, $12MM deal that falls near the bottom of the range of last year’s closer market.


Angels Claim Jackson Williams From Rockies

The Angels announced (Twitter link) that they have claimed catcher Jackson Williams off waivers from the Rockies. As MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez explains (also on Twitter), the Angels’ 40-man roster is full, but Williams will head directly to the 60-day disabled list, as he’s coming off knee surgery, so he therefore does not require a 40-man roster spot at this time.

The 28-year-old Williams made his big league debut with the Rox this season, appearing in seven games and collecting 16 plate appearances. He picked up three hits in 14 official at-bats, including his first Major League homer.

Williams was selected 43rd overall by the Giants in the 2007 draft but left that organization as a minor league free agent last offseason and signed a minor league pact with Colorado. In five seasons at the Triple-A level, the University of Oklahoma product has a .235/.307/.361 batting line. Angels director of communications points out that Williams was Garrett Richards’ catcher in college (Twitter link).

Williams twice ranked among the Giants’ top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America, placing 18th and 16th, respectively, following the 2007 and 2008 campaigns. BA listed him as the best defensive catcher in San Francisco’s system on three separate occasions, most recently before the 2011 season.



Twins Decline Jared Burton’s Option

The Twins have declined their $3.6MM club option on right-hander Jared Burton, director of communications Dustin Morse announced (on Twitter). Burton will receive a $200K buyout and hit the open market this winter.

Burton, 33, came to the Twins prior to the 2012 season on a minor league deal after shoulder surgery had temporarily derailed his career with Cincinnati. (The return of former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky to the Minnesota front office may have had something to do with the team’s interest.) Burton proved to be an excellent find for the Twins in 2012, as he pitched to a 2.18 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 over 62 innings in in his first year with the team. That performance netted him a two-year, $5.45MM extension, which included this option.

Burton’s performance has tailed off over the past two seasons, though he was still solid in 2013, compiling a 3.82 ERA (3.61 FIP) with 8.3 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 66 innings. This season, he got off to a dreadful start to his 2014 campaign, but he did recover to post a 3.41 ERA over his final four months, with the end result being a 4.36 mark.

Overall, Burton spent three seasons with the Twins, totaling a 3.47 ERA with 7.6 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 and 10 saves in 203 appearances (192 innings).


AL Notes: Indians, Hunter, Davis

In his latest mailbag piece, Jordan Bastian of MLB.com looks at various facets of the Indians roster. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t predict any sweeping changes for the Cleveland roster. Here’s more from Bastian and around the AL.

  • The Indians bullpen seems set behind closer Cody Allen. The club may wish to bring in a few depth pieces to supplement the middle and long relief components. Nick Hagadone, who is out of options, is a likely candidate as the second lefty. Similarly, the rotation will probably to be filled internally. Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin can provide above average depth for a rotation fronted by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and T.J. House.
  • Had the Indians possessed a better defense, they might have reached the postseason instead of the Royals. However, the club may have solved its woes in-season by promoting Jose Ramirez and moving Carlos Santana to first base. If third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall continues to struggle defensively, Bastian mentions prospect Giovanny Urshela as an alternative.
  • Torii Hunter is leaning towards playing in 2015 and would like to return to the Tigers, reports Chris Iott of MLive.com. Hunter labels himself as one of the most consistent hitters in the game. That’s not a bad characterization. Over the past nine seasons, he’s ranged from 13 to 31 percent above average per an advanced stat called wRC+. If you prefer traditional stats, he has always contributed in batting average, power, and run production. The 39-year-old’s defense has declined in recent years. Hunter is prioritizing a World Series championship, however he is unsure if he can accept a reduced role.
  • The Orioles have a tough decision regarding Chris Davis, writes Rich Dubroff of CSN Baltimore. Davis may cost upwards of $12MM in his final year of arbitration according to Dubroff, but the Orioles may not want to pay so much for his no-average, all power profile. They do have an internal alternative in Steve Pearce, but he could be needed in the outfield with Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz potentially departing via free agency. There is seemingly no pathway to return value for Davis short of tendering him and hoping for the best.

