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Jeff Keppinger can play multiple positions and he’s a difference maker on offense — at least against left-handed pitching. The combination will attract the interest of many teams when he hits free agency this coming offseason.
When the Rays signed Keppinger to a one-year, $1.525MM deal in January, they expected him to be a tough out, especially against left-handed pitching. The 32-year-old has thrived with Tampa Bay posting a .329/.376/.445 batting line in 320 plate appearances. He also has nearly as many walks (20) as strikeouts (21) thanks in part to a 93.2% contact rate that ranks third among MLB players with at least 300 trips to the plate.
Keppinger has been particularly effective against lefties, as his .411/.437/.558 batting line against them shows (103 plate appearances). This performance isn’t unexpected, either. Keppinger, a right-handed hitter, has a career line of .336/.380/.491 against left-handers.
Teams will also take note of Keppinger’s versatility when he hits free agency this offseason. He has appeared in 15 or more games at first base, second base and third base in 2012, playing mostly at the hot corner. He has previous experience at shortstop, though none since 2010. The mixture of versatility and offense has been worth two wins above replacement in 2012, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.
The ability to hit left-handed pitching doesn’t always translate into substantial free agent contracts, as noted lefty mashers Jonny Gomes (one-year, $1MM), Andruw Jones (one-year, $2MM) and Scott Hairston (one-year, $1.1MM) discovered last offseason. Similarly, veteran utility players usually sign for less than $5MM. Ramon Santiago, Nick Punto, Greg Dobbs, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald obtained two-year deals worth $1.5-2MM per season last winter.
But few players offer the versatility to play multiple infield positions and the ability to produce against lefties. The combination could drive Keppinger’s asking price to the two-year, $10MM range. Aaron Hill, Clint Barmes and Mark Ellis signed contracts in that range a year ago, and those deals could represent a target for Keppinger’s representatives at CSE. Teams may hesitate to pay starter money for a so-called utility player and if that’s the case, the deals signed by Jerry Hairston Jr. (two years, $6MM) and Jamey Carroll (two years, $6.75MM) could provide an alternate template for Keppinger.
He definitely appears to be in line for a considerable raise and he has a good shot at a multiyear deal. It’s a notable shift in value for a player who was non-tendered by the Giants just nine months ago.
Photo courtesy of US Presswire.
David Ortiz has played in just one game since July 16 due to a right Achilles strain, and while he hopes to be back in September, this prolonged injury isn't a good sign for a 36-year-old on the way to free agency. The injury adds another twist to that should be a very interesting free agent case for Ortiz, especially in the wake of the recent overhaul of the Red Sox roster.
Before the injury, Ortiz was enjoying one of his best seasons. The veteran slugger has hit 23 homers and posted a .318/.415/.611 line in 2012, providing solid production all season long and avoiding the slow starts that plagued him over the last three years. Even though he turns 37 in November, it appears as though Ortiz still has plenty left in the tank and, if healthy, projects as one of the biggest bats on the free agent market. Ortiz's suitors will be limited to AL teams given his inability to play the field, but as he recently pointed out to WEEI.com's Rob Bradford, his full-time DH status and his recent health issues will be less important to teams than his potent bat.
“In this game when you are capable to do what I do, that’s a plus. I don’t care what anybody says. It’s a plus," Ortiz said. "It’s hard to hit a damn baseball. Harder than what anybody can imagine. If you put two, three David Ortiz in your lineup you’re going to have some results. I guarantee that….[Offense is] what everybody is looking for right now. They don’t care if you’re a catcher, first base, DH, whatever. If you can produce, trust me, you’re going to play.”
Ortiz has a point. Teams have been reluctant in recent years to spend on the DH spot, thus limiting a number of veteran designated hitters to modestly-priced one-year deals. Several of those veterans are back on the free agent market in 2013, and of that group, Ortiz has by far had the most recent success and is able to consistently produce against both right-handed and left-handed pitching. His current Achilles strain aside, Ortiz is quite durable for an older player, with just one other DL stint since 2002.
