Newsstand Rumors

Twins Sell Kris Johnson To Hiroshima Carp

The Twins have sold left-handed starter Kris Johnson to the Hiroshima Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball, reports Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. At least six clubs from Japan’s top league showed interest in Johnson, but the Carp submitted the highest bid, according to Wolfson.

The move appears to work out for both the Twins and Johnson, as Wolfson reports in a followup tweet that the Twins will receive a six-figure sum for selling Johnson’s rights, while Johnson himself will have a seven-figure salary in Japan. (Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press tweets the Twins will receive something in the “mid six figures.”)

Johnson, 30, was acquired from Pittsburgh following the 2013 season in exchange for Duke Welker. Johnson and Welker had both been available for the Twins to select as a PTBNL in the Justin Morneau trade. The Twins initially selected Welker, then flipped him back to the Pirates for Johnson in the offseason. (The other player in the trade, Alex Presley, was claimed off waivers by the Astros earlier this year.)

Johnson made three spot starts for the Twins this season, surrendering seven runs in 13 1/3 innings of work with a 12-to-9 K/BB ratio. Though he has very little big league experience, Johnson has six seasons of experience at the Triple-A level and posted a 3.48 ERA with 7.0 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 in 132 innings at that level in 2014.

Johnson offered the following take on his situation to Wolfson via text message: “I’m very excited about playing for Hiroshima and appreciate the Twins making it happen. I talked to different players about how great the fans and team treat foreign players. I was really impressed with the respect they showed me during the negotiations.”

This transaction marks the second time that the Twins have sold a player to a foreign league, as last offseason the team sent lefty Andrew Albers to the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization.

Minnesota also freed up a 40-man roster spot earlier today by declining a $3.6MM club option Jared Burton.


Free Agent Profile: Rafael Soriano

The Nationals gave Rafael Soriano $28MM (half of it deferred) over two years and sacrificed a draft choice to install him at the back of the pen of one of the league’s most talented rosters. Though he was a reasonably productive pitcher, however, Soriano was not the force that Washington had hoped and he ultimately ceded his closer’s role late in 2014. Now entering his age-35 season, the Scott Boras client will presumably look to score another multi-year deal, but faces market competition in maximizing his dollars.

Pros/Strengths

Soriano actually had a stronger overall campaign in his second year in D.C. In particular, he restored his strikeout rate to the mid-8 K/9 level that he had generally maintained over his previous several seasons, after ending 2013 with 6.9 K/9 – his lowest mark by far since his rookie year. While Soriano posted near-identical earned run marks in each of his two seasons with the Nationals (3.11 and 3.19, respectively), he seems to have re-learned to induce whiffs in spite of his reduced fastball velocity. In particular, Soriano seems to have restored some confidence in his slider after it went missing in 2013, increasing its usage and effectiveness. All of those factors would, it seems, bode well moving forward.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins

Buttressing his good-but-not-great recent production level is its place in the overall context of his career. Since 2006, the veteran has recorded at least 60 innings in seven of nine campaigns. And he has only concluded a season with an ERA higher than last year’s 3.19 mark once: his injury-shortened 2011. While he probably no longer offers the hope of double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, Soriano seems a good bet to deliver a full load of solid innings.

And whatever one thinks of the merit of valuing pitchers based on saves and the like, Soriano’s broad experience is a feather in his cap. He now owns 207 career saves, meaning that he has been exposed to a ton of high-leverage situations. And without suggesting anything about its predictive value, it is worth noting that Soriano has a long record of positive “clutch” scores (per Fangraphs). That experience has its value, particularly for a team that expects to contend and wants a veteran presence in the pen.

Teams intrigued by that consistency will surely also notice that Soriano has been fairly good against lefties: for his career, he has held them to a .234/.309/.395 line. Even better, though he was not as dominant against righties as he had been at times in the past, Soriano showed in 2014 that he can be deployed confidently against hitters of both sides. In fact, facing a nearly even number of left-handed and right-handed bats, Soriano held the former to a .273 wOBA (against a .297 mark from righties).

