Offseason Outlook: Pittsburgh Pirates

Led by outstanding seasons from Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin and Josh Harrison, the Pirates made the playoffs for the second straight year in 2014, but the possible departures of Martin and Francisco Liriano cloud their immediate future.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

*Axford and Gomez were designated for assignment Saturday.

**Melancon had 33 saves and 14 holds last season, a rare combination that caused Swartz’s model to project Melancon would receive a raise of $5MM to $7.6MM. We think such a large increase is unlikely.

Free Agents

Despite an unceremonious end to their season with an 8-0 loss to the Giants in the NL Wild Card game, the Pirates have a strong core of players, along with a well regarded farm system. They appear poised to be competitive for years to come. This year’s offseason, however, will likely revolve around their decision regarding Martin, who’s set to depart as a free agent.

Martin’s expiring two-year, $17MM contract was a fantastic deal by any standard, and was easily the best free agent signing of GM Neal Huntington’s career. Martin contributed 9.4 fWAR over the course of the contract and arguably produced even more value than that thanks to his framing and his work with pitchers. The Pirates have gotten unexpectedly strong work from pitchers like Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Mark Melancon in the last two years, and Martin was by all accounts a big reason why.

Now, the Pirates will either have to let Martin go or make the sort of expensive, multi-year commitment he’ll surely receive on the free agent market. The Bucs have indicated they’re willing to “stretch” to keep Martin, but re-signing him would represent a dramatic departure from their usual offseason patterns. And as important as Martin has been to the Pirates, signing him for, say, four years might put them in dangerous territory, given their tight budget and the brutal aging patterns of catchers in their thirties.

There are, however, no comparable options on the free agent market, and the Pirates’ internal replacements to replace Martin, Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart, represent big downgrades that the Pirates will have to make up elsewhere (even though Stewart is another good framer who had a surprisingly palatable offensive season in 2014). The Pirates have already indicated they will extend Martin a qualifying offer, earning them a draft pick in the likely event that he signs elsewhere.

The Bucs could also lose Liriano and Edinson Volquez, who were key contributors to the team’s 2014 rotation. (They have not indicated they plan to extend a qualifying offer to Liriano, and perhaps they won’t — they didn’t extend one to A.J. Burnett last offseason and likely don’t feel Liriano is as crucial a player as Martin.) The Pirates might feel it makes more sense to replace Liriano and Volquez with buy-low reclamation projects (Justin Masterson or Brett Anderson might make sense, given the Pirates’ love of ground-ball pitchers) rather than paying top dollar for pitchers they’ve already helped improve. Of course, the Bucs’ talents with reclamation pitchers could decrease if Martin leaves.

In any case, the Pirates will need to do something to acquire starting pitching this winter — Charlie Morton and top prospect Jameson Taillon will both be returning from significant injuries, leaving the Pirates with only Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley and the erratic Jeff Locke as sure bets to make their rotation out of spring training.

The Bucs’ corner infield positions will also need tweaking, thanks mostly to Pedro Alvarez’s throwing issues at third base last year. Harrison, who before this season had looked like little more than a spare infielder, had a shocking borderline-MVP-caliber campaign in 2014. He replaced Alvarez at third base down the stretch and will probably continue as the Pirates’ third baseman next year. The lefty-hitting Alvarez is a likely a first baseman going forward, with the Bucs either trading or non-tendering lefty Ike Davis. The Pirates could also consider trading Alvarez, but he’s not eligible for free agency until after 2016, so they could again gamble on his raw power, even though he produced -0.2 fWAR last season. The Bucs will also have to decide whether to keep righty Gaby Sanchez, who is arbitration eligible for the third time and who hit just .229/.293/.385 in 2014. If Sanchez returns, he will presumably continue in a platoon role.

Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer are set to man the middle infield, but the Bucs will need a utility infielder, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they re-signed Clint Barmes to a one-year deal, like they did last offseason. Barmes doesn’t hit well, but his strong defense makes him a good fit for the Pirates’ grounder-heavy pitching staff. The newly acquired Justin Sellers, who is out of options, could also fill that role, but given his weak bat, the Pirates seem likely to try to sneak him through waivers at some point.

In the outfield, the Pirates have superstar Andrew McCutchen in center and emerging star Starling Marte in left, both of them signed long-term to team-friendly extensions. Gregory Polanco, who will likely supplant Travis Snider as the starter in right field in 2015, also has superstar upside, although he struggled in his rookie season. Snider quietly had a strong 2014, hitting .264/.338/.438, and he’ll probably continue on as the Pirates’ fourth outfielder and top pinch-hitting option.

The Pirates’ bullpen wasn’t a strength in 2014, but the Bucs control most of their relief talent and aren’t likely to make a big addition. Melancon and Tony Watson should return as closer and set-up man, respectively, and huge righty John Holdzkom improbably emerged from independent baseball to become another late-inning option. Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson and Stolmy Pimentel are also set to return.

Fans have long criticized the Pirates for failing to spend, and though the Bucs’ Opening Day payrolls have increased in each of the past four seasons, they’re still way behind the rest of the league. Heavy spending made little sense when the Pirates were perennial doormats, but now that they’re contenders, judicious spending can make a big difference. To cherry-pick one example, the Pirates lost the NL Wild Card game this year; if they had signed Jose Abreu last offseason, they might have won the NL Central and bypassed that game altogether.

This offseason, many fans will treat the team’s decision with Martin as a bellwether of its willingness to spend to keep their team competitive. On one hand, that’s not entirely fair — there are legitimate worries about Martin’s age, and a bad, expensive contract can be a serious problem for even a mid-market team.