Rangers Notes: 40 Man Roster, Coaching Staff

We already learned today that hitting coach Dave Magadan would meet with Rangers manager Jeff Banister to discuss his future with the franchise. Here’s what new in Arlington, Texas.

  • Banister, GM Jon Daniels, and key Rangers personnel sequestered themselves for 12 hours yesterday to discuss the state of the roster, writes Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. The Rangers will have to make a number of moves in the upcoming days due to a bloated roster. With nine players on the 60 day disabled list, Texas has 47 players on the 40 man roster. They’ll need to trim down to 40 soon while also giving consideration to prospects they want to protect from the Rule 5 draft.
  • Banister spoke with Maddux on Monday and is expected to huddle up again before a decision is made regarding his future. Per a tweet from Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Banister said “I like Mike.” For his part, Maddux has said he would like to stay.
  • Banister met with Steve Buechele this morning, tweets Wilson. The Rangers have need of a bench coach after the dismissal of Tim Bogar earlier in the week and Buechele could be under consideration. As Grant noted a few days ago, removing Bogar was more about preventing an uncomfortable situation than any displeasure with the former interim manager.
  • An ex-manager might be the best fit for the bench coach job, opines T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com. This is Banister’s first season as a major league manager, so experience could be helpful. Sullivan mentions Eric Wedge, Kirk Gibson, and Manny Acta as examples.

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Latest On Twins’ Managerial Search

As the Twins continue to seek a replacement for longtime skipper Ron Gardenhire, here are the latest news and rumors:

OCTOBER 22:

  • Molitor’s one-on-one meeting with GM Terry Ryan went “fine” but did not result in a job offer, per a tweet from Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Internal candidate Gene Glynn is out of the running, according to Jim Mandelaro of the Democrat and Chronicle. It is unclear if he will return to his current post as manager of the Rochester Red Wings.
  • Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN would hire Lovullo, he writes in his latest piece. Lovullo offers substantial experience and outside ideas from a first rate organization. Mackey notes that the Twins like to hire from within, which favors Molitor and Mientkiewicz. It does appear as though Minnesota has narrowed down to these three candidates.
  • Speaking of Lovullo, the Red Sox have granted the Twins an extension to continuing speaking with him, tweets Nick Cafardo.

OCTOBER 21:

  • Molitor has a one-on-one meeting with GM Terry Ryan today, tweets Wolfson, which could mean a number of things.
  • Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe tweets that Lovullo is “very much” still in the mix, and Mackey echoes that sentiment.
  • Jon Heyman of CBS Sports writes that Orioles bench coach John Russell, once a rumored candidate, never heard from the Twins.

OCTOBER 20:

  • Still in the running for the post, according to Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN (via Twitter), are Paul Molitor, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Torey Lovullo.
  • The Twins have told Alomar that he is no longer under consideration, tweets Wolfson. Hale has also been advised that he will not get the position, according to Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun (h/t Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press).

OCTOBER 17:

  • Wolfson tweets that McEwing has been ruled out for the position, meaning that the team could be inching closer to making a decision.

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Quick Hits: Nationals-Astros, Plantier, Cabrera, Hillman

Palm Beach County has approved $108MM in public funding for a $135MM spring training complex to be shared by the Nationals and Astros, writes James Wagner of The Washington Post. The clubs must still agree to a site for their new spring home. The move to Florida’s east coast also has implications for the Cardinals and Marlins. They are now more likely to remain in their shared complex, which included an opt out based on number of teams in the area.

