Cubs Fire Rick Renteria

The Cubs have announced the firing of manager Rick Renteria. The move doesn’t come as a large surprise, given recent reports that the team has agreed to terms with Joe Maddon to become their new manager. Renteria had completed just one season of the three-year contract he signed to become the Cubs’ manager last offseason.

Within the press release announcing the move, Cubs president Theo Epstein made the following statement:

“Today we made the difficult decision to replace Rick Renteria as manager of the Chicago Cubs. On behalf of Tom Ricketts and Jed Hoyer, I thank Rick for his dedication and commitment, and for making the Cubs a better organization.

Rick’s sterling reputation should only be enhanced by his season as Cubs manager. We challenged Rick to create an environment in which our young players could develop and thrive at the big league level, and he succeeded. Working with the youngest team in the league and an imperfect roster, Rick had the club playing hard and improving throughout the season. His passion, character, optimism and work ethic showed up every single day.

Rick deserved to come back for another season as Cubs manager, and we said as much when we announced that he would be returning in 2015. We met with Rick two weeks ago for a long end-of-season evaluation and discussed plans for next season. We praised Rick to the media and to our season ticket holders. These actions were made in good faith.

Last Thursday, we learned that Joe Maddon – who may be as well suited as anyone in the industry to manage the challenges that lie ahead of us – had become a free agent. We confirmed the news with Major League Baseball, and it became public knowledge the next day. We saw it as a unique opportunity and faced a clear dilemma: be loyal to Rick or be loyal to the organization. In this business of trying to win a world championship for the first time in 107 years, the organization has priority over any one individual. We decided to pursue Joe.

While there was no clear playbook for how to handle this type of situation, we knew we had to be transparent with Rick before engaging with Joe. Jed flew to San Diego last Friday and told Rick in person of our intention to talk to Joe about the managerial job. Subsequently, Jed and I provided updates to Rick via telephone and today informed him that we will indeed make a change.

We offered Rick a choice of other positions with the Cubs, but he is of course free to leave the organization and pursue opportunities elsewhere. … We have clung to two important ideals during our three years in Chicago. The first is to always be loyal to our mission of building the Cubs into a championship organization that can sustain success. The second is to be transparent with our fans. As painful as the last week was at times, we believe we stayed true to these two ideals in handling a sensitive situation. To our fans: we hope you understand, and we appreciate your continued support of the Cubs.”


Blue Jays Sign Jeff Francis To Minor League Deal

The Blue Jays announced that they have signed veteran left-hander Jeff Francis to a minor league contract with an invitation to big league Spring Training. Francis is a client of Frontline Athlete Management.

Francis, 34 in January, split the 2014 season between the Reds, Athletics and Yankees, totaling 20 innings of work. He allowed 13 runs in that time for a 5.85 ERA, though he did post a strong 15-to-3 K/BB ratio as well.

Originally the ninth overall pick in the 2002 draft by the Rockies, the Canadian-born Francis has totaled a 4.95 ERA with 6.0 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 in 1269 career innings between the Rockies, Royals, Red, A’s and Yankees. He’ll give the Jays some rotation depth to stash at Triple-A and could also serve as a relief option, as he did with the Rockies last season and in 11 of his 12 appearances in 2014.


Brewers Claim Juan Centeno

The Brewers announced that they have claimed catcher Juan Centeno off waivers from the Mets (Twitter link).

Centeno, 24, received 43 plate appearances with the Mets from 2013-14 and batted .225/.279/.225. In 439 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, the Puerto Rican backstop has a much more palatable .298/.345/.355 batting line. Baseball America ranked Centeno as the Mets’ No. 28 prospect following the 2013 season and named him the best defensive catcher in the Pacific Coast League this past season.



