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The Reds’ hopes of challenging in the NL Central were dimmed by several major injuries this year, and this visit from the injury bug was particularly damaging to a team who already faced some big decisions in the offseason. With just over $71MM committed to 10 players on the 2015 payroll, the mid-market Reds may be forced to save some money by moving a starting pitcher. Though Cincinnati’s durable and deep rotation has been a big part of the club’s success in recent years, pitching seems like a natural area for payroll reduction simply due to the fact that three starters will enter their third year of arbitration eligibility.
Two pitchers who won’t be dealt are Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani. The Reds have already committed to Bailey in the form of a six-year, $105MM extension, and wouldn’t have been likely to move him even if Bailey hadn’t recently undergone forearm surgery. Cingrani has also had injury problems, spending most of 2014 on the DL with shoulder problems. Had Cingrani been able to build off of his impressive 2013 rookie season, the Reds would’ve felt at least a bit better about trading one of their more established starters (Bronson Arroyo wasn’t re-signed last winter in part because the Reds were comfortable with Cingrani).
It’s possible Cincinnati could trade multiple starters, though I’d suspect that the team wouldn’t want to lose too much pitching depth until they know Bailey and Cingrani are fully healthy. The Reds would probably rather not have David Holmberg or Dylan Axelrod as full-time rotation members next year, top prospect Robert Stephenson still needs some seasoning (a 4.74 ERA in 136 2/3 IP at Double-A in 2014) and the newly-signed Raisel Iglesias could still wind up in the bullpen.
The Reds’ other four pitchers are all controlled only through 2015, so the team likely wouldn’t score a truly huge return in a trade but all carry value even as one-year pitchers. The candidates…
Johnny Cueto: The Reds have a $10MM option on Cueto for 2015 that is sure to be exercised given how well Cueto has pitched. After an injury-shorted 2013, Cueto bounced back in a major way by posting a 2.15 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 3.73 K/BB rate over a league-leading 222 innings.
Cueto’s next contract will be in the nine-figure range, and it’s unclear if the Reds would be willing ink another major extension given how much money has been tied up in recent deals with Bailey, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. Cueto would net the biggest return in a trade, though moving their ace would seem to hint that the Reds are punting on 2015, which I doubt they’re prepared to do. On the other hand, the Reds could trade Cueto for Major League parts (such what the Rays and Red Sox received for David Price, John Lackey and Jon Lester before last July’s trade deadline) and use a Cueto deal to reload rather than rebuild.
Keeping Cueto would give the Reds stability at the top of their rotation, and they could still explore dealing Cueto at next year’s trade deadline if they fall out of the race. If they’re contending and wanted to keep Cueto, Cincinnati could then get a compensatory draft pick via the qualifying offer if he leaves in free agency after the 2015 season.
In a recent Insider-only piece, ESPN’s Buster Olney recently explored Cueto’s trade market and raised the possibility that the Reds could clear some payroll space by attaching Phillips, for example, to Cueto in a trade package. With several notable starters available as free agents this winter, Olney believes some teams might prefer trading for a year of Cueto rather than making an expensive multiyear commitment for an ace on the open market. Also, a contending team that potentially loses their ace in free agency (such as if Max Scherzer leaves the Tigers or James Shields leaves the Royals) could look to Cueto as a short-term replacement to keep their rotation strong for another run in 2015.
Mat Latos: Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently cited Latos as perhaps the likeliest of the Reds’ starters to be dealt, as both Latos and Cueto can make a case for commanding an extension larger than Bailey’s deal. While Cueto is two years older than Latos, presumably the Reds would be more inclined to extend their homegrown product than they would Latos, who missed part of 2014 with an elbow injury. Latos has a 3.25 ERA in 102 1/3 IP this year, though ERA indicators show that he hasn’t pitched quite that well (3.64 FIP, 4.00 xFIP, 4.08 SIERA) and both his ground ball and strikeout rates dropped significantly below his career averages. The right-hander’s average fastball velocity also dropped to 90.7 mph, down from 92.5 mph in 2013.
The Reds already tested the market for Latos at the trade deadline, so I tend to agree with Rosenthal that if a Cincy starter is moved, it’ll probably be Latos. His declined numbers could be explained by his elbow issues, and if fully healthy, Latos could be a standout front-of-the-rotation starter for several teams. He earned $7.25MM in 2014 in the last year of a two-year extension, and he’ll be eligible for arbitration for a third and final time this winter.
