Free Agent Stock Watch Rumors

Free Agent Stock Watch: Steve Pearce

Players don’t get much more difficult to value than Orioles utilityman Steve Pearce. The 32-year-old was little more than a journeyman for much of his career, but that narrative has shifted — and then continued to change — in recent years.

Steve Pearce

Let’s pick things up in 2013, when Pearce put up his first above-average offensive season. He slashed a useful .261/.362/.420 that year for Baltimore, but played in only 44 games. That campaign, combined with the similarly useful .254/.321/.437 line he cobbled together in 28 games the previous season, was good enough for the O’s to give him a $850K arbitration salary. However, that salary wasn’t enough to deter the O’s from an early-season DFA in 2014. The Blue Jays claimed him on waivers, but Pearce declined the claim so he could re-sign with Baltimore.

So, what did Pearce do after going back to the O’s? Only this: slash .293/.373/.556, hit 21 home runs, and post five to six WAR (depending upon one’s preferred source) over 383 plate appearances.

That incredible breakout led to a difficult valuation matter in and of itself, as Pearce presented a hard-to-peg arb case. He and the team split the difference between their widely divergent filing numbers ($2MM from the team, $5.4MM from the player), settling on a $3.7MM salary.

The 2014 version of Pearce looked like a mirage in the early going this year. He limped out of the gates, lost power output and playing time, and ultimately spent a lengthy stretch on the DL. But a funny thing happened, again. It’s a short sample of under 100 plate appearances, but Pearce owns a .230/.316/.529 slash and has hit seven home runs in the season’s second half. However one feels about Pearce’s trajectory, his late-season surge lends some credence to the idea that he can approach — if not replicate — his career-best year.

It’s noteworthy that even the newly-resurgent Pearce doesn’t have the on-base numbers that he carried in his sterling ’14 campaign. Looking at the season as a whole, his walk rate has dropped (from 10.4% to 7%, year over year), and that’s certainly a cause for some level of concern. However, he’s also been had some poor luck. Pearce’s groundball-to-flyball rate and home run-per-flyball rates are steady. His line drive rate is slightly up, and he’s making only slightly less hard contact. But his BABIP has plummeted to .243 — well below his career level and nearly 100 points shy of what he carried last season.

Another thing has occurred along the way that is worthy of note. Pearce had long played exclusively in the corner outfield or at first base. He’s generally received solid-to-good ratings by defensive metrics, though there has been quite a bit of variance in a series of short samples. This year, though, the O’s slotted Pearce in at second when a need arose. He’s only spent 121 2/3 innings there, hardly enough to draw definitive conclusions, but both DRS and UZR combined to value him as an approximately average performer. At the very least, he’s shown enough to think he can play some second base in a pinch, even if there probably aren’t any teams that would consider playing him there with any sort of regularity.

Comps are virtually impossible in this case, but there are at least some data points to consider. Platoon outfielders like Nate McLouth, Rajai Davis, and David Murphy have commanded two-year deals at $5MM to $6MM in annual salary in recent markets. Defensively-limited sluggers such as Michael Morse (two years, $16MM), Marlon Byrd (same), Kendrys Morales (two years, $17MM) and Michael Cuddyer (two years, $21MM) have earned more. On the low end of the spectrum, Jeff Baker and Garrett Jones represent a pair of part-time bats that received relatively minor totals of $3.7MM and $7.75MM on two-year deals. Neither player had ever turned in a season even close to Pearce’s 2014 campaign, so in spite of some 2015 struggles, one would imagine Pearce has separated himself from that range.

Each of the above players was heading into at least his age-32 season when signing, and all but Morales and McLouth were even older than that. Pearce will play next season at the age of 33, so while that certainly adds to the reasons that a longer-term contract will be difficult to strike, it does suggest that multiple years are plausible. There are even some recent lower-AAV three-year deals that ought to be considered, perhaps: Cody Ross ($26MM) and James Loney ($21MM). However, both had a stronger walk year than Pearce as well as a history of more consistent performance, making three years a lofty goal.

It’s hard, really, to know what market to place Pearce in. You could view him as a first base/corner outfield/DH option — a market highlighted by John Jaso and Mike Napoli — or he could be grouped him with super-utility players that could start at multiple positions. That group is, of course, headlined by Ben Zobrist and also includes Daniel Murphy, Kelly Johnson, and — perhaps — Chase Utley.

