- Justin Upton tells MLB.com’s Jason Beck and other reporters that he hasn’t “really even thought about” whether or not to opt out of his Tigers contract. Upton is focused on finishing the season, and will then take some downtime before discussing the opt-out with his agent and his family “probably a week or two beforehand” when a decision will need to be made. One factor will be whether or not the Tigers will look to contend or rebuild in 2018, and Upton intends to speak to GM Al Avila, who the outfielder feels has “been pretty up front with all the veteran guys here with his plans” to date. Recent reports suggested that Upton wasn’t planning on opting out of the four years and $88MM remaining on his Tigers deal, though given that Upton is enjoying an outstanding season, he could potentially top that guarantee if he re-entered the open market. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes recently ranked Upton as having the sixth-highest earning power of any potential free agent of the 2017-18 offseason.
There remains an outside chance that Houston will trade for Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander this month, as the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo hears from major league sources that the Astros haven’t closed the door on acquiring the fireballer. There have been a slew of reports since last month on the possibility of Verlander going to the Astros, including one from FanRag’s Jon Heyman earlier this week. A source told Heyman that negotiations between the two teams had been “put to bed.” For his part, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow doesn’t expect to make a big acquisition before the month’s out. To land Verlander, who’s still due around $7MM this season and another $56MM from 2018-19, the Luhnow-led Astros would need to take on the majority of his contract and “give up a few prospects,” Cafardo writes. Not all prospects are created equally, of course, and the Tigers want legitimate young talent in return for the longtime ace and franchise icon, per various reports.
- Left fielder Justin Upton, another of the Tigers’ high-priced veterans, currently doesn’t plan to opt out of his contract in the offseason, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports (via Twitter). A change of heart, which could happen given Upton’s superlative production and the Tigers’ rebuilding status, would mean walking away from the guaranteed $88MM he’s due through 2021. The soon-to-be 30-year-old Upton wasn’t great in 2016, the first season of the $132.75MM accord, but has rebounded to slash an excellent .283/.367/.542 with 25 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 4.0 fWAR through 479 plate appearances in the current campaign.
In his weekly Inside Baseball column, Jon Heyman of Fan Rag takes a look at the tightly packed AL Wild Card race. He also provides some notes from both the American League and National League. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of relevance to the transactional landscape:
- While the Astros could still conceivably renew their pursuit of Tigers righty Justin Verlander, it may be that the talks are over barring a significant change of heart from one or both of the organizations. Heyman cites a source who said he felt negotiations were “put to bed last week.” In other news regarding Houston, Heyman says the club “never got serious” in their apparently limited pursuits of Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray or Yu Darvish in July, and one source indicated to Heyman that it never even made an offer for Quintana this summer. The Astros, of course, pursued Quintana extensively this offseason, so the front office was likely already well aware of Chicago’s lofty asking price for Quintana.
- It seems the Giants have yet to place righty Jeff Samardzija on waivers, with Heyman suggesting it’s seen as unlikely he’ll be claimed when he does go on the wire. But the belief is that the starter could be targeted if he does clear waivers. Samardzija has carried compelling strikeout (160) and walk (23) numbers through his 155 2/3 innings on the year, though he has also allowed 22 home runs and owns a 4.74 ERA. He has turned in four-straight quality outings, it’s worth noting.
- The Rays are interested in finding a right-handed hitter, according to Heyman, though it’s unclear just what the club might realistically look to do. Tampa Bay has not performed as had been hoped when the team reshaped its roster over the summer, which surely also alters the picture. Reserves such as Trevor Plouffe, Daniel Robertson, and Peter Bourjos have all struggled with the bat, though finding upgrades will be challenging at this stage. (As mostly goes without saying, the decision to part with Tim Beckham has not looked good thus far.)
- After striking a variety of deals already, the Mets are “still working hard” to deal away more players this August, Heyman writes. Veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson still seems like the most obvious possible trade piece, though perhaps infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, lefty Jerry Blevins, catcher Rene Rivera, or even recently-acquired reliever A.J. Ramos could be moved.