On the other hand, replacing Martin’s production will be very difficult if he leaves. The Pirates’ key needs are at catcher and in the starting rotation. If they believe in their ability to fix broken pitchers, it hardly makes sense for them to pay heavily for pitchers who are already at the tops of their games, particularly given how risky multi-year deals for aging pitchers tend to be. Many of the best hitters in a very weak hitting class are either third basemen or outfielders, and the Pirates already have excellent or potentially excellent options at all four of those positions. Meanwhile, there’s no obvious way for the Pirates to replace Martin at catcher with anyone remotely comparable, even in a trade. The top names after Martin on the free agent market are players like Geovany Soto and A.J. Pierzynski.

Another way for the Pirates to upgrade this offseason might be to deal from their deep pool of outfield talent to acquire a younger, cost-controlled starting pitcher. The Mets, who have plenty of promising starting pitching and can use outfield help, might be a good trade partner. The Bucs could also try to deal prospects to a rebuilding team for a pitcher (a ground-ball pitcher like Dallas Keuchel might make sense), but such a trade might be easier in July — teams often aren’t willing to wave the white flag on their seasons before they’ve even begun.

The Pirates’ only significant moves last offseason were to sign Volquez and re-sign Barmes, even though they were coming off their first winning season in two decades and were set to lose a top starting pitcher in Burnett. (They also traded for Davis early in the season.) This winter might not be much different. The Pirates’ acquisitions to address catcher and their rotation will probably be relatively quiet ones. Or, in the case of the catcher position, they might not acquire anyone at all. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently made the case for Stewart as a stopgap starting catcher — Stewart isn’t anywhere near Martin’s equal offensively, but he’s good enough at framing and defense to be a passable starter, particularly given the weak catching market. Tony Sanchez could then serve as Stewart’s backup, with prospect Elias Diaz (who is quickly developing a strong defensive reputation of his own) possibly taking over for Stewart in 2016.

With Stewart at catcher, the Pirates would then likely focus their offseason spending on their large group of arbitration-eligible players. They could also continue to try to negotiate a long-term deal with Polanco, who despite a somewhat disappointing rookie season is a prime extension candidate, given his outstanding tools and control of the strike zone. Harrison and Walker might also be extension candidates, albeit less likely ones.

Pirates fans won’t be happy about losing Martin. At this point, though, it’s unwise to ever bet on the Bucs being serious players in free agency. They’ve now had two straight winning seasons, and they set a PNC Park attendance record in 2014, but they’ve shown no indication of the willingness (or perhaps ability) to raise their payroll out of the lowest third of MLB teams, even for a season or two.

There are ways for the Pirates to make dramatic changes this offseason even without a huge payroll increase. One might be to non-tender or trade Davis, Gaby Sanchez and Alvarez, and go with rookie Andrew Lambo at first base. The Pirates could then use the savings (along with the $7.5MM they’ll have coming off the books now that they’re out from under their portion of Wandy Rodriguez‘s salary) to make a splash elsewhere. But that possibility seems remote, given that it’s unclear which big names the Bucs might pursue, other than Martin. It’s more likely that they’ll have another relatively quiet winter.


Pirates Acquire Sellers, Designate Axford And Gomez

The Pirates have announced that they’ve acquired shortstop Justin Sellers from the Indians for cash considerations. They’ve also designated relievers John Axford and Jeanmar Gomez for assignment and reinstated starter Charlie Morton from the 60-day disabled list.

Sellers spent most of the 2014 season with Triple-A Columbus, hitting .254/.307/.355. The 28-year-old has hit sparingly in parts of four seasons with the Dodgers and Indians, but he can play second and third as well as shortstop and he has a strong defensive reputation. He will be on the Pirates’ 40-man roster.

Axford and Gomez were both non-tender candidates, so it’s no surprise that the Bucs would designate them for assignment. Axford, a former closer, would have received a small raise on this year’s $4.5MM salary, even though he had a walk-heavy 2014 season in which the Indians let him head to the Pirates via waivers. Gomez served as a long reliever for the Pirates in 2014 and posted a 3.19 ERA, but with an underwhelming 5.5 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9.


Week In Review: 10/18/14 – 10/24/14

Here’s a look back at this week at MLBTR.

Extended

Avoided Arbitration

Declined Option

Claimed

Designated For Assignment

Outrighted

Key Minor League Signings

Other


Full Story | Comments | Categories: Week In Review

MLB Trade Rumors Podcast: Episode 3

On the third episode of the MLB Trade Rumors Podcast, Jeff Todd runs down the transactional news from the week (1:20) before being joined by Angels assistant GM Matt Klentak (2:07), who talks about the state of the Halos as they look to supplement a 98-win team while remaining cognizant of the future. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes also joins the line (24:05) to talk through upcoming qualifying offer decisions around the league and predict whether or not this will be the year that a QO is finally accepted.

 

PodcastClick here to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and please leave a review! You can download the episode directly with this link.

You can access the podcast via SoundCloud at this link. The podcast is also available via Stitcher at this link.

The MLB Trade Rumors Podcast runs weekly on Thursday afternoons.


*MLBTR apologizes for the delay in posting this episode, which was the result of technical difficulties.


Miguel Cabrera, Adam Wainwright Undergo Surgery

Two of the game’s biggest stars, Miguel Cabrera and Adam Wainwright, underwent surgery today, according to reports from MLB.com’s Jason Beck and Will Carroll of Bleacher Report (Twitter link).

Cabrera’s operation isn’t entirely surprising, but doctors also discovered a stress fracture in the navicular bone near the top of his right foot, Beck writes. That injury requires a longer rehab process and required screws to be inserted into Cabrera’s foot, according to Beck.

