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Offseason Outlook: Kansas City Royals

The 2014 Royals went from playoff hopeful to Wild Card winners to a Cinderella team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. While the Giants ultimately prevailed, the team’s success brought about a baseball renaissance in Kansas City, leading to passionate and raucous crowds at Kaufman Stadium throughout the entire postseason. Now, GM Dayton Moore and his staff must determine how best to position the team for a repeat of that success despite several escalating salaries and the departures of key free agents.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (Service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

Other payroll obligations

  • $1MM owed to Bruce Chen for buyout of 2015 option

The Royals opened the 2014 season with a payroll just over $92MM, and they’re already at $52.75MM in 2015 simply by exercising their option on Wade Davis and buying out the option on Billy Butler. That figure doesn’t include arbitration raises for any of the many arb-eligible players, nor does it include pre-arbitration players to round out the roster. Going off Matt Swartz’s projections, arbitration alone figures to boost the Royals up to $81MM in guarantees — a figure that would jump into the mid-$80MMs when factoring in pre-arb salaries.

There isn’t much room between that projection and the Opening Day payroll of 2014, but of course, there will be extra funds to spend thanks to the team’s deep postseason run. Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star wrote recently that the payroll could surpass $100MM for the first time, meaning GM Dayton Moore could have a fairly well-stocked war chest for the offseason. McCullough reported that room for one fairly significant addition does seem to exist.

Perhaps the biggest area of concern for the Royals will be in the starting rotation. Although the team is said to have a strong desire to retain James Shields, odds are that another team will outbid the Royals by a fairly significant margin. That would leave the club with a rotation consisting of Yordano Ventura, Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie. The team does fancy Brandon Finnegan an eventual starter despite his key role in the postseason bullpen, but dropping him right into the fire from day one next season might be ambitious. He threw just 40 innings between the Royals (minors, regular season and postseason) plus another 105 2/3 innings at TCU last year.

The free agent market features a number of second-tier options at starting pitcher, and though the top names among that second tier — Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Kenta Maeda and old friend Ervin Santana — could command average annual values north of $12MM on multi-year commitments, that seems to be within the Royals’ means. Indeed, McCullough specifically listed Santana as a target for the Royals when writing about the payroll, and there’s said to be mutual interest between the two sides. Of course, if Moore doesn’t want to spend most of his available money in one place, he could look to more affordable arms like Jason Hammel or try to catch lightning in a bottle by signing Brett Anderson or Brandon Morrow in hopes of getting 150+ innings of strong production should either finally remain healthy.

An alternative solution is the trade market. Reports have already indicated that the Royals will at least listen on some names they’d likely be loath to move, including Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. However, in my eyes, the clearest area for the team to shed some payroll is by breaking up the core of the “big three” relievers that gained so much notoriety in this year’s postseason. Greg Holland could stage a legitimate argument for being the game’s best closer, but he’s also projected to earn a whopping $9.3MM next season — a mark that represents about 10 percent of Kansas City’s Opening Day payroll from 2014. Combining to pay Holland and Davis $16.3MM seems a luxury that is too much for Kansas City to afford. However, with two years of team control remaining, Holland will be an attractive asset even with his quickly escalating salary and could fetch some strong young talent in a trade. Davis could slot into the closer’s role, with Herrera becoming the primary setup man. Given Davis’ club options for 2016 ($8MM) and 2017 ($10M), the additional saves won’t drive up his price tag through arbitration as they would Holland’s. Moore has stated that he thinks the team can afford both, however, and the Royals are reportedly even looking to add to their bullpen, so that speculation may be far-fetched, but it does carry some logic, in my mind.

Around the infield, the Royals are set at nearly every position. Catcher Salvador Perez is one of the game’s best bargains, Hosmer will look to return to his 2013 offensive production, Omar Infante and Alcides Escobar will form the double-play tandem, and Mike Moustakas will hope to build off a sound postseason in which he flashed legitimate power. It’s worth debating whether or not the team could look to upgrade over Hosmer and Moustakas, each of whom has disappointed to some level (Moustakas in particular, at the plate at least), but both have been looked at as cornerstone pieces in the past and both possess significant upside that makes it difficult for Kansas City to go in another direction. At the very least, a right-handed platoon option that can handle either corner infield spot seems like it would be a wise acquisition.

In the outfield, Alex Gordon may be baseball’s best left fielder, and the team can either choose to lean on Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson in center/right or platoon the two and pursue an external right fielder. A reunion with Aoki, to whom they’ve already been connected, can’t be ruled out. The Royals are also reportedly interested in Torii Hunter, and had been listed as a serious suitor for Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas, though he is reportedly off the market. An additional (and completely speculative) target could be Justin Upton, who’s owed $14.5MM next year before hitting the open market. Moore knows the Atlanta brass well, and Upton would add some legitimate power (at the expense of defensive value). And, he could net the team a draft pick next winter if he signed elsewhere. However, Atlanta would ask for some high-upside names, likely pitchers, and if the Braves want a Major League ready starter, as they got for Jason Heyward, the very mention of the names “Duffy” or “Ventura” would likely end those talks before they began in earnest.

