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Free Agent Profile: Justin Masterson

In 2013, Justin Masterson turned in a career season for the Indians as he pitched to a 3.45 ERA with 9.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9, earning an All-Star Game nod and piquing the attention of baseball people everywhere.  No one knew where he would wind up after the 2014 season, but everyone agreed that he was in line for a massive contract.  Masterson might not get the same long-term haul he once envisioned thanks to a lackluster 2014, but he still figures to get paid this winter.

Strengths/Pros

Everything came together for Masterson in 2013.  His power sinker was clicking, he was striking batters out at a career-high rate, and his 3.33 xFIP indicated that he was just flat out good, not lucky.  With an aggressive approach on the mound and a 58.5 percent ground-ball rate, Masterson truly realized his potential with the Tribe.

Justin Masterson

Of course, the main difference between the 2013 and 2014 versions of Masterson was health.  Fortunately, he’s on the mend from his injuries and should be 100% on all fronts by the start of Spring Training.  While others in his position – banged up in a contract year – might have chosen to rest up, Masterson mostly pitched through the pain.  At 29, Masterson is younger than most of the quality pitchers available on the open market.  And, thanks to the midseason trade that sent him to St. Louis, Masterson can’t be hit with the qualifying offer and won’t have draft pick compensation tied to him.

His 2014 numbers – a 5.88 ERA with 8.1 K/9 and 4.8 BB/9 – aren’t so hot, but the fact that he managed to make 25 starts and 3 relief appearances despite it all is pretty impressive.  The righty logged four straight seasons of at least 180 innings for Cleveland and while his ERA yo-yoed – 4.70 in 2010, 3.21 in 2011, 4.93 in 2012, and 3.45 in 2013 – he was solid on the whole and his 11.7 fWAR in that stretch placed him among the top thirty starters in the game.  Masterson also hasn’t had a ground ball percentage lower than 55.1% in the last five years and he’s been around 58%  over the last two seasons.

GMs will ask their team doctors to do a thorough check on Masterson before putting pen to paper, but they probably won’t fret about the right-hander resting on his laurels and counting his money.  It’s also worth mentioning that the 29-year-old’s xFIP (4.06) and SIERA (4.03) were far kinder to him this year than ERA and his 8.1 K/9 is actually stronger than the average of his previous four seasons.  Given time to heal up and iron out the kinks in his delivery, Masterson could get back to his old self rather quickly.

Weaknesses/Cons

His troublesome right knee, which plagued him for a good chunk of the season, is partially to blame for the down year.  That problem seems to be in the rear view mirror but shoulder impingement and a nagging left oblique injury have held him back and adversely altered his mechanics.  He’s expected to fully recover from all of those injuries with some rest, but teams will certainly be wary and especially thorough in their examinations.  Clubs will want to be sure that they’re more likely to get the 2010-2013 version of Masterson than the 2014 version.

During Masterson’s 2010-2013 run, his fastball had an average velocity of about 92.9 MPH.  This season, Masterson threw his heater at a decidedly less warm 90.3 MPH.  Faulty mechanics brought on by injury are believed to be culprit for the drop, but teams will still view the decreased velocity as a concern.

Masterson’s struggles landed him in the Cardinals’ bullpen to finish out the regular season and that’s obviously not how St. Louis saw things shaking out when they traded for him at the deadline.   The hurler was viewed as a top-of-the-rotation piece just a year ago and he will wind up with relief appearances as the most recent work on his resume.  Masterson actually did well in his grand total of 3 and 1/3 innings of bullpen work, but he’s obviously looking to join someone’s starting five next season.

Personal

Earlier this year, Justin and his wife Meryl welcomed twins to the world, a boy and a girl, making their three-year-old daughter a big sister.   Justin, the son of a pastor, spends much of his downtime aiding in humanitarian causes both here and abroad with Meryl.  This offseason, he’ll be heading to Uganda and Kenya on a mission trip to help with water projects and to build orphanages for needy children.  The Mastersons founded a non-profit organization (the Fortress Foundation) in 2013 to help extremely impoverished people from all around the world.  In Cleveland, they volunteered and donated to Laura’s Home, a local battered women’s shelter.  It’s no surprise that the Indians made Justin a repeat nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

In the clubhouse, Masterson is known a supportive teammate and someone who is always willing to help out the younger pitchers.  At 29, Masterson is still young, but he also has lots of valuable experience to draw from.

Market

If the medicals check out, a team could very well come away with one of the best pitching bargains of the winter.  Back in January, when Masterson was coming off of his career year, Tim Dierkes pegged his extension value around $65-$85MM over a five year stretch.  Like any free agent, the 6’6″ hurler has his question marks, but he could be a very solid value after an offseason of rest.

Last last month, Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com wondered aloud if Masterson could be a fit for the Cubs.  His history with former Red Sox GM and current Cubs president Theo Epstein could lead to a union and, as Mooney notes, coach Chris Bosio has a track record for taking his pitchers to the next level.  Speaking of the Red Sox, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote back in August that Boston will have interest in Masterson in the offseason.

Outside of those old friends, teams in bigger parks with pitching needs like the Twins, Angels, Marlins, and Braves might be in the mix for Masterson.

Expected Contract

Because Masterson’s four consecutive strong years were followed by a spotty walk year, it’s hard to gauge what kind of contract he’ll net this winter.  A one-year deal to reassert himself as a top starter could put him in line for a substantial long-term deal.  At the same time, it’s not hard to envision a team coming to the table with a multi-year offer to Masterson’s liking.

If Masterson opts for a one-year deal in order to restore his value and go for a monster contract after the 2015 season, a one-year, $12MM contract could make sense.

Steve Adams contributed to this post.  Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Aramis Ramirez

Aramis Ramirez had an up-and-down season for the Brewers, who must sort out his mutual option and weigh a potential qualifying offer.  The 36-year-old can still be a force at the plate, and may be the best offensive third baseman available this winter.

Strengths/Pros

USATSI_8015973_154513410_lowresRamirez has already had an illustrious 17-year-career.  Among third basemen, he ranks ninth all-time in home runs, tenth all-time in doubles, and tenth in RBI.  Though he’ll likely fall short of the Hall of Fame, Ramirez had a long run of being one of the top 5-10 third basemen in baseball since becoming a regular in 2001.

