MLBTR Originals Rumors

Rays Ponder Life Without Andrew Friedman

With Andrew Friedman heading west, the Rays are confident that the newly-promoted Matthew Silverman can continue to work creatively with a limited budget to field a competitive team.  At the same time, it’s clear that Friedman will be sorely missed on both a professional and personal level.  Silverman, still just 38 years old, got the promotion of a lifetime, but he isn’t exactly doing cartwheels down the aisles of Tropicana Field tonight.

It’s a difficult day for me,” the former team president and new president of baseball operations admitted on today’s conference call.  “It’s one filled with sadness as one of my best friends in life has moved away and taken a different job.  That’s the primary emotion, though I’m sure I’ll feel differently a few days or a few weeks from now.

For those of us outside of the Rays and Dodgers organizations, whispers that Friedman could leave for Los Angeles only surfaced late last week when Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times reported that he would be the Dodgers’ top target if Ned Colletti was ousted.  Rays owner Stuart Sternberg indicated that talks started up earlier than that, though he declined to “put a timetable on it.”  The Rays will receive no compensation from the Dodgers for their top exec thanks to Sternberg’s no-contract policy for the upper crust of club officials.  I asked Sternberg if he ever considered altering his policy for Friedman considering the interest he could garner from rival clubs.

That’s our policy, for better or for worse.  There are positives with it and negatives with it,” Sternberg said, emphasizing that most employees within the organization have contracts, just not the top baseball people. “It’s a unique situation with Andrew and Matt and [new team president Brian Auld]…I put my reputation in their hands and they in mine as well and we have a real level of trust.  When it comes to the contract that’s what it’s really all about and it was never really a consideration with Andrew.”

When asked if he fears Friedman taking other Rays employees with him to L.A., Sternberg referred back to the level of trust that they share.  Whether it’s through a handshake or just a tacit understanding, both Sternberg and Silverman expressed confidence that Friedman won’t poach anyone from Tampa Bay.  That extends to manager Joe Maddon who told the owner that he wants to stay on board despite Friedman’s departure.  “I don’t expect anyone to be joining him in L.A.,” Sternberg flatly stated.   Reading between the lines, it appears that the owner doesn’t have poaching protection in writing.  If that’s the case, he doesn’t sound the least bit concerned about it.

Sternberg will miss Friedman, whom he entrusted with the GM role at the age of 28, and Silverman learned that watching your best friend move to a new town doesn’t get any easier when you’re in your late 30s.  Still, the Rays aren’t throwing themselves a pity party.  Sternberg knew that, eventually, a team with deeper pockets would whisk Friedman away.  When the Dodgers came calling, he didn’t think about looking out-of-house for a second.  All along, he knew that he had a highly capable understudy in Silverman who was ready to take the reins.


Offseason Outlook: San Diego Padres

After another season as also-rans in the NL West – their fourth-straight year with a sub-.500 mark – the Padres have installed a new GM in hopes of turning things around in short order.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

Back in June, the Padres relieved Josh Byrnes of his duties amidst reports that his relationship with ownership had deteriorated.  There were candidates aplenty at the outset but Rangers assistant GM A.J. Preller emerged from a final four that included Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen, Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler, and league executive Kim Ng.  The 37-year-old has his work cut out for him in a division that includes the Giants and the big-budget Dodgers, but ownership might be willing to make things easier by loosening the purse strings.

The quickest fix for the Padres’ offense might be spending big on hotly pursued Cuban talent Yasmany Tomas.  The soon-to-be 24-year-old is said to boast tremendous power and is surprisingly agile for his size, as Tim Dierkes recently noted.  Still, there are questions about Tomas.  Over the summer, Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote that Tomas appeared to regress in Cuba and even lost playing time in the latter part of the year.  And, of course, we know very little about Tomas when compared to the rest of this year’s free agent class, but then again, fellow countrymen Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and Yoenis Cespedes rose from relative obscurity to make colossal impacts at the major league level.  Will the usually cost-conscious Padres splurge to land Tomas?  Based on what we know today, the answer is a definitive maybe.

We have definitely expanded our international focus under A.J.,” Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler said in an email to Dennis Lin of U-T San Diego last week. “That said, we will continue to be balanced in looking at all opportunities.”

At this stage, it appears the Padres will have to vie with the Rangers, Giants, Phillies, Mariners, and, for some reason, the Dodgers, who already have plenty of outfielders.  Despite the competition and an expected price tag that could exceed Rusney Castillo‘s $72.5MM deal with the Red Sox, the Padres have scouted Tomas three times in three weeks, so they’re obviously serious about the young slugger.  Where they might tap out in the bidding process remains to be seen, however.

Tomas would look great in the outfield but how the club approaches him will be largely dependent on what they do with the guys that are already in-house.  Preller might want to move Carlos Quentin, but he’d have to eat most of his $8MM salary to find a home for him thanks to his .177/.284/.315 batting line in 2014 and unfortunate injury history.  Quentin also has a no-trade clause, a condition he demanded upon signing a (then) team-friendly extension, but he was reportedly open to waiving it over the summer.  With two years to go and $16MM guaranteed on his deal, the once-promising Cameron Maybin will also be a tough sell.  Will Venable, who regressed in 2014 and is owed $4.25MM in ’15 doesn’t hold a ton of trade value either.   In a perfect world, the Padres might find two new outfield mates to go along with Seth Smith, but that’s easier said than done.  If the Padres can trot out an outfield of Smith, the defensively-solid Maybin, and another corner outfielder with pop, they’ll probably be high-fiving at Petco.

The Padres would like to shake things up in the infield as well and that could be an easier task.  First baseman Yonder Alonso is due a bump from $980K to an estimated $1.6MM in arbitration.  He may not be worth it when considering his iffy production and health woes, though his capable defending, youth, and former promise would make that a difficult choice.  Ditto for Everth Cabrera (.232/.272/.300 in 90 games last season) who has a history of off-the-field troubles on top of his poor hitting and hamstring injury, though a non-tender seems less likely for him.  Veteran first baseman Michael Cuddyer had his own health issues in 2014, but he could be an upgrade at first if he fits in the budget.  Notable shortstops on the open market include Asdrubal Cabrera, Jung-ho Kang, and Jed Lowrie, but teams like the Cubs and Diamondbacks could have shortstops to spare.  The D’Backs are a particularly interesting match if the divisional rivals can get on the same page as they need pitching, something the Padres have in spades.  Alternatively, the Padres could roll with Alexi Amarista as their starter if they have enough confidence in him.

This season, the Padres finished dead last in runs scored with 535, a full 38 behind the next-to-last Braves, and slashed .226/.292/.342 as a team.  But, as usual, their pitching was solid as they finished top five in both runs allowed and team ERA.  Predictably, the consensus is that Preller will have to deal some of his arms to get the offense up to speed.  After all, we can’t expect that great of a payroll bump when considering that last year’s $90MM invoice was a franchise watermark.

First-time All-Star Tyson Ross was one of a few bright spots for the Padres in 2014 but he could be in play as a trade candidate if the Friars want to land a big bat.  The 27-year-old posted a 2.81 ERA with 9.0 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 and is under club control through 2017, so there would be no shortage of interested clubs, but San Diego would demand a substantial haul in return.  Andrew Cashner, 28, battled injuries but still managed to have a strong showing in ~123 innings and has two years of club control remaining.  Though, by the same token, trading Cashner this winter could be selling low given his recent health troubles.  Ian Kennedy, who pitched to a 3.63 ERA with 9.3 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9, is projected to earn $10.3MM in his final trip through arbitration, so the cost-conscious Padres may be willing to move him, even if his return wouldn’t be quite as heavy as that of Ross or Cashner.

