- Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times tweets that left-hander Hoby Milner accepted an outright assignment from the Rays after being removed from the 40-man roster and will be in Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. Milner was outrighted late last month but did have the option to reject his assignment in favor of free agency. Instead, he’ll vie for a bullpen spot in 2019. Soon to turn 28, Milner has an appealing 3.03 ERA in 38 2/3 career innings, but that’s accompanied by a lofty 4.9 BB/9 mark and an 86.2 percent strand rate that isn’t sustainable over the long run. Fielding-independent metrics suggest his ERA should be well north of 5.00. If Milner were to be used as a strict lefty specialist, though, he could likely find plenty of success. Left-handed opponents have hit just .177/.292/.277 against him in 98 big league plate appearances.
While Morton would normally seem a pricey target for the perennially budget-conscious Rays, the Tampa Bay organization likely has more spending capacity than most would expect. Kevin Kiermaier is the lone guaranteed contract on the books in both 2019 and 2020, and Tampa’s remaining slate of arbitration-eligible players — Mike Zunino, Tommy Pham, Matt Duffy and Chaz Roe — are projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn just $12.2MM combined.
Beyond that, the Rays have compiled an impressive collection of pre-arbitration talent, headlined by AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Rookie of the Year candidate Joey Wendle, leading to a projected 2019 payroll of just $37.3MM at present. That figure includes a full 25-man roster as well as the $2MM they’ll owe the Giants in 2019 as part of last winter’s Evan Longoria trade. Low-spending as they may be, the Rays have averaged a $64MM Opening Day payroll over the past decade, so even a competitive bid for Morton — MLBTR estimated a $16MM annual salary on a two-year deal — would technically fit into the budget. Then again, the Rays have never really spent at that level (or close to it) on a free agent before.
Morton, however, aligns with what Topkin reports to be a desire by the Rays to add a short-term boost to their rotation. The 35-year-old has made clear in the past that he doesn’t expect to continue his playing career more than a couple of years, given a preference to spend time with his growing family sooner rather than later. The Astros did not issue a qualifying offer to Morton, which rated as a surprise, but they’ve reportedly made a one-year offer to him since the season ended.
While it’s frankly difficult to envision the Rays submitting the winning bid for a relatively high-priced free agent, Morton would certainly give them a formidable one-two punch with Snell atop the pitching staff. Beyond that pairing, some combination of Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks would likely get the lion’s share of innings among current Rays pitchers, though Tampa Bay’s atypical utilization of pitchers makes it impossible to forecast a traditional division of the team’s workload on the mound.
- Max Kepler’s name is commonly brought up when rival clubs call the Twins about potential trades, per Dan Hayes of The Athletic (subscription required). That’s been the case for more than a year now, Hayes notes, reporting that Kepler was one of the numerous pieces the Rays sought last winter when chatting Chris Archer with Minnesota. But the Twins still believe that Kepler, an excellent outfielder defender who has displayed some power but not authored a genuine breakout season just yet, is capable of taking his game to a new level. As chief baseball officer Derek Falvey explains to Hayes, it’s tough to judge Kepler’s development as one would with a traditional prospect given that he was born in Berlin, Germany and has still accrued fewer at-bats than many players who are several years younger but come from places where baseball is commonly played year-round. A strong right fielder who can play center as well, Kepler won’t turn 26 until February and still has four years of team control remaining.
- The Rays were among the teams with interest in Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (Twitter link), although Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen strongly downplayed the possibility of trading Syndergaard earlier today. That said, Tampa’s interest in “Thor” is nonetheless notable, as it points to an interest in adding a controllable arm if one can be found at a reasonable financial price point. Then again, as a high-end starter with a projected salary under $6MM and three years of team control remaining, Syndergaard is (or was) something of a rarity on the trade market. Speculatively speaking, perhaps either Michael Fulmer or Jon Gray could be viewed in that same light, but both right-handers are coming off poor seasons, making it tough for their respective organizations to sell low.
- The Athletics are making headway toward a new ballpark in their city, but the same isn’t true for the Rays, as Charlie Frago and Christopher O’Donnell of the Tampa Bay Times detail. While the Rays and officials in Hillsborough County, Fla., had been hoping to debut an $892MM ballpark in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa Bay in 2023, an agreement isn’t imminent as the Dec. 31 deadline looms, Frago and O’Donnell report. Consequently, the Rays may not move to a new stadium until 2024 or later. They’ve called the much-derided Tropicana Field home since they began play in 1998.
