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At base, the qualifying offer system provides a mechanism that allows teams to allocate resources elsewhere while still obtaining the services of certain desirable, established ballplayers. Those players, in turn, sacrifice a portion of the contractual guarantees they would otherwise obtain in an unqualified market. In effect, the system taxes the prospective earnings of certain players who are (or soon will be) free agents.
For more background on the function of the qualifying offer system, see Avoiding The Qualifying Offer, by MLBTR's Tim Dierkes.
The impact of the qualifying offer system has come under much scrutiny over its first two offseasons of implementation. Some have argued that it unfairly penalizes the above-average but non-superstar players that are made a QO (which, if declined, requires another club signing that player to give up its best non-protected draft pick and the accompanying bonus pool money). Others claim that it allows such players a fair chance to sign a substantial contract, pointing to the offer's value (last year, $13.3MM; this year, $14.1MM). A range of arguments also claims that the system perversely favors larger-market clubs.
But before considering such criticisms (and potential reformulations of the system), it is worthwhile to put the system in its broader context, and to consider carefully how it serves (or disserves) its various actual or potential purposes. While it seems exceedingly unlikely that changes will be made before the current CBA is expired and replaced in December of 2016, the topic deserves consideration and debate leading up to that point. In approaching the issue, it is worth looking carefully at both the money at play and where the various risks, benefits, and incentives fall.
A. Overall Market Impact
How much money — in both real and baseball terms — is at stake here? Dave Cameron of Fangraphs posited recently that a 3x valuation of a draft pick's slot value is a good approximation for that pick's value. In other words, a team considering gaining or losing a draft choice would factor that amount in when assessing the potential impact of signing a player (or allowing that player to sign elsewhere). For the 2013 amateur draft, slot values rose by 8.2%, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America. I will assume both a 3x slot value in reaching a market rate, as well as a like 8.2% increase for the 2013 draft. (Note: because slots shift with every move impacting the draft, the resulting numbers will not be perfectly precise, but should nevertheless easily qualify as accurate for our purposes.)
In 2012-13, six players declined qualifying offers and changed teams. According to River Ave. Blues, teams sacrificed the 17th, 22nd, 28th, 29th, 42nd, and 70th picks, while other clubs picked up the 28th through 33rd selections.
In 2013-14, to date, nine players have declined qualifying offers and changed teams. (Two QO-declining players have yet to sign.) Again, according to River Ave. Blues, teams have sacrificed the 17th, 18th, 21st, 26th, 44th, 48th, and 54th choices, while other teams gained the 28th through 34th pick. In addition, the Yankees both earned and sacrificed two supplemental first round choices. Because they finished with the worst record among clubs to have earned a supplemental pick, they would have stood to gain the first two of those picks.
Add up the slot values, and apply the 3x multiplier, and these are the results: In 2012-13, teams sacrificed a total value of $27.51MM ($4.585MM per player) and gained $29.33MM ($4.889MM per player). In 2013-14, to date, teams have sacrified a total value of $48.90MM ($5.433MM per player) and gained $48.85MM ($5.428MM per player). The 8.2% assumed increase in draft slot bonuses fairly well accounts for the rise in per-player figures, with the increase in overall impact coming otherwise from the increased use of qualifying offers.
It is worth putting these numbers up against the overall free agent spend to gauge their magnitude. I recently broke down free agent spending trends, including numbers for the 2012-13 period and the 2013-14 period to date. In the 2012-13 free agent period, clubs committed just over $1.463B in total via free agency, while this year's spending has now topped $2B (it was at $1.88B as of that post). Thus, the net draft value transferred through the qualifying offer system has been around 2% to 2.5% of the total open-market spend over the last two years.
That, surely, is a relatively minimal savings for MLB teams on the whole. When considering the full gamut of ways in which teams invest money into players — including free agency, extensions, the draft, and international signings — the money saved (i.e., allowed to be re-allocated) makes up a meager portion of the aggregate. Of course, it is worth wondering the extent to which the prospect of a future qualifying offer also transfers savings and leverage to teams negotiating extensions with players close to hitting free agency. This is impossible to calculate, but nevertheless does also transfer value to individual teams and savings to the league as a whole, as against current MLB players.
B. Impact On Individual Teams
On an individualized basis, teams assessing whether to make a qualifying offer, or whether to sign a player bound by draft compensation, have ample flexibility to value the choices at stake and decide whether and how to factor them into their decision.
Generally, a team making a qualifying offer to a player obviously reaps a substantial, albeit variable, benefit (in addition to having the right to choose whether or not to make the offer). It may ultimately retain that player at a one-year rate which, in theory, is at or below that player's market value. Or, it may instead receive a supplemental draft choice that lands between the first and second rounds of the draft. (It has been suggested that a team can sign a player that declined a QO at a lower rate than can other clubs, but that is not entirely true: once the offer has been declined, a re-signing effectively entails the sacrifice of a draft choice that, as explained below, comes with roughly the same value as the choices given up by other teams.)
A team signing a player that declined a qualifying offer, on the other hand, theoretically ends up in a neutral position, because it can discount its offer by the value it places on the pick that it sacrifices. While draft picks move as they are added and subtracted, teams have a very clear idea of what they are giving up in future value, and can apply their own valuations (including the tradeoff of present and future, and the actual slate of available draftees) to reach a discount.
As noted above, teams that are considering extensions of current players — especially, those close to reaching free agency — can also utilize the threat of a QO (implicit or otherwise) to achieve leverage. That may mean little in negotiations with superstars, but could have a sizeable impact on talks with "merely" above-average players. The possibility of a qualifying offer adds to and even enhances the risks of injury or performance decline already present to an above-average free agent-to-be, which could result in savings to current teams. This factor is, perhaps, enhanced in the situations of older or defensively-limited players who could be looking at short-term contracts after their walk years, even if they put up good numbers.
C. Impact On Players Subject (Or Potentially Subject) To Qualifying Offer
Meanwhile, for players, those issued a QO are subject to the whims of their team and other circumstances outside of their control. The take-it-or-leave-it offer is presented at the team's initiative, before the market even opens. (This year, for instance, Ubaldo Jimenez came with draft compensation; Matt Garza and A.J. Burnett did not.)
Further, the cost of the small reduction in overall spending falls squarely on the shoulders of the small number of players who are made a qualifying offer: their market value is decreased by whatever amount prospective teams choose to discount for the lost pick. And that burden is not shared by any other stake-holders (other players, the league, teams).
One line of sentiment says that some players over-value themselves by rejecting the QO. (No player has yet accepted one.) Even if the offer is an arguably fair price for one year of a certain player's services, however, that does not end the matter. It is quite difficult to reach free agency through service time, let alone to do so at an optimal point in time. Players that do naturally seek to maximize their overall guarantee, often choosing a longer contract with a lower average annual value to avoid the risks inherent in suiting up for another season before securing a future commitment. As Ubaldo Jimenez recently explained it: "I knew that I would have a better offer than the qualifying offer. Or at the very least, I wasn't as much worried about the annual salary, I was more concerned with having the long-term security."
