Free Agent Stock Watch Rumors

Free Agent Stock Watch: Russell Martin

Russell Martin‘s current two-year, $17MM deal, which remains the largest free-agent contract in Pirates history, received mixed reviews when it was signed. Now, though, it’s clear the deal was a coup for the Bucs, and Martin’s impending free agency raises fascinating questions about how to balance his unusual skill set and the lack of impact catchers on next offseason’s free agent market against the worrisome aging patterns of backstops in their thirties.

Martin was a key to the Pirates’ breakout 94-win season in 2013. He hit a modest .226/.327/.377, but he still contributed 4.1 fWAR thanks to his exceptional defense, and he may have added a bit of value even beyond that thanks to his well regarded pitch framing. This season, he might be even more helpful despite missing time with a hamstring strain — his .417 OBP so far this season is an amazing 107 points above league average, and his defense again grades very well, with 9 Defensive Runs Saved above average so far.

USATSI_7978360_154513410_lowresMartin’s excellent performance in 2014 couldn’t be better timed. Now that Kurt Suzuki has signed an extension with the Twins, there won’t really be any other starting catchers on the free agent market, unless one counts players like Geovany Soto or A.J. Pierzynski. Teams like the Dodgers, Rockies and possibly Blue Jays or Cubs would all make some degree of sense as potential suitors for Martin, and the Pirates would surely love to have him back at the right price, so the market for him should be robust.

Dollar figure and contract length are always important considerations for free agents, but in Martin’s case they’re even more crucial than usual. Neal Huntington has already implied that the cost-conscious Bucs aren’t likely to be serious bidders, even though it’s a steep drop from Martin to presumptive 2015 starting catcher Tony Sanchez. A team like the Rangers might be unwilling to block a terrific catching prospect in Jorge Alfaro by signing Martin to a lengthy contract, and therefore could simply settle on Robinson Chirinos until Alfaro is ready. The same goes for the Red Sox, who have Christian Vazquez at the big-league level and Blake Swihart on the way.

Then there’s the more general problem of how to value an aging catcher. Martin will be 32 in February, and aging patterns for catchers that age are brutal, to put it mildly. Recent history is full of good starting catchers who struggled to maintain their value into their thirties, like Kenji Johjima, Ramon Hernandez and former Pirate Jason Kendall. Others, like Charles Johnson and Michael Barrett, fell off the table at an even younger age than Martin is now. Brian McCann, who’s signed to a five-year contract and who’s even younger than Martin, might end up providing another cautionary tale. Martin is a unique player with good conditioning habits, and his defense should give him value even if his offense falters, but history isn’t on his side.

On top of that, Martin’s remarkable .290/.417/.391 2014 season likely wouldn’t be sustainable even if he were younger. After five straight years of a BABIP of .287 or lower, his BABIP is .354 this season. Martin’s excellent plate discipline is legitimate, but his batting average is more likely to be something like .240 or .250, rather than .290, going forward.

These warning signs will be perfectly clear to most teams, and it’s likely that whoever signs Martin will be hoping to get good value at the start of the contract, with that value declining sharply as the contract progresses. It’s tough to find precedents for a Martin deal, since few catchers sign long free-agent deals, but he should be able to receive at least three years, and perhaps four, at north of $10MM per season. Barring an injury down the stretch, he’ll surely be in line for more than the three years and $26MM Carlos Ruiz received from the Phillies last year, but far less than the five years and $85MM McCann got.

The Ruiz contract suggests Martin will get a hefty payday, although Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s recent deal points in the other direction. Saltalamacchia posted 3.6 WAR last season before hitting the market as a 28-year-old and only got $21MM over three years, even though the Red Sox didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. For Martin, a three-year deal in the range of $12MM-13MM per season might make sense, or possibly a four-year contract worth slightly less per season. Martin could also try for a higher average annual value by taking a two-year deal, although, given his age, he probably has incentive to prefer more seasons and more guaranteed money, since he’s not likely to get another big contract after this offseason.

One can see, then, why a return to the Pirates appears so unlikely — the Bucs were unwilling to extend a $14.1MM qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett last season, explaining that their budget made it difficult to build a competitive team while committing so heavily to one player. It’s difficult, then, to see them committing to pay a similar annual salary to a player for three or four years, particularly when getting little from that player at the end of the contract could be disastrous for them. The Burnett situation also raises questions about whether the Pirates will extend Martin a qualifying offer after the season, potentially affecting his market. They will probably have a stronger incentive to do so with Martin than they did with Burnett, given that there’s less of a chance Martin would accept.

