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With the calendar approaching July, trade deadline rumors will soon begin to convert into actual deals. Last season, the first bullet – at least the first to include a starting pitcher – was fired on July 2nd, when the Cubs dealt Scott Feldman to the Orioles. With two notable assets, the Cubs are once again in position to strike first blood. However, they aren’t the only club with a pitcher on the market.
Plenty of teams would like to a starter. Earlier today, Yankees GM Brian Cashman mentioned a desire to acquire a pitcher in the next few weeks, according to Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. Virtually every contender could benefit from an additional starter. While needs vary by team, the market has the full gamut of options available.
David Price, Rays, 3.63 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 10.45 K/9, 1.02 BB/9: By ERA, Price is having one of the worst seasons of his career. Based on his peripherals, he’s having a career year. Most teams employ a fully realized analytics department, so don’t be surprised if they are comfortable buying Price’s elite command and control profile. The 28-year-old is club controlled through 2015, so he’ll be especially appealing to teams that see themselves as contenders next season. Alternatively, he could make an interesting asset to re-trade, like Cliff Lee circa 2009.
Jon Lester, Red Sox, 3.14 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 9.25 K/9, 2.29 BB/9: Lester, 30, is in the midst of his finest season. He’s a free agent at the end of the 2014, and as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports hypothesized, he’ll probably refuse to open negotiations until after the season. The Sox may decide it’s time to cash in on Lester and open a spot in the rotation for Rubby De La Rosa. Lester should be most appealing to teams that want to go all in this season.
Cliff Lee, Phillies, 3.18 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 8.07 K/9, 1.19 BB/9: The dark horse in this particular competition, Lee is currently on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He’s on pace to return sometime around the All Star break. Any club would be happy to acquire the ace – his contract is another matter. He’s owed the balance of $25MM this season, another $25MM next season, and he has a $27.5MM club option for 2016 that vests with 200 innings thrown in 2015. Given his recent injury and cost, the Phillies can’t hope to receive much in return. Unless they’re facing a budget crunch, they might be better off trading him at a later date. He may be available in August.
Bartolo Colon, Mets, 3.67 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 6.88 ERA, 1.25 FIP: Those who wander the dark corners of the internet may have seen rumors of Colon’s availability. The premise is simple: the Mets are in a position to sell and Colon is a 41-year-old veteran who isn’t helping the team win today. The reason he probably won’t be dealt is because he’s viewed as a helpful mentor to the club’s young staff. The Mets entertain hopes of contending in 2015, and Colon’s veteran presence could be the difference. He’s a weird target for a club hoping to reach the playoffs in 2014. He doesn’t feature the kind of skill set teams like to see in their playoff starters, i.e. dominating stuff. His best talent is not walking anybody.
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs, 2.53 ERA, 2.89 FIP, 8.48 K/9, 2.71 BB/9: Samardzija, 29, is the poor man’s Price, if by “poor man” you mean the guy with the premium Mercedes rather than the elite Aston Martin. Like Price, he’s club controlled through 2015, which makes him a perfect target for teams with a multi-season playoff window. And like several other pitchers on this list, he’s having a career season.
Jason Hammel, Cubs, 2.98 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 8.50 K/9, 1.84 BB/9: Last season, the Cubs signed Feldman and later parlayed him into a useful reliever (Pedro Strop). Hammel has been even better than Feldman was last season, but a shaky track record and expiring contract will probably keep his price down. Feldman wasn’t the most interesting starter on the trade market last season, yet he was still the first to go. Will Hammel follow suit? Theo Epstein’s Cubs have a precedent of acting early.
Brandon McCarthy, Diamondbacks, 5.11 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 7.53 K/9, 1.56 BB/9: McCarthy, 30, certainly has the worst ERA of the bunch, yet his peripherals are highly desirable. He’s allowed twice as many home runs as expected, which is why his xFIP (FIP adjusted for a normal home run rate) is 2.92. You can count on several clubs being aware of the excellent peripherals. Somebody will take a shot. The Diamondbacks are dead in the NL West and reportedly need to shed payroll. McCarthy earns $9MM this season.
