Ben Zobrist Rumors
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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...
- Crashburn Alley breaks down the massive contract the Phillies gave their first baseman.
- More Hardball comes up with a few reasons to dislike the deal.
- Sports Are Involved... takes a look at the price of greatness.
- Disciples of Uecker examines what Howard's deal means for Prince Fielder.
- The Pale Hose Pariah wonders if the White Sox should look to sign Paul Konerko to an extension.
- 1 Blue Jays Way interviewed Jays' prospect Zach Stewart, part of last summer's Scott Rolen trade.
- The Baseball Opinion reviews the trade that sent Ben Zobrist from the Astros to Tampa Bay.
- Camden Depot looks at the trade value of draft picks, not that MLB allows such things.
- Since the Dodgers called Xavier Paul up from the minors, he should be getting regular playing time with Manny Ramirez out, reasons Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times.
- Alan Embree told Dan Barbarisi of The Providence Journal that he won't be extending his contract deadline again. He hopes to be called up by the Red Sox by April 30th.
- The AP has details on Ben Zobrist's $18MM extension with the Rays.
- Though the knuckleballer doesn't say it, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe says "it's obvious [Tim Wakefield] isn't keen on his new [bullpen] assignment."
- Jim Callis of Baseball America explores what might happen if MLB allows trading draft picks.
- Joel Sherman of the New York Post wonders how long Javier Vazquez will be given to get on track.
- With tongue firmly in cheek, Grant of the McCovey Chronicles predicts free agent-to-be Jayson Werth will sign with the Giants next winter.
- ESPN's Keith Law shares his rankings of the top 100 prospects for the June amateur draft. (ESPN Insider subscription required.)
- Speaking of young players, MLB.com's Jane Lee talks to Athletics director of player personnel Keith Leippman about some of the top prospects in Oakland's farm system.
- ESPN.com's Eric Karabell says that if Matt Capps can keep up his strong start, the right-hander will be a good trade chip for Washington over the summer. Karabell also notes that if Capps is dealt, it will likely be to a team looking for set-up help, not a closer.
- Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times says it's a close call between Derek Jeter or Manny Ramirez for the title of "best big contract in baseball history."
Sunday night linkage..
- The Tigers could use another arm in the bullpen, though they can likely find one in Triple-A Toledo, writes Steve Kornacki of MLive.com.
- Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times likes the Ben Zobrist contract extension for both parties. Zobrist officially agreed to a three-year extension with the Rays on Friday.
- Mychael Urban of CSNBayArea.com (via Twitter) says it's time for the Giants to call up a certain young right-handed slugger who can fill in at catcher and first base.
- We should see Coco Crisp's Oakland A's debut in about two weeks, writes Jane Lee of MLB.com. Billy Beane & Co. signed the outfielder to a one-year, $5.5MM deal in December of last year.
- Jim Bowden of FOXSports.com breaks down his favorite offseason moves. Bowden praises the Angels' acquisitions of Joel Pineiro, Hideki Matsui, and Fernando Rodney.
Links for Friday...
- Ben Zobrist said signing his extension was a "no-brainer," according to Marc Topkin of The St. Petersburg Times.
- Jon Paul Morosi of FoxSports.com tweets that he doesn't see A.J. Pierzynski as a good fit for the Red Sox because he's not a good thrower. Pierzynski has thrown out just 24% of base stealers in his career. Earlier today we learned that the White Sox were gauging their catcher's value.
- Joel Sherman of The New York Post mentions that while the Oliver Perez signing hasn't worked out for the Mets, their second choice was Derek Lowe, who isn't looking all that hot either.
- The Padres have improved their team by building a speedy club better suited for their ballpark, says Scott Miller of CBSSports.com.
- Mike Rutsey of The Toronto Sun says the Blue Jays should replace the struggling Lyle Overbay with Brett Wallace.
- SI.com's Tom Verducci notes the increased diversity that has developed within the game in recent years. In the same piece, he notes that several clubs have increased their scouting of Yu Darvish in case his team decides to post him after the season.
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.
Mike Axisa contributed to this post.
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.
Some links to start off your weekend...
- Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe says the Red Sox are just doing their due diligence by touching base with John Lackey's agent, reminding us that they also spoke to CC Sabathia's and A.J. Burnett's representatives last offseason.
- WEEI.com's Alex Speier breaks down Joe Urbon's pitch for his client, free agent outfielder Jason Bay.
- Hideki Matsui acknowledged that he'd be disappointed if he didn't return to the Yankees, according to Anthony McCarron of The NY Daily News. Godzilla says that his agent Arn Tellem is taking care of the situation, but he doesn't think the two sides have had any discussions yet.
- ESPN's Rob Neyer says that Jack Wilson's defense is definitely worth the $10MM the Mariners gave him yesterday.
- Steve Slowinski at DRays Bay goes back and evaluates the deal that brought Mitch Talbot and Ben Zobrist to Tampa in exchange for Aubrey Huff.
- Edgardo Alfonzo still thinks he could be valuable utility player and has two or three years of baseball left, according to The NY Post's Kevin Kernan. The 36-year-old hasn't played in the big leagues since 2006.
MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez provides the latest on a few Tampa Bay Rays:
- If Ben Zobrist becomes the team's everyday second baseman, the club may decide to bring free agent-to-be Gabe Kapler back as a backup outfielder. Kapler made $1MM this year and hit .239/.329/.439 in 245 trips to the plate.
- If the club keeps Zobrist at second, it appears highly unlikely that the Rays would pick up Akinori Iwamura's $4.25MM option.
- Other club options to watch: Carl Crawford at $10MM, Gregg Zaun at $2MM and Brian Shouse at $1.9MM.
- It's likely that the team will look for affordable late-inning relief help.