Cabrera will be re-evaluated in three months’ time, and GM Dave Dombrowski said the former AL MVP will be “pretty much inactive” until that point. Dombrowski wouldn’t comment on whether or not Cabrera would be ready for Spring Training, but it seems possible that he’ll be getting a late start to his 2015 campaign at this point. Dombrowski said the team would provide further updates once Cabrera is re-evaluted in January, but missing an offseason of workouts does bring his status for Opening Day in 2015 into question. Needless to say, the onset of injuries is troubling for both Tigers fans and the team itself, as Cabrera is owed an enormous sum of $240MM through the 2024 season.

Shifting to Wainwright, the team has since confirmed the news, and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided further details. Wainwright had some cartilage “trimmed” in the back of his elbow in order to avoid irritation in that area, an official tells Goold. The Cardinals have said Wainwright will resume a throwing program in eight weeks, and the surgery is not expected to impact his 2015 season, Goold writes.

Clearly, the eight-week timeframe for Wainwright is less troubling than Cabrera’s outlook, although it doesn’t leave a large amount of room for setbacks. That schedule would allow Wainwright to resume throwing in mid-to-late December. The right-hander is owed $78MM over the remaining four years of his five-year, $97.5MM contract.


Latest On Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon shocked many people by opting out of his contract with the Rays today and has now become the most coveted managerial free agent in recent history. While early speculation was that he’d follow former GM Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers, Friedman and the Dodgers have issued a statement backing Don Mattingly as their manager, definitively stating that Mattingly will manage the Dodgers next season.

There’s been plenty of other Maddon chatter, however, so we’ll keep track of the latest on his situation here…

  • Twins GM Terry Ryan tells Berardino that the news of Maddon’s availability came as a surprise to him. “This is a pretty big opt-out,” he said. “When I saw it, I was surprised, but it’s certainly caught my eye.” Though he did not say expressly that the team would consider Maddon, Ryan seemed to indicate that is very much a possibility. “I certainly will do my due diligence on anybody that’s available,” said Ryan. “Everybody was hoping I would hurry up and get a manager. ‘What’s taking so long.’ Now everybody sees this.”
  • Meanwhile, sources tell LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (via Twitter) that the team will indeed reach out to Maddon.
  • Angels GM Jerry Dipoto put to bed any speculation that the Halos would consider Maddon, telling Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com (Twitter link) that, “of course Mike [Scioscia] will be our manager.”

Earlier Updates

  • David Kaplan of CSNChicago has spoken to several sources who have indicated to him that the Cubs are indeed the front-runner to land Maddon at this time, but there are several teams that have shown interest (Twitter link).
  • ESPN’s Buster Olney, who intially reported the opt-out, hears that if Maddon ends up with the Cubs, the Rays will investigate the issue of tampering (Twitter link).
  • Sherman reports that Maddon is looking for a five-year deal worth roughly $25MM (Twitter link). He again downplays any thought that the Mets could go to those heights, noting that GM Sandy Alderson doesn’t believe managers should be compensated as such.
  • Joel Sherman of the New York Post spoke with Maddon on the phone (Four links to Twitter) and was told that Maddon didn’t feel the Rays would commit to him the dollars he was hoping for on a new contract. Maddon, 60, has had jobs throughout his career where his salary was dictated to him, and he felt this would be his last chance to find out how the open market would value him. He added that he was unaware of a clause in his contract that allowed him to opt out if Friedman left the team, and it was new Rays president of baseball ops Matthew Silverman who told Maddon of the clause. He said being contacted by teams with managers is none of his business. “They will do their business how they want to do it,” he told Sherman.
  • Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports (via Twitter) that Maddon was looking to be compensated with a deal that would’ve paid him like one of the top two or three skippers in the game, meaning something north of $5MM per season. Cafardo then spoke with Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero (Twitter link), and was told that Maddon would consider sitting out for a year, perhaps taking a TV gig, if the right opportunity doesn’t arise, but Cafardo adds that Nero’s phone line is “lighting up.”
  • Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports also spoke to Maddon (Facebook link), and Maddon told him that he learned his contract contained a two-week opt-out window in the event that Friedman left the Rays. Rosenthal asked Maddon specifically about the Cubs, to which Maddon replied, “I don’t know. I have to talk to people. I have interest everywhere right now. I’ve got to hear what everyone has to say.” Maddon wants to work, regardless of landing a new managerial gig, but his preference is to be in a dugout.
  • Sherman tweets that he’s been told that Maddon won’t be going to the Braves or Blue Jays and that all signs point to the Cubs.
  • Yahoo’s Jeff Passan spoke to one Maddon confidante who said Maddon wouldn’t have opted out of a deal without having a sense for what the market could offer, and he wants to go to a big market (Twitter link).
  • The Twins are the only team with a current managerial opening (besides the Rays, of course), but La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune heard that the team had yet to contact Maddon (Twitter link).
  • Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press looks at whether or not the Twins could plausibly make a run at Maddon, noting that the team has never paid a manager more than $2MM annually and will in fact be paying Ron Gardenhire $2MM not to manage the club this season.
  • Mets owner Jeff Wilpon gave Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (Twitter link) a very concise and definitive answer when asked about Maddon, stating, “No. We are not changing managers.” GM Sandy Alderson told Andy Martino of the New York Daily News, “Terry is our manager,” via text message (Twitter link).
  • Jayson Stark of ESPN tweets that the more people with whom he speaks, the greater the sense he gets that there was almost no offer the Rays could’ve made to keep him there.

Royals Designate Liam Hendriks For Assignment

The Royals have designated righty Liam Hendriks for assignment, according to the MLB.com transactions page. Presumably, the move creates space for Moises Sierra, who was claimed earlier today.

