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Offseason Outlook: Arizona Diamondbacks

During their third consecutive season without a playoff appearance, the Diamondbacks shook things up from top to bottom.  With a very different regime in place, Arizona figures to make some serious changes this winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The writing was probably on the wall for General Manager Kevin Towers when the Diamondbacks hired Tony La Russa to oversee the front office in the spring.  Towers, of course, got the ax last month and weeks later La Russa appointed his former ace Dave Stewart as GM and plucked De Jon Watson away from the Dodgers to serve as the senior VP of baseball operations.  While some expect the Diamondbacks to take a step back before moving forward, Watson says that won’t be the case.

I don’t see this as a complete rebuild,” said Watson, according to MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert. “I think we had some bad health, a little bad luck. This club is going to be better than most people are thinking they’re going to be going into next year. So I’m excited about coming back into Spring Training, I’m excited about this upcoming winter and going out and try to find upgraded talent to add to what we currently have in-house.

Watson isn’t just being a sunny optimist – the Diamondbacks really did get hit hard by the injury bug in 2013.  Left-hander Patrick Corbin was one of several young, talented starters who underwent Tommy John surgery in March, ending his season before it started.  Reliever David Hernandez, who was looking to build off a strong finish to the 2013 season, also underwent Tommy John surgery prior to Opening Day.  Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt‘s season ended in early August when a fastball from Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri fractured his left hand.  When considering those injuries plus the ones suffered by Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock, and pricey winter addition Bronson Arroyo, it’s easy to see how the Diamondbacks wound up losing 98 games.

The D’Backs now need to figure out who will lead the turnaround effort from the dugout.  The club is casting a wide net in their managerial search with out-of-house options like Jim Tracy, Rangers interim manager Tim Bogar, and Sandy Alomar. Jr. alongside internal candidates Triple-A Reno manager Phil Nevin, Double-A Mobile manager Andy Green, and big-league hitting coach Turner Ward.  If there are bonus points to be had for La Russa ties, someone like McEwing could have an advantage in the process.

After that, the Diamondbacks’ first order of business will probably be to address their starting rotation which has plenty of candidates but a greater number of question marks.  Corbin may not be back in action until June and Arroyo will probably be sidelined for a few months thanks to his July Tommy John operation.  As it stands now, the D’Backs have Wade Miley to head the rotation alongside rising sophomore Chase Anderson and Vidal Nuno.  Josh Collmenter could be a consideration as well, though he may wind up in the bullpen rather than the starting five.  Trevor Cahill will look to get back on track, though that is far from a given after his disappointing season.  Prospects Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin also figure to get long looks but how ready they are remains to be seen.

The best fix, arguably, would be to go after top free agent arms like Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields.  However, Stewart and Watson expressed doubt that they can work those kinds of guys into the budget in a recent chat with Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic.  Don’t count on a blockbuster, either.  Stewart doesn’t seem to have the trading bug like his predecessor did and he indicated that a trade of minor league talent to acquire an established pitcher is unlikely.

So, where does that leave us?  With a bevy of young starting pitching talent and a limited budget, the D’Backs could look to sign veteran arms to short, affordable deals.  Thanks to his age and a career path that has been anything but linear, Aaron Harang might be available at a reasonable price.  As I wrote earlier this week, Harang has some similarities with Arroyo including age and the ability to eat up a lot of innings, though he should cost a lot less than Arroyo did at $23.5MM guaranteed over two years.  Names like Roberto Hernandez and Kyle Kendrick could also get a look if the D’Backs are looking for affordable pitching, and on a one-year deal, they could be moved come summertime when the staff should be back to full health.  If Arizona is willing to take on more pitchers coming back from injury, Chad Billingsley, Brett Anderson and Gavin Floyd shouldn’t cost much, and each offers some upside.

While it’s lower on the to-do list than the rotation, the D’Backs may also look to add a piece or two to their bullpen.  The Diamondbacks aren’t expected to target top relievers, but notable names like Jason Frasor, Matt Lindstrom, and Matt Belisle could get looks as the D’Backs seek to improve on their 3.92 bullpen ERA from last season, the eighth-highest in the majors.  Stewart unfortunately faces the unenviable task of trying to lure free agent pitchers to a one of the game’s most hitter-friendly environments just months after his team finished with the worst record in baseball.  Because of that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see their bullpen signing come down after the New Year when some relievers are left hanging.

While Towers wanted to add an outfield bat, that’s one area that we can safely expect Stewart & Co. to leave alone.  “I think that A.J. (Pollock) in center, (David) Peralta played well, (Mark) Trumbo will probably be in the outfield mix with (Paul) Goldschmidt being at first base and being healthy again,” the GM explained to The Arizona Republic’s Zach Buchanan. “It’s a pretty solid outfield, in my opinion.”  Like it or lump it, outfielder Cody Ross will also be there in support thanks to his $8.5MM salary.

Arizona will leave their depleted farm system alone, but there are trade chips to work with on the varsity squad, particularly in the infield.  Second baseman Aaron Hill is no stranger to the pages of MLBTR and he could, in theory, be moved this offseason.  Hill will be 33 come Opening Day and is still owed $24MM through 2016, but he plays a position of need for many other clubs.  Shortstops Cliff Pennington and Nick Ahmed could also be trade candidates.  Pennington posted a .253/.346/.358 batting line to go with his usually solid defense but they might choose to move him and his $3.3MM projected salary.  With several teams looking for a shortstop, including the Mets, Arizona could find a ripe market for their shortstop surplus.  If Arizona installs Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius in the middle infield full-time and reallocates that money elsewhere, it’ll give them much more flexibility.

All in all, it’s hard to say how much breathing room the D’Backs will have this winter as they survey the free agent market.  Arizona already has ~$67MM committed to the roster with arbitration raises due for Miley, Pennington (if tendered an offer), David Hernandez, Addison Reed and Mark Trumbo.  One month ago, Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall said that he payroll will likely scale back from $112MM to about $100MM, but La Russa has since said that it could be anywhere between $80-110MM, depending on whether or not there is value to be found.  Value or no value, it’d be a surprise to see the team under $90MM if they truly want to compete next year.

It’ll take some creativity for the D’Backs to get back into contention in 2015, but then again, this is the franchise that was creative enough to invent the title of “chief baseball officer.”


Offseason Outlook: Texas Rangers

Prior to the season, pundits expected the Rangers to be in the thick of the AL West. Instead, they finished with fewer than 70 wins for the first time since 1985. Injuries are the most commonly cited culprit for the poor season. The organization could experience a quick turnaround with better health, but several questionable long term commitments put the franchise outlook in jeopardy.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Prince Fielder, 1B: $144MM through 2020
  • Adrian Beltre, 3B: $18MM through 2015 (plus $16MM voidable option for 2016)
  • Shin-Soo Choo, OF: $116MM through 2020
  • Yu Darvish, SP: $31MM through 2017 (2017 could become player option based on Cy Young voting)
  • Matt Harrison, SP: $39MM through 2017 (plus $13.25MM club option for 2018)
  • Elvis Andrus, SS: $120MM through 2022 (plus $15MM club option for 2023)
  • Derek Holland, SP: $18.4MM through 2016 (plus $11MM club option for 2017 and $11.5MM club option for 2018)
  • Leonys Martin, OF: $3.75MM through 2015
  • Martin Perez, SP: $10.75MM through 2017 (plus $6MM club option for 2018, $7.5MM club option for 2019, and $9MM club option for 2020)

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

Contract Options

  • Alex Rios, OF: $13.5MM club option ($1MM buyout)

Free Agents

In addition to the many injuries suffered in Texas, former manager Ron Washington left the team in early September for personal reasons. MLBTR will continue to track the latest from the Rangers ongoing managerial search. Presently, the field is wide open with as many as eight candidates.

Once a manager is selected, GM Jon Daniels has a tough road ahead of him this offseason. He’s said he doesn’t “expect to play at the top end of free agency this year,” so it’s unclear how much payroll the club has available. Currently, $107.15MM is guaranteed to nine players. Arbitration expenses shouldn’t be unwieldy, but may tie up around $12MM. Assuming payroll stays steady after the losing season, Daniels will have about $15MM to $25MM with which to work.

As noted, injuries contributed heavily to the team’s 95 losses. Of the regulars, only Andrus survived the season unscathed, and he turned in a disappointing .263/.314/.333 line. Over 2,000 player days were lost to injury. It’s the biggest injury burden since data has been collected on the topic, and they also lost the most salary to injury.

Aside from this season, Texas has recently done well with injuries. It’s hard to pin blame on the training staff. Some players suffered fluky injuries like Holland (dog tripping incident). Others were lost for extended periods with difficult-to-prevent problems like Jurickson Profar, Harrison, and Perez. It’s not worth digging into the entire list of injured Rangers – it suffices to say the list is long.

So where is the club headed? Three players are contracted through 2020, and those deals already look like potential burdens. As mentioned, Andrus disappointed offensively for a second straight season. Fielder struggled leading up to his season-ending injury. Choo was decent early, but slumped on his way to the doctor. It’s unclear how long Choo played through injury, so there is at least some room for optimism with him.