These days, his power may not be what it once was, but he still ranked 11th among all third basemen in isolated power, ahead of fellow free agent Pablo Sandoval.  He’s always made excellent contact, resulting in a .285 career batting average that he matched in 2014.  Overall, Ramirez still has a case as a top ten hitter at the hot corner, and he was basically Sandoval’s equal with the bat this year.  Ramirez also made his third All-Star team, hitting .288/.336/.459 in the first half.

As MLBTR’s Steve Adams noted in August, Ramirez’s free agent competition at third base isn’t anything special (although it’s certainly no worse than the rest of the free agent hitting class, which is weak overall).  If one continues to categorize Hanley Ramirez as a shortstop, Ramirez’s .757 OPS led free agent third basemen, with Sandoval checking in at .739 and Chase Headley at .700.  Ramirez will not require nearly the commitment Sandoval will.

Weaknesses/Cons

Metrics suggest Ramirez’s defense was passable this year, though he has had some pretty rough seasons within the last five.

Ramirez will turn 37 next June, so he comes with typical durability question marks.  He played 298 games from 2011-12 and a reasonable 133 this year despite a DL stint for a hamstring injury.  That’s not bad, but Ramirez seems better suited for an American League team with some DH flexibility, especially if he seeks a multiyear deal.

Ramirez has had a consistent career, but his offense in 2014 was streaky.  He posted an OPS over .960 in June and August, yet was under .600 in July and September.  He wound up hitting only four home runs in 251 second half plate appearances.  Ramirez’s walk rate was down to 4% this year, his worst since his partial 2000 campaign.  Baserunning has consistently been a detriment throughout Ramirez’s career.

Personal

Ramirez is married with three children, and he resides with his family in the Dominican Republic in the offseason.  The third baseman “lives and breathes for his kids,” a person close to him told MLBTR.  When the kids are in school, Ramirez enjoys spending time on his farm in the Dominican.

Ramirez does not exhibit much overt emotion on the field, a trait that drew some criticism in Chicago, perhaps unfairly.

Market

Having spent his entire career in the NL Central, Ramirez has never served as a designated hitter more than five times in a season.  He hasn’t played a position other than third base in his entire pro career, so the idea of working him in at first base could be a stretch.  Certainly the Brewers would like to bring Ramirez back, as we’ll discuss below.  Otherwise, the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Red Sox, Royals, Angels, Yankees, Padres, Giants, and Blue Jays could seek help at the hot corner this offseason.  As a veteran who likely has plenty of money in the bank from past contracts, comfort could be a primary factor in Ramirez’s choice.

Expected Contract

Ramirez’s contract situation is complicated.  He and the Brewers hold a $14MM mutual option for 2015.  On the rare occasions in baseball that both sides of a mutual option have been exercised, it’s never been close to that kind of salary.  While a September 17th report from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports said the Brewers intend to pick up their side of the option, Brewers GM Doug Melvin told MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy the topic hasn’t even been broached with the team’s owner or Ramirez’s agent, Paul Kinzer.  Realistically, Melvin probably has some idea of what he wants to do, but option decisions aren’t due until after the World Series.

The Brewers do seem likely to pick up their side of the option — they’re faced with a $4MM buyout if they decline it, so the option is effectively only a $10MM decision.  If the Brewers pick the option up, Ramirez then has the opportunity to decline and go to free agency, in which case he would not receive a buyout.  $14MM is a reasonable salary if Ramirez only wants to play one more year, but he may prefer a longer term.  Ramirez suggested in July he’d go for 2,500 career games, a goal of which he is 443 short.  That suggests three or four more seasons, but in September, Ramirez was non-committal about what he’d do after 2015.

A two-year deal would be a nice compromise; perhaps Ramirez and the Brewers can work out something that pays around $25MM for that span.  I imagine if Ramirez is thinking bigger than that, he’ll have to find it on the open market.  One problem: the Brewers can reduce his leverage by making or telling him their intention to make a qualifying offer.  I expect them to make that offer if they get to that point.  Draft pick forfeiture would affect Ramirez’s market, but not as much as you might think.  The players most burned by qualifying offers last winter were asking for big contracts from the outset of free agency.  Ramirez might ask for just two years from the start, and I think he could find a team to give it to him even with the draft pick cost attached.

In the somewhat unlikely event that Ramirez hits the open market without a qualifying offer attached, it would help his chances of securing a three-year deal.  Still, he’d probably have to sacrifice on average annual value to get a third year, perhaps accepting something like three years and $33MM.

Ultimately, I think Ramirez will sign a two-year, $26MM deal to stay with the Brewers.  If he reaches the open market without a draft pick attached, I’ll go with two years and $30MM.  If he receives a qualifying offer from the Brewers, I think he’ll turn it down.  Even in that scenario, I think he can find the same two-year, $26MM deal on the open market.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason Outlook: Colorado Rockies

Another hot start raised expectations in 2014, but regression and injuries once again combined to doom the Rockies. Colorado seems intent on fielding a competitor, but it remains to be seen whether it will have the payroll flexibility needed get there.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players

Contract Options

Free Agents

With the Rockies, it seems, the real issues reside not in the details of roster construction, but in the philosophical and strategic direction of the organization. Critiques of the decisionmaking structure – and, in particular, owner Dick Monfort and the two key front office executives Dan O’Dowd and Bill Geivett — have migrated from fans and former players to internal sources. Yet it still seems rather unlikely that the team will undergo any kind of front office shakeup, or that the organization’s general approach will change.

Barring a major shift in front office personnel or in operating style, it is not clear what the Rockies can do to change the outlook for next year in a significant way. As things stand, the team appears stuck in a difficult middle ground – albeit one that has not gotten in the way of reliably above-average attendance figures. What are the options going forward?

On the one hand, the club has shown an utter lack of inclination to trade away any of its veterans for future resources. Despite being well out of contention this year, and having a few potential candidates (some playing on expiring contracts), Colorado did not pull the trigger on any summer deals.

Indeed, to the contrary, Monfort was said to have pulled the plug on a deal that would have sent veteran starter Jorge De La Rosa to the Orioles in exchange for a quality prospect arm in Eduardo Rodriguez. Instead of dealing the 33-year-old De La Rosa, the Rockies later inked him to a two-year, $25MM extension. To be sure, it may have been difficult for the team to convince a better arm to pitch at Coors Field for that kind of scratch, and De La Rosa has an excellent track record at altitude. But adding the promising Rodriguez and instead pursuing one of the many mid-level free agent starters (including, perhaps, De La Rosa himself) would have made for a nice alternative.

