MLBTR Originals Rumors

Q&A With Phillies Prospect Aaron Nola

In a draft class that featured several high-quality pitchers at the top, LSU ace Aaron Nola was viewed as one of the very best and universally regarded as the most major league ready of any of them.  Scouts were impressed by Nola’s poise, maturity, and (perhaps most importantly) his pinpoint accuracy and multiple teams in the top ten were connected to the hurler, but the Phillies were the club that pounced at No. 7.  Back in June, Nola spoke with MLBTR as a part of of our Draft Prospect Q&A series.  Recently, we checked in with Nola as he was gearing up for the 2015, a season that could see his big league debut.

Zach Links: When the Phillies drafted you last summer, there was immediately talk of you quickly making a path to the big leagues since you were so polished. Did the Phillies indicate to you last summer that you could be bumped up to the majors rather quickly?

Aaron Nola: They didn’t really say exactly that. They didn’t really say much in terms of that.  For me, the way I look at it is, whenever they want me up, its their call.  Wherever they put me, my focus is going to be where I am and play to to the best of my ability.

Aaron Nola

ZL: Some folks were surprised that the Phillies didn’t have you in major league camp for the entirety of the spring.  Were you expecting to be in big league camp for the whole thing, as opposed to just a bit at the end?

AN: They just told me that they were going to send me to minor league camp and I was okay with that.  I had fun, I had a good time.

I knew a lot of guys there and there’s a good group of guys there and it was pretty cool pitching against the Yankees that one time.  I was around guys in the clubhouse and getting to watch what they do and how they play the game, it was a really good and really educational experience.

ZL:  Alex Rodriguez offered up some really high praise after facing you in spring training, telling reporters (including Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News), that you had a “good arm” and “a bright future” that “the Phillies should be very excited” about.  [Nola allowed a single to Rodriguez in their first meeting, but struck him out with a changeup the next time around.]  What was your reaction to that?

AN: I was just thinking that was pretty cool. We all know what he’s done in his career, he’s an unbelievable player and just watching him step in the box and the battle going on, it was surreal.  Growing up we were just watching that guy on TV all the time and I was always hoping that one day I would pitch against him, so that was pretty cool.

ZL: Did you have any jitters when he stepped into the box?

AN: Maybe a little bit. I wasn’t too nervous coming in because it wasn’t the first time I pitched in front of a crowd like that.  We pitched in front of some huge crowds at LSU.  If there were any butterflies, they went away when I stepped on the mound because everything felt normal for me.  I think some minor jitters sometimes are good, in a way.

ZL:  The Phillies landed you at No. 7 but there were a number of teams connected to you, including the Twins at No. 5. Did you see the Phillies as your most likely landing spot on draft week, or did you see anyone else as the frontrunner?

AN: I just kind of told myself at that point that I was focused on my season at LSU and the games we were playing at that time.  At that point, I was blessed and honored to be in that situation, to know that I’d probably be called in the first round wherever I go.  I couldn’t control any of that, and I didn’t know where I’d end up when I was watching on TV.

It was an honor that the Phillies picked me, that day is something that I’ll always cherish and remember.

ZL: How has your daily preparation changed from this time last year to today? What kinds of things do the Phillies have you doing differently?

AN: I’m not doing anything different, really.  What the Phillies have me doing is pretty much what I’ve done before.  The only difference I’m pitching more often.  I’m getting out on the mound more and more and I’m pretty accustomed to that at this point.

ZL: When we spoke last year, there were some scouting reports questioning your 3/4 arm slot. Have the Phillies tinkered with that at all?

AN: No they have not.  It’s the same slot I’ve always done.  I’ve never thrown a pitch another way and always thrown in that arm slot.

ZL: The Phillies were zeroed in on their veterans for a long time and playing for the here and now, but they seem to be focused on building on younger talent now. Are you excited to be part of the youth movement in Philly?

AN: Everyone there, they’re all great guys and I got to know them really well, or at least have good relationships with them.  I’ve been hanging out with them a lot this year and I can tell you that they play the game the right way and work really hard.

I think those guys are great and their stars have been at the top of the game for years.  They have had unbelievable careers and I don’t know what is going to happen but they’re working so hard this spring.  I’m excited to work my way up to that level and play alongside them.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


How Common Are Early-Season Manager Firings?

Already, in late April, there are rumors surrounding Marlins manager Mike Redmond, whose job could be in jeopardy after the team’s 3-10 start. April sounds awfully early in the season to fire a manager, and in fact it is — in the past ten seasons, there have been no manager firings in the month of April. There have been plenty of firings in the first halves of seasons, however. Here’s a look at the nine firings in the past decade that took place before a team had finished 81 games in a season, and a brief glimpse at what happened in the next few years after each dismissal. As we’ll see, the outcomes of these firings run the gamut of possible outcomes, making it difficult to say whether replacing a manager early in a given season is a good idea.

  • The Reds fired Dave Miley on June 21, 2005, replacing him with Jerry Narron. Narron lasted barely two seasons and was replaced by Dusty Baker, who had two sub-.500 seasons before leading the Reds to three seasons of 90 or more wins in his next four.
  • The Mariners fired John McLaren on June 19, 2008 after a 25-47 start. After Jim Riggleman finished out the season, the Mariners turned to Don Wakamatsu and Eric Wedge, neither of whom had success, before finally turning to Lloyd McClendon, who had a good first season in 2014.
  • The Rockies fired Clint Hurdle on May 29, 2009 after they got off to an 18-28 start. Jim Tracy took over and the Rockies went 74-42 the rest of the way, making the playoffs.
  • The Diamondbacks fired Bob Melvin on June 8, 2009, replacing him with A.J. Hinch, who managed the team for less than a season and a half before being fired himself.
  • The Royals fired Trey Hillman on May 13, 2010 after a 12-23 start, replacing him with Ned Yost. Yost’s tactical managing gives fans fits, and his first two-plus seasons with the Royals were unsuccessful, but the team has played exceptionally well since then.
  • The Orioles fired Dave Trembley on June 4, 2010. The team struggled for about two months with interim manager Juan Samuel at the helm, but performed well for the last two months of the season under Buck Showalter, whose hiring has so far been a boon for the franchise.
  • The Marlins fired Fredi Gonzalez on June 23, 2010, replacing him with Edwin Rodriguez. Rodriguez posted a .500 record the rest of the season, but he resigned during the 2011 season as the team struggled.
  • The Diamondbacks fired Hinch on July 1, 2010, replacing him with Kirk Gibson. The D-backs had a 94-win season in 2011, but after two .500 seasons and a poor 2014, they fired Gibson, too.
  • The Athletics fired Bob Geren on June 9, 2011, replacing him with Melvin. The team continued to struggle down the stretch in 2011 but has made the playoffs in three straight seasons since.

The Rockies’ swap of Clint Hurdle for Jim Tracy in 2009 (along with the Marlins’ own Jeff Torborg/Jack McKeon switch in their World Series-winning 2003 campaign) is exactly what a team hopes for when it fires a manager early in the season. The Rockies turned their season around under Tracy and made the playoffs after an amazing stretch run.

But the Hurdle/Tracy swap could also be read as evidence of how difficult it can be to identify or predict a manager’s effect on a team. Tracy had previously managed the Pirates, but was fired after two ugly seasons. He lasted only three more years in Colorado. Meanwhile, Hurdle ultimately took over in Pittsburgh and led the team to its first two winning seasons in two decades, earning praise for his leadership and his integration of sabermetrics into the Pirates’ day-to-day strategy. Perhaps Tracy really was the right manager for the Rockies in 2009, and Hurdle the wrong one. A manager’s job is to lead, and his ability to lead the ever-changing cast of players around him is surely somewhat fluid. But a team’s performance is informed by any number of factors that have little to do with its manager.

With that in mind, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the list above. Some teams’ manager swaps appear to have worked well, like that of the Rockies, or the Athletics’ switch of Geren and Melvin. Others didn’t, although that’s not surprising, given that teams who fire their managers tend not to be the best ones.

Perhaps there’s a distinction between firings in April and firings in June and July. In April, it’s hard to be completely out of the race, but in June, it isn’t, and maybe it makes sense for a team to make big changes rather than having a lame-duck manager limp through the rest of the season. There’s also the problem of how best to hire a permanent manager while a season is going on. Many teams on the list above turned to interim managers after firings, and surely that’s not what the Marlins would do if they fired Redmond. It probably isn’t easy to hire a permanent manager in-season. Of the teams on the list above, only two, the Royals (Yost) and the Athletics (Melvin), immediately replaced their outgoing managers with managers who turned out to be real long-term replacements.

