Free Agent Stock Watch Rumors

Free Agent Stock Watch: Gerardo Parra

As MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth noted in his recent look at Alex Gordon, the Royals outfielder joins Jason Heyward as a top-of-the-market corner outfielder who derives significant value from defense while also delivering sturdy production at the plate. The other top two corner outfielders, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes, can generally be categorized in the opposite manner — big bats who are serviceable defenders — though Cespedes has shown new life with the glove of late. Heyward and Upton, in particular, are also appealing due to their youth.

All of those players will be seeking massive free agent contracts, of course, and many clubs will be unwilling and/or unable to pay them. But there’s another group of corner options behind them who may be had for more manageable commitments. Among them is a particularly interesting name: the just-traded Gerardo Parra, who went from the Brewers to the Orioles shortly before the non-waiver trade deadline.

Aug 9, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Baltimore Orioles left fielder Gerardo Parra (18) crosses the plate after a solo home run in the sixth inning off of Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Cory Rasmus (not pictured) at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Like Heyward and Upton, Parra stands out in large part due to his age: he won’t turn 29 until May of next year, making him younger than the typical free agent. Of course, he’s also turned in a premium offensive season thus far, slashing .314/.355/.506 and showing signs that it may not just be the result of a .348 BABIP. For one thing, the speedy Parra has maintained a .326 career mark in that department. For another, he’s also carrying the highest line-drive percentage, home run per fly ball rate, and hard contact rate of his career. On the other hand, Parra has been and remains a far more effective hitter with the platoon advantage.

That mix of age and offense stands out relative to others who’ll be considered alongside Parra on the upcoming free agent market. Nori Aoki of the Giants is already 33 and likely won’t reach the market anyway. His $5.5MM club option looks appealing, and injuries have made it likely that he’ll fall shy of the 550 plate appearances needed for that to become a mutual option. Other left-handed bats — David DeJesus, David Murphy, Will Venable, and Alejandro De Aza come to mind — are older, carry mediocre batting lines, and/or have similar platoon issues to Parra.

There are a host of right-handed-hitting platoon options, too — Rajai Davis, Alex Rios, Chris Young — who are well into their thirties and have historically mediocre marks against right-handed pitching. Ben Zobrist is entering his age-35 season and really occupies a market unto himself given his positional flexibility.

There are several other players, however, who could be considered alongside Parra if they don’t get looks more as center field options. Austin Jackson is similar in age but has struggled enough offensively that he looks more like a second-division player or fourth outfielder at this point. Dexter Fowler and Colby Rasmus are both reasonably young options that could be signed as regular corner outfielders. Fowler is a year older and has the most consistent offensive track record. Rasmus, meanwhile, has nine months on Parra and has somewhat quietly had another above-average campaign at the plate, though he’s done so in less-than-full-time duty.

The switch-hitting Fowler continues to produce wherever he goes, though he performs better against lefties. He hasn’t hit as well as Parra has this year — his 112 OPS+ falls a good bit shy of Parra’s 132 mark — but his BABIP is well below its career norm, and he’s also been a more consistent performer than Parra over the years. Both Fowler and Parra are good bets to deliver double-digit stolen base totals in a given year.

Rasmus is a high-strikeout, low-OBP hitter but has nevertheless rated as a better-than-average offensive threat for the past three seasons. He also has had some seasons of outsized production, as Parra has done this year, and he rates quite well on the bases even though he doesn’t attempt many steals. It’s a different overall skill-set from Parra, who walks less than Rasmus but also strikes out half as often. Parra is a higher-average hitter with better on-base numbers, but until this year had never done as much in the power department. Choosing between these two, offensively, is something of a matter of preference, though it’s easy to imagine many teams preferring to take a gamble on Parra continuing to drive the ball.

The defensive side of the equation is where things get most interesting. Fowler and Rasmus have more experience in center than does Parra and could sign to play up the middle (Fowler, in particular, as he’s played center for all but one inning of his career). All three, however, have experience there and could be added by teams that prefer to have another center field-capable option on their rosters.

