Newsstand Rumors

Cubs Legend Ernie Banks Dead At 83

Hall of Fame infielder Ernie Banks has passed away at age 83, as has been widely reported. “Mr. Cub” suited up for 19 campaigns in his career, never calling a park other than Wrigley Field home.

That intense identification with one of the game’s iconic teams, along with Banks’ renowned honor and affability, are what make him one of the true legends of the sport. Banks may have best encapsulated his own spirit with his famous tribute to the pure joy of playing baseball: “Let’s play two!”

Needless to say, Banks was also a supremely talented ballplayer. He started his big league career in 1953 with a cup of coffee at age 22, established himself as a fixture the following year, and did not stop until age 40. Along the way, he won two MVP awards and appeared 11 times in the All-Star game.

From 1954 through 1961, Banks manned short for the Cubbies, missing little more than a handful of games and averaging nearly seven wins above replacement annually. His peak came in 1958-59, when he hit 92 total home runs, slashed .308/.370/.605, and took home those two most valuable player nods despite playing for losing ballclubs. Though he ceded some bottom-line value when he shifted to first beginning in 1962, Banks remained one of the game’s most-feared power hitters for much of the next decade.

Banks’s statue already stands outside of Wrigley Field, depicting a simple, straightforward batting stance that does not conjur the power and grace sought after in most effigies. You have to look a bit closer to understand why this particular likeness was chosen: Banks is forever smiling.

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Athletics Avoid Arbitration With Fernando Abad

The Athletics have avoided arbitration with lefty Fernando Abad, MLBTR has learned. He will earn $1,087,500 for the coming season, his first of arbitration eligibility, and can also achieve award bonuses in the deal. Joe Stiglich of tweeted previously that his understanding was that Abad had a deal in place with Oakland.

Abad, 29, had filed at $1.225MM with the A’s countering at $850K, meaning that he bested the midpoint by about $50K. The contract value also represents a bump up over the MLBTR/Matt Swartz projection of a $900K payday. Abad is represented by Praver/Shapiro Sports Management.

Abad followed up on a strong 2013 campaign with an even better effort last year, posting a career-low 1.57 ERA over a career-high 57 1/3 frames. The Dominican native backed his run prevention with 8.0 K/9 against 2.4 BB/9. While a .211 BABIP and 88.6% strand rate undoubtedly contributed to his miserly earned run totals, ERA estimators viewed Abad as a solidly above-average performer.

As one might expect, Abad was especially excellent against same-handed hitters, striking out 35% of opposing lefties. While his swing-and-miss numbers weren’t as impressive against right-handers, Abad did hold them to a .157/.217/.257 line that was even more anemic than lefties managed against him.

Oakland added the southpaw last year when he lost his 40-man spot with the Nationals in advance of the Rule 5 draft. With left-handed closer Sean Doolittle slated to miss the beginning of the season with rotator cuff issues, Abad’s importance to the Athletics’ pen is certainly heightened.

Guillermo Heredia, Lorenzo Quintana Leave Cuba

JAN. 23: Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel reports (via Twitter) that catcher Lorenzo Quintana defected from Cuba alongside Heredia. Quintana did not appear on any of Badler’s rankings of the top players remaining in Cuba, though McDaniel notes in a second tweet that the 25-year-old is also exempt from international spending limitations.

JAN. 21: Center fielder Guillermo Heredia has defected from Cuba in order to pursue a contract with a Major League club, reports Baseball America’s Ben Badler. The 23-year-old Heredia is old enough and has enough professional experience in Cuba’s Serie Nacional to be exempt from international spending limitations.

Badler ranked Heredia, who will 24 at the end of the month, as the 11th-best player in Cuba back in August, and while Badler notes that he’d drop Heredia on a newer list, that’s due more to the emergence of young players than anything Heredia has done to drop his stock.

Heredia runs well and is a plus defender in center field with good range and reads as well as a strong throwing arm, Badler writes. While he hit .343/.449/.527 in 443 plate appearances in the 2011-12 season, his offense has slipped since that time, with his slugging percentage checking in below .400 and an on-base percentage of roughly .380. Heredia had just one plate appearance this season — singling in his club’s first game — before he left the team and was subsequently suspended.

Previous reports have speculated that his absence and suspension were due to an attempt at defecting, and that is now indeed the case, although Heredia has a long ways to go until he can sign with a club. He’ll first need to establish residency in another country and be cleared by both Major League Baseball and the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control before signing with a club. As such, it seems unlikely that he’d be eligible to sign prior to Opening Day.

In a lengthier scouting report (subscription required and highly recommended), Badler provides more detail, ultimately likening Heredia to a right-handed-hitting version of Jackie Bradley due to his penchant for highlight-reel catches and elite glove but questionable offensive profile. In Badler’s estimation, it’s possible for Heredia to begin his career at the Major League level, or at the very least, in Triple-A.

