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Free Agent Profile: Michael Morse

Michael Morse has provided notice that he is still a force at the plate, but his defensive limitations remain a major factor in his market. He made good on the one-year, $6MM deal he signed with the Giants, but what kind of contract will he achieve in his second successive turn at free agency?

Strengths/Pros

You could probably write this section fairly in just one word: bat. Over 482 plate appearances with the Giants, Morse put up a strong .279/.336/.475 slash with 16 home runs. That line does not quite reach the monster figures he tallied in 2011 with the Nationals — .303/.360/.550 with 31 long balls – but nevertheless indicates that his down season in 2013 can be chalked up in large part to a nagging wrist injury that required offseason surgery.

MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants

Notably, the right-handed-hitting Morse is productive against both righties (121 career wRC+) and lefties (121 career wRC+). Though he may never again be a truly elite power hitter, he has bumped his ISO back to just under the .200 level and could well improve on his career-low 15.1% HR/FB rate with a move to a ballpark that better suits his notable pop to the opposite field gap.

In truth, there is not much to dislike about Morse’s bat. Detractors could point to a slightly rising strikeout rate, but there is no spike that is way out of line with his career numbers. And Morse has had plenty of success with the same general mix of Ks and free passes. Likewise, his numbers in 2014 should arguably be downgraded due to the fact that he carried a sizeable .348 BABIP. (Notably, Morse’s rough 2013 season was driven in part by a .254 average on pitches he put in play.) But despite his lack of speed, Morse has put up three seasons of .330-or-better BABIP figures because, well, he hits the ball really hard. With all of his batted ball, pitch recognition, and contact numbers lining up cleanly with his career norms, Morse seems a good bet to continue to produce at a solidly above-average rate with the bat.

All said, Morse would be quite valuable even in a pure DH role, especially since he does not need a left-handed-hitting platoon mate. But that may still sell short his value somewhat. While Morse is widely acknowledged to be a very poor defensive outfielder (more on that below), he has somewhat surprisingly seen relatively little action at first in his career. Over 1,259 2/3 career innings at that spot, he has rated out as a slightly below-average defender. While that may not seem at first glance to be much of a feather in his cap, that decent performance in sporadic playing time provides hope that Morse could be a more reliable option if he were to open the spring with a first baseman’s mitt and use it steadily over a season. And it bears recalling that Morse started out his career as a shortstop, and even saw 450 big league innings there in his rookie season with the Mariners. Though he’ll never be graceful, it seems plausible to think that Morse could take on a full-time job at first.

Weaknesses/Cons

A hot start, mid-season swoon, and late-year rally is generally not the worst way to hit your walk year. But for Morse, that year all but ended when August flipped to September. Sidelined with a strained oblique, Morse saw just two plate appearances in the season’s final month. And as of this writing, Morse has taken just four trips to the dish during the Giants’ postseason run, though the most recent produced a memorable home run.

That slightly unfortunate, essentially minor injury could probably be forgotten in large part were it not for Morse’s lengthy docket of maladies. The towering slugger has missed significant time over each of the last three seasons – to say nothing of several earlier DL stints – for various aches, pains, and strains. In the aggregate, since that 2011 full-season breakout, Morse has averaged 107 games and 416 plate appearances a year. In particular, acquiring teams that intend to utilize him in the outfield will need to account for the distinct possibility that a full year of production may not result.

Of course, whether to use Morse as a regular outfield option at all is open to question. Among players with at least 1,000 innings in the outfield over the last three years, Morse ranks fifth from the bottom in total negative defensive value by measure of both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved. And the eye test tends to support these findings.

Baserunning, likewise, is a clear negative for Morse, who was one of the league’s worst runners this year and probably will be for the rest of his career. He will turn 33 just before the start of the 2015 campaign, though that is still a fair sight younger than several other first base/DH options set to hit the market.

Personal

Morse, who was married in 2012, currently lives within walking distance of AT&T Park, according to this profile from Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle. He grew up in Florida, ultimately being drafted by the White Sox out of high school, but also spent time in Jamaica as a child.

