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Last year, the Pirates gave Edinson Volquez a one-year, $5MM deal and he wound up making that look like a smart investment. This year, we should see more interest in the right-hander, resulting in a more lucrative deal coming his way.
Volquez did a good job of rebuilding his value in a contract year. The 31-year-old pitched to a 3.04 ERA — his best figure ever, topping even his breakout 2008 campaign. Volquez also turned in a career-low walk rate of 3.3 BB/9, which was his first sub-4.0 effort. His 192 2/3 innings of work was his second-best career total, topped only by his 196 innings in the aforementioned 2008 season. Volquez threw his fastball at 93.1 mph in 2014, right in line with his career average of 93.4 mph and the 93.6 mph at which he was clocked in ’08. Plenty has changed about Volquez the last six years, but he has aged well in those departments.
Throughout his career, Volquez has been able to induce ground balls more often than your average hurler. His career ground ball percentage of 48.5% is strong and his 50.4% rate in 2014, against a league average of 44.8%, was even better. As a result, Volquez isn’t terribly home run-prone. He has a career 0.94 HR/9 rate with a sharper 0.79 HR/9 showing this past season.
Volquez threw his fastball at an average of 93.1 mph this year, right in line with his career average of 93.4. That compares favorably to some of the other free agent starters on his tier, including A.J. Burnett (91.7 mph in 2014), Dan Haren (87.6), Aaron Harang (88.8), and Ryan Vogelsong (90.4)
On the surface, Volquez’s ERA indicates that he enjoyed a career renaissance in Pittsburgh this season, perhaps thanks to the tutelage of well-respected pitching coach Ray Searage and the quality pitch framing of catchers Russell Martin and Chris Stewart. A deeper look shows that while Searage’s sage advice may have given Volquez a boost, his all-around performance was largely the same as the past few years.
Volquez’s walk rate did drop in 2014, but his 6.5 K/9 was a noticeable step back from his previous career average of 8.4 K/9, all but negating the drop in free passes. His xFIP of 4.20 shows that his ERA was probably lower than it should have been and also indicates that he was largely the same pitcher we knew before but with better fortune. In each of the previous three seasons, Volquez has posted xFIPs of 4.08, 4.20, and 4.07 while turning in ERAs of 5.71, 4.14, and 5.71. The veteran’s .263 BABIP tells a similar story and leads one to believe that the Pirates’ defense helped out quite a bit. You wouldn’t know it from his ERA, but the advanced stats say that Volquez performed about as well this season as he did in 2013, when he was DFA’d by the Padres near the end of the year.
Volquez was born in Barahona, Dominican Republic. Early in his career, you might recall him being billed as “Edison Volquez”. As Amy K. Nelson of ESPN.com detailed in a 2008 profile, he later discovered that his birth certificate had his name as “Edinson” and asked the Rangers to update his spelling on all of their material.
Volquez earned the nickname of “Pedrito” or “Little Pedro” in the Dominican Republic for his pitching prowess which reminded many of Pedro Martinez, Nelson wrote. “He’s in love with Pedro,” said former teammate Francisco Cordero. “He sees Pedro like he’s a god.”
Many counted Volquez out after his tumultuous 2013 season, but the Pirates saw a tremendous opportunity in the veteran starter. Prior to the Pirates’ Wild Card game against the Giants this year, manager Clint Hurdle was quick to praise Volquez for his work ethic, as Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes.
“He’s a visual learner, number one,” Hurdle said. “He’s really good when you can tape him and show him. He would grasp on that way. He spent endless hours on reviewing delivery dynamics from every place he’s been.”
In late September, Volquez stated his desire to re-sign with the Pirates, crediting Bucs coaches with making him a better pitcher. At the same time, he made it known that he doesn’t want to sign another one-year deal.
“You always want to sign for more than one year,” he said, according to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Especially now that I’m 31 years old, I’d like to sign with someone for two or three years and stay a little bit longer.”
If Volquez finds a lucrative two- or three-year deal on the open market, it’d be tough to imagine the Pirates matching it given their financial limitations and stated desire to try and retain catcher Russell Martin.
MLBTR’s own Brad Johnson recently speculated that a return to the Rangers could be a possibility for Volquez as they could be in the market for veterans to supplement the back end of their rotation. Jeff Todd, meanwhile, brought up the Marlins as a possibility since Miami probably won’t spend on the top-shelf pitchers. I would add the Astros, Rockies, Phillies, and D’Backs as clubs that could see Volquez as an affordable addition who can turn in 180-190 innings of work.
Volquez is one of several mid-level starters available this winter, but his turnaround this year (whether legitimate, perceived, or a mix of both) could make him a preferred option over some of the alternatives. Volquez won’t be rated on the same tier as the likes of Hiroki Kuroda and Jason Hammel, but he compares favorably to other available back-end starters like Aaron Harang and Ryan Vogelsong, in part due to his age. I recently predicted that Harang would net a two-year, $14MM deal this offseason and I expect Volquez to top that without much trouble.
Volquez is gunning for a multi-year deal and I think he’ll be able to find it, even if it’s not in Pittsburgh. I predict that Volquez will land a two-year, $18MM deal this offseason.
Photo courtesy USA Today Sports Images.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR this past week:
- MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd and Angels assistant GM Matt Klentak discussing the team’s offseason and a conversation with Tim Dierkes on the upcoming qualifying offer decisions and whether this will be the year a QO is finally accepted. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast will be released every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.
- If you like Neapolitan ice cream, you’ll love the new Trade Rumors app, which combines content from MLBTR and sister sites Hoops Rumors and Pro Football Rumors. The Trade Rumors app, which is free and available for iOS and Android devices, can be customized to include any of the 92 MLB, NBA, and NFL teams, as well as any of the thousands of players in our archives.
- Tim anticipates Andrew Miller will become the first non-closer reliever since Scott Linebrink seven years ago to secure a four-year contract on the open market. The pact, according to Tim, will be worth $32MM.
- Tim is less bullish on Alex Rios: one-year, $8.5MM.
- Jeff envisions Rafael Soriano will have to settle for two years and $12MM after an up-and-down 2014.
- Steve Adams foresees a two-year deal worth $30MM for Adam LaRoche.
- MLBTR presented the Offseason Outlook for the Pirates (by Charlie Wilmoth), Rays (by Zach Links), Yankees (by Mark Polishuk), Mariners and Indians (both by Steve).
- Brad Johnson asked MLBTR readers whether Joe Maddon will manage in 2015. Only 25% of you believe he will sit out the season.
- Steve hosted the MLBTR live chat this week.
- Zach put together the best of the baseball blogosphere in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.
Led by outstanding seasons from Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin and Josh Harrison, the Pirates made the playoffs for the second straight year in 2014, but the possible departures of Martin and Francisco Liriano cloud their immediate future.
- Andrew McCutchen, OF: $38MM through 2017
- Starling Marte, OF: $28.5MM through 2019
- Charlie Morton, SP: $17MM through 2016
- Jose Tabata, OF: $8.75MM through 2016
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Gaby Sanchez, 1B (5.025): $2.7MM
- John Axford, RP (4.170): $5.2MM*
- Neil Walker, 2B (4.166): $8.6MM
- Ike Davis, 1B (4.155): $4.4MM
- Mark Melancon, RP (4.098): $7.6MM**
- Travis Snider, OF (4.091): $2MM
- Chris Stewart, C (4.091): $1.3MM
- Pedro Alvarez, 3B (4.085): $5.5MM
- Tony Watson, RP (3.101): $2MM
- Jeanmar Gomez, RP (3.063): $800K*
- Josh Harrison, 3B (3.033): $2.2MM
- Jared Hughes, RP (2.162): $1.1MM
- Vance Worley, SP (2.139): $2.9MM
- Non-tender candidates: Sanchez, Axford, Davis, Gomez
*Axford and Gomez were designated for assignment Saturday.
**Melancon had 33 saves and 14 holds last season, a rare combination that caused Swartz’s model to project Melancon would receive a raise of $5MM to $7.6MM. We think such a large increase is unlikely.
Despite an unceremonious end to their season with an 8-0 loss to the Giants in the NL Wild Card game, the Pirates have a strong core of players, along with a well regarded farm system. They appear poised to be competitive for years to come. This year’s offseason, however, will likely revolve around their decision regarding Martin, who’s set to depart as a free agent.
