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Pittsburgh Pirates Rumors
Teams have until December 2 at 11:59pm ET to decide which of their arbitration-eligible players they’ll tender contracts. By MLBTR’s reckoning, about 40 of those players are non-tender candidates, including two first basemen, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, who platooned at the position for the Pirates in 2014.
Davis is projected to make $4.4MM in 2015 after earning $3.5MM last season. Sanchez, meanwhile, is projected to make $2.7MM, a raise from $2.3MM. Those costs wouldn’t be exorbitant for any team, even the low-payroll Pirates, but after another somewhat disappointing season from Davis and an off year for Sanchez, it’s worth asking whether the Pirates’ money might best be spent elsewhere.
Perhaps just as important for Davis is the fact that Pedro Alvarez now appears to be a first baseman. The former No. 2 overall pick struggled with throws from third base in 2014, while utilityman Josh Harrison had an unexpectedly outstanding season and staked a claim on a starting job, which will likely end up being at third. GM Neal Huntington has said that Alvarez will likely get the bulk of the playing time at first base, and he called keeping Davis “probably a challenge.” Alvarez and Davis both bat left-handed, so they can’t share a position. Davis has been working out in the outfield this offseason, but there’s probably no space on the Pirates’ roster there, either, since the Pirates already have a top young lefty outfielder in Gregory Polanco and another reasonably strong one in Travis Snider.
It’s still possible that the Pirates could trade Davis, who could theoretically have a bit of value for a team in need of a lefty first base option. But Davis will be more expensive through arbitration than he was in 2014, when he had a .233/.343/.378 season that qualified as a modest disappointment. The trade that brought Davis to Pittsburgh early in the 2014 season didn’t cost the Pirates much (a minor league reliever in Zack Thornton and a young pitching prospect in Blake Taylor), and it’s unlikely the Bucs could get more than that if they traded Davis now. It’s also obvious that, unless they trade Alvarez, the Pirates don’t have space for Davis on their roster. So there’s little incentive for interested teams to do anything but wait until the deadline for the Pirates to cut him loose.
Sanchez is right-handed and has had a reputation as a strong hitter against lefties, so Alvarez’s move to first base doesn’t impact Sanchez the way it impacts Davis. Given Sanchez’s declining performance, however, the Pirates could decide to allocate resources elsewhere. Sanchez hit .229/.293/.385 last season. He was better against lefties, at .256/.318/.429, but perhaps not so well as to justify the expense and the roster spot, especially given that the NL Central is thin on left-handed pitching. Sanchez is a career .291/.382/.481 hitter against southpaws, but at 31, his 2014 performance might be closer to his expected level going forward.
Like Davis, Sanchez has little or no trade value. So the Pirates’ best option might be to non-tender him and save money to spend elsewhere. The Bucs could then look for a cheaper Triple-A slugger to platoon with Alvarez (who, like Davis, can certainly use a good platoon partner). They could also employ some more creative arrangement like having Tony Sanchez, who dabbled as a first baseman late last season at Triple-A Indianapolis, break camp as a righty first base option and third catcher. They could also attempt to bring Gaby Sanchez back for less than $2.7MM.
Davis, who is represented by Octagon, should still be able to land a big-league deal somewhere — his 10 homers last season weren’t anything to write home about, but .343 on-base percentages don’t grow on trees, and Davis is still just 27 (28 in March). The Marlins already have a lefty first baseman in Garrett Jones, but they reportedly like Davis and could have interest if he becomes a free agent. The Padres could also be a possibility, although it’s questionable whether they’ll see Davis as an upgrade over incumbent lefty first baseman Yonder Alonso.
