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Is there ever a good reason for a team to put their MLB-ready top prospect on the Opening Day roster, as the Diamondbacks recently did with Archie Bradley? As we’ve seen with the Cubs and Kris Bryant, waiting at least 12 days into the season ensures the team will control the player for a seventh season. Forward-looking teams that are willing to wait before calling up their phenom can delay his free agency by a year, and that extra year of control is generally more valuable than having the player for the first two weeks of April. However, we found 11 examples in the last decade of top MLB prospects who did make the Opening Day roster. You might say these players conquered the service time issue, or at least were lucky enough to have GMs who disregarded it.
1. Jose Fernandez, Marlins SP. Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest certainly would have been justified giving Fernandez a little more minor league seasoning in 2013. The game’s #5 overall prospect according to Baseball America, Fernandez was just 20 years old and had never pitched above A ball. But when Marlins starters Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez got hurt, Fernandez surprisingly made the team.
Was it worth it? Fernandez didn’t make his Marlins debut until April 7th, 2013, so they ultimately traded his five-inning debut for control of his age-26 season, which will happen in 2019. He was clearly ready to make the jump, as Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year award. However, over a year of the Marlins’ control of their young ace was lost when he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery the following season. The team put him on the 2013 Opening Day roster even with the knowledge that he was represented by notorious agent Scott Boras, who generally encourages players to avoid extensions that delay free agency. In December, the Marlins reportedly made a six-year offer (with two club options) worth close to $40MM, but no deal was reached. Even if they do reach some kind of precedent-shattering deal, five extra innings from Fernandez as part of a 100-loss season was not worth it for the Marlins.
2. Jedd Gyorko, Padres 2B. Gyorko came into 2013 as BA’s #71-ranked prospect, and he spent Spring Training working on the transition from third to second base. Injuries to Chase Headley and Logan Forsythe helped open the door for GM Josh Byrnes to put Gyorko on the Opening Day roster.
Was it worth it? It’s possible that the goodwill from Byrnes’ lack of regard for service time helped encourage Gyorko to sign a six-year, $35.5MM extension with a club option with the Padres a year later. In that contract the Padres paid a free agent price for the 2019 season ($13MM), which potentially could have been cheaper had that represented his fourth year of arbitration. Or, an extra year of control might have convinced Byrnes to wait another season before proposing an extension. Gyorko struggled mightily with injuries and performance as a sophomore in 2014, and the extension might end up being regrettable.
3. Mike Leake, Reds SP. The Reds drafted Leake eighth overall in 2009 out of Arizona State, and with nothing more than an Arizona Fall League stint under his belt as a pro, he beat Travis Wood for the fifth starter job to begin the 2010 season. He pitched well enough as a rookie, but was moved to the bullpen in August and his season ended on the 24th of that month.
Was it worth it? The Reds won the division by five games in 2010, and Leake was a part of that. Leake was wild on his April 11th debut, but still beat the Cubs. Since GM Walt Jocketty could have easily let him make his debut a few days later, it was not worth it. Controlling Leake for 2016, his age 28 season, would have been valuable, even if he would have cost $14MM through arbitration.
4. Austin Jackson, Tigers CF. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski acquired Jackson in the epic three-team December 2009 trade that also included Max Scherzer, Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy, Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth. Jackson was regarded as the #76 prospect in baseball, and he became the Tigers’ Opening Day center fielder.
Was it worth it? Jackson hit quite well in his first dozen games or so, and his performance easily could have led to an additional win or two. It wasn’t worth it in that the Tigers finished at .500, but at the time Dombrowski’s decision was defensible. Jackson was again part of a big three-team deal at the 2014 trade deadline. He would have carried more trade value with 2016 control, though teams will be down on him for next year if his current struggles persist.
5. Jason Heyward, Braves RF. In a situation analogous to Bryant, the Braves had the game’s best prospect prior to the 2010 season in Heyward. Heyward had just three games of Triple-A experience, but GM Frank Wren couldn’t resist putting the 20-year-old on the Opening Day roster after a legendary Spring Training.
Was it worth it? The Braves won the Wild Card by one game and Heyward had a very strong start, so this is a rare case where it was worth it. The Braves traded Heyward to the Cardinals last November with Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. That was a solid return, but of course the Braves would have done better if they controlled Heyward for ’16 as well.
6. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals CF. Rasmus was Baseball America’s #3 prospect prior to the 2009 season. He made GM John Mozeliak’s Opening Day roster, but wasn’t in the outfield when the Cards battled Pittsburgh on April 5th.
Was it worth it? The Cardinals won the Central Division handily in ’09, but since Rasmus didn’t start every game those first few weeks, it probably wasn’t worth putting him on the Opening Day roster. When Mozeliak traded Rasmus to the Blue Jays in an eight-player deal in July 2011, the outfielder had three-plus seasons of control remaining. It was well-known by that point that Rasmus had worn out his welcome in St. Louis, so while the additional year of control always increases a player’s trade value, it might not have made a huge difference here.
7. Elvis Andrus, Rangers SS. In December 2008, Rangers GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington told face of the franchise Michael Young he’d be shifting from shortstop to third base in 2009, paving the way for one of the game’s top 40 prospects in Andrus.
Was it worth it? Andrus hit quite well in those first few weeks, and surely made some plays at shortstop Young would not have. The Rangers won 87 games and fell short of the Wild Card, but at the time the decision was made, it was defensible. Three years later Andrus signed a deal buying out only his arbitration years, and then a year after that Andrus asked agent Scott Boras to get him a long-term extension, even though it meant missing the chance at being the rare 26-year-old free agent. Boras got Andrus a huge deal with a pair of opt-outs. If in spring 2013 the Rangers already controlled Andrus through 2015, they would have at least approached those extension talks differently.
8. Brett Anderson, Athletics SP. Savvy GMs had no problem putting top prospects on Opening Day rosters back in 2009. Even Billy Beane did it with Anderson, the game’s #7 prospect heading into that season, even though the lefty had made only six starts above A ball. Anderson was the team’s fourth starter out of the gate, losing his first couple of starts.
Was it worth it? With a starting pitcher it’s almost never “worth it,” since the extra MLB time amounts to one or two starts. Anderson had a solid rookie year for the A’s, and maybe Beane’s gesture of putting him on the Opening Day roster was a factor in him signing a four-year, $12.5MM deal with two club options a year later. The contract bought back the potential year of control the A’s lost (2015), and that $12MM club option probably still had a bit of value to the Rockies when they acquired Anderson in December 2013. They ultimately chose a $1.5MM buyout instead, as Anderson’s injury woes continued in Colorado.
9. Johnny Cueto, Reds SP. Cueto was BA’s #34 prospect prior to the 2008 season, and he broke camp as part of the Reds’ rotation. Cueto dazzled in his first couple of the starts, and the Reds won his debut by one run.
Was it worth it? That extra Cueto-related win didn’t matter much for the Reds, who finished in fifth place in ’08. It’s possible that some goodwill from GM Wayne Krivsky’s decision came into play in January 2011, when new GM Walt Jocketty signed Cueto to a four-year deal with a club option for ’15 (an easy choice to exercise last fall). If Cueto was held in Triple-A for a few weeks to begin ’08, would he have chosen not to sign an extension later? In that scenario, he would have reached free agency after 2014. It’s also possible that a few weeks as a rookie wouldn’t have mattered to him, and controlling him through ’14 could have meant signing him to an extension running through ’16.
10. John Danks, White Sox SP. White Sox GM Kenny Williams acquired Danks from the Rangers in December 2006, sending Brandon McCarthy to Texas. Like Dave Dombrowski with Austin Jackson, Williams couldn’t wait to get his new acquisition on the big league club. It’s kind of like a kid getting a new toy and opening the box on the ride home.
Was it worth it? Danks would have benefited from additional Triple-A seasoning, as he posted a 5.50 ERA as a rookie. He was decent in his first couple of starts, though the White Sox lost both games en route to a fourth place finish. Williams’ decision set Danks up for free agency after 2012, but he signed a five-year, $65MM extension prior to his walk year. Danks wound up needing shoulder surgery in 2012. An extra year of control might have prevented the White Sox from extending Danks in general, in which case they wouldn’t have him on the books currently.
11. Nick Markakis, Orioles RF/LF. Top Orioles exec Mike Flanagan put Markakis on the team’s Opening Day roster back in 2006. The 22-year-old had played just 33 games above A ball.
Was it worth it? Markakis didn’t play every day in the season’s first few weeks and the Orioles finished in fourth place. Flanagan’s roster decision had Markakis on track for free agency after 2011, but in January 2009 Andy MacPhail signed him to a six-year, $66.1MM extension with a club option for 2015. I don’t think much would have changed with the contract had Flanagan waited a few weeks in ’06 to call Markakis up.
What have we learned? Two weeks of a rookie in April is rarely directly worth trading for a seventh year of control, but the tradeoff can be defensible for certain teams and players. Also, the extra year of control could impact extensions in multiple ways. On one hand, it’s possible some players signed extensions partially because of the goodwill from being placed on the Opening Day roster. On the other hand, an additional year of control might have bought GMs more time to gather data on whether certain extensions were worth pursuing in the first place.
Please note that we looked for examples within the last ten seasons, omitting players like Joe Mauer, and we also left out relievers such as Joel Zumaya and Huston Street.
Newly installed president of baseball operations John Hart wasted little time in aggressively turning over a roster that disappointed last year, adding loads of young pitching and reshaping the team’s offensive profile.
