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Offseason Outlook: Seattle Mariners

Fresh off the largest signing in franchise history — and the third largest in MLB history — the Mariners came within one game of a Wild Card playoff berth. They’ll look to improve upon their 87 wins and set their sights closer to the top of the division in the coming offseason.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Options

  • Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP: $7MM club option with a $1MM buyout
  • Justin Smoak, 1B: $3.65MM club option with $150K buyout (arb-eligible if bought out)

Free Agents

The Mariners stayed in the playoff hunt until the very last day of the season, which is more credit than many pundits gave them at the onset of the 2014 campaign. The strong showing led to an extension for general manager Jack Zduriencik this summer. While the exact length of the extension is unknown, it runs through at least 2016, as it was announced as a multi-year deal.

Zduriencik will have more to work with from a financial standpoint in the 2015 season, as team president Kevin Mather recently explained in a candid interview on 710 ESPN in Seattle. The Mariners, Mather explained, overshot their allotted player personnel budget by nearly $16MM in 2014. However, ownership had no complaints after seeing the team’s strong performance. Rather than asking how the $16MM would be recouped, they instead asked Mather how the team was going to get six more wins in 2015. The Mariners topped the two-million mark in attendance for the first time since 2010, leading Mather to definitively conclude, “…the answer to that question is ‘yes,'” when asked if payroll would increase.

It makes sense for the M’s to bulk up their spending in 2015 for a number of reasons. In addition to their near-miss of the postseason this year, next season marks the final year of team control over co-ace Hisashi Iwakuma. His $7MM salary is a bargain for the team and allows them to offer a formidable one-two punch that they’re not guaranteed to replicate in 2016. Additionally, Robinson Cano will play next season at age 32, and Felix Hernandez will play it at 29. While each may still have some prime years left, they’re nearing the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some decline. Next year also marks Jackson’s final year of team control before hitting the open market.

The potential departures of Jackson and Iwakuma, paired with the waning primes of Cano and (to a lesser extent) Hernandez give Zduriencik plenty of motivation to be aggressive, and the Mariners will likely aim to do so by augmenting an offense that again struggled to put runs on the board, albeit not as badly as in years past. Seattle hit .244/.300/.376 as a team, good for a 93 wRC+ mark, which ranked 19th in the Majors. Their 634 runs scored tied them with the Red Sox for 18th in the Majors and 10th in the American League. At an end-of-season press conference, manager Lloyd McClendon voiced a desire to add a pair of bats to the middle of the order for 2015.

The question, then, is: where can Seattle add offense? Cano is entrenched at second base, and Kyle Seager has emerged as one of the game’s best two-way third basemen. Jackson will man center field, and Dustin Ackley seems ticketed for left field duty after hitting .274/.313/.463 from July 1 through season’s end. First baseman (and occasional corner outfielder) Logan Morrison put together a similar hot streak, slashing .284/.334/.447 over his final 79 games. While Ackley and Morrison aren’t as locked in as Cano, Seager and Jackson, I’d imagine other positions are perceived as bigger areas of need.

Perhaps the clearest weakness was in the team’s DH slot. Seattle designated hitters batted a woeful .206/.276/.335 in 2014 — marks that topped only the Indians in terms of production. They’ve already been connected to Victor Martinez, who would give them a strong middle-of-the-order presence but also come at a likely exorbitant price, as he seems destined to top Carlos Beltran‘s three-year, $45MM contract. The team could also rekindle its interest in Nelson Cruz in the wake of his 40-homer season with Baltimore. Cruz is best-deployed as a DH himself, so it seems unlikely that the M’s would pursue both him and Martinez. A third name to consider, should his option be bought out, is Billy Butler. He’s coming off a down season with the Royals, but he’s been connected to the Mariners many times in recent years and could likely be had at a modest price. That would give the team the chance to upgrade more significantly elsewhere.

Melky Cabrera‘s name is one worth keeping an eye on as well. The switch-hitter is said to be close friends with Cano and represents one of the top corner bats on the market. Though he’s played primarily left field in his career, his defensive marks in an admittedly small 625-inning sample in right are respectable, and his arm has typically graded well, per UZR and DRS. The Mariners are also said to be one of the front-runners for Yasmany Tomas, whose reported 70-grade power would certainly fit into the lineup.

Behind the plate, Mike Zunino‘s .199 average and .254 OBP look like areas for upgrade, but they’re accompanied by a .404 slugging percentage and 22 homers. Zunino’s .205 ISO (slugging minus average) ranked third among catchers with at least 100 PA and 23rd in all of baseball among players with at least 450 PA. He also grades out as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball and caught 28 percent of base-stealers. Catcher is unlikely to be a priority.

The other hole in the lineup comes at shortstop, where the Mariners combined to hit .239/.295/.344. Each of those collective rate stats ranked in the bottom-third of the league, and their collective wRC+ of 83 ranked 20th. Brad Miller took a step back at the plate, but his solid defensive work still left him as a roughly two-win player in a full-time capacity. Call-up Chris Taylor looked sound late in the season, hitting .287/.347/.346, but that production was propped up by an unsustainable .398 average on balls in play.

If the Mariners are not comfortable letting Miller and Taylor battle it out this spring, they could conceivably look for a veteran. Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera and Stephen Drew are each on the market, but none of the three are a clear upgrade at short. Lowrie and Cabrera have defensive question marks (Seattle shortstops did field quite well in 2014), and Drew’s bat is a wild card. One all-in possibility would be a pursuit of Hanley Ramirez, whose bat would be an unequivocal upgrade to the Mariners’ lineup. However, doing so would also mean that the M’s would need to put up with Ramirez’s poor defense, and they’d need to commit to him well into the future on a likely five-year commitment, if not more. There wouldn’t be a possibility of moving him to third anytime soon, either, with Seager looking very much like a cornerstone player.

A long-term commitment is something the Mariners are well-positioned to tackle, though. Seattle has just two players — Cano and Hernandez — on guaranteed contracts beyond the 2015 season. While the annual commitment on each of those contracts is enormous, it does allow Seattle the luxury of adding another significant AAV to the mix, especially if payroll is going to continue increasing after this season’s eventual mark of $107MM.

Of course, they could look to the rotation to spend if there is again a difficulty in luring free agent hitters to Safeco Field. It may not be a necessity for the team, but some additional certainty could be a benefit. Hernandez and Iwakuma form one of the best one-two punches in all of baseball, and that duo figures to be backed up by a pair of highly touted young arms in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Roenis Elias seems a capable fifth starter, and there’s been talk of moving Tom Wilhelmsen to the rotation as well. However, the team could rekindle the interest it showed in Ervin Santana last offseason, and names like Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano represent mid-tier options with high ceilings.

The bullpen isn’t necessarily a significant need either, but it could be an area for Zduriencik to make an addition. Fernando Rodney will again own the ninth inning. Danny Farquhar has emerged as a bullpen weapon over the past two seasons and will be joined by standout rookie Dominic Leone in bridging the gap to Rodney. Additionally, a move to the bullpen appears to have ignited Brandon Maurer‘s career, as the struggling starter became a lights-out reliever upon making the switch (2.17 ERA, 1.85 FIP, 9.2 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 in 37 1/3 innings). Charlie Furbush represents a strong option from the left side, though the club could look to add a second bullpen piece with Joe Beimel departing. Beimel has said he’d like to return, but names like Neal Cotts, Zach Duke and Joe Thatcher are also on the market, to say nothing of the electric Andrew Miller. There’s also room for perhaps a veteran right-handed addition. Pat Neshek and Jason Grilli are attractive setup options, while Luke Hochevar and Kyuji Fujikawa present high-upside options that come with a bit of risk, as neither is all that far removed from Tommy John surgery.

One final thing to consider for the M’s will be whether it’s time to move on from some players that were formerly believed to be core components. The team does have a number of trade and non-tender candidates, with Justin Smoak certainly being one. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently wrote that it’s a near certainty that Smoak’s option will be bought out and the first baseman will be non-tendered, though it’s possible that Zduriencik will try to gauge his trade value first. Even if he’s able to move Smoak, the return would be meager at best.

Jesus Montero, too, could be on thin ice with the organization. The catcher-turned-DH/first baseman did hit well in 97 Triple-A games this season, but his conditioning has been questioned in the past and he finished the season on the suspended list after getting into a bizarre altercation with a since-fired scout. Once touted by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and ESPN as one of baseball’s top prospects, Montero’s star has dimmed considerably. Another club may have interest, but again, the return on a trade would be a letdown.