Hendriks, 25, threw 19 1/3 frames for Kansas City after being acquired from the Blue Jays in a mid-season deal. On the year, Hendriks tossed 32 2/3 innings if 5.23 ERA ball, striking out 6.3 and walking 1.9 batters per nine and posting a more favorable 3.84 FIP.

Over parts of four seasons in the bigs, Hendriks has worked to cumulative 5.92 ERA over 188 2/3 total innings. In nearly 400 Triple-A innings in his career, however, Hendriks has allowed 3.19 earned per nine.


Victor Martinez To Seek Four-Year Deal

Victor Martinez is coming off perhaps the finest season of his career at age 35, but age won’t stop the designated hitter from pursuing a four-year contract on the open market, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Martinez implied earlier in the month to Anthony Castrovince that he’d like to play another four years, though not specifically all on one contract.

Martinez will decline a qualifying offer from the Tigers and seek a contract that covers the same term that his previous four-year, $50MM contract with Detroit. However, it can be reasonably assumed, in my estimation, that the guarantee on a new four-year deal would exceed that total. The Tigers would love to have Martinez back, Heyman writes, but a four-year deal could be a sticking point for the team.

Martinez ranked sixth on the final in-season edition of MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings and will undoubtedly be looked upon favorably in MLBTR’s Top 50 Free Agent Rankings following the conclusion of the World Series. The veteran DH (and occasional first baseman/catcher) put up an excellent .335/.409/.565 batting line with 32 homers this season, leading the American Legaue in OBP and leading all of Major League Baseball in OPS (.974).

Nonetheless, a four-year deal for Martinez would run through his age-39 season, which obviously carries a tremendous amount of risk for any party interested in signing him. A four-year deal at an average annual value he and his representatives deem acceptable could approach or even exceed the $60MM mark — a steep price to pay for a slugger of that age, even coming off such a strong season.

Then again, the free agent market lacks few power bats, so Martinez will have no shortage of interest. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that a team in need of a bat that feels it can contend in 2015-16 ponies up that kind of cash, even if the final years of the deal can be reasonably expected to return diminished results.


Kevin Towers Likely To Join Reds’ Front Office

Former Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers is expected to join the Reds’ front office to work with close friend Walt Jocketty in the near future, sources tell ESPN’s Buster Olney (Twitter link).

The 52-year-old Towers was removed from the role of GM in Arizona and offered a different position within the organization last month, but Towers declined the opportunity in order to seek a different role with another organization. Former player agent and assistant general manager Dave Stewart was named as Towers’ successor, with De Jon Watson jumping from the Dodgers to the D’Backs to serve as senior vice president of baseball operations.

Towers has previously served as general manager of the Padres as well, where he was one of the game’s longest-tenured GMs, occupying that role from 1995 through 2009. Between GM gigs, Towers worked as a special assignment scout in the Yankees front office. He’s known to have a strong scouting background and is described by some as having an old-school approach to the game.

Late last month, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported that there were changes coming to Cincinnati’s front office, as assistant GM Bob Miller left the organization, though that split was said to be amicable in nature. A change at the top of the hierarchy doesn’t seem likely in the near future, as Jocketty himself inked a two-year extension in September that runs through the 2016 season.


Royals Claim Moises Sierra From White Sox

The Royals have claimed outfielder Moises Sierra off outright waivers from the White Sox, according to MLB.com’s Scott Merkin (Twitter link). Additionally, the Sox have outrighted outfielder Michael Taylor to Triple-A Charlotte.

The move comes at a somewhat unexpected time for the Royals, who are in the midst of the World Series, but Sierra will add to the team’s outfield depth for the 2015 season. The 26-year-old batted .276/.311/.417 with a pair of homers in 135 plate appearances for the White Sox this season after they claimed him on waivers from the Blue Jays. Sierra has played mostly right field in his career, and while defensive metrics didn’t like his work with the Blue Jays, both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating gave him positive reviews in a small 372-inning sample this season. Sierra has less than two years of Major League service and can be controlled through the 2019 season if Kansas City sees fit.

Taylor, 28, at one time ranked as high as the No. 29 prospect in the game, according to Baseball America, but his career stalled after a few promising seasons at the Triple-A level. Taylor was one of three players, along with Travis d’Arnaud and Kyle Drabek, traded by the Phillies to the Blue Jays in exchange for Roy Halladay. Toronto traded him to Oakland for Brett Wallace (another top prospect who ultimately did not pan out), who eventually flipped him to the White Sox in a minor deal for right-hander Jake Sanchez. Taylor is a career .167/.254/.216 hitter in 114 big league plate appearances, though he sports a .278/.369/.441 batting line at Triple-A.

With these moves, Chicago’s 40-man roster is down to 37, Merkin notes.


Offseason Outlook: Tampa Bay Rays

There’s a new man in charge but the mantra remains the same: do more with less.  The Rays will trot out the lowest payroll in the AL East once again and after a sub-.500 season Matt Silverman is charged with the task of getting them back to the playoffs.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Apparently, the Rays’ shakeup will extend beyond the front office.  Earlier today we learned that Joe Maddon has decided to opt out of his contract with the Rays.  The 60-year-old was quick to tell the world that he wanted to stay in Tampa Bay after Andrew Friedman left to join the Dodgers, but upon learning that his contract contained a two-week opt-out window in the event that Friedman left the organization, he had a change of heart.  Maddon is said to be seeking a five-year deal worth around $5MM annually, so it’s not surprising that Tampa shied away from that level of commitment.  The Rays now have to add finding a skipper to their to-do list in the coming weeks and months.