Major League Signings
- OF Nick Markakis: four years, $44MM
- RP Jason Grilli: two years, $8MM
- OF Dian Toscano: four years, $7.5MM
- OF Jonny Gomes: one year, $4MM
- IF Alberto Callaspo: one year, $3MM
- C A.J. Pierzynski: one year, $2MM
- RP Jim Johnson: one year, $1.6MM
- RP Josh Outman: one year, $925K
- OF Zoilo Almonte: one year, unknown (presumably, the league minimum)
- Total spend: ~$71.5MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- John Buck (since retired), Matt Capps, David Carpenter, Pedro Ciriaco, Todd Coffey (since released), Kelly Johnson, Michael Kohn, Peter Moylan, Wandy Rodriguez (since released), Gus Schlosser, Eric Stults, Donnie Veal, Jose Veras (since released), Chien-Ming Wang, Eric Young
Trades And Claims
- Acquired SP Shelby Miller, SP Tyrell Jenkins from Cardinals in exchange for OF Jason Heyward, RP Jordan Walden
- Acquired SP Max Fried, IF Jace Peterson, 3B Dustin Peterson, OF Mallex Smith, international bonus pool money from Padres in exchange for OF Justin Upton, SP Aaron Northcraft
- Acquired SP Michael Foltynewicz, SP/RP Andrew Thurman, 3B Rio Ruiz from Astros in exchange for C/OF Evan Gattis, RP James Hoyt
- Acquired OF Cameron Maybin, OF Carlos Quentin, SP Matt Wisler, OF Jordan Paroubeck, competitive balance round A pick (41st overall) from Padres in exchange for RP Craig Kimbrel, OF Melvin Upton Jr.
- Acquired SP Trevor Cahill, competitive balance round B pick (75th overall), $6.5MM from Diamondbacks in exchange for OF Josh Elander and OF Victor Reyes
- Acquired SP Ricardo Sanchez from Angels in exchange for 3B Kyle Kubitza, RP Nate Hyatt
- Acquired C Jose Briceno, C Chris O’Dowd from Rockies in exchange for SP David Hale, RP Gus Schlosser
- Acquired SP Manny Banuelos from Yankees in exchange for RP David Carpenter, RP Chasen Shreve
- Acquired RP Arodys Vizcaino, international bonus pool money from Cubs in exchange for IF Tommy La Stella
- Acquired RP Aaron Kurcz, cash from Red Sox in exchange for RP Anthony Varvaro
- Acquired SP/RP Zach Quintana from Brewers in exchange for OF Kyle Wren
- Acquired RP Bryton Trepagnier from Pirates in exchange for IF Edward Salcedo
- Claimed OF Eury Perez from Yankees
- Claimed SP Daniel Winkler from Rockies in Rule 5 draft
- Brandon Beachy, Emilio Bonifacio, Jose Constanza, Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd, Cory Gearrin, J.R. Graham (Rule 5), Gerald Laird, Kris Medlen, Tyler Pastornicky, Ramiro Pena, James Russell, Ervin Santana, Jonny Venters
The Braves spent last winter locking up young talent for the long run, but changed course swiftly after the club’s first losing campaign since 2008. Moving into the driver’s seat was former Indians/Rangers GM John Hart, who will be accompanied by well-regarded young executive John Coppolella. With the former taking on the title of president of baseball operations and the latter remaining the assistant GM, the club technically has no general manager. Expectations are that Coppolella will eventually ascend to that position, but for now at least he’ll work under Hart.
Club president John Schuerholz has explained that Wren’s sacking was motivated not by the club’s failure to contend in 2014, but rather by the overall lack of organizational strength that he perceived. The new leadership promptly set out to trade in many of its best big league pieces for young talent, transforming a lagging farm into a system that many now rank in the top ten league-wide.
It all started with the departures of Heyward and Upton, a pair of corner outfielders who will hit the open market after the season — arguably as the best two available free agents. The cumulative return was highlighted by Shelby Miller, who once looked to be the future staff ace of the Cardinals but will seek to get back on track after a relatively disappointing 2014. Tyrell Jenkins and Max Fried represent some younger, high-upside arms, while Jace Peterson surprised this spring and has opened the year in Atlanta’s everyday lineup. As always, evaluating the quality of a prospect haul requires time, but there is an argument to be made that Atlanta could have squeezed more value had it waited for the trade deadline.
At the time, it was not out of the question that the club would stop there in terms of major moves. That proved not to be the case. The Braves proceeded to deal two key players who carried plenty of team control in Evan Gattis and, most controversially — among the fanbase, at least — star closer Craig Kimbrel.
Gattis always made more sense in the American League, particularly for a club that has a young catcher (Christian Bethancourt) who it expects to provide a level of defense that Gattis cannot. But he was affordable and useful, so it took an impressive haul for the Astros to pry him away. Atlanta netted two highly-regarded prospects in righty Michael Foltynewicz and third baseman Rio Ruiz.
As if that were not enough, the Braves and Padres stunned the baseball world once again on the eve of Opening Day. Kimbrel, one of the team’s longest-tenured and most marketable players, was traded to San Diego along with Melvin Upton Jr. and his ball-and-chain of a contract. Atlanta took back some salary commitments by adding Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin (since released), but Maybin still has some value and fills an immediate need in center. In addition to financial relief, of course, the Braves picked up another top-100 pitching prospect in Matt Wisler along with the 41st pick in this year’s draft.
A series of smaller deals brought back other young arms, including former top prospects Manny Banuelos and Arodys Vizcaino. Cuban outfielder Dian Toscano was added on a lower-profile, but still fairly significant, international deal. And more young talent will be coming: in addition to adding a sandwich pick in the Kimbrel deal, Atlanta picked up some international pool money and the 75th overall pick through other trades.
That last draft choice came as part of the deal that brought starter Trevor Cahill to Atlanta. Still just 27, Cahill will fill some frames in the near term but also comes with upside. He managed a 3.89 FIP in spite of awful results last year, and comes with a history of throwing a high number of solid innings. While it would take quite a turnaround for his two options ($13MM, $13.5MM) to become attractive, Cahill could theoretically become a summer trade chip. Alternatively, the Braves could simply hold onto him in the event of a rebound, content to have a solid contributor at a reasonable price. Given the relatively meager cost to acquire him (in terms of cash and prospects) and the fact that Atlanta also ultimately added extra bonus pool flexibility with the draft pick, it looks like a solid gamble, even if a resurgence seems unlikely.
All of those moves filled long-term needs, but obviously also functioned to open up holes in the current big league roster. The club opted to fill them with veteran free agents who figure to hold down the fort as the team transitions. While some teams have foregone such spending in rebuilding years, relying more heavily on organizational depth and minor league free agents, the Braves have made clear that they intend to field a competitive team and quickly ramp up with a new park set to open in 2017.
Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson head to the back of the bullpen, Jonny Gomes to the corner outfield, Alberto Callaspo to a utility infield role, and A.J. Pierzynski to the backup catcher slot, all for a total commitment of just over $18MM. Of course, the Braves did make one much more significant outlay: outfielder Nick Markakis, whose signing we’ll look at more closely below.
The re-made staff, fronted by Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, is cheaper, younger, and perhaps more talented than last year’s unit (which went without the since-departed Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy), but it remains to be seen if it will be more productive. Miller and Cahill have plenty of upside, but each needs to re-establish himself in his new environs. Behind them, Eric Stults (and, perhaps, Chien Ming-Wang) will eat innings and try to hold off Foltynewicz, Wisler, and Banuelos. Atlanta will presumably hope that at least two-thirds of the young trio can force the issue and head into 2016 prepared to take over full-time jobs.
The biggest rotation question of all, however, is 27-year-old lefty Mike Minor, who has struggled with health and consistency. He is owed $5.6MM in his second year of arbitration eligibility (as a Super Two player) and will once again start the year on the DL with shoulder problems. Minor struggled last year after an outstanding 2013, and if his shoulder problems are severe enough, he could conceivably become a non-tender candidate given his growing cost. That, of course, is somewhat of a worst-case scenario, though.
Suddenly lacking not only Kimbrel but also top setup man Jordan Walden and middle relievers David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro, among others, the Braves’ bullpen is a new-look affair. Indeed, Atlanta’s pen will feature just one player — southpaw Luis Avilan — who made more than twenty appearances for the team last year. Grilli will need to show that his improved second half of 2014 is sustainable at an advanced age, Johnson will look to re-establish himself, and newcomers like Cody Martin and Brandon Cunniff will try to take advantage of an opportunity. (Promising righty Shae Simmons is a notable absentee after undergoing Tommy John surgery prior to the season.)
As for the lineup, the Braves made clear that they wanted to move away from an all-or-nothing, high-strikeout approach, and certainly have angled to do so. But it remains to be seen what kind of offensive output the new group will provide. Beyond the excellent bat of first baseman Freddie Freeman and the solid production of Nick Markakis, the lineup is full of questions at the plate.
Behind the plate, Bethancourt looks to be a reliable defender but has much to prove offensively after a .248/.274/.274 line in 117 plate appearances last year. The veteran Pierzynski was not much better last year, though he has long provided a serviceable bat behind the dish.
In the middle infield, Andrelton Simmons is a generational glove man but has seen his productivity on the other side of the ball decline steadily over the last three years. Second base is wide open: Peterson has the first crack at the job, while Kelly Johnson joins Callaspo as established options who have been slightly below average at the plate and in the field over recent seasons. Likewise, third base could be manned at times by either of those veterans or Chris Johnson, who failed to live up to his extension in his second season in Atlanta.