Bearing a nom de guerre of “the Beast,” Morse is one of the most colorful players in the game. Whether performing his “Samurai Cobra Snake” routine before entering the box, spinning “Take On Me” before his third plate appearance of a game, or re-enacting a ghost swing before trotting out a grand slam after a review, Morse is undeniably an entertaining presence at the ballpark.

Market

While the Giants signed him as an outfielder, Morse’s time there in a regular capacity probably should and will come to an end. Though National League teams in need of a first baseman could make a slight roll of the dice on Morse’s defense, the most obvious landing spot remains with an American League club. Lacking platoon splits, he would be an attractive option to share time at first with a more platoon-oriented hitter while taking the rest of his hacks from the DH spot.

Clubs like the Rangers, Mariners, and White Sox seem to be possibilities, and the Royals may be in the market for a Billy Butler replacement. Were Victor Martinez to find a new team, it is possible to imagine the Tigers giving Morse a look to share first base and DH duties with Miguel Cabrera. And several N.L. teams – the Padres, Brewers, Marlins, and possibly the Pirates come to mind – could see merit in installing Morse at first. Should consideration be given to using him in the outfield, it is conceivable that the Giants, Reds, and Mets could get involved. Depending on how the Phillies proceed with their situations at first, third, and the corner outfield, Morse could theoretically land there as well.

As for comps, recent contracts given to Marlon Byrd (2/$16MM), Adam LaRoche (2/$25MM plus loss of a draft pick), and perhaps Mike Napoli (2/$32MM plus sacrifice of potential draft compensation) seem the most relevant points of reference. Byrd’s age and near-past disappearance from relevance certainly had a major impact on his market, though he is a more able defender than Morse. And Napoli’s strong work at the plate and in the field, combined with an age, seem to make his number out of reach. As for LaRoche, it is hard to ignore the fact that he was coming off of a 33-home run year and was generally well-regarded as a defensive first baseman (whatever the metrics may say).

Ultimately, even without the qualifying offer penalty, Morse seems likely to land shy of LaRoche’s deal. That is especially so given the fact that he faces relatively steep competition from bat-first players such as LaRoche (now again a likely free agent), Michael Cuddyer, Billy Butler, and (on the high side) Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez.

Expected Contract

Morse’s representatives at ACES will probably ask for three years, but there is sufficient market competition that I see a shorter pact as the likelier outcome. Though a qualifying offer is unlikely to weigh down his value, Morse has his limitations as a player. Ultimately, I predict that he will land a two-year, $22MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason Outlook: Toronto Blue Jays

On the heels of their first winning season since 2010, the Blue Jays are hoping to take the next step and reach the playoffs, though they may need to get creative with their payroll to make room for roster upgrades.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

With the exception of Dioner Navarro‘s modest two-year, $8MM free agent contract last offseason, the Blue Jays have gone almost two full calendar years without a major transaction.  Granted, the Jays reshaped their roster with some huge moves over last two months of 2012, but the lack of any significant follow-up has raised controversy in Toronto.  Since the Jays led the AL East for over a month and finished only five games out of a wild card spot, fingers were pointed by both fans and some players at GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Rogers Communications ownership group for not making any acquisitions that could’ve put the team over the top.

A weakened Canadian dollar, the hiring of a new Rogers CEO within the last year and Rogers spending $5.2 billion to acquire NHL TV rights over its Sportsnet channels have all been cited as theories for the lack of Blue Jays-related spending.  It could also simply be that the club’s $137MM payroll represents the full budget, so Anthopoulos wasn’t authorized to spend any further.  Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that Anthopoulos will have more than that $137MM figure to work with, and it’s possible the 2015 payroll could be lower.

