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In March, it’s not uncommon to see over-the-hill veterans in camp looking to extend their careers for just one more season. By the same token you don’t normally see marketable 30-year-old players call it quits, but that’s what reliever Blaine Boyer did three years ago. Boyer didn’t fall out of love with baseball, but he was decidedly heartsick and missing his family back home. When the right-hander told his wife Ginsey that he wanted to retire and potentially leave a mountain of money on the table, she understood the way he felt and the reasons behind his decision.
“I grew up in a household that was broken early. My parents divorced when I was three and there was just so much inconsistency there,” Boyer told MLBTR in the Twins’ dugout prior to their afternoon contest against the Phillies. “I’ve had to live with that for a long time. I was coming and going and I wasn’t consistently there for my boys and my wife and that brought back a lot of what I went through when I was little, so she understood that. It wasn’t about me not wanting to play baseball anymore, it was much deeper.”
While Boyer’s sabbatical from the game effectively amounted to a boxer’s retirement, he was confident that he was done with baseball for good. When the pull of the sport was too strong for Boyer to resist, he and his wife came up with an unorthodox game plan: she and their two young sons would travel with Boyer on the road as much as humanly possible throughout the season.
Boyer, 33, feels as though he has found the right balance between being an active parent and doing what he feels he was put on this planet to do professionally.
“The boys, they’re 3 and 4 now, they’re at the point where they’re kind of expecting baseball season and they love it. My wife especially, she loves the atmosphere of the games, she loves sitting back and eating a hot dog, watching the boys and the seventh inning stretch and it’s just so much fun for her to be their mother watching them watch their daddy,” Boyer said. “For me, I’m able to experience this as their father and my wife always being with me, it’s kind of like the Boyer family adventure and it’s a blessing.”
For the right-hander, traveling with the family entourage means that he doesn’t have to live with regret in the present or in the future.
“I feel like God has given me the ability to throw a baseball and he hasn’t given that many people this kind of ability. So, when I have to answer to him about the gifts he has given me, I don’t want to have to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I wasted that one.’ On top of that, I didn’t want to be 60 years old and thinking what might have been,” Boyer explained. “So, the whole no regrets mindset and still playing baseball gives me the opportunity stand up and talk about family and talk about God. Helping people understand my relationship with Jesus Christ is important to me.”
Boyer has taken his family with him all over the map, even internationally in 2013 when he pitched for Japan’s Hanshin Tigers. Boyer, who bristled at the thought of takoyaki and some of the country’s more adventurous cuisine, experienced a bit of culture shock, but he also fell in love with Japan’s baseball culture and its people. It also helped that friend Jason Standridge was pitching with Hanshin and, of course, his family was by his side.
For now, the Boyer family adventure has landed the traveling clan in Minnesota, but that could change in a matter of days. The reliever has a March 30th opt-out clause that can be exercised if he has not been added to the 40-man roster by that time. Boyer doesn’t know how that will play out yet, but he’ll have his own personal cheering section with him no matter where he winds up.
Entering his fifth major league season, Justin Smoak knows that he hasn’t accomplished everything that he set out to do when he was regarded as a top prospect. He also believes, however, that it’s not too late to turn on the jets and fulfill his potential.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years. I think I’ve had some good few weeks, a good month here and there, but I haven’t been the player that I know I can be and what a lot of people thought I was going to be, so it’s just about getting better and doing what I can day in and day out,” Smoak told MLBTR after the Blue Jays topped the Rays 3-0 in Dunedin. “I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve learned what works for me and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve just got to make it happen.”
Just four years ago, Smoak was the centerpiece of a trade package that sent ace Cliff Lee to the Rangers. Smoak didn’t blossom into the fearsome bopper Seattle hoped he’d become, and last October, the Blue Jays claimed him off waivers. Soon after, they declined Smoak’s $3.65MM option and non-tendered him, but he knew all along that he was still wanted in Toronto.
“Yeah, that was the first conversation I had with them. That was already a known. I knew that was going to happen, and I’m still arbitration-eligible, so I just tried to come to a deal and it ended up being what it is now,” Smoak said, referring to his one-year, $1MM pact.
Late last year, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet learned from Smoak’s agent that he turned down more money elsewhere to sign with the Blue Jays. Predictably, Smoak cited playing time as a reason for his decision, but not the only one.
“Probably more just the opportunity, you know, the opportunity to play and be in this lineup and be in the American League East and some hitter ballparks, that was probably the number one thing for me,” said the 28-year-old.
Toronto could provide a springboard for Smoak to make that money back and then some, but, above all else, he believes the change of scenery will help him get his career back on track.
“In Seattle, I had some good times and I learned a lot, but it’ll be a fresh start in Toronto and, hopefully, I’ll get things going here.”
