Make Or Break Year Rumors

Make Or Break Year: Mike Pelfrey

The Mets slashed more than $25MM off their Opening Day payroll from last season, but one player they held onto was Mike Pelfrey. The club's Opening Day starter a year ago was a non-tender candidate this past offseason, and now he has to show that they make the right decision by keeping him around for another year.

Uspw_5202756Pelfrey, 28, has yet to live up to the expectations of being the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft. He has made at least 31 starts and thrown at least 180 innings in each of the last four seasons, but he's pitched to a 4.27 ERA during that time. Pelfrey's career strikeout (5.1 K/9), walk (3.2 BB/9), and ground ball (48.5%) rates leave an awful lot to be desired, especially for a pitcher making $5.675MM in his second year of arbitration-eligibility.

The Mets were reportedly open to trading Pelfrey last month, and at one point they were even said to be considering releasing him. That didn't happen, and instead the 6-foot-7 right-hander will make his season debut tonight. If the club was thinking about trading him in Spring Training, there's a pretty good chance they're hoping he performs well early in the season so they could flip him for a decent return at midseason. Quality starting pitching is always in high demand at the trade deadline.

At the same time, there's also the chance that Pelfrey does not improve his performance and boost his trade value. Another season like last year (4.74 ERA in 193 2/3 innings) or 2009 (5.03 ERA in 184 1/3 innings) likely means that the Mets are stuck with him, at least until the non-tender deadline in December. At that point he would be a free agent coming off three disappointing seasons in the last four years. A good year could mean a trade to a contender and a hefty salary in 2013, but another typical Pelfrey season means something much less lucrative.

Photo courtesy of US Presswire.


Make Or Break Year: Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes is still only 25 years old, but the Yankees' right-hander has ridden the career roller coaster since making his debut in 2007. He knows what it's like to be a highly touted prospect, to deal with injury, to be a dominant setup man, a quality starter, an All-Star, a World Champion, and a disappointment. The 2012 season figures to be the most important season of his career.

Uspw_5541668After helping the Yankees to the 2009 World Series as Mariano Rivera's setup man, Hughes moved into the team's rotation in 2010 and rewarded them with an 18-8 record. That record had more to do with all the terrific run support he received, though the advanced metrics indicate that his performance was almost exactly league average. His 4.19 ERA was backed up by a 4.25 FIP. League average isn't too shabby for a 23-year-old in the AL East.

Because he had worked primarily as a reliever in 2009, Hughes threw 80 1/3 more innings in 2010 than he had the year before. He also showed up to camp overweight in 2011. The combination of being out of shape and having a big workload increase led to shoulder issues. Hughes missed the majority of last season and wasn't particularly effective when he was on the mound, pitching to a 5.79 ERA (4.58 FIP) in 74 2/3 innings. His fastball velocity was gone and his breaking ball had no bite.

After making $2.7MM as a first-time arbitration-eligible player last year, Hughes got a very slight raise to $3.2MM this year. He rededicated himself to conditioning this offseason and came to camp in much better shape, showing renewed life on his fastball and break on his curveball. He came back like the 2010 version of himself, and the Yankees rewarded him with a rotation spot thanks in part to Michael Pineda's sore shoulder.

That said, no one will care how Hughes looked in Spring Training during his first start of the season this weekend. He has to show that he's back to being an effective starter, because another disaster season like 2011 could very end with him being non-tendered in December. Hughes is scheduled to become a free agent after next season, when he'll still be just 27. An effective season this year and next could lead to a significant payday, so Hughes stands to gain or lose quite a bit in 2012.

Photo courtesy of US Presswire.


Make Or Break Year: Scott Baker

Icon_11802008The Twins are coming off the second-losingest season since moving to Minnesota in 1961, in part because they only got 21 starts out of Scott Baker. The right-hander has been a stabilizing force in their rotation over the last half-decade, though he's now entering what might be the most important season of his career.