  • Phil Plantier has been relieved of his duties as hitting coach for the Padres, writes Corey Brock of MLB.com. The Padres featured the worst offense by many measures in 2014, although much of that can be pinned on sub-par personnel. Assistant hitting coach Alonzo Powell is expected to remain with the club.
  • Jose Bautista spoke about Melky Cabrera‘s upcoming free agency on Sportsnet 590 the FAN and handicapped a return at about 50-50, reports Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca. According to Bautista, Cabrera will see what’s out there, but he’s “had a good experience in Toronto.” With Colby Rasmus expected to leave via free agency, the Blue Jays outfield could be in a state of flux is Cabrera also departs.
  • Newly hired Astros bench coach Trey Hillman has worn a lot of different hats in his career. Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle profiles Hillman in his latest piece. He was let go from on-field positions with the Royals (manager) and Dodgers (bench coach) before latching on with the Yankees as a special assistant. Per Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News, Yankees GM Brian Cashman approached Hillman about the opening left by former head of minor league operations Mark Newman. Hillman reportedly declined the position because he preferred an on-field role.

NL East Notes: Braves Catcher, Burnett, Tomas

Who will catch for the Braves in 2015? It’s liable to be a question of interest all offseason long as several roster moves could depend on the outcome. David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explores the conundrum. We’ve previously seen speculation that the Braves will deal Evan Gattis to an AL club so defense-first prospect Christian Bethancourt can start. Alternatively, the club could deal an outfielder and move Gattis to left field. While there are a lot moving parts to consider, it’s hard to ignore both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are set to become free agents following the season and will be expensive to re-sign. Meanwhile, Gattis will earn around $600k next season and is club controlled through 2018.

  • Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. cited changes in Jerome Williams‘ approach and rotation depth as reasons for yesterday’s contract extension, reports Todd Zolecki of MLB.com. Depth is certainly an issue for the Phillies rotation. Cliff Lee ended the season on the disabled list, Kyle Kendrick is a free agent, and only Cole Hamels and David Buchanan finished the season healthy. Another possible factor, A.J. Burnett, is weighing a mutual option. When asked about Burnett, Amaro said, “my inclination is that he’s going to want to pitch. He’s a competitive guy.”
  • Yasmany Tomas makes a lot of sense for a number of teams, but insiders are pointing to the Phillies as the current front runners, according to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News. Martino spoke with a rival executive who noted the Phillies have the money to reach a deal with Tomas – which could possibly reach nine figures. More to the point, they have a thin farm system and a desire to turn around quickly. That could make the Cuban market more attractive for the club. Another source said to Martino, “don’t count out the Tigers.”

AL Notes: Shields, Magadan, Yankees

Prior to last night’s three inning, five run meltdown, Mike Petriello of FanGraphs examined why Royals ace James Shields has failed to live up to his “Big Game” moniker. In a detailed analysis, Petriello discovered Shields’ pitch selection has changed in the postseason and his cutter has been less effective. However, and as Petriello notes repeatedly, it’s hard to draw conclusions from such a small sample of innings.

  • Shields is a popular subject today. WEEI.com’s Alex Speier wonders if Shields’ postseason non-performance will result in a lower free agent price tag. His reputation for October excellence is undeserved – he has the third highest ERA among 65 starters with 10 or more postseason starts. Speier does note that Barry Zito and Edwin Jackson signed rich free agent contracts following lousy postseason performances. The limited market for starters should keep Shields in demand, even if teams are wary of his late season contributions. If anything, this improves the positions of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester.
  • The status of Rangers hitting instructor Dave Magadan and pitching coach Mike Maddux should be determined within the week, reports Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. Per comments from GM Jon Daniels, the future of Magadan and Maddux depends on comfort. New manager Jeff Banister will need to be “confident in how they see the game, in how they communicate with players and who he feels he can lean on.” Magadan is expected to meet with Banister today.
  • After viewing MLBTR’s arbitration estimates for the Yankees, NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty takes a look at who might be tendered. Francisco Cervelli ($2.5MM projected salary), Ivan Nova ($3.3MM), Shawn Kelley ($2.5MM), David Phelps ($1.3MM), and Michael Pineda ($2.1MM) are the five he believes will return. Kuty believes David Huff ($700K) and Esmil Rogers ($1.9MM) may be non-tendered. My own opinion: while the Yankees may seek to replace Huff, there isn’t an urgent need to cut his near-league minimum salary. However, Mike Axisa of River Ave Blues notes that Huff could be the odd man out if New York needs a 40 man roster spot. Rogers does seem to be an easy non-tender choice.

