Ben Zobrist Rumors

NL West Notes: Crawford, Dodgers, Zobrist, D’Backs

We took a look at the Rockies earlier today. Now, let’s check in on the rest of the NL West, which could be shaping up to be a busy division at the deadline:

  • The Dodgers plan to utilize outfielder Carl Crawford off of the bench when he is activated from the DL, reports Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. For the time being, then, the club seems to have resolved its long-running logjam. “Carl happened to be the one who got hurt,” explained manager Don Mattingly, who said that Crawford is primarily a left-fielder, but that the position was now occupied by Matt Kemp. As Shaikin notes, Crawford still has $69MM remaining on his deal, including the rest of ths season and his annual payments through 2017, and could potentially be shopped in some kind of large contract swap.
  • Meanwhile, the Dodgers would be interested if the Red Sox make their relievers available, tweets Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. He lists Koji Uehara, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, and Craig Breslow as players who Boston could conceivably listen on, as the first three are set to become free agents while Breslow had a $4MM club option with a $100K buyout.
  • The Giants may have interest in Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, according to a report from Chris Haft and Ryan Hood of MLB.com. The Giants have sent special assignment scout to Pat Burrell to Tropicana Field recently, and the duo adds that the Rays are believed to have scouted San Francisco’s Double-A affiliate extensively.
  • The Diamondbacks entered this season with a $110MM payroll and are believed to be targeting the same number for next season, reports Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. The problem, however, is that the current roster projects to come in around that amount due to arbitration raises and escalating salaries on current long-term deals. As such, the team figures to make trades to shed payroll in the coming weeks. Martin Prado and Aaron Hill are listed by Piecoro as candidates to be dealt.

Steve Adams contributed to this post.


Rosenthal’s Latest: Zobrist, Price, Hanley, Dodgers, Martinez

In the video atop his latest Notes column for FOX Sports, Ken Rosenthal states that he feels this will finally be the year that the Rays deal David Price, as they can receive max value for him by dealing their ace to a team that can use him for two playoff pushes. He also adds that he expects the Rays to move Ben Zobrist, even though his price tag is affordable, simply because the demand for Zobrist will be so high.

Here are some more highlights from his column…

  • Hanley Ramirez‘s poor glove is perhaps the main reason that he and the Dodgers have yet to agree to an extension, Rosenthal writes. He wonders how much that flaw will impact Ramirez’s value on the open market at a time when teams are placing a higher premium than ever before on defense. He adds that if Ramirez does stay in L.A. and shift to third base in the long-term on his next contract, the team may have to trade Juan Uribe and his $6.5MM 2015 salary.
  • Looking at other Dodgers issues, Rosenthal writes that many executives around the league expect that it will ultimately be Matt Kemp who is traded to clear the team’s outfield logjam, though it likely won’t happen until the offseason. He adds that the Dodgers are likely to be in the market for a starting pitcher after the news that Chad Billingsley is out for the season, as Josh Beckett and Dan Haren are tough to rely on down the stretch.
  • Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez completely revamped his swing mechanics this offseason before he was released by the Astros in Spring Training. He signed a minor league deal with Detroit two days later and found himself teammates with the man whose mechanics he spent the entire offseason studying — Miguel Cabrera. Martinez tells Rosenthal he watched video of Cabrera and Ryan Braun all winter and “re-invented” himself at the plate. It may not be sustainable, but the early results are positive; Martinez is hitting .300/.333/.570 with six homers in 108 PA with Detroit.

Stark On Rays, Zobrist, Utley, Cubs, Padres

The trade deadline is rapidly approaching and while things figure to get exciting over the next month and change, not everyone is drooling over what might be available.  “To be honest, I don’t see much out there,” an official of one contender told Jayson Stark of ESPN.com. “Who’s even selling? And what are they selling? I know there will be guys to trade for. But where’s the quality?”  The whole column is worth a read, but here are some of the highlights from Stark’s latest..