Two of the club’s best position players – Beltre and Martin – may become free agents after the 2015 season. Beltre possesses an option for 2016 that can be voided if he fails to reach 586 plate appearances next season. The club’s best pitcher, Darvish, has an interesting provision that could allow him to convert his 2017 season into a player option. It will trigger if he either wins the Cy Young award once in the next two seasons or finishes between second and fourth in both years.

The farm system isn’t particularly deep, with Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro representing the top prospects. Gallo is a high strikeout corner infielder while Alfaro is a well-rounded catcher. No matter how optimistic you are about the Rangers system, it’s not positioned to bail out the major league club in the next couple seasons.

Therein lies the rub. Texas exists in a weird state between contending and rebuilding. Several injured players like Profar, Harrison, and Perez may be unavailable at the start of the season. Additionally, Darvish, Ogando, and Tanner Scheppers were all sidelined with elbow inflammation. We’ve seen elbow issues recur in other pitchers, most recently Cliff Lee.

Texas is expected to decline Alex Rios‘ $13.5MM club option. That leaves potential openings for a starting outfielder, second baseman, and catcher. The latter two positions will probably be solved internally. Profar may man second if healthy or Rougned Odor, 21 next season, could be given another extended look. With the catching market so thin, the club is thought to be leaning towards using Robinson Chirinos as their primary backstop. Unfortunately, internal options in the outfield are limited. The 2014 club used Jake Smolinski, Jim Adduci, Daniel Robertson, Michael Choice, and Ryan Rua to patch the outfield. It’s unclear if any of them can handle more than a supporting role.

While outfield is a problem area, the free agent market offers few solutions. Rather than trying Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer, or a return engagement with Nelson Cruz, the Rangers may want to explore a trade. We’ll know more about that marketplace in the coming months, but trade candidates like Justin Ruggiano could work as a means of fortifying those internal band aids. Yasmany Tomas is another option who could fit well for a semi-rebuilding club.

The rotation is a major area of concern. Darvish has an upcoming doctor’s appointment in November which will determine his offseason schedule. Harrison may or may not be available to start the season as he recovers from spinal fusion surgery. Perez had Tommy John surgery in May, so he’ll be out at least the first month. Assuming Darvish is healthy, he’ll be joined by Holland. Veteran Colby Lewis is reportedly expected to be re-signed. Despite an unsightly 5.18 ERA, the soft-tossing righty posted typically decent peripherals which improved late in the season. Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez were the most successful of the internal options. Others like Miles Mikolas and Lisalverto Bonilla appear better suited as minor league depth.

In total, assuming Lewis is re-signed, the Rangers have plenty of arms, but lack in health and proven quality. That’s where a free agent hire or two could really pay off. If the club is looking for an affordable innings eater, Roberto Hernandez could fit their offense friendly stadium with his ground ball profile. Potential mid-market targets include Ervin Santana, Justin Masterson, and Edinson Volquez. Some may recall that Volquez was once traded by the Rangers for Josh Hamilton.

The bullpen is yet another area of uncertainty. A whopping 30 relievers were used this season, counting position player appearances from Moreland and J.P. Arencibia. The club’s best reliever was Joakim Soria. He’s now with Detroit. The second best reliever was Cotts, and he’s headed to free agency. Neftali Feliz regained his previous role as closer in the waning months of the season. He gained strength late in the year, running his fastball up to 98 mph at times. Now that he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery, the Rangers have to hope he can provide a stabilizing influence in the bullpen. However, it would be risky to rely solely on Feliz and other internal options.

The closer market is fairly robust. A candidate like Jason Grilli might be willing to serve as a competition for Feliz. The club should probably look to hire at least a couple relievers – you can view the full list of available names here. Jesse Crain, Luke Hochevar, and Andrew Bailey are among the low-risk, high-reward crowd.

Rather than just patching holes and hoping the ship doesn’t sink for a second consecutive season, Texas does have the option to kick off a thorough rebuilding process. Of their long term assets, only Harrison appears impossible to trade at this moment and only because his career is uncertain at this time. Any contract dump of Fielder, Choo, or Andrus would be selling low, but an opportunistic partner with money to spare might be willing to bet on any of the three. Certainly, a deal for Choo or Fielder is especially unlikely. Darvish and Holland offer substantially more value, although their recent injury history probably dampens their market too.

That leaves just Beltre and Martin as sell-high candidates, and they have the shortest commitments. As such, I think it’s more likely that Texas will take the current roster into the season. Even if the club doesn’t compete, better performance from their big names along with the constricted in-season market for talent should help with trading.

Ultimately, Rangers fans may want to see a big change after a dreadful season, but a steady course appears to be the forecast. Daniels is in a poor position to make sweeping changes. His trade assets are at a low point in value, and he admittedly doesn’t have much to work with for free agent acquisitions. Any future pivot to rebuilding will likely be the result of early season performance.


Free Agent Profile: Colby Rasmus

Colby Rasmus entered the year as one of the more intriguing pending free agents. Coming off of a big 2013 campaign, he rated eighth among all expected free agents in MLBTR’s first Free Agent Power Rankings installment back in March.

While his upside remains tantalizing, however, the Excel Sports Management client has yet to establish himself as a consistent presence. And the 2014 season magnified some of his weaknesses, serving as a poor platform for free agency.

Strengths/Pros

Power from a capable center fielder is a rare commodity, and Rasmus is certainly the only free agent-to-be who offers that package. Despite seeing only 376 plate appearances in 2014, Rasmus managed to swat 18 long balls and post an excellent .223 ISO (slightly better than players like Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Miguel Cabrera). That is rare air, indeed, for an up-the-middle outfielder: in terms of ISO, only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen posted higher marks among center fielders.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Milwaukee BrewersIf there were any doubts whether Rasmus could remain a consistent source of power, he answered them. Indeed, Rasmus’s 2014 campaign landed right alongside his two excellent overall seasons of 2010 and 2013 in terms of ISO. Likewise, his line drive rate (23.3%) and home run to flyball ratio (19.4%) reached new career highs, while his infield fly ball ratio declined for the fourth consecutive year.

Generally, then, when Rasmus makes contact, it has been good contact. (More on that below.) To an extent, his variations in batting average and on-base numbers over the years can be attributed to BABIP. Last year, for instance, he hit .276 and reached base at a .338 clip on the back of a .356 BABIP. When his average on balls in play dropped to .294 this year, his average fell to .225 and his OBP dropped to .287.

As Rasmus noted in a fascinating interview with Scott MacArthur of TSN.ca, he believes that he sent a lot of hard-hit balls into newly-aggressive shifts, accounting for some of the decline. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca explored that idea, and other possible explanations for Rasmus’s enigmatic bat, in a late-season piece. As Davidi notes, Rasmus suffered significant BABIP drops on both line drives and ground balls. Another oft-noted change was the departure of Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola, with whom Rasmus thrived. Though Rasmus has good things to say about replacement Kevin Seitzer, he has not seemed to mesh in working to counteract the league’s adjustments.

Despite struggling in some other ways at the plate, Rasmus still managed to produce at a better than league average clip this year (103 wRC+) thanks to his pop. He has been a consistently solid baserunner, though he is not much of a threat to steal. And while his defensive ratings have had their ups and downs, the total package is appealing. At his best, Rasmus has logged two seasons as one of the better center fielders in baseball: 2010 (4.0 fWAR, 3.6 rWAR) and 2013 (4.8 fWAR, 4.6 rWAR). And even in the rough campaigns of late — 2012 (1.0 fWAR, 1.8 rWAR over 625 plate appearances) and 2014 (0.6 fWAR, 0.9 rWAR over 376 plate appearances) – he has been at least serviceable, if not the kind of player that first-division club would hope to field.

Of course, it is critical to bear in mind that Rasmus only just turned 28 in August. That is an unusually young age to reach free agency, and could be enough to keep hopes alive for a return to the fairly impressive ceiling that he has shown in the past. Needless to say, youth, athleticism, and power are excellent attributes in any free agent.

Another key factor is that Rasmus is all but certain not to come with draft compensation attached. Teams will be much more inclined to take a chance on his talent without the need to sacrifice future assets.

Weaknesses/Cons

Defensively, advanced metrics were less kind to Rasmus this year than in the past. One year after being credited with saving his team 11 runs by Defensive Runs Saved, Rasmus checked in at a negative 7 tally in 2014. And his UZR/150 figures likewise reversed course, going from +15.2 to -15.3.

This is not the first time that those measures viewed Rasmus as a hindrance in the field, though he has tended to bounce up and down over the years and remains an average to slightly above average contributor over his career. Rasmus has explained that he was also slowed by cumulative injuries – he mentioned his hips and hamstrings – that could have had an impact.

