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We’re about six weeks away from the June draft. Here’s the latest on what’s emerging as a thin class at the top.
- Shortstop and top draft prospect Brendan Rodgers‘ season ended Monday as Seminole beat Lake Mary in Florida’s 8A-2 playoffs, John Manuel of Baseball America notes (on Twitter). As BA’s J.J. Cooper tweets, that at least ensures that, unlike many potential early draft picks (Brady Aiken, California high school pitcher Kolby Allard, Duke pitcher Michael Matuella), Rodgers will have gotten through the season healthy. It’s been an ugly year for top-end draft talents, but Rodgers’ season ends with him at the top of MLB.com’s draft rankings, as well as Kiley McDaniel’s recent rankings for FanGraphs.
- Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer had the best weekend of any top draft-eligible college pitcher, BA’s Hudson Belinsky writes. Another Vanderbilt pitcher and top draft prospect, Walker Buehler, had trouble with his command against South Carolina. His changeup has also been inconsistent. “I think that’s kind of been the theme for me this year,” Buehler says of his changeup. Fulmer and Buehler join infielder Dansby Swanson as Commodores likely to be selected in the top half of the first round.
- In a chat at FanGraphs, McDaniel says that Fulmer to the Red Sox at No. 7 overall is a “rumor that won’t go away.” As noted this weekend, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington watched Fulmer and Swanson on Friday. McDaniel gives Fulmer a 65-70 percent chance of sticking as a starter in the Majors, though he notes in his draft rankings that he likes Fulmer more than most — at 5-foot-11, Fulmer is relatively small for a top-end starting pitcher, and he has a higher-effort delivery.
The Blue Jays announced today that they’ve selected the contract of veteran left-hander Jeff Francis and optioned fellow lefty Colt Hynes to Triple-A Buffalo. The 34-year-old Francis, a native of Vancouver, will add another Canadian player to Toronto’s roster, joining Russell Martin, Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey. Francis will hope for better results than he’s seen over the past three seasons, during which he’s posted a combined 5.84 ERA in 203 1/3 innings with the Rockies, Reds, A’s and Yankees. Toronto already had an open 40-man roster spot after designating Todd Redmond for assignment last week.
Here’s more from the AL East…
- Recently designated right-hander Grant Balfour spoke with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times about how he wished his second run with the Rays had yielded better results. Balfour admitted to shying away from his fastball after the realization that the pitch lacked its typical life. The Australian righty wouldn’t state for certain whether or not he’d pursue another opportunity immediately: “Maybe a little bit of rest will be good for me. … I’m not thinking too far ahead. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
- After speaking to multiple scouts about the futures of Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald writes that Betts has leap-frogged Bogaerts in the eyes of the baseball industry. “I don’t think you could find anyone in baseball who would pick Bogaerts over Betts right now,” one scout told Silverman. Another said Betts “clearly” has the better bat of the two, while a third scout said that in 20 years, Betts “makes quicker adjustments to his game than anybody I’ve seen.” All of the scouts to whom Silverman spoke are quick to clarify that Bogaerts still has star potential, but the glowing reviews add to the meteoric rise of Betts over the past 12 months.
- Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop is likely to miss longer than the minimum amount of time on the 15-day disabled list, writes Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun. The 23-year-old Schoop suffered a Grade 1 partial PCL tear and an MCL sprain, and while surgery is unlikely, an exact timetable is unknown. Encina looks at Anthony Rendon as a possible comparable, noting that Rendon has just resumed baseball activities six weeks after spraining his left MCL.
Though the Giants have had a rough start to the season — their 4-9 record has them at the bottom of the NL West — new GM Bobby Evans isn’t overly concerned yet, and an early-season trade for reinforcements is unlikely, he tells the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo. “At this point you’re just going back to players that were offered you before that you didn’t deal for,” Evans explains. “Players who some teams are still trying to move that you took a pass on.” Injuries have already been a problem for San Francisco, who saw Hunter Pence go down with a broken forearm in Spring Training and have already placed both Matt Cain and Jake Peavy on the 15-day disabled list. Cafardo notes, however, that in all three of the Giants’ recent World Series runs, midseason acquisitions such as Cody Ross, Marco Scutaro and Peavy have played integral roles (I’d add Pat Burrell‘s name to that list as well), and this year will likely be no different if the Giants are to ultimately turn things around.