Another question for the Royals will be how to replace longtime DH Billy Butler, who signed a three-year, $30MM contract with the A’s last week. Kansas City could look to Mike Morse as a DH or attempt to buy low on Corey Hart or Kendrys Morales if the preference is to avoid spending big on designated hitter (which would explain Butler’s departure). They could also elect to use DH as a spot to give Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas and a potential free agent outfield addition some rest (particularly if K.C. ends up adding an older veteran like Hunter). In the conference call discussing Butler’s departure, Moore told reporters, including MLBTR’s own Zach Links, that he was open to either scenario — a dedicated DH or a rotation to keep multiple regulars fresh.

One final piece for Kansas City could be a bullpen arm. Free agent Jason Frasor pitched well in Kansas City after being acquired from Texas and will leave a void in bridging the gap from starter to closer. A reunion could make sense, as he figures to land a one-year deal at a modest cost and knows the team well. Otherwise, I’d peg Kansas City as a potential landing spot for Pat Neshek, Jason Grilli and other solid arms that won’t come with an exorbitant annual value.

In the end, the Royals should be able to boost payroll above $100MM this offseason, but the large arbitration raises due for their core players will prevent them from spending too freely. Moore and his staff could very well look to the trade market to alleviate some of that pressure. The cost-controlled core that is in place should provide the foundation for another run at an AL Central title, so long as the team is able to replace the value lost by Shields’ seemingly inevitable departure. Significant steps forward from Hosmer or Moustakas may take care of that on their own, but Kansas City would be wise to supplement the roster so that those steps forward would be a bonus rather than a necessity.


Offseason Outlook: San Francisco Giants

After missing the playoffs in 2013, the Giants added yet another chapter to the “Even Year” saga by capturing their third World Series victory in the past five seasons. They’ll have plenty to address in the offseason, however, with several key free agents coming off the books and a need in the rotation.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

The early portion of the Giants’ offseason focused largely on the team’s efforts to retain Pablo Sandoval, but the news came in on Monday that Sandoval will sign a five-year pact with the Red Sox, and he won’t be alone. Also going to Boston is one of the primary free agent alternatives to Sandoval — Hanley Ramirez. That leaves the Giants with limited options to address third base on the free agent market and leaves the team with holes in both its lineup and pitching staff.

The Giants have several spots on the diamond figured out; Buster Posey will share time with Andrew Susac behind the dish and also spend some time at first base along with Brandon Belt. The double-play tandem figures to be composed of standout defender Brandon Crawford and sophomore Joe Panik. They’ll form a defensively sound middle infield, though neither brings an overwhelming amount of offensive upside to the table. A healthy Angel Pagan should man center field in San Francisco, and Hunter Pence, of course, will be in right field.

The Giants will have to address third base and look for a new left fielder with Michael Morse a free agent as well. In Morse and Sandoval, San Francisco lost two of its more potent bats, so there should be a great deal of emphasis on replacing that offense. Rumored options in the wake of Sandoval’s departure include Chase Headley and Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas (who has worked out for the Giants at third base but is probably better suited to play left field). Headley would provide shutdown defense at the hot corner and is a familiar option given his extended tenure with the Padres. Tomas, however, carries more offensive upside, as he’s said to possess 70-grade power and could provide 25-homer pop even in the pitcher-friendly confines of AT&T Park. If the Giants are looking for free agent alternatives in the outfield, a reunion with Melky Cabrera could provide some punch to the lineup, and Colby Rasmus brings some pop to the table with the ability to play center field should Pagan struggle with his health again. Of course, Rasmus is coming off a down season, and the Giants may want more certainty as they look to return to the World Series.

The trade market offers a number of alternatives. The Giants probably don’t have the MLB-ready pitching prospects that the Braves are believed to be seeking for Justin Upton, but they could look to Michael Saunders and Matt Joyce as low-cost upgrades. If they care to set their sights a bit higher, Jay Bruce is said to be attainable, though Cincinnati’s asking price will be significant. The Red Sox, of course, have a bounty of outfielders available and could send anyone from a group of Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Allen Craig and Daniel Nava to San Fran.

A trade for a third base replacement may be a bit easier to come by, with names like Luis Valbuena, Will Middlebrooks, David Freese, Pedro Alvarez and Casey McGehee all potentially available. I speculated at one point that Trevor Plouffe could be a trade candidate as well, and one would think that the rebuilding Twins would indeed be willing to listen as his price increases and Miguel Sano looms.

While left field and third base are now obvious holes to be filled, another area of need for the Giants is in the rotation. Madison Bumgarner’s October heroics aside, the Giants have a lack of stability within the rotation. Former aces Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are wild cards, to varying extents (Lincecum more so than Cain), as Cain is returning from surgery to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow, while Lincecum’s past dominance has evaporated (4.76 ERA from 2012-14). Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong are free agents, and Tim Hudson will turn 40 next July.