Ian Kennedy, Padres, 4.01 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 9.67 K/9, 2.35 BB/9: Speaking of NL West clubs trying to shed payroll, the Padres are reportedly looking to cut costs. Kennedy is one of several veteran Friars on the block. He’s entering his final season of arbitration eligibility, which makes him the true poor man’s Price/Samardzija. The 29-year-old Scott Boras client is probably best suited for clubs with a large home park due to a slight tendency towards fly balls.
Jorge De La Rosa, Rockies, 4.78 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 6.70 K/9, 3.93 BB/9: The 33-year-old pitcher is unlike the others on the list. With the alternatives, there’s at least some kind of possibility for near-elite performance. De La Rosa’s best quality is an ability to eat innings. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and he’s earning $11MM. Teams should find him the cheapest pitcher of those featured…with reason.
A number of players have made big contributions so far this season despite only signing a one-year deal or a minor-league deal this past offseason. Here’s a list of every player who fits that description and who’s produced more than 1 fWAR heading into today’s action. That cutoff excludes a few players clearly having productive seasons (such as Ervin Santana, Joba Chamberlain, Francisco Rodriguez and Emilio Bonifacio), and it excludes the possibility that the newly-signed Stephen Drew will make a big impact in Boston. But it’s as good a cutoff point as any, restricting us to players currently on pace to post seasons of around 3 WAR. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
In April, MLBTR’s Jeff Todd asked you to rank one-year deals in the $4MM-$8MM range. We now have more data on players signed to those deals, plus more information about no-risk minor-league signees we might have overlooked in April, so now is a good time to revisit last year’s free-agent class to see which low-risk deals are netting the most value.
Nelson Cruz, Orioles, $8MM plus roster bonuses. The Orioles also gave up the No. 55 overall pick in next week’s draft. Cruz has hit .315/.383/.675 in 230 plate appearances so far this season. He left today’s game with a hand injury, but he’s hit brilliantly for Baltimore so far, piling up an incredible 20 home runs.
Juan Francisco, Blue Jays, minor-league contract. The Jays signed Francisco after the Brewers dropped him in late March, and he’s hit a remarkable .275/.365/.596, with nine home runs in his first 126 plate appearances.
Jason Hammel, Cubs, $6MM. Hammel has pitched 71 1/3 terrific innings so far thanks to excellent control — he’s only allowing 1.9 BB/9. Hammel’s 2.78 ERA likely isn’t sustainable, but it doesn’t need to be for him to provide the Cubs with great value for $6MM.
Aaron Harang, Braves, minor-league deal, $1MM. Harang’s resurgence with Atlanta has been nothing short of amazing — last year it looked like his days as a productive big-leaguer might be over, but this year he has a 3.29 ERA with peripherals to match (9.7 K/9, 2.6 BB/9). The Braves also got two more solid pitchers in Santana and Gavin Floyd on one-year deals last offseason.
Michael Morse, Giants, $6MM. Morse’s poor defense limits his value, but it’s almost impossible not to be an asset when one hits .295/.351/.574. Morse is a big reason the Giants currently have the best record in baseball. His slugging percentage so far is 92 points above his career total.
A.J. Pierzynski, Red Sox, $8.25MM. Pierzynski has produced 1.1 WAR this season while hitting .288/.318/.417 in 174 plate appearances, accumulating much of that value in a recent 10-game hitting streak. He has not, however, won good reviews for his handling of the Red Sox’ pitching staff.
Yangervis Solarte, Yankees, minor-league contract. Solarte has been a highlight of an unsettled Yankees infield, playing decent defense at both third and second while hitting .299/.369/.466. That’s not bad for a 26-year-old who had never played in the big leagues before this season. The Yankees also can control his rights for several more years beyond this one if they choose.
MLBTR’s pages are increasingly loaded with draft news, which means that June 5 is fast approaching. Of course, that also means that we are just days away from Kendrys Morales becoming the first ever player to wait out the draft and thereby relieve himself of the compensation that attached upon declining a qualifying offer. (Technically, teams can sign him without sacrificing a pick after the completion of the draft’s first day.)
So, with Morales set to become a true free agent — one who can sign with any team on equal terms, without any strings attached — where is he most likely to go? I’ll list the seven teams that seem, in my view, to be the most compelling possibilities, along with the ever-popular wild card option. (Choiced presented in no particular order; poll choices randomized; feel free to register complaints with my selections in the comments.)