After years of working in the Rays baseball ops department, Silverman is well-prepared for his new role.  He’ll be joined by the recently promoted Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, both of whom have been named vice presidents of baseball operations.  That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. The Rays set a new franchise high with their $80MM+ payroll last season, but we shouldn’t expect to see that again.  Overall spending is “clearly going to be lower,” owner Stuart Sternberg said in September.  While Silverman doesn’t have to worry about carving out room for an arbitration raise for David Price or paying Heath Bell‘s salary, it looks like he’ll be restricted in free agency given the long list of arbitration eligible players listed above.

With everyone under contract or team control, it would appear that the Rays more or less have their core in place for 2015.  Still, they might try to be proactive about improving their offensive production with an emphasis on fixing their recent power outage.  In 2014, the Rays hit a total of 117 home runs – their second-lowest total in franchise history – and they probably want to avoid a repeat.

When considering the club’s desire to rediscover the long ball and limited payroll, Matt Joyce appears to be a likely trade candidate.  In fact, the 30-year-old even acknowledged at the end of the season that he could be changing addresses this winter.  Joyce is projected to earn $4.9MM through arbitration and that $1.2MM pay bump doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Rays given Joyce’s declining power.  The corner outfielder slashed .254/.349/.383 in 2014, a notable drop off from his All-Star campaign in 2011 where he posted a batting line of .277/.347/.478.  If the Rays can unload Joyce’s salary for something useful in return, they might be able to carve out enough space to go after a difference-maker in free agency or trade for one.  Inexpensive power options from around the league include Chris CarterBrandon MossEvan Gattis, Dayan Viciedo, and Pedro Alvarez, though their asking prices and availability will vary.   Yoenis Cespedes also fits the bill as a power bat, but he’s slated to earn $10.5MM in his walk year.

Alternatively, they could simply pocket that cash as a part of their plan to trim payroll and stick with what they have in-house.  If Wil Myers rebounds as many expect him to, the trio of him, Kevin Kiermaier, and Desmond Jennings should be pretty productive.  Trading Joyce seems even less painful when you also consider a supporting cast of Brandon Guyer and David DeJesus, part-time help from Ben Zobrist, and prospect Mikie Mahtook waiting in the wings.

The Rays could also tighten up their payroll by trading Zobrist and his $7.5MM salary.  Of course, Silverman would want a massive return if he considered such a move and that asking price could be well beyond what another club would give up.  The 33-year-old second baseman turned in 5.7 WAR last season, a rating that put him in the top 15 in the majors, and the Rays know how valuable he is.  Still, his salary is nothing to sneeze at for the small market Rays and he’ll be a free agent after the coming season.  On top of that, the free agent second base market is paper thin with options like Stephen Drew and Asdrubal Cabrera, if they’re not signed to play shortstop, at the top of the heap.  Moving Zobrist would allow the Rays to meet their budgetary goals while also replenishing their once strong farm system.  Entering this year, Baseball America (No. 20), Keith Law (No. 23), and Baseball Prospectus (No. 26) all put the Rays’ minor league talent near the bottom of the league.  The Rays surely have an attachment to Zobrist on a personal and professional level, but as a club committed to player development, they have to get their farm system back on the right track in short order.

One has to imagine that the Rays would like to get out from under Jose Molina‘s $2.75MM contract for 2015 and find a better backup to catcher Ryan Hanigan.  Despite his experience behind the dish and solid pitch framing, his .178/.232/.188 makes him a less-than-desirable fill-in for the oft-injured Hanigan.  If there’s a trade to be had here, it will probably require the Rays to pick up most of the money owed to Molina.  Catcher Curt Casali doesn’t seem ready for the big show just yet, so if they move on from Molina, they’ll have to land a replacement.

It’s tough to gauge what the Rays’ new regime will want to do this offseason, but the starting rotation appears to be set with the likes of Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi.  In the summertime, Matt Moore will join that group upon completing recovery from Tommy John surgery.  In the interim, the Rays could plug Hellickson into the back of the rotation or call upon Alex Colome or Nate Karns.  Hellickson, who made just 13 starts last season (4.52 ERA with 7.6 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9), could be seen by some as a trade candidate, but he probably won’t yield a great return at this time.  If Hellickson can rebound and look a little more like the pitcher we saw in 2011-12, then he’ll make a deal much more worthwhile for the Rays.  If the Rays choose to deal from their pitching surplus this winter it might make more sense to dangle Triple-A Durham notables like Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, and Mike Montgomery.

The Rays’ bullpen is currently slated to feature Brad Boxberger, Jake McGee, Grant Balfour, Kirby Yates, and Jeff Beliveau as well as right-hander Michael Kohn, who was signed to a major league deal just last week.  Joel Peralta, who has a reasonable $2.5MM club option, will probably be back as well.  Peralta’s 4.41 ERA looks pretty ugly, but his 3.11 xFIP is far more forgiving.  And, while Balfour’s 2014 campaign was pretty bad, Boxberger and McGee project to be solid late-inning options.  The Rays could beef up their ‘pen with some of the low cost veteran arms that will be waiting around after the New Year and it’s conceivable that they could find a trade partner for Balfour, though it may require them to eat some of his salary.

The Rays’ flexibility is limited in more ways than one but they have shown year after year that they are unwilling to let their limitations hold them back.


Free Agent Profile: Alex Rios

Alex Rios‘ up-and-down career trend continued in 2014, with an ill-timed replacement-level performance.  The Rangers declined the outfielder’s club option, putting the 11-year veteran on the free agent market for the first time in his career.

Strengths/Pros

Rios has had a productive career.  A first-round pick of the Blue Jays out of Puerto Rico in 1999, Rios finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in ’04.  A few seasons later he nabbed back-to-back All-Star appearances, and went on to post seasons worth three or more wins above replacement in 2010, ’12, and ’13.  When he’s at his best, Rios has shown 20 home run power as a right-handed hitter and the ability to hit .280 or better.