Cons/Weaknesses

It is not terribly surprising that Soriano has seen some decline in his fastball velocity, but it nevertheless must be accounted for. He has maintained his heater in the 91+ mph range over the last two seasons, after sitting between 92 and 93 earlier in his career. He has seemingly compensated for that fact by increasingly utilizing a mix of four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastballs, though pitch-recognition mechanisms Baseball Info Solutions and Pitch F/X disagree as to his actual mix amongst those three offerings. But the bottom line is that that Soriano’s days of rearing back and throwing it by hitters are probably over. Meanwhile, he has increased his slider velocity to over 84 mph, the highest level of his career, decreasing further the separation for his primary offspeed offering.

One additional factor to consider is Soriano’s tendency to induce a significant number of fly balls, which has spiked back toward the well-above-average rates he maintained earlier in his career. In 2014, Soriano generated only a 31.6% groundball rate while permitting flies at a 49.1% clip. Though a meager 4.8% HR/FB kept the damage to a minimum, Soriano’s career mark sits at nearly twice that level. A few more balls leaving the yard could put a big dent in Soriano’s bottom-line productivity.

It bears mentioning that Soriano’s late-season struggles led to a demotion from the closer’s role — in part due to his inability to keep the ball down — which certainly does not help with perception as he enters the market. And that move was not without statistical basis: Soriano posted a 6.48 second-half ERA after marking his first 37 innings with an impressive 0.97 mark. And those numbers, in turn, had their source in Soriano’s declining peripherals: his strikeout percentage dropped significantly (26.7% to 19.7%) while his rate of line drives allowed went up (14.8% to 24.1%).

Finally, while Soriano has been healthy of late, he does have a deeper injury history that could come into play in a multi-year scenario. Soriano underwent Tommy John surgery early in 2004, returning late in 2005 after a long recovery. Since, he has seen flareups from time to time and even underwent an ulnar nerve transposition and bone spur procedure on his right elbow back in 2008. Most recently, he missed 66 games in 2011 for inflammation. Though his overall recent health has been good, there has to be at least some consideration for the fact that Soriano has a decade or so of mileage on his replacement UCL.

Personal

Soriano is married and has two children. The Dominican native also enjoys a special relationship with his mother, with whom he speaks by phone twice a day, per an interesting profile from James Wagner of the Washington Post.

Soriano persevered through a poor economic upbringing and early difficulties in his career. His quiet disposition belies a warm personality, according to Wagner. But there is no question that a new club will not be getting a boisterous, rah-rah presence. By the same token, Soriano is generally stoic on the hill and does not (visibly, anyway) seem to be overly affected by pressure situations. Though at times he has had a less-than-stellar clubhouse reputation, Soriano seems not to have left that impression in D.C. even after his demotion from the closer role, according to a recent report from the Post’s Adam Kilgore.

Market

As I explained back in early September, Soriano is one of many similarly situated veteran relievers. Though I said at the time that he was one of the few to have maintained his value coming into the year, that assessment was based in part on his poor 2013 and came before his late-year struggles were fully manifested.

At this point, Soriano looks to face a tough market, with plenty of competition on the supply side. His precise placement is subject to debate, but he probably falls in the same general tier as other veteran arms such as Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, and Casey Janssen.

It is difficult to assign possible landing spots for a sub-elite reliever. But in Soriano’s case, one major factor is his pronounced flyball tendency, which could make him more appealing to a club that plays in a more spacious park while reducing the level of interest from teams with more home run-friendly environments.

Expected Contract

Soriano faces a wide range of plausible outcomes, given his warts, the healthy supply of veteran late-inning arms, and the ever-present volatility of a market with so few actors. But he does have a rather extensive track record of finishing off wins, and that can still boost a player’s earning capacity. Though Soriano may have slightly more upside, and perhaps even more downside, I see him landing a two-year, $12MM deal that falls near the bottom of the range of last year’s closer market.


Angels Claim Jackson Williams From Rockies

The Angels announced (Twitter link) that they have claimed catcher Jackson Williams off waivers from the Rockies. As MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez explains (also on Twitter), the Angels’ 40-man roster is full, but Williams will head directly to the 60-day disabled list, as he’s coming off knee surgery, so he therefore does not require a 40-man roster spot at this time.

The 28-year-old Williams made his big league debut with the Rox this season, appearing in seven games and collecting 16 plate appearances. He picked up three hits in 14 official at-bats, including his first Major League homer.

Williams was selected 43rd overall by the Giants in the 2007 draft but left that organization as a minor league free agent last offseason and signed a minor league pact with Colorado. In five seasons at the Triple-A level, the University of Oklahoma product has a .235/.307/.361 batting line. Angels director of communications points out that Williams was Garrett Richards’ catcher in college (Twitter link).

