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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.


Offseason Outlook: New York Yankees

The Yankees will have to make additions while sorting through several high-priced injury question marks on their roster as they try to rebound from consecutive years outside the postseason.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Masahiro Tanaka, SP: $133MM through 2020 (Tanaka can opt out after 2017)
  • Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: $126.8MM through 2020 ($21MM club option for 2021, $5MM buyout)
  • Brian McCann, C: $68MM through 2018 ($15MM club option for 2019, can vest to become player option)
  • Alex Rodriguez, 3B: $61MM through 2017
  • C.C. Sabathia, SP: $48MM through 2016 ($25MM vesting option for 2017, $5MM buyout otherwise)
  • Brett Gardner, OF: $48MM through 2018 ($12.5MM club option for 2019, $2MM buyout)
  • Mark Teixeira, 1B: $45MM through 2016
  • Carlos Beltran, OF: $30MM through 2016
  • Martin Prado, IF: $22MM through 2016
  • Brendan Ryan, SS: $2MM through 2015 ($2MM club option for 2016, become $1MM player option if declined)

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The emotion of the Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retirement tours over the last two seasons may have softened the blow of missing the playoffs for Yankees fans.  Now that the last of the “Core Four” has retired, eyes are focused on the present and what the Steinbrenner family, the newly-extended Brian Cashman and a revamped baseball operations department will do to get this team back into contention.

When the Bombers missed the playoffs last year, they responded by spending over $500MM on new contracts for free agents and re-signed talent.  It doesn’t seem like the Yankees are prepared for another spending spree, in part because two of last year’s big signings (Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran) underperformed.  Combine those setbacks with a huge swath of injuries that sidelined almost the entire Yankees rotation, and it’s somewhat surprising that the club managed to win even 83 games.

The biggest issue facing the Yankees is that many of their highest-paid players can’t be counted on to stay healthy or play up to their usual standard in 2015.  C.C. Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and has already suffered a decline in performance in recent years.  Mark Teixeira managed to play in 123 games last year but his wrist problems will always require a backup option.  McCann and Beltran could’ve just had off-years, or they could possibly be on the decline as well.

And then there’s Alex Rodriguez, returning from his year-long suspension as a complete mystery in terms of what he’ll be able to contribute.  The plan for A-Rod seems to be a rotation between DH, third base and possibly first base, to spell Teixeira.  Until the Yankees know if Rodriguez can handle regular time at third, however, it will somewhat hamstring their other winter plans.  They have an interest in bringing back Chase Headley, though obviously Headley will want to play every day, and limiting Rodriguez to a 1B/DH role will cut down on the DH at-bats that might be needed for another aging players like Beltran or McCann.

One possible solution would be to pencil Martin Prado in as the third baseman and to acquire a stopgap option to play second or give prospect Rob Refsnyder a shot at the job.  If Rodriguez’s body can hold up under regular playing time at the hot corner, then Prado can then primarily play second base, with the occasional game at 3B to spell A-Rod.  Prado’s versatility is a nice tool for the Yankees to have, and since he posted an .877 OPS in 137 PA after joining the club at the trade deadline, his bat may have awoken after a rough first half with the Diamondbacks.

With Rodriguez likely looking at a healthy share of DH at-bats, Beltran will have to see much more time in right field than the 32 games he played at the position last season.  Beltran’s elbow injury both kept him out of RF and likely played a big role in his struggles at the plate, so if he’s healthy, he could be back to his usual productive self.  For depth’s sake, however, the Yankees will definitely look to add a backup outfielder who could regular playing time or at least would be Beltran’s late-inning defensive replacement.  Someone like Gerardo Parra (who the Brewers could non-tender or look to trade this winter) would be a nice fit in this role.

Replacing Jeter is impossible from a big-picture standpoint, though replacing Jeter’s 2014 on-field production (-0.3 fWAR, 73 wRC+) at shortstop shouldn’t be hard.  There will inevitably be a big media spotlight on whichever player becomes Jeter’s successor at short, and the Yankees have a couple of options: they can pursue a young shortstop as a true long-term heir apparent, or they could look for an established veteran (who might be more used to the pressure) to play the position for a few seasons until a younger option can be groomed or acquired.

If New York chooses the veteran route, there are free agent shortstops like Asdrubal Cabrera or Jed Lowrie available.  Hanley Ramirez is the top free agent shortstop on the market, though if the Yankees are indeed hesitant about giving big money to players over 30 years old, then a player with Ramirez’s injury history and defensive limitations wouldn’t be a good fit.  Stephen Drew could be re-signed at a relative discount price, though it’s hard to see the Yankees handing Drew the starting job coming off his poor 2014 season.  It’s possible the Yankees’ top choice to replace Jeter may already be off the board, as J.J. Hardy signed an extension with the Orioles rather than test free agency.

If the Yankees went for a younger option at short, they could talk trade with the Diamondbacks or Cubs, each of which have a surplus of young shortstops.  Chicago’s surplus, of course, is of a higher pedigree since it involves former All-Star Starlin Castro and blue chip prospects Addison Russell and Javier Baez.  As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes wrote in his recent Cubs offseason outlook piece, however, the timing may not be right for the Cubs to trade their middle infield depth.  Plus, even if Chicago was willing to deal, the Yankees may not have the prospect depth to meet the enormous asking price the Cubs would demand for any of those players.  Swinging a deal for one of Arizona’s slightly lesser-regarded young shortstops (Didi Gregorius, Nick Ahmed, Chris Owings) could be a more palatable option.