Sanchez, who is represented by Beverly Hills Sports Council, would be a good fit (on a cheap Major League deal or minor league deal with an out clause) for a team looking for a partner for their lefty first baseman. St. Louis, where Matt Adams has a career .197/.227/.326 line against lefties, could be one possibility. A reunion with the Marlins, and with either Davis or Jones (who platooned with Sanchez in Pittsburgh in 2013) could make sense also.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Tigers are a team built to win in the present, but that doesn’t mean their future has to be bleak, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs writes. The team’s recent four-year deal for Victor Martinez is one of many Tigers contracts that could turn ugly, and the team already has $75MM on the books in 2018 for Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have any flexibility. Considering the likelihood of modest payroll increases in the coming seasons, they could have a payroll north of $180MM in 2018. That would give them enough leeway to have a shot even with their current commitments and thin farm system. Sullivan suggests that one future-oriented move the Tigers could make would be to sign J.D. Martinez to a long-term deal. Here are more notes from around the big leagues.
- Yankees first baseman Greg Bird has been named the MVP of the Arizona Fall League. Bird, a fifth-round pick out of high school in 2011, hit .271/.376/.472 in a 2014 season split between Class A+ Tampa and Double-A Trenton. Bird then hit .313/.391/.556 in 26 games with the Scottsdale Scorpions. The 22-year-old Bird isn’t on the same level as the previous winner, Cubs super-prospect Kris Bryant, but he could still potentially play his way onto the Yankees roster at some point in 2015.
- Re-signing David Robertson is the Yankees’ highest priority this offseason, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News writes. The Royals’ success shows how important a good bullpen can be, and how much a good ‘pen can do to help starters who don’t rack up high innings totals. With Robertson, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, Jacob Lindgren, Shawn Kelley and new acquisition Justin Wilson, the Yankees could have one of the stronger bullpens in the Majors in 2015, Madden writes. On the flip side, the Yankees would like to re-sign starter Brandon McCarthy, but they think they’ll be able to replace him if another team outbids them.
- A.J. Burnett is a back-end starter at this point, but his new discount contract is still a good one for the Pirates, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs writes. The deal is only for one year, and it’s likely to produce about 1.5 WAR in value, which is a solid rate for an $8.5MM contract. Meanwhile, the Pirates’ homer-suppressing ballpark, defensive shifting and emphasis on pitch framing make Pittsburgh a great destination for pitchers.
- Dave Stewart of the Diamondbacks sees Jeremy Hellickson as “a number two or number three starter,” Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic writes. The prospects the Diamondbacks sent to the Rays, Justin Williams and Andrew Velazquez, both have potential. (Williams hit .351/.403/.437 in 320 plate appearances in rookie ball and at Class A South Bend this season, impressive numbers for an 18-year-old at any level.) But for Stewart, Hellickson’s talent was more important, and he can help the Diamondbacks now. “They could both be All-Stars, but from our standpoint they’re three or four years away from being major league players,” says Stewart. “We have an opportunity to get a good starter to put in our rotation now and go along with our plans for our team with the 2015 season.”
The Pirates announced that they have signed right-hander A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that the Frontline Athlete Management client will receive an $8.5MM guarantee (Twitter link).
Burnett, who turns 38 in January, spent the 2012-13 seasons with the Pirates and revitalized his career in black and gold while helping the Bucs to end a historic playoff drought. However, the Pirates declined to make him a qualifying offer following that season and didn’t feel they were able to offer him a salary commensurate with his market value, which proved to be true, as he signed a one-year, $16MM contract with the Phillies. That contract contained a mutual option that vested as a player option, but Burnett turned down a guaranteed $12.75MM from the Phils to take $4.25MM less and return to Pittsburgh — a team and environment of which he spoke fondly even after his departure.
After posting a combined 3.41 ERA with 8.9 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in 393 1/3 innings as a Pirate, Burnett struggled in Philadelphia, posting a 4.59 ERA in 213 2/3 innings. Burnett’s walk rate spiked while his ground-ball and strikeout rates dipped, resulting in the inflated ERA and an NL-worst 18 losses (though the Phillies’ poor team performance obviously impacted that last number). Burnett pitched the entire season with a hernia that required offseason surgery — another likely factor in his 2014 struggles.
Burnett will return to a Pittsburgh rotation that faces the potential losses of both Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez, who are now free agents. He’ll slot in behind Gerrit Cole and perhaps Vance Worley and Jeff Locke, though the Pirates figure to be active in seeking to add other experienced arms to the 2015 rotation. A return to the Pirates could boost Burnett’s performance, as the move will again pair him with pitching coach Ray Searage and an infield that is known to be above the most aggressive in baseball, in terms of shifting (a welcome sight for Burnett’s ground-ball generating arsenal).