Then there’s the lack of stability an early-season firing can betray. As FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal points out, the Marlins’ struggles are due in part to pitchers’ injuries and to Mat Latos‘ ineffectiveness. Those problems have little to do with Redmond, and replacing him would probably do nothing to solve them. Perhaps Redmond isn’t the right manager for the Marlins, but what might be most striking about the list above is the absence of many  successful franchises who seem to highly value organizational stability, like the Cardinals, Giants and Tigers. Of course, it’s surely true that those franchises are mostly stable in part because they’re successful, and not the way around. And there are other franchises who are generally stable, like the Rockies and Twins, who haven’t done well lately. But the Marlins have had five managers since 2010 (Gonzalez, Rodriguez, McKeon, Ozzie Guillen and Redmond). One wonders how difficult it must be for players to develop given that many changes of leadership.


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 and MLBTR’s Steve Adams debating the Craig Kimbrel trade. Jeff also welcomed MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth, who wrote last Sunday the Dodgers simply bought a draft pick when they acquired reliever Ryan Webb from the Orioles. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast drops every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Marlins President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill and agent Joe Longo both shared details of the negotiations surrounding Christian Yelich‘s seven-year, $49.75MM extension with Zach Links. “Negotiations have an ebb and flow to them. Ultimately, Christian was okay with waiting on an extension and waiting to see what could come in future years. Really, it’s a positive thing when your employer likes you and in baseball sometimes just getting an offer of an extension feels good, because that’s a good review of what you’ve been doing,” Longo explained to Zach. “I went back to Christian and I told him what the numbers were but I explained that A, they’ve never done anything like this before and B, he’s a unique player and there aren’t a lot of comps out there for him, so we had to be patient and take just the start of the conversation as a positive.”
  • Tim Dierkes analyzed the ramifications of 11 prospects from the last decade who made their team’s Opening Day roster in spite of the service time implications. Tim opines two weeks of a rookie in April is rarely directly worth trading for a seventh year of control, but the tradeoff can be defensible for certain teams and players.
  • Steve named 13 players whose roles for 2015 have already shifted and how those changes will affect their arbitration earnings.
  • Jeff listed five upcoming free agents whose slow starts could affect their market next offseason.
  • The 2014-15 Offseason In Review series continued with a look at the Red Sox (by Mark Polishuk), A’s (by Steve), and Braves (by Jeff).
  • Steve asked MLBTR readers whether Kris Bryant should have made the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. More than 84% of you believe the Cubs made the correct decision having having Bryant start the season in Triple-A.
  • Jeff asked MLBTR readers whether the Rick Porcello four-year, $82.5MM extension was a wise investment by the Red Sox. Nearly 55% of you believe Boston’s money could have been put to better uses.
  • Steve hosted the weekly live chat.
  • Zach gathered the best the baseball corner of the web had to offer in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

Full Story | Comments | Categories: MLBTR Originals

13 Role Changes That Have Impacted Earning Power

Each offseason, teams and fans alike spend the winter projecting a 25-man roster on paper in an attempt to plot out as accurately as possible the way in which a season will progress. Oftentimes, a roster is more or less set from an early standpoint. Those expectations fluctuate based not only on player movement — trades and free agency, of course, have a strong impact on roster construction — but also on elements such as spring performances, injuries and early season success/struggles. Rarely do rosters, and the roles occupied by the players on that roster, shake out the way in which most pundits expected.

In many cases, the changes within a roster can come with significant financial implications for the players who find themselves in a more prominent role. Those who find themselves receiving the short end of the stick, of course, can see their future fortunes diminished.

It’s early in the 2015 season, but already we’ve seen some shifts in role and/or playing time that will make some players considerably wealthier in arbitration, as well as some that figure to severely damage a player’s arbitration case.

Rising Earning Power

Adam Ottavino: Typically, players like Ottavino are the ones that the Cardinals find rather than let go, but St. Louis tried to get the now-29-year-old Ottavino through waivers in 2012 and lost him to the Rockies. Ottavino has been a revelation in the Colorado bullpen, boosting his velocity and ditching his changeup for a devastating slider that has turned him into a late-inning weapon. Ottavino was recently named the new closer by manager Walt Weiss, and he’ll have a chance to head into his second trip through arbitration with a bucket of saves under his arm. The difference between entering arb as a setup man and entering as a closer could be worth millions.

Jeurys Familia: The same role change that benefits Ottavino will do the same for Familia, who entered the season setting up for Jenrry Mejia. However, an 80-game suspension for Mejia and Bobby Parnell‘s recovery from Tommy John surgery have opened the door for Familia to take the reins in the ninth inning. He’s notched a 6-to-1 K/BB ratio in his first 4 2/3 innings this season, and while he hasn’t necessarily secured the job through season’s end — Parnell or Mejia could reclaim the job later in the year — a season resembling last year’s 2.21 ERA in the ninth inning would yield a significant arbitration payday. Zach Britton, for example, parlayed one elite season as a closer into a $3.2MM payday this year, though the two aren’t perfect comparables. (Britton was a Super Two and didn’t have multiple strong seasons under his belt, as Familia theoretically will.) Ottavino landed a $1.3MM salary his first time through arb after a strong season of setup work, however, giving a rough idea of the potential gap between the two roles.

Lorenzo Cain: Entering last season, Cain was the Royals’ No. 8 hitter and didn’t get into the lineup on an everyday basis, as he split time with Jarrod Dyson in center field. Cain didn’t hit higher in the batting order than sixth until June 17 last season, but he’s batted third every day and started in center each game for the Royals this year. Cain doesn’t have the power one would typically expect from a No. 3 hitter, but his preposterous defense will keep him in the lineup every day, and hitting in the heart of the order will lead to plenty of RBI opportunities. A Gold Glove and a career-high in RBIs (which wouldn’t be hard to come by, as it currently stands at 53) will go a long way toward bolstering his $2.725MM salary.

Evan Gattis: The transition from catcher/outfielder in the National League to DH/outfielder in the American League should afford Gattis with the opportunity to see more playing time and therefore accumulate more counting stats to pad his first arbitration case this winter. While it’s true that he probably has more value behind the plate — that type of offense from a catcher is indeed quite rare — defense isn’t as highly rewarded via the arbitration process as good old fashioned homers and RBIs. Gattis has struggled to open the year, but career-highs in home runs, RBIs and most other counting stats wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Leonys Martin: Martin’s role may not appear different on the surface, as he still figures to man center field on an everyday basis if healthy. However, Martin received just 40 games in the leadoff spot in 2014, spending the bulk of his time occupying the 7th and 8th slots in the Rangers lineup. Manager Jeff Banister declared Martin his leadoff hitter and voiced confidence in his ability to handle the role, even after struggling out of the gate in 2015. Martin’s dropped to eighth in each of the past two games, but Banister said that decision was “tinkering” to give the lineup “a different look,” rather than anything permanent. Martin averaged 3.76 plate appearances per game in 2014 but has averaged 4.4 per game in 2015. Over the course of 150 games, that comes out to an extra 150 to 155 games, that’d be an extra 96 to 100 plate appearances for Martin — a valuable increase in opportunities to boost his counting stats as he wraps up a five-year, $15.5MM contract and heads into arbitration for the first time.

Jordan Schafer: The former top prospect broke camp with the Braves as a reserve outfielder in 2014 and started just 13 games all season before the Twins claimed him on waivers in early August. Schafer impressed the Twins enough that there was never any real thought to non-tendering him (despite a marginal track record), and he outplayed Aaron Hicks in Spring Training to earn a regular role in center field to begin the season. Schafer is in a platoon with Shane Robinson, and he’ll have to hold off Hicks, Eddie Rosario and perhaps even Byron Buxton to keep his playing time, but he’s unquestionably been presented with a better financial opportunity than he was in Atlanta.

Declining Earning Power

Wilin Rosario: After spending the bulk of the past three seasons as Colorado’s everyday catcher, Rosario will now transition to a part-time role in which he’ll be used as an occasional first baseman against left-handed pitching. Rosario will also make sporadic appearances in the outfield and behind the plate. Rosario’s power has never been in question, but he’s regarded as one of the game’s worst defensive backstops and will be without a regular role of which to speak. The decrease in playing time is a critical blow to his earning potential, as his $2.8MM salary won’t be increasing by much if the early stages of the season are any indication of his playing time. Rosario has seven plate appearances in six games thus far.