The Yankees acquired Prado using one piece of their catching surplus in prospect Peter O’Brien, and the club still has John Ryan Murphy, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine all battling for the backup job behind McCann.  Any two of these players could be expendable with top prospect Gary Sanchez on the farm, though Sanchez has yet to play beyond the Double-A level and is at least a season away from getting serious consideration from a big league job.

The biggest trade chip the Yankees have, of course, is their financial might.  Headley, Prado and Brandon McCarthy were all acquired for a fairly negligible prospect return at midseason since New York was simply able to take those contracts off the Padres’ and Diamondbacks’ hands.  Rather than surrender draft picks to sign qualifying offer free agents or deal away what little farm depth they have, the Yankees could pursue more trades with rivals looking to create payroll space.

If the Yankees did want to make a splash in free agency, however, Jon Lester could be an attractive target since (due to the fact that he was traded at midseason) he can be signed without any draft pick compensation.  The Yankees have a particular admiration for Lester, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, and the southpaw would bring both quality and much-needed durability to New York’s rotation.  Max Scherzer could also draw interest from the Yankees this winter as another front-of-the-rotation upgrade, not to mention James Shields, who is expected to be available at a lower price than those other two aces.

While adding a top starter could technically give the Yankees a rotation surplus if everyone is healthy, that’s a giant “if” given how many injury-plagued starters are in the rotation.  C.C. Sabathia is returning from knee surgery and even if he’s 100 percent health-wise, the lefty has still been on the decline for the last two seasons.  Ivan Nova will be out until May at the earliest as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.  Michael Pineda looked dominant when he was on the mound, yet had another injury setback when he missed three months with a bad shoulder.

The most tenuous injury situation involves Masahiro Tanaka, who took MLB by storm in his rookie season before a slight UCL tear caused him to miss 10 weeks.  Tanaka returned to make two starts in late September and reported he was pain-free, so for now, it appears the righty may have dodged the Tommy John bullet.  Any recurrence of the injury, however, could lead to surgery for Tanaka and at least a year on the DL.  Tanaka is yet another high-paid superstar the Yankees don’t know if they can count on in 2015, and his uncertain health status is the club’s strongest argument for making a play for the likes of Scherzer, Lester or Shields.

Shane Greene‘s strong rookie season earned him a spot in the 2015 rotation, so presuming that leaves New York with a tentative starting quartet of Tanaka, Greene, Pineda and Sabathia.  If the Yankees don’t land that ace-level pitcher, they could turn to familiar faces in McCarthy (who is open to a return) or Hiroki Kuroda, who is again weighing retirement or a return to Japan.

Kuroda faced the same choice last offseason and rejected a $14.1MM qualifying offer before re-signing with the Yankees on a one-year, $16MM deal.  It stands to reason that Kuroda will receive another QO this winter — if the Yankees were comfortable in issuing him a qualifying offer last year before knowing if he’d return to MLB, they’d probably feel similarly comfortable this year.  Kuroda still posted solid numbers and 199 IP at age 39 last season, and he’ll draw enough interest from teams that I’d suspect he’ll reject this offseason’s $15.3MM qualifying offer to look for another slightly-richer one-year pact.  It’s fair to assume the Yankees have the inside track on Kuroda’s services if he does return, though the Dodgers and Angels are also looking for starting pitching and can offer Kuroda a job closer to his home in southern California.

Dellin Betances‘ phenomenal success as the Yankees’ setup man has led to speculation that he could take over as closer in 2015 and New York could afford to let David Robertson leave in free agency.  The Yankees are one of the few teams who can afford to issue a qualifying offer to a closer, and while it’s possible the QO could scare off some teams who don’t want to give up a first-round pick to sign a one-inning pitcher, MLBTR’s Steve Adams argued that Robertson’s status as the best closer available will still land him a significant deal, possibly in the range of four years and $52MM.  A lockdown bullpen has been such an important part of recent Yankees history that I can see the Bombers re-signing Robertson and re-teaming he and Betances to create a lot of seven-inning games.

With or without Robertson, expect the Yankees to pursue a veteran lefty reliever to fill the hole left by Matt Thornton, who was let go on waivers last summer.  Andrew Miller stands out as the best left-handed option (and one of the best relievers in general) available in free agency, and he could serve as Betances’ setup man.  The Yankees could take a page from the Royals’ book by signing Miller AND re-signing Robertson, sandwiching them around Betances to create a terrifying late-game relief trio.

David Huff, David Phelps, Shawn Kelley and Esmil Rogers are all eligible for arbitration this winter and since all pitched well in 2014 (at least peripheral-wise in Kelley and Rogers’ cases), expect all four to be tendered contracts and brought back into the bullpen mix.  The Yankees could also exercise their inexpensive team option on Andrew Bailey for 2015, though since hasn’t pitched at all since undergoing shoulder surgery in July 2013, Bailey is just a lottery ticket at this point.

The rumor mill inevitably connects the Yankees to virtually every top free agent during the offseason, both because agents like to raise their clients’ asking prices by claiming the league’s big spenders are interested and because the Yankees usually do cast a wide net.  Throwing more money at free agents might leave the club with even more albatross contracts, however, and even the Yankees have a spending limit.  It’s more likely the Yankees will look to fill their roster holes through trades rather than free agency, though expect them to explore all options lest the playoff drought extend to three years.



Cafardo On Moore, Cespedes, Markakis, Giants

If the Royals win the World Series it would be difficult to imagine GM Dayton Moore leaving for the Braves‘ vacancy.  However, those who know Moore well say that he felt comfortable in Atlanta, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe writes.  On top of that, the Braves would offer Moore a bigger budget to work with.  More from today’s column..

