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A year ago, Melky Cabrera‘s value was at its nadir. After a PED suspension cut short his 2012 breakout season with the Giants, and after he left the team under bizarre circumstances, Cabrera became a free agent and landed a relatively meager two-year, $16MM deal with the Blue Jays. He then began that deal by hitting a disappointing .279/.322/.360 in his first year in Toronto, then had surgery in September to remove a benign tumor from his back.
Since then, though, a healthier Cabrera has improved his bargaining position, hitting a much better .301/.351/.458 in his walk year and emerging as one of the better hitters available in a very weak free agent class. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s another year removed from his PED troubles, and his good season, along with even better seasons from Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz, might suggest that teams this offseason will be less wary of suspended players than they have been in the recent past.
Cabrera now is out for the rest of the season with a fracture in his right pinky, an injury that could have some effect on his market as a free agent. He’s had surgery and should be ready for spring training, although the injury could theoretically have a lingering effect on his power.
Still, Cabrera is likely to get a sizable deal, given the weakness of the outfield market. Rusney Castillo has already signed with the Red Sox, and there’s another Cuban outfielder, the very promising Yasmani Tomas, who’s currently waiting to be declared a free agent. There’s also Cruz, who will be coming off a very good offensive season but is already in his mid-thirties and has significant defensive limitations.
After that, there’s Cabrera, and then a significant drop-off. The best remaining outfielders are the aging, injury-prone Michael Cuddyer; the defensively challenged Michael Morse and Josh Willingham; and light-hitting types like Nori Aoki and Emilio Bonifacio. There will also be Colby Rasmus, a 28-year-old who has hit well at times and can play center field, but who was recently benched by the Jays. And the market could also include players like Nick Markakis and Alex Rios, depending on the statuses of their options.
Leaving aside Tomas, there isn’t anyone on the outfield market who’s better rounded than Cabrera, even if one counts his PED past as a strike against him. Unlike Cruz, Morse or Willingham, he isn’t a terrible fielder (although he isn’t a great one, either). Unlike Aoki or Bonifacio, he has power. Unlike Cruz and Cuddyer, he’s still relatively young, at 30. And unlike Rasmus, he isn’t a complete question mark. The outfield market is full of dubious options. Teams considering punting on the left field position in order to upgrade their offense elsewhere won’t have much to work with, either.
Even better for Cabrera, there could be plenty of teams on the prowl for a corner outfielder this offseason. The Astros, Athletics, Mariners, Mets, Orioles, Phillies, Reds, Twins and White Sox could all make some degree of sense for Cabrera, depending on how the rest of the market shakes out. Cabrera has said that he wants to return to the Blue Jays, and a return to Toronto might be a good fit as well. The Jays have Jose Bautista in right, and assuming Rasmus departs, they’ll probably soon have top prospect Dalton Pompey as their regular starter in center. But they don’t have a stellar option in left field.
Given Cabrera’s performance, a potentially vigorous market and the Jays’ own need for an outfielder, extending Cabrera a qualifying offer seems like an obvious decision. Such an offer should help the Jays limit other teams’ interest (particularly from teams like the Mets and Reds, who currently look to have two of the first unprotected picks in next year’s draft), and could lead to some sort of multiyear agreement for him to remain in Toronto.
As long as teams aren’t worried about the lingering effects of his hand injury, Cabrera’s representatives at the Legacy Agency should be able to swing at least a three-year deal. Last month, Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star polled various agents who suggested he could get anywhere from $36MM to $45MM over a three-year deal, meaning that the three-year, $39MM deal Shane Victorino received from the Red Sox before the 2013 season might be a precedent. A four-year deal might also be a possibility, with Cabrera’s camp possibly pointing to last offseason’s contracts for Curtis Granderson and Peralta.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
In two years, Chase Headley has gone from an MVP candidate to an afterthought, regressing from .286/.376/.498 in 2012 to .250/.347/.400 in 2013 to .238/.315/.363 this season. In July, Headley finally left San Diego behind, heading to the Yankees for infielder Yangervis Solarte and pitching prospect Rafael De Paula. Solarte is a solid, cost-controlled player, and De Paula a reasonable pitching prospect, but the return the Padres got when they traded Headley shows that his value isn’t nearly what it once was — the Yankees had signed Solarte to a minor league deal just months earlier.
