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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.
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.
There 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Andrew Miller was drafted sixth overall in 2006, one spot ahead of Clayton Kershaw. He didn’t find success as a starting pitcher, but developed into a shutdown reliever in recent years. Miller’s stock rose dramatically in 2014, to the point where he’s the second-best free agent reliever this winter. The 29-year-old 6’7″ lefty could score a surprisingly large multiyear deal.
Armed with a 94-97 mile per hour four-seam fastball and one of the game’s nastiest sliders, Miller strikes out batters in droves. Among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, Miller’s 14.87 K/9 ranked second in baseball, behind only Aroldis Chapman. Using linear weights, Miller had the most valuable slider in baseball in 2014. And he’s no lefty specialist, either, with righties also unable to touch him.
Miller posted a sparkling 2.02 ERA this year, which ranked 22nd among MLB relievers and second among free agent relievers. Miller ranked sixth among MLB relievers with 2.3 wins above replacement, and second with a 1.21 SIERA. In short, Miller’s skills more than back up his performance.
Miller showed the best control of his career this year, walking only 2.5 batters per nine innings. He was traded to the Orioles at the July deadline and was especially stingy with the free pass in the ensuing 20 innings, walking only 1.8 per nine.
Miller allowed less than one baserunner per inning this year, in part because he was extremely difficult to hit. Only six MLB relievers allowed fewer than Miller’s 4.76 hits per nine innings. Since 2012, Miller has allowed 5.8 hits per nine. We’re building a near-perfect reliever at this point, but Miller also allowed only three home runs in his 62 1/3 innings this year.
Miller didn’t have an ERA above 2.70 in any month, but he was particularly good in the season’s final three months with a 1.48 mark. For good measure, he tacked on another 7 1/3 scoreless frames in five postseason appearances, serving as a major weapon for Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Not that a qualifying offer would have been likely, but Miller became ineligible for one upon his midseason trade. That’s an advantage Miller has over the top available free agent reliever, David Robertson. He’s also younger than most of his peers in the marketplace, as Miller does not turn 30 until May.
Control was a weakness for Miller prior to 2014, as he walked 5.2 batters per nine innings in 136 innings from 2011-13. 70 innings of limiting free passes isn’t enough of a sample to say he has completely eliminated the problem. Miller posted a 5.0 BB/9 as recently as last year.
2013 was an odd year for Miller in general. He posted a 2.64 ERA in 30 2/3 innings, but lefties hit .281 off him and he walked 16% of the right-handed batters he faced. That season ended for Miller on July 6th, when he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot. It was a torn ligament between bones in the middle of the foot, according to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe.
Miller previously hit the 15-day DL in 2007 (hamstring strain), ’08 (knee inflammation), ’09 (oblique strain), and ’12 (hamstring strain). One point in his favor is that none of these injuries involved his left arm. Miller fell an out shy of 70 innings this year including the playoffs, but only tallied 53 1/3 frames in 2012 and 30 2/3 last year. It may not be predictive, but in Miller’s three full seasons as a reliever, this is the only year in which he didn’t miss 26 games or more.
Miller was born in Gainesville, Florida and attended high school there. He attended UNC for college and was drafted sixth overall in ’06. Miller currently resides in Newberry, Florida with his wife and son. He’s known as a cerebral person, and is one of the game’s most active players union representatives.
Miller has shown he can retire left and right-handed hitters, and has the skills to handle the ninth inning if his team prefers. Any team would love to have him, and he could anchor a bullpen for the White Sox, Astros, Blue Jays, Mets, Rangers, and Cubs, to name a few. The Tigers drafted Miller in ’06 and traded him to the Marlins the following year as a major component of the Miguel Cabrera deal. The Tigers almost brought him back via trade this July, so they should have interest in free agency. The Brewers, Braves, Pirates, Nationals, and Dodgers were also among those in on him at the trade deadline. A reunion with Boston also can’t be ruled out, and the Yankees figure to check in. And certainly the Orioles would like to have Miller back, if they can fit him into their budget while also trying to re-sign Nelson Cruz and others.
The Red Sox acquired Miller from the Marlins in November 2010, but non-tendered him a few weeks later. He received strong interest on the free agent market for a few weeks and ultimately turned down three different big league offers to sign a minor league deal to remain with Boston.
Four years later, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe says Miller is “a strong union man who believes in the right of a player to seek the best contract for himself when he reaches free agency,” adding that Miller will go to the highest bidder this winter. Interest in Miller will be widespread, as it was at the trade deadline. That the Red Sox were able to extract highly-regarded pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez in a trade for several months of Miller’s services speaks to the kind of bidding war that occurred.
Brandon League money would be a solid deal for Miller; League received $22.5MM over three years at the end of the 2012 season. Given just one save on his resume, Miller would be the first non-closing reliever to reach the $20MM mark (though I’ve predicted just that for Luke Gregerson). Still, with MLBTR’s Steve Adams projecting $52MM over four years for Robertson with a qualifying offer, the League contract feels inadequate for a reliever as coveted as Miller.
We haven’t seen a four-year deal for a non-closing reliever since Scott Linebrink signed with the White Sox seven years ago. With Miller, I think it’s time. I’m predicting a four-year, $32MM deal.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Ervin Santana‘s 2013-14 offseason did not go as planned following a strong 2013 campaign. After spending all winter searching for a strong multiyear deal, he settled for a one-year deal with the Braves in March matching the qualifying offer amount of $14.1MM. Turning down a qualifying offer from the Royals was considered a major factor in Santana’s disappointing market, as teams did not want to pay full price while surrendering a draft pick. Now, after another solid season, Santana must navigate the free agent market again, potentially with another qualifying offer.