With that level of uncertainty and the loss of one potential cornerstone already in the books, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Giants were recently connected to Jon Lester. The Giants likely have the financial means to pursue any of the “Big Three” starters, with Max Scherzer and James Shields posing legitimate options. However, the second tier of this year’s free agent class runs deep, and a pitcher-friendly ball park pairs well with a 2014 World Championship when it comes to luring free agents. The Giants could look to any of Brandon McCarthy, Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano (the cousin of Santiago Casilla) or perhaps Japanese star Kenta Maeda (assuming he is posted). A reunion with Peavy can’t be ruled out after he pitched exceptionally well for them in the regular season following a July trade.

As is the case with the trade markets for both left fielders and third basemen, many names figure to be kicked around by the Giants’ brass. In Cincinnati, a trio of starters is said to be available — Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon — and the Giants are well equipped to absorb the salary of a bigger fish like Cole Hamels. If the two sides can look past the divisional implications, Ian Kennedy is a good fit as well. Other potentially available names such as Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Scott Kazmir may require San Francisco to part with Major League ready help, as their current clubs are clear contenders, making them a trickier fit.

The Giants already possess a strong bullpen, with veterans Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez all coming back into the fold. Jean Machi enjoyed a solid season in the bullpen, and George Kontos was successful in about a half-season’s worth of innings. And, for all of Hunter Strickland‘s postseason struggles, his 100 mph heater figures to be back in the mix as well. The Giants seem likely to take a look at retaining the popular Sergio Romo but could pursue another outside option to solidify the bunch. I’d think another right-handed arm would be on the wish list, with Lopez and Affeldt slinging from the left side, and some potential free agent targets include Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. The team reportedly plans to use Tim Lincecum in the rotation, but a somewhat more creative option raised by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron in August was to give the ninth inning to Lincecum. As Cameron noted, Lincecum has had prolonged struggles with men on base throughout his career, and giving him the standard “ninth inning only” closer’s role would allow him to enter with a blank slate every outing, when his numbers have been significantly better. That’d also allow manager Bruce Bochy to use his top relievers in higher-leverage situations with the game on the line in other innings — a strategy that served him well in the playoffs this season.

Another somewhat outside-the-box suggestion for the team (though it’s certainly been suggested before) would be to install Susac as the full-time catcher with Posey becoming a full-time first baseman or third baseman, although that could potentially leave Belt without a position. He could, of course, be appealing to other clubs in trades that could help fill a different need, however. Susac does come with starting catcher upside, and a move from behind the plate could help Posey reach new career-highs in plate appearances (currently just 610) and games played (148). Of course, there would be certain defensive questions raised with a slide to third base, but filling an existing hole with current roster members could allow the team to spend bigger on an impact free agent such as Tomas or Lester.

The Giants have many routes they can take now that the Sandoval saga has come to an end. Though they’re the defending World Champions, they’re getting hit hard by free agency and unquestionably have holes to fill. Still, this is a team with a legitimate ace atop its rotation, some strong relief options in place and a perennial MVP candidate in Posey. The Giants had a $149MM payroll to open the 2014 season which only rose with the acquisition of Peavy, and they’re flush with cash following postseason revenues and a World Series victory. They were reportedly prepared to pay Sandoval in the range of $95MM over the next five seasons, and you can be certain that those dollars will be reallocated to address other roster needs.


Non-Tender Candidate: Mitch Moreland

Most Rangers players struggled or were injured in Texas’ disastrous 2014 season, and first baseman Mitch Moreland was no exception. The lefty hit .246/.297/.347 in 184 plate appearances through early June, then had ankle surgery and missed the rest of the year. Now, he’s heading into his second season of arbitration eligibility with a projected $2.8MM salary on the horizon.

USATSI_7950726_154513410_lowresMoreland is now 29 and is on the fringes, at best, as a starting first baseman. Since a partial season as a rookie in 2010, he hasn’t posted an OPS+ above 106 or an OBP above .321, and as a slightly above average defensive first baseman or below average corner outfielder, he doesn’t provide much value with the glove. Even before his injury, he might have been an acceptable choice as a starter only for a team like Texas that had plenty of stars elsewhere in its lineup.

One of those stars is Prince Fielder, who should return from his own injury to take over first base in Texas next year. There’s also limited room for Moreland in the outfield — Shin-Soo Choo will be in right, Jake Smolinski hit well down the stretch last season and could get playing time in left, and Moreland has played only sparingly in the outfield since 2011 anyway. That leaves DH, where the Rangers can be flexible in finding an alternative to Moreland. They’re likely to pursue a DH upgrade this offseason, possibly on the trade market. Another possibility for the Rangers might be to acquire Justin Upton and bump Smolinski to DH.

Moreland posted a wRC+ of 76 last season; every AL team but two (the Indians and Mariners) got better production from their designated hitters. Of course, Moreland’s ankle might partially explain his struggles, and some rebound is likely. Steamer projects Moreland will post a wRC+ of 99 in 2015, which would be more palatable, but still isn’t a figure to which a team should aspire at DH, even at a relatively low price.