  • Word is spreading that the Red Sox could make Yoenis Cespedes available.  The slugger will make $10.2MM in the final year of his deal and his desire not to play right field or work on his defense could spell the end of his time in Boston.  A Cespedes deal would allow the Sox to make room for Mookie Betts or add a left-handed hitter.
  • The Giants are a team to watch when Nick Markakis hits the open market as expected.  Even though they’re enjoying Travis Ishikawa‘s work, they are unlikely to commit to him as an everyday left fielder.  The Mets could also be in the mix.
  • One agent believes Jake Peavy has turned his next contract from a one-year, $7MM deal into a three-year, $36MM deal based on his second half with the Giants.  Cafardo notes that the Giants won’t re-sign Ryan Vogelsong and with little help coming from Triple-A, they’ll likely have to bite on a Peavy deal.
  • There have been preliminary talks between the Red Sox and Koji Uehara about staying in Boston,but the sides aren’t close to a deal.

Free Agent Profile: Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera might not be the player that some envisioned he would be four years ago, but he still holds a ton of value as he gets ready to explore the open market.  Save for Hanley Ramirez, Cabrera arguably stands as the winter’s most attractive free agent shortstop option.

Strengths/Pros

At just 28 years old (29 in November), Cabrera has youth on his side, especially when surveying the rest of the available talent pool.  Cabrera also boasts four consecutive years of mostly good health with an average of 144 games per season over that span.  Of course, that 2011 season was more than just the start of Cabrera’s good fortune in the health department, it was his true coming out party.  That season, Cabrera slashed .273/.332/.460 for the Tribe, earning his first All-Star selection and his first Silver Slugger trophy.MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies

In 2012, Cabrera earned a second All-Star nomination thanks in part to another strong showing at the plate (.270/.338/.423).  The following two years didn’t bring the same kind of accolades and praise, but Cabrera continued to produce.  Cabrera’s breakout year was his best to date, but the last three years have shown that he can deliver ~15 homers (he had 16, 14, and 14 the last three years) with some speed on the basepaths.

Cabrera also offers more than just shortstop experience, he also has 1773 2/3 innings of career experience at second base.  He mainly plied his craft at shortstop from 2010-2014, but he returned to second this season upon joining the Nationals, so some of the rust from the change should be gone.  His ability to play either middle infield position should help increase his market and will also provide his next team with a bit of flexibility.  This also isn’t a strong second base market on the whole, so his versatility is a positive.

Weaknesses/Cons

Defensively, Cabrera leaves much to be desired.  For his career, Cabrera has a -10.6 UZR/150 rating at shortstop, putting him well below your average defender.  His most recent campaigns haven’t helped either as he posted -16.8 and -10.5 marks in each of the last two seasons.  His body of work at second base is better, according to UZR/150, but still far from great.  He has a lifetime -2.5 UZR/150 at second and turned in a -5.3 rating in 432 innings for the Nats.  Looking for a second opinion?  Defensive runs saved has Cabrera as a -10 defender at second base in 2014 and -7 at shortstop.  The career total is more favorable for second base (2), but even less so at shortstop (-22).

At the plate, it’s impossible to overlook the drop off that Cabrera has experienced over the last two seasons.  In the All-Star years, he slashed a combined .272/.335/.443 with a 118 OPS+, well above the league average.  In the last two seasons, he has produced a .241/.303/.394 batting line with a slightly below-average OPS+ of 96.  Cabrera’s 2014 walk (7.7%) and strikeout percentages (17.1%) are in line with his career averages, which is to say they’re alright, but not great.

Personal

Cabrera and his wife, Lismar, have two children and this winter they’ll welcome another member of the Cabrera clan into the world.

Of course, Cabrera spent his entire big league career in Cleveland before the midseason trade that sent him to the nation’s capital.  While he didn’t stomp his feet over being dealt to the Nationals, he was upset to leave what had become a second home for him, telling reporters it was “like [he] grew up” in Cleveland.  That feeling was reciprocated in the front office.

It’s another tough day for a number of us personally because of how much Asdrubal meant to our team and our organization,” General Manager Chris Antonetti said, according to The Associated Press. ”He’s a guy who has impacted two postseasons for us. We’ll obviously miss Asdrubal a great deal.”

In his downtime, Cabrera enjoys being on his farm in Florida where he tends to his horses every morning.  Back in Venezuela, he’s a fan of taking his boat out on the water with family and friends.

Market

Even though he prefers the shortstop position and his second half in Washington didn’t produce his finest work, Cabrera has said that he would welcome a return to the Nationals.

It depends. A team like this team, a good team that want me to play second, I would love to stay here. I just want to win. I’ve got eight seasons already. I want to be in the World Series one day,” Cabrera said, according to MASNsports.com’s Dan Kolko.

That desire to win could, theoretically, lead to a discount for the incumbent Nats.  Recently, Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider expertly summed up the Nationals’ dilemma at second base.  If they want to prioritize offense at the position, then Cabrera is the better choice to make than giving the defensively strong Danny Espinosa an opportunity to take back the job.  Our own Jeff Todd suggests that a platoon between Cabrera and Espinosa, who can hit against lefties and serve as a strong defensive replacement, would make sense.  The Nats can also use that duo to fill the void if Ian Desmond leaves in free agency next winter.  However, it’s not a given that the Nats will be willing to get in the ballpark of what other clubs will offer Cabrera.

If the two sides can’t get on the same page for a reunion, there should be plenty of interest from teams in need of middle infield help.  The competition at second base is thin, though Cuban defectors Jose Fernandez and Hector Olivera have added some depth there.  At shortstop, Cabrera will have to vie with Stephen Drew and Jed Lowrie.  As noted in Jeff’s recent poll asking the MLBTR commentariat to choose the best option from the trio, Ramirez could be seen more as a third base option than shortstop and the year’s best potential option, J.J. Hardy, is already spoken for.

