- The Royals announced yesterday that right-hander Nate Karns has been placed on the 10-day disabled list due to an “extensor strain” (per the club’s transactions page at MLB.com). For the time being, his spot in the rotation will go to rookie Miguel Almonte, who was slated to start today’s series finale at Yankee Stadium prior to a rainout, per MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan. There’s been no timetable provided by the Royals for Karns’ absence, though his injury comes at an especially inopportune time; the right-hander had been excellent across his past four starts, pitching to a 2.01 ERA with an otherworldly 32-to-4 K/BB ratio through 22 1/3 innings. It’s not yet clear if today’s postponement will deprive Almonte of the opportunity to make a start, though Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star tweets that the starts in this weekend’s series will go to Ian Kennedy, Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy.
- Right-hander Al Alburquerque has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Omaha, the Royals announced on Tuesday. Kansas City designated the veteran 30-year-old for assignment over the weekend after just four innings with the big league bullpen. Alburquerque has totaled just six innings in the Majors over the past two seasons after serving as a regular in the Detroit ’pen from 2013-15. The hard-throwing Alburquerque has no trouble missing bats but has long been prone to control issue as well. Alburquerque has the option to reject the assignment in favor of free agency.
- Veteran infielder Chris Nelson has joined the Royals on a minors deal, per Eddy. Once a semi-regular player with the Rockies, Nelson has bounced around in recent years and hasn’t seen any major league action since 2014. He spent time in 2016 at Triple-A with the Rockies organization, slashing .232/.273/.310 in 218 plate appearances.
Recently, I took a quick look at all of the players with vesting options for the 2018 season, noting that many of the outcomes within will have significant ramifications for both the upcoming free-agent market and the future of those players’ respective teams. The implications are even greater for the eight players that have opt-out provisions of some type at the end of the current season. In some cases, the opt-out in question could either liberate that player’s team from more than $80MM in future commitments or saddle them with that same burdensome amount. (And, in most cases, if the player isn’t opting out, the remaining salary is indeed a burden, as the player either performed too poorly to opt out and/or got hurt.)
Here’s a look at the opt-out decisions that are looming at season’s end…
- Justin Upton, Tigers: The disastrous start to Upton’s six-year, $132.5MM contract now looks like a distant memory. After struggling to a .228/.286/.369 batting line through his first three months in the Motor City, Upton has surged with a .255/.342/.535 slash and 31 home runs over his past 471 big league plate appearances. Strikeouts are still an issue for Upton, but he’s also walking more than ever (15 percent in 2017). He’s on pace to finish the season right around the 30-homer mark, and if he can do so with an OBP in the mid-.300s and respectable marks in left field — he’s currently at +4 DRS and +3.4 UZR — then the remaining four years and $88.5MM on his contract will pose an interesting decision for Upton, who is currently playing out his age-29 season.
- Johnny Cueto, Giants: Cueto looked like an ace in his first year with San Francisco but has stumbled to a 4.50 ERA through his first 58 innings with the Giants in 2017. He’s still averaging better than eight punchouts per nine innings to go along with solid (but diminished) control. However, he’s seen his ground-ball rate plummet from 50 percent to 39 percent, and paired with the increase in walk rate (1.8 BB/9 to 2.5 BB/9), that has led to some issues. There’s still plenty of time for Cueto to get back on track, but the remaining four years and $84MM on his contract doesn’t look quite as easy to walk away from as it did just seven weeks ago. He’ll be 32 next season.
- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: Cueto’s slow start looks Cy Young-worthy when juxtaposed with Tanaka, who has logged a ghastly 6.56 ERA through 48 innings in 2017. Like Cueto, Tanaka has seen his control take a step back, though his strikeout and ground-ball rates are consistent, and his velocity is fine. Tanaka’s average on balls in play is up, however, and his homer-to-flyball rate has skyrocketed from 12 percent to 24.5 percent. Given his age (29 in November), Tanaka would be a virtual lock to opt out of the remaining three years and $67MM on his contract with a good season. If he can’t overcome his home-run woes, however, he may instead opt for the substantial amount of guaranteed cash remaining on his deal.
- Wei-Yin Chen, Marlins: Chen’s opt-out is perhaps the easiest to determine of any player on this list. Unfortunately for the Marlins, that’s due to the fact that he’s currently sidelined indefinitely due to arm troubles. Chen is on the disabled list with arm fatigue, though it’s been reported previously that he’d been pitching through a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, which was sustained in 2016. Chen hasn’t pitched well as a Marlin even when healthy, and at this point it would take a quick recovery and a dominant finish for him to even consider opting out of the remaining three years and $52MM on his contract.
