MLBTR Originals Rumors

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 recapping the week’s news before turning to a discussion of the Cardinals with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast drops every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Rick Porcello told Zach Links, during a conference call announcing his four-year, $82.5MM extension with the Red Sox, he does not have any qualms about bypassing free agency to remain in Boston. “I mean obviously I knew the opportunity that was ahead of me in entering free agency, but when I first got to camp and I saw the way the team was run from the ownership to Ben [Cherington] to the coaching staff and the players that were there, I saw that it was run very well from top to bottom,” Porcello said. “The devotion to win was here and it was something that I wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t a very difficult decision for me.
  • With the 2015 season now underway, Jeff updated the future payroll obligations for all 30 MLB franchises.
  • There were three installments of MLBTR’s Offseason In Review series this week: Mariners (by Steve Adams), Diamondbacks (by Mark Polishuk), and Nationals (by Jeff).
  • Charlie Wilmoth identified several impending free agents who could be traded, thus rendering the draft pick ramifications of being tendered a qualifying offer moot.
  • Jeff asked MLBTR readers which team had the best offseason. Nearly 45% of you saluted the work of Padres GM A.J. Preller.
  • Preller’s work may not be done as the Padres are looking to upgrade at shortstop, so Jeff examined possible targets.
  • Steve hosted the MLBTR live chat this week.
  • Zach put together the best of the baseball blogosphere in Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

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Possible Qualifying Offer Players Who Could Be Dealt

Next year’s free agent market contains plenty of players who could receive qualifying offers — David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Heyward, and others. Here’s a look at potential qualifying offer recipients who have the best chance of being traded this season, thus preventing them from receiving that designation.

At issue, of course, is draft pick compensation and forfeiture. A team extending a qualifying offer to a player receives a draft pick in return if the player signs elsewhere. The signing team also gives up a draft pick. But a player who has been traded in the season before he becomes a free agent can’t be extended a qualifying offer and thus isn’t attached to draft picks. That can be an important consideration for teams shopping for free agents, as we’ve seen in recent years in the cases of Kyle Lohse, Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, whose markets have all shrunk in part because of the qualifying offer.

Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, Reds. The Reds are off to a 4-0 start but still aren’t that likely to contend, which means that Cueto and Leake could hit the free agent market this summer. Trading Cueto, in particular, would be a great way for the Reds to add to their collection of young talent. Leake might be somewhat trickier to trade, since the Reds’ return might not be worth that much more than the draft pick and negotiating leverage they would forgo by dealing him.

Ben Zobrist and Scott Kazmir, Athletics. Billy Beane’s trade for Zobrist this offseason was a somewhat surprising one to begin with. The Athletics could easily contend, but if they don’t, Beane seems unlikely to sit still, and finding a new home for Zobrist wouldn’t be difficult given his versatility. Kazmir is another possibility — if he performs at his 2014 levels, he could receive a qualifying offer if the A’s contend or be traded if they don’t.

Alex Gordon, Royals. The Royals haven’t discussed an extension with Gordon, who would undoubtedly be an attractive trade target if the Royals were to fall out of contention in the AL Central. They’re currently 4-0, however, and there’s still the matter of Gordon’s $12.5MM option. Exercising it would likely not be an optimal financial decision from Gordon’s perspective, but he’s expressed interest in doing so before. If he were to make clear to the Royals that he planned to do so, he almost certainly wouldn’t be a trade candidate.

Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy, Padres. San Diego gambled heavily this offseason on the Padres’ ability to win in 2015. If they don’t, A.J. Preller doesn’t seem like the sort of GM to hang onto two key players who are due to become free agents. One possibility if the Padres were to trade Kennedy or especially Upton would be to acquire big-league talent in return, much like the Red Sox did when they dealt Jon Lester last summer. That would enable the Padres to re-tool for 2016, when they’ll still control most of the players they acquired over the winter.

Yovani Gallardo, Rangers. The Brewers exercised what was effectively a $12.4MM 2015 option ($13MM minus a $600K buyout) before trading Gallardo to Texas. His market value likely is somewhere near the value of a qualifying offer, and extending him one wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Rangers if he performs well this season. They could easily trade him rather than doing that, although that might be somewhat difficult given all the higher-impact starters who might be available and the value that would disappear if the ability to extend Gallardo a qualifying offer were to vanish.

Jeff Samardzija, White Sox. The new-look White Sox are 0-4, and GM Rick Hahn has said he will be “nimble” in turning his attention to the future if the organization’s moves to contend this summer don’t work out. That might mean Samardzija could be traded for the third time in a year. He would likely command significant value on the trade market.

Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, Orioles. Davis and Wieters are worth watching, although it’s somewhat unlikely that they’re valuable enough to receive qualifying offers and that they become trade candidates. Davis had a down season in 2014, while Wieters continues to struggle with health problems (and there’s currently no timetable for his return from an elbow injury). If Davis and Wieters are productive and healthy, the Orioles could well contend, and thus it’s unlikely they’ll be traded. If they aren’t, they might not be qualifying offer candidates.


Shortstop Alternatives For The Padres

The Padres are said to be “scouring” the trade market for shortstop upgrades over internal options Clint Barmes and Alexi Amarista, and while significant trades at this stage of the season are indeed rare, the Sunday’s blockbuster acquisition of Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton from the Braves shows that GM A.J. Preller isn’t averse to making trades at any stage of the season.

Both Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports beat me to writing something on the subject, and each piece is well worth the read. However, there are a vast expanse of shortstop options available for the Padres to explore, and Rosenthal reports that the team seems likelier to add a low-cost upgrade than to make an extravagant splash for the likes of Elvis Andrus or Starlin Castro. (The Padres have concerns about Castro’s glove at shortstop, in fact, Rosenthal adds, and have not recently been in touch regarding Chicago’s middle infielders.)

Cameron discusses a wide range of shortstop possibilities for the Friars, concluding that an acquisition of Jean Segura might be the most logical upgrade for San Diego. While I agree that Segura makes some sense for the Padres, there are some additional low-cost names (from a financial standpoint, that is) that could  be replaced within their respective organizations.

Before delving into some speculative candidates, let’s first take a quick glance at the current options in San Diego. Barmes batted a decisively sub-par .245/.328/.294 last season, with six of his nine walks coming while batting eighth, in front of the pitcher. While he’s well-known as a plus defender, Barmes projects to be roughly a replacement level player when looking at the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems. Likewise, Amarista is a light-hitting infielder, who projects to be scarcely more than a replacement-level option. He’s younger than Barmes but is also just a .233/.278/.335 hitter in more than 1200 plate appearances. It’d be a surprise to see him contribute anything close to league-average production at the dish.

The Padres have a pair of serviceable gloves at shortstop, but neither comes with much in the way of offensive upside, and as such, their search for a shortstop upgrade isn’t unexpected.