San Diego also has an interesting trade chip in reliever Joaquin Benoit.  Benoit was dominant in 2014 but he’s 37 and will earn $8MM in 2015.  That’s a big salary for a team like the Padres, but that wouldn’t be hard to swallow for team with a larger payroll.  On top of that, his $8MM team option for 2016 makes him more than just a one-year rental.  Teams that don’t want to give David Robertson a potentially record-setting deal or gamble on the next tier of available closers will want to take a good look at Benoit.  In the event of a Benoit deal, the Padres can also be expected to look into late-inning options, though they could have a solid closer already in Kevin Quackenbush.

The Padres could package in prospects from their highly-regarded farm system, but teams will be hard pressed to pry away talents like right-hander Matt Wisler, outfielder Hunter Renfroe, or catcher Austin Hedges.

Even though the Padres sound inclined to give Preller a bit more in allowance than Byrnes had, much of San Diego’s offseason shopping is likely to happen on the trade market.

Steve Adams contributed to this post.


Free Agent Profile: Melky Cabrera

A benign spinal tumor was learned to be a significant factor in Melky Cabrera‘s disappointing 2013 campaign, and the switch-hitter regained his form in 2014 as he prepared to hit the open market for the second time in his big league career.

Strengths/Pros

Cabrera hit a strong .301/.351/.458 with 16 homers, 35 doubles and three triples in 621 plate appearances this season. In three of the past four seasons, he’s batted above .300 and context-neutral stats such as wRC+ and OPS+ have each pegged him as at least 18 percent better than a league-average hitter in each of those campaigns.

Melky  CabreraA switch-hitter, Cabrera is a bit stronger as a right-handed bat, but his platoon split is minor. Over the past four seasons, Cabrera has batted .308/.350/.477 as a right-handed hitter and .309/.352/.451 as a left-handed hitter. In terms of average and OBP he’s about the same from each side, but he does offer a bit more pop against lefty pitchers.

He’s never been one to strike out much (career 12 percent), and he posted a career-best 10.8 percent strikeout rate in 2014. Cabrera’s swinging-strike rate (5.1 percent) was the 21st-lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters this season, and his 88.3 percent contact rate ranked 16th.

Cabrera will play the majority of next season at the age of 30, so he’s a relatively young bat. Even a five-year contract would only run through his age-34 season, so it’s possible that a team could buy mostly prime years without worrying about too much of the decline phase with this deal.

Weaknesses/Cons

The elephant in the room when discussing Cabrera’s free agent stock, of course, is his past suspension for PED usage. Cabrera was hit with a 50-game suspension near the end of his tenure with the 2012 World Champion Giants, and he admitted at the time that his punishment was “the result of my use of a substance that I should not have used.” That test called the validity of his excellent 2012 numbers into question, and naysayers exuded a sense of almost vindication in 2013 when his numbers went into the tank. While the tumor can now clearly be noted as a strong factor in those struggles, some will always question how much of Cabrera’s production is legitimate.

Back to his on-field characteristics, Cabrera may not strike out much but he also doesn’t walk much or show excellent plate discipline. He’s an aggressive hacker who despite rarely swinging and missing at a pitch averaged just 3.69 pitches per plate appearance in 2014 — a figure that tied him for 105th in Major League Baseball among qualified hitters.

Cabrera once had value on the basepaths as a potential 20-steal threat, but Fangraphs pegged him with negative baseruning value in each of the past two seasons. Perhaps last year can be written off, but Cabrera stole just six bags and provided negative baserunning value even in a healthy 2014 season.

Both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved feel that while Cabrera’s arm is a plus asset in left field, he is overall a below-average defender at the position. Given his decreased speed, it would seem a stretch to suggest that he could still handle center field, even on a limited basis. Indeed, Toronto only played him there for nine innings this past season. He also ended the season on the DL for a minor injury — a broken pinkie finger sustained while sliding back into first base. The injury did require surgery.

Finally, the Blue Jays reportedly plan to extend a qualifying offer to Cabrera, so a team will have to surrender its top unprotected pick in order to sign him.

Personal

Cabrera has fit in well to a Blue Jays clubhouse that features a number of his countrymen in Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Juan Francisco, among others. He was also well-liked in San Francisco, even after his suspension. At the time, Sergio Romo made it clear that Cabrera would have been welcomed back with open arms, asking, “Why wouldn’t we want him on our team?” and referring to Cabrera as “a great teammate.”

Cabrera has taken an active role in the community in his native Dominican Republic, organizing youth league tournaments (Spanish link) and encouraging children to stay diligent with their studies while chasing their baseball dreams. Cabrera also donated both cash and food to his home country following the hurricanes of 2007 and was honored with the 2008 Munson Award for his “excellence and philanthropic work in the community,” per the Blue Jays’ media guide.

Market

Cabrera made his desire to return to the Blue Jays perfectly clear late this season, stating plainly“I stay in Toronto.” Of course, that thinking can obviously change if the Blue Jays’ offer to Cabrera — and GM Alex Anthopoulos has said he expects to make a “competitive” bid — doesn’t stack up with those that he receives from other clubs.

A number of teams will be looking for offense in a thin market for bats, and Cabrera’s will be one of the best out there. The Orioles, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Twins, Mariners, Rangers, Giants, Padres, Reds, Phillies and Mets could all be in the market for an outfield upgrade, so Cabrera’s representatives at the Legacy Agency will have no shortage of teams with which to converse. Among those clubs, the White Sox, Twins, Rangers and Phillies would have a protected first-round pick.

Perhaps most importantly, Cabrera will find himself near the top of a thin free agent crop of hitters. Among his chief competitors will be Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez and Yasmany Tomas — an aging slugger with questionable defense, a pure DH entering his age-36 season and a 24-year-old that has yet to play in the Majors, respectively. Cabrera’s power doesn’t stack up to those players, but he’s shown a consistent ability to hit for average with respectable pop, and he offers more certainty than someone like Michael Cuddyer or Colby Rasmus.

Expected Contract

Cabrera is in the unenviable position of hoping to set a precedent. Through this offseason, no player has hit the open market with the stigma of both a PED suspension and a qualifying offer and been able to cash in on a sizable deal. Jhonny Peralta secured a four-year, $53MM pact last offseason fresh off a suspension, but he was not the recipient of a qualifying offer from the Tigers. Any number of free agent bats have cashed in after receiving a qualifying offer, including Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Carlos Beltran. While none of those deals looks enticing at this point, that’s certainly not to say that second-tier free agents with qualifying offers will continue to struggle.

Cabrera’s agents will look to make their client the first to receive a strong multi-year deal in spite of that QO and in spite of a past suspension. He does have the benefit of having performed well in a season two years after his suspension, and more importantly, there’s a case to be made that he’s the safest bat on the market. Cruz is four years older with less defensive value, Martinez’s age and lack of position will limit his market, and though Tomas is tantalizing, he’s unproven.

Ultimately, Cabrera’s contract is difficult to project, but I feel the $36-45MM figure floated past the Toronto Star’s Brendan Kennedy in a survey of rival agents was low. Cabrera can rightly claim that he’s one of the best bats on the market at a relatively young age, and that’s enough for me to predict a perhaps unnecessarily specific five-year, $66.25MM contract (Peralta’s contract with an extra year at the same AAV).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Trade Candidate: Evan Gattis

Once just a fascinating story, Braves catcher Evan Gattis is now unquestionably a legitimate big league piece. He is only just 28, has just two years on his service clock, and is probably one of the ten or so best-hitting catchers in baseball (if not, arguably, somewhat better).