NL West Notes: Byrnes, O’Brien, Petit

Here’s the latest from the NL West.

  • Rumors that the Dodgers are interested in Josh Byrnes for a front office role are gaining steam, writes Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. The former Diamondbacks and Padres GM was seen taking in an AFL game with Dodgers president Stan Kasten and special adviser Pat Corrales. Interestingly, Los Angeles has openings at GM and farm director – both positions that fit Byrnes’ resume. He began his front office career as a scout in the Indians organization, eventually moving up to scouting director before leaving with Dan O’Dowd for an assistant GM post in Colorado. If Byrnes does latch on with the Dodgers, it will be his fourth NL West organization.
  • New Diamondbacks catching prospect Peter O’Brien is known for his power but comes with questions about his defense, reports Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic. When the Diamondbacks acquired O’Brien from the Yankees for Martin Prado, they knew he might not stick behind the dish. For what it’s worth, O’Brien says all the right things about his dedication to catching. Arizona farm director Mike Bell also sounds positive, saying “he just needs to catch more.” Including the AFL, O’Brien has blasted 37 home runs in 444 plate appearances across four levels this season.
  • Giants swingman Yusmeiro Petit journeyed an unlikely road from the majors to Mexico and back again, reports the Associated Press in The New York Times. The right-hander reinvented himself in Mexico and Venezuela during the 2011 campaign. Ultimately, Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens and minor league instructor Jose Alguacil rediscovered Petit and recommended him to the organization. The rest, as they say, is history. Petit has contributed to two critical postseason wins as part of an excellent October.

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Offseason Outlook: Cleveland Indians

While the Indians fell shy of the playoffs, the team still managed to win 85 games despite a pair of key rotation losses in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. As GM of a budget-conscious club, Chris Antonetti will have a limited amount of flexibility as he looks to close the five-game gap that separated his team from the AL Central crown.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Jason Kipnis, 2B: $49.5MM through 2019 (including buyout on 2020 option)
  • Nick Swisher, 1B/OF: $30MM through 2016, plus vesting option
  • Michael Bourn, OF: $27.5MM through 2016, plus vesting option
  • Michael Brantley, OF: $20MM through 2017 (including buyout on 2018 option)
  • Carlos Santana, 1B/C: $15.45MM through 2016 (including buyout on 2017 option)
  • David Murphy, OF: $6.5MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)
  • Ryan Raburn, 2B/OF: $2.6MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Contract Options

  • Mike Aviles, 2B/SS/3B: $3.5MM club option with a $250K buyout

Free Agents

From a non-player standpoint, there figures to be little change within the Indians organization. Former GM Mark Shapiro, now the team president, will again entrust GM Chris Antonetti with structuring a contending club despite limited payroll flexibility. Manager Terry Francona and the coaching staff all seem likely to return as well.

The payroll figures to again be Cleveland’s biggest obstacle, as long-term commitments to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn went south this season. Each player battled injuries and struggled at the plate, making their respective $15MM and $13.5MM salaries look questionable on a team otherwise loaded with many bargains. Also worth noting were the sub-par contributions of David Murphy in his first year with the Indians; his $6.5MM salary in 2015 a year after hitting just .262/.319/.385 and checking in below replacement level further clouds the outfield picture.

With $55MM already committed to the next year’s payroll and possibly another $10MM or so in arb salaries (plus the league-minimum players to fill out the roster), the Tribe could be looking at about $70MM in commitments before making a single decision.

