Warm Furnace: Top 50 Free Agent Predictions 2014-2015

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Another year, another list of free agent predictions, which will most likely be completely wrong. Only time will tell how accurate this list is. DISCLOSURE: If you bet money based off these prediction, I am not liable for your losses.

(List from MLBTradeRumors)

1. Max Scherzer – Rangers

After a disappointing 2014 campaign, the Texas Rangers will be looking to rebound in 2015, as they get players like Prince Fielder, Elvis Andrus, and Yu Darvish back from season ending injuries. Even with those players back, the Rangers will still need to bolster their rotation if they want to be contenders. In comes Max Scherzer, who, coming off a Cy Young Campaign in 2013, had another great year in 2014, going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA. While he will be expensive, adding Scherzer will definitely improve what is otherwise a lackluster rotation behind Yu Darvish and Derrick Holland.

Other Possibilities: Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees

2. Jon Lester – Red Sox

After spending 8 1/2 years in Boston, winning 2 World Series during his time there, Lester was traded to the Oakland A’s at this year July Trading Deadline for Yoneis Cespedes, in one of the biggest and most surprising deadline deals in recent history. After posting a 10-7 record and a 2.52 ERA in Boston, Lester continued to succeed in Oakland, going 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts. While he did struggle in his one postseason start this year (7.1 IP, 6 ER), Lester provided solid pitching for the A’s down the stretch. Even though they weren’t contenders in 2014, the Red Sox set themselves up nicely to make a run in 2015 with the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, and Joe Kelly at the Trade Deadline. With the addition of Lester back in Bean Town, the Red Sox could put up a fight with the Orioles for AL East supremacy. However, look for the Cubs to also be a strong contender to the southpaw, as current Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Lester have a strong connection going back to their days in Boston.

Other Possibilities: Cubs, A’s, Yankees

3. James Shields – Cubs

Since coming over from Tampa Bay back in 2013, Shields has put up great numbers in his two seasons in Kansas City, going 27-17 with a 3.18 ERA during his time there. While “Big Game James” didn’t live up to his nickname in the Royals postseason run (7.20 ERA in 5 starts), Shields will still have no problem making top-starter money this offseason. The Cubs will be looking to make a splash in Free Agency this offseason, with numerous prospects on the cusp of the MLB. With former Rays manager and baseball mastermind Joe Madden at the reign in 2015, the Cubs will have a legitimate shot at signing Shields, as Shields may feel quite comfortable in the South Side, with his former manager now running the show.

Other Possibilities: Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers 

4. Hanley Ramirez – Yankees

During his tenure in LA, Ramirez managed to put together 2 1/2 sensational years offensively at the shortstop position, ranking top 3 in a majority of offensive statistics. While his offense is a positive for Ramirez, his defense at short and his health are two major red flags for perspective teams. Ramirez, who will turn 31 in December, has only been able to play 211 games in 2013-14. He has also been one of the worst defensive shortstops over that span. Possibly the best move for Ramirez would be a shift back to third, where he played in his final season in LA. However, Ramirez is one of few potential shortstops on the market, and a team like the Yankees, who just lost their shortstop, are in desperate need for someone to man that position. Ramirez will likely get a contract of about 7 years, $160 million, and the Yankees always have the funds to buy free agents.

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox

5. Pablo Sandoval – Giants

Sandoval, who turned 28 in August, will be the top third baseman on the market this offseason, which will entitle him to a large payday. However, over the past 4 seasons, Sandoval’s numbers have been regressing, and his weight will be a concern for any team that wants to sign him long-term. The Giants, who offered Sandoval a qualifying offer, will have a gaping hole at third of Sandoval decides to leave them.

Other Possibilities: Red Sox, Nationals, Angels

6. Victor Martinez – Mariners

In 2014, Martinez managed to have a career in his age 35 season, hitting .335/.409/.565 and 32 home runs. Martinez will be looking to cash in on his big year, but teams might be weary of signing Martinez to more than a 1 year deal, as he is already 35. V-Mart will also most likely have to sign with an AL team, as he can’t play the field anymore. This past year, the Mariners were on the cusp of making the postseason, finishing 1 GB of the A’s for the second wild card spot. If the Mariners want to make their first postseason since 2001, they will need to improve offensively, including at their DH, which was the worst in the AL in almost all offensive categories. Adding Martinez will provide some much needed protection for Robinson Cano, and add depth to their lineup.