Certainly, lots of teams would love to have “just” a $137MM budget, though Anthopoulos doesn’t have much room to maneuver given that $96.2MM is committed to only eight players for 2015.  Roughly $11.6MM (as estimated by Matt Swartz for MLBTR) will be paid to their arbitration-eligible players if all are tendered contracts, though Josh Thole‘s contract option can be exercised instead of going through the arb process and Juan Francisco stands out as a non-tender given how little action he saw over the season’s final weeks.  That adds up to at least $104MM for 13 players, plus the Jays figure to pick up at least a few of their outstanding team options lest they create more holes on the roster.

Payroll space is of particular concern in regards to Melky Cabrera, whose solid bounce-back season will net him a significant free agent contract.  Cabrera wants to stay in Toronto and the Blue Jays want him back, yet it remains to be seen if the two sides can match up on a new deal.  The Jays will issue a Cabrera a qualifying offer at the very least, and as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes noted in his latest Free Agent Power Rankings, teams could be hesitant to surrender a first-rounder and give an expensive multiyear deal to a player with a below-average glove and a PED suspension on his record.

This being said, Dierkes still ranked Cabrera as the eighth-best player in free agency since quality bats are a rare commodity this offseason.  The Jays might be out of luck if they’re hoping the QO limits Cabrera’s market enough that they can re-sign him at a relative bargain.  In his free agent profile of Cabrera, MLBTR’s Steve Adams made the point that the outfielder might actually be the safest bet among the top available hitters — Cabrera is younger and has more defensive value than Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz, and he is a proven MLB quantity, unlike Yasmany Tomas.

Cabrera could be the litmus test for how tight a payroll crunch Toronto is facing.  Something like Adams’ predicted five-year, $66.25MM contract isn’t an unreasonable sum for a team that has designs on contending and has only one player (Jose Reyes) guaranteed money past the 2015 season.  If Cabrera signs elsewhere for such a deal, it’s a sign the Jays will continue to limit spending.

If Cabrera leaves, the Jays will have two outfield spots to fill since center fielder Colby Rasmus seems as good as gone.  Rasmus had a disappointing season overall and received only 14 plate appearances in September as the Jays instead used younger players in center field.  He seems likely to pursue a one-year deal elsewhere to rebuild his value, leaving the Jays with a combination of Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar and top prospect Dalton Pompey juggling the center field duties.  That trio and John Mayberry could form platoons in left and center, though you’d imagine that would only be the last-ditch plan if a more established everyday outfielder couldn’t be found to handle one of the two spots.  Top-tier outfield free agents like Tomas and Cruz will be too expensive, so the Jays could pursue a trade for a left fielder and let the youngsters handle center.

Casey Janssen posted a 1.23 ERA in the first half of the season and a 6.46 ERA in the second half, as he was clearly affected by a severe bout of food poisoning during an All-Star break vacation.  That late slump seemed to cinch his departure from the team, and Janssen won’t be the only notable relief arm to leave — Sergio Santos‘ $6MM option will surely be bought out after a rough season and Dustin McGowan‘s $4MM option is a bit pricey for a reliever without a defined role as a closer or setup man.  McGowan still put up solid numbers once he became a full-time relief pitcher, however, so it’s possible the team could decline the option and seek a new contract with its longest-tenured player.

Some bullpen improvements are necessary after the Jays’ relief corps posted a collective 4.09 ERA in 2014, the sixth-highest bullpen ERA in baseball.  The Blue Jays will look to upgrade the pen by adding setup relievers rather than pricey free agent closers, and then the setup options would either form a closer committee or one would eventually emerge as the ninth-inning preference.  Top starting prospect Aaron Sanchez was dominant in a relief role in 2014, though the Jays would prefer to stretch him out as rotation depth rather than use him for significant bullpen innings.

The rotation went from a glaring weakness in 2013 to a relative strength in 2014.  Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey were their usual solid selves, top prospect Marcus Stroman exploded onto the scene with an impressive rookie season, Drew Hutchison recorded 184 strikeouts over 184 2/3 innings in his first year back after Tommy John surgery and J.A. Happ rebounded from an injury-plagued 2013.  Since Happ pitched well enough for his $6.7MM option to be exercised, Toronto projects to have the same starting five next year, with young arms like Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin providing depth in the minors or the bullpen.  After two injury-shortened seasons, Brandon Morrow‘s $10MM club option is expected to be declined.