One question for Burnett is whether or not he will again be throwing to the talented Russell Martin, who is a free agent as well and is expected to be too expensive for the Pirates to retain. The Bucs recently acquired Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees, who could pair with Chris Stewart to form this year’s catching tandem for manager Clint Hurdle if Martin is not retained.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Both the Yankees and Mets are interested in free agent shortstop Stephen Drew, reports Joel Sherman of the New York Post. The possibility of Drew going to either New York squad as a free agent was a prolonged saga that never came to fruition last offseason (though Drew did eventually end up a Yankee via trade). However, as Sherman points out, it could be different this time around, as Drew may have to settle for a one-year deal. (I’d personally wager that Drew can top the $4MM guarantee suggested by Sherman, but I agree with his point in a general sense.) Both teams are in the process of trying to determine whether his 2014 swoon was due to a late start to the season or if it was the beginning of a stark decline in his offensive skills.
Here’s more on the Mets and Yankees…
- Also within Sherman’s piece, he notes that neither team is currently interested in Japanese shortstop Takashi Toritani. The 33-year-old Toritani recently hired Scott Boras as his agent and is said to be weighing a jump to the Major Leagues, but only if it means regular playing time. An absolute iron man in 11 seasons with Japan’s Hanshin Tigers, Toritani hasn’t missed a single inning at shortstop over the past 10 seasons (1,444 games), hitting .285/.372/.412 in that time.
- Mets prospect Matt Reynolds spoke with Adam Rubin of ESPN New York about the strides he’s made on both ends of the game in the past year. The shortstop said he felt playing at Triple-A Las Vegas helped improve his defense immensely, because the infield is so fast there. “Vegas’ infield is one of the fastest infields I’ve ever played on,” said Reynolds. “…You’re playing in the middle of the summer with 115-degree weather and the infield is rock solid. …it taught me to get ready early and to use my hands.” GM Sandy Alderson said Reynolds will return to Vegas to open next season.
- Yankees GM Brian Cashman said that his top priority is finding a starting shortstop, writes NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty. Cashman adds that he feels the Yankees’ payroll will be “high” and “impressive” this year, stating that ownership has always had an “impressive commitment” to the fanbase and he hopes to use that support to improve the roster.
- In a second piece from Kuty, Cashman talks about the trade of Francisco Cervelli for Justin Wilson. Surprisingly, Cashman notes that he discussed this exact swap with Pirates GM Neal Huntington two years ago, but the sides didn’t follow through on the deal at that time. Cashman wouldn’t commit to John Ryan Murphy as the backup to Brian McCann just yet, mentioning Austin Romine‘s name as well.
Russell Martin‘s last venture into the free agent market resulted in a two-year, $17MM contract with the Pirates — though Pittsburgh reportedly also offered a three-year, $21MM pact — that proved to be one of the best signings in recent history. Martin’s free agent stock has soared, and he now has a case to more than triple the total commitment on his last contract.
Martin is coming off of arguably the strongest season of his career, having batted .290/.402/.430 with 11 home runs. His on-base percentage is the result of an excellent walk rate, 12.8 percent, that he has sustained throughout his entire career as a Major Leaguer (11.6 percent). Martin exhausts opposing pitchers, as evidenced by the fact that among players with 450+ plate appearances this season, Martin ranked ninth in pitches per PA at 4.21.
Martin’s .402 OBP would look solid next to any player, but it’s particularly impressive for a catcher. And even in 2013 when he batted .226/.327/.377, his park-adjusted numbers were better than the typical catcher. Martin has spent the past two seasons playing in PNC Park, which among baseball’s worst parks for right-handed hitters, perhaps deflating his rate stats. Yet he posted a park-adjusted OPS+ of 100 (league average) and 136 (36 percent above average) in 2013 and 2014, respectively. His wRC+ marks, also park-adjusted and on the same 100-point scale, were 102 and 140. For context, the league-average catcher has posted a 92 wRC+ over the past two seasons.