Cleveland finished last in all of Major League Baseball with about 1.437MM fans drawn this season, so it seems unlikely that the team’s payroll will rise significantly from the $80-84MM range that has been set in 2013-14. That will leave Antonetti with somewhere between $10-15MM to augment a roster of affordable contracts.

The Indians can trot out a rotation fronted by Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and followed by breakout 27-year-old Carlos Carrasco. Beyond that pairing, the team can look for another step forward from former top prospect Trevor Bauer and a better overall effort from the hard-throwing Danny Salazar. Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister and T.J. House represent options in the fifth slot, and House was particularly impressive in 2014, posting a 3.35 ERA with 7.1 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 102 innings. Starting pitching, therefore, doesn’t need to be a major focus for Cleveland this winter, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see some veteran arms added on minor league deals just for depth purposes.

Cleveland’s affordable talent isn’t confined to the pitching staff, however. Standout catcher Yan Gomes will earn just $1MM next season in the first year of a six-year, $23MM contract extension. Carlos Santana and his relatively modest $6MM salary will man first base, with Jason Kipnis and his $4MM salary handling the keystone. Jose Ramirez‘s excellent glove will likely open the season at shortstop, with top prospect Francisco Lindor perhaps pushing for a call-up midseason. And of course, MVP candidate Michael Brantley will be looking to replicate his breakout in left field while earning $5MM.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, Cody Allen looks like a formidable ninth-inning weapon, and he’s yet to reach arbitration. He can be joined in the late innings by Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett — each of whom posted a sub-3.00 ERA in at least 30 innings of work. Nick Hagadone joins Crockett and Rzepczynski as a left-handed option. Perhaps best of all, none from this group projects to earn more than $1MM, save for Rzepczynski.

Those cost-controlled players are critical for the Indians. While the Swisher and Bourn commitments don’t prevent them from adding another sizable salary or multiple lower to mid-range salaries in 2015, those large contracts do throw a wrench into their offseason approach. Cleveland already has $51MM committed to the 2016 roster — a season in which Kluber and Allen will become arbitration eligible for the first time. Each figures to see a significant hike in salary should his current success continue. Carrasco will be eligible for the second time that year, and if he can come close to replicating this season’s second-half breakout — something Cleveland desperately needs in order to contend — his arbitration raise will also be very steep. Shaw, Rzepcznski, Chisenhall and others will be due further raises heading into 2016.

Essentially, the Indians are looking at the same guaranteed contract structure they face in 2015, but with an arb class that is potentially twice as costly. So, while they may have $10-15MM to comfortably add to the 2015 payroll, they can’t afford to make long-term commitments beyond the upcoming season without either increasing that payroll significantly or moving some salary. For example, a name like Chase Headley looks appealing as an alternative to Lonnie Chisenhall, who hit just .225/.295/.318 after June 30 and is a very poor defender, but Headley would likely send the 2016 payroll well beyond $85MM (assuming Tim Dierkes’ four-year, $48MM contract projection is correct or close to it).

The team’s financial situation makes one-year commitments the most likely for a significant addition, but the free agent market lacks an obvious one-year candidate at third, which is a position of need. The other logical place to upgrade would be in right field or possibly at DH. In those areas, Colby Rasmus could prove an upgrade over Murphy, with Swisher sliding into a primary DH role. The Indians could also buy low on a name like Corey Hart of Kendrys Morales on a one-year deal to serve as the DH, with the hope that Swisher and/or Murphy rebounds enough to handle right field full-time. It wouldn’t take much, after all, to upgrade on the .188/.254/.311 batting line posted by Cleveland DHs in 2014.

Another option for the Indians would be to pursue an upgrade on the trade market. Juan Uribe and Casey McGehee are two short-term options that could make some sense if their respective teams are interested in making a long-term upgrade at the hot corner.  There are a number of right fielders that would fit the bill as well, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton (though the Indians were on his initial no-trade list), Shane Victorino and Gerardo Parra. Cleveland showed interest in Victorino as a free agent two years ago and could have interest again, particularly if Boston is willing to eat some of his salary.