Teams like the Padres, Reds, and Mets could be interested in signing an impact shortstop, though none of them look the part of a Las Vegas championship favorite for 2015.  The A’s and the Blue Jays could both be in the market for a second baseman.  The Yankees, meanwhile, are on the lookout for a shortstop and, depending on how things play out, could have a need at second as well.  Martin Prado is currently penciled in to fill that role, but if he’s needed elsewhere, the Bombers could look into someone like Cabrera for second.

Expected Contract

The dearth of quality free agent middle infielders is something of a double-edged sword for Cabrera.  On one hand, he has less competition.  On the other, as evidenced by the lack of intriguing available options, a lot of teams are already set, particularly at second base.  There are also a few teams with surpluses in that area like the Rangers, Cubs, and Diamondbacks, which could draw attention away from the free agent market.

Ultimately, while he enjoys playing shortstop more, his best bet at winning and cashing in could come as a second baseman.  The Nationals should at least have some interest in working out a new deal, even though they didn’t get a redux of Cabrera’s best work.  The Yankees, if they shift Prado, can be expected to show interest as well.  Because of his age and his ability to play both middle infield positions, I predict that Cabrera will land a three-year, $27MM deal.

Photo courtesy USA Today Sports Images.


Offseason Outlook: Milwaukee Brewers

After spending much of the 2014 season in first place and then collapsing down the stretch, the Brewers will try to regroup for 2015, perhaps hoping for the best with a talented but flawed core and a marginal, though improving, farm system.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

The Brewers unexpectedly got off to a great start in 2014 and continued that hot start into the summer, with a 51-32 record as of June 28. As the first half of the season became the second, however, the 6 1/2-game lead they had held over the Cardinals evaporated, and in the end they missed the playoffs and barely finished above .500.

The Brewers retained manager Ron Roenicke following their collapse, although they dismissed hitting coach Johnny Narron and first base/infield coach Garth Iorg. Despite any lingering frustrations, it appears unlikely they’ll make many huge moves this offseason.

One position they will likely upgrade is first base, where they’ve struggled to find a reliable contributor since Corey Hart‘s last healthy season with the team in 2012. Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay platooned at the position in 2014 and, unsurprisingly, neither of them helped much. Reynolds hit 22 home runs in 433 plate appearances, but with his usual very low batting average and a .287 OBP. Both are free agents; Overbay appears likely to retire. Adam LaRoche (whose mutual option the Nationals are likely to decline) looks like the prize of this year’s free agent class, with the injury-prone Michael Cuddyer and the defensively challenged Michael Morse close behind. The Brewers could also lean on rookies Matt Clark and Jason Rogers, who both hit well with Triple-A Nashville, although both are minor league veterans who might not have much to offer at the big-league level.

The Brewers will also need to figure out what to do with Aramis Ramirez. Given his $4MM buyout, Ramirez’ $14MM mutual option is effectively $10MM for the Brewers. They would be wise to exercise their end, given that Ramirez produced a reasonable 2.1 fWAR while hitting .285/.330/.427 last season. Ramirez would not get the buyout if he were to decline his end, so it might make sense for him to accept his end of the option, particularly if he intends to retire after 2015. He could also decline the option and seek a multi-year deal, however. Ramirez said in July that he planned to reach 2,500 games for his career, which would take at least three more seasons, but he also said in September that he was not sure whether he would play 2015. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes predicts that Ramirez will ultimately re-sign with the Brewers for two years and $26MM.

The middle infield is mostly set with Scooter Gennett and Jean Segura, although Segura took a big step backward after a strong rookie season in 2013. The Brewers will surely decline their $11.5MM option on Rickie Weeks, who didn’t get enough plate appearances for his option to vest. The 2003 No. 2 overall pick doesn’t expect to be back in Milwaukee in 2015. If he isn’t, the Brewers could pursue a cheap right-handed infielder to platoon with Gennett, or have Hector Gomez, who had a good season at Nashville and is out of options, occupy that role.

The Brewers could also continue with Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis in the outfield. Gomez continues to produce at an extremely high level and is a bargain at just $17MM total through the next two seasons. Braun, though, struggled in 2014 (hitting .266/.324/.453, not a good figure for a player with little defensive value), and the $117MM he’s owed through 2020 looks like it could become a problem. Perhaps a healthier Braun (he suffered from a thumb injury this season and has already had unusual surgery to freeze a nerve) can rebound in 2015.

The Brewers could retain Gerardo Parra as an outfield backup — it’s hard to pass on an average hitter and elite defender (although defensive metrics weren’t keen on his 2014 performance). Still, Parra is coming off a disappointing season and will get a modest raise on his $4.85MM 2013 salary, making him an expensive backup. Dealing or non-tendering him might be a way for the Brewers to free up salary. Another possibility might be to move Braun to first base and have Parra start in right field.

Behind the plate, of course, there’s Jonathan Lucroy, who is, like Gomez, an elite, prime-age player signed to a bargain contract. Lucroy’s five-year deal is among the most team-friendly in baseball — it guarantees an MVP-caliber player a mere $11MM and gives the Brewers an option on what would have been Lucroy’s first free agent season (2017) for just $5.25MM.

In the rotation, the Brewers have already decided to exercise their $13MM option on Yovani Gallardo, and they also have Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse under contract and a reasonable collection of pre-free agency pitchers in Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and promising newcomer Jimmy Nelson. Marco Estrada could be a non-tender candidate after allowing 29 homers in 150 2/3 innings in 2014, although he’ll still be fairly cheap and his other peripherals were reasonable. The Brewers don’t figure to be big players for free agent starting pitching.

