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Author Archives: Tim Dierkes
Most teams are about 9% through their season at this point, and it’s time for our first midseason update of the 2016 MLB Free Agent Power Rankings. These players project to reach free agency after this season.
As a reminder, these rankings represent the earning power in terms of total contract size, assuming everyone reaches the open market and goes to the highest bidder. Here’s MLBTR’s full list of 2015-16 free agents.
1. Justin Upton. Upton, 27, is off to a fine start for the second place Padres. Not coincidentally, the Friars are averaging more than 5.3 runs per game in the early going, tops in the National League. Nothing seems to be cooking on the extension front, and a free agent contract worth $250MM or more could be in play this winter.
2. David Price. Price jumps up a spot after allowing just one earned run in his first 22 1/3 innings. Before that, some low-level extension discussions with the Tigers occurred in late March. Price is willing to continue talking contract into the season and seems to have a number in mind that could result in a fairly quick deal if the Tigers reach it. Logically, that number figures to be in the $200MM range.
3. Johnny Cueto. Cueto moves up a spot as well after a trio of seven-inning outings. As he moves further from his 2013 shoulder strain, Cueto moves closer to Price in earning power. His Reds are hanging in with a .500 record, though a midseason trade at least seems viable. A deadline deal would make Cueto ineligible for a qualifying offer, though at ace prices the loss of a draft pick is a secondary concern for suitors.
4. Jason Heyward. It’s not fair to bump Heyward down two spots because of 53 lousy plate appearances, but I feel that if the season ended today, Price and Cueto would earn bigger contracts. Batting second in the order for the Cardinals, Heyward is at .192/.208/.327 on the young season.
5. Ian Desmond. On the plus side, Desmond has cut his strikeout rate considerably in his first 14 games, an 18% rate that would represent a full-season career best. On the other hand, Desmond has made eight errors in his first 125 1/3 innings in the field. Surely that pace will lessen, but he still has a good shot at 30 on the season. Even with today’s advanced fielding metrics, 30 errors could be hard for a team owner to ignore if Desmond’s price tag exceeds $150MM.
6. Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann’s early numbers are off after an April 13th Fenway Park drubbing, and his velocity is down a few ticks from April of last year. Still, every pitcher is allowed the occasional clunker, and Zimmermann has about 29 starts left to go.
7. Alex Gordon. Royals manager Ned Yost intends to exercise extra caution with Gordon in at least the season’s first month due to his December wrist surgery. 11 games don’t tell us much, but it will be worth monitoring whether the wrist saps Gordon’s power at all this year.
8. Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes is off to a strong start, and seems capable of piling up a huge RBI total batting fifth or sixth in the Tigers’ potent lineup. He is ineligible for a qualifying offer and won’t turn 30 until October, and seems a candidate to move several more spots up this list.
9. Zack Greinke. Greinke has three quality starts in three tries this year, and not much has changed with his status. I still expect him to opt out of his remaining three years and $71MM after the season.
10. Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija’s White Sox debut in Kansas City was a forgettable outing, but he has now turned in consecutive gems. He and Greinke have each fallen a spot only because of Cespedes’ earning power.
In news that was music to the ears of Samardzija, Greinke, Zimmermann, and others, the Red Sox signed Rick Porcello to a four-year, $82.5MM extension earlier this month. The contract covers his age 27-30 seasons. Though part of the calculus is Porcello’s youth and the deal being shortened to four years, if he’s worth $20.625MM per season, that bodes well for next winter’s crop of free agent hurlers.
Cueto leads all 2016 free agents with 0.8 wins above replacement early on, though the Dodgers’ Howie Kendrick and the Yankees’ Chris Young have matched him. Young’s rate stats this year will be skewed, however, if he continues getting more than 40% of his plate appearances against southpaws.
Many of you read MLBTR on your cell phone these days. Those on mobile devices have noticed a change this week: the introduction of our new mobile website. Now, if you go to MLBTradeRumors.com on your mobile device, you will get a streamlined version of MLBTR that works much better on a phone. The new MLBTR mobile site loads more quickly, has fewer ads, and retains features such as a search box, the teams menu, social sharing buttons, and the ability to read and leave comments on posts.