Even with De La Rosa back, contention in 2015 – while not unimaginable — would be a surprise. Colorado has few glaring holes in the lineup, but the pitching staff is coming off of a season characterized by injury and ineffectiveness.

Then, there is the payroll to consider. Player salaries are expected to land in the mid-$90MM range again, about half of which is already slated to go to De La Rosa and stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The total guaranteed commitment lands at about $61MM, but that is before accounting for arbitration raises that could cost nearly $25MM and decisions on options the club holds over Brett Anderson and LaTroy Hawkins.

In short, the Rockies have little room for addition without first making some subtractions. But where to trim salary?

It has often been wondered whether and when the Rockies would consider dealing either of their two stars in an effort to reload. But season-ending surgeries for Tulo and CarGo make that difficult to imagine, and Monfort has sent signals that he has no such intention. Senior VP of Major League operations Bill Geivett recently shot down that idea as well: “If we’re going to win, they’re going to need to be part of it, too.”

Beyond those two cornerstones, there are any number of hypothetical possibilities to free up a little cash. Let’s take a closer look, in the context of the overall roster:

The Rockies lineup is largely in place, unless the team decides to explore some changes. Gonzalez will presumably occupy one corner outfield spot, while some combination of younger players – Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, Charlie Blackmon, and Brandon Barnes, many of whom are coming off of breakout years – can be expected to combine to make up a solid unit. Colorado reportedly has some interest in bringing back Michael Cuddyer, but that appears to be quite a luxury.

Among the outfielders, only Stubbs presents the realistic possibility of a cost-saving trade given his $5.7MM projected hit. But he is the best center field option of that group, and may not bring much in return with just one year of not-inexpensive control remaining (not to mention the fact that his big numbers last year were driven by a .440 BABIP at Coors). But his combination of power, speed, and defense could make him a reasonably marketable asset.

In the infield, the diamond appears set at three spots: short (Tulowitzki), third (Nolan Arenado), and first (Justin Morneau). Trading the veteran Morneau could deliver some savings and bolster other needs, with first base being entrusted to Wilin Rosario or prospect Kyle Parker. But that would take away one of the team’s best bats from last year, and the club seemed disinterested in shopping him at last year’s trade deadline.

The Rockies are not without options at the other infield positions, but they offer the greatest possibility for movement. At the keystone, DJ LeMahieu is a reliable defender who just has not contributed much with the stick (career 76 OPS+). Josh Rutledge offers more promise at the plate, but defensive metrics have little regard for his glove. With free agent pickings looking slim, the Rockies might be best served by dealing away one of these still-young players while pursuing a left-handed-hitting utility option – the late-blooming Rafael Ynoa is an in-house possibility — to platoon with whoever remains.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the situation at catcher. Rosario has failed to impress the team behind the dish, and took a step back offensively in 2014. He appears to be a trade candidate, though Colorado would certainly not be selling at an opportune time. And while Michael McKenry was a nice surprise last year, he seems more likely headed for a backup or platoon role. If the Rockies are to make a run at a top free agent, Russell Martin looks like an excellent fit on paper, but he figures to draw strong interest elsewhere and may be out of Colorado’s comfort zone financially.

Ultimately, the possibilities noted above could be driven by whether a pitching acquisition requires cash or a trade chip. As things stand, improving upon the team’s uninspiring group of arms is surely the priority.

In the rotation, De La Rosa will likely be joined by two players who had relative breakout years in Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek. That trio contains enough questions of its own, but things get even less clear thereafter. Tyler Chatwood is shelved with his second Tommy John procedure, Jhoulys Chacin looks like a lottery ticket (shoulder problems) or non-tender candidate, and Juan Nicasio is said to be slated for the bullpen. Younger arms like Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, and (to a lesser extent) Christian Bergman and Tyler Anderson offer some hope in the relatively near future. But it would be optimistic to expect too much of that group in 2015. Otherwise, the team is left with questionable depth options like Yohan Flande.

So, what can the Rockies do to bolster that group? The option over Anderson is too risky to be considered seriously: $12.5MM for a full season of a healthy Anderson is an attractive enough proposition, but the lefty has not thrown even 50 frames in a MLB campaign since 2011.

Convincing Anderson to return for a lesser amount makes theoretical sense, but runs into a major practical concern: why would he choose to take a pillow contract to throw half his innings at Coors Field? This same problem, of course, could limit Colorado’s ability to take advantage of the rest of a deep market for mid-tier starters – including some, like Justin Masterson and Brandon McCarthy, who induce ground balls at a solid clip. Even if Colorado can clear enough salary next year to afford an arm of that nature, it would likely need to make a multi-year commitment that could hamstring the organization when it is more likely to be in a position to contend.

The trade route is an alternative to free agency. One could imagine the Rockies matching up with a team like the Mets on some kind of swap of an outfielder for an arm. Rosario probably has enough upside to be an important part of a deal for a useful pitcher. To be sure, adding a reliable hurler with an attractive contract situation would presumably require the sacrifice of some significant portion of the organization’s best prospect talent. But Geivett has said that the team wants to add “impact” even if that means getting an aging hurler.

Relief pitching was every bit as problematic for Colorado last year. Two lefties remain in place — the disappointing Boone Logan and the struggling Rex Brothers – leaving the team with the option either to fiddle with that area or simply hope for improvement. Hawkins is expected to occupy the ninth inning to start the year, which at least provides a ready answer to the question of who will close. Former closer Rafael Betancourt is said to be a possible re-acquisition. And the team has options for right-handed setup men and middle relievers, including Nicasio, Adam Ottavino (who pitched well in 2014), Rule 5 pickup Tommy Kahnle, and surprising 29-year-old rookie Brooks Brown. Improving the production from the pen, then, could be as straightforward or as complicated as the team prefers. With every dollar being watched, it might make the most sense to let the market shake out and pluck a few veterans who miss out on the deals they hoped for.

The difficulty for the Rockies is, in the end, not hard to assess: the team is in position to add a piece or two, but it is more than a piece or two away from being a reliable contender. Stretching future resources to add a player like Martin, or overpaying in AAV and/or years to convince a starter to pitch in Denver, increases the risk of a prolonged malaise. From a competitive perspective, it probably makes sense to craft a strategy of exchanging veterans for future talent. But, then, that was already clear this summer.



