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Pittsburgh Pirates Rumors
The Pirates have officially acquired righty John Axford from the Indians, the clubs have announced. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports first reported the transaction (via Twitter). Axford, 31, joined Cleveland on a one-year, $4.5MM free agent contract after being non-tendered by the Cardinals.
Pittsburgh added the righty through a straight waiver claim , tweets ESPN.com’s Buster Olney. That means the club will be on the hook for the approximately $1.1MM that he is still owed this year, though it will not need to part with any young talent to add the veteran arm.
On the year, Axford has posted a 3.92 ERA with 10.5 K/9 but a troubling 6.5 BB/9 over 43 2/3 innings. He does have a career-best 54.1% groundball rate, but advanced metrics have not been impressed on the whole (4.71 FIP, 3.98 xFIP, 3.80 SIERA). Axford opened the season as the Cleveland closer, and picking up ten saves in the process, but lost the job with inconsistent performance. He has been much better of late, though saw his ERA jump 78 points in his last outing (August 8th) when he gave up four earned runs on three hits and an ill-timed home run.
Axford has now been dealt in August for the second time in as many seasons. Last year, the one-time Brewers closer moved from Milwaukee to St. Louis in late August. Though Axford has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining, it seems rather likely that he will be a non-tender candidate once again. As with Ernesto Frieri, who was recently acquired and later outrighted by the Pirates, early-career save opportunities make it difficult to justify tendering contracts to non-elite bullpen arms.
For the Bucs, Axford represents another attempt to shore up a pen that has failed to match last year’s unit, which was third in baseball with a collective 2.89 ERA. In 2014, the Pittsburgh relief corps has put up a negative fWAR tally and combined to allow 3.52 earned per nine.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Pirates announced that they have designated right-hander Wirfin Obispo for assignment in order to make room for catcher Ramon Cabrera, who was claimed off waivers from the Tigers earlier today. Cabrera will report to Double-A Altoona, according to a team release from the Pirates.
The Pirates claimed Obispo, 29, off waivers from the Braves back in June, and he’s pitched rather well for their Triple-A affiliate. In 25 2/3 innings with Indianapolis, Obispo has posted a 3.16 ERA with 8.4 K/9, though he’s posted a fairly high 4.6 BB/9 rate as well. He struggled to a 4.66 ERA with the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate and has a 3.80 ERA on the season as a whole between the two clubs. Obispo has never reached the Major League level, but he’s turned in a combined 4.01 ERA over the past three seasons at Triple-A, averaging 9.1 strikeouts and 5.3 walks per nine innings pitched.
The Pirates have claimed catcher Ramon Cabrera off waivers from the Tigers, Jason Beck of MLB.com reports on Twitter. Cabrera was placed on waivers after being designated for assignment to create 40-man space for the promotion of spot starter Buck Farmer, Beck adds.
The 24-year-old backstop came to Detroit from Pittsburgh in a winter swap for starter Andy Oliver. Now he’ll head back to the organization that signed him out of Venezuela. For the Tigers, the loss of a young player like Cabrera represents one of the somewhat under-appreciated downsides to being surprised with the need to add a player to the 40-man.
The Pirates should have a good handle on the player they are getting back, since he spent five years in their system. Cabrera was rated Detroit’s 27th-best prospect coming into the year by Baseball America, with the publication calling him a high-contact, low-power, low-speed offensive player who is still below average behind the dish. According to BA, his upside is to produce along the lines of Josh Thole. Over 431 plate appearances at the Double-A level this year, Cabrera owns a .277/.329/.358 triple-slash.
Russell Martin‘s current two-year, $17MM deal, which remains the largest free-agent contract in Pirates history, received mixed reviews when it was signed. Now, though, it’s clear the deal was a coup for the Bucs, and Martin’s impending free agency raises fascinating questions about how to balance his unusual skill set and the lack of impact catchers on next offseason’s free agent market against the worrisome aging patterns of backstops in their thirties.
Martin was a key to the Pirates’ breakout 94-win season in 2013. He hit a modest .226/.327/.377, but he still contributed 4.1 fWAR thanks to his exceptional defense, and he may have added a bit of value even beyond that thanks to his well regarded pitch framing. This season, he might be even more helpful despite missing time with a hamstring strain — his .417 OBP so far this season is an amazing 107 points above league average, and his defense again grades very well, with 9 Defensive Runs Saved above average so far.