Most worryingly, perhaps, are the changes in Rasmus’s strikeout figures. He has set career highs in each of the last two years, moving from a 29.5% strikeout ratio last year to a 33.0% clip this time around. Of course, he did succeed at that level last year, and posted his third-highest career K rate in his excellent 2010 season. As Drew Fairservice of Fangraphs wrote in exploring the “enigma” of Rasmus, he has a fairly unusual skillset with few obvious comps. Though B.J. Upton and Chris Young offer warning signs, Fairservice notes some routes to upside scenarios, even if they are arguably less likely.

Also up for debate is whether Rasmus would be better served in a platoon situation. As a left-handed bat, he generally has performed better against righties. For his career, Rasmus owns a 112 wRC+ against righties, which drops to a score of 77 against same-handed pitchers. In spite of his struggles in 2014, he actually reduced his splits to a more manageable 14-point gap.

It is also worth pointing out that Rasmus has a not-unblemished injury history. In fairness, most of the issues are not much more than typical bumps and bruises, but he has missed time over recent years with wrist, oblique, and hamstring injuries. This could, of course, be spun in either of two ways: on the one hand, some have suggested that Rasmus is injury-prone; on the other, he could be said to play the game hard and his nicks could explain some of his inconsistency.

Then, there is the fact that Rasmus sat a good bit at the tail end of 2014. Though that was obviously a reflection of a complicated situation — involving his performance, that of the Blue Jays, and the presence of younger players who had a future with the organization — it certainly did not help. If nothing else, the benching held down his stats, prevented him from showing much late in the year, and may not have sent the best signal to prospective new employers.

Personal

Rasmus grew up in Alabama and still lives there in the offseason. He is married with one child. Rasmus grew up in a very baseball-focused family, and appeared in the 1999 Little League World Series along with brother Cory, who now pitches for the Angels, on a team coached by his father.

In the above-linked interview, Rasmus intimated that he has struggled at points in his career with maintaining his love for the game. Saying that he is by nature relaxed but hard-working, Rasmus says that over-aggressive coaching has at times had the opposite of the intended effect on him. On the whole, Rasmus leaves the impression that his production on the field and enjoyment of the game tend to go hand-in-hand, and that he hopes to find an environment in which both can thrive.

Market

Rasmus is in a unique position in the market. On the one hand, he occupies the always-enviable status of being the best player available at his position, center field. In fact, it’s not even close: players like Emilio Bonifacio, Grady Sizemore, and Chris Young fall next in the pecking order.

In spite of that, it is questionable whether a club with expectations to contend would pursue the up-and-down Rasmus as an everyday option. As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes has suggested (via Twitter), teams like the Tigers and Braves are in need of added production up the middle. But they might prefer to explore a trade market that could include options such as Drew Stubbs, Dexter Fowler, Jon Jay or Peter Bourjos, and perhaps Desmond Jennings. That figures to be the real competition for Rasmus.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of landing spots that might make sense. Dierkes also suggested the Cubs, and the Twins are also unsettled in center. Though Rasmus has little experience in the corners — less than 100 big league innings, in fact, all coming in his rookie year — a host of other teams might like the idea of deploying him there. It is possible to imagine interest from the Mets, Reds, Rays, White Sox, Royals, Giants, Padres, Pirates, Rangers, and Athletics. Depending on what shakes out with their current options, the Orioles, Astros, and Phillies are certainly plausible bidders as well. (Of course, unlike the center field market, there are more viable alternatives to contend with as well.)

All said, Rasmus should have a fairly broad market given his upside and defensive flexibility. Things will really open up if, as I suspect, he prioritizes fit with the clubhouse and coaching staff over contract particulars and position (if, in other words, he is amenable to taking a corner job).

Expected Contract

Ultimately, Rasmus is one of the most difficult free agents to pick a price tag for. His upside – given his age, center field capability, and power – is perhaps unmatched among this year’s crop of outfielders. Indeed, it was not long ago that it seemed likely, as MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm wrote in late 2013, that Rasmus would top the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75MM) when he hit the market. Yet it is not plausible now, with another year of information in the books. to put him in that range.

There would appear to be two approaches that Rasmus – and interested teams – could take. First is the traditional pillow contract. In that case, Rasmus would surely look to prioritize fit, hoping to find both regular playing time and a situation that would lead to a good platform season. Position player comps are somewhat wanting: Young signed for one year and $7.25MM last year in a somewhat similar situation, though that deal emerged out of a much more crowded outfield market, and Young was both somewhat older and coming off of a rougher offensive year. And Kevin Youkilis went for $12MM over one year, though he had a significantly longer track record of consistent production but was a much older player. With market inflation and a lack of competition, I believe Rasmus would be able to reach eight figures on a one-year deal.

On the other hand, the following year’s market includes increased competition in the form of players like Fowler and Austin Jackson. And it is not hard to imagine a team that believes in Rasmus looking to take advantage of his depressed value to lock in an attractive contract, much as the Twins did last year with Phil Hughes. For a club that can tolerate his strikeout tendencies, and believes in him as an at least average defender up the middle, a three-year offer cannot be ruled out, especially given Rasmus’s age. (Remember, the Red Sox just committed $72MM to unproven 27-year-old Rusney Castillo.) Clubs could be tempted to take the risk for a chance at his upside since he is a reasonably flexible roster piece, given his left-handed bat and center field capabilities.

It is hard to gauge just how high the price could go in that scenario, but it should be noted that Rasmus can wait to re-enter the market at a young 29 and has already earned something like $17MM in his career. Given that, it is somewhat difficult to imagine him seriously considering a deal that falls shy of a $10MM AAV over a term of three years. (And it might well take more to convince him to go that route; remember, he can look to rebuild his value and hit the market again at a still-youthful 29. Two years seems undesirable from Rasmus’s perspective, though he could field such offers.) One other factor to bear in mind is that Rasmus should be able to take his time seeing how interest develops in a multi-year scenario, fairly confident that a solid one-year option will be around at the end of the day.

Ultimately, I believe Rasmus will prioritize finding the right fit over maxing his earnings, whether on a one-year or multi-year deal. I do find a make-good contract to be the likelier outcome, and think that Rasmus will be able to reach $12MM on a one-year deal. But I would not be surprised if he ultimately scores a three-year pact.



Offseason Outlook: Miami Marlins

Before the 2013 season, Miami aggressively cut its future obligations to zero, dealing away its best players in a series of moves that drew fire from around the baseball world. But those moves now seem prescient after a campaign in which the Marlins improved by 15 wins and saw several youngsters make impressive strides.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

Overview

After so much upheaval in recent years, the Marlins’ first order of business in 2014 will be healing. The club’s two young superstars both saw their seasons cut short in dramatic fashion. Starter Jose Fernandez went down early to Tommy John surgery, possibly snuffing out the club’s efforts to compete for a Wild Card, and his return to health will have widespread implications for the franchise.

Then, in the midst of an MVP-caliber year, slugger Giancarlo Stanton was cut down by a fastball to the jaw. While his recovery seems a matter of course, his long-term future remains a topic of intense interest around the game. The Fish are said to be preparing a run at locking up Stanton for the long haul, with intentions of offering him the largest contract in team history. Of course, that is a foregone conclusion if the team hopes to have any chance of striking a deal: Stanton is projected to double his arb earnings (to $13MM) next year before his final season of eligibility. As Stanton enters just his age-25 season as perhaps the game’s most-feared pure power source, getting his signature on a contract might require breaking other records – such as the eight-year, $248MM pact that Miguel Cabrera signed before his age-31 season, two years in advance of his own free agency. Extension or not, team president David Samson has gone on-record as saying that Stanton will be on next year’s team.

While it could be said that locking down Stanton is Miami’s top priority, convincing him to sign away his prime may well require other moves towards contention. There are several areas that the team could look to improve, but navigating the risky realm of free agency on a budget will require care.

On the position-player front, there are plenty of certainties and several question marks. The starting outfield appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna combined to form one of the game’s most productive units. The latter two are even younger than Stanton, and are still a year or more away from arbitration. Fellow youngster Jake Marisnick was parted with at the trade deadline, and reserve Reed Johnson is a free agent, leaving Jordany Valdespin and Enrique Hernandez as reserve options. If the team hopes to make a run at a postseason berth, a veteran fourth outfield addition would make sense; players like Chris Denorfia, Scott Hairston, and Nate Schierholtz could be fits, with the latter making particular sense as a left-handed bench bat to complement the right-handed-swinging Jeff Baker. Much-hyped Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas has been floated as a possibility, but it is somewhat hard to see the logic in topping the market for him only to shift him to first base.

The infield is less settled. Third baseman Casey McGehee seems an easy arb tender for Miami, which is so impressed with his bounceback year that an extension has even been suggested. Though the club is said to have interest in free agent Pablo Sandoval, that would require a commitment to a much higher payroll and may not be the best way to allocate resources. At first, Garrett Jones is under contract for one more year. He continues to hit righties at a reasonable clip, making for a serviceable platoon situation with the lefty-mashing Baker. While there are rumblings that Miami could be interested in upgrading at the position, it is far from certaain that a clear upgrade can be had at a price that does not bust the budget – especially since Jones and Baker are still under contract. Though the options are limited by Miami’s lack of a DH spot, it is perhaps possible to imagine the team looking again to buy low on a player of Jones’s ilk, such as Corey Hart. A pricier option like Adam LaRoche would not only require some convincing, but would tie up most of the team’s apparently free payroll capacity.