Other Possibilities: White Sox, Tigers, Orioles

7. Melky Cabrera – White Sox

After receiving a 50-game suspension in 2012, Melky Cabrera signed a 2 year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays in the 2012-13 offseason. After an injury plagued 2013, Cabrera put together a quality 2014 season, hitting .301 with 16 home runs in 139 games. Cabrera, who turned 30 in August, will most likely be seeking a multi-year deal with a team needing a corner outfielder. However, since the Blue Jays offered Cabrera a qualifying offer, any team that would want to sign Cabrera would forfeit their first round draft pick. However, initial reports has the two sides being far apart on negotiations. A team like the White Sox, who are in need for a corner outfielder, could make the Melk Man a sizable, multi-year offer.

Other Possibilities: Tigers, Blue Jays, Mets

8. Russell Martin – Blue Jays

As the best catcher in the free agent pool, Russell Martin will be seeing a lot of offers from teams that are in need of catchers. Martin had a great year in the Pittsburg not only offensively, but defensively as well, throwing 39% of runners behind the dish. While the Blue Jays did just sign catcher Dioner Navarro to a two year deal last offseason, they could always move him to DH and play Martin at catcher, since they just traded away DH Adam Lind.

Other Possibilities: Cubs, Pirates, Astros

9. Nelson Cruz – Orioles

After signing a 1 year, $8 million contract with the O’s last off season, Cruz put together a monster 2014 campaign, hitting .271/.333/.525, leading all of baseball in home runs with 40. Cruz, who was coming off a PED suspension in 2013, is going to get a pay raise, as he was already offered a qualifying offer by the Orioles earlier this week. While he may turn that offer down, there is still mutual interest between the O’s and Cruz to bring Cruz back to Baltimore for at least the next several seasons.

Other Possibilities: Mariners, Tigers, Blue Jays

10. Yasmany Thomas – Rangers

The 24 year old Cuban defector Thomas has a chance to receive the biggest contract for a Cuban player. A bar for contracts has already been set for Cuban outfielders by other defectors like Yasiel Puig and Rusney Castillio. Thomas is a high risk, high reward player, as there isn’t much certainty than other past Cuban outfielders. But Thomas’s raw power could potential score him a 7 year, $100+ million contract. The Rangers, who are losing Alex Rios this offseason, will have to find someone who can play right field for them in 2015 and beyond, and the power hitting righty will be able to fill that void.

Other Possibilities: Phillies, Tigers, Padres

11. Ervin Santana – Pirates

Ervin Santana is in another tricky situation this off season. While there are plenty of teams that would want the almost 32 year old righty, the Braves offered him a $15.3 million qualifying offer. While that is a lot of money, Santana might not want to take the one year offer, and look elsewhere for a multi-year deal. However, other clubs may be hesitant to sign Santana, because they would have to forfeit their first round draft to the Braves in exchange for him. If Santana declines his qualifying offer, look for him to be one of the last pitchers to sign this off season. Meanwhile, the Pirates may lose 40% of their rotation this off season, as both Francisco Liriano and Edison Volquez are free agents. If they lose them both, they will definitely be in the market for a starting pitcher.

Other Possibilities: Braves, Royals, Red Sox

12. Kenta Maeda – Rockies

As this offseason’s major Japanese pitcher, Maeda, 27, will get a lot of looks from teams that missed out on Tanaka last year. While his stuff is not as good as Tanaka’s is, he still may cost as much as him, as any team that wants to sign him will still have to pay $20 million posting fee to the Hiroshima Carp. A team with a weak rotation, like the Rockies, will be able to use Maeda as a top of the rotation guy.

Other Possibilities: Twins, Astros, Dodgers

13. David Robertson – Tigers

As the top reliever on the market this offseason, Robertson will be seeing a lot of offers from a bevy of teams that have a weak bullpen. One of those teams are the Detroit Tigers, who’s bullpen was 27th in the league in ERA. What may deter the Tigers from signing him is the fact that he was offered a qualifying offer by the Yankees. Robertson is one of the players who may accept his qualifying offer, but if he doesn’t, Detroit could be a major suitor for the reliever.