Some of you have protested the change, saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We can debate whether the pinch-and-zoom non-mobile-friendly MLBTR experience was broken, but Google definitely thought it was, and will be docking all mobile-unfriendly sites in their search results starting Tuesday. So while we were planning to go mobile-friendly this year, the Google issue forced our hand to do it now.
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Is there ever a good reason for a team to put their MLB-ready top prospect on the Opening Day roster, as the Diamondbacks recently did with Archie Bradley? As we’ve seen with the Cubs and Kris Bryant, waiting at least 12 days into the season ensures the team will control the player for a seventh season. Forward-looking teams that are willing to wait before calling up their phenom can delay his free agency by a year, and that extra year of control is generally more valuable than having the player for the first two weeks of April. However, we found 11 examples in the last decade of top MLB prospects who did make the Opening Day roster. You might say these players conquered the service time issue, or at least were lucky enough to have GMs who disregarded it.
1. Jose Fernandez, Marlins SP. Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest certainly would have been justified giving Fernandez a little more minor league seasoning in 2013. The game’s #5 overall prospect according to Baseball America, Fernandez was just 20 years old and had never pitched above A ball. But when Marlins starters Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez got hurt, Fernandez surprisingly made the team.
Was it worth it? Fernandez didn’t make his Marlins debut until April 7th, 2013, so they ultimately traded his five-inning debut for control of his age-26 season, which will happen in 2019. He was clearly ready to make the jump, as Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year award. However, over a year of the Marlins’ control of their young ace was lost when he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery the following season. The team put him on the 2013 Opening Day roster even with the knowledge that he was represented by notorious agent Scott Boras, who generally encourages players to avoid extensions that delay free agency. In December, the Marlins reportedly made a six-year offer (with two club options) worth close to $40MM, but no deal was reached. Even if they do reach some kind of precedent-shattering deal, five extra innings from Fernandez as part of a 100-loss season was not worth it for the Marlins.
2. Jedd Gyorko, Padres 2B. Gyorko came into 2013 as BA’s #71-ranked prospect, and he spent Spring Training working on the transition from third to second base. Injuries to Chase Headley and Logan Forsythe helped open the door for GM Josh Byrnes to put Gyorko on the Opening Day roster.
Was it worth it? It’s possible that the goodwill from Byrnes’ lack of regard for service time helped encourage Gyorko to sign a six-year, $35.5MM extension with a club option with the Padres a year later. In that contract the Padres paid a free agent price for the 2019 season ($13MM), which potentially could have been cheaper had that represented his fourth year of arbitration. Or, an extra year of control might have convinced Byrnes to wait another season before proposing an extension. Gyorko struggled mightily with injuries and performance as a sophomore in 2014, and the extension might end up being regrettable.
3. Mike Leake, Reds SP. The Reds drafted Leake eighth overall in 2009 out of Arizona State, and with nothing more than an Arizona Fall League stint under his belt as a pro, he beat Travis Wood for the fifth starter job to begin the 2010 season. He pitched well enough as a rookie, but was moved to the bullpen in August and his season ended on the 24th of that month.
Was it worth it? The Reds won the division by five games in 2010, and Leake was a part of that. Leake was wild on his April 11th debut, but still beat the Cubs. Since GM Walt Jocketty could have easily let him make his debut a few days later, it was not worth it. Controlling Leake for 2016, his age 28 season, would have been valuable, even if he would have cost $14MM through arbitration.
4. Austin Jackson, Tigers CF. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski acquired Jackson in the epic three-team December 2009 trade that also included Max Scherzer, Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy, Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth. Jackson was regarded as the #76 prospect in baseball, and he became the Tigers’ Opening Day center fielder.
Was it worth it? Jackson hit quite well in his first dozen games or so, and his performance easily could have led to an additional win or two. It wasn’t worth it in that the Tigers finished at .500, but at the time Dombrowski’s decision was defensible. Jackson was again part of a big three-team deal at the 2014 trade deadline. He would have carried more trade value with 2016 control, though teams will be down on him for next year if his current struggles persist.
5. Jason Heyward, Braves RF. In a situation analogous to Bryant, the Braves had the game’s best prospect prior to the 2010 season in Heyward. Heyward had just three games of Triple-A experience, but GM Frank Wren couldn’t resist putting the 20-year-old on the Opening Day roster after a legendary Spring Training.