All that said, let’s look at some options around the league that could serve as alternatives to Amarista and Barmes…

Luis Sardinas, Brewers: Preller of all people should be familiar with Sardinas, who was signed by the Rangers and developed into a promising prospect while Preller was still in the Texas front office. The jury is out on how much Sardinas will actually hit — he’s batted .290/.310/.374 in limited Triple-A action and didn’t fare much better in the Majors last year — but he’s regarded as a plus defender and has more upside at the plate than either incumbent option in San Diego. Sardinas is blocked in the Majors by Segura, who, as Cameron noted, could be a fit in San Diego himself, if the Brewers believe that Sardinas can adequately step into the everyday role at shortstop.

Javier Baez, Cubs: While much of the talk surrounding the Cubs and Padres has centered around Starlin Castro, one could make the case that Baez is a better fit. The Padres’ payroll undoubtedly has to be nearing its apex, and squeezing Castro’s sizable contract into the books may be too tall a task. Additionally, the Cubs are trying to contend this year, and jettisoning one of their core pieces and more proven hitters could be a lateral move, or even a step backwards, depending on what the Padres are willing to offer. Baez isn’t a definitive upgrade, but his light-tower power unequivocally gives him more upside than current options, and Preller’s Padres have an affinity for right-handed power bats. The Cubs could commit to Arismendy Alcantara at second base in the event of a Baez trade, though the Padres have parted with most of their upper-level pitching prospects, making a trade perhaps more difficult.

Jordy Mercer, Pirates: Moving Mercer now would likely accelerate that Pirates’ timeline for getting Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang regular at-bats at the big league level, and they may not be comfortable moving Mercer until seeing how Kang adjusts to the Major Leagues (admittedly, they may not be comfortable moving him even if Kang hits). However, Mercer is a solid enough hitter and fielder that the Padres could reasonably expect him to be worth a couple of wins per season, and they could send Amarista back to Pittsburgh along with any potential prospects to give the Bucs an immediate alternative in the event that Kang struggles. If the Padres offered a means of improving the Pirates’ 2015 roster, it’s at least plausible.

Eugenio Suarez, Reds: Acquired from the Tigers in the offseason, Suarez isn’t as gifted a defender as Barmes, but he but he held his own from a defensive standpoint last year in the eyes of Ultimate Zone Rating (Defensive Runs Saved was a bit more pessimistic). He comes with significantly more upside at the plate, however, as evidenced by a .278/.362/.415 batting line. ZiPS projects him at two wins, for those who are interested in projection systems, and the Reds, who stand to lose both Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto after the season, might be interested in adding some pitching to the upper levels of their system, even if it’s not an elite prospect with front-of-the-rotation upside.

Eduardo Escobar, Twins: Minnesota seems set to give Danny Santana every opportunity to prove that he’s their shortstop of the future, leaving Escobar as a perhaps overqualified utility infielder. The switch-hitting 26-year-old grades out as average or slightly better in the field over the course of a relatively small sample of 1053 innings, and he delivered a .275/.315/.406 batting line in the Twins’ pitcher-friendly home park last year (102 OPS+/wRC+). His offense may trend downward a bit, as he may not sustain his .336 BABIP, but he’s probably a better hitter than Amarista/Barmes and won’t sink the Padres in the field. Of course, the Padres could try to pry Santana away from the Twins as well, who could then use Escobar at shortstop until the more highly regarded Jorge Polanco is MLB-ready. But, I’d think the asking price on Santana would be higher, even if he clearly won’t repeat last year’s .405-BABIP-fueled offensive output.

Brad Miller/Chris Taylor, Mariners: Both Seattle shortstops were oft-mentioned as trade candidates throughout the offseason. For the time being, Miller’s getting a look at shortstop after Taylor fractured his wrist in Spring Training. Miller’s first half in 2014 was an unmitigated disaster (.204/.273/.330), but he quietly had a nice second half (.268/.330/.464), performed quite well in spring and has hit well in this season’s minuscule sample size. Miller struggles against lefties, so perhaps there’s some merit to the idea of a platoon, but either of these two would likely be an upgrade in San Diego (once Taylor is healthy, of course).

Obviously, there are far more names that could be suggested. The likes of Erisbel Arruebarrena and Deven Marrero come to mind, though each strong defender has drawn questions about his bat. Danny Espinosa has far more big league experience, but he offers a similar tale of plus defense and a questionable bat. Jonathan Villar has been displaced in Houston, but he grades out as a poor defender and hit his way into a demotion to Triple-A last year. Nick Franklin, now with Tampa following last year’s David Price trade, could be a consideration, but he’s injured at the moment and has also drawn questions about his glove at short.

The temptation for Padres fans, based on Preller’s track record, might to expect the moon and set their sights on Troy Tulowitzki and Starlin Castro, but the market does bear plenty of affordable options that are perhaps superfluous to their respective organizations. While that doesn’t mean they can be had for nothing, the presence of viable, starting-caliber alternatives within the organizations listed here makes a trade easier to envision.



Offseason In Review: Seattle Mariners

After a franchise-altering 2013-14 offseason, the Mariners came up a game shy of the playoffs, prompting further win-now moves in an effort to vault to the top of the American League West.

Major League Signings

Trades and Claims

Extensions

  • Kyle Seager, 3B: Seven years, $100MM with a team option that will be valued between $15-20MM, depending on performance (option buyout ranges from $0-3MM based on performance as well)

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The 2014 Mariners missed the postseason by just one game despite receiving scarcely more offensive output from the DH slot than if they’d let their pitchers go to the plate. Seattle designated hitters batted an unthinkably bad .190/.266/.301 last year, and a midseason reunion with Kendrys Morales did little to coax more out of that spot in the lineup. As such, GM Jack Zduriencik strove to make a significant upgrade, and they did so in adding Nelson Cruz on a four-year deal.

Nelson  Cruz

The Cruz contract was panned by many, and there’s no question that it could go south in the final years of the agreement. Adding a fourth year was a necessary evil, it seemed, however, as the Orioles were reportedly comfortable offering three years to return to a familiar environment which Cruz often told reporters he very much enjoyed. Many question how Cruz’s power will translate to Safeco Field, and while it’s a legitimate concern, it should be noted that Oriole Park at Camden Yards was significantly less conducive to right-handed home run power in 2014 than Safeco Field, per Baseball Prospectus park factors. That’s not to say that Cruz is a good bet to repeat his career-high 40 homers — he isn’t — but rather that perhaps the change in home park won’t be as detrimental as many would think. Cruz will surely miss the homer-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Rogers Centre in his road games, though Houston’s Minute Maid Park offers a particularly advantageous short porch in left field for his pull-oriented swing.