Less thrifty teams would likely have fewer concerns than the Pirates would, and might also be more inclined to pursue Martin because of his perceived value even beyond his peripherals — he’s widely regarded as a thoughtful player and leader who’s helpful with pitchers. The most likely outcome (although it’s far from certain at this point) is that Martin winds up with a three-year deal from a bigger-payroll team.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Aramis Ramirez

This season, I’ve looked at the stock of a couple potential free agents that have a mutual option on their deal in the form of Nick Markakis (link) and Adam LaRoche (link). Another such player is Aramis Ramirez, and given the rarity with which mutual options are exercised — if the player is playing well, he almost certainly declines in search of a multi-year deal, and if not, the team declines due to poor production — Ramirez can be very reasonably expected to hit the open market heading into his age-37 season.

"<strong

The question then, is whether Ramirez hits the open market because he declines his half of the $14MM option, or whether the Brewers send him on his way and pay a $4MM buyout.

Ramirez is hitting a strong .301/.341/.461 with 13 homers this season — good for an .802 OPS, a 122 OPS+ and a 123 wRC+. He’s been 22 to 23 percent better by park- and league-adjusted metrics like OPS+ and WRC+, and even you’re more partial to traditional statistics, he’s been well above average. The league-average OPS this season for non-pitchers is .716, and the league-average OPS for a third baseman is .714.

Additionally, a look at the market reveals some spotty competition. Two years ago, seeing Ramirez stacked up against Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez would’ve seemed much bleaker than it does now. Headley hasn’t hit much this season, and Sandoval has been a slightly weaker hitter than Ramirez (albeit at a younger age and with better defense). He’s outperformed Headley, and his asking price will assuredly be lower than Kung Fu Panda and Hanley, who both rank in the Top 5 of MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings. Ramirez may not be a premier free agent, but he’s an upper-tier bat in a weak crop that will require fewer years than those in the top tier. Teams in need of help at the hot corner (and possibly DH) should show interest.

Of course, Ramirez isn’t a player without his faults. He missed 70 games in 2013, mostly due to a recurring issue in his left knee, and this season he’s already missed 22 games with a left hamstring injury. His defense doesn’t come with a great reputation, and while he’s posted a solid UZR in 2014, a half-season of UZR rarely tells the whole tale of a player’s glovework. Ramirez posted a negative UZR mark (and a negative DRS mark) in all but one season from 2008-13. Beyond that, his walk rate is down to a career-low 3.6 percent, and his solid OBP has been bolstered by an abnormally high HBP total (nine — which is quite a few based on his history).

At the time Ramirez hit the disabled list, he looked like a candidate for a one-year deal, and it was debatable whether or not Milwaukee would even exercise its half of the mutual option (he was hitting .252/.309/.390). Since returning in early June, however, he’s been excellent, hitting .329/.360/.502 with eight homers in 225 plate appearances. The ZiPS projection system forecasts a .285/.339/.469 line from here on out, while Steamer projects a similar .275/.333/.460 (both available on Ramirez’s Fangraphs page).

If he can hit at that pace or better, his option should be a non-factor. With a $4MM buyout on a $14MM option, Ramirez and the Brewers are essentially deciding on a one-year, $10MM deal. Milwaukee would likely jump at that price, but given his overall production, Ramirez will have no trouble topping that as long as he remains healthy. The interesting wrinkle will be whether or not Milwaukee extends a qualifying offer should Ramirez reject his half of the mutual option. At that point, the Brewers would essentially be offering one year at $19MM+ (assuming a $15MM+ qualifying offer value) — which they may be hesitant to do given their typically middle-of-the-road payroll.

Ramirez said last month that he had decided to play beyond this season and would try to reach the 2,500-game plateau (he’d need at least three more seasons to do so). Given his strong production and desire to play for several more seasons, it seems fair to expect the veteran slugger and his agents at Kinzer Management Group to pursue multiple years. There’s no precedent for a third baseman entering his age-37 season to get a significant three-year deal, but we did see aging slugger Carlos Beltran land a three-year pact last offseason as he headed into his age-37 campaign. (Marlon Byrd, another comparable in terms of age, netted a nice two-year deal with a vesting option, albeit at a lower rate than Ramirez would command.)