Finally there is the case of Michael Saunders. The outfielder’s agent, Michael McCann, recently expressed disappointment in the Mariners organization after Zduriencik made a comment at the end-of-season press conference that McCann felt called his client’s work ethic into question. Zduriencik clarified shortly after that his message — which urged Saunders to reassess his offseason maintenance to better prepare himself to stay healthy for a full season — was a general message that could be applied to any young player. Zduriencik said the organization is not giving up on Saunders, but with McCann expressing frustration on his client’s behalf, it’s worth wondering if a change of scenery will be explored for Saunders — especially if Seattle does add a right field bat.

Certainly, Saunders would be appealing to other teams with outfield needs. Though he’s battled shoulder and oblique injuries in recent years, he’s also batted .248/.320/.423 with 39 homers and 38 steals over the past three seasons (349 games). The Mets, White Sox, Giants, Phillies and Reds are just a few teams I can envision as fits, if Seattle adds a corner bat and decides to market him. One possibility would be to double-down on a current strength by packaging Saunders with a young, MLB-ready rotation piece for Johnny Cueto, whose name has frequented the rumor mill of late.

Ultimately, Seattle seems like a good bet to make a significant addition — if not two or three — between the end of the World Series and Opening Day 2015. The team has plenty of long-term flexibility and an ownership group that is willing to increase payroll to surpass 2014’s total of 87 wins. That’s a recipe for an aggressive approach, so don’t be surprised to see the team connected to some of the top names on the free agent and trade markets this offseason as it looks to end a 13-year playoff drought.


Free Agent Profile: Rafael Soriano

The Nationals gave Rafael Soriano $28MM (half of it deferred) over two years and sacrificed a draft choice to install him at the back of the pen of one of the league’s most talented rosters. Though he was a reasonably productive pitcher, however, Soriano was not the force that Washington had hoped and he ultimately ceded his closer’s role late in 2014. Now entering his age-35 season, the Scott Boras client will presumably look to score another multi-year deal, but faces market competition in maximizing his dollars.

Pros/Strengths

Soriano actually had a stronger overall campaign in his second year in D.C. In particular, he restored his strikeout rate to the mid-8 K/9 level that he had generally maintained over his previous several seasons, after ending 2013 with 6.9 K/9 – his lowest mark by far since his rookie year. While Soriano posted near-identical earned run marks in each of his two seasons with the Nationals (3.11 and 3.19, respectively), he seems to have re-learned to induce whiffs in spite of his reduced fastball velocity. In particular, Soriano seems to have restored some confidence in his slider after it went missing in 2013, increasing its usage and effectiveness. All of those factors would, it seems, bode well moving forward.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins

Buttressing his good-but-not-great recent production level is its place in the overall context of his career. Since 2006, the veteran has recorded at least 60 innings in seven of nine campaigns. And he has only concluded a season with an ERA higher than last year’s 3.19 mark once: his injury-shortened 2011. While he probably no longer offers the hope of double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, Soriano seems a good bet to deliver a full load of solid innings.

And whatever one thinks of the merit of valuing pitchers based on saves and the like, Soriano’s broad experience is a feather in his cap. He now owns 207 career saves, meaning that he has been exposed to a ton of high-leverage situations. And without suggesting anything about its predictive value, it is worth noting that Soriano has a long record of positive “clutch” scores (per Fangraphs). That experience has its value, particularly for a team that expects to contend and wants a veteran presence in the pen.

Teams intrigued by that consistency will surely also notice that Soriano has been fairly good against lefties: for his career, he has held them to a .234/.309/.395 line. Even better, though he was not as dominant against righties as he had been at times in the past, Soriano showed in 2014 that he can be deployed confidently against hitters of both sides. In fact, facing a nearly even number of left-handed and right-handed bats, Soriano held the former to a .273 wOBA (against a .297 mark from righties).

Cons/Weaknesses

It is not terribly surprising that Soriano has seen some decline in his fastball velocity, but it nevertheless must be accounted for. He has maintained his heater in the 91+ mph range over the last two seasons, after sitting between 92 and 93 earlier in his career. He has seemingly compensated for that fact by increasingly utilizing a mix of four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastballs, though pitch-recognition mechanisms Baseball Info Solutions and Pitch F/X disagree as to his actual mix amongst those three offerings. But the bottom line is that that Soriano’s days of rearing back and throwing it by hitters are probably over. Meanwhile, he has increased his slider velocity to over 84 mph, the highest level of his career, decreasing further the separation for his primary offspeed offering.

One additional factor to consider is Soriano’s tendency to induce a significant number of fly balls, which has spiked back toward the well-above-average rates he maintained earlier in his career. In 2014, Soriano generated only a 31.6% groundball rate while permitting flies at a 49.1% clip. Though a meager 4.8% HR/FB kept the damage to a minimum, Soriano’s career mark sits at nearly twice that level. A few more balls leaving the yard could put a big dent in Soriano’s bottom-line productivity.

It bears mentioning that Soriano’s late-season struggles led to a demotion from the closer’s role — in part due to his inability to keep the ball down — which certainly does not help with perception as he enters the market. And that move was not without statistical basis: Soriano posted a 6.48 second-half ERA after marking his first 37 innings with an impressive 0.97 mark. And those numbers, in turn, had their source in Soriano’s declining peripherals: his strikeout percentage dropped significantly (26.7% to 19.7%) while his rate of line drives allowed went up (14.8% to 24.1%).

Finally, while Soriano has been healthy of late, he does have a deeper injury history that could come into play in a multi-year scenario. Soriano underwent Tommy John surgery early in 2004, returning late in 2005 after a long recovery. Since, he has seen flareups from time to time and even underwent an ulnar nerve transposition and bone spur procedure on his right elbow back in 2008. Most recently, he missed 66 games in 2011 for inflammation. Though his overall recent health has been good, there has to be at least some consideration for the fact that Soriano has a decade or so of mileage on his replacement UCL.

Personal

Soriano is married and has two children. The Dominican native also enjoys a special relationship with his mother, with whom he speaks by phone twice a day, per an interesting profile from James Wagner of the Washington Post.

Soriano persevered through a poor economic upbringing and early difficulties in his career. His quiet disposition belies a warm personality, according to Wagner. But there is no question that a new club will not be getting a boisterous, rah-rah presence. By the same token, Soriano is generally stoic on the hill and does not (visibly, anyway) seem to be overly affected by pressure situations. Though at times he has had a less-than-stellar clubhouse reputation, Soriano seems not to have left that impression in D.C. even after his demotion from the closer role, according to a recent report from the Post’s Adam Kilgore.

Market

As I explained back in early September, Soriano is one of many similarly situated veteran relievers. Though I said at the time that he was one of the few to have maintained his value coming into the year, that assessment was based in part on his poor 2013 and came before his late-year struggles were fully manifested.

At this point, Soriano looks to face a tough market, with plenty of competition on the supply side. His precise placement is subject to debate, but he probably falls in the same general tier as other veteran arms such as Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, and Casey Janssen.

It is difficult to assign possible landing spots for a sub-elite reliever. But in Soriano’s case, one major factor is his pronounced flyball tendency, which could make him more appealing to a club that plays in a more spacious park while reducing the level of interest from teams with more home run-friendly environments.

Expected Contract

Soriano faces a wide range of plausible outcomes, given his warts, the healthy supply of veteran late-inning arms, and the ever-present volatility of a market with so few actors. But he does have a rather extensive track record of finishing off wins, and that can still boost a player’s earning capacity. Though Soriano may have slightly more upside, and perhaps even more downside, I see him landing a two-year, $12MM deal that falls near the bottom of the range of last year’s closer market.


Offseason Outlook: Cleveland Indians

While the Indians fell shy of the playoffs, the team still managed to win 85 games despite a pair of key rotation losses in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. As GM of a budget-conscious club, Chris Antonetti will have a limited amount of flexibility as he looks to close the five-game gap that separated his team from the AL Central crown.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Jason Kipnis, 2B: $49.5MM through 2019 (including buyout on 2020 option)
  • Nick Swisher, 1B/OF: $30MM through 2016, plus vesting option
  • Michael Bourn, OF: $27.5MM through 2016, plus vesting option
  • Yan Gomes, C: $21.95MM through 2019 (including buyout on 2020 option)
  • Michael Brantley, OF: $20MM through 2017 (including buyout on 2018 option)
  • Carlos Santana, 1B/C: $15.45MM through 2016 (including buyout on 2017 option)
  • David Murphy, OF: $6.5MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)
  • Ryan Raburn, 2B/OF: $2.6MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)

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

Contract Options

  • Mike Aviles, 2B/SS/3B: $3.5MM club option with a $250K buyout

Free Agents

From a non-player standpoint, there figures to be little change within the Indians organization. Former GM Mark Shapiro, now the team president, will again entrust GM Chris Antonetti with structuring a contending club despite limited payroll flexibility. Manager Terry Francona and the coaching staff all seem likely to return as well.