Was it worth it? The Braves won the Wild Card by one game and Heyward had a very strong start, so this is a rare case where it was worth it. The Braves traded Heyward to the Cardinals last November with Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. That was a solid return, but of course the Braves would have done better if they controlled Heyward for ’16 as well.
6. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals CF. Rasmus was Baseball America’s #3 prospect prior to the 2009 season. He made GM John Mozeliak’s Opening Day roster, but wasn’t in the outfield when the Cards battled Pittsburgh on April 5th.
Was it worth it? The Cardinals won the Central Division handily in ’09, but since Rasmus didn’t start every game those first few weeks, it probably wasn’t worth putting him on the Opening Day roster. When Mozeliak traded Rasmus to the Blue Jays in an eight-player deal in July 2011, the outfielder had three-plus seasons of control remaining. It was well-known by that point that Rasmus had worn out his welcome in St. Louis, so while the additional year of control always increases a player’s trade value, it might not have made a huge difference here.
7. Elvis Andrus, Rangers SS. In December 2008, Rangers GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington told face of the franchise Michael Young he’d be shifting from shortstop to third base in 2009, paving the way for one of the game’s top 40 prospects in Andrus.
Was it worth it? Andrus hit quite well in those first few weeks, and surely made some plays at shortstop Young would not have. The Rangers won 87 games and fell short of the Wild Card, but at the time the decision was made, it was defensible. Three years later Andrus signed a deal buying out only his arbitration years, and then a year after that Andrus asked agent Scott Boras to get him a long-term extension, even though it meant missing the chance at being the rare 26-year-old free agent. Boras got Andrus a huge deal with a pair of opt-outs. If in spring 2013 the Rangers already controlled Andrus through 2015, they would have at least approached those extension talks differently.
8. Brett Anderson, Athletics SP. Savvy GMs had no problem putting top prospects on Opening Day rosters back in 2009. Even Billy Beane did it with Anderson, the game’s #7 prospect heading into that season, even though the lefty had made only six starts above A ball. Anderson was the team’s fourth starter out of the gate, losing his first couple of starts.
Was it worth it? With a starting pitcher it’s almost never “worth it,” since the extra MLB time amounts to one or two starts. Anderson had a solid rookie year for the A’s, and maybe Beane’s gesture of putting him on the Opening Day roster was a factor in him signing a four-year, $12.5MM deal with two club options a year later. The contract bought back the potential year of control the A’s lost (2015), and that $12MM club option probably still had a bit of value to the Rockies when they acquired Anderson in December 2013. They ultimately chose a $1.5MM buyout instead, as Anderson’s injury woes continued in Colorado.
9. Johnny Cueto, Reds SP. Cueto was BA’s #34 prospect prior to the 2008 season, and he broke camp as part of the Reds’ rotation. Cueto dazzled in his first couple of the starts, and the Reds won his debut by one run.
Was it worth it? That extra Cueto-related win didn’t matter much for the Reds, who finished in fifth place in ’08. It’s possible that some goodwill from GM Wayne Krivsky’s decision came into play in January 2011, when new GM Walt Jocketty signed Cueto to a four-year deal with a club option for ’15 (an easy choice to exercise last fall). If Cueto was held in Triple-A for a few weeks to begin ’08, would he have chosen not to sign an extension later? In that scenario, he would have reached free agency after 2014. It’s also possible that a few weeks as a rookie wouldn’t have mattered to him, and controlling him through ’14 could have meant signing him to an extension running through ’16.
10. John Danks, White Sox SP. White Sox GM Kenny Williams acquired Danks from the Rangers in December 2006, sending Brandon McCarthy to Texas. Like Dave Dombrowski with Austin Jackson, Williams couldn’t wait to get his new acquisition on the big league club. It’s kind of like a kid getting a new toy and opening the box on the ride home.
Was it worth it? Danks would have benefited from additional Triple-A seasoning, as he posted a 5.50 ERA as a rookie. He was decent in his first couple of starts, though the White Sox lost both games en route to a fourth place finish. Williams’ decision set Danks up for free agency after 2012, but he signed a five-year, $65MM extension prior to his walk year. Danks wound up needing shoulder surgery in 2012. An extra year of control might have prevented the White Sox from extending Danks in general, in which case they wouldn’t have him on the books currently.