The outfield corners — left field in particular — offered below-average production as well. Whether they were inspired by their division rivals or not, the Mariners took a page out of Oakland’s playbook and set about constructing a pair of platoons that should boost the output in right and left field. Seth Smith’s lifetime .277/.358/.481 batting line against righties will be complemented nicely by Justin Ruggiano’s career .266/.329/.508 slash against southpaws. In left field, Dustin Ackley (.259/.310/.442 against right-handed pitching last year) will be joined by outfield newcomer Rickie Weeks (career .261/.345/.448 versus lefties) to form the other platoon. Weeks, who was originally drafted by Zduriencik when Zduriencik was Milwaukee’s scouting director, may also see occasional reps at first base and can fill in at second on the rare days when iron man Robinson Cano doesn’t take the field.

The Mariners will return a largely similar pitching staff, so the upgrades to an offense that ranked 19th in the Majors in runs scored and in weighted runs created (93 wRC+, or seven percent below the league average) should be a significant boost to their 2015 hopes.

Questions Remaining

Cuban lefty Roenis Elias was a pleasant surprise for the 2014 Mariners, turning in 163 2/3 innings of 3.85 ERA with FIP/xFIP marks that suggested the outcome was reasonably sustainable. However, he’s been optioned to the Minors in favor of J.A. Happ, who’s never topped 166 innings in a season and owns a 4.75 ERA (4.33 FIP) over the past four seasons with Houston and Toronto. (I’ll discuss the trade that brought Happ to Seattle below.) Pitching depth is a great thing for any team to have, and Elias will serve as a nice safety net, but the man that is effectively replacing him isn’t a clear upgrade to the rotation. Happ will undoubtedly benefit from the move from Rogers Centre to Safeco Field, but it’s fair to question just how much better — if at all — he makes the Mariners, when considering the fact that he’s replacing a serviceable arm and cost them a valuable outfielder in Michael Saunders.

The other two rotation slots will represent somewhat of a youth movement, as the Mariners’ two most ballyhooed pitching prospects of the past few years — James Paxton and Taijuan Walker — will open the year in the rotation. Both have had shoulder problems in the past, but both have drawn excellent reviews from scouts this spring and could give the Mariners a formidable mid-rotation combo if they can realize even 80 or 90 percent of their potential. Whether or not they’re able to do so, of course, is the real question, given the duo’s checkered medical history. In that sense, there’s logic behind adding depth, but Seattle probably could’ve found depth that was less expensive than Happ and simply left Elias in the rotation as well.

Nonetheless, a rotation that projects to receive regular innings from Happ, Paxton and Walker (health permitting) is considerably more preferable than one with significant innings from Erasmo Ramirez and Chris Young (though Young defied his peripherals to turn in excellent bottom line results last year).

Turning to the offense, few teams in the league can boast a second base/third base tandem better than Cano and Kyle Seager, who will anchor the heart of the lineup along with Cruz. The aforementioned platoons should be productive, but there are questions at some other spots. Austin Jackson‘s bat went up in smoke upon a trade to Seattle last July, as the former Tiger hit a woeful .229/.267/.260 in 236 plate appearances in his new surroundings. Perhaps more time to acclimate himself to his new environment will do him some good — he’s had an outstanding Spring Training, for what it’s worth — but Jackson was genuinely one of baseball’s worst hitters in the second half of the 2014 season. He’ll earn $7.7MM in his final year of team control, and the Mariners will very much be counting on a rebound.

At first base, Logan Morrison will receive another shot at the everyday job now that Justin Smoak is a Blue Jay. Morrison’s inaugural season in Seattle was marred by yet another knee injury, but he quietly posted excellent numbers (.284/.334/.447 in his final 79 games) upon being activated from the DL and getting back up to speed at the plate. A full season of such production would be more than acceptable for the Mariners, but a repeat of his 2012-13 numbers in Miami or his initial production with Seattle would leave the team looking for an upgrade this summer.

Brad Miller and Chris Taylor entered the spring in a competition for the everyday shortstop role, but that battle came to an abrupt end when Taylor fractured his wrist. Miller will again be given a crack at holding down the fort, and a strong second half and spring performance may be a portent for a breakout. He’s shown little consistency to this point in his career, but the M’s clearly feel very strongly about Miller. The Nationals reportedly offered Seattle a package of Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond in exchange for Miller and Walker, but Seattle refrained from selling a pair of potentially long-term cogs, even if it would’ve meant acquiring a pair of impact players in a season where they aim to win the AL West.

Mike Zunino will again handle the lion’s share of time behind the plate. He has plus pop for a catcher and is one of the game’s best at framing pitches, but his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction last year, leaving him with a .199 average and .254 OBP. His glove and power still created value, but Seattle is undoubtedly banking on more offense from the former No. 3 overall pick. Behind him, Jesus Sucre is a fairly uninspiring option to serve as the backup, and it’s not hard to envision the Mariners looking for a better backup option as the season wears on.

The bullpen was excellent in 2014 and while much of the same cast will return, especially now that Joe Beimel has been brought back on a minor league contract.  Beimel could be back in the majors quickly if young lefty Tyler Olson can’t build on his dominant spring performance. Rule 5 southpaw David Rollins looked poised to break camp with the club based on his own spring success, but he was popped with an 80-game suspension for failing a PED test. Rollins owned his mistake and apologized to the organization, who will keep him around, so he could yet surface in Seattle at midseason. Maurer’s brilliant relief work will be missed, though the offensive contributions of Smith may very well outweigh that loss.

Deal of Note

Saunders’ relationship with the Mariners came to a rocky and unfortunate end, and none of the parties involved came away from the situation looking particularly great. Both Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon made comments about Saunders’ injury history that seemed to call into question his preparedness for each season. Saunders seemingly took offense to the insinuations, as his then-agent Michael McCann expressed disappointment and frustration with the organization, as Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times chronicled last October. Zduriencik was quick to try to explain that the comments were meant as a wake-up call to all of the team’s young players, but the damage had seemingly been done, as rumors of the Mariners shopping Saunders surfaced as early as November’s GM Meetings.

Saunders was eventually traded to Toronto — an outcome the Canadian-born outfielder likely found satisfying — in exchange for Happ, and he ultimately wound up switching agents.

Though Saunders did struggle to stay healthy in Seattle, he was, perhaps in an under-the-radar fashion, a quite productive player when on the field. Saunders batted .248/.320/.423 with 162-game averages of 19 homers and 18 steals from 2012-14, and though he’s miscast as a center fielder, he’s a very defensively sound corner outfielder. While he’ll miss the first week or so of the season following knee surgery (he had a bit of a freak accident in spring, tearing his meniscus after stepping on a sprinkler head), Saunders could very well outpeform the left field platoon in Seattle, and he could be more valuable than Happ as well. Add in the fact that he’s controlled for two years to Happ’s one (at a cheaper salary), and the M’s could end up regretting how their relationship with Saunders ended.