The payroll figures to again be Cleveland’s biggest obstacle, as long-term commitments to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn went south this season. Each player battled injuries and struggled at the plate, making their respective $15MM and $13.5MM salaries look questionable on a team otherwise loaded with many bargains. Also worth noting were the sub-par contributions of David Murphy in his first year with the Indians; his $6.5MM salary in 2015 a year after hitting just .262/.319/.385 and checking in below replacement level further clouds the outfield picture.

With $55MM already committed to the next year’s payroll and possibly another $10MM or so in arb salaries (plus the league-minimum players to fill out the roster), the Tribe could be looking at about $70MM in commitments before making a single decision.

Cleveland finished last in all of Major League Baseball with about 1.437MM fans drawn this season, so it seems unlikely that the team’s payroll will rise significantly from the $80-84MM range that has been set in 2013-14. That will leave Antonetti with somewhere between $10-15MM to augment a roster of affordable contracts.

The Indians can trot out a rotation fronted by Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and followed by breakout 27-year-old Carlos Carrasco. Beyond that pairing, the team can look for another step forward from former top prospect Trevor Bauer and a better overall effort from the hard-throwing Danny Salazar. Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister and T.J. House represent options in the fifth slot, and House was particularly impressive in 2014, posting a 3.35 ERA with 7.1 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 102 innings. Starting pitching, therefore, doesn’t need to be a major focus for Cleveland this winter, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see some veteran arms added on minor league deals just for depth purposes.

Cleveland’s affordable talent isn’t confined to the pitching staff, however. Standout catcher Yan Gomes will earn just $1MM next season in the first year of a six-year, $23MM contract extension. Carlos Santana and his relatively modest $6MM salary will man first base, with Jason Kipnis and his $4MM salary handling the keystone. Jose Ramirez‘s excellent glove will likely open the season at shortstop, with top prospect Francisco Lindor perhaps pushing for a call-up midseason. And of course, MVP candidate Michael Brantley will be looking to replicate his breakout in left field while earning $5MM.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, Cody Allen looks like a formidable ninth-inning weapon, and he’s yet to reach arbitration. He can be joined in the late innings by Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett — each of whom posted a sub-3.00 ERA in at least 30 innings of work. Nick Hagadone joins Crockett and Rzepczynski as a left-handed option. Perhaps best of all, none from this group projects to earn more than $1MM, save for Rzepczynski.

Those cost-controlled players are critical for the Indians. While the Swisher and Bourn commitments don’t prevent them from adding another sizable salary or multiple lower to mid-range salaries in 2015, those large contracts do throw a wrench into their offseason approach. Cleveland already has $51MM committed to the 2016 roster — a season in which Kluber and Allen will become arbitration eligible for the first time. Each figures to see a significant hike in salary should his current success continue. Carrasco will be eligible for the second time that year, and if he can come close to replicating this season’s second-half breakout — something Cleveland desperately needs in order to contend — his arbitration raise will also be very steep. Shaw, Rzepcznski, Chisenhall and others will be due further raises heading into 2016.

Essentially, the Indians are looking at the same guaranteed contract structure they face in 2015, but with an arb class that is potentially twice as costly. So, while they may have $10-15MM to comfortably add to the 2015 payroll, they can’t afford to make long-term commitments beyond the upcoming season without either increasing that payroll significantly or moving some salary. For example, a name like Chase Headley looks appealing as an alternative to Lonnie Chisenhall, who hit just .225/.295/.318 after June 30 and is a very poor defender, but Headley would likely send the 2016 payroll well beyond $85MM (assuming Tim Dierkes’ four-year, $48MM contract projection is correct or close to it).

The team’s financial situation makes one-year commitments the most likely for a significant addition, but the free agent market lacks an obvious one-year candidate at third, which is a position of need. The other logical place to upgrade would be in right field or possibly at DH. In those areas, Colby Rasmus could prove an upgrade over Murphy, with Swisher sliding into a primary DH role. The Indians could also buy low on a name like Corey Hart of Kendrys Morales on a one-year deal to serve as the DH, with the hope that Swisher and/or Murphy rebounds enough to handle right field full-time. It wouldn’t take much, after all, to upgrade on the .188/.254/.311 batting line posted by Cleveland DHs in 2014.

Another option for the Indians would be to pursue an upgrade on the trade market. Juan Uribe and Casey McGehee are two short-term options that could make some sense if their respective teams are interested in making a long-term upgrade at the hot corner.  There are a number of right fielders that would fit the bill as well, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton (though the Indians were on his initial no-trade list), Shane Victorino and Gerardo Parra. Cleveland showed interest in Victorino as a free agent two years ago and could have interest again, particularly if Boston is willing to eat some of his salary.

Of course, pursuit of a name like Heyward would present the question of whether or not Cleveland wants to compromise some of its long-term outlook for an improved chance at immediate contention. The Indians do have a strong group of minor league outfielders headlined by Clint Frazier and also including Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey and Bradley Zimmer — each a first-round pick within the past three years. Some fans would likely make the case that a team with long-term payroll constraints should be resistant to trading controllable/league-minimum talent for a one-year upgrade, but being within striking distance of a postseason berth is an oft-fleeting position. The team could consider this its best shot at a division title with the Royals potentially losing James Shields and the Tigers potentially losing Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, so the argument in favor of a win-now move could certainly be made.

Perhaps the most appealing approach for the front office will simply to be to add a bullpen piece and search for minor upgrades and platoon partners for some of the 2014 regulars that struggled. While they won’t play for top-of-the-market names like David Robertson and Andrew Miller, a number of second-tier options such as Pat Neshek, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo or Joba Chamberlain would add a veteran presence and deepen the relief corps.

Going that route and experiencing success would also likely require at least one of their faded stars to rebound, which isn’t out of the question. Swisher is just one season removed from totaling 2.3 fWAR and 3.8 rWAR, so a rebound isn’t out of the question. Bourn, too, was somewhat productive in 2013, though to a lesser extent.

The Indians could try to dump one or both players, though that’s no easy feat to accomplish. Still, should the Indians eat the majority of one of their 2015 salaries in order to save $8-10MM in 2016, a long-term commitment for a new addition would certainly be easier to structure.

In the end, barring an unexpected payroll boost for the 2016 season, the team’s 2015 maneuverability is limited. The team will have to determine whether it’s worth compromising its enviable reservoir of outfield prospects in order to make a short-term upgrade, or if the better option is to make minor upgrades where possible and bank on a resurgence among a group of underperforming veterans. For all the ink I’ve dedicated to Bourn and Swisher, the most sorely needed rebound may be one from Kipnis, who slumped to a .240/.310/.330 line after posting elite numbers in 2013.



Free Agent Profile: Adam LaRoche

Though he’s not technically a lock to hit the open market due to a $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout), Adam LaRoche is a near certainty to be a free agent due to the rarity of such options being picked up by both sides of the agreement. The soon-to-be 35-year-old first baseman should represent one of the few steady power bats on the free agent market.

Strengths/Pros

Power is on the decline league-wide, but LaRoche remains a steady source of home runs from the left side of the dish. He’s averaged 26 homers per season over the past three years (the same number he totaled in 2014), and excluding a 2011 season that was ruined by injuries (more on that below), he’s averaged 25 homers per season dating back to 2005. He’s cleared the 30-homer plateau twice — most recently in 2012 when he went deep 33 times.

Adam LaRoche

Early in his career, LaRoche walked at a decent clip, but he’s taken that ability to new heights since joining the Nationals in 2011. His walk rate in a Nats uniform has been a hefty 12.3 percent, and this past season it ballooned to 14 percent — far and away the best mark he’s posted in a full season.

Correspondingly, LaRoche’s strikeout rate dipped to 18.4 percent — the second-lowest total of his career and the best mark he’s posted since 2005 when he whiffed just 17.3 percent of the time. His 14 percent walk rate this year is almost double the 7.8 percent mark he posted in ’05, however, so it seems fair to say that LaRoche has matured as a hitter. LaRoche chased out-of-zone pitches at just a 25 percent clip this year, which is well below the league average of 31.3 percent. It’s not surprising, then, to see that he averaged 4.04 pitches per plate appearances, which ranked 30th among qualified hitters and tied him with Chase Headley for tops among free agent hitters (Victor Martinez was a close second at 4.03).

LaRoche has a good defensive reputation, and he hasn’t had a negative mark in Defensive Runs Saved since 2009. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him slightly below average over the past two seasons. Scouts around the league will have their own opinions, of course, but it seems unlikely that any would place his defense as a significant negative.