While Ramirez hasn’t necessarily been a heavily discussed free agent name to this point, a strong finish will position him nicely in a what looks to be a weak crop of free agent position players. His case will be a bit unique, but as long as he can continue at a strong pace, there’s little reason to doubt another multi-year deal for a player that is on pace to post an OPS+ north of 120 for the 10th time in 11 seasons.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Adam LaRoche

Consistency hasn’t exactly been Adam LaRoche‘s calling card over the past several years, but he’s timing one of his better seasons well, as he faces the strong likelihood of hitting the open market this offseason. LaRoche’s two-year deal with the Nationals contains a $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout), but teams and players almost never agree to exercise both ends of a mutual option.

Adam LaRoche

Typically, if a team exercises their half of the option, it’s because the player has had a strong season, leading the player to reject in search of more money on the open market. If the player exercises his half, it’s typically due to injury or poor performance, causing the team to reject. In LaRoche’s case, team dynamics come into play as well; Washington likely needs to open up first base for Ryan Zimmerman, whose persistent shoulder problems no longer allow him to handle third base.

As such, LaRoche seems likely to hit the open market, and he’s quietly on pace to do so as one of the most productive bats on the upcoming class. LaRoche is hitting .306/.417/.513 with eight homers, nine doubles and a 33-to-31 K/BB ratio in 192 plate appearances this season. Both his 16.1 percent walk rate and 17.2 percent strikeout rate are career-bests. He did miss 15 games with a quad injury earlier this year, though for now that looks to be behind him.

Ultimate Zone Rating has dinged him for his defense thus far, but Defensive Runs Saved feels that he’s on his way to his fifth straight season of plus defensive value. LaRoche has long had some problems with left-handed pitching, but he’s holding his own to this point with a .381 OBP against southpaws, and platoon problems certainly don’t bar some players from being paid.

LaRoche is set to turn 35 in November, but if he maintains the pace he’s currently on, it’s not hard to envision him landing another two-year deal, perhaps with some type of vesting option. His main competition will be Michael Morse, but aside from that, he’ll be competing against Corey Hart and Michael Cuddyer — both of whom have had significant injuries in 2014 already (and Cuddyer is a year older).

Billy Butler, too, could hit the open market if his option is declined by the Royals, but he’s in the midst of a poor season and likely couldn’t top LaRoche based on performance. Given the dearth of left-handed pop on next year’s free agent market — Kendrys Morales and Victor Martinez are the top alternatives, but both are more designated hitters than first basemen — LaRoche is in a good position despite his age.

It seems likely that his performance will be worthy of receiving a qualifying offer – believed to be in the $15MM range next offseason — but the need to open first for Zimmerman likely will prevent the Nats from extending one. LaRoche could look at a qualifying offer as merely receiving a $2MM raise for next season (he’d pocket the $2MM buyout of his option and still earn $15MM or so), which makes it a risk that Washington seems unlikely to take.

The knocks on LaRoche are well-known; his career OPS versus lefties is 114 points lower than his mark against right-handed pitching, age isn’t on his side and he hasn’t turned in a consecutive pair of well above-average offensive seasons since 2009-10 (122 OPS+ each year). Some teams likely will have the perception that a two-year deal will pay him for one strong season and one so-so campaign, and I’d imagine a number of clubs will be more interested on a one-year deal.

Nonetheless, LaRoche and agent Mike Milchin of Relativity Baseball appear to be in solid position as they look to lock down what could be the last significant contract of a solid offensive career. Morales recently received the pro-rated version of a $12MM salary after sitting out the first two months of the season, and Justin Morneau received a two-year, $12.5MM deal coming off a vastly inferior season to the one LaRoche is putting together.

Even if LaRoche simply finishes the season by hitting at his career pace — .266/.340/.475  – he’d finish with one of the best OPS+ marks of his career. In that instance, a two-year deal worth $10MM+ annually seems very attainable. The fact that he is facing very limited competition both at his position (first base) and in terms of his best skill (left-handed power) only strengthens LaRoche’s free agent outlook.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Velocity Changes Among Free Agent Starters

With more than six weeks behind us, nearly every team has completed a quarter of its games this season. Impending free agents have a significant amount of their platform years in the books, though it’s certainly not too late to change the opinions of potential offseason suitors.

One way in which free agent pitchers can raise their stock is to up their velocity, although the opposite of that can hold true as well. A resurgence in velocity helped to save Scott Kazmir‘s career last season and took him from a minor league contract to a two-year, $22MM guarantee. On the other side of the spectrum, a rapid decline in velocity dropped Tim Lincecum from a lock to receive $100MM+ to a two-year, $35MM contract that looks to be a questionable investment.