Other teams: Cubs, White Sox, Blue Jays

14. Brandon McCarthy – Braves

During his time in New York after the trade deadline, Brandon McCarthy had one of the bests stretches in his career, going 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts. This season was also McCarthy’s first season pitching 200 innings (he actually had exactly 200 between his time with the Yankees and the Diamondbacks). The Braves, who might be losing starters Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, might also be without starters Kris Medlen (who may not even be back with the Braves in ’15) and Brandon Beachy for the start of the season. Signing the veteran McCarthy will help out the young Braves rotation headed by Julio Tehran and Alex Wood.

Other Possibilities: Royals, Pirates, Yankees

15. Francisco Liriano – Royals

After nine up and down seasons in Minnesota/Chicago, Liriano signed a two year deal with the Pirates, and really turned his career around, with a 3.20 ERA over his two years in Pittsburgh. However, Liriano is another player who is hurt by the qualifying offer, as a team would have to forfeit their first round pick to sign him. Fresh off of their first AL Pennant in 29 years, the Royals will have their work cut out for them this off-season, having to replace pitcher James Shields and DH Billy Butler. While Liriano isn’t as nearly as dominant as Shields is, he could slip into the rotation behind youngsters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.

Other Possibilities: Cubs, Pirates, Braves

16. Chase Headley – Red Sox

Chase Headley quietly put together a very solid 2014 season, finishing the year with a 4.4 WAR, 7th best of all third basemen. While his offensive numbers won’t blow you away, Headley is one of the better third basemen in the league defensively. Unfortunately for Red Sox fans, protect Wil Middlebrooks isn’t progressing the way the team hoped, and it looks like it may be time for the team to move on from him. Headley could provide solid defense for the Red Sox at the hot corner, and fill a hole for the Red Sox the Middlebrooks couldn’t.

Other Possibilities: Giants, Yankees, Blue Jays

17. Andrew Miller – Cardinals

After a very good 2014 campaign with the Red Sox and the Orioles, Miller could help numerous teams in need for lefty set up man. Already this offseason, the Cardinals have been heavily connected with Miller, with a few uncertainties in their bullpen.

Other Possibilities: Brewers, Cubs, Tigers

18. Justin Masterson – Diamondbacks

To steal a line from the Tom Hanks classic Forrest Gump, “I got shot in the buttocks.” Wait, that wasn’t the line I wanted. What I meant to say was, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” Well, in this scenario, Justin Masterson is like a box of chocolates, as you don’t know what you’re going get with him. After posting good numbers in 2011 and 2013 (3.21 ERA in 216 IP in ’11 and 3.45 ERA in 193 IP in ’13), Masterson struggled in 2012 and 2014 (4.93 ERA in 12, 5.88 ERA in ’14). It’s going to be hard to say what to expect from Masterson in 2015, which is why I expect a team like the Diamondbacks, whose rotation was 27th in the MLB in ERA in 2014, to take a waiver on Masterson as a low risk-high reward candidate.

Other Possibilities – Twins, Cubs, White Sox

19. Aramis Ramirez – Brewers

Ramirez and the Brewers both accepted their ends of his mutual option. He will be a Brewer for at least one more year.

Other Possibilities: NONE

20. Colby Rasmus – Tigers

After a down year, in which Rasmus lost the starting job, the 28 year old outfielder will be looking for a starting job outside of Toronto. In order to do that, Rasmus may have to shift from Centerfield, where he’s played the majority of his career, to a corner outfield position. The Tigers, who may be losing Torii Hunter, will need to sign someone who can take the vacant right field job.