Mike Leake: Another pitcher with a third arb year remaining, Leake will get a raise from his $5.925MM salary in 2014. The right-hander has been a reliable rotation piece over his five Major League seasons, not missing many bats (career 6.1 K/9) but inducing a lot of grounders (49.8% ground ball rate) and eating a lot of innings, averaging 191 IP over the last three years.
Leake comes with the fewest question marks of any Cincinnati starter, lacking the injury histories of Cueto and Latos but also never pitching nearly as well as those two have at their peaks. While Leake’s ceiling in the bigs may never surpass the “solid” level (he has an even 100 ERA+ over his career), this also means that the Reds could extend him at a much lower price than Cueto or Latos. A Leake extension could look something like the five-year, $65MM deal the White Sox gave John Danks a few years ago, as Leake and Danks are decent comparables in terms of age and career numbers to that point in their careers, plus both had one arb year left before free agency.
The Reds put Leake and Latos on revocable waivers in August, possibly in a move to gauge trade interest for the upcoming offseason. I’d guess there’s a better chance Leake stays in Cincinnati than goes, though the Reds will certainly get interest in the durable 26-year-old.
Alfredo Simon: The big surprise of the group, the 33-year-old Simon moved from the bullpen to the rotation as an injury fill-in and wound up making his first All-Star team. Though his performance has very much come back to earth in the second half, Simon still has a 3.48 ERA through 178 1/3 innings on the season despite a middling 5.9 K/9.
Simon is arb-eligible for the third time this winter and he’ll earn a healthy raise over his $1.5MM salary, though the raise will hardly break the bank. Simon’s age and career track record give him a very modest amount of trade value, so it’s likely he stays with the Reds and competes for the fifth starter’s job (or returns to the pen) if and when a rotation spot opens up via trade.
With this variety of available starters and a wide variance in asking prices for each of the four pitchers, many teams could fit as potential trade partners for the Reds under the “you can never have too much pitching” argument. If the Reds look to deal a starter and fill an everyday lineup hole at the same time, they’ll likely target a left fielder or a shortstop as upgrades on Ryan Ludwick and Zack Cozart, respectively. Ludwick has a $9MM mutual option for 2015 but after two negative fWAR seasons, the Reds might instead buy him out (for a deferred $4.5MM) and look for other options.
Using these needs to speculate about trade partners, the Cubs, Diamondbacks and possibly the Indians stand out as teams with a shortstop surplus. The Red Sox have a glut of outfielders and are known to be looking for starting pitching. The Dodgers could finally solve their long-standing logjam in the outfield and, if it meant getting back Cueto or Latos, would be willing to eat a lot of salary on one of their high-priced outfield bats.
As Ken Rosenthal noted (video link), the Reds could employ some gamesmanship with their starters and perhaps leverage them against each other in figuring out which (if any) pitchers they want to sign over the long term. Between these negotiations and waiting for the free agent pitching market to play out, Cincinnati might wait until January or even February to move a starter. At this point, the only thing that seems certain about the Reds’ 2015 rotation is that at least one of Cueto, Latos, Leake or Simon won’t be on the roster come Opening Day.
Photo courtesy of Joy R. Absalon/USA Today Sports Images
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:
- Steve Adams created a 2015 Free Agent Leaderboard on FanGraphs allowing MLBTR readers to track the performance of the upcoming free agent class.
- For those looking beyond this offseason, Steve updated the list of 2016 free agents.
- Brad Johnson opines Victor Martinez, Brandon McCarthy, and Andrew Miller are the three free agents who have most improved their value.
- Charlie Wilmoth, in the latest Free Agent Stock Watch, is bullish about the prospects of Melky Cabrera given his performance this season and the weakness of the free agent corner outfield market.
- Jeff Todd asked MLBTR readers whether the Giants will re-sign Pablo Sandoval. More than 55% of you believe he will leave his heart in San Francisco and take the rest of his body elsewhere.
- Brad asked MLBTR readers which team will win the Yasmany Tomas sweepstakes. A plurality of you (over 17%) see the Yankees winning the bidding war for the 23-year-old Cuban outfielder.
- Steve hosted this week’s chat.
- Zach Links compiled the latest edition of Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
Behind the scenes at MLBTR, we’re busy discussing and polishing our Top 50 Free Agents list for the 2015 offseason. While we’ll wait until the appropriate time to officially release the list, it’s not too soon to talk about a few of the players who have done the best to improve their free agent stock. In general, I’m looking at players who weren’t even on the radar when Steve Adams kicked off our 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings series on April 15. Today, we’ll take a look at a pure hitter, a starting pitcher, and an elite reliever.