A look at the coming free agent crop of starters shows that several arms could be improving their stock by turning up the heat on their fastballs, while several free-agents-to-be have seen troubling declines in their velocity that have contributed to poor results. Some will be quick to point out that many starters’ velocity increases over the course of a season. Because of this, I’ve included a comparison of each pitcher’s 2013 and 2014 April velocities as well. This should give a rough indicator of where each pitcher is right now compared to this point in the 2013 season.

I’ve included any pitcher who is working as a starter and has a chance at free agency next season, even if it’s a virtual lock that their club option will be exercised (e.g. Johnny Cueto). Additionally, potential starters who are working out of the bullpen (e.g. Chris Capuano) have been omitted, as their velocity spikes are likely due to a change in role (pitchers typically see increased velocity when switching to a relief role). Here’s the list, sorted by the most positive change to most negative change from 2013 to 2014:

As J.A. Happ is a testament to, a noticeable velocity increase doesn’t guarantee improved performance. Though his ERA is down, his command has suffered greatly, making his 3.57 mark unsustainable without improvement in that area. However, most starters with a positive change have demonstrated improvements in their swinging-strike rate and overall strikeout percentage. Ryan Vogelsong has cut his ERA by more than two full runs. Brandon McCarthy and Jorge De La Rosa, while they haven’t seen their ERAs dip, have seen notable improvements in sabermetric ERA estimators such as xFIP and SIERA.

A dip in velocity, on the other hand, is often a precursor to an arm-related injury, and could ultimately serve as a red flag for interested teams on the free agent market if paired with declining results. There is, of course, still time for each pitcher on this list to see his velocity change in one direction or the other, but the above velocity changes are something to keep an eye on as it relates to the free agent stock of each. Names like Justin Masterson, who currently ranks sixth on MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings but has seen the largest decline of any free agent, will be of particular interest as the season wears on.

*=Velocity data from May 2014 was used, as Floyd did not pitch this April.
**=Velocity data from April 2012 was used, as Lewis didn’t pitch in the Majors last season.
***=Velocity data from May 2013 was used, as Liriano didn’t pitch in the Majors last April.
****=Velocity data from May 2012 was used, as Paulino didn’t pitch in the Majors in either of the past two Aprils.

Data from Fangraphs was critical to the creation of this post.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Nick Markakis

Though he technically has an option on his contract, Nick Markakis seems like a virtual lock to hit the open market this coming offseason. Markakis has a $17.5MM mutual option with a $2MM buyout, but mutual options are almost never exercised. Typically, if a player plays well enough for the team to exercise the option, that means he’s played well enough to beat the value of that option on the open market. Conversely, if a player doesn’t feel that he can top the option’s value on the open market, the team likely doesn’t wish to pay him at that level.

Nick  Markakis

With that said, Markakis appears poised to join what will be a relatively weak free agent market for hitters and outfielders. Aside from Colby Rasmus (28 next year) and Melky Cabrera (30 next season), Markakis (31 in 2015) is one of the youngest free agent outfielders on the market. Older options like Michael Cuddyer, Nelson Cruz and Torii Hunter will be available, but each will also carry greater risk on a multi-year deal. From an age standpoint, Markakis is well-positioned.

From a performance standpoint, he’s begun to erase the memory of a 2013 season that saw him bat just .271/.329/.356 — disappointing numbers for a player who slashed .295/.365/.455 from 2006-12. In this season’s early stages, Markakis has upped his walk rate to 8.8 percent and is striking out a career-low 9.4 percent of his trips to the dish. Overall, he has produced a .317/.375/.414 batting line with a pair of homers and two steals. The stolen bases are noteworthy, as that pair of thefts matches the total that Markakis has posted over the past two seasons combined. Should he again become a threat to steal 10-15 bases per season, that would no doubt be appealing to teams.

Of course, Markakis’s early success isn’t guaranteed throughout the season, and there are likely some who doubt that he can sustain the production after a down year in 2013. It’s possible, though, that Markakis was slowed last year by lasting effects from a trio of surgeries that he endured in 2012. Markakis had a sports hernia procedure that January, underwent surgery to repair a broken hamate bone that June and then ended his season with a fractured thumb that also required surgery in September.