- Yankees — We’ll start with the team most recently linked to Morales. The presence of Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira complicates this match-up, although Teixeira did suffer a potentially troubling set-back today. On the other hand, so did Michael Pineda, which emphasizes further that the rotation is likely a greater need (if not also the infield mix). Owner Hal Steinbrenner has indicated that the club could still unleash its vaunted spending capacity over the summer, but it remains an open question whether the cash would be better spent in other areas.
- Orioles — Baltimore was long viewed as a potential Morales suitor, at least before signing Nelson Cruz. As good as Cruz has been at the plate, he’s been terrible in the field, making it questionable whether the club would be interested in moving him to the outfield on a regular basis (he’s been splitting time about evenly thus far). The elbow questions surrounding catcher Matt Wieters also presents a barrier, as he may need to spend some or all of his time in the DH role. Indeed, executive vice president Dan Duquette has strongly downplayed the likelihood of a Morales signing for those very reasons.
- Rangers — The fit here is obvious: Morales represents a big left-handed bat who could pick up some of the slack for the injured Prince Fielder. But the club, which entered the year with a record $133.5MM payroll, has been treading water for much of the season after being crushed by injuries to Fielder, Jurickson Profar, and seemingly half of the pitching staff. Indeed, much of the latest discussion has centered upon whether, and if so how, Texas might turn into a trade-deadline seller, with GM Jon Daniels saying recently that the organization is not ready to give up but declining to rule out the possibility of making “adjustments” to the organization’s approach if the team falls further back.
- Angels — Could a return to Morales’s original employer be in the offing? The Halos rejected the overtures of agent Scott Boras back in December, with GM Jerry Dipoto noting that the team was uninterested in sacrificing a first-round pick and ultimately signing the grizzled Raul Ibanez. But the draft pick is no longer an issue, Ibanez has been poor, and the Angels are finally in position to make a real run at the post-season. Then again, prospect C.J. Cron has mashed in his first taste of the bigs and the team has something of a glut of talented outfielders in the fold (including the rehabbing Josh Hamilton) who could presumably absorb some plate appearances at DH.
- Athletics – Oakland always feels like a wild card. There may not be a need here, strictly speaking, but the A’s could see a chance to add value by plugging Morales in the DH slot. The hitter-only slot in the lineup has been given most often to Alberto Callaspo, who has been below average with the bat, with players like John Jaso and Yoenis Cespedes also getting significant time away from the field. But will the team have room to add that kind of payroll after entering the season well above its usual spending levels (or, if not, would it be able/inclined to create space via trade)? And would GM Billy Beane want to add a full-time DH to a roster that has thrived on matchups and flexibility?
- Mariners — A return to Seattle seemed the logical choice from the get-go, as the club plainly values Morales. That likelihood dissipated with the acquisitions of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, but injury issues for that pair — along with an underwhelming start for Justin Smoak — has led to renewed suggestions of a reunion. On the other hand, payroll issues could still pose a barrier for a club that is looking up at three AL West competitors in the standings, just as it is in this post. And if this was a fit from the M’s perspective, why did the club seemingly decline to pursue a pre-draft deal (as the Red Sox did with Stephen Drew)?
- Brewers — The only National League club on my list, Milwaukee entered the year with big questions at first base. While Mark Reynolds has been adequate, Lyle Overbay (the left-handed side of that platoon) has struggled. Meanwhile, the front-running Brewers could (and probably should) be looking to upgrade their roster in any way possible to fend off a tough Cardinals squad. This fit would be close to perfect, were it not for the fact that Morales is considered a liability at first.
- Other — Why limit ourselves? There are other teams that could potentially benefit from Morales, at least in a vacuum, though in each case there may be lesser motivation and greater barriers than in the situations of those teams named above. It would be rather surprising, but perhaps not outside the realm of possibility, for teams such as the Indians, Twins, Pirates, or Padres to enter the mix. Of course, none of the clubs just listed sat closer than seven games out of first (or 3.5 out of the Wild Card) entering today’s action. In some respects, their involvement — or that of unnamed others, if injuries were to intervene — could potentially to depend upon whether Morales looks to sign quickly or instead prefers to let things develop over the summer.