Here’s more from Cafardo’s weekly Sunday Baseball Notes column…
- The Red Sox are in a catch-22 with Allen Craig, writes Cafardo. His poor 2014 performance has reduced him to a bench player, and no team is currently making much of an effort to acquire the first baseman/outfielder. However, if he doesn’t play much, he’s unlikely to look any better and boost his trade value.
- Right-hander John Lackey is hopeful that the Cardinals will approach him about a contract extension, Cafardo reports, but the team is currently thrilled to have him at just the league minimum. Lackey’s preference may be to remain with the Cardinals, but he’ll likely pitch in 2016 whether it’s in St. Louis or elsewhere, as he recently told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that he wouldn’t be pitching this year if he didn’t plan to play beyond 2015.
- One general manager who has inquired recently tells Cafardo that the Phillies‘ asking price on Cole Hamels has not dropped one bit since the beginning of the season, despite the fact that Hamels has had two rough starts in his first three appearances of the year. Hamels has, somewhat incredibly, yielded seven homers in just 18 innings after surrendering only 14 in 204 2/3 frames last year. Of course, homer-to-flyball ratio tends to stabilize around 10-11 percent (Hamels’ career mark is 11.2 percent), and he’s currently sporting a remarkably high 36.8 percent HR/FB, so better days are almost certainly ahead for Hamels.
- An AL scout who has attended both of Scott Kazmir‘s starts this season says he’s never seen the left-hander more confident or more impressive on the mound. “Don’t know if it’s because it’s his walk year and he can become a free agent, but if he keeps this up most of the season, he’s going to make himself a lot of money,” said the scout. Of course, that’s just one scout’s take, but Kazmir has been electric to date. The 31-year-old has whiffed 18 hitters against five walks in 13 innings, and the 91.7 mph he’s averaged on his two-seamer in those two starts is up from last year’s average of 90.9, though it remains to be seen whether not that increase can be maintained.
- David Price‘s hot start to the season makes it likely that his offseason price will land somewhere in the vicinity of Max Scherzer‘s seven-year, $210MM and Clayton Kershaw‘s seven-year, $215MM pact, one Major League source opined to Cafardo.
- Former Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is helping Frank Viola III, the son of former AL Cy Young winner Frank Viola, develop a knuckleball, Cafardo writes. Viola III was a 29th-round pick by the White Sox back in 2004, but Tommy John surgery and knee surgery derailed his career, and he retired from the game in 2010. He returned in 2014 and pitched with the Blue Jays’ Class-A affiliates, and he’s now aiming to get a look in the independent leagues as he attempts to work his way back into the game. Viola III has also worked with R.A. Dickey and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro on honing is skill with the pitch.
Here are today’s minor moves from around the game.
- The Dodgers have announced that they’ve outrighted lefty David Huff, who has accepted an assignment to Triple-A Oklahoma City. The Dodgers designated Huff for assignment on Wednesday after he made one four-inning start for them. The 30-year-old has a 5.06 ERA, 5.3 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in parts of seven seasons with the Indians, Yankees and Giants in addition to the Dodgers.
- The Yankees have outrighted righty Joel De La Cruz, then sent him to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The 25-year-old posted a 4.44 ERA with 5.7 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 in 121 2/3 innings in the high minors last season. The Yankees selected his contract last week, but he did not appear in a game before they optioned him back to the minors.
- The Red Sox have signed righty Denny Bautista to a minor-league deal, Matt Eddy of Baseball America tweets. The 32-year-old Bautista last appeared in the big leagues with the Giants in 2010 and previously pitched for the Orioles, Royals, Rockies, Tigers and Pirates. He pitched in Mexico in 2014 (struggling with his control, also a problem in his big-league days) and in Korea from 2011-2013.