Miami has a variety of young options up the middle. Adeiny Hechevarria figures to keep his job at short, though he continues to be a well-below-average contributor. At the keystone, the Fish have any number of in-house options, including Donovan Solano, Derek Dietrich, Ed Lucas, and the already-noted trio of Hernandez, Valdespin, and Baker. None of these players seems to represent a single solution, though the club could take that group to the spring and hope that Dietrich or Hernandez grab hold of the job, with Solano serving as an insurance policy. (If Dietrich cannot stick at second, he might also be moved to another position to clear a path for his bat.) Ultimately, Miami’s free agent dollars could have the greatest impact if they are dedicated to a middle infielder. This year’s market features several players – Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Stephen Drew being the primary examples — who would bring a veteran presence and the hope of a return to past form, though J.J. Hardy‘s late-breaking extension could boost their demand. Signing someone of that ilk would afford an everyday possibility at second as well as insurance for Hechevarria. Another possibility is Cuban defector Hector Olivera, if he can qualify for free agency in time, though reports conflict on the team’s interest.

Starting pitching is said to be on Miami’s offseason wish list, with some reports even indicating that the club hopes to land a top-flight arm. As things stand, if Fernandez returns relatively early in the year, Miami can look ahead to a rotation that features a true ace backed by Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart. Behind that group, Nathan Eovaldi showed encouraging peripherals, while Tom Koehler and/or Brad Hand might be looked upon as solid-enough innings eaters. Andrew Heaney, Anthony DeSclafani, and Brian Flynn all struggled in brief first stints at the major league level but offer plenty of promise (Heaney in particular). Justin Nicolino is also nearing readiness. Miami gave up on Jacob Turner in order to give a few starts to the ineffective Brad Penny, so he is no longer an option, but young arms abound.

While that group provides a good deal of promise, it makes sense for the Fish to consider adding an established pitcher to round out that group, especially since Fernandez is likely to miss a month or two and may not quite be his former self from the jump. But the top of the market – Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields – will probably require a commitment approaching or exceeding $20MM annually just to join the conversation on years. And would any of those hurlers choose to go to a Miami club with a history of dealing away expensive veterans? Adding one of a deep group of mid-level starters, on the other hand, would be a viable aim. With a bare minimum in future commitments, Miami could look to back-load a deal for a pitcher like Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez. The trade market is also a possibility, of course, and the current Marlins administration already showed its willingness to deal for young arms when it gave up Marisnick and recent first-rounder Colin Moran to acquire Cosart (along with Hernandez).

The bullpen, too, looks to be a solid unit in its current state. Steve Cishek and Mike Dunn remain entrenched at the back end, though there is at least some merit to the idea of dealing Cishek to a closer-needy team that is not afraid of his skyrocketing arbitration salary. Certainly, now would be the time to maximize his value, though that may send the wrong message to Stanton and take away a key cog. The club also received solid, if in some cases surprising production from controllable arms like Bryan Morris, Chris Hatcher, and A.J. Ramos (the latter, in spite of a ballooning walk rate). With only the disappointing, little-used Kevin Gregg set to reach free agency, Miami could just roll this group forward, using the leftovers from the rotation (Koehler and Eovaldi, in particular, has been mentioned as a possibility) to round out the relief corps. But a relatively cheap veteran addition would certainly make some sense.

Ultimately, for president of baseball operations Michael Hill and GM Dan Jennings, this offseason represents a chance to seize on opportunity. With many pieces in place, a few carefully-conceived signings or wise trades might not only lead to immediate contention but could set the stage for longer-term success.

The question, of course, is how much cash the front office will have to work with. It has been suggested that payroll may land in the $60MM range for 2015, after starting at $45MM last year, but could move up to $75MM. Either way, that’s a pittance compared to the rest of the league. But the higher mark, at least, would give some room: the team will start with around $47MM on the books (salary guarantees plus projected arb earnings) and does not have any obvious means to dump salary while building towards contention. Unless the team gets creative, then, it will not have much to spend unless owner Jeffrey Loria decides to crack the war chest. (On that topic, it’s worth noting that attendance did rise this year over 2013, though it lags the Marlins Park-opening 2012 gate.)

One other limitation to consider is that several of the top free agents are sure to come with draft compensation attached. Picking 12th overall, the Marlins have the game’s highest non-protected choice. While the team has shown a willingness to deal away its valuable competitive balance picks, sacrificing such a lofty draft choice would be a costly proposition.

Tomas? A solid veteran first base upgrade? A “big three” starter? It’s not clear that any of those moves is plausible absent a commitment to adding cash to the hopper. And more importantly, perhaps, it’s not clear that any is strictly necessary. Barring the presentation of a sterling opportunity to buy low on an impact player that does not represent a true need, Miami could field a fairly compelling club merely by adding some short-term veterans in the right places — the middle infield and rotation being the most fruitful possibilities — and hoping that its impressive youngsters continue to develop.


Free Agent Profile: Luke Gregerson

Luke Gregerson has been one of baseball’s top setup men since his 2009 rookie season, and he posted a career-best 2.12 ERA this year.  Interest will be strong on the 30-year-old, who will be seeking the first multiyear deal of his career.

Strengths/Pros

Among American League relievers with at least 60 innings, Gregerson’s 2.12 ERA this year ranked 12th.  Among free agents, only Pat Neshek and Andrew Miller did better.  In Gregerson’s six big league seasons, his highest ERA was 3.24 in his rookie campaign.  He’s posted an ERA of 2.75 or lower in each of the past four seasons.  From 2009-14 among relievers with at least 350 innings, Gregerson’s 2.75 ERA ranks fourth in baseball.  He’s been a model of consistent excellence in the late innings, using his slider often to stymie hitters even if they know it’s coming.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland AthleticsIn San Diego, Gregerson paired up with closers Heath Bell and Huston Street for five years, and he’s never received more than 13 save opportunities in a season.  Instead, he racks up holds like no other.  According to MLB.com, a hold is given if “a reliever comes into a game to protect a lead, gets at least one out and leaves without giving up that lead.”  Gregerson led all of baseball from 2009-14 with 154 holds.

Gregerson walked only 5.3% of the batters he faced this year, a career best.  Only 13 relievers showed better control this year, and only Neshek and Koji Uehara are free agents.  Gregerson’s 52.2% groundball rate was also a career-best, and the figure ranked 11th in the AL.  Gregerson has been consistently tough to hit throughout his career, allowing fewer than 7.5 hits per nine innings in every season except 2011.  His career batting average on balls in play of .267 is a big part of his success (more on that later).

Gregerson will not turn 31 until May next year.  Only a handful of Gregerson’s fellow relievers on the free agent market are that young, and none of them have a track record close to his.  One benefit Gregerson should have over free agent reliever David Robertson: he’s not going to receive a qualifying offer.

Gregerson comes with a remarkably clean bill of health, having only hit the DL twice in his career.  He missed 25 games in 2009 for shoulder inflammation and another 25 in 2011 for an oblique strain.  His 419 1/3 relief innings from 2009-14 rank second in baseball, behind only Tyler Clippard.

Weaknesses/Cons

Drafted in the 28th round in 2006 by the Cardinals, velocity has never been Gregerson’s calling card.  He broke in throwing around 91 miles per hour, and now he’s down to 88.4.  Only three relievers threw slower in 2014, and two of them are sidearmers.

Gregerson struck out 7.3 batters per nine innings in 2014, his worst mark aside from his 2011 season, which was marred by an oblique strain.  The average AL reliever this year whiffed 8.3 per nine.  It should also be noted that Gregerson’s success has come in both leagues, but always in pitcher-friendly home parks.  For his career, he has a 2.02 ERA at home and a 3.60 mark on the road.  The key differences are a much higher home run per flyball rate and batting average on balls in play on the road.

Gregerson threw his famed slider about 46% of the time in 2014, a rate topped by only three relievers.  He was the game’s most slider-dependent regular reliever in 2012-13, throwing it 63% of the time.  It’s possible heavy slider usage leads to increased injury risk.  However, Gregerson has a strong track record of health, and noted to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle in March that he turns his wrist less than most pitchers and his elbow has never bothered him.

Personal

Born in Park Ridge, Illinois, Gregerson resides in Chicago in the offseason.  He attended St. Xavier University in Chicago and grew up rooting for the Cubs and White Sox, according to a 2009 interview.  For a look at how the 28th round pick found his way to the Majors, check out Jeff Passan’s article for Yahoo from 2010.

Gregerson is a board member of Struggling Youth Equals Successful Adults, which aids foster kids in transitioning to adulthood.  In September 2012, Gregerson was the Padres’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award for all his volunteer efforts.