We’re less than two weeks away from the June amateur draft, and there still isn’t consensus about who the Astros will take with the first overall pick. That’s not surprising, since there isn’t a clear No. 1 overall talent. “There’s not a [Gerrit] Cole, in our minds. There’s not a [Stephen] Strasburg, in our minds,” as Pirates GM Neal Huntington put it yesterday. John Manuel of Baseball America recently quoted an executive saying, “It just seems like there isn’t a $6 million player in this draft,” which means the Astros’ task will be a tricky one.
It’s always better to have an earlier pick than a later one, of course. But compared to, say, 2010, when the Nationals took Bryce Harper first overall, 2014 seems to be a worse year to have the top pick, and a better year to have a lower pick.
Many recent mock drafts have suggested the Astros will take either California high school lefty Brady Aiken or NC State lefty Carlos Rodon first overall, but the Astros also invited Texas high school righty Tyler Kolek to a pre-draft workout.
Aiken has added velocity and now throws in the mid-90s. He also has an outstanding curveball and could have excellent control, and he has an easy delivery. Kolek can throw 100 MPH and potentially has a good slider, although his command lags behind Aiken’s. In the cases of both Aiken and Kolek, stock disclaimers about high school pitchers apply.
Rodon entered the college season as the clear favorite to be the No. 1 pick, but he has not been as dominant as expected this season for NC State. Manuel quotes an executive even wondering whether Rodon will be a starter in the long term. There is, perhaps, a comparison to be made to Cole, who also failed to dominate in the season before he was drafted No. 1 overall, but Manuel points out that Cole’s stuff was outstanding that year, whereas Rodon’s hasn’t been consistent. Rodon does, however, still have an outstanding slider.
Earlier today, Peter Gammons quoted an executive guessing that the Astros could also consider California high school C/OF Alex Jackson. “Many of the Astros’ people believe that picking a pitcher at the top is a gamble because of the historical predictability of pitchers,” the executive said. Gammons notes that the Astros did pick Mark Appel with the top spot last year. But if there’s ever a year to question gambling on pitchers, this might be it — not only is there not a consensus No. 1, but it’s also been a rough year for big-league pitchers and for former top draftees in the minors, like Appel and Jameson Taillon. Jackson is the consensus top hitting prospect in the draft.
In a draft where little is certain, LSU righty Aaron Nola could represent another possibility. Unlike some of the other top pitching prospects, he doesn’t look like a prototypical ace — he’s just a little bit undersized, and his stuff isn’t as outstanding. But he’s performed very well this year and he should get to the majors relatively quickly, and he might be a good candidate to take first overall if the Astros decide to save a bit of money against their bonus pool to spend on later picks. That’s what they did in 2012, when Appel and Byron Buxton were the consensus top picks, and the Astros instead took Carlos Correa, then used the savings to sign Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz later in the draft.
With all that in mind, who do you think the Astros should take with the first overall pick?
MLBTR’s first edition of the 2015 free agent power rankings featured one prime position player at the top (Hanley Ramirez) and a group of pitchers to round out the top five. (Charlie Wilmoth already asked our readers to rank those arms.) Things get somewhat murkier at that point, with a host of players who have fairly significant question marks making up the rest of the list and the group of players worth keeping an eye on.
What is clear, however, is that the third base market contains two top targets: Chase Headley of the Padres and Pablo Sandoval of the Giants. (While Ramirez could hypothetically sign to play the hot corner, it’s fair to assume that he would be out of the league of these two regardless.) The pair of switch-hitters are each off to slow starts and have a history of inconsistent production, but have registered 6+ WAR seasons at their best. Sandoval will hit the market at a youthful 28, while Headley is hardly old for a free agent (he just turned 30). Their career production has been rather similar on the whole.
MLBTR’s Steve Adams prefers Headley to Sandoval, arguing that he has a higher floor. But it is hard to ignore Sandoval’s age advantage, and clubs will be intrigued at the possibility of unleashing his bat (especially from the left side) in a more hitter-friendly home park.
So, let’s see what the consensus is among MLBTR readers: Who is the better 2015 free agent target?