- The Padres have signed former Astros third-round pick Jonathan Meyer, Eddy tweets. Meyer had been an infielder in the Astros’ system, but the Padres will use him as a catcher. The 24-year-old hit .215/.274/.280 at Double-A and Triple-A last year before Houston released him.
- The Nationals are having infielder Emmanuel Burriss join the team, James Wagner of the Washington Post tweets. It’s not clear how the Nats will make room for Burriss on their 25-man roster, although Yunel Escobar suffered a groin strain against the Phillies on Friday. (MLB.com’s Bill Ladson tweets that Burriss is not listed on the Nats’ lineup card today, and Wagner notes that Burriss could simply be with the team as insurance in case the Nats need to make a move.) Burriss, a D.C. native, was hitting .286/.359/.486 in 39 plate appearances with Triple-A Syracuse. The Nats re-signed him to a minor-league deal last November. The 30-year-old appeared in parts of five seasons with the Giants from 2008-2012, hitting .243/.304/.269 in 801 plate appearances.
Here’s the latest on the 2015 draft, via a massive post from FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel.
- McDaniel notes that there isn’t much top-level talent in this draft (an opinion shared by many analysts), and says that the industry is unclear what the Diamondbacks will do with, or even how they’re thinking about, the first pick in the draft.
- The Astros, who have the second overall pick, appear to be focused on high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers, UC-Santa Barbara pitcher Dillon Tate, and Vanderbilt infielder Dansby Swanson, who McDaniel ranks the top three prospects in the draft.
- Red Sox GM Ben Cherington was seen on ESPNU last night watching Swanson and Vanderbilt pitcher Carson Fulmer. The Red Sox pick seventh. They’ve also been connected to LSU shortstop Alex Bregman. McDaniel ranks Bregman the fourth-best prospect in the draft, Fulmer the seventh.
- Since the draft lacks much top talent, one possibility is that many teams will draft second-round-type players in the first round and save money against their bonus pools for later picks in the draft.
- McDaniel ranks Astros unsigned 2014 No. 1 pick Brady Aiken the No. 24 prospect in the draft, noting that many in the industry feel that Aiken’s arm issues go beyond Tommy John surgery and that he could have further injury problems later in his career.
The Padres declined to part with top outfield prospect Hunter Renfroe in their deal for closer Craig Kimbrel, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. At the same time, the Braves weren’t sold on top catching prospect Austin Hedges and feared that his hitting might not develop enough. Ultimately, that left pitcher Matt Wisler as the key prospect in the deal. Here’s more from Heyman’s column..
- Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle is considering retirement following the 2015 season, Heyman reports. While he notes that April retirement ruminations often prove to be inaccurate, there seems to be a strong possibility that the 36-year-old Buehrle will call it quits.
- Tigers executives were shocked that they were able to pry right-hander Shane Greene away from the Yankees this winter, Heyman writes. The Yankees considered trading Greene “painful,” but the team was desperate for a shortstop, and New York scouting guru Gene Michael was a strong supporter of Gregorius.
- Trading Ryan Howard seems less and less likely for the Phillies each coming day, Heyman writes, noting that one scout said that Howard simply looks “lost” at the plate. Heyman also notes that the stacked starting pitching class on next year’s free agent market may be hindering the Phillies’ ability to move Cole Hamels, as teams are content to wait to bid on the likes of David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and others.
- The Orioles checked in on Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro at some point late in the spring. Navarro, who has been supplanted as the starting catcher in Toronto by Russell Martin, is hoping to go elsewhere and start. The diplomatic Navarro spoke with MLBTR’s Zach Links last month about the trade talk surrounding him.
- One GM who has some interest in Elvis Andrus suggested to Heyman that it’d be hard for the Rangers to trade him now. While Texas has infield depth, most of it is at the lower rungs of their system. Meanwhile, they’ll be without Jurickson Profar for a second straight year.
- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has one year to go on his contract, but word is that the front office likes him and they mainly want to see progress from their younger players before extending him. It’s said that Gonzalez won’t be judged on his win-loss record, but so far he’s doing pretty well in that department too.
- The Red Sox made at least a preliminary offer to Yoenis Cespedes before trading him, which seems to poke a hole in the theory that Boston coaches “hated” the outfielder.
Zach Links contributed to this post.
Full Story | Comments | Categories: Atlanta Braves | Austin Hedges | Baltimore Orioles | Boston Red Sox | Cole Hamels | Detroit Tigers | Dioner Navarro | Elvis Andrus | Fredi Gonzalez | Hunter Renfroe | Mark Buehrle | Matt Wisler | Philadelphia Phillies | Ryan Howard | San Diego Padres | Shane Greene | Texas Rangers | Toronto Blue Jays | Yoenis Cespedes
If the Blue Jays are in position at the trade deadline, the team may well have some extra cash to use. According to the math of Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca, Toronto might reasonably expect to have $5MM to $8MM in free 2015 salary available to work with.
Here’s more from the AL East:
- The Red Sox held their breath last night as the left side of their infield was evaluated for injuries that appeared to have at least some possibility of being worse than they first looked. As Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald reports, however, both Xander Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval are dealing with nothing more than bumps and bruises at this point.
- Had either of those players gone down, of course, Brock Holt would have been a crucial component of the Red Sox‘ reaction. As Bryan Grosnick of Baseball Prospectus explores, Holt has (rather surprisingly) turned into an extremely versatile, useful big league player who makes it possible for Boston to carry an unusual bench arrangement.
- The Yankees remain encouraged by how C.C. Sabathia is throwing the ball, even if the results have not yet been there, as MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch reports. His right knee has felt good, and manager Joe Girardi sees a difference. “I’m just seeing better movement on his fastball,” Girardi said. “I’m seeing consistency in his changeup, it’s not cutting. His slider is better. I just think he’s locating a lot better and I think it’s because he’s healthy. It’s hard when you’re dealing with nagging injuries to go out there and perform at a high level.”
The Red Sox have placed Rusney Castillo on the Minor League disabled list due to a shoulder injury suffered in a diving attempt for a fly ball, writes Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald. Manager John Farrell said Castillo will be out for “a little bit of time” and downplayed the possibility of the injury being a long-term problem. However, as Mastrodonato points out, injuries have already followed Castillo through his brief time with the Red Sox. A thumb injury ended his Arizona Fall League season, an oblique injury sidelined him for a portion of Spring Training, and he’ll now miss an unknown amount of time due to this shoulder injury. Farrell didn’t want to say that Castillo is predisposed to injuries, but the manager did acknowledge that Castillo has an aggressive style of play, seemingly suggesting that it does increase the chance for minor injuries.
More on the Red Sox and their division…
- Red Sox right-hander Brandon Workman is headed to see Dr. James Andrews to get a second opinion on his ailing right elbow, tweets CSN New England’s Sean McAdam. The thought at this time, according to McAdam, is that surgery will not be required. Workman was placed on the Major League 15-day DL yesterday in a move that may seem curious because he’d been optioned to Triple-A at the end of Spring Training. However, via NESN.com’s Ricky Doyle, Farrell said that Workman’s elbow flared up in his final spring outing. Had he gone on the Minor League DL, I’d imagine that Workman and his agents could’ve theoretically filed a grievance, stating that he was optioned and placed on the DL in the Minors to prevent him from accumulating service time.
- In more injury news for the Sox, Xander Bogaerts is being sent to have an MRI on his right knee, tweets the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier. Bogaerts injured the knee running the bases last night and was swapped out of the lineup for Brock Holt, who is filling in at short for Boston tonight.
- Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold is suing Johns Hopkins Hospital for negligent medical care, alleging that he was cleared to return to baseball too soon following neck surgery, according to Justin Fenton, Meredith Cohn and Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun. Reimold underwent surgery to repair a C5-C6 disk herniation in his neck in 2012 and was cleared to return to baseball seven months later. However, Reimold continually experienced pain, and follow-up x-rays at a Florida medical facility later that year showed that the bones had not yet fused, according to Reimold’s suit. He had “revision surgery” that July after playing 40 games and posting a career-low OPS+ of 59. Reimold’s suit claims that his doctor “negligently misinterpreted the film and/or failed to consider the official radiology report.”