The Nationals, Red Sox, Cubs, and White Sox were the biggest spenders on this year’s free-agent market. While the Nationals’ decision to splurge on Max Scherzer was surprising, it would have been easy to guess, heading into the offseason, that the Red Sox, Cubs and White Sox would throw their weight around.
Next year’s free-agent class is an appealing one, with plenty of big-name starting pitchers (David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello) available, along with position players like Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Ian Desmond. Predicting who will spend in any given offseason is tricky — no one really saw the Padres’ spending spree (which, of course, included plenty of high-profile trades as well as the free-agent signing of James Shields) coming before this winter. But here, presented in order by division, are some teams that could be bidders for some of the best players available in 2015-16.
Orioles. Baltimore has a huge number of contracts coming off the books (Chris Davis, Bud Norris, Matt Wieters, Alejandro De Aza, Wei-Yin Chen, Steve Pearce and several others) and less than $42MM in existing commitments. Their group of arbitration-eligibles will also be more manageable than it was last winter, when they committed to well over $50MM for players in their arb years. The O’s could have needs in the outfield and in their rotation, meaning that they could be a good match for next year’s free-agent class.
Red Sox. It’s rarely wise to count out the Red Sox on the free-agent market, particularly in a year in which they could be without commitments to Porcello, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Justin Masterson and perhaps Clay Buchholz. With the team currently weighing how best to use any number of young players (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez, etc.) in the future, the 2015 season will determine to a great degree what path they pursue in the winter.
Yankees. The Yankees weren’t up to their usual high-spending ways this offseason, and they’ll still have Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and other high-salaried players on the 2016 payroll. But with Hal Steinbrenner seemingly resigned to not being able to get under the luxury-tax threshold in the next couple seasons, they could be big spenders again.
Tigers. With Price, Yoenis Cespedes and other players coming off their payroll, the Tigers could have room to spend — they actually have only five players under contract for 2016, although all of those are for at least $14MM. Perhaps a good 2015 season could encourage owner Mike Ilitch to take another shot at a title before the team gets too old.
Astros. Houston currently only has about $34MM on the books for 2016, and they’ve increased free-agent spending in recent years as they’ve entered the latter stage of their rebuild. They could easily make a big splash next offseason, particularly if they have a winning season this year.
Mariners. The Mariners have been big players in the last two offseasons, adding Robinson Cano, Fernando Rodney and Nelson Cruz, and they could keep spending next year, with Rodney, Hisashi Iwakuma, Austin Jackson and J.A. Happ set to become free agents. The Mariners’ additional arbitration commitments next season will be minimal, and while the salaries of Cano, Cruz and Felix Hernandez are large, they won’t be meaningfully larger in 2016 than they are this year. If Iwakuma and Happ depart, it might make sense for the M’s to pursue one of the big-ticket free-agent starters.
Marlins. One can rarely rule out the possibility that Miami will have a splashy offseason, especially as the Marlins prepare for a season in which they’ll still have their good young core in place. They also have only about $37MM in existing commitments.
Nationals. The Nats stand to lose Zimmermann, Fister, Desmond and Denard Span next season. It’s unclear how they’ll react, but their signing of Scherzer suggests they aren’t going to head quietly into rebuilding mode, particularly given the deferred structure of that contract. The development of upper-level prospects like A.J. Cole and Michael Taylor this season could help determine who they pursue.
Mets. New York still plays in a big market and has less than $58MM on the books next season. They’re likely to have clear needs, particularly in their middle infield. Someone like Desmond, to whom they’ve already been connected, would be an obvious target. Perhaps they’ll bump up spending despite their relatively small recent payrolls.
Cardinals. St. Louis could lose Heyward and Jaime Garcia, and they ought to have payroll flexibility. Spending would make sense as the team tries to give older players like Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta a couple more shots at a championship.
Cubs. The Cubs already have $82MM in commitments for 2016, and the team reportedly held over money from 2014 to spend this past offseason, but perhaps a leap forward in their rebuilding project could encourage further spending.
Dodgers. Their vault seems almost bottomless, and they’ll have tens of millions coming off the payroll as Jimmy Rollins, Brett Anderson, Howie Kendrick and Juan Uribe become eligible for free agency. The Dodgers will also be free of tens more millions in commitments to players who are no longer with the team, including Matt Kemp, Dan Haren and Brian Wilson. It might make sense for them to pursue Desmond or a starter. Zack Greinke exercising his player opt-out would give the Dodgers even more reasons to pursue top-flight starting pitching.
Giants. San Francisco will be out from under significant commitments to Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt, and 2016 is an even year. They could be looking for a starting pitcher, and with the $30MM they won’t be spending on Lincecum and Hudson, they could aim fairly high. A third baseman could also be on the docket, although the infield market isn’t particularly strong.