Anthopoulos isn’t ruling out the idea of adding another veteran starter in a trade, though I’d be surprised if the likes of Stroman, Hutchison or Sanchez were dealt given how the GM has so often spoken of the importance of young pitching depth.  Could Anthopoulos make a lateral move by trading Buehrle?  The idea has been broached in the Toronto media as a way to open up salary space, as while Buehrle is the definition of a reliable starter, he might not be worth the $19MM he’s owed in the final year of his contract.

I’m not sure dealing any pitching is a wise move given that the Jays would be lucky to replicate the general good health their rotation enjoyed in 2014.  If they do make a move, however, I’d suggest dealing Dickey over Buehrle.  The Jays might well have to eat some of that $19MM to make a deal happen and get a good MLB-ready piece back in return for Buehrle, while Dickey has a more palatable contract ($12MM in 2015, $12MM team option for 2016) to trade partners.  From Toronto’s perspective, Dickey is also over four years older, hasn’t pitched as well as Buehrle in 2013-14 and is a bit more of a question mark simply by dint of being a knuckleballer.

Some of the same logic in trading Buehrle or Dickey to free up payroll space applies to Reyes, who is owed $66MM through 2017.  The larger term and salary makes dealing Reyes a tall order, however, especially considering Reyes’ injury history and his declining defense; he hasn’t posted an above-average UZR/150 since 2008.  Reyes reportedly played through injuries for much of the season so the Jays will have to hope that he’ll be healthy and productive for the remainder of his contract.

Reyes, Navarro, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie hold down everyday positions around the rest of the diamond, though Lawrie’s actual position is up in the air.  The Jays would prefer to see his excellent third base glove remain on the hot corner, though Lawrie saw some time at his old second spot last season and could be moved semi-permanently if the Jays can acquire an everyday third baseman.  Of course, Lawrie isn’t a stable option himself, having spent significant time on the DL in each of the last three seasons.

There aren’t many attractive 2B/3B options within Toronto’s price range in free agency, so a trade might again be the ideal route for an upgrade.  I cited the Cubs’ Luis Valbuena as a trade candidate in my Red Sox offseason outlook piece, and Valbuena (coming off a .249/.341/.435 season with 16 homers in 547 PA) might make even more sense for the Jays since he can play both second and third.  The Marlins, White Sox and Rockies are all teams with second base depth that could be available in trades, and there’s plenty of room for improvement given that Toronto’s second basemen combined for only 0.5 fWAR in 2014.

Right now, Ryan Goins and Steve Tolleson are the top choices to platoon at second base, while Maicer Izturis will be in the mix.  Izturis had a terrible 2013 season and was injured for almost all of 2014, so his three-year, $10MM contract has thus far been a bust for the Jays.  Munenori Kawasaki was outrighted off the Jays’ 40-man roster but there’s a good chance the fan favorite infielder will be brought back as a minor league depth option.

A broken foot limited Adam Lind to only 318 PA last year, yet his injury history and inability to hit left-handers don’t offset his value as a righty-smashing bat.  Lind posted a .942 OPS against right-handed pitching in 2014, so expect the Jays to exercise his $7.5MM option and use him in his usual role as a primary DH and part-time first baseman.  Mayberry or Valencia fit as right-handed hitting complements to Lind at DH, or Reyes could even see some action at DH as an effort to keep him fresh.

Anthopoulos has stressed durability as one of his key musts for any new player, which goes towards a general team-wide goal to cut down on injuries and add bench depth.  It’s no coincidence that the Jays’ red-hot stretch in May and early June came when they had almost all of their key performers healthy at the same time.  They lacked the depth to withstand multiple injuries, however, and ultimately fell apart around the time when Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie’s DL stints overlapped.