Still, Headley is an important free agent, and he and his representation at Excel Sports Management might be able to negotiate a surprisingly good contract, given a number of factors that will be in their favor this offseason. Even when Headley struggles to hit, he provides good value thanks to his glove at third base, which routinely ranks among the best at his position. UZR rates Headley as about 43 runs above average at third over his career, including 16.2 runs above average this year. Due to his defensive chops and the tough offensive environment in San Diego, Headley has always posted strong fWAR numbers, rating as 3.5 wins above replacement in 2013 and 3.2 this season. His 2014 fWAR puts him in the same neighborhood as players like Evan Longoria, Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz, even in a season in which Headley is perceived as being a disappointment.
On top of that, Headley, like many other free agents, will have the benefit of a weak free agent hitting class. Headley, Pablo Sandoval and possibly Aramis Ramirez (who has a mutual option) will top a fairly good group of third basemen, with the possibility that Hanley Ramirez could market himself as a third baseman as well. Elsewhere, Cruz, Russell Martin and Melky Cabrera headline a class of hitters so weak that the Red Sox, for example, already appear to have tried to remake their 2015 offense by doing their shopping during the season (acquiring Rusney Castillo, Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig) rather than waiting until it’s over. Any team trying to improve its collection of position players will have a rough time this offseason.
That Headley did not sign a pre-free agency extension with the Padres could also work in his favor. Early-career extensions have enabled many ballplayers to mitigate risk and make millions early in their careers, but Headley and the Padres never agreed on one, perhaps in part because he was already into his arbitration seasons by the time he broke out in 2012. As a result, he’ll hit free agency as a 30-year-old. With free agents getting older and older, a young-ish free agent like Headley should be able to do relatively well. That’s not to say he’s low-risk — Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann were around the age Headley is now when they signed free agent contracts last offseason, and one year in, neither of those deals look good. But all things considered, it’s better to sign a 30-year-old than a 34-year-old.
Both Ramirezes — Aramis and Hanley — have had trouble staying healthy, and Aramis’ advanced age suggests that’s not likely to change. Sandoval has been more durable, but given his physique, that might not continue. Headley, meanwhile, has had his own health issues, with a broken thumb, calf strain and a herniated disc in his back included in his list of medical troubles the past couple years. He’s generally been able to stay on the field and provide value despite them, however.
Headley will also have an edge on his third base free agent competition in that the Yankees will not be able to extend a qualifying offer, since they traded for him this season. Sandoval and both Ramirezes will be eligible for qualifying offers (depending on the results of Aramis’ mutual option), and the markets for any of those players would be diminished somewhat if they declined them. Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez are somewhere near that awkward point where they’re clearly worth qualifying offers but not worth so much that qualifying offers won’t harm their value. For a Robinson Cano-type player, the qualifying offer is little more than a blip on the radar, but there isn’t anyone in this winter’s entire class of free agent hitters for whom that’s the case.
Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez are too good for the qualifying offer purgatory Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew endured last year, but there will likely be teams for whom Headley’s lack of qualifying offer issues will make him a strong alternative. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that Sandoval will be on the market at all — the Giants signed Hunter Pence to an extension near the end of last season, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could do the same with Sandoval.
Headley’s combination of defensive skill and relative youth, perhaps along with the perception that he still has offensive upside (his .286/.376/.498 2012 season in PETCO Park is too recent to be dismissed completely), make him a good bet to receive a contract of two or perhaps three years. It’s also not impossible that he could opt for a one-year deal, hoping to produce at 2012 levels next season before hitting the free agent market again. If the Giants and Brewers fail to retain their current third basemen, Headley could be a possibility for either team. The Tigers or Astros could also make sense.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Indians-turned-Nationals middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera will finish his eighth year of MLB action at just 28 years of age, presenting a rare youthful free agent option. He can hit and play up the middle. Yet he left Cleveland as something of a disappointment, and has not generated nearly as much hype as was once expected heading into his first crack at free agency. Once expectations are moderated for reality, however, it is apparent that Cabrera remains a rather intriguing player to watch on the coming market.
Cabrera’s free agent case remains difficult to figure. Over the 2007-12 period, he slashed .279/.342/.416 while manning an up-the-middle defensive spot (mostly, shortstop). Though advanced metrics never viewed him as even an average fielder, Cabrera delivered some value on the basepaths and was at least a solid, above-average regular in the aggregate.
That account of Cabrera took something of a turn, however, more recently. Over 978 plate appearances with Cleveland since the start of 2013, Cabrera’s OPS fell beneath the .700 level, making for a below-average bat that significantly reduced his overall appeal.
Nevertheless, in need of a veteran infielder down the stretch, the Nationals made a move to acquire Cabrera at the trade deadline. Notably, the Indians agreed to pay all of Cabrera’s salary in the deal, while acquiring an interesting but little-hyped prospect in Zach Walters. On a busy deadline day, the swap looked like a relatively low-impact, gap-filling move for Washington.