And that, finally, brings us to Markakis.
Deal Of Note
A four-year, $44MM free agent deal for a franchise right fielder? That’s a bargain. The question, of course, is whether Markakis really fits that mold. He gets on base, is said to be an excellent clubhouse presence, and has a sterling defensive reputation. But he has meager power for his position, is only a slightly above-average overall offensive player, and does not score particularly well in terms of defensive metrics, despite the facts that plenty of scouts seem to vouch for his glove. And then there’s the fact that Markakis is already 31 and just underwent neck surgery.
By wins above replacement, Markakis has generally been worth about two or two-and-a-half wins per season over the last several campaigns (excepting a rough 2013). If you accept that he is a significantly better outfielder than the metrics suggest, and buy into the idea that he’ll age well, then you can see some merit in a contract that pays him more or less what the Indians gave Michael Bourn, who was probably a 3 to 4 win player, depending upon which formula you prefer.
But there is risk here, and not a lot of upside. And there is a rather significant loss of flexibility for an Atlanta club that has fairly limited payroll (at least until it sees how revenues look upon the new park opening) and many needs. Notably, the Braves took on about the same overall commitment as they shed when they eventually traded away Melvin Upton Jr.
As always, it remains to be seen. Markakis could be a steady presence that helps make a bridge to the future and supports a pennant-winning club in the not-too-distant future. Or, he could be an expensive (albeit probably not crippling) mistake.
In the aggregate, the Braves managed to reduce their future (2016 and beyond) payroll commitments by just $7.55MM over the offseason. And that includes the savings achieved by moving Kimbrel himself, not just the Upton side of the deal. This is why the Markakis signing drew some quizzical reactions: as much turnover as Atlanta achieved, it did not substantially reduce its long-term cash on the books.
Of course, that is but one element of what the front office set out to do. By cashing in on expiring assets while they could, rather than extending players at all costs or trying to win one more time with the old core intact, Atlanta sought to cut off the downside scenario bypassed a potentially painful rebuilding process. Most of that future cash is owed to Freeman and Simmons, which is hardly a bad thing; each is still approaching his prime. And, the Braves will be free of Dan Uggla‘s salary after the year.
Whether or not one agrees with the Markakis move, he seems likely to be a useful player over the life of his deal. And the overall health of the franchise seems to have ticked upward after an immensely active winter.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
It’s not too early to identify pending free agents who have already dug something of a hole that they’ll need to climb out of before hitting the open market after the year. And no, I’m not talking about every free agent who has put up middling stats in their first eight games.
This is more akin to what Dave Cameron of Fangraphs discussed recently with regard to the impact of small samples on rest-of-season projections. When context is considered, rough starts for some players mean more than for others in terms of the reasonably plausible outcomes we can expect.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some players whose discouraging starts are particular cause for concern as regards their future earning capacity:
1B Chris Davis, Orioles: 12 strikeouts and one home run in 28 plate appearances is not the way you want to start the year when you’re trying to convince the league that you’re a fearsome slugger, rather than an all-or-nothing part-time player. That’s all the more true for Davis given that he started the season by finishing off his 25-game suspension. We’ve seen both versions of him in the last two seasons, and his unimpressive start opens the door to a pretty significant downside scenario.
SS Ian Desmond, Nationals: Desmond has traditionally started slow and has a higher market floor than Davis because of his position and more consistent track record, so his fairly unimpressive batting line is not enough to raise a red flag at this stage. But Desmond has looked extremely shaky in the field, committing six errors at inopportune times, and already has a history of misplays despite generally above-average glovework. There’s plenty of time for him to position himself as a truly premium free agent, and he’ll get paid well regardless, but his rather lofty salary ceiling coming into the year looks increasingly hard to reach.
CF Austin Jackson, Mariners: Somewhat like the Davis situation, a bad 2014 has bled into an awful 2015 thus far for Jackson. His ISO dropped below .100 last year, and currently sits at a non-existent .032. Jackson already has shown progressively declining defensive metrics coming into the year. Like Desmond, Jackson’s appeal was in his profile as a strong defender with pop up the middle; the onus is now firmly on him to re-establish both of those pillars. As things stand, he looks to have fallen behind Dexter Fowler and Denard Span (and perhaps also Colby Rasmus) in the pecking order among 2015-16 free agent center fielders.
SP Mat Latos, Marlins: Latos, who is still just 27, has had excellent results in recent years but has been dogged by health issues and a velocity drop, with ERA estimators suggesting he had outperformed his peripherals somewhat. It’s only been two starts, but the regression has been swift. Latos has hung on for just 4 2/3 innings, allowing nine earned while walking as many batters (5) as he has struck out. While he has age on his side, Latos will need to show a lot to score the kind of contract he once seemed destined to warrant.
RP Fernando Rodney, Mariners: Rodney is 38 and has had his share of volatility over the years. If he hopes to emulate Joe Nathan in picking up another multi-year guarantee at a high AAV, he’ll need to throw more like the 2012 Nathan and less like the more recent version. The velo checks out, but Rodney has managed to K just one batter (while walking four) in his 3 1/3 frames thus far. Given his advanced age, Rodney needs to show up steadily for much of the rest of the way if he hopes to get a another closer’s contract.
After a heartbreaking exit from the AL Wild Card playoff, A’s GM Billy Beane and his staff architected another massive roster overhaul, acquiring both rental players and long-term assets in an effort to sustain the team’s recent stretch of playoff appearances.
Major League Signings
- Billy Butler, DH/1B: Three years, $30MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired 3B Brett Lawrie, SS Franklin Barreto, LHP Sean Nolin and RHP Kendall Graveman from the Blue Jays in exchange for Josh Donaldson
- Acquired 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar from the Rays in exchange for C/DH John Jaso, SS Daniel Robertson, OF Boog Powell and $1.5MM
- Acquired RHP Tyler Clippard from the Nationals in exchange for SS Yunel Escobar
- Acquired SS Marcus Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley and 1B Rangel Ravelo from the White Sox in exchange for RHP Jeff Samardzija
- Acquired 1B Ike Davis from the Pirates in exchange for an international bonus slot
- Acquired 2B Joe Wendle from the Indians in exchange for OF/1B Brandon Moss
- Acquired RHPs Jesse Hahn and R.J. Alvarez from the Padres in exchange for C Derek Norris, RHP Seth Streich and an international bonus slot
- Acquired LHP Eury De La Rosa from the D-Backs in exchange for cash considerations
- Acquired 1B/OF Mark Canha from the Rockies in exchange for RHP Austin House and cash considerations (Canha was selected by the Rockies in the Rule 5 Draft)
- Claimed RHP Taylor Thompson off waivers from the White Sox (Thompson has since been placed on the 60-day DL)
- Claimed Alex Hassan off waivers from the Red Sox and again from the Orioles after losing him the first time (Have since lost him to the Rangers, also via waivers)
- Claimed RHP Chad Smith off waivers from the Tigers
Notable Minor League Signings
- Barry Zito, Brad Mills, Jason Pridie, Pat Venditte, Rudy Owens, Ryan Verdugo, Kevin Whelan, Carson Blair, Jonathan Joseph
- Jon Lester, Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, John Jaso, Jason Hammel, Luke Gregerson, Alberto Callaspo, Nick Punto (released), Daric Barton
- Longtime assistant GM Farhan Zaidi left the Oakland front office to become GM of the Dodgers
The Athletics’ second base situation was a black hole from an offensive standpoint in 2014, as Eric Sogard, Nick Punto, Alberto Callaspo and others combined to bat a mere .233/.297/.282 with one home run while playing second base. The addition of Zobrist, whose bat has been about 24 percent better than the league average over the past four seasons (124 OPS+), should be a massive boost to the team’s second base production. His excellent glove should provide equal or greater value than the Athletics’ group last season.
The next weakest spot in Oakland’s lineup, somewhat surprisingly, was designated hitter. The A’s received a combined batting line of just .215/.294/.343 from their designated hitters, so while many were surprised by the contract received by Billy Butler coming off a down season, he’ll still be an upgrade. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily justify the deal, and he’ll have to prove that he’s closer to the hitter he was from 2009-13 than the hitter he was in 2014. Entering his age-29 season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Butler can return to an OPS+ north of 120, though it’ll likely be driven more by OBP than by power. A repeat of his 29 homers from 2012 does seem unlikely.
On the other side of the middle infield equation, the A’s found themselves with a hole to fill following the departure of Jed Lowrie via free agency. Rather than meet Lowrie’s open-market price (three years, $23MM with the Astros), the A’s made a move to acquire a potential long-term answer at the position by making Marcus Semien (pictured) the centerpiece of the Jeff Samardzija trade. Semien comes with some defensive question marks, but Lowrie has never been considered a premium defender, so perhaps the A’s feel that there may not be a significant defensive drop-off. If Semien struggles enough defensively, he can flip with Zobrist and play second base, and Zobrist’s status as a free agent next winter means that Semien could slide over to the keystone in the future once Zobrist leaves.
In that sense, 2015 will be a tryout of sorts for Semien as a shortstop. If he passes, then the heir apparent at second base might be prospect Joe Wendle, who was acquired from the Indians in the Brandon Moss trade. Most pundits felt the return was a bit light, but A’s assistant GM David Forst has explained that the team has had interest in Wendle for quite some time. Wendle opened the year at Triple-A (and is hitting quite well), so perhaps he can be ready for the Majors in 2016 if Semien proves capable at shortstop.