Williams twice ranked among the Giants’ top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America, placing 18th and 16th, respectively, following the 2007 and 2008 campaigns. BA listed him as the best defensive catcher in San Francisco’s system on three separate occasions, most recently before the 2011 season.



Twins Decline Jared Burton’s Option

The Twins have declined their $3.6MM club option on right-hander Jared Burton, director of communications Dustin Morse announced (on Twitter). Burton will receive a $200K buyout and hit the open market this winter.

Burton, 33, came to the Twins prior to the 2012 season on a minor league deal after shoulder surgery had temporarily derailed his career with Cincinnati. (The return of former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky to the Minnesota front office may have had something to do with the team’s interest.) Burton proved to be an excellent find for the Twins in 2012, as he pitched to a 2.18 ERA with 8.0 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 over 62 innings in in his first year with the team. That performance netted him a two-year, $5.45MM extension, which included this option.

Burton’s performance has tailed off over the past two seasons, though he was still solid in 2013, compiling a 3.82 ERA (3.61 FIP) with 8.3 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 66 innings. This season, he got off to a dreadful start to his 2014 campaign, but he did recover to post a 3.41 ERA over his final four months, with the end result being a 4.36 mark.

Overall, Burton spent three seasons with the Twins, totaling a 3.47 ERA with 7.6 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 and 10 saves in 203 appearances (192 innings).


Latest On Twins’ Managerial Search

As the Twins continue to seek a replacement for longtime skipper Ron Gardenhire, here are the latest news and rumors:

OCTOBER 22:

  • Molitor’s one-on-one meeting with GM Terry Ryan went “fine” but did not result in a job offer, per a tweet from Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Internal candidate Gene Glynn is out of the running, according to Jim Mandelaro of the Democrat and Chronicle. It is unclear if he will return to his current post as manager of the Rochester Red Wings.
  • Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN would hire Lovullo, he writes in his latest piece. Lovullo offers substantial experience and outside ideas from a first rate organization. Mackey notes that the Twins like to hire from within, which favors Molitor and Mientkiewicz. It does appear as though Minnesota has narrowed down to these three candidates.
  • Speaking of Lovullo, the Red Sox have granted the Twins an extension to continuing speaking with him, tweets Nick Cafardo.

OCTOBER 21:

  • Molitor has a one-on-one meeting with GM Terry Ryan today, tweets Wolfson, which could mean a number of things.
  • Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe tweets that Lovullo is “very much” still in the mix, and Mackey echoes that sentiment.
  • Jon Heyman of CBS Sports writes that Orioles bench coach John Russell, once a rumored candidate, never heard from the Twins.

OCTOBER 20:

  • Still in the running for the post, according to Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN (via Twitter), are Paul Molitor, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Torey Lovullo.
  • The Twins have told Alomar that he is no longer under consideration, tweets Wolfson. Hale has also been advised that he will not get the position, according to Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun (h/t Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press).

OCTOBER 17:

  • Wolfson tweets that McEwing has been ruled out for the position, meaning that the team could be inching closer to making a decision.

(more…)


Offseason Outlook: Cleveland Indians

While the Indians fell shy of the playoffs, the team still managed to win 85 games despite a pair of key rotation losses in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. As GM of a budget-conscious club, Chris Antonetti will have a limited amount of flexibility as he looks to close the five-game gap that separated his team from the AL Central crown.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Jason Kipnis, 2B: $49.5MM through 2019 (including buyout on 2020 option)
  • Nick Swisher, 1B/OF: $30MM through 2016, plus vesting option
  • Michael Bourn, OF: $27.5MM through 2016, plus vesting option
  • Michael Brantley, OF: $20MM through 2017 (including buyout on 2018 option)
  • Carlos Santana, 1B/C: $15.45MM through 2016 (including buyout on 2017 option)
  • David Murphy, OF: $6.5MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)
  • Ryan Raburn, 2B/OF: $2.6MM through 2015 (including buyout on 2016 option)

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

Contract Options

  • Mike Aviles, 2B/SS/3B: $3.5MM club option with a $250K buyout

Free Agents

From a non-player standpoint, there figures to be little change within the Indians organization. Former GM Mark Shapiro, now the team president, will again entrust GM Chris Antonetti with structuring a contending club despite limited payroll flexibility. Manager Terry Francona and the coaching staff all seem likely to return as well.