Padres. Why not? Even after adding Kemp, Shields and a variety of other high-profile players, they still have only about $56MM in commitments for 2016, and their new ownership and management have obvious appetites for gutsy, high-profile moves. They’ll have Upton, Ian Kennedy and Carlos Quentin coming off the books.
Diamondbacks. Arizona has only $32MM in obligations for next season and a new TV deal. The Diamondbacks could be candidates to spend on pitching in particular.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR this past week:
- MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd discussing the Christian Yelich extension with MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro. Later in the podcast, as a follow up to his St. Patrick’s Day post naming Gerrit Cole as an extension candidate for the Pirates, Jeff and MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth weighed the likelihood of a Cole extension, along with other possible Pittsburgh candidates. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast drops every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.
- Zach Links visited Blue Jays camp and spoke with Dioner Navarro and Daniel Norris about how they have handled the trade rumors surrounding them.
- “I think I’m at that point where I don’t even pay attention anymore, whether it’s here or somewhere else,” Navarro told Zach. “I’m just trying to get ready and let my agent do what he’s gotta do. If he gets something done, he’ll let me know.“
- “At first it was like, I would never see it, but I would always get text messages from buddies back home like, ‘Dude, are you getting traded?’ and they’d send me screenshots of MLB Trade Rumors and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’” Norris explained to Zach. “But, at the end of the day, it’s just about throwing a baseball. It’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, please don’t trade me, I like your organization.’ So you just have to take whatever is given to you.“
- Jeff continued his review of the 2014-15 free agent spending by considering the context of multi-year contracts.
- Tim Dierkes concluded his Out Of Options 2015 series (the 40-man roster players who have less than five years service time and are out of minor league options, per MLBTR sources) with his survey of the AL Central, NL Central, and NL East. Tim also combined the division-by-division breakdowns into one all-encompassing list sorted alphabetically by team.
- Charlie posited a five-year contract extension worth $55-60MM with a team option and a player/vesting option is a fair deal for the Padres and right-hander Tyson Ross.
- There were four installments of MLBTR’s Offseason In Review series this week: Cardinals (by Charlie), Giants (by Mark Polishuk), Astros and Twins (both by Steve Adams).
- Charlie listed the teams who could be big spenders next winter.
- Steve hosted the weekly live chat.
- Zach gathered the best the baseball corner of the web had to offer in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
Long before people were eyeing Daniel Norris as the next spokesman for Dos Equis beer, he was a wanted man around baseball. When the Cubs were shopping ace Jeff Samardzija last summer, Theo Epstein & Co. were reportedly targeting Norris as a centerpiece in a potential deal with Toronto. Ultimately, of course, the Blue Jays stood pat and held on to one of the brightest young pitching prospects in baseball. Through it all, Norris says he didn’t allow the trade talk to be a distraction, but he couldn’t avoid hearing about it on a daily basis.
“At first it was like, I would never see it, but I would always get text messages from buddies back home like, ‘Dude, are you getting traded?’ and they’d send me screenshots of MLB Trade Rumors and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ But, at the end of the day, it’s just about throwing a baseball,” Norris told MLBTR. “Whoever it’s for, whether it’s for the Blue Jays or for the Cubs, whatever, that’s all I can control. It’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, please don’t trade me, I like your organization.’ So you just have to take whatever is given to you.”
Even as speculation mounted about the Blue Jays making a play for Samardzija and the potential pieces that could be involved in a swap, no one from the organization approached the young pitcher to let him know a trade was imminent. His representatives at Excel Sports Management thought enough of the buzz to keep him apprised, but Norris wasn’t exactly waiting by the phone.
“I got a call from my agent once when I was in Double-A and he said, ‘Hey, there’s a possibility you might get traded, it’s out there, I wanted to let you know,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ so that’s about the extent of it,” the pitcher explained.
By all accounts, the 21-year-old (22 in April) is the frontrunner to land the final spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation, but he refused to pat himself on the back for what he’s displayed this spring. With some prodding, he acknowledged that he did well for himself in his Friday night outing when he allowed one run across 5 2/3 innings against the Rays, but he’s determined to improve on his command and delivery as the season draws near. Norris hopes that if he has everything clicking to start the year, he can direct the conversation away from his fascinating off-field life and back to his pitching.
“I don’t think it’ll be long before the focus is back on my playing again,” Norris said. “I just want to go out there and take care of business.”
Dioner Navarro was gearing up for his second season as the Blue Jays’ starting catcher when Toronto decided to make a massive splash by signing Russell Martin in November. Navarro, an offensively-gifted catcher is his own right, was understandably unhappy with the prospect of seeing less at-bats at a new position. Navarro asked for a trade days after Martin’s arrival and weeks ago he said that the D’Backs and Tigers were among the teams that have called on him. For now, however, he’s keeping his focus solely on the field.