Weaknesses/Cons

I did a midseason assessment of LaRoche’s free agent stock back in June and noted that while he’s typically shown a platoon split, he had held his own against southpaws with a low average but a .381 on-base percentage. That trend regressed significantly, as LaRoche finished the season with just a .204/.284/.336 line against southpaws. He drew 15 walks in 155 plate appearances against same–handed pitching, but he also whiffed at a 27.7 percent clip against lefties, compared to just 15 percent against righties. There may be some teams that simply don’t want to give LaRoche everyday at-bats given the increased struggles he’s shown against lefties over the past two seasons. (He hit .198/.254/.313 against lefties last year.)

As I referenced previously LaRoche has been durable but he does come with a history of some shoulder issues. He missed about a month of his rookie season due to a separated AC joint in his left shoulder, and he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in that same shoulder in 2011. I’d imagine that he and agent Mike Milchin of Relativity Sports will simply point to the fact that LaRoche hit 33 homers the following season and has averaged 149 games over the following three campaigns as proof that it needn’t be a concern, but it may be something that teams want to look at more closely before agreeing to a multi-year deal. He missed a couple of weeks this season with a strained quad, as well, but that appears to be an isolated incident.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a 35-year-old first baseman doesn’t exactly have a gleaming baserunning reputation. Fangraphs pegged him at 5.5 runs below average on the basepaths this season. Among free agents, that figure was sandwiched between the marks posted by Billy Butler and Michael Morse, which should give an indication of what to expect from LaRoche’s running. Additionally, age will be a consideration, as this next contract will carry LaRoche into his late 30s.

Personal

In his free time, LaRoche is an avid bow hunter and outdoorsman. LaRoche is one of several famous baseball names featured on the Outdoor Channel’s show Buck Commander (along with Chipper Jones and Ryan Langerhans, among others). He’s also a devout Christian and teamed with Denard Span and Ian Desmond to host Faith Day following one of the team’s games at Nationals Park this season, as Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post wrote back in August.

LaRoche was diagnosed with ADD in high school and has dealt with the disorder throughout his career. He’s been taking Ritalin to combat the issue since 2006, which has at times caused him to struggle to maintain his weight, according to this 2013 piece from Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.

Baseball runs in the LaRoche family veins, as his father, Dave, was a two-time All-Star and enjoyed a 14-year Major League career. Adam’s brother, Andy LaRoche, also played in the Majors. The two were teammates with the Pirates in 2008-09. Adam is married with two children, per his bio on the Buck Commander web site.

Market

Milchin can make a very legitimate case for LaRoche as the best first baseman on the free agent market. Morse is younger but comes with durability concerns, Cuddyer has those same durability concerns (and may wish to play an outfield corner), and Corey Hart had a disastrous season. Butler and Martinez are better suited to serve as designated hitters than full-time first basemen, and the same can be said for Kendrys Morales.

LaRoche’s preference is to finish his career in D.C., but that seems unlikely. Ryan Zimmerman‘s chronic shoulder woes have created a persistent throwing problem that will require shifting him to first base or the outfield (an outfield that is currently occupied by Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth). It’s possible the team could deal Span, move Harper to center and put Zimmerman in left, freeing first base for LaRoche’s return. But the more likely outcome seems to me to be that LaRoche will walk, Zimmerman will slide over to first and the Nats will pursue a second baseman or third baseman, with Anthony Rendon occupying the other spot.

Looking around the league, there are a few teams with clear needs at first base. The Brewers’ Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon was a flop, and there’s no clear-cut in-house alternative. LaRoche could receive some interest from his former club, the Pirates, as they look to improve upon Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez. The Marlins are known to be looking for a bat and could upgrade over Garrett Jones. The Mariners could make some sense, but Logan Morrison did have a strong finish, and their lineup already leans left pretty heavily. I can see the Padres showing interest as well, and I’ll list the Blue Jays as a dark-horse candidate with the caveat that they’d first have to trade Adam Lind to a more cost-conscious club (e.g. the Pirates).

The other thing to consider with LaRoche is whether or not he will receive a qualifying offer. Like nearly any veteran player coming off a strong season, LaRoche will want the security of a multi-year deal. However, he also has stated a strong preference to remain with the Nats, and his return could present somewhat of a defensive logjam for the team. Because of their roster construction and his desire to stay, I can see the Nats being a bit hesitant to risk a QO. My expectation is that they’ll buy out his mutual option, but there are scenarios in which he could end up with a QO.

Expected Contract

LaRoche struggled to find a suitable deal in his last go-around with free agency despite the fact that he was fresh off a 33-homer season. Part of that, of course, was due to the draft pick attached to his name. He also had steeper competition, with Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher representing younger options coming off very strong seasons.

This time around, LaRoche could be free of draft pick compensation and is arguably the best first baseman on the market. I think something like his previous two-year, $24MM contract with a mutual option is the floor for LaRoche this winter. There’s some case to be made for a three-year deal, which I would imagine to be the target for LaRoche’s camp, but that case would be much stronger had his numbers not dipped in 2013. My prediction is that LaRoche will land in that Napoli range and sign a two-year, $30MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason Outlook: New York Yankees

The Yankees will have to make additions while sorting through several high-priced injury question marks on their roster as they try to rebound from consecutive years outside the postseason.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Masahiro Tanaka, SP: $133MM through 2020 (Tanaka can opt out after 2017)
  • Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: $126.8MM through 2020 ($21MM club option for 2021, $5MM buyout)
  • Brian McCann, C: $68MM through 2018 ($15MM club option for 2019, can vest to become player option)
  • Alex Rodriguez, 3B: $61MM through 2017
  • C.C. Sabathia, SP: $48MM through 2016 ($25MM vesting option for 2017, $5MM buyout otherwise)
  • Brett Gardner, OF: $48MM through 2018 ($12.5MM club option for 2019, $2MM buyout)
  • Mark Teixeira, 1B: $45MM through 2016
  • Carlos Beltran, OF: $30MM through 2016
  • Martin Prado, IF: $22MM through 2016
  • Brendan Ryan, SS: $2MM through 2015 ($2MM club option for 2016, become $1MM player option if declined)

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The emotion of the Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retirement tours over the last two seasons may have softened the blow of missing the playoffs for Yankees fans.  Now that the last of the “Core Four” has retired, eyes are focused on the present and what the Steinbrenner family, the newly-extended Brian Cashman and a revamped baseball operations department will do to get this team back into contention.

When the Bombers missed the playoffs last year, they responded by spending over $500MM on new contracts for free agents and re-signed talent.  It doesn’t seem like the Yankees are prepared for another spending spree, in part because two of last year’s big signings (Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran) underperformed.  Combine those setbacks with a huge swath of injuries that sidelined almost the entire Yankees rotation, and it’s somewhat surprising that the club managed to win even 83 games.

The biggest issue facing the Yankees is that many of their highest-paid players can’t be counted on to stay healthy or play up to their usual standard in 2015.  C.C. Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and has already suffered a decline in performance in recent years.  Mark Teixeira managed to play in 123 games last year but his wrist problems will always require a backup option.  McCann and Beltran could’ve just had off-years, or they could possibly be on the decline as well.

And then there’s Alex Rodriguez, returning from his year-long suspension as a complete mystery in terms of what he’ll be able to contribute.  The plan for A-Rod seems to be a rotation between DH, third base and possibly first base, to spell Teixeira.  Until the Yankees know if Rodriguez can handle regular time at third, however, it will somewhat hamstring their other winter plans.  They have an interest in bringing back Chase Headley, though obviously Headley will want to play every day, and limiting Rodriguez to a 1B/DH role will cut down on the DH at-bats that might be needed for another aging players like Beltran or McCann.

One possible solution would be to pencil Martin Prado in as the third baseman and to acquire a stopgap option to play second or give prospect Rob Refsnyder a shot at the job.  If Rodriguez’s body can hold up under regular playing time at the hot corner, then Prado can then primarily play second base, with the occasional game at 3B to spell A-Rod.  Prado’s versatility is a nice tool for the Yankees to have, and since he posted an .877 OPS in 137 PA after joining the club at the trade deadline, his bat may have awoken after a rough first half with the Diamondbacks.

With Rodriguez likely looking at a healthy share of DH at-bats, Beltran will have to see much more time in right field than the 32 games he played at the position last season.  Beltran’s elbow injury both kept him out of RF and likely played a big role in his struggles at the plate, so if he’s healthy, he could be back to his usual productive self.  For depth’s sake, however, the Yankees will definitely look to add a backup outfielder who could regular playing time or at least would be Beltran’s late-inning defensive replacement.  Someone like Gerardo Parra (who the Brewers could non-tender or look to trade this winter) would be a nice fit in this role.