11. Nick Markakis, Orioles RF/LF. Top Orioles exec Mike Flanagan put Markakis on the team’s Opening Day roster back in 2006. The 22-year-old had played just 33 games above A ball.
Was it worth it? Markakis didn’t play every day in the season’s first few weeks and the Orioles finished in fourth place. Flanagan’s roster decision had Markakis on track for free agency after 2011, but in January 2009 Andy MacPhail signed him to a six-year, $66.1MM extension with a club option for 2015. I don’t think much would have changed with the contract had Flanagan waited a few weeks in ’06 to call Markakis up.
What have we learned? Two weeks of a rookie in April is rarely directly worth trading for a seventh year of control, but the tradeoff can be defensible for certain teams and players. Also, the extra year of control could impact extensions in multiple ways. On one hand, it’s possible some players signed extensions partially because of the goodwill from being placed on the Opening Day roster. On the other hand, an additional year of control might have bought GMs more time to gather data on whether certain extensions were worth pursuing in the first place.
Please note that we looked for examples within the last ten seasons, omitting players like Joe Mauer, and we also left out relievers such as Joel Zumaya and Huston Street.
The White Sox had an active, successful offseason in which they upgraded their pitching staff and imported multiple bats.
Major League Signings
- David Robertson, RP: Four years, $46MM
- Melky Cabrera, LF: Three years, $42MM
- Adam LaRoche, 1B: Two years, $25MM
- Zach Duke, RP: Three years, $15MM
- Emilio Bonifacio, 2B/CF: One year, $4MM. Includes $4MM club option for 2016 with a $1MM buyout.
- Gordon Beckham, 2B/3B: One year, $2MM
- Total spend: $134MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Geovany Soto, Matt Albers, Brad Penny, Jesse Crain, Scott Carroll, Logan Kensing, Joe Savery, George Kottaras, Andy LaRoche, Engel Beltre, Zach Phillips
Trades And Claims
- Claimed OF J.B. Shuck off waivers from Indians
- Claimed RP Onelki Garcia off waivers from Dodgers
- Claimed C Rob Brantly off waivers from Marlins
- Acquired SP Jeff Samardzija and RP Michael Ynoa from Athletics for IF Marcus Semien, SP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley, and 1B Rangel Ravelo
- Acquired RP Dan Jennings from Marlins for SP Andre Rienzo
- Acquired 1B/3B Neftali Soto from Reds for cash considerations
- Adam Eaton, CF: five years, $23.5MM. Includes $9.5MM club option for 2020 with a $1.5MM buyout and $10.5MM club option for 2021 with a $1.5MM buyout.
- Dayan Viciedo, Paul Konerko, Jordan Danks, Ronald Belisario, Matt Lindstrom, Felipe Paulino, Marcus Semien, Chris Bassitt, Josh Phegley, Rangel Ravelo, Andre Rienzo, Moises Sierra, Taylor Thompson
With core players Jose Abreu, Chris Sale, and Jose Quintana signed to affordable contracts, the White Sox were expected to take an aggressive approach to the offseason to fill their needs. They met with Pablo Sandoval‘s agent at the GM Meetings in November, and had Victor Martinez on their wish list as well. Around this time GM Rick Hahn also quietly explored trading for Jason Heyward, which wasn’t reported until this month. Martinez re-signed quickly with the Tigers, however, so Hahn signed Adam LaRoche at less than 40% of the commitment Martinez required.
The price difference between LaRoche and Martinez reflects the fact that Martinez is a better hitter, of course. Still, the White Sox got their coveted left-handed bat without taking on the risk of Martinez’s age 36-39 seasons. Plus, bringing in a more capable defensive first baseman in LaRoche should help keep Abreu healthy.
The White Sox continued moving quickly by signing lefty reliever Zach Duke to a three-year, $15MM deal in mid-November. Such a contract would have seemed absurd less than a year prior, as Duke had joined the Brewers on a minor league deal in January. Duke was quietly dominant for the Brewers in 2014 after making a series of adjustments to his pitch mix and arm slot. No team likes signing a reliever to a three-year deal, especially one with such a brief track record of success. Only three other relievers received deals of three or more years this offseason, and one of those was also with the White Sox. Still, the third year for Duke was the cost of doing business, and waiting until January for bargains is risky in its own way.