“No not at this point. I really try to stay away from it now [laughs],” Navarro told MLBTR when asked if he’s heard of additional clubs that have interest in acquiring him. “I already said my feelings about it, whatever happens is going to happen.”
Navarro had a chat with Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos earlier this offseason where both men were able to explain their positions. In the weeks that have followed, Navarro said that he hasn’t heard from AA or anyone else in the front office about a potential deal.
“No, I just had a conversation early during the offseason and we spoke our piece. Since Spring Training started he expressed his feelings and I expressed my feelings and we’ll leave it at that. We don’t need to be saying anything else, we gotta get ready for baseball season.
“I think I’m at that point where I don’t even pay attention anymore, whether it’s here or somewhere else. I’m just trying to get ready and let my agent do what he’s got to do. If he gets something done, he’ll let me know,” the 31-year-old said.
In other words, if a trade is merely days away, Navarro doesn’t know about it. The catcher also told MLBTR that he hasn’t given any thought to where he might potentially be a good fit. In the interim, his plan is to do whatever is asked of him, even if he’s not all that gung ho about playing primarily in the DH spot.
“There’s a little bit that I like about playing DH, but, I mean, I love playing behind the plate. I love being in there every pitch every play, I love playing behind the plate, and I feel like myself behind the plate. But, right now I want to help my team win. In this case, if I stay with the Blue Jays I’d love to help them win and help them be in the postseason this year,” said Navarro.
It remains to be seen whether the Tigers, Diamondbacks, or another team will make a move for the well-traveled veteran, who will be a free agent again after the season. Even if the outside interest is significant, a deal might not materialize for a while as Anthopoulos knows how valuable Navarro can be for a catching-needy team and is demanding a quality return for him. In the interim, Navarro says he’s ready to give 100%, even if he’s only doing 50% of what he loves at present.
The Cardinals only made one big move this offseason, but it was a big one indeed, and they’re again in strong position to contend despite an offseason touched by tragedy.
Major League Signings
- Matt Belisle, RP: One year, $3.5MM plus up to $500K in incentives
- Mark Reynolds, 1B: One year, $2MM plus up to $800K in incentives
- Dean Anna, IF: Cost unknown
- Total spend: ~$6MM
Trades And Claims
- Acquired OF Jason Heyward and RP Jordan Walden from Braves for P Shelby Miller and P Tyrell Jenkins
- Acquired C Michael Ohlman from Orioles for cash
- Acquired 2B Ty Kelly from Mariners for P Sam Gaviglio
- Lance Lynn, SP: Three years, $22MM (with incentives for playing time that can push the deal to $23.5MM)
- Jordan Walden, RP: Two years, $6.6MM plus 2017 option
- Jon Jay, CF: Two years, $10.975MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Oscar Taveras, Miller, Pat Neshek, Justin Masterson, Jason Motte, A.J. Pierzynski, Daniel Descalso, Mark Ellis
The Cardinals’ offseason began in the worst way imaginable, as outfielder Oscar Taveras, a 22-year-old potential star, passed away along with his girlfriend Edilia Arvelo in a car accident in the Dominican. The tragedy shook not only the Cardinals organization but the entire sport, which lost one of its brighter young talents.
Following Taveras’ death, the Cardinals made one dramatic move to replace him in right field, then had an otherwise quiet offseason. That dramatic move came in mid-November, when they shipped Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden.
The Cardinals paid heavily, giving up four years of control for Miller and six of Jenkins in order to get one year of Heyward and two of Walden. (The Cardinals added an extra year of control for Walden when they signed him to a two-year deal with an option in December.) The key to the trade, however, might be that the Cardinals know their pitchers better than anyone else does. Miller is only 24 and still has an electric arm, but his strikeout rate per nine innings alarmingly declined from 8.8 in 2013 to 6.3 last year, and his walk rate rose as well. Miller basically has two pitches (he threw his changeup just 2.4% of the time last year), and his curveball declined in velocity last year, becoming much more hittable in the process. Miller improved down the stretch and is clearly a big-league starter going forward, but if the Cardinals felt comfortable selling low on a pitcher who once looked like an emerging ace, they might well have good reasons.
Jenkins, meanwhile, is still 22 and has twice been rated in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list, but his performance record doesn’t yet match his reputation, and he missed chunks of the 2013 and 2014 seasons with a shoulder injury. He did pitch well in the Arizona Fall League after the trade, and like Miller, he has a terrific fastball. But he’s still at least a year from the Majors and represents plenty of risk.