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh PiratesFor a Braves team looking to improve but seemingly lacking the present payroll capacity to do it, Gattis seems at first glance to be an obvious keeper. But a look below the surface reveals why recent rumors have labeled him a possible trade chip. Specifically, Atlanta has already groomed (and promoted) an even cheaper, probably more defensively-reliable replacement in 23-year-old Christian Bethancourt.

So, if the Braves choose to shop Gattis, what might he be worth, and what kinds of teams might be interested? The bat certainly has played. Gattis introduced himself to the league with a .243/.291/.480 slash and 21 home runs over 382 plate appearances in 2013, leading some to suggest that he would never make enough contact for his power to be valuable. But Gattis answered with a .263/.317/.493 line and 22 long balls while taking 19 more trips to the plate. His walk and strikeout numbers were similar (5.5% walk rate with a K% in the low-20’s), while his BABIP jumped from .255 to .298.

While there is certainly some risk that Gattis slides back to his rookie numbers, Atlanta would doubtless be loath to deal him were that the complete story. While he is a decent enough baserunner considering his size (he is listed at 6’4/260), Gattis does not enjoy the best defensive reputation and may perhaps not be far off from deteriorating further in the field.

Let’s take a closer look at his defensive work. Gattis threw out just 13 runners while allowing 53 swipes. Though that .197 caught-stealing rate actually rated just ahead of other bat-first catchers like Rosario, Derek Norris, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it is not good. And Gattis fell well behind Bethancourt and backup Gerald Laird, so perhaps we cannot pin the blame on the Atlanta staff. And Baseball Prospectus figures indicate that Gattis is one of the very worst blockers in the game, costing the Braves about 18 additional wild pitches or passed balls over his 93 games of action behind the plate.

While these aspects of the catcher’s job description are perhaps the most visible, however, they are probably not the most impactful. Indeed, the gap between Gattis and Bethancourt/Laird in gunning down would-be basestealers pales in comparison to the separation observed among that trio in pitch framing. Only here, Gattis comes out ahead, profiling as an average or better strike-winner while Bethancourt (slightly below average) and Laird (well below average) do not. (Stat Corner and Baseball Prospectus concur on this general ordering, though the latter is more bullish on this group as a whole.) Pitch-calling and staff-handling are much more subjective, of course, but I am not aware of any reports painting him as a disaster in those areas.

In the aggregate, BP tabbed Gattis as the league’s 8th most-valuable backstop last year. Despite pinning him with one of the worst overall defensive WAR tabs among his peers (with statistics that do not account for pitch framing), Fangraphs still valued Gattis as the league’s 14th-most productive catcher.

While it is generally assumed that Gattis would hold most of his appeal to an American League club, then, it could be that talk of Gattis’s impending shift from intriguing, power hitting catcher to slightly above-average DH are premature. And that expands his market, because it is at least plausible for acquiring teams to believe that Gattis will provide serviceable-enough innings behind the plate for at least a portion of his control. (All while comfortable in the knowledge that a shift to DH or a non-tender can prevent the kind of long-term burden that a free agent contract could bring.)

It remains somewhat unlikely that another National League team would top the bidding, though it is at least possible to imagine a team like the Pirates having interest. More likely, Gattis would draw the most attention from American League teams that saw the Athletics extract plenty of value from a defensively-deficient group of backstops who were good enough on offense to DH or play elsewhere. The Astros, Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, Blue Jays, and perhaps even the Mariners and Rangers could at least be imagined as landing spots, depending upon how the rest of their offseasons shake out. None of these is a slam dunk, of course, and on the whole Gattis’s market is not terribly clear.

As always, it is hard to forecast a return on a trade. But there is one fairly recent, fairly solid comp: the pre-2013 John Jaso deal. Jaso, a (lefty) bat-first catcher then entering his age-29 season and coming off of a huge campaign, was shipped to the Athletics in a three-team swap that saw Michael Morse go from the Nationals to the Mariners and prospects move back to D.C. from Oakland. While the arms that moved in that trade — A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, and Ian Krol — have seen their stock rise rather significantly since that deal, at the time it was considered a substantial-but-fair price for the A’s to pay to acquire Jaso. (The Morse element of the deal, of course, has been the subject of plenty of criticism.)

In some ways Gattis is less useful than Jaso, who kills righties and has a clear, if limited role. On the other, he has more potential as an everyday option, as he not only mashes lefties but puts up good numbers against same-handed pitchers and is perhaps a better all-around defender. And Gattis possesses a power-based skillset that many teams still desire, especially as it continues to diminish in availability.

So, can Atlanta improve on the Jaso return — a legitimate outlay of talent, to be sure, but one that had plenty of risk and did not contribute immediately to the MLB roster — or will it face the tough choice of taking a potentially significant hit to its likelihood of contention in the next year or two in exchange for speculative future value? That probably depends on how many teams have interest in Gattis as at least a semi-regular backstop.


Offseason Outlook: Cincinnati Reds

The Reds took a big step backward in their first season under manager Bryan Price, and they now face a number of worrisome contracts and an uncertain future.

Guaranteed Contracts

*The exact details of Iglesias’ seven-year, $27MM contract have not been reported, although it reportedly included a large signing bonus.

Options

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

Free Agents

2014 was a disappointing season for the Reds, who followed a 2013 Wild Card appearance with a sub-.500 finish in a year marred by injuries to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and others. Going forward, they’re in a tough spot, and looking at the list of salaries and arbitration cases above, it’s not hard to see why. The Reds are a veteran team. They’re not old, exactly, but many of their stars are reaching, or have reached, that nexus where the Reds have to pay them what they’re worth, or even more than that.

It may be painful for the Reds to decisively address their payroll issue. They owe Votto, Phillips, Bruce and Bailey a total of about $48MM in 2015. In 2016, that number jumps to about $65MM, an enormous figure for a team that has never had an Opening Day payroll over $115MM.

So what can the Reds do? With the guaranteed salaries they already have in place for next season, and the raises they’ll have to pay key arbitration-eligible players like Aroldis Chapman and Mike Leake, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be serious bidders for top free agents.

They could make a few minor tweaks, hope for healthier and more productive seasons from their core players, and take one more run at contention. Beyond 2015, though, the Reds’ future becomes murkier, since Cueto, Latos, Leake and Alfredo Simon are all eligible for free agency. The Reds have a fairly good crop of starting pitching prospects led by a very strong one in Robert Stephenson, but replacing all their departing talent will be tough. It’s difficult, then, to see them fielding a competitive team in 2016 without getting very creative or lucky.

Another possible route for them this winter, therefore, might be to get a head start on their tricky 2016 season by trading Cueto for youth. Cueto’s $10MM option is a bargain in 2015, and he ought to be able to fetch a terrific return as a much cheaper and lower-risk alternative to Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields. Dealing Cueto for, say, an outfielder and two pitching prospects would allow the Reds to head into 2016 with those prospects supplementing a new-look rotation centered around Stephenson, Bailey, Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani and perhaps one of Latos, Leake and Simon. Judging from the recent returns for pitchers like Jeff Samardzija (who had a year and a half of control before free agency but is a lesser pitcher) and R.A. Dickey (who had a year remaining before free agency and fetched two top prospects), a year of Cueto at a team-friendly salary could return two top-50 prospects or talented young big-leaguers. Another possibility, as ESPN’s Buster Olney suggests (Insider-only), is for the Reds to trade Cueto along with someone like Phillips to give their payroll some breathing room for the next few seasons.