The bullpen lost one of baseball’s best setup men when Luke Gregerson signed in Houston, but Beane and his staff replaced Gregerson with one of the few relievers who can claim to be a definitive upgrade when they acquired Tyler Clippard. Though he’ll cost quite a bit at $8.3MM, Clippard’s ability to miss bats and experience in the ninth inning make him a natural candidate to step into the closer’s role early in the season while Sean Doolittle is recovering. It’s easy to envision his time in Oakland playing out much the same as Gregerson’s, however, as he’s set to hit the open market next winter and will likely command a sizable contract.
Financial limitations likely played a role in losing Gregerson as well as the trades of Samardzija and Moss, and they certainly played a role in the loss of Lester. The departure of Lester, Samardzija and Jason Hammel created plenty of openings in the rotation, but the A’s filled those spots via trade, as Jesse Hahn figures and Kendall Graveman have opened the season in the rotation. Hahn’s debut with the Padres was impressive, as he worked to a 3.07 ERA with 8.6 K/9, 3.9 BB/9 and a 50.3 percent ground-ball rate. Sabermetric estimators such as FIP (3.40), xFIP (3.59) and SIERA (3.73) feel that his control problems should’ve led to a higher ERA, but Hahn showed better command coming up through the Minors and could improve in that regard if he remains healthy this season.
In addition to Hahn and Graveman, the A’s added other options such as Sean Nolin and Chris Bassitt. However, they didn’t add an established arm, which serves as a nice transition into the next portion of this breakdown.
With Lester and Samardzija gone, Sonny Gray will be asked to step up into the spotlight as the ace the A’s hoped they were getting when they selected him 18th overall in the 2011 draft. Behind him will be the resurgent Scott Kazmir, Hahn, Drew Pomeranz and Graveman. There’s some undeniable upside in the group — Pomeranz was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, after all — but quite a bit of uncertainty. It’s not difficult to envision the Athletics’ end-of-season rotation looking quite a bit different than its present state. Jesse Chavez can again step into the rotation if needed, and Bassitt and Nolin (once Nolin is healthy) are also nice depth options to have. Both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin (each recovering from Tommy John surgery) are likely to surface as options midseason.
It’s a deep group of pitchers, but there’s a lack of experience and many project more as back-end options than frontline starters or even mid-rotation options. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the A’s eventually trade from their bulk of MLB-caliber starting pitchers, as there simply isn’t room on the roster for all of them. While the oft-cited “you can never have too much pitching” caveat may seem applicable, Beane’s aggressive nature does seem to suggest that some of these arms could be wearing new uniforms by season’s end.
The infield, aside from the remarkably consistent Zobrist, is rife with uncertainty. While Davis and Lawrie are former Top 100 prospects and Semien was highly regarded by the White Sox, none of the three has experienced consistent success in the Major Leagues. Lawrie has been plagued by injuries, although moving off the artificial turf in Toronto may aid his quest to stay healthy. Davis failed to win the first base job in Queens on multiple occasions before losing out to Lucas Duda, and the Pirates traded him for a middling return this winter. Semien has little big league experience, and some have written that he projects more as a utility option than an everyday player (to say nothing of the aforementioned questions as to whether or not he can handle shortstop, from a defensive standpoint). He has, however, hit well to open the season and was a highly productive Minor Leaguer throughout prior to his emergence at the game’s top level.
The outfield has a number of question marks as well, but the most significant is likely this: which Josh Reddick will show up in 2015? Reddick broke out with 32 homers and elite defense in 2012, but he struggled greatly in 2013 and into the All-Star break in 2014. However, in the season’s second half, Reddick was brilliant, batting .299/.337/.533. His .296 BABIP seems more or less sustainable, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain the surprisingly excellent 10 percent strikeout rate he showed in the second half.
Coco Crisp was set to move to left field, but his lack of durability has already been on display, as he’s out for up to two months following elbow surgery. Crisp has been an underrated contributor when on the field, but he’s averaged just 118 games per season since signing in Oakland. In the interim, the team has added Cody Ross, following his release from the D-Backs, and Rule 5 pick Mark Canha has been making the most of the extra at-bats he’s seen. The platoon of Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld in center field should be brilliant from a defensive standpoint, but the offensive contributions of the duo may not be much.
The departure of Derek Norris will seem significantly easier to stomach if Josh Phegley can hit left-handed pitching as well as he has throughout his time in the upper Minors, as nearly all of Norris’ damage came against lefties. With Jaso out of the picture, the A’s will be relying on a platoon of two largely unproven backstops in Phegley and Vogt.
Deal of Note
The Donaldson trade caught many off guard, particularly due to the fact that Athletics officials had bluntly criticized the notion of trading him earlier in the offseason. “That would be stupid,” one executive told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. And, just three weeks before the trade, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports received definitive indications that Oakland had no intention of parting with its star third baseman. The scenario serves as another reminder that we should never rule anything out entirely when it comes to the Athletics, as Beane is among the game’s most open-minded general managers.
While the trade did make Oakland a younger team simply by swapping Donaldson for Lawrie in this year’s lineup, Lawrie actually comes with one less year of control than Donaldson, despite being four years younger. However, as a Super Two player coming off a pair of MVP-caliber seasons, Donaldson will be considerably more expensive in arbitration.
The A’s clearly think highly of Lawrie, but shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto might be the key to the deal. He may have the highest ceiling of any player received by Oakland in that trade, and he gives the team a high-upside shortstop prospect to replenish its system after parting with Addison Russell in the Samardzija/Hammel trade. Barreto is just 19 and is likely three (or more) years away from the Majors, so the merit of his inclusion won’t be known for quite some time.
Graveman and Lawrie have already been factors for the A’s this year, and Nolin could very likely pitch for Oakland in 2015 as well. Together, Graveman and Nolin add to an incredibly deep stable of pitching from which to deal if further upgrades to the roster are necessary midseason. Both project as back-of-the-rotation arms according to most player evaluation outlets, and six controllable years of that type of commodity certainly has value, even if the upside is limited. And, if Oakland chooses to hold onto them, the team has a good track record with that type of pitcher. Their home park/emphasis on defense typically allows the A’s to get more out of pitchers than projections deem likely.
While I focused quite a bit on the uncertainties facing the A’s, there’s still little doubt in my mind that the pieces are here for this to be a contending team in 2015. Oakland should again have a good defensive club overall, and the team’s reliance on platoons is advantageous and outweighs a lack of star power in their lineup.
The A’s placed a good deal of faith in young hitters like Lawrie, Semien and, to a lesser extent, Davis, with a hope that the untapped potential of those hitters will come to the surface and back a deep pitching staff. If Oakland struggles or identifies an area of weakness in its lineup, the team will likely have to deal from that starting pitching depth in order to repair the deficiency, because the team’s farm system lacks quality, MLB-ready hitting prospects.
General manager Billy Beane’s reputation as unpredictable and unorthodox is well-deserved, but he and his staff routinely manage to maximize the value of their assets in order to put together contending ballclubs on a tight budget. The 2015 Athletics may not have a lot of brand-name star power up and down their roster, but that’s commonplace for the boys in green and gold, and it’d be a surprise if they weren’t firmly in the mix for a playoff spot come September.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Red Sox weren’t quite able to land all of their offseason targets, but they were still one of the winter’s busiest teams. They look to ride a rebuilt pitching staff and one of the game’s best lineups back to the playoffs.
Major League Signings
- Pablo Sandoval, 3B: Five years, $95MM ($17MM club option for 2020, $5MM buyout)
- Hanley Ramirez, SS/LF: Four years, $88MM ($22MM vesting option for 2019)
- Koji Uehara, RP: Two years, $18MM
- Justin Masterson, SP: One year, $9.5MM
- Craig Breslow, RP: One year, $2MM
- Alexi Ogando, RP: One year, $1.5MM
- Total spend: $214MM
Pool-Eligible International Signings
- Yoan Moncada, IF: $31.5MM signing bonus (plus $31.5MM in overage taxes)
Notable Minor League Signings
Trades And Claims
- Acquired SP Rick Porcello from Tigers for OF Yoenis Cespedes, RP Alex Wilson and SP Gabe Speier
- Acquired SP Wade Miley from Diamondbacks for SP Rubby De La Rosa, SP Allen Webster and IF Raymel Flores
- Acquired C Ryan Hanigan from Padres for 3B Will Middlebrooks
- Acquired RP Anthony Varvaro from Braves for RP Aaron Kurcz and cash considerations
- Acquired SP/RP Zeke Spruill from Diamondbacks for SP/RP Myles Smith
- Acquired RP Robbie Ross Jr. from Rangers for SP Anthony Ranaudo
- Acquired C Sandy Leon from Nationals for cash considerations
- Acquired SP Daniel Rosenbaum from Nationals for C Dan Butler
- Acquired IF Marco Hernandez from Cubs as player-to-be-named-later in the Felix Doubront trade of July 2014
- Acquired cash considerations from Royals for SP/RP Jandel Gustave (Rule 5 Draft pick)
- Rick Porcello, SP: Four years, $82.5MM
- Wade Miley, SP: Three years, $19.25MM ($12MM club option for 2018, $500K buyout)
- Cespedes, Middlebrooks, David Ross, Burke Badenhop, Jonathan Herrera, Ryan Lavarnway, De La Rosa, Webster, Jason Garcia (Rule 5 Draft), Ryan Dempster (retirement)
The Red Sox moved quickly to snag the two biggest free agent bats on the market, signing both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez before the end of November. The switch-hitting Sandoval addresses both Boston’s need for more lineup balance (most of the top Sox batters hit from the right side) and the need for a third baseman, as Will Middlebrooks’ struggles became too pronounced to ignore.