- Ian Kennedy, Royals: Kennedy has logged a solid 3.74 ERA in 233 1/3 innings since signing a five-year deal with Kansas City, but he’s already in his age-32 season. His strikeout rate and control have taken a step back in 2017 as well, and he’s remained homer-prone despite pitching half his games at the spacious Kauffman Stadium. Kennedy turned in a very strong final four months in his last contract season — which helped him land this surprising contract in the first place — but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll opt out of the remaining three years and $49MM on his current contract.
- Greg Holland, Rockies: To be clear, Holland cannot technically opt out of his contract just yet. The one-year, $7MM contract that he signed with the Rox contained a $10MM mutual option that can vest as a $15MM player option if Holland finishes 30 games. At this juncture, though, it seems as if an injury is all that can stop Holland’s player option from vesting. He’s already finished 20 of the 30 games he needs, and he’s currently boasting a preposterous 0.96 ERA with a 26-to-6 K/BB ratio through 18 2/3 innings. Apparently, pitching at Coors Field suits Holland just fine, though if he keeps this up, it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll turn down the one year and $15MM he’d receive for a second season at Coors and hit the market in search of a lucrative three- or four-year contract.
- Matt Wieters, Nationals: The stagnant offseason market for Wieters’ services culminated in a two-year, $21MM contract with the Nats that offers Wieters the opportunity to test free agency once again next winter, if he wishes. To this point, it’s looking likely that Wieters will pass on that player option. His walks, hard-hit rate and BABIP are up, none of which has come at the expense of his strikeout rate. Wieters is hitting a solid .283/.358/.442 with four homers on the year. His caught-stealing rate is down (23 percent), and his framing remains questionable, but the improved offense makes it seem likely that, even if Wieters again struggles to find the strong multi-year deal he craves, a contract comparable to the one year and $10.5MM he can opt out of will once again be available on the open market.
- Welington Castillo, Orioles: Castillo’s two-year, $13MM contract with the Orioles was a pleasant surprise for a player who had previously been locked into arbitration in Arizona before surprisingly being non-tendered. He’s off to a torrid .348/.375/.543 start to the season with four homers and six doubles through 96 plate appearances. There’s a fair bit of luck involved in that production, as evidenced by the 30-year-old’s .418 BABIP. But his strikeouts are down this season, and he’s thrown out a career-best 41 percent of attempted base thieves. His framing marks, while still below average, have improved on a per-pitch basis as well. His glove may prevent him from fully cashing in, but Castillo’s bat could make the remaining one year and $7MM on his contract easy enough to walk away from, assuming he’s healthy.
- Royals righty Nate Karns could wind up on the 10-day DL despite tests revealing no serious trouble with his right forearm, writes Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star. “We’ll see what everyone feels comfortable with and go from there,” says Karns. “But I’m not alarmed by it. I don’t think it’s a season-ending injury or something that’s going to be an extended period of time. If I do go on the DL, I think it’ll be short term and then right back out there.” Karns has been reliable in his first nine starts as a Royal, posting a 4.17 ERA, 10.1 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 over 45 1/3 innings this season.
- The Royals have released left-hander Kyle Bartsch, tweets Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com. This is the second time Kansas City has parted with Bartsch, whom it chose in the seventh round of the 2013 draft and then traded to San Diego for outfielder Reymond Fuentes a year later. The Padres released Bartsch last season, and he ended up back with the Royals and pitched to a microscopic .94 ERA (with 7.22 K/9 and 1.88 BB/9) in 28 2/3 Double-A innings. The 26-year-old has not pitched this season, however.
Alburquerque, whom the Royals signed to a minor league deal over the winter, debuted with the big club earlier this month and ended up tossing four innings before losing his 40-man spot. The 30-year-old gave up three earned runs on two hits and three walks during that short span, though he did strike out six.
Alburquerque was once a prominent reliever in Detroit, where he recorded a 3.20 ERA, 11.04 K/9, 5.0 BB/9 and a 47 percent ground-ball rate over 225 innings from 2011-15. But his velocity has dropped since his tenure with the Tigers came to an end, and he has combined for just six major league frames dating back to 2016, when he worked a pair of innings with the Angels.
- Center fielder Lorenzo Cain might end up as the Royals’ most valuable trade asset in the coming months, posits Rosenthal, who relays that the team isn’t convinced first baseman Eric Hosmer would bring back a “sufficient return.” Hosmer’s hitting a solid .299/.362/.408 in 174 PAs, but that’s not great production relative to his position, and first base typically isn’t an in-demand area around the deadline, notes Rosenthal. The same goes for third base, which could make it difficult for the Royals to move Mike Moustakas – another of their high-profile impending free agents – for a sizable return. Meanwhile, pitchers Jason Vargas, Kelvin Herrera and Mike Minor are also names to watch as the Royals potentially prepare to sell.