The Reds could consider trades involving other starters as well, and MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk recently explored those possibilities. Bailey, who finished the year on the disabled list and has five years remaining on his contract, almost surely will not be traded. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal recently cited Latos as the Reds pitcher most likely to be dealt, although that’s probably much less likely now than it was in August, since Latos missed most of September with an elbow injury. His diminished velocity in 2014 will likely also be an obstacle. Trading Simon, who’s coming off a very strong 2014 season, might provide the Reds with good return value, although it would only do so much to save them money. Dealing Leake, who projects to make $9.5MM in 2014 and doesn’t have a worrisome injury history, might make the most sense.

The Reds already began shedding salary for 2015 when they traded Jonathan Broxton to the Brewers in August, but it’s hard to get a read on their level of interest in more radical moves. GM Walt Jocketty (whose contract the Reds recently extended) told Joel Sherman of the New York Post that he still sees his team as a potentially competitive one. “This year is disappointing because of the injuries,” he said. “From the very beginning, we had 11 DL guys and eight were key. … I feel we still have a small window if the guys come back healthy.” While the Reds will keep Jocketty, though, they’re expected to make significant changes to their front office, so it’s hard to say whether Jocketty’s outlook might be swayed by whoever else the Reds end up hiring.

The Reds’ core of position players is mostly set for 2015, if only because most of their starters are either cost effective or difficult to move. The Reds were the worst offensive team in baseball in the second half of the season, hitting a paltry .221/.277/.326 since the All-Star break, with Billy Hamilton, Ryan Ludwick, Bruce, Phillips, Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena all struggling. Hamilton, Bruce and Phillips appear likely to return, however. Hamilton provides most of his value in the field and on the bases, and the Reds probably have little choice but to either stick with Bruce and Phillips or trade them for meager returns.

The Reds are also set at catcher (with Devin Mesoraco posting a breakout season, and Pena signed through 2015), first base (where Votto’s contract will likely be impossible to move) and third base (where Todd Frazier quietly had a terrific year). That leaves shortstop and left field. Shortstop Zack Cozart is an awful hitter, but he provides plenty of value in the field, and he ended up with 1.4 fWAR in 2014 despite a .223/.269/.302 line. It might be possible for the Reds to upgrade at the position, perhaps with someone like Jed Lowrie. But given Cozart’s .256 BABIP this season, it would also be defensible if they hoped for a modest offensive rebound and kept him at shortstop in 2015, particularly given that the free agent market doesn’t have much to offer and Cozart should be fairly cheap in his first season of arbitration eligibility.

In left field, Ryan Ludwick has struggled through his two-year contract, and the Reds probably ought to pass on their end of his $9MM mutual option, even given the steep $4.5MM buyout cost. Chris Heisey can be an effective bench piece, but he probably shouldn’t be considered a starter. The Reds could also move Frazier to left field and pursue a free agent third baseman like Aramis Ramirez, although such a strategy seems like a waste of Frazier’s good glove. The Reds will probably be fairly limited in their ability to sign a left fielder as a free agent, and top outfield prospects Jesse Winker and Phil Ervin are each at least a year away, so the Reds’ best path might be to acquire an outfielder if they trade one of their starting pitchers. A deal with a team like the Red Sox, who have plenty of outfielders and are in need of good starting pitching, might make sense, and someone like Daniel Nava might be a good target as part of a larger deal.

With Heisey, Pena and Kristopher Negron, the Reds have the beginnings of a reasonable bench. They’ll likely decline their option on Jack Hannahan, who didn’t play much in 2014 and didn’t hit at all when he did. But upgrading the bench likely won’t be a big priority for the Reds, particularly given that they already have the light-hitting Schumaker to fill one of the remaining spots.

Other than the extraordinary Chapman, the 2014 bullpen was not a strength, and it became weaker when the Reds shipped Broxton to Milwaukee. The Broxton trade suggests, however, that the Reds understand that when there’s a budget crunch, highly paid relievers ought to be the first luxury item to go. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if they didn’t spend much on bullpen help this offseason, instead sifting through arms they already control, like Manny Parra, J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Curtis Partch, Jumbo Diaz, Pedro Villareal, Carlos Contreras, and Sean Marshall (who will be returning from a shoulder injury). Iglesias might be another possibility. Logan Ondrusek, who had a poor season in 2014, is a non-tender candidate.

One outside-the-box idea might be for the Reds to trade Chapman. He’s so good that it would be difficult to get fair value for him, but it’s worth considering, since he’s only under team control through 2016, and he won’t be cheap by then. The Reds might be able to get a couple potential regulars in return for Chapman, which would dramatically improve them as they build for 2016 and beyond. There haven’t been many rumors yet about a potential Chapman trade, and perhaps there won’t be. But if the Reds make any surprising moves, that’s the kind they’ll likely make, with the big names on the way out of town rather than on the way in.


MLBTR Originals

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


Full Story | Comments | Categories: MLBTR Originals

Offseason Outlook: Arizona Diamondbacks

During their third consecutive season without a playoff appearance, the Diamondbacks shook things up from top to bottom.  With a very different regime in place, Arizona figures to make some serious changes this winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The writing was probably on the wall for General Manager Kevin Towers when the Diamondbacks hired Tony La Russa to oversee the front office in the spring.  Towers, of course, got the ax last month and weeks later La Russa appointed his former ace Dave Stewart as GM and plucked De Jon Watson away from the Dodgers to serve as the senior VP of baseball operations.  While some expect the Diamondbacks to take a step back before moving forward, Watson says that won’t be the case.

I don’t see this as a complete rebuild,” said Watson, according to MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert. “I think we had some bad health, a little bad luck. This club is going to be better than most people are thinking they’re going to be going into next year. So I’m excited about coming back into Spring Training, I’m excited about this upcoming winter and going out and try to find upgraded talent to add to what we currently have in-house.

Watson isn’t just being a sunny optimist – the Diamondbacks really did get hit hard by the injury bug in 2013.  Left-hander Patrick Corbin was one of several young, talented starters who underwent Tommy John surgery in March, ending his season before it started.  Reliever David Hernandez, who was looking to build off a strong finish to the 2013 season, also underwent Tommy John surgery prior to Opening Day.  Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt‘s season ended in early August when a fastball from Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri fractured his left hand.  When considering those injuries plus the ones suffered by Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock, and pricey winter addition Bronson Arroyo, it’s easy to see how the Diamondbacks wound up losing 98 games.

The D’Backs now need to figure out who will lead the turnaround effort from the dugout.  The club is casting a wide net in their managerial search with out-of-house options like Jim Tracy, Rangers interim manager Tim Bogar, and Sandy Alomar. Jr. alongside internal candidates Triple-A Reno manager Phil Nevin, Double-A Mobile manager Andy Green, and big-league hitting coach Turner Ward.  If there are bonus points to be had for La Russa ties, someone like McEwing could have an advantage in the process.

After that, the Diamondbacks’ first order of business will probably be to address their starting rotation which has plenty of candidates but a greater number of question marks.  Corbin may not be back in action until June and Arroyo will probably be sidelined for a few months thanks to his July Tommy John operation.  As it stands now, the D’Backs have Wade Miley to head the rotation alongside rising sophomore Chase Anderson and Vidal Nuno.  Josh Collmenter could be a consideration as well, though he may wind up in the bullpen rather than the starting five.  Trevor Cahill will look to get back on track, though that is far from a given after his disappointing season.  Prospects Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin also figure to get long looks but how ready they are remains to be seen.