Tigers Make Qualifying Offer To Scherzer, Martinez; Outright Kelly, Reed

The Tigers announced that they have extended one-year, $15.3MM qualifying offer to impending free agents Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez. Additionally, the team announced that utility man Don Kelly and right-hander Evan Reed have been outrighted off the 40-man roster. The Tigers also announced that they have selected the contract of outfielder Wynton Bernard, adding him to the 40-man roster.

That Scherzer and Martinez — two of the top 10 free agents in the Majors — received qualifying offers comes as little surprise. Each should be in high demand this offseason, and by extending the QO, the Tigers assure themselves of receiving a compensatory draft pick at the end of the first round for each player, should he sign elsewhere as a free agent.

The 34-year-old Kelly has been with the Tigers in a utility capacity since 2009 and has posted a .234/.297/.340 in 1157 plate appearances with Detroit in that time. Kelly has seen time at every position on the diamond, including catcher and pitcher, in his career, although his lone experience at shortstop came with the Pirates in 2007 — his only Major League stint that came in a uniform other than that of the Detroit Tigers.

Reed, 28, pitched to a 4.18 ERA with 7.2 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 32 1/3 innings for the Tigers this season, and he posted similar numbers in 24 1/3 inning sample size a year prior. That Reed would clear waivers is a mild surprise, given his 96 mph average fastball velocity and fairly solid 3.78 FIP, 3.89 xFIP and 3.51 SIERA marks in addition to his 4.20 ERA. He can become a minor league free agent now by refusing his outright assignment.


Orioles Claim Patrick McCoy

The Orioles have claimed left-handed pitcher Pat McCoy off waivers from Detroit, according to  a press release from the Tigers.

McCoy, who turned 26 in August, made his big league debut for the Tigers this season, notching a 3.86 ERA in 14 innings. However, his ERA is a bit misleading, as the southpaw walked 13 batters against 11 strikeouts in that time and also allowed an alarming 21 hits.

Formerly a 10th-round pick of the Nationals, McCoy signed a minor league deal with Detroit last offseason and enjoyed a nice campaign in the minors before getting his first call to the bigs. Splitting the season between Double-A and Triple-A, McCoy pitched to a 3.00 ERA with 6.8 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 in 45 innings of work.


Blue Jays Claim Andy Dirks

The Blue Jays have claimed outfielder Andy Dirks off waivers, the Tigers announced via press release.

Dirks, 28, was expected to serve as Detroit’s primary left fielder this season in a platoon with Rajai Davis, but a back injury required surgery and wound up costing him the entire year. Dirks has a solid career slash line of .276/.332/.413, and he grades out as an excellent defender in left field, having compiled 16 Defensive Runs Saved and an UZR/150 mark of +5.1 in 1569 innings in left field.

With Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus both hitting the open market, Dirks makes for a very nice add to the team’s outfield depth if he can return to health in 2015 and beyond. He’s projected to earn $1.63MM in his first time through arbitration this offseason, per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, and he can be controlled through 2017 via the arb process.


Red Sox Decline Craig Breslow’s Option

The Red Sox announced that they’ve declined their $4MM club option on left-hander Craig Breslow. The 34-year-old Breslow will instead receive a $100K buyout and become a free agent.

Breslow struggled in 2014 but is just one season removed from a 2013 campaign in which he posted a 1.81 ERA in 59 2/3 innings. The 2014 campaign wasn’t as kind to Breslow, however, as he saw his ERA spike to 5.96 despite an increase in strikeouts. Breslow’s command also worsened (his 4.6 BB/9 was the worst full-season mark of his career) and he saw his fastball velocity dip from an average of just under 90 mph to 88.4 mph.

Prior to this season he’d been a fairly reliable relief arm, having pitched to a 2.82 ERA with 7.3 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 373 2/3 innings from 2008-13. That stretch of success will likely generate some interest on a market for lefty relievers that is fronted by Andrew Miller but also includes Zach Duke, Joe Thatcher and Neal Cotts, among others.


