- The Cubs made an offer to Brian McCann this offseason that was worth more than the one-year, $2MM deal that McCann eventually received from the Braves, The Athletic’s David O’Brien reports (subscription required). The money wasn’t the primary factor in McCann’s choice, however, as the catcher wanted to either return to the Astros or to the Braves, his original team. It doesn’t seem that any other suitors were given serious consideration, as McCann “had no interest in being a hired gun and going elsewhere to play what could be the final season of his career,” O’Brien writes. Between this item and reports from earlier today that the Cubs had interest in Martin Maldonado, it seems as if Chicago was a quiet player in the catching market this offseason. Willson Contreras is the incumbent starter, though the Cubs are looking for more depth beyond Victor Caratini and minor league signing Francisco Arcia.
- Also from O’Brien’s piece, he mentions that Braves prospect Cristian Pache received trade interest from rival teams this winter as part of a larger profile on Pache. It would’ve been surprising, frankly, if Atlanta hadn’t gotten calls on the 20-year-old outfielder, given Pache’s emergence as one of the team’s (and baseball’s) most intriguing young players. Though he hit only a modest .279/.307/.410 over 495 combined PA in A-ball and Double-A last season, Pache is beginning to show more power potential, as evidenced by some big numbers in Atlanta’s Spring Training camp. If Pache can develop into even a passable hitter at the MLB level, he’ll still have enormous value given his widely-touted speed, throwing arm, and defensive play. Even prior to 2018, some Braves scouts considered Pache to be the organization’s best defensive outfielder, ahead of even Ender Inciarte or Ronald Acuna. Pache made his debut in the preseason top-100 prospect lists, with varied assessments from MLB.com (who ranked him 37th), ESPN.com’s Keith Law (45th), Baseball Prospectus (62nd), Baseball America (85th). The Marlins were one club known to have Pache on their radar, as he was on the short list of prospects Miami wanted from Atlanta as part of a J.T. Realmuto trade package.
The Nationals and Braves “are not ’in’ on” free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, according to Jim Bowden of The Athletic (via Twitter). Whether that’s a truly definitive statement on those two clubs’ engagement with Kimbrel isn’t clear; each has been linked (his former team in Atlanta, especially) over the course of the winter and would surely be interested at the right price. The arms race in the NL East has continued all offseason long and has not really halted with the start of Spring Training. Financial considerations make several teams in the division conceivable suitors for Kimbrel, as MLBTR’s Steve Adams examined in depth.
- Pitching health remains a major storyline in Braves camp; MLB.com’s Mark Bowman covered some updates today (Twitter link). It is beginning to seem questionable whether Mike Foltynewicz will be ready for the start of the season given that he hasn’t yet returned to the mound while resting his elbow. He’s said to be playing catch and feeling good, but evidently hasn’t been cleared to ramp things back up. Meanwhile, relievers Darren O’Day and A.J. Minter are each dealing with some issues — forearm for the former and shoulder for the latter. The expectation is that these minor maladies won’t prevent the two bullpen pieces from being ready for the start of the season — which the team will certainly hope to be the case, with Minter in particular representing a key member of the pen. Otherwise, the Braves have made some initial decisions on which of their young hurlers will continue to compete for active roster spots. As David O’Brien of The Athletic tweets, the Atlanta organization has sent a host of hurlers back to minors camp, including many of the team’s most exciting prospects. Among them, only Luiz Gohara has prior MLB experience. He has been slowed in camp by shoulder issues.
The Astros haven’t been engaged on Dallas Keuchel in recent weeks, ESPN’s Buster Olney writes in his latest look at the free-agent left-hander’s apparently stagnant market (subscription required). The Phillies, he adds, still have interest only in a “very” short-term deal, as was reported last week. Meanwhile, La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that unless Keuchel or free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel is suddenly willing to take a one-year deal, the Twins aren’t likely to sign either pitcher three weeks into Spring Training. As for the Braves, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman wrote late last week that spring ailments for Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman haven’t been deemed concerning enough for Atlanta to pursue Keuchel.
It’s hardly an encouraging set of updates for either free agent, particularly Keuchel, whom Olney suggests is being harmed to an extent by the fact that he doesn’t fit today’s mold of hard throwers that permeate the game. Olney notes that Keuchel’s average fastball (89.3 mph) ranked 55th of 57 starters who qualified for the ERA title in 2018.