1. Victor Martinez. I’m sure Martinez’s appearance on this list is of no surprise. When we compiled our initial power rankings post, 25 players were named. Martinez was not one of them. The 35-year-old designated hitter is limited in defensive versatility, but his bat is clearly elite. He is enjoying a fantastic offensive season with a .335/.404/.566 line and 31 home runs. All are career bests. He’s even stolen three bases (also a career best). The exceptional performance comes with a 10.5% walk rate and 6.6% strikeout rate, making him one of just two players with more walks than strikeouts (Jose Bautista is the other).
Martinez, who earned $12MM this season, will receive a qualifying offer, according to Buster Olney of ESPN. It’s difficult to handicap how the slugger will perform on the free agent market. The only recent comparable player is David Ortiz, although the short contracts he signed with the Red Sox do not appear to be directly applicable to Martinez’s situation.
The Tigers will have some leverage in retaining Martinez, where he can continue to hit with Miguel Cabrera. The White Sox are also said to be interested, per Bruce Levine of 670TheScore.com. Chicago appears to be an ideal fit with its extremely hitter friendly stadium (Detroit’s Comerica Park is a neutral stadium), and he would make a good tandem with Jose Abreu. We seem to have the basic ingredients for a bidding war, and other teams will likely enter the fray.
2. Brandon McCarthy. What a fascinating season it’s been for McCarthy. His fastball gained two mph over previous seasons, and he’s posted the highest ground ball rate of his career at 52.7%. While his 3.93 ERA is merely decent, advanced ERA estimators like xFIP (2.90) and SIERA (3.03) expect better things to come. He’s also buffed his strikeout rate to 7.72 K/9 while maintaining an elite walk rate of 1.53 BB/9.
McCarthy was easy to overlook entering the season. His command and control profile made him a steady but uninspired rotation option. His first 18 starts came with the Diamondbacks, where he flashed excellent peripherals with an unseemly 5.01 ERA. He was dealt to the Yankees prior to the July trade deadline. In 13 starts, he’s pitched to a 2.54 ERA that is supported by his peripherals. Many pundits (including this one) worried about the influence of Yankee Stadium on the homer prone starter, but his HR/FB ratio has regressed to league average in New York.
Prior to this season, he never managed more than 170 and two-thirds major league innings in a single season. That came in 2011. He’s frequently dealt with injuries including recurring “stress reactions” in his pitching shoulder. His most recent shoulder injury occurred in 2012. This season, he’s managed a career high 194 and two-thirds innings with a chance to eclipse the 200 inning threshold.
A sabermetrically inclined front office – especially one with a large ballpark – could justifiably view McCarthy as the fourth best free agent starter, after the triumvirate of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. McCarthy’s history of shoulder problems will likely temper enthusiasm for a large contract offer. That might serve to increase demand by making him an affordable, second-tier option. McCarthy, who is entering his age 31 season, could top the four-year, $49 million contract signed by Ricky Nolasco last offseason. However, a smart club would include language to mitigate risk from future shoulder flare-ups.
3. Andrew Miller. If Miller was on anybody’s radar entering the season, it was as a moderately interesting LOOGY. By halving his walk rate and proving he’s no platoon pitcher, Miller will enter the offseason as an untested but possibly elite closing option. Due to his inexperience recording saves, clubs may still look at him as a setup reliever.
Split between the Red Sox and Orioles, the 30-year-old southpaw has posted a 1.93 ERA in 60 and two-thirds innings. His 14.84 K/9 is impressive, especially in light of his 2.37 BB/9. He’s allowed just 32 hits on the season and is one of three relievers to cross the 100 strikeout threshold – four others appear poised to do so by the end of the season.
No recent left-handed reliever has entered free agency coming off of such a strong season, which puts Miller in uncharted waters. Jeremy Affeldt, who signed a three-year, $18MM contract with the Giants following the 2012 season is a distant comparable. Joaquin Benoit is probably the best example among recent right-handed pitchers. He signed a two-year, $15.5MM contract with an option after emerging as the Tigers closer. However, he was also entering his age 36 season, so he was considerably older than Miller. Per the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, no non-closing reliever has signed a contract with over a $20MM guarantee. Miller has a chance to be the first. Prior to the 2007 season, Justin Speier signed a four-year, $18MM contract that could serve as a barometer of sorts once inflation is included.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR this past week:
- Steve Adams profiled Josh Harrison as a possible extension candidate and sees three years and $15-16MM as the parameters for a deal between the Pirates and the 27-year-old utilityman.
- Jeff Todd presented a Free Agent Stock Watch on Nationals infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and believes his performance down the stretch and in the playoffs will determine the market for his services.
- Charlie Wilmoth issued a Free Agent Stock Watch on Yankees third baseman Chase Headley.