Replacing Jeter is impossible from a big-picture standpoint, though replacing Jeter’s 2014 on-field production (-0.3 fWAR, 73 wRC+) at shortstop shouldn’t be hard.  There will inevitably be a big media spotlight on whichever player becomes Jeter’s successor at short, and the Yankees have a couple of options: they can pursue a young shortstop as a true long-term heir apparent, or they could look for an established veteran (who might be more used to the pressure) to play the position for a few seasons until a younger option can be groomed or acquired.

If New York chooses the veteran route, there are free agent shortstops like Asdrubal Cabrera or Jed Lowrie available.  Hanley Ramirez is the top free agent shortstop on the market, though if the Yankees are indeed hesitant about giving big money to players over 30 years old, then a player with Ramirez’s injury history and defensive limitations wouldn’t be a good fit.  Stephen Drew could be re-signed at a relative discount price, though it’s hard to see the Yankees handing Drew the starting job coming off his poor 2014 season.  It’s possible the Yankees’ top choice to replace Jeter may already be off the board, as J.J. Hardy signed an extension with the Orioles rather than test free agency.

If the Yankees went for a younger option at short, they could talk trade with the Diamondbacks or Cubs, each of which have a surplus of young shortstops.  Chicago’s surplus, of course, is of a higher pedigree since it involves former All-Star Starlin Castro and blue chip prospects Addison Russell and Javier Baez.  As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes wrote in his recent Cubs offseason outlook piece, however, the timing may not be right for the Cubs to trade their middle infield depth.  Plus, even if Chicago was willing to deal, the Yankees may not have the prospect depth to meet the enormous asking price the Cubs would demand for any of those players.  Swinging a deal for one of Arizona’s slightly lesser-regarded young shortstops (Didi Gregorius, Nick Ahmed, Chris Owings) could be a more palatable option.

The Yankees acquired Prado using one piece of their catching surplus in prospect Peter O’Brien, and the club still has John Ryan Murphy, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine all battling for the backup job behind McCann.  Any two of these players could be expendable with top prospect Gary Sanchez on the farm, though Sanchez has yet to play beyond the Double-A level and is at least a season away from getting serious consideration from a big league job.

The biggest trade chip the Yankees have, of course, is their financial might.  Headley, Prado and Brandon McCarthy were all acquired for a fairly negligible prospect return at midseason since New York was simply able to take those contracts off the Padres’ and Diamondbacks’ hands.  Rather than surrender draft picks to sign qualifying offer free agents or deal away what little farm depth they have, the Yankees could pursue more trades with rivals looking to create payroll space.

If the Yankees did want to make a splash in free agency, however, Jon Lester could be an attractive target since (due to the fact that he was traded at midseason) he can be signed without any draft pick compensation.  The Yankees have a particular admiration for Lester, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, and the southpaw would bring both quality and much-needed durability to New York’s rotation.  Max Scherzer could also draw interest from the Yankees this winter as another front-of-the-rotation upgrade, not to mention James Shields, who is expected to be available at a lower price than those other two aces.

While adding a top starter could technically give the Yankees a rotation surplus if everyone is healthy, that’s a giant “if” given how many injury-plagued starters are in the rotation.  C.C. Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and even if he’s 100 percent health-wise, the lefty has still been on the decline for the last two seasons.  Ivan Nova will be out until May at the earliest as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.  Michael Pineda looked dominant when he was on the mound, yet had another injury setback when he missed three months with a bad shoulder.

The most tenuous injury situation involves Masahiro Tanaka, who took MLB by storm in his rookie season before a slight UCL tear caused him to miss 10 weeks.  Tanaka returned to make two starts in late September and reported he was pain-free, so for now, it appears the righty may have dodged the Tommy John bullet.  Any recurrence of the injury, however, could lead to surgery for Tanaka and at least a year on the DL.  Tanaka is yet another high-paid superstar the Yankees don’t know if they can count on in 2015, and his uncertain health status is the club’s strongest argument for making a play for the likes of Scherzer, Lester or Shields.

Shane Greene‘s strong rookie season earned him a spot in the 2015 rotation, so presuming that leaves New York with a tentative starting quartet of Tanaka, Greene, Pineda and Sabathia.  If the Yankees don’t land that ace-level pitcher, they could turn to familiar faces in McCarthy (who is open to a return) or Hiroki Kuroda, who is again weighing retirement or a return to Japan.

Kuroda faced the same choice last offseason and rejected a $14.1MM qualifying offer before re-signing with the Yankees on a one-year, $16MM deal.  It stands to reason that Kuroda will receive another QO this winter — if the Yankees were comfortable in issuing him a qualifying offer last year before knowing if he’d return to MLB, they’d probably feel similarly comfortable this year.  Kuroda still posted solid numbers and 199 IP at age 39 last season, and he’ll draw enough interest from teams that I’d suspect he’ll reject this offseason’s $15.3MM qualifying offer to look for another slightly-richer one-year pact.  It’s fair to assume the Yankees have the inside track on Kuroda’s services if he does return, though the Dodgers and Angels are also looking for starting pitching and can offer Kuroda a job closer to his home in southern California.

Dellin Betances‘ phenomenal success as the Yankees’ setup man has led to speculation that he could take over as closer in 2015 and New York could afford to let David Robertson leave in free agency.  The Yankees are one of the few teams who can afford to issue a qualifying offer to a closer, and while it’s possible the QO could scare off some teams who don’t want to give up a first-round pick to sign a one-inning pitcher, MLBTR’s Steve Adams argued that Robertson’s status as the best closer available will still land him a significant deal, possibly in the range of four years and $52MM.  A lockdown bullpen has been such an important part of recent Yankees history that I can see the Bombers re-signing Robertson and re-teaming he and Betances to create a lot of seven-inning games.

With or without Robertson, expect the Yankees to pursue a veteran lefty reliever to fill the hole left by Matt Thornton, who was let go on waivers last summer.  Andrew Miller stands out as the best left-handed option (and one of the best relievers in general) available in free agency, and he could serve as Betances’ setup man.  The Yankees could take a page from the Royals’ book by signing Miller AND re-signing Robertson, sandwiching them around Betances to create a terrifying late-game relief trio.

David Huff, David Phelps, Shawn Kelley and Esmil Rogers are all eligible for arbitration this winter and since all pitched well in 2014 (at least peripheral-wise in Kelley and Rogers’ cases), expect all four to be tendered contracts and brought back into the bullpen mix.  The Yankees could also exercise their inexpensive team option on Andrew Bailey for 2015, though since hasn’t pitched at all since undergoing shoulder surgery in July 2013, Bailey is just a lottery ticket at this point.

The rumor mill inevitably connects the Yankees to virtually every top free agent during the offseason, both because agents like to raise their clients’ asking prices by claiming the league’s big spenders are interested and because the Yankees usually do cast a wide net.  Throwing more money at free agents might leave the club with even more albatross contracts, however, and even the Yankees have a spending limit.  It’s more likely the Yankees will look to fill their roster holes through trades rather than free agency, though expect them to explore all options lest the playoff drought extend to three years.


MLBTR Originals

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


Full Story | Comments | Categories: MLBTR Originals

Free Agent Profile: Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera might not be the player that some envisioned he would be four years ago, but he still holds a ton of value as he gets ready to explore the open market.  Save for Hanley Ramirez, Cabrera arguably stands as the winter’s most attractive free agent shortstop option.

Strengths/Pros

At just 28 years old (29 in November), Cabrera has youth on his side, especially when surveying the rest of the available talent pool.  Cabrera also boasts four consecutive years of mostly good health with an average of 144 games per season over that span.  Of course, that 2011 season was more than just the start of Cabrera’s good fortune in the health department, it was his true coming out party.  That season, Cabrera slashed .273/.332/.460 for the Tribe, earning his first All-Star selection and his first Silver Slugger trophy.MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies

In 2012, Cabrera earned a second All-Star nomination thanks in part to another strong showing at the plate (.270/.338/.423).  The following two years didn’t bring the same kind of accolades and praise, but Cabrera continued to produce.  Cabrera’s breakout year was his best to date, but the last three years have shown that he can deliver ~15 homers (he had 16, 14, and 14 the last three years) with some speed on the basepaths.

Cabrera also offers more than just shortstop experience, he also has 1773 2/3 innings of career experience at second base.  He mainly plied his craft at shortstop from 2010-2014, but he returned to second this season upon joining the Nationals, so some of the rust from the change should be gone.  His ability to play either middle infield position should help increase his market and will also provide his next team with a bit of flexibility.  This also isn’t a strong second base market on the whole, so his versatility is a positive.