Martin’s expiring two-year, $17MM contract was a fantastic deal by any standard, and was easily the best free agent signing of GM Neal Huntington’s career. Martin contributed 9.4 fWAR over the course of the contract and arguably produced even more value than that thanks to his framing and his work with pitchers. The Pirates have gotten unexpectedly strong work from pitchers like Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Mark Melancon in the last two years, and Martin was by all accounts a big reason why.
Now, the Pirates will either have to let Martin go or make the sort of expensive, multi-year commitment he’ll surely receive on the free agent market. The Bucs have indicated they’re willing to “stretch” to keep Martin, but re-signing him would represent a dramatic departure from their usual offseason patterns. And as important as Martin has been to the Pirates, signing him for, say, four years might put them in dangerous territory, given their tight budget and the brutal aging patterns of catchers in their thirties.
There are, however, no comparable options on the free agent market, and the Pirates’ internal replacements to replace Martin, Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart, represent big downgrades that the Pirates will have to make up elsewhere (even though Stewart is another good framer who had a surprisingly palatable offensive season in 2014). The Pirates have already indicated they will extend Martin a qualifying offer, earning them a draft pick in the likely event that he signs elsewhere.
The Bucs could also lose Liriano and Edinson Volquez, who were key contributors to the team’s 2014 rotation. (They have not indicated they plan to extend a qualifying offer to Liriano, and perhaps they won’t — they didn’t extend one to A.J. Burnett last offseason and likely don’t feel Liriano is as crucial a player as Martin.) The Pirates might feel it makes more sense to replace Liriano and Volquez with buy-low reclamation projects (Justin Masterson or Brett Anderson might make sense, given the Pirates’ love of ground-ball pitchers) rather than paying top dollar for pitchers they’ve already helped improve. Of course, the Bucs’ talents with reclamation pitchers could decrease if Martin leaves.
In any case, the Pirates will need to do something to acquire starting pitching this winter — Charlie Morton and top prospect Jameson Taillon will both be returning from significant injuries, leaving the Pirates with only Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley and the erratic Jeff Locke as sure bets to make their rotation out of spring training.
The Bucs’ corner infield positions will also need tweaking, thanks mostly to Pedro Alvarez’s throwing issues at third base last year. Harrison, who before this season had looked like little more than a spare infielder, had a shocking borderline-MVP-caliber campaign in 2014. He replaced Alvarez at third base down the stretch and will probably continue as the Pirates’ third baseman next year. The lefty-hitting Alvarez is a likely a first baseman going forward, with the Bucs either trading or non-tendering lefty Ike Davis. The Pirates could also consider trading Alvarez, but he’s not eligible for free agency until after 2016, so they could again gamble on his raw power, even though he produced -0.2 fWAR last season. The Bucs will also have to decide whether to keep righty Gaby Sanchez, who is arbitration eligible for the third time and who hit just .229/.293/.385 in 2014. If Sanchez returns, he will presumably continue in a platoon role.
Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer are set to man the middle infield, but the Bucs will need a utility infielder, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they re-signed Clint Barmes to a one-year deal, like they did last offseason. Barmes doesn’t hit well, but his strong defense makes him a good fit for the Pirates’ grounder-heavy pitching staff. The newly acquired Justin Sellers, could also fill that role, but given his weak bat, the Pirates seem likely to try to sneak him through waivers at some point.
In the outfield, the Pirates have superstar Andrew McCutchen in center and emerging star Starling Marte in left, both of them signed long-term to team-friendly extensions. Gregory Polanco, who will likely supplant Travis Snider as the starter in right field in 2015, also has superstar upside, although he struggled in his rookie season. Snider quietly had a strong 2014, hitting .264/.338/.438, and he’ll probably continue on as the Pirates’ fourth outfielder and top pinch-hitting option.
The Pirates’ bullpen wasn’t a strength in 2014, but the Bucs control most of their relief talent and aren’t likely to make a big addition. Melancon and Tony Watson should return as closer and set-up man, respectively, and huge righty John Holdzkom improbably emerged from independent baseball to become another late-inning option. Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson and Stolmy Pimentel are also set to return.
Fans have long criticized the Pirates for failing to spend, and though the Bucs’ Opening Day payrolls have increased in each of the past four seasons, they’re still way behind the rest of the league. Heavy spending made little sense when the Pirates were perennial doormats, but now that they’re contenders, judicious spending can make a big difference. To cherry-pick one example, the Pirates lost the NL Wild Card game this year; if they had signed Jose Abreu last offseason, they might have won the NL Central and bypassed that game altogether.
This offseason, many fans will treat the team’s decision with Martin as a bellwether of its willingness to spend to keep their team competitive. On one hand, that’s not entirely fair — there are legitimate worries about Martin’s age, and a bad, expensive contract can be a serious problem for even a mid-market team.
On the other hand, replacing Martin’s production will be very difficult if he leaves. The Pirates’ key needs are at catcher and in the starting rotation. If they believe in their ability to fix broken pitchers, it hardly makes sense for them to pay heavily for pitchers who are already at the tops of their games, particularly given how risky multi-year deals for aging pitchers tend to be. Many of the best hitters in a very weak hitting class are either third basemen or outfielders, and the Pirates already have excellent or potentially excellent options at all four of those positions. Meanwhile, there’s no obvious way for the Pirates to replace Martin at catcher with anyone remotely comparable, even in a trade. The top names after Martin on the free agent market are players like Geovany Soto and A.J. Pierzynski.
Another way for the Pirates to upgrade this offseason might be to deal from their deep pool of outfield talent to acquire a younger, cost-controlled starting pitcher. The Mets, who have plenty of promising starting pitching and can use outfield help, might be a good trade partner. The Bucs could also try to deal prospects to a rebuilding team for a pitcher (a ground-ball pitcher like Dallas Keuchel might make sense), but such a trade might be easier in July — teams often aren’t willing to wave the white flag on their seasons before they’ve even begun.
The Pirates’ only significant moves last offseason were to sign Volquez and re-sign Barmes, even though they were coming off their first winning season in two decades and were set to lose a top starting pitcher in Burnett. (They also traded for Davis early in the season.) This winter might not be much different. The Pirates’ acquisitions to address catcher and their rotation will probably be relatively quiet ones. Or, in the case of the catcher position, they might not acquire anyone at all. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently made the case for Stewart as a stopgap starting catcher — Stewart isn’t anywhere near Martin’s equal offensively, but he’s good enough at framing and defense to be a passable starter, particularly given the weak catching market. Tony Sanchez could then serve as Stewart’s backup, with prospect Elias Diaz (who is quickly developing a strong defensive reputation of his own) possibly taking over for Stewart in 2016.
With Stewart at catcher, the Pirates would then likely focus their offseason spending on their large group of arbitration-eligible players. They could also continue to try to negotiate a long-term deal with Polanco, who despite a somewhat disappointing rookie season is a prime extension candidate, given his outstanding tools and control of the strike zone. Harrison and Walker might also be extension candidates, albeit less likely ones.
Pirates fans won’t be happy about losing Martin. At this point, though, it’s unwise to ever bet on the Bucs being serious players in free agency. They’ve now had two straight winning seasons, and they set a PNC Park attendance record in 2014, but they’ve shown no indication of the willingness (or perhaps ability) to raise their payroll out of the lowest third of MLB teams, even for a season or two.
There are ways for the Pirates to make significant additions this offseason even without a huge payroll increase. One might be to non-tender or trade Davis, Gaby Sanchez and Alvarez, and go with rookie Andrew Lambo at first base. The Pirates could then use the savings (along with the $7.5MM they’ll have coming off the books now that they’re out from under their portion of Wandy Rodriguez‘s salary) to make a splash elsewhere. But that possibility seems remote, given that it’s unclear which big names the Bucs might pursue, other than Martin. It’s more likely that they’ll have another relatively quiet winter.
There’s a new man in charge but the mantra remains the same: do more with less. The Rays will trot out the lowest payroll in the AL East once again and after a sub-.500 season Matt Silverman is charged with the task of getting them back to the playoffs.