Prior to that poor year, Markakis had posted a 117 wRC+ and 118 OPS+ over his career, indicating that he was 17 to 18 percent better than a league-average hitter. While last season marked the only time that his OPS dipped below .756 and the only time that OPS+ and wRC+ labeled him a below-average hitter, Markakis has seen a dip in power since 2010; he averaged 20 homers with a .177 ISO from 2007-09, but he’s averaged 12 homers with a .125 ISO in four full seasons since.

On the other side of the coin is his defense. Markakis has a Gold Glove to his credit, but sabermetric defensive stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved have pegged him as a below average fielder dating back to the 2009 season. His range has been the reasoning behind those ratings, as his arm continues to be average or better, according to each metric.

Ultimately, if Markakis continues to produce at a level that’s well above the league average (as he has so far in 2014), it seems likely that clubs will be willing to overlook his rough 2013, perhaps chalking it up to a down season in the wake of several surgeries. Though that may cause some to question his durability, interested teams will be quick to note that he averaged 151 games from 2006-13 — appearing 157 games or more five different times.

Curtis Granderson was paid handsomely this offseason even after he appeared in just 61 games in his platform season. If Markakis sustains his current pace, he could well be viewed as an above-average corner bat with a few peak years remaining, even with some diminished power numbers. Markakis’ name doesn’t come up all that often when discussing next winter’s free agent class, but a typical year for him will position the longtime Oriole for a nice multi-year deal on the open market.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Scott Kazmir

The rise and fall of Scott Kazmir was a well-known tale when he signed a minor league deal with the Indians this offseason. After being infamously traded for Victor Zambrano in one of the more lopsided trades of the past 10 years, he quickly ascended to ace status with the Rays. He began to lose velocity in the 2008 season, and his control became increasingly problematic.  Kazmir

Kazmir was traded to the Angels, and things only got worse for him in Anaheim. 2010 would be the last full season he threw in the Major Leagues, and he posted a ghastly 5.94 ERA in 150 innings with a fastball that had lost more than two miles per hour from his peak. Despite speculation that he lost arm strength, Kazmir told David Laurila of Fangraphs that wasn't the case:

“I didn’t really ever lose arm strength, it’s more I lost my ability to use my body. I lost my ability to use my lower half — everything was upper body — and everything started swinging side to side; I didn’t have a good direction to the plate."

Kazmir ultimately wound up pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in 2012 as he contemplated his future. He had thrown just 1 2/3 Major League innings since 2010 when he signed with Cleveland, but it looks like he could be in for a full season of work. He's thrown 40 1/3 innings for the Tribe over eight starts. His 5.13 ERA isn't all that impressive, but he's averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball. Sabermetric stats like FIP (4.56), xFIP (3.96) and SIERA (3.79) all feel that Kazmir has been unlucky. Indeed, his .362 BABIP and 14.9 percent HR/FB both seem due for a correction.

Kazmir is still just 29 years old and won't be 30 until next January. If he's able to keep himself off the disabled list and see his BABIP and HR/FB regress toward the league averages (.292 and 11.0, respectively), Kazmir should draw significant interest on the free agent market. Paul Maholm figures to be the best lefty on the market, but Kazmir could stake his claim as the second-best free agent lefty.

Another enigmatic left-hander, Francisco Liriano, was able to secure a two-year deal worth $12.75MM with the Pirates this offseason despite posting an ERA over 5.00 from 2011-12 (he later had to re-work his deal after breaking his non-throwing arm). Even if Kazmir continues at his current rate, Liriano's deal seems attainable. If he can lower his ERA while maintaining his 9.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9, a higher annual salary or a third year could be in store.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

One of the game's most powerful regular catchers is in his contract year.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia is on track to become a free agent the old-fashioned way – by accumulating the necessary six years of Major League service time.  Because the Red Sox catcher never signed a multiyear extension, he'll be just 28 when he signs his next contract.

USATSI_7262870

Salty was drafted 36th overall by the Braves in 2003, a supplemental pick for the loss of free agent Mike Remlinger.  When backup catcher Brayan Pena hit the DL in May of '07, Saltalamacchia got the call.  The Braves had Scott Thorman at first base at the time, so Saltalamacchia was able to stick even after Pena returned.  Catcher Brian McCann had signed an extension with the Braves months earlier, however, so the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia was prime trade bait in what turned out to be one of the decade's most memorable deals.  At the 2007 trade deadline, he was a major part of the Rangers' haul for Mark Teixeira, a deal that also sent Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones to Texas.