Martin’s excellent performance in 2014 couldn’t be better timed. Now that Kurt Suzuki has signed an extension with the Twins, there won’t really be any other starting catchers on the free agent market, unless one counts players like Geovany Soto or A.J. Pierzynski. Teams like the Dodgers, Rockies and possibly Blue Jays or Cubs would all make some degree of sense as potential suitors for Martin, and the Pirates would surely love to have him back at the right price, so the market for him should be robust.
Dollar figure and contract length are always important considerations for free agents, but in Martin’s case they’re even more crucial than usual. Neal Huntington has already implied that the cost-conscious Bucs aren’t likely to be serious bidders, even though it’s a steep drop from Martin to presumptive 2015 starting catcher Tony Sanchez. A team like the Rangers might be unwilling to block a terrific catching prospect in Jorge Alfaro by signing Martin to a lengthy contract, and therefore could simply settle on Robinson Chirinos until Alfaro is ready. The same goes for the Red Sox, who have Christian Vazquez at the big-league level and Blake Swihart on the way.
Then there’s the more general problem of how to value an aging catcher. Martin will be 32 in February, and aging patterns for catchers that age are brutal, to put it mildly. Recent history is full of good starting catchers who struggled to maintain their value into their thirties, like Kenji Johjima, Ramon Hernandez and former Pirate Jason Kendall. Others, like Charles Johnson and Michael Barrett, fell off the table at an even younger age than Martin is now. Brian McCann, who’s signed to a five-year contract and who’s even younger than Martin, might end up providing another cautionary tale. Martin is a unique player with good conditioning habits, and his defense should give him value even if his offense falters, but history isn’t on his side.
On top of that, Martin’s remarkable .290/.417/.391 2014 season likely wouldn’t be sustainable even if he were younger. After five straight years of a BABIP of .287 or lower, his BABIP is .354 this season. Martin’s excellent plate discipline is legitimate, but his batting average is more likely to be something like .240 or .250, rather than .290, going forward.
These warning signs will be perfectly clear to most teams, and it’s likely that whoever signs Martin will be hoping to get good value at the start of the contract, with that value declining sharply as the contract progresses. It’s tough to find precedents for a Martin deal, since few catchers sign long free-agent deals, but he should be able to receive at least three years, and perhaps four, at north of $10MM per season. Barring an injury down the stretch, he’ll surely be in line for more than the three years and $26MM Carlos Ruiz received from the Phillies last year, but far less than the five years and $85MM McCann got.
The Ruiz contract suggests Martin will get a hefty payday, although Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s recent deal points in the other direction. Saltalamacchia posted 3.6 WAR last season before hitting the market as a 28-year-old and only got $21MM over three years, even though the Red Sox didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. For Martin, a three-year deal in the range of $12MM-13MM per season might make sense, or possibly a four-year contract worth slightly less per season. Martin could also try for a higher average annual value by taking a two-year deal, although, given his age, he probably has incentive to prefer more seasons and more guaranteed money, since he’s not likely to get another big contract after this offseason.
One can see, then, why a return to the Pirates appears so unlikely — the Bucs were unwilling to extend a $14.1MM qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett last season, explaining that their budget made it difficult to build a competitive team while committing so heavily to one player. It’s difficult, then, to see them committing to pay a similar annual salary to a player for three or four years, particularly when getting little from that player at the end of the contract could be disastrous for them. The Burnett situation also raises questions about whether the Pirates will extend Martin a qualifying offer after the season, potentially affecting his market. They will probably have a stronger incentive to do so with Martin than they did with Burnett, given that there’s less of a chance Martin would accept.
Less thrifty teams would likely have fewer concerns than the Pirates would, and might also be more inclined to pursue Martin because of his perceived value even beyond his peripherals — he’s widely regarded as a thoughtful player and leader who’s helpful with pitchers. The most likely outcome (although it’s far from certain at this point) is that Martin winds up with a three-year deal from a bigger-payroll team.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported over the weekend that the Braves explored a trade prior to the deadline that would’ve sent B.J. Upton and a starting pitcher elsewhere. David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Twitter link) has another detail on this scuttled trade, saying that the Braves would’ve taken on “a contract [the] other team [was] looking to shed.” It sounds like it would’ve essentially been a swap of one bad contract (the roughly $50MM owed to Upton through 2017) for another, though if Atlanta was willing to move a starter as well, the other contract was likely for a shorter term. It’ll be interesting to see if the identities of the mystery team and mystery player are revealed in the coming weeks or months but until then, let the guessing game begin!