Market

As a Chicago guy, Gregerson might welcome a chance to pitch for the White Sox if they make a competitive offer.  Sox GM Rick Hahn made it clear in September that he aims to “acquire multiple options” for his pen this winter.  Other speculative suitors: the Tigers, Dodgers, Astros, Rockies, Rangers, Nationals, Yankees, and Red Sox.  It is certainly possible that Gregerson could be signed to take on a closer role.

Aside from Gregerson, the best names on the free agent relief market are David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, Koji Uehara, Casey Janssen, Rafael Soriano, and Pat Neshek.  That’s a lot of competition, and you don’t want to be the reliever left standing in January after the music has stopped.

Expected Contract

From last offseason, three contracts come to mind as comparables for Gregerson: Javier Lopez ($13MM), Joe Smith ($15.75MM), and Boone Logan ($16.5MM).  From the previous offseason, notable deals include Brandon League ($22.5MM), Jeremy Affeldt ($18MM), and Jonathan Broxton ($21MM).  All of those deals were for three years, and that is the expectation for Gregerson.  Five of the six were signed before December, so it would be wise for Gregerson’s agent Tom O’Connell to act early.

You’ll notice that the average annual values from last offseason were about 20% lower than the 2012-13 period, even if we exclude Lopez on account of being older and an extreme lefty specialist.  Some of that may be a function of Broxton and League having 111 and 60 career saves, respectively, but it could be a sign that teams backed off on reliever salaries.  Plus, League isn’t the best example, as that deal was viewed as questionable for the Dodgers before the ink had dried.  On the other hand, Gregerson’s consistent success led to him setting the arbitration market for his ilk, along with Robertson, so it’s possible a team could like him enough to set a new setup man precedent by giving an $8MM AAV or a fourth year.  The four-year deal for setup men seems to have died out with Scott Linebrink and Justin Speier six to seven years ago.

Ultimately, I think Gregerson will sign a three-year, $20MM deal.


Offseason Outlook: Houston Astros

It was a tumultuous season for the Astros, to say the least. A security breach led to a large number of trade notes being leaked to the public, the team failed to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken and manager Bo Porter was dismissed in September after apparent communications problems with the front office and possibly some players. GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff will need to work to move past that bad press and focus on furthering the rebuilding efforts.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

  • Matt Albers, RHP: $3MM club option with a $200K buyout

Free Agents

Houston’s offseason began while the season was still underway, to some degree, as the team fired Porter and began the search for a new manager. A.J. Hinch — a statistically inclined 40-year-old with previous experience as a big league skipper and front office exec — was selected for the job and seems to be a good fit with the team’s unorthodox philosophies. As for the payroll, that figure almost doubled from 2013 to 2014, though it still sat at just $50MM to open the year. Nonetheless, owner Jim Crane told the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich that payroll could go up by another $20MM and noted that Luhnow could look to “add some cornerstones” as long as it makes baseball sense. That’ll be addressed in more depth later, but first, a quick look back at the season that was.

Lost in many of the negative narratives surrounding the 2014 Astros was the fact that the team took a large step in the right direction in terms of results. The team made a 19-game improvement over its 2013 performance, and the much-hyped future began to emerge on the field. George Springer debuted and hit .231/.336/.468 with 20 homers in just 345 plate appearances, although his season was cut short by an injured quadriceps muscle. Unheralded hurlers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh stepped out of obscurity and into the spotlight not only as reliable arms, but as potential front-line options. Each was worth more than three wins above replacement, per Fangraphs, and more than four WAR according to Baseball-Reference. The only player in baseball who hit more home runs than Carter was Nelson Cruz. Mike Foltynewicz and his 100 mph fastball made a bullpen cameo at season’s end, though the team hopes that his future is alongside Keuchel and McHugh in the rotation. And of course, Altuve hit .341/.377/.453 and captured his first batting title. The second baseman led all of Major League Baseball with 225 hits and swiped 56 bases — tops in the AL — in addition to his excellent work at the plate.

One much-ballyhooed name that didn’t contribute this season, however, was Singleton. His contract extension was widely considered a loss for the player and a steal for the Astros seemingly before the ink dried, but five months later, it’s hard to blame him for taking his first fortune. Singleton batted just .168/.285/.335 with a 37 percent strikeout rate, and while he may be Houston’s first baseman of the future, I’d imagine he’ll have to earn a roster spot next year. Carter can assume the first base duties if Singleton is ticketed for Triple-A to open the year.

Houston may feel set at catcher with Castro, even if he didn’t live up to the high standard he set with an elite 2013 campaign. The Stanford product hit .222/.286/.366 with 14 homers — numbers that, while unspectacular, aren’t vastly inferior to the .244/.309/.376 that MLB catchers averaged in 2014. The outfield, too, figures to be more or less locked in with Springer in right, Fowler in center and a combination of Jake Marisnick (acquired in July’s Jarred Cosart trade) and Robbie Grossman. Top prospect Domingo Santana is another option.

One player they could make an exception for would be Yasmany Tomas. Last offseason, Houston made serious runs at both Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka, falling a few million shy with their bid for Abreu and reportedly bidding over $100MM for Tanaka. Both were seen as more certain investments than Tomas, so it’s possible that Houston won’t be as interested this time around. However, one can also envision a scenario in which the team steadfastly refuses to miss out on a third international superstar and goes the extra mile for Tomas, especially if they’re convinced of his star potential. He could certainly qualify as one of the aforementioned “cornerstones,” and it does seem likely that the Astros will be involved. Were they to sign Tomas, Santana and Grossman could become trade chips, while Marisnick and Springer rounded out the long-term outfield mix. Of course, that’s all highly speculative.

Where else can Houston look to upgrade? The left side of the infield is a prime spot for Luhnow to target. Opening Day starters Matt Dominguez and Jonathan Villar flopped, as the former hit just .215/.256/.330 and the latter was every bit as feeble before eventually being demoted to the minors. Houston might not have to wait long until the future at each position arrives, however, as a pair of Top 6 draft picks from 2012-13 are looming. The Astros selected Carlos Correa — ranked as the game’s No. 3 prospect midseason by Baseball America and ESPN, and ranked second by MLB.com — with the first overall pick in 2012, and he dominated Class-A Advanced before a fractured fibula ended his season. Colin Moran, the UNC third baseman selected sixth overall by Miami in 2013, was acquired alongside Marisnick and hit .304/.350/.411 with Houston’s Double-A affiliate in 29 games at a young age for that level (21).

With Moran and Correa not terribly far off, stopgaps are an attractive and logical concept for the Astros. Houston could be a nice low-pressure environment for someone like Stephen Drew to attempt to rebuild his value on a one-year deal. He’d provide sound defense even if his bat didn’t fully recover despite a full Spring Training, and if he performed well, he would of course be a logical trade chip. The same could be said of Alberto Callaspo, who entered 2014 as a lifetime .273/.335/.381 hitter with a solid defensive reputation but batted just .223/.290/.290 this year. Neither option is elite, but both are bounceback candidates that could be had at relatively inexpensive levels. If Houston wants to look more long-term at third base for a potential mainstay, they could try to make the highest bid on a multi-year deal for Chase Headley, whom Tim Dierkes profiled earlier today.

As far as the rotation is concerned, Houston has a pair of potential stalwarts, as previously noted, in addition to the veteran Feldman as a solid rotation cog. Mark Appel‘s Class-A struggles were highly publicized, but rumors of his demise as a prospect looked to have been greatly exaggerated as soon as he reached Double-A. In 39 frames at that level, he posted a solid 3.69 ERA with a strong 38-to-13 K/BB ratio. He may not be a factor next year, but he’s firmly in the organization’s plans, along with Foltynewicz, Keuchel and McHugh. One-year, upside plays such as Brett Anderson, Brandon Morrow, Justin Masterson and Gavin Floyd all make some degree of sense. If the team wants to expand its search to include multi-year candidates, it may have to go the route it did with Feldman in 2013-14 — offer an extra year at a solid annual rate in order to secure the deal. (I speculated in my recent free agent profile on Brandon McCarthy that some clubs may go that route with him, for example.)

The bullpen presents perhaps the most glaring weakness on the team, and Luhnow has indicated that it will be a priority. Rolling the dice on Albers would be a $2.8MM gamble coming off some serious health issues, so I’d expect him to be bought out for $200K. After that decision, the remaining options aren’t inspiring. Beyond Qualls, Sipp and perhaps Josh Fields, there was little continuity and little reason to expect significantly better performance from the arms that were present. The team did claim Sam Deduno from the Twins in late August, so perhaps the plan is for him to serve as a swingman. Still there appears to be room for at least two veteran upgrades.

Throwing a lot of money at David Robertson doesn’t seem like something the club is likely to do, but there’s some upside to rolling the dice on a former closer who struggled a bit in 2014, such as Sergio Romo. Another avenue perhaps worth exploring would be to sign a setup man with a strong track record such as Luke Gregerson and promise him the ninth inning as a means of enticement. Some buy-low, late-inning options could include Andrew Bailey, Jason Motte and Luke Hochevar, though Houston may want more certainty after being burned by Crain in 2014. I like Jason Grilli, Casey Janssen and Burke Badenhop as fits for the Astros as well.