Interestingly, though, Parra has been as much of a surprise on defense this year as he has been at the plate — albeit in the opposite direction. Parra made his name, really, when he put up an outstanding defensive campaign with the Diamondbacks back in 2013. Moving into a full-time role, he drew plaudits from both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved as one of the game’s premium outfielders. But last season’s metrics were more of the average variety, and Parra has been decidedly in the red this year: he has a -23.2 UZR/150 rating and is valued at 10 runs below average by DRS.

By comparison, Fowler has generally rated out as a slightly to largely below average performer in center. Rasmus has also played mostly up the middle, with overall average results that have varied somewhat over time.

All told, there’s an argument to be made that Parra rates as the most appealing corner outfield option after the top four players noted at the outset — assuming, at least, that Fowler is locked up to fill a void in center. Notably, unlike Fowler, Parra can’t be saddled with a qualifying offer. If nothing else, he’s separated himself from the pack of other players (many of whom were noted above) who’ll garner consideration as non-premium targets.

Given his age, there’s a reasonable chance that Parra could command a four-year guarantee if there are teams that still value him as an above-average defender. While his recent surge in hitting and decline in defense could lead to some hesitation in terms of average annual value, Parra seems likely to be a useful player over that timeline, and it would be easy for a team to find a right-handed-hitting outfielder to pair with a player who’s put up a .777 OPS over his career against opposing righties.

Looking at recent corner outfield signings, there’s an interesting gulf between players who profiled as solid regulars and those who were seen more as platoon options. (Check this list of outfielders who landed guarantees of between $15MM and $75MM.) Players coming off of good years who were added as regular players have tended to score three- or four-year deals with AAVs in the $10MM to $15MM range. Some potentially useful comps include Melky Cabrera (three years, $42MM), Nick Markakis (four years, $44MM), Shane Victorino (three years, $39MM), and Angel Pagan (four years, $40MM) — each of whom was older than Parra when they signed their deals. (Markakis, in particular, stands out as a player whose glove was valued by scouts despite defensive metrics painting a more negative picture.)

While some others have had to settle for shorter deals — Aoki and Rasmus, last year, for example — there’s good reason to think that Parra can cash in. It’s too early to project specific numbers, especially with the market still yet to develop and more than a month of play remaining, but Parra and his representatives can aim high coming off a career year at the plate.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Alex Gordon

This winter, outfielder Alex Gordon appears likely to start a new chapter of his career, and his impending foray into the free agent market could result in his departure from Kansas City. The cases of Gordon and Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward will be worth watching in part for what they’ll tell us about teams’ willingness to offer big contracts to players whose value derives in part from outstanding corner outfield defense.

USATSI_8552357_154513410_lowresGordon’s current four-year, $37.5MM deal with the Royals appears likely to end after the season. He has a player option for 2015 that was initially valued at $12.5MM, but has now climbed to $14MM due to performance escalators. Last season, Gordon said that he intended to exercise it, although he has since backed down somewhat from that stance, and he told the Kansas City Star last spring that he and the Royals were not discussing an extension.

Gordon seems to love playing in Kansas City and the Royals seem to want to keep him, and the recent resurgence of fan interest in the team could give them a bigger budget with which to do so. Gordon will be 32 in February, however, and he’ll likely receive long-term offers from other organizations that could carry him into his mid to late 30s. That’s a risk the small-market Royals might not be willing to take, particularly since they haven’t done so already.

Gordon has been out since early July with a groin strain, although he has begun a rehab assignment and should be able to play in September and in the playoffs. When he returns, he’ll continue a 2015 offensive season that has been among the best in his career so far. He’s hitting .279/.394/.457 in 312 plate appearances, demonstrating a typically well-rounded offensive game that features average, power and plate discipline.

Gordon has also been a key part of the Royals’ outstanding team defense. His defensive numbers are down somewhat from last season, although they’re still very strong. UZR says Gordon has been 6.9 runs better than the typical left fielder this year, down from the 25 runs above average he accumulated in 2014, although in twice as much playing time. Defensive Runs Saved, meanwhile, credits Gordon with four runs this year, as compared to 27 last year.