The payroll figures to again be Cleveland’s biggest obstacle, as long-term commitments to Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn went south this season. Each player battled injuries and struggled at the plate, making their respective $15MM and $13.5MM salaries look questionable on a team otherwise loaded with many bargains. Also worth noting were the sub-par contributions of David Murphy in his first year with the Indians; his $6.5MM salary in 2015 a year after hitting just .262/.319/.385 and checking in below replacement level further clouds the outfield picture.

With $55MM already committed to the next year’s payroll and possibly another $10MM or so in arb salaries (plus the league-minimum players to fill out the roster), the Tribe could be looking at about $70MM in commitments before making a single decision.

Cleveland finished last in all of Major League Baseball with about 1.437MM fans drawn this season, so it seems unlikely that the team’s payroll will rise significantly from the $80-84MM range that has been set in 2013-14. That will leave Antonetti with somewhere between $10-15MM to augment a roster of affordable contracts.

The Indians can trot out a rotation fronted by Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and followed by breakout 27-year-old Carlos Carrasco. Beyond that pairing, the team can look for another step forward from former top prospect Trevor Bauer and a better overall effort from the hard-throwing Danny Salazar. Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister and T.J. House represent options in the fifth slot, and House was particularly impressive in 2014, posting a 3.35 ERA with 7.1 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 102 innings. Starting pitching, therefore, doesn’t need to be a major focus for Cleveland this winter, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see some veteran arms added on minor league deals just for depth purposes.

Cleveland’s affordable talent isn’t confined to the pitching staff, however. Standout catcher Yan Gomes will earn just $1MM next season in the first year of a six-year, $23MM contract extension. Carlos Santana and his relatively modest $6MM salary will man first base, with Jason Kipnis and his $4MM salary handling the keystone. Jose Ramirez‘s excellent glove will likely open the season at shortstop, with top prospect Francisco Lindor perhaps pushing for a call-up midseason. And of course, MVP candidate Michael Brantley will be looking to replicate his breakout in left field while earning $5MM.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, Cody Allen looks like a formidable ninth-inning weapon, and he’s yet to reach arbitration. He can be joined in the late innings by Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett — each of whom posted a sub-3.00 ERA in at least 30 innings of work. Nick Hagadone joins Crockett and Rzepczynski as a left-handed option. Perhaps best of all, none from this group projects to earn more than $1MM, save for Rzepczynski.

Those cost-controlled players are critical for the Indians. While the Swisher and Bourn commitments don’t prevent them from adding another sizable salary or multiple lower to mid-range salaries in 2015, those large contracts do throw a wrench into their offseason approach. Cleveland already has $51MM committed to the 2016 roster — a season in which Kluber and Allen will become arbitration eligible for the first time. Each figures to see a significant hike in salary should his current success continue. Carrasco will be eligible for the second time that year, and if he can come close to replicating this season’s second-half breakout — something Cleveland desperately needs in order to contend — his arbitration raise will also be very steep. Shaw, Rzepcznski, Chisenhall and others will be due further raises heading into 2016.

Essentially, the Indians are looking at the same guaranteed contract structure they face in 2015, but with an arb class that is potentially twice as costly. So, while they may have $10-15MM to comfortably add to the 2015 payroll, they can’t afford to make long-term commitments beyond the upcoming season without either increasing that payroll significantly or moving some salary. For example, a name like Chase Headley looks appealing as an alternative to Lonnie Chisenhall, who hit just .225/.295/.318 after June 30 and is a very poor defender, but Headley would likely send the 2016 payroll well beyond $85MM (assuming Tim Dierkes’ four-year, $48MM contract projection is correct or close to it).

The team’s financial situation makes one-year commitments the most likely for a significant addition, but the free agent market lacks an obvious one-year candidate at third, which is a position of need. The other logical place to upgrade would be in right field or possibly at DH. In those areas, Colby Rasmus could prove an upgrade over Murphy, with Swisher sliding into a primary DH role. The Indians could also buy low on a name like Corey Hart of Kendrys Morales on a one-year deal to serve as the DH, with the hope that Swisher and/or Murphy rebounds enough to handle right field full-time. It wouldn’t take much, after all, to upgrade on the .188/.254/.311 batting line posted by Cleveland DHs in 2014.