For those that decline the qualifying offer and test the market, the resulting tie to draft compensation can be a significant drain. Though it is often suggested that the downside of the QO system lands solely on the more marginal players that receive an offer, that may be true only in relative terms. We do not know whether, say, Robinson Cano would have garnered a $245MM (rather than a $240MM) guarantee from the Mariners without an offer. But it is likely that the impact of a lost pick was factored in on some level. While the effect is a relative drop in the bucket for top-dollar free agents, it appears nonetheless.
(This is not to suggest that the team would have any focus on the loss of the draft pick in negotiating with a star-level player; rather, the value of the lost pick would be baked into the valuations that the team uses in setting internal parameters before entering negotiations. As Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has explained, for example, "there's still value" even for picks after the first round, "and you still build that into an offer." Of course, teams may still be willing to go past those valuations to land premier free agents, and/or effectively adjust their internal valuation of a pick downward based on their present roster construction and expected point on the win curve.)
More importantly, though, it is clear that non-superstars take the largest proportional impact. That is made obvious by Nelson Cruz, who recently became the first QO-declining player to sign a deal worth less than the qualifying offer itself, with his one-year, $8MM contract falling over $6MM shy of the $14.1MM he could have taken before the start of free agency. (Previously, the least guaranteed money in a deal to a player who declined a qualifying offer was Adam LaRoche, who signed for two years and $24MM last year after declining the one-year, $13.3MM QO.)
Indeed, the greatest risk for a player may lie not in the possibility that they will see a reduction in their earnings to compensate for the value of a lost pick, but in the impact on that player's overall market. Some teams may decide that they will not sacrifice their draft pick in a given year at all, for any number of reasons. Others may decide that, whatever the theoretical value of the pick, organizational needs dictate that they not cede the choice unless they are signing a player of a certain, higher order. Some clubs may simply put a greater internal value on the draft choice than that suggested by Cameron.
Whatever the case, teams clearly do not take lost picks lightly. "You hear people say, 'Well, what if the [drafted] player doesn't make it,'" Brewers GM Dough Melvin has said. "That's not the sole purpose of a draft pick. You can use those picks for trades. … I'm glad we have Kyle [Lohse], but don't tell me that about overrated draft picks. Their asset value is huge." The net effect, in all likelihood, is often to take away some teams that would be potential suitors and, perhaps, to limit the willingness of some others to offer multiple years.
This could explain, in part, how a player like Ervin Santana ended up taking a one-year pact (at the precise value of the qualifying offer) just to get in camp before the end of the spring. This kind of situation is not unprecedented even without draft pick implications — for instance, Edwin Jackson signed a $11MM pillow contract with the Nationals the year before the QO system went into effect, and did not cost the Nats a pick (he was a Type B free agent under the old system). Like Jackson, Santana had multi-year offers, apparently at about the price achieved last year by Kyle Lohse. But Santana was unwilling to sign for three years at a total value roughly equivalent to two years of qualifying offers, as was Lohse, and was apparently unable to translate relatively strong demand into a fourth year.
The point here is not that the QO in and of itself prevented Santana from achieving the four or five-year deal he was hypothetically entitled to. Rather, it is that, for the reasons just noted above, the qualifying offer played a role in dampening his market and reducing his leverage to pry away more years at a strong average annual value. And that, in turn, makes for an even greater potential increase in the proportion of the burden borne by a limited class of players.
Then, there are the soon-to-be free agents facing the possibility of a market hampered by the burden of draft compensation. As noted above, their leverage is surely reduced by the prospect of carrying that added cost, especially if always-shifting demand turns out to be less than robust. And the qualifying offer introduces risk to the player through the unpredictability of its effects, especially since the system drastically skews the market (through the protection of some draft picks and the fact that teams signing multiple compensation free agents sacrifice increasingly less valuable choices.) Indeed, players like Justin Masterson and Chase Headley have reportedly seen their current teams insert the qualifying offer into extension talks.
With this understanding of the broad parameters of the function of the qualifying offer system, the question becomes one of purposes. What does the system hope to accomplish, and hope to avoid? And how well has it done? I will suggest an approach to those questions in a second post.
The Padres made two substantial free-agent additions while otherwise mostly tinkering at the margins of the roster, and will look to their young core to move the team forward in 2014.
Major League Signings
- Joaquin Benoit, RHP. Two years, $15.5MM.
- Josh Johnson, RHP: One year, $8MM. Conditional $4MM club option.
- Total Spend: $23.5MM
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
- Acquired OF Seth Smith from Athletics for RHP Luke Gregerson.
- Acquired LHP Alex Torres and RHP Jesse Hahn from Rays in exchange for IF Logan Forsythe, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Matt Andriese, RHP Matt Lollis, and 2B Maxx Tissenbaum.
- Acquired IF Ryan Jackson from Astros in exchange for OF/1B Jesus Guzman.
- Acquired RHP Ben Paullus from Yankees in exchange for IF Dean Anna.
- Acquired OF Alex Dickerson from Pirates in exchange for OF Jaff Decker and RHP Miles Mikolas.
- Acquired LHP Patrick Schuster (Rule 5 pick) from Astros in exchange for RHP Anthony Bass.
- Acquired RHP Devin Jones from Orioles for RHP Brad Brach.
- Claimed OF Alex Castellanos from Rangers.
- Clayton Richard, Ronny Cedeno, Jose De Paula, Colt Hynes, Mark Kotsay, Jason Marquis (still unsigned)
Sitting here today, one year ago, did anyone think that Benoit would get nearly double the guarantee of Johnson? Nevertheless, that's what happened, and both righties are now Padres. Benoit, of course, will plug into the setup role vacated by Gregerson, and could ultimately supplant Huston Street in the closer's role with the latter coming up on an option year. In a sense, this was a need of GM Josh Byrnes' own making, though Benoit does represent an interesting choice as a closer-in-waiting who has spent most of his career as a setup man. It remains to be seen how the gambit will turn out, of course; though Benoit has been quite good in recent seasons, he is already 36 years of age.
Johnson, meanwhile, represents the last major piece of a re-worked rotation. After moving on from former key arms Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard, and adding something of a reclamation project by trading for Ian Kennedy last July, the club had room for another arm to put alongside Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Eric Stults. With younger pitchers like Joe Wieland, Robbie Erlin, and Burch Smith in the organization, GM Josh Byrnes could have stood pat or waited to land a cheap deal with a veteran, innings-eating arm. Instead, he went for upside.
Otherwise, the 2014 roster had no significant, pressing needs. That did not mean that Byrnes and company would sit on their hands, however, particularly with a host of somewhat marginal MLB players occupying valuable 40-man spots. What ensued was a re-working at the edges of the roster seemingly designed to capture some value for surplus parts.
There were many moves, but their net impact is relatively minor. San Diego purged its bullpen of a series of players who threw for the big club last year, led by Gregerson but also including Bass, Boxberger, Brach, Hynes, and Mikolas. Likewise, the Pads moved on from a variety of reserve types, led by Forsythe and including Anna, Guzman, and Decker.
The return for this big group, and the prospects that accompanied them, will have some impact on the MLB roster. Torres is the team's only sure southpaw in the bullpen, while Smith will see plenty of plate appearances from the corner outfield. Schuster is currently battling minor-league signee Sipp for a spot in the 'pen as a second lefty, while Jackson and Castellanos are in the mix for bench roles. Meanwhile, Hahn and Dickerson are both top-thirty organizational prospects (though so was Andriese).