Santana missed over a month in 2009 with a UCL sprain in his pitching elbow, but his agents presented teams with a statement from Dr. James Andrews last offseason in which the surgeon noted, “He doesn’t need any further treatment for his right elbow partial UCL tear, as on (the) MRI today it appears that it has completely healed.”
Santana had another healthy season despite signing late, and it might be enough to put the elbow concern to rest. In fact, he’s been quite durable, making at least 30 starts in each of the past five seasons and posted a sub-4.00 ERA in four of those campaigns. Though his first big league start didn’t come until April 9th, Santana still ranked 11th among free agent starters with 196 innings. Santana’s average of 6.32 innings per start ranked fifth among free agents.
Santana struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings in 2014, his best mark since 2008. That ranks fourth among free agent starters. Some of that can be attributed to moving to the National League and striking out pitchers, though Santana also increased his strikeout rate against non-pitchers. And despite a reputation as being fairly homer-prone, Santana allowed only 0.73 HR/9, fifth among free agent starters.
Santana’s 3.63 SIERA bettered his 3.95 ERA, and the skill-based estimate might be a better way to project what he’ll do next year. Only five free agent starters topped Santana’s 2.8 wins above replacement. After the Big Three of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields, there’s a case for Santana as the top pitcher in the second tier.
One of the biggest cons for Santana is a potential draft pick cost, if he receives and turns down a $15.3MM qualifying offer from the Braves. More on that later.
Santana is relatively hittable, having allowed 8.9 hits per nine innings this year. Perhaps that was a fluke, given a .319 batting average on balls in play. Still, left-handed hitters batted .283 against Santana this year, and they also hit him hard in 2012.
As Fangraphs’ Mike Petriello pointed out this month, no right-handed starter has thrown sliders more often than Santana over the past two years (nearly 36% of the time). The pitch is generally considered to be hard on a pitcher’s elbow, even if Santana has proven himself to be durable. Any team entertaining signing Santana to a multiyear deal will be more concerned with what will happen moving forward.
While Santana did a nice job limiting the longball this year, his 8.8% home run per flyball rate wasn’t in line with his career norm and his 42.7% groundball rate wasn’t anything special. If his HR/FB returns to normal, he’ll return to being the pitcher who allowed 1.26 home runs per nine innings from 2010-13.
Santana looked up to Pedro Martinez as a boy growing up in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, and was signed by the Angels at age 17. He’s now married with two children. Jesse Sanchez’s MLB.com article and video from September 2013 gives great insight into his family life. Santana is described by his wife as a quiet yet silly guy who enjoys playing with his children.
In my estimation, the second tier of free agent starting pitching this winter includes Santana, Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Justin Masterson, Jake Peavy, Hiroki Kuroda, and Jason Hammel. Of those eight, only Santana, Liriano, and Kuroda are even eligible to receive qualifying offers. Kuroda could retire, and even if he doesn’t he would be extremely picky where he plays.
After speaking to rival executives last month, ESPN’s Buster Olney predicted Santana would receive a qualifying offer from the Braves, while Liriano would not receive one from the Pirates. So there’s a very real scenario where Santana is the only second-tier pitcher to receive a qualifying offer. Even if some teams feel he’s the best pitcher in this tier, they could certainly turn to someone they rank lower who will not require draft pick forfeiture.
The qualifying offer situation muddies Santana’s free agency again, making it difficult to predict which teams will be involved. If he receives and turns down a QO, he’ll be a better fit for teams with protected first rounders like the Cubs, White Sox, Phillies, Red Sox, Twins, Astros, Rockies, Rangers, and Diamondbacks. The draft pick forfeiture would further be minimized if one of those teams first signs another player who turned down a QO, meaning Santana would only require forfeiture of a third-round pick. The Twins pursued Santana last winter and still need starting pitching. I don’t think a QO will kill Santana’s market, and certainly teams without protected first rounders will have interest. The Marlins, Yankees, Tigers, and Giants could get involved. The Blue Jays, Orioles, and Mariners were in on Santana last winter, but their needs may have changed.
The Braves’ best chance of retaining Santana might be if he accepts a qualifying offer, which I find unlikely. Santana would not risk much by turning down a QO — last winter showed that a one-year deal near the qualifying offer value will probably be out there all winter and into Spring Training.
Obviously Santana does not want a repeat of that scenario, so it will be important for agent Jay Alou to set proper expectations. One year ago, MLBTR’s Steve Adams predicted a five-year, $75MM deal for Santana, and I agreed. Edwin Jackson‘s four-year, $52MM seemed like the floor. In November of 2013, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported Santana’s asking price was in excess of $100MM over five years, with Jon Heyman of CBS Sports pegging the price at $112MM over five. A week later, agents Bean Stringfellow and Joe White (who no longer represent Santana) showed Rosenthal the binder they created to showcase their client, which they felt made the $100MM case partially through an ill-conceived comparison to Zack Greinke. Stringfellow later denied asking for five years and $112MM, but it seems likely that he, White, and Alou started off too high for Santana, and once expectations were adjusted into the Edwin Jackson range, it was too late. Santana’s one-year deal was not owed entirely to the qualifying offer.