Getting a prime season of Heyward in the deal was a coup for the Cardinals, much more so if they can extend him before he becomes a free agent after the season. Heyward is still only 25 and is an elite defensive corner outfielder and a reliable on-base threat. And given his off-the-charts tools and athleticism, he probably still has untapped upside, perhaps a lot of it. He already posted 5.1 fWAR last year while hitting a relatively meager .271/.351/.384; if he can return to, say, his 2012 total of 27 home runs, his $7.8MM salary will make him among the best values in the big leagues.
Walden is no mere throw-in. He dramatically improved his ground ball rate last year, although possibly at the expense of his walk rate. Either way, his blazing fastball should help him strike out more than enough batters to be a successful setup man. Walden’s extension, too, was a smart move, though a small one, for the Cardinals. Between his $2.5MM 2015 salary and his $350K signing bonus, the Cards will pay Walden less in 2015 than the $3MM MLBTR projected, and Walden’s $3.5MM 2016 salary is far less than Cardinals would have had to pay through the arbitration process if he had had a good 2015 season. The Cardinals also got the rights to a reasonable $5.2MM option (or a $250K buyout) for 2017.
Beyond that, the Cardinals didn’t have many holes, and thus had few excuses to spend. The Cards added Matt Belisle to their bullpen after he spent six years in the Rockies organization. Belisle is coming off his worst year in Colorado, posting a 4.87 ERA with 6.0 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 2014, but he posted solid peripherals in four straight seasons before that. The Cardinals won’t have to depend on him to pitch high-leverage innings, and if he doesn’t pitch well, he won’t have cost them much.
They also signed corner infielder and strikeout king Mark Reynolds to a cheap one-year deal. Incumbent first baseman Matt Adams has a career .553 OPS against lefties, and allowing Reynolds to smash southpaws while sitting against righties should enable the Cardinals to get the most bang for their buck. Reynolds himself had a .573 OPS against lefties last season, but an .809 OPS against them for his career. And while he’s had a reputation as a marginal talent for several years now (failing to top a .221 batting average in five straight seasons will do that), he’s never been used as a part-timer, exactly — the Brewers gave him 433 plate appearances last year, his lowest total since he was a rookie. Giving him about 250 plate appearances, most of them against lefties, seems like a good way to harness his power, which remains formidable.
Finally, in addition to the aforementioned Walden contract, the Cardinals signed starter Lance Lynn and center fielder Jon Jay to fairly straightforward extensions that buy out arbitration seasons. Lynn’s $22MM deal buys out all three of what would have been his arbitration years. MLBTR’s Matt Swartz guessed that Lynn would have made something like $4.5MM for 2015, so it isn’t hard to see how Lynn might have reached or topped $22MM in three years total. At the same time, Lynn received a hefty chunk of guaranteed money and didn’t delay his free-agency eligibility.
Jay’s deal is even simpler. He had already been through arbitration once, and he and the Cardinals had already exchanged figures for this offseason, with a midpoint of $4.55MM. The extension essentially merely guarantees him a modest raise for 2016 — slightly smaller than the one he would have received had he gone year-to-year, but that’s to be expected given that the Cardinals agreed to pay his salary for both years up front. That point might seem significant to a player who briefly lost his everyday job to Peter Bourjos last year, although perhaps it shouldn’t be. Jay is, at this point, probably slightly undervalued. Particularly in the 2013 season, Jay developed a reputation for being defensively erratic. For his career, though, that’s not the story the numbers tell, and his OBP-heavy offensive game is consistently strong.
Not many. The Cardinals remain a strong team from top to bottom, and attempts to find their weaknesses mostly amount to nit-picking. The team’s fifth starter job is currently unsettled, although Marco Gonzales, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia all have upside. (The Cardinals might be leaning toward Garcia despite his long history of arm issues, since they can most easily keep all three pitchers in the organization by sending Gonzales back to the minors and Martinez to a relief role.) The Cards’ bullpen isn’t outstanding behind Trevor Rosenthal, particularly given the loss of Pat Neshek, but the additions of Walden, Belisle and minor-league signee Carlos Villanueva could all help, and hard-throwing rookie Sam Tuivailala could be a wild card. Also, Martinez would help the Cards’ bullpen depth tremendously if he were to lose out on the rotation job.
Beyond that, the questions, such as they are, are broader. The Cardinals’ core is good, but much of it is somewhat old. The Cards will lean on a great catcher (Yadier Molina) who will be 33 in July, a very good shortstop (Jhonny Peralta) who will be 33 in May, a great 33-year-old starting pitcher (Adam Wainwright), and good players in Matt Holliday and John Lackey who are even older. There are certainly scenarios in which several of those players falter at once this season, and the Cardinals are far worse than expected. The Cardinals’ depth behind Molina is one weakness that could become a problem if he gets hurt, as he did last year when he missed several weeks with a thumb injury. A minor deal with the Orioles for catcher Michael Ohlman might not help much, either, at least not right away, since Ohlman hit sparingly even at Double-A last year.