The market for star Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto seems to be reaching a fever pitch, with the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, Mets and Giants among the latest teams to “show interest,” says Fancred’s Jon Heyman. The odds of an extension for the backstop seem infinitesimal at this juncture, with sources “suggesting” that the proposed figure was in range of the massive extension signed by Giants catcher Buster Posey prior to the start of the 2013 season. Whether or not the ask was mere posturing on the part of Realmuto, whose agent Jeff Berry seemed to make clear the 27-year-old’s intentions on a radio show in late October, is unknown, but it seems a near certainty the Oklahoma-born product will be moved at some point this offseason.
In other news from around the region . . .
- Per Heyman, the Yankees seem to be willing to include Gary Sanchez in a deal for Realmuto, but only in something approximating a straight-up swap. Sanchez, who has four remaining years of team control to Realmuto’s two, has turned off some admirers with his indifferent play behind the plate and propensity for the long slump, but is nevertheless an extremely valuable asset in today’s desiccated offensive landscape behind the dish. Indeed, Steamer actually projects the 26-year-old Sanchez to be nearly as valuable next season as the elder Realmuto (3.5 WAR, to the latter’s 3.7), pegging him for a 116 wRC+ to Realmuto’s 108. It should be noted, too, that analytical models are far more bullish on Sanchez’s much-maligned defense than the general public: DRS, after all, sees Sanchez as clearly superior to the Marlin star over the last three seasons, while Baseball Prospectus, though higher on Realmuto, mostly agrees, seeing the Dominican-born backstop as generally above-average over the same frame. The Marlins, though, seem to find the package insufficient without other “top pieces” involved, which scenario would almost surely be a non-starter for the Bombers.
- Outfielder Nick Markakis “remains a candidate” to return to Atlanta, and is a “more likely fit” than Michael Brantley, per Heyman. Markakis, a Georgia native, enjoyed a blissful ’18 renaissance in the last year of his 4 year, $44MM deal signed prior the 2015 season, slashing .297/.366/.440 in hitter-friendly SunTrust Park on the way to 2.6 fWAR, his first two-win-plus season with the Braves. Atlanta, of course, continues its search for offensive upgrades even after the inking of Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal, but doesn’t see outfielder A.J. Pollock as a likely target, according to Heyman. The 35-year-old Markakis, though, had posted five consecutive sub-.400 slugging percentage seasons before the last, and has never been a particularly nimble defender in a corner. Atlanta, at this point in the offseason, may be setting its sights a little higher in its dogged pursuit of an outfielder.
- Per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the Rays are “considering high-end upgrades” across the diamond. Topkin lists Noah Syndergaard, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nelson Cruz, among others, as potential options, and notes that the team’s monetary resources far outshine those of past seasons. The Rays, perhaps more than any other team, are rife with young talent, with logjams up the middle and on the corners, and have considerable prospect capital with which to deal, so multiple major upgrades cannot, at this point in the offseason, be ruled out.
- Left-hander Hoby Milner cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A by the Rays, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times (Twitter link). He’ll head to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee in hopes of once again cracking the roster. The 27-year-old Milner (28 in January) owns a 3.03 ERA in 38 2/3 big league innings, but there’s a fair bit of smoke and mirrors at play in that regard. Milner has just 7.0 K/9 against 4.9 BB/9 in the Majors and has stranded an unsustainable 86.2 percent of the runners he’s put on base. Fielding-independent metrics cast a much less favorable picture than his ERA (5.30 FIP, 5.65 xFIP, 5.07 SIERA). To his credit, Milner has held lefties to a laughable .177/.292/.277 slash through 98 plate appearances.
The Blue Jays announced tonight that they have claimed righty Oliver Drake off waivers from the Rays. To open a 40-man spot, the Toronto club designated fellow right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. for assignment.
This move continues a seemingly never-ending tour of the majors for Drake, a 31-year-old hurler with intriguing stuff who has seen many a 40-man roster but rarely stays in the same place for long. Since the start of the 2017 campaign, he has appeared with the Orioles, Brewers, Indians, Angels, Twins, and Blue Jays.
Indeed, Drake set a record last year by appearing with five teams. That did not include the Rays, who claimed him after the season concluded. This will be Drake’s second stop in Toronto; he stopped in for two appearances last season. Of course, it would hardly be surprising if Drake ends up being bumped from the Jays’ 40-man once again over the offseason.