On the whole, the Pads' front office put out a lot of effort that may not make a huge difference. Looking at the two main trades involving MLB players, it is fair to ask whether Torres and Smith are a better combination than Gregerson and Forsythe? San Diego had dealt its primary lefty, Joe Thatcher, in the Kennedy trade, so adding Torres bypassed the need to purchase a new southpaw. But moving Forsythe still left the club with ample outfield options, and does little to make sense of the earlier Gregerson-for-Smith swap.
By sending out Gregerson for an equivalently-priced platoon outfielder, San Diego not only failed to free up salary space but created a need to book an even more expensive replacement in Benoit. Smith, at least, offers a different skillset than Forsythe, who was perhaps redundant with Alexi Amarista. But his power has declined since leaving Coors Field, and defensive metrics are not fans of his outfield work. While it made some sense to bring in a righty-masher, San Diego never moved any of its other corner bats, leaving it with five outfielders deserving of a roster spot (at least until Cameron Maybin suffered his most recent injury). And it is far from clear that Smith was fair value for Gregerson, who has been consistently effective over all five of his MLB seasons.
The biggest questions in San Diego relate to the fulfillment of potential. The club features many important young players, two of whom — shortstop Everth Cabrera and catcher Yasmani Grandal — are coming off of PED suspensions arising out of the Biogenesis investigation. While the roster arguably features an over-abundance of right-handed-hitting corner outfielders, one (Maybin) will be out to start the year and another (Carlos Quentin) has really never been consistently healthy. The steady Chris Denorfia is also available, though he lacks the talent of the other two. And in the rotation, in addition to a return to form from Johnson, the club will hope for a bounceback from Kennedy and continued development from Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. Getting the answers to these questions is simply a matter of waiting and watching.
On the transactional side, speculation on a Chase Headley extension has undergone a roller-coaster ride ever since he broke out in 2012. It has appeared at times that San Diego was set to make the third baseman the long-term face of its franchise, but at present that seems unlikely. "This has been a topic for a couple years. There's been dialogue. Both sides have tried. We just haven't been able to agree to the essential deal parameters," said Byrnes. "There are no active discussions. But the door's always open." As Headley himself has made clear, the gap between his healthy and productive 2013 and his injury-plagued, less-excellent 2013 campaigns posed a major obstacle.
So, all signs point towards Headley playing out the 2014 season without a new deal, allowing both sides — and the rest of the league — to assess his actual value. The open question, then, is somewhat different at this point: If Headley performs, but the Padres are not within shouting distance of a post-season bid at the trade deadline, will he be dealt?
Deal Of Note
Of course, the Pads are surely hoping that dealing Headley is not an option due to the team's performance on the field. If Byrnes did not feel there was a legitimate chance at a post-season run, it is unlikely that he would have participated in a competitive auction for the towering Johnson. Taking advantage of Petco Park's reputation for suppressing the long ball, San Diego was able to beat out several other teams — including the Pirates, who instead brought in Volquez — for a roll of the dice on Johnson returning to form.
Looking past his misleading ERA totals from last year (he suffered from high BABIP and HR/FB rates with a low strand rate), Johnson has an impeccable track record — when healthy. His SIERA and xFIP marks, for instance, have not strayed above the 4.00 level since 2007. His swinging strike percentage last year was right at his career mark, and he punched out hitters at a career-best rate of 9.18 K/9.
The issue, of course, is durability: Johnson has endured a string of health issues. In fact, he has exceeded 200 innings in just one season and has made it to triple-digit inning tallies in only four MLB campaigns. San Diego bought itself some protection by negotiating a conditional $4MM club option for 2015 that will be available to the club if Johnson fails to make seven starts. While that provides some benefit to the club in the event of a catastrophic injury, the fact remains that Johnson's signing is a roll of the dice.
Johnson's signing, ultimately, makes a lot of sense for both parties. For Johnson, a pillow contract in a pitcher-friendly situation made San Diego a natural fit. The Padres wanted a pitcher of his talent level to supplement their excellent group of younger players, but they did not want to pay the premium needed to get a more established option. There's risk sure, but at one-third the guarantee given to Bronson Arroyo, the potential payoff is worth putting the cash on the line. As Byrnes has explained, "if [Johnson] can pitch like he has for many years in his career, we're a different team."
On the whole, the Padres' moves seem solid enough. Indeed, in a survey conducted by ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, the team landed second on the "most improved" list among NL clubs. Of course, as Stark noted, San Diego's additions (like those of most of the National League) paled in comparison to what some AL clubs did in terms of impact. But given the organization's solid group of younger players, and limited overall payroll capacity, Byrnes and his staff have put the team in a position to make a run like that of the Pirates last year — if some things break in San Diego's favor.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Twins spent more money on free agency this offseason than they ever have in the past, but they received a devastating blow by losing a top prospect for the season as well.
Major League Signings
- Ricky Nolasco, RHP: Four years, $49MM with club/vesting option for 2018.
- Phil Hughes, RHP: Three years, $24MM.
- Mike Pelfrey, RHP: Two years, $11MM.
- Kurt Suzuki, C: One year, $2.75MM
- Total Spend: $86.75MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Jason Kubel ($2MM base salary if he makes the club), Matt Guerrier, Jason Bartlett, Brandon Waring, Chris Rahl
Trades and Claims
- Acquired LHP Sean Gilmartin from the Braves in exchange for C/OF Ryan Doumit.
- Acquired LHP Kris Johnson from the Pirates in exchange for RHP Duke Welker.
- Claimed LHP Brooks Raley off waivers from the Cubs.
Manager Ron Gardenhire's job security has rarely been in question since he took over the team in the early 2000s, but that was the case — at least among media members — this offseason prior to his signing of a two-year extension. General manager Terry Ryan said there was never any real doubt in his mind that Gardenhire would be back, and while some can speculate that the veteran skipper's connection with players has diminished in recent years, it's impossible to pin the team's struggles on his head. Minnesota has experienced a lack of quality big league talent on the Major League roster for the past few years, and it's shown up with three straight seasons at or near the bottom of the AL Central.
The primary weakness has been pitching, and Ryan and his staff set out to address that issue in a manner never before seen by Twins fans. Owner Jim Pohlad blasted the club's on-field performance in September, calling the product "embarrassing" and plainly stating that he had no problem issuing franchise-record contracts to pitchers in free agency.
While the names the Twins brought in — Ricky Nolasco (pictured), Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey — may not be the flashiest that were on the market, the trio should represent an improvement upon last year's group. While Pelfrey, of course, was a part of that woeful rotation, he's also two full years removed from Tommy John surgery.
However, though Pelfrey saw his average velocity increase over the course of the season, and stats such as FIP and xFIP show that he experienced some poor luck with his 5.19 ERA, I do have to wonder how great an upgrade he'd be over internal options. His addition could push Kyle Gibson to Triple-A in favor of one of Minnesota's three out-of-options starters — Vance Worley, Scott Diamond or Sam Deduno — making the decision to re-sign Pelfrey a questionable one. Could Gibson and Deduno or a healthy Worley have been just as effective as Pelfrey and whoever wins the fifth starter role? It's a definite possibility, but depth is something Minnesota has lacked, and the average annual value of Pelfrey's deal is hardly difficult to justify in terms of performance (Fangraphs' Dave Cameron noted that this offseason, one win on the free agent market is valued right around $6MM).