Hahn owned the first night of the Winter Meetings, grabbing headlines by closing in on a trade for Jeff Samardzija and a free agent contract for David Robertson in the course of a few hours. The Samardzija trade was a big win for the White Sox. I do see the sneaky value in the players the A’s acquired — lower ceiling players who are mostly considered to be solid-average regulars by Baseball America. Still, they were all players Chicago could afford to surrender to acquire one year of a potential front-rotation arm (plus perhaps an accompanying draft pick if Samardzija departs via free agency). The White Sox would have had to take on a lot more risk in the free agent market to bring in a pitcher of Samardzija’s caliber. In Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana, Hahn has assembled one of the better rotation trios in the game.
In Robertson, the White Sox acquired the offseason’s best available reliever at market price. It’s interesting to note that Robertson apparently had another team offer even more than $46MM. As with Duke, the term is not ideal, but it was necessary to sign the elite stopper. $61MM is a lot to spend on commitments to relievers in one offseason, but the White Sox had very few dollars invested into their bullpen prior to Robertson and Duke. Spending that much money is kind of a blunt-force way of addressing the team’s biggest problem, but it should work pretty well in the short term. The Sox also complemented their bullpen by acquiring southpaw Dan Jennings from Miami.
Hahn continued going down his long list of offseason upgrades, signing Melky Cabrera to a three-year, $42MM deal to play left field. (We’ll have more on that signing in the Deal of Note section.) After Cabrera, free agents Emilio Bonifacio, Gordon Beckham, and Geovany Soto were added as versatile bench pieces. Getting Soto on a minor league deal was a plus. Matt Albers and Jesse Crain were also added on minor league deals.
A five-year, $23.5MM extension for center fielder Adam Eaton capped Chicago’s busy offseason. The talented 26-year-old missed 124 games due to injuries over the past two seasons, but the White Sox balanced that risk with reasonable salaries and a pair of club options at the end.
With top prospect Carlos Rodon a phone call away, maybe rotation depth won’t prove to be a problem for the White Sox. Still, the rotation looks strong when Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana are pitching, and vulnerable the other 40% of the time with Hector Noesi, John Danks, Rodon, and maybe Brad Penny. The Sox are still tied up with $28.5MM owed to Danks through 2016.
I raised the question of catching in my Offseason Outlook, and some alternatives and/or backups to Tyler Flowers were added in Soto, Rob Brantly, and George Kottaras. The Sox did reportedly poke around on the Astros’ Jason Castro and discussed Miguel Montero with the Diamondbacks, so alternatives to Flowers were considered. Catching still seems like a weak point in both the short and long-term.
There’s also the issue of executive vice president and former GM Ken Williams. It was revealed in December that the Blue Jays sought to interview Williams to be their president/CEO, but White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf declined to grant them permission, and considered the attempt to be tampering. Ultimately the Blue Jays retained Paul Beeston for one more year, and Williams doesn’t appear to begrudge Reinsdorf about the situation, perhaps because the Jays’ timing was indeed terrible. Williams’ future with the White Sox bears watching though.
Deal Of Note
Melky Cabrera entered the offseason as our fourth-ranked free agent hitter, and many of us at MLBTR thought he would get the five-year deal he sought. While there was reportedly one four-year offer, Cabrera settled for three years from the White Sox. Even accounting for his 2012 PED suspension, qualifying offer, and below-average defense, it was surprising he didn’t sign for more money in a thin market for bats. It works very well for the White Sox, who committed less to Cabrera and LaRoche than the Tigers did just to Martinez, diversifying their risk in the process.
We know “winning the offseason” doesn’t mean much once games start, but the White Sox entered the winter with a long list of needs and filled most of them, finding a few relative bargains along the way. Hahn has assembled a much more interesting team that should be in contention in 2015.
Photo courtesy of Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports Images
The Cubs made multiple splashes this winter, spending big to bring in Jon Lester and Joe Maddon while also rounding out their rotation and adding a new starting catcher and center fielder.
Major League Signings
- Jon Lester, SP: six years, $155MM. $25MM mutual option for 2021 with a $10MM buyout. Guaranteed with 200 innings in 2020 or 400 in 2019-20. Full no-trade clause.
