MLBTR Originals Rumors
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR this past week:
- Zach Links examined the issue of the advance consent form in speaking with agent Joel Wolfe (his client, Randy Wolf, sparked the recent debate by refusing the Mariners' request to sign one as a condition of securing a 25-man roster spot out of Spring Training), as well as club and union officials.
- Steve Adams previewed next offseason's class of free agents with the first installment of MLBTR's 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings.
- Charlie Wilmoth opines the Pirates would be wise to forego a long-term contract extension for Pedro Alvarez due to concerns regarding how he will age, with a complicating factor being the third baseman's agent, Scott Boras.
- Zach was the first to report Manny Ramirez has drawn interest from several MLB teams and is only considering a return to the majors, minors, or Japan.
- Steve hosted this week's live chat.
- Zach assembled the best of the baseball blogosphere for you in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
As Opening Day drew near, veteran Randy Wolf appeared to be the frontrunner for the No. 5 spot in the Mariners' rotation. That's why it came as a bit of a surprise when he requested his release from the club on March 25th. It turned out that Wolf, who missed all of 2013 as he recovered from his second Tommy John surgery, refused to sign a 45-day advance-consent form. The form, for the uninitiated, would have allowed the M's to terminate the deal during that window for any reason except injury.
While sources tell MLBTR that these requests are common throughout MLB, Wolf told Bob Dutton of The News Tribune that he was quite upset about it. The 37-year-old felt as though he was put in a position where he had to renegotiate his deal just months after hammering out a team-friendly pact ($1MM for making big league roster with $3MM+ in incentives) days before the start of the season. “The fact that I essentially made the team, in theory, I’m proud of that accomplishment.” the veteran told Dutton. “But I’m really disappointed in how it ended. The day should have started with a handshake and congratulations instead of a 24-hour feeling of licking a D-cell battery. So, it’s a really hard time.”
Of course, the Mariners and General Manager Jack Zduriencik acted completely within the rights granted to them by the Collective Bargaining Agreement: the advance consent form has been in place since the end of the 1994/1995 strike. And, as expected, Wolf wasn't out of work for very long, as he signed a similar minor league deal with the Diamondbacks late last week. However, Wolf's ire about the relatively unknown clause raised some interesting questions about how frequently it's used, the ways it could be misused, and how it is viewed by executives, agents, players, and the players union.
"As a general matter, players hate it," one union source said. "These are players, needless to say, who did not have a lot of leverage in their negotiations in the offseason...There's no question that it is a distasteful process for players and their agents."
The use of the form varies greatly from club to club. One high-ranking executive told MLBTR that his club has asked a player to sign an advance consent form just once over the last decade. On the flipside, a National League executive said that anytime his team has a player with five or more years of major league service (the form cannot be extended to those with less service time per the CBA) who does not figure to be an everyday player, they will use the clause in order to give themselves as much flexibility as possible. In line with that thinking, the club often will push for players to agree to optional assignment rather than outright assignment. If the player consents to outright assignment, the club does not have to subject the player to waivers before demoting him. Again, per the CBA, both types are permitted.
Because the request is traditionally made of players who don't have a ton of leverage, they often agree to sign. The NL exec has found that there are times when agents will protest, but with the leverage being in the club's corner, they'll ultimately relent.
Of course, as in Wolf's case, some players do object, and agents will often consult with the union ("We act as a sounding board," the source explained) to talk through their different options. The form can allow for both types of assignments and the length can also be negotiated since the 45-day mark is not a hard number, but rather a maximum limit.
The union source explained that at the beginning of the season, about a dozen players are usually asked to sign a consent form. Over the course of the season, that number tends to grow to "30-to-36" requests. The distinction between the number of players who are asked to sign off and the number of requests is an important one. Several players in any given year will be asked to sign multiple consent forms, which can essentially keep them in a state of limbo.
The aforementioned executive told MLBTR that agents often fret over the possibility of their clients being asked to sign multiple forms, though he was unsure of whether that was common practice or just a fear of player reps. "It's absolutely a reality," the MLBPA source said. "There are players who have signed three advance consents in a season, which obviously covers the better part of a full season." It should be noted that while there have been cases of a player being churned through consecutive advanced consent forms, the union indicated that there aren't specific clubs who are routine offenders.
Wolf felt blindsided by the Mariners' request at the end of March, but the reality is that he wasn't guaranteed at the time of signing that he wouldn't be asked to sign an advance consent form as a condition of making the major league roster, agent Joel Wolfe confirmed to MLBTR. In this case, Wolfe and Wolf had non-roster offers from ten clubs this offseason after he impressed in his winter showcase. Wolf and Wolfe ultimately settled on the M's because they felt that they gave him the best chance to make a big league rotation. However, they were rebuffed when they asked for assurance that they wouldn't be asked to sign off on advance consent.
"They told me, 'We don't do that' and, really, no team that I've dealt with does that. They don't even want to discuss that," Wolfe said. "The team made a decision as a policy, not singling out Randy, that a player in this position must sign an advance consent or he's not going to make the team."
One would be hard-pressed to find a team in MLB that explicitly warns players about a possible advance consent request. The union official indicated that while teams won't do it, agents usually give their low-leverage clients a heads up to brace for the possibility. The NL exec said he does not warn players of the possibility at the time of signing, but if an agent asks, he always answers truthfully.