- Tim Dierkes was the first to learn Wily Mo Pena, after spending three seasons in Japan, wants to return to MLB in 2015 and three teams are interested.
- Tim also broke the news left-hander Mike Zagurski asked out of his minor league contract with the Blue Jays and the club granted his request.
- Zach Links was the first to report infielder Matt Hague and right-hander Blake Wood would be placed on waivers by the Blue Jays and Royals, respectively.
- Jeff updated the progress players with a 2015 vesting option are making toward exercising those options.
- Jeff asked MLBTR readers whether the Orioles will extend qualifying offers to pending free agents Nelson Cruz, J.J. Hardy, and Nick Markakis. Nearly 47% of you predict the club will tender Cruz, but there is much less support for Hardy (28%) and Markakis (25%) receiving a QO.
- Zach assembled the best of the baseball blogosphere for you in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
Asked to create a list of candidates for the 2014 NL batting title five months ago, few would have seriously suggested Pirates utilityman Josh Harrison. However, it’s September 11th, and the .318 mark that Harrison carried into the day paced the National League. A decline in performance for Pedro Alvarez and an eventual season-ending injury for the slugging third baseman have opened the door for Harrison to serve as the club’s everyday option at the hot corner down the stretch — an opportunity on which he has capitalized. Though the 27-year-old Harrison had never even topped 276 plate appearances prior to this season, he’s tallied 472 and should finish the season well north of 500.
The Pirates acquired Harrison with little fanfare in the 2009 trade that sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Cubs and watched him produce steady batting average and on-base percentage marks as he ascended the minor league ranks. However, while his glovework graded out favorably heading into the season, he also carried a career slash line of just .250/.282/.367 into 2014.
Harrison hasn’t drastically changed his approach at the plate — his swing and contact rates are similar to his previous marks — but he’s slightly increased his walk rate, cut down on his pop-ups and laced line drives at a career-high rate. On top of that, Harrison has found some power despite never hitting more than six homers in a minor league season. He’s swatted 13 long balls and posted a .196 isolated power mark even though he plays at PNC Park, which is known to significantly diminish right-handed pop. The end result has been an outstanding .318/.351/.514 batting line to go along with those 13 homers, 17 steals and strong defensive marks.
Harrison has cleared three years of Major League service time now and will be eligible for arbitration this offseason. Clearly, an NL batting title, 15 or so homers and 20 or so steals will help his agents at Millennium Sports Management make a strong case. However, first-time arb salaries are based on a player’s entire career to that point, unlike second- and third-time arb salaries which are based more on a player’s most recent season. With the agents likely touting an elite platform season and the team likely pointing to earlier seasons to drive the cost down, a multi-year contract might be worth examining. Pittsburgh would get cost certainty, while Harrison would receive financial security in the event that he does not replicate his brilliant 2014.
Of course, from the Pirates’ point of view, they may look at Harrison as a player whose most consistent attributes are defense and baserunning — two aspects that, while valuable, are not highly rewarded in arbitration. While he does have a career-high in homers, the Pirates could also look to Harrison’s average fly-ball distance of 279.98 feet — 136th in the Majors according to BaseballHeatMaps.com — and the fact that seven of his 13 homers fall into the “just enough” category on ESPN’s Hit Tracker. Those two stats suggest that he may have difficulty sustaining this level of power, which would subsequently deflate his arb prices in future cases. A low-payroll team like the Pirates may express hesitancy at over-committing in the event that his power numbers won’t stay this high.
As such, Harrison and the Pirates may have trouble reaching common ground should either side look to pursue a long-term deal that buys out free agent years. The Pirates will cite Harrison’s short track record and reliance on defense and baserunning to provide value. Harrison’s agents, meanwhile, will likely position him as a breakout player and could point to five- or six-year pacts signed by other infielders in the past year or so. However, even a similar late bloomer like Matt Carpenter had an excellent 2012 season and a fourth-place MVP finish in 2013 before signing his six-year, $52MM contract. Harrison has just one elite season.
While Harrison isn’t the first player to jump from utility player to All-Star (though the feat certainly isn’t common), few, if any players have found themselves in his situation and his service bracket and ultimately inked a long-term deal. A look at extensions for infielders with three to four years of service time shows few deals that serve as comparables. Pablo Sandoval signed a three-year, $17.5MM to buy out his arb years at the same stage of his career, but he had a much better offensive profile at that point. Elvis Andrus‘ original three-year, $14.4MM extension was signed when he had an even three years of Major League service. He lacked an offensive season in the vein of Harrison’s excellent 2014, but he had a longer track record of providing value.