Minnesota lured in Hughes by gambling on his age with an unexpected three-year deal. Always one to post better numbers on the road, the Twins are hoping a move to a bigger ballpark (really, a division full of bigger ballparks) will aid his overall production. Hughes is still just 27 years of age, so while a $24MM guarantee was surprising based on his recent history, the $8MM annual value will look reasonable if he can provide league-average innings and look like a bargain if he can provide anything more. On the other hand, should his struggles continue, it will be easy to point to the deal as an unnecessary gamble.
Some depth was added via trade as well, as the Twins pulled in former first-rounder Gilmartin in exchange for one year of Doumit. Gilmartin battled injuries in 2013 and was largely ineffective as a result, but he was solid in 2012. Even though some feel he was a reach in the 2011 first round, he could be a back-end starter at some point, which would be a nice return for one year of the defensively challeneged Doumit.
Ryan and his staff brought in a number of former Twins on minor league deals, but if things had gone their way, they could've had a fourth former Twin on a Major League deal that would have been their second-largest of the offseason. Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported last month that the Twins made Matt Garza a three-year, $42MM offer with a vesting $14MM option at one point this offseason. That $14MM annual value certainly trumps Garza's $12.5MM AAV with Milwaukee, but Garza elected for the fourth guaranteed year and a complex option that could result in him earning as much as $67MM.
The Twins also chased a pair of Santanas — former ace Johan Santana and former AL Central division rival Ervin Santana. Minnesota wasn't willing to top Baltimore's rich $3MM base salary on the minor league deal for Johan, and though they made a late three-year, $30-33MM offer to Ervin, his preference was for a one-year deal, which he got earlier this morning with the Braves. The Twins weren't keen on forfeiting a draft pick for a one-year upgrade in what isn't likely to be a contending season.
Joe Mauer's move to first base opened a need at catcher that assistant GM Rob Antony told Berardino last week they hoped would be filled by A.J. Pierzynski. He signed with the Red Sox, however, causing the Twins to turn their attention to the man he replaced — Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty ultimately signed with his hometown Marlins, whose interest put the Twins into an uphill battle for the 28-year-old's services.
The Twins once again moved on, and they were able to reel in their next target in veteran Kurt Suzuki. He should help to take some pressure off impressive prospect Josmil Pinto. The latter's glove has drawn question marks, but his robust production from Double-A to Triple-A to his September call-up in 2013 suggest he's not far from forcing his way into everyday at-bats.
The Twins missed on Garza and Santana but still added a trio of free-agent pitchers to help round out a rotation that finished dead last in the Majors with a 5.26 ERA last year. Nolasco, Hughes and a healthier Pelfrey should all be able to help lower that mark, but the rotation still looks to be below average. In 2013, the Cubs finished 15th in the Majors in rotation ERA with a 3.97 mark, and the league average among starting pitchers was a 4.01 ERA. Can Nolasco, Hughes, Pelfrey, Kevin Correia and one of the team's internal options top those numbers? If everything breaks right, perhaps, but even then it wouldn't be by much. Perhaps Alex Meyer, a consensus Top 40 prospect, can force the Twins to clear room for him by making a trade this summer. Pelfrey and Kevin Correia — a free agent at season's end — both strike me as possible trade candidates if pitching well.
The Twins infield is rife with question marks as well. Trevor Plouffe was thought to be a placeholder for top prospect Miguel Sano this season, but the Twins received crushing news in learning that Sano, the minor leagues' premier slugger, would miss the 2014 campaign to undergo Tommy John surgery. Now the defensively challenged Plouffe, whose power dramatically dropped from 2012 (.220 ISO) to 2013 (.138 ISO), will likely see the lion's share of playing time.
Pedro Florimon's strong glove will once again man shortstop, but he provides little to no offense. Stephen Drew seemed to make sense for the Twins on a multi-year deal, but perhaps they feel that Florimon can provide at least one to two wins per year with his glove, making Drew too expensive for the upgrade he would provide.
Brian Dozier's power, speed and defense from second base outweighed his so-so on-base skills in 2013; can he continue to improve in 2014? Even Mauer's future production is no guarantee, as ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote while examining the shockingly low number of players to transition away from catcher and enjoy lengthy careers at a new position.
Josh Willingham will need to prove his knee is healthy and could be moved with a big first half. The Twins are hopeful that two outfield spots will be manned by Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia in the long-term; however, both former Top 50 prospects (Hicks in particular) will need to show improvement from their 2013 production to cement themselves as regulars going forward. Of course, Byron Buxton, the crown jewel of Minnesota's minor league system and consensus No. 1 overall prospect, is expected to take the reins in center field eventually. That seems unlikely in 2014, as he's yet to even play a game at Double-A.
Deal of Note
Because Minnesota lacked the necessary resources to spend on free agents for much of the 90s and 2000s, Nolasco's deal represents a franchise-record investment, and in fact more than doubles the previous record (Josh Willingham's three-year, $21MM deal). In Nolasco, the Twins add a durable innings eater with some upside. Nolasco's ERA has historically underperformed his FIP and xFIP due to an inability to strand runners at a league-average rate. If the Twins can improve his performance with runners on base, he could give them some seasons with an ERA closer to his 2013 mark than his career mark.
However, the deal now looks questionable in light of the fact that both Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez signed four-year deals worth just $1MM more in guaranteed money. Conventional wisdom says that both Garza and Jimenez have considerably more upside (though they also come with risk) and could have made a bigger impact on a Twins rotation that is starved for quality innings.
While that's true, this offseason was also unique in the way the pitching market played out. Masahiro Tanaka's seemingly ceaseless saga put much of the pitching market on hold and likely played a part on Garza, Jimenez and Ervin Santana all being available in late February. The Twins made an effort to wait out the starting pitching market in 2012-13 and had to settle for modest deals for Correia and Pelfrey. Ryan at one point said that he couldn't give his money away if the targets weren't willing to take it.
As such, Minnesota likely felt a need to be more aggressive on the free agent market this year and paid market value early on for Nolasco, then made the aggressive decision to add Hughes as well. Had they known the market would have collapsed the way it did and that Ervin Santana would be available in mid-March, perhaps they'd have passed on one of the three pitchers they did sign in order to secure his services instead.
The Twins possesses the game's third-best farm system, according to Baseball America (though Sano's injury is a clear hit), and those minor leaguers are the key to the club's future. This offseason's additions will help to bridge gaps and stop the bleeding, but they're not likely to bring the Twins back to prominence in the American League Central division. The coming year will be critical for names like Arcia, Hicks, Pinto and Gibson as they look to prove that themselves capable of being regular Major Leaguers.