After having to settle for accepting Boston's offer of arbitration last offseason and agreeing to a one-year, $14.575MM contract, I would guess that Ortiz will certainly be able to find a multiyear contract this winter. Agent Fernando Cuza should be able to find, at minimum, a two-year, $30MM deal for his client. The Red Sox will make Ortiz a qualifying offer, but given how such offers are one-year deals worth around $13.35MM, Ortiz will surely turn it down in hopes of finding a better deal elsewhere.
The Sox would get a supplemental first round draft pick if Ortiz did reject that qualifying offer and signed with a new team, but it's likely that Boston would make a significant push to bring back its long-time star. With Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford all gone to the Dodgers, the Red Sox suddenly have loads of future payroll space to work with in the offseason.
Two years and $30-$35MM is a very fair price for a hitter who can still generate a 1.026 OPS and locking up a franchise icon like "Big Papi" would also be a good PR move for ownership in the wake of a tumultuous season. For his part, Ortiz has been vocal about going through the "humiliating" arbitration process and his displeasure with the constant controversy surrounding the Sox, but said earlier this week that he wanted to return to Boston in 2013.
If not Boston, where else could Ortiz land next season? The Royals, White Sox and Tigers already have their DH spots filled, the Yankees are known to keep their DH spot flexible so they can rest their older players and Ortiz will want to play for a likely contender, ruling out the Astros, Mariners and Twins. This leaves…
- Angels. This one is doubtful, as while it's possible the Halos could trade or non-tender Kendrys Morales, they're unlikely to do so in favor of a DH who is seven years older.
- Blue Jays. Edwin Encarnacion could become a full-time first baseman.
- Indians. The Tribe are known to be looking for hitting help this winter and will have an open DH spot with Travis Hafner's contract expiring. That said, Ortiz might not consider Cleveland to be close to contention in 2013.
- Orioles. Jim Thome is in the mix but is a free agent himself and could also choose to retire. The O's could decline their $11MM option on Mark Reynolds for 2013, move Chris Davis to first base and sign Ortiz as their designated hitter.
- Rangers. With Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli headed for free agency, Texas could well make a play for Ortiz depending on how the rest of their offseason shakes out.
- Rays and Athletics. I group these teams together as signing Ortiz would be a larger salary outlay than either is usually comfortable making. For just a two-year deal, however, Andrew Friedman or Billy Beane could think Ortiz is worth it for a pennant run. The Rays are the likelier of the two to pursue Ortiz given that the Rays are more established contenders, whereas the A's have been a surprise this year.
Photo courtesy of Bob DeChiara/US Presswire
After eight-plus seasons in the Major Leagues Nick Swisher is just a few months away from hitting free agency for the first time. While some players obtain major paydays on the strength of a single breakout season, Swisher will appeal to teams because of the consistent production he has provided since emerging as an MLB regular in 2005.
Swisher has never appeared on an MVP ballot or won a major award. He has never hit .300 or driven in 100 runs. And he has never generated five wins above replacement in a year.
What’s more, Swisher was a below-average defensive right fielder in 2011, according to a pre-season scouting report in The Fielding Bible: Volume III. He entered the 2012 season with average arm strength and accuracy, but below-average range, according to the publication. He turns 32 a few weeks into the offseason, so it'd be unreasonable to expect considerable defensive improvements at this stage.
Yet Dan Lozano of Icon Sports Group can make a strong case that Swisher is one of the game’s top outfielders. Since he played his first full season in 2005, Swisher and fellow 2013 free agent Josh Hamilton are tied for 10th in wins above replacement among MLB outfielders, according to FanGraphs. Just ten players have averaged at least 25 homers and 140 games played per season during that same eight-year period. Swisher’s one of them, along with noted power hitters Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Paul Konerko, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Carlos Lee, Mark Teixeira and Adam Dunn. It’s nothing more than trivia for now, but this sort of minutiae corroborates the point that Lozano will no doubt be making as he converses with team executives: Swisher is a durable player with an above-average bat.