While perhaps some teams would prefer harder-throwing options, that stat doesn’t seem especially concerning when presented with further context. Keuchel’s average fastball last season was actually improved over a pair of seasons in which he was slowed by back and neck injuries in 2016-17. In fact, in Keuchel’s Cy Young-winning 2015 season, he averaged just 89.6 mph on his heater, so it’d be puzzling to see significant level of concern over that fastball velocity. Furthermore, a look at the names around Keuchel near the bottom of the fastball velocity leaderboard includes quality arms such as Marco Gonzales, Zack Greinke and Kyle Hendricks. Patrick Corbin, meanwhile, ranked only 43rd among those 57 qualified starters at 90.8 mph, and he secured a six-year contract that promises him $140MM. That deal came at a younger age and on the heels of a better season, clearly, but the contract still runs counter to the idea that teams will only pay for premium velocity.
None of that is to say that Keuchel isn’t without red flags, of course. The lefty’s strikeout percentage dipped from 21.4 percent in 2017 to 17.5 percent in 2018 (7.7 K/9 vs. 6.7), and his swinging-strike rate fell from 10.9 percent to 8.3 percent. His ground-ball rate of 53.7 percent, while well north of the league average, also represented a substantial step back from 2017’s 66.8 percent mark and from his overall career mark of 58.8 percent. All of that surely sets off some alarms for interested teams, but Keuchel was nevertheless a quality starter in 2018, as has been the case for several years. Both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference suggest he’s been worth 18 wins above replacement over the past five seasons — including a combined six or more WAR over his past two campaigns.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that virtually any team in baseball would be improved by swapping out Keuchel for its current weakest starter, but as is always the case in free agency, the financial element plays a significant role. It seems quite likely that some clubs that had interest in Keuchel and Kimbrel early this winter balked at the duo’s reported nine-figure asking prices and went on to spend their money elsewhere. Now, even if those asking prices have come down, some previously interested teams may simply not have ownership permission to spend significant dollars on another free agent. Both pitchers also rejected qualifying offers, meaning a team signing either former All-Star would be subject to the forfeiture of at least one draft pick (and potentially some international bonus pool space).
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on injuries to prominent pitchers throughout the league in the coming days to see if a new window opens. Clayton Kershaw has been battling a shoulder issue, for instance. The Braves, as previously mentioned, have multiple starters who have been dealing with injuries thus far in camp. The Cardinals may be without Carlos Martinez to open the season. Further injuries will surely arise elsewhere, although the longer Keuchel and Kimbrel wait, the more questionable it is whether either will be ready to pitch in a big league game come Opening Day.
- Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz has been down with elbow soreness, but it’s “expected” he’ll resume throwing Monday, Mark Bowman of MLB.com tweets. Foltynewicz isn’t on track to serve as the Braves’ Opening Day starter, but it appears he’ll be able to make his regular-season debut sometime during the first week of the campaign. The 27-year-old will attempt to build on a breakout 2018 showing in which he pitched to a 2.85 ERA/3.37 FIP with 9.93 K/9, 3.34 BB/9 and a 43.1 percent groundball rate over 183 innings.
11:07pm: Kimbrel to the Nats is “further down the road” than reports have indicated, ESPN’s Keith Law tweets.
3:06pm: Though even the biggest-spending MLB franchises routinely bow out of a tit for tat vis-á-vis high-impact rival moves, it appears the Nationals, who Thursday lost star OF Bryce Harper to the hard-charging Phillies, may be poised to strike the next blow. The team has “maintained interest” in free agent reliever Craig Kimbrel, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, who notes that the club “might be willing” to dish out a long-term deal for the righty.
It’s about time for the noise to crank on the market for the star closer, who’s been listening to mostly muffled sounds for months now. Per Rosenthal, the Braves are also “exploring” Kimbrel, 31 in May, but still holding firm to the short-term pact they’ve long desired. Offers and specified durations and dollar amounts are still in the dark, but the urgency to a strike a deal with the flamethrower, especially for teams in the stacked NL East, has now heightened substantially.
The Nationals, per Roster Resource, sit just $4.5MM below the $206MM luxury-tax threshold – which, if eclipsed by the team for the third consecutive season, would require them to pay a 50% tax on every dollar they spend over the limit – and would almost certainly lose their third- and sixth-round draft picks if they were to sign Kimbrel (the team already lost its second- and fifth-rounders after November’s signing of Patrick Corbin). Still, none of it seems an impediment – the club is now just a win or so behind the Phillies in most projected models, and could immediately close the gap with the inking of Kimbrel, who’d almost certainly represent a 1.5-2 win upgrade over any of the gaggle of green arms competing for jobs at the back end of the Nats’ bullpen.
Kimbrel’s 2018 season was arguably his worst – he set career-lows in HR/9 and GB% and walked 4.48 men per nine – but still a top-10 reliever season in the more-difficult American League. Three times the righty has bettered the 3-win mark for a reliever, a staggering stat indeed, and his 19.0 career fWAR already ranks fifth all-time in the three-out era of the modern closer.