With promising young talent and and a very good veteran core, there is a lot to like about the 2015 Blue Jays on paper.  They could be close to being serious contenders, and yet if the youngsters don’t pan out or the veterans start to decline, the Jays’ window of contention could just as easily start closing given how many key talents are only controlled (via team options) through 2016.  The unknown payroll situation and the possibility that team president Paul Beeston could depart also adds to the winter uncertainty.  The Jays have been so mysteriously quiet over the last two years that it’s hard to predict exactly how busy they’ll be before Opening Day, though with so many areas that need addressing, the club can’t get away with another offseason on the sidelines.


Free Agent Profile: Nick Markakis

Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis entered the 2014 season with a lot to prove coming off the worst season of his pro career in 2013, and he was able to reestablish a significant amount of value heading into what will likely be his first venture into the free agent market. While he does have a mutual option ($17.5MM with a $2MM buyout) — such options are rarely, if ever exercised by both sides — especially when they’re for such a lofty amount.

Strengths/Pros

Throughout his career, Markakis has consistently gotten on base at a strong clip. A lifetime .290/.358/.435 hitter, Markakis has never posted a single-season OBP lower than .329, and he’s never batted below .271, either. His lowest OBP and batting average both came last season on the heels of three 2012 surgeries — one to repair a sports hernia, one to repair a broken hamate bone in his right wrist and the other to repair a broken thumb in his left hand. Markakis performed well after the first two operations — the hernia and the hamate procedures — but the thumb injury ended his season. It’s possible that an injury to his dominant hand, coupled with the effects of the surgery on his right hand left him a bit sapped in that poor 2013 campaign.

Nick  MarkakisThough he does have those three fairly recent surgeries in his history, Markakis has otherwise been one of baseball’s most durable players over the life of his nine-year career. The former first-round pick (seventh overall) has averaged 152 games per season since debuting as a 22-year-old in 2006, topping 160 games five times and 155 or more on seven occasions. Aside from 2012, he’s never been on the disabled list.

As his OBP marks indicate, Markakis walks at a fairly strong clip. He’s never posted a walk rate lower than 7.9 percent in a season and is at 9.3 percent for his career (8.7 percent in 2014). He’s one of the toughest batters in baseball to strike out, as evidenced by a lifetime strikeout rate of 13 percent (11.8 percent in 2014). And, while he doesn’t have the plus power he showed earlier in his career, Markakis has hit 10 or more homers in each season of his career, including 14 this year.

Defensive metrics go back and forth on Markakis’ value in right field, but Ultimate Zone Rating has long been a fan of his strong, accurate arm, and he posted positive marks in both UZR/150 (+5.8) and Defensive Runs Saved (+1) in 2014.

Weaknesses/Cons

As noted, defensive metrics offer a wide range of potential outcomes on Markakis. While he was a plus defender in right field this season and graded as perhaps baseball’s best right fielder back in 2008 (+11 UZR/150, +22 DRS), he’s posted negative marks more often than not in recent years. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the heavy workload he takes on each season, and perhaps the hernia surgery in 2012 impacted some of his glovework, but agent Jamie Murphy of TWC Sports will likely have to deal with some teams that are skeptical of Markakis’ defensive outlook in the tail end of his prime years.

Though he’s a steady contributor in terms of batting average and OBP, Markakis hasn’t hit for power in recent seasons. He was on his way to a solid .174 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) in his injury-shortened 2012, but that mark has been nearly cut in half over the previous two campaigns (.097). He’s still a double-digit homer threat, but after routinely hitting about 45 doubles per season earlier in his career, he hit just 51 between 2013 and 2014 combined.

Also clouding the picture is a late-season swoon for Markakis, who struggled mightily for 45-50 games from late July to mid-September. He did recover with a strong 10-game showing to close out the season, but his second half was notably weaker than his first: .288/.351/.395 before the break and .256/.329/.372 following.