Offseason Outlook: Chicago White Sox

After a fourth place finish in the AL Central, the White Sox will supplement their bullpen, and perhaps add reinforcements at left field, designated hitter, catcher, and in the rotation.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

It was another summer of trading away veterans for the White Sox, as GM Rick Hahn dealt Gordon Beckham, Alejandro De Aza, and Adam Dunn in a span of 11 days at the end of August.  The exact return on Beckham won’t be determined until the offseason, but Hahn did acquire a solid pitching prospect for Dunn in Nolan Sanburn.

It was an ugly campaign, but the 2014 season did provide Chicago clarity at several key positions.  Most importantly, 2013 signing Jose Abreu looks like a huge bargain after posting MVP-caliber numbers in his rookie MLB season.  Also, center fielder Adam Eaton established himself with a quality year worth 2.8 wins above replacement.

While the player acquired alongside Eaton from Arizona, Matt Davidson, remained in Triple-A and took a step backward, the Sox still found a solid stopgap at the hot corner in 27-year-old Conor Gillaspie.  Gillaspie fits on the strong side of a platoon, and could match up with Marcus Semien again.

Avisail Garcia is the incumbent in right field after missing much of 2014 due to a shoulder injury.  Just 23, Garcia could take a leap forward in 2015.  Tyler Flowers had a passable season as the starting catcher, but struck out a ton and could easily see his average back around the Mendoza line in 2015.  The Sox could pony up for Russell Martin, but Hahn should be proactive in attempting to find a quality backstop via trade.  The Yankees are probably the team with the most depth at the position, in terms of long-term catchers.

25-year-old Dayan Viciedo declined to a .231/.281/.405 line, and does not look like a long-term piece for Chicago.  He could be non-tendered or traded.  Should Hahn turn to the free agent market to fill left field, options include Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Morse.  Nori Aoki, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, and Nick Markakis haven’t generally played the position, but could be considered.  The Rays’ Matt Joyce could be a trade option, and the Dodgers’ outfield surplus remains unresolved.  The most intriguing choice would be young Cuban corner outfielder Yasmany Tomas, with whom Abreu is familiar.  The problem is that Abreu’s success reset the Cuban market such that Tomas’ price tag could be in the $100MM range.  The White Sox have not been connected to Tomas in any notable way thus far.

The White Sox have finally gotten Adam Dunn off the books, and in August Bruce Levine of CBSChicago.com wrote that stealing Victor Martinez away from the Tigers tops Chicago’s offseason wish list.  The Sox fell just short of signing Martinez four years ago, leading to their deal with Dunn.  Martinez, who had a monster offensive 2014 season few saw coming, turns 36 in December and now spends the majority of his time as a designated hitter.  Martinez would represent a fairly risky win-now signing for the Sox, but the switch-hitter would make a fantastic tandem with Abreu in 2015 as he did with Miguel Cabrera in Detroit.  The Carlos Beltran deal should be Martinez’s floor, and the Sox would have to forfeit their second-round draft pick.

Trades for Alexei Ramirez could be entertained, though he still has value to the White Sox.  He’s under contract for 2015 and has a club option for ’16, and could make a nice bridge to hopeful shortstop of the future Tim Anderson.  Anderson, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, missed nearly two months with a broken wrist but still received a surprise promotion to Double-A.  With Beckham gone, second base next figures to be a competition, with Micah Johnson, Marcus Semien, and Carlos Sanchez in the mix.

In the rotation, Chris Sale’s dominance continued and Jose Quintana had a quietly excellent campaign.  John Danks ate innings at the back end, if nothing else.  Hector Noesi, claimed off waivers from the Rangers in April, posted a 4.43 ERA in 27 starts for the Sox.  The team is missing at least one more above average starting pitcher, and they could have it soon in 2014 first-round pick Carlos Rodon.  Rodon finished the season at Triple-A and has a chance to break camp in 2015 in the big league rotation.

The Paulino experiment was a bust, though the Sox spent very little on him.  To reduce the risk of dipping heavily into the team’s No. 6-8 starters, the Sox should at least add a project arm or two for depth.

The White Sox bullpen struggled in 2014, putting up a 4.28 ERA that was second-to-last in the American League.  Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam filled the ninth inning void after the offseason trade of Addison Reed, injuries to Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones, and ineffectiveness from Ronald Belisario (a likely non-tender candidate).  Petricka, Putnam, and Daniel Webb were able to keep the ball on the ground, but failed to miss bats.  Jones underwent Tommy John surgery in July, so he’s a non-factor for 2015 even if the Sox tender him a contract.  The bullpen is a clear area of upgrade for Hahn, who told MLB.com’s Scott Merkin in September, “The overall goal of the bullpen is going to be to acquire multiple options, potentially from the right and left side … many of which could be end-game options for us.”  Even if Chicago decides to pass on top free agent reliever David Robertson, the market offers a wide array of quality options.

Hahn used the word “aggressive” multiple times regarding the upcoming offseason, as reported by MLB.com’s Scott Merkin.  An aggressive approach makes sense, with Abreu, Sale, and Quintana currently so affordable.  The Sox have about $46MM in contract commitments for 2015, plus maybe another $6MM if they retain Flowers, Noesi, Jones, and Guerra.  Hahn could have around $40MM to play with in 2015 salaries without raising payroll, enough to add multiple significant free agents.

Though 2014 didn’t go as planned, the Sox received star-caliber performances from Abreu, Sale, and Quintana and quality seasons from Eaton and Gillaspie.  There seems to be much offseason work to do to vault this team into contention, with the wish list including a retooled bullpen, an effective bat or two, and added rotation depth.

Note: there is some question as to Javy Guerra’s official service time.  MLB’s calculation of 2.133 would make him a likely Super Two player, but his contract being selected (at least publicly) on May 20th suggests 2.128, which would fall short.


Offseason Outlook: Minnesota Twins

After an extended run atop the AL Central last decade, the Twins turned in their fourth consecutive 90-loss season and saw many of their top prospects sidelined by injury.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

  • None

The Twins’ offseason began with what was a surprising move for many, given the team’s loyalty to its front office and coaching staff, as Ron Gardenhire was dismissed from his managerial role and offered another position within the organization. While Gardenhire weighs that decision, the coaching staff will look markedly different next season, as none of the coaches are guaranteed a spot in 2015. The coaching staff will be determined by the new manager and by GM Terry Ryan once Gardenhire’s successor is appointed. Paul Molitor is the primary internal candidate, though Terry Steinbach is another option. Other names floated from outside the organization have been Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing, Rays bench coach Dave Martinez and former Pirates skipper John Russell.