If that can happen, the Twins' 2015 outlook would be brighter. A rotation featuring Meyer, Nolasco, Gibson and Hughes would be an improvement (though not elite), as would an eventual outfield of Arcia, Buxton and Hicks with Mauer and Sano at the infield corners. That sounds promising on paper, but a lot has to go right for such a scenario to become reality. And while it gives Twins fans plenty to dream on for years to come, it does little to assuage the unpleasant likelihood that another difficult season is on the horizon in 2014.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The White Sox made an early splash by signing a powerful 27-year-old Cuban first baseman, acquired a new center fielder, swapped their closer for a third base prospect, and tinkered with small-scale free agent signings.
Major League Signings
- Jose Abreu, 1B: six years, $68MM (may opt into arbitration once eligible)
- Scott Downs, RP: one year, $4MM (includes $4.25MM club option for 2015 with $250K buyout)
- Matt Lindstrom, RP: one year, $4MM (club option exercised)
- Ronald Belisario, RP: one year, $3MM (can be controlled through 2016 as arbitration eligible player)
- Paul Konerko, 1B/DH: one year, $2.5MM ($1MM deferred until 2021)
- Felipe Paulino, SP: one year, $1.75MM ($4MM club option for 2015 with a $250K buyout)
- Mitchell Boggs, RP: one year, $1.1MM (can be controlled through 2015 as arbitration eligible player)
- Total spend: $84.35MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Dylan Axelrod, David Purcey, Brian Omogrosso, Zach Putnam, Mauricio Robles, Hector Gimenez, Alex Liddi, Eric Patterson
Trades and Claims
- Acquired 1B Jackson Laumann from Braves for cash considerations
- Acquired OF Adam Eaton from Diamondbacks, gave up P Hector Santiago and OF Brandon Jacobs
- Acquired 3B Matt Davidson from Diamondbacks for RP Addison Reed
- Claimed C Adrian Nieto from Nationals in Rule 5 draft
- Claimed SP Eric Surkamp from Giants
- Claimed RP Maikel Cleto from Royals
- Acquired a player to be named later or cash considerations from Athletics for IF Jake Elmore
- Acquired cash considerations from Braves for SP Zach Stewart
White Sox GM Rick Hahn explained his plan to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune in late October: "Obviously getting better quickly is the goal, but the final determining factor is whether it's going to make us better for an extended period of time. I'm not going to keep churning this thing every two years with short-term fixes. Eventually you have to pay the piper for that and we want to set up something that's sustainable over an extended period." Hahn also made it clear in various offseason interviews that he felt good about the team's pitching depth and aimed to add position players.
It's no surprise, then, that the key moves of Hahn's offseason involved acquiring three position players. Jose Abreu (pictured), Adam Eaton, and Matt Davidson are all in their 20s, with Abreu the oldest at 27. Abreu is controlled through 2019, Eaton through '18, and Davidson through '19 or later. The newly-acquired trio is Major League ready or close to it, as is summer acquisition Avisail Garcia.
As I explained shortly before the October signing, Abreu checks all the boxes for the White Sox: long-term value, a contract that isn't monstrous by typical free agent standards, and no loss of a draft pick to sign him. Five teams offered $60MM+ for the Cuban slugger, but the White Sox prevailed with a six-year, $68MM deal that stands as the largest ever for an international free agent and the largest in team history. The White Sox hope Abreu can provide 30+ home runs annually as their first baseman for the next six years.
The Eaton trade was struck during baseball's Winter Meetings, in a collaboration with the Diamondbacks and Angels. The main piece the Sox had to surrender was 26-year-old southpaw Hector Santiago, who compiled a 3.51 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, and 1.10 HR/9 in 130 2/3 innings as a starter in 2013 and remains under team control through 2017. With Erik Johnson and Andre Rienzo coming on, the White Sox had the depth to spare Santiago, who still has to figure out command and home run issues.
Eaton, often described as a "dirtbag" type of ballplayer, comes with questions of his own. The former 19th round draft pick exceeded expectations in the minor leagues, earning a cup of coffee with Arizona in 2012 and becoming a popular Rookie of the Year candidate for 2013. However, that spring he sprained the UCL in his left elbow, and didn't return to the big leagues until July. Eaton is 25 with only one healthy month in the Majors to his name. The White Sox are gambling that he can be the scrappy consistent on-base threat with good defense that he appeared to be one year ago.
The third major pickup was Davidson, who was also acquired from Arizona. The Sox snagged Davidson straight-up for closer Addison Reed, a 25-year-old with four years of team control remaining. As MLBTR's Jeff Todd noted in his D'Backs Offseason In Review, Reed is not without his flaws, and the cost of saves in arbitration may cut down his years of team control. Davidson, 23 this month, hit .280/.350/.481 with 17 home runs in 500 Triple-A plate appearances and picked up 87 late-season plate appearances with the big club. Ranked 88th among all prospects by ESPN's Keith Law, Davidson "should be an above-average regular at third base given a season or two there to continue to progress." If that is the eventual outcome, the White Sox did very well in acquiring Davidson for perhaps three years of a good (and increasingly expensive) closer.
The White Sox traded Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton during the season and Reed in the offseason, so the bullpen demanded fresh arms. Hahn kept the commitments relatively light, exercising Lindstrom's option, and signing Belisario, Downs, and Boggs for a total of $12.1MM. Belisario and Boggs were non-tendered by their previous teams in December, and the Sox can control them beyond 2014 if it makes sense.
Belisario and Boggs will be projects for renowned pitching coach Don Cooper, as will scrap heap rotation hopeful Felipe Paulino. The 30-year-old last had significant time in the Majors in 2011, undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2012 and shoulder surgery in September 2013. When he was right, Paulino whiffed about a batter per inning and consistently worked at 95 miles per hour, and the White Sox could have the bargain of the offseason if they can get 25+ starts out of him. The White Sox did at least look into a bigger addition for the rotation, Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka. After an exploratory meeting with the pitcher in January, the Sox made an offer that one GM guessed was around $100MM. It doesn't seem that the Sox came close to signing Tanaka. As with their crosstown rivals, potentially paying him $108MM over the next four years did not make sense, even if his ability and youth were worth a bid.
In a process that dragged into December, White Sox all-time great Paul Konerko signed on for one more year at a meager $2.5MM. It was a sentimental signing of a limited player who fits poorly onto the team's roster. As explained by Jim Margalus of South Side Sox in an excellent reflection on the move, "Even the most ardent Konerko supporters acknowledge that he's significantly compromising the roster, but they're writing it off as a fair sacrifice because of the alleged effect he has on others." The signing reminds me of the Mariners bringing Ken Griffey Jr. back for the 2010 season, which didn't end well.
On the coaching front, the White Sox added hitting coach Todd Steverson in October, and extended manager Robin Ventura in January to avoid him entering 2014 in lame-duck status.
Despite the positive vibes from Rick Hahn's offseason, the White Sox still have a below-average collection of 25-and-under players and a farm system that Baseball America ranks 24th and Keith Law ranks 27th in the game. The 2014 draft will continue pushing things in the right direction, as the Sox have the third overall pick and a bonus pool near $10MM. Still, Hahn and company want to get back to contention quickly, and the team needs a good amount of work in the short-term.
