Josh Byrnes A “Leading Candidate” For Dodgers Role

4:55pm: Friedman has spoken with Byrnes about the position, ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Mark Saxon reports. For his part, Friedman declined to address the matter.

As Saxon further notes, Friedman indicated that finding a new farm director to take over for De Jon Watson was the first priority. It remains to be seen, says Saxon, whether longtime scouting director Logan White will stay in place.

12:56pm: Former Padres GM Josh Byrnes is a “leading candidate” to land an executive role that would effectively make him second in command under new Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

Heyman’s sources indicate that Byrnes’ experience is viewed as a plus by Dodgers ownership, and Byrnes’ philosophical view on the game is similar to that of Friedman. They’re also fairly close friends, according to Heyman, though little has been made of that connection in the past.

Former Nationals AGM Bryan Minniti and current Yankees AGM Billy Eppler have been previously considered as candidates but are now far less likely to get the job, Heyman hears.

With the Padres, Byrnes had his share of misses, particularly in terms of contract extensions. Multi-year pacts for Cameron Maybin, Cory Luebke, Nick HundleyCarlos Quentin and Will Venable certainly haven’t gone as planned, and the first year of Jedd Gyorko‘s extension was a disappointment as well. On the other hand, Byrnes has pulled off several excellent pitching acquisitions. He acquired Tyson Ross from Oakland in exchange for Andy Parrino and Andrew Werner, and this past offseason the trade package he received for Logan Forsythe and Brad Boxberger included Jesse Hahn and Alex Torres. He also picked up Ian Kennedy from the D’Backs in exchange for Joe Thatcher, relief prospect Matt Stites and a Round B competitive balance draft pick.


Rays Name Neander, Bloom VPs Of Baseball Ops

The Rays have promoted executives Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom to the title of vice president of baseball operations. Each longtime member of the Tampa Bay front office had previously served as a director of baseball operations. The team has officially announced the move via press release, though Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel tweeted the news earlier today after noting the change on their web site.

In a prepared statement, new Rays president of baseball operations Matthew Silverman had this to say of his two lieutenants:

“Erik and Chaim’s promotions are well deserved as they have been essential contributors to our operation for years. I look forward to working with them in all facets of baseball operations, and I know they will continue to be great leaders of our deeply talented and dedicated department.”

Neander first joined the Rays’ baseball ops department in 2007. The 31-year-old Virginia Tech grad brings an emphasis on player personnel, research and development, per the Rays’ press release. Bloom, also 31, has been with the club since 2005. The Yale grad’s focus is on player development, contract negotiation, international scouting and management of the Major League roster, per the team. In response to McDaniel’s earlier tweet, Jonah Keri of Grantland opined that each of the two rising executives would one day be general manager (Twitter link).

The promotions of Bloom and Neander is the latest shuffle in the Rays’ front office following the departure of GM Andrew Friedman, now president of baseball operations with the Dodgers. The promotion of Bloom and Neander seems to rule out any chance that either would follow Friedman to Los Angeles.


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 17:

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

OCTOBER 16:

  • Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN reports that the Twins have also interviewed Blue Jays bench coach Demarlo Hale (Twitter link). Hale’s name had been mentioned speculatively previously, but this appears to be the first report of his concrete candidacy, let alone an interview.

OCTOBER 11:

OCTOBER 9:

  • Indians first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. will also interview for the position, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports tweets.

Continue reading



Rangers Hire Jeff Banister As Manager

FRIDAY: Banister’s contract is a three-year deal with a club option for a fourth season, reports Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Twitter link).

THURSDAY, 6:03pm: The Rangers have announced the hiring.

10:34am: The Rangers will hire Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister as their next manager, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (Twitter link).

Jeff Banister

The Rangers interviewed a wide variety of candidates for the position following Ron Washington’s abrupt resignation. Interim manager Tim Bogar and Indians bullpen coach Kevin Cash were announced by the team as finalists in addition to Banister. However, Texas also interviewed internal candidates Mike Maddux and Steve Buechele, as well as the following external candidates: Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing and former big leaguer Alex Cora (who currently is an analyst for ESPN).

Banister’s hiring will be bittersweet for the Pirates organization, as while they’re undoubtedly happy to see him receive the opportunity, the hiring will also bring to a close a tenure with Pittsburgh that has lasted 29 seasons. Banister was a 25th-round draft pick by the Bucs in 1986 and spent seven years with them as a minor leaguer (he also received one plate appearance in the Majors in 1991). Banister managed for five seasons in the minors with Pittsburgh and has also spent three seasons as the Major Legaue field coordinator and eight as a minor league field coordinator. He was named the team’s bench coach in 2010 and also served as an interim pitching coach in 2008.

Last year, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times penned an excellent article on Banister’s extraordinary journey to his then-position with the Pirates. A bone cancer survivor in high school, Banister underwent seven operations on his left ankle. As a junior college player in his native Texas, Banister got behind the plate on a day he was not scheduled to catch because a Yankees scout was on-hand to watch him. Tragedy ensued, as Banister was left paralyzed from the neck down following a home-plate collision. He underwent spinal surgery and lost nearly 90 pounds before leaving the hospital, but he recovered, returned to the field after a year and ended up being selected in the 25th round of the ’86 draft.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Central Links: Moore, Royals, Tigers, Cardinals

Though there’s been speculation that Royals GM Dayton Moore could be a possibility to take over the GM slot in Atlanta following Frank Wren’s dismissal, Royals owner David Glass told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports that Moore is “absolutely” staying with the Royals. Moore’s contract runs through 2016, but as Heyman and others have noted, it’d seem odd to leave town after getting the Royals to their first World Series in 29 years. Glass had nothing but praise for Moore: “He’s done a great job. He’s as good as it gets as far as a general manager.”