Welington Castillo: Manager Joe Maddon can refer to the Cubs’ combination of Miguel Montero, David Ross and Welington Castillo as his “three-headed catcher,” but Castillo, formerly Chicago’s starting catcher, and his agent would likely describe the situation much more colorfully behind closed doors. Castillo took home a $2.1MM payday in his first trip through the arb cycle this winter, but like Rosario, he’s seen virtually no plate appearances in 2015. Castillo has appeared in four games and picked up seven PAs. Now that they’ve been through the arb process once, the raises awarded to Rosario and Castillo will be based almost solely upon their 2015 results, so their pay bumps figure to be rather paltry in nature.

Brett Cecil: Cecil was tabbed to as the Blue Jays’ closer to enter the season, but he relinquished those duties to 20-year-old Miguel Castro almost instantly. Cecil’s diminished velocity played a role in that decision, and while he may work his way back into the ninth inning, he looks like he’s tabbed for a setup role in the immediate future. A full season of saves would be a boon for next winter’s arbitration case, but that looks unlikely now.

Ruben Tejada: The Mets have had a hole at shortstop since Jose Reyes departed, and while Tejada got the chance to fill the void last year, it’s Wilmer Flores getting that opportunity this year. Tejada started 105 games in 2014, but it seems highly unlikely that he’ll come anywhere near that number in 2015, barring injuries around the diamond. Tejada’s light bat limited his earning power in the first place, but a lack of regular at-bats will further limit the raise he’ll receive on this year’s $1.88MM salary.

Peter Bourjos: Lights-out center field defense gave Bourjos a chance to pick up quite a few plate appearances early in his Cardinals tenure, but the club quickly departed from the notion of giving him more regular at-bats in 2014, promoting Randal Grichuk and giving more playing time back to Jon Jay. To this point, Bourjos has had just two plate appearances, though his glove has gotten him into five games. The complete evaporation of playing time makes a significant raise on his $1.65MM salary difficult to envision. Bourjos’ elite glove is strong enough that he could start for a number of teams, but it’s also a luxury and a late-inning weapon for St. Louis, so it’s difficult to envision them moving him into a more financially favorable situation.

Jesse Chavez: Despite the fact that he excelled in the rotation for Oakland last year, Chavez lost his starting spot midseason after the acquisitions of Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and, eventually, Jon Lester. Many, myself included, believed he had a strong case for the rotation heading into 2015, but the final three spots behind holdovers Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir went to Jesse Hahn, Drew Pomeranz and Kendall Graveman. Chavez’s 2014 breakout should indicate that he’ll be a perfectly useful reliever in 2015, but 20-30 starts would’ve done quite a bit more for his earning power.

Everth Cabrera: Cabrera’s fall in San Diego was somewhat remarkable, as he went from leading the NL in steals in 2012 and earning a 2013 All-Star nod to a 50-game suspension for PEDs, a dismal 2014 season and an eventual non-tender. He’s latched on in Baltimore and has been starting at shortstop with J.J. Hardy rehabbing from injury, but a reserve role is in the cards for E-Cab, making it difficult to envision a substantial raise on his $2.4MM salary, which was a slight decline from last year’s $2.45MM in the first place.

Note: This post isn’t including role changes for players who will not be arbitration eligible following the 2015 season. Players such as Carlos Martinez and Tony Cingrani, for example, will certainly see their future arbitration outlooks impacted if their recent role changes are permanent, but it’s difficult enough to know whether or not all of these changes will hold throughout the current season, let alone through the 2016-17 seasons.


11 MLB Top Prospects Who Conquered Service Time

Is there ever a good reason for a team to put their MLB-ready top prospect on the Opening Day roster, as the Diamondbacks recently did with Archie Bradley?  As we’ve seen with the Cubs and Kris Bryant, waiting at least 12 days into the season ensures the team will control the player for a seventh season.  Forward-looking teams that are willing to wait before calling up their phenom can delay his free agency by a year, and that extra year of control is generally more valuable than having the player for the first two weeks of April.  However, we found 11 examples in the last decade of top MLB prospects who did make the Opening Day roster.  You might say these players conquered the service time issue, or at least were lucky enough to have GMs who disregarded it.

1.  Jose Fernandez, Marlins SP.  Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest certainly would have been justified giving Fernandez a little more minor league seasoning in 2013.  The game’s #5 overall prospect according to Baseball America, Fernandez was just 20 years old and had never pitched above A ball.  But when Marlins starters Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez got hurt, Fernandez surprisingly made the team.

Was it worth it?  Fernandez didn’t make his Marlins debut until April 7th, 2013, so they ultimately traded his five-inning debut for control of his age-26 season, which will happen in 2019.  He was clearly ready to make the jump, as Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year award.  However, over a year of the Marlins’ control of their young ace was lost when he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery the following season.  The team put him on the 2013 Opening Day roster even with the knowledge that he was represented by notorious agent Scott Boras, who generally encourages players to avoid extensions that delay free agency.  In December, the Marlins reportedly made a six-year offer (with two club options) worth close to $40MM, but no deal was reached.  Even if they do reach some kind of precedent-shattering deal, five extra innings from Fernandez as part of a 100-loss season was not worth it for the Marlins.

2.  Jedd Gyorko, Padres 2B.  Gyorko came into 2013 as BA’s #71-ranked prospect, and he spent Spring Training working on the transition from third to second base.  Injuries to Chase Headley and Logan Forsythe helped open the door for GM Josh Byrnes to put Gyorko on the Opening Day roster.

Was it worth it?  It’s possible that the goodwill from Byrnes’ lack of regard for service time helped encourage Gyorko to sign a six-year, $35.5MM extension with a club option with the Padres a year later.  In that contract the Padres paid a free agent price for the 2019 season ($13MM), which potentially could have been cheaper had that represented his fourth year of arbitration.  Or, an extra year of control might have convinced Byrnes to wait another season before proposing an extension.  Gyorko struggled mightily with injuries and performance as a sophomore in 2014, and the extension might end up being regrettable.

3.  Mike Leake, Reds SP.  The Reds drafted Leake eighth overall in 2009 out of Arizona State, and with nothing more than an Arizona Fall League stint under his belt as a pro, he beat Travis Wood for the fifth starter job to begin the 2010 season.  He pitched well enough as a rookie, but was moved to the bullpen in August and his season ended on the 24th of that month.

Was it worth it?  The Reds won the division by five games in 2010, and Leake was a part of that.  Leake was wild on his April 11th debut, but still beat the Cubs.  Since GM Walt Jocketty could have easily let him make his debut a few days later, it was not worth it.  Controlling Leake for 2016, his age 28 season, would have been valuable, even if he would have cost $14MM through arbitration.

4.  Austin Jackson, Tigers CF.  Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski acquired Jackson in the epic three-team December 2009 trade that also included Max Scherzer, Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy, Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth.  Jackson was regarded as the #76 prospect in baseball, and he became the Tigers’ Opening Day center fielder.

Was it worth it?  Jackson hit quite well in his first dozen games or so, and his performance easily could have led to an additional win or two.  It wasn’t worth it in that the Tigers finished at .500, but at the time Dombrowski’s decision was defensible.  Jackson was again part of a big three-team deal at the 2014 trade deadline.  He would have carried more trade value with 2016 control, though teams will be down on him for next year if his current struggles persist.

5.  Jason Heyward, Braves RF.  In a situation analogous to Bryant, the Braves had the game’s best prospect prior to the 2010 season in Heyward.  Heyward had just three games of Triple-A experience, but GM Frank Wren couldn’t resist putting the 20-year-old on the Opening Day roster after a legendary Spring Training.

Was it worth it?  The Braves won the Wild Card by one game and Heyward had a very strong start, so this is a rare case where it was worth it.  The Braves traded Heyward to the Cardinals last November with Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.  That was a solid return, but of course the Braves would have done better if they controlled Heyward for ’16 as well.

6.  Colby Rasmus, Cardinals CF.  Rasmus was Baseball America’s #3 prospect prior to the 2009 season.  He made GM John Mozeliak’s Opening Day roster, but wasn’t in the outfield when the Cards battled Pittsburgh on April 5th.

Was it worth it?  The Cardinals won the Central Division handily in ’09, but since Rasmus didn’t start every game those first few weeks, it probably wasn’t worth putting him on the Opening Day roster.  When Mozeliak traded Rasmus to the Blue Jays in an eight-player deal in July 2011, the outfielder had three-plus seasons of control remaining.  It was well-known by that point that Rasmus had worn out his welcome in St. Louis, so while the additional year of control always increases a player’s trade value, it might not have made a huge difference here.

7.  Elvis Andrus, Rangers SSIn December 2008, Rangers GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington told face of the franchise Michael Young he’d be shifting from shortstop to third base in 2009, paving the way for one of the game’s top 40 prospects in Andrus.