- Jason Hammel, SP: two years, $20MM. $12MM club option for 2017 with a $2MM buyout. May void based on 2016 performance.
- David Ross, C: two years, $5MM.
- Jason Motte, RP: one year, $4.5MM.
- Tsuyoshi Wada, SP: one year, $4MM.
- Chris Denorfia, OF: one year, $2.6MM.
- Jacob Turner, SP: one year, $1MM (club option exercised).
- Total spend: $192.1MM.
- Joe Maddon, Manager: five years, $25MM.
Notable Minor League Signings
- Phil Coke, Francisley Bueno, Daniel Bard, Jonathan Herrera, Mike Baxter, Adron Chambers, Taylor Teagarden, Chris Valaika, Pedro Feliciano
Trades And Claims
- Claimed RP Joe Ortiz off waivers from Rangers.
- Claimed RP Donn Roach off waivers from Padres.
- Acquired IF Tommy La Stella from Braves for RP Arodys Vizcaino. Deal included swap of international bonus slots that netted Braves $832K in pool money.
- Acquired C Miguel Montero from Diamondbacks for RP Zack Godley and RP Jeferson Mejia.
- Acquired cash from Angels for Rule 5 pick Taylor Featherston.
- Acquired RP Matt Brazis from Mariners for OF Justin Ruggiano.
- Claimed RP Mike Kickham off waivers from Giants. Later traded to Mariners for SP Lars Huijer.
- Acquired CF Dexter Fowler from Astros for IF Luis Valbuena and SP Dan Straily.
- Claimed RP Gonzalez Germen off waivers from Rangers.
- Claimed RP Drake Britton off waivers from Red Sox.
Manager Joe Maddon surprised the baseball world by opting out of his Rays contract in late October, a clause triggered when top executive Andrew Friedman jumped to the Dodgers. Cubs manager Rick Renteria was fired a week later. In a statement on Halloween, Cubs president Theo Epstein explained he made the difficult decision to be loyal to the organization rather than being loyal to Renteria, who had been expected to manage the Cubs in 2015. Maddon’s deal with the Cubs was announced hours later.
The Rays contend Maddon opted out after talking to the Cubs, and MLB is investigating the Cubs for tampering. In February, new Commissioner Rob Manfred said a decision regarding that charge will be made prior to Opening Day. Aside from perhaps strained relations between the two clubs, it’s difficult to imagine the Cubs suffering any penalty of consequence even if they are found guilty. The series of events feels a little dirty, as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports put it, but in the end, the Cubs now have one of the best-regarded managers in baseball.
After declining a $5MM option on Wada, the Cubs inked him to a non-guaranteed deal worth $4MM. The 34-year-old showed promise as a back-rotation option in a small sample of 13 starts in 2014, and the cost was minimal. Travis Wood was also retained, with an arbitration contract worth $5.685MM. He’s consistently shown the skills of a 4.40 ERA pitcher. With Wood a borderline non-tender candidate and Wada potentially ticketed for Triple-A to start the season, it’s fair to ask whether the Cubs could have found a better way to spend nearly $10MM.
Also in November, the Cubs picked up La Stella in a trade with the Braves. Though GM Jed Hoyer insisted the move wasn’t a precursor to anything, La Stella fits nicely as a replacement for Valbuena, who was traded in January. We’ll look at that trade under the Deal Of Note section.
The Cubs had a functional catcher under control in Welington Castillo, but clearly felt that was an area to upgrade. They kicked off their offseason with a pursuit of Russell Martin, by far the best available option. The Cubs ended up finishing in second on Martin, though there’s no evidence they got close to the five-year, $82MM deal he signed with the Blue Jays.
Though it was thought the Cubs were in the Martin market rather than the catching market, they executed on Plan B by acquiring Montero during the Winter Meetings. With a minimal cost in prospects, the acquisition was akin to signing Montero to a three-year, $40MM free agent deal (the amount remaining on his contract). The Montero and Ross acquisitions suggest a conscious effort to improve the team’s pitch-framing, an area in which Castillo rates poorly. Veteran leadership was also a factor.
Still, there’s a reason a willingness to take on Montero’s contract was most of what was needed to acquire him – the 31-year-old hit .237/.324/.358 over the last two seasons and makes more than $13MM annually through 2017. In Montero, Wood, Motte, Denorfia, and Ross, the Cubs took on almost $58MM in commitments to five players who weren’t very good in 2014.