Another option for the Indians would be to pursue an upgrade on the trade market. Juan Uribe and Casey McGehee are two short-term options that could make some sense if their respective teams are interested in making a long-term upgrade at the hot corner.  There are a number of right fielders that would fit the bill as well, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton (though the Indians were on his initial no-trade list), Shane Victorino and Gerardo Parra. Cleveland showed interest in Victorino as a free agent two years ago and could have interest again, particularly if Boston is willing to eat some of his salary.

Of course, pursuit of a name like Heyward would present the question of whether or not Cleveland wants to compromise some of its long-term outlook for an improved chance at immediate contention. The Indians do have a strong group of minor league outfielders headlined by Clint Frazier and also including Tyler Naquin, James Ramsey and Bradley Zimmer — each a first-round pick within the past three years. Some fans would likely make the case that a team with long-term payroll constraints should be resistant to trading controllable/league-minimum talent for a one-year upgrade, but being within striking distance of a postseason berth is an oft-fleeting position. The team could consider this its best shot at a division title with the Royals potentially losing James Shields and the Tigers potentially losing Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, so the argument in favor of a win-now move could certainly be made.

Perhaps the most appealing approach for the front office will simply to be to add a bullpen piece and search for minor upgrades and platoon partners for some of the 2014 regulars that struggled. While they won’t play for top-of-the-market names like David Robertson and Andrew Miller, a number of second-tier options such as Pat Neshek, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo or Joba Chamberlain would add a veteran presence and deepen the relief corps.

Going that route and experiencing success would also likely require at least one of their faded stars to rebound, which isn’t out of the question. Swisher is just one season removed from totaling 2.3 fWAR and 3.8 rWAR, so a rebound isn’t out of the question. Bourn, too, was somewhat productive in 2013, though to a lesser extent.

The Indians could try to dump one or both players, though that’s no easy feat to accomplish. Still, should the Indians eat the majority of one of their 2015 salaries in order to save $8-10MM in 2016, a long-term commitment for a new addition would certainly be easier to structure.

In the end, barring an unexpected payroll boost for the 2016 season, the team’s 2015 maneuverability is limited. The team will have to determine whether it’s worth compromising its enviable reservoir of outfield prospects in order to make a short-term upgrade, or if the better option is to make minor upgrades where possible and bank on a resurgence among a group of underperforming veterans. For all the ink I’ve dedicated to Bourn and Swisher, the most sorely needed rebound may be one from Kipnis, who slumped to a .240/.310/.330 line after posting elite numbers in 2013.


Phillies Extend Jerome Williams For 2015

The Phillies have signed righty Jerome Williams to a one-year, $2.5MM contract extension that will keep him off the free agent market in advance of the 2015 season, the club announced. The contract includes incentives that could boost its value to $4MM, per Chris Cotillo of MLBDailyDish.com (via Twitter).

Williams, who is nearing his 33rd birthday, was quite productive in a short stint with the Phillies this year. Over nine starts for Philadelphia, he logged 57 1/3 frames of 2.83 ERA ball. Of course, that was his third MLB club on the year, and Williams did not put up very attractive numbers in his first two stops with the Astros and Rangers, combining for a 6.71 ERA over 57 2/3 frames.

All said, Williams finished 2014 with 6.4 K/9 against 2.8 BB/9, while posting a cumulative 4.16 FIP, 4.09 xFIP, and 4.03 SIERA. Those numbers provide some reason for optimism, though the Phillies may hope that five better rotation arms emerge from the spring, allowing them to stash Williams as a long man.


Free Agent Profile: Adam LaRoche

Though he’s not technically a lock to hit the open market due to a $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout), Adam LaRoche is a near certainty to be a free agent due to the rarity of such options being picked up by both sides of the agreement. The soon-to-be 35-year-old first baseman should represent one of the few steady power bats on the free agent market.

Strengths/Pros

Power is on the decline league-wide, but LaRoche remains a steady source of home runs from the left side of the dish. He’s averaged 26 homers per season over the past three years (the same number he totaled in 2014), and excluding a 2011 season that was ruined by injuries (more on that below), he’s averaged 25 homers per season dating back to 2005. He’s cleared the 30-homer plateau twice — most recently in 2012 when he went deep 33 times.

Adam LaRoche

Early in his career, LaRoche walked at a decent clip, but he’s taken that ability to new heights since joining the Nationals in 2011. His walk rate in a Nats uniform has been a hefty 12.3 percent, and this past season it ballooned to 14 percent — far and away the best mark he’s posted in a full season.

