MLBTR Originals Rumors

MLBTR Originals

What better way to keep warm during a week in which millions of people had to dig out from Winter Storms Juno and Linus than to look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR:

  • MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd analyzing the upcoming extension season and reviewing the Astros’ busy winter with Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast will be released every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Tim Dierkes broke the news of the financial terms and bonus structure of Devin Mesoraco‘s extension with the Reds after being the first to report both sides were nearing a deal.
  • Jeff listed the seven most intriguing free agents still on the market, two of whom (Alexi Ogando and Chad Billingsley) signed within 72 hours of the post being published.
  • MLBTR was the first to learn right-hander Joe Blanton, who made only two starts last season for the A’s Triple-A affiliate before leaving the team and ultimately being released, will work out and throw a bullpen session for interested clubs this Wednesday in Nashville.
  • Steve Adams hosted this week’s live chat.
  • Zach Links assembled the best of the baseball blogosphere for you in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

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The Open Market’s Most Intriguing Remaining Names

As it always does, the free agent market contains some fairly noteworthy names entering the final month before Spring Training. A good portion of the value at the top of the leftover market lies in established names who have been reliable, healthy, and good in the recent past: James Shields, Francisco Rodriguez, and the like.

Some of those types of players may be a bit long in the tooth, perhaps, or might lack upside or be coming off of a somewhat down 2014 season. But there are teams with expectations of contending that are interested in signing them and plugging them into important roster slots. This segment of the market contains relative certainty.

But as much as the solid veteran group is useful, it is entirely less interesting than the array of wild cards that also remain to be signed. For another market niche, comparative youth, talent, and/or upside marry with various issues, inconsistency, and/or injury. Some such players will surely flame out, never to be heard from again, but it is likewise possible that one or more will re-establish themselves as quality regulars and deliver immense value to their new teams.

If you are a fan of a team that wants someone to dream on without breaking the bank (or even committing a big league roster spot, in some cases), consider one of these players from the scratch-and-dent market:

  • Mike Adams, right-handed pitcher, 36 – Remember when the 6’5 reliever was a really effective set-up man? Wait, he has always been a really effective set-up man — when healthy. He may not have been on the field enough to deliver value to the Phillies on his $12MM free agent contract, but even while battling through injury Adams worked to a 3.50 ERA over 43 2/3 innings. Last year, especially, he was quite good: a 2.89 ERA (supported entirely by sub-3.00 ERA estimator marks) and better than ten punchouts per nine with a 56.3% groundball rate. Sure, it was a small sample (18 2/3) and his shoulder problems were still present. But if you’re going to roll the dice, it may as well be for a nice potential return.
  • John Axford, right-handed pitcher, 31 – Axford still pumps gas and still logs double-digit strikeout rates. Sure, he walked nearly six batters per nine last year and ERA estimators have been increasingly dubious of his quality over the past three seasons. If he can figure out a way to reign back in the free passes and yield a few fewer long balls, Axford still looks like a late-inning arm. And now, teams can take a chance on a return to form without the high salaries that he carried more recently.
  • Brandon Beachy, right-handed pitcher, 28 – The former Brave owns a lifetime 3.23 ERA over 46 big league starts, with a 3.34 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, and 3.39 SIERA. He has averaged better than nine strikeouts and less than three walks per nine innings. He also is on his second replacement UCL, this one installed last spring. In each of the above-referenced statistics, Beachy is entirely not-unlike fellow former Atlanta hurler Kris Medlen. Yet Beachy — who is one year younger — remains unsigned while Medlen has already secured an $8.5MM guarantee. He also can be controlled for an additional year through arbitration, with a low salary base to work from.
  • Chad Billingsley, right-handed pitcher, 30 – As with Beachy, Billingsley was once an effective starter who has struggled for some time now to return from Tommy John surgery. What the latter lacks in dominating upside, he makes up for in the lengthy run of reliable innings he provided before succumbing to elbow troubles. From the time he became a full-time starter in 2008 through the 2011 season (the one before his elbow troubles began), Billingsley averaged 194 frames of 3.73 ERA pitching.
  • Everth Cabrera, shortstop, 28 – Were it not for his off-field issues, it seems likely the Padres would have tendered the former starting shortstop and given him a chance to regain his 2013 form. The year before last, Cabrera registered a 114 wRC+ while swiping 37 bags (down from 44 in the season prior) and playing the best-rated defense of his career. That was a 3.1 fWAR player, even in a season cut short due to suspension. The 2014 version of Cabrera was not, even when on the field instead of nursing an injury. There are issues aplenty here, but his abilities stand out in a market that hurt for middle infield talent from the start. And it does not hurt that he comes with a year of arb control remaining.
  • Alexi Ogando, right-handed pitcher, 31 – Flipping back and forth between starting and relief, Ogando and his mid-90s heater have long been a storyline. And until last year’s dud, he had never been anything but effective. Even after putting up 25 innings at double the allowed runs rate that he had generally permitted, Ogando sits with a lifetime 3.35 earned run mark. The track record of arm trouble remains a concern, but Ogando’s velocity was just fine last year and he could easily be on the rise with a normal spring.
  • Rickie Weeks, second base, 32 – Once one of the game’s better keystone options, Weeks has stumbled backward in all areas of the game since 2012. But last year was a bit different; while his defensive metrics continued to lag behind his earlier work, Weeks did put up a .274/.357/.452 slash in 286 plate appearances that brought to mind better days. True, Weeks inflicted much of his damage against lefties, with his solid line against right-handers propped up by a .420 BABIP. But given his track record, a revived spurt of production at least raises the possibility of a late-career renaissance.