It stands to reason that the Sox might’ve originally explored signing Ramirez to play third base, though his willingness to switch positions led to Ramirez taking over as Boston’s regular left fielder. Putting Ramirez in left freed up room for Sandoval to play third and star prospect Xander Bogaerts to get another shot as the everyday shortstop.
In the short term, acquiring both Sandoval and Ramirez leads to a bit of an overloaded roster for the Red Sox since they’re one of the few teams who can’t easily rotate players through the DH spot (as David Ortiz is still as productive as ever). In the big picture, however, the Sox were content to load up on as much hitting talent as possible and worry about how position battles shake out later. The Sox will have quite a bit of roster depth in 2015 at almost every position, which was one of GM Ben Cherington’s primary offseason goals after injuries and underperforming young players hampered last year’s team.
Moving Ramirez to left only further deepened Boston’s outfield glut, though the club lessened their load slightly by trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers as part of a package that brought Rick Porcello to the Sox rotation. Porcello was scheduled for free agency after the 2015 season before the Sox made a firm commitment to the right-hander by signing him to a four-year, $82.5MM extension.
On paper, Porcello is the kind of pitcher that will fit right in at Fenway Park, as his 52.2% career ground ball rate will help counter the stadium’s notoriously hitter-friendly dimensions. While Porcello has only posted an ERA better than league-average twice in his six seasons, advanced metrics like xFIP and SIERA paint a friendlier pitcher of his performance in recent years. The Sox clearly believe Porcello can build on his impressive 2014 campaign, and now they’ve locked up a durable 26-year-old arm through his prime seasons.
The Red Sox acquired and extended another durable innings-eater in Wade Miley, picking up the 28-year-old from the Diamondbacks in exchange for two less-proven starting pitchers in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. Boston also turned to the free agent market to sign Justin Masterson to a one-year, $9.5MM deal as the veteran tries to rebound from a tough 2014 season. Like Porcello, both Miley and Masterson are noted ground-ball pitchers, as are incumbent starters Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly. Of the five hurlers, Miley’s 48.6% career grounder rate is actually the lowest of the bunch, so Boston is clearly putting a premium on keeping the ball in the park.
The Red Sox re-signed closer Koji Uehara and lefty reliever Craig Breslow, and added a couple of young arms to the bullpen by trading for righty Anthony Varvaro and lefty Robbie Ross Jr. in deals with the Braves and Rangers, respectively. Alexi Ogando was also signed for a relief or swingman role depending on his health, and if the right-hander is fit after battling several injuries in recent years, he’ll be a boost to the pitching staff in either capacity.
Parting ways with Middlebrooks brought the Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan in a trade with the Padres. This trade was somewhat overshadowed by Boston’s many other headline-grabbing winter moves, though it has increased in importance now that Christian Vazquez has undergone season-ending Tommy John surgery. Hanigan will now be Boston’s regular starter, with the newly-acquired Sandy Leon serving as the backup.
While obviously this wasn’t Boston’s ideal situation behind the plate, there might not be much of a dropoff from Vazquez/Hanigan to Hanigan/Leon. Vazquez was seen as an excellent defensive catcher whose ability to hit at the MLB level was still in question, and Hanigan/Leon are similarly defense-first catchers who either haven’t hit well in a couple of seasons (Hanigan) or have barely seen any time in the bigs (Leon). There’s also a good chance you’ll see top catching prospect Blake Swihart make his Major League debut this season, as he might just need a bit more Triple-A seasoning before Boston is comfortable calling him up to the Show.
Beyond just adding pieces for 2015, however, the Red Sox also obtained a major future asset by signing Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada to a minor league deal with a $31.5MM bonus, by far the highest bonus ever given to an international amateur prospect. The Red Sox had already exceeded their signing pool limit for the 2014-15 international signing period and will be limited to $300K-or-less bonuses for the next two signing periods as punishment, so as long as they were comfortable paying the 100% overage on the deal (bringing Moncada’s cost up to $63MM), it was logical to bring in a big international talent now before the penalties take effect.
While $63MM is a steep price for a 19-year-old, it could be worth it given how scouts have raved about Moncada’s ability, comparing him to the likes of Robinson Cano and Chase Utley. Boston is so deep in infield and outfield talent that they don’t even have an immediate need for Moncada, though since he’ll need at least a season in the minors to develop, at least one position is sure to open up over time.
The two biggest pitching names attached to the Red Sox this winter were Jon Lester and Cole Hamels, neither of whom actually ended up in Boston’s rotation. In Hamels’ case, the Phillies have insisted on at least one of Swihart or Mookie Betts in any deal for the star left-hander, while the Red Sox have been just as adamant that neither top prospect will be moved.
The Sox look even less likely to deal either now given that Betts is the regular center fielder and Swihart could have a more immediate role with Vazquez injured. While Boston has a deep minor league system, the Phillies have received (and will continue to receive) enough interest in Hamels that it’s hard to see them settling for anything less than an elite young player like Betts or Swihart.
Missing out on Lester has to be a bitter pill for the Sox and their fans considering how the southpaw has been a cornerstone for the franchise for the better part of a decade. Boston made a six-year, $135MM offer to Lester that was topped by the Cubs’ $155MM offer, and one wonders if Lester would still be wearing the red today had the Sox initially proposed more than their infamous four-year, $70MM extension offer last spring. Lester has even hinted that five years/$120MM might’ve been enough to keep him had such a deal been offered last spring.
The fact that Boston pursued Lester this winter shows that their stated desire to avoid paying big money to pitchers in their 30’s isn’t quite rock-solid, yet that strategy is on display in regards to their 2015 rotation. None of the five starters are on guaranteed money beyond their age-30 seasons, giving the Sox flexibility if other options become available or if one of the starters underachieves.
Flexibility for the future, however, could mean uncertainty in the present. There has been quite a bit of criticism directed at the Sox for the lack of a “true ace” atop their rotation. Porcello, Miley, Buchholz, Kelly and Masterson combined for only 6.6 fWAR in 2014, and while injuries (particularly for Kelly and Masterson) played a role in that low total, Porcello was the only one who showed any front-of-the-rotation stuff last year.
A staff of innings-eating groundballers might actually be enough to contend given Boston’s solid defense and powerful lineup, though it’s hard to argue that the rotation wouldn’t look better with a Hamels/Lester-caliber pitcher as the No. 1 starter. If the rotation struggles, expect even more “why didn’t the Sox get an ace?” talk from the Boston fans and media. In that scenario, the front office will very likely intensify its search for a top-shelf hurler before the trade deadline.
While the Red Sox may give pause before giving a major contract to a pitcher in his 30’s, they clearly have no problem in doing so for a big hitter, which speaks to both the lack of elite hitting talent on the market and the team’s belief that Sandoval and Ramirez will both produce in Fenway Park. Both players come with some notable baggage; Sandoval’s weight and conditioning was long an issue with the Giants, and Ramirez has averaged only 116 games per year since 2011 due to a variety of injuries.
Putting Ramirez in left is something of a curious move for the Sox, though it might not be a bad one given how he has struggled defensively at both shortstop and third base in recent seasons. Still, losing Cespedes and adding Ramirez did nothing to alleviate Boston’s outfield surplus. As the season begins, Ramirez, Betts and Shane Victorino are the starters with Allen Craig, Daniel Nava and super-utilityman Brock Holt as the backups. Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. have begun the season in the minors, not the ideal place for either a $72.5MM contract or a youngster who entered last year as one of the top prospects in the bigs.
It’s possible this situation could take care of itself, either via injuries (Ramirez, Victorino and Craig are all health question marks) or some of these players simply under-performing. Castillo and Betts are unproven over a full season, while Nava struggled last year and Bradley has thus far been completely unable to hit Major League pitching. Also, if one of the infielders gets hurt, that could open the door for Ramirez or Betts to move back to the infield and create playing time for a backup outfielder.
That said, outfield is the still most logical area of surplus for the Red Sox to use as trade bait later this year. Craig and Victorino are the most probable candidates to be moved, though both will need several weeks of healthy and productive play to prove they’ve recovered from their 2014 injuries. One would think that Bradley is also likely on the trade market — despite his highly-touted prospect status and excellent glove, the fact that Boston has signed Castillo and shifted Betts to center would indicate that the club has already moved on from Bradley as its center fielder of the future.
Deal Of Note
The Red Sox re-signed Uehara to a two-year deal before free agency even opened, an aggressive move since there were a few whispers that the club could potentially look elsewhere given how Uehara struggled down the stretch in 2014. In making a two-year commitment to a reliever who just celebrated his 40th birthday, however, the Sox clearly believe Uehara’s late-season slump was largely due to some nagging injuries and not a sign of a decline.
Of course, Uehara hasn’t exactly proved his health to date, as he has begun the season on the DL with a strained hamstring. If Uehara were to have an extended DL stint or another bout of ineffectiveness during the year, that would be a major blow to a Red Sox bullpen that could already be facing some extra work this year given the shaky rotation. Uehara’s emergence as an elite closer was one of the planks of Boston’s World Series run, and while nobody expects him to duplicate his phenomenal 2013 numbers, he’s definitely being counted on as the bullpen leader.