In terms of 2015 production, Pearce certainly isn’t the most exciting name on the market, but the variety of roles he’s capable of filling and the myriad markets in which he could be included make him one of the more difficult free agents to peg this offseason. Definitive contenders may not wish to guarantee him more than a bench spot, but a non-contending or fringe club could look at Pearce and see a player that has homered 35 times over his past 669 plate appearances and hope that, if given regular playing time, he could hit 25 or more in a single season at what could be a relatively bargain rate.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: John Lackey

For all of the talk about the top names on the 2015-16 free agent market — and there are quite a few, with David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and many others seeing their contracts expire — John Lackey‘s strong season has flown largely under the radar.

Aug 15, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher John Lackey (41) waves to fans as he leaves the game against the Miami Marlins at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps due to his age — Lackey will pitch next season at age 37 — Lackey hasn’t generated the amount of fanfare that his younger peers have enjoyed, but the veteran right-hander has turned in a stellar platform campaign which can serve as the basis for perhaps one final, sizable multi-year contract.

Lackey’s contractual status for 2015 has been well-publicized; the Tommy John surgery he underwent now more than three years ago triggered a clause in his five-year, $82.5MM contract that tacked on a club option at the league minimum. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported recently that Lackey and the Cardinals agreed to add some incentives to the deal, so Lackey will take home a little more than $2MM in 2015 based on innings pitched. It’s an upgrade from his league-minimum base salary, but it’s hardly a payday that is commensurate with the outstanding results turned in by Lackey in his first full season in the National League.

Lackey has, at present, thrown an even 200 innings this season and worked to a 2.79 ERA with 7.1 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and a characteristically solid, if unspectacular 45.3 percent ground-ball rate. Sabermetric indicators such as FIP (3.57), xFIP (3.90) and SIERA (4.02) all feel that Lackey has benefited from some good fortune — more specifically his atypical 81.7 percent strand rate. Lackey’s stranded runners at about a 73 percent clip in his career, and abnormal strand rates — whether on the high or low side — have a tendency to regress toward a pitcher’s career rate.

Even if Lackey’s true talent is more of a mid- to upper-3.00 ERA pitcher, however, there’s unquestionably a market for durable, playoff-tested starters that can be penciled in for 30+ starts each season. Lackey looks every bit that part, even with some ERA regression. Over the past three seasons, Lackey’s averaged 30 starts/196 innings per season (those numbers, of course, will go up, as he has a few remaining turns in 2015) and worked to a cumulative 3.37 ERA with 7.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and a ground-ball rate of roughly 45 percent. Those peripheral stats are near-mirror images of his 2015 performance, and his average fastball velocity has remained consistent as well, sitting at 91.7 mph or 91.6 mph in each of those seasons.

Lackey may not be a true ace like Price or Zack Greinke, and he may not have the ceiling of some of his second-tier peers such as Scott Kazmir or possess the pure stuff of a Jeff Samardzija. But, what he does bring to the table is a recent history of consistently above-average innings, and that ability has proven to be lucrative in recent years, even for aging pitchers.

Bronson Arroyo landed a two-year, $23.5MM contract from the D-Backs based largely on his ability to rack up league-average innings year after year. Lackey doesn’t have the string of 200+ inning seasons that Arroyo did, but he’s also turned in far better recent results and has historically been a superior pitcher. Tim Hudson landed the same type of contract heading into his age-38 season. Lackey will be a year younger and coming off a brilliant 200-inning season, whereas Hudson didn’t pitch in the final two months of the 2013 campaign due to a fractured ankle. Beyond that, the overall strength of the free agent market has grown a bit since those deals were signed.

Lackey should be able to find, at minimum, a two-year contract with a stronger average annual value than Arroyo and Hudson, but a three-year deal wouldn’t be shocking. His agents at Octagon could very well aim for the sky and seek a deal similar to Derek Lowe‘s precedent-setting four-year pact at the age of 37, but that outcome seems unlikely. Barring an injury or complete meltdown in his final few starts and/or the postseason, Lackey is poised for a significant payday — perhaps one that’s larger than many would’ve expected based on his age.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Darren O’Day

Orioles righty Darren O’Day sports one of the most interesting deliveries in all of baseball. His submarine approach is much more than a novelty, however, and the reliever will hit the open market this winter as one of the best late-inning arms available.