Overview

The Saunders situation aside, it would be difficult to say that the Mariners haven’t improved the overall quality of their roster from 2014 to 2015. Their reliance on platoons in the corner outfield slots should yield better production and creates some depth in the event of an injury. Cruz may not match his 2014 output, but he’s an unequivocal upgrade over the abysmal production that the Mariners received from last year’s group of designated hitters.

The AL West should be a close race, with the Mariners, Angels and Athletics likely a bit in front of an improving-but-still-young Astros roster and an injury-plagued Rangers unit. If Paxton and Walker reach their upside, the two could combine with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to form one of baseball’s best rotations. Certainly, there are questions surrounding the Mariners, but it will be a surprise if they’re not in the thick of the playoff picture come September.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Future Payroll Obligations: Opening Day Update

As I explored back at the start of the offseason, future salary obligations play a huge role in guiding teams as they invest in new acquisitions and in extensions. While expected pay-outs through arbitration must obviously be weighed as well, they are entirely within the control of the team. Guaranteed cash, however, is on the books to stay — unless it can be offloaded.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at where things stand now, with both the free agent, pre-season trade, and extension seasons pretty much wrapped up. We already know which teams have been aggressive in making upgrades, but how have those moves impacted their future balance sheets?

Here are the total commitments, by team and in millions of dollars (note post-2023 obligations merged into one column), courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts:

2015.04.09 future commitments

(Link for app users or for full-size.)

*That last column represents how much in total future obligations (2016-onward) each team has added or taken away since we last looked in mid-November. While factors like discount rate play a role in exactly how you value future cash promises, this provides a rough guide to how much flexibility has been sacrificed down the line. Thus, we see that the Marlins — in large part due to the Giancarlo Stanton extension — have taken on the most of any team in future, leaping from the last-ranked club on the list just five months ago to the number seven team in long-term spending.

**You’ll also note that the Nationals’ heavily-deferred Max Scherzer contract shows up with the salary as allocated during the years he is actually under roster control. That is how Cot’s tabulates things, and I kept it that way in part because there are other purely financial deferral situations that would need to be accounted for.

All said, just over $2.1B in new future commitments were added since mid-November. Here it is in a more visually comprehensible form:

2015.04.09 future commitments chart

(Link for app users or for full-size.)


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Offseason In Review: Washington Nationals

The Nats have enjoyed plenty of success but also plenty of disappointment over the last three years. While the club remains set up to challenge for championships in the future, 2015 is probably the last year it can do so with its current core fully intact.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Extensions

  • None

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

This offseason was obviously dominated by the team’s signing of Max Scherzer, who was installed as the Opening Day starter. But it’s hard to say that the move functioned to fill a need, so we’ll take a closer look at it below in the “Deal of Note” section.

Topping off the MLB rotation is not all the club did to bolster its future pitching ranks this offseason. The organization is loaded with arms for the post-Zimmermann era. After dealing away pitchers like Cole, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone, Alex Meyer, Robbie Ray, and Nate Karns over the last several offseasons, the Nats did not shed any prized young arms this winter. Instead, after signing high upside Tommy John patient Erick Fedde out of the amateur draft, the Nats added well-regarded righty Joe Ross in the Wil Myers trade.

Then again, if the wisdom of the Rays’ front office is to be trusted, perhaps that trade will ultimately become known as the Wil MyersSteven Souza swap. Or, if Rizzo has his way, the Joe RossTrea Turner deal. That last piece, Turner, was the key to the gambit from the Nats’ perspective, even if he remains an as-yet unnamed part of the transaction. The speedy young shortstop figures to be the long-term replacement for Ian Desmond, though he’ll need to show a lot in 2015 at the Double-A level to enter the big league picture for the start of next season.

To bolster things up the middle in the meantime, the Nats shipped one of the game’s most consistent set-up men, Tyler Clippard — yet another organizational stalwart in his final year of control — in exchange for the mercurial Yunel Escobar. The early relationship with Escobar has already seen some rough patches, with some positional consternation and injuries clouding the picture. But things seem to be going smoothly now, with Escobar voluntarily stepping in at third to open the season, and Washington will hope that he can return to being a quality defender and good-enough hitter to occupy one middle infield spot over the next two seasons.

With Clippard gone, the Nats had an opening in the veteran late-inning department, and added former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen on a deal that reflected his difficulties last year. The Nats will hope there is some gas left in the tank for Janssen, who is currently out with shoulder issues that are hoped to be minor. There are some up-and-coming young arms (Treinen, Aaron Barrett) that could see big innings as well, particularly if Janssen is limited or ineffective.

From the left-handed side, Rizzo continued to tinker. The Nationals will rely upon August claimee Matt Thornton and former minor league signee Xavier Cedeno. Rizzo dealt away Ross Detwiler, who has been a plenty serviceable starter in the past but who did not turn into the dominant reliever the club hoped. And he parted ways with Jerry Blevins after one forgettable year, sending him to the division rival Mets in order to bolster the team’s outfield reserves with Matt den Dekker.

As for den Dekker, he looks to be a useful option with the outfield in need of bolstering early this year and a spot in center clearing after the season. Importantly, he has an option year remaining. While Michael Taylor is the player that the club hopes will become the long-term answer there, den Dekker could represent an affordable backup whose left-handed bat will pair nicely with the right-handed-swinging Taylor. He also looks to be a nice fit with the aging Jayson Werth in left to afford extra rest when matchups or game situations permit.

Questions Remaining

This is one of the most complete lineups in baseball — when healthy. But the Nationals have some injury concerns to start the year, with Werth, Denard Span, and Anthony Rendon all on the DL (along with reserve Nate McLouth). The club will fill the void with players like Taylor, den Dekker, Tyler Moore, Reed Johnson, Dan Uggla, and Danny Espinosa. That is probably fine for a short stretch, but could lead to some consternation if Werth, Span, or (especially) Rendon take longer than is hoped.

Elsewhere, the team will be taking on some risk by shifting players to new positions. Escobar has mostly played short, which he seems likely to do again next year, but will play third until Rendon returns and he is bumped back to second. And longtime hot corner stalwart Ryan Zimmerman will move across the diamond to first to account for his balky shoulder. He has looked comfortable there this spring, but will need to lock down the position defensively — and provide a bat to match — to deliver a return on his big contract.

It is not hard to foresee a need arising behind the plate, though that is hardly what the club expects. Wilson Ramos has dealt with various injury issues over the years, and neither he nor backup Jose Lobaton hit much last year. Most teams would be pleased with this arrangement, so it isn’t exactly a concern, but could be an area to watch. The organization lost some depth when it was forced to part with the out-of-options Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano this offseason, but did trade for Dan Butler and sign Steven Lerud to bolster the ranks at Triple-A.