Athletics Claim Andrew Brown From Mets

The A’s announced that they’ve claimed outfielder Andrew Brown off waivers from the Mets. Additionally, minor league shortstop Tyler Ladendorf has been added to the club’s 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft in December.

Brown, 30, received 49 plate appearances for the Mets this season and batted .182/.245/.341 with a pair of homers. He’s seen action in parts of four big league seasons between the Mets, Rockies and Cardinals, compiling a batting line of .220/.281/.390. As indicated by that .170 ISO (slugging minus average), Brown does possess some pop that likely appealed to the A’s. His Triple-A numbers are indicative of that power as well, as he owns a lifetime .298/.380/.555 slash at that level.

Ladendorf was acquired from the Twins in 2009 in exchange for shortstop Orlando Cabrera. The Howard College product, Minnesota’s second-round pick in 2008, had never hit at the Triple-A level before this, his age-26 season. However, he slashed a strong .297/.376/.407 in 318 plate appearances with Triple-A this season, and Oakland has a clear need for middle infield options following the trade of Addison Russell and the free agency of Jed Lowrie.


Indians Exercise Mike Aviles’ Option

The Indians announced that they have exercised their one-year, $3.5MM club option on Mike Aviles. Cleveland essentially faced a $3.25MM decision, as Aviles’ option contained a $250K buyout.

Aviles, 34 in March, has served as a versatile bench piece for manager Terry Francona over the past two seasons, appearing at shortstop, second base, third base and in all three outfield positions. Since coming over in a trade from the Blue Jays, he’s posted a combined .250/.277/.356 batting line. He will return to a bench role in Cleveland where he’ll presumably be joined by Ryan Raburn and catcher Roberto Perez, among others. He should provide the organization with some depth at third base and shortstop, neither of which is 100 percent settled at this point due to question marks surrounding Lonnie Chisenhall and the inexperience of shortstop Jose Ramirez.


Tigers To Exercise Joakim Soria’s Option

The Tigers will exercise their $7MM club option on right-hander Joakim Soria, reports Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press (on Twitter).

Soria, 30, was acquired from the Rangers at the trade deadline for the steep price of right-handers Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson, but the results didn’t pan out for Detroit. Soria totaled just 11 innings with the Tigers and allowed seven runs (six earned), in part due to an oblique strain that cost him a month of action. He didn’t fare any better in the post season, as he was charged with five runs in one inning (two appearances).

Despite the struggles following the trade, Soria was an exceptional bullpen piece with the Rangers this year, pitching to a 2.70 ERA with 11.3 K/9 and 1.1 BB/9 in 33 1/3 innings. His cumulative stat line translated to a 3.80 ERA with a 48-to-6 K/BB ratio in 44 1/3 innings during the regular season.

The Tigers are in desperate need of solidifying their bullpen and will hope that a healthy Soria can assist in accomplishing that goal next season.


Brewers Decline Rickie Weeks’ Option

The Brewers have announced the decision to decline their $11.5MM club option on Rickie Weeks, making him a free agent. Additionally, the team officially announced that it will exercise Yovani Gallardo‘s option as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes reported yesterday.

Weeks, 32, was the No. 2 overall selection of the 2003 draft by the Brewers. He’s spent his entire career with Milwaukee. He emerged as one of baseball’s best second basemen from 2007-11, hitting .255/.357/.448 with an average of 18 homers, 13 steals, 2.5 rWAR and 3.1 fWAR per season in that stretch. However, his production has declined steadily since that time, as he’s batted .233/.327/.398 since that time and eventually fell into the short end of a platoon role with the left-handed hitting Scooter Gennett.

Weeks inked a four-year, $38.5MM contract extension prior to the 2011 season. He will now hit the open market in a thin class for second basemen. Because of the lack of free agent competition, some clubs figure to have interest in Weeks in a full-time capacity despite lackluster performances against right-handed pitching in recent years. It should be noted, of course, that Weeks did hit .294/.351/.395 in a small sample of 131 plate appearances against righties this year and .274/.357/.452 overall, giving interested clubs reason for optimism.