Their bullpen will be trickier. Closer Francisco Rodriguez and lefties Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny will all be eligible for free agency. Duke emerged from oblivion to become the Brewers’ best reliever in 2014, posting a 2.45 ERA with a remarkable 11.4 K/9 in 58 2/3 innings, and his production will be difficult to replace if he departs.

The bullpen’s season demonstrated how crucial a good relief corps can be. Rodriguez, Duke, Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith dominated in the early going, leading the Brewers as they jumped to the division lead. During that time, however, those relievers piled up appearances as little-used Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang occupied a bullpen spot that could have gone to someone capable of soaking up innings. Rodriguez couldn’t keep up his early pace, Smith imploded in July, and Thornburg faded in May and eventually ended up on the DL with an elbow injury. The team also lost Jim Henderson to shoulder problems. Finally, they acquired Jonathan Broxton — and his entire $9MM 2015 salary, plus a $2MM buyout — from the Reds in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

In March and April, the Brewers had the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball, at 2.45; in the second half, it was more than a run higher, at 3.62. While variance in bullpen performance is normal, and the team did get some good work from second-tier relievers like Gorzelanny and Jeremy Jeffress, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Brewers attempt to avoid last season’s struggles by pursuing bullpen depth this winter. Re-signing or replacing Rodriguez at closer could also be a priority.

Despite the trajectory of their 2014 season, the Brewers’ 82-80 record was about what they should have expected, given their talent. The question is what they’ll do from here. Having two excellent and cheap players in Gomez and Lucroy is a strong place for any franchise to start, but the Brewers’ complementary pieces aren’t nearly as valuable, and it’s unclear where their next group of stars will come from. Including Gallardo’s option, the Brewers already have about $70MM on the books for 2015. Retaining Ramirez will add to that total, as will arbitration raises for Parra, Estrada and catcher Martin Maldonado (assuming Parra and Estrada are retained). The Brewers will need to address first base as well, which should leave them without much money to make a big splash this offseason, given that their highest ever Opening Day payroll was their 2014 total of about $103MM. Perhaps their best shot at an attention-grabbing signing would be if they acquired someone like Chase Headley to play third base, and that would only happen if Ramirez left.

An infusion of star talent doesn’t appear imminent from the minors, either. The Brewers’ farm system has improved after a strong 2014 draft, but they don’t currently have anyone in MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in the game, and their best talents (Tyrone Taylor, Orlando Arcia, and top 2014 draftees Kodi Medeiros, Jacob Gatewood and Monte Harrison) have little or no experience in the high minors.

The Brewers are therefore in a tight spot. They don’t appear to be as good as the Cardinals or Pirates, and perhaps they soon won’t be as good as the rapidly improving Cubs. But given the state of their farm system, a rebuild would potentially be long and painful. And as the team’s outstanding 2014 first half suggested, the Brewers are still probably good enough to win an NL Central title or a Wild Card if everything breaks right. If Gomez and Lucroy were to maintain their production in 2015, if Braun and possibly Segura were to return to form, and if a couple more players (Davis and Nelson, say) were to break out, it wouldn’t be a shock if the team won 88 games or so and made the playoffs.

Given that possibility, rebuilding can wait. But if the Brewers get off to a poor start in 2015, expect to hear plenty of rumors about their veterans. In particular, Gallardo, Lohse and Broxton, who can all become free agents after 2015, would likely be fair game.


Orioles Expect To Increase Payroll

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette says the team plans to increase its payroll next season, Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun reports. Duquette notes that he still needs to meet with team ownership to discuss the payroll, but he expresses confidence that it will rise.

The important thing for our fans to know is that we’ve increased our payroll over the last couple years,” says Duquette. “I expect that we’ll be able to increase our payroll because the fans have responded to our team the last couple of years.”

The Orioles will have to deal with arbitration raises for a number of key players, as well as options for Wei-Yin Chen and Darren O’Day. They are likely to buy out their end of Nick Markakis‘ $17MM mutual option, but they’d like to retain him, Encina writes.

Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller and Delmon Young will be free agents. The Orioles will likely extend Cruz a qualifying offer, and Cruz has said he would like to stay in Baltimore, but Duquette cautions that it will be tricky to keep him. “You can tell just by watching him, he’s the leader of the ballclub,” says Duquette. “Having said that, he came here to have a platform year to get himself re-established to get him a long-term deal and that’s something we will have to consider.”

As Encina points out, the Orioles had an Opening Day payroll of over $107MM last year, then increased it in-season by adding Miller, Alejandro De Aza, Nick Hundley (whose 2015 option they’ll likely decline) and others. Keeping most of their existing talent (including Markakis) will likely force them to go higher than that $107MM figure. They’ve already agreed to an extension with shortstop J.J. Hardy that will pay him $11.5MM in 2015, and Adam Jones and Ubaldo Jimenez will make even more. Chris Davis, who made $10.35MM in 2014, will top the Orioles’ long list of arbitration-eligible players, which also includes Matt Wieters, Bud Norris, Steve Pearce, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Zach Britton and De Aza.