The Cubs also brought Hammel back as the Winter Meetings began, locking in their secondary rotation piece at a lower than expected price. It was thought that Hammel might command a three-year deal, but perhaps he was just motivated to return to Chicago. The Cubs had reportedly looked at Justin Masterson as an alternative; he signed a one-year, $9.5MM deal with Boston.
The Winter Meetings was also the site of the Cubs’ biggest winter splash, as they completed their tense pursuit of Lester with the largest contract in franchise history. The lofty $155MM price tag matched expectations, and after years of conserving payroll, the Cubs can certainly afford it. The Cubs need their new ace to be a workhorse, a trait that’s missing from the team’s other projected starters. Any deal of this magnitude and length for a starting pitcher carries a lot of risk, but the Lester signing addressed the team’s biggest need without sacrificing young cornerstone players or a draft pick.
Also in December, the Cubs picked up Motte on a low-risk deal to complement their bullpen. The former Cardinals closer will be two years removed from Tommy John surgery in May. The Cubs’ bullpen could be deep if Motte rediscovers his 2012 form.
As James Shields‘ free agency dragged into February, the Cubs got involved in hopes of a bargain. According to Pat Mooney of CSNChicago.com, “The Cubs made Shields a backloaded offer that started at $60 million over four years. That morphed into a three-year, $60 million concept that included a significant amount of deferred money and a vesting option that would still cap the overall value at less than $80 million.”
As with Martin, the Cubs finished in second, but nowhere close to the player’s ultimate contract. Shields would have gone a long way toward answering the Cubs’ remaining rotation question marks. Even if Lester’s spring “dead arm” phase turns out to be nothing, none of the Cubs’ No. 2-4 starters (Jake Arrieta, Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks) have ever pitched 185 innings in a season. The Cubs have also shown continued interest in Cole Hamels. Such a deal could potentially happen this summer if the Cubs are willing to take the hit in giving up a young potential star.
The Cubs made the wise and expected choice to keep starting shortstop Starlin Castro, as the team’s impressive infield depth behind him has yet to fully arrive. The long-term look of the Cubs’ middle infield may start to be determined this year, depending on how Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara perform. Could Castro be moved this summer? We have seen that move from Theo Epstein’s playbook once before. For now, it will be Baez and Castro at second base and shortstop, with Russell potentially ready by midseason. Alcantara is valuable now in a super-utility role. The surplus has yet to manifest itself.
The Cubs have more immediate roster issues to address before the April 5th opener. With no strong offers for Castillo, the team is currently leaning toward opening the season with three catchers (none of whom can play another position). Epstein says Maddon has been “pounding the table” for three catchers, but it reduces the team’s flexibility if non-catchers need days off. The versatility of Alcantara, La Stella, and Denorfia would be crucial in a three-catcher scenario.
The Cubs also don’t have enough bullpen spots to retain everyone currently on their 40-man roster. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Jason Motte, Justin Grimm, and Phil Coke appear locked in, leaving one spot for Edwin Jackson and out of options relievers Drake Britton and Felix Doubront (assuming Wada goes to the minors or the DL). The disabled list could solve this logjam, or the Cubs can just release the worst two of the three.
Perhaps the biggest question for Cubs fans is, “When will Kris Bryant join the roster?” The third base phenom has clubbed nine home runs in 11 spring training games, but the Cubs would lose the ability to control him for the 2021 season if they put him on the Opening Day roster. Stashing him in Iowa for a few more weeks is the prudent thing to do, even if agent Scott Boras thinks the Cubs are “damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball.”
I do want to play devil’s advocate to the commonly accepted wisdom that Bryant should not open the season with the Cubs. Say the Cubs wait until April 15th, meaning Bryant misses out on the bare minimum of eight potential big league games. Projections suggest the Cubs are sacrificing less than 0.3 wins above replacement in this scenario. However, I don’t think WAR was meant to be employed this way, and a player with Bryant’s talent could easily affect the outcome of one or two games within eight (or more). A single well-timed home run can do that. And the Cubs could easily miss the playoffs by one game this year. The 2010 Braves opened the season with Jason Heyward and won the Wild Card by one game. I’d probably cook up a reason to hold off on selecting Bryant’s contract, perhaps health or defense-related, but I don’t think it’s open-and-shut.