Correspondingly, LaRoche’s strikeout rate dipped to 18.4 percent — the second-lowest total of his career and the best mark he’s posted since 2005 when he whiffed just 17.3 percent of the time. His 14 percent walk rate this year is almost double the 7.8 percent mark he posted in ’05, however, so it seems fair to say that LaRoche has matured as a hitter. LaRoche chased out-of-zone pitches at just a 25 percent clip this year, which is well below the league average of 31.3 percent. It’s not surprising, then, to see that he averaged 4.04 pitches per plate appearances, which ranked 30th among qualified hitters and tied him with Chase Headley for tops among free agent hitters (Victor Martinez was a close second at 4.03).

LaRoche has a good defensive reputation, and he hasn’t had a negative mark in Defensive Runs Saved since 2009. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him slightly below average over the past two seasons. Scouts around the league will have their own opinions, of course, but it seems unlikely that any would place his defense as a significant negative.

Weaknesses/Cons

I did a midseason assessment of LaRoche’s free agent stock back in June and noted that while he’s typically shown a platoon split, he had held his own against southpaws with a low average but a .381 on-base percentage. That trend regressed significantly, as LaRoche finished the season with just a .204/.284/.336 line against southpaws. He drew 15 walks in 155 plate appearances against same–handed pitching, but he also whiffed at a 27.7 percent clip against lefties, compared to just 15 percent against righties. There may be some teams that simply don’t want to give LaRoche everyday at-bats given the increased struggles he’s shown against lefties over the past two seasons. (He hit .198/.254/.313 against lefties last year.)

As I referenced previously LaRoche has been durable but he does come with a history of some shoulder issues. He missed about a month of his rookie season due to a separated AC joint in his left shoulder, and he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in that same shoulder in 2011. I’d imagine that he and agent Mike Milchin of Relativity Sports will simply point to the fact that LaRoche hit 33 homers the following season and has averaged 149 games over the following three campaigns as proof that it needn’t be a concern, but it may be something that teams want to look at more closely before agreeing to a multi-year deal. He missed a couple of weeks this season with a strained quad, as well, but that appears to be an isolated incident.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a 35-year-old first baseman doesn’t exactly have a gleaming baserunning reputation. Fangraphs pegged him at 5.5 runs below average on the basepaths this season. Among free agents, that figure was sandwiched between the marks posted by Billy Butler and Michael Morse, which should give an indication of what to expect from LaRoche’s running. Additionally, age will be a consideration, as this next contract will carry LaRoche into his late 30s.

Personal

In his free time, LaRoche is an avid bow hunter and outdoorsman. LaRoche is one of several famous baseball names featured on the Outdoor Channel’s show Buck Commander (along with Chipper Jones and Ryan Langerhans, among others). He’s also a devout Christian and teamed with Denard Span and Ian Desmond to host Faith Day following one of the team’s games at Nationals Park this season, as Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post wrote back in August.

LaRoche was diagnosed with ADD in high school and has dealt with the disorder throughout his career. He’s been taking Ritalin to combat the issue since 2006, which has at times caused him to struggle to maintain his weight, according to this 2013 piece from Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.

Baseball runs in the LaRoche family veins, as his father, Dave, was a two-time All-Star and enjoyed a 14-year Major League career. Adam’s brother, Andy LaRoche, also played in the Majors. The two were teammates with the Pirates in 2008-09. Adam is married with two children, per his bio on the Buck Commander web site.

Market

Milchin can make a very legitimate case for LaRoche as the best first baseman on the free agent market. Morse is younger but comes with durability concerns, Cuddyer has those same durability concerns (and may wish to play an outfield corner), and Corey Hart had a disastrous season. Butler and Martinez are better suited to serve as designated hitters than full-time first basemen, and the same can be said for Kendrys Morales.

LaRoche’s preference is to finish his career in D.C., but that seems unlikely. Ryan Zimmerman‘s chronic shoulder woes have created a persistent throwing problem that will require shifting him to first base or the outfield (an outfield that is currently occupied by Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth). It’s possible the team could deal Span, move Harper to center and put Zimmerman in left, freeing first base for LaRoche’s return. But the more likely outcome seems to me to be that LaRoche will walk, Zimmerman will slide over to first and the Nats will pursue a second baseman or third baseman, with Anthony Rendon occupying the other spot.