Offseason Outlook: Atlanta Braves

Last year’s offseason was dedicated in large part to the future, with a series of extensions and key financial moves, but the Braves were well-stocked with talent at the major league level and looked promising to start the 2014 season. After weathering significant pitching injuries early on, however, Atlanta faded badly down the stretch and is now staring at front office changes, a tight budget, difficult decisions, and rising competition in the division.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Free Agents

Other Obligations

Every organization responds differently when it feels that change is needed, and for the Braves, the sense seems to be that a restoration is in order. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox are still the most powerful figures in the organization, and Frank Wren’s departure will apparently not be met with a broad search for fresh blood in the GM seat. Interim GM John Hart was offered the post full-time, but it still remains unclear whether that is in the cards. Otherwise, the Braves will seemingly look first (and possibly only) at familiar faces such as assistant GM John Coppolella and former assistant GM (and current Royals GM) Dayton Moore. (Recently-resigned Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd, Hart’s former AGM with the Indians, has also been mentioned as a possibility, though MLB.com’s Mark Bowman tweets that he does not see O’Dowd as a candidate.) The organization has already set out to get the band back together in the scouting arena, bringing back figures such as Roy Clark and Dave Trembley.

The bottom line: Atlanta’s leadership does not believe that its player intake and development system is producing, and that determination seems to be the chief driver at this point. But with the organization ramping up for a critical new ballpark opening in 2017, what does it all mean for the big league club?

The key issue at the MLB level is, as ever, resource constraints. While Atlanta’s talent level remains high, the team has needs. And while last year’s run of extensions look like good investments overall, the Chris Johnson deal aside, they do not leave a ton of payroll flexibility moving forward. (Of course, the alternative would have been to pay bigger arbitration dollars while possibly losing key pieces to free agency down the line.) Last year’s franchise-record $112MM Opening Day payroll, which resulted in the team’s first losing season since 2008, seems unlikely to be repeated. How much spending capacity will remain? The club already has just under $80MM on the books for 2015, and could dedicate as much as $21MM+ if it tenders arbitration contracts to all of its eligible players.

Non-tenders and trades could free some dollars, but that means difficult choices are fast approaching. Qualifying offers must be made within five days of the end of the World Series, while decisions on arb-eligible players are due December 2nd.

A new GM will surely have a key role in determining the path forward, but given the timeline, the organization may well largely know already what it will do with players in those contractual situations. Indeed, as Hart has indicated, the general strategy appears to be in place. “We don’t need an overhaul,” said Hart. “It’s not a disaster. But there are certainly some things we need to take a look [at].” Acknowledging the “economic challenges” facing the team in building out its roster, Hart added that larger moves are likelier to come via trade than signing.

Regardless of how the decisions are made, a key set of issues involves the rotation, where several important pieces require action. To begin, Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, and Gavin Floyd will be free agents, subject to the qualifying offer process. The former seems a good bet to receive a $15.3MM QO, though that is hardly a clear case given the Braves’ financial limitations. It seems unlikely he would accept, since his downside scenario might be another one-year deal at that level of pay, and Atlanta will surely be tempted by the chance of obtaining draft compensation. The likeliest scenario appears to be that he will receive and reject an offer, and find a new club. Harang, meanwhile, could make sense, but barring a late effort at a new deal he’ll have a chance to test the market. And while another attempt at rehabbing Floyd could in theory take place again in Atlanta, he seems unlikely to open the year in any club’s starting five.

If those three arms move on, the rotation will have just three clear members: Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor. (In spite of his struggles, Minor has too much ability and makes too much financial sense not to have a clear shot at a role.) David Hale is perhaps the likeliest younger player to be a promotion candidate, though Cody Martin may also get a shot after two solid runs at Triple-A.

Otherwise, the Braves will have to decide how to proceed with the two players whose season-ending injuries led to Santana’s signing last year: Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. Both are working back from their second Tommy John procedures, which generally come with longer rehab periods and a lower incidence of successful recovery. Given their 2014 arbitration salaries ($5.8MM and $1.45MM, respectively), a non-tender of the former must at least be considered, though Medlen’s established performance baseline is probably too good to pass up. The team could look to work out a less financially onerous arrangement, possibly including a future option in the manner of the D’backs’ deal with Daniel Hudson. (Note that Medlen would be set to reach free agency after the year.)

Even if Medlen and Beachy have successful rehabs, an Opening Day return seems highly unlikely given that the pair was operated on in mid-March. The team could look at the free agent market for further depth. A Floyd-like bid for Brett Anderson would deliver upside, but may not suit the team’s needs. The likelier outcome, perhaps, would be to bring back Harang (though that could well require a two-year deal) or someone in his mold to bridge the gap and provide depth. Innings-eaters on the market include names like Ryan Vogelsong, Colby Lewis, and Kyle Kendrick.

All said, targeting a starter via trade could make sense for the Braves, as Hart suggested. The club is not without options for dealing from its big league roster. I recently explored the possibility of dealing backstop Evan Gattis, with youngster Christian Bethancourt taking over the regular role. Moving the pre-arb Gattis, however, would not deliver any immediate cost savings – indeed, finding a new backup (or re-signing Gerald Laird) would probably add payroll. While Gattis is probably not enough of an asset to bring back a starter who is both cost-controlled and an established producer, the Braves might find enough of those attributes to make a deal attractive.

If Atlanta really wants to add an arm with significant current and future value, it will likely need to consider parting with one of its quality corner outfielders. Both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are entering their final year of control, but are young enough that an acquiring team could place significant value on exclusive rights to negotiate an extension. Of course, that pair accounted for a significant piece of the club’s production last year, so the return would have to be substantial. As others have suggested, it could make sense to explore a long-term deal with one or both while also gauging trade interest in a bid to address other areas of need and possibly add a player with more control. Extending one while dealing the other makes some sense, though the ability to pull off that feat will depend upon other actors (the players and prospective trade partners). One interesting possibility noted by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes would be a swap with the Reds involving Heyward and Johnny Cueto; if both clubs cannot find something else to their liking, such a move might better align with their respective needs in 2015.