- Blue Jays players feel that the Rogers Centre’s new artificial turf is slowing down ground-balls a considerable amount, writes Shi Davidi of Sportsnet. Jose Bautista told Davidi that it “feels like no balls are going to get to the wall” unless they’re one-hoppers, and he felt that the turf may also impact players when running. Rays skipper Kevin Cash said that from his vantage point, “It appeared as if the ball was never getting to you.” Bautista feels that the turf will change over time as the material settles, but I’d imagine this won’t be the only time we hear about this topic in the early stages of the season.
Yoan Moncada made his debut in a Red Sox uniform yesterday, though it was not as publicized as the one he’ll eventually make in the big leagues. As David Dorsey of News-Press.com reports from extended Spring Training, Moncada’s coaches and teammates have been impressed with his work ethic early on. While literally only one fan was on hand to see it — Mr. Tony Medina of Fort Myers will have a unique story if Moncada lives up to his contract — the young Cuban banged a stand-up triple in his first plate appearance (video available at the above link).
Here’s the latest from the eastern divisions, featuring some other offseason storylines:
- Nationals GM Mike Rizzo confirmed that he held offseason talks with the Red Sox about starter Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald reports. Nothing ever materialized despite what “looks like a reasonable matchup on paper,” said Rizzo, who explained that the teams had serious discussions over realistic scenarios. “I don’t think we laughed away any of [the offers],” Rizzo said. “We took them all serious. We were fortunate to be in a position where we didn’t have to move the player and if we would’ve got the right deal we would’ve. The right deal is in the eye of the beholder and we felt like we needed to get legitimate value for who Zimmermann was, and not the fact that he has one year left of control.”
- The Orioles never pursued lefty Andrew Miller this offseason beyond a single “touch-base” conversation, Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports. That was, of course, not due to any dissatisfaction with Miller’s services down the stretch, but merely reflected the reality that he was going to (and did) command a significant commitment in free agency. Miller — who discussed his free agent experience on a recent episode of the MLBTR Podcast — has continued to dominate since joining the division-rival Yankees, including a lock-down 1 2/3 inning appearance last night at Baltimore.
The Red Sox weren’t quite able to land all of their offseason targets, but they were still one of the winter’s busiest teams. They look to ride a rebuilt pitching staff and one of the game’s best lineups back to the playoffs.
Major League Signings
- Pablo Sandoval, 3B: Five years, $95MM ($17MM club option for 2020, $5MM buyout)
- Hanley Ramirez, SS/LF: Four years, $88MM ($22MM vesting option for 2019)
- Koji Uehara, RP: Two years, $18MM
- Justin Masterson, SP: One year, $9.5MM
- Craig Breslow, RP: One year, $2MM
- Alexi Ogando, RP: One year, $1.5MM
- Total spend: $214MM
Pool-Eligible International Signings
- Yoan Moncada, IF: $31.5MM signing bonus (plus $31.5MM in overage taxes)
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades And Claims
- Acquired SP Rick Porcello from Tigers for OF Yoenis Cespedes, RP Alex Wilson and SP Gabe Speier
- Acquired SP Wade Miley from Diamondbacks for SP Rubby De La Rosa, SP Allen Webster and IF Raymel Flores
- Acquired C Ryan Hanigan from Padres for 3B Will Middlebrooks
- Acquired RP Anthony Varvaro from Braves for RP Aaron Kurcz and cash considerations
- Acquired SP/RP Zeke Spruill from Diamondbacks for SP/RP Myles Smith
- Acquired RP Robbie Ross Jr. from Rangers for SP Anthony Ranaudo
- Acquired C Sandy Leon from Nationals for cash considerations
- Acquired SP Daniel Rosenbaum from Nationals for C Dan Butler
- Acquired IF Marco Hernandez from Cubs as player-to-be-named-later in the Felix Doubront trade of July 2014
- Acquired cash considerations from Royals for SP/RP Jandel Gustave (Rule 5 Draft pick)
- Rick Porcello, SP: Four years, $82.5MM
- Wade Miley, SP: Three years, $19.25MM ($12MM club option for 2018, $500K buyout)
- Cespedes, Middlebrooks, David Ross, Burke Badenhop, Jonathan Herrera, Ryan Lavarnway, De La Rosa, Webster, Jason Garcia (Rule 5 Draft), Ryan Dempster (retirement)
The Red Sox moved quickly to snag the two biggest free agent bats on the market, signing both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez before the end of November. The switch-hitting Sandoval addresses both Boston’s need for more lineup balance (most of the top Sox batters hit from the right side) and the need for a third baseman, as Will Middlebrooks’ struggles became too pronounced to ignore.
