Ben Zobrist Rumors

AL Notes: Keppinger, Zobrist, Singleton, De Vries

Earlier today, the White Sox made the tough decision to designate infielder Jeff Keppinger for assignment, despite the fact that his contract calls for a $4MM salary in 2014 and a $4.5MM salary in 2015. GM Rick Hahn spoke to reporters about the move (Twitter links to MLB.com’s Scott Merkin) about the decision: We are focusing on the future as opposed to trying to justify a decision from the past. … [Keppinger's signing] didn’t work. That’s on me.”

Here’s more from the American League:

  • Versatile Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist suffered a dislocated left thumb in today’s action, reports Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (links to Twitter). A brief trip to the DL seems likely, though the injury does not appear to be a long-term concern. Through 177 plate appearances, Zobrist owned an effective (but low for his standards) .258/.352/.364 line with three home runs and three stolen bases. Discussing the struggling Tampa club in a piece for Grantland earlier today, Jonah Keri wrote that Zobrist, who is earning just $7MM this year, could potentially become a trade piece if the Rays cannot turn things around. His contract, long one of the most team-friendly in the game, includes a club option for next season at $7.5MM (with a $500K buyout).
  • The Astros are still deliberating on when to call up first baseman Jon Singleton, per a report from Mark Berman of FOX 26 Houston (Twitter links). “We have seen the reaction the fans have to bringing up a prospect like [George Springer],” said Luhnow. “I would say Singleton is on deck.” While Singleton, 22, has mashed at Triple-A this year (.293/.401/.629 with 12 home runs in 167 plate appearances), Luhnow did not commit to a timeline. “I think he will play up here this year,” he said. “When, that remains to be seen.” Singleton entered the year as a consensus top-100 prospect. (MLB.com placed him 44th; ESPN.com’s Keith law ranked him 78th; and Baseball America put him at 82nd.)
  • Former Twins pitcher Cole De Vries has officially retired, reports Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN via Twitter. The 29-year-old righty threw to a 4.11 ERA in 87 2/3 innings (most of them as a starter) back in 2012, with 6.0 K/9 against just 1.8 BB/9. He was less successful last year, however, giving up 18 earned runs in just 15 frames. De Vries became a minor league free agent after the year, but said that he is trying his hand at commercial real estate rather than looking for another crack at the bigs.

Rays Exercise 2014 Club Options On Zobrist, Escobar

The Rays have exercised their club options over utilityman extraordinaire Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar, tweets Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. As Topkin notes, the club's more difficult option decision comes due tomorrow, when Tampa must act on David DeJesus.

Neither move comes as a surprise, given that the option amounts for Zobrist and Escobar ($7MM and $5MM, respectively) are modest compared to their 2013 production. Zobrist slashed .275/.354/.402, a step back from his offensive output over 2011-12. But with stellar defense and baserunning, he nevertheless managed a third straight 5+ fWAR campaign and remains one of baseball's best values and most adaptable players. Escobar put up an exactly league-average wRC mark, but that will play at short, particularly when combined with outstanding fielding. He figures also to provide surplus production going forward after putting up a redemptive 3.9 fWAR in his first year in Tampa.

The best news for the Rays is that the club has virtually identical club options for this pair next year, as well. (Zobrist's jumps in value by $500k, though his buyout also plummets.) Tampa will hope the decision is just as easy next time around.


Friedman Talks Pitching, Trades, Zobrist

When I asked Andrew Friedman how he’d assess the Rays’ starting pitching heading into 2013, he made his point pretty quickly. “It’s good,” he said. I caught up with Tampa Bay’s executive VP of baseball operations at the GM meetings in Indian Wells, California yesterday. Here are some of the details…

  • The Rays will consider trading starting pitching since they believe in listening to trade offers whenever possible. Still, they realize pitching depth can be fleeting. “The one thing that we’re very wary of is waking up one day and not being able to fill out a rotation in the American League East.”
  • The Rays could upgrade at a variety of positions with Jeff Keppinger and B.J. Upton hitting free agency and the versatile Ben Zobrist on the roster. “Our approach is to attack this with a very open mind and focus on guys that we want to acquire in a vacuum.” Once the Rays make one move, their focus will narrow depending on how the initial move affects their roster.
  • The Rays like having the flexibility to pursue players at many positions. “That being said, you can’t get paralyzed by the flexibility and end up in January with way too many things to accomplish,” Friedman said.
  • Friedman acknowledged that the Rays need position players and relievers. “We have a lot of things we need to accomplish without a ton of resources,” he said.