More news from baseball’s Central divisions…

  • MLB.com’s Jim Callis breaks down how the Royals constructed their World Series roster, noting that the club has 14 homegrown players (draft or international signing), nine acquired via waivers or trade and only two signed via free agency (Omar Infante and Jason Vargas). One could make the case that Jeremy Guthrie also belongs in the free agent category, as he technically hit the open market for a couple of weeks between the end of the 2012 season and re-signing in Kansas City. However, the most intriguing part of Callis’ piece, for MLBTR readers, may be a comment from Moore on the importance of Jake Odorizzi‘s role in the James Shields/Wade Davis trade: “…he also kept Yordano Ventura out of that deal at that time.”
  • MLive.com’s Chris Iott makes five predictions about the upcoming Tigers offseason in his latest piece, prognosticating that Detroit will not make a serious run at re-signing Max Scherzer, nor will it spend lavishly on its bullpen, perhaps adding one mid-range option at best. As he notes, the combined $17MM owed to Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria is already more than the $15.4MM the club spent on last year’s entire Opening Day bullpen. Iott does, however, foresee a re-signing of Victor Martinez. For his last two predictions, he expects an internal competition for the fifth starter slot and that one (or both) or Andy Dirks and Don Kelly will be non-tendered, based on recent comments from GM Dave Dombrowski. Bottom line: he expects Detroit to spend on retaining Martinez and acquiring a center fielder rather than on the bullpen or rotation.
  • The Cardinals aren’t likely to re-sign any of their five free agents, writes MLB.com’s Jen Langosch. That means that Justin Masterson, A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Ellis and perhaps most notably, lifetime Cardinal Jason Motte and the resurgent Pat Neshek are ticketed for new jerseys. Neshek is probably the most intriguing of the bunch, as the 34-year-old signed a minor league deal last offseason but earned an All-Star nod en route to a final ERA of 1.87 in 67 1/3 innings with 9.1 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9.

Free Agent Profile: Michael Morse

Michael Morse has provided notice that he is still a force at the plate, but his defensive limitations remain a major factor in his market. He made good on the one-year, $6MM deal he signed with the Giants, but what kind of contract will he achieve in his second successive turn at free agency?

Strengths/Pros

You could probably write this section fairly in just one word: bat. Over 482 plate appearances with the Giants, Morse put up a strong .279/.336/.475 slash with 16 home runs. That line does not quite reach the monster figures he tallied in 2011 with the Nationals — .303/.360/.550 with 31 long balls – but nevertheless indicates that his down season in 2013 can be chalked up in large part to a nagging wrist injury that required offseason surgery.

MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants

Notably, the right-handed-hitting Morse is productive against both righties (121 career wRC+) and lefties (121 career wRC+). Though he may never again be a truly elite power hitter, he has bumped his ISO back to just under the .200 level and could well improve on his career-low 15.1% HR/FB rate with a move to a ballpark that better suits his notable pop to the opposite field gap.

In truth, there is not much to dislike about Morse’s bat. Detractors could point to a slightly rising strikeout rate, but there is no spike that is way out of line with his career numbers. And Morse has had plenty of success with the same general mix of Ks and free passes. Likewise, his numbers in 2014 should arguably be downgraded due to the fact that he carried a sizeable .348 BABIP. (Notably, Morse’s rough 2013 season was driven in part by a .254 average on pitches he put in play.) But despite his lack of speed, Morse has put up three seasons of .330-or-better BABIP figures because, well, he hits the ball really hard. With all of his batted ball, pitch recognition, and contact numbers lining up cleanly with his career norms, Morse seems a good bet to continue to produce at a solidly above-average rate with the bat.

All said, Morse would be quite valuable even in a pure DH role, especially since he does not need a left-handed-hitting platoon mate. But that may still sell short his value somewhat. While Morse is widely acknowledged to be a very poor defensive outfielder (more on that below), he has somewhat surprisingly seen relatively little action at first in his career. Over 1,259 2/3 career innings at that spot, he has rated out as a slightly below-average defender. While that may not seem at first glance to be much of a feather in his cap, that decent performance in sporadic playing time provides hope that Morse could be a more reliable option if he were to open the spring with a first baseman’s mitt and use it steadily over a season. And it bears recalling that Morse started out his career as a shortstop, and even saw 450 big league innings there in his rookie season with the Mariners. Though he’ll never be graceful, it seems plausible to think that Morse could take on a full-time job at first.

Weaknesses/Cons

A hot start, mid-season swoon, and late-year rally is generally not the worst way to hit your walk year. But for Morse, that year all but ended when August flipped to September. Sidelined with a strained oblique, Morse saw just two plate appearances in the season’s final month. And as of this writing, Morse has taken just four trips to the dish during the Giants’ postseason run, though the most recent produced a memorable home run.

That slightly unfortunate, essentially minor injury could probably be forgotten in large part were it not for Morse’s lengthy docket of maladies. The towering slugger has missed significant time over each of the last three seasons – to say nothing of several earlier DL stints – for various aches, pains, and strains. In the aggregate, since that 2011 full-season breakout, Morse has averaged 107 games and 416 plate appearances a year. In particular, acquiring teams that intend to utilize him in the outfield will need to account for the distinct possibility that a full year of production may not result.

Of course, whether to use Morse as a regular outfield option at all is open to question. Among players with at least 1,000 innings in the outfield over the last three years, Morse ranks fifth from the bottom in total negative defensive value by measure of both UZR and Defensive Runs Saved. And the eye test tends to support these findings.

Baserunning, likewise, is a clear negative for Morse, who was one of the league’s worst runners this year and probably will be for the rest of his career. He will turn 33 just before the start of the 2015 campaign, though that is still a fair sight younger than several other first base/DH options set to hit the market.

Personal

Morse, who was married in 2012, currently lives within walking distance of AT&T Park, according to this profile from Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle. He grew up in Florida, ultimately being drafted by the White Sox out of high school, but also spent time in Jamaica as a child.