Deal Of Note
The Cubs’ January acquisition of Dexter Fowler may have flown under the radar because of Lester. The trade, which sent Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily to Houston, was a better allocation of resources for both teams. The Cubs didn’t have a true center fielder on the roster, and mostly because of Bryant, they didn’t really need Valbuena (the game’s 15th-best third baseman by WAR in 2014). Fowler projects for the highest on-base percentage on the Cubs, and the team thinks it found a way he can improve defensively. Beyond defensive concerns, Fowler has battled health issues. But if all goes well, he could be a qualifying offer candidate for the Cubs after the season.
The Cubs flirted with some huge moves in the 2013-14 offseason, and a year later they finally brought in their big-name manager and ace starter. Still, they’re keeping a relatively low payroll to start 2015, and probably could have afforded and justified an all-in plunge for Lester, Martin, and one of Shields, Ervin Santana, or Brandon McCarthy.
Second-guessing aside, the stakes are high for the first time in Theo Epstein’s tenure. The Cubs will be viewed as a disappointment if they don’t make the playoffs. They appear to be primed for sustained success, but it would be nice to get some actual wins on the board.
Opening Night is less than two weeks away, and none of the top ten free agents from the first installment of our Power Rankings seem close to an extension. It’s time for an update.
As a reminder, these rankings represent the earning power in terms of total contract size, assuming everyone reaches the open market and goes to the highest bidder. Here’s MLBTR’s full list of 2015-16 free agents.
1. Justin Upton. Padres GM A.J. Preller explained his Upton trade recently to Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune, saying, “We made this deal with eyes open, knowing that this may be a long-term relationship and it may end up being a one-year relationship.” In December, Upton’s agent Larry Reynolds said they won’t be negotiating in-season, so the young slugger seems likely to reach the open market.
2. Jason Heyward. In contrast, Heyward seems willing to negotiate in-season. Check out Derrick Goold’s March 9th piece for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for an in-depth look at the Cardinals’ new outfielder. Heyward said of his contract, “The sooner that is done the better, for me,” while also hedging against any urgency in the comments that followed. But I found that comment telling, as well as his emphasis on comfort and a good fit. In February, I talked about Heyward potentially signing the largest contract in free agent history if his power returns. That’s the best case, open-market scenario, however. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports polled a bunch of GMs in March about Heyward’s next contract, and most felt he’ll fall short of $200MM.
3. David Price. Price is another top free agent who seems willing to sign an in-season extension, though there were no talks as of March 12th. Five days prior, the lefty had said he didn’t think the Tigers would wait until he nears free agency to open up discussions.
4. Ian Desmond. All is quiet on the Desmond contract front, as the shortstop prefers. Based on the currently available information, he seems headed for free agency after the season.
5. Johnny Cueto. Reds GM Walt Jocketty told Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette of MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM earlier this month, “We’ve had some discussions,” and said he wanted to let the team’s fans know they’re still trying. This seems like a case where the hometown team will make a valiant effort but won’t be able to afford the player.
6. Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann doesn’t intend to discuss a contract during the season, so it appears he’ll hit the market. If the Nationals allow Desmond, Zimmermann, and Doug Fister to leave, they’ll be in for an interesting offseason of retooling.
7. Alex Gordon. There has been “not one bit” of contract discussion between Gordon’s agent and the Royals, the left fielder told Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star last week. December wrist surgery delayed Gordon’s spring debut, and he’s only played in two games to date.
9. Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija told reporters earlier this month he’s in a “pretty intense situation with a lot on the line.” He told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports on March 5th that there were no contract talks with the White Sox, and he doesn’t want to talk in-season. Heyman feels it would be an upset to see the big righty sign an extension prior to free agency.
10. Yoenis Cespedes. The lone new entrant on this list, Cespedes told reporters in March he’d “like to be in a Tigers uniform for a lot of years.” The 29-year-old slugger is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer, it should be noted.
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters loses his spot at #10, as he’s likely to start the season on the DL. He is still on schedule in his recovery from June Tommy John surgery, but it would be good for his free agent value to see him behind the dish and firing on all cylinders before May.