The '07 Rangers had Gerald Laird behind the dish, but first base was vacated with the Teixeira deal.  Saltalamacchia split his time evenly between the two positions that year.  The two battled for playing time in '08, though both dealt with injuries.  Laird was dealt after the season, leaving the Rangers with a tandem of Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden.  Though Salty won the gig, he was sidelined by thoracic outlet syndrome in '09, and the Rangers acquired Ivan Rodriguez in August.  Saltalamacchia spent the early part of 2010 recovering from surgery for that condition and battling other injuries, also developing a mental block regarding throwing the ball back to the pitcher.

Though the Rangers' depth at catcher wasn't what they thought it'd become, they still felt comfortable trading Saltalamacchia to the Red Sox that summer for three minor leaguers: first baseman Chris McGuiness, starter Roman Mendez, and catcher Michael Thomas.  Only Mendez charted as one of Boston's top 30 prospects according to Baseball America (#23), and it seemed the Rangers were selling low on a player they once regarded very highly.  Salty didn't see much time with the Red Sox in 2010, as he battled a lower leg infection and they had Victor Martinez behind the plate.

The Sox still had Jason Varitek in the mix in 2011, but Saltalamacchia did catch in 100 games for the first time.  Salty has been the team's primary catcher since then, even with David Ross added this past offseason.  Saltalamacchia has compiled a .231/.295/.453 line in 977 plate appearances for the Red Sox from 2011 to present, hitting 46 home runs.  Among those who have caught at least 200 games since then, Salty's home run total ranks fifth, and his slugging percentage ranks second.  He's lacking in the OBP department, with a .288 mark from 2011-12 reminiscent of Rod Barajas.

Something has changed in that regard, as Saltalamacchia has a respectable .336 OBP so far in 143 plate appearances this year.  One driver is his 11.2% walk rate, easily the best of his career if it holds up.  He's also hitting for a little higher batting average than usual, which is surprising given the worst strikeout rate of his career (33.6%).  That's Adam Dunn/Mark Reynolds territory, and often results in a batting average barely above the Mendoza line.  A switch-hitter, Salty has struggled against left-handed pitching, with a .198/.257/.326 line in his career.

Saltalamacchia is firmly regarded as an offense-first catcher, though he's not satisfied with that.  He's fairly easy to run on, but statistically might be quietly decent at blocking and framing pitches.

Speaking to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe last week, Saltalamacchia noted that the future is on his mind "In the sense that I don’t want to go anywhere else."  Blake Swihart might be Boston's catcher of the future, but he's in High A currently.  Ryan Lavarnway, 25, has already caught 38 games for the Sox since '11, more than quieting defensive concerns along the way.  He's the biggest threat to Saltalamacchia's future with the team, especially with a solid backup already under contract for '14 in Ross.  An everyday catcher, even with some flaws, often commands $6-8MM per year on the free agent market.  And as the only regular who will be under 30 years old, Salty and agent Jim Munsey should easily find a multiyear offer.  The Red Sox could find big savings in replacing him with Lavarnway.

If he does reach the open market, Saltalamacchia will be competing with John Buck, McCann, A.J. Pierzynski, and Carlos Ruiz for a regular spot somewhere.  Salty is significantly younger than the other catchers, aside from former teammate McCann.  McCann will have a different market, however, as he could receive a qualifying offer and pursue a contract at or above the four-year, $50MM deal Victor Martinez signed with the Tigers after the 2010 season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Edward Mujica

Edward Mujica wasn't supposed to be the Cardinals' closer. He wasn't even their backup plan or third in line to the closer's throne. However, with Jason Motte down for the year due to Tommy John surgery and early falters from Mitchell Boggs and Trevor Rosenthal, the ninth inning is precisely where Mujica finds himself. And he's thriving there.  Mujica

Mujica has been nothing short of brilliant while saving 11 games through a quarter of the season. He's allowed just three runs in 16 innings of work, good for a 1.69 ERA. On top of that, he's given up just eight hits and one walk, and he's punched out 15 hitters along the way. His 43.9 percent ground-ball rate is a tick above the league average for relievers (43.7 percent), as is his 92.1 mph average fastball velocity (league average is 92.0 for relievers).

It may not seem like it, but Mujica, who just turned 29, is already a veteran of four Major League teams (Indians, Padres, Marlins, Cards), and he'll be eligible for free agency following the 2013 season. At 29 years of age, the Octagon client is slated to be one of the youngest free agents on the market.