In a lot of cases, being asked for advance consent is a blow to a player's ego and a very real source of frustration. However, there are certainly cases where it can work in a player's favor. Wolfe explained that he once had a client who seemed destined to either start the season in Double-A or get released. However, the player exceeded all expectations in Spring Training and wound up on course to make the big league roster. The club had Wolfe's client sign an advance consent form and soon after when he suffered an serious injury, he was protected from release since a player cannot be cut due to injury. While Wolf's situation put the notion of advance consent in a negative light, it can also be beneficial for players in a different position.
That doesn't mean that advance consent will be embraced by the majority of major leaguers. As Wolfe explained, an accomplished veteran like Wolf is accustomed to using Spring Training as an opportunity to shake off some offseason rust and get back in the swing of things. When that player is on a non-guaranteed deal, they now have to approach every at bat and every inning as though it were the regular season. After putting in that kind of effort, veteran players don't want to hear, "Hey, you made the team, but..." Whether they like it or not, players will be subjected to advance consent requests for at least a couple more years. Even then, it's far from guaranteed that the issue will be revisited or revised in the 2016 CBA discussions.
As we at MLBTR did in 2013, we'll constantly be looking toward the future over the course of the season to see which players are positioning themselves for a healthy payday on the 2014-15 open market. Remember that you can always find a full list of next season's free agents here (or on the right-hand sidebar under "MLBTR Features), and keep an eye out for future editions of these rankings. For now, here's the first entry in our 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings series.
1. Hanley Ramirez. Fragile or not, there's no debating that when Ramirez is on the field, he's one of the best-hitting shortstops of this generation. Hanley, who has slashed .286/.351/.506 since 2012 and batted an insane .345/.402/.638 in a half season last year, is said to be in extension talks with the Dodgers. However, while many thought a deal would get done in Spring Training, it's been eerily quiet. Big spenders with potential needs at shortstop and/or third base next season (in addition to the Dodgers) include the Yankees, Mets, and Angels. Depending upon how injuries, prospect development, and strategic considerations pan out, the Tigers and Red Sox could hypothetically also have interest in adding an impact player to the left side of the infield.
2. Max Scherzer. Fresh off his first Cy Young Award in 2013, Scherzer boldly bet on himself by rejecting a six-year, $144MM extension offer to remain with the Tigers. The strikeout artist trails only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw in fWAR since the start of the 2012 season, and with agent Scott Boras doing the negotiating, another Cy Young caliber season could position Scherzer to set a new record for pitchers in free agency.
3. Jon Lester. Beyond the top two, things become a little less concrete. Some may prefer James Shields to Lester, but the fact that Lester is a full two years younger and has spent his entire career thriving in the AL East can't be ignored (though Shields, too, spent most of his career there). As was the case with Ramirez, many expected a Spring Training extension for Lester, who said this offseason he wanted to remain with the Red Sox until the jersey was "ripped off [his] back." Lester rebounded from a poor 2012 to post a 3.75 ERA in 213 1/3 innings last season -- his fifth 200-inning, sub-4.00 ERA season in six tries.
4. James Shields. In terms of bottom-line results, Shields has arguably been the most consistent performer on this free agent crop. However, he's also had the benefit of a consistently elite defense behind him (both the Rays and Royals are excellent), and he's pitched in a pair of very pitcher-friendly environments. That's not to discount his talent, as he's among the league's best right-handers, but Shields will be entering his age-33 season with this next contract, so concern about his decline is more pronounced than with some of his peers.
5. Ervin Santana. Santana is a surprise entrant on this list after most expected him to sign a multi-year deal this offseason. He could be saddled with another qualifying offer next year, but a second consecutive dominant season would leave his ugly 2012 campaign two years in the past and could convince disbelievers that he's capable of consistently turning in an ERA in the mid-3.00 range.
6. Chase Headley. When a 3.5 fWAR season that came despite missing April causes people to say you had a "down year," you're in good shape. That's the reality for Headley, who saw his Herculean .286/.376/.498 batting line from 2012 (in Petco Park!) plummet to a still-respectable .250/.347/.400 in 2013. Interested teams will look at Headley and dream on his offensive ceiling in a more hitter-friendly environment, knowing that even without tremendous improvement, he's an above-average bat that handles the hot corner well.
7. Justin Masterson. Another player whose extension looked to be a foregone conclusion is Masterson, who surprisingly saw his own offers of $51MM over three years and $35MM over two years declined by the Indians. Masterson's off to a rough start, but the ground-ball specialist posted an ERA south of 3.50 and topped 190 innings in 2011 and 2013. He's added some significant strikeouts to his arsenal as well, whiffing 210 batters over his past 208 1/3 frames.
8. Colby Rasmus. Rasmus finds himself ranked here due to his power and defense at a premium position (center field) as well as his youth (he'll play the 2015 season at 28 years of age). Rasmus was a six-WAR player in 2013 despite a sky-high 32 percent strikeout rate. He kept a passable batting average based on a lofty .359 BABIP, but he'd be well-served to improve his contact abilities this season. Doing so would eliminate a great deal of concern and bolster his free agent stock, although poor contact rates certainly didn't hurt B.J. Upton's market value.
9. Pablo Sandoval. Kung Fu Panda will also play the 2015 campaign at 28 years of age, and he's averaged 3.4 fWAR from 2011-13. The switch-hitter has a pair of five-WAR campaigns under his belt and would likely see a boost in his offensive output if he moved away from AT&T Park. Of course, the Giants love retaining their players, are said to be in extension talks with Sandoval (though a wide gap exists) and he's wildly popular among fans. He may end up with an extension when all is said and done -- remember, Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum both inked new deals last year right on the cusp of free agency -- but if not, he'll be a hot commodity.