The back end of the Nats pen, which features an again-dominant Sean Doolittle at its core, is thin: Trevor Rosenthal returns from Tommy John and is a major question mark, Koda Glover is again hampered by arm issues, and Kyle Barraclough, shipped early on to Washington for international bonus pool money, can’t be counted on to throw strikes. The team doesn’t feature a potential fast-riser, like Philly did last season with Seranthony Dominguez, and the remainder of the bargain bullpen pickups don’t strike fear in any hearts. Kimbrel, though, has, and does, and would.
While it’s still pretty early in Spring Training, the Braves have already been hit with a notable number of players battling injury issues. Jeff Schultz of The Athletic (links to Twitter) has a rundown of today’s updates, including the worrisome news that A.J. Minter left today’s outing after just one batter due to shoulder tightness. Beyond Minter, Dansby Swanson was scratched from today’s lineup due to continued soreness in his left wrist. The Braves also continue to ease Josh Donaldson into action after Donaldson missed much of the 2018 season due to a calf injury. Donaldson’s spring debut may still be at least “a couple of more days” away, as Atlanta manager Brian Snitker told reporters, though Snitker admitted “I don’t even know when he’s gonna play.”
The Braves already have Mike Soroka, Kevin Gausman, and Luiz Gohara dealing with shoulder soreness, while Mike Foltynewicz missed a recent start due to a sore elbow. With the possible exception of Soroka, none of these maladies seem overly concerning yet, though the sheer volume leads to inevitable speculation about how the Braves could make additions to bolster their roster of arms. Minter’s injury could be of particular import, given how the back end of Atlanta’s bullpen already has closer Arodys Vizcaino trying to bounce back from an injury-marred 2018. MLB.com’s Mark Bowman writes that the Braves have yet to have “any serious discussions” with former closer Craig Kimbrel, who is still focused on landing a long-term contract while the team has only thus far been open to signing Kimbrel to a shorter-term pact.
To this point of the spring, the biggest health questions in Braves camp have surrounded youngster Mike Soroka and his balky shoulder. There’s nothing new yet on Soroka, who’ll face something of a test when he throws today. But there are some other health issues of note, as well as an update on the state of the club’s finances. Let’s have a look:
- Key righty Mike Foltynewicz was scratched from his next scheduled start due to elbow soreness, skipper Brian Snitker told reporters including MLB.com’s Mark Bowman (Twitter links). Initial indications are that this isn’t considered serious, with Snitker saying that Foltynewicz wouldn’t have missed a regular season outing. Still, the club has set up a medical review for the weekend to take a closer look. It’s obviously tough to say whether there’s any real cause for concern here. As Bowman notes, some minor elbow issues have bothered Foltynewicz in recent season. On the one hand, that suggests some history in the joint; on the other, it didn’t prevent him from turning in a breakout 2018 campaign.
- Meanwhile, fellow starters Luiz Gohara and Kevin Gausman are each dealing with some shoulder woes, Bowman further tweets. Both hurlers are throwing, which is certainly a good sign, though they’re each being handled with care. Whether they’ll be deemed ready to open the season in the MLB rotation will presumably be dictated by how their shoulders respond in the coming days, as they’ll need to begin building innings up to do so. In Gohara’s case, of course, he will also have to win a spot or take advantage of an opening.
- It’s still theoretically possible that the Braves will choose to add to their existing pitching mix. The rotation was a secondary topic of conversation for the club’s top decisionmakers in a recent interview in which they discussed the decision (to this point) not to dedicate further payroll space to the 2019 roster. While the Braves insist they have untapped spending capacity, there are those who think they should be more eager both to spend what has been allocated and open the pocketbook yet further. Today’s disclosures from owner Liberty Media add yet more fuel to the flames. As Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal was among those to note (via Twitter), the ballclub reported a year-over-year jump from $7MM to $94MM in operating income before interest and depreciation. As the above-linked interview suggested would be the case, the club has indeed driven down its debt load, though Fisher notes it’s primed to take on more in loans to further build out its property investments surrounding SunTrust Park. Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered some other numbers from the team’s revenue report.
Veteran reliever Peter Moylan has opted to retire from Major League Baseball at the age of 40, he tells David O’Brien of The Athletic (subscription required). The Australian-born hurler isn’t entirely walking away from the game, as he’ll pitch for a professional team in Italy this summer and hopes to pitch for the Australian Olympic baseball team, O’Brien adds.
Moylan details his decision in the lengthy interview, revealing that although the calendar is about to flip to March, he simply never received an offer this winter. Despite the fact that Moylan believes he’s still capable of competing at the game’s top level, he also insists that there’s no bitterness or anger with regard to how the offseason played out. “The game is trending younger,” said the veteran righty. “I’m certainly not that. It’s time for me to let the kids play, so I’m done.”