Personal

Markakis and his wife, Christina, have three children. Together, the couple launched the Right Side Foundation in 2009 — a nonprofit organization that seeks to better the lives of distressed children in the state of Maryland. Nick and Christina were honored by the Balitmore Sun when they received the Tim Wheatley Award for off-the-field contributions to the community.

Markakis is known as a driven player who will take the field even when he’s not at 100 percent — a fact that is reflected in the number of games he’s played throughout his career.

Market

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported yesterday that the Orioles are expected to decline Markakis’ option. I found this to be a moderate surprise, as the team could have picked up its half of the option and assumed that Markakis would decline; players with his track record at his age almost never want to play on a one-year deal, instead preferring a longer commitment even at a lower annual rate. That move would spare the O’s his $2MM buyout and allow them to make a $15.3MM qualifying offer. It’s possible they could still make the QO — the combined total of the QO and the buyout ($17.3MM) would still be less than that of his option — but this seems to suggest that the team isn’t comfortable risking a $17MM+ commitment to Markakis in order to secure a draft pick. If that’s the case, he seems likely to hit the market without draft pick compensation, which is great news for Markakis and his agent.

From a competition standpoint, Markakis is positioned well. Yasmany Tomas is the name generating the most buzz in terms of corner outfield options, but he’s yet to play a game in the Majors. Melky Cabrera is coming off a fine season and is perhaps the most direct competitor. Nelson Cruz has a bigger bat but is more than three years older with more pronounced defensive issues. Some teams will undoubtedly have more interest in making an upside play on someone like Colby Rasmus over a shorter term, but Markakis can rightfully claim that he’s a more consistent contributor. Nori Aoki brings a lighter bat at an older age. Beyond that grouping, Markakis will be competing with aging veterans, many of whom are coming off poor and/or injury-plagued seasons; Alex Rios, Michael Cuddyer, Corey Hart, Mike Morse, Josh Willingham and Torii Hunter are among the alternatives.

Markakis isn’t going to make a cellar-dwelling team into a contender, but he’s the type of bat that an above-average club can look at as one of the final pieces to rounding out a contending roster. His steady batting average and OBP numbers slot are a good fit at the top of a batting order.

If the Yankees are convinced that Alex Rodriguez can play in the field enough to make Carlos Beltran a primary DH, then Markakis could be a right field option there. He’d make a nice replacement option for the Blue Jays in the event that Cabrera signs elsewhere, and the Tigers have some uncertainty in the outfield after Andy Dirks missed the 2014 season and given Hunter’s uncertain status. The Royals will need to replace Aoki if he does not re-sign, and the Mets have a well-documented corner outfield need. Seattle, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are all in need of corner outfield help as well, and the White Sox would make sense if they want to move on from Dayan Viciedo.

Expected Contract

Markakis has three primary competitors in my opinion: Tomas, Cruz and Cabrera. Beyond that grouping, he can make the case that he’s the next-best bat and a more certain commodity than others on what is unquestionably a thin market for bats. Players in this age bracket have been targeting at least four-year commitments, and I would expect Markakis to do the same.

The late-season swoon is a strike against Markakis, but the fact that he can likely come without a draft pick attached makes him an appealing alternative to Cruz and Cabrera, and he will of course be significantly less expensive than Tomas.

I still think there’s at least a chance that Markakis ends up with a QO, and if that’s the case, I’d peg him for a three-year, $39MM contract.

However, if he’s hitting the open market without draft pick compensation attached, I do think that’s enough to get him to four years, albeit at a slightly lesser AAV. Assuming there’s no QO in play, I’m projecting a four-year, $48MM contract in a weak market for hitters.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Offseason Outlook: New York Mets

The Mets hope that 2015 represents the start of a window of contention that has seemed in planning for some time. But cracking that window open without compromising its structural integrity could require some careful handling.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Free Agents

The first order of business is already in the books: Sandy Alderson will not only be back as GM, but received an extension that keeps him under contract through 2017. Barring a disastrous season to come, then, it appears that Alderson will have the chance to see through the rebuilding process that he started back before the 2011 season. Terry Collins will also keep his seat as skipper, reflecting the generally positive vibes surrounding the club last year.