- Evan Longoria, 3B: $122.5MM through 2022
- Chris Archer, SP: $24MM through 2019
- James Loney, 1B: $15MM through 2016
- Yunel Escobar, SS: $13MM through 2016
- Matt Moore, SP: $10.5MM through 2016
- Ryan Hanigan, C: $8MM through 2016
- Grant Balfour, RP: $7MM through 2015
- David DeJesus, OF: $6MM through 2015
- Jose Molina, C: $2.75MM through 2015
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Sean Rodriguez OF/IF (5.133): $2.0MM
- Matt Joyce, OF (5.123): $4.9MM
- Jeremy Hellickson, SP (4.042): $3.9MM
- Cesar Ramos (4.003): $ 1.3MM
- Jake McGee (3.127): $3.8MM
- Logan Forsythe (3.113): $1.2MM
- Desmond Jennings (3.101): $3.2MM
- Alex Cobb (3.061): $4.5MM
- Drew Smyly (2.154): $3.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Rodriguez, Joyce
Apparently, the Rays’ shakeup will extend beyond the front office. Earlier today we learned that Joe Maddon has decided to opt out of his contract with the Rays. The 60-year-old was quick to tell the world that he wanted to stay in Tampa Bay after Andrew Friedman left to join the Dodgers, but upon learning that his contract contained a two-week opt-out window in the event that Friedman left the organization, he had a change of heart. Maddon is said to be seeking a five-year deal worth around $5MM annually, so it’s not surprising that Tampa shied away from that level of commitment. The Rays now have to add finding a skipper to their to-do list in the coming weeks and months.
After years of working in the Rays baseball ops department, Silverman is well-prepared for his new role. He’ll be joined by the recently promoted Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, both of whom have been named vice presidents of baseball operations. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. The Rays set a new franchise high with their $80MM+ payroll last season, but we shouldn’t expect to see that again. Overall spending is “clearly going to be lower,” owner Stuart Sternberg said in September. While Silverman doesn’t have to worry about carving out room for an arbitration raise for David Price or paying Heath Bell‘s salary, it looks like he’ll be restricted in free agency given the long list of arbitration eligible players listed above.
With everyone under contract or team control, it would appear that the Rays more or less have their core in place for 2015. Still, they might try to be proactive about improving their offensive production with an emphasis on fixing their recent power outage. In 2014, the Rays hit a total of 117 home runs – their second-lowest total in franchise history – and they probably want to avoid a repeat.
When considering the club’s desire to rediscover the long ball and limited payroll, Matt Joyce appears to be a likely trade candidate. In fact, the 30-year-old even acknowledged at the end of the season that he could be changing addresses this winter. Joyce is projected to earn $4.9MM through arbitration and that $1.2MM pay bump doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Rays given Joyce’s declining power. The corner outfielder slashed .254/.349/.383 in 2014, a notable drop off from his All-Star campaign in 2011 where he posted a batting line of .277/.347/.478. If the Rays can unload Joyce’s salary for something useful in return, they might be able to carve out enough space to go after a difference-maker in free agency or trade for one. Inexpensive power options from around the league include Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, Evan Gattis, Dayan Viciedo, and Pedro Alvarez, though their asking prices and availability will vary. Yoenis Cespedes also fits the bill as a power bat, but he’s slated to earn $10.5MM in his walk year.
Alternatively, they could simply pocket that cash as a part of their plan to trim payroll and stick with what they have in-house. If Wil Myers rebounds as many expect him to, the trio of him, Kevin Kiermaier, and Desmond Jennings should be pretty productive. Trading Joyce seems even less painful when you also consider a supporting cast of Brandon Guyer and David DeJesus, part-time help from Ben Zobrist, and prospect Mikie Mahtook waiting in the wings.
The Rays could also tighten up their payroll by trading Zobrist and his $7.5MM salary. Of course, Silverman would want a massive return if he considered such a move and that asking price could be well beyond what another club would give up. The 33-year-old second baseman turned in 5.7 WAR last season, a rating that put him in the top 15 in the majors, and the Rays know how valuable he is. Still, his salary is nothing to sneeze at for the small market Rays and he’ll be a free agent after the coming season. On top of that, the free agent second base market is paper thin with options like Stephen Drew and Asdrubal Cabrera, if they’re not signed to play shortstop, at the top of the heap. Moving Zobrist would allow the Rays to meet their budgetary goals while also replenishing their once strong farm system. Entering this year, Baseball America (No. 20), Keith Law (No. 23), and Baseball Prospectus (No. 26) all put the Rays’ minor league talent near the bottom of the league. The Rays surely have an attachment to Zobrist on a personal and professional level, but as a club committed to player development, they have to get their farm system back on the right track in short order.
One has to imagine that the Rays would like to get out from under Jose Molina‘s $2.75MM contract for 2015 and find a better backup to catcher Ryan Hanigan. Despite his experience behind the dish and solid pitch framing, his .178/.232/.188 makes him a less-than-desirable fill-in for the oft-injured Hanigan. If there’s a trade to be had here, it will probably require the Rays to pick up most of the money owed to Molina. Catcher Curt Casali doesn’t seem ready for the big show just yet, so if they move on from Molina, they’ll have to land a replacement.
It’s tough to gauge what the Rays’ new regime will want to do this offseason, but the starting rotation appears to be set with the likes of Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi. In the summertime, Matt Moore will join that group upon completing recovery from Tommy John surgery. In the interim, the Rays could plug Hellickson into the back of the rotation or call upon Alex Colome or Nate Karns. Hellickson, who made just 13 starts last season (4.52 ERA with 7.6 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9), could be seen by some as a trade candidate, but he probably won’t yield a great return at this time. If Hellickson can rebound and look a little more like the pitcher we saw in 2011-12, then he’ll make a deal much more worthwhile for the Rays. If the Rays choose to deal from their pitching surplus this winter it might make more sense to dangle Triple-A Durham notables like Enny Romero, Matt Andriese, and Mike Montgomery.
The Rays’ bullpen is currently slated to feature Brad Boxberger, Jake McGee, Grant Balfour, Kirby Yates, and Jeff Beliveau as well as right-hander Michael Kohn, who was signed to a major league deal just last week. Joel Peralta, who has a reasonable $2.5MM club option, will probably be back as well. Peralta’s 4.41 ERA looks pretty ugly, but his 3.11 xFIP is far more forgiving. And, while Balfour’s 2014 campaign was pretty bad, Boxberger and McGee project to be solid late-inning options. The Rays could beef up their ‘pen with some of the low cost veteran arms that will be waiting around after the New Year and it’s conceivable that they could find a trade partner for Balfour, though it may require them to eat some of his salary.
The Rays’ flexibility is limited in more ways than one but they have shown year after year that they are unwilling to let their limitations hold them back.
Fresh off the largest signing in franchise history — and the third largest in MLB history — the Mariners came within one game of a Wild Card playoff berth. They’ll look to improve upon their 87 wins and set their sights closer to the top of the division in the coming offseason.
- Robinson Cano, 2B: $216MM through 2023
- Felix Hernandez, RHP: $128MM through 2019
- Fernando Rodney, RHP: $7MM through 2015
- Willie Bloomquist, INF/OF: $3MM through 2015
- Danny Hultzen, LHP: $1.7MM through 2015 (signed MLB deal out of 2011 draft)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Austin Jackson, OF (5.000): $8MM projected salary
- Michael Saunders, OF (4.138): $2.9MM
- Justin Smoak, 1B (4.113): $3MM (arb-eligible if option is declined)
- Logan Morrison, 1B (4.069): $2.6MM
- Charlie Furbush, LHP (3.121): $1MM
- Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP (3.091): $2.1MM
- Dustin Ackley, OF (3.087): $2.8MM
- Kyle Seager, 3B (3.085): $5MM
- Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP: $7MM club option with a $1MM buyout
- Justin Smoak, 1B: $3.65MM club option with $150K buyout (arb-eligible if bought out)
The Mariners stayed in the playoff hunt until the very last day of the season, which is more credit than many pundits gave them at the onset of the 2014 campaign. The strong showing led to an extension for general manager Jack Zduriencik this summer. While the exact length of the extension is unknown, it runs through at least 2016, as it was announced as a multi-year deal.
Zduriencik will have more to work with from a financial standpoint in the 2015 season, as team president Kevin Mather recently explained in a candid interview on 710 ESPN in Seattle. The Mariners, Mather explained, overshot their allotted player personnel budget by nearly $16MM in 2014. However, ownership had no complaints after seeing the team’s strong performance. Rather than asking how the $16MM would be recouped, they instead asked Mather how the team was going to get six more wins in 2015. The Mariners topped the two-million mark in attendance for the first time since 2010, leading Mather to definitively conclude, “…the answer to that question is ‘yes,'” when asked if payroll would increase.
It makes sense for the M’s to bulk up their spending in 2015 for a number of reasons. In addition to their near-miss of the postseason this year, next season marks the final year of team control over co-ace Hisashi Iwakuma. His $7MM salary is a bargain for the team and allows them to offer a formidable one-two punch that they’re not guaranteed to replicate in 2016. Additionally, Robinson Cano will play next season at age 32, and Felix Hernandez will play it at 29. While each may still have some prime years left, they’re nearing the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some decline. Next year also marks Jackson’s final year of team control before hitting the open market.