Of course, unlike the catching situation, there is no obvious corner outfielder ready to step into a regular role. Among the team’s near-MLB prospects, the best of whom are mostly pitchers, Todd Cunningham is a possibility to take over a slot. But while the 25-year-old improved upon his first go at Triple-A, and is said to be a good defender capable of playing center, he managed only a .287/.347/.406 line with 8 home runs and 19 steals last year at Gwinnett. Other possibilities include a trade of a pitching prospect for an affordable, younger outfielder, a dip into a free agent market that includes names like Norichika Aoki and Alex Rios, or a combination of the above in search of a productive platoon.

Then, there is the fact that the team already has questions in center, where a struggling and expensive B.J. Upton looks nearly immovable. Last we heard, the Braves and Cubs intended to revisit the possibility of a bad-contract swap also involving Edwin Jackson. Otherwise, unless someone like Cunningham delivers a big spring, Atlanta could be forced to put Upton back in the lineup and hope for a turnaround.

The infield, at least, is much more settled. First baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons are perhaps the only names sure to be written into the Opening Day lineup card, though the rest of the diamond will almost certainly be filled internally as well. Third baseman Chris Johnson is likely to have a chance to return to his 2013 levels, given that his extension does not even kick in until this year, though he may soon be challenged by prospect Kyle Kubitza. And at second, the Braves will wait out the tail end of the disappointing Dan Uggla contract — since he was released, there is no longer any hope of saving any cash — while fielding second-year player Tommy La Stella. Of course, the much-hyped 20-year-old Jose Peraza could become a factor if he continues to impress, though he has taken only 195 plate appearances at the Double-A level.

The bullpen, likewise, seems destined to continue in much the same form as last year. Craig Kimbrel, David Carpenter, Jordan Walden, and James Russell make up a strong back end. And a series of other arms – Anthony Varvaro, Shae Simmons, Chasen Shreve, and Luis Avilan among them – deliver ample depth. Though none of these arms (Kimbrel excepted) will make a large mark on the balance sheet, it is possible to imagine Atlanta dealing from depth to sweeten the pot in a larger trade while potentially freeing up a little bit of extra spending capacity. The team will likely need to try to work something out to keep Jonny Venters; the outstanding 29-year-old lefty is attempting a rare return from a third Tommy John procedure, and his arb price tag looks steep given that he did not even receive his latest UCL replacement until the end of August.

In the end, the Braves continue to be a team with plenty of talent, and it would not be surprising to see a rebound year. But given the financial constraints, the front office’s own seemingly negative take on the talent pipeline, and the looming free agency of Heyward and Upton, Atlanta will need to balance carefully the present with the future. Though dealing away expiring contracts for prospects holds some facial appeal, and the 2017 ballpark opening looms large from a business perspective, Atlanta has not been known to take that tack in the past. Creativity, then, will be the key; but first the front office situation will need to be decided.


Free Agent Profile: Michael Cuddyer

Despite an injury plagued 2014, Michael Cuddyer figures to be amongst the more heavily pursued free agent position players of the winter.  The 35-year-old (36 by Opening Day) played in just 49 games in 2014, but his offensive numbers are more in less in line with his 2013 output and there’s always a market for effective bats with some pop.  His last trip through free agency netted a three-year, $31.5MM contract and he’s now in position to land yet another lucrative deal.

Strengths/Pros

Over the last three seasons in Colorado (280 games), Cuddyer owns a .307/.362/.525 batting line with 46 homers.  His best work in Colorado came in the sandwich year of 2013 when he was NL batting champion with a .331 average at the plate.  And, while Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in the majors, it wasn’t just the home altitude that helped Cuddyer knock 20 homers and post the NL’s fourth-highest slugging percentage (.530) in that season.  The veteran hit eleven homers at Coors and nine dingers on the road in 2013.  Meanwhile, his wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus, explained masterfully by Fangraphs here) of 138 was the best showing of his career at the time, putting him well ahead of the league average and 14 percentage points above his previous watermark from Minnesota in 2009.  In a smaller sample, he topped that with a wRC+ of 151 this past season.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Diego PadresSomewhat surprisingly, Cuddyer consistently posts average or better marks in baserunning value, according to Fangraphs.  Cuddyer has a strong career BsR of 8.3 and his recent marks of 0.0, 1.1, and 1.3 in the last three seasons would indicate that he has been at least an average runner.  At this point in his career, he’s probably not the fastest guy out there, but the numbers would suggest that he’s smart on the basepaths.

Cuddyer offers some versatility as he could be slotted in as a first baseman or an outfielder.  He also won’t have a qualifying offer attached to him and won’t require the forfeiture of draft picks.

Weaknesses/Cons

Cuddyer averaged roughly 150 games per year in his final three seasons with the Twins, which helped lead to his big payday in Colorado.  Unfortunately, he’s averaged ~93 games per season since and saw time in just 49 games in 2014.  In 2012, an oblique injury cost him the majority of August and all of September.  He played 130 games in 2013, but a neck injury shelved him for two weeks in May.  Last season, a painful shoulder fracture and a pair of strained hamstrings led to Cuddyer being mostly out of commission.  Teams are sure to be wary about that as he approached his age-36 season.

Cuddyer has experience at multiple positions but he’s not Gold Glove material at any of them.  For his career, Cuddyer has a -8.0 UZR/150 rating in right field and his -4.4 rating at first base also leaves much to be desired.  Unfortunately, Cuddyer’s shaky defense has watered down his significant offensive contributions, especially in recent years.  In 2013, despite his strong performance at the plate, he registered a rather pedestrian WAR of 2.4.