Free Agent Profile: Jed Lowrie

Deciding how to frame Jed Lowrie’s entry to the free agent market depends heavily upon one’s perspective: did his failure to match his excellent 2013 campaign constitute a disappointment, or was 2014 another solid year as a regular that cements Lowrie’s status as an everyday player? After all, the CAA client had never made more than 387 plate appearances in a season until last year, yet now steps onto the market as one of the best available shortstops.

Pros/Strengths

Lowrie had a strong 2013 season, posting a .290/.344/.446 slash with 15 home runs. And he did it while playing shortstop, making him a well-above-average everyday player. Though Lowrie did not have an extensive history before that, his full-season result seemed to confirm what his earlier numbers had suggested. Over the 2008-2012 campaigns, Lowrie never even made 400 trips to the plate over a single season, but averaged a roughly league-average OPS of .743 while providing solid defense at short, second, and third. He also swatted 16 long balls over just 387 plate appearances in 2012 before succumbing to an ankle injury.

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland AthleticsIn a sense, then, 2014 was an affirmation. Injury-free except for a freak bruised finger that cost him 16 games, Lowrie showed that he could be a viable everyday shortstop for a first-division club. Even with a significant power drop-off, Lowrie was worth 1.9 fWAR, though Baseball-Reference had him at one less win in value based on its differing defensive calculations.

And last year’s power outage ultimately looks like an outlier: Lowrie had never before posted an ISO of less than .142 in a season (minimum 300 plate appearances) until his .106 mark last year. Indeed, even with that season in the books, Lowrie owns a lifetime .150 ISO and seems a good bet to return to that level of power production. His 3.2% HR/FB rate, after all, landed at half his career average and seems more likely to go up than down.

A return to form at the plate more generally seems a fair probability. Lowrie suffered a bit from a .281 BABIP, though he has never posted high numbers. His walk rate (9.0%) and strikeout rate (14.0%) compare favorably to his career marks. And he upped his line-drive rate for the fifth-straight season while hitting groundballs at his career rate.

On the defensive side of the equation, Lowrie saw improved marks from defensive metrics. By measure of UZR, in fact, Lowrie was just above average for the position last year. Though Lowrie is not a base stealer, and did not rate well in the department in 2014, he has generally been about average on the paths.

It is worth noting as well that Lowrie brings a switch-hitting presence to the middle of the infield. Interestingly, despite career splits that favored his work against lefties, Lowrie flipped those splits last year, continuing to put up roughly league-average work against right-handed pitching. If he can recapture his former excellence when batting from the right side, particularly in the power department, Lowrie looks like a great add.

While a qualifying offer is at least theoretically possible, it seems highly unlikely that the A’s would be willing to risk $15.3MM in salary space.

Cons/Weaknesses

Of course, the above account ignores some real issues. Lowrie’s first full season of regular action came in his age-29 year, and he simply did not match it last season. For a player known largely for his bat, Lowrie was below-average at the plate.

As for the power numbers, there are reasons to believe that his fall-off was not simply an aberration. After all, Lowrie had put up double-digit home run tallies in just one year as a professional prior to this 2012-13 breakout: a 13-home run campaign in the upper minors back in 2007. And his batted ball distance on fly balls and line drives is down to a career-low 252.5 feet (via Baseball Heat Maps; compare to career marks within this post).

Then, there is the question of defense. While it is true that Lowrie saw improvements by measure of defensive metrics, Defensive Runs Saved still placed him at a troubling -10 mark on the year. As he moves toward his decline phase, it is fair to wonder how much longer he will stick at short.

Likewise, Lowrie moved in the wrong direction last year in terms of baserunning. Never a threat to take a bag, Lowrie nevertheless generally maintained average marks in terms of overall value on the basepaths. But he cost the A’s 3.4 runs last year, by measure of Fangraphs.