Performance has never been an issue for the 30-year-old Baker. He's consistently pitched to a 3.98 ERA with 7.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and a 34.1% ground ball rate since breaking into the big leagues full-time in 2007. Brandon Warne of FanGraphs argued last month that Baker is one of the most underrated pitchers in the game, noting that his fastball command allows his otherwise nondescript stuff to play up. Like I said, his problem hasn't been performance. It's been staying on the field.

Baker has visited the DL in three of the last four seasons, and in that fourth year he missed most of September with an injury but remained active due to expanded rosters. He's dealt with a groin strain (2008), shoulder stiffness (2009), elbow soreness (2010), and a flexor strain (twice in 2011). Sure enough, elbow tendinitis has limited Baker in Spring Training this year. In his first start back this week, he allowed seven runs in 2 2/3 innings.

The Twins hold a $9.25MM club option for Baker's services next year with no buyout. He's a prime midseason trade candidate if they fall out of the race again, but another injury-riddled campaign could ruin Baker's trade value and prompt the team to cut ties with him after the season. If the Twins' longest-tenured starting pitcher can avoid the DL and pitch like his usual self this summer, Minnesota will have no qualms with bringing him back at that price in 2013.

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.



Make Or Break Year: Kendrys Morales

Kendrys Morales has proven himself as an above-average MLB hitter and he's still just 28 years old. He appeared in yesterday's Spring Training contest, but hasn't played in an official game since May 29th, 2010, the day he injured his left ankle in a walk-off home run celebration gone wrong. There are no guarantees for Morales as he attempts to complete his comeback. 

Kendrys Morales - Angels

Morales posted a .302/.353/.548 line with 95 extra base hits in 833 plate appearances during the 2009-10 seasons.  If he returns to form, he’ll essentially be Miguel Cabrera-lite.

But there’s a difference between appearing in a Spring Training game and contributing regularly at the Major League level. The initial fracture sidelined him for a year and he had to have his ankle cleaned out again last May. Even routine activities such as baserunning are more stressful for him than they are for other players.

If Morales comes close to replicating his MVP-caliber 2009 season, his career will finally be on track. He’ll have job security for 2013 and a obtain generous raise when he goes through the arbitration process for the final time next offseason.

However, if he struggles to stay on the field or fails to produce when he plays, there’s a good chance the Angels will cut ties with him by December's non-tender deadline. There would be no sense in guaranteeing Morales another $3MM at that point. And as appealing as free agency is to players coming off of strong seasons, Morales’ job prospects will be limited unless he stays healthy and hits.

For now, however, Morales is simply targeting Opening Day. If his ankle holds up and his swing returns, 2012 could be as rewarding as 2011 was frustrating.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.


Make Or Break Year: What Happened?

Before the season, MLBTR writers identified 13 players who were set for 'make or break' years. These players had experienced ups and downs in their respective careers and were positioned to re-establish themselves as difference makers at the Major League level and set themselves up for success in free agency.

We checked in on the players at the quarter pole of the campaign and again at its midway point. Let's do it again now that the regular season's over (all links go to the MLBTR posts):

Players whose seasons met or exceeded preseason expectations:

  • Aramis Ramirez - Ramirez had a strong season, hitting 26 homers and posting a .306/.361/.510 line as the Cubs' everyday third baseman.
  • Edwin Jackson - Jackson, a free agent after the season, completed 199 2/3 innings with a 3.79 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 43.8% ground ball rate.
  • Bobby Abreu - Though Abreu's power dropped off, he managed a .353 on-base percentage and 21 steals. His 2012 option vested in July, so he should be back in Los Angeles for a fourth season with the Angels.
  • Carlos Beltran - A highly-coveted midsummer trade target, Beltran spent time on the DL with a strained right hand and wrist in August. His season line was .300/.385/.525, so agent Scott Boras will likely receive multiyear offers for the switch-hitter.
  • Jeff Francis - Francis pitched 183 innings with a 4.82 ERA, 4.5 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. He wasn't spectacular, but he made his starts, quieting questions about the condition of his left shoulder.