MLBTR Originals

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


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MLBTR Originals

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

  • MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd reviewing the Twins’ offseason with Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and MLBTR’s Steve Adams. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast will be released every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Despite all the rumors, Evan Gattis told reporters, including Zach Links, his trade to the Astros caught him by surprise. “I didn’t think I was going to get traded, believe it or not. I think with four more years under club control, I think that was kind of big [for the Braves], so that kind of surprised me until I found out about the deal. Even though I heard all the rumors, I figured if something was going to happen, it would have gotten done a lot earlier. That’s what I kind of chalked it up to, just being a lot of rumors. It didn’t really sink in until it happened.”
  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington told Zach and other reporters how the team plans on deploying Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang. “We want him to transition culturally as well as professionally and as he comes into camp he’ll very much complement our major league team. We’re looking forward to confirming our belief about his ability at shortstop, he has played some third, and we know he can play some second but right now he’ll come in as a complementary player as he adjusts to major league baseball and the United States in general.”
  • Agent Larry Reynolds told MLBTR reports of poor medicals on Alexi Ogando‘s right shoulder are unfounded. “Alexi Ogando was 92 to 93 and touched 94 at a bullpen session for numerous teams last week. After an earlier examination by Dr. [James] Andrews, coupled with his promising progression, we believe Alexi should have no problem securing a job and will be pitching on Day 1 of 2015 Spring Training.”
  • Jeff, using MLBTR’s Arbitration Tracker, recapped Friday’s exchange of salary arbitration figures.
  • Steve hosted the MLBTR live chat this week.
  • Zach put together the best of the baseball blogosphere in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

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Pirates GM Neal Huntington On Signing Jung-ho Kang

Earlier today, the Pirates announced that they have officially signed Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang to a four-year deal.  The appeal to Kang is clear.  He slashed .356/.459/.739 for the Nexen Heroes of the (admittedly hitter-friendly) Korea Baseball Organization with 40 homers across 117 total games in 2014.  What wasn’t so clear about the signing is where Kang will fit in with the Pirates.  Earlier today, I asked General Manager Neal Huntington about how he anticipates that Kang will be used in Pittsburgh.

We like the player a lot but we also understand and respect that there’s going to be a significant transition period here, not just on the field, but off the field as well.  We want him to transition culturally as well as professionally and as he comes into camp he’ll very much complement our major league team,” Huntington said on the conference call.  “We’re looking forward to confirming our belief about his ability at shortstop, he has played some third, and we know he can play some second but right now he’ll come in as a complementary player as he adjusts to major league baseball and the United States in general.”

While there will be an adjustment period for Kang, the Pirates want the infielder to get acclimated to life in the majors right away.  That means that Huntington & Co. have no intention of sending Kang down to the minor leagues for seasoning.

Huntington says that Kang is on board with serving in a complementary role in 2015, despite recent comments that he made which suggested that he wanted to start immediately.  The Bucs GM chalked that up to something of a miscommunication: any major leaguer, he says, will assert that they are starting caliber if asked.  By the same token, Huntington says that Kang respects the hard work that Bucs teammates like Josh Harrison have put in to earn their leading roles.

The Pirates are excited about welcoming Kang into the fold but not everyone in the baseball world is a believer.  The KBO boasts notoriously boosted batting lines and many equate the league’s level of competition with Double-A baseball.  In Huntington’s mind, that’s not necessarily a fair comparison nor is it an accurate predictor of how well a Korean player can fare in the big leagues.  Japan’s NPB has a stronger level of competition but Huntington notes that many Japanese players haven’t been able to hack it in the States, and vice versa.