If the Rangers don’t acquire outfield or DH help this offseason, however, or if they don’t acquire a left-handed hitter for one of those positions, perhaps they could consider re-signing Moreland at a reduced rate, whether or not they non-tender him first. Smolinski’s breakout in a month’s worth of games in his MLB debut was unsustainable, and entrusting him with an entire starting job, whether that’s DH or left field, without a viable backup plan seems too ambitious. 24-year-old Ryan Rua offers a potentially decent alternative, but like Smolinski, he’s right-handed. Then there’s Michael Choice, who’s also a righty and had a disastrous rookie season.

Giving a fair amount of playing time to some combination of Smolinski, Rua and Choice seems like a good idea for the Rangers, but having reinforcements at DH and in the outfield seems like a good idea as well. Moreland had a poor season in 2014, but he’s experienced and left-handed, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return to the Rangers in 2015 one way or another. A tender is therefore a possibility.

The Rangers’ decision needs to be made in early December, however, and given Moreland’s struggles last season, the Rangers might feel it’s unnecessary to commit nearly $3MM without first exploring other possibilities. A trade before that seems unlikely, since Moreland isn’t an obvious upgrade for many teams at first or DH. Perhaps if he becomes a free agent, a team like the Yankees might be a fit — Moreland could pick up at bats against righties while occasionally playing first base, DH and right field. The Rangers could also wait until later in the offseason to decide what to do with Moreland, to ensure that Fielder is fully ready and to see if an injury in another organization might create a better market.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Non-Tender Candidate: Kris Medlen

This year, teams have until 11:59 ET on December 2 to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. About 40 players are non-tender candidates, per MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes. Included on the list is injured Braves starting pitcher Kris Medlen.

Medlen, 29, earned $5.8MM through arbitration last season. He’s likely to earn a similar amount next season and no less than $4.64MM after missing the entire 2014 season due to his second Tommy John surgery. Based only on his statistics – a career 2.95 ERA, 7.62 K/9, and 2.15 BB/9 in 512 2/3 innings – he appears to be bargain. He’s been flexible about his role, with 61 starts and 89 relief appearances to his name. Return from major injury always comes with risk, especially for players who have undergone multiple Tommy John procedures. With only one more season of club control, the budget-conscious Braves may opt to cut ties with Medlen.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves Jon Roegele and Jeff Zimmerman of the Hardball Times recently researched Tommy John surgeries in separate articles. Pitchers usually see an increase in their walk rate, decrease in strikeouts, and allow more runs in their first year back from the injury. Zimmerman cites the American Journal of Sports Medicine as saying, “83% of the pitchers they looked at made it back to the majors after surgery and 97% were at least able to pitch in a minor-league game after the surgery.” Roegele found that 28-to-29-year-old pitchers (sample size 73) took an average of 16.9 months to return from the surgery. Only 71% of pitchers in the cohort returned to big league action. Roegele does note some sample size issues, but it’s safe to say Medlen is bordering on the danger zone where age begins to correlate with poorer outcomes.

The average recovery time is skewed by players who suffer extended setbacks – like Diamondbacks pitcher Daniel Hudson. Even so, there is a plausible chance Medlen won’t be ready to compete until next July – 16 months from his surgery on March 18. An efficent recovery of 13 months still has him missing the early part of the season. A more financially endowed club may feel inclined to hope for the best outcome, but the Braves may have to be more pragmatic with a possible $5.8MM investment.

Reportedly, Atlanta’s preferred option is to re-sign Medlen at a lower rate, possibly with performance bonuses. Last offseason, the club inked Gavin Floyd to a one-year, $4MM deal with $4.5MM in possible bonuses. Floyd was also coming off Tommy John surgery and was expected to miss the beginning of the season. He made his Braves debut in May, but landed back on the disabled list in June after fracturing a bone near his elbow.

The experience with Floyd may serve as both a benchmark for expected contract and a cautionary tale. Floyd has a career 4.40 ERA and 4.36 FIP, so his performance has been substantially worse than Medlen’s. However, Floyd was relatively durable prior to his injury, whereas Medlen has a history of problems. Another relevant anecdote is that of Andrew Miller. The Red Sox non-tendered and re-signed him prior to last season. Atlanta may wish to try the same tactic, although it will be a risky move if their goal is to retain him.

On the open market, I foresee a one-year, $5MM guarantee with performance bonuses. Mutual options are not uncommon with injured or injury prone players. With a mid-season return uncertain, a club option could prove attractive to teams hoping to get more than a couple months of production.

The injury complicates any potential trades. Obviously, the Braves cannot expect a substantial return – Medlen wouldn’t be a non-tender candidate if they could. Trades involving injured players are rare, so Braves fans shouldn’t expect a notable prospect in return if a deal is reached.