It stands to reason that the Sox might’ve originally explored signing Ramirez to play third base, though his willingness to switch positions led to Ramirez taking over as Boston’s regular left fielder. Putting Ramirez in left freed up room for Sandoval to play third and star prospect Xander Bogaerts to get another shot as the everyday shortstop.
In the short term, acquiring both Sandoval and Ramirez leads to a bit of an overloaded roster for the Red Sox since they’re one of the few teams who can’t easily rotate players through the DH spot (as David Ortiz is still as productive as ever). In the big picture, however, the Sox were content to load up on as much hitting talent as possible and worry about how position battles shake out later. The Sox will have quite a bit of roster depth in 2015 at almost every position, which was one of GM Ben Cherington’s primary offseason goals after injuries and underperforming young players hampered last year’s team.
Moving Ramirez to left only further deepened Boston’s outfield glut, though the club lessened their load slightly by trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers as part of a package that brought Rick Porcello to the Sox rotation. Porcello was scheduled for free agency after the 2015 season before the Sox made a firm commitment to the right-hander by signing him to a four-year, $82.5MM extension.
On paper, Porcello is the kind of pitcher that will fit right in at Fenway Park, as his 52.2% career ground ball rate will help counter the stadium’s notoriously hitter-friendly dimensions. While Porcello has only posted an ERA better than league-average twice in his six seasons, advanced metrics like xFIP and SIERA paint a friendlier pitcher of his performance in recent years. The Sox clearly believe Porcello can build on his impressive 2014 campaign, and now they’ve locked up a durable 26-year-old arm through his prime seasons.
The Red Sox acquired and extended another durable innings-eater in Wade Miley, picking up the 28-year-old from the Diamondbacks in exchange for two less-proven starting pitchers in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. Boston also turned to the free agent market to sign Justin Masterson to a one-year, $9.5MM deal as the veteran tries to rebound from a tough 2014 season. Like Porcello, both Miley and Masterson are noted ground-ball pitchers, as are incumbent starters Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly. Of the five hurlers, Miley’s 48.6% career grounder rate is actually the lowest of the bunch, so Boston is clearly putting a premium on keeping the ball in the park.
The Red Sox re-signed closer Koji Uehara and lefty reliever Craig Breslow, and added a couple of young arms to the bullpen by trading for righty Anthony Varvaro and lefty Robbie Ross Jr. in deals with the Braves and Rangers, respectively. Alexi Ogando was also signed for a relief or swingman role depending on his health, and if the right-hander is fit after battling several injuries in recent years, he’ll be a boost to the pitching staff in either capacity.
Parting ways with Middlebrooks brought the Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan in a trade with the Padres. This trade was somewhat overshadowed by Boston’s many other headline-grabbing winter moves, though it has increased in importance now that Christian Vazquez has undergone season-ending Tommy John surgery. Hanigan will now be Boston’s regular starter, with the newly-acquired Sandy Leon serving as the backup.