Assuming he continues pitching well, Mujica will have a strong 2013 season and age on his side, but he's got more than that working for him. The Venezuela native has quietly established himself as a very reliable bullpen arm since breaking out with the Padres in 2009. Over his past 320 2/3 innings, he's posted a 3.34 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 1.5 BB/9 and 44.9 percent ground-ball rate. If ERA isn't your cup of tea, that's ok, because FIP (3.67), xFIP (3.36) and SIERA (3.00) are all big fans of Mujica's work.

He's not only been effective, he's been durable — appearing in at least 59 games and firing at least 65 1/3 innings each year from 2009-12. Mujica has been to the disabled list just once in his career, and it was for a broken pinkie toe last season. He barely missed more than the minumum 15 days.

Free agent relievers aren't getting paid quite like they were when Francisco Cordero and Francisco Rodriguez were landing contracts that paid them $12MM annually, but a succesful reliever with a history of closing out games can still do just fine on the open market. For proof, look no further than Brandon League and Jonathan Broxton. League signed a three-year, $22.5MM contract with the Dodgers last November, and Broxton signed with the Reds for $21MM for that same three-year period.

That type of payday is attainable — perhaps even surpassable — for Mujica if he can finish strongly. He's been more consistent than League and generates more strikeouts with better command, and he doesn't have Broxton's injury history. It's also important to consider the weakness of the closer market next offseason. Rafael Betancourt's $4.25MM option should be exercised. Mariano Rivera is retiring. Joel Hanrahan had Tommy John surgery yesterday. Fernando Rodney has struggled terribly early in the year. Ryan Madson hasn't thrown a pitch yet this season. Carlos Marmol is Carlos Marmol. Grant Balfour and Mujica could be the top "proven" closers on the market, and Mujica is nearly seven years younger.

The Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs are among the deep-pocketed teams that could be in the market for a closer next offseason, depending on their current injury situations and faith in internal alteratives. Barring a complete collapse, the three-year, $16.5MM contract that Joaquin Benoit signed with the Tigers seems like the floor for Mujica.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Roberto Hernandez

Fausto Carmona was a revelation in 2007 with the Indians, his first season as a starter in the Majors.  He tied for tenth in the AL with 215 regular season innings, tacking on another 15 in the postseason.  He finished second in all of baseball with a 64.3% groundball rate, allowing only 16 home runs on the season en route to a 3.06 ERA.  The campaign earned Carmona a fourth-place Cy Young finish, and the Indians locked up the supposed 24-year-old to a four-year deal with three club options in April the following year.

USATSI_7224174

A hip strain cut Carmona's 2008 season short, and in June of the following year a 7.42 ERA across a dozen starts earned him a demotion to the rookie-level Arizona Summer League – a drastic move.  Carmona had replaced Cliff Lee to earn a rotation spot in '07, and when Lee was traded in July of '09, a spot opened for him again.  He was a little better to close out the year, and furthered his comeback in 2010 with 210 1/3 innings of 3.77 ball and his first All-Star nod.  Carmona even became the Indians' Opening Day starter in 2011.  His ERA was higher in '11, but Carmona was pretty much the same pitcher he had been in '10.  It was enough to get his $7MM club option picked up for 2012.

Then came surprising news in January 2012: Carmona's real name was Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and he was arrested in the Dominican Republic for using a false identity.  He was found to be three years older than originally believed.  Charges were dropped, and Hernandez's name, age, and contract were changed.  He rejoined the Indians to make three starts in August before an ankle sprain ended his season.  Though Hernandez's option price had been reduced from $9MM to $6MM, the Indians still chose to move on last October.

Enter the Rays, always open to a project, whether in terms of a performance issue, an off-the-field issue, or both.  They signed Hernandez to a one-year, $3.25MM deal with another $1.25MM in incentives.  The Rays were not able to obtain a club option, a wise choice by agent Charisse Espinosa-Dash of Draft Pix Sports.  As explained by Bradley Woodrum of FanGraphs, Hernandez has tweaked his repertoire with the Rays.  We're only six starts in, but Hernandez has whiffed more than a batter per inning, a rate to which he's never come close in the Majors.  He's still getting groundballs, too.  A 9.0 K/9 and 50% groundball rate is a rare combination, as a qualified starter hasn't managed the feat since Jon Lester and Francisco Liriano in 2010.  This year, Yu Darvish, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Samardzija, C.J. Wilson, Edwin Jackson, and Hernandez have done it in the early going.