One tends to forget that the Red Sox were actually a last-place team in 2014, given the amount of talent that already existed on the roster and the notable new names that have been added this winter. Their trip to the bottom of the AL East seems more like a trivial quirk (“Hey, who was the only franchise to go from last place to World Series champions to last place again over a three-season stretch?”) than it does a reflection of a big mountain to climb back to contention — after all, they climbed that mountain just two seasons ago.
Stockpiling all of this position player depth will help the Sox prevent against the inevitable injuries and slumps that will befall at least a few players over the course of 162 games, and it would be a surprise if Boston wasn’t one of the league’s best offenses by season’s end. After posting an uncharacteristically low team OBP (.316) and slugging percentage (.369), the Sox are looking to get back to their traditional strategy of grinding down opposing pitchers and making them pay with the long ball.
The major question is whether the rotation can hold up its end of the bargain. If the staff exceeds expectations, the Red Sox could be World Series contenders again. If the staff is even just average or slightly-below average, that still might be enough for a division run given the big bats and one of the league’s better defenses. If the starters can’t get on track, however, that will put a lot of pressure on the bullpen and on the lineup to win slugfests every night. While there don’t seem to any standout rotations within the AL East, Boston can’t afford to be the fifth of five middle-of-the-road pitching staffs.
Personally, I’d be very surprised if the Sox didn’t acquire at least one “proven ace” by midseason just because the rotation seems like such a notable weakness. It could be Hamels, it could be free agent-to-be Johnny Cueto if the Reds are out of contention, or it could be a starter suddenly made available by a surprise non-contender (similar to how the Red Sox shopped Lester last summer).
Boston has made enough solid acquisitions that the team should be back in the thick of things in the AL East. To fully complete their attempt at worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first again, however, they may still be one move away.
Photo courtesy of Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports Images
The Dodgers outrighted Ryan Webb today, continuing a string of strange transactions for the veteran reliever. First, he cleared outright waivers. Then the Orioles designated him for assignment. Then Baltimore shipped him to the Dodgers with catcher Brian Ward and a Competitive Balance Round B draft pick for pitcher Ben Rowen and catcher Chris O’Brien. Then, the Dodgers outrighted him today.
The guiding factor behind this string of moves was, it seems, Webb’s $2.75MM salary in 2015, the second season of a two-year, $4.5MM deal he signed with the Orioles. The Orioles didn’t want to pay it, and judging from the fact that they were able to outright Webb in the first place, other teams didn’t either. That, in itself, was perhaps a bit strange — Webb has never been an outstanding reliever, but he’s been relatively durable and effective in all of the past five seasons. Perhaps the lesson of the outright is that when selecting right-handed relievers, teams increasingly prefer pitchers who light up radar guns, of which there are many. Righties like Webb, who once sat in the mid-90s but whose velocity has slipped a bit in the last few years, get overlooked.
But the trade of Webb to the Dodgers was even stranger. The Dodgers were the ones receiving the big-league player, but they clearly had little interest in him and they also received what might have been the most valuable property in the trade — the draft pick. Other than Webb, the players in the deal appear to be mostly window dressing. Ward is 29 and has never been on a 40-man roster. Rowen pitched briefly for the Rangers last season, but Texas designated him for assignment and then released him in December after no one claimed him. The Dodgers signed him to a minor-league deal a month later. O’Brien will be 26 in July and has never played above Double-A.
As one might expect, the Orioles say they like the players they received. They were reportedly interested in Rowen this offseason, and it’s possible his ability to generate ground balls could one day make him a contributor, especially given the Orioles’ strong infield defense. (Webb also has ground-ball tendencies, although, of course, he had to be on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, whereas Rowen does not.) Some experts, meanwhile, believe O’Brien has a chance to stick as a backup catcher. The Orioles’ return appears, however, to be marginal, and from the Dodgers’ perspective, they didn’t give up much more than a bit of minor-league depth they didn’t really need.
Since the Dodgers have already outrighted Webb, then, the deal could quickly boil down to this: The Dodgers purchased a draft pick from the Orioles. They agreed to pay the salary of a player they didn’t need, and the Orioles gave them a pick in return. As the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin tweeted, “Moneyball with big money: Dodgers buy draft pick for $2.75MM.”
This is new. Teams have only been able to trade Competitive Balance picks for a few years, and never has there been a trade that amounted to a dollars-for-draft-pick swap the way this one seems to. Here are all the draft pick trades that have taken place since teams have been allowed to deal them.
- The Pirates sent a 2013 pick to the Marlins in a deal for Gaby Sanchez, who played for them for two and a half seasons.
- The Marlins and Tigers also swapped 2013 competitive balance picks to even the scales in the Anibal Sanchez trade.
- The Astros got a 2014 pick from the Orioles in the Bud Norris deal.
- The Pirates received a 2014 pick from the Marlins when they traded Bryan Morris.
- The Diamondbacks got a 2014 pick when they sent Ian Kennedy to San Diego.
- The Braves will receive a 2015 pick from the Padres as part of their recent trade of Craig Kimbrel. They’ll get another from the Diamondbacks for prospect Victor Reyes.
- The Astros received a 2015 pick when they traded Jarred Cosart to the Marlins.
- The Red Sox got a 2015 pick from the Athletics (which they’ve since forfeited) in the Jon Lester deal.
In all draft pick trades before the Webb deal, there are convincing cases that the teams trading picks parted with those picks in large part because they got talent they liked, and not primarily to shed salary. In the Webb trade, in contrast, Webb’s salary was clearly a key component of the deal.
So does the trade make sense for the Dodgers? The pick they will receive in this year’s draft is No. 74. A 2013 study found that the net value of a pick in the No. 61-100 range was $2.58MM, very close to the prorated portion of Webb’s $2.75MM salary the Dodgers are taking on. Add in that No. 74 is closer to the top of that range and add a bit of salary inflation since then, and the value of the pick is likely high enough for the trade to make financial sense for the Dodgers, even if we assume it’s possible that Rowen and O’Brien will provide a bit of value (and if we assume the Dodgers need to think about their budget the way other teams do). The Dodgers also receive a bit of draft pool flexibility with the acquisition of the pick, which could help them lure tougher-to-sign players.
Whether MLB would want deep-pocketed teams like the Dodgers essentially buying draft picks is a different question, although for now, the effects of them doing so are fairly minimal. Teams are currently only allowed to trade Competitive Balance picks, so a draft pick can only make a small impact on a trade, since Competitive Balance picks occur after most marquee talents are off the board. If teams were allowed to trade all draft picks and a big-market team were allowed to take on a larger amount of salary for, say, a top-ten pick, there would probably be controversy.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:
- MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd recapping the week’s news before turning to a discussion of the Cardinals with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast drops every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.
- Rick Porcello told Zach Links, during a conference call announcing his four-year, $82.5MM extension with the Red Sox, he does not have any qualms about bypassing free agency to remain in Boston. “I mean obviously I knew the opportunity that was ahead of me in entering free agency, but when I first got to camp and I saw the way the team was run from the ownership to Ben [Cherington] to the coaching staff and the players that were there, I saw that it was run very well from top to bottom,” Porcello said. “The devotion to win was here and it was something that I wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t a very difficult decision for me.“
- With the 2015 season now underway, Jeff updated the future payroll obligations for all 30 MLB franchises.
- There were three installments of MLBTR’s Offseason In Review series this week: Mariners (by Steve Adams), Diamondbacks (by Mark Polishuk), and Nationals (by Jeff).
- Charlie Wilmoth identified several impending free agents who could be traded, thus rendering the draft pick ramifications of being tendered a qualifying offer moot.
- Jeff asked MLBTR readers which team had the best offseason. Nearly 45% of you saluted the work of Padres GM A.J. Preller.
- Preller’s work may not be done as the Padres are looking to upgrade at shortstop, so Jeff examined possible targets.
- Steve hosted the MLBTR live chat this week.
- Zach put together the best of the baseball blogosphere in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
Next year’s free agent market contains plenty of players who could receive qualifying offers — David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Heyward, and others. Here’s a look at potential qualifying offer recipients who have the best chance of being traded this season, thus preventing them from receiving that designation.
At issue, of course, is draft pick compensation and forfeiture. A team extending a qualifying offer to a player receives a draft pick in return if the player signs elsewhere. The signing team also gives up a draft pick. But a player who has been traded in the season before he becomes a free agent can’t be extended a qualifying offer and thus isn’t attached to draft picks. That can be an important consideration for teams shopping for free agents, as we’ve seen in recent years in the cases of Kyle Lohse, Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, whose markets have all shrunk in part because of the qualifying offer.
Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, Reds. The Reds are off to a 4-0 start but still aren’t that likely to contend, which means that Cueto and Leake could hit the free agent market this summer. Trading Cueto, in particular, would be a great way for the Reds to add to their collection of young talent. Leake might be somewhat trickier to trade, since the Reds’ return might not be worth that much more than the draft pick and negotiating leverage they would forgo by dealing him.
Ben Zobrist and Scott Kazmir, Athletics. Billy Beane’s trade for Zobrist this offseason was a somewhat surprising one to begin with. The Athletics could easily contend, but if they don’t, Beane seems unlikely to sit still, and finding a new home for Zobrist wouldn’t be difficult given his versatility. Kazmir is another possibility — if he performs at his 2014 levels, he could receive a qualifying offer if the A’s contend or be traded if they don’t.