The best fix, arguably, would be to go after top free agent arms like Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields.  However, Stewart and Watson expressed doubt that they can work those kinds of guys into the budget in a recent chat with Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic.  Don’t count on a blockbuster, either.  Stewart doesn’t seem to have the trading bug like his predecessor did and he indicated that a trade of minor league talent to acquire an established pitcher is unlikely.

So, where does that leave us?  With a bevy of young starting pitching talent and a limited budget, the D’Backs could look to sign veteran arms to short, affordable deals.  Thanks to his age and a career path that has been anything but linear, Aaron Harang might be available at a reasonable price.  As I wrote earlier this week, Harang has some similarities with Arroyo including age and the ability to eat up a lot of innings, though he should cost a lot less than Arroyo did at $23.5MM guaranteed over two years.  Names like Roberto Hernandez and Kyle Kendrick could also get a look if the D’Backs are looking for affordable pitching, and on a one-year deal, they could be moved come summertime when the staff should be back to full health.  If Arizona is willing to take on more pitchers coming back from injury, Chad Billingsley, Brett Anderson and Gavin Floyd shouldn’t cost much, and each offers some upside.

While it’s lower on the to-do list than the rotation, the D’Backs may also look to add a piece or two to their bullpen.  The Diamondbacks aren’t expected to target top relievers, but notable names like Jason Frasor, Matt Lindstrom, and Matt Belisle could get looks as the D’Backs seek to improve on their 3.92 bullpen ERA from last season, the eighth-highest in the majors.  Stewart unfortunately faces the unenviable task of trying to lure free agent pitchers to a one of the game’s most hitter-friendly environments just months after his team finished with the worst record in baseball.  Because of that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see their bullpen signing come down after the New Year when some relievers are left hanging.

While Towers wanted to add an outfield bat, that’s one area that we can safely expect Stewart & Co. to leave alone.  “I think that A.J. (Pollock) in center, (David) Peralta played well, (Mark) Trumbo will probably be in the outfield mix with (Paul) Goldschmidt being at first base and being healthy again,” the GM explained to The Arizona Republic’s Zach Buchanan. “It’s a pretty solid outfield, in my opinion.”  Like it or lump it, outfielder Cody Ross will also be there in support thanks to his $8.5MM salary.

Arizona will leave their depleted farm system alone, but there are trade chips to work with on the varsity squad, particularly in the infield.  Second baseman Aaron Hill is no stranger to the pages of MLBTR and he could, in theory, be moved this offseason.  Hill will be 33 come Opening Day and is still owed $24MM through 2016, but he plays a position of need for many other clubs.  Shortstops Cliff Pennington and Nick Ahmed could also be trade candidates.  Pennington posted a .253/.346/.358 batting line to go with his usually solid defense but they might choose to move him and his $3.3MM projected salary.  With several teams looking for a shortstop, including the Mets, Arizona could find a ripe market for their shortstop surplus.  If Arizona installs Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius in the middle infield full-time and reallocates that money elsewhere, it’ll give them much more flexibility.

All in all, it’s hard to say how much breathing room the D’Backs will have this winter as they survey the free agent market.  Arizona already has ~$67MM committed to the roster with arbitration raises due for Miley, Pennington (if tendered an offer), David Hernandez, Addison Reed and Mark Trumbo.  One month ago, Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall said that he payroll will likely scale back from $112MM to about $100MM, but La Russa has since said that it could be anywhere between $80-110MM, depending on whether or not there is value to be found.  Value or no value, it’d be a surprise to see the team under $90MM if they truly want to compete next year.

It’ll take some creativity for the D’Backs to get back into contention in 2015, but then again, this is the franchise that was creative enough to invent the title of “chief baseball officer.”


Offseason Outlook: Texas Rangers

Prior to the season, pundits expected the Rangers to be in the thick of the AL West. Instead, they finished with fewer than 70 wins for the first time since 1985. Injuries are the most commonly cited culprit for the poor season. The organization could experience a quick turnaround with better health, but several questionable long term commitments put the franchise outlook in jeopardy.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Prince Fielder, 1B: $144MM through 2020
  • Adrian Beltre, 3B: $18MM through 2015 (plus $16MM voidable option for 2016)
  • Shin-Soo Choo, OF: $116MM through 2020
  • Yu Darvish, SP: $31MM through 2017 (2017 could become player option based on Cy Young voting)
  • Matt Harrison, SP: $39MM through 2017 (plus $13.25MM club option for 2018)
  • Elvis Andrus, SS: $120MM through 2022 (plus $15MM club option for 2023)
  • Derek Holland, SP: $18.4MM through 2016 (plus $11MM club option for 2017 and $11.5MM club option for 2018)
  • Leonys Martin, OF: $3.75MM through 2015
  • Martin Perez, SP: $10.75MM through 2017 (plus $6MM club option for 2018, $7.5MM club option for 2019, and $9MM club option for 2020)

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

Contract Options

  • Alex Rios, OF: $13.5MM club option ($1MM buyout)

Free Agents

In addition to the many injuries suffered in Texas, former manager Ron Washington left the team in early September for personal reasons. MLBTR will continue to track the latest from the Rangers ongoing managerial search. Presently, the field is wide open with as many as eight candidates.

Once a manager is selected, GM Jon Daniels has a tough road ahead of him this offseason. He’s said he doesn’t “expect to play at the top end of free agency this year,” so it’s unclear how much payroll the club has available. Currently, $107.15MM is guaranteed to nine players. Arbitration expenses shouldn’t be unwieldy, but may tie up around $12MM. Assuming payroll stays steady after the losing season, Daniels will have about $15MM to $25MM with which to work.

As noted, injuries contributed heavily to the team’s 95 losses. Of the regulars, only Andrus survived the season unscathed, and he turned in a disappointing .263/.314/.333 line. Over 2,000 player days were lost to injury. It’s the biggest injury burden since data has been collected on the topic, and they also lost the most salary to injury.

Aside from this season, Texas has recently done well with injuries. It’s hard to pin blame on the training staff. Some players suffered fluky injuries like Holland (dog tripping incident). Others were lost for extended periods with difficult-to-prevent problems like Jurickson Profar, Harrison, and Perez. It’s not worth digging into the entire list of injured Rangers – it suffices to say the list is long.

So where is the club headed? Three players are contracted through 2020, and those deals already look like potential burdens. As mentioned, Andrus disappointed offensively for a second straight season. Fielder struggled leading up to his season-ending injury. Choo was decent early, but slumped on his way to the doctor. It’s unclear how long Choo played through injury, so there is at least some room for optimism with him.

Two of the club’s best position players – Beltre and Martin – may become free agents after the 2015 season. Beltre possesses an option for 2016 that can be voided if he fails to reach 586 plate appearances next season. The club’s best pitcher, Darvish, has an interesting provision that could allow him to convert his 2017 season into a player option. It will trigger if he either wins the Cy Young award once in the next two seasons or finishes between second and fourth in both years.

The farm system isn’t particularly deep, with Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro representing the top prospects. Gallo is a high strikeout corner infielder while Alfaro is a well-rounded catcher. No matter how optimistic you are about the Rangers system, it’s not positioned to bail out the major league club in the next couple seasons.