The potential departures of Jackson and Iwakuma, paired with the waning primes of Cano and (to a lesser extent) Hernandez give Zduriencik plenty of motivation to be aggressive, and the Mariners will likely aim to do so by augmenting an offense that again struggled to put runs on the board, albeit not as badly as in years past. Seattle hit .244/.300/.376 as a team, good for a 93 wRC+ mark, which ranked 19th in the Majors. Their 634 runs scored tied them with the Red Sox for 18th in the Majors and 10th in the American League. At an end-of-season press conference, manager Lloyd McClendon voiced a desire to add a pair of bats to the middle of the order for 2015.
The question, then, is: where can Seattle add offense? Cano is entrenched at second base, and Kyle Seager has emerged as one of the game’s best two-way third basemen. Jackson will man center field, and Dustin Ackley seems ticketed for left field duty after hitting .274/.313/.463 from July 1 through season’s end. First baseman (and occasional corner outfielder) Logan Morrison put together a similar hot streak, slashing .284/.334/.447 over his final 79 games. While Ackley and Morrison aren’t as locked in as Cano, Seager and Jackson, I’d imagine other positions are perceived as bigger areas of need.
Perhaps the clearest weakness was in the team’s DH slot. Seattle designated hitters batted a woeful .206/.276/.335 in 2014 — marks that topped only the Indians in terms of production. They’ve already been connected to Victor Martinez, who would give them a strong middle-of-the-order presence but also come at a likely exorbitant price, as he seems destined to top Carlos Beltran‘s three-year, $45MM contract. The team could also rekindle its interest in Nelson Cruz in the wake of his 40-homer season with Baltimore. Cruz is best-deployed as a DH himself, so it seems unlikely that the M’s would pursue both him and Martinez. A third name to consider, should his option be bought out, is Billy Butler. He’s coming off a down season with the Royals, but he’s been connected to the Mariners many times in recent years and could likely be had at a modest price. That would give the team the chance to upgrade more significantly elsewhere.
Melky Cabrera‘s name is one worth keeping an eye on as well. The switch-hitter is said to be close friends with Cano and represents one of the top corner bats on the market. Though he’s played primarily left field in his career, his defensive marks in an admittedly small 625-inning sample in right are respectable, and his arm has typically graded well, per UZR and DRS. The Mariners are also said to be one of the front-runners for Yasmany Tomas, whose reported 70-grade power would certainly fit into the lineup.
Behind the plate, Mike Zunino‘s .199 average and .254 OBP look like areas for upgrade, but they’re accompanied by a .404 slugging percentage and 22 homers. Zunino’s .205 ISO (slugging minus average) ranked third among catchers with at least 100 PA and 23rd in all of baseball among players with at least 450 PA. He also grades out as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball and caught 28 percent of base-stealers. Catcher is unlikely to be a priority.
The other hole in the lineup comes at shortstop, where the Mariners combined to hit .239/.295/.344. Each of those collective rate stats ranked in the bottom-third of the league, and their collective wRC+ of 83 ranked 20th. Brad Miller took a step back at the plate, but his solid defensive work still left him as a roughly two-win player in a full-time capacity. Call-up Chris Taylor looked sound late in the season, hitting .287/.347/.346, but that production was propped up by an unsustainable .398 average on balls in play.
If the Mariners are not comfortable letting Miller and Taylor battle it out this spring, they could conceivably look for a veteran. Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera and Stephen Drew are each on the market, but none of the three are a clear upgrade at short. Lowrie and Cabrera have defensive question marks (Seattle shortstops did field quite well in 2014), and Drew’s bat is a wild card. One all-in possibility would be a pursuit of Hanley Ramirez, whose bat would be an unequivocal upgrade to the Mariners’ lineup. However, doing so would also mean that the M’s would need to put up with Ramirez’s poor defense, and they’d need to commit to him well into the future on a likely five-year commitment, if not more. There wouldn’t be a possibility of moving him to third anytime soon, either, with Seager looking very much like a cornerstone player.
A long-term commitment is something the Mariners are well-positioned to tackle, though. Seattle has just two players — Cano and Hernandez — on guaranteed contracts beyond the 2015 season. While the annual commitment on each of those contracts is enormous, it does allow Seattle the luxury of adding another significant AAV to the mix, especially if payroll is going to continue increasing after this season’s eventual mark of $107MM.
Of course, they could look to the rotation to spend if there is again a difficulty in luring free agent hitters to Safeco Field. It may not be a necessity for the team, but some additional certainty could be a benefit. Hernandez and Iwakuma form one of the best one-two punches in all of baseball, and that duo figures to be backed up by a pair of highly touted young arms in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Roenis Elias seems a capable fifth starter, and there’s been talk of moving Tom Wilhelmsen to the rotation as well. However, the team could rekindle the interest it showed in Ervin Santana last offseason, and names like Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano represent mid-tier options with high ceilings.
The bullpen isn’t necessarily a significant need either, but it could be an area for Zduriencik to make an addition. Fernando Rodney will again own the ninth inning. Danny Farquhar has emerged as a bullpen weapon over the past two seasons and will be joined by standout rookie Dominic Leone in bridging the gap to Rodney. Additionally, a move to the bullpen appears to have ignited Brandon Maurer‘s career, as the struggling starter became a lights-out reliever upon making the switch (2.17 ERA, 1.85 FIP, 9.2 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 in 37 1/3 innings). Charlie Furbush represents a strong option from the left side, though the club could look to add a second bullpen piece with Joe Beimel departing. Beimel has said he’d like to return, but names like Neal Cotts, Zach Duke and Joe Thatcher are also on the market, to say nothing of the electric Andrew Miller. There’s also room for perhaps a veteran right-handed addition. Pat Neshek and Jason Grilli are attractive setup options, while Luke Hochevar and Kyuji Fujikawa present high-upside options that come with a bit of risk, as neither is all that far removed from Tommy John surgery.
One final thing to consider for the M’s will be whether it’s time to move on from some players that were formerly believed to be core components. The team does have a number of trade and non-tender candidates, with Justin Smoak certainly being one. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times recently wrote that it’s a near certainty that Smoak’s option will be bought out and the first baseman will be non-tendered, though it’s possible that Zduriencik will try to gauge his trade value first. Even if he’s able to move Smoak, the return would be meager at best.
Jesus Montero, too, could be on thin ice with the organization. The catcher-turned-DH/first baseman did hit well in 97 Triple-A games this season, but his conditioning has been questioned in the past and he finished the season on the suspended list after getting into a bizarre altercation with a since-fired scout. Once touted by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and ESPN as one of baseball’s top prospects, Montero’s star has dimmed considerably. Another club may have interest, but again, the return on a trade would be a letdown.
Finally there is the case of Michael Saunders. The outfielder’s agent, Michael McCann, recently expressed disappointment in the Mariners organization after Zduriencik made a comment at the end-of-season press conference that McCann felt called his client’s work ethic into question. Zduriencik clarified shortly after that his message — which urged Saunders to reassess his offseason maintenance to better prepare himself to stay healthy for a full season — was a general message that could be applied to any young player. Zduriencik said the organization is not giving up on Saunders, but with McCann expressing frustration on his client’s behalf, it’s worth wondering if a change of scenery will be explored for Saunders — especially if Seattle does add a right field bat.
Certainly, Saunders would be appealing to other teams with outfield needs. Though he’s battled shoulder and oblique injuries in recent years, he’s also batted .248/.320/.423 with 39 homers and 38 steals over the past three seasons (349 games). The Mets, White Sox, Giants, Phillies and Reds are just a few teams I can envision as fits, if Seattle adds a corner bat and decides to market him. One possibility would be to double-down on a current strength by packaging Saunders with a young, MLB-ready rotation piece for Johnny Cueto, whose name has frequented the rumor mill of late.
Ultimately, Seattle seems like a good bet to make a significant addition — if not two or three — between the end of the World Series and Opening Day 2015. The team has plenty of long-term flexibility and an ownership group that is willing to increase payroll to surpass 2014’s total of 87 wins. That’s a recipe for an aggressive approach, so don’t be surprised to see the team connected to some of the top names on the free agent and trade markets this offseason as it looks to end a 13-year playoff drought.