- The Braves are considering exercising their $8MM club option over knuckleballer R.A. Dickey for the 2018 season, per Heyman. That option comes with a $500K buyout, effectively making it a $7.5MM decision. The Braves are pleased with the 42-year-old’s durability, innings and leadership. Through 141 frames this season, Dickey has a 3.89 ERA with 6.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and a 49.5 percent ground-ball rate. Realistically, the club would be hard pressed to find better value on the open market and will need the innings next year.
- Some clubs believe that the Angels are the team that placed the claim on Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, per Heyman, who notes that Anaheim is still in the market for a second base upgrade. However, the Halos have only “limited” interest in Braves second baseman Brandon Phillips, who has reportedly cleared revocable waivers and is having a solid season at the plate.
- Heyman also reports that a quartet of expensive Tigers veterans — Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Jordan Zimmermann — has cleared waivers as well. It’s not a surprise at all to see any of those four clear, given the sizable contracts to which each is signed. Each has struggled in 2017 (Zimmermann and Martinez in particular), and no one from that group is going anywhere. Martinez is owed $18MM next year, while Zimmermann is owed $74MM from 2018-20. Cabrera, who is hitting .255/.343/.408 in 2017, is owed a staggering $192MM from 2018-23. Sanchez, meanwhile, is a free agent after this season and is owed the remainder of a $16MM salary plus a $5MM buyout on his 2018 option. He has a 6.95 ERA on the season and a 6.19 ERA since being recalled from Triple-A earlier this summer.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow suggested today that he doesn’t anticipate making another significant acquisition this month. In an appearance on the Josh Innes Show on SportsTalk 790, the Houston executive said in particular that the team isn’t likely to add a starter.
“Right now I would set expectations very low that anything happens between now and the end of the month,” Luhnow said when asked about the possibility of bolstering the rotation. While he noted that the club will “continue to monitor” the market, Luhnow indicated there are no ongoing talks to pick up another arm.
While we heard yesterday that the ’Stros have had some recent chats with the Tigers about Justin Verlander, it also seemed that there was no real momentum toward a deal. The longtime Detroit ace is just one of many players to have cleared waivers this month, though he’s actually the only starter to have reportedly done so to this point.
Despite Luhnow’s understandably cautious comments, perhaps it’s still possible something could come together. Houston and Detroit have “a good understanding of the other’s position” in trade talks, Jon Morosi of MLB.com reports (Twitter links). That situation, he suggests, could yet set the stage for a late-breaking deal later this month.
Beyond Verlander, it’s tough to identify a plausible target for Houston during the August trade season. An unknown organization has placed a claim on Blue Jays righty Marco Estrada, though there’s no indication it was the Astros or that any deal is likely. A variety of other hurlers could also conceivably make for August trade candidates, though none have been tied to Houston.
While the Astros would surely like to upgrade their overall pitching mix, the team has made clear it won’t reach on a valuation to do so. And there’s little reason for the club to add an arm for depth purposes, with the division in hand and plenty of viable rotation pieces on the staff. If anything, it would seem the organization would have potential interest in adding a hurler worthy of taking the ball to start a postseason game.
It’s worth your time to give a listen to the remainder of the interview as well. Luhnow discussed a variety of topics, including the recent acquisition of Tyler Clippard — a pitcher the team has “had [its] eye on for a couple years” — and the outlook on young contributors Derek Fisher and Francis Martes.
After being tossed from yesterday’s game, Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler was blunt (to say the least) when voicing his displeasure with veteran umpire Angel Hernandez today (via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News and Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press). “I don’t know how, for as many years he’s been in the league, that he can be that bad,” said Kinsler of Hernandez’s strike zone. “He needs to reevaluate his career choice, he really does. Bottom line. … He’s changing the game. He needs to find another job.” Kinsler was tossed mid-at-bat for questioning Hernandez’s strike zone, though as he tells it, he never cursed at the umpire. Kinsler also recalled a story from his rookie season in which he was repeatedly “screamed” at by Hernandez for blocking Hernandez’s view on a play at first base.