Darren O'Day

Since coming to Baltimore before the 2012 season by way of a waiver claim, O’Day ranks eighth among all MLB relievers with a cumulative 1.97 ERA over 197 2/3 innings. And while he isn’t a particular stand-out in terms of FIP-based wins above replacement (more on that below), the 32-year-old has tallied the fourth-most bullpen-based RA/9 WAR in that span.

This season, in many ways, has been O’Day’s best, cementing his status as a lock-down reliever. He owns a double-digit strikeout rate (11.1 K/9) for the first time ever and has averaged just 2.0 walks per nine innings. He carries a career-low 1.69 (just a shade under last year’s results) and a personal-best 2.38 SIERA.

While the SIERA metric has historically viewed O’Day as a consistent sub-3.00 performer, however, O’Day’s run prevention excellence has not always been fully backed by other ERA estimators. FIP and xFIP have both viewed O’Day as a low-to-mid 3.00 ERA pitcher, though he’s posted his best-ever numbers (2.73 and 3.07, respectively) in each this year.

Whichever analytical tool one prefers, at some point, it’s hard to discount the bottom-line results, particularly from a pitcher who utilizes such a unique style. O’Day has allowed a meager .254 batting average on balls in play throughout his career while carrying a hard-hit ball rate that falls below league average — testament to the difficulty opposing hitters have in squaring him up.

To be sure, O’Day has also benefited from a high 84.5% strand rate over his career, which is roughly ten points higher than league average. O’Day is not a high-groundball pitcher and does not generate a ton of double plays. His strikeout capabilities and low WHIP help explain that number, as does the fact that he’s typically permitted low stolen base totals. But there are other factors that have enabled him to generate results that somewhat exceed his own contributions. In particular, O’Day has been backed by an excellent defensive unit in Baltimore.

Then there’s the matter of platoon splits. O’Day has been less useful against lefties, both this season and throughout his career. Batters with the platoon advantage own a .233/.297/.417 total slash line against him — hardly overwhelming numbers, but certainly more damaging than the scant .192/.262/.282 line put up by opposing right-handed hitters. That is neither unique nor surprising, of course, and it hasn’t prevented the veteran from performing as a regular eighth-inning set-up man.

Age is always a factor with free agents, of course, and O’Day is entering his age-33 campaign. But he has never and will never be a pitcher that relies on velocity, and he still works in the same range (87 mph or so) with his fastball that he always has. O’Day’s four-seam/sinker/slider mix has remained consistent in terms of speed and usage over his time in Baltimore and is just as effective as ever. Other soft-tossing side-armers — the nearly-36-year-old Brad Ziegler is a current example — have been able to maintain their run prevention abilities into their mid and late thirties.

Looking at recent free agent comps, it’s hard to ignore Pat Neshek, who parlayed a dominant 2014 season into two years and $12.5MM (while handing over a variable-value club option for another year). But while he too is a sidearming righty, Neshek looks more like a lower-end target. Neshek was not only one year older but also lacked the extensive track record compiled by O’Day in recent seasons.

Another Astros signee, Luke Gregerson, arguably makes for a more accurate comparison. The righty turned 31 in the first year of his three-year, $18.5MM pact (with incentive escalators), so he was a fair bit younger. But his run of excellence before hitting the market is a closer match for O’Day, who should have a good chance of getting a third guaranteed year at or near the price tag achieved by Gregerson.

Certainly, one can envision O’Day’s representatives at Beverly Hills Sports Council will be looking for at least that to start out, as many relievers have achieved three-year deals in recent years. For example, fellow side-armer Joe Smith inked a three-year, $15.75MM pact with the Angels prior to the 2014 campaign, and O’Day’s numbers — both in his contract year and in the multi-year platform leading up to free agency — trump those of Smith. That deal will also be two years old this winter, and the market for relievers arguably took a step forward last offseason.

Speaking of the market for relievers, O’Day will also be aided by the fact that this coming winter’s market does not include quite the array of top-of-the-line arms that was present last year. His primary competition in terms of right-handed relievers will come from players like Tyler Clippard, Joakim Soria, and possibly Joaquin Benoit (if his option is not exercised). All have arguments in their favor as high-end arms, but none are at the level of David Robertson or Andrew Miller, and factors like injuries, age, uneven results, and/or heavy usage will impact their appeal.