The Pirates are one of baseball’s most cost-conscious teams, and as such there would seem to be some benefit to securing Harrison’s arbitration paydays, and for a player with no track record prior to 2014, I’d think that holds some appeal to him as well. Perhaps the two sides could work out a three-year deal in the $15-16MM range to provide Harrison with a lifetime of financial security but still position him to hit free agency at a relatively young age in search of a significant payday. While Pittsburgh would undoubtedly have interest in adding a club option that could push the total value of the contract into the Michael Brantley range (four years, $25MM) if exercised, that doesn’t seem to be a worthwhile trade-off for player and agent, even if the buyout was fairly significant.
Beyond Harrison’s three arbitration years, the situation feels to this writer like one in which the team’s lack of margin for error (due to payroll constraints) makes betting on Harrison’s surprise breakout a bit too risky to pay him like the late-blooming star he could very well be. Of course, there’s risk for the team to pass on a long-term deal as well; if Harrison is capable of sustaining something close to this level of production, his price tag on a long-term deal a year from now could exceed that of Carpenter.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Indians-turned-Nationals middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera will finish his eighth year of MLB action at just 28 years of age, presenting a rare youthful free agent option. He can hit and play up the middle. Yet he left Cleveland as something of a disappointment, and has not generated nearly as much hype as was once expected heading into his first crack at free agency. Once expectations are moderated for reality, however, it is apparent that Cabrera remains a rather intriguing player to watch on the coming market.
Cabrera’s free agent case remains difficult to figure. Over the 2007-12 period, he slashed .279/.342/.416 while manning an up-the-middle defensive spot (mostly, shortstop). Though advanced metrics never viewed him as even an average fielder, Cabrera delivered some value on the basepaths and was at least a solid, above-average regular in the aggregate.
That account of Cabrera took something of a turn, however, more recently. Over 978 plate appearances with Cleveland since the start of 2013, Cabrera’s OPS fell beneath the .700 level, making for a below-average bat that significantly reduced his overall appeal.
Nevertheless, in need of a veteran infielder down the stretch, the Nationals made a move to acquire Cabrera at the trade deadline. Notably, the Indians agreed to pay all of Cabrera’s salary in the deal, while acquiring an interesting but little-hyped prospect in Zach Walters. On a busy deadline day, the swap looked like a relatively low-impact, gap-filling move for Washington.
Since heading to the NL East-leading Nats, however, Cabrera has looked energized. He owns a .252/.341/.443 slash in the first 133 National League plate appearances of his career, including five home runs and two stolen bases. His resulting 115 OPS+ looks much more like the marks he was putting up in his heyday. Nearly as importantly, perhaps, Cabrera has looked comfortable at second, racking up 284 errorless innings at the position.
Without question, Cabrera’s late-season run of success at the plate will have a positive impact on his free agency. He has at least suggested the possibility that he is still capable of being the hitter of old; whether he’s convinced scouts, of course, remains to be seen.
The defensive returns, on the other hand, are somewhat more ambiguous. To be sure, proving that he is capable of solidly handling the keystone is a nice feather in Cabrera’s hat. At the same time, misplays have not been the major knock on his glove. Range is the primary concern, and he’s continued (obviously, in a short sample) to receive well-below-average marks in that respect.
So, where does Cabrera fit into the middle-infield market? Things are somewhat more crowded over at shortstop, where J.J. Hardy probably sets the standard and Jed Lowrie and Stephen Drew also present possible starting-caliber options. And that assumes that Hanley Ramirez is pursued primarily as a third baseman; if enough serious bidders look at him as a shortstop, the market would look even more crowded.
But Cabrera is perhaps best positioned to benefit from a lack of options at second, given his arguably superior bat (to all but Ramirez, at least) and recent experience at the keystone. Clubs looking to add a new second bagger will find limited possibilities on the market; as things stand, Emilio Bonifacio is probably the most appealing candidate.
Cabrera also has added appeal given that he will not turn 29 until the offseason, making him the youngest shortstop-capable player available to the highest bidder. That holds significant value, particularly when viewed alongside the fact that he does not have any significant recent injury history. Cabrera will also come free and clear of draft compensation, as his mid-season trade ensures that Washington will not be able to make him a qualifying offer. Particularly given the down years at the plate from Hardy (at least in terms of power production), Lowrie (who has been better in the second half), and Drew (who has been awful since his mid-season signing), Cabrera stacks up reasonably well.