To what extent will those attributes pay off? Swisher will surely decline when the Yankees extend him a qualifying offer following the season (qualifying offers are for one year and $13MM-plus). He can expect multiyear proposals as a free agent, so he’ll reject the Yankees’ offer, even though it’ll mean the team that eventually signs him will have to surrender a draft pick.
It appeared for a while that outfield depth would be a strength of the upcoming free agent class. But Melky Cabrera has been suspended for the remainder of the season and Carlos Quentin and Andre Ethier signed extensions. This means Swisher, Hamilton, Cody Ross and center fielders Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and Shane Victorino will be among the best outfielders available. In theory, these outfielders should benefit from reduced competition.
Jayson Werth obtained a seven-year, $126MM contract after hitting .296/.388/.532 with 27 home runs and 82 walks in his age-31 season. Lozano and Swisher are expected to aim big and compare Swisher, now in his age-31 season, to Werth in the hopes of matching his $126MM deal. It would only take one unexpectedly aggressive MLB owner for Swisher to obtain $100MM so it makes sense to be aggressive, but a nine-figure contract seems unlikely.
Jason Bay, who signed for four years and $66MM following his age-30 season, and Michael Cuddyer, who signed for three-years and $31.5MM following his age-32 season, could also be points of reference in offseason discussions. As of now, it’d be a surprise if Swisher doesn’t eclipse the contract Cuddyer signed last winter.
We’re just three quarters of the way through the 2012 campaign, so there’s lots of time for Swisher’s free agent stock to rise and fall before the playoffs even start. With so many games remaining, it’s too early to predict the market for Swisher with much certainty. He won’t be the premier attraction of the offseason — that honor goes to Hamilton – but it’s a safe bet that he’ll obtain a raise from his current $10.25MM salary on a contract of no less than three years. He could end up signing of the offseason’s largest free agent deals.
Photo courtesy of US Presswire.
Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier can hit. That much cannot be disputed; the sweet-swinging left-handed hitter owns a career line of .291/.365/.481. However, his troubles with the injury bug raise some interesting questions as the 30-year-old commences his walk year before a potential foray into free agency.
After debuting in Los Angeles in 2006, Ethier improved steadily over each of the next two seasons before breaking out as a premier slugger in 2009, when he ripped 31 homers to go with a .272/.361/.508 line. If Ethier had followed up that campaign with a couple more like it in 2010 and 2011, he'd be in line for a monster contract right about now. Instead, though, he spent time on the DL both years, and though his production was competent when he was on the field, it wasn't on par with his breakout '09.
Rumors about a potential extension for Ethier have kicked around for awhile, but it doesn't appear talks have gotten too serious, and with the Dodgers' ownership situation still being sorted out, it could take some time before the team has its finances in order to the extent that it could consider a long-term extension for one of its cornerstone players.
In the meanwhile, Ethier's off to a fast start this season, and he's made it a point to say he's focused on remaining healthy and productive. The latter isn't an issue, but the former might be, and it could very well determine just how big of a payday he's in store for this offseason (or before then, if he signs an extension).
Another year derailed by injuries, and Ethier could have to settle for a short-term deal in order to reestablish his stock, but if he can recapture his health and performance of three years ago, he could be looking at a windfall. I wouldn't go so far as to say he'll secure anything near the seven years and $126MM the Nationals lavished on Jayson Werth two offseasons ago, but one never knows; it only takes one team.
Among the high-end talents in the upcoming crop of free-agent right fielders, Ethier will be joined by Nick Swisher of the Yankees, Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners, and Torii Hunter of the Angels, all useful players in their own ways but none without question marks — not unlike Ethier himself. Ethier, though, is probably the best bet of that lot to land a big contract based on his age and productivity. Advanced defensive metrics don't especially like Ethier's defense, and his durability woes are well documented, but a big walk year has a funny way of obscuring past sins — think of Jose Reyes after last season.
Twelve months ago, Bartolo Colon was nothing more than an afterthought. He didn't pitch at all in 2010, and he hadn't thrown more than 100 innings in a season since winning the Cy Young Award in 2005. At 37 years old and with major arm injuries in his recent past, it wasn't unreasonable to think Colon was finished as a Major Leaguer.
The Yankees rolled the dice after losing out on Cliff Lee last offseason, signing Colon to a minor league deal in late-January. Bench coach Tony Pena had managed him in winter ball, and recommended him to New York's front office. Colon rewarded the team's faith in him by throwing 164 1/3 innings across 26 starts and three relief appearances, finishing with a 4.00 ERA and the tenth best K/BB ratio (3.38) among qualified AL pitchers.
In a free agent class lacking impact starters, Colon ranked 27th on Tim Dierkes' list of the top 50 free agents. That was ten spots ahead of his teammate Freddy Garcia, who just re-upped with the Yankees for one-year and $4MM plus incentives. Garcia threw fewer innings than Colon last year (146 2/3) but also posted a lower ERA (3.62). He also stayed relatively healthy while Colon missed close to a month with a hamstring strain and saw his velocity drop late in the season.
After settling for a $900K base salary last season, Colon will almost assuredly get a raise this winter. A two-year deal is unlikely, but like Garcia he could get $3-4MM guaranteed with incentives. Tim predicted that the Red Sox would sign Colon to stablize the back of their rotation, but a number of teams could show interest, and a reunion with the Yankees is always possible.
Kelly Johnson’s free agent stock has improved considerably in the past week and it has nothing to do with his ability to contribute on a baseball field. The MLBPA announced on Tuesday that teams will no longer have to forfeit draft picks to sign six Type A free agents and, fortunately for Johnson, he was on the list.
Heading into the offseason, it seemed likely that Johnson’s Type A ranking would limit his free agent value. His offense dropped off in 2011 (.222/.304/.413 line with 21 homers), so teams might not have wanted to surrender a top draft pick for the 29-year-old. But thanks to the players association, all that’s required to sign Johnson is money.
So far this offseason, middle infielders such as Clint Barmes, Jamey Carroll, Mark Ellis, Aaron Hill and John McDonald have all signed multiyear deals. Omar Infante agreed to a similar contract before officially hitting free agency. Johnson’s career .260/.343/.441 line trumps the others and he’s younger than every one of the infielders mentioned except Hill (Johnson and Hill were born less than a month apart).
Johnson's representatives at SFX will likely make the case that he is a complete player who contributes on defense (above-average UZR in 2010 and 2011), with his power (47 home runs in 2010-11), by getting on base (.343 career OBP) and on the basepaths (double-digit steals in three of the past four seasons). There's a good chance teams like the Blue Jays, Tigers, Cubs and Rockies consider Johnson the best remaining free agent option in a thinned-out second base market.
Given the abundance of two-year deals for second basemen so far this offseason and the fact that Johnson won’t cost a draft pick, he figures to obtain two-year offers. If he’s looking for a two-year deal, I expect he could sign for more than the $11MM Hill obtained. Alternatively, he could accept arbitration or seek a one-year deal with a higher base salary and attempt to position himself for a bounce-back season and a major free agent contract a year from now at the age of 30.
Photo courtesy Icon SMI.
Francisco Cordero was already drawing interest from several teams this offseason, but the free agent closer became even more attractive on the open market when his Type A status was modified into a Type B by the new collective bargaining agreement. Now the team that signs Cordero doesn't have to give up a first-round draft pick as compensation, which is good news for the several teams with unprotected first-rounders that have targeted the 36-year-old.
Cordero has been one of the more effective and durable closers in the game, averaging 71 innings, an even 3.00 ERA and a 9.2 K/9 rate over the last nine seasons. Though he turns 37 next year, Cordero seems to be throwing as well as ever at first glance — he posted a 2.45 ERA for the Reds in 2011, allowed a career-low 6.3 H/9, and approached career bests with a 2.8 BB/9 rate and a 1.019 WHIP.
A look at the advanced metrics, however, reveals some major red flags. Cordero also achieved his lowest K/9 rate in any full season, striking out just 5.4 batters per nine innings. His xFIP of 4.14 and his BABIP of .214 indicate that Cordero had some luck on his side last year, and the fact that his ground ball rate rose to a career-high 50% is another curious indicator. Generating grounders at the Great American Ballpark is a nice strategy, but it is more likely a sign that Cordero is starting to lose his strikeout prowess.
The Reds declined Cordero's $12MM option for 2012 but there was mutual interest in both parties in a new multiyear contract. Cordero told Jim Bowden on MLB Network Radio that while the Reds were still in the "hunt," he would go elsewhere unless Cincinnati upped its offer.
Joe Nathan's two-year, $14.75MM deal with the Rangers would seem to be the baseline for a new Cordero contract. Both Cordero and Nathan will be pitching in their age-37 season in 2012, and while Nathan enjoyed more elite years than Cordero has, Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and only showed flashes of his old self in his return to the mound last yera. Cordero and his representatives at Proformance can credibly argue that Cordero is worth more given his track record of durability.
Of the nine contenders who have been linked to the right-hander, we can eliminate Texas since they've already got Nathan. Spending big on a closer seems like an unlikely move for the Mets, Blue Jays and Rays, the latter of whom already has Kyle Farnsworth under contract for 2012. Both L.A. teams could be interested in having a veteran presence at the end of games, but given how impressive Jordan Walden and Javy Guerra looked for the Angels and Dodgers last year, bringing Cordero into the fold would seem unnecessary.
This leaves the Red Sox, Marlins and Reds. Boston has a need at closer with Jonathan Papelbon gone to Philadelphia, but the Red Sox won't want to risk another expensive disaster on the free agent market if Cordero is really on a downward arc in his career and doesn't get any BABIP luck at Fenway. Miami already seem to have moved past Juan Carlos Oviedo and has been seemingly connected to every free agent this winter; signing an established veteran like Cordero would be one of those headline signings that the Marlins seem intent on making to prove that they're serious about contending in 2012.
As for Cincinnati, the amount of interest in Cordero would seem to preclude a hometown discount, but he could return if the Reds boost their offer at least into the ballpark of what Cordero's other offers. In Tim Dierkes' Offseason Outlook piece on the Reds, however, Tim warned that paying Cordero $5MM or more per year is "a market inefficiency the Reds should avoid." Nathan's deal might have priced the Reds out of Cordero's range if the team has similar reservations about its former stopper.
Another team to throw into the mix are the Twins, who are looking for a veteran closer. They haven't been connected to Cordero yet but the two sides would seem to be a decent match.
A three-year deal for Cordero would be ill-advised, but his decision might come down to which team offers him the most incentive-filled two-year pact or possibly even a vesting option for a third year. I'd expect Cordero to get a two-year deal worth around $16MM, with some type of club option for 2014 that could be tied to innings or appearances. I'd guess he ends up pitching in Miami or Minnesota next season, with a return to Cincinnati lurking as the upset possibility.
Aramis Ramirez's free agency seemingly came at a great time. 2011 was his healthiest season since '08, and he bounced back offensively to win the National League's Silver Slugger award at third base. Also to his benefit: he's the only free agent third baseman likely to be viewed as a starter at the position.
The occasional trip to the disabled list had never affected Ramirez on the field until perhaps 2010. That year he dealt with a sore triceps, bruised thumb, and a quad injury. A .303 hitter over the previous six seasons, Ramirez slipped to .241 last year. That might have been injury-related, a fluke, or a little of both, but Ramirez preferred a $14.6MM salary for 2011 over free agency. He probably could have gotten a multiyear deal at a reduced salary.
New Cubs management would have been content with Ramirez on a one-year, $16MM deal, as they exercised their side of a mutual option in late October. Or, perhaps Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were certain Ramirez would decline his end, and exercised theirs to avoid paying the $2MM buyout. At any rate, the longtime Cub will be with a new team in 2012.
Ramirez is a middle-of-the-order bat in a market bereft of third basemen, yet at least three teams with openings have little interest. The Marlins and Rockies are unlikely to participate in the bidding, with the Rockies reportedly balking at the number of years Ramirez seeks. The Marlins would seemingly prefer to commit six years to Jose Reyes and move Hanley Ramirez to third base for three years than pursue Ramirez. Angels GM Jerry Dipoto said outright he's not interested in Ramirez.
Ramirez is 33 years old, and his agent Paul Kinzer seeks four guaranteed years or three with an option. Perhaps that early demand has scared off the Marlins, Rockies, and Angels, but Kinzer says he has at least two teams with strong interest.
Ramirez doesn't seem a great fit for the Orioles, who have options at the infield corners and aren't close to contending. Several other teams with clearer third base openings are not close to contending either. The Red Sox or Yankees probably aren't ready to use Kevin Youkilis and Alex Rodriguez full-time at DH, so they're unlikely. The Phillies still have Placido Polanco under contract for one more year and just added Ty Wigginton. The Diamondbacks only make sense if they consider Ramirez an upgrade over the much cheaper Ryan Roberts. The Tigers, Twins, and Brewers could work for Ramirez, if they have the money. I can picture three years and as much as $42MM for Ramirez, but at this point it's unclear which team would be eager to make that commitment.
Free agent left-hander Chris Capuano seeks a multiyear deal this offseason and, as improbable as it would have seemed two years ago, he may actually get one. The 33-year-old has recovered from Tommy John surgery — his second such operation — and two lost seasons to become a solid back-of-the-rotation option.
Capuano, who didn’t pitch in the Major Leagues in 2008 or 2009, returned to the Brewers in 2010 and pitched effectively, mostly out of the bullpen. Then, in 2011, he posted a 4.55 ERA with 8.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 and a 42.7% ground ball rate in 186 innings for the Mets.
His unsightly ERA may be deceptive, since xFIP (3.67) and SIERA (3.60) suggest he pitched better. Capuano placed 33rd on MLBTR’s list of top free agents and you can make the argument that he’s one of the top ten starters on the open market.
The Mets appear to prefer one-year bargains, but Capuano’s representatives at Moye Sports Associates are likely to hear from many other interested teams. At least a dozen teams will likely have interest in filling out the back of their rotations with arms such as Capuano, Bruce Chen and Freddy Garcia. For example, the Red Sox had some interest in Capuano at the end of the season and their need for pitching still exists.
Capuano, an unranked free agent, signed for $1.5MM plus incentives last offseason. After approaching the 200-inning plateau, he has earned a raise and a shot at a multiyear deal. Kevin Correia signed a two-year deal worth $8MM last offseason and I expect a similar contract for Capuano before Spring Training 2012.
Johnny Damon turned 38 over the weekend, but he can still hit. In fact he may be the best available designated hitter of the offseason not named David Ortiz. Now just 277 career hits away from 3,000, Damon’s probably two full seasons away from making history.
He hit .261/.326/.418 with 16 homers and 29 doubles in 582 plate appearances as the Rays' DH in 2011. Relative to the league as a whole, he hit well (110 OPS+), but DHs averaged a better batting line this past season: .265/.340/.429.
It's worth noting Damon has played in at least 140 games every season since 1996. Or, put another way, the last time he appeared in fewer than 140 games, he was 21 years old and Vince Coleman, Mark Gubicza and Juan Samuel were his teammates.
Agent Scott Boras will surely tell teams Damon adds value through leadership in the clubhouse and on the field. Boras told ESPN last offseason that championship caliber players like Damon "can be a force in the locker room and around young players."
Damon hasn’t played the field regularly since 2009, so don’t expect him to play much defense in 2012, his age-38 season. Jim Thome will be wielding a glove next year, so anything’s possible, but Damon will probably DH. Fortunately for him, he’s a Type B free agent and won’t be tied to draft pick compensation.
Recent history suggests Damon will sign a one-year deal late in the offseason. He signed an $8MM contract with the Tigers in February of 2010 and signed a $5.25MM deal with the Rays last January. Budget-permitting, the Rays could be a fit again. If not, the Orioles, Blue Jays, Athletics and Twins may have interest in signing Damon to another modest one-year deal as he approaches 3,000 hits.
Photo courtesy Icon SMI.