Sunday morning, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo quoted a GM suggesting that Jon Lester might be emerging as the best starting pitcher in the 2015 free agent class. “Lester is the most appealing,” the GM said. “He’s lefthanded, a bulldog, big-game experience, and just 30. Will he get six or seven years? I’d say he will.”
Lester may well get six or seven years, but the assertion that he’s the most appealing starting pitcher available next winter is interesting, given the other top potential free agents, who include Justin Masterson, Ervin Santana, Max Scherzer and James Shields. There are other interesting free-agent options, like Jake Peavy and Francisco Liriano, but we’ll limit ourselves to these five. We’ll also ignore players like Johnny Cueto whose teams possess options for their services for 2015.
Obviously, there’s no guarantee that all these pitchers will actually become free agents. Lester and Masterson, for example, could still sign extensions with their current teams. But let’s rank those top five pitchers with the assumption that they’ll all hit the market.
Lester has increased his strikeouts and decreased his walks so far this season. He currently leads MLB in pitcher fWAR and has a long track record of success in both the regular season and postseason. He reportedly declined a four-year, $70MM extension offer from the Red Sox in April.
Masterson has seen his fastball dip in velocity this season, which may be one reason the Indians reportedly balked at a three-year extension proposal in the $53MM range, but he’s continued to get results this season. He’s also the youngest pitcher of the five, having just turned 29 in March.
Santana had to settle for a one-year deal last offseason, but he has since been a key part of the Braves’ excellent season, posting a 1.99 ERA with 9.5 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 so far.
Scherzer has continued his the dominance that led him to the 2013 AL Cy Young award, striking out a career-high 11.2 batters per nine innings while posting a 2.04 ERA. In March, he rejected a six-year, $144MM extension offer from the Tigers.
Shields has been one of the AL’s most consistent and durable starters in the past several seasons — he has pitched over 200 innings every season since 2007. He’ll be heading into his age-33 season in 2015, however, which could limit his earnings potential somewhat.
If you were a GM looking for a top-notch starter, how would you rank these five pitchers? Rank them in terms of their desirability as free agents, regardless of how much they are likely to cost.
B.J. Upton, the No. 2 overall pick by the Devil Rays in the 2002 draft, collected his 1,000th MLB hit on Saturday on a ground ball against Mike Leake and the Reds. But while Upton has had a long and lucrative MLB career, he hasn’t reached the heights of other players drafted later that year.
The Devil Rays did fare better than other teams drafting in the top five in ’02. The Pirates took Ball State righty Bryan Bullington with the first overall pick, and Bullington turned out to be a journeyman. Third, fourth and fifth overall picks Chris Gruler (Reds), Adam Loewen (Orioles) and Clint Everts (Expos) didn’t turn out much better.
Where that draft really got interesting was with the sixth pick, where the Royals took Zack Greinke. One pick later, the Brewers grabbed Prince Fielder. Later in the first round went Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain. Joey Votto, Jon Lester and Brian McCann went in the second round; Curtis Granderson headed to the Tigers in the third, and Josh Johnson went to the Marlins in the fourth. Howie Kendrick and Russell Martin went in the late rounds.
We’re nearly 12 years removed from that draft now, and most of the top players involved are now in their late primes. Some have moved on to other teams. So which team fared the best? Here are some possibilities, but feel free to peruse Baseball Reference’s draft database on your own.
Angels. The Angels got solid value from Joe Saunders at No. 12 overall, then scored with Kendrick in the tenth round.
Athletics. The A’s got several good players in their famed “Moneyball” draft, although this was partially, or perhaps even primarily, a function of opportunity — they had seven of the first 39 picks. Swisher (24.1 bWAR) and Joe Blanton (8.8 bWAR) turned out well, but other members of Oakland’s unconventional draft class (including John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, and Jeremy Brown, all selected in the first round) didn’t. The A’s signed Jared Burton in the late rounds, although they lost him in the Rule 5 Draft in 2006. They also picked Brad Ziegler and Jonathan Papelbon, but didn’t sign either of them.
Braves. First-round pick Jeff Francoeur spent most of his best years with the Braves, finishing third in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2005. Supplemental pick Dan Meyer was a key part of the Tim Hudson trade with the Athletics. Second-rounder Brian McCann became a superstar behind the plate. And third-rounder Charlie Morton helped the Braves land Nate McLouth, before becoming a sinker-balling mainstay in the Pirates’ rotation.