Overall, Gordon still rates as a terrific defensive left fielder, and it would perhaps be unwise to read too much into a one-year drop in his fielding numbers. His defense is, however, likely to decline during his next contract as he slows down and loses range. We might already be seeing signs of that this season, in which he’s only stolen one base after swiping at least ten in all of the previous four years.

Nonetheless, Gordon is at least as worthy of a big contract as, say, Shin-Soo Choo was when he signed a nine-figure deal with Texas after a big year in Cincinnati. Gordon will be a half a year older than Choo was at the time of his deal, and he doesn’t have the .423 on-base percentage Choo did in 2013. But Choo had rated very poorly on defense in the two seasons leading to his contract, whereas Gordon is markedly above average even in an off year. As a group, fast and athletic outfielders tend to age fairly well, maintaining much of their offensive value even as their speed and defense decline. So while Gordon seems very likely to decline over the course of his next deal, he appears likely to remain productive as a hitter.

While next offseason’s class of hitters isn’t particularly strong overall, it does include a good class of outfielders. The three top names (Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes) are all younger than Gordon. Heyward, who has the advantage of heading into the free agent market at age 26, seems likely to land an enormous contract, and so should Upton, who will be 28. Cespedes, meanwhile, has boosted his stock with a terrific season, and MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes suggested in a recent email that Cespedes was a candidate to receive a seven-figure deal.

Heyward, Upton and Cespedes rank Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in Dierkes’ latest Free Agent Power Rankings, with Gordon at No. 7. As Dierkes notes, Gordon’s age likely caps his next contract at six years. Choo, of course, got seven, but perhaps last year’s market suggests teams are somewhat less willing to hand out such long contracts. Pablo Sandoval got five guaranteed years last winter and Hanley Ramirez four, and even those contracts, like Choo’s, look unfortunate now.

Gordon’s defensive ability gives him an edge on those players, however. He’s a better hitter than Sandoval was as well. It remains to be seen whether Gordon will be able to top Sandoval’s guaranteed $95MM, but he should be able to at least get close. Before the season, Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star pointed to Hunter Pence‘s five-year, $90MM deal with the Giants as another potential template. If a team were willing to offer a sixth year, Gordon’s contract could easily top $100MM.

It will also be worth watching to see if Gordon takes a somewhat smaller, or shorter, offer to stay with the Royals. It’s no shock that the Casey Close client has gone back on his very surprising announcement that he planned to pick up his team-friendly 2016 option, but that Gordon said that in the first place suggests strongly that his preference would be to remain in Kansas City. The Royals might not be able to offer the kind of big-money deal Gordon could get elsewhere, and they’ll have a number of difficult decisions in the coming years as players like Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas all approach free agency themselves. But they perhaps could offer enough to convince Gordon to stay.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Brett Anderson

Dodgers starter Brett Anderson appears set to enter the 2015-16 offseason as one of the winter’s most unusual free agents. Injuries have limited him to 622 2/3 career big-league innings. 2015 has been his first full season in the big leagues since his rookie year in 2009. He is, in the grand scheme of things, still unproven. And yet he’ll still be highly sought after.

USATSI_8550377_154513410_lowresFirst, the injury record: Since 2011, Anderson has missed significant time with elbow issues resulting in Tommy John surgery; an oblique strain; a stress fracture in his foot; a broken finger; and a herniated disc in his lower back. Many of those injuries haven’t been arm problems, at least, and it’s possible Anderson has partially been the victim of flukes, but that long list is still a scary one.

Despite Anderson’s history, the Dodgers signed him to a one-year, $10MM contract before the season. When signing players with track records as sketchy as Anderson’s, teams frequently secure an option of some kind as a way of guarding against future injury. Anderson’s contract contained relatively little hedging, however, other than a series of $300K-$400K bonuses for innings pitched (many of which Anderson looks likely to achieve). Also, Anderson’s $10MM guarantee looked like a lot for a pitcher who hadn’t thrown even 100 innings in a season since 2010.