Deal Of Note
Last year, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes examined the sorts of minor-league free agents teams typically sign to big-league deals. Such players are typically around 27 when they sign, and within that context, the Cardinals’ signing of 28-year-old infielder Dean Anna to a big-league deal fits right in. Typically, though, players who receive such deals are former top prospects or hard throwers. Anna, in contrast, is a former 26th-round pick who had to scrap for playing time even in the low minors. He’s also coming off a .207/.325/.308 season at the Triple-A level, making him an even more unlikely candidate for a big-league deal.
What Anna does have is versatility (he can handle shortstop, second and third, making him a legitimate utility infielder) and on-base ability. Anna posted a .410 OBP at Triple-A Tucson in 2013 and has a .380 career minor-league OBP. Aside from a handful of games with the Yankees last season, Anna has no big-league track record, so the Cardinals’ Major-League deal amounts to a relatively cheap gamble that Anna’s minor-league track record can translate to the Majors. They can control him for up to five more years after this one if it does.
At this point, though, it’s not even guaranteed that he’ll make the team, as he’s played sparingly in Spring Training. Another unproven infielder acquired in a relatively low-profile deal, Ty Kelly, has impressed observers. Like Anna, Kelly has a great track record of providing OBP in the high minors, although Kelly doesn’t play shortstop, instead spending most of his time at second and third and in the outfield corners.
In any case, if Anna doesn’t make the squad, he could end up providing good depth at Triple-A. He might prove to be valuable if Peralta gets hurt or second baseman Kolten Wong doesn’t maintain the improvements he made in 2014.
Despite an aging group of core players, the Cardinals have an enviable blend of veterans, good players in their primes (Heyward, Lynn, Matt Carpenter) and youngsters with upside (particularly Michael Wacha and Martinez, but also Wong, Gonzalez, and outfield prospect Stephen Piscotty, who provides a solid Plan B if Holliday is out for an extended period). That diversification of assets should limit their downside — there’s a lot of talent here, and it’s spread fairly around the diamond and across the spectrum of player ages. They’re a bit too heavily weighted toward veteran talent, although that’s not necessarily surprising for a franchise that’s had seven straight winning seasons (and just lost its highest-upside young player in tragic circumstances). And the fact that most of their long-term contracts aren’t backloaded keeps them flexible.
With that in mind, the Cardinals can watch the season unfold, and use the trade market to address any weaknesses that emerge. They can also plan for the future. Lackey and Heyward are eligible for free agency after this season. While an extension for Lackey doesn’t look likely, signing Heyward, already a very good player who still has youth and upside, could become a priority. If Heyward departs, the Cardinals will likely have the flexibility to make a splash in next offseason’s free-agent market, if they so desire.
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The Astros escaped the cellar in the AL West last season, though they did so due largely to a barrage of injuries on what was expected to be a contending Rangers team. Nevertheless, Houston was a much-improved club in 2014, and they’ll likely be even better in 2015 following an active offseason.
Major League Signings
- Jed Lowrie, SS: Three years, $23MM
- Luke Gregerson, RHP: Three years, $18.5MM
- Pat Neshek, RHP: Two years, $12.5MM
- Colby Rasmus, OF: One year, $8MM
- Total spend: $62MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily from the Cubs in exchange for OF Dexter Fowler
- Acquired C/OF Evan Gattis and RHP James Hoyt from the Braves in exchange for RHP Michael Foltynewicz, 3B Rio Ruiz and RHP Andrew Thurman
- Acquired C Hank Conger from the Angels in exchange for RHP Nick Tropeano and C Carlos Perez
- Acquired RHP Akeem Bostick from the Rangers in exchange for C Carlos Corporan
- Claimed RHP Will Harris off waivers from the Diamondbacks
Notable Minor League Signings
- Dexter Fowler, Jose Veras, Matt Albers, Mike Foltynewicz, Nick Tropeano, Carlos Corporan, Josh Zeid, Jesse Crain
No bullpen in baseball recorded a higher ERA than Houston’s alarming 4.80 mark last season, so it’s hardly a surprise that GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff went hard after relief pitching this winter. The Astros added a pair of right-handed arms in Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Together, the duo consists of one of the game’s most consistent setup men over the past four years (Gregerson) and an upside play based on a somewhat surprising 2014 breakout (Neshek). Gregerson has made at least 61 appearances and logged an ERA of 2.75 or better in each of the past four seasons, and Neshek improved on solid numbers from 2012-13 to record a 1.87 ERA and a brilliant 7.56 K/BB ratio. The Astros were also reportedly the highest bidder for Andrew Miller at $40MM over four years, but the left-hander took $4MM less to join the Yankees’ bullpen. Instead, the ‘Stros eventually landed Joe Thatcher on a minor league deal to give them a potential bargain from the left side. Waiver claim Will Harris and his strong peripherals give them a promising candidate from the right side.