Rays Borrow Indians’ Model For Extensions

If you find it hard to imagine the Rays without the long-term extensions they’ve handed out to players like James Shields (pictured) and Evan Longoria, you’re not alone. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay’s executive vice president of baseball operations, says extensions for key players are necessary for the Rays. 

“They are because for us we want to be able to extend our competitive window by as many years as we can,” Friedman told MLBTR. “And to have a chance to keep our nucleus together for an extra year, an extra two years is critical for us.”

James Shields

It’s so important because the Rays play in the American League East against two of baseball’s best and richest teams: the Yankees and Red Sox. Boston, for example, committed $154MM to Adrian Gonzalez on his recent extension and while the deal couldn’t be going better for the Red Sox, it’s not a realistic model for the Rays. $154MM is three times Tampa Bay’s annual payroll, so Friedman has to look elsewhere for solutions.

One of the places Friedman looked was Cleveland. In the early 1990’s, Indians general manager John Hart had a roster full of talented players, but this was before the Indians reached two World Series and won six division titles in seven years. Hart didn’t have the financial leeway to consider the mega-extensions that players can command as they approach free agency. 

“We were running an entire crop through that were all going to hit arbitration within one or two years of each other and we never could have afforded it,” he said.

Simply put, the Indians couldn’t wait for players like Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Charles Nagy to advance too close to free agency, when their asking prices would skyrocket and the Indians’ chances of controlling their core long-term would plummet. So Hart signed the trio to multiyear extensions early on in their careers, gambling that the relatively unproven group would develop into stars and contribute to Indians teams for years to come. 

The system worked. Baerga blossomed into one of the best second basemen in baseball, Alomar made six All-Star teams and Nagy posted a 3.86 ERA (115 ERA+) in 1100 innings through his arbitration years without earning more than $3.5MM in a season. It’s been a while since those Indians teams took the field, but Friedman hasn’t forgotten them. Though each era and division brings different challenges, the Rays used the Indians’ approach as a loose model for their recent extensions.

“They vary from market to market and you can learn and you should learn from what other teams do,” Friedman said, “but you have to mold that into a specific strategy for your market.”

In Tampa Bay’s case, the market is small. The Rays cut payroll by $30MM last offseason after having $72MM to work with a year ago. They have never spent over $72MM on payroll under Friedman, who was promoted to his current role in 2005. 

That means the Rays are willing to commit tens of millions to players with limited MLB experience, but it doesn’t mean they’ll gamble on anyone with talent and a willingness to sign on the dotted line. The Rays look for maturity and work habits in extension candidates, not simply on-field results and potential.

"We’re all kind of elbow to elbow for six weeks of Spring Training and at least six months of the season, and so you get a chance to see a guy and assess how they go about their work,” Friedman said. “That being said, it’s far from an exact science and if it was I think the success rate for teams would be much higher.”

The Rays have completed some deals that appear shrewd now, though they were risky at the time. No team succeeds with every extension (the Angels are paying former Rays starter Scott Kazmir $12MM this year on a deal Friedman signed), but Tampa Bay has more successes than failures under Friedman’s front office (see table of extensions for current homegrown Rays). 

Current Rays Extensions

As Hart points out, players need to keep working after signing extensions and “you’ve got to get a little bit lucky that you don’t have an injury.” Now a special assistant in the Rangers’ front office, Hart says the Rays have succeeded in committing to players who are talented and dedicated.

“They’ve had outstanding players with quality makeup,” he told MLBTR. “Longoria? I love this guy. Wade Davis, you know, it’s risky yet as a GM and as baseball people, you have to know your guys and you cross your fingers you don’t have injury, but at the end of it, if these guys stay healthy, you’ve made a good baseball decision.”