Medlen, who is represented by Wasserman Media Group, seemingly fits with any club in need of rotation depth and upside. Since that describes the Braves, they could be motivated to bite the bullet and tender a contract. While half of the teams in the league could serve as possible landing spots, a few suitable playoff contenders include the Angels and Dodgers. Both clubs could use rotation depth with the flexibility to work out of the bullpen.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


MLBTR Originals

A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR this past week:

  • MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd reviewing the week’s transactions and discussing with Steve Adams how the early free agent signings will affect the market going forward. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast will drop every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Tim was the first to report Pablo Sandoval had a second meeting with the Red Sox.
  • Tim expects the bidding for Sandoval to top out at a six years and $114MM. Sandoval is number five on MLBTR’s 2014-15 Top 50 Free Agents list.
  • Braves President John Hart told Mark Polishuk the trade of Jason Heyward was due in part to an impasse in negotiations over a contract extension. “He wanted a two-year deal and wasn’t interested in a long-term extension unless the dollars were maybe beyond where the club certainly wanted to go,” said Hart. “We had a strong feeling he was going to go on the market. That’s what he wanted to do. We wanted to protect ourselves and position ourselves better.
  • After the A’s signed Billy Butler to a three-year, $30MM pact, Royals GM Dayton Moore explained to Zach Links his rationale for not exercising the club’s $12.5MM option on Butler and then working out a trade. “That’s something talked about but the timing of it really didn’t allow us to do that, Moore said. “There was nobody really willing to do that at the time. We just finished playing [in the World Series] and three days later we had to make a decision. If we would have found a viable trade partner, it’s something we would have done, or looked at.  I don’t know if we would have done it because I’m not sure what the package would have been, but it’s something we certainly looked at.
  • Max Scherzer, MLBTR’s top ranked free agent, will receive $185MM over seven years, according to Tim.
  • Steve Adams pegs Jon Lester (#2) for a six-year, $153MM contract and was right on the money with his Billy Butler (#41) prediction of a three-year deal worth $30MM.
  • Charlie Wilmoth profiled Cubs left-hander Travis Wood as a non-tender candidate.
  • A Major League source told MLBTR the Rangers will likely sell Jim Adduci‘s rights to a Korean or Japanese club.
  • Tim was the first to learn Mitch Moreland left BBI Sports Group to join Bob Garber at RMG Baseball.
  • Tim broke the news of the Angels adding right-hander Danny Reynolds to their 40-man roster and the Diamondbacks signing infielder/outfielder Jamie Romak to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training.
  • MLBTR learned the Tigers inked left-hander Omar Duran to a minor league deal, which includes a Spring Training invite.
  • Zach was first with Bret Saberhagen‘s desire to return to MLB as a pitching or bullpen coach.
  • Steve hosted the MLBTR live chat this week.
  • Zach put together the best of the baseball blogosphere in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

Full Story | Comments | Categories: MLBTR Originals

Free Agent Profile: Jon Lester

Ten months ago, the common belief was that Jon Lester would sign an extension that would keep him in a Red Sox jersey into his late 30s. A lot can change in a few months, however, and Lester soon found himself donning the green and gold of the Oakland A’s following a midseason trade from a surprisingly poor Boston club. Though many Red Sox fans wouldn’t have believed it would come to this, the lefty is now fair game on the open market.

Strengths/Pros

To put things in the simplest of forms, Lester is a true ace at this point in his career. He misses bats, has strong control and piles up innings. Among free agent starters, Lester’s 2.46 ERA last year leads the pack by a long shot, as does his 2.80 FIP. He was worth 6.1 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs’ version of the metric (which is based on FIP), and he was worth 5.8 wins when looking at RA9-WAR, which is based on actual runs allowed. Both metrics were tops among free agent starters. He struck out 220 hitters and walked just 48 in 219 2/3 innings this season (9.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9).

Jon  LesterThe 2014 campaign marked the sixth time in seven seasons that Lester has topped the 200-inning threshold, and he totaled a strong 191 2/3 in the lone season he fell short (2011). His 219 2/3 innings trails only Max Scherzer (220 1/3) and James Shields (227) among fellow free agents. Dating back to 2008, his age-24 season, Lester has averaged 207 innings per season. He’s hit the DL just once in that time, spending a mere 19 days on the shelf with a strained lat in his left shoulder. That minor injury is all that prevented him from seven straight 200-inning seasons.

Lester was a strikeout machine early in his career, but his K/9 numbers dipped in recent seasons, settling in the mid-7.00s before his resurgent 9.0 K/9 in 2014. Lester pounded the strike zone early this season, registering a 61.4 percent first-pitch strike rate — the highest mark of his career. Perhaps being ahead in the count more often than ever improved the effectiveness of his curveball, or perhaps it was the fact that he threw it slower than ever before (75.1 mph average), but Lester’s 18.2 percent whiff rate on his curve was easily the strongest of his career, resulting in the restored strikeout rate.