10. J.J. Hardy. Hardy's name might not carry much star power, but he's a truly elite defender at shortstop with rare power for the position. He has an injury history, but he's stayed on the field more than his free agent peers in recent seasons. Teams will be hard-pressed to get an OBP north of .310 from Hardy, but it's nice to have a slick-fielding, 20-to-25 homer shortstop in the bottom third of the lineup, and shortstops are always hard to find.
Other players who could force their way onto this year's rankings with a big season include (in alphabetical order as opposed to numbered ranking): Asdrubal Cabrera, Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Michael Cuddyer, Jorge De La Rosa, Corey Hart, Torii Hunter, Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano, Jed Lowrie, Russell Martin, Mike Morse and Jake Peavy, to name a handful. And, of course, Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew could also make appearances, should they ultimately sign one-year pacts.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR this past week:
- Jeff Todd examined the service time implications for the game's top prospects.
- Jeff assessed the Mets, as part of MLBTR's 2013-2014 Offseason In Review series, while Steve Adams recapped the Tigers' winter.
- Zach Links was the first to report left-hander Randy Wolf reached an agreement on a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks.
- With compensation-attached free agents Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales still unsigned, Mark Polishuk asked MLBTR readers whether a free agent will accept a qualifying offer next offseason. Nearly 86% of you envision such a scenario.
- Steve hosted the weekly live chat.
- Zach gathered the best the baseball corner of the web had to offer in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
The Tigers made a couple of blockbuster trades and re-worked their bullpen but steered clear of the big free agent signings we've come to expect from GM Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch.
Major League Signings
- Joe Nathan, RHP: Two years, $20MM plus $10MM club option for 2016.
- Rajai Davis, OF: Two years, $10MM.
- Joba Chamberlain, RHP: One year, $2.5MM.
- Total Spend: $32.5MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B: Eight years, $248MM.
Trades and Claims
- Acquired 2B Ian Kinsler from the Rangers in exchange for 1B Prince Fielder and $30MM.
- Acquired LHP Robbie Ray, LHP Ian Krol and INF Steve Lombardozzi from the Nationals in exchange for RHP Doug Fister.
- Acquired INF Alex Gonzalez from the Orioles in exchange for INF Steve Lombardozzi.
- Acquired INF Andrew Romine from the Angels in exchange for LHP Jose Alvarez.
- Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Jose Veras, Joaquin Benoit, Omar Infante, Brayan Pena, Darin Downs
The Tigers wrapped up their 2013 season with an ALCS loss to the Red Sox that served as a bittersweet farewell to longtime manager Jim Leyland. Their first order of business was to find a new skipper, and they did so in the form of former big league catcher Brad Ausmus.
However, Detroit's biggest need this offseason could arguably have been to gain some long-term financial flexibility, and the club was able to accomplish that while finding a replacement for Infante all in the same move. In trading Fielder to the Rangers for Kinsler and $30MM, Dombrowski successfully shaved $76MM off the payroll over the next several years.
That savings, perhaps along with some of the money saved in the Fister trade, paved the way for the Tigers to sign Miguel Cabrera to a whopping eight-year, $248MM extension that serves as the second largest deal in history in terms of new money. When combined with the existing two years and $44MM he was already owed, Cabrera's 10-year, $292MM commitment is the largest ever made to a player in Major League history.
Last season, the Tigers experienced an early-season carousel in the ninth inning that led to a short-lived and unsightly reunion with Jose Valverde before Benoit finally solidified the closer's spot. However, Benoit departed via free agency, and the Tigers sought the biggest upgrade the market had to offer, inking active saves leader Nathan to a two-year deal. It's not without risk, given Nathan's age (39), but then again, what multi-year deal for a reliever is? Seeking a more affordable option than Veras for a setup role, Dombrowski brought in Chamberlain on a one-year deal. Chamberlain's struggles in New York were pronounced, but he fits the mold of the typical hard-throwing power arm that Detroit tends to target.
Those additions, along with the Fister trade, allowed the Tigers to move Drew Smyly into the rotation alongside Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello, with Krol sliding into the 'pen in Smyly's stead. That quintet looks to be one of the most talented groups in the Majors and should give the Tigers a good chance to once again post one of the five best collective rotation ERAs in the game.
In the outfield, Dombrowski sought to add more speed by adding Davis on a two-year deal, and he would have formed a solid platoon with Andy Dirks, had Dirks not suffered a back injury. Dirks is on the shelf for the first three months or so of the season, thrusting Davis, rookie Tyler Collins and utility man Don Kelly into more action than originally expected.
While the Cabrera extension clearly filled a need for the near future, it will almost certainly be perceived in a negative light by its completion. Cabrera could very well be the best power hitter on the face of the planet right now, so it makes sense that that Tigers would want to retain him and even lock him up for life, but history has shown that 10-year commitments such as this one (e.g. Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols) aren't likely to pan out. While he has astoundingly never been on the disabled list, Cabrera did battle a groin injury that required offseason surgery in 2013, and the odds of him maintaining his impressive durability through his age-40 season are slim to none.