Brewers. The Brewers only managed to get much from Fielder (23.1 bWAR). They would have had a better case here if they hadn’t released late-round picks Tom Wilhelmsen and Craig Breslow before they went on to productive careers elsewhere, or if they’d signed 40th-rounder Hunter Pence.
Dodgers. The Dodgers got great value throughout the draft, taking James Loney in the first round, and then Martin, Jonathan Broxton, James McDonald, and Eric Stults later on. Martin accumulated 15.9 bWAR in his five seasons in Los Angeles, then continued his fine career in New York and Pittsburgh.
Giants. First-rounder Matt Cain was a huge hit, and the Giants also got reasonable value from second-rounder Fred Lewis and fourth-rounder Kevin Correia. Eighth-rounder Clay Hensley helped them land reliever Matt Herges. And unlike some teams on this list, the Giants didn’t have a mess of compensation picks, selecting just once in each round.
Phillies. Philadelphia got Hamels and little else, but in terms of WAR value, they did very well in this draft. This wasn’t an unfamiliar pattern for the Phillies, who two years later had taken Chase Utley with their first pick in a draft that otherwise turned up very little for them. When drafting, quality is far more important than quantity, and the Phillies rode their quantity-light but quality-heavy drafts to a World Series title in 2008.
Reds. Gruler was a huge miss at third overall, but the Reds more than made up for that by snagging Votto (34.7 bWAR) 44th overall. They only got two big-leaguers in ’02, but the other one, Chris Denorfia (19th round) also turned out to be a solid contributor. The Reds, however, didn’t reap the benefits, shipping Denorfia to the A’s for Marcus McBeth and a minor-leaguer in 2007.
Red Sox. Boston didn’t pick until No. 57 overall, but took Lester, one of the best pitchers in the draft, when their turn came. They also took Brandon Moss, who they sent to Pittsburgh in the Manny Ramirez / Jason Bay swap in 2008.
Royals. Like the Phillies, the Royals got little in the late rounds. But Greinke was a big hit, and he continues to pay dividends years after being traded — they still have Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar left over from that deal, and Jake Odorizzi helped them land James Shields (albeit in a trade that is controversial for reasons that have little to do with Odorizzi).
Players signed on one-year deals are obviously on a different timeline in terms of value assessment than are those who ink multi-year pacts. For one-year guys, their club must get their money’s worth — through on-field performance, trade value, or both — in 2014. Now that we’ve had a chance to see a full spring and about 12% of the regular season, let’s take a quick look back at some of this year’s relatively modest, one-year contracts.
I will limit the list to players who signed for more than $4MM and up to $8MM (presented alphabetically; poll will randomize order). The early returns have been pretty solid on the whole. And remember — almost all of these guys will be free agents again next year. The poll question is simple: rank these players according to which you think will ultimately prove to have been the best one-year signings (given their respective team’s needs).
John Axford, RP, Indians, $4.5MM: leading league with eight saves; 2.79 ERA but seven walks already in 9 2/3.
Bruce Chen, SP, Royals, $4.25MM: has made three starts, allowing 11 earned runs in 15 innings; his strikeouts are up, but so are the hits allowed (.417 BABIP).
Nelson Cruz, OF/DH, Orioles, $8MM (plus 54th overall draft pick): off to a big .301/.386/.603 start with six home runs, though early defensive numbers are awful (-4 DRS, -52.1 UZR/150).
Jason Hammel, SP, Cubs, $6MM: through four starts, has racked up 27 2/3 innings of 2.60 ERA ball, including impressive 1.6 BB/9 and just 4.6 H/9; benefiting greatly from unsustainably high strand rate (91.7%) and low BABIP (.130).
Corey Hart, DH/OF/1B, Mariners, $6MM: has shaken off the rust early, with a .270/.333/.508 line and four home runs in 69 plate appearances.
Roberto Hernandez, SP, Phillies, $4.5MM: has a 5.75 ERA through four starts (20 1/3 innings pitched), but SIERA (3.63) and xFIP (3.39) like his work thus far.