Now only Alou remains, and he should at least be able to score the now-standard four-year, $50MM deal this time. As I think Santana will be plenty appealing even with another qualifying offer, I’m predicting a four-year, $56MM deal this time around. Combined with the 2014 one-year deal, Alou would be able to say he ultimately got Santana five years and $70MM, not far off Steve Adams’ original estimate from last offseason.
Our 2014-15 MLB Free Agent Tracker is here! The tracker lists all free agents who had at least 20 Major League innings or 50 plate appearances in 2014. You can currently filter by position and handedness. Once the information is available, you can filter by qualifying offer status, signing team, and contract terms.
The tracker can always be found under the Tools menu up top, or under MLBTR Features on the sidebar. We also have all the players in list form, which can be found here.
Luke Gregerson has been one of baseball’s top setup men since his 2009 rookie season, and he posted a career-best 2.12 ERA this year. Interest will be strong on the 30-year-old, who will be seeking the first multiyear deal of his career.
Among American League relievers with at least 60 innings, Gregerson’s 2.12 ERA this year ranked 12th. Among free agents, only Pat Neshek and Andrew Miller did better. In Gregerson’s six big league seasons, his highest ERA was 3.24 in his rookie campaign. He’s posted an ERA of 2.75 or lower in each of the past four seasons. From 2009-14 among relievers with at least 350 innings, Gregerson’s 2.75 ERA ranks fourth in baseball. He’s been a model of consistent excellence in the late innings, using his slider often to stymie hitters even if they know it’s coming.
In San Diego, Gregerson paired up with closers Heath Bell and Huston Street for five years, and he’s never received more than 13 save opportunities in a season. Instead, he racks up holds like no other. According to MLB.com, a hold is given if “a reliever comes into a game to protect a lead, gets at least one out and leaves without giving up that lead.” Gregerson led all of baseball from 2009-14 with 154 holds.
Gregerson walked only 5.3% of the batters he faced this year, a career best. Only 13 relievers showed better control this year, and only Neshek and Koji Uehara are free agents. Gregerson’s 52.2% groundball rate was also a career-best, and the figure ranked 11th in the AL. Gregerson has been consistently tough to hit throughout his career, allowing fewer than 7.5 hits per nine innings in every season except 2011. His career batting average on balls in play of .267 is a big part of his success (more on that later).
Gregerson will not turn 31 until May next year. Only a handful of Gregerson’s fellow relievers on the free agent market are that young, and none of them have a track record close to his. One benefit Gregerson should have over free agent reliever David Robertson: he’s not going to receive a qualifying offer.
Gregerson comes with a remarkably clean bill of health, having only hit the DL twice in his career. He missed 25 games in 2009 for shoulder inflammation and another 25 in 2011 for an oblique strain. His 419 1/3 relief innings from 2009-14 rank second in baseball, behind only Tyler Clippard.
Drafted in the 28th round in 2006 by the Cardinals, velocity has never been Gregerson’s calling card. He broke in throwing around 91 miles per hour, and now he’s down to 88.4. Only three relievers threw slower in 2014, and two of them are sidearmers.
Gregerson struck out 7.3 batters per nine innings in 2014, his worst mark aside from his 2011 season, which was marred by an oblique strain. The average AL reliever this year whiffed 8.3 per nine. It should also be noted that Gregerson’s success has come in both leagues, but always in pitcher-friendly home parks. For his career, he has a 2.02 ERA at home and a 3.60 mark on the road. The key differences are a much higher home run per flyball rate and batting average on balls in play on the road.
Gregerson threw his famed slider about 46% of the time in 2014, a rate topped by only three relievers. He was the game’s most slider-dependent regular reliever in 2012-13, throwing it 63% of the time. It’s possible heavy slider usage leads to increased injury risk. However, Gregerson has a strong track record of health, and noted to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle in March that he turns his wrist less than most pitchers and his elbow has never bothered him.
Born in Park Ridge, Illinois, Gregerson resides in Chicago in the offseason. He attended St. Xavier University in Chicago and grew up rooting for the Cubs and White Sox, according to a 2009 interview. For a look at how the 28th round pick found his way to the Majors, check out Jeff Passan’s article for Yahoo from 2010.
Gregerson is a board member of Struggling Youth Equals Successful Adults, which aids foster kids in transitioning to adulthood. In September 2012, Gregerson was the Padres’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award for all his volunteer efforts.
As a Chicago guy, Gregerson might welcome a chance to pitch for the White Sox if they make a competitive offer. Sox GM Rick Hahn made it clear in September that he aims to “acquire multiple options” for his pen this winter. Other speculative suitors: the Tigers, Dodgers, Astros, Rockies, Rangers, Nationals, Yankees, and Red Sox. It is certainly possible that Gregerson could be signed to take on a closer role.
Aside from Gregerson, the best names on the free agent relief market are David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, Koji Uehara, Casey Janssen, Rafael Soriano, and Pat Neshek. That’s a lot of competition, and you don’t want to be the reliever left standing in January after the music has stopped.
From last offseason, three contracts come to mind as comparables for Gregerson: Javier Lopez ($13MM), Joe Smith ($15.75MM), and Boone Logan ($16.5MM). From the previous offseason, notable deals include Brandon League ($22.5MM), Jeremy Affeldt ($18MM), and Jonathan Broxton ($21MM). All of those deals were for three years, and that is the expectation for Gregerson. Five of the six were signed before December, so it would be wise for Gregerson’s agent Tom O’Connell to act early.