Other Possibilities: White Sox, Mets, Giants

21. Jed Lowrie – Nationals

Other Possibilities: Mets, Blue Jays, Athletics

22. Jason Hammel – White Sox

Other Possibilities: Twins, Dodgers, Cubs

23. Asdrubal Cabrera – Blue Jays

Other Possibilities: Mets, Nationals, Yankees

24. Nick Markakis – Orioles

Other Possibilities: Giants, Mets, Royals

25. Adam LaRoche – Marlins

Other Possibilities: Mariners, Orioles, White Sox

26. Jake Peavy – Padres

Other Possibilities: Giants, Cubs, Royals

27. Hiroki Kuroda – Retirement

Other Possibilities: Yankees, Dodgers

28. Michael Morse – Mets

Other Possibilities: Giants, Royals, Rangers

29. Michael Cuddyer – Rockies

Other Possibilities: Giants, Mets, Tigers

30. Alex Rios – Royals

Other Possibilities: Giants, Mariners, Twins

31. Edison Volquez – Royals

Other Possibilities: Braves, Diamondbacks, Marlins

32. Luke Gregerson – Blue Jays

Other Possibilities: White Sox, Cubs, Tigers

33. Torii Hunter – Tigers

Other Possibilities: Twins, Orioles, Retirement

34. A.J. Burnett – Brewers

Other Possibilities: Royals, Pirates, Red Sox

35. Sergio Romo – Red Sox

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, White Sox, Astros

36. Francisco Rodriguez – Brewers

Other Possibilities: Blue Jays, Red Sox, Cubs

37. Rafael Soriano – Astros

Other Possibilities: Cubs, Rockies, Diamondbacks

38. Ryan Vogelsong – Giants

Other Possibilities: Royals, Dodgers, Cubs

39. Aaron Harang – Twins

Other Possibilities: Rockies, Marlins, White Sox

40. Nori Aoki – Reds

Other Possibilities: Royals, Giants, Mets

41. Billy Butler – Indians

Other Possibilities: Royals, Orioles, White Sox

42. Stephen Drew – Athletics

Other Possibilities: Mets, Astros, Reds

43. Emilio Bonifacio – Athletics

Other Possibilities: Nationals, Blue Jays, Braves

44. Casey Janssen – Yankees

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, Indians, Brewers

45. Pat Neshek – Indians

Other Possibilities: Astros, Twins, Diamondbacks

46. Brandon Morrow – Rockies

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, White Sox, Diamondbacks

47. Jason Grilli – White Sox

Other Possibilities: Orioles, Brewers, Mets

48. Brett Anderson – Mets

Other Possibilities: Twins, Cubs, Diamondbacks

49. Josh Johnson – Padres

Other Possibilities: Twins, Rays, Astros

50. Jung-Ho Kang – Dodgers

Other Possibilities: Orioles, Nationals, Astros

What Can the Braves Do?

In the matter of 48 hours, the Braves may have lost 40% of their rotation in several meaningless games. Sunday afternoon, Kris Medlen galloped off the mound during his start against the Mets, clutching his right forearm.

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The injury was preliminarily diagnosed as a strained right forearm.  But of course, when an injury is first diagnosed as a forearm strain, it can often be an injury to the UCL. With Medlen’s injury history — he tore his UCL in 2010 — Tommy John surgery seems inevitable.

Then today, pitcher Brandon Beachy, who also had Tommy John surgery in 2012, was removed after the second inning, complaining of bicep discomfort. The Braves neglected to re-sign Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm this offseason, and their biggest offseason acquisition, righthander Gavin Floyd, is coming off a Tommy John surgery of his own and won’t be ready until at least May. With Mike Minor suffering from damage to his shoulder and “groin,” making him questionable for Opening Day, the Braves pitching staff seems in dire straits.

Oddly, this late in the offseason, here is still a quality arm to be had through free agency in Ervin Santana.  Unfortunately for the Braves, Santana doesn’t look like a possibility.

With Medlen, Beachy, and Minor sidelined for extended periods of time, the Braves go from having one of the deepest pitching staffs in baseball to one that is stretched thin.  Behind Medlen, Teheran, Beachy and Minor, here’a what the depth chart looks like: Alex Wood, who made 31 appearances and 11 starts in his rookie year, posting a 3.13 ERA. David Hale, a talented arm with only two games of major league experience. And veteran journyman Freddy Garcia, whose fastball no longer sniffs 90 MPH who put up a 5.77 ERA in 11 appearances with Baltimore last year before a borderline miraculous 20 inning stint with the Braves. In terms of prospects, their best arm, Lucas Sims, made it only as far as the South Atlantic League last year. J.R. Graham and Cody Martin are options, but Graham has suffered arm injuries and Martin likely lacks the pure stuff to be successful in the major leagues.