The Nationals gave Rafael Soriano $28MM (half of it deferred) over two years and sacrificed a draft choice to install him at the back of the pen of one of the league’s most talented rosters. Though he was a reasonably productive pitcher, however, Soriano was not the force that Washington had hoped and he ultimately ceded his closer’s role late in 2014. Now entering his age-35 season, the Scott Boras client will presumably look to score another multi-year deal, but faces market competition in maximizing his dollars.
Soriano actually had a stronger overall campaign in his second year in D.C. In particular, he restored his strikeout rate to the mid-8 K/9 level that he had generally maintained over his previous several seasons, after ending 2013 with 6.9 K/9 – his lowest mark by far since his rookie year. While Soriano posted near-identical earned run marks in each of his two seasons with the Nationals (3.11 and 3.19, respectively), he seems to have re-learned to induce whiffs in spite of his reduced fastball velocity. In particular, Soriano seems to have restored some confidence in his slider after it went missing in 2013, increasing its usage and effectiveness. All of those factors would, it seems, bode well moving forward.
Buttressing his good-but-not-great recent production level is its place in the overall context of his career. Since 2006, the veteran has recorded at least 60 innings in seven of nine campaigns. And he has only concluded a season with an ERA higher than last year’s 3.19 mark once: his injury-shortened 2011. While he probably no longer offers the hope of double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, Soriano seems a good bet to deliver a full load of solid innings.
And whatever one thinks of the merit of valuing pitchers based on saves and the like, Soriano’s broad experience is a feather in his cap. He now owns 207 career saves, meaning that he has been exposed to a ton of high-leverage situations. And without suggesting anything about its predictive value, it is worth noting that Soriano has a long record of positive “clutch” scores (per Fangraphs). That experience has its value, particularly for a team that expects to contend and wants a veteran presence in the pen.
Teams intrigued by that consistency will surely also notice that Soriano has been fairly good against lefties: for his career, he has held them to a .234/.309/.395 line. Even better, though he was not as dominant against righties as he had been at times in the past, Soriano showed in 2014 that he can be deployed confidently against hitters of both sides. In fact, facing a nearly even number of left-handed and right-handed bats, Soriano held the former to a .273 wOBA (against a .297 mark from righties).
It is not terribly surprising that Soriano has seen some decline in his fastball velocity, but it nevertheless must be accounted for. He has maintained his heater in the 91+ mph range over the last two seasons, after sitting between 92 and 93 earlier in his career. He has seemingly compensated for that fact by increasingly utilizing a mix of four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastballs, though pitch-recognition mechanisms Baseball Info Solutions and Pitch F/X disagree as to his actual mix amongst those three offerings. But the bottom line is that that Soriano’s days of rearing back and throwing it by hitters are probably over. Meanwhile, he has increased his slider velocity to over 84 mph, the highest level of his career, decreasing further the separation for his primary offspeed offering.
One additional factor to consider is Soriano’s tendency to induce a significant number of fly balls, which has spiked back toward the well-above-average rates he maintained earlier in his career. In 2014, Soriano generated only a 31.6% groundball rate while permitting flies at a 49.1% clip. Though a meager 4.8% HR/FB kept the damage to a minimum, Soriano’s career mark sits at nearly twice that level. A few more balls leaving the yard could put a big dent in Soriano’s bottom-line productivity.
It bears mentioning that Soriano’s late-season struggles led to a demotion from the closer’s role — in part due to his inability to keep the ball down — which certainly does not help with perception as he enters the market. And that move was not without statistical basis: Soriano posted a 6.48 second-half ERA after marking his first 37 innings with an impressive 0.97 mark. And those numbers, in turn, had their source in Soriano’s declining peripherals: his strikeout percentage dropped significantly (26.7% to 19.7%) while his rate of line drives allowed went up (14.8% to 24.1%).
Finally, while Soriano has been healthy of late, he does have a deeper injury history that could come into play in a multi-year scenario. Soriano underwent Tommy John surgery early in 2004, returning late in 2005 after a long recovery. Since, he has seen flareups from time to time and even underwent an ulnar nerve transposition and bone spur procedure on his right elbow back in 2008. Most recently, he missed 66 games in 2011 for inflammation. Though his overall recent health has been good, there has to be at least some consideration for the fact that Soriano has a decade or so of mileage on his replacement UCL.
Soriano is married and has two children. The Dominican native also enjoys a special relationship with his mother, with whom he speaks by phone twice a day, per an interesting profile from James Wagner of the Washington Post.
Soriano persevered through a poor economic upbringing and early difficulties in his career. His quiet disposition belies a warm personality, according to Wagner. But there is no question that a new club will not be getting a boisterous, rah-rah presence. By the same token, Soriano is generally stoic on the hill and does not (visibly, anyway) seem to be overly affected by pressure situations. Though at times he has had a less-than-stellar clubhouse reputation, Soriano seems not to have left that impression in D.C. even after his demotion from the closer role, according to a recent report from the Post’s Adam Kilgore.
As I explained back in early September, Soriano is one of many similarly situated veteran relievers. Though I said at the time that he was one of the few to have maintained his value coming into the year, that assessment was based in part on his poor 2013 and came before his late-year struggles were fully manifested.
At this point, Soriano looks to face a tough market, with plenty of competition on the supply side. His precise placement is subject to debate, but he probably falls in the same general tier as other veteran arms such as Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, and Casey Janssen.
It is difficult to assign possible landing spots for a sub-elite reliever. But in Soriano’s case, one major factor is his pronounced flyball tendency, which could make him more appealing to a club that plays in a more spacious park while reducing the level of interest from teams with more home run-friendly environments.
Soriano faces a wide range of plausible outcomes, given his warts, the healthy supply of veteran late-inning arms, and the ever-present volatility of a market with so few actors. But he does have a rather extensive track record of finishing off wins, and that can still boost a player’s earning capacity. Though Soriano may have slightly more upside, and perhaps even more downside, I see him landing a two-year, $12MM deal that falls near the bottom of the range of last year’s closer market.
While the Indians fell shy of the playoffs, the team still managed to win 85 games despite a pair of key rotation losses in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. As GM of a budget-conscious club, Chris Antonetti will have a limited amount of flexibility as he looks to close the five-game gap that separated his team from the AL Central crown.
- Jason Kipnis, 2B: $49.5MM through 2019 (including buyout on 2020 option)
- Nick Swisher, 1B/OF: $30MM through 2016, plus vesting option
- Michael Bourn, OF: $27.5MM through 2016, plus vesting option
- Yan Gomes, C: $21.95MM through 2019 (including buyout on 2020 option)
- Michael Brantley, OF: $20MM through 2017 (including buyout on 2018 option)
- Carlos Santana, 1B/C: $15.45MM through 2016 (including buyout on 2017 option)
- David Murphy, OF: $6.5MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)
- Ryan Raburn, 2B/OF: $2.6MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Marc Rzepczynski, LHP (4.132): $1.9MM projected salary
- Josh Tomlin, RHP (4.033): $1.7MM
- Carlos Carrasco, RHP (3.147): $1.4MM
- Chris Gimenez, C (3.097): $700K
- Bryan Shaw, RHP (3.081): $1.5MM
- Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B (3.027): $2.2MM
- Non-tender candidate: Gimenez
- Mike Aviles, 2B/SS/3B: $3.5MM club option with a $250K buyout
From a non-player standpoint, there figures to be little change within the Indians organization. Former GM Mark Shapiro, now the team president, will again entrust GM Chris Antonetti with structuring a contending club despite limited payroll flexibility. Manager Terry Francona and the coaching staff all seem likely to return as well.
The payroll figures to again be Cleveland’s biggest obstacle, as long-term commitments to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn went south this season. Each player battled injuries and struggled at the plate, making their respective $15MM and $13.5MM salaries look questionable on a team otherwise loaded with many bargains. Also worth noting were the sub-par contributions of David Murphy in his first year with the Indians; his $6.5MM salary in 2015 a year after hitting just .262/.319/.385 and checking in below replacement level further clouds the outfield picture.
With $55MM already committed to the next year’s payroll and possibly another $10MM or so in arb salaries (plus the league-minimum players to fill out the roster), the Tribe could be looking at about $70MM in commitments before making a single decision.
Cleveland finished last in all of Major League Baseball with about 1.437MM fans drawn this season, so it seems unlikely that the team’s payroll will rise significantly from the $80-84MM range that has been set in 2013-14. That will leave Antonetti with somewhere between $10-15MM to augment a roster of affordable contracts.