Alex Gordon, Royals. The Royals haven’t discussed an extension with Gordon, who would undoubtedly be an attractive trade target if the Royals were to fall out of contention in the AL Central. They’re currently 4-0, however, and there’s still the matter of Gordon’s $12.5MM option. Exercising it would likely not be an optimal financial decision from Gordon’s perspective, but he’s expressed interest in doing so before. If he were to make clear to the Royals that he planned to do so, he almost certainly wouldn’t be a trade candidate.
Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy, Padres. San Diego gambled heavily this offseason on the Padres’ ability to win in 2015. If they don’t, A.J. Preller doesn’t seem like the sort of GM to hang onto two key players who are due to become free agents. One possibility if the Padres were to trade Kennedy or especially Upton would be to acquire big-league talent in return, much like the Red Sox did when they dealt Jon Lester last summer. That would enable the Padres to re-tool for 2016, when they’ll still control most of the players they acquired over the winter.
Yovani Gallardo, Rangers. The Brewers exercised what was effectively a $12.4MM 2015 option ($13MM minus a $600K buyout) before trading Gallardo to Texas. His market value likely is somewhere near the value of a qualifying offer, and extending him one wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Rangers if he performs well this season. They could easily trade him rather than doing that, although that might be somewhat difficult given all the higher-impact starters who might be available and the value that would disappear if the ability to extend Gallardo a qualifying offer were to vanish.
Jeff Samardzija, White Sox. The new-look White Sox are 0-4, and GM Rick Hahn has said he will be “nimble” in turning his attention to the future if the organization’s moves to contend this summer don’t work out. That might mean Samardzija could be traded for the third time in a year. He would likely command significant value on the trade market.
Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, Orioles. Davis and Wieters are worth watching, although it’s somewhat unlikely that they’re valuable enough to receive qualifying offers and that they become trade candidates. Davis had a down season in 2014, while Wieters continues to struggle with health problems (and there’s currently no timetable for his return from an elbow injury). If Davis and Wieters are productive and healthy, the Orioles could well contend, and thus it’s unlikely they’ll be traded. If they aren’t, they might not be qualifying offer candidates.
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The Padres are said to be “scouring” the trade market for shortstop upgrades over internal options Clint Barmes and Alexi Amarista, and while significant trades at this stage of the season are indeed rare, the Sunday’s blockbuster acquisition of Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton from the Braves shows that GM A.J. Preller isn’t averse to making trades at any stage of the season.
Both Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports beat me to writing something on the subject, and each piece is well worth the read. However, there are a vast expanse of shortstop options available for the Padres to explore, and Rosenthal reports that the team seems likelier to add a low-cost upgrade than to make an extravagant splash for the likes of Elvis Andrus or Starlin Castro. (The Padres have concerns about Castro’s glove at shortstop, in fact, Rosenthal adds, and have not recently been in touch regarding Chicago’s middle infielders.)
Cameron discusses a wide range of shortstop possibilities for the Friars, concluding that an acquisition of Jean Segura might be the most logical upgrade for San Diego. While I agree that Segura makes some sense for the Padres, there are some additional low-cost names (from a financial standpoint, that is) that could be replaced within their respective organizations.
Before delving into some speculative candidates, let’s first take a quick glance at the current options in San Diego. Barmes batted a decisively sub-par .245/.328/.294 last season, with six of his nine walks coming while batting eighth, in front of the pitcher. While he’s well-known as a plus defender, Barmes projects to be roughly a replacement level player when looking at the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems. Likewise, Amarista is a light-hitting infielder, who projects to be scarcely more than a replacement-level option. He’s younger than Barmes but is also just a .233/.278/.335 hitter in more than 1200 plate appearances. It’d be a surprise to see him contribute anything close to league-average production at the dish.
The Padres have a pair of serviceable gloves at shortstop, but neither comes with much in the way of offensive upside, and as such, their search for a shortstop upgrade isn’t unexpected.
All that said, let’s look at some options around the league that could serve as alternatives to Amarista and Barmes…
Luis Sardinas, Brewers: Preller of all people should be familiar with Sardinas, who was signed by the Rangers and developed into a promising prospect while Preller was still in the Texas front office. The jury is out on how much Sardinas will actually hit — he’s batted .290/.310/.374 in limited Triple-A action and didn’t fare much better in the Majors last year — but he’s regarded as a plus defender and has more upside at the plate than either incumbent option in San Diego. Sardinas is blocked in the Majors by Segura, who, as Cameron noted, could be a fit in San Diego himself, if the Brewers believe that Sardinas can adequately step into the everyday role at shortstop.
Javier Baez, Cubs: While much of the talk surrounding the Cubs and Padres has centered around Starlin Castro, one could make the case that Baez is a better fit. The Padres’ payroll undoubtedly has to be nearing its apex, and squeezing Castro’s sizable contract into the books may be too tall a task. Additionally, the Cubs are trying to contend this year, and jettisoning one of their core pieces and more proven hitters could be a lateral move, or even a step backwards, depending on what the Padres are willing to offer. Baez isn’t a definitive upgrade, but his light-tower power unequivocally gives him more upside than current options, and Preller’s Padres have an affinity for right-handed power bats. The Cubs could commit to Arismendy Alcantara at second base in the event of a Baez trade, though the Padres have parted with most of their upper-level pitching prospects, making a trade perhaps more difficult.
Jordy Mercer, Pirates: Moving Mercer now would likely accelerate that Pirates’ timeline for getting Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang regular at-bats at the big league level, and they may not be comfortable moving Mercer until seeing how Kang adjusts to the Major Leagues (admittedly, they may not be comfortable moving him even if Kang hits). However, Mercer is a solid enough hitter and fielder that the Padres could reasonably expect him to be worth a couple of wins per season, and they could send Amarista back to Pittsburgh along with any potential prospects to give the Bucs an immediate alternative in the event that Kang struggles. If the Padres offered a means of improving the Pirates’ 2015 roster, it’s at least plausible.
Eugenio Suarez, Reds: Acquired from the Tigers in the offseason, Suarez isn’t as gifted a defender as Barmes, but he but he held his own from a defensive standpoint last year in the eyes of Ultimate Zone Rating (Defensive Runs Saved was a bit more pessimistic). He comes with significantly more upside at the plate, however, as evidenced by a .278/.362/.415 batting line. ZiPS projects him at two wins, for those who are interested in projection systems, and the Reds, who stand to lose both Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto after the season, might be interested in adding some pitching to the upper levels of their system, even if it’s not an elite prospect with front-of-the-rotation upside.
Eduardo Escobar, Twins: Minnesota seems set to give Danny Santana every opportunity to prove that he’s their shortstop of the future, leaving Escobar as a perhaps overqualified utility infielder. The switch-hitting 26-year-old grades out as average or slightly better in the field over the course of a relatively small sample of 1053 innings, and he delivered a .275/.315/.406 batting line in the Twins’ pitcher-friendly home park last year (102 OPS+/wRC+). His offense may trend downward a bit, as he may not sustain his .336 BABIP, but he’s probably a better hitter than Amarista/Barmes and won’t sink the Padres in the field. Of course, the Padres could try to pry Santana away from the Twins as well, who could then use Escobar at shortstop until the more highly regarded Jorge Polanco is MLB-ready. But, I’d think the asking price on Santana would be higher, even if he clearly won’t repeat last year’s .405-BABIP-fueled offensive output.
Brad Miller/Chris Taylor, Mariners: Both Seattle shortstops were oft-mentioned as trade candidates throughout the offseason. For the time being, Miller’s getting a look at shortstop after Taylor fractured his wrist in Spring Training. Miller’s first half in 2014 was an unmitigated disaster (.204/.273/.330), but he quietly had a nice second half (.268/.330/.464), performed quite well in spring and has hit well in this season’s minuscule sample size. Miller struggles against lefties, so perhaps there’s some merit to the idea of a platoon, but either of these two would likely be an upgrade in San Diego (once Taylor is healthy, of course).
Obviously, there are far more names that could be suggested. The likes of Erisbel Arruebarrena and Deven Marrero come to mind, though each strong defender has drawn questions about his bat. Danny Espinosa has far more big league experience, but he offers a similar tale of plus defense and a questionable bat. Jonathan Villar has been displaced in Houston, but he grades out as a poor defender and hit his way into a demotion to Triple-A last year. Nick Franklin, now with Tampa following last year’s David Price trade, could be a consideration, but he’s injured at the moment and has also drawn questions about his glove at short.
The temptation for Padres fans, based on Preller’s track record, might to expect the moon and set their sights on Troy Tulowitzki and Starlin Castro, but the market does bear plenty of affordable options that are perhaps superfluous to their respective organizations. While that doesn’t mean they can be had for nothing, the presence of viable, starting-caliber alternatives within the organizations listed here makes a trade easier to envision.
After a franchise-altering 2013-14 offseason, the Mariners came up a game shy of the playoffs, prompting further win-now moves in an effort to vault to the top of the American League West.