Alex RiosThere were positives in his 2014 season.  Rios hit .304/.335/.430 through July, which was a little better than his successful 2013 campaign.  For all of 2014 Rios hit .325/.353/.545 against southpaws.  Over the 2012-14 seasons, Rios’ .530 slugging percentage against lefties ranks 22nd in baseball.

Rios is also an asset on the basepaths.  He’s posted a positive baserunning runs above average figure in every season of his career, and ranks 18th in baseball from 2012-14 with 13.9 BsR.  He’s shown the ability to steal bases at a high success rate as recently as 2013, when he swiped 42 bags in 49 tries.

Though he missed most of the final month of the 2014 season, Rios has a track record of durability.  From 2007-13, Rios averaged 153 games per season, never dropping below 145.  This is a clear advantage over a few other corner outfield types he’ll be competing with in free agency, Mike Morse and Michael Cuddyer.  Rios didn’t technically go on the disabled list this year; he hasn’t done so since 2006.

Weaknesses/Cons

Rios’ season was seemingly spoiled by a pair of injuries.  He twisted his ankle on July 19th, and believes he developed a thumb injury as a result of compensating for the ankle.  With the bruised thumb at risk for infection, he was officially shut down on September 21st.  Explained agent Paul Kinzer to Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News, “His numbers were down because of the injuries. He stayed in the lineup and tried to do all he could because of what was happening with the team.”

There are concerns independent of Rios’ 2014 injuries.  Just looking at the period prior to his ankle injury, Rios hit only three home runs in 297 plate appearances.  With 15 doubles and eight triples in that time he still managed to slug .462, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s more of a 10-15 home run guy moving forward.

There’s also the issue of Rios’ defense.  He was below average in UZR/150 this year, and has been below average in defensive runs saved in each of the last two campaigns.  A right fielder by trade, Rios’ ceiling might now be slightly above-average in the outfield, as opposed to the defensive weapon he once was.

Rios’ terrible performance in August this year still counts, and the result was a season with negative offensive value.  Throw in unimpressive defense and it was a replacement level campaign.  It’s not the first time — Rios was worth less than one win above replacement in each of the ’05, ’09, and ’11 seasons as well.  Rios’ batting average on balls in play seems to lack stability, with low marks in ’09 and ’11.

Rios is not much for the free pass, drawing walks at a 5.9% clip in his career and 4.4% this year.  Among those with at least 500 plate appearances this year, only ten players drew walks at a lower rate than Rios.

Personal

Rios was born in Coffee, Alabama but grew up and resides with his wife and two children in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.  What were Rios’ parents doing in Coffee, Alabama, anyway?  “They must have been passing through,” the outfielder told Mike Ulmer of the Toronto Sun a decade ago.

As Rios told Ulmer, as a child growing up in Puerto Rico, he wanted to quit baseball at age 13 to spend more time with his friends.  His father, Israel, pushed him to continue playing.

Rios participated in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico in ’06, ’09, and ’13.  He told Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times last year, “When you represent your country and the name of your country is across your chest, it really means a lot.”

Market

With Adam Dunn expected to retire, Rios is now the active leader for most games played with no postseason experience.  Having earned almost $75MM in his career, it’s possible Rios will prioritize finding a contending club, not that contenders are always easy to predict.

Rios’ competition in the market for corner outfielders this winter includes Melky Cabrera, Nick Markakis, Mike Morse, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, and Nori Aoki.  For a team that misses out on Cabrera or can’t fit him into their budget, Rios should be a palatable alternative.  The Orioles, Reds, Tigers, Astros, Royals, Twins, Mets, Yankees, Phillies, and Giants seem like potential fits.

Expected Contract

Rios could choose the security of a two-year deal this winter, as Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones did last offseason.  However, Rios already has financial security, and seems more likely to bet on himself and take a one-year deal as Corey Hart, Chris Young, and Mike Morse did last year.  I’m pegging Rios for one year and $8.5MM.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Orioles Outright Steve Johnson

1:37pm: Johnson will be a free agent, Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com tweets. Baltimore hopes to sign him to a minor league deal, however, while he continues to rehab his shoulder.

1:12pm: The Orioles have outrighted right-hander Steve Johnson, the club announced. With the move, Baltimore has opened a 40-man roster spot.

Johnson, 27, did not see any time at the MLB level this year after receiving brief stints in each of the last two seasons. In total, he owns a 3.67 ERA over 54 big league innings. Johnson struggled mightily this year at Triple-A, allowing 7.11 earned runs per nine over 13 starts (over which he lasted just 38 innings).

Control issues were the primary culprit, as Johnson issued more than seven free passes per nine innings after never coming close to that mark in prior years. Of course, underlying that may well have been the presence of a significant bone spur in his throwing shoulder, which was ultimately removed surgically.


Joe Maddon Opts Out Of Contract With Rays

12:29pm: Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, tells Topkin (Twitter link) that he expects Maddon will manage a team in 2015. Friedman tells Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times (via Twitter) that his new team, the Dodgers, will not be among the suitors regardless of Maddon’s newfound availability.

On Tampa’s end, team president Matt Silverman says that the team will pursue a full search for a replacement, considering internal and external candidates, per Topkin (via Twitter).

11:27am: Rays manager Joe Maddon has opted out of his contract with the Rays and will be leaving the team, Buster Olney of ESPN.com reports on Twitter. The move comes as a major surprise, as Maddon had said recently that he expected to remain in Tampa.