Jon Heyman of Fan Rag takes a look around the league in his latest notes columns. In addition to providing updates on every National League and American League team, he takes a particularly close look at the Nationals in separate posts. Let’s take a look at some of the items of particular relevance to the transactional landscape:
- The Nationals are beginning to put in phone calls to rivals as they start the search for a new closer in earnest, Heyman writes. Among the players under consideration by the team, at present, are a variety of names with differing contract situations. David Robertson of the White Sox, Kelvin Herrera of the Royals, and A.J. Ramos of the Marlins all have two years remaining at less-than-bargain rates (the latter two via arbitration). Alex Colome of the Rays and Roberto Osuna of the Blue Jays, meanwhile, bring more years of cheap control — and, in all likelihood, astronomical asking prices. Then there’s old friend Mark Melancon, who is in the first year of the four-year pact he signed with the Giants — who evidently beat the Nats’ offer over the winter. Needless to say, there’s quite a lot that could change that picture over the coming months.
- Looking back a bit, the Nationals came closer than any other team to landing Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates over the winter, Heyman adds.Per the report, the sides held talks that “revolved around three players, including Lucas Giolito and veteran Gio Gonzalez.” It’s not immediately clear what else might have been involved, and where things went south, but it’s interesting to hear those parameters. The Nats ultimately pivoted to Adam Eaton, of course, but he’s now out for the year. Perhaps it’s conceivable that the team could take another look at McCutchen, though no doubt the teams would need to start discussions anew with Giolito in Chicago, Gonzalez a key member of the Nats staff and McCutchen struggling.
- The Marlins sale talks had seemingly been building, but Heyman writes that there’s no deal ready to be made at present. For one thing, there are whispers that the purchase price will continue to drop as the organization’s financial health comes under greater scrutiny. For another, there are still questions about where the money will come from on the buyer’s side. “[A]t least the Bush-Jeter group and maybe the Romney-Glavine group, too, [are] still seeking investors,” per Heyman.
- Two significant recent investments made by the Marlins aren’t delivering value at present. Per Heyman, lefty Wei-Yin Chen is headed for a second opinion with his elbow issue still failing to progress. It seems the team could be bracing for a relatively lengthy absence. And Heyman notes that some in the baseball operations department weren’t thrilled at the idea of extending Martin Prado last year at $40MM over three years. He has been playing well enough, but is back on the DL with a recurring hamstring injury.
- Pirates righty Gerrit Cole has looked strong in the early going, but Heyman says the team may not be interested in dealing him even if they continue to lag in the standings. “We’re not in any rush,” a club source tells him. “I don’t think we’re there yet.” The 26-year-old owns a 2.84 ERA with 7.9 K/9 and 1.0 BB/9; while the peripherals are largely in line with his 2016 work, the improved results are supported by jumps in swinging-strike rate (9.9%) and average fastball velocity (a career-high 96.1 mph). With two more years of arb eligibility to go, Cole would likely command a big price at the deadline.
- While the Rays entered play today just one game under .500, that doesn’t mean they aren’t readying for the possibility of selling. Of course, given the team’s pitching depth, it’s imaginable that the team could send out a veteran while still maintaining hopes of cracking the postseason. Per Heyman, Tampa Bay has “already begun calling to get a gauge on the value of Alex Cobb.” Rivals also think the club will be amenable to discussing both Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer, he adds. Cobb, though, is the most obvious possible trade chip. The 29-year-old was homer-prone in his return from Tommy John surgery last year, but has looked solid through 56 1/3 innings this year — his last before reaching free agency. He carries a 3.67 ERA with 6.1 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 to go with a 47.5% groundball rate. Cobb still isn’t getting swings and misses like he used to, but his velocity is better than ever and he has tamped down on the long balls thus far.
- Royals righty Ian Kennedy is showing signs of improvement in his injured right hamstring, as Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star reports. The 32-year-old could return by this coming weekend, per manager Ned Yost. That would rate as a welcome development for the scuffling Royals, who have received six solid outings from Kennedy thus far. He has held opposing batters to just 23 hits and currently carries a 3.03 ERA with 7.8 K/9 against 3.8 BB/9. If Kennedy can pick up where he left off, he’ll set up some interesting scenarios. Kansas City could explore trading him this summer if the team can’t turn things around. And then there’s the question of Kennedy’s contract, which allows him to opt out of the three years and $49MM that remains (in favor of a $6MM buyout) after the season.
- While many are beginning to wonder whether the Royals will engineer a tear-down of the current MLB roster this summer, GM Dayton Moore says he’s not yet entertaining that possibility, as Dodd further reports. There’s no rush in making any decisions, Moore emphasized, noting that trades can come together quickly “if you have two willing partners.” While the club is still six games under .500, moreover, it has performed better of late and remains within reach of the front of a tightly-bunched pack in the AL Central. Moore drew an interesting analogy to the 2015 Tigers in explaining why he sees little reason to contemplate a summer sale effort. While that organization seemed prepared to hold at the deadline, he notes, “all of a sudden, some things changed, and Dave Dombrowski says he’s going to trade David Price, and the deal comes together very quickly.”