EDIT: A previous version of this piece referred to Sean Gilmartin as an option for the Braves. Gilmartin was traded to Minnesota for Ryan Doumit this past offseason.

So with no money and limited in-house talent, what can the Braves do?

They could pursue some lesser options than Ervin Santana on the free agent market. Except that at this stage of the offseason, there are few lesser options available.  Here is a list of the available free agent starters with major league experience, per MLBTradeRumors:

Jon Garland (hasn’t been a useful major leaguer since 2010)
Jair Jurrjens (hasn’t been successful at any level since 2011)
Jeff Karstens (coming off major shoulder surgery, won’t be ready until second half)
Jason Marquis (had Tommy John surgery in July, won’t be ready until second half)
Jeff Niemann (coming off major shoulder surgery, won’t be ready until second half)
Clayton Richard (followed up three decent years with an atrocious one)
Ervin Santana (too expensive)
Barry Zito (taking the year off)

I suppose Richard is an option, but the Braves are looking to contend, and signing him would be scraping the very bottom of the barrel. If the Braves want a quality starter, they’ll have to acquire one via trade. Earlier this offseason, the Braves had reported interest in Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija. However, those talks simmered after the Cubs made demands the Braves considered unrealistic:

The Braves were genuinely interested in finding out what it would take to bring Samardzija to Atlanta. That interest quickly died when the Cubs indicated they would be looking for a return package that included either Jason Heyward or Justin Upton.

And three months ago, the Braves weren’t in the dire pitching situation they find themselves in today.  Now, three weeks out from Opening Day, the Cubs have all the leverage — they might ask for even more than the aforementioned ludicrous package. This deal, frankly, is a non-starter. The Braves are not going to break up the core of a team that won 96 games last year for a pitcher with two years left of team control and a career 4.19 ERA — that wouldn’t make the team stronger either in the present or in the long run. And the price for the other big name starting pitcher rumored to be on the market this offseason, David Price, would be impossible to meet.  The Braves simply don’t have the prospects, nor do they have the resources to pay Price, who is due over $10 million this year alone.

So what options do the Braves have? Realistically, only one — they have to stick with what they’ve got.  Despite the barrage of bad news, this team is still in pretty good shape.  Their position players are healthy, the core of their team is young and talented, and their bullpen is among the best in the league.  If Medlen is indeed lost for the season, and Beachy’s injury is more serious than he let on (he doesn’t appear to be concerned), the best course of action would be to enter the start of the season utilizing the options they have.  Dave O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution details the Braves’ likely strategy:

What they wouldn’t do, I was and still am fairly confident of, is give up their top young prospects now in a panic move to replace Medlen, if Medlen must be replaced. The Braves have more major league starting-pitch depth than many teams, and a better bullpen than most. They are probably going to need to need both of those components to get through this in playoff contention, but that’s certainly doable.

And as O’Brien notes in the piece, if they find the pieces they have aren’t enough to contend, the Braves could always make a move at the trade deadline.  The timing of the injury and the Braves’ financial situation have forced the Braves into a corner.  But that corner is far from the worst place to be.

Nationals Sign Mike Gonzalez

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Earlier today, the Nationals announced that they had agreed to terms with left handed reliever Mike Gonzalez to a minor league contract. Gonzalez, who pitched with the Brewers last year, was a key part of the Nationals bullpen back in 2012. According to multiple sources, Gonzalez’s deal with the Nationals includes an invitation to big league camp, which means that he will be at Nationals camp fairly soon.

Gonzalez struggled last year with the Brewers, compiling a 4.68 ERA and an 85 ERA+. However, in 2012, Gonzalez was a critical part of the Nationals playoff run. After signing a minor league contract with the Nationals in May of 2012, Gonzalez became one of three lefties in the Nationals bullpen. Gonzalez’s 3.03 ERA in 47 appearances helped him get onto the postseason roster. He had one appearance the NLDS, giving up a solo home run to Carlos Beltran in Game 2.