Moylan will walk away from Major League Baseball having put together one of the most improbable careers in history. He was released by the Twins after the 1998 season and spent seven years working various non-baseball jobs in Australia. During that time, he continued pitching on the side and adopted a sidearm slot, which restored his velocity and helped him to qualify for Team Australia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic (while he was working as a pharmaceutical sales rep). That, in turn, led to a contract with the Braves. Moylan made his MLB debut with Atlanta shortly thereafter, on April 12, 2006 — nearly a decade after he signed his original contract with the Minnesota organization.
Over the next 13 years, Moylan would appear in parts of 12 MLB seasons, pitching to a combined 3.10 ERA with 324 strikeouts against 180 walks in 418 2/3 innings of regular-season work (plus another scoreless frame in the postseason). Along the way, he posted a 24-10 record, recorded four saves and racked up 99 holds between the Braves, Royals and Dodgers. Even late in his career, he demonstrated an ability to pitch at a high level, as he led the Majors with 79 appearances and logged a 3.49 ERA over the course of 59 1/3 innings for Kansas City in 2017. Over the course of his professional career, he was a two-time Tommy John patient, had multiple back surgeries and also underwent shoulder and biceps procedures.
Those unfamiliar with Moylan’s remarkable baseball odyssey will want to fully digest O’Brien’s column, as it’s rife with stories from Moylan himself and quotes from former teammates such as Chipper Jones and Freddie Freeman; both heap praise on the sidearmer not only for his on-field contributions but his importance to the clubhouse and ability to elicit a laugh from any teammate at virtually any moment. Best wishes to Moylan in life after Major League Baseball.
- Braves righty Mike Soroka will pick up the ball again on Thursday, skipper Brian Snitker told reporters including David O’Brien of The Athletic (via Twitter). The hope surely is that a week or so of rest will allow his shoulder discomfort to subside. If not, it stands to reason that the Atlanta organization’s medical staff will order up an even lengthier timeout and further medical examination. Soroka is hoping for a healthy 2019 after his promising debut campaign was cut short by shoulder troubles.
Brewers hurler Jimmy Nelson is pausing his throwing program owing to “arm fatigue discomfort,” president of baseball operations David Stearns tells reporters including Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. All involved say they’re unconcerned with the development, with manager Craig Counsell labeling it “a very minor setback.” It has been a long road back already for Nelson, who hasn’t thrown a competitive inning since undergoing a labrum procedure in September of 2017. He’ll need to wait a while longer before taking the bump in a Spring Training contest, with the club understandably maintaining a conservative plan in light of his health history.
More health notes from around the game …
- The Phillies say that outfielder Odubel Herrera is dealing with a grade 1 hamstring strain, Matt Breen of Philly.com reports on Twitter. He’s said to be “coming along,” though skipper Gabe Kapler couldn’t specify when Herrera will be ready to take the field. It’s not a terribly worrying injury at the outset of camp, though it will limit Herrera’s opportunities to get in a groove after a disappointing 2018 season. The wild card in the situation is the Phils’ ongoing pursuit of Bryce Harper and their as-yet-unknown plans for shuffling the outfield deck if they sign him. The injury might impact Herrera’s marketability, if he’s a player the team would consider moving to make way for Harper.
- Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson is readying for his first Spring Training game action at the end of the week, per Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (via Twitter). That seems to represent a positive sign for a player who underwent wrist surgery at the conclusion of the 2018 campaign. Swanson had a quiet but reasonably promising 2018 campaign, with sparkling glovework and baserunning making up for still-lagging production at the plate. Swanson produced only a .238/.304/.395 slash (80 wRC+) with 14 home runs and ten steals over 533 plate appearances, but that represented a step forward after a rough 2017 effort. He’ll open camp with a presumption of at least semi-regular playing time, but could face pressure from Johan Camargo over the course of the season.
- Hip surgery is on the table for Royals righty Trevor Oaks, Rustin Dodd of The Athletic reports (subscription link). If it is determined that he needs to go under the knife for a labrum tear, the 25-year-old will miss a significant portion of the season to come. Oaks turned in 128 1/3 innings of 3.23 ERA ball at Triple-A last year after he was acquired in last winter’s Scott Alexander swap. He managed only 4.9 K/9 with 3.1 BB/9 on the year, though did post a 50.2% groundball rate (which actually lags his well-above-average minor-league career groundball numbers). Oaks also made a brief MLB debut in 2018. As Dodd explains, it didn’t seem likely that he’d crack the active roster to open the coming campaign. Nevertheless, the loss would dent the Royals’ rotation depth.