As Ryan told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in late September, the rotation will be the focus of the offseason for the Twins. Hughes has been an unquestionable bright spot — one of the best free agent signings from the 2013-14 offseason — but his acquisition was the only of Minnesota’s three rotation expenditures that paid dividends in 2014. The re-signing of Pelfrey to a two-year, $11MM contract has been an abject failure, and a 5.38 ERA in 159 1/3 innings wasn’t what the Twins had in mind when signing Nolasco to a four-year deal. Perhaps there’s some reason for optimism with him, however, as Nolasco’s .351 BABIP is tied for the eighth-highest single-season mark since 1900 (among pitchers with 150+ IP), and metrics such as FIP (4.30) and xFIP (3.97) feel that his performance wasn’t as bad as that ERA would suggest. Nolasco does have a low career strand rate, which typically keeps his ERA higher than his FIP, but not to this extreme.

The Twins’ internal options didn’t exactly pan out either. Former top prospect Kyle Gibson improved upon a rough debut season but logged a 4.47 ERA in 179 1/3 innings and endured a particularly rough patch from mid-August to mid-September before finishing strongly. Kevin Correia struggled all season before being sent to the Dodgers for a PTBNL, and trade acquisition Tommy Milone didn’t perform any better. Prospect Trevor May posted a cringe-worthy 7.88 ERA, though he showed a propensity for strikeouts and was plagued, to an extent, by a .377 BABIP. Top prospect Alex Meyer didn’t make it to the show but did post solid Triple-A numbers before some shoulder discomfort sidelined him in late August.

The Twins’ rotation problems are tied directly to another team deficiency — their defense. Minnesota’s collective .315 BABIP was the highest in all of baseball this season, and their defense ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. While the infield defense was mostly passable (albeit unspectacular), the team’s -36.2 UZR in the outfield ranked 29th of 30 teams, and no MLB club posted an uglier outfield DRS mark than Minnesota’s -50. The departure of Josh Willingham (via an August trade) and the likely return of converted shortstop Danny Santana to the infield — something the organization has expressed a desire to see — create the opportunity for better outfield defense. (The pitching staff, of course, compounded the defensive shortcomings by finishing with the worst K/9 rate in all of baseball for the fourth consecutive season.)

Minnesota’s bullpen was a relative strength for much of the season, but late swoons by Fien and Perkins, plus some questionable performances from September call-ups, submarined the unit’s collective numbers. Perkins was particularly out of sorts, and his season was eventually cut short due to a forearm strain and some nerve irritation (his UCL is reportedly fine). The Twins will be able to retain the entire group if they wish, though names like Duensing and Swarzak could be non-tender candidates, and I’d expect Burton’s option to be declined. Minnesota drafted Louisville closer Nick Burdi in the second round of this year’s draft, and it’s very possible that he and his 100-102 mph fastball eventually claim a bullpen spot next year. Stephen Pryor, acquired from the Mariners in exchange for Kendrys Morales, could fight for a spot as well. A veteran addition is possible, but the Twins don’t seem likely to spend extravagantly on the relief corps this offseason.

Looking at the team’s arbitration eligible players, Plouffe, Milone, Schafer and Fien seem like locks to be retained, while the others — Duensing, Swarzak and Nunez — are less certain. Cutting ties with those three players would leave Minnesota with about $69MM committed to the 2015 payroll. That would be well south of the team’s $85.5MM Opening Day payroll in 2014 — a figure that grew significantly after adding Morales on a one-year deal in June —  so it seems fair to suggest that Ryan could have $20-25MM to spend, should he choose.

History has taught us that the Twins will not be serious players for the likes of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, both of whom have legitimate shots at landing seven-year contracts. James Shields, the next-best arm on the market, seems too much of a stretch as well. The Twins seem more likely to explore the second tier of starting pitchers, which will include one name they pushed for late last offseason: Ervin Santana. The Twins reportedly made Santana a three-year offer in the $30-33MM range in Spring Training, but Santana preferred a one-year deal in the National League in hopes of cashing in on a bigger deal this offseason. It would make sense, then, to see Minnesota again express interest. Brandon McCarthy‘s excellent finish to the 2014 season could make him a desirable target for Ryan as well.

If the team is looking at a buy-low candidate, longtime division rival Justin Masterson seems like a good fit. The Twins’ infield defense was markedly better than the outfield defense in 2014, and Masterson’s gaudy ground-ball rate would minimize the impact of a potentially questionable outfield defense in 2015. His strikeout rate remained strong as well, but the Twins would need to be convinced that the knee injury which plagued Masterson’s 2014 season (and likely played a large role in his fastball velocity dropping from 91.6 mph to 88.9 mph) is now healed. Brandon Morrow and Brett Anderson are another pair of high-upside names that come with injury risk but could make sense on one-year deals. The Twins did show interest in Anderson last year before he was dealt to Colorado. Each of these three arms would give the Twins a legitimate trade chip in July should they remain healthy on a one-year deal and should the Twins again fail to contend. The success experienced by Hughes in 2014 could cause pitchers in this vein to give a bit of a longer look at the benefits of pitching in Target Field.

Looking to the outfield, it’s clear that the Twins could use at least one upgrade. While top prospect Byron Buxton — whose season was all but lost due to wrist injuries and a frightening concussion — will eventually claim center field, Aaron Hicks has failed to do so in the short term. Schafer impressed the Twins after being claimed on waivers and figures to have locked up a spot as a fourth outfielder. A run at Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas doesn’t seem realistic; the Twins have never bid that highly on an international free agent, and Tomas could clear $100MM.

If the Twins move Santana back to shortstop and non-tender Nunez (leaving the utility role to Eduardo Escobar), they could pursue options at any of the outfield positions (with Oswaldo Arcia occupying one of the two corner spots). Colby Rasmus is an interesting buy-low candidate, but if he’s looking to rebuild value, a pitchers’ park like Target Field probably isn’t the best setting. Melky Cabrera‘s price tag could preclude a serious pursuit from Minnesota, and while they had interest in Nelson Cruz late last offseason, his price tag figures figures to be prohibitive as well. A trade for a defensively gifted outfielder such as Peter Bourjos would make sense for Minnesota, in my mind. He could provide elite center field defense while Buxton develops, and he would also improve results for the team’s pitching staff. Bourjos’ modest salary would allow Ryan to focus his resources on improving the rotation.