We’ve learned in past years that it’s tough to rule out the Astros trading anyone — just ask Cosart — and they do have some players that seem like candidates this coming winter. Fowler has just one year remaining before free agency and is projected to earn a fairly hefty $9MM. Castro could be an attractive trade chip for rival clubs given the paper-thin free agent market for catchers. Houston does have an in-house alternative at catcher in the form of the cost-controlled Max Stassi, who a year ago was their No. 12 prospect (per Baseball America) and ranked 19th among Astros farmhands on MLB.com’s midseason Top 20 list. The team reportedly shopped Carter this past July, although that was before he batted .253/.336/.526 with 16 homers in his final 52 contests. That impressive showing, especially given the difficulty of finding offense in today’s game, may have swayed their thinking. Then again, they may think that success unrepeatable and look to sell at peak value.

The Astros are staunchly unafraid of being nontraditional, and right or wrong, that often renders them as little more than a punchline in many circles. However, the team has an impressive farm system that is slowly crossing the threshold to the Major League roster, and it’s easy to envision a group that resembles a contender in the not-too-distant future. That time almost certainly won’t be 2015, however, unless the ‘Stros catch a large number of breaks. A few well-calculated stopgaps could help bridge the gap to the next wave of talent — Correa, Moran, Appel, Foltynewicz, Santana, Josh Hader and others — and potentially lead to a further influx of talent into the Houston pipeline. A veteran “cornerstone,” as Crane alluded to, isn’t out of the question, but aside from a run at a young talent like Tomas, it’s difficult to envision the Astros playing at the top of the free agent market.


Free Agent Profile: Aaron Harang

Last winter, veteran starter Aaron Harang hooked on with the Indians on a minor league deal and, at the time, he appeared to have a strong chance of being the fifth man in the Tribe’s rotation.  In March, when he was informed that he wouldn’t be a part of the Opening Day roster, Harang requested and secured his release.  That same day, he agreed to a big league deal with the Braves and he did not disappoint in Atlanta.  Now, the 36-year-old is hitting the open market once again and this time around he should only be fielding big league offers.

Strengths/Pros

Harang exceeded all expectations this season as he turned in a 3.57 ERA with 7.1 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9.  A lot of pitchers tend to tail off around Harang’s age, but this past year ranks as one of his very best at the big league level.  His ERA was the lowest it has ever been (ditto for his identical 3.57 FIP) and his 204.1 innings of work stands as his highest total since 2007.  Ultimately, his $1MM deal proved to be one of the better free agent bargains of 2014.Aaron Harang (vertical)

The 36-year-old won’t be held back by a qualifying offer and there’s reason to believe he could continue to deliver a ton of innings for his next team.  Harang hasn’t been on the disabled list with an arm-related injury since 2008 and he can hardly be penalized for his late season emergency appendectomy in 2009.

Harang didn’t magically discover the fountain of youth or go on a hardcore Julio Franco-esque diet this past season.  Instead, as he explained to David Lee of The Augusta Chronicle late last month, he has become a craftier pitcher in recent years.

I threw a lot more four-seamers when I was younger,” Harang said. “I had a coach show me how to throw a two-seamer, and I started doing it, and every year it seems to be more effective. Once you get used to throwing it and realize how key that pitch can be, you make those adjustments.

Harang made a concerted effort to start throwing more two-seam fastballs in 2009.  As Lee notes, in 2008, when he threw 64 percent four-seamers and 8 percent two-seamers, he posted a 4.78 ERA and averaged 1.7 home runs per nine innings.  This season, it was much more balanced with Harang throwing 29% two-seamers and 30% four-seamers.  Harang’s pitch velocity has faded a bit in recent years, but thanks to a different approach on the mound, he has been able to adjust and age more gracefully than a lot of his contemporaries.

Weaknesses/Cons

While Harang’s 2014 performance was strong, his 2013 campaign didn’t go quite as smoothly.  At the start of the season, the Dodgers traded Harang to the Rockies for Ramon Hernandez before he was quickly DFA’d and flipped to the Mariners just days later.  After posting a 5.76 ERA with 6.5 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 22 starts for Seattle, the M’s DFA’d him in August.  Harang finished out the year with the Mets, meaning that he had bounced between four clubs all within that year.  In total, Harang had a 5.40 ERA – a number his next club doesn’t want to see – with 7.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.  

This year, while his ERA was solid and his strikeout and walk rates were more or less consistent with his career average, some of the advanced metrics aren’t as crazy about his performance.  Both xFIP (4.03) and SIERA (4.18) feel that Harang’s ERA should have been a touch higher than 3.57.

Harang is putting less emphasis on his heater than he was earlier in his career, but it’s still hard to ignore his decreasing velocity.   Harang threw his fastball at an average of 88.8 MPH, his lowest average in the past eight years that it has been recorded by PITCHf/x.  If his velocity continues to lose steam, it’s fair to wonder whether his 6.4% HR/FB ratio from 2014 can be sustained.  For his career, Harang has a decidedly less sharp 10.2% HR/FB ratio.

Personal

Harang and his wife Jennifer have three children.  He knows how important fatherly wisdom can be as he attributes his 2,100+ innings of major league work to sage advice from his dad.

I would never teach a kid a breaking pitch until age 13,” Harang said, according to Anna McDonald of ESPN.com. “My dad wouldn’t show me one. He didn’t want [my elbow] to blow out. So I didn’t start throwing a curveball until I was 13 years old. I had the karate-chop one, where you just throw it and it spins up there. Your muscles aren’t developed enough, your ligaments aren’t developed enough to withstand it.

Harang, a San Diego native, told Dan Hayes (then of U-T San Diego) in 2010 that he prefers fish tacos to Skyline Chili, even though he has spent the bulk of his career in Cincinnati.  He also prefers The Simpsons to Family Guy, which is the right choice in my book.

Market

For his part, Harang told reporters, including MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, that he would be interested in pitching for Atlanta again.  The Braves undoubtedly appreciate his work this year, but they also know that they can’t retain him with another one-year, $1MM deal.  In theory, the Braves can trot out a starting five of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, and Alex Wood.  However, Medlen and Beachy are recovering from Tommy John surgery with unknown return dates and it would certainly help to have a battle-tested veteran pitcher at the ready.

Still, he may not be in the budget in Atlanta and he may not take a discount to stay put since this could be his last sizable deal.  The Pirates are one team that could use a reasonably priced out-of-house addition to their rotation.  Harang may also find a match with teams like the Astros and Rockies if he’s not aiming for a likely contender.

Expected Contract

Last winter, Bronson Arroyo, also at the age of 36, secured a guaranteed $23.5MM over two years from the Diamondbacks with an $11MM club option.  Like Arroyo, Harang fits the profile of a durable innings eater who isn’t dependent on velocity for success and both had strong walk years before hitting the open market.  However, not all innings eaters are created equal: before Arroyo’s unfortunate UCL tear this season, he pitched 200 innings or more from 2005 through 2013, with the exception of a 199 inning total in 2011.  Also, Harang’s vagabond 2013 might hurt his case for big money.

We expect the Levinson brothers to readily bring up Arroyo’s name, but Harang probably won’t match his deal.  I predict Harang will land a two-year, $14MM deal this offseason.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Chase Headley

One of the game’s best defensive third basemen reaches free agency this winter in Chase Headley.  Headley’s MVP-caliber 2012 season saw his offense reach lofty heights, but two years later that’s looking like an anomaly.

Strengths/Pros

Headley’s only Gold Glove award came in that magical 2012 season, but he’s got a good chance at another one this year.  By measure of Ultimate Zone Rating, Headley was the best defensive third baseman in baseball in 2014.  If you prefer Defensive Runs Saved, Headley ranked third.  He was a top ten defender in 2012 and ’13 as well, so it’s not just a one-year fluke.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees

Headley’s defense is a major contributor to his value, leading to roughly four wins above replacement in each of the last two seasons.  His WAR ranks tenth among all third basemen for 2013-14, easily ahead of this offseason’s likely top-paid third baseman, Pablo Sandoval.  At worst, Headley is Sandoval’s equal, but defense hasn’t caught up with offense in terms of free agent spending.

Headley hit .286/.376/.498 with 31 home runs for the Padres in 2012, despite playing half his games in San Diego.  19 of those home runs came in the season’s final two months.  He hit .269/.343/.392 prior to that season and .246/.338/.387 since, and it’s not hard to see that one of these is not like the others.  However,  the switch-hitting Headley remains capable of a solid on-base percentage, posting a .371 OBP and walk rate near 13% in his 224 plate appearances for the Yankees this year.  He is, on the whole, still an above average hitter.

Having been traded midseason, Headley is not eligible for a qualifying offer.  Fellow free agents Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will certainly require draft pick forfeiture, and perhaps Aramis Ramirez too, but Headley is free of that limitation.