You’ll notice that the average annual values from last offseason were about 20% lower than the 2012-13 period, even if we exclude Lopez on account of being older and an extreme lefty specialist. Some of that may be a function of Broxton and League having 111 and 60 career saves, respectively, but it could be a sign that teams backed off on reliever salaries. Plus, League isn’t the best example, as that deal was viewed as questionable for the Dodgers before the ink had dried. On the other hand, Gregerson’s consistent success led to him setting the arbitration market for his ilk, along with Robertson, so it’s possible a team could like him enough to set a new setup man precedent by giving an $8MM AAV or a fourth year. The four-year deal for setup men seems to have died out with Scott Linebrink and Justin Speier six to seven years ago.
Ultimately, I think Gregerson will sign a three-year, $20MM deal.
One of the game’s best defensive third basemen reaches free agency this winter in Chase Headley. Headley’s MVP-caliber 2012 season saw his offense reach lofty heights, but two years later that’s looking like an anomaly.
Headley’s only Gold Glove award came in that magical 2012 season, but he’s got a good chance at another one this year. By measure of Ultimate Zone Rating, Headley was the best defensive third baseman in baseball in 2014. If you prefer Defensive Runs Saved, Headley ranked third. He was a top ten defender in 2012 and ’13 as well, so it’s not just a one-year fluke.
Headley’s defense is a major contributor to his value, leading to roughly four wins above replacement in each of the last two seasons. His WAR ranks tenth among all third basemen for 2013-14, easily ahead of this offseason’s likely top-paid third baseman, Pablo Sandoval. At worst, Headley is Sandoval’s equal, but defense hasn’t caught up with offense in terms of free agent spending.
Headley hit .286/.376/.498 with 31 home runs for the Padres in 2012, despite playing half his games in San Diego. 19 of those home runs came in the season’s final two months. He hit .269/.343/.392 prior to that season and .246/.338/.387 since, and it’s not hard to see that one of these is not like the others. However, the switch-hitting Headley remains capable of a solid on-base percentage, posting a .371 OBP and walk rate near 13% in his 224 plate appearances for the Yankees this year. He is, on the whole, still an above average hitter.
Having been traded midseason, Headley is not eligible for a qualifying offer. Fellow free agents Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will certainly require draft pick forfeiture, and perhaps Aramis Ramirez too, but Headley is free of that limitation.
Prior to being traded to the Yankees, Headley hit an abysmal .229/.296/.355 for the Padres in 307 plate appearances. His Padres’ walk rate of 7.2% was well below his career norm.
Upon the trade, Tony Blengino of FanGraphs examined Headley’s batted ball profile, and it wasn’t promising. Headley was in “steady offensive decline,” wrote Blengino, who explained, “his decline in batted-ball production has been solely attributable to diminished fly ball authority.” Did Headley’s 224 plate appearances after the trade represent a reliable return to form? That will be a crucial question for offseason suitors.
Headley’s recent injury history may be perceived as a negative, though it could also be considered an explanation for his offensive struggles in the first half of the season. He received an epidural in June and avoided going on the DL for his back. After the epidural, Headley hit .273/.359/.400 in 312 plate appearances.
Headley was born in Colorado and resides in Tennessee with his family. The Headleys recently welcomed a new baby into the world, their second child. According to the Padres’ 2014 media guide, Headley played varsity baseball and basketball all four years in high school in Colorado, and was also valedictorian. He began college at University of the Pacific in California and later transferred to the University of Tennessee, where his older brother was attending.
According to a profile by MLB.com’s Corey Brock in January 2013, Headley owns a large farm in Western Kentucky and has a passion for bow hunting. A religious man since his freshman year in high school, Headley told Mark E. Darnall and Bruce A. Darnall in 2012, “My goal is to have Jesus be the center of everything.”
Any team without an established, reliable third baseman could consider Headley this offseason. Given the uncertainty that comes with Alex Rodriguez, a return to the Yankees is possible. The Red Sox, Astros, Royals, Brewers, Giants, Blue Jays, and Nationals could also seek help at third base, though some of those clubs might only want a short-term solution.
Headley’s competition on the free agent market will include Pablo Sandoval, Aramis Ramirez, and Hanley Ramirez. Whether Aramis Ramirez hits the open market could be a big factor for Headley, as well as whether Hanley Ramirez signs as a third baseman. The trade market could feature Luis Valbuena, Trevor Plouffe, and Pedro Alvarez.
Headley has never had a multiyear deal in his career, and I think he’ll value long-term security this offseason. The question is whether he signs a three or four-year deal. A few potential comparables to consider are Shane Victorino‘s three-year, $39MM deal from two years ago and Jhonny Peralta‘s four-year, $53MM deal from last offseason. I think Headley will sign a four-year, $48MM deal.
The Cubs enter the 2014-15 offseason with the highest expectations since Theo Epstein took over as club president in October 2011. Starting pitching should be the team’s main focus this winter.