Was it worth it?  Andrus hit quite well in those first few weeks, and surely made some plays at shortstop Young would not have.  The Rangers won 87 games and fell short of the Wild Card, but at the time the decision was made, it was defensible.  Three years later Andrus signed a deal buying out only his arbitration years, and then a year after that Andrus asked agent Scott Boras to get him a long-term extension, even though it meant missing the chance at being the rare 26-year-old free agent.  Boras got Andrus a huge deal with a pair of opt-outs.  If in spring 2013 the Rangers already controlled Andrus through 2015, they would have at least approached those extension talks differently.

8.  Brett Anderson, Athletics SP.  Savvy GMs had no problem putting top prospects on Opening Day rosters back in 2009.  Even Billy Beane did it with Anderson, the game’s #7 prospect heading into that season, even though the lefty had made only six starts above A ball.  Anderson was the team’s fourth starter out of the gate, losing his first couple of starts.

Was it worth it?  With a starting pitcher it’s almost never “worth it,” since the extra MLB time amounts to one or two starts.  Anderson had a solid rookie year for the A’s, and maybe Beane’s gesture of putting him on the Opening Day roster was a factor in him signing a four-year, $12.5MM deal with two club options a year later.  The contract bought back the potential year of control the A’s lost (2015), and that $12MM club option probably still had a bit of value to the Rockies when they acquired Anderson in December 2013.  They ultimately chose a $1.5MM buyout instead, as Anderson’s injury woes continued in Colorado.

9.  Johnny Cueto, Reds SP.  Cueto was BA’s #34 prospect prior to the 2008 season,  and he broke camp as part of the Reds’ rotation.  Cueto dazzled in his first couple of the starts, and the Reds won his debut by one run.

Was it worth it?  That extra Cueto-related win didn’t matter much for the Reds, who finished in fifth place in ’08.  It’s possible that some goodwill from GM Wayne Krivsky’s decision came into play in January 2011, when new GM Walt Jocketty signed Cueto to a four-year deal with a club option for ’15 (an easy choice to exercise last fall).  If Cueto was held in Triple-A for a few weeks to begin ’08, would he have chosen not to sign an extension later?  In that scenario, he would have reached free agency after 2014.  It’s also possible that a few weeks as a rookie wouldn’t have mattered to him, and controlling him through ’14 could have meant signing him to an extension running through ’16.

10.  John Danks, White Sox SP.  White Sox GM Kenny Williams acquired Danks from the Rangers in December 2006, sending Brandon McCarthy to Texas.  Like Dave Dombrowski with Austin Jackson, Williams couldn’t wait to get his new acquisition on the big league club.  It’s kind of like a kid getting a new toy and opening the box on the ride home.

Was it worth it?  Danks would have benefited from additional Triple-A seasoning, as he posted a 5.50 ERA as a rookie.  He was decent in his first couple of starts, though the White Sox lost both games en route to a fourth place finish.  Williams’ decision set Danks up for free agency after 2012, but he signed a five-year, $65MM extension prior to his walk year.   Danks wound up needing shoulder surgery in 2012.  An extra year of control might have prevented the White Sox from extending Danks in general, in which case they wouldn’t have him on the books currently.

11.  Nick Markakis, Orioles RF/LF.  Top Orioles exec Mike Flanagan put Markakis on the team’s Opening Day roster back in 2006.  The 22-year-old had played just 33 games above A ball.

Was it worth it?  Markakis didn’t play every day in the season’s first few weeks and the Orioles finished in fourth place.  Flanagan’s roster decision had Markakis on track for free agency after 2011, but in January 2009 Andy MacPhail signed him to a six-year, $66.1MM extension with a club option for 2015.  I don’t think much would have changed with the contract had Flanagan waited a few weeks in ’06 to call Markakis up.

What have we learned?  Two weeks of a rookie in April is rarely directly worth trading for a seventh year of control, but the tradeoff can be defensible for certain teams and players.  Also, the extra year of control could impact extensions in multiple ways.  On one hand, it’s possible some players signed extensions partially because of the goodwill from being placed on the Opening Day roster.  On the other hand, an additional year of control might have bought GMs more time to gather data on whether certain extensions were worth pursuing in the first place.

Please note that we looked for examples within the last ten seasons, omitting players like Joe Mauer, and we also left out relievers such as Joel Zumaya and Huston Street.


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Offseason In Review: Atlanta Braves

Newly installed president of baseball operations John Hart wasted little time in aggressively turning over a roster that disappointed last year, adding loads of young pitching and reshaping the team’s offensive profile.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Extensions

  • None

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Braves spent last winter locking up young talent for the long run, but changed course swiftly after the club’s first losing campaign since 2008. Moving into the driver’s seat was former Indians/Rangers GM John Hart, who will be accompanied by well-regarded young executive John Coppolella. With the former taking on the title of president of baseball operations and the latter remaining the assistant GM, the club technically has no general manager. Expectations are that Coppolella will eventually ascend to that position, but for now at least he’ll work under Hart.

Club president John Schuerholz has explained that Wren’s sacking was motivated not by the club’s failure to contend in 2014, but rather by the overall lack of organizational strength that he perceived. The new leadership promptly set out to trade in many of its best big league pieces for young talent, transforming a lagging farm into a system that many now rank in the top ten league-wide.

It all started with the departures of Heyward and Upton, a pair of corner outfielders who will hit the open market after the season — arguably as the best two available free agents. The cumulative return was highlighted by Shelby Miller, who once looked to be the future staff ace of the Cardinals but will seek to get back on track after a relatively disappointing 2014. Tyrell Jenkins and Max Fried represent some younger, high-upside arms, while Jace Peterson surprised this spring and has opened the year in Atlanta’s everyday lineup. As always, evaluating the quality of a prospect haul requires time, but there is an argument to be made that Atlanta could have squeezed more value had it waited for the trade deadline.

At the time, it was not out of the question that the club would stop there in terms of major moves. That proved not to be the case. The Braves proceeded to deal two key players who carried plenty of team control in Evan Gattis and, most controversially — among the fanbase, at least — star closer Craig Kimbrel.

Gattis always made more sense in the American League, particularly for a club that has a young catcher (Christian Bethancourt) who it expects to provide a level of defense that Gattis cannot. But he was affordable and useful, so it took an impressive haul for the Astros to pry him away. Atlanta netted two highly-regarded prospects in righty Michael Foltynewicz and third baseman Rio Ruiz.

As if that were not enough, the Braves and Padres stunned the baseball world once again on the eve of Opening Day. Kimbrel, one of the team’s longest-tenured and most marketable players, was traded to San Diego along with Melvin Upton Jr. and his ball-and-chain of a contract. Atlanta took back some salary commitments by adding Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin (since released), but Maybin still has some value and fills an immediate need in center. In addition to financial relief, of course, the Braves picked up another top-100 pitching prospect in Matt Wisler along with the 41st pick in this year’s draft.

A series of smaller deals brought back other young arms, including former top prospects Manny Banuelos and Arodys Vizcaino. Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano was added on a lower-profile, but still fairly significant, international deal. And more young talent will be coming: in addition to adding a sandwich pick in the Kimbrel deal, Atlanta picked up some international pool money and the 75th overall pick through other trades.

That last draft choice came as part of the deal that brought starter Trevor Cahill to Atlanta. Still just 27, Cahill will fill some frames in the near term but also comes with upside. He managed a 3.89 FIP in spite of awful results last year, and comes with a history of throwing a high number of solid innings. While it would take quite a turnaround for his two options ($13MM, $13.5MM) to become attractive, Cahill could theoretically become a summer trade chip. Alternatively, the Braves could simply hold onto him in the event of a rebound, content to have a solid contributor at a reasonable price. Given the relatively meager cost to acquire him (in terms of cash and prospects) and the fact that Atlanta also ultimately added extra bonus pool flexibility with the draft pick, it looks like a solid gamble, even if a resurgence seems unlikely.

All of those moves filled long-term needs, but obviously also functioned to open up holes in the current big league roster. The club opted to fill them with veteran free agents who figure to hold down the fort as the team transitions. While some teams have foregone such spending in rebuilding years, relying more heavily on organizational depth and minor league free agents, the Braves have made clear that they intend to field a competitive team and quickly ramp up with a new park set to open in 2017.

Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson head to the back of the bullpen, Jonny Gomes to the corner outfield, Alberto Callaspo to a utility infield role, and A.J. Pierzynski to the backup catcher slot, all for a total commitment of just over $18MM. Of course, the Braves did make one much more significant outlay: outfielder Nick Markakis, whose signing we’ll look at more closely below.