Looking around the league, there are a few teams with clear needs at first base. The Brewers’ Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds platoon was a flop, and there’s no clear-cut in-house alternative. LaRoche could receive some interest from his former club, the Pirates, as they look to improve upon Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez. The Marlins are known to be looking for a bat and could upgrade over Garrett Jones. The Mariners could make some sense, but Logan Morrison did have a strong finish, and their lineup already leans left pretty heavily. I can see the Padres showing interest as well, and I’ll list the Blue Jays as a dark-horse candidate with the caveat that they’d first have to trade Adam Lind to a more cost-conscious club (e.g. the Pirates).

The other thing to consider with LaRoche is whether or not he will receive a qualifying offer. Like nearly any veteran player coming off a strong season, LaRoche will want the security of a multi-year deal. However, he also has stated a strong preference to remain with the Nats, and his return could present somewhat of a defensive logjam for the team. Because of their roster construction and his desire to stay, I can see the Nats being a bit hesitant to risk a QO. My expectation is that they’ll buy out his mutual option, but there are scenarios in which he could end up with a QO.

Expected Contract

LaRoche struggled to find a suitable deal in his last go-around with free agency despite the fact that he was fresh off a 33-homer season. Part of that, of course, was due to the draft pick attached to his name. He also had steeper competition, with Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher representing younger options coming off very strong seasons.

This time around, LaRoche could be free of draft pick compensation and is arguably the best first baseman on the market. I think something like his previous two-year, $24MM contract with a mutual option is the floor for LaRoche this winter. There’s some case to be made for a three-year deal, which I would imagine to be the target for LaRoche’s camp, but that case would be much stronger had his numbers not dipped in 2013. My prediction is that LaRoche will land in that Napoli range and sign a two-year, $30MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller was drafted sixth overall in 2006, one spot ahead of Clayton Kershaw.  He didn’t find success as a starting pitcher, but developed into a shutdown reliever in recent years.  Miller’s stock rose dramatically in 2014, to the point where he’s the second-best free agent reliever this winter.  The 29-year-old 6’7″ lefty could score a surprisingly large multiyear deal.

Strengths/Pros

Armed with a 94-97 mile per hour four-seam fastball and one of the game’s nastiest sliders, Miller strikes out batters in droves.  Among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, Miller’s 14.87 K/9 ranked second in baseball, behind only Aroldis ChapmanUsing linear weights, Miller had the most valuable slider in baseball in 2014.  And he’s no lefty specialist, either, with righties also unable to touch him.

Andrew Miller

Miller posted a sparkling 2.02 ERA this year, which ranked 22nd among MLB relievers and second among free agent relievers.  Miller ranked sixth among MLB relievers with 2.3 wins above replacement, and second with a 1.21 SIERA.  In short, Miller’s skills more than back up his performance.

Miller showed the best control of his career this year, walking only 2.5 batters per nine innings.  He was traded to the Orioles at the July deadline and was especially stingy with the free pass in the ensuing 20 innings, walking only 1.8 per nine.

Miller allowed less than one baserunner per inning this year, in part because he was extremely difficult to hit.  Only six MLB relievers allowed fewer than Miller’s 4.76 hits per nine innings.  Since 2012, Miller has allowed 5.8 hits per nine.  We’re building a near-perfect reliever at this point, but Miller also allowed only three home runs in his 62 1/3 innings this year.

Miller didn’t have an ERA above 2.70 in any month, but he was particularly good in the season’s final three months with a 1.48 mark.  For good measure, he tacked on another 7 1/3 scoreless frames in five postseason appearances, serving as a major weapon for Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

Not that a qualifying offer would have been likely, but Miller became ineligible for one upon his midseason trade.  That’s an advantage Miller has over the top available free agent reliever, David Robertson.  He’s also younger than most of his peers in the marketplace, as Miller does not turn 30 until May.

Weaknesses/Cons

Control was a weakness for Miller prior to 2014, as he walked 5.2 batters per nine innings in 136 innings from 2011-13.  70 innings of limiting free passes isn’t enough of a sample to say he has completely eliminated the problem.  Miller posted a 5.0 BB/9 as recently as last year.

2013 was an odd year for Miller in general.  He posted a 2.64 ERA in 30 2/3 innings, but lefties hit .281 off him and he walked 16% of the right-handed batters he faced.  That season ended for Miller on July 6th, when he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot.  It was a torn ligament between bones in the middle of the foot, according to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe.