- Starlin Castro, SS: $44MM through 2019
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B: $37MM through 2019
- Edwin Jackson, SP: $22MM through 2016
- Jorge Soler, RF: $20MM through 2020 (may opt for arbitration once eligible)
- Ryan Sweeney, OF: $2MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- John Baker, C (5.141): $1.1MM projected salary
- Wesley Wright, RP (5.105): $2MM
- James McDonald, SP (5.074): $1MM
- Chris Coghlan, LF (4.148): $1.4MM
- Luis Valbuena, 3B (4.148): $3.1MM
- Justin Ruggiano, RF (4.019): $2.5MM
- Travis Wood, SP (4.004): $5.5MM
- Pedro Strop, RP (3.156): $2.4MM
- Jake Arrieta, SP (3.145): $4.1MM
- Felix Doubront, SP (3.120): $1.3MM
- Welington Castillo, C (3.009): $2.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Baker, McDonald, Wood
- Kyuji Fujikawa, RP: $5.5MM club option with a $500K buyout
- Tsuyoshi Wada, SP: $5MM club option (no buyout)
- Jacob Turner, SP: $1MM club option (no buyout)
For a last-place team that finished 16 games under .500, the 2014 Cubs had several positive developments. 25-year-old Anthony Rizzo emerged as one of the best first basemen in baseball. 24-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro bounced back to his 2011-12 form. 22-year-old right fielder Jorge Soler battled hamstring injuries but still tore through Double and Triple-A and saw his success carry over for a month in the Majors. On the pitching side, Jake Arrieta emerged as a potential ace with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts and Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team’s closer. A lot of building blocks fell into place under new manager Rick Renteria.
In March, I questioned the Cubs’ choices of position players Rizzo and Kris Bryant over power arms Andrew Cashner and Jon Gray. The Rizzo and Bryant choices, plus this summer’s acquisition of Addison Russell and drafting of Kyle Schwarber, suggest president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have implemented a strategy favoring the stability of position players to begin their rebuild. The plan has come up smelling like roses so far, as the team’s collection of young hitters is the envy of baseball.
Rizzo has first base locked down for the Cubs potentially through 2021, on what’s become one of the game’s most team-friendly contracts. Though Luis Valbuena did an admirable job at the hot corner in 2014, third base belongs to Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Kris Bryant. If the Cubs wait a few weeks into April to select Bryant’s contract, they’ll control him through 2021 as well.
The Cubs’ middle infield logjam represents a good kind of problem. Castro, signed potentially through 2020, was one of the game’s ten best shortstops in 2014 despite missing most of the season’s final month. Powerful 21-year-old Javier Baez made his big league debut in August, playing second base and then switching to shortstop when Castro went down. Baez struggled at his new level, as many prospects do, but has the second base job entering 2015. Then there’s Addison Russell, the key piece in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland. The 20-year-old Russell raked at Double-A and is knocking on the door to the Majors himself.
Valbuena, 28, had his first full season as a regular, posting a solid .249/.341/.435 line while playing third base and a bit at second. If we pencil in Rizzo, Castro, and Bryant at their respective positions for 2015, only second base is available for three players ranging from good (Valbuena) to potential All-Star (Russell and Baez).
Trading Castro, Russell, or Baez this offseason could be jumping the gun, since Baez has yet to succeed at the big league level and Russell has yet to reach Triple-A. A safe plan would be to begin 2015 with a Castro-Baez middle infield, and if Baez hits and Russell is knocking down the door come July, the team can more seriously consider trades at that point or even move someone to the outfield. Trading Valbuena this winter could make sense, though he’d be a good backup plan at second base. The Cubs need a backup plan for Baez, who struck out in 41.5% of his plate appearances as a rookie. Among players with 200 or more plate appearances, that’s easily the worst strikeout rate in baseball history.
Valbuena was one of the ten best offensive third basemen in the game this year and is under control through 2016; a team like the Red Sox could have interest. He could also be marketed as a second baseman, especially since the free agent market is weak at that position.
Soler should have the right field job locked down heading into 2015, but last year’s 86 games marked a career high. We won’t know if Soler’s hamstrings can hold up for 130+ games in the Majors until he does it. Over in left field, former 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan had a resurgent year and should have the job heading into next season. The 2014 Cubs used a host of center fielders, the most interesting of whom is 22-year-old Arismendy Alcantara. A very good prospect in his own right, Alcantara took his first reps at the position this year after previously working as an infielder. As with Baez, Alcantara should get first crack at the 2015 job despite rookie growing pains.
The Cubs’ outfield has enough uncertainty that keeping veterans Sweeney and Ruggiano around makes sense. The team would be justified entering Spring Training with their current outfield pieces, though I’d consider an offseason run at Colby Rasmus on a one-year deal. Rasmus would bring power and upside with no long-term risk, and Alcantara could get further acquainted with center field at Triple-A or be an oft-used super-utility player in the Majors. Another outfielder who could fit is Yasmany Tomas, if the Cubs see star potential in the Cuban free agent, consider him worth a potential $100MM contract, and don’t mind creating something of a long-term surplus in the outfield.
Behind the plate, 27-year-old Welington Castillo played acceptably but saw his batting average and walk rate decline from 2013. The Cubs don’t have to make a long-term decision on Castillo, who is entering arbitration for the first time. The team does have a potential star catcher in the pipeline in 2014 first-rounder Kyle Schwarber, but he needs to prove he can stick at the position. In the spirit of adding position player talent now and worrying about a potential surplus later, the Cubs could make a run at the best free agent catcher, Russell Martin. Signing Martin would signal the Cubs intend to take a leap forward into contention in 2015, though he could require upwards of $50MM as well as the forfeiture of the Cubs’ second-round draft pick.