Questions Remaining

The re-made staff, fronted by Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, is cheaper, younger, and perhaps more talented than last year’s unit (which went without the since-departed Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy), but it remains to be seen if it will be more productive. Miller and Cahill have plenty of upside, but each needs to re-establish himself in his new environs. Behind them, Eric Stults (and, perhaps, Chien Ming-Wang) will eat innings and try to hold off Foltynewicz, Wisler, and Banuelos. Atlanta will presumably hope that at least two-thirds of the young trio can force the issue and head into 2016 prepared to take over full-time jobs.

The biggest rotation question of all, however, is 27-year-old lefty Mike Minor, who has struggled with health and consistency. He is owed $5.6MM in his second year of arbitration eligibility (as a Super Two player) and will once again start the year on the DL with shoulder problems. Minor struggled last year after an outstanding 2013, and if his shoulder problems are severe enough, he could conceivably become a non-tender candidate given his growing cost. That, of course, is somewhat of a worst-case scenario, though.

Suddenly lacking not only Kimbrel but also top setup man Jordan Walden and middle relievers David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro, among others, the Braves’ bullpen is a new-look affair. Indeed, Atlanta’s pen will feature just one player — southpaw Luis Avilan — who made more than twenty appearances for the team last year. Grilli will need to show that his improved second half of 2014 is sustainable at an advanced age, Johnson will look to re-establish himself, and newcomers like Cody Martin and Brandon Cunniff will try to take advantage of an opportunity. (Promising righty Shae Simmons is a notable absentee after undergoing Tommy John surgery prior to the season.)

As for the lineup, the Braves made clear that they wanted to move away from an all-or-nothing, high-strikeout approach, and certainly have angled to do so. But it remains to be seen what kind of offensive output the new group will provide. Beyond the excellent bat of first baseman Freddie Freeman and the solid production of Nick Markakis, the lineup is full of questions at the plate.

Behind the plate, Bethancourt looks to be a reliable defender but has much to prove offensively after a .248/.274/.274 line in 117 plate appearances last year. The veteran Pierzynski was not much better last year, though he has long provided a serviceable bat behind the dish.

In the middle infield, Andrelton Simmons is a generational glove man but has seen his productivity on the other side of the ball decline steadily over the last three years. Second base is wide open: Peterson has the first crack at the job, while Kelly Johnson joins Callaspo as established options who have been slightly below average at the plate and in the field over recent seasons. Likewise, third base could be manned at times by either of those veterans or Chris Johnson, who failed to live up to his extension in his second season in Atlanta.

And that, finally, brings us to Markakis.

Deal Of Note

A four-year, $44MM free agent deal for a franchise right fielder? That’s a bargain. The question, of course, is whether Markakis really fits that mold. He gets on base, is said to be an excellent clubhouse presence, and has a sterling defensive reputation. But he has meager power for his position, is only a slightly above-average overall offensive player, and does not score particularly well in terms of defensive metrics, despite the facts that plenty of scouts seem to vouch for his glove. And then there’s the fact that Markakis is already 31 and just underwent neck surgery.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Detroit Tigers

By wins above replacement, Markakis has generally been worth about two or two-and-a-half wins per season over the last several campaigns (excepting a rough 2013). If you accept that he is a significantly better outfielder than the metrics suggest, and buy into the idea that he’ll age well, then you can see some merit in a contract that pays him more or less what the Indians gave Michael Bourn, who was probably a 3 to 4 win player, depending upon which formula you prefer.

But there is risk here, and not a lot of upside. And there is a rather significant loss of flexibility for an Atlanta club that has fairly limited payroll (at least until it sees how revenues look upon the new park opening) and many needs. Notably, the Braves took on about the same overall commitment as they shed when they eventually traded away Melvin Upton Jr.

As always, it remains to be seen. Markakis could be a steady presence that helps make a bridge to the future and supports a pennant-winning club in the not-too-distant future. Or, he could be an expensive (albeit probably not crippling) mistake.

Overview

In the aggregate, the Braves managed to reduce their future (2016 and beyond) payroll commitments by just $7.55MM over the offseason. And that includes the savings achieved by moving Kimbrel himself, not just the Upton side of the deal. This is why the Markakis signing drew some quizzical reactions: as much turnover as Atlanta achieved, it did not substantially reduce its long-term cash on the books.

Of course, that is but one element of what the front office set out to do. By cashing in on expiring assets while they could, rather than extending players at all costs or trying to win one more time with the old core intact, Atlanta sought to cut off the downside scenario bypassed a potentially painful rebuilding process. Most of that future cash is owed to Freeman and Simmons, which is hardly a bad thing; each is still approaching his prime. And, the Braves will be free of Dan Uggla‘s salary after the year.

Whether or not one agrees with the Markakis move, he seems likely to be a useful player over the life of his deal. And the overall health of the franchise seems to have ticked upward after an immensely active winter.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


5 Upcoming Free Agents Who Have Dug An Early Hole

It’s not too early to identify pending free agents who have already dug something of a hole that they’ll need to climb out of before hitting the open market after the year. And no, I’m not talking about every free agent who has put up middling stats in their first eight games.

This is more akin to what Dave Cameron of Fangraphs discussed recently with regard to the impact of small samples on rest-of-season projections. When context is considered, rough starts for some players mean more than for others in terms of the reasonably plausible outcomes we can expect.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some players whose discouraging starts are particular cause for concern as regards their future earning capacity:

1B Chris Davis, Orioles: 12 strikeouts and one home run in 28 plate appearances is not the way you want to start the year when you’re trying to convince the league that you’re a fearsome slugger, rather than an all-or-nothing part-time player. That’s all the more true for Davis given that he started the season by finishing off his 25-game suspension. We’ve seen both versions of him in the last two seasons, and his unimpressive start opens the door to a pretty significant downside scenario.

SS Ian Desmond, Nationals: Desmond has traditionally started slow and has a higher market floor than Davis because of his position and more consistent track record, so his fairly unimpressive batting line is not enough to raise a red flag at this stage. But Desmond has looked extremely shaky in the field, committing six errors at inopportune times, and already has a history of misplays despite generally above-average glovework. There’s plenty of time for him to position himself as a truly premium free agent, and he’ll get paid well regardless, but his rather lofty salary ceiling coming into the year looks increasingly hard to reach.

CF Austin Jackson, Mariners: Somewhat like the Davis situation, a bad 2014 has bled into an awful 2015 thus far for Jackson. His ISO dropped below .100 last year, and currently sits at a non-existent .032. Jackson already has shown progressively declining defensive metrics coming into the year. Like Desmond, Jackson’s appeal was in his profile as a strong defender with pop up the middle; the onus is now firmly on him to re-establish both of those pillars. As things stand, he looks to have fallen behind Dexter Fowler and Denard Span (and perhaps also Colby Rasmus) in the pecking order among 2015-16 free agent center fielders.

SP Mat Latos, Marlins: Latos, who is still just 27, has had excellent results in recent years but has been dogged by health issues and a velocity drop, with ERA estimators suggesting he had outperformed his peripherals somewhat. It’s only been two starts, but the regression has been swift. Latos has hung on for just 4 2/3 innings, allowing nine earned while walking as many batters (5) as he has struck out. While he has age on his side, Latos will need to show a lot to score the kind of contract he once seemed destined to warrant.

RP Fernando Rodney, Mariners: Rodney is 38 and has had his share of volatility over the years. If he hopes to emulate Joe Nathan in picking up another multi-year guarantee at a high AAV, he’ll need to throw more like the 2012 Nathan and less like the more recent version. The velo checks out, but Rodney has managed to K just one batter (while walking four) in his 3 1/3 frames thus far. Given his advanced age, Rodney needs to show up steadily for much of the rest of the way if he hopes to get a another closer’s contract.


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Offseason In Review: Oakland Athletics

After a heartbreaking exit from the AL Wild Card playoff, A’s GM Billy Beane and his staff architected another massive roster overhaul, acquiring both rental players and long-term assets in an effort to sustain the team’s recent stretch of playoff appearances.

Major League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

  • None

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Athletics’ second base situation was a black hole from an offensive standpoint in 2014, as Eric Sogard, Nick Punto, Alberto Callaspo and others combined to bat a mere .233/.297/.282 with one home run while playing second base. The addition of Zobrist, whose bat has been about 24 percent better than the league average over the past four seasons (124 OPS+), should be a massive boost to the team’s second base production. His excellent glove should provide equal or greater value than the Athletics’ group last season.