While Lowrie has now been healthy for two straight years, we are not far off from a time when he dealt with significant injuries on a regular basis. Nerve damage has accompanied several injuries, including ankle, shoulder, and wrist ailments.

Personal

Lowrie finished his bachelor studies at Stanford after leaving early to begin his professional career, according to this profile from Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle. He also met his future wife during his time in college, and the family welcomed its first child last December.

Between her time working in international politics and his own moves across the country from team to team, the Lowries are familiar with changing residences, so geographical ties may not mean much in his situation. Looking ahead to free agency before the season, Lowrie said it would not change his approach to the game while also acknowledging its importance. “Every player wants to test the free-agent market,” he said. “What you ultimately strive for is to have people come to you and say, ‘We want you to work for us.’ It’s exciting.”

Market

With J.J. Hardy locked up, the middle infield market is filled with question marks. Hanley Ramirez obviously promises the highest upside, but he has his warts and could be viewed by many clubs as a third baseman at this point (or in short order). Asdrubal Cabrera was once seen as a premier talent, but has not been inspiring at the plate or in the field. And Stephen Drew fell off of a cliff in terms of offensive production last year.

Viewing the sum of Lowrie’s work over the last two years, when he has served as the A’s regular shortstop, paints an image of a solid option in this year’s market. A generally above-average hitter with power upside and a switch-hitting bat, a serviceable glove, and experience around the infield, Lowrie has plenty of appeal – even if he is far from a sure thing.

Looking around baseball, there are plenty of clubs that might have interest in Lowrie, though some may prefer a shorter commitment. In addition to the Athletics, clubs like the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Tigers, Astros, Mets, Nationals, Marlins, Reds, and Dodgers could all conceivably consider employing Lowrie in some kind of capacity.

Expected Contract

Lowrie has earned just over $10MM in his playing career, far from a pittance but also perhaps a low enough number that maxing out a guarantee seems appealing. Given his preferable market placement, I think he will easily find enough interest to score a significant two-year deal and could well reach three.

While MLBTR’s Zach Links predicts that Cabrera will find three years and $27MM as a younger option, Lowrie seems to offer a slightly more appealing overall package at this point. Ultimately, I predict that Lowrie will be able to land a three-year $30MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


MLB Trade Rumors Podcast: Episode 4

On the fourth episode of the MLB Trade Rumors Podcast, host Jeff Todd opens with the transactional news from the week before being joined by free agent reliever Burke Badenhop (2:53) to discuss how his consistency, durability, and ground-ball production will play on the open market. Charlie Wilmoth of MLBTR and Bucs Dugout also joins the show (24:39) to discuss the Pirates’ looming offseason decisions. This episode comes to you courtesy of DraftKings.com, which invites you to join its $100K free roll fantasy football contest this weekend.

 

Podcast

Click here to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and please leave a review! You can download the episode directly with this link.

You can access the podcast via SoundCloud at this link. The podcast is also available via Stitcher at this link.

The MLB Trade Rumors Podcast runs weekly on Thursday afternoons.


AL Central Notes: Royals, Aoki, Butler, Lovullo, Tigers

Though the Royals are coming off their best season in nearly three decades, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News writes that the team will soon need to turn its focus to some difficult offseason decisions. Industry expectations, according to Martino, are that the Royals will at least listen to trade offers for its more expensive players — including Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas — if other teams come calling this winter. Gordon’s case is the most pressing, as he’s only controlled through 2015 at $12.5MM before he has a $12.5MM player option. Gordon has publicly stated that he plans to exercise that option, though it’d be a surprise, to say the least, considering he could be in line for a much more sizable long-term commitment next offseason if he turns it down. Martino also notes that the Royals will have interest in re-signing Nori Aoki this offseason. From my vantage point, the team needn’t feel pressure to move any of the three previously mentioned players, though I’ll cover that at greater length in the upcoming Royals Offseason Outlook.