Anderson has, nonetheless, proven to be a bargain for the Dodgers. Thus far, he has a 3.43 ERA, 6.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. He’s also pitched 128 2/3 innings. If someone had told you before the season that the Dodgers would have an injury-riddled rotation, you probably would have assumed Anderson would be one of the culprits, but he hasn’t missed a start all season (although he left one July outing early with a minor Achilles injury).

Even better, Anderson has posted an exceptional 65.8 percent ground ball rate, a ridiculously high number that makes him very likely to have at least modest success as long as he’s healthy and has a competent infield defense behind him. Anderson’s ground ball rate is the best among qualified MLB starters, with Dallas Keuchel, Tyson Ross, Gio Gonzalez and Felix Hernandez following him in the top five. That’s strong company, even if Anderson doesn’t strike out as many batters as those other four do.

So how might Anderson fare in the market next winter? He will, of course, be on a lower tier than big-name starting pitchers like David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Kazmir and Zack Greinke (assuming Greinke opts out of his current contract). There will also be a strong secondary starting pitching market, with Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake, Hisashi Iwakuma, Mat Latos, Yovani Gallardo and others potentially available.

Still, if Anderson can stay healthy, he will be highly valued. Teams have lately proven willing to gamble on talented starting pitchers, even when they have obvious question marks. For example, Anderson’s current teammate Brandon McCarthy, another ground-ball-prone starter, got a four-year, $48MM deal last offseason after a brilliant 2014 stretch run with the Yankees. McCarthy had previously suffered through periods of inconsistency and injury.

Of course, McCarthy had Tommy John surgery in April, although that injury mostly appeared unrelated to his previous troubles. A more positive recent precedent, though, might be that of the Pirates’ Francisco Liriano, who earned a three-year, $39MM deal after strong 2013 and 2014 campaigns in Pittsburgh, even though he had posted ERAs above 5.00 in the two years before that and had pitched more than 163 innings in a season only once in his career. Liriano is in the midst of a third straight strong season with the Bucs.

Every case is different, of course, and Anderson might not quite have the upside McCarthy or Liriano appeared to, since he doesn’t have the strikeout rate those pitchers had. Anderson also (perhaps sensibly, given his history) hasn’t worked particularly deep into games this year, averaging just 5.8 innings per start.

Health permitting, though, Anderson’s ground ball rate gives him a reasonably high floor (no pun intended), and his age (he won’t be 28 until February) will also work in his favor. Other than Trevor Cahill, there aren’t currently any significant 2016 starting pitching free agents younger than Anderson, and only Latos and Leake even come all that close.

Anderson looks like a strong candidate for a qualifying offer, which might affect his market somewhat — the Dodgers gave Anderson a significant percentage of the value of a qualifying offer when they signed him for 2015, so extending one after what’s been a strong and healthy season looks like a no-brainer. Every player (including starting pitchers like Liriano and Ervin Santana) who rejected a qualifying offer last year got a multiyear deal, however, so it seems likely that Anderson will also be able to land one.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Stock Watch: Wei-Yin Chen

Barring a significant late-season collapse, Orioles lefty Wei-Yin Chen will enter free agency this winter with some of the market’s best recent run prevention numbers. Of course, as we’ll explore below, there’s more to it than that.

May 11, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Wei-Yin  Chen (16) walks onto the field before the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore Orioles are wearing Baltimore on their home jersey's in support of the city after the recent unrest.  Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

But bottom-line results do matter, especially as they continue to compile over more and more innings. And since the start of 2014, Chen has put up 315 2/3 frames of 3.45 ERA pitching.

Those figures put him in pretty solid company. The two most comparable pending free agents, perhaps, are Mike Leake and Yovani Gallardo. The three are probably more similar than you realize. It’s at least somewhat notable that Chen has not had the benefit of facing opposing pitchers, as the other two have. And while he’s a bit back in the innings department, much of that can be chalked up to the fact that he’s simply made three less starts than have Leake and Gallardo.