Since heading to the NL East-leading Nats, however, Cabrera has looked energized. He owns a .252/.341/.443 slash in the first 133 National League plate appearances of his career, including five home runs and two stolen bases. His resulting 115 OPS+ looks much more like the marks he was putting up in his heyday. Nearly as importantly, perhaps, Cabrera has looked comfortable at second, racking up 284 errorless innings at the position.
Without question, Cabrera’s late-season run of success at the plate will have a positive impact on his free agency. He has at least suggested the possibility that he is still capable of being the hitter of old; whether he’s convinced scouts, of course, remains to be seen.
The defensive returns, on the other hand, are somewhat more ambiguous. To be sure, proving that he is capable of solidly handling the keystone is a nice feather in Cabrera’s hat. At the same time, misplays have not been the major knock on his glove. Range is the primary concern, and he’s continued (obviously, in a short sample) to receive well-below-average marks in that respect.
So, where does Cabrera fit into the middle-infield market? Things are somewhat more crowded over at shortstop, where J.J. Hardy probably sets the standard and Jed Lowrie and Stephen Drew also present possible starting-caliber options. And that assumes that Hanley Ramirez is pursued primarily as a third baseman; if enough serious bidders look at him as a shortstop, the market would look even more crowded.
But Cabrera is perhaps best positioned to benefit from a lack of options at second, given his arguably superior bat (to all but Ramirez, at least) and recent experience at the keystone. Clubs looking to add a new second bagger will find limited possibilities on the market; as things stand, Emilio Bonifacio is probably the most appealing candidate.
Cabrera also has added appeal given that he will not turn 29 until the offseason, making him the youngest shortstop-capable player available to the highest bidder. That holds significant value, particularly when viewed alongside the fact that he does not have any significant recent injury history. Cabrera will also come free and clear of draft compensation, as his mid-season trade ensures that Washington will not be able to make him a qualifying offer. Particularly given the down years at the plate from Hardy (at least in terms of power production), Lowrie (who has been better in the second half), and Drew (who has been awful since his mid-season signing), Cabrera stacks up reasonably well.
In the aggregate, though Cabrera may never take the final step forward to become a truly premium ballplayer, he has shown the ability to produce at his earlier levels and should draw fairly significant and potentially broad interest. Depending on his performance down the stretch and in the post-season, he still has some capacity to climb up free agent boards and become a sought-after asset heading out of the 2014 season.
Over the winter, MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth took a look at the changing closer market, documenting the dwindling dollars and years available for 9th-inning relievers. As we approach now approach a new offseason, a different type of market change — related only in part to the broader trend — has taken hold. Namely, the actual group of soon-to-be free agents with closing experience has seen many individual stock drops.
Let’s have a look at the “closer” portion of MLBTR’s 2015 MLB free agent list (including only those players who, in my opinion, are likely to become free agents): Jason Grilli, Casey Janssen, David Robertson, Francisco Rodriguez, Sergio Romo, Rafael Soriano, and Koji Uehara. Listed under right-handed relievers are a few other names with significant closing experience: Heath Bell, Jim Johnson, J.J. Putz, and Jose Veras.
Heading into the year, this looked like a pretty strong group of late-inning arms. Among them were some of the more established closers — and, indeed, better relief pitchers, role aside — in the game. But the group has seen some pretty significant shifts in value that make it look much less impactful on the whole.
Here are my assessments of the value movement on these players:
Grilli: coming off 2.70 ERA, 33-save year, lost Pirates closer job and was traded to Angels; has performed well since in set-up role
Janssen: missed significant portion of early year with injury, ended with 3.72 ERA and will cede time to younger players in September; has never really seemed to fit traditional closer model, and now features a plummeting strikeout rate (5.4 K/9)
Romo: after four-straight lights out years, was relieved of end-of-game duties and owns 3.98 ERA on season
Uehara: typically dominant year took dramatic, late-season downturn at inopportune time for 39-year-old
Bell, Johnson, Putz, Veras: look, there’s a reason that these guys fell off of the (admittedly subjective) “closer” list, which is that they all struggled mightily for lengthy stretches
Robertson: on the one hand, Robertson has proven that he can handle closing in New York after taking over for a legend; on the other, his peripherals are in line with his career numbers but his ERA (2.92) is higher than in recent years
Soriano: there’s an argument to be made that he has raised his stock with his strikeouts back on the rise, but an offsetting jump in free passes has kept his K:BB ratio the same, and on the whole he has not done much to change the fact that he is a good-but-not-great reliever
Rodriguez: after surprisingly jumping into the closer’s role in the season’s early days, Rodriguez has locked down 39 saves and worked to a 3.00 ERA with 10.2 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9; since signing a minor league deal before 2013, K-Rod owns a 2.87 ERA
So what does this all mean? It seems to me that the major beneficiary of the market shake-out is Robertson, who is by far the youngest of these closers and is the only one who (as things stand) will enter free agency with both an impeccable recent track record and few real questions moving forward. Though Uehara has the most dominant recent record of this group, his well-documented recent struggles and advanced age should significantly dampen his market.