While obviously this wasn’t Boston’s ideal situation behind the plate, there might not be much of a dropoff from Vazquez/Hanigan to Hanigan/Leon. Vazquez was seen as an excellent defensive catcher whose ability to hit at the MLB level was still in question, and Hanigan/Leon are similarly defense-first catchers who either haven’t hit well in a couple of seasons (Hanigan) or have barely seen any time in the bigs (Leon). There’s also a good chance you’ll see top catching prospect Blake Swihart make his Major League debut this season, as he might just need a bit more Triple-A seasoning before Boston is comfortable calling him up to the Show.
Beyond just adding pieces for 2015, however, the Red Sox also obtained a major future asset by signing Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada to a minor league deal with a $31.5MM bonus, by far the highest bonus ever given to an international amateur prospect. The Red Sox had already exceeded their signing pool limit for the 2014-15 international signing period and will be limited to $300K-or-less bonuses for the next two signing periods as punishment, so as long as they were comfortable paying the 100% overage on the deal (bringing Moncada’s cost up to $63MM), it was logical to bring in a big international talent now before the penalties take effect.
While $63MM is a steep price for a 19-year-old, it could be worth it given how scouts have raved about Moncada’s ability, comparing him to the likes of Robinson Cano and Chase Utley. Boston is so deep in infield and outfield talent that they don’t even have an immediate need for Moncada, though since he’ll need at least a season in the minors to develop, at least one position is sure to open up over time.
The two biggest pitching names attached to the Red Sox this winter were Jon Lester and Cole Hamels, neither of whom actually ended up in Boston’s rotation. In Hamels’ case, the Phillies have insisted on at least one of Swihart or Mookie Betts in any deal for the star left-hander, while the Red Sox have been just as adamant that neither top prospect will be moved.
The Sox look even less likely to deal either now given that Betts is the regular center fielder and Swihart could have a more immediate role with Vazquez injured. While Boston has a deep minor league system, the Phillies have received (and will continue to receive) enough interest in Hamels that it’s hard to see them settling for anything less than an elite young player like Betts or Swihart.
Missing out on Lester has to be a bitter pill for the Sox and their fans considering how the southpaw has been a cornerstone for the franchise for the better part of a decade. Boston made a six-year, $135MM offer to Lester that was topped by the Cubs’ $155MM offer, and one wonders if Lester would still be wearing the red today had the Sox initially proposed more than their infamous four-year, $70MM extension offer last spring. Lester has even hinted that five years/$120MM might’ve been enough to keep him had such a deal been offered last spring.
The fact that Boston pursued Lester this winter shows that their stated desire to avoid paying big money to pitchers in their 30’s isn’t quite rock-solid, yet that strategy is on display in regards to their 2015 rotation. None of the five starters are on guaranteed money beyond their age-30 seasons, giving the Sox flexibility if other options become available or if one of the starters underachieves.
Flexibility for the future, however, could mean uncertainty in the present. There has been quite a bit of criticism directed at the Sox for the lack of a “true ace” atop their rotation. Porcello, Miley, Buchholz, Kelly and Masterson combined for only 6.6 fWAR in 2014, and while injuries (particularly for Kelly and Masterson) played a role in that low total, Porcello was the only one who showed any front-of-the-rotation stuff last year.
A staff of innings-eating groundballers might actually be enough to contend given Boston’s solid defense and powerful lineup, though it’s hard to argue that the rotation wouldn’t look better with a Hamels/Lester-caliber pitcher as the No. 1 starter. If the rotation struggles, expect even more “why didn’t the Sox get an ace?” talk from the Boston fans and media. In that scenario, the front office will very likely intensify its search for a top-shelf hurler before the trade deadline.
While the Red Sox may give pause before giving a major contract to a pitcher in his 30’s, they clearly have no problem in doing so for a big hitter, which speaks to both the lack of elite hitting talent on the market and the team’s belief that Sandoval and Ramirez will both produce in Fenway Park. Both players come with some notable baggage; Sandoval’s weight and conditioning was long an issue with the Giants, and Ramirez has averaged only 116 games per year since 2011 due to a variety of injuries.