Check out these numbers (since the start of last year):

Leake:       357 1/3 IP, 3.63 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 2.2 BB/9
Gallardo:    324 2/3 IP, 3.49 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
Chen:         315 2/3 IP, 3.45 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 1.9 BB/9

Those strikeout-to-walk splits look even better when you consider that Chen easily paces the group with a 13.5% K%-BB%, the figure that some believe to be the best overall way to measure those two true pitching outcomes. True, Chen has outperformed his peripherals. But the same is all the more true of Gallardo. And depending upon which elixir you prefer, you might not see all that much daylight between Chen and Leake.

Leake:       3.90 FIP/3.57 xFIP/3.68 SIERA
Gallardo:    3.97 FIP/3.91 xFIP/4.08 SIERA
Chen:         4.12 FIP/3.84 xFIP/3.86 SIERA

In making comparisons, of course, it’s important to considering everything. His earlier-career results weren’t quite as good (4.04 ERA), though Chen jumped straight from Japan to the big leagues and has always at least been a solid starter. He is about seven months older than Gallardo, while Leake is significantly younger than both. But the southpaw only just turned thirty, so he’s not exactly over the hill. And while he’s never been a big velocity pitcher, Chen has held steady in the 91+ mph range on his heater for his entire career.

The point here is not to make fine distinctions, as much will come down to factors such as scouting reports, players’ and teams’ preferences, market timing, and the like. Qualifying offers could weigh in as well: Leake won’t be eligible after being traded mid-year, while both the Rangers and Orioles have given indication that they intend to extend QOs to their eligible hurlers.

Ultimately, though, Chen is likely to earn quite a bit more money than we might have anticipated coming into the 2015 season. His surest path to a major guarantee may be to seek a lesser average annual value over a longer term, in the way that Jason Vargas (four years, $32MM) was able to do two years back. It may be time for an update on that deal in the AAV department, though, with the much older Bronson Arroyo recently landing two years and $23.5MM and Ricky Nolasco scoring $49MM over four campaigns.

Of course, age alone means that Chen won’t best Leake. And then there’s the matter of the qualifying offer. The impact of the QO could be tested as Chen faces a robust mid-tier pitching market that includes a number of different risk/reward profiles (take, for instance, pitchers like Mat Latos, Brett Anderson, and Scott Kazmir) and many hurlers that won’t be weighed down by draft compensation.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Mike Napoli

Outside of Chris Davis of the Orioles, Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli will likely be the most highly sought-after player at the position on next year’s free agent market. But a slow start at the plate has him looking to regain value the rest of the way.

Jun 2, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox first baseman Mike  Napoli (12) reacts after hitting a double during the second inning against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Napoli has hit just .213/.315/.404 in his first 216 plate appearances, well off the .818 OPS mark he carried through his first two seasons in Boston. On the positive side, he has contributed nine home runs and continues to put up typical K:BB numbers (24.5% strikeout rate versus 13.0% walk rate).

Looking behind the slash numbers, there is some cause for concern. Though Napoli carries a .246 BABIP that falls well below his lifetime .308 mark, Fangraphs also credits him with declining hard contact rates and a career-worst 21.5% rate of soft contact. And his line-drive percentage is down to 13.3%, a significant drop from his typical numbers.

While it may be too soon to put much stock in defensive metrics, Napoli has profiled more as a sturdy first baseman than the above-average performer he rated as over the last two seasons. UZR pegs the issue as a decline in his range.

Rob Bradford of WEEI.com examines Napoli’s situation and market standing in an interesting piece today. Napoli himself says he still hopes to stay in Boston, and believes he is in a good place in spite of his dip in productivity. “I swear, until you just said this to me, I hadn’t even thought about it for a while,” he said. “I just feel like everything is going to take care of itself. I feel like I have a lot of good years left. This is the best I’ve felt in a long time health-wise. My sleeping has gotten better. We’ll see. I feel like I could play a long time now.”