Weaknesses/Cons

Defensively, Cabrera leaves much to be desired.  For his career, Cabrera has a -10.6 UZR/150 rating at shortstop, putting him well below your average defender.  His most recent campaigns haven’t helped either as he posted -16.8 and -10.5 marks in each of the last two seasons.  His body of work at second base is better, according to UZR/150, but still far from great.  He has a lifetime -2.5 UZR/150 at second and turned in a -5.3 rating in 432 innings for the Nats.  Looking for a second opinion?  Defensive runs saved has Cabrera as a -10 defender at second base in 2014 and -7 at shortstop.  The career total is more favorable for second base (2), but even less so at shortstop (-22).

At the plate, it’s impossible to overlook the drop off that Cabrera has experienced over the last two seasons.  In the All-Star years, he slashed a combined .272/.335/.443 with a 118 OPS+, well above the league average.  In the last two seasons, he has produced a .241/.303/.394 batting line with a slightly below-average OPS+ of 96.  Cabrera’s 2014 walk (7.7%) and strikeout percentages (17.1%) are in line with his career averages, which is to say they’re alright, but not great.

Personal

Cabrera and his wife, Lismar, have two children and this winter they’ll welcome another member of the Cabrera clan into the world.

Of course, Cabrera spent his entire big league career in Cleveland before the midseason trade that sent him to the nation’s capital.  While he didn’t stomp his feet over being dealt to the Nationals, he was upset to leave what had become a second home for him, telling reporters it was “like [he] grew up” in Cleveland.  That feeling was reciprocated in the front office.

It’s another tough day for a number of us personally because of how much Asdrubal meant to our team and our organization,” General Manager Chris Antonetti said, according to The Associated Press. ”He’s a guy who has impacted two postseasons for us. We’ll obviously miss Asdrubal a great deal.”

In his downtime, Cabrera enjoys being on his farm in Florida where he tends to his horses every morning.  Back in Venezuela, he’s a fan of taking his boat out on the water with family and friends.

Market

Even though he prefers the shortstop position and his second half in Washington didn’t produce his finest work, Cabrera has said that he would welcome a return to the Nationals.

It depends. A team like this team, a good team that want me to play second, I would love to stay here. I just want to win. I’ve got eight seasons already. I want to be in the World Series one day,” Cabrera said, according to MASNsports.com’s Dan Kolko.

That desire to win could, theoretically, lead to a discount for the incumbent Nats.  Recently, Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider expertly summed up the Nationals’ dilemma at second base.  If they want to prioritize offense at the position, then Cabrera is the better choice to make than giving the defensively strong Danny Espinosa an opportunity to take back the job.  Our own Jeff Todd suggests that a platoon between Cabrera and Espinosa, who can hit against lefties and serve as a strong defensive replacement, would make sense.  The Nats can also use that duo to fill the void if Ian Desmond leaves in free agency next winter.  However, it’s not a given that the Nats will be willing to get in the ballpark of what other clubs will offer Cabrera.

If the two sides can’t get on the same page for a reunion, there should be plenty of interest from teams in need of middle infield help.  The competition at second base is thin, though Cuban defectors Jose Fernandez and Hector Olivera have added some depth there.  At shortstop, Cabrera will have to vie with Stephen Drew and Jed Lowrie.  As noted in Jeff’s recent poll asking the MLBTR commentariat to choose the best option from the trio, Ramirez could be seen more as a third base option than shortstop and the year’s best potential option, J.J. Hardy, is already spoken for.

Teams like the Padres, Reds, and Mets could be interested in signing an impact shortstop, though none of them look the part of a Las Vegas championship favorite for 2015.  The A’s and the Blue Jays could both be in the market for a second baseman.  The Yankees, meanwhile, are on the lookout for a shortstop and, depending on how things play out, could have a need at second as well.  Martin Prado is currently penciled in to fill that role, but if he’s needed elsewhere, the Bombers could look into someone like Cabrera for second.

Expected Contract

The dearth of quality free agent middle infielders is something of a double-edged sword for Cabrera.  On one hand, he has less competition.  On the other, as evidenced by the lack of intriguing available options, a lot of teams are already set, particularly at second base.  There are also a few teams with surpluses in that area like the Rangers, Cubs, and Diamondbacks, which could draw attention away from the free agent market.

Ultimately, while he enjoys playing shortstop more, his best bet at winning and cashing in could come as a second baseman.  The Nationals should at least have some interest in working out a new deal, even though they didn’t get a redux of Cabrera’s best work.  The Yankees, if they shift Prado, can be expected to show interest as well.  Because of his age and his ability to play both middle infield positions, I predict that Cabrera will land a three-year, $27MM deal.

Photo courtesy USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason Outlook: Milwaukee Brewers

After spending much of the 2014 season in first place and then collapsing down the stretch, the Brewers will try to regroup for 2015, perhaps hoping for the best with a talented but flawed core and a marginal, though improving, farm system.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The Brewers unexpectedly got off to a great start in 2014 and continued that hot start into the summer, with a 51-32 record as of June 28. As the first half of the season became the second, however, the 6 1/2-game lead they had held over the Cardinals evaporated, and in the end they missed the playoffs and barely finished above .500.

The Brewers retained manager Ron Roenicke following their collapse, although they dismissed hitting coach Johnny Narron and first base/infield coach Garth Iorg. Despite any lingering frustrations, it appears unlikely they’ll make many huge moves this offseason.

One position they will likely upgrade is first base, where they’ve struggled to find a reliable contributor since Corey Hart‘s last healthy season with the team in 2012. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay platooned at the position in 2014 and, unsurprisingly, neither of them helped much. Reynolds hit 22 home runs in 433 plate appearances, but with his usual very low batting average and a .287 OBP. Both are free agents; Overbay appears likely to retire. Adam LaRoche (whose mutual option the Nationals are likely to decline) looks like the prize of this year’s free agent class, with the injury-prone Michael Cuddyer and the defensively challenged Michael Morse close behind. The Brewers could also lean on rookies Matt Clark and Jason Rogers, who both hit well with Triple-A Nashville, although both are minor league veterans who might not have much to offer at the big-league level.

The Brewers will also need to figure out what to do with Aramis Ramirez. Given his $4MM buyout, Ramirez’ $14MM mutual option is effectively $10MM for the Brewers. They would be wise to exercise their end, given that Ramirez produced a reasonable 2.1 fWAR while hitting .285/.330/.427 last season. Ramirez would not get the buyout if he were to decline his end, so it might make sense for him to accept his end of the option, particularly if he intends to retire after 2015. He could also decline the option and seek a multi-year deal, however. Ramirez said in July that he planned to reach 2,500 games for his career, which would take at least three more seasons, but he also said in September that he was not sure whether he would play 2015. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes predicts that Ramirez will ultimately re-sign with the Brewers for two years and $26MM.

The middle infield is mostly set with Scooter Gennett and Jean Segura, although Segura took a big step backward after a strong rookie season in 2013. The Brewers will surely decline their $11.5MM option on Rickie Weeks, who didn’t get enough plate appearances for his option to vest. The 2003 No. 2 overall pick doesn’t expect to be back in Milwaukee in 2015. If he isn’t, the Brewers could pursue a cheap right-handed infielder to platoon with Gennett, or have Hector Gomez, who had a good season at Nashville and is out of options, occupy that role.

The Brewers could also continue with Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis in the outfield. Gomez continues to produce at an extremely high level and is a bargain at just $17MM total through the next two seasons. Braun, though, struggled in 2014 (hitting .266/.324/.453, not a good figure for a player with little defensive value), and the $117MM he’s owed through 2020 looks like it could become a problem. Perhaps a healthier Braun (he suffered from a thumb injury this season and has already had unusual surgery to freeze a nerve) can rebound in 2015.

The Brewers could retain Gerardo Parra as an outfield backup — it’s hard to pass on an average hitter and elite defender (although defensive metrics weren’t keen on his 2014 performance). Still, Parra is coming off a disappointing season and will get a modest raise on his $4.85MM 2013 salary, making him an expensive backup. Dealing or non-tendering him might be a way for the Brewers to free up salary. Another possibility might be to move Braun to first base and have Parra start in right field.

Behind the plate, of course, there’s Jonathan Lucroy, who is, like Gomez, an elite, prime-age player signed to a bargain contract. Lucroy’s five-year deal is among the most team-friendly in baseball — it guarantees an MVP-caliber player a mere $11MM and gives the Brewers an option on what would have been Lucroy’s first free agent season (2017) for just $5.25MM.