Therein lies the rub. Texas exists in a weird state between contending and rebuilding. Several injured players like Profar, Harrison, and Perez may be unavailable at the start of the season. Additionally, Darvish, Ogando, and Tanner Scheppers were all sidelined with elbow inflammation. We’ve seen elbow issues recur in other pitchers, most recently Cliff Lee.

Texas is expected to decline Alex Rios‘ $13.5MM club option. That leaves potential openings for a starting outfielder, second baseman, and catcher. The latter two positions will probably be solved internally. Profar may man second if healthy or Rougned Odor, 21 next season, could be given another extended look. With the catching market so thin, the club is thought to be leaning towards using Robinson Chirinos as their primary backstop. Unfortunately, internal options in the outfield are limited. The 2014 club used Jake Smolinski, Jim Adduci, Daniel Robertson, Michael Choice, and Ryan Rua to patch the outfield. It’s unclear if any of them can handle more than a supporting role.

While outfield is a problem area, the free agent market offers few solutions. Rather than trying Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer, or a return engagement with Nelson Cruz, the Rangers may want to explore a trade. We’ll know more about that marketplace in the coming months, but trade candidates like Justin Ruggiano could work as a means of fortifying those internal band aids. Yasmany Tomas is another option who could fit well for a semi-rebuilding club.

The rotation is a major area of concern. Darvish has an upcoming doctor’s appointment in November which will determine his offseason schedule. Harrison may or may not be available to start the season as he recovers from spinal fusion surgery. Perez had Tommy John surgery in May, so he’ll be out at least the first month. Assuming Darvish is healthy, he’ll be joined by Holland. Veteran Colby Lewis is reportedly expected to be re-signed. Despite an unsightly 5.18 ERA, the soft-tossing righty posted typically decent peripherals which improved late in the season. Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez were the most successful of the internal options. Others like Miles Mikolas and Lisalverto Bonilla appear better suited as minor league depth.

In total, assuming Lewis is re-signed, the Rangers have plenty of arms, but lack in health and proven quality. That’s where a free agent hire or two could really pay off. If the club is looking for an affordable innings eater, Roberto Hernandez could fit their offense friendly stadium with his ground ball profile. Potential mid-market targets include Ervin Santana, Justin Masterson, and Edinson Volquez. Some may recall that Volquez was once traded by the Rangers for Josh Hamilton.

The bullpen is yet another area of uncertainty. A whopping 30 relievers were used this season, counting position player appearances from Moreland and J.P. Arencibia. The club’s best reliever was Joakim Soria. He’s now with Detroit. The second best reliever was Cotts, and he’s headed to free agency. Neftali Feliz regained his previous role as closer in the waning months of the season. He gained strength late in the year, running his fastball up to 98 mph at times. Now that he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery, the Rangers have to hope he can provide a stabilizing influence in the bullpen. However, it would be risky to rely solely on Feliz and other internal options.

The closer market is fairly robust. A candidate like Jason Grilli might be willing to serve as a competition for Feliz. The club should probably look to hire at least a couple relievers – you can view the full list of available names here. Jesse Crain, Luke Hochevar, and Andrew Bailey are among the low-risk, high-reward crowd.

Rather than just patching holes and hoping the ship doesn’t sink for a second consecutive season, Texas does have the option to kick off a thorough rebuilding process. Of their long term assets, only Harrison appears impossible to trade at this moment and only because his career is uncertain at this time. Any contract dump of Fielder, Choo, or Andrus would be selling low, but an opportunistic partner with money to spare might be willing to bet on any of the three. Certainly, a deal for Choo or Fielder is especially unlikely. Darvish and Holland offer substantially more value, although their recent injury history probably dampens their market too.

That leaves just Beltre and Martin as sell-high candidates, and they have the shortest commitments. As such, I think it’s more likely that Texas will take the current roster into the season. Even if the club doesn’t compete, better performance from their big names along with the constricted in-season market for talent should help with trading.

Ultimately, Rangers fans may want to see a big change after a dreadful season, but a steady course appears to be the forecast. Daniels is in a poor position to make sweeping changes. His trade assets are at a low point in value, and he admittedly doesn’t have much to work with for free agent acquisitions. Any future pivot to rebuilding will likely be the result of early season performance.


Free Agent Profile: Colby Rasmus

Colby Rasmus entered the year as one of the more intriguing pending free agents. Coming off of a big 2013 campaign, he rated eighth among all expected free agents in MLBTR’s first Free Agent Power Rankings installment back in March.

While his upside remains tantalizing, however, the Excel Sports Management client has yet to establish himself as a consistent presence. And the 2014 season magnified some of his weaknesses, serving as a poor platform for free agency.

Strengths/Pros

Power from a capable center fielder is a rare commodity, and Rasmus is certainly the only free agent-to-be who offers that package. Despite seeing only 376 plate appearances in 2014, Rasmus managed to swat 18 long balls and post an excellent .223 ISO (slightly better than players like Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Miguel Cabrera). That is rare air, indeed, for an up-the-middle outfielder: in terms of ISO, only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen posted higher marks among center fielders.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Milwaukee BrewersIf there were any doubts whether Rasmus could remain a consistent source of power, he answered them. Indeed, Rasmus’s 2014 campaign landed right alongside his two excellent overall seasons of 2010 and 2013 in terms of ISO. Likewise, his line drive rate (23.3%) and home run to flyball ratio (19.4%) reached new career highs, while his infield fly ball ratio declined for the fourth consecutive year.

Generally, then, when Rasmus makes contact, it has been good contact. (More on that below.) To an extent, his variations in batting average and on-base numbers over the years can be attributed to BABIP. Last year, for instance, he hit .276 and reached base at a .338 clip on the back of a .356 BABIP. When his average on balls in play dropped to .294 this year, his average fell to .225 and his OBP dropped to .287.

As Rasmus noted in a fascinating interview with Scott MacArthur of TSN.ca, he believes that he sent a lot of hard-hit balls into newly-aggressive shifts, accounting for some of the decline. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca explored that idea, and other possible explanations for Rasmus’s enigmatic bat, in a late-season piece. As Davidi notes, Rasmus suffered significant BABIP drops on both line drives and ground balls. Another oft-noted change was the departure of Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola, with whom Rasmus thrived. Though Rasmus has good things to say about replacement Kevin Seitzer, he has not seemed to mesh in working to counteract the league’s adjustments.

Despite struggling in some other ways at the plate, Rasmus still managed to produce at a better than league average clip this year (103 wRC+) thanks to his pop. He has been a consistently solid baserunner, though he is not much of a threat to steal. And while his defensive ratings have had their ups and downs, the total package is appealing. At his best, Rasmus has logged two seasons as one of the better center fielders in baseball: 2010 (4.0 fWAR, 3.6 rWAR) and 2013 (4.8 fWAR, 4.6 rWAR). And even in the rough campaigns of late — 2012 (1.0 fWAR, 1.8 rWAR over 625 plate appearances) and 2014 (0.6 fWAR, 0.9 rWAR over 376 plate appearances) – he has been at least serviceable, if not the kind of player that first-division club would hope to field.

Of course, it is critical to bear in mind that Rasmus only just turned 28 in August. That is an unusually young age to reach free agency, and could be enough to keep hopes alive for a return to the fairly impressive ceiling that he has shown in the past. Needless to say, youth, athleticism, and power are excellent attributes in any free agent.

Another key factor is that Rasmus is all but certain not to come with draft compensation attached. Teams will be much more inclined to take a chance on his talent without the need to sacrifice future assets.