Personal

Michael and his wife, Claudia, have three children.  When he’s not on the diamond, Cuddyer likes to indulge in his own favorite childhood pastime: magic.  In 2012, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com asked an audience member for his take on Cuddyer’s skills.

He’s blowing guys’ minds here,” Jason Giambi said of Cuddyer. “[The tricks] are as good as any I’ve ever seen, and trust me, I live in Vegas and I get to see a lot of those shows. They’re pretty incredible.

As Cuddyer told Crasnick, he used the tricks as an icebreaker with his teammates when he arrived in Colorado.  Then-GM Dan O’Dowd spoke highly of Cuddyer as a positive figure in the locker room.

Not only is he a good player — and will be for a significantly long period of time — but if you talk to anybody in the game, he innately just ‘gets it.’ He challenges people in his own way to be all about the team,” O’Dowd said.

Market

Cuddyer loves being in Colorado, owner Dick Monfort wants to keep him, and manager Walt Weiss hopes that he’ll return since he “means so much to [the] club, in ways that go beyond the stat sheet.”  Unfortunately, monetary constraints will probably get in the way of a reunion.  Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post recently wrote that it’d be hard to see the Rockies paying even $4-6MM for Cuddyer next season.  You never know for sure how the market will break, but that probably won’t get it done.

The Pirates, Brewers, and Marlins are among the teams that are expected to shop for a first baseman and the Padres could be added to that list if they don’t have confidence in Yonder Alonso‘s abilities.  Meanwhile, the Astros and Mets will be shopping for a corner outfielder and Cuddyer could fit within their budgets.  Cuddyer also holds appeal as a DH so we could see a return to the American League in that role.

Expected Contract

If Cuddyer was coming off of something resembling a full season, his contract outlook would be quite different.  Given his age and health issues, a one or two-year deal seems likely but another three-year deal probably isn’t in the cards.

Still, there will be plenty of teams willing to give Cuddyer a substantial sum of money and it could even rival the average annual value of his three-year, $31.5MM Rockies contract.  I predict Cuddyer will land a two-year, $22MM deal this winter.  If he stays healthy, it may not be his last big payday either.


Free Agent Faceoff: Ervin Santana vs. Brandon McCarthy

MLB Trade Rumors is firing up this year’s version of the Free Agent Faceoff series, in which comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the players involved. The first faceoff featured three shortstops. In the second, we’ll look at a pair of starters:

It’s a common consensus this year that the free agent class for starting pitchers has a great deal of separation between the top three starters — Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields — and the rest of the class. While opinions on the ranking of those three vary (perhaps a topic for another installment in this series!), there’s a cloudier picture when it comes to the second tier of free agents. Most of the pitchers in the second tier come with some form of blemish on their record, be it a checkered injury history, the possibility of a qualifying offer, inconsistent year-to-year results or some combination of the above. Today we’ll take a look at a pair of 31-year-old starters who can each try to make a case that he’s the best among the second tier: Ervin Santana and Brandon McCarthy. (This is, of course, not to say that the “best among the second tier” is specifically limited to these two.)

McCarthy vs. Santana is somewhat of a case of tantalizing upside versus steady and reliable. McCarthy totaled an even 200 innings in 2014 — the first time in his career he’s reached that mark and just the second time in which he’s topped 180 frames. Santana, on the other hand, threw 196 innings and has topped the 200 mark on five occasions in his career. He’s averaged 207 innings per season over the past five years — durability to which McCarthy cannot lay claim.

In four of the aforementioned seasons, Santana has posted an ERA south of 4.00 — bottoming out at 3.24 last season in Kansas City. McCarthy’s best seasons came in 2011-12 with Oakland when he posted a combined 3.29 ERA in 281 1/3 innings. However, those two seasons are the only in which he’s successfully kept his ERA under 4.00.

To this point, the argument seems skewed heavily in Santana’s favor, but McCarthy’s case is certainly not without merit. When looking at the two through a sabermetric lens, McCarthy can be seen as not only the better pitcher, but arguably one of the better pitchers in the league. McCarthy’s 2.86 FIP in 2011 led the league, and a comparison of their marks in ERA (3.81 vs. 3.87), FIP (3.44 vs. 4.19), xFIP (3.43 vs. 3.88) and SIERA (3.60 vs. 3.93) all favor McCarthy. The Yankees were likely drawn to McCarthy’s sabermetric profile this July when trading for him, and that investment paid off handsomely, as McCarthy pitched to a stellar 2.89 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 in 90 1/3 innings down the stretch.

McCarthy has generated more ground-balls than Santana since buying into sabermetric principles back in 2009, but he took his ground-ball rate to a new level in 2014 (52.6 percent) while Santana regressed in the same area (42.7 percent). Both pitchers possess strong command and can miss bats, but McCarthy has shown better control over the past four seasons while Santana has bested McCarthy in strikeout rate each year. McCarthy’s strikeout rate did jump in 2014, along with his velocity (career-best 92.9 mph average fastball), but Santana’s strikeout rate rose as well (even against non-pitchers in the NL).

Other factors to consider: Santana will pitch all of next season at age 32, while McCarthy won’t be 32 until July. Additionally, Santana is eligible to receive a qualifying offer, meaning he could again come with draft pick compensation attached to his name; McCarthy is ineligible to receive a QO after being traded midseason.

Each player has been on the receiving end of a Free Agent Profile at MLBTR (McCarthy’s penned by me, Santana’s by Tim Dierkes), which provide even more in-depth looks at the pros and cons of each. Use those as you wish to help formulate an opinion before voting…