Other areas such as catcher and designated hitter likely don’t need to be addressed. The Twins opted to sign Suzuki to a two-year extension rather than trade him this summer when a market failed to materialize, and switch-hitting slugger Kennys Vargas looked impressive in a second-half call-up, batting .274/.316/.456 with nine homers in 53 games. It’s possible that the Twins could receive trade interest in Suzuki this offseason, given the weak market for catchers after Russell Martin. The team does have an interesting alternative in Josmil Pinto, but Suzuki is well-liked in the organization and it’d be somewhat surprising to see him moved so quickly after signing that contract. Suzuki doesn’t seem to be worried about the idea, as he said in August that he and his agents at MVP Sports Group didn’t think it was necessary to try for a no-trade clause.

One interesting point to consider (a topic which Andrew Bryz-Gornia noted at SB Nation’s Twinkie Town) is the future of Plouffe. The former first-rounder quietly had an excellent season (3+ rWAR and fWAR) and looks to have found a home at third base. The only problem is that Miguel Sano is the Twins’ heir apparent at third and could force his way onto the Major League roster next season. It’s possible that the Twins could once again shift Plouffe’s position to a corner outfield spot (they employed a similar trajectory with Michael Cuddyer early in his career), but with an in-house stopgap such as Escobar under control, Plouffe strikes me as an under-the-radar trade target for teams in need of help at the hot corner.

The Twins will first have to determine who will succeed Gardenhire, and when they do, improving the rotation as well as the outfield defense should be priorities in what will be a busy offseason for Ryan and assistant GMs Rob Antony and Wayne Krivsky.


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Free Agent Profile: Yasmany Tomas

Last October, despite some questions about his ability, Cuban slugger Jose Abreu signed a six-year, $68MM contract with the White Sox heading into his age-27 season.  Abreu’s MLB debut exceeded the most optimistic expectations, and now another Cuban player known for huge power is about to burst on the scene: Yasmany Tomas.  Tomas, just 24 in November, defected from Cuba in June and should be granted MLB free agency shortly.  He’s a right-handed-hitting corner outfielder with five years in Cuba’s Serie Nacional under his belt, and that experience, paired with his age, makes him exempt from international spending limitations.  Teams will be able to spend whatever they wish to sign him.

Strengths/Pros

The opportunity to sign a potential star player for his prime years comes along at most only a handful of times each year, typically with players coming out of Cuba or Japan.  Abreu was heading into his age 27 season, younger than any normal free agent but still potentially catching some decline at the tail end of his contract.  Since Tomas turns 24 in November, a seven-year deal would conclude with his age-30 season.  He really couldn’t be much younger without being subject to each team’s international signing bonus pool money, which currently tops out around $5MM and includes a 100% tax on overages of 10% or more.

Yasmani TomasTomas’ best attribute is his power, a trait that is in short supply in today’s game.  Only 14 players hit 30 or more home runs in 2013, and fewer might reach that threshold this year.  Tomas has 70 raw power on the 20-80 scale, wrote Baseball America’s Ben Badler in June, so he profiles as one of those rare 30+ home run bats.  “He’s got a ton of power,” countryman Rusney Castillo told WEEI’s Rob Bradford through a translator this month.  Tomas has produced a .290/.345/.504 throughout his career in Cuba, although those numbers include a pair of seasons in which he slugged just .385 (2009-10) when he was still a teenager.

Though Tomas checks in at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he’s “agile for his size,” according to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez.  Sanchez also says Tomas has a strong arm, so he fits the typical right field profile (some teams may prefer him in left, of course).

One more plus: Tomas is not subject to a qualifying offer, so the cost will be entirely financial.  Other free agent hitters like Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez, Melky Cabrera, and Nelson Cruz are expected to receive and turn down qualifying offers and therefore require forfeiture of a draft pick.

Weaknesses/Cons

Badler wrote in his June scouting report that Tomas has below-average speed.  More recently, Badler cited scouts who clocked Tomas at 6.9 seconds in the 60-yard dash at his Sunday showcase, which could be considered average speed.

Tomas may need some Triple-A seasoning, delaying his 2015 MLB impact.  Badler noted that Tomas’ most recent season in Cuba wasn’t his best, writing, “This past season in Cuba…Tomas seemed to regress, even losing playing time in the second half, which one source said was the result of an arm injury he sustained crashing into an outfield wall in February.”  Word is that Tomas has no physical issues currently.

Badler also noted that Tomas has shown some “swing-and-miss tendencies” and can struggle with quality breaking stuff.  According to Sanchez, Tomas is “characterized as ‘high-risk, high-reward’ type of player in some international scouting circles.”  He seems to come with a lesser reputation and less certainty than Abreu did last year.  Not much has been written about Tomas’ defense, except that Sanchez feels the player has room for improvement.

Personal

Sanchez spent time with Tomas prior to his showcase this month, and was struck by his “youthful enthusiasm.”  According to longtime friend Carlos Damas, Tomas is “always laughing.”  I’ve heard Tomas likes to play video games in his spare time, and is often seen outside playing stickball with local kids.

The son of a fuel truck driver, Tomas is one of six children.  As you might expect, the slugger found it very difficult to leave his home country.

Market

Tomas’ showcase in the Dominican Republic drew hundreds of scouts, wrote Badler.  It is believed that nearly every team in baseball had a presence.  MLB Network’s Peter Gammons pegged the Giants as the early favorite, also naming the Phillies, Padres, Rangers, and Tigers as potential front-runners.  The Phillies had a private showcase with Tomas on Monday; the Rangers host him today.  On Monday, Badler named the Rangers, Phillies, Yankees, Diamondbacks, Giants, and Mets as teams with a strong presence at Tomas’ showcase.  The Marlins and Pirates were also known to be in attendance.

Expected Contract

Tomas’ agent Jay Alou told Jorge Ebro of El Nuevo Herald in early September that he expects to top the record contract for a Cuban player, which is Rusney Castillo’s seven-year, $72.5MM deal with the Red Sox signed in August.  While a six-year deal is possible for Tomas, seven makes more sense, especially if Tomas is not expecting to spend all of 2015 in the Majors.  Seven years also gives the opportunity of increasing the overall contract total.