Weaknesses/Cons

Prior to being traded to the Yankees, Headley hit an abysmal .229/.296/.355 for the Padres in 307 plate appearances.  His Padres’ walk rate of 7.2% was well below his career norm.

Upon the trade, Tony Blengino of FanGraphs examined Headley’s batted ball profile, and it wasn’t promising.  Headley was in “steady offensive decline,” wrote Blengino, who explained, “his decline in batted-ball production has been solely attributable to diminished fly ball authority.”  Did Headley’s 224 plate appearances after the trade represent a reliable return to form?  That will be a crucial question for offseason suitors.

Headley’s recent injury history may be perceived as a negative, though it could also be considered an explanation for his offensive struggles in the first half of the season.  He received an epidural in June and avoided going on the DL for his back.  After the epidural, Headley hit .273/.359/.400 in 312 plate appearances.

Personal

Headley was born in Colorado and resides in Tennessee with his family.  The Headleys recently welcomed a new baby into the world, their second child.  According to the Padres’ 2014 media guide, Headley played varsity baseball and basketball all four years in high school in Colorado, and was also valedictorian.  He began college at University of the Pacific in California and later transferred to the University of Tennessee, where his older brother was attending.

According to a profile by MLB.com’s Corey Brock in January 2013, Headley owns a large farm in Western Kentucky and has a passion for bow hunting.  A religious man since his freshman year in high school, Headley told Mark E. Darnall and Bruce A. Darnall in 2012, “My goal is to have Jesus be the center of everything.”

Market

Any team without an established, reliable third baseman could consider Headley this offseason.  Given the uncertainty that comes with Alex Rodriguez, a return to the Yankees is possible.  The Red Sox, Astros, Royals, Brewers, Giants, Blue Jays, and Nationals could also seek help at third base, though some of those clubs might only want a short-term solution.

Headley’s competition on the free agent market will include Pablo Sandoval, Aramis Ramirez, and Hanley Ramirez.  Whether Aramis Ramirez hits the open market could be a big factor for Headley, as well as whether Hanley Ramirez signs as a third baseman.  The trade market could feature Luis Valbuena, Trevor Plouffe, and Pedro Alvarez.

Expected Contract

Headley has never had a multiyear deal in his career, and I think he’ll value long-term security this offseason.  The question is whether he signs a three or four-year deal.  A few potential comparables to consider are Shane Victorino‘s three-year, $39MM deal from two years ago and Jhonny Peralta‘s four-year, $53MM deal from last offseason.  I think Headley will sign a four-year, $48MM deal.


Offseason Outlook: Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies fell to the basement of the NL East with a 73-89 record in 2014. Ominously, the club received decent performances from many over-the-hill veterans, suggesting the presence of additional downside. Youngsters and the rotation take most of the blame for the poor season. If there’s one bright spot (and there is only one), it’s the bullpen.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The Phillies entered the July trade deadline with few assets and an obvious need to retool. However, they opted to keep their most marketable pieces like Hamels, Papelbon, and Byrd. That trio were involved in a wide range of trade rumors, but a deal was never finalized. Philadelphia did swing a notable August trade, securing prospects Jesmuel Valentin and Victor Arano from the Dodgers for starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez. The Phillies also netted Gustavo Pierre for backup outfielder John Mayberry Jr.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. may be on the hot seat due to a combination of bad contracts and a failure to turn veterans into future talent during the season. For example, several playoff-bound clubs like the Tigers, Giants, or Dodgers could have benefited from Papelbon, but Amaro was unable to unload him. For what it’s worth, former team president Dave Montgomery and interim team president Pat Gillick have issued multiple votes of confidence on behalf of Amaro. The club’s failure in 2014 should make it easier for the front office to accept a rebuilding process.

Philadelphia lacks near-ready position prospects beyond Maikel Franco. Their offense ranked 27th in baseball per wRC+, a context neutral advanced statistic. They barely outpaced the Padres, Reds, and Diamondbacks among the league’s worst offenses. A focus on finding new, long-term assets should be the top priority.

While it’s obvious the club should rebuild, the how of it is muddier. The outgoing free agents do not represent a substantial chunk of the payroll, so a Yankees-like spending spree isn’t a possibility. A quick turnaround will require shrewd moves on the free agent, trade, and waiver markets. When this club was last successful, they found Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth on the scrap heap. This time around Philadelphia needs to find even more hidden gems.

Before fixating on the Phillies myriad problems, let’s examine their biggest strength – the bullpen. Papelbon posted a fine season with 39 saves and a 2.04 ERA. His fastball velocity declined for a fourth straight season – now down to 91 mph. His peripherals are worrisome, especially his unusually low .247 BABIP and 2.7% HR/FB ratio. If both numbers regress to league average, we should expect a corresponding bump in ERA.

Papelbon found himself in the rumor mill this summer but ultimately stuck with the club. His contract, vesting option, and reputation as a distraction will make him difficult to trade. He can block deals to 17 clubs, but he’s said he will accept a trade to any contender who uses him as their primary closer. The emergence of Ken Giles – 1.18 ERA, 12.61 K/9, 2.17 BB/9, and 97 mph fastball – gives Philadelphia an alternative to their veteran star. However, Giles has struggled with command in the minors, so it may be prudent to confirm he can maintain a strong walk rate. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal offers a cautionary tale.

Another reliever to emerge this season is Jake Diekman. The left-handed slinger dialed up the gas with an average fastball at 97 mph and the ability to touch triple digits. He improved throughout the season and finished with a 3.80 ERA, 12.68 K/9, and 4.44 BB/9. Diekman’s presence could make Bastardo expendable. The club’s longest tenured lefty reliever is entering his third and final season of arbitration eligibility and is expected to earn $2.8MM. The Phillies can also turn to right-hander Justin De Fratus to shorten games.

Papelbon is not the only player who should expect a swirl of trade rumors this winter. With several high profile players, the question is: will they return? Burnett may consider retirement rather than accept his side of the option (worth at least $12.75MM). Even if he does decide to continue playing, there’s no guarantee he won’t opt to serve with another franchise.

One reason Burnett chose Philadelphia was that he thought he could help them compete. Despite an 18-loss season, teams would probably be willing to bet on Burnett returning to a healthier and more productive state in 2015. He pitched nearly the entire season with a hernia and posted the highest walk rate of his career. A healthy Burnett could more closely resemble his strong 2012-13 seasons.

In many ways, it’s fortunate that outfielder Yasmany Tomas was declared a free agent last Thursday. The Phillies were the first club to organize a private workout with the Cuban and are said to have always preferred him over fellow countryman Rusney Castillo. The power hitter would fit the Phillies need of young talent without necessitating a trade. The outcome of the Tomas pursuit could accelerate the club’s rebuilding plans – assuming they can swallow a possible nine-digit price tag.

If payroll stays consistent around $175MM, Howard, Lee, and Hamels represent over 40 percent of expenditures. Currently, about $132.67MM is guaranteed in 2015 with another $10MM estimated through arbitration. Burnett’s $12.75MM player option will play a big role in available payroll. Depending on his decision, the Phillies appear to have about $20MM to $35MM to spend over the offseason. It’s possible declining attendance will lead to a lower payroll, or perhaps valuable opportunities like Tomas will lead to more spending.

Hamels is the club’s most valuable Major League asset. Amaro reportedly asked teams for their three top prospects in return for Hamels – a price at which many scoffed. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs confirmed that Hamels has some value with his current contract, but the financial cost does make it hard for another club to justify an exorbitant prospect fee.

As the Phillies’ most marketable trade commodity, the club will have trouble pulling the trigger on a Hamels deal. Most rebuilding franchises will conduct a fire sale and count on a quantity of well-regarded prospects to provide value down the road. The Phillies basically get to take one shot at finding their future. Prospect-rich teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, and Dodgers are expected to make a play for Hamels, who can block trades to 20 clubs.

The team has caught a lot of flak over the years for Howard’s contract, and the criticism seems well deserved. Since his current contract kicked in prior to 2012, Howard has provided -1.0 fWAR. That places him among the worst players over that time span despite collecting one of the highest annual salaries.

Philadelphia has tried to dump Howard to any AL franchise while assuming most of the remaining payroll. So far, the fish won’t bite. The club could opt to dismiss the former star and eat his salary, although that seems like a hasty measure without an alternative in place. Darin Ruf is the backup first baseman, with Franco in apparent need of more minor league seasoning.

Lee is another pricey player who might not live up to his contract. Whereas there is little hope of a resurgence from Howard, Lee could recover his past form if the flexor tendon in his left elbow heals over the offseason. This year, he pitched to a 3.65 ERA with 7.97 K/9 and 1.33 BB/9 in 81 innings while missing most of the second half.

Lee’s $27.5MM option for 2016 becomes guaranteed if he throws 200 innings next season without ending on the disabled list with a left arm injury. Otherwise, it becomes a club option with a hefty $12.5MM buyout. An offseason trade of Lee seems unlikely due to his injury, though it’s possible that a team like the Dodgers would be willing to assume some or all of the contract as a way to acquire a possible star at a minimal prospect cost.