The pitching staff has ample depth, particularly in terms of starters, so there is not much to discuss there. Then again, the ninth inning has been an area of some concern in the not-so-distant past, and Drew Storen is now without the safety net that Clippard once provided. Then there is the fact that there may have been at least some financial motivation behind the departures of Clippard and Blevins. While Rizzo and company probably feel just fine with the club’s options, don’t be surprised to see some hand-wringing if injury or short-term performance problems arise at the back of the pen in the season’s early going.

Deal of Note

MLB: Washington Nationals-Photo DayNationals GM Mike Rizzo does not seem to act out of sentimentality. And neither, apparently, do longtime key players Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. The clock has likely run on the possibility of extensions for that pair, whose rise to become highly productive big leaguers played an enormous role in the organization’s turnaround. Last year was probably the time to get a deal done, but neither player bit at the sizable numbers being dangled. It is hard to blame them for doing so, or to blame the team for not going as high as might’ve been necessary, with potential nine-figure free agencies beckoning.

If it wasn’t already, the writing was scrawled on the wall when Max Scherzer signed his monster deal to join a loaded Nationals rotation. While deferrals reduce the total cost to the team, the investment in Scherzer is enormous, and made new contracts for Desmond and (especially) Zimmermann seem quite unlikely.

Bold as the Scherzer contract is in the long run, it is all the more stunning in the short. Effectively, Washington has taken baseball’s best rotation from 2014 — every piece of which returns — and added the best pitcher from the league’s second best rotation of last year. If all goes according to plan, the Nats’ pitching will be dominant.

Indeed, looking ahead, if all the arms remain healthy — or, perhaps, if the team completely falls apart — it is not impossible to imagine the Nats dealing Zimmermann or Doug Fister over the summer to address other needs. Washington could still maintain a powerful group of postseason starters while filling in the fifth slot with Tanner Roark (the game’s most eligible sixth starter), Blake Treinen, Taylor Jordan, or A.J. Cole. More likely, one or more of those pitchers will be installed in the rotation next year as the club waits for younger, even higher-ceiling arms (namely, Lucas GiolitoReynaldo Lopez, and Fedde) to develop.

Overview

This is a win-now team, but not one that is structured to fall apart with its veterans. Washington has run its payroll up to over $160MM, near the top of the league (non-LA/NYC bracket). But its future commitments remain manageable even after signing Scherzer: $84MM next year and no greater than $59MM in the years that follow. The club’s top arb-eligible players for 2016 and beyond (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Storen, Ramos, and, potentially, Rendon) have all seen their arbitration earning power suppressed to some extent, leaving additional room.

Likewise, plenty of young talent is filtering up and should soon be ready to plug into the MLB roster or deal away for more established players. By most accounts (including Baseball America) the Nats possess a top-ten farm system, representing a quick replenishing for a system that had lost a ton of well-regarded players to graduation and trade.

While the future still looks bright, it will be a tall order to meet or exceed the organization’s current situation. Not only are the club’s best young players and veterans alike at or near their primes — a difficult nexus to achieve — but the rest of the division seemingly features two still-advancing hopefuls (Mets, Marlins) and a pair of rebuilding outfits (Braves, Phillies). The window will still be open after this year, but probably not as wide.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason In Review: Arizona Diamondbacks

Despite finishing with baseball’s worst record in 2014, the Diamondbacks stopped short of a full-scale rebuild and added a high-priced talent they hope will help them quickly return to contention.

Major League Signings

  • Yasmany Tomas, 3B/LF: Six years, $68.5MM (player opt-out clause after 2018 season)
  • Daniel Hudson, SP/RP: One year, $800K (club option exercised)
  • Matt Reynolds, RP: One year, $600K (club option exercised)
  • Total spend: $69.9MM

Pool-Eligible International Signings

  • Yoan Lopez, SP: $8.27MM signing bonus

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Diamondbacks’ first order of business was to hire Chip Hale as the club’s new manager, deciding on the former Athletics bench coach after an extensive search.  Hale faces an interesting challenge in his first Major League managing job, as he inherits a last-place club that doesn’t plan on being a bottom-dweller for long.  Around the start of the offseason, both Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa and senior VP of baseball operations De Jon Watson felt that a quick turn-around was possible, with La Russa going so far as to say that he would “be absolutely brokenhearted” if the D’Backs didn’t at least manage a winning record in 2015.

To that end, the Snakes unloaded a couple of notable contracts to shed payroll, yet also just as quickly reinvested that money into new talent, most notably in the international market.  Their biggest move came with the signing of Yasmany Tomas, as the D’Backs outbid several other teams (including their division rivals in San Diego and San Francisco) to ink the Cuban slugger to a six-year, $68.5MM deal.

Several pundits, including MLBTR’s own Tim Dierkes, thought Tomas would land a contract in the $100MM range this winter, so if the 24-year-old lives up to expectations, the D’Backs will have scored a bargain.  Tomas can even opt out of his contract after four seasons, so the deal could turn into a four-year, $36MM commitment for the team.

MLB: Arizona State at Arizona Diamondbacks

GM Dave Stewart made another big international outlay in signing Cuban right-hander Yoan Lopez to a contract with an $8.27MM signing bonus.  As with Tomas, the Diamondbacks may have scored a bit of a bargain since Lopez turned down at least one larger offer to join the team.  The 22-year-old righty brings a multi-pitch arsenal and a fastball that has touched 100mph, giving Arizona a building block for the future.

If Lopez represents the future, the present was addressed in the form of a payroll-reducing trade.  The Diamondbacks unloaded their biggest salary pre-existing commitment by dealing Miguel Montero (and the $40MM remaining on his contract) to the Cubs for two low-level pitching prospects.  While still a strong defensive catcher, Montero’s offense had declined over the last two seasons and the D’Backs felt comfortable moving on from the 31-year-old.

Likewise, Trevor Cahill‘s time in Arizona didn’t pan out as expected, and the Snakes dealt the righty to Atlanta along with $6.5MM to help cover Cahill’s $12MM salary for the 2015 season.  The Cahill and Montero trades have further helped to reduce the Diamondbacks’ payroll from a club-record $112.3MM in 2014 to roughly $85MM for the coming season.

While dealing Montero was mostly about clearing salary obligations, the trade that sent Wade Miley to the Red Sox brought back more immediate help (as you’d expect given Miley’s more favorable contract situation).  Miley became arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, and rather than pay his increasing price tag, the D’Backs brought back a total of 10 controllable years of right-handers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster.  De La Rosa has earned a spot in Arizona’s rotation while Webster remains an intriguing prospect, though he hasn’t shown much in 89 1/3 Major League innings.