Giants Re-Sign Ryan Vogelsong

While it looked for awhile that he’d be pitching elsewhere, right-hander Ryan Vogelsong will officially be returning to San Francisco in 2015. The Giants announced on Friday that they have re-signed Vogelsong to a one-year deal, which reportedly guarantees him $4MM and provides him the opportunity to earn more via performance bonuses.

Ryan Vogelsong

The 37-year-old Vogelsong, a client of agent Dave Meier, was originally drafted by the Giants in the fifth round of the 1998 draft and ultimately traded to the Pirates in the 2001 Jason Schmidt trade. Vogelsong struggled through parts of five seasons with Pittsburgh before eventually landing in Japan for three seasons. He came back to the States in 2010 but failed to latch on with either the Phillies or Angels on a pair of minor league deals. San Francisco brought him back that offseason, and Vogelsong’s emergence and All-Star nod in 2011 was one of the better stories of that season.

Including his 2011 breakout, Vogelsong has tallied 657 2/3 innings of 3.74 ERA ball with 7.0 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 over the past four seasons. He missed much of the 2013 campaign after being hit by a pitch on the hand and fracturing his finger, which required surgery. Vogelsong struggled to a 5.73 ERA that season but has otherwise been a reliable source of innings for manager Bruce Bochy’s rotation since establishing himself in 2011.

Where he fits onto the 2015 roster is a bit more complicated, however. The Giants expect Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum to comprise their rotation, and though Hudson and Cain are both recovering from surgery, the team has said that each is expected to be ready come Opening Day. Vogelsong could theoretically fill a swingman role, but Yusmeiro Petit excelled in that role in 2014, even setting a Major League record for most consecutive batters retired (46). It’s possible that one of the Giants’ mending starters may not be ready for Opening Day, but Vogelsong doesn’t appear to have a long-term rotation spot in place, barring an injury to a current starter or a shift of the struggling Lincecum to the bullpen.

Vogelsong looked at one point to be heading to the Astros, with reports even placing him in Houston earlier this week, but that deal did not come to fruition. He also drew interest from the Phillies and Rockies before returning to a more familiar setting.

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports first reported (on Twitter) that an agreement had been reached. Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, who originally reported that a reunion between the two sides was likely, reported the $4MM guarantee (on Twitter).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Marlins To Sign Ichiro Suzuki

12:53pm: Ichiro’s base salary will be exactly $2MM, tweets Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

12:03pm: The two sides are still hammering out the specifics of the performance bonuses that will be built into the contract before the deal becomes official, tweets ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.

11:26am: Ichiro’s deal is expected to be a one-year pact in the $2MM range, reports Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. It’s also unlikely to include any sort of option, Rosenthal adds (Twitter links).

11:19am: The Marlins have agreed to terms with free agent outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, reports Craig Mish of MLB Network Radio (Twitter link). The 41-year-old Ichiro, a client of John Boggs & Associates, should serve as Miami’s fourth outfielder in 2015.

Though his skills have clearly eroded somewhat with age, Ichiro posted a respectable .284/.324/.340 batting line in 385 plate appearances with the Yankees in 2014. He also swiped 15 bases in 18 tries, continuing a career-long trend of pronounced efficiency in that regard. Defensive metrics pegged him as an average right fielder, and he slid over to center field for a brief, 19-inning cameo as well, suggesting that he’s capable of doing so in a pinch should the Marlins require such a move on occasion in 2015.

The Marlins’ primary outfield will consist of Christian Yelich in left field, Marcell Ozuna in center and Giancarlo Stanton in right — an excellent young trio that will limit Ichiro’s playing time and make it highly unlikely that he reaches the 156 hits he needs to reach 3,000 in his Major League career (he also had 1,278 hits in his Japanese career prior to jumping to MLB). However, there’s been no indication from his camp that this will be the likely Hall of Famer’s final season, so he could yet reach the plateau if he remains reasonably productive and secures another big league deal next offseason.

Braves To Sign Jonny Gomes

JAN. 23: Brown reports that Gomes’ option can vest at three different amounts, depending on his playing time (Twitter link). The option will vest at $3MM upon reaching 325 plate appearances, $3.5MM if he reaches 425 PAs and $4MM if Gomes reaches 500 PAs.

JAN. 22, 9:03pm: Gomes will earn $4MM in 2015, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports (Twitter link).  The 2016 vesting option is worth $3MM, CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman tweets, and it will become a club option if it fails to vest.