The bigger question, for the Tigers, will be how many more years of elite slugging they receive from Cabrera before his inevitable decline. For all of Cabrera's accolades at the plate, the same "best hitter on the planet" tag could have been applied to Pujols or Rodriguez at the time of their signings, and they wilted quickly (though Pujols could still experience a turnaround, of course). And, it must be asked if the best way to utilize their newfound financial freedom after escaping Fielder's decline years was to immediately dedicate that money to the decline years of another slugger.
Injuries have ravaged the Tigers' roster, creating a good deal of uncertainty for the 2014 season. For the time being, they've elected to bridge the gap to Dirks' return with internal options, but a waiver claim or some type of minor move to improve that depth early in the season wouldn't be a surprise.
Of longer-term consequence is the fact that Jose Iglesias is likely to miss the season with stress fractures in each of his shins/ The Tigers have, to this point, deployed an unexciting combination of Gonzalez and Romine to fill the void. One has to wonder just how long they can go with that combination before looking for a real upgrade.
The logical connection to make there is that Stephen Drew remains unsigned, and at this point, there may not be a team with a greater need that represents a better fit. Drew is already in the clear in terms of dodging another qualifying offer -- any team that signs him would be unable to make an offer, as he didn't spent the entire year on its roster -- but the Tigers may prefer to wait until after the June draft to make a move. That strategy would preserve their 2015 first-round pick, but it would also mean about two months of replacement-level production at shortstop as well as the risk that another club swoops in and signs him at an earlier date.
In addition to Dirks and Iglesias, the Tigers also lost flamethrowing setup ace Bruce Rondon to Tommy John surgery. Rondon's departure for the season means that the Tigers will be relying on a patchwork bullpen to get to Nathan in the ninth inning, with Krol, Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque representing the best options for Ausmus.
A final, albeit lesser question mark is whether or not Nick Castellanos can hold down the fort as Ausmus' primary third base option. Castellanos is universally regarded as one of the game's top hitting prospects, but he's still just 22 years old and rocketed through the minor leagues without clearly dominating at any one level. That's not to say he isn't capable of being a plus third baseman in the Majors, but merely to ask if it's a reasonable expectation for the 2014 campaign.
Deal of Note
The Fister trade is still one of the most controversial moves of the offseason, simply due to the fact that most feel Dombrowski -- who is generally perceived as an excellent GM in trades -- didn't receive a large enough return for his right-hander.
From 2011-13, Fister ranked ninth among all Major League pitchers in fWAR (13.3) and rWAR (12.6). In 586 2/3 innings in that time, Fister posted a 3.30 ERA with 6.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 3.75 K/BB and a 50.9 percent ground-ball rate that ranked 18th among 139 qualified starting pitchers. The Nationals will control him for two more seasons, with a $7.2MM salary on tap in 2014 before one more arbitration raise next offseason.
Essentially, Fister has pitched at a level that is comparable, if not superior to that of James Shields over the three-year term that preceded his to his trade to the Royals (albeit in a weaker division). Shields, who was also more expensive than Fister, posted a 3.76 ERA with 8.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and a 46.6 percent ground-ball rate in that time. He did total an additional 100 innings, and the Rays included Wade Davis in the deal as well, but it seems disproportionate that Shields would net a package headlined by Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi while Fister yielded Ray, Krol and Lombardozzi.
Ray is the jewel of the deal, but he didn't rank among the game's Top 100 prospects per Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus, and he came in at No. 97 on MLB.com's list. Dombrowski has said the trade was made due to the difficulty of acquiring young pitching, noting that Ray was one of 15 pitching prospects who interested the Tigers and the only one with which a rival club was willing to part. Perhaps Dombrowski sensed the impending injury to Fister that has sidelined him to open the season, but he was healthy enough at the time of the trade to pass Washington's physical, so it seems unlikely that any sort of major red flag was present.
With Lombardozzi already shipped off, the Tigers are left with Ray, Krol and one year of Gonzalez to show for Fister, making Ray's development critical to the trade's success. Should Ray fail to pan out, the Tigers would be left with a left-handed reliever and some extra cash that may have helped to facilitate a likely ill-fated contract extension for Cabrera -- a tough pill to swallow for Detroit fans.
Despite question marks in the bullpen and at shortstop, the Tigers boast an elite rotation and a lineup that should score plenty of runs, making them the favorites to take home their fourth consecutive AL Central Division Championship. This team is in a clear win-now mode, although the subtraction of Fister does contradict that thinking to an extent. The Tigers could very well find themselves in the market for a one-year upgrade at shortstop or some short-term help in left field, but even if they stick with in-house options, they're likely to see October baseball once again.
The long-term outlook is more questionable, as after shedding the decline phase of Fielder's contract, the Tigers purchased a larger portion of that same phase of Cabrera's career. They already have a remarkable $83.8MM in contracts guaranteed in 2017, $68MM in 2018 (including buyouts for Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez) and $58MM in 2019. With some potentially restrictive commitments for declining players on the books in the future, the team could be facing a closing window for its first World Series title since 1984.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
As the Mets look to transition from rebuilding to contending, the club made its largest free agent outlay in years, but will go without recovering ace Matt Harvey.
Major League Signings
"No. 1, he brings a tremendous amount of professionalism," Alderson said. "He brings a personality. He brings credibility. He brings experience. And he brings talent. I think all of those things will be important. I really like the mix of players we have character-wise, personality-wise. I think he will enhance that mix. He's a gregarious, infectious personality."