With Miley gone, the D’Backs brought another veteran arm into the mix by acquiring Jeremy Hellickson from the Rays.  Hellickson is looking to rebound after an injury-shortened 2014 and, now that he’s healthy, should be closer to the hurler who averaged 180 innings per year and a 3.72 ERA from 2011-13 (though he did so with less-than-promising peripherals).  Hellickson will join Josh Collmenter, De La Rosa, Chase Anderson and top prospect Archie Bradley in the rotation, as Bradley’s strong Spring Training performance earned him his first crack at the bigs, and provided even more incentive for the D’Backs to move Cahill.

Arizona’s middle infield situation got a bit less crowded after Didi Gregorius was sent to the Yankees as a part of a three-way trade with the Tigers.  The deal allows Nick Ahmed to take over at shortstop and Chris Owings to become the new second baseman.  For Gregorius, the D’Backs obtained another middle infield prospect in Domingo Leyba and a possible future rotation candidate in left-hander Robbie Ray.

Addison Reed pitched better (2.68 SIERA, 3.26 xFIP, 4.03 FIP) than his 4.25 ERA would suggest, though he’ll have to cut down on the fly balls (only a 28.9% grounder rate) to be a long-term answer at closer, especially with a growing salary through his arbitration years.  Still, Oliver Perez, Brad Ziegler, Evan Marshall, Randall Delgado and former starter Daniel Hudson make up a pretty solid bullpen corps for the Snakes.  It wouldn’t be a shock to see veterans Reed, Perez or Ziegler get shopped at the trade deadline, especially since the D’Backs will have a bit of an arms surplus at midseason when Patrick Corbin, Bronson Arroyo and David Hernandez all get back from Tommy John rehab.

Questions Remaining

La Russa’s optimism notwithstanding, the Diamondbacks are going to have a difficult path to 82 or more wins.  Consider that the Snakes entered 2014 on the heels of consecutive 81-81 records, so despite all of the injuries suffered by the club last year, it could be argued that even at full strength the D’Backs still didn’t have a proven winning nucleus.

De La Rosa, Bradley and Anderson were the winners of a widely-contested Spring Training battle for the last three spots in Arizona’s rotation, and while this trio has plenty of promise, it’s a tall order to see all three blossoming at the same time.  Combine that with the fact that Collmenter and Hellickson wouldn’t be top-of-the-rotation choices on most teams, and the Diamondbacks’ rotation looks like a problem area.  (Though, as noted, Corbin and Arroyo could provide some midseason reinforcements.)

The staff also likely won’t be helped by the uncertainty at catcher, which stands out as one of the most glaring roster holes on any team in baseball.  Montero’s departure left Tuffy Gosewisch as the presumptive starter, with Gerald Laird and Jordan Pacheco both making the roster as backups.  While the D’Backs have been linked to Toronto’s Dioner Navarro in trade rumors for almost the entire offseason, no deal appears to be forthcoming, according to Stewart.

If Stewart’s comments aren’t just gamesmanship, then the D’Backs appear to be content with having the inexperienced Gosewisch as the bridge to top prospect Peter O’Brien.  The hitch with that plan, however, is that O’Brien is widely seen by most evaluators as unlikely to stick behind the plate, and he has recently developed an inability to throw the ball back to the mound.  Catcher looms as a big issue for the team both in 2015 and, if O’Brien’s struggles continue, into the future.

Tomas is, at the moment, a man without a position or even a spot on the Snakes’ big league roster.  Tomas will start the season at Triple-A following an unremarkable spring at the plate (.257/.307/.414 with two homers over 73 PA) and a very shaky defensive performance as a third baseman.  While one could just write off Tomas’ time at third as a failed experiment, scouts also have questions if he would be able to handle a corner outfield spot.

Compounding the problem for the D’Backs is that they also don’t have much room at any of Tomas’ positions.  Third baseman Jake Lamb enjoyed a red-hot spring at the plate and was ranked as a top-80 prospect by both MLB.com and Baseball America prior to last season.  If Tomas becomes a left or right fielder, he joins Mark Trumbo as another power-hitting right-handed bat with questionable defensive ability working the corner outfield positions.  (Fortunately for the D’Backs, A.J. Pollock is an excellent defender who covers a lot of ground in center.)  Trumbo drew some trade interest this winter but the D’Backs are intent on keeping him, despite his defensive shortcomings, low OBP and increasing expense after winning an arbitration hearing.

Once Tomas is promoted, Arizona’s probable best plan of attack would be to liberally use David Peralta and Ender Inciarte — both left-handed hitters — to spell Tomas and Trumbo both for defensive purposes and against tougher right-handed pitching.  Until Tomas gets the call, Peralta and Inciarte will split time in left field and as Trumbo’s late-inning defensive replacement.

One name missing from the outfield mix is veteran Cody Ross, who was rather surprisingly released just prior to Opening Day.  The Snakes shopped Ross during the offseason but couldn’t find any takers, and thus were stuck having to eat the $9.5MM ($8.5MM in salary, $1MM buyout of his 2016 option) remaining on Ross’ contract.  All told, Ross’ three-year, $26MM deal from the 2012-13 offseason ended up being a bust for the D’Backs, as he only contributed a .699 OPS line in 570 PA and appeared in only 177 games due to injury.

Aaron Hill is another high-priced veteran the D’Backs would like to deal, though he’s another tough sell given his poor 2014 season and $24MM salary owed through 2016.  Hill has already lost his starting second base job to Owings, so he won’t have much opportunity to rebuild his value in a bench role unless Owings struggles.  Arizona will almost surely have to pay a big chunk of Hill’s salary in any deal, but I would guess they’ll eventually find a trade partner; Hill was putting up strong numbers as recently as 2013 and several teams could use second base help.

Deal Of Note

Lopez’s signing added an obstacle to the Snakes’ rebuilding process.  Since Lopez was subject to international signing pool limits, his bonus put the D’Backs well over their pool limit.  Not only will they be taxed on the overage, but they’ll also be prohibited from spending more than $300K to sign any pool-eligible player over the next two international signing periods (so, until July 2017).  Since Lopez will need at least a year or two of minor league seasoning, Arizona might not see any return on its investment until its penalty period is up, making the signing an even riskier one for the club.

For a team with a renewed emphasis on international scouting, essentially closing the door on one avenue of the international market until 2017 is a curious decision.  The D’Backs also have the largest international spending pool of any team for 2015-16 as per their poor finish last season, yet they’re now unable to spend much of it due to the penalty, though the bonus slots can be traded.  Rival scouts have thus far delivered middling reports on Lopez’s ability (while acknowledging that it’s still very early in his career), so Arizona is making a big bet that he’ll eventually be worth their investment both in terms of money and in other international opportunities lost.