I believe Abreu’s stellar season inflated the Cuban market, leading to a likely inferior player in Castillo to top his total guarantee less than one year later.  Nothing pays in free agency like power, so I agree with Alou’s expectation of continuing to raise the bar beyond Castillo’s $72.5MM.  On September 14th, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe passed along the opinion of one international scout who feels Tomas could command $100MM.  Tomas’ range seems wide right now.  I see about $80MM as the floor, and $110MM as the ceiling.  My prediction at present: $105MM over seven years.

Photo courtesy of Alyson Boyer Rode.


Trade Candidate(s): The Reds’ Starting Pitchers

The Reds’ hopes of challenging in the NL Central were dimmed by several major injuries this year, and this visit from the injury bug was particularly damaging to a team who already faced some big decisions in the offseason.  With just over $71MM committed to 10 players on the 2015 payroll, the mid-market Reds may be forced to save some money by moving a starting pitcher.  Though Cincinnati’s durable and deep rotation has been a big part of the club’s success in recent years, pitching seems like a natural area for payroll reduction simply due to the fact that three starters will enter their third year of arbitration eligibility.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Baltimore OriolesTwo pitchers who won’t be dealt are Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani.  The Reds have already committed to Bailey in the form of a six-year, $105MM extension, and wouldn’t have been likely to move him even if Bailey hadn’t recently undergone forearm surgery.  Cingrani has also had injury problems, spending most of 2014 on the DL with shoulder problems.  Had Cingrani been able to build off of his impressive 2013 rookie season, the Reds would’ve felt at least a bit better about trading one of their more established starters (Bronson Arroyo wasn’t re-signed last winter in part because the Reds were comfortable with Cingrani).

It’s possible Cincinnati could trade multiple starters, though I’d suspect that the team wouldn’t want to lose too much pitching depth until they know Bailey and Cingrani are fully healthy.  The Reds would probably rather not have David Holmberg or Dylan Axelrod as full-time rotation members next year, top prospect Robert Stephenson still needs some seasoning (a 4.74 ERA in 136 2/3 IP at Double-A in 2014) and the newly-signed Raisel Iglesias could still wind up in the bullpen.

The Reds’ other four pitchers are all controlled only through 2015, so the team likely wouldn’t score a truly huge return in a trade but all carry value even as one-year pitchers.  The candidates…

Johnny Cueto: The Reds have a $10MM option on Cueto for 2015 that is sure to be exercised given how well Cueto has pitched.  After an injury-shorted 2013, Cueto bounced back in a major way by posting a 2.15 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 3.73 K/BB rate over a league-leading 222 innings.

Cueto’s next contract will be in the nine-figure range, and it’s unclear if the Reds would be willing ink another major extension given how much money has been tied up in recent deals with Bailey, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.  Cueto would net the biggest return in a trade, though moving their ace would seem to hint that the Reds are punting on 2015, which I doubt they’re prepared to do.  On the other hand, the Reds could trade Cueto for Major League parts (such what the Rays and Red Sox received for David Price, John Lackey and Jon Lester before last July’s trade deadline) and use a Cueto deal to reload rather than rebuild.

Keeping Cueto would give the Reds stability at the top of their rotation, and they could still explore dealing Cueto at next year’s trade deadline if they fall out of the race.  If they’re contending and wanted to keep Cueto, Cincinnati could then get a compensatory draft pick via the qualifying offer if he leaves in free agency after the 2015 season.

In a recent Insider-only piece, ESPN’s Buster Olney recently explored Cueto’s trade market and raised the possibility that the Reds could clear some payroll space by attaching Phillips, for example, to Cueto in a trade package.  With several notable starters available as free agents this winter, Olney believes some teams might prefer trading for a year of Cueto rather than making an expensive multiyear commitment for an ace on the open market.  Also, a contending team that potentially loses their ace in free agency (such as if Max Scherzer leaves the Tigers or James Shields leaves the Royals) could look to Cueto as a short-term replacement to keep their rotation strong for another run in 2015.

Mat Latos: Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports recently cited Latos as perhaps the likeliest of the Reds’ starters to be dealt, as both Latos and Cueto can make a case for commanding an extension larger than Bailey’s deal.  While Cueto is two years older than Latos, presumably the Reds would be more inclined to extend their homegrown product than they would Latos, who missed part of 2014 with an elbow injury.  Latos has a 3.25 ERA in 102 1/3 IP this year, though ERA indicators show that he hasn’t pitched quite that well (3.64 FIP, 4.00 xFIP, 4.08 SIERA) and both his ground ball and strikeout rates dropped significantly below his career averages.  The right-hander’s average fastball velocity also dropped to 90.7 mph, down from 92.5 mph in 2013.

The Reds already tested the market for Latos at the trade deadline, so I tend to agree with Rosenthal that if a Cincy starter is moved, it’ll probably be Latos.  His declined numbers could be explained by his elbow issues, and if fully healthy, Latos could be a standout front-of-the-rotation starter for several teams.  He earned $7.25MM in 2014 in the last year of a two-year extension, and he’ll be eligible for arbitration for a third and final time this winter.

Mike Leake: Another pitcher with a third arb year remaining, Leake will get a raise from his $5.925MM salary in 2014.  The right-hander has been a reliable rotation piece over his five Major League seasons, not missing many bats (career 6.1 K/9) but inducing a lot of grounders (49.8% ground ball rate) and eating a lot of innings, averaging 191 IP over the last three years.

Leake comes with the fewest question marks of any Cincinnati starter, lacking the injury histories of Cueto and Latos but also never pitching nearly as well as those two have at their peaks.  While Leake’s ceiling in the bigs may never surpass the “solid” level (he has an even 100 ERA+ over his career), this also means that the Reds could extend him at a much lower price than Cueto or Latos.  A Leake extension could look something like the five-year, $65MM deal the White Sox gave John Danks a few years ago, as Leake and Danks are decent comparables in terms of age and career numbers to that point in their careers, plus both had one arb year left before free agency.

The Reds put Leake and Latos on revocable waivers in August, possibly in a move to gauge trade interest for the upcoming offseason.  I’d guess there’s a better chance Leake stays in Cincinnati than goes, though the Reds will certainly get interest in the durable 26-year-old.

Alfredo Simon: The big surprise of the group, the 33-year-old Simon moved from the bullpen to the rotation as an injury fill-in and wound up making his first All-Star team.  Though his performance has very much come back to earth in the second half, Simon still has a 3.48 ERA through 178 1/3 innings on the season despite a middling 5.9 K/9.