After a few years it’s easy to distinguish good baseball decisions from bad ones. Part of the challenge for the Rays is determining which relatively inexperienced players will respond well to extensions – without the benefit of hindsight.

"So many of these deals for young players, especially zero-plus, one-plus and even two-plus players, odds are they aren’t going to work out,” Friedman said. “You have to get to know the player as well as you can, get to know their makeup and make the best decision you can knowing that they’re not all going to work out.”

The goal, Hart says, is to find players who can “bite down” and perform even after the life-changing experience of signing for millions. The teams, meanwhile, do some biting down of their own. There are always concerns about signing unproven players to generous extensions, but it’s one way for small market franchises to extend their competitive window on budget.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.


Baseball Blogs Weigh In: Howard, Prince, Konerko

On this date five years ago, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux faced off in the first matchup of 300-game winners since Don Sutton and Steve Carlton in 1987. Maddux's Cubs topped Clemens' Astros by the score of 3-2.

Let's look at what's being written around the blogosphere, with a heavy dose of Ryan Howard contract reactions…

If you have a suggestion for this feature, Mike can be reached here.


Odds & Ends: Paul, Embree, Zobrist, Wakefield

Links for Monday, as we digest Ryan Howard's $125MM extension


Odds & Ends: Tigers, Zobrist, Posey, Crisp

Sunday night linkage..


Odds & Ends: Zobrist, Pierzynski, Lowe, Padres

Links for Friday…


Rays Sign Ben Zobrist To Extension

The Rays officially signed Ben Zobrist to a three-year contract extension that includes two club options today. The deal buys out Zobrist's three arbitration seasons for $14.5MM, and the options would pay him $7MM in 2014 ($2.5MM buyout) and $7.5MM in 2015 ($500K buyout), his first two years of free agent eligibility. The extension also includes a signing bonus of just under $562K, bringing his 2010 salary to an even $1MM and the total value of the contract up to nearly $30MM, if both options are exercised.

The 28-year-old switch-hitter enjoyed an MVP-caliber season in 2009, hitting .297/.405/.543 while playing nearly every position on the diamond — and playing them well, according to UZR/150. He would have earned about $438K this year before hitting arbitration for the first time in 2011.

As a point of comparison, teammate Evan Longoria will earn $12.5MM in his first three arbitration seasons and has club options that total $22.5MM in his first two years of free agency. Longoria's contract is widely considered one of the most team-friendly deals in the league, but if Zobrist continues to perform like he did in 2009, he'll be a bargain as well. Very good job of locking up a core player by the Rays.

Marc Topkin of The St. Petersburg Times first reported the agreement, while Roger Mooney of The Tampa Tribune later tweeted the contract details.

Mike Axisa contributed to this post.


Rays Interested In Orlando Hudson

9:36pm: Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times (via Twitter) thinks "it's unlikely anything happens" between Tampa Bay and Hudson, noting that the Rays are happy with Zobrist, Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez at second base.  He does say, however, that the Rays "have interest in [a number] of free agents."

8:12pm: ESPN's Buster Olney reports (via Twitter) that Tampa Bay is "in on Orlando Hudson talks."  The plan would be to install Hudson at second base while Ben Zobrist gets moved to right field.  Olney says that the move "all depends on the price," which would presumably have to be significantly lower than Hudson's $9MM asking price.

The Nationals have been considered to be the leaders in the Hudson sweepstakes this winter, and MLB.com's Bill Ladson was told today by a source that the Nats "have a good chance" of signing the free-agent second baseman due to Hudson's close ties to Adam Dunn and Willie Harris

Ladson also went straight to the horse's mouth and talked to Hudson himself, who told Ladson that "progress had been made."  The interview also included this interesting passage from Hudson that cited two other teams in the hunt:

"I will sign soon enough. You can put it on the Internet and on TV. I'm going to sign. I can't say exactly when. It will not be long. I can't say if it's with the Nationals, San Diego or Cleveland. I can't say with whom. Something is getting done."

The Padres could be a longshot if, as MLB.com's Corey Brock tweeted earlier today, they've completed their winter shopping following the signing of Jon Garland.  The Tribe also seem like unlikely suitors given Hudson's contract demands.