For the time being, here’s more on the AL Champs and the rest of their division…

  • The Royals are expected to decline their $12.5MM option on designated hitter Billy Butler in favor of a $1MM buyout, tweets Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. The move isn’t exactly unexpected after the down season he had at the plate. However, Heyman adds that the team may look to pursue Torii Hunter, as they did seven years ago, in the event that Aoki signs elsewhere as a free agent. The Kansas City Star’s Andy McCullough also hears that Butler’s option is likely to be declined.
  • The Twins‘ front office flew out to Torey Lovullo’s home in California to conduct their second interview with him on Monday this week, tweets Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com, but there’s still been no decision reached as to who will be the team’s next manager. Lovullo and Paul Molitor are believed to be the favorites.
  • Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski spoke candidly to reporters, including Matthew Mowery of the Oakland Press, about the team’s lack of financial flexibility this offseason. Said Dombrowski: “We have the most generous owner in baseball you could possibly have in sports. But we’re in a situation where $200 million payrolls aren’t what is common here. … It’s a situation where we’re really in a spot that if you’re going to have four starters being paid and you’re going to have a couple superstars in the middle of your lineup, that means there’s not as much availability to do some other things. And you have to determine what you’re going to do.”

AL West Notes: Astros, Lewis, Rangers, A’s

A federal bankruptcy judge today approved a Chapter 11 reorganization that will allow DirecTV and AT&T to purchase Comcast SportsNet Houston, reports David Barron of the Houston Chronicle. The network will be relaunched next month as ROOT Sports Houston and will provide the Houston area with significantly greater accessibility to television coverage of Astros games. The team has issued a statement, via press release, expressing its pleasure with the outcome: “We are very pleased with Judge Isgur’s confirmation of the plan to reorganize the Network under AT&T and DirecTV. Throughout this long process, our main goal has been to provide broad coverage of Astros games for our fans throughout our region. This new Network will allow us to achieve this goal.  There are still a few obstacles that we have to overcome, but today’s decision is a big victory for Astros fans and the City of Houston.”

Here’s more from the AL West…

  • Rangers GM Jon Daniels has already had discussions with Alan Nero, the agent for free agent righty Colby Lewis, about a return to the organization for Lewis, reports MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan. The Rangers have extended a preliminary offer to Lewis, which Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports is a Major League offer. There’s mutual interest on both sides, according to the pair of reports, but the process has likely been slowed somewhat by the fact that Nero also represents manager Joe Maddon, who is said to be in line to take over as skipper of the Cubs. Lewis struggled in the first half of the 2014 season but rebounded quite well in the second half, posting a 3.86 ERA over his final 13 starts. His 5.18 ERA on the season was likely inflated by a .339 batting average on balls in play.
  • Also of note from Sullivan, the Rangers are expected to look to make rotation additions beyond Lewis this offseason, however they’re more likely to come via the trade market than via free agency. The Rangers do possess a good deal of middle infield depth. Both Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor both are seen as highly regarded talents, but the Rangers don’t have a place to slot both of them into the starting lineup. (It should be noted that the Profar/Odor speculation is my own, as opposed to something which Sullivan is reporting as likely.)
  • The Athletics today announced the promotions of three coaches (Twitter link). Darren Bush, who previously served as the team’s bullpen coach, will now shift into the role of hitting coach and fill the void left by Chili Davis (who signed on to fill the same role with Boston). Scott Emerson, who had previously served as a minor league pitching coach and minor league pitching coordinator, was promoted to the role of bullpen coach. Lastly, Marcus Jensen, who has served as a Rookie-league manager and minor league hitting instructor for the A’s, was named assistant hitting coach/catching coach.
  • Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has several updates on the Rangers‘ search to fill out new manager Jeff Banister’s coaching staff, noting that several announcements could come as soon as tomorrow.