Here’s some more from around the baseball world…
- Russell Martin‘s plan to take a short-term contract and rebuild his value for a richer, longer-term deal seems to have paid off, MLB.com’s Tom Singer and Stephen Pianovich write. Martin has a .743 OPS over his two seasons with the Pirates and is hitting .290/.417/.391 over 308 PA this year, which makes him easily the most attractive catcher available in this winter’s free agent market. Martin says he loves playing in Pittsburgh, though Singer/Pianovich note that the Bucs are unlikely to be able to afford his asking price and prospect Tony Sanchez is waiting in the wings.
- The 2015 Giants could be improved by moving Buster Posey to third base and Tim Lincecum to the bullpen, Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News opines. Lincecum’s value as a starter is diminishing but (as the 2012 postseason indicated) he could be a dominant force as a reliever or closer. If Pablo Sandoval leaves in free agency, Kawakami argues that Posey could slide to third in order to help him stay healthy and perhaps lead to more production at the plate. Posey already plays a lot of first base and Kawakami doesn’t mention another possibility I think the Giants could consider, which is trading Brandon Belt.
- Speaking of next year’s Giants team, CSNBayArea.com’s Andrew Baggarly points out that at least $125MM is already committed to a roster that still has a big hole to address at second base and five key free agents (Sandoval, Michael Morse, Sergio Romo, Ryan Vogelsong, Jake Peavy) to re-sign or replace. With payroll stretched so thin both this season and next, Baggarly says the team simply doesn’t have the resources to explore replacing struggling players like Lincecum or Brandon Crawford.
- The Astros could return to respectability by adding a few veteran players in an attempt to follow the model of the 2003 Tigers, Grantland’s Jonah Keri opines. Those Tigers responded to an infamous 119-loss season by signing veteran free agents over the next few years, who mixed well with a young core and led the team to an AL pennant by 2006.
The 27-year-old has spent the entire season at Triple-A Salt Lake slashing .285/.351/.440 in 382 plate appearances. Defensively, he is primarily a shortstop, but has also seen time at second and third base for the Bees. Field did appear in 15 games with the Angels in 2013 posting a line of .154/.185/.154 over 27 plate appearances – his most extensive action since making his MLB debut with the Rockies in 2011 (.271/.314/.271 in 51 plate appearances).
The Pirates’ 40-man roster is now full.
The Nationals will promote top prospect Michael Taylor today, a source tells MLB.com’s Bill Ladson. The 23-year-old, previously known more for his bat than his glove, has risen quickly through Double-A and Triple-A this season, hitting .315/.401/.547 with 22 homers and 35 stolen bases along the way. Outfielder Steven Souza was placed on the disabled list with a left shoulder contusion to make room for Taylor. MLB.com ranked Taylor 72nd on the midseason edition of its Top 200 prospects list. Washington will have control of him through at least the 2019 season if he is in the Majors to stay.
Here are some more Sunday morning links from around the senior circuit…
- Michael Cuddyer is focused on getting healthy rather than proving himself to potential free agent suitors or to the Rockies in the season’s final weeks, writes Nick Groke of the Denver Post. The 35-year-old, who is finishing up a three-year, $31.5MM contract, has been out since April with a broken bone in his left shoulder. Cuddyer elected to rehab at the lower levels of the minor leagues to strengthen his legs and to once again experience the camaraderie of that environment, he explains. His decision has not been taken for granted by the young players he’s encountered thus far, as Rockies 2014 first-rounder Forrest Wall has already picked Cuddyer’s brain about preparation for games and his approach at the plate. The Rockies would like to retain Cuddyer, though they aren’t sure at what price they’d be comfortable, Groke notes.
- The Dodgers seem resigned to the fact that Hanley Ramirez will be placed on the disabled list with an oblique injury, writes MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick. Ramirez has been determined to stay off the DL in his contract year, says Gurnick, but he’s still missed 25 starts with various injuries to this point. Ramirez ranked third on the most recent edition of MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings, with his lack of durability being a primary reason for his fall from the top spot. A stint on the DL — which would be his fifth since the onset of the 2011 season — certainly won’t help his free agent stock.
- Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review spoke to Pedro Alvarez and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle about the possibility of Alvarez moving across the diamond to first base. Alvarez, whom Hurdle recently said had lost his starting job at third base, is open to the idea and called it a “no-brainer” rather than offer any negative comments about the move. It’d present the Bucs with an interesting logjam at first, however, as Alvarez ($4.25MM), Ike Davis ($3.5MM) and Gaby Sanchez ($2.3MM) are all due raises on their 2014 salaries via arbitration this winter. Price notes that Sanchez has begun working out over at third base.
The Pirates have designated reliever Ernesto Frieri for assignment, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports on Twitter. Frieri, 29, came to Pittsburgh in a swap of struggling closers at the end of June.
While his trade counterpart, Jason Grilli, has thrived in his new environs, Frieri has continued to struggle since the swap. Frieri has allowed 12 earned runs in 10 2/3 frames with the Bucs, while striking out ten and walking five batters. Frieri had at least shown with the Angels that he was still capable of missing bats (11.0 K/9) and limiting walks (2.6 BB/9), even if the results were still poor, but obviously those marks too have taken a downturn.
Frieri is earning $3.8MM in his first year of arbitration eligibility. This likely means two things: First, he seems fairly likely to get through waivers, and the Pirates could well welcome a claim anyway. And if he is instead stashed at Triple-A for the time being, Frieri will likely end up as a non-tender after the season.
We’ll track today’s minor moves here.
- The Pirates have outrighted infielder Dean Anna to Triple-A Indianapolis, according to the International League transactions page. Since being claimed by the Bucs in early July, the 27-year-old Anna has batted just .186/.368/.302 in 57 plate appearances. Overall, he has just a .601 OPS at the Triple-A level this season, and he didn’t fare any better in the bigs with New York, posting a .518 OPS in 25 plate appearances. Anna excelled with a .331/.410/.482 batting line with the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate in 2013, however, indicating that there’s some upside in his bat.
- The Blue Jays have signed catcher George Kottaras and sent him to Triple-A Buffalo, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca reports. The Cardinals released Kottaras last month after they acquired A.J. Pierzynski. He’s a lifetime .216/.326/.414 hitter in parts of seven seasons with the Red Sox, Brewers, Athletics, Royals, Indians and Cardinals.
- The Brewers have acquired pitcher Jay Jackson from the Pirates for cash considerations, Tom Haudricourt of the Journal Sentinel tweets. Jackson, 26, has posted a 4.89 ERA in 84 2/3 innings as a swingman with Triple-A Indianapolis, but with 9.2 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9. He has also pitched in the Cubs and Marlins systems. He’s recently won praise for his stuff, with Pirates Triple-A catcher Tony Sanchez suggesting Jackson has the potential to be a good big-league reliever.
While it remains unclear exactly how long Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates will be out of action with a rib fracture, any significant lost time will obviously have an impact on the tight NL Central race. As Mike Petriello of Fangraphs writes, Pittsburgh will be absent McCutchen at a time when wins are at a premium. It will be interesting to see whether the team considers a move to add another outfielder to the mix.
- Cubs call-up Javier Baez flipped the narrative on his debut by homering after an 0-for-5 start. Of course, you could call that performance right in line with expectations; as Vince Lara-Cinisomo of Baseball America wrote yesterday, big power and lots of strikeouts are likely as Baez adjusts to the big leagues. Meanwhile, the promotion carries broader implications for Chicago, as ESPN.com’s Keith Law explains (Insider link). By moving Baez onto the 40-man roster before they need to, and likely foregoing the chance to tack on additional years of control, the Cubs are starting the clock on their efforts to transition from rebuilding to contending. Given the state of the team’s MLB rotation and generally less-developed pitching prospects, that could make the team a player on the free agent market this year, says Law.
- It appears that the Twins have kept recently-acquired starter Tommy Milone in Triple-A to keep him from reaching a third year of service, explains Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN. With 2.018 on his service clock entering the year, and having been on optional assignment since July 5, Milone is now set up to fall short of the three years needed to qualify for arbitration via the standard route. Though a quick call-up would likely put Milone in line for an extra arb trip as a Super Two, he will nevertheless be subject to team control for four more years.
- Twins shortstop Danny Santana has a .318/.355/.488 slash through 215 plate appearances, far and away the best line he has maintained as a professional (in spite of the fact that he just made the leap to the big leagues for the first time). Regardless of what happens in the rest of the 23-year-old’s career, it seems fair to say that the meager signing bonus that landed him back in 2007 was well worth it. A club official says Santana signed for just $45K, while Santana’s representatives indicate it was only $37K, tweets Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN.