Free Agent Stock Watch Rumors
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.
Southpaw Wei-Yin Chen belongs somewhere in our top 50 free agents list, perhaps in the 20s. Chen will likely be coming to MLB from Japan's Chunichi Dragons as a 26-year-old free agent. The Taiwanese lefty was a foreign player in Nippon Professional Baseball, and his agents at Octagon negotiated free agency into his contract.
Chen's arm may be fresher than many hurlers coming over from Japan, given his age and the fact that his innings were limited by Tommy John surgery several years ago. On the other hand, he's not lighting up radar guns as he once did, and his strikeout rate dipped to 5.1 per nine innings in 164 2/3 frames this year. Chen did manage a 2.68 ERA, keeping his walks and home runs allowed down.
Chen is expected to come to MLB if he's offered a rotation job. I don't expect the price to be exorbitant -- perhaps a four-year deal worth less than $20MM would get it done. Interest should be strong in a market light on reasonably-priced starting pitchers with upside.
Last night's seven-walk World Series performance was one to forget for the Cardinals' Edwin Jackson, though the righty certainly isn't turning his attention to free agency yet. Jackson might be the fourth-best free agent starter this offseason; let's take a closer look.
One point Jackson's agent Scott Boras is sure to play up is sure to play up is his client's age; he just turned 28. No accomplished free agent starter is younger, and most are over 30. For Boras that will translate into years, perhaps with a target of four. Last winter only Cliff Lee exceeded three years, and only a handful of guys reached that level.
Though Jackson will be fighting a reputation of inconsistency, he has made at least 31 starts every year since 2007. Including the 2011 postseason, Jackson has averaged about 214 innings from 2009-11. In '09 with the Tigers Jackson's innings pitched per start jumped past 6.4, and it has stayed there since. He's not much different than Mark Buehrle in that regard.
Despite these numbers, Jackson doesn't feel like anything close to a #1 or #2 starter. He averages almost 95 miles per hour on his fastball, yet his strikeout rate stays around seven per nine innings and he's quite hittable. His last two pitching coaches were the game's best, Dave Duncan and Don Cooper. While Jackson had a flash of brilliance for 75 innings with Chicago last year, his strikeout rate came back down and his walks back up this year. Jackson was arguably worse in his Cardinals stint, with both his strikeout and groundball rates plummeting. Jackson's ERAs have bounced around and even his SIERAs tell us to expect anything from 3.85 to 4.30.
Six teams have tried to harness Jackson's potential, and potential suitors will have to wonder why he's been deemed so movable. Though he's had some moderate AL East success, I don't expect the Yankees and Red Sox to seriously enter the mix. I could see the Orioles, Blue Jays, Royals, Twins, Marlins, Nationals, Cubs, Pirates, and Rockies as matches for Jackson instead.
Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.
Among free agent starters with at least 100 innings pitched in 2011, C.J. Wilson, C.C. Sabathia, and Mark Buehrle unsurprisingly comprise the top three in ERA. Erik Bedard snags the fourth spot with a 3.62 ERA, the bigger surprise being the lefty's health rather than his performance. But just a hair behind Bedard in the free agent ERA rankings is a man who had to sign a minor league deal in late January: Freddy Garcia.
After the 2006 season Garcia had tallied 200+ innings in six consecutive years. Seeking a front-rotation arm, Phillies GM Pat Gillick acquired Garcia from the White Sox for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez at the Winter Meetings that year. Biceps soreness set in that spring for Garcia, who began the year on the DL. The big righty threw 56 innings for the '07 Phillies, at which point a serious shoulder injury was diagnosed. He had surgery in late August, and became a hot commodity as a free agent a year later. Garcia gave the '08 Tigers three September starts and planned to participate in the Venezuelan Winter League to further prove his health.
Garcia's shoulder flared up at that point, but he was healthy enough to land a $1.5MM base salary with $6.5MM in incentives from the Mets in January of '09. Mets GM Omar Minaya convinced Garcia to accept a minor league assignment to begin that season, but he was released by the end of April. It was a low point for Garcia, who signed back with the White Sox in June of that year on a minor league deal. Garcia closed out his season with nine starts for the Sox, pitching well enough to prompt the team to exercise a $1MM option in October.
In 2010 we saw a full season of the new Garcia. The results: a 4.64 ERA, 5.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.32 HR/9, and 40.7% groundball rate in 157 innings. It wasn't enough to merit a big league deal, so the Yankees signed him to a minor league contract in January and he soon became the favorite to be the team's fourth starter. An August finger injury cost Garcia a few starts, but he ended up with similar numbers: a 5.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.98 HR/9, and 36.4% groundball rate in 146 2/3 innings. If you count a minor league start and a postseason start, Garcia pitched 156 innings.
SIERA says Garcia's skills suggest an ERA around 4.28, rather than his actual 3.62 mark. That's still an improvement over 2010. Garcia slightly improved his strikeout rate, perhaps due to some changes in his mix of pitches. Garcia still profiles as a back-end starter, but his new level of performance should result in a guarantee at least matching the $3MM given to the likes of Brad Penny and Brandon Webb last winter.
Garcia appears to have earned over $4MM this year including incentives, and the Yankees must decide whether to offer arbitration if his fringe Type B status holds up. Perhaps the Yankees can convince him to decline arbitration, as otherwise the process could lead to a $5-6MM guarantee should the pitcher accept. Garcia has shown he can provide that amount of value, but despite the lower ERA this year the market perception would probably put him below a $5MM base salary as a free agent.
Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.