Those dynamics put the Yankees in an interesting spot. On the one hand, the club should now face greater competition to bring back its Mariano Rivera replacement. On the other, it might justifiably utilize the qualifying offer to buy back some leverage. The team has already shown a willingness to do just that with a closer (Soriano), and would up the ante for other teams that might consider a run at Robertson.
The possibility that Robertson’s market will itself be suppressed by a QO paints an even more sobering picture of the overall expectations. It is worth wondering whether any of the other above-listed players will be able to command a significant, multi-year guarantee. The one player who is clearly rising, Rodriguez, could certainly land a reasonable salary over two years (he is, somehow, still only 32), but it is hard to see a bidding war emerging there. No doubt some of the others will take smaller average annual values to get a second year, but pillow contracts could abound.
Remember, last year’s upper-middle closer market settled in the range of two years and between $9.5MM and $15.5MM. And that was for pitchers like Edward Mujica, Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, and Joaquin Benoit who had much stronger cases than this year’s crop. Notably, even those pitchers were not able to beat the earnings of high-performing non-closers. And, if anything, the high-profile struggles of players like Balfour and Johnson have further eroded the notion of paying big dollars for relievers whose primary calling card is 9th-inning experience.
This year’s market could have looked similar: a few strong performances from familiar players, a few emerging/rebounding names. Instead, we’ve seen mostly steps in the wrong direction from pitchers with closing time on their resume. And that is even before considering demand. Many of the clubs that could have open closing positions — for instance, the Orioles, White Sox, Rangers, Nationals, Brewers, Cubs, Giants, and Rockies — seem more likely to stick with veterans, elevate internal options, or avoid spending big dollars on an older reliever.
Now may be a good time to find out whether teams will place any significant premium at all on that experience going forward.
Russell Martin‘s current two-year, $17MM deal, which remains the largest free-agent contract in Pirates history, received mixed reviews when it was signed. Now, though, it’s clear the deal was a coup for the Bucs, and Martin’s impending free agency raises fascinating questions about how to balance his unusual skill set and the lack of impact catchers on next offseason’s free agent market against the worrisome aging patterns of backstops in their thirties.
Martin was a key to the Pirates’ breakout 94-win season in 2013. He hit a modest .226/.327/.377, but he still contributed 4.1 fWAR thanks to his exceptional defense, and he may have added a bit of value even beyond that thanks to his well regarded pitch framing. This season, he might be even more helpful despite missing time with a hamstring strain — his .417 OBP so far this season is an amazing 107 points above league average, and his defense again grades very well, with 9 Defensive Runs Saved above average so far.
Martin’s excellent performance in 2014 couldn’t be better timed. Now that Kurt Suzuki has signed an extension with the Twins, there won’t really be any other starting catchers on the free agent market, unless one counts players like Geovany Soto or A.J. Pierzynski. Teams like the Dodgers, Rockies and possibly Blue Jays or Cubs would all make some degree of sense as potential suitors for Martin, and the Pirates would surely love to have him back at the right price, so the market for him should be robust.
Dollar figure and contract length are always important considerations for free agents, but in Martin’s case they’re even more crucial than usual. Neal Huntington has already implied that the cost-conscious Bucs aren’t likely to be serious bidders, even though it’s a steep drop from Martin to presumptive 2015 starting catcher Tony Sanchez. A team like the Rangers might be unwilling to block a terrific catching prospect in Jorge Alfaro by signing Martin to a lengthy contract, and therefore could simply settle on Robinson Chirinos until Alfaro is ready. The same goes for the Red Sox, who have Christian Vazquez at the big-league level and Blake Swihart on the way.
Then there’s the more general problem of how to value an aging catcher. Martin will be 32 in February, and aging patterns for catchers that age are brutal, to put it mildly. Recent history is full of good starting catchers who struggled to maintain their value into their thirties, like Kenji Johjima, Ramon Hernandez and former Pirate Jason Kendall. Others, like Charles Johnson and Michael Barrett, fell off the table at an even younger age than Martin is now. Brian McCann, who’s signed to a five-year contract and who’s even younger than Martin, might end up providing another cautionary tale. Martin is a unique player with good conditioning habits, and his defense should give him value even if his offense falters, but history isn’t on his side.