Most of Lester’s career has come in a large market in the game’s most hitter-friendly division, and he’s thrived in that setting, for the most part. Teams will appreciate that component of his game, and his postseason experience won’t hurt either. Lester has a 2.57 career ERA in 84 postseason innings. He’s a two-time World Series champion that has been on five playoff rosters.

Lester’s main competition this year will be Scherzer, with Shields representing the third-best arm on the market. However, unlike his peers atop this year’s free agent class, Lester does not have a qualifying offer attached to him; he was ineligible to receive one after being traded midseason and can therefore be signed without the forfeiture of a draft pick.

Weaknesses/Cons

Lester was flat out elite this season, much like he was in his first full three seasons, but from 2011-13, he looked more like a good starter than a truly great one. In that time, Lester posted a 4.03 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 7.7 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 — useful numbers to be sure, but not the type of stats one associates with a pitcher in search of a six- or seven-year contract.

Though he averaged better than 93 mph on his fastball earlier in his career, Lester’s velocity settled into the mid-92 range from 2011-13 and dipped even further in 2014, averaging 91.8 mph. Of course, that’s still plenty of life, especially considering the fact that he’s left-handed.

Lester turns 31 in January, meaning that a six-year deal would run through his age-36 season and a seven-year pact would run through his age-37 campaign. Clearly, that’s a risky commitment, though such is the case with all top-of-the-market free agents. He’s younger than Shields, but Scherzer pitches most of next season at age 30, so his main competitor has age on his side.

Personal

Lester’s battle with cancer early on in his career was well-documented, and in addition to the great comeback story that culminated in him winning the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, that battle has shaped the work he’s done in the community. Lester partnered with Charity Wines to release his own line of red wine, the proceeds of which benefit the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. His NVRQT charity sends all of its proceeds to the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, and Lester explained how the charity came about and what it means to him in a guest column for the Boston Globe in 2013.

This past July, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote about the strides Lester has made in terms of maturity both on the mound and with the media after being a bit hot-tempered earlier in his career. (Abraham references glaring at umpires after questionable calls and the infamous chicken-and-beer incident as examples.)

Lester is married and has two sons. The Tacoma, Washington native now resides near Atlanta in the offseason.

Market

Lester is one of the arms referred to as the “Big Three” of this offseason, along with Scherzer and Shields. However, while MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes noted that a third or more of the teams in the league could have viable interest in Shields, the younger Lester figures to come with a higher price tag that may take him out of the picture for a number of clubs.

Lester stated multiple times that he’d like to return to Boston, and last winter he told reporters that he planned to be with the Red Sox until someone “ripped the jersey off his back.” However, the Red Sox made an initial offer of $70MM over four years, at that point, and while the reported $110-120MM offer they made today might have worked in March, it feels too light to make them a serious contender right now.

The other popular landing spot for Lester is the Cubs, where former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein is now president of baseball operations. Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer were members of the Boston front office when Lester emerged as a front-line starter, and the team is rich on young hitters without much in the way of high-upside pitching (Jake Arrieta is a notable exception).

Other teams that figure to enter the mix are the typical names we see assorted with high-end free agents. Though the Yankees maintain that they won’t pursue Lester, Scherzer or Shields,  it’s possible they’ll change their tune if they’re unable to re-sign Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley. The Dodgers have the cash to pull off a deal, though they’re said to be looking to tone down spending this winter. I still won’t rule them out as a possibility. The Tigers and Angels have high payrolls but cloudy long-term outlooks thanks to existing salary on the books. Neither seems a fit barring trades to create some long-term flexibility.

The rest of Lester’s market will have to consist of dark horses, and agents Seth and Sam Levinson of ACES will likely need to pitch to owners of some unlikely teams that Lester could be a franchise-altering decision. To this point, the Royals have shown some preliminary interest, and Lester is set to meet with the Braves on Thursday. The Cardinals have also been linked to Lester.

Beyond that, a team like the Astros has the long-term payroll freedom to make a move, as do the Marlins, who could feel that adding Lester would be a significant step toward building a perennial contender now that they’ve extended Giancarlo Stanton. The Nationals have plenty of money and are set to lose both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister next winter. Trading one and swapping him out for Lester could is a long shot but not unthinkable. The Giants haven’t spent at this level on the free agent market since their ill-fated Barry Zito deal, but they have rotation needs and are flush with cash following the World Series. The Rangers deserve a mention as a team with a willingness to spend and a need for starters, but GM Jon Daniels has indicated they may not be big spenders on the open market. Could a reunion with his hometown Mariners be in the cards? Seattle’s primary need is offense, but if they again have trouble luring hitters to Safeco Field, GM Jack Zduriencik could double down on an existing strength and look to build an even more imposing rotation.

Expected Contract

As is often the case with big name free agents, it’s easy to look at Lester right now and think that outside of  the traditional big spenders, there’s not much of a market for him if he’s seeking six or seven years at an annual value north of $20MM. With players of this caliber, the market isn’t always quick to reveal itself, but it does eventually materialize, and we typically see the top names get paid.