Ultimately, the deal is not without its risks, but how many free agent contracts are? As Eno Sarris of Fangraphs argued in the aftermath of the signing, Granderson should be a solid-enough defender with a switch to the corner, should be able to stay valuable at the plate, and ultimately may not have received a "glaring overpay." If nothing else, of course, the signing represents the clearest sign that the Mets are ready to supplement their slate of attractive young arms with free agent spending, an important development for an organization that has been in a holding pattern while its owners dealt with the fallout of the Bernie Madoff scandal.
On the other hand, Granderson is already 33, missed much of last year due to wrist injuries, and has seen his strikeout percentage rise quite sharply in recent campaigns. In his limited action last year, Granderson's power dropped back significantly: he landed with a .178 ISO mark, after putting up .290 and .260 marks in 2011 and 2012, respectively. And Granderson, who has never reached base at a consistent clip, is carrying a sub-.320 OBP over the last two seasons. While baseball's inflationary environment means that the deal carries less relative risk than did the Bay contract, it could be that New York is spending a lot of money for a non-impact player who will be well on the decline by the time the team is ready to compete.
One could say that the team did not make enough of an immediate impact with its free agent signings to warrant the cost. After all, with Harvey out, a jump to playoff contention seems a tall order. But the Opening Day payroll is well shy of last year's tab, and New York can reasonably expect to be better. Given the restlessness of its fans and the organization's hope of building off of a young core to contention in the very near term, it made some sense to put a decent product on the field now while avoiding any truly massive deals that might have stung down the line. The question, of course, is whether that might have been accomplished at a cheaper price, and whether any of the recent commitments will have an impact on future needs.
At present, it is hard to view the Mets' offseason as being fully complete, in large part because major questions (with both short and long-term ramifications) are still open for answers. First base, shortstop, and the back of the bullpen could all see significant moves in the coming months. The true test of Alderson and his staff could well be yet to come, as he navigates the decisions at those spots, manages the team's young arms, and plots the final moves to ready the team for full-on contention.
Photo courtesy of Brad Barr/USA Today Sports Images.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:
- There were five installments of MLBTR's 2013-14 Offseason in Review series this week: Braves and Phillies (by Jeff Todd), Athletics and Astros (by Steve Adams), and Blue Jays (by Mark Polishuk).
- Jeff asked MLBTR readers which recent extension given to an infielder with between 1-3 years of service time (Andrelton Simmons, Jason Kipnis, and Matt Carpenter) is the best value. You gave a slight nod to Simmons (39%) while the rest were evenly split between Kipnis (32%) and Carpenter (29%).
- MLBTR was the first to report Chris Archer, if he does not earn Super Two status, is guaranteed $20MM from his new contract extension.
- Tim Dierkes was the first to learn the Padres were nearing a deal with Cuban right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne.
- Tim was also first with right-hander Nick Struck signing a minor league deal with the Dodgers.
- Steve hosted the MLBTR live chat this week.
- Zach Links put together the best of the baseball blogosphere in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
As their lengthy rebuild continued, the Astros added several veteran pieces and beefed up a payroll that had just one player earning $1MM or more at the end of the 2013 season.
Major League Signings
- Scott Feldman, RHP: Three years, $30MM.
- Chad Qualls, RHP: Two years, $6MMM.
- Jesse Crain, RHP: One year, $3.25MM.
- Matt Albers, RHP: One year, $2.45MM with a $3MM club option ($200K buyout).
- Jerome Williams, RHP: One year, $2.1MM.
- Total Spend: $43.8MM
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
- Acquired OF Dexter Fowler from the Rockies in exchange for RHP Jordan Lyles and OF Brandon Barnes.
- Acquired 1B/OF Jesus Guzman from the Padres in exchange for SS Ryan Jackson (had been claimed off waivers from the Cardinals).
- Acquired RHP Anthony Bass from the Padres in exchange for Rule 5 LHP Patrick Schuster (Diamondbacks) and a player to be named later.
- Claimed RHP Collin McHugh off waivers from the Rockies.
- Claimed LHP Darin Downs off waivers from the Tigers.
- Claimed OF Alex Presley off waivers from the Twins.
- Jordan Lyles, Brandon Barnes, Erik Bedard, J.D. Martinez, Brett Wallace, Trevor Crowe, Jake Elmore, Hector Ambriz
The Astros have finished with the game's worst record in each of the past three seasons, but despite that gloomy reality, they didn't enter the offseason with as many needs as one would think. Altuve and 2013 breakout catcher Jason Castro are locked into the lineup for the foreseeable future, and Jonathan Villar will get the opportunity to prove himself at shortstop while Houston awaits the arrival of former No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa. At third base, Matt Dominguez is certainly a player that the team likes (more on him in a bit), and a number of top prospects are nearing the Majors.
Houston entered the offseason with a clear need in the rotation, however, as none of its top pitching prospects are MLB-ready at the beginning of 2014. As such, GM Jeff Luhnow made a relatively large splash on the free agent market, adding Feldman on a three-year deal that exceeded my own expectations for the underrated right-hander. Feldman's career has been slowed by injuries -- namely microfracture surgery on his right knee -- but he's posted solid ground-ball rates and walk rates when healthy throughout his career. Paying him $10MM annually for his age-31 to age-33 seasons raised some eyebrows, but Feldman has the talent to make that look like a bargain if he can remain healthy.