Bearing a nom de guerre of “the Beast,” Morse is one of the most colorful players in the game. Whether performing his “Samurai Cobra Snake” routine before entering the box, spinning “Take On Me” before his third plate appearance of a game, or re-enacting a ghost swing before trotting out a grand slam after a review, Morse is undeniably an entertaining presence at the ballpark.

Market

While the Giants signed him as an outfielder, Morse’s time there in a regular capacity probably should and will come to an end. Though National League teams in need of a first baseman could make a slight roll of the dice on Morse’s defense, the most obvious landing spot remains with an American League club. Lacking platoon splits, he would be an attractive option to share time at first with a more platoon-oriented hitter while taking the rest of his hacks from the DH spot.

Clubs like the Rangers, Mariners, and White Sox seem to be possibilities, and the Royals may be in the market for a Billy Butler replacement. Were Victor Martinez to find a new team, it is possible to imagine the Tigers giving Morse a look to share first base and DH duties with Miguel Cabrera. And several N.L. teams – the Padres, Brewers, Marlins, and possibly the Pirates come to mind – could see merit in installing Morse at first. Should consideration be given to using him in the outfield, it is conceivable that the Giants, Reds, and Mets could get involved. Depending on how the Phillies proceed with their situations at first, third, and the corner outfield, Morse could theoretically land there as well.

As for comps, recent contracts given to Marlon Byrd (2/$16MM), Adam LaRoche (2/$25MM plus loss of a draft pick), and perhaps Mike Napoli (2/$32MM plus sacrifice of potential draft compensation) seem the most relevant points of reference. Byrd’s age and near-past disappearance from relevance certainly had a major impact on his market, though he is a more able defender than Morse. And Napoli’s strong work at the plate and in the field, combined with an age, seem to make his number out of reach. As for LaRoche, it is hard to ignore the fact that he was coming off of a 33-home run year and was generally well-regarded as a defensive first baseman (whatever the metrics may say).

Ultimately, even without the qualifying offer penalty, Morse seems likely to land shy of LaRoche’s deal. That is especially so given the fact that he faces relatively steep competition from bat-first players such as LaRoche (now again a likely free agent), Michael Cuddyer, Billy Butler, and (on the high side) Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez.

Expected Contract

Morse’s representatives at ACES will probably ask for three years, but there is sufficient market competition that I see a shorter pact as the likelier outcome. Though a qualifying offer is unlikely to weigh down his value, Morse has his limitations as a player. Ultimately, I predict that he will land a two-year, $22MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


MLB Trade Rumors Podcast: Episode 2

On the second episode of the MLB Trade Rumors Podcast, Jeff Todd runs down the week’s transaction news (0:55) and then chats with Diamondbacks beat writer Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic (1:48) on topics including the team’s front office changes, middle infield and starting pitching situations, and extension candidates. Jeff is then joined by MLBTR’s Steve Adams to break down upcoming decisions on options around the league (29:47).

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.


Minor Moves: Jonathan Jones

Here are the latest minor moves from around the game:

  • The Marlins have signed outfielder Jonathan Jones to a minor league deal, per the MLB.com transactions page. Jones, 25, had spent his entire career in the Blue Jays system. This year, he put up a .233/.302/.314 slash over 196 plate appearances in his first substantial stretch at the Double-A level.

Offseason Outlook: Toronto Blue Jays

On the heels of their first winning season since 2010, the Blue Jays are hoping to take the next step and reach the playoffs, though they may need to get creative with their payroll to make room for roster upgrades.

Guaranteed Contracts

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

Contract Options

Free Agents

With the exception of Dioner Navarro‘s modest two-year, $8MM free agent contract last offseason, the Blue Jays have gone almost two full calendar years without a major transaction.  Granted, the Jays reshaped their roster with some huge moves over last two months of 2012, but the lack of any significant follow-up has raised controversy in Toronto.  Since the Jays led the AL East for over a month and finished only five games out of a wild card spot, fingers were pointed by both fans and some players at GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Rogers Communications ownership group for not making any acquisitions that could’ve put the team over the top.

A weakened Canadian dollar, the hiring of a new Rogers CEO within the last year and Rogers spending $5.2 billion to acquire NHL TV rights over its Sportsnet channels have all been cited as theories for the lack of Blue Jays-related spending.  It could also simply be that the club’s $137MM payroll represents the full budget, so Anthopoulos wasn’t authorized to spend any further.  Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that Anthopoulos will have more than that $137MM figure to work with, and it’s possible the 2015 payroll could be lower.

Certainly, lots of teams would love to have “just” a $137MM budget, though Anthopoulos doesn’t have much room to maneuver given that $96.2MM is committed to only eight players for 2015.  Roughly $11.6MM (as estimated by Matt Swartz for MLBTR) will be paid to their arbitration-eligible players if all are tendered contracts, though Josh Thole‘s contract option can be exercised instead of going through the arb process and Juan Francisco stands out as a non-tender given how little action he saw over the season’s final weeks.  That adds up to at least $104MM for 13 players, plus the Jays figure to pick up at least a few of their outstanding team options lest they create more holes on the roster.

Payroll space is of particular concern in regards to Melky Cabrera, whose solid bounce-back season will net him a significant free agent contract.  Cabrera wants to stay in Toronto and the Blue Jays want him back, yet it remains to be seen if the two sides can match up on a new deal.  The Jays will issue a Cabrera a qualifying offer at the very least, and as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes noted in his latest Free Agent Power Rankings, teams could be hesitant to surrender a first-rounder and give an expensive multiyear deal to a player with a below-average glove and a PED suspension on his record.