That skepticism over his level of competition led to a more tepid market than some anticipated at the outset of the offseason.  I asked Huntington if he had a sense of how many teams were ultimately in on the bidding process.

It’s a blind process and on one hand its a bit disconcerting to not know, but on the other hand we don’t really care.  We got the player wanted for what we feel is a fair dollar amount that works for him and for us,” Huntington said.

If things work out with Kang, it certainly seems possible that he could displace someone in Pittsburgh’s current infield.  Huntington isn’t thinking that far ahead, however.

This move was made to make us a better team. You can never have enough good players, You can never have enough quality major league players, especially ones that have versatility and can do it from the left side.  There’s no set script [that says] if he becomes a good player, we’re going to trade player X or player Y. If things go well, we’re going to have a very talented and deep position player group,” the GM explained.

In an interesting twist, Kang’s Nexen team will be training in Arizona this spring.  The Bucs will allow the infielder to work out with his former squad before flying across the country to meet them in Florida.


Evan Gattis On Joining The Astros

After months of rumblings, the Braves finally found a deal they liked for catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis.  The veteran is now the newest member of the Astros, who now appear determined to make an impact in 2015.

Gattis, a Dallas-area native, sheepishly admitted to reporters today that he grew up as a fan of the Rangers, and not his current ball club.   Interestingly, before Gattis was sent to Houston for a trio of prospects, he was picking up trade interest from other clubs, including the nearby Rangers.  I asked the 28-year-old if the Braves or his agent gave him a sense of how close he was to being traded to his favorite childhood team.

All I’ve heard along the way is about as much as you’ve heard… or, maybe less than you’ve heard,” Gattis said on today’s conference call.

Gattis was certainly aware of the trade rumors surrounding him, and inquiring family members amplified things by asking him about the Rangers on a constant basis.  Still, the veteran believed that he would still be in Atlanta come April.

I didn’t think I was going to get traded, believe it or not.  I think with four more years under club control, I think that was kind of big [for the Braves], so that kind of surprised me until I found out about the deal,” Gattis explained.  “Even though I heard all the rumors, I figured if something was going to happen, it would have gotten done a lot earlier.  That’s what I kind of chalked it up to, just being a lot of rumors.  It didn’t really sink in until it happened yesterday.”

Now, Gattis has gone from a clear rebuild in Atlanta to Houston, where the timeline to contend has been advanced considerably.  While heaping praise on the way the Braves organization treated him over the years, he spoke glowingly of what awaits him with the Astros.

We are on the rise. They’re trying to push this team and get guys in the direction of winning. We won 19 more games last year and more games than in however many years, so I think the potential is there. The difference is so small between a really good team and a .500 team over the course of 162 games, it’s small situations and little stuff. It’s all about how you can carry it out and put it together.

We have a bunch of young guys who are eager to compete and win jobs, I think it’s a good environment here in Houston.”


MLBTR Originals

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

  • MLB Trade Rumors Podcast returned from the holidays with host Jeff Todd discussing the Padres’ busy offseason with MLB.com’s Corey Brock. Jeff also offered his take on the makeover the NL West has undergone. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast will be dropped every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman told reporters, including Charlie Wilmoth, the decision to trade Ben Zobrist was not easy and was dictated by the reality of a team with limited resources being forced to maximize their assets. “This has been a difficult transaction for all of us to stomach. Ben has been a central figure in the transformation of the organization. These trades are difficult, but they’re a necessary part of how we operate. In an ideal world, we don’t make these kinds of trades, but we don’t have the luxury to do that.
  • Charlie opines the Orioles might be better off going to year-to-year through the arbitration process with Chris Tillman rather than extending the right-hander.
  • Zach Links compiled the latest edition of Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

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Agent: Alexi Ogando To Be Ready For Spring Training

Earlier today, a report cited an anonymous AL executive who claimed that the medical records on free agent righty Alexi Ogando‘s shoulder “didn’t look great” and that Ogando’s market would heat up once he accepted that he wouldn’t be able to land a big-league deal. Ogando’s agent, Larry Reynolds, told MLBTR on Sunday that he objected to that executive’s description of his client’s health.

Alexi Ogando was 92 to 93 and touched 94 at a bullpen session for numerous teams last week,” says Reynolds. “After an earlier examination by Dr. [James] Andrews, coupled with his promising progression, we believe Alexi should have no problem securing a job and will be pitching on Day 1 of 2015 Spring Training.”