Catcher defense has become better quantified in recent seasons, and Martin’s among the best defensive backstops in baseball. He threw out 39 percent of potential base-stealers in 2014 and 40 percent in 2013, and his career average is 32 percent. This past season, the average MLB catcher caught 28 percent of runners. Pitch framing has also become an oft-cited component of a catcher’s worth (though it isn’t included in WAR), and Martin was among the league leaders in that category. StatCorner.com’s Matthew Carruth rated him 11.7 runs above average in framing, while Baseball Prospectus estimates that Martin netted his pitchers and extra 155 strikes despite not playing a full season.
In addition to his work both at and behind the plate, Martin is somewhat surprisingly fleet of foot for a catcher. That’s not to say he’s a burner, but he’s graded out as an average baserunner for his career and has dipped to only slightly below average on the bases in recent seasons (Fangraphs pegged him 1.1 runs below average in 2014). He’s also highly durable, having been on the DL just twice in his career (he did also undergo offseason knee surgery in 2011).
Though the “strength” portion of Martin’s profile is rather robust, he’s not a player without his faults. Martin probably won’t repeat his sensational offensive numbers next year, or any other year for that matter. That .290 average was supported by a career-high .336 BABIP, and that BABIP should regress toward his career mark of .289 next year. Martin showed double-digit homer pop again in 2014, but his .140 isolated power mark (slugging minus average) was his lowest since 2010.
Martin turns 32 in February, so this next contract is going to offer little in terms of prime-age seasons. The team that signs him will likely be paying for his decline phase — and more so than with a typical free agent hitter. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently looked at the aging curve for catchers in the post-PED era and found that there isn’t a significant WAR drop-off from catchers’ age 32-35 seasons, and Martin is of course a fantastic athlete who keeps himself in incredible shape. While those factors may help his cause a bit, there’s no way around the fact that teams are going to have reservations about committing long-term to someone who plays the most physically demanding position on the field as he enters his mid-30s.
The Pirates made the easy call to extend a qualifying offer to Martin, who of course rejected, so he will require a team to forfeit its top unprotected pick in order to sign him.
Martin keeps himself in outstanding shape and began undergoing Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) to help mend a balky hamstring, Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in September. Also from Brink, Martin regularly does pilates and implemented a strict weightlifting routine this season to keep his strength up through the entire year. As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick writes, Martin can often be found kicking a soccer ball around with teammates before games. Crasnick calls him a “born supe-jock,” noting that Martin enjoys playing ice hockey and doing yoga, and also entertains his teammates by walking on his hands with ease.
Per the Pirates media guide, the Canadian-born Martin spent three years living in France from ages 8-10. His middle name, Coltrane, is a nod to famed jazz musician John Coltrane, which is no surprise considering the fact that Martin’s father is an accomplished saxophonist. In 2009, Martin announced that he would donate $600K to the One Drop foundation, which seeks to combat poverty by providing access to clean water around the world.
Martin excels at most facets of the game when compared to other catchers, but he’s even more impressive when stacked up against a weak crop of free agents this year. Simply put, he’s the prize of the catching market, and it’s not close. Geovany Soto, Nick Hundley, A.J. Pierzynski, John Buck and J.P. Arencibia are among the other options. The latter three were designated for assignment in 2014, while Hundley’s $5MM option was declined and Soto has hit .219/.291/.381 over the past three seasons. A team in need of a surefire starter behind the plate has two options: sign Martin or trade for a catcher.
And while the trade market may seem a good alternative, there aren’t many readily available regulars. The trade market for catchers is weak enough that Hank Conger, who has never served as a full-time option, got a respectable return for the Angels. The other options on the market are names like Jason Castro, Miguel Montero and Yasmani Grandal. Grandal and Castro are coming off down seasons at the plate, and Montero is owed $40MM over the next three seasons. Backup type options such as Rene Rivera and Carlos Corporan could also be had (though Rivera, coming off a surprisingly excellent season in San Diego, may be seen as more than that).