Hernandez's ERA sits at an unimpressive 4.66, because 23.1% of his flyballs have left the yard – the worst rate in baseball.  That home run per flyball rate figures to come down significantly moving forward, and the ERA estimator SIERA suggests Hernandez should be well below 4.00 from here on out if he maintains his skills.  If Hernandez can post a sub-4.00 ERA and pitch close to 200 innings with 175 strikeouts or so, he should be quite popular in a free agent market light on above-average, healthy starting pitchers.  The false identity issue may suppress interest, as well as the question of whether Hernandez can maintain success away from the Rays (assuming he does pitch well for the remainder of the season).  A multiyear deal should still be in order, with two years and $16MM a possible floor.  We'll be following Hernandez closely to see if his volatile stock continues to rise.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Stock Watch: Injured Starting Pitchers

What was already shaping up to be one of the weakest free agent classes in history has gotten weaker since Opening Day. Injuries have ravaged the available crop of starters, in particular, including several of the names on Tim Dierkes' Free Agent Power Rankings. Let's take a look at those names as well as other free agents to be that are dealing with various maladies…

  • Josh Johnson: That Johnson is hurt isn't much of a surprise to anyone. He's on the disabled list for the fifth time since 2007, and it could've been his sixth but he was never placed on the DL when he missed the final month of 2010. Triceps inflammation is the injury du jour in this instance, with Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports noting (via Twitter) that Johnson could be sidelined until late May. MLBTR readers voted Johnson the best arm on the free agent market just 21 days ago, but I have a feeling there would be a different outcome this time around.
  • Roy Halladay: Doc looked to have turned things around following a run of three vintage starts, but he imploded over his past two outings and hit the disabled list this morning. Halladay conceded that he's been battling shoulder soreness since April 24. A 36-year-old with diminished velocity who happens to be fresh off a shoulder injury and the worst ERA of his career isn't exactly an appealing commodity, even if he does have a pair of Cy Youngs under his belt. Perhaps if he returns and looks good, he could sign a contract similar to Dan Haren's with the Nationals.
  • Matt Garza: MLB.com's Carrie Muskat tweets that Garza had good results in a rehab outing today. Garza told Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio that he felt good after throwing 55 pitches (Twitter link). The Cubs want to get him up to 100 pitches before bringing him back, at which point he'll likely have four months to prove his health and effectiveness. Garza could still end up as one of the top arms available, given the injuries to his peers and his average of 198 innings per season from 2008-11.
  • Gavin Floyd: The White Sox announced today that Floyd will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The best-case scenario for Floyd on the free agent market would probably be Mike Pelfrey's contract with the Twins. Pelfrey had Tommy John on May 1, 2012 and signed a one-year, $4MM contract with the Twins this offseason. Pelfrey had an abnormally quick recovery from the surgery though, and Floyd may not be so fortunate.
  • Scott Baker: The Twins elected to sign Pelfrey and let Baker walk even though Baker's Tommy John surgery came one month earlier. Letting Baker walk looks like a good choice so far, as he's has yet to throw for the Cubs and doesn't have a timetable for his return to the mound following a setback in his recovery. At this point, he's looking at another one-year deal.
  • Chris Capuano: Being demoted to the bullpen to open the season didn't help Capuano's free agent stock, but it certainly wasn't as bad as the outcome when the lefty did find himself in the Dodgers' rotation. Capuano lasted just two innings due to a left calf strain. He was activated from the disabled list for tonight's game.
  • Jeff Karstens: Karstens re-upped with the Pirates after a surprising non-tender and an even more surprising lack of interest on the free agent market. Perhaps his medical reports scared teams away, as Karstens has yet to throw a pitch. He's rehabbing in extended Spring Training and could make his debut this month.
  • Colby Lewis: Lewis has yet to throw a pitch this season as he works his way back from elbow surgery last July. He should begin a rehab assignment this month and could be back prior to June. If Lewis comes back healthy and pitches well for the remainder of the season, I can envision a two-year deal, given his durabilty from 2008-11.
  • Shaun Marcum: As is the case with Johnson, it's far from shocking that Marcum has already been on the disabled list as of May 6. Marcum opened the year on the DL and seems a long-shot to remain healthy for the remainder of the season. A two-year deal is probably his ceiling on the free agent market given his injury history, and another one-year deal strikes me as a far more likely outcome.
  • Johan Santana: Santana's season ended before it began, and it's safe to wonder whether he'll attempt a comeback. He said in March that he was leaning that way.

Thanks to MLB.com's injury report for additional rehab information.