Maddon represents the second key departure to hit the Rays in recent weeks, as the team lost long-time GM Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers. Indeed, the opt-out clause vested with Friedman’s departure, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com tweets.

Speculation immediately began that Maddon could follow Friedman to Los Angeles, though all involved shot that down quickly. Indeed, the Dodgers have stated publicly that they intend to keep skipper Don Mattingly in place heading into 2015. The only open managerial seat at present is the Twins’, though Minnesota appears to be well down the line in its search.

In a statement confirming the news, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg says that the club “tried diligently and aggressively to sign [Maddon] to a third contract extension prior to his decision.” Sternberg added that Maddon, whose deal ran through 2015, has “enabled himself to explore opportunities throughout Major League Baseball.”

Maddon had been at the helm of the Rays for nine seasons, during which he established a reputation as one of the game’s most innovative and forward-thinking skippers. After two years in the basement, Maddon helped to oversee a stunning rise to prominence in Tampa. He ran the dugout for two AL East crowns and four total postseason appearances.

Despite that run of success, Maddon tells Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (links to Twitter) that a combination of financial disagreement and his own curiosity to seek out a new opportunity led to the move. Though a new deal was discussed, Maddon says that the sides “were still too far apart.” Maddon says he hopes to manage next year but has nothing set up at this point.


Offseason Outlook: Seattle Mariners

Fresh off the largest signing in franchise history — and the third largest in MLB history — the Mariners came within one game of a Wild Card playoff berth. They’ll look to improve upon their 87 wins and set their sights closer to the top of the division in the coming offseason.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Options

  • Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP: $7MM club option with a $1MM buyout
  • Justin Smoak, 1B: $3.65MM club option with $150K buyout (arb-eligible if bought out)

Free Agents

The Mariners stayed in the playoff hunt until the very last day of the season, which is more credit than many pundits gave them at the onset of the 2014 campaign. The strong showing led to an extension for general manager Jack Zduriencik this summer. While the exact length of the extension is unknown, it runs through at least 2016, as it was announced as a multi-year deal.

Zduriencik will have more to work with from a financial standpoint in the 2015 season, as team president Kevin Mather recently explained in a candid interview on 710 ESPN in Seattle. The Mariners, Mather explained, overshot their allotted player personnel budget by nearly $16MM in 2014. However, ownership had no complaints after seeing the team’s strong performance. Rather than asking how the $16MM would be recouped, they instead asked Mather how the team was going to get six more wins in 2015. The Mariners topped the two-million mark in attendance for the first time since 2010, leading Mather to definitively conclude, “…the answer to that question is ‘yes,'” when asked if payroll would increase.

It makes sense for the M’s to bulk up their spending in 2015 for a number of reasons. In addition to their near-miss of the postseason this year, next season marks the final year of team control over co-ace Hisashi Iwakuma. His $7MM salary is a bargain for the team and allows them to offer a formidable one-two punch that they’re not guaranteed to replicate in 2016. Additionally, Robinson Cano will play next season at age 32, and Felix Hernandez will play it at 29. While each may still have some prime years left, they’re nearing the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some decline. Next year also marks Jackson’s final year of team control before hitting the open market.

The potential departures of Jackson and Iwakuma, paired with the waning primes of Cano and (to a lesser extent) Hernandez give Zduriencik plenty of motivation to be aggressive, and the Mariners will likely aim to do so by augmenting an offense that again struggled to put runs on the board, albeit not as badly as in years past. Seattle hit .244/.300/.376 as a team, good for a 93 wRC+ mark, which ranked 19th in the Majors. Their 634 runs scored tied them with the Red Sox for 18th in the Majors and 10th in the American League. At an end-of-season press conference, manager Lloyd McClendon voiced a desire to add a pair of bats to the middle of the order for 2015.

The question, then, is: where can Seattle add offense? Cano is entrenched at second base, and Kyle Seager has emerged as one of the game’s best two-way third basemen. Jackson will man center field, and Dustin Ackley seems ticketed for left field duty after hitting .274/.313/.463 from July 1 through season’s end. First baseman (and occasional corner outfielder) Logan Morrison put together a similar hot streak, slashing .284/.334/.447 over his final 79 games. While Ackley and Morrison aren’t as locked in as Cano, Seager and Jackson, I’d imagine other positions are perceived as bigger areas of need.

Perhaps the clearest weakness was in the team’s DH slot. Seattle designated hitters batted a woeful .206/.276/.335 in 2014 — marks that topped only the Indians in terms of production. They’ve already been connected to Victor Martinez, who would give them a strong middle-of-the-order presence but also come at a likely exorbitant price, as he seems destined to top Carlos Beltran‘s three-year, $45MM contract. The team could also rekindle its interest in Nelson Cruz in the wake of his 40-homer season with Baltimore. Cruz is best-deployed as a DH himself, so it seems unlikely that the M’s would pursue both him and Martinez. A third name to consider, should his option be bought out, is Billy Butler. He’s coming off a down season with the Royals, but he’s been connected to the Mariners many times in recent years and could likely be had at a modest price. That would give the team the chance to upgrade more significantly elsewhere.

Melky Cabrera‘s name is one worth keeping an eye on as well. The switch-hitter is said to be close friends with Cano and represents one of the top corner bats on the market. Though he’s played primarily left field in his career, his defensive marks in an admittedly small 625-inning sample in right are respectable, and his arm has typically graded well, per UZR and DRS. The Mariners are also said to be one of the front-runners for Yasmany Tomas, whose reported 70-grade power would certainly fit into the lineup.