Lester has said free agency isn’t all about the money, but I’d be surprised if his agents hadn’t at least kicked around the goal of trying to break CC Sabathia‘s $161MM guarantee, which is still the record for a free agent pitcher. (The Yankees did spend $175MM on Masahiro Tanaka, but $20MM of that sum went to Tanaka’s former team in Japan.)

Were Lester coming off a pair of dominant seasons, as Scherzer is, I think there would be a better case for that figure. As it is, however, he showed a significant gap between his two most recent dominant seasons. Also of note is that Sabathia, like fellow high-priced hurlers Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels, signed his contract at a significantly younger age than Lester. While we have to account for some inflation, as those deals are now older (and Hamels’, of course, was not an open-market deal), Lester may have a hard time getting the seventh guaranteed season. Looking at the majority of the significant pitching contracts signed in recent history, guarantees typically stop in the age-36 season, if not sooner. If that’s the case, Lester would need to achieve a $27MM annual salary to top Sabathia on a six-year deal, which seems a touch steep.

In the end, I do think Lester can top the marks set by Hamels and Greinke. Lester was the best performer among free agent pitchers in 2014, so I can’t completely rule out him getting a seventh year and/or passing Sabathia’s mark. However, his age and the lack of a consistently dominant track record has me pegging him for a six-year, $153MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Non-Tender Candidate: Travis Wood

In 2013, Travis Wood was a bright spot on a miserable Cubs team, posting a 3.11 ERA over 200 innings. That led to a $3.9MM payout in his first year of arbitration eligibility in 2014. A year later, he’s coming off a 5.03 ERA season, and he could be a non-tender candidate. So what changed?

USATSI_8048115_154513410_lowresActually, not much. Or, at least, not much Wood could have controlled. In 2013, Wood’s xFIP was 4.50. In 2014, it was 4.51. By far the most important cause of his two-run jump in ERA was a 72-point increase in his batting average on balls in play, from .248 to .320. Wood walked batters at a significantly higher rate (4.0 BB/9 vs. 3.0) in 2014, but he struck out more of them, too, and slightly increased his ground ball percentage, although he remained a fly ball pitcher. His command was worse, but not so much so that it represented a fundamental change. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two seasons was Wood’s cut fastball, which was lost a mile an hour in velocity and was far less effective in 2014. In general, though, the best way to explain the difference between the two seasons is that Wood wasn’t nearly as good as his 2013 ERA, nor as bad as his ERA last year.

Wood’s team has changed as well. Even if Wood hadn’t had a strong-looking 2013 season, he would have had utility on the 2014 Cubs, which looked poised to unload veteran starters like Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and (if he had pitched well) Edwin Jackson. Having an innings eater like Wood makes sense when facing that kind of upheaval, and if Wood had somehow repeated his 2013 performance, he would have had trade value himself.

2015 is different. Jake Arrieta emerged during the 2014 season as a top young starter, and Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada had unexpectedly strong seasons as well. The Cubs are likely to continue to give chances to Jacob Turner, and Jackson is also still under contract. There’s also Eric Jokisch, Felix Doubront and Dan Straily as potential rotation candidates. And then, of course, the Cubs are expected to be major players for free agent pitching and could perhaps add two hurlers this offseason. Despite the wide variance in Wood’s ERAs, he’s essentially a back-end lefty who can soak up innings. That makes him useful, but perhaps not for the 2015 Cubs, who will have plenty of options who are either better or who have more upside.

Then, of course, there’s Wood’s salary. The Frontline client’s strong 2013 numbers set a relatively high baseline for his salaries during his arbitration years, and he’s projected to make $5.5MM in 2015. Many teams would likely see $5.5MM as more than Wood is worth, so it’s doubtful he has much trade value. Teams like the Braves, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Twins or White Sox could have interest in Wood, but perhaps not so much that they’re willing to give up $5.5MM and trade talent to get him, particularly not so early in the offseason.

One factor working against Wood is that the free agent market for pitching is rather strong, particularly in comparison with the rest of the market. The non-tender deadline is December 2, and plenty of higher-upside arms will surely remain on the free agent market then. The most likely outcome, therefore, might be that the Cubs non-tender Wood, and he signs elsewhere later in the offseason.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


MLBTR Originals

A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:


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Non-Tender Candidates: Ike Davis & Gaby Sanchez

Teams have until December 2 at 11:59pm ET to decide which of their arbitration-eligible players they’ll tender contracts. By MLBTR’s reckoning, about 40 of those players are non-tender candidates, including two first basemen, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, who platooned at the position for the Pirates in 2014.

USATSI_7961599_154513410_lowresDavis is projected to make $4.4MM in 2015 after earning $3.5MM last season. Sanchez, meanwhile, is projected to make $2.7MM, a raise from $2.3MM. Those costs wouldn’t be exorbitant for any team, even the low-payroll Pirates, but after another somewhat disappointing season from Davis and an off year for Sanchez, it’s worth asking whether the Pirates’ money might best be spent elsewhere.