7:20pm: The Braves have reached agreement with free agent outfielder Jonny Gomes on a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2016, Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown reports (Twitter links).  Gomes is represented by the MVP Sports Group.’s Mark Bowman reported on Tuesday that Atlanta was interested in Gomes as a platoon option in left field, likely as a partner for Zoilo Almonte.  The right-handed hitting Gomes has an outstanding .861 OPS over 1494 career plate appearances against left-handed pitching, including a .276/.373/.371 slash line in 204 PA against southpaws in 2014.  Gomes hit .234/.327/.330 overall last season over 321 with the Red Sox and A’s, going to Oakland along with Jon Lester in the trade deadline blockbuster that also saw Yoenis Cespedes go to Boston.

Gomes is the latest new piece to join a revamped Braves outfield that will see his platoon with Almonte (or another left-handed hitting outfielder) replace Justin Upton in left field and Nick Markakis replace Jason Heyward in right.  Gomes, 34, is also widely regarded as a strong clubhouse presence, which could be helpful in mentoring Almonte and the several other young players acquired by the Braves this winter as they’ve looked to semi-rebuild their roster.

The Mariners, Rangers, Cubs and Orioles are some of the teams also known to have shown interest in Gomes this winter.  David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweets that the Braves were worried as late as this afternoon that Gomes would end up signing with the Rangers, so Texas may indeed have been the runner-up suitor.

Cubs, Dexter Fowler Avoid Arbitration

The Cubs and outfielder Dexter Fowler have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $9.5MM, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (Twitter link). As MLBTR’s Arbitration Tracker shows, Fowler had filed at $10.8MM, while the club countered with an $8.5MM figure. His $9.5MM salary falls $150K shy of the midpoint of those figures and is $500K north of his $9MM projection from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz.

Chicago acquired the 28-year-old Fowler (29 in May) this offseason in exchange for infielder Luis Valbuena and right-hander Dan Straily. Fowler spent just one year in Houston, where he batted .276/.375/.399 with eight homers and 11 steals. Another season of his characteristically high on-base percentage (career .366) should position him well as a free agent heading into his age-30 campaign next winter.

Fowler figures to be the Cubs’ everyday center fielder in 2015, although defensive metrics such as Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved suggest that he’s perhaps be better off in a corner spot — likely left field, given the sub-par marks that his arm receives. Despite those defensive shortcomings, Fowler has been plenty useful throughout his career, as evidenced by a lifetime .271/.366/.419 batting line. He’s walked at better than a 13 percent clip over the past two seasons and cut his strikeout rate to roughly 21 percent in that time as well, so he should be a nice boost for a Cubs team that had the worst strikeout rate (24.2 percent) in all of Major League Baseball and finished with the game’s third-worst team OBP (.300).

Brewers In Serious Talks To Acquire Papelbon

8:52am: Papelbon would want his $13MM option for the 2016 season to be guaranteed in order to waive his no-trade clause, Salisbury reports. That presents an expensive obstacle in trade talks, but Salisbury hears that the Phillies are committed to moving Papelbon and letting Ken Giles inherit the closer’s role. ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweets that figuring out how much of Papelbon’s 2016 salary the Phillies would pay is the “last remaining obstacle” in trade talks.

8:18am: The 12 teams to which Papelbon cannot block trades are the Red Sox, Rays, Royals, Angels, Mariners, Astros, Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, Cubs and Padres, reports Jim Salisbury of (on Twitter).

Additionally, Rosenthal tweets that while the Blue Jays did reach out to the Phillies regarding Papelbon, their interest is still very limited. He adds that Papelbon has not yet been approached about waiving his no-trade clause for a move to the Brewers, indicating that talks have not yet reached advanced stages.

7:14am: The Brewers are indeed on Papelbon’s no-trade list, reports Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (Twitter links). Of course, that doesn’t mean that a deal can’t be worked out, particularly if Papelbon’s desire to have a chance at winning is still his primary focus. Rosenthal notes that the Phillies would need to send money to Milwaukee in order to facilitate a deal, in addition to getting Papelbon’s approval.

Rosenthal also tweets that the Blue Jays expressed interest in Papelbon in recent weeks, although they, too, are on the closer’s no-trade list

1:01am: The Brewers are in serious talks to acquire Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies, reports Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports (on Twitter). Earlier today, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that Milwaukee was casting a wide net as it looked for pitching upgrades, and GM Doug Melvin said in an appearance on MLB Network Radio that adding bullpen help was his top priority.

It’s unclear at this time whether or not Milwaukee is on Papelbon’s no-trade list, Passan adds, although indications over the summer were that Papelbon would waive his no-trade protection to be moved to a contender. While the Brewers are far from a lock to achieve a postseason berth in 2015, they do appear to be better positioned than the rebuilding Phillies, who have traded away Antonio Bastardo, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd this offseason as the club looks to the future.

Papelbon, 34, is owed $13MM in 2015 and has a $13MM vesting option that will kick in this season if he reaches 48 games finished. Should Milwaukee ultimately reach a deal to acquire Papelbon, one would think that he’d supplant Jonathan Broxton as the club’s closer, making 48 games finished a highly attainable milestone. Of course, as Passan notes, it is not even clear at this time whether or not the Brewers are one of the 17 clubs on Papelbon’s no-trade list.