Major League Signings
- Nelson Cruz, OF/DH: Four years, $57MM
- Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP: One year, $7MM (option exercised)
- Rickie Weeks, 2B/OF/1B: One year, $2MM
- Total spend: $66MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired LHP J.A. Happ from the Blue Jays in exchange for OF Michael Saunders
- Acquired OF Seth Smith from the Padres in exchange for RHP Brandon Maurer
- Acquired OF Justin Ruggiano from the Cubs in exchange for RHP Matt Brazis
- Acquired LHP Mike Kickham from the Cubs in exchange for RHP Lars Huijer
- Acquired LHP Mike Montgomery from the Rays in exchange for RHP Erasmo Ramirez
- Claimed INF Carlos Rivero from Red Sox (non-tendered and re-signed to Minor League deal)
- Kyle Seager, 3B: Seven years, $100MM with a team option that will be valued between $15-20MM, depending on performance (option buyout ranges from $0-3MM based on performance as well)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Joe Beimel, Endy Chavez (released), Franklin Gutierrez (released and re-signed), Justin Germano, Mark Lowe, John Baker, Rafael Perez, Joe Saunders (released and re-signed), Kevin Correia (released), Carlos Rivero
The 2014 Mariners missed the postseason by just one game despite receiving scarcely more offensive output from the DH slot than if they’d let their pitchers go to the plate. Seattle designated hitters batted an unthinkably bad .190/.266/.301 last year, and a midseason reunion with Kendrys Morales did little to coax more out of that spot in the lineup. As such, GM Jack Zduriencik strove to make a significant upgrade, and they did so in adding Nelson Cruz on a four-year deal.
The Cruz contract was panned by many, and there’s no question that it could go south in the final years of the agreement. Adding a fourth year was a necessary evil, it seemed, however, as the Orioles were reportedly comfortable offering three years to return to a familiar environment which Cruz often told reporters he very much enjoyed. Many question how Cruz’s power will translate to Safeco Field, and while it’s a legitimate concern, it should be noted that Oriole Park at Camden Yards was significantly less conducive to right-handed home run power in 2014 than Safeco Field, per Baseball Prospectus park factors. That’s not to say that Cruz is a good bet to repeat his career-high 40 homers — he isn’t — but rather that perhaps the change in home park won’t be as detrimental as many would think. Cruz will surely miss the homer-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Rogers Centre in his road games, though Houston’s Minute Maid Park offers a particularly advantageous short porch in left field for his pull-oriented swing.
The outfield corners — left field in particular — offered below-average production as well. Whether they were inspired by their division rivals or not, the Mariners took a page out of Oakland’s playbook and set about constructing a pair of platoons that should boost the output in right and left field. Seth Smith’s lifetime .277/.358/.481 batting line against righties will be complemented nicely by Justin Ruggiano’s career .266/.329/.508 slash against southpaws. In left field, Dustin Ackley (.259/.310/.442 against right-handed pitching last year) will be joined by outfield newcomer Rickie Weeks (career .261/.345/.448 versus lefties) to form the other platoon. Weeks, who was originally drafted by Zduriencik when Zduriencik was Milwaukee’s scouting director, may also see occasional reps at first base and can fill in at second on the rare days when iron man Robinson Cano doesn’t take the field.
The Mariners will return a largely similar pitching staff, so the upgrades to an offense that ranked 19th in the Majors in runs scored and in weighted runs created (93 wRC+, or seven percent below the league average) should be a significant boost to their 2015 hopes.
Cuban lefty Roenis Elias was a pleasant surprise for the 2014 Mariners, turning in 163 2/3 innings of 3.85 ERA with FIP/xFIP marks that suggested the outcome was reasonably sustainable. However, he’s been optioned to the Minors in favor of J.A. Happ, who’s never topped 166 innings in a season and owns a 4.75 ERA (4.33 FIP) over the past four seasons with Houston and Toronto. (I’ll discuss the trade that brought Happ to Seattle below.) Pitching depth is a great thing for any team to have, and Elias will serve as a nice safety net, but the man that is effectively replacing him isn’t a clear upgrade to the rotation. Happ will undoubtedly benefit from the move from Rogers Centre to Safeco Field, but it’s fair to question just how much better — if at all — he makes the Mariners, when considering the fact that he’s replacing a serviceable arm and cost them a valuable outfielder in Michael Saunders.
The other two rotation slots will represent somewhat of a youth movement, as the Mariners’ two most ballyhooed pitching prospects of the past few years — James Paxton and Taijuan Walker — will open the year in the rotation. Both have had shoulder problems in the past, but both have drawn excellent reviews from scouts this spring and could give the Mariners a formidable mid-rotation combo if they can realize even 80 or 90 percent of their potential. Whether or not they’re able to do so, of course, is the real question, given the duo’s checkered medical history. In that sense, there’s logic behind adding depth, but Seattle probably could’ve found depth that was less expensive than Happ and simply left Elias in the rotation as well.
Nonetheless, a rotation that projects to receive regular innings from Happ, Paxton and Walker (health permitting) is considerably more preferable than one with significant innings from Erasmo Ramirez and Chris Young (though Young defied his peripherals to turn in excellent bottom line results last year).
Turning to the offense, few teams in the league can boast a second base/third base tandem better than Cano and Kyle Seager, who will anchor the heart of the lineup along with Cruz. The aforementioned platoons should be productive, but there are questions at some other spots. Austin Jackson‘s bat went up in smoke upon a trade to Seattle last July, as the former Tiger hit a woeful .229/.267/.260 in 236 plate appearances in his new surroundings. Perhaps more time to acclimate himself to his new environment will do him some good — he’s had an outstanding Spring Training, for what it’s worth — but Jackson was genuinely one of baseball’s worst hitters in the second half of the 2014 season. He’ll earn $7.7MM in his final year of team control, and the Mariners will very much be counting on a rebound.
At first base, Logan Morrison will receive another shot at the everyday job now that Justin Smoak is a Blue Jay. Morrison’s inaugural season in Seattle was marred by yet another knee injury, but he quietly posted excellent numbers (.284/.334/.447 in his final 79 games) upon being activated from the DL and getting back up to speed at the plate. A full season of such production would be more than acceptable for the Mariners, but a repeat of his 2012-13 numbers in Miami or his initial production with Seattle would leave the team looking for an upgrade this summer.
Brad Miller and Chris Taylor entered the spring in a competition for the everyday shortstop role, but that battle came to an abrupt end when Taylor fractured his wrist. Miller will again be given a crack at holding down the fort, and a strong second half and spring performance may be a portent for a breakout. He’s shown little consistency to this point in his career, but the M’s clearly feel very strongly about Miller. The Nationals reportedly offered Seattle a package of Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond in exchange for Miller and Walker, but Seattle refrained from selling a pair of potentially long-term cogs, even if it would’ve meant acquiring a pair of impact players in a season where they aim to win the AL West.
Mike Zunino will again handle the lion’s share of time behind the plate. He has plus pop for a catcher and is one of the game’s best at framing pitches, but his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction last year, leaving him with a .199 average and .254 OBP. His glove and power still created value, but Seattle is undoubtedly banking on more offense from the former No. 3 overall pick. Behind him, Jesus Sucre is a fairly uninspiring option to serve as the backup, and it’s not hard to envision the Mariners looking for a better backup option as the season wears on.
The bullpen was excellent in 2014 and while much of the same cast will return, especially now that Joe Beimel has been brought back on a minor league contract. Beimel could be back in the majors quickly if young lefty Tyler Olson can’t build on his dominant spring performance. Rule 5 southpaw David Rollins looked poised to break camp with the club based on his own spring success, but he was popped with an 80-game suspension for failing a PED test. Rollins owned his mistake and apologized to the organization, who will keep him around, so he could yet surface in Seattle at midseason. Maurer’s brilliant relief work will be missed, though the offensive contributions of Smith may very well outweigh that loss.
Deal of Note
Saunders’ relationship with the Mariners came to a rocky and unfortunate end, and none of the parties involved came away from the situation looking particularly great. Both Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon made comments about Saunders’ injury history that seemed to call into question his preparedness for each season. Saunders seemingly took offense to the insinuations, as his then-agent Michael McCann expressed disappointment and frustration with the organization, as Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times chronicled last October. Zduriencik was quick to try to explain that the comments were meant as a wake-up call to all of the team’s young players, but the damage had seemingly been done, as rumors of the Mariners shopping Saunders surfaced as early as November’s GM Meetings.
Saunders was eventually traded to Toronto — an outcome the Canadian-born outfielder likely found satisfying — in exchange for Happ, and he ultimately wound up switching agents.
Though Saunders did struggle to stay healthy in Seattle, he was, perhaps in an under-the-radar fashion, a quite productive player when on the field. Saunders batted .248/.320/.423 with 162-game averages of 19 homers and 18 steals from 2012-14, and though he’s miscast as a center fielder, he’s a very defensively sound corner outfielder. While he’ll miss the first week or so of the season following knee surgery (he had a bit of a freak accident in spring, tearing his meniscus after stepping on a sprinkler head), Saunders could very well outpeform the left field platoon in Seattle, and he could be more valuable than Happ as well. Add in the fact that he’s controlled for two years to Happ’s one (at a cheaper salary), and the M’s could end up regretting how their relationship with Saunders ended.
The Saunders situation aside, it would be difficult to say that the Mariners haven’t improved the overall quality of their roster from 2014 to 2015. Their reliance on platoons in the corner outfield slots should yield better production and creates some depth in the event of an injury. Cruz may not match his 2014 output, but he’s an unequivocal upgrade over the abysmal production that the Mariners received from last year’s group of designated hitters.
The AL West should be a close race, with the Mariners, Angels and Athletics likely a bit in front of an improving-but-still-young Astros roster and an injury-plagued Rangers unit. If Paxton and Walker reach their upside, the two could combine with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to form one of baseball’s best rotations. Certainly, there are questions surrounding the Mariners, but it will be a surprise if they’re not in the thick of the playoff picture come September.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.