Of course, pursuit of a name like Heyward would present the question of whether or not Cleveland wants to compromise some of its long-term outlook for an improved chance at immediate contention. The Indians do have a strong group of minor league outfielders headlined by Clint Frazier and also including Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey and Bradley Zimmer — each a first-round pick within the past three years. Some fans would likely make the case that a team with long-term payroll constraints should be resistant to trading controllable/league-minimum talent for a one-year upgrade, but being within striking distance of a postseason berth is an oft-fleeting position. The team could consider this its best shot at a division title with the Royals potentially losing James Shields and the Tigers potentially losing Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, so the argument in favor of a win-now move could certainly be made.

Perhaps the most appealing approach for the front office will simply to be to add a bullpen piece and search for minor upgrades and platoon partners for some of the 2014 regulars that struggled. While they won’t play for top-of-the-market names like David Robertson and Andrew Miller, a number of second-tier options such as Pat Neshek, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo or Joba Chamberlain would add a veteran presence and deepen the relief corps.

Going that route and experiencing success would also likely require at least one of their faded stars to rebound, which isn’t out of the question. Swisher is just one season removed from totaling 2.3 fWAR and 3.8 rWAR, so a rebound isn’t out of the question. Bourn, too, was somewhat productive in 2013, though to a lesser extent.

The Indians could try to dump one or both players, though that’s no easy feat to accomplish. Still, should the Indians eat the majority of one of their 2015 salaries in order to save $8-10MM in 2016, a long-term commitment for a new addition would certainly be easier to structure.

In the end, barring an unexpected payroll boost for the 2016 season, the team’s 2015 maneuverability is limited. The team will have to determine whether it’s worth compromising its enviable reservoir of outfield prospects in order to make a short-term upgrade, or if the better option is to make minor upgrades where possible and bank on a resurgence among a group of underperforming veterans. For all the ink I’ve dedicated to Bourn and Swisher, the most sorely needed rebound may be one from Kipnis, who slumped to a .240/.310/.330 line after posting elite numbers in 2013.


Minor Moves: Mike Zagurski, Enrique Burgos

Here are the day’s minor moves:

  • Southpaw reliever Mike Zagurski has signed on with Nippon’s Hiroshima Carp, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca reports on Twitter. The 31-year-old had his way with Triple-A competition last year, posting a cumulative 2.08 ERA over 60 2/3 frames with 12.3 K/9 against 4.3 BB/9. But he has yet to see those numbers translate at the MLB level, and did not see any action in the bigs last year for the first time since 2009.
  • The Diamondbacks have added right-hander Enrique Burgos to the 40-man roster, tweets Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. Burgos, 23, had a nice year at High-A (2.47 ERA, 13.7 K/9 against 4.3 BB/9 over 54 2/3 innings) in his seventh year in the Arizona system.

Phillies Extend Jerome Williams For 2015

The Phillies have signed righty Jerome Williams to a one-year, $2.5MM contract extension that will keep him off the free agent market in advance of the 2015 season, the club announced. The contract includes incentives that could boost its value to $4MM, per Chris Cotillo of MLBDailyDish.com (via Twitter).

Williams, who is nearing his 33rd birthday, was quite productive in a short stint with the Phillies this year. Over nine starts for Philadelphia, he logged 57 1/3 frames of 2.83 ERA ball. Of course, that was his third MLB club on the year, and Williams did not put up very attractive numbers in his first two stops with the Astros and Rangers, combining for a 6.71 ERA over 57 2/3 frames.

All said, Williams finished 2014 with 6.4 K/9 against 2.8 BB/9, while posting a cumulative 4.16 FIP, 4.09 xFIP, and 4.03 SIERA. Those numbers provide some reason for optimism, though the Phillies may hope that five better rotation arms emerge from the spring, allowing them to stash Williams as a long man.