Epstein whiffed on the biggest expenditure thus far in his Cubs tenure, Edwin Jackson. Jackson now has two years and $22MM left on his contract. According to a late August report from Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Cubs and Braves engaged in talks in July to swap Jackson and B.J. Upton. That could be revisited, but it’s not the best match since Upton has more than twice as much money remaining on his contract. Other disappointing contracts with between $16-30MM remaining include Cameron Maybin, Chris Johnson, Aaron Hill, Allen Craig, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Carlos Beltran. While those players have been letdowns, their teams may not be as close to the breaking point as the Cubs seem to be with Jackson.
Regardless of Jackson, the Cubs will need to explore adding starting pitching from all angles. The 2014-15 free agent class is rife with options for all parts of a rotation. The Big Three are Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. Lester is the most obvious fit for the Cubs, as a player who joined the Red Sox around the same time Epstein did and was a big part of the executive’s success there. That he isn’t eligible for a qualifying offer is helpful, but Lester’s price tag will probably exceed $150MM. If they prefer the trade market, the Cubs could try to swing a deal for the Phillies’ Cole Hamels, who is owed $96MM through 2018.
One big name starter alone probably wouldn’t be enough to push the Cubs into contention. Arrieta looked like an ace this year, but his 176 2/3 pro innings marked a career-high, and he missed the season’s first month recovering from a shoulder injury. Kyle Hendricks posted a sparkling 2.46 ERA in 80 1/3 innings as a rookie, but his scouting report and lack of strikeouts suggest a back of the rotation starter. Though his ERA bounced around in his three years with the Cubs, Travis Wood profiles at the back end of a rotation as well and could be non-tendered or traded. The other immediate options are projects who once showed potential: Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, and Dan Straily. If the Cubs want to keep Turner they’ll pick up his $1MM club option, as renewing him would cost at least 80% of his 2014 salary, which comes to more than $1.5MM.
The Cubs would do well to add one or two mid-tier starting pitchers even if they sign one of the Big Three. Wada could be in that mix after a successful 13-start run, though the Cubs would probably want him for less than his $5MM club option. The Cubs will likely set their sights higher and go for Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, or Justin Masterson. Masterson comes with the Epstein connection plus other helpful factors such as the lack of a qualifying offer and a likely short-term deal. Epstein has succeeded in the free agent starting pitcher bargain bin over the years, finding Hammel, Wada, Scott Feldman, and Paul Maholm on the cheap.
The Cubs’ bullpen has talent. Rondon is the incumbent closer, while Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and Pedro Strop also pitched well. The Cubs could cut Wesley Wright loose and pursue a better option from the left side, with Andrew Miller profiling as the top southpaw reliever on the free agent market. Right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa is likely to have his option bought out after missing most of his two-year term with the Cubs due to Tommy John surgery. The 2014 Cubs led the NL in relief innings, and the ten pitchers who tossed 14 or fewer innings apiece accounted for a 6.91 ERA. The nine hurlers who had 21 or more relief innings tallied a cumulative 3.04 mark. Better starting pitching could have a significant trickle-down effect on the bullpen in 2015.
Alfonso Soriano is finally off the books for the Cubs, who owe $25.5MM to five players under contract for 2015. They could spend another $17MM or so on arbitration eligible players, bringing total commitments to around $43MM. What is an appropriate payroll for the 2015 Cubs? It seems they could reasonably sit around the middle of the pack with a $110MM payroll, and they could also roll over unspent money from 2014. A $70MM war chest would be more than enough money to add the players necessary to compete next season.
In the longer-term, the Cubs should raise their payroll to be top five in baseball, befitting of their status as a major market team. Though their short-term television rights are an open question, the Cubs’ potential TV deal for all their games following the 2019 season will be what Epstein called a “paradigm shifter” for club revenue, according to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. Improvements to Wrigley Field, which are now underway, will “move the needle,” according to Epstein. The Cubs have begun their renovation project despite a pending lawsuit between rooftop owners and the city of Chicago regarding the team’s plans to erect signs that will affect the rooftop view.
Regular season winning percentages in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer Cubs era have increased from .377 to .407 to .451. Though he could sign an extension, Epstein only has two years left on his contract. Aggressive acquisition of starting pitching this offseason should mark the end of his three-year rebuilding plan.
Aramis Ramirez had an up-and-down season for the Brewers, who must sort out his mutual option and weigh a potential qualifying offer. The 36-year-old can still be a force at the plate, and may be the best offensive third baseman available this winter.
Ramirez has already had an illustrious 17-year-career. Among third basemen, he ranks ninth all-time in home runs, tenth all-time in doubles, and tenth in RBI. Though he’ll likely fall short of the Hall of Fame, Ramirez had a long run of being one of the top 5-10 third basemen in baseball since becoming a regular in 2001.
These days, his power may not be what it once was, but he still ranked 11th among all third basemen in isolated power, ahead of fellow free agent Pablo Sandoval. He’s always made excellent contact, resulting in a .285 career batting average that he matched in 2014. Overall, Ramirez still has a case as a top ten hitter at the hot corner, and he was basically Sandoval’s equal with the bat this year. Ramirez also made his third All-Star team, hitting .288/.336/.459 in the first half.