Though there are quite a few names in that last paragraph, that’s only a fraction of the pitchers that were contacted by the Astros this offseason. Houston was said to have at least some dialogue with nearly every notable relief arm on the market at some point, even entering the mix for David Robertson before he landed with the White Sox.
Turning to the infield, there was a clear need on the left side. Jonathan Villar broke camp as the team’s shortstop in 2014, but his .209/.267/.354 batting line led him back to Triple-A and resulted in Marwin Gonzalez and Gregorio Petit receiving playing time at shortstop as well. Whether the Astros were underwhelmed by the play of that trio or simply considered Jed Lowrie too good a value to pass up, the team struck a three-year deal to bring Lowrie back to Houston after a pair of seasons in Oakland. Lowrie will now join a lineup that features Chris Carter — one of the very men for whom he was traded in that Houston/Oakland swap (Brad Peacock and Max Stassi were also in the deal). Lowrie’s defense isn’t great, and he struggled with the bat in 2014, but he’s typically been an above-average hitter when healthy. At just over $7MM annually, the price seems plenty reasonable, even if he’ll eventually have to shift positions if and when Carlos Correa is ready for the Majors (perhaps as soon as 2016).
Third base was a black hole for the 2014 Astros, as Matt Dominguez and Petit saw all of the time at the position and combined to hit a miserable .212/.255/.321. The Astros were clearly aware of this fact and not necessarily keen on giving Dominguez another crack, as the team acquired Luis Valbuena in the Dexter Fowler trade with the Cubs. Valbuena can play second or third, but with Jose Altuve entrenched at the keystone, Valbuena seems destined for third base duty, pushing Dominguez to a bench role or possibly making him trade bait (he’s still just 25).
The Fowler trade filled one hole but potentially created another, thinning out the club’s outfield depth. However, the Astros likely viewed that move as an opportunity to acquire a commodity where the demand outweighed the supply — the free agent third base market offered little — in exchange for a commodity whose supply outweighed their own demand. Houston signed Colby Rasmus just days after trading Valbuena, likely indicating that they feel Rasmus can provide similar value to Fowler at a cheaper price ($8MM), whereas there were no suitable free agent options to fill their void at the hot corner.
Valbuena wasn’t the only piece they added in that deal, though. Dan Straily’s inclusion in the trade gives the Astros some rotation depth and a relatively young arm with huge minor league strikeout numbers that could push for a rotation spot as early as this season. The team added further depth in the rotation when it signed Roberto Hernandez to a minor league deal with a semi-steep base salary (at least for a minor league deal) of $2.65MM.
Some additional rotation depth was necessary, as the team had flipped Nick Tropeano for the defensively gifted Hank Conger. They’d also eventually deal well-regarded pitching prospect Mike Foltynewicz and righty Andrew Thurman in a trade to land Evan Gattis from Atlanta. Conger gives the Astros an upgrade from a defensive standpoint, while Gattis provides an emergency option at catcher plus depth in left field, at first base and at DH. In Gattis, Springer and Chris Carter, the Astros have a trio of right-handed sluggers that could mash 30 homers apiece in the middle of their lineup. That power is especially dangerous in Houston, given the 315-foot short porch down the left field line at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros enjoyed two of baseball’s most unexpected breakouts in their rotation last season, as both Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh pitched at All-Star caliber levels and now look like vital (and controllable) rotation cogs going forward. They’ll be joined by veteran Scott Feldman, who can soak up some solid innings in the middle of the rotation. Beyond that, however, the picture is muddled. Peacock won’t be ready to start the season (not that he’d have been guaranteed a spot anyhow), leaving the remaining two spots to be divided between Brett Oberholtzer, Sam Deduno, Hernandez and Straily.
It’s understandable, then, that the team tried to bring Ryan Vogelsong in for some stabilization, but the deal between the two sides fell through after Vogelsong took a physical. Vogelsong expressed some distaste for the Astros organization after the fact, and reports since then have indicated that the team lowered their offer after seeing red flags in his exam. Vogelsong would ultimately return to the Giants to serve as a long reliever, perhaps indicating that his medicals did indeed pose some cause for concern.