It’s far from the first time that Hernandez has been called out by a player, though Kinsler’s vitriolic comments — there are many more in the columns from McCosky and Fenech — are likely the most extreme case you’ll see anytime soon. The Tigers’ second baseman acknowledged that he’ll likely be disciplined for his outburst but didn’t let that serve as a deterrent in sounding off: “No one in this game wants [him] behind the plate any more, none of the players.”
- Veteran righty Edward Mujica has been outrighted to Triple-A by the Tigers after clearing waivers, per a club announcement. It is not immediately clear whether Mujica has accepted the assignment; he’d have the right to decline it, or instead to elect free agency at the end of the year. The 33-year-old, an eleven-year MLB veteran, had not seen the majors since 2015 but earned a return with a strong showing at the highest level of the minors. But he was bombed for seven earned runs on 11 hits — including four home runs — in his five outings with Detroit.
11:31am: The clubs have not been in touch “for a few days” and remain “apart,” Heyman now tweets.
10:31am: The Astros remain engaged with the Tigers about a possible deal that would send star righty Justin Verlander to Houston, according to Jon Heyman of Fan Rag. Verlander has cleared revocable waivers, meaning he can be freely dealt — so long as he is willing to waive his no-trade rights.
Verlander, 34, is among the many players that have reportedly cleared waivers in recent weeks. While several organizations surely had interest in him at the trade deadline, his large contract — which includes about $7MM in remaining salary this year, $56MM in guaranteed money for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and a 2020 vesting option — remains an evident obstacle.
Prior reports had suggested that talks between these organizations had failed to gain traction, though obviously the picture is always susceptible of change. There’s still “a decent gap” between the teams at present, Heyman adds, though it remains notable that there’s ongoing dialogue.
Even assuming Houston and Detroit can work out the money and agree upon a prospect return, there remains the wild card of the no-trade protection. It’s not clear whether Verlander would demand any consideration for accepting a deal, though there has been some discussion of that possibility — including the potential that he could seek to pick up an opt-out opportunity.
While there are obviously still significant barriers to a deal, there’s also clear motivation for both teams. The Astros will easily win their division, but their rotation has shown cracks over the course of the season and they missed on their top targets at the trade deadline. Verlander, meanwhile, has turned things around of late after a middling performance to open the year. In his last seven outings, he carries a 1.91 ERA over 47 frames, racking up a 50:16 K/BB ratio while holding opposing hitters to a paltry .187/.258/.327 batting line.
That surge has helped to boost the near-term and long-term outlook on Verlander. After showing some signs of slowing down in prior campaigns, he turned in a monster 2016 season in which he ran up a 3.04 ERA over 227 2/3 innings — though he was also aided by a .255 BABIP-against. While it’s fair to temper expectations given Verlander’s age, he is carrying a 95.7 mph average fastball velocity that sits above his career average and a 9.8% swinging-strike rate that lands just below his overall mean.
The last look we took at the handful of players with opt-out clauses following the 2017 season was more than a month ago, and a few of their situations may have changed since that early July check-in. Here’s an update on this group of potential free agents…
- Justin Upton, Tigers ($88.5MM from 2018-21): There have been plenty of suggestions that there’s no way Upton will walk away from that contract, but we’re not really sold on that notion. Upton was terrible in his first three months with the Tigers but is hitting .274/.352/.542 (137 wRC+) with 45 homers dating back to July 1, 2016. Over the past calendar year, he’s hitting .281/.366/.571 (148 wRC+) with 40 homers in 631 PAs. He’s been seven to nine runs above average in left field, per UZR and DRS, as well. Upton will play next year at the age of 30 and needs only to feel he can top Hanley Ramirez’s guarantee to opt out. Beyond that, he may simply like the idea of moving to a team that isn’t openly trying to pare back its payroll and retool for the future.
- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees ($67MM from 2018-20): Tanaka’s home-run woes are an unequivocally troubling issue, but his numbers since the summer began are encouraging. Since May 26, Tanaka has a 3.99 ERA with 10.7 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and a 47.6 percent ground-ball rate — good for a 3.12 xFIP and a 3.17 SIERA. The numbers are even better if you look at his past nine starts (3.00 ERA, 65 K, 12 BB, 57 innings). The health concerns are well known. Tanaka had a partial UCL tear in his rookie season but was able to avoid Tommy John, and he’s currently on the DL with what is reportedly some minor shoulder fatigue. The righty has averaged 2.2 HR/9 this year, but he’s also going to be just 29 years old next year. An opt-out looked highly unlikely two months ago but now looks entirely plausible, as long as this latest DL trip proves minor.
- Welington Castillo, Orioles ($7MM player option): Since last check, Castillo has absolutely raked. He’s batted .308/.345/.500 with four homers and three doubles in his past 84 PAs, and his overall batting line it up to .283/.319/.457 (103 wRC+). Castillo’s framing marks have improved from some of the worst in the league to roughly average (per Baseball Prospectus), and he’s halted an incredible 46 percent of stolen-base attempts against him in 2017. He should be able to top a one-year, $7MM deal with ease this winter.
- Greg Holland, Rockies ($15MM player option): Since our last check, Holland has reminded everyone that he is indeed mortal. In his past 11 2/3 frames, he’s coughed up eight runs on a dozen hits and six walks with 14 strikeouts. Six of those runs have come in his past two outings, but as long as that proves to be a blip on the radar, Holland still seems a safe bet to opt out. If he significantly fades in his first year back from Tommy John or lands on the disabled list, though, there’s at least a chance that he takes the option. Assuming he remains healthy, though, Holland will likely look to top Mark Melancon’s four-year, $62MM deal this winter.
- Johnny Cueto, Giants ($84MM from 2018-21): It’s been almost a month since Cueto last set foot on a Major League mound, as he’s been sidelined with a forearm issue that has significantly clouded his chances of opting out. Reports earlier in the summer suggested that a slow start wasn’t going to deter Cueto from opting out, but a month-long injury scare and an ERA in the upper-4.00s certainly might. Cueto, 32 in February, has a 4.59 ERA with 8.0 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 and the second worst ground-ball rate of his career (39.2 percent). FIP, xFIP and SIERA all peg him at 4.41 or worse.
Unchanged Since Last Check
- Matt Wieters, Nationals ($10.5MM player option): Wieters wasn’t hitting in early July, and he’s hitting even less now. His defensive reputation limited him to a two-year, $21MM deal with a player option after year one on the 2016-17 open market, and that was coming off a much better offensive season. Wieters seems extremely likely to take the $10.5MM in 2018.
- Ian Kennedy, Royals ($49MM from 2018-20): Kennedy’s results have improved slightly since the last opt-out update, but it’s hardly enough to make it likely that he’ll opt out of that significant guarantee. Through 120 innings in 2017, Kennedy has averaged 1.65 HR/9, tying a career-worst mark, while both his strikeout and walk rates have gone the wrong direction. He’s also missed a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury, and he’ll turn 33 this December.
- Wei-Yin Chen, Marlins ($52MM from 2018-20): No change here. Chen has scarcely been able to pitch in 2017 due to a reported partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. He’s reportedly still aiming for a late comeback, but that won’t be enough to give him the earning power to top his remaining guarantee.
Too often overlooked in the general talk about Justin Verlander’s contract serving as an impediment to a theoretical trade is the amount of leverage that Verlander’s no-trade clause gives him, opines ESPN’s Buster Olney. Verlander currently can’t become a free agent until after his age-36 season, but his recent return to form would give him the ability to hold out for a contract extension in order to green-light a move to another club. (One middle ground, speculatively speaking, could be to push for his $22MM vesting option for the 2020 season to be exercised in advance.) A strong finish could make that all the more true if the Tigers hold him and look to move him this offseason. Verlander’s last seven starts have resulted in a 1.71 ERA with 9.6 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9, though he’s still received some help in terms of BABIP (.229) and strand rate (91 percent) in that time.