Feldman will be trailed in the rotation by Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Lucas Harrell and Dallas Keuchel, but Luhnow and his staff also added some insurance by snatching up Williams after he was somewhat curiously non-tendered by the division-rival Angels. His modest $2.1MM salary wouldn't be detrimental to any club, and Williams can absorb some innings throughout the season as Houston looks to limit the workload of its young quartet of starters. Brad Peacock could also see some starts at some point this season, as he finished the 2013 campaign quite well as a part of the rotation (3.64 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings) and is a former Top 100 prospect with the A's.
The additions of Feldman and Williams should help a revamped bullpen lessen its workload, although the added quality to the relief corps could make the thought of overusing the 'pen in Houston a bit more tolerable. Last season, the Astros had the worst bullpen in the Majors, and no team was particularly close to their collective 4.92 ERA (the Mariners were second-worst at 4.58). If you think that's bad, their 5.09 FIP suggests things could've been even worse, and their 4.64 xFIP was 30 points higher than the next-worst unit (the Cubs). Qualls and Albers add veteran stability and a glut of ground-balls to the mix. Crain was one of baseball's best relievers in 2013 prior to getting hurt and could be a power arm to add to the closer mix when he returns from the DL in late April. Houston also pursued a reunion with former closer Jose Veras, though he ultimately signed with the Cubs. They may not have one of the best bullpens in the league, but there's no question that this group is improved.
Fowler's addition gives the club a productive veteran to slot at the top of an improving lineup, and he'll be controlled through the 2015 season via arbitration. He's not cheap ($7.35MM in 2014 plus one final arbitration raise next winter), which will lead some to speculate that he could become trade fodder with a solid performance in the season's first half. His career 12.3 percent walk rate and .365 OBP are attractive assets, even if one has to wonder how well he can handle Tal's Hill in center field at Minute Maid Park (defensive metrics regularly peg his glove in center as below average).
While the Astros didn't complete any extensions this offseason, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. Houston is still said to be working on long-term deals for Dominguez as well as left fielder Robbie Grossman, and the team made an eye-popping seven-year, $23MM contract offer to top prospect George Springer before he even set foot on Major League soil. Somewhat controversially, Springer was optioned to Triple-A to open the season, prompting many to criticize baseball's service time structure and prompting Springer's agents to consider a grievance. The question of course being: If Springer is good enough to merit a $23MM contract offer, why then, is he not good enough to open the season with the team? (The obvious answer is to gain additional years of team control by stashing him in the minor leagues, thereby delaying his service clock.)
For a team that accomplished quite a bit this offseason, there are still plenty of questions remaining. Such is the nature of existence as a team that could improve by 11 wins in 2014 and still lose 100 games. Not all of Cosart, Peacock, Harrell, Oberholtzer and Keuchel are going to be long-term fits in Houston's rotation; Mark Appel and Mike Foltynewicz are on the fast track to the Majors, and they'll look to claim two of those rotation spots, possibly as soon as this season. Cosart may have the inside track due to his former prospect status and strong finish in 2013, but the same could be said about Peacock, and Oberholtzer was also impressive down the stretch.
The Astros prioritized first base this winter but came up empty despite making a reportedly solid offer to James Loney, heavily pursuing Jose Abreu and Mike Morse while also expressing interest in names like Mike Carp on the trade market. Instead, the club is going with a patchwork solution at first, using a combination of Guzman, Chris Carter and Marc Krauss. That's not an inspiring trio, but they figure to be merely keeping the seat warm for top prospect Jonathan Singleton. He, however, will have to hit his way to the Majors after slumping in 2013 and struggling with substance abuse issues.
Mid-season extension talks clearly don't bother the Astros, as they hammered out a long-term deal for Altuve last summer. As such, they could look to do the same in 2014, continuing their negotiations with Dominguez, Grossman and Springer. Could they look to lock up Castro before he begins to become too expensive? I'd wager that they're interested in doing so after last year's breakout.
Also of critical importance to the Astros is their failing television deal with Comcast SportsNet Houston. Owner Jim Crane has filed a lawsuit against former owner Drayton McClane, Comcast and NBC, accusing the trio of fraud and civil conspiracy. The lawsuit also accuses McLane of selling "an asset (the network) they knew at the time to be overpriced and broken" and claims that Crane was provided with "knowing misrepresentations" and "falsely inflated subscription rates" prior to agreeing to the purchase. CSN Houston is available to only about 40 percent of Houston-area homes, thereby limiting the earning potential and hampering the Astros' future financial outlook. In February, a federal judge placed CSN Houston's parent company under federal bankruptcy protection.
Deal of Note
The Fowler trade was surprising to a number of people for a number of reasons. For one, it was strange to see a rebuilding team such as the Astros swing a deal for a pricey veteran center fielder with only two years of team control remaining. On the other side of the coin, many felt that the Rockies didn't receive much of a return on Fowler and should've cashed in that trade chip a year earlier with Fowler coming off of a monster 2012 season.
The key piece traded for Fowler was Lyles, a former supplemental-round draft pick that was rushed to the Majors at the age of 20 despite having fewer than 100 innings at Triple-A under his belt. Houston likely felt that it had the pitching depth to move Lyles, especially considering the fact that his strange handling will likely lead to Super Two status. thereby driving up his price tag.