As MLBTR’s Steve Adams noted in August, Ramirez’s free agent competition at third base isn’t anything special (although it’s certainly no worse than the rest of the free agent hitting class, which is weak overall). If one continues to categorize Hanley Ramirez as a shortstop, Ramirez’s .757 OPS led free agent third basemen, with Sandoval checking in at .739 and Chase Headley at .700. Ramirez will not require nearly the commitment Sandoval will.
Metrics suggest Ramirez’s defense was passable this year, though he has had some pretty rough seasons within the last five.
Ramirez will turn 37 next June, so he comes with typical durability question marks. He played 298 games from 2011-12 and a reasonable 133 this year despite a DL stint for a hamstring injury. That’s not bad, but Ramirez seems better suited for an American League team with some DH flexibility, especially if he seeks a multiyear deal.
Ramirez has had a consistent career, but his offense in 2014 was streaky. He posted an OPS over .960 in June and August, yet was under .600 in July and September. He wound up hitting only four home runs in 251 second half plate appearances. Ramirez’s walk rate was down to 4% this year, his worst since his partial 2000 campaign. Baserunning has consistently been a detriment throughout Ramirez’s career.
Ramirez is married with three children, and he resides with his family in the Dominican Republic in the offseason. The third baseman “lives and breathes for his kids,” a person close to him told MLBTR. When the kids are in school, Ramirez enjoys spending time on his farm in the Dominican.
Ramirez does not exhibit much overt emotion on the field, a trait that drew some criticism in Chicago, perhaps unfairly.
Having spent his entire career in the NL Central, Ramirez has never served as a designated hitter more than five times in a season. He hasn’t played a position other than third base in his entire pro career, so the idea of working him in at first base could be a stretch. Certainly the Brewers would like to bring Ramirez back, as we’ll discuss below. Otherwise, the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Red Sox, Royals, Angels, Yankees, Padres, Giants, and Blue Jays could seek help at the hot corner this offseason. As a veteran who likely has plenty of money in the bank from past contracts, comfort could be a primary factor in Ramirez’s choice.
Ramirez’s contract situation is complicated. He and the Brewers hold a $14MM mutual option for 2015. On the rare occasions in baseball that both sides of a mutual option have been exercised, it’s never been close to that kind of salary. While a September 17th report from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports said the Brewers intend to pick up their side of the option, Brewers GM Doug Melvin told MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy the topic hasn’t even been broached with the team’s owner or Ramirez’s agent, Paul Kinzer. Realistically, Melvin probably has some idea of what he wants to do, but option decisions aren’t due until after the World Series.
The Brewers do seem likely to pick up their side of the option — they’re faced with a $4MM buyout if they decline it, so the option is effectively only a $10MM decision. If the Brewers pick the option up, Ramirez then has the opportunity to decline and go to free agency, in which case he would not receive a buyout. $14MM is a reasonable salary if Ramirez only wants to play one more year, but he may prefer a longer term. Ramirez suggested in July he’d go for 2,500 career games, a goal of which he is 443 short. That suggests three or four more seasons, but in September, Ramirez was non-committal about what he’d do after 2015.
A two-year deal would be a nice compromise; perhaps Ramirez and the Brewers can work out something that pays around $25MM for that span. I imagine if Ramirez is thinking bigger than that, he’ll have to find it on the open market. One problem: the Brewers can reduce his leverage by making or telling him their intention to make a qualifying offer. I expect them to make that offer if they get to that point. Draft pick forfeiture would affect Ramirez’s market, but not as much as you might think. The players most burned by qualifying offers last winter were asking for big contracts from the outset of free agency. Ramirez might ask for just two years from the start, and I think he could find a team to give it to him even with the draft pick cost attached.
In the somewhat unlikely event that Ramirez hits the open market without a qualifying offer attached, it would help his chances of securing a three-year deal. Still, he’d probably have to sacrifice on average annual value to get a third year, perhaps accepting something like three years and $33MM.
Ultimately, I think Ramirez will sign a two-year, $26MM deal to stay with the Brewers. If he reaches the open market without a draft pick attached, I’ll go with two years and $30MM. If he receives a qualifying offer from the Brewers, I think he’ll turn it down. Even in that scenario, I think he can find the same two-year, $26MM deal on the open market.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
After a fourth place finish in the AL Central, the White Sox will supplement their bullpen, and perhaps add reinforcements at left field, designated hitter, catcher, and in the rotation.
- Jose Abreu, 1B: $51MM through 2019
- John Danks, SP: $28.5MM through 2016
- Chris Sale, SP: $28.15MM through 2017
- Jose Quintana, SP: $25.65MM through 2018
- Alexei Ramirez, SS: $11MM through 2015
- Jeff Keppinger, IF: $4.5MM through 2015 (released in May 2014)
- Scott Downs, RP: $250K buyout (released in July 2014)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Ronald Belisario, RP (4.151): $3.9MM projected salary
- Tyler Flowers, C (3.148): $2.1MM
- Dayan Viciedo, RF/LF (3.123): $4.4MM
- Hector Noesi, SP (3.006): $1.9MM
- Nate Jones, RP (3.000): $600K
- Javy Guerra*, RP (2.133, Super Two): $1.3MM
- Non-tender candidates: Belisario, Viciedo
- Felipe Paulino, SP: $4MM club option with a $250K buyout
It was another summer of trading away veterans for the White Sox, as GM Rick Hahn dealt Gordon Beckham, Alejandro De Aza, and Adam Dunn in a span of 11 days at the end of August. The exact return on Beckham won’t be determined until the offseason, but Hahn did acquire a solid pitching prospect for Dunn in Nolan Sanburn.