However one ranks O’Day among that group, it’s a nice market to enter for him to enter. And with an outstanding 2015 season nearing a close, he’s well-situated to cash in.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Marco Estrada

It took only a month for the Blue Jays to elevate Marco Estrada from rotation depth to full-time starter.  After Daniel Norris‘ early struggles got him demoted in early May, Estrada stepped into the open rotation spot and has quietly delivered some quality numbers.  Estrada has a 3.18 ERA, 6.78 K/9, 2.93 K/BB rate over 147 1/3 innings, highlighted by no-hit bids in consecutive June starts.  This solid season couldn’t have come at a better time for Estrada as he prepares to hit the open market this winter.

It was a little under 14 months ago that Estrada was losing a starting job, as the Brewers demoted him to the bullpen after he posted a 4.96 ERA and a whopping 27 home runs over his first 107 innings of the 2014 season.  MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes saw Estrada as a borderline non-tender candidate last winter, but the Jays agreed to a one-year, $3.9MM deal after acquiring him from Milwaukee in exchange for Adam Lind.  Despite moving to a hitter-friendly AL ballpark in the wake of a season that saw him devastated by the long ball, Estrada has posted a career-low 8.1% homer rate in 2015, well below his 12.1% mark he posted from 2008-14.

Marco EstradaAdvanced metrics, however, don’t paint nearly as flattering a picture of Estrada’s performance this season.  The low strikeout rate, only a 32.2% grounder rate, a .225 BABIP and 77% strand rate all add up to an unimpressive trio of ERA indicators — 4.28 FIP, 4.89 xFIP, 4.58 SIERA.  Estrada’s K/9 has steadily dropped in each of the last four seasons and his current 6.78 mark would be the lowest of his career.

Estrada’s success might go beyond just some batted-ball luck.  For starters, he is widely regarded as possessing one of the game’s best changeups.  Estrada throws his signature pitch 28.5% of the time and at an average speed (78.7 mph) over 10 mph slower than his 89.3 mph fastball, an unusually large velocity drop that creates all sorts of difficulty for batters.  Since the start of the 2011 season, Estrada has the lowest line drive rate (18.1%) of any pitcher in baseball with at least 600 innings pitched, so his low BABIP number both this season and over his career (.276 prior to 2015) can partially be explained by the fact that hitters simply have trouble making solid contact with Estrada’s arsenal.

It’s worth noting that, going into 2014, Estrada was considered by some to be a possible breakout star following two strong seasons for Milwaukee.  Estrada’s agents at TWC Sports will likely point to 2014 as the outlier of the righty’s four most recent seasons due to the spike in home runs.  If Estrada can hold his own (2014 excepted) in the likes of Miller Park and Rogers Centre, it could be argued that he could be even more effective in a less-notorious hitters’ park given how he limits hard contact.

This winter’s free agent class is heavy with top- and front-of-the-rotation arms, and Estrada’s market will further diminish due to the fact that he turns 33 in July 2016.  A three-year contract is probably stretching it for a pitcher that old, though it could be argued that Estrada has the type of pitching style that will age well.

I can see Estrada landing a two-year deal in the $20MM range, perhaps with an option added.  It’s hard to find comparable contracts given Estrada’s somewhat unique career history, though he could be seen as something of a blend of Carlos Villanueva (a swingman) and Scott Feldman (a non-strikeout pitcher coming to free agency fairly late), with Estrada falling between Villanueva and Feldman in terms of being an established starter.  Villanueva signed a two-year, $10MM free agent deal with the Cubs after the 2012 season and Feldman inked a three-year, $30MM deal with the Astros after 2013, so a two-year/$20MM projection for Estrada splits that difference exactly.

It’s possible Toronto could look to bring him back since David Price may leave in free agency and Mark Buehrle may retire, though the team hopes to have a healthy Marcus Stroman and a more seasoned Aaron Sanchez in the 2016 rotation.  It’s probably unlikely the Jays make Estrada a qualifying offer since they wouldn’t be keen on paying him roughly $15.7-$16MM on a one-year deal if he accepts.  While Estrada is probably looking for multi-year security for his first dip into free agency, it’s not out of the question that he would be the first player to accept a qualifying offer if the Blue Jays did offer one.  If Estrada and his agents felt having draft pick compensation attached would severely harm his market (a likely scenario), he could take the QO, still score a nice one-year payday and stay in a familiar situation with a strong lineup and defense.

Presuming he doesn’t have the qualifying offer hanging over him, Estrada could get a lot of interest as an under-the-radar choice for a team that misses out on the big names in the first or second tier of free agent arms.  His price tag should be reasonable enough that small or mid-market teams could get into the mix, as well as larger-market teams looking for help at the back of their rotations.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports Images

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 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.