If the Astros trade Fowler fora greater return or sign him to a long-term extension, the deal will make more sense. As it stands, it's a bit curious for a team in their position to trade away controllable assets for two years of an expensive veteran when the team is likely more than two years away from contention. While Lyles' prospect star has clearly fallen from the time when he was Baseball America's No. 42 prospect heading into the 2011 campaign, he's still posted a 2.24 K/BB ratio and 48.8 percent ground-ball rate in his career, and he's also seen his average velocity rise each season in the Majors (his fastball averaged 92.2 mph in 2013).
Overall, the biggest question for the Astros at this point is simply: When do the kids arrive? In Correa, Appel, Springer, Singleton and Foltynewicz (among others), Houston has an enviable crop of prospects that are nearly MLB-ready and could take the Lone Star State by storm in the near future. An arduous rebuild could be drawing close to an end, but while there's a light at the end of the tunnel, the Astros will be hard-pressed to climb out of the cellar in 2014. At the very least, they could be positioned for another No. 1 overall pick in 2015, giving them an unprecedented four consecutive No. 1 picks.
Photo courtesy of Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images.
Fresh off their second straight AL West Division Championship, the Athletics spent a significant amount of money to invest in what is now a stacked bullpen.
Major League Signings
- Scott Kazmir, LHP: Two years, $22MM.
- Eric O'Flaherty, LHP: Two years, $7MM.
- Nick Punto, INF: One year, $2.75MM with a $2.75MM vesting option ($250K buyout).
- Total Spend: $31.75MM.
Notable Minor League Signings
- Coco Crisp, OF: Two years, $22.75MM with a $13MM vesting option ($750K buyout).
Trades and Claims
- Acquired RHP Jim Johnson from the Orioles in exchange for 2B Jemile Weeks and C David Freitas.
- Acquired RHP Luke Gregerson from the Padres in exchange for OF Seth Smith.
- Acquired OF Craig Gentry and RHP Josh Lindblom from the Rangers in exchange for OF Michael Choice and 2B Chris Bostick.
- Acquired LHP Drew Pomeranz and RHP Chris Jensen in exchange for LHP Brett Anderson and $2MM cash.
- Acquired OF Billy Burns from the Nationals in exchange for LHP Jerry Blevins.
- Acquired LHP Fernando Abad from the Nationals in exchange for OF John Wooten.
- Acquired INF Jake Elmore from the White Sox in exchange for a player to be named later.
- Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brett Anderson, Grant Balfour, Jerry Blevins, Chris B. Young, Kurt Suzuki, Pat Neshek
After a disheartening defeat at the hands of Justin Verlander and the Tigers in the 2013 ALDS, the A's entered the offseason facing the reality that top starter Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour would likely command more dollars than the team was comfortable committing. The always active Billy Beane sought to fill these gaps on the free agent and trade markets, and baseball's most famous GM had one of his most active offseasons to date.
Scott Kazmir (pictured) was signed to a two-year deal that was actually $2MM more expensive than the two-year, $20MM deal that Colon inked with the Mets, but Beane and his staff appeared more amenable to the risk associated with Kazmir's injury history than Colon's age. Kazmir comes with significant upside, as ERA estimators FIP, xFIP and SIERA all feel that his performance was more indicative of a 3.35 to 3.50 ERA than the 4.04 mark he finished with. Kazmir's 10.1 percent swinging-strike rate and 92.5 mph average fastball velocity both ranked in the Top 25 in baseball among pitchers with 150 or more innings pitched. He was sidelined with a minor triceps issue this spring, but looked to be in good form in his first outing of the year (7 1/3 shutout innings with 5 strikeouts, no walks, and just three hits).
Many expected Balfour to sign a two- or three-year deal with a significant average annual value this offseason. The A's likely thought the same and deemed it too rich for the their taste, though apparently only in terms of contract length and not AAV. Oakland acquired Jim Johnson in exchange for Jemile Weeks and David Freitas in what amounted to a salary dump designed to free up payroll for the Orioles. It wasn't exactly a move that most would expect of Beane and his regime, as Oakland has long subscribed to the theory that closers are made, not born. (Balfour himself had just eight career saves prior to signing with Oakland.) When the A's have spent on a closer, it's been a more modest annual investment, such as their two-year, $10.5MM deal with Brian Fuentes prior to the 2011 season.
As if adding Johnson's $10MM salary wasn't enough, the A's doubled down on expensive relievers by flipping Seth Smith to San Diego in order to acquire one of the NL's best setup men -- Luke Gregerson. Each player had one year left on his deal, though Gregerson will end up earning roughly $750K more than Smith after agreeing to a one-year, $5.065MM deal to avoid arbitration.
After seeing their acquisition of Chris B. Young result in a mere .200/.280/.379 batting line, the A's looked elsewhere for a lefty-mashing fourth outfielder and acquired Craig Gentry in an intradivision trade with the Rangers. In Gentry, Oakland secured one of baseball's best defenders and fastest runners -- two skills that typically aren't rewarded through arbitration. That was unequivocally apparent when Gentry's first trip through arbitration resulted in a $1.145MM salary despite a healthy 6.2 fWAR over the past two seasons. That's nearly $10MM less than Young earned in 2013; suffice it to say, while Michael Choice was a reasonably steep price to pay, Oakland greatly improved its outfield depth for the next three years in a way that won't cost them financially. By acquiring Lindblom in the deal, they also gained another bullpen arm or potential rotation option, which has proven to be crucial this spring (more on that later).