Overview

If Arizona struggles this year, then waiting another season (or at least until this year’s trade deadline) to fully commit to the rebuild could be perceived as wasted time, given how many feel a rebuild is already overdue for the franchise.  That said, since injuries so badly hampered the 2014 squad, Stewart may simply want to see exactly what he has before deciding to either make wholesale changes.

It could that this will be something of a treading-water season for the Diamondbacks as they prepare for a more thorough overhaul next winter.  Only three players (Tomas, Hill and star slugger Paul Goldschmidt) are under contract for 2016, leaving lots of flexibility to build around controllable long-term pieces like Pollock and Bradley.  It’s worth noting that the D’Backs already at least explored some bigger moves for star veterans this past winter, such as a trade for Matt Kemp or signing James Shields.  Between payroll space, one of the game’s better-regarded minor league systems, and a front office that seems willing to be aggressive, Diamondbacks fans can be forgiven for already looking ahead to the 2015-16 offseason.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Rick Porcello, GM Ben Cherington On Extension

What a difference a year makes. In April 2014, many doubted that Rick Porcello could ever meet the lofty expectations set for him roughly twelve years ago when he was mowing down every high school batter in Central Jersey.  Today, Porcello inked an extension with the Red Sox that will net him a guaranteed $82.5MM over four seasons.  That’s big bucks any way you slice it, but as Steve Adams noted earlier tonight, Porcello is sacrificing some earning potential by signing a deal at this juncture.  On a conference call with reporters, I asked the right-hander if he was hesitant to sign a deal just months away from being able to hit the open market at the age of 27.

I mean obviously I knew the opportunity that was ahead of me in entering free agency, but when I first got to camp and I saw the way the team was run from the ownership to Ben [Cherington] to the coaching staff and the players that were there, I saw that it was run very well from top to bottom,” Porcello said. “The devotion to win was here and it was something that I wanted to be a part of.  It wasn’t a very difficult decision for me.

Porcello went on to explain that he wasn’t thinking about signing an extension upon his arrival to Boston but he was board once that possibility presented itself.  As for the Red Sox, Cherington said that he was impressed with Porcello from the get-go.  One might think that a deal of this magnitude was hammered out over months of late nights at the office and bad takeout, but the GM explained that the deal actually came together rather quickly.  Cherington had “informal” conversations with agent Jim Murray towards the end of Spring Training and negotiations actually didn’t pick up until the last few days.

When we made the trade we had interest in at least having a conversation about [an extension], but as Rick alluded to, we respected that he was new to the Red Sox and we wanted to give him an opportunity to get to know us a little more and vice versa,” Cherington said. “It gave us a chance to get to know him too…Aside from the pitcher that he is, which we obviously like, getting to know Rick more over the winter and spring we came to learn that he just has a lot of qualities that we really admire and we felt that he was type of guy that we wanted here and we see him as a very important part of our team going forward for many years.”

There’s already plenty of discussion about the deal, with some believing that Porcello wisely locked in after a career year and others feeling that the Red Sox ace should have tried to build off of his 2014 effort and land an even bigger deal next winter.  Porcello, for his part, could do without any of the attention.

If we could have signed it without announcing it, that would have been fine with me. Today was about our season opener and the Red Sox winning.”


MLBTR Originals

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

  • MLB Trade Rumors Podcast featured host Jeff Todd and MLBTR’s Steve Adams looking back at the notable Hot Stove moves and looking forward to what the 2015 season may hold. A new edition of MLB Trade Rumors Podcast drops every Thursday and can be accessed on iTunesSoundCloud, and Stitcher.
  • Evan Gattis spoke with Zach Links about his trade from the Braves to the Astros. “I wasn’t really actually bummed about the trade. I was just more surprised than anything. I just didn’t think it would happen. I’m always the type to focus on my own business and I just worry about what I need to do to play.
  • The 2014-15 Offseason In Review series continued with a rundown of the Brewers (by Charlie Wilmoth), Blue Jays (by Mark Polishuk), and Marlins (by Jeff).
  • Steve was the first to report right-hander Juan Gutierrez decided not to opt out of his minor league deal with Giants and will remain in the organization.
  • MLBTR was the first to learn left-hander Scott Downs, recently released by the Indians, is only interested in MLB offers.
  • MLBTR also learned right-hander Freddy Garcia has joined the Praver/Shapiro agency.
  • Jeff asked MLBTR readers which extension given to a pre-arbitration outfielder was best. Nearly 42% of you believe the Marlins’ seven year, $49.57MM deal with Christian Yelich will provide the most value.
  • Steve hosted this week’s chat.
  • Zach compiled the latest edition of Baseball Blogs Weigh In.

Full Story | Comments | Categories: MLBTR Originals

Offseason In Review: Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays shored up their batting order with two of the winter’s biggest transactions, and they’re counting on a mix of veterans and rookies throughout the roster to help them grab that elusive playoff berth.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades And Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

Going into the offseason, the Jays were expected to address a long-standing hole at second base either by acquiring a full-time player for the keystone or by acquiring a third baseman and then shifting Brett Lawrie to second.  Instead, Toronto used Lawrie to obtain that third baseman, bringing Josh Donaldson to the Rogers Centre for a package of Lawrie, shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto and young pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman.

While Oakland received some promise back in that blockbuster trade, the Jays did well to hang onto their top-tier prospects while landing four years of control over one of the game’s best third basemen.  The relationship between Donaldson and the Jays got off to a less-than-ideal start as the two sides went to an arbitration hearing, yet there were apparently no hard feelings, and winning the hearing helps the Jays establish a lower baseline for Donaldson’s salaries through his three remaining arb years.  (Though as MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth recently explained, there might not be enough common ground between Donaldson and the Jays to work out an extension.)MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays

The Jays added another significant right-handed bat to their lineup by inking Russell Martin to the most expensive free agent signing in franchise history.  While Martin did hit .290/.402/.430 for the Pirates last season, he posted only a .702 OPS in his five previous seasons, and the Jays have spoken less about Martin’s bat than what he’s expected to contribute as a clubhouse leader and with his outstanding defense.

Melky Cabrera‘s departure created a hole in left field that was filled with the acquisition of Michael Saunders from the Mariners.  Unfortunately for Saunders, however, he suffered a torn meniscus after a fluke accident in Spring Training camp, and he had the meniscus removed entirely in order to cut his time on the DL from midseason to only mid-April.  While this quick recovery is great for Saunders and the Blue Jays in the short term, it remains to be seen how his knee will hold up over the season, particularly playing on an artificial surface.