  • The Rays front office believed that they had the talent to win it all this year and that optimism could play into how they approach the deadline.  The Rays aren’t selling and Stark writes that if they believe what they have can power them to a championship next season, they might stand pat and keep the band together.  Teams that have spoken with Tampa Bay see a fire sale as unlikely.
  • The Rays might listen on Ben Zobrist, but one exec who has spoken with the club gets the sense that it would be “really, really difficult” for them to part with him.  The exception to all of this, of course, is David Price.
  • The Phillies are expected to be open for business between now and the deadline, but they might not like the offers that come in.  “Look at their trade chips,” said an NL executive. “Even if they blow it up, dangle [Cole] Hamels and dangle all these other guys, each one of those guys has some reason it will be hard for them to get back what they want.
  • Meanwhile, one exec flatly said a Chase Utley trade is “not happening.”  The sticker price might not be met on Phillies like Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jimmy Rollins, but teams see Domonic Brown as someone whom the Phillies would like to swap for a different young change-of-scenery candidate.
  • Teams that have spoken with the Cubs expect them to move pitcher Jason Hammel in the next two weeks.  That could just be the warm up for Jeff Samardzija, but they continue to tell teams that they’d like to hammer out a new contract with him.  This week we learned that the Cubs ace rejected a five-year, $85MM+ offer.
  • While some teams are beating around the bush, the Padres are aggressively letting teams know that they want to sell.  All of their outfielders, except Cameron Maybin, are available, and that includes Seth Smith, Chris Denorfia, and Will Venable.
  • Several teams report the Dodgers are telling them they’ll listen right now on every one of their outfielders except Yasiel Puig.
  • The Yankees have been asking almost exclusively about starting pitching in their preliminary conversations.
  • Teams that have talked with the Tigers say they’re focused on bullpen upgrades, not shortstop.
  • The Angels are in the bullpen market, but they’re looking hard at left-handed-relief options, not closers.
  • Things are murky around the D’Backs since no one really knows who is in charge their or what their goals are.
  • Royals GM Dayton Moore has indicated that the Royals can add payroll, but clubs believe that he won’t get to go-ahead to spend until mid-July.  When and if KC starts buying, they are expected to target right fielders and bullpen arms since that is what they’ve been asking about in conversations.


Trade Deadline Notes: D’Backs, Price, Zobrist, Lee, Cubs

With the draft in the rear-view mirror, the league’s attention will increasingly turn to the coming summer trade market — though, with so many teams still in the hunt and so much money owed to many possible trade candidates, Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wonders if it will be a sluggish market.

Here’s the latest on some teams and players who could be discussed:

  • The Diamondbacks, who feature a roster with several attractive veteran pieces, have also been widely noted for their abundance of quality young middle infielders. As Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports (Twitter links), current Triple-A shortstop Nick Ahmed has sparked interest from multiple other clubs. Ahmed, 24, is known as an outstanding defensive player and has enjoyed his most productive season at the plate this year with a .304/.385/.401 line in 250 plate appearances in his first run at Triple-A.
  • The Rays should consider putting ace David Price on the market now rather than waiting for the deadline to approach, opines MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince. Tampa may not achieve the return it hopes for if it waits, says Castrovince, citing a variety of reasons — including the current proliferation of teams still in the hunt, the possibility that Cubs hurler Jeff Samardzija may approach or even surpass him in value, and the potential introduction of Royals’ ace James Shields into the discussion.
  • Price may be the Rays‘ most valuable trade chip, but the versatile Ben Zobrist would draw the widest interest if he is put on the block, tweets Rosenthal. The 33-year-old jack of all trades is owed just $7MM this year and comes with an attractive $7.5MM club option for 2015.
  • Indeed, Peter Gammons of GammonsDaily.com writes that Zobrist is “the perfect acquisition for a team like the TigersGiants, or Dodgers.” As I noted a few days ago, he would also make sense for a team like the Nationals if they decide to add an impact veteran, and there are surely many others with possible interest.
  • Gammons goes on to cite a few other possibly overlooked trade possibilities. He lists Bartolo Colon of the Mets and Steve Cishek of the Marlins in addition to some more commonly mentioned names like Jason Hammel of the Cubs, and Chase Headley of the Padres.
  • Cliff Lee of the Phillies, a hypothetically intriguing trade candidate, finally threw a baseball yesterday for the first time since May 18, reports Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com. After what he described as a “light throwing session,” Lee said that his elbow was feeling “better.” Of course, he would need to make it back for at least a few starts to allow Philadelphia to recoup anything close to maximum value were they to shop him.
  • In today’s Baseball Tonight podcast (audio link), ESPN’s Buster Olney says that hears the Cubs will approach this year’s deadline as they did in 2013, dealing one pitcher early as they did with Scott Feldman last year and waiting until later to move a second, as they did with Matt Garza. Presumably, that’d mean Jason Hammel would be moved first, with Jeff Samardzija being moved later. His colleague, Keith Law, feels the strategy can work, as there will never be enough starting pitchers for all the teams looking to buy, and the price for Hammel isn’t as difficult to agree upon. Moving Hammel early on forces interested clubs to force on the bigger target later in the deadline as the need becomes greater.
  • Olney lists the Blue Jays, the Orioles and the Athletics as teams that could have early interest in Hammel, and he wonders if the recent injuries to the Pirates‘ rotation would cause them to jump into the mix. Law feels the Angels could be added to that mix, as their weak farm system would prevent them from adding a big-name starter.

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