The remade bullpen now looks stronger with Gregerson and Neshek joining Chad Qualls atop the depth chart, but there’s still a good deal of uncertainty beyond that grouping and lefty Tony Sipp. In particular, the team lacks a solidified second left-handed option, although a return to form for Thatcher would put that concern to rest and make his signing look like a shrewd move. Hernandez or Deduno could serve as a long man if they don’t make the rotation, but the Astros seem likely to have two right-handed slots filled by a combination of unproven arms such as Josh Fields, Jake Buchanan, Will Harris and perhaps non-roster invitee James Hoyt. It should be noted that both Harris and Fields possess highly favorable peripheral stats, so a breakout for either wouldn’t come as a significant surprise. Nonetheless, neither has established himself as a reliable bullpen arm in the Majors to this point.
While the Astros are rife with raw power up and down their lineup, they’ll likely fall victim to strikeouts at one of the highest rates in baseball. Only the Cubs’ 24.2 percent team strikeout rate was worse than Houston’s 23.8 percent mark last season, and they’ve compounded the problem by trading for Gattis and swapping Fowler (21.4 percent strikeout rate in 2014) for Rasmus (33 percent). Valbuena and Dominguez, for those wondering, struck out at nearly identical respective clips of 20.7 and 20.6 percent last year.
So, while Houston will have its share of high-scoring games due to its powerful lineup, the combination of Rasmus, Carter, Springer, Gattis, Jason Castro and possibly Jon Singleton could lead to quite a few unsightly days at the plate — particularly against elite strikeout pitchers.
The defense, to some extent, could also be an issue. Lowrie isn’t a gifted defender at shortstop, and while Rasmus has had defensive value in the past, he was well below-average in 2014. Perhaps better health will remedy that, but until it’s demonstrated on the field, one can’t help but wonder. The main reason that Atlanta was so willing to part with Gattis was that they feel he’ll eventually be unable to continue catching due to his size and is also a terrible outfield defender. In Houston, the catching will be handled by Castro and Conger, leaving Gattis without much of a position and leaving the team with a potential dilemma at first base/DH if Singleton, Gattis and Carter are all healthy and productive by the end of Spring Training. Gattis could play left field, but that would negate a good deal of his offensive value. Playing Rasmus and Marisnick in left and center would be a significant defensive upgrade.
Still, that would create a logjam at first base/DH, which is likely the reason that ESPN’s Jayson Stark hears that teams in need of offense are monitoring the Astros; Stark reported this week that Carter could become available should Singleton win the job at first and Gattis remains healthy.
Deal of Note
Neshek’s contract with the Astros would’ve seemed borderline unthinkable a year ago at this time, as the submariner was in Spring Training on a minor league deal with the Cardinals. His incredible 1.87 ERA and 7.56 K/BB ratio in last year’s All-Star campaign was an excellent story and led to the first multi-year deal of his career.
While we don’t know exactly what Rafael Soriano will sign for this offseason, he seems extremely likely to fall shy of Neshek’s deal. Meanwhile, an established closer like Francisco Rodriguez barely topped Neshek’s guarantee despite having an extra year on his contract and being two years younger. Neshek also topped Jason Grilli and stacked up favorably with fellow Meister Sports Management client Sergio Romo, despite Romo’s stronger track record.
The Neshek contract this offseason serves as a reminder to fans who may have rolled their eyes at minor league deals for unheralded players this past offseason; these deals rarely turn out like Neshek’s, but a select few seem to go this way each offseason, and the success experienced can lead to tremendous rewards for the team in 2015 and the player the following winter.
The Astros come away from the 2014-15 offseason with a remade bullpen and an improved left side of the infield, both of which should help to repair two of the team’s biggest flaws from the 2014 season. While the rotation looks to be a question mark still, it’s not out of the question that top prospect and former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel could surface in the Majors and help solidify that group. Appel looked lost for much of 2014, but rumors of his demise were tremendously overstated, as he left a dismal Class-A stint behind him to post a 3.69 ERA with 8.8 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in 39 Double-A innings. Appel ranks 35th or better on the Top 100 prospect lists of Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, MLB.com and Fangraphs, where he peaked at No. 18.
Owner Jim Crane has expressed the ambitious goal of reaching the playoffs this season, and while many skeptics will scoff at the notion, the Astros have a wealth of interesting young players in addition to several offseason pickups that could help them remain competitive in the AL West. While they’re certainly not a favorite to do so, some combination of sustained success from Keuchel and McHugh plus steps forward from Springer and Singleton, along with rebounds from Castro, Lowrie and Rasmus, could make the club more dangerous than most are willing to expect.
The Astros made a 19-game improvement from 2013 to 2014, and they could take a step forward toward the .500 mark in 2015 if everyone stays healthy. By 2016, enough members of the team’s vaunted farm system — including Correa, Appel, Springer and Singleton — may have graduated to the Major League level that the Astros could make a push toward a playoff spot.
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