While cautious and hopeful optimism has held sway in Queens of late, expectations could go through the roof this spring. After a dominant start to his career, Matt Harvey was shelved for Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2014. He is expected to be a full go, and if he shows his typical form down in Port St. Lucie, visions of grandeur will not be far behind.

True, Harvey is only one player, but he’s both a really good one and not the only reason to hope that the rotation could be a unique strength. Zack Wheeler came with nearly as much prospect hype, and has not disappointed – even if he has not been a true ace out of the womb. Jacob deGrom just wrapped up a stunning rookie campaign in which he tossed 140 1/3 innings of 2.69 ERA ball with peripherals to match. He may be somewhat old for his MLB debut — deGrom is now 26 — but the fact remains that he was outstanding over a lengthy stretch, and is under control for six more years. New York can round out its starting five from amongst a trio of solid-to-decent starters who are all playing under solid-to-decent contractual situations: Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Bartolo Colon. And there is both depth and upside ascending the ladder underneath this group, led by top prospect Noah Syndergaard, the touted Rafael Montero (who made his big league debut in 2014), and the rising Steven Matz.

This bunch of starting pitching assets – and bunching of qualified starters at the MLB level – has led to speculation that a trade could be forthcoming. Unless a young player at a position of need were dangled, New York seems highly unlikely to part with its most valuable arms. But Colon, Gee, and perhaps even Niese could potentially be had, particularly if Alderson decides it would be useful to re-allocate some payroll to address other needs.

Of course, the most strident trade suggestions have revolved around the idea of the Mets sending some of its hurlers to a shortstop-rich team like the Cubs or Diamondbacks. The idea of adding a controllable shortstop certainly has facial appeal. And while common wisdom holds that young players (especially prospects) tend not to be traded for one another, there are exceptions; recently, several deals have involved exactly that type of exchange. (E.g., D’backs get Didi Gregorius, give Trevor Bauer; Tigers acquire Jose Iglesias, give Avisail Garcia; Padres get Andrew Cashner, give Anthony Rizzo.) But indications out of Chicago and Arizona are that both clubs are generally content waiting to see how their middle infield situations shake out before making moves. Likewise, the Mets’ seeming MLB-level pitching logjam does not directly involve the team’s most valuable pitchers; after already going through the TJ process with Harvey, the club will surely be in no rush to move arms.

Barring a trade, the Mets will face a somewhat familiar situation at short. After passing on veteran Stephen Drew last year, following months of rumors, the Mets gave nearly all of the playing time to Ruben Tejada and Wilmer Flores. Neither grabbed hold of the job, but both played above replacement level. Each had defensive metrics that ranged from about average to substantially above-average (a surprise for Flores, who was expected to move off the position). At the plate, the pair showed their respective strengths and weaknesses, as Tejada slashed .237/.342/.310 over 419 plate appearances and Flores went for a .251/.286/.378 line over 274 trips to the plate. As with last year, but this time with more urgency, Alderson must decide whether to continue the audition process or instead acquire a veteran who could boost the club’s chances of making a postseason run. The Mets could pursue the still-young Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, or Drew – this time on a fairly modest one-year deal – or go after a veteran platoon/reserve option.

Behind the plate, young Travis d’Arnaud was quite productive in the second half and figures to have the starting role again. He could, however, be pushed by rising prospect Kevin Plawecki. That duo is also good enough, perhaps, that a trade could ultimately make sense, though the likelier scenario is for the Mets to let it play out before committing to a single option.

Otherwise, the infield appears largely set, for different reasons. David Wright is the face of the franchise and is going nowhere at third. The team will hope for a return to form. First baseman Lucas Duda rewarded the Mets’ faith in dealing away Ike Davis with a breakout campaign. And Daniel Murphy had another strong year at second entering his final year of arb eligibility.