Players who had disappointing seasons due to injury or poor performance:

  • Scott Kazmir - Kazmir spent time on the DL, made one appearance for the Angels and posted a 17.02 ERA with more walks than strikeouts at Triple-A before getting released. The 2011 season could not have gone much worse for the former first rounder.
  • Nate McLouth - McLouth's .228/.344/.333 line is better than it was last year and features a respectable on-base percentage, but he missed the second half with oblique and abdominal injuries.
  • Jonathan Broxton - It was a lost season for Broxton, who recently had surgery to remove loose bodies in his right elbow and is looking at an incentive-based one-year deal in free agency.
  • Grady Sizemore - Sizemore got off to a hot start, but finished the season with a .224/.285/.422 line. Knee and abdominal issues limited him to 71 games and there's no guarantee that the Indians will pick up his $9MM option for 2012.
  • Joel Zumaya - Zumaya didn't pitch in a Major League game after undergoing elbow surgery in March.
  • Ryan Doumit - A sprained left ankle limited the 30-year-old to 77 games. When healthy, he posted a .303/.353/.477 line, but it doesn't appear likely that the Pirates will pick up his $7.25MM option.
  • Casey Blake - Blake hit .252/.342/.371 in 239 plate appearances and spent considerable time on the DL with a cervical strain. He had surgery in September and the Dodgers will decline his $6MM option for 2012.
  • Matt Capps - Capps saw his strikeout rate (4.7 K/9), ground ball rate (41.6%), average fastball velocity (92.9 mph) and innings total (65 2/3) drop this year, while his ERA rose nearly two runs to 4.25. At least he stayed healthy, unlike many on this list.

Make Or Break Year: How Are They Doing?

Before the season, MLBTR writers identified 13 players who were set for 'make or break' years. These players had experienced ups and downs in their respective careers and were positioned to re-establish themselves as difference makers at the Major League level and set themselves up for success in free agency.

We checked in on the players at the quarter pole of the campaign and let's do it again now that we're midway through the season (all links go to the MLBTR posts):

  • Scott Kazmir - Kazmir spent time on the DL, made one appearance for the Angels and posted a 17.02 ERA with more walks than strikeouts at Triple-A before getting released. The former first rounder is now a free agent.
  • Nate McLouth - McLouth's .225/.345/.330 line is better than it was last year and features a respectable on-base percentage, but his offensive production has fallen off considerably since 2007-09. He spent time on the DL this June.
  • Grady Sizemore - Sizemore missed time with a knee injury, but he still has nine homers and a .231/.295/.448 line. However, he has a career-high 29.5% strikeout rate and a career-low 6.1% walk rate.
  • Ryan Doumit - The switch-hitter has spent most of the season on the disabled list, though he has a .269/.333/.441 line when healthy. 
  • Jonathan Broxton - Broxton is on the disabled list with a bruised right elbow and he has had another setback, so there's no timetable for his return. If he doesn't pitch well later this season, he will be overshadowed by this offseason's strong crop of free agent relief pitchers.
  • Joel Zumaya - Zumaya had elbow surgery in March and it's not clear if he'll ever return to the Tigers.
  • Casey Blake - Blake has returned from surgery for an elbow infection and has a .243/.346/.386 line as a third baseman, first baseman and left fielder. The 37-year-old isn't in the Dodgers' everyday lineup anymore.
  • Aramis Ramirez - Ramirez has a .298/.346/.497 line with 15 homers and could be en route to his best season since 2008.
  • Edwin Jackson - Jackson, a free agent this winter, has a 4.30 ERA (3.31 xFIP) with 7.8 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 106 2/3 innings for the White Sox.
  • Bobby Abreu - Abreu, 37, has a .277/.394/.363 line this year. A year after hitting his usual 20 homers, Abreu's power is diminishing, but his on-base skills still exist.
  • Carlos Beltran - Beltran has a .285/.377/.503 line with 13 homers. There seems to be a good chance that he'll finish the season with another team, as he would agree to waive his no-trade clause under the right circumstances.
  • Matt Capps - Capps has 15 saves, but his strikeout rate has fallen from 7.3 K/9 to 4.9 K/9 and his average fastball velocity has fallen from 94 mph to 92.8 mph.
  • Jeff Francis - The 30-year-old left-hander appears to be headed for the second 200 inning season of his career. Francis, who battled shoulder injuries in 2009-10, has a 4.60 ERA with 4.4 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9.