It was an ugly campaign, but the 2014 season did provide Chicago clarity at several key positions. Most importantly, 2013 signing Jose Abreu looks like a huge bargain after posting MVP-caliber numbers in his rookie MLB season. Also, center fielder Adam Eaton established himself with a quality year worth 2.8 wins above replacement.
While the player acquired alongside Eaton from Arizona, Matt Davidson, remained in Triple-A and took a step backward, the Sox still found a solid stopgap at the hot corner in 27-year-old Conor Gillaspie. Gillaspie fits on the strong side of a platoon, and could match up with Marcus Semien again.
Avisail Garcia is the incumbent in right field after missing much of 2014 due to a shoulder injury. Just 23, Garcia could take a leap forward in 2015. Tyler Flowers had a passable season as the starting catcher, but struck out a ton and could easily see his average back around the Mendoza line in 2015. The Sox could pony up for Russell Martin, but Hahn should be proactive in attempting to find a quality backstop via trade. The Yankees are probably the team with the most depth at the position, in terms of long-term catchers.
25-year-old Dayan Viciedo declined to a .231/.281/.405 line, and does not look like a long-term piece for Chicago. He could be non-tendered or traded. Should Hahn turn to the free agent market to fill left field, options include Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Morse. Nori Aoki, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, and Nick Markakis haven’t generally played the position, but could be considered. The Rays’ Matt Joyce could be a trade option, and the Dodgers’ outfield surplus remains unresolved. The most intriguing choice would be young Cuban corner outfielder Yasmany Tomas, with whom Abreu is familiar. The problem is that Abreu’s success reset the Cuban market such that Tomas’ price tag could be in the $100MM range. The White Sox have not been connected to Tomas in any notable way thus far.
The White Sox have finally gotten Adam Dunn off the books, and in August Bruce Levine of CBSChicago.com wrote that stealing Victor Martinez away from the Tigers tops Chicago’s offseason wish list. The Sox fell just short of signing Martinez four years ago, leading to their deal with Dunn. Martinez, who had a monster offensive 2014 season few saw coming, turns 36 in December and now spends the majority of his time as a designated hitter. Martinez would represent a fairly risky win-now signing for the Sox, but the switch-hitter would make a fantastic tandem with Abreu in 2015 as he did with Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. The Carlos Beltran deal should be Martinez’s floor, and the Sox would have to forfeit their second-round draft pick.
Trades for Alexei Ramirez could be entertained, though he still has value to the White Sox. He’s under contract for 2015 and has a club option for ’16, and could make a nice bridge to hopeful shortstop of the future Tim Anderson. Anderson, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, missed nearly two months with a broken wrist but still received a surprise promotion to Double-A. With Beckham gone, second base next figures to be a competition, with Micah Johnson, Marcus Semien, and Carlos Sanchez in the mix.
In the rotation, Chris Sale’s dominance continued and Jose Quintana had a quietly excellent campaign. John Danks ate innings at the back end, if nothing else. Hector Noesi, claimed off waivers from the Rangers in April, posted a 4.43 ERA in 27 starts for the Sox. The team is missing at least one more above average starting pitcher, and they could have it soon in 2014 first-round pick Carlos Rodon. Rodon finished the season at Triple-A and has a chance to break camp in 2015 in the big league rotation.
The Paulino experiment was a bust, though the Sox spent very little on him. To reduce the risk of dipping heavily into the team’s No. 6-8 starters, the Sox should at least add a project arm or two for depth.
The White Sox bullpen struggled in 2014, putting up a 4.28 ERA that was second-to-last in the American League. Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam filled the ninth inning void after the offseason trade of Addison Reed, injuries to Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones, and ineffectiveness from Ronald Belisario (a likely non-tender candidate). Petricka, Putnam, and Daniel Webb were able to keep the ball on the ground, but failed to miss bats. Jones underwent Tommy John surgery in July, so he’s a non-factor for 2015 even if the Sox tender him a contract. The bullpen is a clear area of upgrade for Hahn, who told MLB.com’s Scott Merkin in September, “The overall goal of the bullpen is going to be to acquire multiple options, potentially from the right and left side … many of which could be end-game options for us.” Even if Chicago decides to pass on top free agent reliever David Robertson, the market offers a wide array of quality options.
Hahn used the word “aggressive” multiple times regarding the upcoming offseason, as reported by MLB.com’s Scott Merkin. An aggressive approach makes sense, with Abreu, Sale, and Quintana currently so affordable. The Sox have about $46MM in contract commitments for 2015, plus maybe another $6MM if they retain Flowers, Noesi, Jones, and Guerra. Hahn could have around $40MM to play with in 2015 salaries without raising payroll, enough to add multiple significant free agents.
Though 2014 didn’t go as planned, the Sox received star-caliber performances from Abreu, Sale, and Quintana and quality seasons from Eaton and Gillaspie. There seems to be much offseason work to do to vault this team into contention, with the wish list including a retooled bullpen, an effective bat or two, and added rotation depth.
Note: there is some question as to Javy Guerra’s official service time. MLB’s calculation of 2.133 would make him a likely Super Two player, but his contract being selected (at least publicly) on May 20th suggests 2.128, which would fall short.