Putting Ramirez in left is something of a curious move for the Sox, though it might not be a bad one given how he has struggled defensively at both shortstop and third base in recent seasons. Still, losing Cespedes and adding Ramirez did nothing to alleviate Boston’s outfield surplus. As the season begins, Ramirez, Betts and Shane Victorino are the starters with Allen Craig, Daniel Nava and super-utilityman Brock Holt as the backups. Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. have begun the season in the minors, not the ideal place for either a $72.5MM contract or a youngster who entered last year as one of the top prospects in the bigs.
It’s possible this situation could take care of itself, either via injuries (Ramirez, Victorino and Craig are all health question marks) or some of these players simply under-performing. Castillo and Betts are unproven over a full season, while Nava struggled last year and Bradley has thus far been completely unable to hit Major League pitching. Also, if one of the infielders gets hurt, that could open the door for Ramirez or Betts to move back to the infield and create playing time for a backup outfielder.
That said, outfield is the still most logical area of surplus for the Red Sox to use as trade bait later this year. Craig and Victorino are the most probable candidates to be moved, though both will need several weeks of healthy and productive play to prove they’ve recovered from their 2014 injuries. One would think that Bradley is also likely on the trade market — despite his highly-touted prospect status and excellent glove, the fact that Boston has signed Castillo and shifted Betts to center would indicate that the club has already moved on from Bradley as its center fielder of the future.
Deal Of Note
The Red Sox re-signed Uehara to a two-year deal before free agency even opened, an aggressive move since there were a few whispers that the club could potentially look elsewhere given how Uehara struggled down the stretch in 2014. In making a two-year commitment to a reliever who just celebrated his 40th birthday, however, the Sox clearly believe Uehara’s late-season slump was largely due to some nagging injuries and not a sign of a decline.
Of course, Uehara hasn’t exactly proved his health to date, as he has begun the season on the DL with a strained hamstring. If Uehara were to have an extended DL stint or another bout of ineffectiveness during the year, that would be a major blow to a Red Sox bullpen that could already be facing some extra work this year given the shaky rotation. Uehara’s emergence as an elite closer was one of the planks of Boston’s World Series run, and while nobody expects him to duplicate his phenomenal 2013 numbers, he’s definitely being counted on as the bullpen leader.
One tends to forget that the Red Sox were actually a last-place team in 2014, given the amount of talent that already existed on the roster and the notable new names that have been added this winter. Their trip to the bottom of the AL East seems more like a trivial quirk (“Hey, who was the only franchise to go from last place to World Series champions to last place again over a three-season stretch?”) than it does a reflection of a big mountain to climb back to contention — after all, they climbed that mountain just two seasons ago.
Stockpiling all of this position player depth will help the Sox prevent against the inevitable injuries and slumps that will befall at least a few players over the course of 162 games, and it would be a surprise if Boston wasn’t one of the league’s best offenses by season’s end. After posting an uncharacteristically low team OBP (.316) and slugging percentage (.369), the Sox are looking to get back to their traditional strategy of grinding down opposing pitchers and making them pay with the long ball.
The major question is whether the rotation can hold up its end of the bargain. If the staff exceeds expectations, the Red Sox could be World Series contenders again. If the staff is even just average or slightly-below average, that still might be enough for a division run given the big bats and one of the league’s better defenses. If the starters can’t get on track, however, that will put a lot of pressure on the bullpen and on the lineup to win slugfests every night. While there don’t seem to any standout rotations within the AL East, Boston can’t afford to be the fifth of five middle-of-the-road pitching staffs.
Personally, I’d be very surprised if the Sox didn’t acquire at least one “proven ace” by midseason just because the rotation seems like such a notable weakness. It could be Hamels, it could be free agent-to-be Johnny Cueto if the Reds are out of contention, or it could be a starter suddenly made available by a surprise non-contender (similar to how the Red Sox shopped Lester last summer).
Boston has made enough solid acquisitions that the team should be back in the thick of things in the AL East. To fully complete their attempt at worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first again, however, they may still be one move away.
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