Bradford explores the impact of a widening strike zone on Napoli, both in terms of results and his market. Napoli paces the league in the number of pitches seen per plate appearance over the past three years — just shy of 4.5 per — but Bradford says that teams may no longer place quite the premium on that skill that they have in the past.

Napoli himself acknowledged the issue, saying: “if the strike zone is getting bigger that hurts my style of play.” He tells Bradford that he has noticed an impact. “It gets the point where it’s hard for me to think I can take a close pitch,” he said. “Instead I’m swinging at stuff.”

Indeed, the numbers do bear that out to some extent. As Sons of Sam Horn examines in detail, Napoli has seemingly been impacted by a larger zone. And that may be creating broader problems: while his chase rate is flat, and he has a career-high contact rate on pitches in the zone, Napoli’s contact rate on pitches outside the zone has fallen by about ten percentage points from his levels over the past several seasons.

Broader market trends do show some good news for the slugger, however. While he’ll be entering his age-34 season when he hits free agency this fall, only the younger (and, likely, much more costly) Davis presents much of a challenge in terms of first base talent. And there will be plenty of clubs that prefer Napoli’s veteran presence, presumably shorter commitment, and more stable offensive profile to that of Davis.

Napoli looks like a solid bet to remain a viable first baseman, meaning that he won’t be restricted to American League clubs. It’s far too early to play the match-up game, but teams like the Orioles, Rays, Marlins, Brewers, Cardinals, Twins, Padres, Angels, and Mariners all seem like plausible suitors. And a return to the Red Sox cannot be ruled out entirely, particularly given that Hanley Ramirez has rather emphatically rejected the concept of playing first base.

It goes without saying that Napoli’s performance the rest of the way will play an enormous role in determining his standing after the season. As things stand, he seems a borderline qualifying offer candidate, though of course the same up-tick in performance that would make a QO desirable would also increase his appeal. All said, in spite of his rough start, Napoli’s market value probably has not taken much of a hit at this point — particularly given his track record and the fact that Davis has yet to regain his 2013 form — though he has work ahead of him to show that he can still deliver well-above-average offensive production.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Howie Kendrick

Howie Kendrick seems something of an underappreciated player, perhaps because he has not racked up eye-popping counting stats in recent seasons. But we already know that teams value him rather highly.

After all, over the winter the Dodgers flipped just-acquired top-100 pitching prospect Andrew Heaney to the Angels to acquire one year of Kendrick — at a very reasonable, but hardly cheap, $9.5MM salary. And Los Angeles cleared out young middle infielder Dee Gordon, the incumbent at second, as part of its multi-faceted strategy.

True, Gordon has been nothing short of spectacular for the Marlins. He does carry an unsustainable .433 BABIP, but he’s also continued to lower his strikeout rate, run like crazy, and put up much-improved defensive metrics.

But the Dodgers also have received what they hoped for out of Kendrick. Over 178 plate appearances on the year, he has slashed .293/.348/.445 — a slight bump up over his career numbers.

If you had stopped the record after 2012, you might view Kendrick as an average hitter who had one big year under his belt (2011). But he has since settled in as a clearly above-average bat, compiling a 117 OPS+ since the start of the 2013 season.

May 1, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Howie  Kendrick (47) throws to first to complete an out in the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In that sense, this year has been a continuation. But Kendrick has also showed signs of improvement. After carrying a walk rate of about 5% for much of his career, Kendrick has earned free passes at a better-than-7% clip over the last two seasons, all while maintaining a 16.3% strikeout rate that has improved his overall mark.

Combined, his BB/K rate sits at a career-best .45, just exceeding his prior personal best from last year. Better yet, he’s done that while also managing to push his ISO back up over the .150 mark for the first time since that strong 2011 campaign — a marked improvement on his personal-low .104 ISO from last year.

Kendrick’s .336 BABIP is on the high side, but actually falls just below his historic marks. While Baseball Info Solutions numbers say that he has generated less hard and more soft contact than in recent years, Kendrick nevertheless carries a 28.1% line-drive rate that exceeds any of his end-of-year rates from seasons prior.