This being said, Dierkes still ranked Cabrera as the eighth-best player in free agency since quality bats are a rare commodity this offseason.  The Jays might be out of luck if they’re hoping the QO limits Cabrera’s market enough that they can re-sign him at a relative bargain.  In his free agent profile of Cabrera, MLBTR’s Steve Adams made the point that the outfielder might actually be the safest bet among the top available hitters — Cabrera is younger and has more defensive value than Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz, and he is a proven MLB quantity, unlike Yasmany Tomas.

Cabrera could be the litmus test for how tight a payroll crunch Toronto is facing.  Something like Adams’ predicted five-year, $66.25MM contract isn’t an unreasonable sum for a team that has designs on contending and has only one player (Jose Reyes) guaranteed money past the 2015 season.  If Cabrera signs elsewhere for such a deal, it’s a sign the Jays will continue to limit spending.

If Cabrera leaves, the Jays will have two outfield spots to fill since center fielder Colby Rasmus seems as good as gone.  Rasmus had a disappointing season overall and received only 14 plate appearances in September as the Jays instead used younger players in center field.  He seems likely to pursue a one-year deal elsewhere to rebuild his value, leaving the Jays with a combination of Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar and top prospect Dalton Pompey juggling the center field duties.  That trio and John Mayberry could form platoons in left and center, though you’d imagine that would only be the last-ditch plan if a more established everyday outfielder couldn’t be found to handle one of the two spots.  Top-tier outfield free agents like Tomas and Cruz will be too expensive, so the Jays could pursue a trade for a left fielder and let the youngsters handle center.

Casey Janssen posted a 1.23 ERA in the first half of the season and a 6.46 ERA in the second half, as he was clearly affected by a severe bout of food poisoning during an All-Star break vacation.  That late slump seemed to cinch his departure from the team, and Janssen won’t be the only notable relief arm to leave — Sergio Santos‘ $6MM option will surely be bought out after a rough season and Dustin McGowan‘s $4MM option is a bit pricey for a reliever without a defined role as a closer or setup man.  McGowan still put up solid numbers once he became a full-time relief pitcher, however, so it’s possible the team could decline the option and seek a new contract with its longest-tenured player.

Some bullpen improvements are necessary after the Jays’ relief corps posted a collective 4.09 ERA in 2014, the sixth-highest bullpen ERA in baseball.  The Blue Jays will look to upgrade the pen by adding setup relievers rather than pricey free agent closers, and then the setup options would either form a closer committee or one would eventually emerge as the ninth-inning preference.  Top starting prospect Aaron Sanchez was dominant in a relief role in 2014, though the Jays would prefer to stretch him out as rotation depth rather than use him for significant bullpen innings.

The rotation went from a glaring weakness in 2013 to a relative strength in 2014.  Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey were their usual solid selves, top prospect Marcus Stroman exploded onto the scene with an impressive rookie season, Drew Hutchison recorded 184 strikeouts over 184 2/3 innings in his first year back after Tommy John surgery and J.A. Happ rebounded from an injury-plagued 2013.  Since Happ pitched well enough for his $6.7MM option to be exercised, Toronto projects to have the same starting five next year, with young arms like Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin providing depth in the minors or the bullpen.  After two injury-shortened seasons, Brandon Morrow‘s $10MM club option is expected to be declined.

Anthopoulos isn’t ruling out the idea of adding another veteran starter in a trade, though I’d be surprised if the likes of Stroman, Hutchison or Sanchez were dealt given how the GM has so often spoken of the importance of young pitching depth.  Could Anthopoulos make a lateral move by trading Buehrle?  The idea has been broached in the Toronto media as a way to open up salary space, as while Buehrle is the definition of a reliable starter, he might not be worth the $19MM he’s owed in the final year of his contract.

I’m not sure dealing any pitching is a wise move given that the Jays would be lucky to replicate the general good health their rotation enjoyed in 2014.  If they do make a move, however, I’d suggest dealing Dickey over Buehrle.  The Jays might well have to eat some of that $19MM to make a deal happen and get a good MLB-ready piece back in return for Buehrle, while Dickey has a more palatable contract ($12MM in 2015, $12MM team option for 2016) to trade partners.  From Toronto’s perspective, Dickey is also over four years older, hasn’t pitched as well as Buehrle in 2013-14 and is a bit more of a question mark simply by dint of being a knuckleballer.

Some of the same logic in trading Buehrle or Dickey to free up payroll space applies to Reyes, who is owed $66MM through 2017.  The larger term and salary makes dealing Reyes a tall order, however, especially considering Reyes’ injury history and his declining defense; he hasn’t posted an above-average UZR/150 since 2008.  Reyes reportedly played through injuries for much of the season so the Jays will have to hope that he’ll be healthy and productive for the remainder of his contract.

Reyes, Navarro, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie hold down everyday positions around the rest of the diamond, though Lawrie’s actual position is up in the air.  The Jays would prefer to see his excellent third base glove remain on the hot corner, though Lawrie saw some time at his old second spot last season and could be moved semi-permanently if the Jays can acquire an everyday third baseman.  Of course, Lawrie isn’t a stable option himself, having spent significant time on the DL in each of the last three seasons.

There aren’t many attractive 2B/3B options within Toronto’s price range in free agency, so a trade might again be the ideal route for an upgrade.  I cited the Cubs’ Luis Valbuena as a trade candidate in my Red Sox offseason outlook piece, and Valbuena (coming off a .249/.341/.435 season with 16 homers in 547 PA) might make even more sense for the Jays since he can play both second and third.  The Marlins, White Sox and Rockies are all teams with second base depth that could be available in trades, and there’s plenty of room for improvement given that Toronto’s second basemen combined for only 0.5 fWAR in 2014.

Right now, Ryan Goins and Steve Tolleson are the top choices to platoon at second base, while Maicer Izturis will be in the mix.  Izturis had a terrible 2013 season and was injured for almost all of 2014, so his three-year, $10MM contract has thus far been a bust for the Jays.  Munenori Kawasaki was outrighted off the Jays’ 40-man roster but there’s a good chance the fan favorite infielder will be brought back as a minor league depth option.