The Sox never did address their catching situation this offseason, instead deciding to give the Tyler Flowers/Josh Phegley tandem another shot. I've heard they had significant interest in free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia, particularly if he could have been had on a two-year deal, but Salty wound up with the Marlins on a three-year pact. The Sox picked up Adrian Nieto in the Rule 5 draft, but keeping a Double-A type backstop on the Major League roster all season would be challenging.
The acquisition of Eaton seemingly pushed Alejandro De Aza into a fourth outfielder role, for which he may be best suited anyway. With a $4.25MM salary, De Aza might have more value to another team, and it's likely the Sox will continue to explore trades. Then there's 25-year-old Dayan Viciedo, who hit 25 home runs in 2012 but slumped last year. He's controlled through 2017 and could still be a long-term piece, but I imagine the Sox will be open-minded to trade proposals.
Chicago's middle infield tandem of Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez has come up in trade rumors in the last year. The disappointing Beckham has two years of team control remaining, while Ramirez is signed through 2015 with a club option for '16. Ramirez is guaranteed $20.5MM over the next two years, his age 32-33 seasons. His trade value could be limited by the continued availability of free agent shortstop Stephen Drew. Both Beckham and Ramirez figure to frequent the pages of MLBTR this summer.
The White Sox have uncertainty at the back of their bullpen after the Reed trade, with Nate Jones the current favorite to close games in 2014. The franchise hasn't put together a particularly strong bullpen since their 2005 World Championship season.
Deal of Note
If an MLB team wants to throw a large, unrestricted sum of money at a player in his mid-20s, players coming over from Cuba and Japan are basically the only options. The White Sox took advantage of the opportunity by signing Abreu. At $68MM, his contract defied my expectations by a good 25%, but it still leaves room for upside. Accounting for the cost of a draft pick, the Mets paid a similar amount for Curtis Granderson's age 33-36 seasons, a deal that strikes me as mostly downside risk. If Abreu can provide the White Sox with 25+ home runs per year, a .340 OBP, and average defense, he'll easily be worth $11.3MM per year compared to continually rising market prices. And certainly, there's some chance of Abreu's power translating to a few 35-40 home run seasons in the bigs.
It should be noted that given the standard clause allowing Abreu to opt for arbitration once eligible, he might end up being paid more than $68MM over the next six years. In particular, given good production he'll prefer arbitration over the sixth year of the contract, and possibly even the fifth. If he's good enough to justify that, it will be worth the extra money for Chicago.
This is rebuilding, White Sox style. Like any team trying to improve its young talent base, they've recently taken a few steps back in the name of the greater good. But unlike the Cubs or Mets, the White Sox aren't on a four or five-year plan. Hahn has been acquiring Major League ready talent, and while the White Sox are a long shot for 2014, don't count them out for '15.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
After an unsuccessful attempt at defending the 2012 World Series crown, the Giants doubled down on their veteran core while adding two significant free agents to the mix.
Major League Signings
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
As the end of the 2013 regular season approached with nothing left to play for, the Giants looked ahead at a 2014 with uncertainty in the corner outfield and the back half of the rotation. In particular, San Francisco faced the pending free agencies of right fielder Pence and one-time ace Lincecum. Having previously pursued a strategy of retaining its own players, would San Francisco commit the resources needed to keep these major names in town?
The answer, of course, was a resounding yes. First, GM Brian Sabean got a jump-start on the offseasion by inking Pence to a market-setting five-year deal at the tail end of the season. $90MM was a big commitment, but the cost for Pence looks reasonable when put in context of the free agent spending that came in its wake. (Shin-Soo Choo may not prove to be a better producer than Pence, but got seven years and $130MM; Curtis Granderson, who is two years older and has had injury and performance issues, landed at four and $60MM.)
Then, the Giants moved quickly to lock up the enigmatic 29-year-old Lincecum, whose fortunes shifted downward in 2012 and 2013. Though a mid-summer no-hitter highlighted some sparks of his former dominance, Lincecum ended last year with a second-straight campaign that fell far shy of his early-career standards. Nevertheless, the Giants signed on for two more years at the eye-opening price of $35MM.
Even with Lincecum in place, the club had two open rotation spots after declining options on Vogelsong and Zito. The first was filled with veteran hurler Tim Hudson, who received a $23MM guarantee (and full no-trade clause). This year will be Hudson's age-38 campaign, and he is coming off of a devastating ankle injury. Nevertheless, the 15-year MLB veteran has been a model of consistent excellence, having logged just two seasons in which he allowed more than four earned runs per nine innings.
The second hypothetical rotation spot was re-filled with its original possessor, Vogelsong. Discussions on a new deal began even as the team declined its 2014 option over the 36-year-old righty, who struggled with injury and performance issues last year after two effective campaigns in 2011-12. It wasn't just that his 2013 ERA ballooned to more than double its 2011 level. Vogelsong's strikeout and groundball rates declined, while his walk and home run-per-flyball rates increased, in 102 2/3 innings last year as against his two prior seasons. While San Francisco will surely hope for a bounceback, the club seemed to pay a bit of a premium over the much smaller guarantees given pitchers like Paul Maholm ($1.5MM) and Chris Capuano ($2.25MM).
Meanwhile, Sabean moved to address two other important elements of the roster's makeup. By re-signing 36-year-old southpaw Javier Lopez with a three-year guarantee, the Giants ensured that they would return every pitcher who made thirty or more relief appearances for them in 2013.
Finally, Sabean decided to fill the club's left field opening with free agent Michael Morse. In spite of a rough and injury-riddled 2013, Morse has an accomplished big league bat. His outfield defense is quite another story, however; when added to poor baserunning, it is fair to ask whether he was the right fit for this club.
MLBTR's Zach Links wrote before the start of the offseason that the Giants could look to bring in some fresh blood in the bullpen and bench. While some changes are likely in the offing in both areas, San Francisco did not make any big moves on the fringes of the roster. A collection of prospects, waiver claims, and minor league free agents is competing with some of last year's arms to round out the bullpen, with several slots still apparently up for grabs.
The bench figures to add one recently effective big leaguer in outfielder Gregor Blanco, who was demoted to make way for Morse after holding down the left field job last year. Otherwise, however, it too will be composed of players who saw time off the bench last year unless a non-roster invitee can break camp. Second baseman Marco Scutaro is increasingly looking like a health concern as the spring drags on, though San Francisco has several depth options up the middle.
It could well turn out that only Hudson and Morse will be new faces on the Opening Day roster. Much the same roster will take the field in 2014 as was in place for the two prior campaigns. The question remains, then, whether that group will play more like the one that took home 94 wins and a World Series in 2012, or the one that stumbled to a 76-86 mark last year.
Deal of Note
One of the more interesting contracts in recent memory is the Giants' extension of Lincecum just before he was set to hit the open market. One of the most recognizable players in the game, the two-time Cy Young winner's star faded quite significantly over the last two years.
Back in September, I polled MLBTR readers on the relative merits of Lincecum and fellow one-time ace Ubaldo Jimenez. As I wrote at the time, there were many similarities between the career arcs of the two pitchers. (In brief: similar age and mileage; struggles with declining velocity; analogous peak/collapse/partial redemption paths.) While it is reasonable to argue a preference for the new Oriole, readers preferred Lincecum at nearly a 2:1 clip.