Ogando missed much of the 2014 season with elbow inflammation, and he had shoulder trouble in 2013. The Rangers non-tendered him last month. Prior to 2014, when he pitched only 25 innings and had a 6.84 ERA, the 31-year-old had gotten good results as both a starter and a reliever when healthy.


Matt Silverman On The Ben Zobrist Trade

The trade of Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the Athletics for John Jaso, shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and outfield prospect Boog Powell on Saturday was a franchise-changing one for the Rays, who parted with a longtime star. Zobrist joined the team in 2006 when it had never had a winning season and was still called the Devil Rays, and he was a key to the team’s turnaround, helping lead the organization to its first winning season in 2008.

USATSI_7995594_154513410_lowresRays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman told the media Saturday afternoon that the decision to trade Zobrist, who would have been eligible for free agency after the season, was a painful one.

This has been a difficult transaction for all of us to stomach,” Silverman said. “There are a lot of heavy hearts in the organization today. Ben has been a central figure in the transformation of the organization.”

Unsurprisingly, Silverman said that a team in the Rays’ position sometimes has to trade veterans for young talent.

These trades are difficult, but they’re a necessary part of how we operate. In an ideal world, we don’t make these kinds of trades, but we don’t have the luxury to do that,” he said.

While not all trades of older players for younger ones work out, such trades have often proven helpful to the Rays in the past.

We acquired Ben Zobrist in a trade kind of like this,” said Silverman, referring to the deal in which they sent former star Aubrey Huff to the Astros in 2006.

The Rays parted with another starting infielder in Escobar in today’s deal as well. They knew heading into trade discussions that the Athletics liked Escobar, because the A’s had claimed him from the Rays on revocable waivers last year.

When we talk to teams, oftentimes interest is expressed years before transactions actually come to a head,” said Silverman, adding that the A’s were one of a number of teams with interest in Escobar. “Oakland had interest in Yunel for awhile, and it helps set the tone for conversations.

Now, with Zobrist and Escobar gone, the Rays will need to reshape their middle infield. The key will be Asdrubal Cabrera, whose signing the Rays officially announced today. Silverman said that Cabrera would get regular playing time either at shortstop or second base.

Beyond that, he noted, “we have an open mind heading into the spring” regarding the middle infield. Silverman added that Nick Franklin, who the Rays acquired in the David Price deal last summer and who can also play both shortstop and second base, could now get more playing time as well.

There are a number of players in our organization who probably see a better opportunity for them,” Silverman said, though he also suggested that the Rays could continue to look for outside middle infield help.

Meanwhile, the Rays did get one big-leaguer as part of their return in the trade. Getting a good left-handed hitter in John Jaso was a key to the deal, Silverman said.

He’s the kind of offensive player that our lineup has been missing against right-handed pitching,” said Silverman.

The position Jaso has played the most is catcher, but Silverman suggested that Jaso’s hitting was more important to them than his ability to catch. Jaso missed the end of the 2014 season with concussion issues. Silverman said he expects Jaso to be healthy heading into the season, but added that it’s important that the Rays put Jaso “in the best position to succeed,” seemingly suggesting that the team could limit his catching if playing the position proved to be a health risk. The team could use Jaso at first base or outfield in addition to occasional catching if he proves he can perform at those positions.

We want to make sure we get as much out of that bat as possible,” said Silverman.

Nonetheless, it’s Robertson, the Athletics’ former No. 1 prospect, who most interests the Rays.

Robertson is the lead piece in this transaction,” Silverman said. “It takes a large trade like this for us to be able to acquire someone of his talents.”

Powell isn’t on Robertson’s level as a prospect, but he wasn’t a throw-in, either.

He’s a speedy outfielder with an interesting bat profile, and one that we hope can develop a little bit more power. It’s a profile that is uncommon, but one that can often find success at the Major League level,” said Silverman. “He’s not going to overwhelm you in the stat box, but his value shows up in many different ways.”

Neither Robertson nor Powell has even played at Double-A yet, so neither of them are likely to help the Rays next year. Silverman says, though, that he expects the Rays’ offense to improve upon its AL-worst 612 runs scored next season, despite the departures of Zobrist, Escobar, Wil Myers and Matt Joyce.

A lot of that is based on our expectation that the players who are returning will perform better offensively than they did last year,” he said.