A broken foot limited Adam Lind to only 318 PA last year, yet his injury history and inability to hit left-handers don’t offset his value as a righty-smashing bat.  Lind posted a .942 OPS against right-handed pitching in 2014, so expect the Jays to exercise his $7.5MM option and use him in his usual role as a primary DH and part-time first baseman.  Mayberry or Valencia fit as right-handed hitting complements to Lind at DH, or Reyes could even see some action at DH as an effort to keep him fresh.

Anthopoulos has stressed durability as one of his key musts for any new player, which goes towards a general team-wide goal to cut down on injuries and add bench depth.  It’s no coincidence that the Jays’ red-hot stretch in May and early June came when they had almost all of their key performers healthy at the same time.  They lacked the depth to withstand multiple injuries, however, and ultimately fell apart around the time when Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie’s DL stints overlapped.

With promising young talent and and a very good veteran core, there is a lot to like about the 2015 Blue Jays on paper.  They could be close to being serious contenders, and yet if the youngsters don’t pan out or the veterans start to decline, the Jays’ window of contention could just as easily start closing given how many key talents are only controlled (via team options) through 2016.  The unknown payroll situation and the possibility that team president Paul Beeston could depart also adds to the winter uncertainty.  The Jays have been so mysteriously quiet over the last two years that it’s hard to predict exactly how busy they’ll be before Opening Day, though with so many areas that need addressing, the club can’t get away with another offseason on the sidelines.


Free Agent Profile: Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana‘s 2013-14 offseason did not go as planned following a strong 2013 campaign.  After spending all winter searching for a strong multiyear deal, he settled for a one-year deal with the Braves in March matching the qualifying offer amount of $14.1MM.  Turning down a qualifying offer from the Royals was considered a major factor in Santana’s disappointing market, as teams did not want to pay full price while surrendering a draft pick.  Now, after another solid season, Santana must navigate the free agent market again, potentially with another qualifying offer.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta BravesStrengths/Pros

Santana missed over a month in 2009 with a UCL sprain in his pitching elbow, but his agents presented teams with a statement from Dr. James Andrews last offseason in which the surgeon noted, “He doesn’t need any further treatment for his right elbow partial UCL tear, as on (the) MRI today it appears that it has completely healed.”

Santana had another healthy season despite signing late, and it might be enough to put the elbow concern to rest.  In fact, he’s been quite durable, making at least 30 starts in each of the past five seasons and posted a sub-4.00 ERA in four of those campaigns.  Though his first big league start didn’t come until April 9th, Santana still ranked 11th among free agent starters with 196 innings.  Santana’s average of 6.32 innings per start ranked fifth among free agents.

Santana struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings in 2014, his best mark since 2008. That ranks fourth among free agent starters.   Some of that can be attributed to moving to the National League and striking out pitchers, though Santana also increased his strikeout rate against non-pitchers.  And despite a reputation as being fairly homer-prone, Santana allowed only 0.73 HR/9, fifth among free agent starters.

Santana’s 3.63 SIERA bettered his 3.95 ERA, and the skill-based estimate might be a better way to project what he’ll do next year.  Only five free agent starters topped Santana’s 2.8 wins above replacement.  After the Big Three of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields, there’s a case for Santana as the top pitcher in the second tier.

Weaknesses/Cons

One of the biggest cons for Santana is a potential draft pick cost, if he receives and turns down a $15.3MM qualifying offer from the Braves.  More on that later.

Santana is relatively hittable, having allowed 8.9 hits per nine innings this year.  Perhaps that was a fluke, given a .319 batting average on balls in play.  Still, left-handed hitters batted .283 against Santana this year, and they also hit him hard in 2012.

As Fangraphs’ Mike Petriello pointed out this month, no right-handed starter has thrown sliders more often than Santana over the past two years (nearly 36% of the time).  The pitch is generally considered to be hard on a pitcher’s elbow, even if Santana has proven himself to be durable.  Any team entertaining signing Santana to a multiyear deal will be more concerned with what will happen moving forward.

While Santana did a nice job limiting the longball this year, his 8.8% home run per flyball rate wasn’t in line with his career norm and his 42.7% groundball rate wasn’t anything special.  If his HR/FB returns to normal, he’ll return to being the pitcher who allowed 1.26 home runs per nine innings from 2010-13.

Personal

Santana looked up to Pedro Martinez as a boy growing up in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, and was signed by the Angels at age 17.  He’s now married with two children.  Jesse Sanchez’s MLB.com article and video from September 2013 gives great insight into his family life.  Santana is described by his wife as a quiet yet silly guy who enjoys playing with his children.

Market

In my estimation, the second tier of free agent starting pitching this winter includes Santana, Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Justin Masterson, Jake Peavy, Hiroki Kuroda, and Jason Hammel.  Of those eight, only Santana, Liriano, and Kuroda are even eligible to receive qualifying offers.  Kuroda could retire, and even if he doesn’t he would be extremely picky where he plays.

After speaking to rival executives last month, ESPN’s Buster Olney predicted Santana would receive a qualifying offer from the Braves, while Liriano would not receive one from the Pirates.  So there’s a very real scenario where Santana is the only second-tier pitcher to receive a qualifying offer.  Even if some teams feel he’s the best pitcher in this tier, they could certainly turn to someone they rank lower who will not require draft pick forfeiture.