The Indians can trot out a rotation fronted by Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and followed by breakout 27-year-old Carlos Carrasco. Beyond that pairing, the team can look for another step forward from former top prospect Trevor Bauer and a better overall effort from the hard-throwing Danny Salazar. Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister and T.J. House represent options in the fifth slot, and House was particularly impressive in 2014, posting a 3.35 ERA with 7.1 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 102 innings. Starting pitching, therefore, doesn’t need to be a major focus for Cleveland this winter, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see some veteran arms added on minor league deals just for depth purposes.
Cleveland’s affordable talent isn’t confined to the pitching staff, however. Standout catcher Yan Gomes will earn just $1MM next season in the first year of a six-year, $23MM contract extension. Carlos Santana and his relatively modest $6MM salary will man first base, with Jason Kipnis and his $4MM salary handling the keystone. Jose Ramirez‘s excellent glove will likely open the season at shortstop, with top prospect Francisco Lindor perhaps pushing for a call-up midseason. And of course, MVP candidate Michael Brantley will be looking to replicate his breakout in left field while earning $5MM.
Meanwhile, in the bullpen, Cody Allen looks like a formidable ninth-inning weapon, and he’s yet to reach arbitration. He can be joined in the late innings by Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett — each of whom posted a sub-3.00 ERA in at least 30 innings of work. Nick Hagadone joins Crockett and Rzepczynski as a left-handed option. Perhaps best of all, none from this group projects to earn more than $1MM, save for Rzepczynski.
Those cost-controlled players are critical for the Indians. While the Swisher and Bourn commitments don’t prevent them from adding another sizable salary or multiple lower to mid-range salaries in 2015, those large contracts do throw a wrench into their offseason approach. Cleveland already has $51MM committed to the 2016 roster — a season in which Kluber and Allen will become arbitration eligible for the first time. Each figures to see a significant hike in salary should his current success continue. Carrasco will be eligible for the second time that year, and if he can come close to replicating this season’s second-half breakout — something Cleveland desperately needs in order to contend — his arbitration raise will also be very steep. Shaw, Rzepcznski, Chisenhall and others will be due further raises heading into 2016.
Essentially, the Indians are looking at the same guaranteed contract structure they face in 2015, but with an arb class that is potentially twice as costly. So, while they may have $10-15MM to comfortably add to the 2015 payroll, they can’t afford to make long-term commitments beyond the upcoming season without either increasing that payroll significantly or moving some salary. For example, a name like Chase Headley looks appealing as an alternative to Lonnie Chisenhall, who hit just .225/.295/.318 after June 30 and is a very poor defender, but Headley would likely send the 2016 payroll well beyond $85MM (assuming Tim Dierkes’ four-year, $48MM contract projection is correct or close to it).
The team’s financial situation makes one-year commitments the most likely for a significant addition, but the free agent market lacks an obvious one-year candidate at third, which is a position of need. The other logical place to upgrade would be in right field or possibly at DH. In those areas, Colby Rasmus could prove an upgrade over Murphy, with Swisher sliding into a primary DH role. The Indians could also buy low on a name like Corey Hart of Kendrys Morales on a one-year deal to serve as the DH, with the hope that Swisher and/or Murphy rebounds enough to handle right field full-time. It wouldn’t take much, after all, to upgrade on the .188/.254/.311 batting line posted by Cleveland DHs in 2014.
Another option for the Indians would be to pursue an upgrade on the trade market. Juan Uribe and Casey McGehee are two short-term options that could make some sense if their respective teams are interested in making a long-term upgrade at the hot corner. There are a number of right fielders that would fit the bill as well, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton (though the Indians were on his initial no-trade list), Shane Victorino and Gerardo Parra. Cleveland showed interest in Victorino as a free agent two years ago and could have interest again, particularly if Boston is willing to eat some of his salary.
Of course, pursuit of a name like Heyward would present the question of whether or not Cleveland wants to compromise some of its long-term outlook for an improved chance at immediate contention. The Indians do have a strong group of minor league outfielders headlined by Clint Frazier and also including Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey and Bradley Zimmer — each a first-round pick within the past three years. Some fans would likely make the case that a team with long-term payroll constraints should be resistant to trading controllable/league-minimum talent for a one-year upgrade, but being within striking distance of a postseason berth is an oft-fleeting position. The team could consider this its best shot at a division title with the Royals potentially losing James Shields and the Tigers potentially losing Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, so the argument in favor of a win-now move could certainly be made.
Perhaps the most appealing approach for the front office will simply to be to add a bullpen piece and search for minor upgrades and platoon partners for some of the 2014 regulars that struggled. While they won’t play for top-of-the-market names like David Robertson and Andrew Miller, a number of second-tier options such as Pat Neshek, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo or Joba Chamberlain would add a veteran presence and deepen the relief corps.
Going that route and experiencing success would also likely require at least one of their faded stars to rebound, which isn’t out of the question. Swisher is just one season removed from totaling 2.3 fWAR and 3.8 rWAR, so a rebound isn’t out of the question. Bourn, too, was somewhat productive in 2013, though to a lesser extent.
The Indians could try to dump one or both players, though that’s no easy feat to accomplish. Still, should the Indians eat the majority of one of their 2015 salaries in order to save $8-10MM in 2016, a long-term commitment for a new addition would certainly be easier to structure.
In the end, barring an unexpected payroll boost for the 2016 season, the team’s 2015 maneuverability is limited. The team will have to determine whether it’s worth compromising its enviable reservoir of outfield prospects in order to make a short-term upgrade, or if the better option is to make minor upgrades where possible and bank on a resurgence among a group of underperforming veterans. For all the ink I’ve dedicated to Bourn and Swisher, the most sorely needed rebound may be one from Kipnis, who slumped to a .240/.310/.330 line after posting elite numbers in 2013.
Though he’s not technically a lock to hit the open market due to a $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout), Adam LaRoche is a near certainty to be a free agent due to the rarity of such options being picked up by both sides of the agreement. The soon-to-be 35-year-old first baseman should represent one of the few steady power bats on the free agent market.
Power is on the decline league-wide, but LaRoche remains a steady source of home runs from the left side of the dish. He’s averaged 26 homers per season over the past three years (the same number he totaled in 2014), and excluding a 2011 season that was ruined by injuries (more on that below), he’s averaged 25 homers per season dating back to 2005. He’s cleared the 30-homer plateau twice — most recently in 2012 when he went deep 33 times.
Early in his career, LaRoche walked at a decent clip, but he’s taken that ability to new heights since joining the Nationals in 2011. His walk rate in a Nats uniform has been a hefty 12.3 percent, and this past season it ballooned to 14 percent — far and away the best mark he’s posted in a full season.
Correspondingly, LaRoche’s strikeout rate dipped to 18.4 percent — the second-lowest total of his career and the best mark he’s posted since 2005 when he whiffed just 17.3 percent of the time. His 14 percent walk rate this year is almost double the 7.8 percent mark he posted in ’05, however, so it seems fair to say that LaRoche has matured as a hitter. LaRoche chased out-of-zone pitches at just a 25 percent clip this year, which is well below the league average of 31.3 percent. It’s not surprising, then, to see that he averaged 4.04 pitches per plate appearances, which ranked 30th among qualified hitters and tied him with Chase Headley for tops among free agent hitters (Victor Martinez was a close second at 4.03).
LaRoche has a good defensive reputation, and he hasn’t had a negative mark in Defensive Runs Saved since 2009. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him slightly below average over the past two seasons. Scouts around the league will have their own opinions, of course, but it seems unlikely that any would place his defense as a significant negative.
I did a midseason assessment of LaRoche’s free agent stock back in June and noted that while he’s typically shown a platoon split, he had held his own against southpaws with a low average but a .381 on-base percentage. That trend regressed significantly, as LaRoche finished the season with just a .204/.284/.336 line against southpaws. He drew 15 walks in 155 plate appearances against same–handed pitching, but he also whiffed at a 27.7 percent clip against lefties, compared to just 15 percent against righties. There may be some teams that simply don’t want to give LaRoche everyday at-bats given the increased struggles he’s shown against lefties over the past two seasons. (He hit .198/.254/.313 against lefties last year.)