Miller previously hit the 15-day DL in 2007 (hamstring strain), ’08 (knee inflammation), ’09 (oblique strain), and ’12 (hamstring strain).  One point in his favor is that none of these injuries involved his left arm.  Miller fell an out shy of 70 innings this year including the playoffs, but only tallied 53 1/3 frames in 2012 and 30 2/3 last year.  It may not be predictive, but in Miller’s three full seasons as a reliever, this is the only year in which he didn’t miss 26 games or more.

Personal

Miller was born in Gainesville, Florida and attended high school there.  He attended UNC for college and was drafted sixth overall in ’06.  Miller currently resides in Newberry, Florida with his wife and son.  He’s known as a cerebral person, and is one of the game’s most active players union representatives.

Market

Miller has shown he can retire left and right-handed hitters, and has the skills to handle the ninth inning if his team prefers.  Any team would love to have him, and he could anchor a bullpen for the White Sox, Astros, Blue Jays, Mets, Rangers, and Cubs, to name a few.  The Tigers drafted Miller in ’06 and traded him to the Marlins the following year as a major component of the Miguel Cabrera deal.  The Tigers almost brought him back via trade this July, so they should have interest in free agency.  The Brewers, Braves, Pirates, Nationals, and Dodgers were also among those in on him at the trade deadline.  A reunion with Boston also can’t be ruled out, and the Yankees figure to check in.  And certainly the Orioles would like to have Miller back, if they can fit him into their budget while also trying to re-sign Nelson Cruz and others.

Expected Contract

The Red Sox acquired Miller from the Marlins in November 2010, but non-tendered him a few weeks later.  He received strong interest on the free agent market for a few weeks and ultimately turned down three different big league offers to sign a minor league deal to remain with Boston.

Four years later, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe says Miller is “a strong union man who believes in the right of a player to seek the best contract for himself when he reaches free agency,” adding that Miller will go to the highest bidder this winter.  Interest in Miller will be widespread, as it was at the trade deadline.  That the Red Sox were able to extract highly-regarded pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez in a trade for several months of Miller’s services speaks to the kind of bidding war that occurred.

Brandon League money would be a solid deal for Miller; League received $22.5MM over three years at the end of the 2012 season.  Given just one save on his resume, Miller would be the first non-closing reliever to reach the $20MM mark (though I’ve predicted just that for Luke Gregerson).  Still, with MLBTR’s Steve Adams projecting $52MM over four years for Robertson with a qualifying offer, the League contract feels inadequate for a reliever as coveted as Miller.

We haven’t seen a four-year deal for a non-closing reliever since Scott Linebrink signed with the White Sox seven years ago.  With Miller, I think it’s time.  I’m predicting a four-year, $32MM deal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Yoenis Cespedes Switches Agents

Red Sox left fielder Yoenis Cespedes has switched agencies and is now being represented by Roc Nation Sports.  The agency welcomed its newest client via the Roc Nation Twitter feed.  CAA’s Brodie Van Wagenen will be handling the baseball side of Cespedes’ representation, WEEI.com’s Alex Speier tweets, similar to other Roc Nation clients like Robinson Cano and Rusney Castillo.

Roc Nation was linked to Cespedes as far back as July 2013, when the agency was rumored to be courting the outfielder.  While the agency founded by Jay Z isn’t even two years old, it already represents a number of major names from the sports world, including Cano, Castillo and C.C. Sabathia.  Under the Roc Nation banner, Cano and Castillo both notably signed contracts that were above industry expectations.

Cespedes only has one year remaining on the four-year, $36MM deal he originally signed with the A’s prior to the 2012 season.  He has reportedly not given much consideration to signing an extension with the Red Sox, which has led to speculation that the Sox could look to trade him this winter.  Whether he stays in Boston or not, Cespedes is clearly looking ahead to a big payday on his next contract.

Cespedes had previously been represented by WMG’s Adam Katz, who has now lost two high-profile clients within the last few weeks after Nelson Cruz joined Relativity Sports.

For agency info on over 1,700 players, check out MLBTR’s oft-updated agency database.  Agents: if you’ve got a 40-man roster player or top prospect whose representation is not correctly noted, we welcome corrections at mlbtrdatabase@gmail.com.