“If our players play to our expectation, and we get the contributions we expect from the players we’ve added, this should be a better offensive team. … This team should be competitive. It should be compelling. The talent level is certainly there. It just looks different than it has in years past.”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Extension Candidate: Chris Tillman

With his youth, solid performance, strong health record and history of eating innings, righty Chris Tillman certainly seems like the kind of player who ordinarily would get extension consideration. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Orioles are interested in extending the Beverly Hills Sports Council client. It doesn’t sound like discussions have gotten very far, however, and it’s not clear where they’ll end up once they do.

USATSI_8036927_154513410_lowresTillman has pitched over 200 innings in each of the last two seasons, establishing himself as a workhorse at the relatively tender age of 26. After struggling through half-seasons in the big leagues in 2010 and 2011, he’s gotten above-average results. What’s not immediately obvious, however, is why he’s gotten those results. Tillman’s K/BB numbers (6.5 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 2014; 6.8 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 for his career) are fine but nothing special, and he also isn’t a ground ball pitcher. He’s posted very low BABIPs (.221, .269 and .267) in each of the last three seasons, and he’s stranded runners at a very high rate in each of the last two. Unsurprisingly, Tillman’s xFIP and SIERA figures have run well behind in his ERAs in each of those years, suggesting a back-of-the-rotation type who looks better than he is thanks to the Orioles’ excellent defense. His velocity has also dropped in each of the past two seasons.

Tillman does benefit from the fact that it’s nearly impossible to steal bases against him, however, which doesn’t turn up in peripheral numbers. Also, it’s possible he turned a corner at some point last season — he posted a 4.11 ERA in the first half, then a 2.33 in the second half, with 7.7 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9. That kind of decisive improvement might be mostly variance (Tillman also pitched significantly better in the second half in 2013, but didn’t carry that improvement into the first half of 2014), but it’s also possible he simply got better as the season went on, particularly given his age. Tillman changed his release point as 2014 progressed, perhaps suggesting that at least a portion of his improvement is sustainable. And even if Tillman reverts to his career norms next year, his ability to soak up innings has value. Exactly how good Tillman is can be debated, but if he keeps pitching 200 innings a season, extending him has limited downside (at least by the standards of multi-year pitcher contracts) even if he’s merely average.

It’s difficult to find precedents for a Tillman extension that don’t come with significant caveats. Tillman has between three and four years of service time, and via MLBTR’s Extension Tracker, most recent extensions for starting pitchers with that much service are either very short (two years each for Mat Latos and Clayton Kershaw, for example) or out of date (Johnny Cueto got a four-year deal plus an option prior to the 2011 season, while Ervin Santana got four plus an option two years before that). A long-term deal for Tillman would potentially recalibrate the market for pitchers with similar service time.

So to map out a Tillman extension, we’ll begin with his likely salary heading into his first year of arbitration. Matt Swartz’s model for MLBTR projects that Tillman will get $5.4MM in his first arbitration season, but as Swartz noted last week, that figure is probably unlikely. The current record for a one-year deal for a pitcher eligible for arbitration for the first time is $4.35MM, and Swartz thinks Tillman would approach or match that figure rather than crashing through it.

If Tillman were to make $4.35MM next year, that would still set him up to clear $20MM in his arbitration seasons, depending on his development. If Tillman’s contract were to match the Cueto and Santana deals in structure (four years plus an option), that would put him between $32MM and $40MM. That figure seems low, given more recent extensions for pitchers with slightly less service time, like Chris Sale (who had between two and three years of service time when he got $32MM guaranteed for five years, plus two options) and Derek Holland (who had roughly the same service time as Sale and got $28.5MM guaranteed for a five-year deal with two options). Julio Teheran signed for six years and $32.4MM last offseason despite having just over a year of big league service.

Of course, Tillman and the Orioles could aim longer. For five years guaranteed, Tillman could perhaps ask for the five years and $55MM given to Matt Harrison, who had a year more service at the time of his extension than Tillman has now. Phil Hughes‘ recent deal gave up three years of free agency eligibility at $14MM per season, and a five-year deal for Tillman would give up two. Given what Tillman is set to make in arbitration, a $55MM total, or perhaps a bit less, for the next five years makes sense. Alternately, the two sides could strike a two- or three-year deal, although that would likely be done purely on Tillman’s arbitration projections and probably wouldn’t contain any options.

Given the money Tillman is already set to make in arbitration, it would be hard to blame him for aiming high in extension discussions. The question is whether the Orioles would want to pay $50MM or more for a pitcher with so many sabermetric question marks. If a large percentage of Tillman’s success is due to the Orioles’ defense, it doesn’t make sense for the Orioles to pay a premium for him going forward. Unless Tillman is willing to take a substantial discount, the Orioles’ best route might be to take him year-to-year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.