Perhaps just as important for Davis is the fact that Pedro Alvarez now appears to be a first baseman. The former No. 2 overall pick struggled with throws from third base in 2014, while utilityman Josh Harrison had an unexpectedly outstanding season and staked a claim on a starting job, which will likely end up being at third. GM Neal Huntington has said that Alvarez will likely get the bulk of the playing time at first base, and he called keeping Davis “probably a challenge.” Alvarez and Davis both bat left-handed, so they can’t share a position. Davis has been working out in the outfield this offseason, but there’s probably no space on the Pirates’ roster there, either, since the Pirates already have a top young lefty outfielder in Gregory Polanco and another reasonably strong one in Travis Snider.

It’s still possible that the Pirates could trade Davis, who could theoretically have a bit of value for a team in need of a lefty first base option. But Davis will be more expensive through arbitration than he was in 2014, when he had a .233/.343/.378 season that qualified as a modest disappointment. The trade that brought Davis to Pittsburgh early in the 2014 season didn’t cost the Pirates much (a minor league reliever in Zack Thornton and a young pitching prospect in Blake Taylor), and it’s unlikely the Bucs could get more than that if they traded Davis now. It’s also obvious that, unless they trade Alvarez, the Pirates don’t have space for Davis on their roster. So there’s little incentive for interested teams to do anything but wait until the deadline for the Pirates to cut him loose.

Sanchez is right-handed and has had a reputation as a strong hitter against lefties, so Alvarez’s move to first base doesn’t impact Sanchez the way it impacts Davis. Given Sanchez’s declining performance, however, the Pirates could decide to allocate resources elsewhere. Sanchez hit .229/.293/.385 last season. He was better against lefties, at .256/.318/.429, but perhaps not so well as to justify the expense and the roster spot, especially given that the NL Central is thin on left-handed pitching. Sanchez is a career .291/.382/.481 hitter against southpaws, but at 31, his 2014 performance might be closer to his expected level going forward.

Like Davis, Sanchez has little or no trade value. So the Pirates’ best option might be to non-tender him and save money to spend elsewhere. The Bucs could then look for a cheaper Triple-A slugger to platoon with Alvarez (who, like Davis, can certainly use a good platoon partner). They could also employ some more creative arrangement like having Tony Sanchez, who dabbled as a first baseman late last season at Triple-A Indianapolis, break camp as a righty first base option and third catcher. They could also attempt to bring Gaby Sanchez back for less than $2.7MM.

Davis, who is represented by Octagon, should still be able to land a big-league deal somewhere — his 10 homers last season weren’t anything to write home about, but .343 on-base percentages don’t grow on trees, and Davis is still just 27 (28 in March). The Marlins already have a lefty first baseman in Garrett Jones, but they reportedly like Davis and could have interest if he becomes a free agent. The Padres could also be a possibility, although it’s questionable whether they’ll see Davis as an upgrade over incumbent lefty first baseman Yonder Alonso.

Sanchez, who is represented by Beverly Hills Sports Council, would be a good fit (on a cheap Major League deal or minor league deal with an out clause) for a team looking for a partner for their lefty first baseman. St. Louis, where Matt Adams has a career .197/.227/.326 line against lefties, could be one possibility. A reunion with the Marlins, and with either Davis or Jones (who platooned with Sanchez in Pittsburgh in 2013) could make sense also.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Future Payroll Obligations By Team

We have previously set out the 2015 payroll starting points for every club. Now, we’ll turn to future obligations. Obviously, teams that intend to add long-term contracts will need to keep a close eye on these figures.

I took a look at this same information last year at roughly the same time (see here and here). As I explained then, discounting future obligations is unquestionably necessary for a true picture, but is also a practical impossibility (for this exercise) given its complexity and broad range of variables. The basic premise is simple, of course: the further away an obligation, the more the discount rate compounds, and the less that obligation is valued in terms of present dollars. (That assumes, of course, that we will continue to experience an inflationary environment; otherwise, the opposite would be true.)

The future obligations chart and table that follow (all figures in $MMs) were compiled using the Cot’s Contracts database. That information reflects prorated signing bonuses, as is done for luxury tax calculations, so in that respect it may overstate (by a small amount) the actual budgeting situation for some teams. (Note also that the Tigers’ reported signing of Victor Martinez is not included; if that deal is consummated, it would add $17MM per season to Detroit’s tab over 2016-18.)

future obligations v2

And in table form:

future obligations table hi lo

So, how have things changed since we last checked in about a year ago? Obviously there have been some significant commitments added and subtracted, and existing contracts are one year closer to completion.

The following table shows how each team’s future balance sheet has changed on a year-by-year basis since last year (re-ordered highest to lowest):

future obligations comparison 2014

And finally, this table documents how each team’s total forward-looking commitments have changed from our last snapshot in November of 2013 (looking at 2015 and beyond) to the one taken this morning (looking at 2016 and beyond). In other words, the number you see in the column at the right shows you how much more or less in total future obligations a particular team is carrying now than they were at this time last year.

future obligations total change table


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