With the Phillies’ top three starting pitchers uncertain to return and/or produce in 2015, rotation depth will be a priority for the club. Kendrick could be re-signed as a familiar face. He’s a reliable if unexciting option to absorb innings for a rebuilding club. Internal options include David Buchanan, 2014 draftee Aaron Nola, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, and Jonathan Pettibone. Prospect Jesse Biddle could figure as a mid-season addition.

Even if the Hamels, Lee, and Burnett remain in Philadelphia, the team may want to acquire two starters via free agency or trade. A top-flight free agent is an unlikely acquisition, and competition could keep them away from mid-market targets. Again, Tomas’ decision could affect the club’s direction in the rotation. It would be easier to justify signing a Brandon McCarthy if a quick path to contention was evident. Similarly, if Burnett declines his option, the Phillies may be more inclined to investigate other mid-market options.

The outfield is perhaps an area of consternation for the Phillies. Byrd performed as expected, as did Revere. However, Brown turned in a lousy season with just 10 home runs and a .235/.285/.349 line. The club may be ready to execute a change of scenery move. Certainly, Brown’s grasp on regular playing time has eroded.

The free agent market for outfielders is fairly thin, and trading for a notable outfielder could be difficult to balance with the club’s priorities. Philadelphia could still cash in on Byrd over the offseason to take advantage of the paucity of outfielders in free agency. As for depth pieces, the club received solid production from Sizemore and could consider another one-year deal. Perhaps they would consider recently designated outfielder Jose Tabata too. Most internal options like Cesar Hernandez and Gwynn are defense-oriented. The lone exception is prospect Kelly Dugan, but he’s struggled with injuries and has yet to show much in-game power.

On the face of it, the infield is stable. Howard, Utley, and Rollins have manned their respective positions since 2005 while Cody Asche or Franco will probably handle third base. If Howard isn’t back for 2015, the club has a few internal solutions. Utley could move to first base with either Asche, Hernandez, or Freddy Galvis serving at second base. Alternatively, Franco or Ruf could step directly into the first base job. Some speculate that playing first base could help Utley remain healthy and effective, although such claims are not accompanied by evidence.

While an external hire is unlikely, third base is an area of depth in free agency. If Philadelphia has its eyes on the postseason, Aramis Ramirez might be of interest – assuming he turns down his half of a mutual option. Ramirez is entering his age-37 season, which doesn’t appear to be a good fit for the Phillies. However, he could give Asche and Franco space to develop while improving the on-field product. He may come with a qualifying offer attached, but the Phillies’ first round pick is protected, meaning he would require forfeiture of a second-round selection.

Since he’s available to sign now, Tomas appears primed to be the first domino to fall in the free agent market. His decision may affect the direction of the Phillies offseason. If Philadelphia gambles on the Cuban, they might be more inclined to aim for a competitive roster in the next couple years. Unless they find a similarly high-ceiling youngster around which to build, the situation looks bleak.


Free Agent Profile: David Robertson

Though he’s spent much of his career in the shadow of perhaps the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, Yankees right-hander David Robertson stepped onto the ninth-inning stage this season and excelled. The strong effort continued a four-year run of dominance that has positioned the former 17th-round pick quite well as he hits free agency for the first time.

Strengths/Pros

In today’s game, strikeouts are king for pitchers, and Robertson excels in that department. Though he’s not overpowering — he’s averaged 92 mph on his heater in his career — Robertson racks up strikeouts at a prolific rate in part because he releases the ball closer to home plate than most pitchers, causing his fastball to appear quicker (a trait which SI.com’s Tom Verducci examined in a 2011 article). He averaged 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings this season and has punched out 12.0 per nine in his carer, including 12.3 per nine over the past four seasons.

"<strongThose four seasons are where Robertson truly began to establish himself as one of the game’s elite relievers. From 2011-14, Robertson owns a 2.20 ERA with a 354-to-95 K/BB ratio in 258 innings of work. His 46.7 percent ground-ball rate in that time has been slightly above-average, and he’s shaken the command problems that he showed early in his career. He walked nearly five batters per nine innings from 2008-11, but since that time he’s averaged just 2.8 BB/9.

A look at the rest of the closer market reveals quite a few older options, but Robertson will turn 30 next April, giving a signing team control of some prime-aged seasons. The next-youngest competition is Sergio Romo (32), who is coming off a down season in which he lost his hold on the ninth inning. In fact, a large number of Robertson’s competitors on the open market lost their jobs this year, but he can point to the fact that his grip remained iron-clad on the ninth inning this season.

Robertson has thrived in a big-market setting and in a hitter-friendly ballpark/division, so there’s little reason to worry about inserting him into any setting. While his time spent behind Rivera could be seen by some as a means of pointing out his lack of experience as a true closer, the argument can also be made that there’s no one better to have served as a tutor/mentor for Robertson throughout the first six seasons of his career.

Weaknesses/Cons

Were Robertson on a different team, a qualifying offer of $15MM+ might not even be a consideration. Few clubs are comfortable paying relievers so extravagantly in this market, but the Yankees can certainly afford to. ESPN’s Buster Olney has written (subscription required) that it’s a virtual lock for Robertson to receive a QO, and as such, a signing team will have to forfeit its top unprotected pick in order to secure Robertson’s services. It’s nearly certain that no other reliever will come with this distinction.

Some may be surprised to learn that Robertson comes with somewhat of a platoon split — particularly because that split is of the reverse variety. While Robertson has completely flummoxed left-handed batters throughout his career and particularly in the past four seasons (.173/.254/.236), right-handed hitters have batted .230/.305/.373 against him dating back to 2011. Granted, that’s still not a particularly impressive batting line, but it’s closer to league-average production than one might think based on his otherwise elite stats.

Robertson dealt with what appears to have been a mild groin injury earlier this season. He required a trip to the disabled list — just the second of his career — though he only required the minimum 15-day stay and appeared healthy following that episode.

Personal

Laid back and reserved in nature, Robertson enjoys hunting and fishing in his free time. He also takes a great amount of pride in doing charity work for the community — a trait that is evident in looking at his High Socks for Hope charity. Robertson, an Alabama native, founded the nonprofit organization with his wife, Erin, after tornadoes ravaged his hometown Tuscaloosa area back in 2011. The charity seeks to benefit those whose lives have been impacted by tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Since founding the charity, Robertson has pledged to donate $100 for each strikeout he records, and he also pledged $200 for every save that he recorded in 2014. He’s been recognized with awards from Habitat for Humanity and has also been nominated for the Branch Rickey Award for community service in each of the past four seasons.

Market

We’ve seen in the past that it typically behooves relievers to sign early in the offseason rather than to wait for the market to develop. The best hope for Robertson is for a team to make an aggressive push early in the offseason after deciding that he’s “their guy” and making a strong offer. This method worked for Joe Nathan and Joaquin Benoit with the Tigers, and we saw Jonathan Papelbon take a similar route when he signed in Philadelphia. On rare occasion, relievers that wait (i.e. Rafael Soriano) have been paid handsomely, but typically the market is strongest early on.

Not many teams are forking over major dollars to relief pitchers these days, but some clubs might be willing to make an exception for a pitcher that has been worth 8 fWAR and 9.3 rWAR dating back to 2011. The Yankees, who will likely make a QO, will of course be involved. However, they have a ready-made replacement candidate in the form of Dellin Betances and do have other areas that need attention.

The Dodgers can never be ruled out on big-name free agents, although Kenley Jansen is currently entrenched as their ninth-inning man. The Tigers yet again endured bullpen struggles, but after watching their big-money investment in Joe Nathan go south, would they decide that the best solution is to throw even more money at the ninth inning? The White Sox don’t have a firm solution in the ninth, and they’re set at a number of positions with affordable contracts, but GM Rick Hahn recently downplayed the idea of spending heavily on the ninth inning. The Angels figure to be set with Huston Street and a repeatedly stated desire to stay under baseball’s luxury tax threshold. The Rangers have deep pockets and a weakened bullpen as well. Another logical landing spot could be the Nationals, who are set at many positions around the diamond and already have a strong rotation.

Expected Contract

Robertson has been nothing short of dominant, and in spite of the QO that’s likely to be attached to his name, I imagine that the goal for his camp will be to top Papelbon’s four-year, $50MM guarantee.

Given the fact that Robertson is the best player at his position in a free agent market that is thin on bats and features a number of talented but risky starters, a team may view Robertson as more of a sure thing than the rest of the market. A club looking to spend to improve but unwilling to take on the risk of an injury-prone starter or overpay for one of the few reliable bats may instead prefer to allocate its funds to shortening the game via a dynamic bullpen addition. It’s that line of thinking that leads me to believe it is indeed possible for Robertson to top Papelbon’s deal.

Aiming to set a new precedent is bold, but if there’s been a free agent reliever in recent history who can stake a legitimate claim to being able to do so, it’s Robertson. Based on his combination of age, strikeouts, command, ground-balls and success in a major market and hitter-friendly division, I’m predicting a four-year, $52MM contract for Robertson when all is said and done.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.