Simon is arb-eligible for the third time this winter and he’ll earn a healthy raise over his $1.5MM salary, though the raise will hardly break the bank.  Simon’s age and career track record give him a very modest amount of trade value, so it’s likely he stays with the Reds and competes for the fifth starter’s job (or returns to the pen) if and when a rotation spot opens up via trade.

With this variety of available starters and a wide variance in asking prices for each of the four pitchers, many teams could fit as potential trade partners for the Reds under the “you can never have too much pitching” argument.  If the Reds look to deal a starter and fill an everyday lineup hole at the same time, they’ll likely target a left fielder or a shortstop as upgrades on Ryan Ludwick and Zack Cozart, respectively.  Ludwick has a $9MM mutual option for 2015 but after two negative fWAR seasons, the Reds might instead buy him out (for a deferred $4.5MM) and look for other options.

Using these needs to speculate about trade partners, the Cubs, Diamondbacks and possibly the Indians stand out as teams with a shortstop surplus.  The Red Sox have a glut of outfielders and are known to be looking for starting pitching.  The Dodgers could finally solve their long-standing logjam in the outfield and, if it meant getting back Cueto or Latos, would be willing to eat a lot of salary on one of their high-priced outfield bats.

As Ken Rosenthal noted (video link), the Reds could employ some gamesmanship with their starters and perhaps leverage them against each other in figuring out which (if any) pitchers they want to sign over the long term.  Between these negotiations and waiting for the free agent pitching market to play out, Cincinnati might wait until January or even February to move a starter.  At this point, the only thing that seems certain about the Reds’ 2015 rotation is that at least one of Cueto, Latos, Leake or Simon won’t be on the roster come Opening Day.

Photo courtesy of Joy R. Absalon/USA Today Sports Images


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The Most Improved Free Agents

Behind the scenes at MLBTR, we’re busy discussing and polishing our Top 50 Free Agents list for the 2015 offseason. While we’ll wait until the appropriate time to officially release the list, it’s not too soon to talk about a few of the players who have done the best to improve their free agent stock. In general, I’m looking at players who weren’t even on the radar when Steve Adams kicked off our 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings series on April 15. Today, we’ll take a look at a pure hitter, a starting pitcher, and an elite reliever.

1. Victor Martinez. I’m sure Martinez’s appearance on this list is of no surprise. When we compiled our initial power rankings post, 25 players were named. Martinez was not one of them. The 35-year-old designated hitter is limited in defensive versatility, but his bat is clearly elite. He is enjoying a fantastic offensive season with a .335/.404/.566 line and 31 home runs. All are career bests. He’s even stolen three bases (also a career best). The exceptional performance comes with a 10.5% walk rate and 6.6% strikeout rate, making him one of just two players with more walks than strikeouts (Jose Bautista is the other).

Martinez, who earned $12MM this season, will receive a qualifying offer, according to Buster Olney of ESPN. It’s difficult to handicap how the slugger will perform on the free agent market. The only recent comparable player is David Ortiz, although the short contracts he signed with the Red Sox do not appear to be directly applicable to Martinez’s situation.

The Tigers will have some leverage in retaining Martinez, where he can continue to hit with Miguel Cabrera. The White Sox are also said to be interested, per Bruce Levine of 670TheScore.com. Chicago appears to be an ideal fit with its extremely hitter friendly stadium (Detroit’s Comerica Park is a neutral stadium), and he would make a good tandem with Jose Abreu. We seem to have the basic ingredients for a bidding war, and other teams will likely enter the fray.

2. Brandon McCarthy. What a fascinating season it’s been for McCarthy. His fastball gained two mph over previous seasons, and he’s posted the highest ground ball rate of his career at 52.7%. While his 3.93 ERA is merely decent, advanced ERA estimators like xFIP (2.90) and SIERA (3.03) expect better things to come. He’s also buffed his strikeout rate to 7.72 K/9 while maintaining an elite walk rate of 1.53 BB/9.

McCarthy was easy to overlook entering the season. His command and control profile made him a steady but uninspired rotation option. His first 18 starts came with the Diamondbacks, where he flashed excellent peripherals with an unseemly 5.01 ERA. He was dealt to the Yankees prior to the July trade deadline. In 13 starts, he’s pitched to a 2.54 ERA that is supported by his peripherals. Many pundits (including this one) worried about the influence of Yankee Stadium on the homer prone starter, but his HR/FB ratio has regressed to league average in New York.

Prior to this season, he never managed more than 170 and two-thirds major league innings in a single season. That came in 2011. He’s frequently dealt with injuries including recurring “stress reactions” in his pitching shoulder. His most recent shoulder injury occurred in 2012. This season, he’s managed a career high 194 and two-thirds innings with a chance to eclipse the 200 inning threshold.

A sabermetrically inclined front office – especially one with a large ballpark – could justifiably view McCarthy as the fourth best free agent starter, after the triumvirate of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. McCarthy’s history of shoulder problems will likely temper enthusiasm for a large contract offer. That might serve to increase demand by making him an affordable, second-tier option. McCarthy, who is entering his age 31 season, could top the four-year, $49 million contract signed by Ricky Nolasco last offseason. However, a smart club would include language to mitigate risk from future shoulder flare-ups.

3. Andrew Miller. If Miller was on anybody’s radar entering the season, it was as a moderately interesting LOOGY. By halving his walk rate and proving he’s no platoon pitcher, Miller will enter the offseason as an untested but possibly elite closing option. Due to his inexperience recording saves, clubs may still look at him as a setup reliever.

Split between the Red Sox and Orioles, the 30-year-old southpaw has posted a 1.93 ERA in 60 and two-thirds innings. His 14.84 K/9 is impressive, especially in light of his 2.37 BB/9. He’s allowed just 32 hits on the season and is one of three relievers to cross the 100 strikeout threshold – four others appear poised to do so by the end of the season.

No recent left-handed reliever has entered free agency coming off of such a strong season, which puts Miller in uncharted waters. Jeremy Affeldt, who signed a three-year, $18MM contract with the Giants following the 2012 season is a distant comparable. Joaquin Benoit is probably the best example among recent right-handed pitchers. He signed a two-year, $15.5MM contract with an option after emerging as the Tigers closer. However, he was also entering his age 36 season, so he was considerably older than Miller. Per the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, no non-closing reliever has signed a contract with over a $20MM guarantee. Miller has a chance to be the first. Prior to the 2007 season, Justin Speier signed a four-year, $18MM contract that could serve as a barometer of sorts once inflation is included.