Weaknesses/Cons

Defensively, advanced metrics were less kind to Rasmus this year than in the past. One year after being credited with saving his team 11 runs by Defensive Runs Saved, Rasmus checked in at a negative 7 tally in 2014. And his UZR/150 figures likewise reversed course, going from +15.2 to -15.3.

This is not the first time that those measures viewed Rasmus as a hindrance in the field, though he has tended to bounce up and down over the years and remains an average to slightly above average contributor over his career. Rasmus has explained that he was also slowed by cumulative injuries – he mentioned his hips and hamstrings – that could have had an impact.

Most worryingly, perhaps, are the changes in Rasmus’s strikeout figures. He has set career highs in each of the last two years, moving from a 29.5% strikeout ratio last year to a 33.0% clip this time around. Of course, he did succeed at that level last year, and posted his third-highest career K rate in his excellent 2010 season. As Drew Fairservice of Fangraphs wrote in exploring the “enigma” of Rasmus, he has a fairly unusual skillset with few obvious comps. Though B.J. Upton and Chris Young offer warning signs, Fairservice notes some routes to upside scenarios, even if they are arguably less likely.

Also up for debate is whether Rasmus would be better served in a platoon situation. As a left-handed bat, he generally has performed better against righties. For his career, Rasmus owns a 112 wRC+ against righties, which drops to a score of 77 against same-handed pitchers. In spite of his struggles in 2014, he actually reduced his splits to a more manageable 14-point gap.

It is also worth pointing out that Rasmus has a not-unblemished injury history. In fairness, most of the issues are not much more than typical bumps and bruises, but he has missed time over recent years with wrist, oblique, and hamstring injuries. This could, of course, be spun in either of two ways: on the one hand, some have suggested that Rasmus is injury-prone; on the other, he could be said to play the game hard and his nicks could explain some of his inconsistency.

Then, there is the fact that Rasmus sat a good bit at the tail end of 2014. Though that was obviously a reflection of a complicated situation — involving his performance, that of the Blue Jays, and the presence of younger players who had a future with the organization — it certainly did not help. If nothing else, the benching held down his stats, prevented him from showing much late in the year, and may not have sent the best signal to prospective new employers.

Personal

Rasmus grew up in Alabama and still lives there in the offseason. He is married with one child. Rasmus grew up in a very baseball-focused family, and appeared in the 1999 Little League World Series along with brother Cory, who now pitches for the Angels, on a team coached by his father.

In the above-linked interview, Rasmus intimated that he has struggled at points in his career with maintaining his love for the game. Saying that he is by nature relaxed but hard-working, Rasmus says that over-aggressive coaching has at times had the opposite of the intended effect on him. On the whole, Rasmus leaves the impression that his production on the field and enjoyment of the game tend to go hand-in-hand, and that he hopes to find an environment in which both can thrive.

Market

Rasmus is in a unique position in the market. On the one hand, he occupies the always-enviable status of being the best player available at his position, center field. In fact, it’s not even close: players like Emilio Bonifacio, Grady Sizemore, and Chris Young fall next in the pecking order.

In spite of that, it is questionable whether a club with expectations to contend would pursue the up-and-down Rasmus as an everyday option. As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes has suggested (via Twitter), teams like the Tigers and Braves are in need of added production up the middle. But they might prefer to explore a trade market that could include options such as Drew Stubbs, Dexter Fowler, Jon Jay or Peter Bourjos, and perhaps Desmond Jennings. That figures to be the real competition for Rasmus.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of landing spots that might make sense. Dierkes also suggested the Cubs, and the Twins are also unsettled in center. Though Rasmus has little experience in the corners — less than 100 big league innings, in fact, all coming in his rookie year — a host of other teams might like the idea of deploying him there. It is possible to imagine interest from the Mets, Reds, Rays, White Sox, Royals, Giants, Padres, Pirates, Rangers, and Athletics. Depending on what shakes out with their current options, the Orioles, Astros, and Phillies are certainly plausible bidders as well. (Of course, unlike the center field market, there are more viable alternatives to contend with as well.)

All said, Rasmus should have a fairly broad market given his upside and defensive flexibility. Things will really open up if, as I suspect, he prioritizes fit with the clubhouse and coaching staff over contract particulars and position (if, in other words, he is amenable to taking a corner job).

Expected Contract

Ultimately, Rasmus is one of the most difficult free agents to pick a price tag for. His upside – given his age, center field capability, and power – is perhaps unmatched among this year’s crop of outfielders. Indeed, it was not long ago that it seemed likely, as MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm wrote in late 2013, that Rasmus would top the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75MM) when he hit the market. Yet it is not plausible now, with another year of information in the books. to put him in that range.

There would appear to be two approaches that Rasmus – and interested teams – could take. First is the traditional pillow contract. In that case, Rasmus would surely look to prioritize fit, hoping to find both regular playing time and a situation that would lead to a good platform season. Position player comps are somewhat wanting: Young signed for one year and $7.25MM last year in a somewhat similar situation, though that deal emerged out of a much more crowded outfield market, and Young was both somewhat older and coming off of a rougher offensive year. And Kevin Youkilis went for $12MM over one year, though he had a significantly longer track record of consistent production but was a much older player. With market inflation and a lack of competition, I believe Rasmus would be able to reach eight figures on a one-year deal.

On the other hand, the following year’s market includes increased competition in the form of players like Fowler and Austin Jackson. And it is not hard to imagine a team that believes in Rasmus looking to take advantage of his depressed value to lock in an attractive contract, much as the Twins did last year with Phil Hughes. For a club that can tolerate his strikeout tendencies, and believes in him as an at least average defender up the middle, a three-year offer cannot be ruled out, especially given Rasmus’s age. (Remember, the Red Sox just committed $72MM to unproven 27-year-old Rusney Castillo.) Clubs could be tempted to take the risk for a chance at his upside since he is a reasonably flexible roster piece, given his left-handed bat and center field capabilities.

It is hard to gauge just how high the price could go in that scenario, but it should be noted that Rasmus can wait to re-enter the market at a young 29 and has already earned something like $17MM in his career. Given that, it is somewhat difficult to imagine him seriously considering a deal that falls shy of a $10MM AAV over a term of three years. (And it might well take more to convince him to go that route; remember, he can look to rebuild his value and hit the market again at a still-youthful 29. Two years seems undesirable from Rasmus’s perspective, though he could field such offers.) One other factor to bear in mind is that Rasmus should be able to take his time seeing how interest develops in a multi-year scenario, fairly confident that a solid one-year option will be around at the end of the day.

Ultimately, I believe Rasmus will prioritize finding the right fit over maxing his earnings, whether on a one-year or multi-year deal. I do find a make-good contract to be the likelier outcome, and think that Rasmus will be able to reach $12MM on a one-year deal. But I would not be surprised if he ultimately scores a three-year pact.


Offseason Outlook: Miami Marlins

Before the 2013 season, Miami aggressively cut its future obligations to zero, dealing away its best players in a series of moves that drew fire from around the baseball world. But those moves now seem prescient after a campaign in which the Marlins improved by 15 wins and saw several youngsters make impressive strides.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

Overview

After so much upheaval in recent years, the Marlins’ first order of business in 2014 will be healing. The club’s two young superstars both saw their seasons cut short in dramatic fashion. Starter Jose Fernandez went down early to Tommy John surgery, possibly snuffing out the club’s efforts to compete for a Wild Card, and his return to health will have widespread implications for the franchise.