Though Papelbon’s velocity and strikeout rate have declined in recent seasons, his bottom-line results have remained largely intact. Papelbon’s heater sat at 95 mph in his final season with the Red Sox, but it dropped to 93.8 mph in 2012, 92 mph in 2013 and 91.3 mph in 2014. Nonetheless, Papelbon was still able to notch an excellent 2.04 ERA with 8.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and a 41.9 percent ground-ball rate in a 2014 campaign that also featured 39 saves — the second-highest single-season total of his career.

The Brewers recently traded Yovani Gallardo and his $13MM salary to the Rangers, although Milwaukee remains on the hook for $4MM of that sum. Still, that salary reduction leaves the Brewers well-equipped to add some payroll, particularly if the Phillies elect to eat some of the remaining money on Papelbon’s contract, which many have assumed they would need to do in order to move him.

As it stands, Broxton figures to be closing games, with righties Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg serving as setup options alongside lefty Will Smith. Both Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano have been mentioned as possible bullpen targets for the Brewers, although for the time being, the trade market appears to be the more likely avenue for Doug Melvin to improve his bullpen.

Phillies Have Strong Interest In Chad Billingsley

The Phillies are expressing significant interest in right-hander Chad Billingsley, reports Jim Salisbury of According to Salisbury, Billingsley has thrown for the Phillies recently, suggesting that there’s mutual interest in striking a deal. As Salisbury notes, Billingsley lives in the Reading, Pa. area, making Philadelphia a geographically appealing destination.

The 30-year-old Billingsley’s career has stalled over the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery in 2013 and surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in 2014, but he was a key part of the Dodgers’ rotation from 2007-12. In his four best (and healthiest) seasons from 2008-11, Billingsley averaged 194 innings per year, posting a 3.73 ERA with 8.1 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9. Though he’s not a ground-ball specialist by any means, he’s registered a 46.3 percent ground-ball rate in his career, which one would think is appealing to the Phillies, given the homer-friendly nature of their home park.

Salisbury also adds that the Phillies have maintained contact with another local arm, Ryan Vogelsong, for much of the winter. However, Vogelsong has more recently been connected to the Astros and Giants, and the Giants appear likely to re-sign him according to the latest reports.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. wouldn’t comment on his interest in Billingsley or Vogelsong when asked by Salisbury, but he did note that the club is looking for pitching depth — specifically “low-cost, low-risk, potentially high-reward type of guys.” Billingsley would seem to fit that description, as his asking price following a two-year stretch in which he has totaled just 12 Major League innings surely cannot be high. A one-year deal with a modest base salary and incentives based on innings pitched/games started would be the most logical expectation.

Latest On James Shields

James Shields‘ market still lacks clarity, as more notable teams are claiming to be out rather than in on the free agent right-hander.  The Diamondbacks and Brewers both seem to be out of the running, while Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said his team is more focused on adding rotation depth than a potential ace.  Here’s some more about which clubs may or may not still be in the Shields derby…

  • Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports takes an overview of Shields’ market, plus passing on the news that Shields would prefer to pitch closer to his home on the west coast.  Rosenthal also adds to the lack of a Brewers/Shields connection, reporting that Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio isn’t pushing his front office to add Shields.  The Blue Jays, who are known to be interested in Shields, have limited payroll space and would need a “massive backload” of a contract to make it work.
  • Also from Rosenthal, some executives think Shields will receive a four-year deal worth $70-$80MM.  Page Odle, Shields’ agent, has been very quiet about his strategy or expectations for his client’s next salary, though Rosenthal reports that some around the game feel Shields would’ve been better off billing himself as a No. 2 or No.3 starter rather than as a top-of-the-rotation ace.
  • The Marlins are “closely monitoring” the Shields market, ESPN’s Jim Bowden reports (Twitter link).  Miami has been linked to Shields in recent weeks though they’re wary about paying too much to sign him and Grantland’s Jonah Keri recently reported there is a “zero percent” chance of Shields joining the Fish.
  • In an interview with Jim Duquette and Mike Ferrin on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (audio link), Royals GM Dayton Moore said it’s “doubtful” that Shields returns to Kansas City.  While Moore admitted that “I can’t say [re-signing Shields] hasn’t crossed my mind,” he said that the Royals’ roster, and particularly its rotation with new addition Edinson Volquez, is probably settled going into Spring Training.
  • The Padres are “unlikely” to sign Shields though they’re still “on [the] periphery” of his market, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal tweets.  A few weeks ago, I speculated that the Padres could be a dark-horse contender for Shields since they’ve been so aggressive in upgrading their roster, not to mention the fact that Shields lives in the San Diego area.