The next weakest spot in Oakland’s lineup, somewhat surprisingly, was designated hitter. The A’s received a combined batting line of just .215/.294/.343 from their designated hitters, so while many were surprised by the contract received by Billy Butler coming off a down season, he’ll still be an upgrade. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily justify the deal, and he’ll have to prove that he’s closer to the hitter he was from 2009-13 than the hitter he was in 2014. Entering his age-29 season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Butler can return to an OPS+ north of 120, though it’ll likely be driven more by OBP than by power. A repeat of his 29 homers from 2012 does seem unlikely.

Marcus  Semien

On the other side of the middle infield equation, the A’s found themselves with a hole to fill following the departure of Jed Lowrie via free agency. Rather than meet Lowrie’s open-market price (three years, $23MM with the Astros), the A’s made a move to acquire a potential long-term answer at the position by making Marcus Semien (pictured) the centerpiece of the Jeff Samardzija trade. Semien comes with some defensive question marks, but Lowrie has never been considered a premium defender, so perhaps the A’s feel that there may not be a significant defensive drop-off. If Semien struggles enough defensively, he can flip with Zobrist and play second base, and Zobrist’s status as a free agent next winter means that Semien could slide over to the keystone in the future once Zobrist leaves.

In that sense, 2015 will be a tryout of sorts for Semien as a shortstop. If he passes, then the heir apparent at second base might be prospect Joe Wendle, who was acquired from the Indians in the Brandon Moss trade. Most pundits felt the return was a bit light, but A’s assistant GM David Forst has explained that the team has had interest in Wendle for quite some time. Wendle opened the year at Triple-A (and is hitting quite well), so perhaps he can be ready for the Majors in 2016 if Semien proves capable at shortstop.

The bullpen lost one of baseball’s best setup men when Luke Gregerson signed in Houston, but Beane and his staff replaced Gregerson with one of the few relievers who can claim to be a definitive upgrade when they acquired Tyler Clippard. Though he’ll cost quite a bit at $8.3MM, Clippard’s ability to miss bats and experience in the ninth inning make him a natural candidate to step into the closer’s role early in the season while Sean Doolittle is recovering. It’s easy to envision his time in Oakland playing out much the same as Gregerson’s, however, as he’s set to hit the open market next winter and will likely command a sizable contract.

Financial limitations likely played a role in losing Gregerson as well as the trades of Samardzija and Moss, and they certainly played a role in the loss of Lester. The departure of Lester, Samardzija and Jason Hammel created plenty of openings in the rotation, but the A’s filled those spots via trade, as Jesse Hahn figures and Kendall Graveman have opened the season in the rotation. Hahn’s debut with the Padres was impressive, as he worked to a 3.07 ERA with 8.6 K/9, 3.9 BB/9 and a 50.3 percent ground-ball rate. Sabermetric estimators such as FIP (3.40), xFIP (3.59) and SIERA (3.73) feel that his control problems should’ve led to a higher ERA, but Hahn showed better command coming up through the Minors and could improve in that regard if he remains healthy this season.

In addition to Hahn and Graveman, the A’s added other options such as Sean Nolin and Chris Bassitt. However, they didn’t add an established arm, which serves as a nice transition into the next portion of this breakdown.

Questions Remaining

With Lester and Samardzija gone, Sonny Gray will be asked to step up into the spotlight as the ace the A’s hoped they were getting when they selected him 18th overall in the 2011 draft. Behind him will be the resurgent Scott Kazmir, Hahn, Drew Pomeranz and Graveman. There’s some undeniable upside in the group — Pomeranz was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, after all — but quite a bit of uncertainty. It’s not difficult to envision the Athletics’ end-of-season rotation looking quite a bit different than its present state. Jesse Chavez can again step into the rotation if needed, and Bassitt and Nolin (once Nolin is healthy) are also nice depth options to have. Both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin (each recovering from Tommy John surgery) are likely to surface as options midseason.

It’s a deep group of pitchers, but there’s a lack of experience and many project more as back-end options than frontline starters or even mid-rotation options. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the A’s eventually trade from their bulk of MLB-caliber starting pitchers, as there simply isn’t room on the roster for all of them. While the oft-cited “you can never have too much pitching” caveat may seem applicable, Beane’s aggressive nature does seem to suggest that some of these arms could be wearing new uniforms by season’s end.

The infield, aside from the remarkably consistent Zobrist, is rife with uncertainty. While Davis and Lawrie are former Top 100 prospects and Semien was highly regarded by the White Sox, none of the three has experienced consistent success in the Major Leagues. Lawrie has been plagued by injuries, although moving off the artificial turf in Toronto may aid his quest to stay healthy. Davis failed to win the first base job in Queens on multiple occasions before losing out to Lucas Duda, and the Pirates traded him for a middling return this winter. Semien has little big league experience, and some have written that he projects more as a utility option than an everyday player (to say nothing of the aforementioned questions as to whether or not he can handle shortstop, from a defensive standpoint). He has, however, hit well to open the season and was a highly productive Minor Leaguer throughout prior to his emergence at the game’s top level.

The outfield has a number of question marks as well, but the most significant is likely this: which Josh Reddick will show up in 2015? Reddick broke out with 32 homers and elite defense in 2012, but he struggled greatly in 2013 and into the All-Star break in 2014. However, in the season’s second half, Reddick was brilliant, batting .299/.337/.533. His .296 BABIP seems more or less sustainable, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain the surprisingly excellent 10 percent strikeout rate he showed in the second half.

Coco Crisp was set to move to left field, but his lack of durability has already been on display, as he’s out for up to two months following elbow surgery. Crisp has been an underrated contributor when on the field, but he’s averaged just 118 games per season since signing in Oakland. In the interim, the team has added Cody Ross, following his release from the D-Backs, and Rule 5 pick Mark Canha has been making the most of the extra at-bats he’s seen. The platoon of Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld in center field should be brilliant from a defensive standpoint, but the offensive contributions of the duo may not be much.

The departure of Derek Norris will seem significantly easier to stomach if Josh Phegley can hit left-handed pitching as well as he has throughout his time in the upper Minors, as nearly all of Norris’ damage came against lefties. With Jaso out of the picture, the A’s will be relying on a platoon of two largely unproven backstops in Phegley and Vogt.

Deal of Note

The Donaldson trade caught many off guard, particularly due to the fact that Athletics officials had bluntly criticized the notion of trading him earlier in the offseason. “That would be stupid,” one executive told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. And, just three weeks before the trade, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports received definitive indications that Oakland had no intention of parting with its star third baseman. The scenario serves as another reminder that we should never rule anything out entirely when it comes to the Athletics, as Beane is among the game’s most open-minded general managers.

While the trade did make Oakland a younger team simply by swapping Donaldson for Lawrie in this year’s lineup, Lawrie actually comes with one less year of control than Donaldson, despite being four years younger. However, as a Super Two player coming off a pair of MVP-caliber seasons, Donaldson will be considerably more expensive in arbitration.

The A’s clearly think highly of Lawrie, but shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto might be the key to the deal. He may have the highest ceiling of any player received by Oakland in that trade, and he gives the team a high-upside shortstop prospect to replenish its system after parting with Addison Russell in the Samardzija/Hammel trade. Barreto is just 19 and is likely three (or more) years away from the Majors, so the merit of his inclusion won’t be known for quite some time.

Graveman and Lawrie have already been factors for the A’s this year, and Nolin could very likely pitch for Oakland in 2015 as well. Together, Graveman and Nolin add to an incredibly deep stable of pitching from which to deal if further upgrades to the roster are necessary midseason. Both project as back-of-the-rotation arms according to most player evaluation outlets, and six controllable years of that type of commodity certainly has value, even if the upside is limited. And, if Oakland chooses to hold onto them, the team has a good track record with that type of pitcher. Their home park/emphasis on defense typically allows the A’s to get more out of pitchers than projections deem likely.

Overview

While I focused quite a bit on the uncertainties facing the A’s, there’s still little doubt in my mind that the pieces are here for this to be a contending team in 2015. Oakland should again have a good defensive club overall, and the team’s reliance on platoons is advantageous and outweighs a lack of star power in their lineup.

The A’s placed a good deal of faith in young hitters like Lawrie, Semien and, to a lesser extent, Davis, with a hope that the untapped potential of those hitters will come to the surface and back a deep pitching staff. If Oakland struggles or identifies an area of weakness in its lineup, the team will likely have to deal from that starting pitching depth in order to repair the deficiency, because the team’s farm system lacks quality, MLB-ready hitting prospects.