Now that both have signed new deals, the comparison is quite different. Lincecum is only a two-year risk for San Francisco, but he will earn $17.5MM per year — a higher AAV than all but a handful of 2013-14 free agents and the 17th-highest rate of all time for a pitcher. He also gets a full no-trade clause. Meanwhile, for an extra $15MM guarantee, Baltimore can slot Jimenez in its rotation for two additional seasons. And the actual spread is even smaller once the dollars are discounted to present value, especially since Jimenez will have $2.25MM a year deferred without interest.
Lincecum has looked strong in the earlygoing this spring, and still tantalizes with the ability to shut down opposing teams. But while his 2013 season stabilized his value and seemingly raised his expected floor moving forward, it did little to show that he will return to being a frontline starter over the course of a full season. The Giants, more than any other team, seem to act on the premise that they know their own players best, and they surely know Lincecum well after seven MLB seasons of highs and lows. Nevertheless, he will have to exceed his recent track record — by a fairly significant margin — to justify his ace-level annual salary.
I noted on Wednesday that the NL West-rival Diamondbacks have had two straight offseasons of major trades that reshaped their roster. Precisely the opposite has been true of the Giants, who have extended or re-signed virtually all of the significant players that might have left the club via free agency. It will be particularly interesting to track these two franchises' fortunes given their divergent approaches.
A rebound is expected for a San Francisco club that significantly underperformed expectations last year. But like Arizona, this team faces an uphill battle (on paper, anyway) to challenge the Dodgers for the division crown. For that to happen, Sabean needs to have been right with his pitching investments and the team needs to receive more production from players like Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Yankees heavily invested in the free agent market, yet the team still has some notable holes as it tries to celebrate Derek Jeter's final season by returning to the playoffs.
Major League Signings
- Masahiro Tanaka, RHP: Seven years, $155MM (Plus $20MM release fee).
- Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: Seven years, $153MM. $21MM vesting option for 2021.
- Brian McCann, C: Five years, $85MM. $15MM vesting option for 2019.
- Carlos Beltran, OF: Three years, $45MM.
- Matt Thornton, LHP: Two years, $7MM.
- Brendan Ryan, SS: Two years, $5MM. $2MM mutual option for 2016.
- Hiroki Kuroda, RHP: One year, $16MM.
- Derek Jeter, SS: One year, $12MM.
- Kelly Johnson, IF/OF: One year, $3MM.
- Brian Roberts, 2B: One year, $2MM.
- Total spend: $503MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Andrew Bailey ($1.975MM if he makes the roster, team option for 2015), Scott Sizemore, Robert Coello, Zelous Wheeler
Trades and Claims
- Acquired RHP Kyle Haynes from the Pirates in exchange for C Chris Stewart
- Acquired cash considerations from the Giants in exchange for LHP David Huff
- Brett Gardner, OF: Four years, $52MM. $12.5MM club option for 2019 with a $2MM buyout.
- Robinson Cano, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez (162-game suspension), Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, Lyle Overbay, David Huff, Chris Stewart, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis, Jayson Nix
After missing the postseason for just the second time in 19 years, it wasn't a surprise that the Bronx Bombers went on an old-fashioned Yankees spending spree. Between signing new free agents, re-signing a few of their own free agents and extending Brett Gardner's contract, the Yankees spent over $555MM on player salaries this offseason. To put it in perspective, when Forbes Magazine released its annual team valuations a year ago, seven entire franchises weren't valued as worth $555MM. When the Yankees decide to spend, they don't take half measures.
The Yankees ended up with five — Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Carlos Beltran — of the top 12 players on Tim Dierkes' list of the offseason's 50 best free agents and were known to be in contact with several other major names, from Shin-Soo Choo to Jhonny Peralta to several free agent pitchers and, of course, Robinson Cano. GM Brian Cashman worked quickly to identify the players he wanted, as the Yankees reached agreements with all of those players (save Tanaka) by the end of the Winter Meetings.
It's hard to argue with the results. McCann's presence instantly turns one of the league's worst catching situations into one of its best; Beltran's still-powerful bat is a fine replacement for the departed Curtis Granderson; Kuroda's return helped solidify the rotation; Ellsbury adds speed and defense to the Yankee outfield, plus his addition allows the club to shift Alfonso Soriano to a more regular DH role (with Beltran and Jeter also seeing some time at designated hitter) and Ichiro Suzuki's declining bat is now relegated to the bench.
The one signing that took a bit more time was Tanaka, as first the new posting rules between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball had to be established. Then, the Yankees had to outbid the Cubs, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Dodgers and Astros in order to land the 25-year-old right-hander with a seven-year, $155MM contract that ranks as the 18th-largest deal in baseball history. That contract (plus the $20MM posting fee the Yankees paid to the Rakuten Golden Eagles) represents a huge investment in a pitcher who has yet to appear in a Major League game, yet given Tanaka's impressive scouting reports and his status as the best starter on the market, he was seen as a must-have for a Yankee club that needed rotation help.
The one signing that New York didn't make, however, was the one that many thought was a foregone conclusion when the offseason began. The Yankees simply weren't prepared to offer Cano more than seven years (at $175MM), and thus Cano made his stunning move to the Mariners that left the Yankees with a big hole at second base. While the team is still looking for infield help, right now it looks like newly-signed veteran Brian Roberts will man the position with the re-signed Brendan Ryan and roster holdover Eduardo Nunez also in the mix.
Another notable non-move was choosing to forgo signing an experienced closer to replace Mariano Rivera, as David Robertson will get a clear shot at the ninth-inning job. Veteran setup man Matt Thornton was signed to add some left-handed experience to the young relief corps and Andrew Bailey was signed to a low-risk minor league deal to see if he can stay healthy and revive his career.
Maybe the biggest "need" for the Bombers this offseason was getting some of Alex Rodriguez's contract off their books, and the Yankees got their wish when A-Rod's 211-game suspension was only partially reduced to 162 games after his lengthy appeal. The suspension saved the Yankees around $22.13MM in payroll for 2014, though A-Rod's absence leaves the Yankees thin at the hot corner. Newcomer Kelly Johnson will get the lion's share of games at third, though since Johnson has only played 16 games as a third baseman (all last season in Tampa Bay) during his eight-year career. Minor league signing Scott Sizemore could be an under-the-radar boon at either third or second if he's able to stay healthy, as he's missed virtually all of the last two seasons recovering from two separate left ACL tears.
The Yankees settled a bit of long-term business by signing Gardner to a four-year, $52MM extension. Gardner would've been eligible for free agency following 2014 and he was the subject of a few trade rumors in the wake of the Ellsbury and Beltran signings, but now it seems he'll be wearing the pinstripes though at least the 2018 season. Such extensions are pretty rare for the Yankees, as the team usually doesn't explore new deals with players, managers or even front office staff until their current contracts are up. The Gardner deal could be a sign that even the Yankees are taking note of the rising costs of free agent contracts, and since Gardner was a player they liked and wanted to keep anyway, it made sense to extend him now and possibly get a bit of a discount if he has a big 2014 campaign.