As I referenced previously LaRoche has been durable but he does come with a history of some shoulder issues. He missed about a month of his rookie season due to a separated AC joint in his left shoulder, and he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in that same shoulder in 2011. I’d imagine that he and agent Mike Milchin of Relativity Sports will simply point to the fact that LaRoche hit 33 homers the following season and has averaged 149 games over the following three campaigns as proof that it needn’t be a concern, but it may be something that teams want to look at more closely before agreeing to a multi-year deal. He missed a couple of weeks this season with a strained quad, as well, but that appears to be an isolated incident.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a 35-year-old first baseman doesn’t exactly have a gleaming baserunning reputation. Fangraphs pegged him at 5.5 runs below average on the basepaths this season. Among free agents, that figure was sandwiched between the marks posted by Billy Butler and Michael Morse, which should give an indication of what to expect from LaRoche’s running. Additionally, age will be a consideration, as this next contract will carry LaRoche into his late 30s.
In his free time, LaRoche is an avid bow hunter and outdoorsman. LaRoche is one of several famous baseball names featured on the Outdoor Channel’s show Buck Commander (along with Chipper Jones and Ryan Langerhans, among others). He’s also a devout Christian and teamed with Denard Span and Ian Desmond to host Faith Day following one of the team’s games at Nationals Park this season, as Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post wrote back in August.
LaRoche was diagnosed with ADD in high school and has dealt with the disorder throughout his career. He’s been taking Ritalin to combat the issue since 2006, which has at times caused him to struggle to maintain his weight, according to this 2013 piece from Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.
Baseball runs in the LaRoche family veins, as his father, Dave, was a two-time All-Star and enjoyed a 14-year Major League career. Adam’s brother, Andy LaRoche, also played in the Majors. The two were teammates with the Pirates in 2008-09. Adam is married with two children, per his bio on the Buck Commander web site.
Milchin can make a very legitimate case for LaRoche as the best first baseman on the free agent market. Morse is younger but comes with durability concerns, Cuddyer has those same durability concerns (and may wish to play an outfield corner), and Corey Hart had a disastrous season. Butler and Martinez are better suited to serve as designated hitters than full-time first basemen, and the same can be said for Kendrys Morales.
LaRoche’s preference is to finish his career in D.C., but that seems unlikely. Ryan Zimmerman‘s chronic shoulder woes have created a persistent throwing problem that will require shifting him to first base or the outfield (an outfield that is currently occupied by Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth). It’s possible the team could deal Span, move Harper to center and put Zimmerman in left, freeing first base for LaRoche’s return. But the more likely outcome seems to me to be that LaRoche will walk, Zimmerman will slide over to first and the Nats will pursue a second baseman or third baseman, with Anthony Rendon occupying the other spot.
Looking around the league, there are a few teams with clear needs at first base. The Brewers’ Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon was a flop, and there’s no clear-cut in-house alternative. LaRoche could receive some interest from his former club, the Pirates, as they look to improve upon Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez. The Marlins are known to be looking for a bat and could upgrade over Garrett Jones. The Mariners could make some sense, but Logan Morrison did have a strong finish, and their lineup already leans left pretty heavily. I can see the Padres showing interest as well, and I’ll list the Blue Jays as a dark-horse candidate with the caveat that they’d first have to trade Adam Lind to a more cost-conscious club (e.g. the Pirates).
The other thing to consider with LaRoche is whether or not he will receive a qualifying offer. Like nearly any veteran player coming off a strong season, LaRoche will want the security of a multi-year deal. However, he also has stated a strong preference to remain with the Nats, and his return could present somewhat of a defensive logjam for the team. Because of their roster construction and his desire to stay, I can see the Nats being a bit hesitant to risk a QO. My expectation is that they’ll buy out his mutual option, but there are scenarios in which he could end up with a QO.
LaRoche struggled to find a suitable deal in his last go-around with free agency despite the fact that he was fresh off a 33-homer season. Part of that, of course, was due to the draft pick attached to his name. He also had steeper competition, with Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher representing younger options coming off very strong seasons.
This time around, LaRoche could be free of draft pick compensation and is arguably the best first baseman on the market. I think something like his previous two-year, $24MM contract with a mutual option is the floor for LaRoche this winter. There’s some case to be made for a three-year deal, which I would imagine to be the target for LaRoche’s camp, but that case would be much stronger had his numbers not dipped in 2013. My prediction is that LaRoche will land in that Napoli range and sign a two-year, $30MM contract.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Yankees will have to make additions while sorting through several high-priced injury question marks on their roster as they try to rebound from consecutive years outside the postseason.
- Masahiro Tanaka, SP: $133MM through 2020 (Tanaka can opt out after 2017)
- Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: $126.8MM through 2020 ($21MM club option for 2021, $5MM buyout)
- Brian McCann, C: $68MM through 2018 ($15MM club option for 2019, can vest to become player option)
- Alex Rodriguez, 3B: $61MM through 2017
- C.C. Sabathia, SP: $48MM through 2016 ($25MM vesting option for 2017, $5MM buyout otherwise)
- Brett Gardner, OF: $48MM through 2018 ($12.5MM club option for 2019, $2MM buyout)
- Mark Teixeira, 1B: $45MM through 2016
- Carlos Beltran, OF: $30MM through 2016
- Martin Prado, IF: $22MM through 2016
- Brendan Ryan, SS: $2MM through 2015 ($2MM club option for 2016, become $1MM player option if declined)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Shawn Kelley, RP (5.128): $2.5MM projected salary
- Francisco Cervelli, C (4.146): $1.1MM
- Esmil Rogers, RP (4.087): $1.9MM
- Ivan Nova, SP (4.024): $3.3MM
- Michael Pineda, SP (3.099): $2.1MM
- David Huff, RP (3.062): $700K
- David Phelps, SP/RP (2.156): $1.3MM
- Andrew Bailey, RP: club option for 2015, dollar value unknown
- Chris Capuano, Stephen Drew, Chase Headley, Rich Hill, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, David Robertson, Scott Sizemore, Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Young
The emotion of the Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retirement tours over the last two seasons may have softened the blow of missing the playoffs for Yankees fans. Now that the last of the “Core Four” has retired, eyes are focused on the present and what the Steinbrenner family, the newly-extended Brian Cashman and a revamped baseball operations department will do to get this team back into contention.
When the Bombers missed the playoffs last year, they responded by spending over $500MM on new contracts for free agents and re-signed talent. It doesn’t seem like the Yankees are prepared for another spending spree, in part because two of last year’s big signings (Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran) underperformed. Combine those setbacks with a huge swath of injuries that sidelined almost the entire Yankees rotation, and it’s somewhat surprising that the club managed to win even 83 games.
The biggest issue facing the Yankees is that many of their highest-paid players can’t be counted on to stay healthy or play up to their usual standard in 2015. C.C. Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and has already suffered a decline in performance in recent years. Mark Teixeira managed to play in 123 games last year but his wrist problems will always require a backup option. McCann and Beltran could’ve just had off-years, or they could possibly be on the decline as well.
And then there’s Alex Rodriguez, returning from his year-long suspension as a complete mystery in terms of what he’ll be able to contribute. The plan for A-Rod seems to be a rotation between DH, third base and possibly first base, to spell Teixeira. Until the Yankees know if Rodriguez can handle regular time at third, however, it will somewhat hamstring their other winter plans. They have an interest in bringing back Chase Headley, though obviously Headley will want to play every day, and limiting Rodriguez to a 1B/DH role will cut down on the DH at-bats that might be needed for another aging players like Beltran or McCann.
One possible solution would be to pencil Martin Prado in as the third baseman and to acquire a stopgap option to play second or give prospect Rob Refsnyder a shot at the job. If Rodriguez’s body can hold up under regular playing time at the hot corner, then Prado can then primarily play second base, with the occasional game at 3B to spell A-Rod. Prado’s versatility is a nice tool for the Yankees to have, and since he posted an .877 OPS in 137 PA after joining the club at the trade deadline, his bat may have awoken after a rough first half with the Diamondbacks.
With Rodriguez likely looking at a healthy share of DH at-bats, Beltran will have to see much more time in right field than the 32 games he played at the position last season. Beltran’s elbow injury both kept him out of RF and likely played a big role in his struggles at the plate, so if he’s healthy, he could be back to his usual productive self. For depth’s sake, however, the Yankees will definitely look to add a backup outfielder who could regular playing time or at least would be Beltran’s late-inning defensive replacement. Someone like Gerardo Parra (who the Brewers could non-tender or look to trade this winter) would be a nice fit in this role.
Replacing Jeter is impossible from a big-picture standpoint, though replacing Jeter’s 2014 on-field production (-0.3 fWAR, 73 wRC+) at shortstop shouldn’t be hard. There will inevitably be a big media spotlight on whichever player becomes Jeter’s successor at short, and the Yankees have a couple of options: they can pursue a young shortstop as a true long-term heir apparent, or they could look for an established veteran (who might be more used to the pressure) to play the position for a few seasons until a younger option can be groomed or acquired.