The qualifying offer situation muddies Santana’s free agency again, making it difficult to predict which teams will be involved.  If he receives and turns down a QO, he’ll be a better fit for teams with protected first rounders like the Cubs, White Sox, Phillies, Red Sox, Twins, Astros, Rockies, Rangers, and Diamondbacks.  The draft pick forfeiture would further be minimized if one of those teams first signs another player who turned down a QO, meaning Santana would only require forfeiture of a third-round pick.  The Twins pursued Santana last winter and still need starting pitching.  I don’t think a QO will kill Santana’s market, and certainly teams without protected first rounders will  have interest.  The Marlins, Yankees, Tigers, and Giants could get involved.  The Blue Jays, Orioles, and Mariners were in on Santana last winter, but their needs may have changed.

Santana could also return to the Braves in 2015, as the team faces uncertainty in the rotation after Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Mike Minor.

Expected Contract

The Braves’ best chance of retaining Santana might be if he accepts a qualifying offer, which I find unlikely.  Santana would not risk much by turning down a QO — last winter showed that a one-year deal near the qualifying offer value will probably be out there all winter and into Spring Training.

Obviously Santana does not want a repeat of that scenario, so it will be important for agent Jay Alou to set proper expectations.  One year ago, MLBTR’s Steve Adams predicted a five-year, $75MM deal for Santana, and I agreed.  Edwin Jackson‘s four-year, $52MM seemed like the floor.  In November of 2013, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported Santana’s asking price was in excess of $100MM over five years, with Jon Heyman of CBS Sports pegging the price at $112MM over five.  A week later, agents Bean Stringfellow and Joe White (who no longer represent Santana) showed Rosenthal the binder they created to showcase their client, which they felt made the $100MM case partially through an ill-conceived comparison to Zack GreinkeStringfellow later denied asking for five years and $112MM, but it seems likely that he, White, and Alou started off too high for Santana, and once expectations were adjusted into the Edwin Jackson range, it was too late.  Santana’s one-year deal was not owed entirely to the qualifying offer.

Now only Alou remains, and he should at least be able to score the now-standard four-year, $50MM deal this time.  As I think Santana will be plenty appealing even with another qualifying offer, I’m predicting a four-year, $56MM deal this time around.  Combined with the 2014 one-year deal, Alou would be able to say he ultimately got Santana five years and $70MM, not far off Steve Adams’ original estimate from last offseason.


Rays Sign Michael Kohn To Major League Deal

The Rays have inked right-hander Michael Kohn to a one-year, major league contract, the club announced today. With the move, Tampa’s 40-man roster is now full for the time being.

Kohn, 28, elected free agency after being designated for assignment and outrighted in early September by the Angels. That move was confusing on the surface, as Kohn owns a 3.52 ERA across 76 2/3 frames since the start of 2013 and strikes out batters at a handy 9.2 per-nine clip.

But those numbers are not quite supported by Kohn’s peripherals; ERA estimators suggest that he may have benefited from a low home run-to-flyball rate and a .192 BABIP-against. At root, the concern with Kohn was his badly-slipping control. He ended up issuing 7.6 free passes per nine last year, including a troubling ten over his last 5 1/3 frames. Neither was the problem contained to his MLB time: Kohn walked 27 in his 34 Triple-A innings.


AL East Links: Rays, Maddon, Cruz, Duquette, Red Sox

New Rays president of baseball operations Matthew Silverman told reporters, including Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, that he has no plans to hire a GM (Twitter link). Silverman seems poised to head up the baseball ops department by himself, whereas former GM and new Dodgers president of baseball ops Andrew Friedman is reportedly on the hunt for a GM in a setup that will be similar to that of the Cubs (Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer) and the Marlins (Dan Jennings/Michael Hill). Silverman isn’t expecting further changes to Tampa’s scouting or player development departments, either.

More from the AL East…

  • Even after Friedman left for the Dodgers, Maddon voiced his commitment to the Rays to reporters and said he expected to talk about an extension with the club. Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune was among the reporters yesterday to speak to Silverman and hear the newly minted head of baseball ops state that he expects his manager to be with the team in 2015 and beyond. However, Silverman stopped short of saying an extension would be done this winter. “We’ve been comfortable with Joe managing in the final year of his contract. It may not be ideal, but it’s always a possibility,” said Silverman. “…I hope we all wake up one day and you see that Joe’s here even longer than he’s signed for today.”
  • Following his team’s exit from the postseason, Nelson Cruz repeated to reporters, including MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko (Twitter link), that he wants to return to the Orioles. Cruz said he loves both the organization and the team, but as Kubatko notes, he’s sure to be looking for a sizable free agent deal after leading the Majors in homers this season and having to settle for a one-year, $8MM contract last winter. Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun has a full article with quotes from Cruz on his time in Baltimore.
  • Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan examined the Orioles‘ roster and concluded that GM Dan Duquette has done an excellent job in focusing on raising his team’s floor while many clubs are more focused on raising the ceiling. Duquette has prioritized a deep roster, and Sullivan uses negative WAR as a means of illustrating this fact. Over the past three seasons, the Orioles have received the sixth-lowest cumulative negative WAR total, suggesting that while they may not always have a lot of star power, they don’t stock up on expensive stars while punting roster spots at the bottom of their 25-man group. In this season alone, Baltimore gave just 3.2 percent of its innings to negative-WAR pitchers (league average, excluding Baltimore, was 13.4) and 3.2 percent of its plate appearances to negative-WAR position players (league average, excluding Baltimore, was 19.4). Sullivan also notes that Friedman is a master of this (the Rays have the lowest negative WAR total over the past three seasons), making it one way in which the Dodgers, who had the sixth-most negative WAR, can improve quickly.
  • Though the Red Sox are known to be in pursuit of elite starting pitching this offseason, Alex Speier of WEEI.com writes that perhaps they should be placing a more significant emphasis on improving the team’s defense. Speier points out how superior both the Royals and Orioles were to the Red Sox in terms of defense and speculates that Shane Victorino‘s tremendous defensive upside is enough that those clamoring to trade him should rethink their stance. He also points out that the third base trio of Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt combined to make 24 fewer plays than a league-average third baseman in 2014 before highlighting the strong defensive reputation of free agents Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley.

Free Agent Profile: Nick Markakis

Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis entered the 2014 season with a lot to prove coming off the worst season of his pro career in 2013, and he was able to reestablish a significant amount of value heading into what will likely be his first venture into the free agent market. While he does have a mutual option ($17.5MM with a $2MM buyout) — such options are rarely, if ever exercised by both sides — especially when they’re for such a lofty amount.

Strengths/Pros

Throughout his career, Markakis has consistently gotten on base at a strong clip. A lifetime .290/.358/.435 hitter, Markakis has never posted a single-season OBP lower than .329, and he’s never batted below .271, either. His lowest OBP and batting average both came last season on the heels of three 2012 surgeries — one to repair a sports hernia, one to repair a broken hamate bone in his right wrist and the other to repair a broken thumb in his left hand. Markakis performed well after the first two operations — the hernia and the hamate procedures — but the thumb injury ended his season. It’s possible that an injury to his dominant hand, coupled with the effects of the surgery on his right hand left him a bit sapped in that poor 2013 campaign.

Nick  MarkakisThough he does have those three fairly recent surgeries in his history, Markakis has otherwise been one of baseball’s most durable players over the life of his nine-year career. The former first-round pick (seventh overall) has averaged 152 games per season since debuting as a 22-year-old in 2006, topping 160 games five times and 155 or more on seven occasions. Aside from 2012, he’s never been on the disabled list.

As his OBP marks indicate, Markakis walks at a fairly strong clip. He’s never posted a walk rate lower than 7.9 percent in a season and is at 9.3 percent for his career (8.7 percent in 2014). He’s one of the toughest batters in baseball to strike out, as evidenced by a lifetime strikeout rate of 13 percent (11.8 percent in 2014). And, while he doesn’t have the plus power he showed earlier in his career, Markakis has hit 10 or more homers in each season of his career, including 14 this year.

Defensive metrics go back and forth on Markakis’ value in right field, but Ultimate Zone Rating has long been a fan of his strong, accurate arm, and he posted positive marks in both UZR/150 (+5.8) and Defensive Runs Saved (+1) in 2014.

Weaknesses/Cons

As noted, defensive metrics offer a wide range of potential outcomes on Markakis. While he was a plus defender in right field this season and graded as perhaps baseball’s best right fielder back in 2008 (+11 UZR/150, +22 DRS), he’s posted negative marks more often than not in recent years. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the heavy workload he takes on each season, and perhaps the hernia surgery in 2012 impacted some of his glovework, but agent Jamie Murphy of TWC Sports will likely have to deal with some teams that are skeptical of Markakis’ defensive outlook in the tail end of his prime years.

Though he’s a steady contributor in terms of batting average and OBP, Markakis hasn’t hit for power in recent seasons. He was on his way to a solid .174 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) in his injury-shortened 2012, but that mark has been nearly cut in half over the previous two campaigns (.097). He’s still a double-digit homer threat, but after routinely hitting about 45 doubles per season earlier in his career, he hit just 51 between 2013 and 2014 combined.

Also clouding the picture is a late-season swoon for Markakis, who struggled mightily for 45-50 games from late July to mid-September. He did recover with a strong 10-game showing to close out the season, but his second half was notably weaker than his first: .288/.351/.395 before the break and .256/.329/.372 following.

Personal

Markakis and his wife, Christina, have three children. Together, the couple launched the Right Side Foundation in 2009 — a nonprofit organization that seeks to better the lives of distressed children in the state of Maryland. Nick and Christina were honored by the Balitmore Sun when they received the Tim Wheatley Award for off-the-field contributions to the community.

Markakis is known as a driven player who will take the field even when he’s not at 100 percent — a fact that is reflected in the number of games he’s played throughout his career.

Market

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported yesterday that the Orioles are expected to decline Markakis’ option. I found this to be a moderate surprise, as the team could have picked up its half of the option and assumed that Markakis would decline; players with his track record at his age almost never want to play on a one-year deal, instead preferring a longer commitment even at a lower annual rate. That move would spare the O’s his $2MM buyout and allow them to make a $15.3MM qualifying offer. It’s possible they could still make the QO — the combined total of the QO and the buyout ($17.3MM) would still be less than that of his option — but this seems to suggest that the team isn’t comfortable risking a $17MM+ commitment to Markakis in order to secure a draft pick. If that’s the case, he seems likely to hit the market without draft pick compensation, which is great news for Markakis and his agent.

From a competition standpoint, Markakis is positioned well. Yasmany Tomas is the name generating the most buzz in terms of corner outfield options, but he’s yet to play a game in the Majors. Melky Cabrera is coming off a fine season and is perhaps the most direct competitor. Nelson Cruz has a bigger bat but is more than three years older with more pronounced defensive issues. Some teams will undoubtedly have more interest in making an upside play on someone like Colby Rasmus over a shorter term, but Markakis can rightfully claim that he’s a more consistent contributor. Nori Aoki brings a lighter bat at an older age. Beyond that grouping, Markakis will be competing with aging veterans, many of whom are coming off poor and/or injury-plagued seasons; Alex Rios, Michael Cuddyer, Corey Hart, Mike Morse, Josh Willingham and Torii Hunter are among the alternatives.

Markakis isn’t going to make a cellar-dwelling team into a contender, but he’s the type of bat that an above-average club can look at as one of the final pieces to rounding out a contending roster. His steady batting average and OBP numbers slot are a good fit at the top of a batting order.

If the Yankees are convinced that Alex Rodriguez can play in the field enough to make Carlos Beltran a primary DH, then Markakis could be a right field option there. He’d make a nice replacement option for the Blue Jays in the event that Cabrera signs elsewhere, and the Tigers have some uncertainty in the outfield after Andy Dirks missed the 2014 season and given Hunter’s uncertain status. The Royals will need to replace Aoki if he does not re-sign, and the Mets have a well-documented corner outfield need. Seattle, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are all in need of corner outfield help as well, and the White Sox would make sense if they want to move on from Dayan Viciedo.