So, what’s the fascination here? Drake has only a 4.50 career ERA through 137 1/3 innings. But he owns a 12.6% swinging-strike rate in the big leagues and has generally turned in much more promising peripherals. Last year, for example, he carried 9.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 with a 44.9% groundball rate through 47 2/3 frames — though a .353 BABIP and 63.7% strand rate left him with a 5.29 ERA.
As for the 27-year-old Leiter, he has found success at times in the upper minors but struggled to transition to the major-league mound. He has thrown 114 frames of 5.53 ERA ball in the bigs, due in no small part to allowing home runs at a clip of 1.97 per nine innings. Leiter, too, has been better in the eyes of ERA estimators that presume the dingers are in part a reflection of poor fortune, as he owns a 4.37 xFIP and 4.23 SIERA in the majors. Teams in search of rotation depth will surely have interest.
The Twins announced that they’ve claimed first baseman C.J. Cron off waivers from the Rays. Cron was designated for assignment by Tampa Bay last week despite a 30-homer campaign in 2018, and he’s now among the top candidates to see action for the Twins at first base and designated hitter in 2019. Minnesota’s 40-man roster is now at 39 players.
It’s not yet clear whether Cron will represent the Twins’ lone addition at first base/designated hitter this season following the retirement of Joe Mauer, but the fact that he was claimed at all makes it seem likely that they’ll tender him a contract this offseason. (The non-tender deadline looms on Friday.) Cron has ample experience at first base and has received slightly above-average marks there from both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating across the past three seasons combined.
Of course, Cron’s real calling card is right-handed power. The 28-year-old (29 in January) hit .253/.323/.493 with 30 homers, 28 doubles and a triple in 560 plate appearances for Tampa Bay this past season. The Rays, though, as they did with Corey Dickerson an offseason prior, elected to designate a fairly productive hitter for assignment in part due to salary concerns and in part because they undoubtedly believe the market will ultimately yield comparable production at a lesser price. Corner bats with limited defensive value haven’t been rewarded in free agency in recent years, and the Rays could either find a more affordable alternative or could simply go with in-house options like Jake Bauers, Ji-Man Choi or Nathaniel Lowe.
Cron is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $5.2MM in 2019, making him a reasonably affordable add for Minnesota. Cron is controlled not only through 2019 but also through the 2020 season, so he could potentially be a multi-year piece for Minnesota if the organization is pleased with his 2019 output. Cron should have a fairly easy transition from Tampa Bay to Minnesota, weather not withstanding, as he’s plenty familiar with rookie manager Rocco Baldelli, who was on the Rays’ coaching staff last season as the team’s Major League field coordinator.
While the claim doesn’t technically mean that the Twins are committing a 2019 roster spot to Cron — he could still be non-tendered — it does seem likely that he’s now firmly in the team’s plans. That furthers the likelihood that outfielder/designated hitter Robbie Grossman, who projects to earn $4MM next season, will be non-tendered before Friday’s deadline. Minnesota could yet make some additions to the first base/DH mix next season and could potentially still add a third baseman as well, depending on the organization’s plans for Miguel Sano. A move across the diamond to first has been rumored for Sano, or the organization could simply choose to rotate the slugger between both corner infield slots and designated hitter next season.
The latest on some coaching and front office personnel decisions from around the game…
- The Dodgers are expected to hire Dino Ebel as their new third base coach, Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register reports. Ebel would fill the role left behind by newly-hired Rangers manager Chris Woodward, who was also the Dodgers’ infield coach in addition to his duties in the third base box. No stranger to Los Angeles baseball, Ebel has spent the last 13 years on the Angels’ staff as a third base coach and bench coach, plus he also has an extensive background in the Dodgers organization. Ebel spent his entire six-year playing career in the Dodgers’ farm system, before going on to spend over a decade as a coach and manager at various levels of the minor league ladder.
- Orioles scouting director Gary Rajsich’s contract with the team expires at the end of November, and Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com reports that there has yet to be any word on whether or not Rajsich will continue with the organization (either in his current role or a reassigned position). Rajsich has been with the O’s since 2011, though it isn’t clear if his tenure will continue, given how the team has been overhauling its front office and new general manager Mike Elias may prefer to have his own hire in place.
- Rays minor league catching coordinator Paul Hoover looks like the favorite to become the team’s new field coordinator, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times writes. The job opened up when Rocco Baldelli was hired by the Twins to become their new manager. A former big leaguer with the Rays, Marlins, and Phillies, Hoover appeared in parts of seven MLB seasons from 2001-10, and he has been working in Tampa’s minor league system since 2012.