If New York chooses the veteran route, there are free agent shortstops like Asdrubal Cabrera or Jed Lowrie available. Hanley Ramirez is the top free agent shortstop on the market, though if the Yankees are indeed hesitant about giving big money to players over 30 years old, then a player with Ramirez’s injury history and defensive limitations wouldn’t be a good fit. Stephen Drew could be re-signed at a relative discount price, though it’s hard to see the Yankees handing Drew the starting job coming off his poor 2014 season. It’s possible the Yankees’ top choice to replace Jeter may already be off the board, as J.J. Hardy signed an extension with the Orioles rather than test free agency.
If the Yankees went for a younger option at short, they could talk trade with the Diamondbacks or Cubs, each of which have a surplus of young shortstops. Chicago’s surplus, of course, is of a higher pedigree since it involves former All-Star Starlin Castro and blue chip prospects Addison Russell and Javier Baez. As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes wrote in his recent Cubs offseason outlook piece, however, the timing may not be right for the Cubs to trade their middle infield depth. Plus, even if Chicago was willing to deal, the Yankees may not have the prospect depth to meet the enormous asking price the Cubs would demand for any of those players. Swinging a deal for one of Arizona’s slightly lesser-regarded young shortstops (Didi Gregorius, Nick Ahmed, Chris Owings) could be a more palatable option.
The Yankees acquired Prado using one piece of their catching surplus in prospect Peter O’Brien, and the club still has John Ryan Murphy, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine all battling for the backup job behind McCann. Any two of these players could be expendable with top prospect Gary Sanchez on the farm, though Sanchez has yet to play beyond the Double-A level and is at least a season away from getting serious consideration from a big league job.
The biggest trade chip the Yankees have, of course, is their financial might. Headley, Prado and Brandon McCarthy were all acquired for a fairly negligible prospect return at midseason since New York was simply able to take those contracts off the Padres’ and Diamondbacks’ hands. Rather than surrender draft picks to sign qualifying offer free agents or deal away what little farm depth they have, the Yankees could pursue more trades with rivals looking to create payroll space.
If the Yankees did want to make a splash in free agency, however, Jon Lester could be an attractive target since (due to the fact that he was traded at midseason) he can be signed without any draft pick compensation. The Yankees have a particular admiration for Lester, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, and the southpaw would bring both quality and much-needed durability to New York’s rotation. Max Scherzer could also draw interest from the Yankees this winter as another front-of-the-rotation upgrade, not to mention James Shields, who is expected to be available at a lower price than those other two aces.
While adding a top starter could technically give the Yankees a rotation surplus if everyone is healthy, that’s a giant “if” given how many injury-plagued starters are in the rotation. C.C. Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and even if he’s 100 percent health-wise, the lefty has still been on the decline for the last two seasons. Ivan Nova will be out until May at the earliest as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda looked dominant when he was on the mound, yet had another injury setback when he missed three months with a bad shoulder.
The most tenuous injury situation involves Masahiro Tanaka, who took MLB by storm in his rookie season before a slight UCL tear caused him to miss 10 weeks. Tanaka returned to make two starts in late September and reported he was pain-free, so for now, it appears the righty may have dodged the Tommy John bullet. Any recurrence of the injury, however, could lead to surgery for Tanaka and at least a year on the DL. Tanaka is yet another high-paid superstar the Yankees don’t know if they can count on in 2015, and his uncertain health status is the club’s strongest argument for making a play for the likes of Scherzer, Lester or Shields.
Shane Greene‘s strong rookie season earned him a spot in the 2015 rotation, so presuming that leaves New York with a tentative starting quartet of Tanaka, Greene, Pineda and Sabathia. If the Yankees don’t land that ace-level pitcher, they could turn to familiar faces in McCarthy (who is open to a return) or Hiroki Kuroda, who is again weighing retirement or a return to Japan.
Kuroda faced the same choice last offseason and rejected a $14.1MM qualifying offer before re-signing with the Yankees on a one-year, $16MM deal. It stands to reason that Kuroda will receive another QO this winter — if the Yankees were comfortable in issuing him a qualifying offer last year before knowing if he’d return to MLB, they’d probably feel similarly comfortable this year. Kuroda still posted solid numbers and 199 IP at age 39 last season, and he’ll draw enough interest from teams that I’d suspect he’ll reject this offseason’s $15.3MM qualifying offer to look for another slightly-richer one-year pact. It’s fair to assume the Yankees have the inside track on Kuroda’s services if he does return, though the Dodgers and Angels are also looking for starting pitching and can offer Kuroda a job closer to his home in southern California.
Dellin Betances‘ phenomenal success as the Yankees’ setup man has led to speculation that he could take over as closer in 2015 and New York could afford to let David Robertson leave in free agency. The Yankees are one of the few teams who can afford to issue a qualifying offer to a closer, and while it’s possible the QO could scare off some teams who don’t want to give up a first-round pick to sign a one-inning pitcher, MLBTR’s Steve Adams argued that Robertson’s status as the best closer available will still land him a significant deal, possibly in the range of four years and $52MM. A lockdown bullpen has been such an important part of recent Yankees history that I can see the Bombers re-signing Robertson and re-teaming he and Betances to create a lot of seven-inning games.
With or without Robertson, expect the Yankees to pursue a veteran lefty reliever to fill the hole left by Matt Thornton, who was let go on waivers last summer. Andrew Miller stands out as the best left-handed option (and one of the best relievers in general) available in free agency, and he could serve as Betances’ setup man. The Yankees could take a page from the Royals’ book by signing Miller AND re-signing Robertson, sandwiching them around Betances to create a terrifying late-game relief trio.
David Huff, David Phelps, Shawn Kelley and Esmil Rogers are all eligible for arbitration this winter and since all pitched well in 2014 (at least peripheral-wise in Kelley and Rogers’ cases), expect all four to be tendered contracts and brought back into the bullpen mix. The Yankees could also exercise their inexpensive team option on Andrew Bailey for 2015, though since hasn’t pitched at all since undergoing shoulder surgery in July 2013, Bailey is just a lottery ticket at this point.
The rumor mill inevitably connects the Yankees to virtually every top free agent during the offseason, both because agents like to raise their clients’ asking prices by claiming the league’s big spenders are interested and because the Yankees usually do cast a wide net. Throwing more money at free agents might leave the club with even more albatross contracts, however, and even the Yankees have a spending limit. It’s more likely the Yankees will look to fill their roster holes through trades rather than free agency, though expect them to explore all options lest the playoff drought extend to three years.
A look back at the original reporting and analysis found on MLBTR the last seven days:
- MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd discussing the Diamondbacks with Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic and which options will be exercised and which will be declined with Steve Adams. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast will be released every Thursday afternoon and can be accessed on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.
- In the wake of the Dodgers hiring Andrew Friedman away from the Rays, Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg told Zach Links he does not plan on changing his no-contract policy for the upper levels of the franchise’s front office. “That’s our policy, for better or for worse. There are positives with it and negatives with it,” Sternberg said. “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.”
- MLBTR’s 2014-2015 Free Agent Tracker is now available with the start of free agency just a World Series away. It can be found in the Tools drop down menu at the top of the page or in the sidebar under MLBTR Features.
- Speaking of free agents, there were six installments of MLBTR’s Free Agent Profile series this week.
- Tim Dierkes imagines a four-year deal for Ervin Santana worth $56MM.
- Jeff projects two years and $22MM for Michael Morse.
- Same terms for Michael Cuddyer, according to Zach.
- Zach predicts a three-year pact earning $27MM for Asdrubal Cabrera.
- Steve expects Melky Cabrera will sign a five-year, $66.25MM contract while Nick Markakis will collect $48MM over four years.
- MLBTR previewed the Offseason Outlook for the Brewers (by Charlie Wilmoth), Reds (also by Charlie), Blue Jays (by Mark Polishuk), Padres (by Zach), Mets and Braves (both by Jeff).
- Steve pitted right-handed starters Ervin Santana and Brandon McCarthy in the latest Free Agent Faceoff. More than 57% of you would prefer to sign McCarthy.
- Jeff analyzed the trade candidacy of the Braves’ Evan Gattis.
- Steve hosted this week’s chat.
- Zach compiled the latest edition of Baseball Blogs Weigh In.