In the aggregate, though Cabrera may never take the final step forward to become a truly premium ballplayer, he has shown the ability to produce at his earlier levels and should draw fairly significant and potentially broad interest. Depending on his performance down the stretch and in the post-season, he still has some capacity to climb up free agent boards and become a sought-after asset heading out of the 2014 season.
It’s been a quiet day on the transactional front, so a poll seems in order. Looking ahead at free agency, one of the more interesting situations involves the Orioles’ crop of pending free agents. The club has several key pieces of the lineup set to reach the open market: Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, and J.J. Hardy. But the question remains whether some or all will receive qualifying offers.
MLBTR’s Steve Adams took a look at Markakis as a possible free agent back in May, noting that the 30-year-old’s hot start could lead to a significant turnaround in value. While he has not maintained that pace, Markakis has put up a .278/.339/.387 slash that constitutes better-than league-average production. Defensive metrics are not in love with his glove, but credit him with improvements over recent seasons. Also aiding Markakis as he looks ahead to a new deal is the fact that the upcoming free agent market appears rather thin in the corner outfield, especially in younger options. As Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently suggested, the club could pay him a $2MM buyout on his $17.5MM mutual option but still make him the QO.
Cruz, meanwhile, has done nothing but rake since joining the O’s on a one-year, $8MM pact. That deal cost the club a compensation pick, but looks like a bargain in hindsight. Cruz leads the league with 39 long balls and has slashed a robust .262/.331/.532 triple-slash in 596 plate appearances. But looking forward, he is 34 years old and is a limited defensive player (though he has rated out as an approximately average corner outfielder in limited action this year). On the other hand, even if Baltimore would rather not pay Cruz $15MM next year, might the qualifying offer be worth it? Having missed his chance to cash in on a multi-year deal last year, Cruz could well be motivated to take another crack at a player’s market. And if he does take the offer, that seems an attractive-enough rate for a single season commitment.
Then there is Hardy, who is quite an interesting player in his own right. The shortstop continues to create immense value with the glove while delivering league-average offense. Though his power numbers have taken a big step back this year, Hardy has managed to compensate with a higher batting average and on-base percentage. (Though he has ridden a career-high .332 BABIP, Hardy has also raised his line-drive percentage this year.) All said, the 32-year-old is almost certainly the best shortstop on the upcoming market, if one views Hanley Ramirez as a third baseman at this point. Just look at these current season, three-year, and five-year comparisons to fellow soon-to-be free agents Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, and Stephen Drew. It still seems somewhat hard to imagine that Baltimore will let him reach the open market without restriction, especially given that the long-anticipated move of Manny Machado to shortstop could once again be delayed (and would, in any event, simply open a hole at the hot corner).
So, which players are likely to receive a qualifying offer from the O’s? (Select all that apply.)
Baseball players jumping from one agency to another is nothing new. In fact, it seems there are some who will change affiliations more frequently than they change their underwear. When agents and baseball executives talk about an instance of that happening, they often use a phrase that conjures up images of evildoers chasing ivory-rich elephants in sub-Saharan Africa: “player poaching.” That terminology focuses on the unscrupulous agents who make it common practice to steal players out from under their colleagues and while that certainly takes place, not every case is exactly alike and things are never that cut and dry in the agency world. Sometimes, it’s the players who are acting unscrupulously. In the case of some minor leaguers, they’re employing two, three, or four agents at once in an effort to rack up as many gifts and favors as possible.
Plenty of stories have been written about individual cases of players being lured from one agency to another, but there hasn’t been much discussion about players employing several agencies simultaneously. There’s no way to quantify how many minor leaguers are engaging in this practice, but upwards of a dozen agents speaking on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that it’s quite commonplace.
A few years ago, one agent called a club to discuss the terms of his minor league client’s release. The exec, in turn, informed the agent that he had already spoken to the player’s representative just hours ago. The agent was shocked, but not surprised. His client had been stringing him along while actually working with a different agent.
“You see this a lot with guys from the Dominican Republic and in the Latin markets,” the agent said, echoing a sentiment shared by many in the field. “They don’t understand that there are rules and limits as to what an agent can give you. So they’ll employ two or three agents and they all have regular contact with the player. You have one giving them money, one giving them equipment…I’ve seen cases of guys having three or four agents at one time. There’s really no one policing it.”
Lower-caliber minor leaguers can juggle multiple agents without oversight because they do not have to fill out an agent designation form with the MLBPA until they reach the 40-man roster. Nearly every agent that spoke with MLBTR had a story of a player using multiple agents, whether it happened to them, a partner within their agency, or someone else in the field. As one might imagine, the victimized agents tend to find out about these things in strange ways.