In the rotation, the Brewers have already decided to exercise their $13MM option on Yovani Gallardo, and they also have Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse under contract and a reasonable collection of pre-free agency pitchers in Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and promising newcomer Jimmy Nelson. Marco Estrada could be a non-tender candidate after allowing 29 homers in 150 2/3 innings in 2014, although he’ll still be fairly cheap and his other peripherals were reasonable. The Brewers don’t figure to be big players for free agent starting pitching.

Their bullpen will be trickier. Closer Francisco Rodriguez and lefties Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny will all be eligible for free agency. Duke emerged from oblivion to become the Brewers’ best reliever in 2014, posting a 2.45 ERA with a remarkable 11.4 K/9 in 58 2/3 innings, and his production will be difficult to replace if he departs.

The bullpen’s season demonstrated how crucial a good relief corps can be. Rodriguez, Duke, Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith dominated in the early going, leading the Brewers as they jumped to the division lead. During that time, however, those relievers piled up appearances as little-used Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang occupied a bullpen spot that could have gone to someone capable of soaking up innings. Rodriguez couldn’t keep up his early pace, Smith imploded in July, and Thornburg faded in May and eventually ended up on the DL with an elbow injury. The team also lost Jim Henderson to shoulder problems. Finally, they acquired Jonathan Broxton — and his entire $9MM 2015 salary, plus a $2MM buyout — from the Reds in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

In March and April, the Brewers had the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball, at 2.45; in the second half, it was more than a run higher, at 3.62. While variance in bullpen performance is normal, and the team did get some good work from second-tier relievers like Gorzelanny and Jeremy Jeffress, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Brewers attempt to avoid last season’s struggles by pursuing bullpen depth this winter. Re-signing or replacing Rodriguez at closer could also be a priority.

Despite the trajectory of their 2014 season, the Brewers’ 82-80 record was about what they should have expected, given their talent. The question is what they’ll do from here. Having two excellent and cheap players in Gomez and Lucroy is a strong place for any franchise to start, but the Brewers’ complementary pieces aren’t nearly as valuable, and it’s unclear where their next group of stars will come from. Including Gallardo’s option, the Brewers already have about $70MM on the books for 2015. Retaining Ramirez will add to that total, as will arbitration raises for Parra, Estrada and catcher Martin Maldonado (assuming Parra and Estrada are retained). The Brewers will need to address first base as well, which should leave them without much money to make a big splash this offseason, given that their highest ever Opening Day payroll was their 2014 total of about $103MM. Perhaps their best shot at an attention-grabbing signing would be if they acquired someone like Chase Headley to play third base, and that would only happen if Ramirez left.

An infusion of star talent doesn’t appear imminent from the minors, either. The Brewers’ farm system has improved after a strong 2014 draft, but they don’t currently have anyone in MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in the game, and their best talents (Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, and top 2014 draftees Kodi Medeiros, Jacob Gatewood and Monte Harrison) have little or no experience in the high minors.

The Brewers are therefore in a tight spot. They don’t appear to be as good as the Cardinals or Pirates, and perhaps they soon won’t be as good as the rapidly improving Cubs. But given the state of their farm system, a rebuild would potentially be long and painful. And as the team’s outstanding 2014 first half suggested, the Brewers are still probably good enough to win an NL Central title or a Wild Card if everything breaks right. If Gomez and Lucroy were to maintain their production in 2015, if Braun and possibly Segura were to return to form, and if a couple more players (Davis and Nelson, say) were to break out, it wouldn’t be a shock if the team won 88 games or so and made the playoffs.

Given that possibility, rebuilding can wait. But if the Brewers get off to a poor start in 2015, expect to hear plenty of rumors about their veterans. In particular, Gallardo, Lohse and Broxton, who can all become free agents after 2015, would likely be fair game.


Offseason Outlook: Atlanta Braves

Last year’s offseason was dedicated in large part to the future, with a series of extensions and key financial moves, but the Braves were well-stocked with talent at the major league level and looked promising to start the 2014 season. After weathering significant pitching injuries early on, however, Atlanta faded badly down the stretch and is now staring at front office changes, a tight budget, difficult decisions, and rising competition in the division.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Free Agents

Other Obligations

Every organization responds differently when it feels that change is needed, and for the Braves, the sense seems to be that a restoration is in order. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox are still the most powerful figures in the organization, and Frank Wren’s departure will apparently not be met with a broad search for fresh blood in the GM seat. Interim GM John Hart was offered the post full-time, but it still remains unclear whether that is in the cards. Otherwise, the Braves will seemingly look first (and possibly only) at familiar faces such as assistant GM John Coppolella and former assistant GM (and current Royals GM) Dayton Moore. (Recently-resigned Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd, Hart’s former AGM with the Indians, has also been mentioned as a possibility, though MLB.com’s Mark Bowman tweets that he does not see O’Dowd as a candidate.) The organization has already set out to get the band back together in the scouting arena, bringing back figures such as Roy Clark and Dave Trembley.

The bottom line: Atlanta’s leadership does not believe that its player intake and development system is producing, and that determination seems to be the chief driver at this point. But with the organization ramping up for a critical new ballpark opening in 2017, what does it all mean for the big league club?

The key issue at the MLB level is, as ever, resource constraints. While Atlanta’s talent level remains high, the team has needs. And while last year’s run of extensions look like good investments overall, the Chris Johnson deal aside, they do not leave a ton of payroll flexibility moving forward. (Of course, the alternative would have been to pay bigger arbitration dollars while possibly losing key pieces to free agency down the line.) Last year’s franchise-record $112MM Opening Day payroll, which resulted in the team’s first losing season since 2008, seems unlikely to be repeated. How much spending capacity will remain? The club already has just under $80MM on the books for 2015, and could dedicate as much as $21MM+ if it tenders arbitration contracts to all of its eligible players.

Non-tenders and trades could free some dollars, but that means difficult choices are fast approaching. Qualifying offers must be made within five days of the end of the World Series, while decisions on arb-eligible players are due December 2nd.

A new GM will surely have a key role in determining the path forward, but given the timeline, the organization may well largely know already what it will do with players in those contractual situations. Indeed, as Hart has indicated, the general strategy appears to be in place. “We don’t need an overhaul,” said Hart. “It’s not a disaster. But there are certainly some things we need to take a look [at].” Acknowledging the “economic challenges” facing the team in building out its roster, Hart added that larger moves are likelier to come via trade than signing.

Regardless of how the decisions are made, a key set of issues involves the rotation, where several important pieces require action. To begin, Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, and Gavin Floyd will be free agents, subject to the qualifying offer process. The former seems a good bet to receive a $15.3MM QO, though that is hardly a clear case given the Braves’ financial limitations. It seems unlikely he would accept, since his downside scenario might be another one-year deal at that level of pay, and Atlanta will surely be tempted by the chance of obtaining draft compensation. The likeliest scenario appears to be that he will receive and reject an offer, and find a new club. Harang, meanwhile, could make sense, but barring a late effort at a new deal he’ll have a chance to test the market. And while another attempt at rehabbing Floyd could in theory take place again in Atlanta, he seems unlikely to open the year in any club’s starting five.

If those three arms move on, the rotation will have just three clear members: Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. (In spite of his struggles, Minor has too much ability and makes too much financial sense not to have a clear shot at a role.) David Hale is perhaps the likeliest younger player to be a promotion candidate, though Cody Martin may also get a shot after two solid runs at Triple-A.

Otherwise, the Braves will have to decide how to proceed with the two players whose season-ending injuries led to Santana’s signing last year: Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Both are working back from their second Tommy John procedures, which generally come with longer rehab periods and a lower incidence of successful recovery. Given their 2014 arbitration salaries ($5.8MM and $1.45MM, respectively), a non-tender of the former must at least be considered, though Medlen’s established performance baseline is probably too good to pass up. The team could look to work out a less financially onerous arrangement, possibly including a future option in the manner of the D’backs’ deal with Daniel Hudson. (Note that Medlen would be set to reach free agency after the year.)

Even if Medlen and Beachy have successful rehabs, an Opening Day return seems highly unlikely given that the pair was operated on in mid-March. The team could look at the free agent market for further depth. A Floyd-like bid for Brett Anderson would deliver upside, but may not suit the team’s needs. The likelier outcome, perhaps, would be to bring back Harang (though that could well require a two-year deal) or someone in his mold to bridge the gap and provide depth. Innings-eaters on the market include names like Ryan Vogelsong, Colby Lewis, and Kyle Kendrick.

All said, targeting a starter via trade could make sense for the Braves, as Hart suggested. The club is not without options for dealing from its big league roster. I recently explored the possibility of dealing backstop Evan Gattis, with youngster Christian Bethancourt taking over the regular role. Moving the pre-arb Gattis, however, would not deliver any immediate cost savings – indeed, finding a new backup (or re-signing Gerald Laird) would probably add payroll. While Gattis is probably not enough of an asset to bring back a starter who is both cost-controlled and an established producer, the Braves might find enough of those attributes to make a deal attractive.

If Atlanta really wants to add an arm with significant current and future value, it will likely need to consider parting with one of its quality corner outfielders. Both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are entering their final year of control, but are young enough that an acquiring team could place significant value on exclusive rights to negotiate an extension. Of course, that pair accounted for a significant piece of the club’s production last year, so the return would have to be substantial. As others have suggested, it could make sense to explore a long-term deal with one or both while also gauging trade interest in a bid to address other areas of need and possibly add a player with more control. Extending one while dealing the other makes some sense, though the ability to pull off that feat will depend upon other actors (the players and prospective trade partners). One interesting possibility noted by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes would be a swap with the Reds involving Heyward and Johnny Cueto; if both clubs cannot find something else to their liking, such a move might better align with their respective needs in 2015.

Of course, unlike the catching situation, there is no obvious corner outfielder ready to step into a regular role. Among the team’s near-MLB prospects, the best of whom are mostly pitchers, Todd Cunningham is a possibility to take over a slot. But while the 25-year-old improved upon his first go at Triple-A, and is said to be a good defender capable of playing center, he managed only a .287/.347/.406 line with 8 home runs and 19 steals last year at Gwinnett. Other possibilities include a trade of a pitching prospect for an affordable, younger outfielder, a dip into a free agent market that includes names like Norichika Aoki and Alex Rios, or a combination of the above in search of a productive platoon.

Then, there is the fact that the team already has questions in center, where a struggling and expensive B.J. Upton looks nearly immovable. Last we heard, the Braves and Cubs intended to revisit the possibility of a bad-contract swap also involving Edwin Jackson. Otherwise, unless someone like Cunningham delivers a big spring, Atlanta could be forced to put Upton back in the lineup and hope for a turnaround.

The infield, at least, is much more settled. First baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons are perhaps the only names sure to be written into the Opening Day lineup card, though the rest of the diamond will almost certainly be filled internally as well. Third baseman Chris Johnson is likely to have a chance to return to his 2013 levels, given that his extension does not even kick in until this year, though he may soon be challenged by prospect Kyle Kubitza. And at second, the Braves will wait out the tail end of the disappointing Dan Uggla contract — since he was released, there is no longer any hope of saving any cash — while fielding second-year player Tommy La Stella. Of course, the much-hyped 20-year-old Jose Peraza could become a factor if he continues to impress, though he has taken only 195 plate appearances at the Double-A level.

The bullpen, likewise, seems destined to continue in much the same form as last year. Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, and James Russell make up a strong back end. And a series of other arms – Anthony Varvaro, Shae Simmons, Chasen Shreve, and Luis Avilan among them – deliver ample depth. Though none of these arms (Kimbrel excepted) will make a large mark on the balance sheet, it is possible to imagine Atlanta dealing from depth to sweeten the pot in a larger trade while potentially freeing up a little bit of extra spending capacity. The team will likely need to try to work something out to keep Jonny Venters; the outstanding 29-year-old lefty is attempting a rare return from a third Tommy John procedure, and his arb price tag looks steep given that he did not even receive his latest UCL replacement until the end of August.

In the end, the Braves continue to be a team with plenty of talent, and it would not be surprising to see a rebound year. But given the financial constraints, the front office’s own seemingly negative take on the talent pipeline, and the looming free agency of Heyward and Upton, Atlanta will need to balance carefully the present with the future. Though dealing away expiring contracts for prospects holds some facial appeal, and the 2017 ballpark opening looms large from a business perspective, Atlanta has not been known to take that tack in the past. Creativity, then, will be the key; but first the front office situation will need to be decided.


Free Agent Profile: Michael Cuddyer

Despite an injury plagued 2014, Michael Cuddyer figures to be amongst the more heavily pursued free agent position players of the winter.  The 35-year-old (36 by Opening Day) played in just 49 games in 2014, but his offensive numbers are more in less in line with his 2013 output and there’s always a market for effective bats with some pop.  His last trip through free agency netted a three-year, $31.5MM contract and he’s now in position to land yet another lucrative deal.

Strengths/Pros

Over the last three seasons in Colorado (280 games), Cuddyer owns a .307/.362/.525 batting line with 46 homers.  His best work in Colorado came in the sandwich year of 2013 when he was NL batting champion with a .331 average at the plate.  And, while Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in the majors, it wasn’t just the home altitude that helped Cuddyer knock 20 homers and post the NL’s fourth-highest slugging percentage (.530) in that season.  The veteran hit eleven homers at Coors and nine dingers on the road in 2013.  Meanwhile, his wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus, explained masterfully by Fangraphs here) of 138 was the best showing of his career at the time, putting him well ahead of the league average and 14 percentage points above his previous watermark from Minnesota in 2009.  In a smaller sample, he topped that with a wRC+ of 151 this past season.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Diego PadresSomewhat surprisingly, Cuddyer consistently posts average or better marks in baserunning value, according to Fangraphs.  Cuddyer has a strong career BsR of 8.3 and his recent marks of 0.0, 1.1, and 1.3 in the last three seasons would indicate that he has been at least an average runner.  At this point in his career, he’s probably not the fastest guy out there, but the numbers would suggest that he’s smart on the basepaths.

Cuddyer offers some versatility as he could be slotted in as a first baseman or an outfielder.  He also won’t have a qualifying offer attached to him and won’t require the forfeiture of draft picks.

Weaknesses/Cons

Cuddyer averaged roughly 150 games per year in his final three seasons with the Twins, which helped lead to his big payday in Colorado.  Unfortunately, he’s averaged ~93 games per season since and saw time in just 49 games in 2014.  In 2012, an oblique injury cost him the majority of August and all of September.  He played 130 games in 2013, but a neck injury shelved him for two weeks in May.  Last season, a painful shoulder fracture and a pair of strained hamstrings led to Cuddyer being mostly out of commission.  Teams are sure to be wary about that as he approached his age-36 season.

Cuddyer has experience at multiple positions but he’s not Gold Glove material at any of them.  For his career, Cuddyer has a -8.0 UZR/150 rating in right field and his -4.4 rating at first base also leaves much to be desired.  Unfortunately, Cuddyer’s shaky defense has watered down his significant offensive contributions, especially in recent years.  In 2013, despite his strong performance at the plate, he registered a rather pedestrian WAR of 2.4.

Personal

Michael and his wife, Claudia, have three children.  When he’s not on the diamond, Cuddyer likes to indulge in his own favorite childhood pastime: magic.  In 2012, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com asked an audience member for his take on Cuddyer’s skills.

He’s blowing guys’ minds here,” Jason Giambi said of Cuddyer. “[The tricks] are as good as any I’ve ever seen, and trust me, I live in Vegas and I get to see a lot of those shows. They’re pretty incredible.

As Cuddyer told Crasnick, he used the tricks as an icebreaker with his teammates when he arrived in Colorado.  Then-GM Dan O’Dowd spoke highly of Cuddyer as a positive figure in the locker room.

Not only is he a good player — and will be for a significantly long period of time — but if you talk to anybody in the game, he innately just ‘gets it.’ He challenges people in his own way to be all about the team,” O’Dowd said.

Market

Cuddyer loves being in Colorado, owner Dick Monfort wants to keep him, and manager Walt Weiss hopes that he’ll return since he “means so much to [the] club, in ways that go beyond the stat sheet.”  Unfortunately, monetary constraints will probably get in the way of a reunion.  Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post recently wrote that it’d be hard to see the Rockies paying even $4-6MM for Cuddyer next season.  You never know for sure how the market will break, but that probably won’t get it done.

The Pirates, Brewers, and Marlins are among the teams that are expected to shop for a first baseman and the Padres could be added to that list if they don’t have confidence in Yonder Alonso‘s abilities.  Meanwhile, the Astros and Mets will be shopping for a corner outfielder and Cuddyer could fit within their budgets.  Cuddyer also holds appeal as a DH so we could see a return to the American League in that role.

Expected Contract

If Cuddyer was coming off of something resembling a full season, his contract outlook would be quite different.  Given his age and health issues, a one or two-year deal seems likely but another three-year deal probably isn’t in the cards.

Still, there will be plenty of teams willing to give Cuddyer a substantial sum of money and it could even rival the average annual value of his three-year, $31.5MM Rockies contract.  I predict Cuddyer will land a two-year, $22MM deal this winter.  If he stays healthy, it may not be his last big payday either.