Two major pieces of the Yankees' puzzle were put in place before the offseason even began. Manager Joe Girardi was re-signed to a four-year, $16MM extension that will keep him in the Bombers' dugout through the 2017 season, a move that broke the hearts of Cubs fans and rewarded a manager who arguably did his best work in 2013 by squeezing 85 wins out of an injury-riddled roster. Jeter was sure to pick up his player option for 2014 anyway but in early November, that $9.5MM option was shelved in favor of a one-year, $12MM contract that Hal Steinbrenner negotiated himself.
Jeter's new deal carried some extra luxury tax complications, which might've been an early sign that the Yankees were going to abandon their plan to stay under the $189MM payroll threshold. The Yankees had been positioning themselves to get under the $189MM mark for the last two years in order reset their mounting luxury tax payments but, as Steinbrenner and Cashman always claimed, that $189MM target would only be kept if the team could remain competitive. Since the Yankees don't abide by missing the postseason, they will head into 2014 with another $200MM+ payroll (hat tip to Cot's Baseball Contracts for the info).
For all of the hundreds of millions the Yankees spent this winter, most of that money was spent to simply replace departing stars, and not necessarily to fix other problem areas. Beltran for Granderson is essentially a wash when Granderson is healthy, and while Tanaka is presumed to be an upgrade over Andy Pettitte, don't forget that the retired southpaw delivered 3.2 fWAR last season. While McCann and Ellsbury are big improvements on the Yankees' 2013 catchers and the Suzuki/Vernon Wells outfield platoon, those additions could be offset by the losses in the bullpen and at second base.
Cano's departure leaves the Yankees with one of the shakiest infield situations of any contending team. The hope is that Jeter and Mark Teixeira can stay healthy and regain some semblance of their former productivity, but that's a tall order for two players who combined for only 32 games last season. While Ryan or Nunez could spell Jeter at shortstop, the Yankees don't have anyone on the roster who can realistically replace Teixeira for a lengthy stretch if his wrist injuries continue to bother him. Roberts' health is also hardly a given considering his injury problems over the last few seasons.
The addition of a player like Stephen Drew could solve a lot of these infield questions. Drew could step in at shortstop if Jeter was hurt, and since he has expressed a willingness to move to second or third base, he would provide the Yankees with an stable everyday option at either spot. The Yankees did make Drew an offer early in the offseason but pulled it back to focus on other signings, while Drew passed up on the deal (believed to be for two or three years) since he felt he could find a longer-term deal. In hindsight, the Yankees missed out by not landing Peralta earlier in the winter, as they were simply outbid by the Cardinals.
C.C. Sabathia, Tanaka, Kuroda, Ivan Nova and one of Adam Warren, Michael Pineda or David Phelps will comprise New York's starting rotation. While there's at least a bit of uncertainly surrounding all of the candidates, Sabathia's status is the Yankees' biggest concern, as the 33-year-old is coming off the worst season of his Major League career. Sabathia has gotten into terrific shape and returned to his old offseason throwing program in an attempt to return to his old form, though if he continues to decline, it will be a huge blow to both the Yankees' playoff hopes and to their future payroll plans (given how Sabathia is still owed $76MM through 2016, plus $20MM more in 2017 if his option vests).
Nobody can replace Rivera, yet it's surprising to see that the Yankees didn't pick up one veteran arm to provide some closer for Robertson if he struggles. Bailey may not appear until after the All-Star break, while Thornton fits better as a setup man or even as a specialist against left-handed batters. Joel Hanrahan has been on the Yankees' radar, though he's coming off elbow surgery himself. Beyond Roberts, Thornton and Shawn Kelley, New York is going with a young bullpen that includes some promising arms (Preston Claiborne, former top prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos and the losers of the fifth starter competition) but no proven experience.
If I had to guess, the Yankees still have a few more moves up their sleeves before Opening Day. They added Wells and Lyle Overbay last March and I'd expect similar veteran additions to join the roster this spring to give the team some depth in the bullpen and especially around the infield, particularly at first.
Deal Of Note
Of all the Yankees' major signings, the McCann contract seems to have the fewest question marks, which is somewhat surprising considering New York is committing $85MM to a catcher through his age-34 season. A big-hitting catcher is hard to find, however, and the Yankees simply couldn't go through another year getting barely replacement-level production from behind the plate. Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, J.R. Murphy and Austin Romine combined for only 0.9 fWAR/0.1 rWAR over a combined 202 games last season — McCann delivered 2.7 fWAR/2.2 rWAR in 102 games. It's very possible that McCann improves on his performance, as he'll stay healthier by getting some DH days and his left-handed power swing is a great fit at Yankee Stadium. Signing McCann also kept an All-Star catcher away from two AL rivals in the Rangers and Red Sox, both of whom were interested in McCann's services.
McCann's presence also turns the Yankees' catching pool from a weakness into potential trade bait. Stewart was dealt to Pittsburgh and it's possible that at least one more of Cervelli, Murphy or Romine could be sent elsewhere for infield help. The Yankees could even trade top prospect Gary Sanchez if they wished to strike a bigger deal, though the rough plan seems to be to groom Sanchez as McCann's eventual replacement, with McCann shifting to DH in a few years' time.
It's often said that Jeter personifies the Yankees, and that may be especially true in 2014, though not in the way that either Jeter or the team hopes. A healthy Jeter can still perform at a league-best level, though it's anyone's guess as to whether he'll be able to stay off the DL and produce at his usual standard — the same could be said of the Yankees as a whole, as they'll need to rely on much better health from several key players return to contention.
An argument could be made that despite all the struggles and injuries last year, the Yankees still won 85 games, so they're not far away from getting back to the postseason. It's worth noting that Cashman doesn't buy that argument, as he saw his club's 2013 record as a fortunate overachievement and thus felt it necessary to spend big. With how much of that money went towards reloading instead of actually adding talent, however, it's possible the Yankees may have only bought themselves a "real" 85-win talent level (by Pythagorean record standards) and could still fall short in the tough AL East.
Photo courtesy of Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:
- Jeff Todd analyzed free agent contracts signed by starting pitchers after having turned 31 years of age and opined it will be difficult for James Shields (who will be 33 in December) to break the five-year, $100MM threshold on the open market and is more likely to land a four-year, $75-80MM pact with a vesting/club option or even an opt-out clause included to sweeten the deal.
- Tim Dierkes examined the 40-man roster players who have less than five years service time and are out of minor league options (compiled through MLBTR's sources) in the NL Central, AL Central (with an assist from Steve Adams), and NL West.
- MLBTR kicked off the Offseason in Review series with Tim's look at the Cubs, Steve's assessment of the Brewers and Marlins, and Jeff's recap of the Diamondbacks.
- Prior to reports Ervin Santana is choosing between one-year deals from the Blue Jays and Orioles in the neighborhood of $14MM, Jeff asked MLBTR readers when will the right-hander sign and for what terms. A majority of you believe Santana will agree to a Kyle Lohse-like contract (53%) before Opening Day (68%).
- MLBTR learned the reported $24K salary the Rakuten Golden Eagles will pay Loek Van Mil is not for the entire season, but the month of March. The right-hander will earn $150K in 2014 plus performance bonuses.
- Steve hosted the weekly live chat.
- Zach Links gathered the best the baseball corner of the web had to offer in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.