There’s been no shortage of early interest in Martin, though the four teams that appear to have been the most aggressive are the Pirates, Dodgers, Cubs and Blue Jays. The Pirates have long said they would love to retain Martin, and both owner Bob Nutting and GM Neal Huntington have said they’re willing to stretch payroll to make it happen.
Martin met with the Cubs, Blue Jays, Dodgers and Pirates this week at the GM Meetings, according to reports, and it’d be surprising if agent Matt Colleran didn’t at least explore talks with several more clubs. Those four teams appear to be the front-runners at this stage, however. If other teams are brought into the mix, I’d think that the Rockies, Astros, A’s, Rangers, Tigers and White Sox could be fits for Martin, though it’s unclear that all of those teams could actually afford him.
When it comes to the free agent market, Martin is the lone starting catcher in a sea of backups and reclamation projects coming off injuries, poor performances or both. Despite his age and lack of pop when compared to Brian McCann, I’d be surprised if Colleran isn’t citing McCann’s five-year, $85MM contract from last winter as a talking point.
I feel that four years is the absolute floor for Martin, given his interest, and it’s hard to see him taking an annual value that’s much lower than McCann’s $17MM if he has to sacrifice a full year. Ultimately, I think there will be several teams involved and willing to go four years, but the team that pushes to a fifth year will be the one to land him. That fifth year will require him to take a hit on his annual value, and I think anything in the $70-75MM range is plausible, so I’m splitting the difference and projecting a five-year, $72.5MM contract.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Red Sox are trying to set up a visit to Boston for Pablo Sandoval, perhaps as early as next week, reports the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo. Sandoval has drawn interest from four clubs, per Cafardo, but the Red Sox and Giants are the two most serious suitors. David Ortiz has been pitching Boston to Sandoval and trying to persuade him away from San Francisco, Cafardo hears.
Some more free agent notes as baseball news slows down following the conclusion of the GM Meetings…
- A hefty 22 teams have reached out to agent Mark Rodgers regarding Andrew Miller, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (Twitter link). Heyman adds that one team that’s unlikely to make a play for Miller is the Cubs, who are more focused on lengthening their ‘pen with lower-profile acquisitions. Reports yesterday indicated that the Cubs were out on David Robertson as well.A
- Heyman also writes that the Dodgers are serious about making a run at Russell Martin but still facing competition from the Cubs, Pirates and Blue Jays. The Pirates, Heyman hears, are said to have already made a strong bid to retain Martin. Despite their acquisition of Francisco Cervelli, he notes, the Pirates are not out on Martin.
- Six clubs have shown interest in Jonny Gomes to this point, tweets Chris Cotillo of SB Nation’s MLB Daily Dish. The Cubs are believed to be one of those clubs, though Gomes isn’t close to any kind of decision and is still “early in the process.”
- Right-hander Anthony Carter, who spent this past season in Japan, will not have his mutual option with the Nippon-Ham Fighters exercised, MLBTR has learned. Carter technically has to clear waivers in Japan before he can become a free agent and become eligible to sign with a Major League organization or a different club in NPB. The 28-year-old posted a 3.97 ERA in 45 1/3 innings of relief in Japan this season and has a lifetime 4.93 ERA at Triple-A. His best season came in 2013 with the Red Sox when he posted a 3.47 ERA with 11.4 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 at Triple-A.
Cervelli’s arrival in Pittsburgh could be protection against losing free agent Russell Martin, though Heyman tweets that the Bucs are still in on Martin. As things stand, the 28-year-old would presumably pair with Chris Stewart in the club’s mix behind the dish. (Oddly, all three of those backstops, of course, went to Pittsburgh from New York.)
The Pirates are getting a catcher who has performed well in limited recent action. Unfortunate injuries — a foul tip and collision followed by a hamstring strain — cut Cervelli short in each of the last three years, holding him to just 225 plate appearances. But he does own a .291/.373/.447 slash in that stretch, and could be a solid piece if he can stay on the field. Because of his limited ability to rack up statistics, Cervelli is projected by MLBTR/Matt Swartz to earn only $1.1MM next year.