Expected Contract

Markakis has three primary competitors in my opinion: Tomas, Cruz and Cabrera. Beyond that grouping, he can make the case that he’s the next-best bat and a more certain commodity than others on what is unquestionably a thin market for bats. Players in this age bracket have been targeting at least four-year commitments, and I would expect Markakis to do the same.

The late-season swoon is a strike against Markakis, but the fact that he can likely come without a draft pick attached makes him an appealing alternative to Cruz and Cabrera, and he will of course be significantly less expensive than Tomas.

I still think there’s at least a chance that Markakis ends up with a QO, and if that’s the case, I’d peg him for a three-year, $39MM contract.

However, if he’s hitting the open market without draft pick compensation attached, I do think that’s enough to get him to four years, albeit at a slightly lesser AAV. Assuming there’s no QO in play, I’m projecting a four-year, $48MM contract in a weak market for hitters.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


NL East Links: Mets, Markakis, Phillies, Braves

Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com recently looked at the Mets‘ payroll situation, noting that without any winter changes to the roster, the payroll should come in somewhere in the low-$90MMs (specifically, he pegged it for $93MM, though that was with some rough guesses on the team’s arb-eligible players). However, Rubin also writes that he feels some changes are likely — namely bringing in a shortstop and left fielder. He feels it’s likely that in the event the team does push the payroll north of $100MM by adding a free agent outfielder, a trade of Daniel Murphy or one of the club’s starting pitchers will offset that move. An official insisted to Rubin that there’s “upward mobility” in the payroll but did say the club is not yet ready to return to its previous heights of $130MM.

More on the Mets and more from the NL East below…

  • Joel Sherman of the New York Post feels that Nick Markakis should be an offseason target for the Mets. While the Mets would like a corner outfielder that projects to have more power than Markakis, those are few and far between in this year’s free agent class, and Marakakis’ strong OBP skills and ability to grind out at-bats, could solve the team’s need for a leadoff hitter. Sherman speculates that Markakis will be looking for something similar to J.J. Hardy‘s three-year, $40MM contract.
  • Much has been written on the Phillies outfield situation of late, and David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News breaks it down piece by piece. Murphy notes that the decision not to trade Marlon Byrd this summer could “prove prudent,” as he now presents an alternative to an expensive contract for Melky Cabrera or Nelson Cruz. The team should be exploring Ben Revere trades if possible due to his lack of walks and power, and he feels that selling this low on Domonic Brown would be a mistake. Murphy’s colleague, Ryan Lawrence, thinks that it’s likely Brown is swapped for a change-of-scenery candidate and also looks at the complete void of outfield talent the Phillies have produced in recent years. Even Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino — two key outfielders Philadelphia showed little inclination to re-sign — were acquired from other organizations.
  • ESPN’s Keith Law reports (via Twitter) that Tom Battista — the scout responsible for signing Freddie Freeman and Tommy Hanson — has returned to the Braves organization as a crosschecker. In a followup tweet, Law tells a reader that he thinks the Braves have done an very good job in making additions since GM Frank Wren was dismissed. Atlanta has brought back former scouting director Roy Clark and plucked Yankees special assistant Gordon Blakeley.

West Notes: Dodgers, Tracy, Rasmus, Hillman

After years of spending to acquire elite players, the Dodgers finally wised up and spent to acquire an elite GM, writes Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. Andrew Friedman has turned down previous interest from the Angels and Astros, but he finally took an opportunity to step onto a bigger stage. His transition to L.A. won’t be like Theo Epstein’s transition to Chicago, however, Rosenthal notes, as people will expect Friedman and the Dodgers to win immediately and to win each year. Friedman will look to hire a GM, and Rosenthal wonders about former Nationals assistant GM Bryan Minniti, who resigned from that post last week. Major League sources tell Rosenthal that Friedman interviewed Minniti for a position with the Rays five or six years ago, so there’s clearly some interest there, and Minniti also has ties to president Stan Kasten.

Here’s more on the Dodgers and from the game’s Western divisions…

  • Minniti’s name also surfaces in a piece from Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles, as Saxon runs down some potential GM candidates for Friedman and the Dodgers. Saxon suggests one in-house candidate — director of analytics Alex Tamin — and four external names in addition: Yankees AGM Billy Eppler, Athletics AGM David Forst, Athletics AGM Dan Feinstein and Red Sox AGM Mike Hazen. In his full article, Saxon goes into much further detail about his reasoning behind suggesting each as a candidate.
  • The D’Backs are still working to round out their coaching staff, writes Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic, with only pitching coach Mike Harkey, first base coach Dave McKay and bullpen coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. guaranteed to return. Interestingly, Piecoro writes that the Snakes offered Jim Tracy their bench coach job after he was a finalist in their managerial search, but the former Rockies skipper refused. “The bench coach job is not what he wants to do,” said chief baseball officer Tony La Russa.
  • Cory Rasmus could be stretched into a full-time starter for the Angels in 2015 after a strong string of spot starts late in the season, writes MLB.com’s Matthew DeFranks. Rasmus says he’s yet to discuss the possibility with the team but expects it to come up over the winter and will prepare himself to be ready to throw as much as the team wishes. The Halos are short on rotation depth following Tyler Skaggs‘ Tommy John surgery and a late knee injury to Garrett Richards that will likely keep him on the shelf for the early portion of the 2015 campaign.
  • Former Royals manager Trey Hillman, who has been working as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman, will be named the Astros‘ new bench coach, reports the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich. In addition to his work in the Kansas City dugout and the Yankees’ front office, Hillman has 12 years of minor league managerial experience and five years of experience managing in Japan.