It isn’t all good news for Kendrick, of course. After a four-year run of positive UZR metrics, Kendrick has slipped just barely into the negative. And Defensive Runs Saved has him at a more troubling -5 runs saved to date. It’s early, of course, but that certainly bears watching. Likewise, Kendrick is just two-for-four in stolen base attempts this year, though his game has never relied much on the basepaths (he has swiped 14 bags four times, at a 71.9% success rate).

All said, while he hasn’t exactly transformed himself, it’s reasonable to argue that Kendrick has solidified his status as a firmly above-average second baseman in his age-31 season. But how does he stack up against the rest of the expected market?

Advances against his likely free agent competition, it seems, is where Kendrick’s value has increased the most. The most obvious and direct comparison is to Daniel Murphy of the Mets, who is younger (not yet two months removed from his 30th birthday) but carries a below-league-average .263/.316/.381 batting line. There’s plenty of time for that to change — Murphy’s .271 BABIP will probably rise and he has struck out in just 8% of his plate appearances, a market improvement — but Kendrick is gaining ground at present, and has always looked like the surer defensive option of the two.

Other players who teams will weigh alongside Kendrick have also generated some cause for concern in the first quarter of 2015. Ben Zobrist, who turns 34 tomorrow, missed a month with knee surgery and has rated (rather uncharacteristically) as a below-replacement-level player. Once again, it’s far too soon to write him off, and his track record of outstanding overall value speaks for itself. But there’s little question that Zobrist has come back to earth in the early going. Likewise, while Asdrubal Cabrera has suddenly posted excellent UZR ratings at shortstop in a small sample, his offensive production has suffered quite a bit.

Clubs eyeing an upgrade at second will surely look to that group, but it is possible that all — including Kendrick — could factor in at third base as well. While I won’t pretend to know whether he profiles well there defensively, the hot corner market is shaping up to be rather underwhelming with names like David Freese, Juan Uribe, and Casey McGehee leading the way.

In terms of what kind of guarantee we might expect, direct comps are somewhat scarce. But Kendrick seems a good bet to top Omar Infante‘s pre-2014 deal with the Royals. Coming off of a strong platform year, but carrying a history of production clearly inferior to that of Kendrick, Infante took down four years and just over $30MM entering his age-32 campaign. Though it’s far too early to be precise, a contract on the order of Chase Headley‘s (four years and $52MM) seems a reasonable target for Kendrick — though he has some room to build on that as well.

There have been whispers that the Dodgers could look to extend Kendrick, but that has always seemed questionable with the club’s dizzying array of options at second and third. But a qualifying offer is definitely in play, and entering the market weighed down by draft compensation could have some effect on Kendrick’s earning capacity.

Being the most desirable player at a given position has its obvious advantages, and Kendrick ought to have no shortage of theoretical landing spots. His long-time former team, the Angels, could be in play, as might the Yankees, White Sox, Nationals, Mets, and Padres. It is possible to imagine scenarios where other clubs — the Royals, Rangers, Athletics, and Braves come to mind — could consider pursuit.

The bottom line is that Kendrick appears increasingly well-positioned for next year’s free agent market. While he will undoubtedly be overshadowed in a deep and talented class, Kendrick stands out among his direct competitors and seems headed for a significant payday.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Center Fielders

With more than a fifth of the season in the books, we’ve had an early look (a peek, really) into where things may be headed on next winter’s free agent market. One of the most interesting positions to watch, in my estimation, is center field, where there are several players who had a lot to prove coming into the season.

There figure to be several clubs looking at adding new, mid-term or long-term options. The Indians, Mariners, Rangers, Athletics, Rangers, Cubs, and Padres all look like fairly good bets to at least dabble in the market at center. Depending upon how things shake out, it is not impossible to imagine that clubs like the Blue Jays, Tigers, Astros, Cardinals, and Giants could be as well.