Make Or Break Year: How Are They Doing?

Before the season, MLBTR writers identified 13 players who were set for 'make or break' years. These players had experienced ups and downs in their respective careers and were positioned to re-establish themselves as difference makers at the Major League level and set themselves up for success in free agency. Now that we're at the quarter pole for the 2011 season, let's check in on the lucky 13 players (all links go to the MLBTR posts):

  • Scott Kazmir - Kazmir, now on the DL, has appeared in one game this year and he allowed five runs, five hits and two walks in 1 2/3 innings. I'll be surprised if he signs a guaranteed contract this winter.
  • Nate McLouth – McLouth was coming off a poor 2010 season, but the results are much better in 2011. He has a .262/.355/.379 line, though UZR/150 suggests his defense in center field has been poor since 2009.
  • Grady Sizemore – After missing most of 2010 with a knee surgery that required microfracture surgery, Sizemore returned with a vengeance, only to hit the disabled list with an injury to his other knee. In 18 games before he got hurt, Sizemore posted a .282/.333/.641 line with six homers.
  • Ryan Doumit - Though he has only stepped to the plate 82 times, Doumit has a healthy .278/.358/.458 batting line. The switch-hitter has been available in trades for a while and it wouldn't be surprising to see him dealt this summer.
  • Jonathan Broxton – Broxton is on the disabled list with a bruised right elbow and there's no timetable for his return. If he doesn't pitch well later this season, he will be overshadowed by this offseason's strong crop of free agent relief pitchers.
  • Joel Zumaya - Zumaya had elbow surgery a week ago today and is now resting and rehabbing. It's not clear that he'll return to the Tigers this year.
  • Casey Blake – Blake required surgery for an elbow infection and could return to the Dodgers soon. Before he got hurt, the 37-year-old had a .956 OPS in 66 plate appearances.
  • Aramis Ramirez - Ramirez is off to a so-so .287/.347/.368 start, but his power can sneak up on people, as it did last year when he hit 19 homers after July 5th.
  • Edwin Jackson - Still just 27, Jackson has a 4.53 ERA with 7.3 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 55 2/3 innings. His name appears multiple times on the leaderboard for free agent starters.
  • Bobby Abreu - The 37-year-old doesn't have much power at this stage in his career (.327 slugging, .072 isolated power), but you won't find many hitters capable of a .377 OBP.
  • Carlos Beltran - Beltran has rebounded in a big way this year. The way he's hitting (.286/.381/.564, 8 homers) he'll be among the most appealing free agents available after the season. I suggested this spring that he and agent Scott Boras could ask for a multiyear deal and that seems even more likely now.
  • Matt Capps - Capps hasn't walked anyone in 18 1/3 innings and he has five saves and a 3.93 ERA. The 27-year-old's value doesn't appear to have changed much this year.
  • Jeff Francis - Though Francis is 0-5 with a 4.83 ERA, he has averaged 6.0 innings per start for the Royals and has a respectable 27K/10BB ratio. The left-hander seems healthy after consecutive seasons with shoulder issues.

Make Or Break Year: Jeff Francis

Jeff Francis seemed headed for stardom when, at the age of 26, he won 17 games and pitched in the World Series. This offseason, in his first appearance on the free agent market, he signed with the Royals for $2MM plus incentives. It's a modest guarantee for a pitcher who still has promise entering 2011.

Francis

Teams aren't going to commit aggressively to pitchers who post 5.00 ERAs, especially if they aren't far removed from serious shoulder issues. Francis' ERA sat precisely at 5.00 after 104 1/3 innings of work last year, in his return to the majors after missing the 2009 campaign with shoulder surgery. The former 9th overall pick wasn't in position to command much as a free agent, even after a successful return to the major leagues.

But things could be different next offseason. Francis, who just turned 30 in January, is still relatively young. And if he puts together a full season, he'll have an easier time convincing teams that his shoulder is no longer a concern.