One agent visited his client’s minor league clubhouse only to find a Foot Locker stock room’s worth of free shoes crammed into the player’s tiny locker. The abundance of free swag was the baseball equivalent of a woman finding a lipstick stain in an unfamiliar shade of red on her husband’s collar. That agent’s suspicions were confirmed soon after – his client had been taking advantage of multiple player reps.
Another veteran agent told MLBTR’s Steve Adams that he saw a little-known Single-A player who already had representation sign on with another agency because he was given an endorsement deal from Easton. When his original agent asked the player what had happened, the player replied that there was nothing in writing or even a check, just a $10K cash payment. Major equipment companies typically don’t dole out lucrative deals to unheralded minor leaguers and they certainly don’t do it with a burlap sack of money. It’s more than likely that the player’s allegiance was simply paid for by the rival agent.
Nearly every agent that spoke with MLBTR made two generalizations on the topic at hand. First, the players doing this, more often than not, are international prospects. Secondly, even though plenty of savvy veterans have been fooled, the greener agents are more susceptible to getting played.
“I don’t want to say that it’s a B.S. excuse for agents, but I feel that anytime a guy is working you for equipment and other crap, that should send up a red flag for you,” said one experienced agent.
Even though the MLBPA doesn’t oversee the non 40-man players, there are multiple ways that agents can protect themselves. Five veteran agents told MLBTR that they require all of their clients to fill out agent designation forms, regardless of their status. Agents can still submit these forms to the union and if a player is registered with more than one representative, all parties involved are notified. From that point, the union will step in and mediate. Of course, at that point, an agent might not even bother putting up a a fight.
“I believe it takes a certain kind of makeup to succeed. I don’t care how good you are, it just doesn’t matter. I’ve seen all kinds of ridiculous talent in this game but if they’ve got a ten cent head, it’s probably not going to work out,” one agent said. “That doesn’t mean they have to be smart, but with certain kind of guy you can tell he ain’t gonna make it if he’s playing these games and worrying about [gifts].”
Agents say they’ll only engage in business with players that are of high character. The aforementioned player who asks for a pair of spikes and $200 before forming a partnership? He’s probably not a guy you want to be involved with. It could also be a bad sign when you’re talking with handlers rather than the player himself.
“The further you get away from dealing directly with a player by dealing with a chain of people around him, the more likely there is to be abuse,” longtime agent Barry Meister said. “When you’re recruiting a young player, and talking to his family, you have to be sure the person you’re speaking with is the person who is making the decision. I suspect that you’ll have far more luck going directly to the player than talking to a handler or someone in the entourage or the guy’s brother.”
The end game of staffing multiple agents is almost always to rack up as much money and as many gifts as possible. Agents who want to avoid being turned into a walking Amazon wishlist can protect themselves by complying with MLBPA regulations. The union stipulates that an agent cannot spend more than $2K on any single player within a year, a mechanism designed to help cut back on player poaching. Staying inside of that dollar figure also leaves agents less susceptible to getting worked over or, at the very least, lessens some of the sting if their minor leaguer does get into bed with other agents.
Newer player reps would be wise to take that advice because the consensus amongst agents is that the union won’t be cracking down on guys simultaneously rostering multiple agents. While agents appreciate their voices being heard on matters with the MLBPA – something widely attributed to the late Michael Weiner – the union, they say, has bigger fish to fry and probably doesn’t have the resources to police every instance of a minor leaguer acting unethically. Also, in many cases, the players are staffing multiple agents in part because they’re new to playing the game at a professional level and don’t really have a grasp on how a player-agent partnership works. At the end of the day, the importance of pre-screening goes both ways for players and agents who are looking for a productive and honest business relationship.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:
- Tim Dierkes revised MLBTR’s 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings and Max Scherzer and Jon Lester remain atop the leaderboard, but seven of the eight other positions changed hands.
- Zach Links examined the practice of players employing multiple agents. “You see this a lot with guys from the Dominican Republic and in the Latin markets,” an agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Zach. “They don’t understand that there are rules and limits as to what an agent can give you. So they’ll employ two or three agents and they all have regular contact with the player. You have one giving them money, one giving them equipment…I’ve seen cases of guys having three or four agents at one time. There’s really no one policing it.”
- Jeff Todd issued a Free Agent Stock Watch on the upcoming class of closers scheduled to hit the market this winter.
- Steve Adams listed the notable September contract extensions signed over the past three seasons.
- Brad Johnson asked MLBTR readers whether the Mets will retain manager Terry Collins. Approximately 56% of you believe the club should find a new field boss for 2015.
- Jeff asked MLBTR readers to name the best August acquisition. Nearly one-third of you chose the A’s obtaining Adam Dunn.