Looking at MLBTR’s 2016 free agent list, which documents the players currently on track to qualify for the open market, a small group stands out as possible starting-caliber options. The trio is particularly interesting because they were so tightly bunched coming into the season — all looking to be solidly average to above-average performers, depending on one’s particular viewpoint. (Note: I’m not considering Colby Rasmus here because he has spent most of his time in the corner outfield this year. But he could also figure into the mix.)

Let’s see where things stand:

Value up: Denard Span, Nationals.

After missing the spring and early part of the season following core muscle surgery, Span needed more than ever to show that he could repeat last year’s excellent campaign. Things are certainly pointing up in the early going, as he owns a .316/.375/.532 slash over 88 turns at bat.

"May

While it’s obviously unlikely that he’ll maintain that kind of power output — his current .215 ISO is more than double than his career 108 mark — Span is driving the ball consistently, as he did in 2014, while posting an impeccable strikeout-to-walk ratio. His .310 BABIP actually trails his career levels slightly, so it seems that quality contact is driving the early productivity.

Overall regression is almost certainly in store, but the early returns serve to confirm that Span is a quality top-of-the-order bat and, perhaps more importantly, that he is healthy. Span will need to keep things up in both regards after entering the year with injury questions and as the elder member (31 years of age) of the group considered in this post. Of course, he could stand to see a boost in his somewhat lagging early defensive ratings (which seem to belie the perceptions of some around the game) and his stolen base tallies, but the arrow is pointing up overall and he’s done the most to increase his stock.

Value neutral: Dexter Fowler, Cubs.

While his walks are down somewhat early, Fowlers continues to deliver solid results at the plate with a fairly typical .262/.345/.397 batting line. He has shown more at times, but that lands firmly within expectations. More promisingly, the 29-year-old has swiped eight bags already and is on pace for career highs in that arena, though he has been caught three times as well.

The major talent assessment question with Fowler is his defense in center. He has spent much of his time in tough-to-patrol outfields — Coors Field and Minute Maid Park — and rated terribly at the position last year (tallying negative 20 Defensive Runs Saved and negative 21.8 UZR on the year). That has turned around somewhat in a still-small sample this year in Chicago, with Fowler posting positive UZR marks (10.7 UZR/15) while receiving a less-glowing -3 DRS rating.

All said, the early speed and defense returns rate as good signs for Fowler, and the results at the plate have done nothing to detract from his appeal. You could argue, then, that his value is slightly on the rise. If nothing else, Fowler seems a reasonable target at center, after entering the year with the possibility that he’d be viewed more as a corner option. Some clubs may still end up seeing him that way, of course, especially as it is really too soon to draw much from defensive numbers. All said, Fowler’s value is largely holding steady at the present time.

Value down: Austin Jackson, Mariners.

Jackson looked like a nice get for the Mariners at last year’s trade deadline, but has been a significant disappointment thus far in Seattle. He just turned 28 a few months back, but 2015 has continued a troubling downturn in his overall productivity.

Over 339 plate appearances with the M’s, Jackson has put up a meager .233/.275/.280 line with two home runs. He has added a healthy 16 stolen bases over that stretch, but that’s hardly enough to offset concerns. To be sure, Jackson’s .284 BABIP is due for some positive regression — his career mark sits at .351 and he’s never ended a professional season below last year’s .325 — and his strikeout/walk numbers are in line with career norms. But he is making more weak contact than ever before while hitting more groundballs (50%) this year than is his custom.

Jackson still rates as a solid average center fielder and seems to have the legs to maintain that going forward. His current DL stint with a sprained ankle is probably not cause for any long-term concern, and may even afford him a chance to work on his difficulties if he takes a short rehab stint. But the sub-.100 ISO he has carried over this season and last has significantly reduced his appeal. There’s plenty of time for a turnaround, but Jackson is trending down at present.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Melky Cabrera

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.

USATSI_8028977_154513410_lowresSince 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 Yasmany 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.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Chase Headley

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.

USATSI_8063274_154513410_lowresStill, 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.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Asdrubal Cabrera

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.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies

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.