Then, in the midst of an MVP-caliber year, slugger Giancarlo Stanton was cut down by a fastball to the jaw. While his recovery seems a matter of course, his long-term future remains a topic of intense interest around the game. The Fish are said to be preparing a run at locking up Stanton for the long haul, with intentions of offering him the largest contract in team history. Of course, that is a foregone conclusion if the team hopes to have any chance of striking a deal: Stanton is projected to double his arb earnings (to $13MM) next year before his final season of eligibility. As Stanton enters just his age-25 season as perhaps the game’s most-feared pure power source, getting his signature on a contract might require breaking other records – such as the eight-year, $248MM pact that Miguel Cabrera signed before his age-31 season, two years in advance of his own free agency. Extension or not, team president David Samson has gone on-record as saying that Stanton will be on next year’s team.

While it could be said that locking down Stanton is Miami’s top priority, convincing him to sign away his prime may well require other moves towards contention. There are several areas that the team could look to improve, but navigating the risky realm of free agency on a budget will require care.

On the position-player front, there are plenty of certainties and several question marks. The starting outfield appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna combined to form one of the game’s most productive units. The latter two are even younger than Stanton, and are still a year or more away from arbitration. Fellow youngster Jake Marisnick was parted with at the trade deadline, and reserve Reed Johnson is a free agent, leaving Jordany Valdespin and Enrique Hernandez as reserve options. If the team hopes to make a run at a postseason berth, a veteran fourth outfield addition would make sense; players like Chris Denorfia, Scott Hairston, and Nate Schierholtz could be fits, with the latter making particular sense as a left-handed bench bat to complement the right-handed-swinging Jeff Baker. Much-hyped Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas has been floated as a possibility, but it is somewhat hard to see the logic in topping the market for him only to shift him to first base.

The infield is less settled. Third baseman Casey McGehee seems an easy arb tender for Miami, which is so impressed with his bounceback year that an extension has even been suggested. Though the club is said to have interest in free agent Pablo Sandoval, that would require a commitment to a much higher payroll and may not be the best way to allocate resources. At first, Garrett Jones is under contract for one more year. He continues to hit righties at a reasonable clip, making for a serviceable platoon situation with the lefty-mashing Baker. While there are rumblings that Miami could be interested in upgrading at the position, it is far from certaain that a clear upgrade can be had at a price that does not bust the budget – especially since Jones and Baker are still under contract. Though the options are limited by Miami’s lack of a DH spot, it is perhaps possible to imagine the team looking again to buy low on a player of Jones’s ilk, such as Corey Hart. A pricier option like Adam LaRoche would not only require some convincing, but would tie up most of the team’s apparently free payroll capacity.

Miami has a variety of young options up the middle. Adeiny Hechevarria figures to keep his job at short, though he continues to be a well-below-average contributor. At the keystone, the Fish have any number of in-house options, including Donovan Solano, Derek Dietrich, Ed Lucas, and the already-noted trio of Hernandez, Valdespin, and Baker. None of these players seems to represent a single solution, though the club could take that group to the spring and hope that Dietrich or Hernandez grab hold of the job, with Solano serving as an insurance policy. (If Dietrich cannot stick at second, he might also be moved to another position to clear a path for his bat.) Ultimately, Miami’s free agent dollars could have the greatest impact if they are dedicated to a middle infielder. This year’s market features several players – Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Stephen Drew being the primary examples — who would bring a veteran presence and the hope of a return to past form, though J.J. Hardy‘s late-breaking extension could boost their demand. Signing someone of that ilk would afford an everyday possibility at second as well as insurance for Hechevarria. Another possibility is Cuban defector Hector Olivera, if he can qualify for free agency in time, though reports conflict on the team’s interest.

Starting pitching is said to be on Miami’s offseason wish list, with some reports even indicating that the club hopes to land a top-flight arm. As things stand, if Fernandez returns relatively early in the year, Miami can look ahead to a rotation that features a true ace backed by Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart. Behind that group, Nathan Eovaldi showed encouraging peripherals, while Tom Koehler and/or Brad Hand might be looked upon as solid-enough innings eaters. Andrew Heaney, Anthony DeSclafani, and Brian Flynn all struggled in brief first stints at the major league level but offer plenty of promise (Heaney in particular). Justin Nicolino is also nearing readiness. Miami gave up on Jacob Turner in order to give a few starts to the ineffective Brad Penny, so he is no longer an option, but young arms abound.

While that group provides a good deal of promise, it makes sense for the Fish to consider adding an established pitcher to round out that group, especially since Fernandez is likely to miss a month or two and may not quite be his former self from the jump. But the top of the market – Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields – will probably require a commitment approaching or exceeding $20MM annually just to join the conversation on years. And would any of those hurlers choose to go to a Miami club with a history of dealing away expensive veterans? Adding one of a deep group of mid-level starters, on the other hand, would be a viable aim. With a bare minimum in future commitments, Miami could look to back-load a deal for a pitcher like Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez. The trade market is also a possibility, of course, and the current Marlins administration already showed its willingness to deal for young arms when it gave up Marisnick and recent first-rounder Colin Moran to acquire Cosart (along with Hernandez).

The bullpen, too, looks to be a solid unit in its current state. Steve Cishek and Mike Dunn remain entrenched at the back end, though there is at least some merit to the idea of dealing Cishek to a closer-needy team that is not afraid of his skyrocketing arbitration salary. Certainly, now would be the time to maximize his value, though that may send the wrong message to Stanton and take away a key cog. The club also received solid, if in some cases surprising production from controllable arms like Bryan Morris, Chris Hatcher, and A.J. Ramos (the latter, in spite of a ballooning walk rate). With only the disappointing, little-used Kevin Gregg set to reach free agency, Miami could just roll this group forward, using the leftovers from the rotation (Koehler and Eovaldi, in particular, has been mentioned as a possibility) to round out the relief corps. But a relatively cheap veteran addition would certainly make some sense.

Ultimately, for president of baseball operations Michael Hill and GM Dan Jennings, this offseason represents a chance to seize on opportunity. With many pieces in place, a few carefully-conceived signings or wise trades might not only lead to immediate contention but could set the stage for longer-term success.

The question, of course, is how much cash the front office will have to work with. It has been suggested that payroll may land in the $60MM range for 2015, after starting at $45MM last year, but could move up to $75MM. Either way, that’s a pittance compared to the rest of the league. But the higher mark, at least, would give some room: the team will start with around $47MM on the books (salary guarantees plus projected arb earnings) and does not have any obvious means to dump salary while building towards contention. Unless the team gets creative, then, it will not have much to spend unless owner Jeffrey Loria decides to crack the war chest. (On that topic, it’s worth noting that attendance did rise this year over 2013, though it lags the Marlins Park-opening 2012 gate.)

One other limitation to consider is that several of the top free agents are sure to come with draft compensation attached. Picking 12th overall, the Marlins have the game’s highest non-protected choice. While the team has shown a willingness to deal away its valuable competitive balance picks, sacrificing such a lofty draft choice would be a costly proposition.

Tomas? A solid veteran first base upgrade? A “big three” starter? It’s not clear that any of those moves is plausible absent a commitment to adding cash to the hopper. And more importantly, perhaps, it’s not clear that any is strictly necessary. Barring the presentation of a sterling opportunity to buy low on an impact player that does not represent a true need, Miami could field a fairly compelling club merely by adding some short-term veterans in the right places — the middle infield and rotation being the most fruitful possibilities — and hoping that its impressive youngsters continue to develop.