The Jays did make a move to address second base by trading Anthony Gose to the Tigers in exchange for prospect Devon Travis, who will start at the keystone on Opening Day.  While Travis was a Baseball America top-100 prospect headed into 2014 and he had an impressive year at Double-A last season, he wasn’t expected to be a factor in the bigs quite so soon given that he hasn’t even played a game at the Triple-A level.  Injuries to Maicer Izturis and Ramon Santiago, however, created an opportunity for Travis and he seized his chance with a big Spring Training performance.

Adam Lind was traded to the Brewers in exchange for righty Marco Estrada, a move that will free up more DH time for Edwin EncarnacionDanny Valencia and the newly-acquired Justin Smoak are expected to see most of the action at first when Encarnacion is DH’ing, and Smoak could be another ex-Mariner who could benefit away from Safeco Field.  Estrada is currently ticketed for a bullpen role though his starting experience makes him a decent depth option as a swingman.

Questions Remaining

While Donaldson and Martin are undoubtedly big upgrades over Lawrie and Dioner Navarro, the Blue Jays spent a lot of money and trade capital on two positions that weren’t really big problems in 2014.  The bullpen and second base were areas of need as the offseason began and they’re still question marks now, barring several young players stepping up as reliable contributors.  If Travis isn’t yet ready for the big leagues, that will leave the Jays with the same combination of Ryan Goins, Steve Tolleson, and Munenori Kawasaki that underwhelmed last season.  Izturis will be in the mix once he recovers from his groin injury, though he had so many issues staying healthy and then performing when healthy that he is almost a wild card option at this point.

Aside from Estrada, the team did little of note to address a bullpen that underachieved in 2014 and lost key personnel to free agency in the form of long-time Blue Jays Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan.  GM Alex Anthopoulos certainly explored his options, as the team checked in on the likes of Rafael Soriano, Francisco Rodriguez and Phil Coke, while also discussing a trade with the Phillies for Jonathan Papelbon.  The closer himself has expressed interest in becoming a Blue Jay, and Anthopoulos personally watched Papelbon throw during a recent Spring Training outing.  Papelbon is owed $13MM this season and has a $13MM vesting option for 2016, however, so that might be too high a price for Toronto to pay.

Barring a further move, Brett Cecil will be the Blue Jays’ closer.  While he has posted very good numbers over the last two seasons, Cecil has only six career saves to his name and has been bothered by shoulder problems this spring.  The most intriguing story coming out of the Jays’ camp has been the emergence of 20-year-old right-handers Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna, both of whom are expected to be in the bullpen on Opening Day.  While both have looked dominant in spring action, neither young hurler has pitched above the high-A level before, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how they’ll adjust to the Majors.

The Blue Jays felt they had amassed enough starting pitching depth that they could afford to trade Happ, Nolin and Graveman, and also allow Brandon Morrow to leave for free agency.  This decision instantly became second-guessed when Marcus Stroman tore his ACL during a Spring Training drill, leaving the Jays without a pitcher many felt would be the ace of the staff in 2015.

With Stroman out, the Jays went from planning to use Aaron Sanchez as a set-up man to inserting the young righty into the rotation alongside fellow rookie Daniel Norris.  While Norris and Sanchez are the club’s top prospects, it still leaves Toronto with a decided lack of Major League experience at the back of their rotation.  If either of those two falter (or if something happens to Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey or Drew Hutchison), the Blue Jays have a thin cupboard of replacements.  Estrada or Todd Redmond could be stretched out, or the team could turn to veteran minor league acquisitions like Felix Doubront, Jeff Francis, Liam Hendriks or even Johan Santana if the former Cy Young Award winner is healthy.

The injuries to both Stroman and Saunders (before his recovery time was shortened) underscored an overall lack of depth on Toronto’s roster.  While any team would obviously suffer in losing an everyday player or a front-of-the-rotation starter, the Jays already face enough uncertainty at so many positions that stalwarts like Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Encarnacion, Buehrle, Dickey and now Martin and Donaldson are being heavily relied upon to carry the team.  If one or more of those players were to miss time, the Jays could see another season scuttled due to injuries, as has been the case in each of the last three years.

Bautista and the rest of the veteran core become even more important given that six rookies are being counted on to play major roles — Sanchez, Norris, Castro, Osuna, Travis and center fielder Dalton Pompey.  While there’s certainly a lot to like about the pedigree of this young talent (Norris, Sanchez and Pompey are all ranked as top-30 prospects by Baseball America), there’s a lot of risk in trying to contend with multiple rookies in key positions, as the 2014 Red Sox could attest.

Deal Of Note

Saunders’ torn meniscus wasn’t a good sign coming off an injury-plagued 2014 season for the outfielder, yet if his borderline miraculous recovery holds up, he could be a quality addition for the Jays.  Despite Saunders’ health issues in recent years, he still posted a 111 OPS+ over the last three seasons for Seattle, including a .273/.341/.450 slash line over 263 plate appearances last year.  A move from Safeco Field to the much more hitter-friendly Rogers Centre should make his bat even more potent.

Overview

It’s not exactly a make-or-break season for the Blue Jays given all these young talents just starting their careers and the number of notable veterans all under contract (or team options) for 2016 and beyond.  Falling short of the postseason again could spell the end of manager John Gibbons, however, and possibly even Anthopoulos as well given how Jays ownership is already searching for a new club president.  You would imagine that a new president would prefer to have his own baseball operations personnel in place, especially if that president is himself a former general manager like Dan Duquette or Kenny Williams.  That said, the Jays’ search has been so public and so unusually handled thus far that it’s hard to predict how it will play out, so it’s probably a story best explored after the season.

Anthopoulos may not quite be done with his offseason maneuvering, as the GM has hinted that the team could still make bullpen additions at the end of Spring Training or even past Opening Day.  The Jays could also upgrade their depth elsewhere around the diamond by moving Navarro, who has been a subject of trade speculation all winter long and has even voiced a desire to start for another club.  (I examined his Trade Candidate status in February.)  The Tigers and Diamondbacks are among the teams who have reportedly shown interest in Navarro, though D’Backs GM Dave Stewart has denied his team will be making a move for the catcher.

If this collection of Jays ends up being the Opening Day squad, however, it’s still a team to be reckoned with, especially since the other AL East clubs are also dealing with their own share of question marks.  Reyes, Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson is as good a start to a batting order as any in the league, and the lineup could be even more daunting if Saunders blossoms in Toronto or if Pompey and/or Travis break out.  Hutchison could be ready to take a step forward after making an adjustment to his slider late last season, while Norris and Sanchez are so highly regarded that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either emulate Stroman’s immediate success.

It could be that this injection of fresh blood is just what the Blue Jays need to finally get back to the playoffs.  Stroman’s torn ACL was a huge blow right off the bat, yet if the Jays can avoid any similarly devastating injuries, they should be in the AL East hunt through September.

Photo courtesy of Kim Klement/USA Today Sports Images