Though that alignment could be kept in its present form, Murphy remains worth watching. He has come up repeatedly as a trade or extension candidate, with the idea that New York should either deal him while it can achieve value or commit to him long-term. The team does have plausible replacements, and could give a chance to one or more of Flores, Dilson Herrera, or Matt Reynolds. But that would not represent a bet on the present, and another productive year from Murphy could make him a mid-season trade chip or even a qualifying offer candidate after the year.

One other possibility for improvement straddles the infield dirt and the outfield grass (which, it bears noting, will be somewhat less voluminous after the Citi Field fences are again brought in this offseason). Duda’s big year came in spite of worsening splits against lefties. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams rightly pointed out to me, it could make sense to add a right-handed bat to spend some time both at first and in the outfield. Adams suggests that free agent Michael Cuddyer would make a good fit for that role, particularly if he can be had on a short-term deal and paired with another right-handed hitting corner outfielder. Over at MetsBlog, Matthew Cerrone discusses a scenario of that kind, ticking through a few available options.

As things stand, one corner spot is wide open, with possibilities ranging from a signing or trade to some kind of platoon. (Internal options include the switch-hitting Eric Young Jr. and left-handed-swinging Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.) Certainly, there are a fair number of intriguing bats floating around that may not require massive commitments — Cuddyer, Colby Rasmus, and Alex Rios among them. Otherwise, the remaining two starting roles are accounted for, as Juan Lagares has shown enough that he will be trusted to hold down the job in center and Curtis Granderson will look to restore hope in the remaining $47MM left on his deal.

What’s left is the bench and the bullpen. Most of the position reserves will likely be drawn from amongst the names discussed above, as New York has a host of young infielders and outfielders who can be expected to provide reasonable production (with some upside) for a league-minimum rate. Many decisions will be driven by the team’s coming 40-man roster crunch.

The pen, too, is not likely to see much change, barring a trade. Bobby Parnell will return from Tommy John surgery and look to unseat Jenrry Mejia from the closer’s role, though he may not be ready to start the year after going under the knife in April. Jeurys Familia will presumably join those two as the late-inning favorites. Others in the mix include righties Vic Black, Carlos Torres, and Buddy Carlyle. There is somewhat less depth on the current 40-man from the left-handed side, with Josh Edgin and Dana Eveland being the likeliest options. In the aggregate, the Mets have plenty of arms to choose from and could just take what emerges out of the spring. Depending upon how the free agent market moves, it would not be terribly surprising to see Alderson add a veteran arm, but that can be said of most teams and is not a top priority.

Some reports indicate that total spending is likely to remain in the ballpark of last year’s mid-$80MM Opening Day payroll. Of course, as Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com explains, that number looks somewhat implausible given the current slate of contracts. And the Mets seemingly operate with a flexible budget for player spending, anyway. With $54MM in contractual guarantees and about $30MM in potential arbitration spending still to go, the tab is already set to outstrip last year’s starting point, even before accounting for any new additions. Beyond simply adding some cash to the ledger, the club could potentially free more dollars by reallocating resources: a sacrifice of some pitching depth, for instance, might well be worth the commensurate risk to achieve near-term upside by upgrading in the outfield or middle infield.

In the end, the Mets have the talent in place to make the fabled “meaningful games in September” a reasonable expectation. And the possibility of a full-on breakout cannot be discounted, though that would require several things to turn in New York’s favor. (Interestingly, there are plenty of parallels to the 2012 Nationals.) Alderson now seems to have many of the cards in hand that he set out to find; all that remains is to play them.


Rays Ponder Life Without Andrew Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

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


Offseason Outlook: San Diego Padres

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

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Adams contributed to this post.


Free Agent Profile: Melky Cabrera

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

Strengths/Pros

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

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

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

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

Weaknesses/Cons

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

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

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

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

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

Personal

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

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

Market

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

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

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

Expected Contract

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Trade Candidate: Evan Gattis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Offseason Outlook: Cincinnati Reds

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

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Options

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

Free Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


MLBTR Originals

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


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