Though Francis' 2010 ERA and 4-6 record don't look good, his peripheral stats do. He posted a robust 47% ground ball rate last year, striking out nearly three times as many hitters as he walked. What's more, his FIP and xFIP suggest he was more deserving of an ERA under 4.00. And while the American League has the DH, it doesn't have Coors Field, the only home park Francis has known as a big leaguer.

There are no guarantees for Francis or for his new team. If he encounters more shoulder problems or struggles to surpass last year's innings total, the market for him won't be strong after the season. But a healthy year and a little more luck could position Francis for the big free agent contract he didn't sign this past offseason. 

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.


Make Or Break Year: Matt Capps

The winter of 2011 was a good time to be a reliever in search of a new contract. Beginning with Joaquin Benoit's three-year deal with the Tigers, the offseason saw a total of 17 relievers sign multiyear contracts, according to MLBTR's Free Agent Tracker. Of those 17 deals, ten were worth eight figures.

756100703088_MLB_Mets_at_Nationals While this is great news for next winter's class of free agent relievers, it doesn't necessarily guarantee a massive payday. As our list of potential free agents shows, competition for late-inning relief roles next year should be fierce, with a number of intriguing arms poised to hit the market. Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Francisco Cordero, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Soriano, and Jose Valverde are just a few of the pitchers who could be available after 2011.

Matt Capps figures to be among that group of free agent relievers after the season, and his will be one of the more interesting cases to monitor. The right-hander is coming off an exceptional 2010, in which he saved 42 games and recorded a 2.47 ERA between Washington and Minnesota. Capps was rewarded with a $7.15MM salary in his final arbitration season, but another raise next year is no sure thing.

Capps is just a year removed from a 2009 campaign so poor that the Pirates non-tendered him at season's end. After posting career-worst marks in ERA (5.80), BB/9 (2.8), and HR/9 (1.7), Capps righted the ship last season, making 2009 look like an anamoly. However, in what is essentially a contract year, the 27-year-old can't afford to regress again.

Capps' road to a lucrative multiyear deal is also made a little tougher by his probable role with the 2011 Twins. Joe Nathan, returning from Tommy John surgery, has been very effective this spring, and will likely get a chance to reclaim his closer's job as long as he's healthy. We saw plenty of setup men sign sizable contracts this past winter, but another season of 40+ saves would arguably set Capps up for a much bigger payday.

Even in a setup role and up against 2012's intimidating class of free agent relievers, Capps should have no problem earning himself an eight-figure contract if he continues to pitch like he did in 2010. There's not a whole lot of margin for error though. If Capps turns in a season closer to 2009's performance, teams will have no shortage of alternate options for their late-inning needs.

Photo courtesy of Icon SMI.


Make Or Break Year: Carlos Beltran

This time the stakes are lower. When Carlos Beltran hit free agency after the 2004 season, he was in his prime, on the verge of a huge free agent deal. Beltran responded to the pressure with 38 regular season homers and eight more in the playoffs, tying Barry Bonds' postseason record and setting himself up for his current $119MM deal. 

Short of a Bonds-esque late-career breakthrough, Beltran won't come close to approaching his current contract when he hits free agency after the coming season. The market for 34-year-old corner outfielders with knee problems is not strong unless they're coming off of big seasons.

Beltran

2010 was not a big year for Beltran, who underwent a right knee operation in January and didn't return to the majors until July. He seemed healthy in September, when he posted a .967 OPS, but the sample size is small, so we can't be confident that Beltran can hit the way he did earlier in his career.

Despite his injuries, Beltran has hit .295/.384/.470 with 17 home runs in his last 612 plate appearances. If he stays healthy in 2011 and posts numbers like that, he and agent Scott Boras could ask for a multiyear deal next winter. Boras says Beltran can play center field or right, though clubs could be reluctant to put a 34-year-old with questionable knees in center, so it's not clear that Beltran's history as a Gold Glove center fielder will help him on the market.

If Beltran struggles again, he'll be in line for a one-year, incentive-based contract, which is nothing compared to his current deal. He can do better than a make-good contract if he puts together a big year in 2011, but it's hardly the same as in 2004, when his team's pennant hopes were on the line and the potential for a mega-deal existed.

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.