General manager Billy Beane’s reputation as unpredictable and unorthodox is well-deserved, but he and his staff routinely manage to maximize the value of their assets in order to put together contending ballclubs on a tight budget. The 2015 Athletics may not have a lot of brand-name star power up and down their roster, but that’s commonplace for the boys in green and gold, and it’d be a surprise if they weren’t firmly in the mix for a playoff spot come September.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox weren’t quite able to land all of their offseason targets, but they were still one of the winter’s busiest teams.  They look to ride a rebuilt pitching staff and one of the game’s best lineups back to the playoffs.

Major League Signings

Pool-Eligible International Signings

  • Yoan Moncada, IF: $31.5MM signing bonus (plus $31.5MM in overage taxes)

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Extensions

  • Rick Porcello, SP: Four years, $82.5MM
  • Wade Miley, SP: Three years, $19.25MM ($12MM club option for 2018, $500K buyout)

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Red Sox moved quickly to snag the two biggest free agent bats on the market, signing both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez before the end of November.  The switch-hitting Sandoval addresses both Boston’s need for more lineup balance (most of the top Sox batters hit from the right side) and the need for a third baseman, as Will Middlebrooks’ struggles became too pronounced to ignore.

It stands to reason that the Sox might’ve originally explored signing Ramirez to play third base, though his willingness to switch positions led to Ramirez taking over as Boston’s regular left fielder.  Putting Ramirez in left freed up room for Sandoval to play third and star prospect Xander Bogaerts to get another shot as the everyday shortstop.MLB: Boston Red Sox at Philadelphia Phillies

In the short term, acquiring both Sandoval and Ramirez leads to a bit of an overloaded roster for the Red Sox since they’re one of the few teams who can’t easily rotate players through the DH spot (as David Ortiz is still as productive as ever).  In the big picture, however, the Sox were content to load up on as much hitting talent as possible and worry about how position battles shake out later.  The Sox will have quite a bit of roster depth in 2015 at almost every position, which was one of GM Ben Cherington’s primary offseason goals after injuries and underperforming young players hampered last year’s team.

Moving Ramirez to left only further deepened Boston’s outfield glut, though the club lessened their load slightly by trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers as part of a package that brought Rick Porcello to the Sox rotation.  Porcello was scheduled for free agency after the 2015 season before the Sox made a firm commitment to the right-hander by signing him to a four-year, $82.5MM extension.

On paper, Porcello is the kind of pitcher that will fit right in at Fenway Park, as his 52.2% career ground ball rate will help counter the stadium’s notoriously hitter-friendly dimensions.  While Porcello has only posted an ERA better than league-average twice in his six seasons, advanced metrics like xFIP and SIERA paint a friendlier pitcher of his performance in recent years.  The Sox clearly believe Porcello can build on his impressive 2014 campaign, and now they’ve locked up a durable 26-year-old arm through his prime seasons.

The Red Sox acquired and extended another durable innings-eater in Wade Miley, picking up the 28-year-old from the Diamondbacks in exchange for two less-proven starting pitchers in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster.  Boston also turned to the free agent market to sign Justin Masterson to a one-year, $9.5MM deal as the veteran tries to rebound from a tough 2014 season.  Like Porcello, both Miley and Masterson are noted ground-ball pitchers, as are incumbent starters Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly.  Of the five hurlers, Miley’s 48.6% career grounder rate is actually the lowest of the bunch, so Boston is clearly putting a premium on keeping the ball in the park.

The Red Sox re-signed closer Koji Uehara and lefty reliever Craig Breslow, and added a couple of young arms to the bullpen by trading for righty Anthony Varvaro and lefty Robbie Ross Jr. in deals with the Braves and Rangers, respectively.  Alexi Ogando was also signed for a relief or swingman role depending on his health, and if the right-hander is fit after battling several injuries in recent years, he’ll be a boost to the pitching staff in either capacity.

Parting ways with Middlebrooks brought the Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan in a trade with the Padres.  This trade was somewhat overshadowed by Boston’s many other headline-grabbing winter moves, though it has increased in importance now that Christian Vazquez has undergone season-ending Tommy John surgery.  Hanigan will now be Boston’s regular starter, with the newly-acquired Sandy Leon serving as the backup.

While obviously this wasn’t Boston’s ideal situation behind the plate, there might not be much of a dropoff from Vazquez/Hanigan to Hanigan/Leon.  Vazquez was seen as an excellent defensive catcher whose ability to hit at the MLB level was still in question, and Hanigan/Leon are similarly defense-first catchers who either haven’t hit well in a couple of seasons (Hanigan) or have barely seen any time in the bigs (Leon).  There’s also a good chance you’ll see top catching prospect Blake Swihart make his Major League debut this season, as he might just need a bit more Triple-A seasoning before Boston is comfortable calling him up to the Show.

Beyond just adding pieces for 2015, however, the Red Sox also obtained a major future asset by signing Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada to a minor league deal with a $31.5MM bonus, by far the highest bonus ever given to an international amateur prospect.  The Red Sox had already exceeded their signing pool limit for the 2014-15 international signing period and will be limited to $300K-or-less bonuses for the next two signing periods as punishment, so as long as they were comfortable paying the 100% overage on the deal (bringing Moncada’s cost up to $63MM), it was logical to bring in a big international talent now before the penalties take effect.

While $63MM is a steep price for a 19-year-old, it could be worth it given how scouts have raved about Moncada’s ability, comparing him to the likes of Robinson Cano and Chase Utley.  Boston is so deep in infield and outfield talent that they don’t even have an immediate need for Moncada, though since he’ll need at least a season in the minors to develop, at least one position is sure to open up over time.

Questions Remaining

The two biggest pitching names attached to the Red Sox this winter were Jon Lester and Cole Hamels, neither of whom actually ended up in Boston’s rotation.  In Hamels’ case, the Phillies have insisted on at least one of Swihart or Mookie Betts in any deal for the star left-hander, while the Red Sox have been just as adamant that neither top prospect will be moved.

The Sox look even less likely to deal either now given that Betts is the regular center fielder and Swihart could have a more immediate role with Vazquez injured.  While Boston has a deep minor league system, the Phillies have received (and will continue to receive) enough interest in Hamels that it’s hard to see them settling for anything less than an elite young player like Betts or Swihart.

Missing out on Lester has to be a bitter pill for the Sox and their fans considering how the southpaw has been a cornerstone for the franchise for the better part of a decade.  Boston made a six-year, $135MM offer to Lester that was topped by the Cubs’ $155MM offer, and one wonders if Lester would still be wearing the red today had the Sox initially proposed more than their infamous four-year, $70MM extension offer last spring.  Lester has even hinted that five years/$120MM might’ve been enough to keep him had such a deal been offered last spring.

The fact that Boston pursued Lester this winter shows that their stated desire to avoid paying big money to pitchers in their 30’s isn’t quite rock-solid, yet that strategy is on display in regards to their 2015 rotation.  None of the five starters are on guaranteed money beyond their age-30 seasons, giving the Sox flexibility if other options become available or if one of the starters underachieves.

Flexibility for the future, however, could mean uncertainty in the present.  There has been quite a bit of criticism directed at the Sox for the lack of a “true ace” atop their rotation.  Porcello, Miley, Buchholz, Kelly and Masterson combined for only 6.6 fWAR in 2014, and while injuries (particularly for Kelly and Masterson) played a role in that low total, Porcello was the only one who showed any front-of-the-rotation stuff last year.

A staff of innings-eating groundballers might actually be enough to contend given Boston’s solid defense and powerful lineup, though it’s hard to argue that the rotation wouldn’t look better with a Hamels/Lester-caliber pitcher as the No. 1 starter.  If the rotation struggles, expect even more “why didn’t the Sox get an ace?” talk from the Boston fans and media.  In that scenario, the front office will very likely intensify its search for a top-shelf hurler before the trade deadline.

While the Red Sox may give pause before giving a major contract to a pitcher in his 30’s, they clearly have no problem in doing so for a big hitter, which speaks to both the lack of elite hitting talent on the market and the team’s belief that Sandoval and Ramirez will both produce in Fenway Park.  Both players come with some notable baggage; Sandoval’s weight and conditioning was long an issue with the Giants, and Ramirez has averaged only 116 games per year since 2011 due to a variety of injuries.

Putting Ramirez in left is something of a curious move for the Sox, though it might not be a bad one given how he has struggled defensively at both shortstop and third base in recent seasons.  Still, losing Cespedes and adding Ramirez did nothing to alleviate Boston’s outfield surplus.  As the season begins, Ramirez, Betts and Shane Victorino are the starters with Allen Craig, Daniel Nava and super-utilityman Brock Holt as the backups.  Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. have begun the season in the minors, not the ideal place for either a $72.5MM contract or a youngster who entered last year as one of the top prospects in the bigs.