Behind the plate, Mike Zunino‘s .199 average and .254 OBP look like areas for upgrade, but they’re accompanied by a .404 slugging percentage and 22 homers. Zunino’s .205 ISO (slugging minus average) ranked third among catchers with at least 100 PA and 23rd in all of baseball among players with at least 450 PA. He also grades out as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball and caught 28 percent of base-stealers. Catcher is unlikely to be a priority.

The other hole in the lineup comes at shortstop, where the Mariners combined to hit .239/.295/.344. Each of those collective rate stats ranked in the bottom-third of the league, and their collective wRC+ of 83 ranked 20th. Brad Miller took a step back at the plate, but his solid defensive work still left him as a roughly two-win player in a full-time capacity. Call-up Chris Taylor looked sound late in the season, hitting .287/.347/.346, but that production was propped up by an unsustainable .398 average on balls in play.

If the Mariners are not comfortable letting Miller and Taylor battle it out this spring, they could conceivably look for a veteran. Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera and Stephen Drew are each on the market, but none of the three are a clear upgrade at short. Lowrie and Cabrera have defensive question marks (Seattle shortstops did field quite well in 2014), and Drew’s bat is a wild card. One all-in possibility would be a pursuit of Hanley Ramirez, whose bat would be an unequivocal upgrade to the Mariners’ lineup. However, doing so would also mean that the M’s would need to put up with Ramirez’s poor defense, and they’d need to commit to him well into the future on a likely five-year commitment, if not more. There wouldn’t be a possibility of moving him to third anytime soon, either, with Seager looking very much like a cornerstone player.

A long-term commitment is something the Mariners are well-positioned to tackle, though. Seattle has just two players — Cano and Hernandez — on guaranteed contracts beyond the 2015 season. While the annual commitment on each of those contracts is enormous, it does allow Seattle the luxury of adding another significant AAV to the mix, especially if payroll is going to continue increasing after this season’s eventual mark of $107MM.

Of course, they could look to the rotation to spend if there is again a difficulty in luring free agent hitters to Safeco Field. It may not be a necessity for the team, but some additional certainty could be a benefit. Hernandez and Iwakuma form one of the best one-two punches in all of baseball, and that duo figures to be backed up by a pair of highly touted young arms in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Roenis Elias seems a capable fifth starter, and there’s been talk of moving Tom Wilhelmsen to the rotation as well. However, the team could rekindle the interest it showed in Ervin Santana last offseason, and names like Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano represent mid-tier options with high ceilings.

The bullpen isn’t necessarily a significant need either, but it could be an area for Zduriencik to make an addition. Fernando Rodney will again own the ninth inning. Danny Farquhar has emerged as a bullpen weapon over the past two seasons and will be joined by standout rookie Dominic Leone in bridging the gap to Rodney. Additionally, a move to the bullpen appears to have ignited Brandon Maurer‘s career, as the struggling starter became a lights-out reliever upon making the switch (2.17 ERA, 1.85 FIP, 9.2 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 in 37 1/3 innings). Charlie Furbush represents a strong option from the left side, though the club could look to add a second bullpen piece with Joe Beimel departing. Beimel has said he’d like to return, but names like Neal Cotts, Zach Duke and Joe Thatcher are also on the market, to say nothing of the electric Andrew Miller. There’s also room for perhaps a veteran right-handed addition. Pat Neshek and Jason Grilli are attractive setup options, while Luke Hochevar and Kyuji Fujikawa present high-upside options that come with a bit of risk, as neither is all that far removed from Tommy John surgery.

One final thing to consider for the M’s will be whether it’s time to move on from some players that were formerly believed to be core components. The team does have a number of trade and non-tender candidates, with Justin Smoak certainly being one. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently wrote that it’s a near certainty that Smoak’s option will be bought out and the first baseman will be non-tendered, though it’s possible that Zduriencik will try to gauge his trade value first. Even if he’s able to move Smoak, the return would be meager at best.

Jesus Montero, too, could be on thin ice with the organization. The catcher-turned-DH/first baseman did hit well in 97 Triple-A games this season, but his conditioning has been questioned in the past and he finished the season on the suspended list after getting into a bizarre altercation with a since-fired scout. Once touted by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and ESPN as one of baseball’s top prospects, Montero’s star has dimmed considerably. Another club may have interest, but again, the return on a trade would be a letdown.

Finally there is the case of Michael Saunders. The outfielder’s agent, Michael McCann, recently expressed disappointment in the Mariners organization after Zduriencik made a comment at the end-of-season press conference that McCann felt called his client’s work ethic into question. Zduriencik clarified shortly after that his message — which urged Saunders to reassess his offseason maintenance to better prepare himself to stay healthy for a full season — was a general message that could be applied to any young player. Zduriencik said the organization is not giving up on Saunders, but with McCann expressing frustration on his client’s behalf, it’s worth wondering if a change of scenery will be explored for Saunders — especially if Seattle does add a right field bat.

Certainly, Saunders would be appealing to other teams with outfield needs. Though he’s battled shoulder and oblique injuries in recent years, he’s also batted .248/.320/.423 with 39 homers and 38 steals over the past three seasons (349 games). The Mets, White Sox, Giants, Phillies and Reds are just a few teams I can envision as fits, if Seattle adds a corner bat and decides to market him. One possibility would be to double-down on a current strength by packaging Saunders with a young, MLB-ready rotation piece for Johnny Cueto, whose name has frequented the rumor mill of late.

Ultimately, Seattle seems like a good bet to make a significant addition — if not two or three — between the end of the World Series and Opening Day 2015. The team has plenty of long-term flexibility and an ownership group that is willing to increase payroll to surpass 2014’s total of 87 wins. That’s a recipe for an aggressive approach, so don’t be surprised to see the team connected to some of the top names on the free agent and trade markets this offseason as it looks to end a 13-year playoff drought.