Wilson, meanwhile, is just 27 and is still a year shy of arbitration eligibility. He took a step back last year in terms of ERA, though metrics like FIP felt he was just as good in 2014 as he was in 2013; both place him in the mid-3 earned run range. On the whole, over the last two years Wilson owns a 3.03 ERA with 8.1 K/9 against 3.9 BB/9 over 138 1/3 frames.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Scahill, 27, totaled a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings with the Rockies this season and has pitched to a 4.42 ERA in 57 frames with the Rockies over the past three years. He’s averaged 5.5 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in the Majors while featuring solid life on his fastball — an average of 94.4 mph.
The Pirates selected Carle in the 10th round (299th overall) of the 2013 draft. At the time, Baseball America wrote (subscription required and recommended) that he’d previously run his heater up to 94 mph with good sink, but that velocity declined in his final college season before being drafted. He throws from a three-quarter arm slot, per BA, with a fringy slurve and changeup. Carle has pitched well in two seasons with the Pirates organization, though he’s also a college arm that has only been tested against Class-A pitching, so the numbers may be a bit deceiving. Still, he’s posted a 3.26 ERA with 6.0 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 in 187 2/3 innings as a professional.
Many have speculated that Liriano was a candidate to be the first player to accept a qualifying offer, but he and agent Greg Genske of the Legacy Agency will head into the open market in search of a multi-year deal instead. As I noted in Liriano’s free agent profile last week, even if the market doesn’t materialize the way they’d hoped, a one-year deal at or near the rate of the qualifying offer should be available late in the offseason, as it was for Ervin Santana. I pegged Liriano for a three-year, $40MM contract in that profile even with a QO attached.
Liriano, who turns 31 this offseason, was excellent in a pair of injury-shortened seasons with the Pirates. In 323 1/3 innings, he pitched to a 3.20 ERA with 9.4 K/9, 4.0 BB/9 and a 52.4 percent ground-ball rate. His K/9 rate over the past two seasons is second only to Max Scherzer among free agents, and his ground-ball rate ranks fourth. Liriano’s injuries weren’t the most troubling with Pittsburgh, either. He broke his non-throwing arm in a fall in his apartment in the 2012-13 offseason and suffered an oblique strain that kept him out for the first month of 2014.
NOVEMBER 9: Martin will decline the qualifying offer prior to Monday’s deadline, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. The move comes as no surprise given the strong market developing for his services. As we learned yesterday, the Pirates, Cubs, Dodgers, and Blue Jays are the early front runners.
Both moves have been expected to varying degrees. Martin was seen as the likelier candidate, but Liriano is coming off a pair of strong, albeit injury-shortened seasons, and figures to seek a more lucrative multi-year deal on the open market.
Martin batted .290/.402/.430 for the Pirates this season and has come to be regarded as one of the game’s most elite defensive backstops based on his ability to control the running game and his exceptional pitch-framing skill. Liriano, meanwhile, pitched to a 3.38 ERA with 9.7 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9 in 168 innings this season and turned in a combined 3.20 ERA in 323 1/3 innings with the Pirates over the past two seasons.
Both Liriano and Martin will now have one week to decide whether or not to accept the offers. In Martin’s case, with his rumored price tag soaring north of $50MM over the past couple of months, conventional wisdom says that he’ll turn the offer down. Some may find Liriano a better bet to accept the offer, and while that’s true, doing so would expose him to the risk of an injury or a down season. It seems more likely to me that he’ll decline the QO in search of a multi-year deal, looking to the case of Ervin Santana last year as a worst-case scenario. Santana declined the $14.1MM qualifying offer from Kansas City and still signed a one-year, $14.1MM contract with the Braves months later. (Santana also received a QO of his own earlier today.) By declining the offer, Liriano is at most risking a few million dollars, as even with a draft pick attached, he could likely find $12MM+ on a one-year deal, if not the entire value of the QO as Santana did last season. However, accepting would be risking the upside of $15-20MM more than the QO on the open market.
MLBTR readers can keep track of all players who receive a qualifying offer by using our Free Agent Tracker.