On top of that, Martin’s remarkable .290/.417/.391 2014 season likely wouldn’t be sustainable even if he were younger. After five straight years of a BABIP of .287 or lower, his BABIP is .354 this season. Martin’s excellent plate discipline is legitimate, but his batting average is more likely to be something like .240 or .250, rather than .290, going forward.
These warning signs will be perfectly clear to most teams, and it’s likely that whoever signs Martin will be hoping to get good value at the start of the contract, with that value declining sharply as the contract progresses. It’s tough to find precedents for a Martin deal, since few catchers sign long free-agent deals, but he should be able to receive at least three years, and perhaps four, at north of $10MM per season. Barring an injury down the stretch, he’ll surely be in line for more than the three years and $26MM Carlos Ruiz received from the Phillies last year, but far less than the five years and $85MM McCann got.
The Ruiz contract suggests Martin will get a hefty payday, although Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s recent deal points in the other direction. Saltalamacchia posted 3.6 WAR last season before hitting the market as a 28-year-old and only got $21MM over three years, even though the Red Sox didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. For Martin, a three-year deal in the range of $12MM-13MM per season might make sense, or possibly a four-year contract worth slightly less per season. Martin could also try for a higher average annual value by taking a two-year deal, although, given his age, he probably has incentive to prefer more seasons and more guaranteed money, since he’s not likely to get another big contract after this offseason.
One can see, then, why a return to the Pirates appears so unlikely — the Bucs were unwilling to extend a $14.1MM qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett last season, explaining that their budget made it difficult to build a competitive team while committing so heavily to one player. It’s difficult, then, to see them committing to pay a similar annual salary to a player for three or four years, particularly when getting little from that player at the end of the contract could be disastrous for them. The Burnett situation also raises questions about whether the Pirates will extend Martin a qualifying offer after the season, potentially affecting his market. They will probably have a stronger incentive to do so with Martin than they did with Burnett, given that there’s less of a chance Martin would accept.
Less thrifty teams would likely have fewer concerns than the Pirates would, and might also be more inclined to pursue Martin because of his perceived value even beyond his peripherals — he’s widely regarded as a thoughtful player and leader who’s helpful with pitchers. The most likely outcome (although it’s far from certain at this point) is that Martin winds up with a three-year deal from a bigger-payroll team.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
This season, I’ve looked at the stock of a couple potential free agents that have a mutual option on their deal in the form of Nick Markakis (link) and Adam LaRoche (link). Another such player is Aramis Ramirez, and given the rarity with which mutual options are exercised — if the player is playing well, he almost certainly declines in search of a multi-year deal, and if not, the team declines due to poor production — Ramirez can be very reasonably expected to hit the open market heading into his age-37 season.
The question then, is whether Ramirez hits the open market because he declines his half of the $14MM option, or whether the Brewers send him on his way and pay a $4MM buyout.
Ramirez is hitting a strong .301/.341/.461 with 13 homers this season — good for an .802 OPS, a 122 OPS+ and a 123 wRC+. He’s been 22 to 23 percent better by park- and league-adjusted metrics like OPS+ and WRC+, and even you’re more partial to traditional statistics, he’s been well above average. The league-average OPS this season for non-pitchers is .716, and the league-average OPS for a third baseman is .714.
Additionally, a look at the market reveals some spotty competition. Two years ago, seeing Ramirez stacked up against Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez would’ve seemed much bleaker than it does now. Headley hasn’t hit much this season, and Sandoval has been a slightly weaker hitter than Ramirez (albeit at a younger age and with better defense). He’s outperformed Headley, and his asking price will assuredly be lower than Kung Fu Panda and Hanley, who both rank in the Top 5 of MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings. Ramirez may not be a premier free agent, but he’s an upper-tier bat in a weak crop that will require fewer years than those in the top tier. Teams in need of help at the hot corner (and possibly DH) should show interest.
Of course, Ramirez isn’t a player without his faults. He missed 70 games in 2013, mostly due to a recurring issue in his left knee, and this season he’s already missed 22 games with a left hamstring injury. His defense doesn’t come with a great reputation, and while he’s posted a solid UZR in 2014, a half-season of UZR rarely tells the whole tale of a player’s glovework. Ramirez posted a negative UZR mark (and a negative DRS mark) in all but one season from 2008-13. Beyond that, his walk rate is down to a career-low 3.6 percent, and his solid OBP has been bolstered by an abnormally high HBP total (nine — which is quite a few based on his history).
At the time Ramirez hit the disabled list, he looked like a candidate for a one-year deal, and it was debatable whether or not Milwaukee would even exercise its half of the mutual option (he was hitting .252/.309/.390). Since returning in early June, however, he’s been excellent, hitting .329/.360/.502 with eight homers in 225 plate appearances. The ZiPS projection system forecasts a .285/.339/.469 line from here on out, while Steamer projects a similar .275/.333/.460 (both available on Ramirez’s Fangraphs page).
If he can hit at that pace or better, his option should be a non-factor. With a $4MM buyout on a $14MM option, Ramirez and the Brewers are essentially deciding on a one-year, $10MM deal. Milwaukee would likely jump at that price, but given his overall production, Ramirez will have no trouble topping that as long as he remains healthy. The interesting wrinkle will be whether or not Milwaukee extends a qualifying offer should Ramirez reject his half of the mutual option. At that point, the Brewers would essentially be offering one year at $19MM+ (assuming a $15MM+ qualifying offer value) — which they may be hesitant to do given their typically middle-of-the-road payroll.
Ramirez said last month that he had decided to play beyond this season and would try to reach the 2,500-game plateau (he’d need at least three more seasons to do so). Given his strong production and desire to play for several more seasons, it seems fair to expect the veteran slugger and his agents at Kinzer Management Group to pursue multiple years. There’s no precedent for a third baseman entering his age-37 season to get a significant three-year deal, but we did see aging slugger Carlos Beltran land a three-year pact last offseason as he headed into his age-37 campaign. (Marlon Byrd, another comparable in terms of age, netted a nice two-year deal with a vesting option, albeit at a lower rate than Ramirez would command.)
While Ramirez hasn’t necessarily been a heavily discussed free agent name to this point, a strong finish will position him nicely in a what looks to be a weak crop of free agent position players. His case will be a bit unique, but as long as he can continue at a strong pace, there’s little reason to doubt another multi-year deal for a player that is on pace to post an OPS+ north of 120 for the 10th time in 11 seasons.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Consistency hasn’t exactly been Adam LaRoche‘s calling card over the past several years, but he’s timing one of his better seasons well, as he faces the strong likelihood of hitting the open market this offseason. LaRoche’s two-year deal with the Nationals contains a $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout), but teams and players almost never agree to exercise both ends of a mutual option.
Typically, if a team exercises their half of the option, it’s because the player has had a strong season, leading the player to reject in search of more money on the open market. If the player exercises his half, it’s typically due to injury or poor performance, causing the team to reject. In LaRoche’s case, team dynamics come into play as well; Washington likely needs to open up first base for Ryan Zimmerman, whose persistent shoulder problems no longer allow him to handle third base.
As such, LaRoche seems likely to hit the open market, and he’s quietly on pace to do so as one of the most productive bats on the upcoming class. LaRoche is hitting .306/.417/.513 with eight homers, nine doubles and a 33-to-31 K/BB ratio in 192 plate appearances this season. Both his 16.1 percent walk rate and 17.2 percent strikeout rate are career-bests. He did miss 15 games with a quad injury earlier this year, though for now that looks to be behind him.
Ultimate Zone Rating has dinged him for his defense thus far, but Defensive Runs Saved feels that he’s on his way to his fifth straight season of plus defensive value. LaRoche has long had some problems with left-handed pitching, but he’s holding his own to this point with a .381 OBP against southpaws, and platoon problems certainly don’t bar some players from being paid.
LaRoche is set to turn 35 in November, but if he maintains the pace he’s currently on, it’s not hard to envision him landing another two-year deal, perhaps with some type of vesting option. His main competition will be Michael Morse, but aside from that, he’ll be competing against Corey Hart and Michael Cuddyer — both of whom have had significant injuries in 2014 already (and Cuddyer is a year older).
Billy Butler, too, could hit the open market if his option is declined by the Royals, but he’s in the midst of a poor season and likely couldn’t top LaRoche based on performance. Given the dearth of left-handed pop on next year’s free agent market — Kendrys Morales and Victor Martinez are the top alternatives, but both are more designated hitters than first basemen — LaRoche is in a good position despite his age.
It seems likely that his performance will be worthy of receiving a qualifying offer – believed to be in the $15MM range next offseason — but the need to open first for Zimmerman likely will prevent the Nats from extending one. LaRoche could look at a qualifying offer as merely receiving a $2MM raise for next season (he’d pocket the $2MM buyout of his option and still earn $15MM or so), which makes it a risk that Washington seems unlikely to take.
The knocks on LaRoche are well-known; his career OPS versus lefties is 114 points lower than his mark against right-handed pitching, age isn’t on his side and he hasn’t turned in a consecutive pair of well above-average offensive seasons since 2009-10 (122 OPS+ each year). Some teams likely will have the perception that a two-year deal will pay him for one strong season and one so-so campaign, and I’d imagine a number of clubs will be more interested on a one-year deal.
Nonetheless, LaRoche and agent Mike Milchin of Relativity Baseball appear to be in solid position as they look to lock down what could be the last significant contract of a solid offensive career. Morales recently received the pro-rated version of a $12MM salary after sitting out the first two months of the season, and Justin Morneau received a two-year, $12.5MM deal coming off a vastly inferior season to the one LaRoche is putting together.
Even if LaRoche simply finishes the season by hitting at his career pace — .266/.340/.475 – he’d finish with one of the best OPS+ marks of his career. In that instance, a two-year deal worth $10MM+ annually seems very attainable. The fact that he is facing very limited competition both at his position (first base) and in terms of his best skill (left-handed power) only strengthens LaRoche’s free agent outlook.
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With more than six weeks behind us, nearly every team has completed a quarter of its games this season. Impending free agents have a significant amount of their platform years in the books, though it’s certainly not too late to change the opinions of potential offseason suitors.
One way in which free agent pitchers can raise their stock is to up their velocity, although the opposite of that can hold true as well. A resurgence in velocity helped to save Scott Kazmir‘s career last season and took him from a minor league contract to a two-year, $22MM guarantee. On the other side of the spectrum, a rapid decline in velocity dropped Tim Lincecum from a lock to receive $100MM+ to a two-year, $35MM contract that looks to be a questionable investment.
A look at the coming free agent crop of starters shows that several arms could be improving their stock by turning up the heat on their fastballs, while several free-agents-to-be have seen troubling declines in their velocity that have contributed to poor results. Some will be quick to point out that many starters’ velocity increases over the course of a season. Because of this, I’ve included a comparison of each pitcher’s 2013 and 2014 April velocities as well. This should give a rough indicator of where each pitcher is right now compared to this point in the 2013 season.
I’ve included any pitcher who is working as a starter and has a chance at free agency next season, even if it’s a virtual lock that their club option will be exercised (e.g. Johnny Cueto). Additionally, potential starters who are working out of the bullpen (e.g. Chris Capuano) have been omitted, as their velocity spikes are likely due to a change in role (pitchers typically see increased velocity when switching to a relief role). Here’s the list, sorted by the most positive change to most negative change from 2013 to 2014:
As J.A. Happ is a testament to, a noticeable velocity increase doesn’t guarantee improved performance. Though his ERA is down, his command has suffered greatly, making his 3.57 mark unsustainable without improvement in that area. However, most starters with a positive change have demonstrated improvements in their swinging-strike rate and overall strikeout percentage. Ryan Vogelsong has cut his ERA by more than two full runs. Brandon McCarthy and Jorge De La Rosa, while they haven’t seen their ERAs dip, have seen notable improvements in sabermetric ERA estimators such as xFIP and SIERA.
A dip in velocity, on the other hand, is often a precursor to an arm-related injury, and could ultimately serve as a red flag for interested teams on the free agent market if paired with declining results. There is, of course, still time for each pitcher on this list to see his velocity change in one direction or the other, but the above velocity changes are something to keep an eye on as it relates to the free agent stock of each. Names like Justin Masterson, who currently ranks sixth on MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings but has seen the largest decline of any free agent, will be of particular interest as the season wears on.
*=Velocity data from May 2014 was used, as Floyd did not pitch this April.
**=Velocity data from April 2012 was used, as Lewis didn’t pitch in the Majors last season.
***=Velocity data from May 2013 was used, as Liriano didn’t pitch in the Majors last April.
****=Velocity data from May 2012 was used, as Paulino didn’t pitch in the Majors in either of the past two Aprils.
Data from Fangraphs was critical to the creation of this post.
Though he technically has an option on his contract, Nick Markakis seems like a virtual lock to hit the open market this coming offseason. Markakis has a $17.5MM mutual option with a $2MM buyout, but mutual options are almost never exercised. Typically, if a player plays well enough for the team to exercise the option, that means he’s played well enough to beat the value of that option on the open market. Conversely, if a player doesn’t feel that he can top the option’s value on the open market, the team likely doesn’t wish to pay him at that level.
With that said, Markakis appears poised to join what will be a relatively weak free agent market for hitters and outfielders. Aside from Colby Rasmus (28 next year) and Melky Cabrera (30 next season), Markakis (31 in 2015) is one of the youngest free agent outfielders on the market. Older options like Michael Cuddyer, Nelson Cruz and Torii Hunter will be available, but each will also carry greater risk on a multi-year deal. From an age standpoint, Markakis is well-positioned.
From a performance standpoint, he’s begun to erase the memory of a 2013 season that saw him bat just .271/.329/.356 — disappointing numbers for a player who slashed .295/.365/.455 from 2006-12. In this season’s early stages, Markakis has upped his walk rate to 8.8 percent and is striking out a career-low 9.4 percent of his trips to the dish. Overall, he has produced a .317/.375/.414 batting line with a pair of homers and two steals. The stolen bases are noteworthy, as that pair of thefts matches the total that Markakis has posted over the past two seasons combined. Should he again become a threat to steal 10-15 bases per season, that would no doubt be appealing to teams.
Of course, Markakis’s early success isn’t guaranteed throughout the season, and there are likely some who doubt that he can sustain the production after a down year in 2013. It’s possible, though, that Markakis was slowed last year by lasting effects from a trio of surgeries that he endured in 2012. Markakis had a sports hernia procedure that January, underwent surgery to repair a broken hamate bone that June and then ended his season with a fractured thumb that also required surgery in September.
Prior to that poor year, Markakis had posted a 117 wRC+ and 118 OPS+ over his career, indicating that he was 17 to 18 percent better than a league-average hitter. While last season marked the only time that his OPS dipped below .756 and the only time that OPS+ and wRC+ labeled him a below-average hitter, Markakis has seen a dip in power since 2010; he averaged 20 homers with a .177 ISO from 2007-09, but he’s averaged 12 homers with a .125 ISO in four full seasons since.
On the other side of the coin is his defense. Markakis has a Gold Glove to his credit, but sabermetric defensive stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved have pegged him as a below average fielder dating back to the 2009 season. His range has been the reasoning behind those ratings, as his arm continues to be average or better, according to each metric.
Ultimately, if Markakis continues to produce at a level that’s well above the league average (as he has so far in 2014), it seems likely that clubs will be willing to overlook his rough 2013, perhaps chalking it up to a down season in the wake of several surgeries. Though that may cause some to question his durability, interested teams will be quick to note that he averaged 151 games from 2006-13 — appearing 157 games or more five different times.
Curtis Granderson was paid handsomely this offseason even after he appeared in just 61 games in his platform season. If Markakis sustains his current pace, he could well be viewed as an above-average corner bat with a few peak years remaining, even with some diminished power numbers. Markakis’ name doesn’t come up all that often when discussing next winter’s free agent class, but a typical year for him will position the longtime Oriole for a nice multi-year deal on the open market.
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The rise and fall of Scott Kazmir was a well-known tale when he signed a minor league deal with the Indians this offseason. After being infamously traded for Victor Zambrano in one of the more lopsided trades of the past 10 years, he quickly ascended to ace status with the Rays. He began to lose velocity in the 2008 season, and his control became increasingly problematic.
Kazmir was traded to the Angels, and things only got worse for him in Anaheim. 2010 would be the last full season he threw in the Major Leagues, and he posted a ghastly 5.94 ERA in 150 innings with a fastball that had lost more than two miles per hour from his peak. Despite speculation that he lost arm strength, Kazmir told David Laurila of Fangraphs that wasn't the case:
“I didn’t really ever lose arm strength, it’s more I lost my ability to use my body. I lost my ability to use my lower half — everything was upper body — and everything started swinging side to side; I didn’t have a good direction to the plate."
Kazmir ultimately wound up pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in 2012 as he contemplated his future. He had thrown just 1 2/3 Major League innings since 2010 when he signed with Cleveland, but it looks like he could be in for a full season of work. He's thrown 40 1/3 innings for the Tribe over eight starts. His 5.13 ERA isn't all that impressive, but he's averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball. Sabermetric stats like FIP (4.56), xFIP (3.96) and SIERA (3.79) all feel that Kazmir has been unlucky. Indeed, his .362 BABIP and 14.9 percent HR/FB both seem due for a correction.
Kazmir is still just 29 years old and won't be 30 until next January. If he's able to keep himself off the disabled list and see his BABIP and HR/FB regress toward the league averages (.292 and 11.0, respectively), Kazmir should draw significant interest on the free agent market. Paul Maholm figures to be the best lefty on the market, but Kazmir could stake his claim as the second-best free agent lefty.
Another enigmatic left-hander, Francisco Liriano, was able to secure a two-year deal worth $12.75MM with the Pirates this offseason despite posting an ERA over 5.00 from 2011-12 (he later had to re-work his deal after breaking his non-throwing arm). Even if Kazmir continues at his current rate, Liriano's deal seems attainable. If he can lower his ERA while maintaining his 9.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9, a higher annual salary or a third year could be in store.
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