Josh Johnson, SP, Padres, $8MM (plus $4MM vesting option): will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, but could still be kept in the fold for 2015 if San Diego exercises its option, which vested because he did not make at least seven starts.
Mike Morse, OF, Giants, $6MM: has returned from injury-riddled 2013 to post .279/.338/.559 triple-slash and five home runs in first 74 plate appearances; San Francisco has limited the downside of his defensive limitations with late-inning substitutions.
Ryan Vogelsong, SP, Giants, $5MM: a tough start has him at a 7.71 ERA through just 16 1/3 frames in four outings, and there isn’t much to sugarcoat based on his peripherals.
Edinson Volquez, SP, Pirates, $5MM: off to a solid start with a 1.93 ERA in 28 innings; his strikeouts are down (5.1 K/9), though he has limited walks (1.6 BB/9), but his BABIP (.233) and long ball rates (.32 HR/9) suggest some regression is coming.
Chris Young, OF, Mets, $7.25MM: dealt with hamstring issues early and has seen only 25 plate appearances, through which he has just a .440 OPS.
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When the Astros promoted top prospect George Springer earlier this week, it ended a mini-drama that cut to the heart of Major League Baseball's rules concerning Super Two status and free-agency eligibility. MLB, of course, allows players to become free agents after six full years of service. By waiting two weeks after the start of the season to promote Springer, the Astros ensured that they could control his rights through 2020. But by promoting him before June, they also gave him the chance to become a Super Two player. That meant he could be eligible for arbitration following the 2016 season, and go to arbitration four times instead of three, potentially making several million more dollars than he would have made had the Astros waited just two more months to promote him.
The circumstances surrounding Springer's promotion are complex. The Astros offered Springer a seven-year, $23MM deal last September, a deal that would have allowed the Astros to have Springer break camp with the team this spring without concern about Super Two status or the timing of his free-agency eligibility. Springer turned the contract down, and the Astros decided to send him to Triple-A Oklahoma City to start the season, reportedly leading the MLBPA and Springer's agent, Greg Genske, to consider the possibility of a grievance against the Astros.
It isn't clear, of course, whether Springer's service time was the primary consideration in the Astros' decision to send Springer to the minors, or even whether it was a consideration, period. Springer began the season with only 266 (admittedly brilliant) career plate appearances in Triple-A, so it wouldn't have been outlandish for an organization to make the somewhat conservative decision to have him get more seasoning at that level before promoting him.
But many fans and commentators couldn't help wondering about how Springer's status had been affected by MLB's rules. "If Springer was good enough to be offered $23 million, why isn't he good enough to crack the 25-man roster of a team that has finished with the worst record in the majors in each of the past three seasons?" wrote FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal. "Some on the players' side have long felt that clubs act in bad faith when they keep major-league-ready players in the minors for financial reasons."
The timing of Springer's promotion in mid-April thus feels like a compromise. By keeping Springer in the minors for two more weeks, the Astros received an extra year of control, preventing Springer from becoming eligible for free agency after the 2019 season. But they will likely pay Springer more through 2020 than they would have if they had waited a bit longer. Of course, the Astros were within their rights not to compromise — they could have just kept Springer in the minors until June. And again, there may have been developmental considerations at work, too.
The service-time issue is hard to ignore, however, as the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich explains in a good piece about why not everyone agrees with the Astros' timing. Drellich quotes analyst and former MLB pitcher C.J. Nitkowski (via Twitter): "It's about the culture & the message you're sending to players/fan[s]: We don't promote on merit, winning is secondary to FA status [seven years] away."
It also appears that the Astros' decision may have been at least somewhat spontaneous. As Drellich points out, the Astros had Springer travel to Colorado Springs for one game with Oklahoma City, only to then join the big-league team in Houston. A planned promotion might well have had Springer play his first big-league game on the road, in order to limit the pressure on Springer. Maybe, Drellich suggests, the Astros intended to wait until June to him, thus avoiding Super Two status, but the Astros offense's awful performance to that point made them change their minds.