Beane also acquired some future upside, though it doesn't come without risk; in Drew Pomeranz, he landed a former No. 5 overall draft pick (by the Indians) who has yet to flourish in the Major Leagues despite reasonable success at the Triple-A level. Pomeranz has opened the season in the Oakland bullpen after a strong Spring Training. Also acquired was the speedster Billy Burns, whose 10 steals in 26 Spring Training contests drew comparisons to another fleet-footed Billy -- Billy Hamilton. Burns has averaged 76 steals per 162 games in the minors and has a career .420 OBP, and he's likely not too far from Major League ready.
Beane and his staff were able to make all of these moves without losing too many of the major pieces from last year's club. The loss of Colon, in theory, will be offset by the acquisition of Kazmir. Johnson and Gregerson are designed to replace Balfour at the back end of the bullpen, and while the loss of Anderson defintely sent some talent out the door, he pitched just 44 2/3 sub-par innings last season in a year when the A's won 96 games.
The question, then, becomes just how much -- if at all -- the A's improved. It's certainly curious to see Oakland spend this type of money on its bullpen, given the team's modest payroll. In Johnson, Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty (who won't even pitch until midseason), the Athletics are spending more than $16MM. For a team that's in record-payroll territory despite an overall commitment of roughly $82MM, that's a significant amount of money to spend on late-inning relief.
Even before the benefit of hindsight regarding Jarrod Parker's Tommy John surgery, one could argue that some of those funds would have been better allocated to the starting rotation. Though Oakland starters finished ninth in the Majors in ERA last season, they finished 19th in FIP and 23rd in xFIP, and that was including the departed Colon. A full year of Sonny Gray will help those numbers, but a full season of Kazmir is far from a safe bet. Talented as Kazmir might be, he's topped 160 innings just twice in his career and logged 158 last season in his comeback with Cleveland. From a WAR standpoint, he may only need 250-300 innings to justify the value of his contract, but the A's are probably hoping for a higher total than that, which is no sure thing.
The question marks surrounding Kazmir's workload are magnified by the injuries to Parker and A.J. Griffin. Oakland has begun the season with Jesse Chavez in its rotation, and Lindblom has already been needed for a spot start. An early injury to Kazmir could push Lindblom into the rotation full-time and leave the club with little depth.
When everyone was healthy, adding two veteran starters might've seemed unnecessary, but perhaps they could have done so and moved a starter to address other needs. The team pursued a reunion with Tim Hudson this offseason and finished runner-up to the Giants; I wonder if foregoing the trade for Johnson could have left them with the financial wherewithal to add both Hudson and Kazmir.
That could've led to a trade to shore up their second base situation. For all of Eric Sogard's popularity -- he nearly won the #FaceOfMLB contest this offseason due to his overwhelming popularity with the fans -- the fact remains that he's a career .240/.295/.341 hitter. He and Punto provide strong defense at the keystone, and Sogard is a valuable member of the Oakland clubhouse, but a second base upgrade could have been beneficial. Had things shaken out differently, perhaps a second intra-division trade of the offseason could have been struck to add Nick Franklin to the fold. It won't be a surprise if the A's are in the market for a more potent bat up the middle this summer.
Deal of Note
While the Kazmir signing and the Johnson acquisition are both a bit out of character for the A's, perhaps the most interesting move the club made was its extension for Crisp. Beane and the A's are known for signing young, core players to long-term deals (and often trading them a few years into those deals), but an extension for a veteran player such as Crisp is of the utmost rarity for Oakland. The closest thing we've seen to a deal such as this one from Beane is Mark Ellis' two-year, $11MM signed following the 2008 season. Ellis was set to hit free agency following that season, while Crisp would've been a free agent following the 2014 season (Crisp's previous two-year deal with Oakland was signed in January 2012 as a free agent).
It's certainly a gamble, to an extent, on a 34-year-old whose game is largely based on speed, but Crisp has been worth at least two fWAR and 2.7 rWAR in each of his four seasons with Oakland. While he's not likely to play in 150 games per season, Crisp has been an underrated commodity in Oakland and should live up the value of his deal even when he faces some inevitable power regression (Crisp's average home run distance in 2013 was 353 feet, per BaseballHeatMaps.com, and Hit Tracker lumped eight of his 22 home runs from 2013 into the "Just Enough" category).
When coming off a 96-win season, it's difficult to find ways to definitively improve a club. Late injuries to Parker and Griffin have muddied the picture when looking at Oakland's roster, but heading into Spring Training, this looked to be a club that would challenge its record from 2013. Though the team could stand a few upgrades, Beane and his staff constructed a solid roster, top to bottom. It's possible that their spending spree on relievers was simply due to the fact that they had money to spend but so few glaring holes on the roster that they put the excess funds toward the only area that they felt needed a good deal of work.
The loss of Parker hurts, and Oakland has a lot of eggs in the fragile basket of Scott Kazmir's left arm. However, the club also has the depth to replace him, especially once Griffin returns to the mound. Injuries have ravaged the Rangers as well, somewhat lessening the blow of their own DL-related woes. While the Astros, Mariners and Angels all look to have improved, they're all still chasing the 2012-13 AL West Champions, and the A's figure to make a strong push for a divisional three-peat in 2014.
Photo courtesy of Ed Szczepanski/USA Today Sports Images.
The Phillies brought in more veterans to supplement an already-aging core, and it is fair to wonder if the club is chasing good money after bad.
Major League Signings