It’s possible this situation could take care of itself, either via injuries (Ramirez, Victorino and Craig are all health question marks) or some of these players simply under-performing.  Castillo and Betts are unproven over a full season, while Nava struggled last year and Bradley has thus far been completely unable to hit Major League pitching.  Also, if one of the infielders gets hurt, that could open the door for Ramirez or Betts to move back to the infield and create playing time for a backup outfielder.

That said, outfield is the still most logical area of surplus for the Red Sox to use as trade bait later this year.  Craig and Victorino are the most probable candidates to be moved, though both will need several weeks of healthy and productive play to prove they’ve recovered from their 2014 injuries.  One would think that Bradley is also likely on the trade market — despite his highly-touted prospect status and excellent glove, the fact that Boston has signed Castillo and shifted Betts to center would indicate that the club has already moved on from Bradley as its center fielder of the future.

Deal Of Note

The Red Sox re-signed Uehara to a two-year deal before free agency even opened, an aggressive move since there were a few whispers that the club could potentially look elsewhere given how Uehara struggled down the stretch in 2014.  In making a two-year commitment to a reliever who just celebrated his 40th birthday, however, the Sox clearly believe Uehara’s late-season slump was largely due to some nagging injuries and not a sign of a decline.

Of course, Uehara hasn’t exactly proved his health to date, as he has begun the season on the DL with a strained hamstring.  If Uehara were to have an extended DL stint or another bout of ineffectiveness during the year, that would be a major blow to a Red Sox bullpen that could already be facing some extra work this year given the shaky rotation.  Uehara’s emergence as an elite closer was one of the planks of Boston’s World Series run, and while nobody expects him to duplicate his phenomenal 2013 numbers, he’s definitely being counted on as the bullpen leader.

Overview

One tends to forget that the Red Sox were actually a last-place team in 2014, given the amount of talent that already existed on the roster and the notable new names that have been added this winter.  Their trip to the bottom of the AL East seems more like a trivial quirk (“Hey, who was the only franchise to go from last place to World Series champions to last place again over a three-season stretch?”) than it does a reflection of a big mountain to climb back to contention — after all, they climbed that mountain just two seasons ago.

Stockpiling all of this position player depth will help the Sox prevent against the inevitable injuries and slumps that will befall at least a few players over the course of 162 games, and it would be a surprise if Boston wasn’t one of the league’s best offenses by season’s end.  After posting an uncharacteristically low team OBP (.316) and slugging percentage (.369), the Sox are looking to get back to their traditional strategy of grinding down opposing pitchers and making them pay with the long ball.

The major question is whether the rotation can hold up its end of the bargain.  If the staff exceeds expectations, the Red Sox could be World Series contenders again.  If the staff is even just average or slightly-below average, that still might be enough for a division run given the big bats and one of the league’s better defenses.  If the starters can’t get on track, however, that will put a lot of pressure on the bullpen and on the lineup to win slugfests every night.  While there don’t seem to any standout rotations within the AL East, Boston can’t afford to be the fifth of five middle-of-the-road pitching staffs.

Personally, I’d be very surprised if the Sox didn’t acquire at least one “proven ace” by midseason just because the rotation seems like such a notable weakness.  It could be Hamels, it could be free agent-to-be Johnny Cueto if the Reds are out of contention, or it could be a starter suddenly made available by a surprise non-contender (similar to how the Red Sox shopped Lester last summer).

Boston has made enough solid acquisitions that the team should be back in the thick of things in the AL East.  To fully complete their attempt at worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first again, however, they may still be one move away.

Photo courtesy of Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports Images


How The Dodgers Bought A Draft Pick

The Dodgers outrighted Ryan Webb today, continuing a string of strange transactions for the veteran reliever. First, he cleared outright waivers. Then the Orioles designated him for assignment. Then Baltimore shipped him to the Dodgers with catcher Brian Ward and a Competitive Balance Round B draft pick for pitcher Ben Rowen and catcher Chris O’Brien. Then, the Dodgers outrighted him today.

USATSI_7916019_154513410_lowresThe guiding factor behind this string of moves was, it seems, Webb’s $2.75MM salary in 2015, the second season of a two-year, $4.5MM deal he signed with the Orioles. The Orioles didn’t want to pay it, and judging from the fact that they were able to outright Webb in the first place, other teams didn’t either. That, in itself, was perhaps a bit strange — Webb has never been an outstanding reliever, but he’s been relatively durable and effective in all of the past five seasons. Perhaps the lesson of the outright is that when selecting right-handed relievers, teams increasingly prefer pitchers who light up radar guns, of which there are many. Righties like Webb, who once sat in the mid-90s but whose velocity has slipped a bit in the last few years, get overlooked.

But the trade of Webb to the Dodgers was even stranger. The Dodgers were the ones receiving the big-league player, but they clearly had little interest in him and they also received what might have been the most valuable property in the trade — the draft pick. Other than Webb, the players in the deal appear to be mostly window dressing. Ward is 29 and has never been on a 40-man roster. Rowen pitched briefly for the Rangers last season, but Texas designated him for assignment and then released him in December after no one claimed him. The Dodgers signed him to a minor-league deal a month later. O’Brien will be 26 in July and has never played above Double-A.

As one might expect, the Orioles say they like the players they received. They were reportedly interested in Rowen this offseason, and it’s possible his ability to generate ground balls could one day make him a contributor, especially given the Orioles’ strong infield defense. (Webb also has ground-ball tendencies, although, of course, he had to be on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, whereas Rowen does not.) Some experts, meanwhile, believe O’Brien has a chance to stick as a backup catcher. The Orioles’ return appears, however, to be marginal, and from the Dodgers’ perspective, they didn’t give up much more than a bit of minor-league depth they didn’t really need.

Since the Dodgers have already outrighted Webb, then, the deal could quickly boil down to this: The Dodgers purchased a draft pick from the Orioles. They agreed to pay the salary of a player they didn’t need, and the Orioles gave them a pick in return. As the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin tweeted, “Moneyball with big money: Dodgers buy draft pick for $2.75MM.”

This is new. Teams have only been able to trade Competitive Balance picks for a few years, and never has there been a trade that amounted to a dollars-for-draft-pick swap the way this one seems to. Here are all the draft pick trades that have taken place since teams have been allowed to deal them.

  • The Pirates sent a 2013 pick to the Marlins in a deal for Gaby Sanchez, who played for them for two and a half seasons.
  • The Marlins and Tigers also swapped 2013 competitive balance picks to even the scales in the Anibal Sanchez trade.
  • The Astros got a 2014 pick from the Orioles in the Bud Norris deal.
  • The Pirates received a 2014 pick from the Marlins when they traded Bryan Morris.
  • The Diamondbacks got a 2014 pick when they sent Ian Kennedy to San Diego.
  • The Braves will receive a 2015 pick from the Padres as part of their recent trade of Craig Kimbrel. They’ll get another from the Diamondbacks for prospect Victor Reyes.
  • The Astros received a 2015 pick when they traded Jarred Cosart to the Marlins.
  • The Red Sox got a 2015 pick from the Athletics (which they’ve since forfeited) in the Jon Lester deal.

In all draft pick trades before the Webb deal, there are convincing cases that the teams trading picks parted with those picks in large part because they got talent they liked, and not primarily to shed salary. In the Webb trade, in contrast, Webb’s salary was clearly a key component of the deal.

So does the trade make sense for the Dodgers? The pick they will receive in this year’s draft is No. 74. A 2013 study found that the net value of a pick in the No. 61-100 range was $2.58MM, very close to the prorated portion of Webb’s $2.75MM salary the Dodgers are taking on. Add in that No. 74 is closer to the top of that range and add a bit of salary inflation since then, and the value of the pick is likely high enough for the trade to make financial sense for the Dodgers, even if we assume it’s possible that Rowen and O’Brien will provide a bit of value (and if we assume the Dodgers need to think about their budget the way other teams do). The Dodgers also receive a bit of draft pool flexibility with the acquisition of the pick, which could help them lure tougher-to-sign players.

Whether MLB would want deep-pocketed teams like the Dodgers essentially buying draft picks is a different question, although for now, the effects of them doing so are fairly minimal. Teams are currently only allowed to trade Competitive Balance picks, so a draft pick can only make a small impact on a trade, since Competitive Balance picks occur after most marquee talents are off the board. If teams were allowed to trade all draft picks and a big-market team were allowed to take on a larger amount of salary for, say, a top-ten pick, there would probably be controversy.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.