From the perspectives of Springer and the Astros, the precise timing of Springer's promotion may not matter much in the long run. If Springer is upset right now (and aside from the talk of a grievance, there's no indication that he is), the Astros will have almost seven years to make it up to him. Regardless, there are likely to be episodes similar to Springer's until or unless MLB and the MLBPA address the service-time issue — and even if they do, it's hard to imagine what solution they might come up with that would allow teams to promote players as soon as they deem them ready, without fear of paying them piles of extra money or worrying about them leaving a year early.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The qualifying offer system turned Kyle Lohse's name into a verb following the 2012-13 offseason. Lohse didn't sign a free agent contract until late March, a long wait that was attributed to Lohse turning down the Cardinals' one-year, $13.3MM qualifying offer the previous November, and thus attaching the price of a first-round draft pick to any team that wanted to sign him.
Lohse, at least, ended up with some solid long-term security in the form of his three-year contract from the Brewers. This offseason's four free agents who "got Kyle Lohse'd" haven't been nearly so lucky in finding a multiyear commitment. Ervin Santana, coming off a 3.0 fWAR/2.9 rWAR season in 2013, could only find a one-year, $14.1MM contract and had to wait until almost the middle of March to find it. Nelson Cruz, who posted an .833 OPS with 27 homers in 2013, could only find a one-year deal worth $8MM from the Orioles. As for Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew, it's almost mid-April and both players remain unsigned.
While such factors as defensive limitations, injury worries and (in Cruz's case) PED histories limited the quartet's market, the qualifying offer stands out as the biggest reason why Santana and Cruz were limited to one-year deals, and why Morales and Drew are still available. Teams simply weren't willing to give up first- or second-round draft picks in order to make major commitments to these players, while other similar free agents (i.e. Jhonny Peralta or Matt Garza) who didn't require draft pick compensation were able to find four-year contracts.
No free agent has accepted a qualifying offer in the two years that the system has been in place, yet as ESPN's Jayson Stark noted today, "clubs are already getting the vibe from some agents that player/agent strategy is about to change — and players will be far more open to taking qualifying offers next winter." Next year's qualifying offer will be in the range of $15MM for a one-year deal, so while players will be giving up long-term security, they'll still make significant money for accepting a contract. A National League executive tells Stark that teams could employ a tactic of offering a multiyear deal to players who accept a qualifying offer in order to both spread the money out and to give the player more security.
As Lohse himself tells Stark, however, settling for a one-year qualifying offer may be profitable but it goes against the spirit of free agent. "I know we're fortunate to be making the money we're making. But when you get that option where you only have a one-year deal, you don't have any security," Lohse said. "To penalize guys who, in my case last time, have put in 10 or 11 years, and to lock me into a situation where I only have the opportunity to get a one-year deal…it puts guys in a totally different situation that have worked so hard to get to where they want to be." Another issue, as Lohse notes, is that a player who accepts a one-year qualifying offer deal could find himself stuck in the same position the next offseason.
I'd argue that player/agent relations could be another factor in the decision about accepting a qualifying offer process. If an agent advises his client that a one-year qualifying offer is the best option, a player who has waited years for free agency (as Lohse described) and is coming off a strong enough season to merit a qualifying offer in the first place might not accept this advice and seek out a new agent instead. Granted, unrealistic contract expectations may have played a part in why Cruz (reportedly looking for a $75MM deal) and Santana (looking for a nine-figure contract) drew such limited interest on the open market, but agents pride themselves on finding the best possible deals for their clients and don't want to be seen as "settling" on a one-year deal for a client coming off a good season.
Being open to accepting a qualifying offer could, conversely, become a tactic unto itself for players, Stark notes. If players are more open to accepting these offers, teams could be more wary of extending them in the first place to so-called "borderline" free agents. The Red Sox might not have risked Drew accepting their offer, for instance, as the team seemed eager to give Xander Bogaerts an everyday role at shortstop. (Boston did explore re-signing Drew for a one-year deal, but likely not at a $14.1MM price.)
There's still a ton of baseball to be played before we reach the 2014-15 offseason, of course, and still to early to speculate about which of the 2015 free agents stand out as possible candidates to be "Kyle Lohse'd" — or, maybe this term is now "Kendrys Morales'd" or "Stephen Drew'd." Still, given how this most recent offseason has played out for Morales, Drew, Cruz and Santana, do you think we'll see at least one free agent bite the bullet and accept a qualifying offer in November?