- Steve hosted the weekly live chat.
- Zach gathered the best the baseball corner of the web had to offer in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
Over the winter, MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth took a look at the changing closer market, documenting the dwindling dollars and years available for 9th-inning relievers. As we approach now approach a new offseason, a different type of market change — related only in part to the broader trend — has taken hold. Namely, the actual group of soon-to-be free agents with closing experience has seen many individual stock drops.
Let’s have a look at the “closer” portion of MLBTR’s 2015 MLB free agent list (including only those players who, in my opinion, are likely to become free agents): Jason Grilli, Casey Janssen, David Robertson, Francisco Rodriguez, Sergio Romo, Rafael Soriano, and Koji Uehara. Listed under right-handed relievers are a few other names with significant closing experience: Heath Bell, Jim Johnson, J.J. Putz, and Jose Veras.
Heading into the year, this looked like a pretty strong group of late-inning arms. Among them were some of the more established closers — and, indeed, better relief pitchers, role aside — in the game. But the group has seen some pretty significant shifts in value that make it look much less impactful on the whole.
Here are my assessments of the value movement on these players:
Grilli: coming off 2.70 ERA, 33-save year, lost Pirates closer job and was traded to Angels; has performed well since in set-up role
Janssen: missed significant portion of early year with injury, ended with 3.72 ERA and will cede time to younger players in September; has never really seemed to fit traditional closer model, and now features a plummeting strikeout rate (5.4 K/9)
Romo: after four-straight lights out years, was relieved of end-of-game duties and owns 3.98 ERA on season
Uehara: typically dominant year took dramatic, late-season downturn at inopportune time for 39-year-old
Bell, Johnson, Putz, Veras: look, there’s a reason that these guys fell off of the (admittedly subjective) “closer” list, which is that they all struggled mightily for lengthy stretches
Robertson: on the one hand, Robertson has proven that he can handle closing in New York after taking over for a legend; on the other, his peripherals are in line with his career numbers but his ERA (2.92) is higher than in recent years
Soriano: there’s an argument to be made that he has raised his stock with his strikeouts back on the rise, but an offsetting jump in free passes has kept his K:BB ratio the same, and on the whole he has not done much to change the fact that he is a good-but-not-great reliever
Rodriguez: after surprisingly jumping into the closer’s role in the season’s early days, Rodriguez has locked down 39 saves and worked to a 3.00 ERA with 10.2 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9; since signing a minor league deal before 2013, K-Rod owns a 2.87 ERA
So what does this all mean? It seems to me that the major beneficiary of the market shake-out is Robertson, who is by far the youngest of these closers and is the only one who (as things stand) will enter free agency with both an impeccable recent track record and few real questions moving forward. Though Uehara has the most dominant recent record of this group, his well-documented recent struggles and advanced age should significantly dampen his market.
Those dynamics put the Yankees in an interesting spot. On the one hand, the club should now face greater competition to bring back its Mariano Rivera replacement. On the other, it might justifiably utilize the qualifying offer to buy back some leverage. The team has already shown a willingness to do just that with a closer (Soriano), and would up the ante for other teams that might consider a run at Robertson.
The possibility that Robertson’s market will itself be suppressed by a QO paints an even more sobering picture of the overall expectations. It is worth wondering whether any of the other above-listed players will be able to command a significant, multi-year guarantee. The one player who is clearly rising, Rodriguez, could certainly land a reasonable salary over two years (he is, somehow, still only 32), but it is hard to see a bidding war emerging there. No doubt some of the others will take smaller average annual values to get a second year, but pillow contracts could abound.
Remember, last year’s upper-middle closer market settled in the range of two years and between $9.5MM and $15.5MM. And that was for pitchers like Edward Mujica, Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, and Joaquin Benoit who had much stronger cases than this year’s crop. Notably, even those pitchers were not able to beat the earnings of high-performing non-closers. And, if anything, the high-profile struggles of players like Balfour and Johnson have further eroded the notion of paying big dollars for relievers whose primary calling card is 9th-inning experience.
This year’s market could have looked similar: a few strong performances from familiar players, a few emerging/rebounding names. Instead, we’ve seen mostly steps in the wrong direction from pitchers with closing time on their resume. And that is even before considering demand. Many of the clubs that could have open closing positions — for instance, the Orioles, White Sox, Rangers, Nationals, Brewers, Cubs, Giants, and Rockies — seem more likely to stick with veterans, elevate internal options, or avoid spending big dollars on an older reliever.
Now may be a good time to find out whether teams will place any significant premium at all on that experience going forward.