Gonzalez joins Luis Ayala, Christian Garcia, Xavier Cedeño, Ryan Mattheus and a handful of other relievers for the last bullpen spot in the Nationals major league pen. Both Gonzalez and Cedeño profile as lefty specialists, but Gonzalez might have the upper hand in the bullpen competition because of his proven success in the major leagues. From 2004-2009, Gonzalez was in the top 25 for relief pitcher WAR, and in the top 10 for ERA. If the Nationals can get that pitcher, or even the pitcher from 2012, they will have made a great signing.

It is not clear at this time whether Gonzalez has a clause in his contract that allows him to opt out if he fails to make the big league roster.

Winners and Losers of the Nelson Cruz Signing

Earlier today, Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com reported that Nelson Cruz, who had previously turned down a 5 year, $75 million offer from the Mariners earlier this offseason, had agreed to a 1 year, $8 million contract with the Orioles, pending that all important physical. This is one of the most intriguing deals of this offseason, with far reaching implications that affect a number of players and teams throughout Major League Baseball. Unlike many major deals in baseball, the Nelson Cruz signing carries with it several clear-cut winners and losers.

WINNERS:

Baltimore Orioles: Before this week, the Orioles offseason looked like a huge disappointment, with their only major signing, Grant Balfour, failing his physical despite being apparently in good health and signing with a division rival. However, the Orioles managed to cram an entire offseason into a week and a half, signing Ubaldo Jimenez as well as 27-year old Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon. Now, they have added Cruz, a right-handed slugger who fits in nicely in left field and designated hitter, two holes for the Orioles. While Cruz has discouraging splits away from The Ballpark Formerly Known As Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (he has a .911 career OPS at RBIA, versus a .734 OPS on the road), Oriole Park is a hitters’ park as well —  in 21 career games at Camden, Cruz has hit .333/.368/.481 with 2 home runs.  And since the Orioles had already given up their first-round pick by signing Jimenez, they gave up only a second-rounder and the $8 million to add the 33-year old Cruz on a one year deal.

Seattle Mariners:  According to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, the Mariners offered Cruz a deal in December for 5 years and $75 million, which he proceeded to turn down.  As HardballTalk’s D.J. Short commented at the time, “If anything, Cruz might have saved the Mariners from themselves.”  The Mariners’ thinking is understandable; they want to build around the newly-minted face of the franchise Robinson Cano and contend for a World Series this year.  But adding Cruz would not bring them all that close to that goal.  Cruz is a complimentary piece, and nothing more — he has serious flaws in his game, with a low OBP and poor outfield defense, that severely limit his value, even with the home run power.  Adding Cruz for $15 million a year until he is 38 would not have been a prudent move for the Mariners, either for the present or the future.

Advanced Statistics: In the 1992 offseason, 33-year old Joe Carter hit the open market with a very similar skill set as Cruz.  Carter had a solid batting average, high home run and RBI totals, but played poor outfield defense and drew few walks, limiting his on-base percentage.  To that point in his career, Carter had a lifetime .263/.308/.467 triple slash and 110 OPS+, only four points off from Cruz’s 114 career OPS+.  Yet for nearly his whole career, Carter was treated like a star, and certainly paid like one — he received a 3 year, $19.5 million contract from the Blue Jays that made him the second-highest paid player in the game.  Fast forward twenty years and Cruz, despite having a similar skill set as Carter (same power, same suspect defense and low OBP), can’t even find a job.  Yes, there are extenuating circumstances — Cruz has a history of injury (as well as a PED suspension) and is attached to draft pick compensation.  But it shows how far we’ve come in the past twenty years that a player like Cruz is no longer treated by front offices as a star.

LOSERS:

Nelson Cruz: Obviously.  Cruz came into this offseason expecting the kind of contract that would give him financial stability for the rest of his career.  As we mentioned, he turned down that 5 year, $75 million offer, and though that might have been delusional of him, nobody expected his stock to fall this far:

Now, instead of coming off a huge payday at age 38, Cruz will have to re-enter the free agent market as a 34 year old, a year older and therefore even less likely to receive the huge payday he’s after.  Additionally, Cruz turned down the Rangers’ $14.1 million qualifying offer in order to take his shot at free agency, losing more than $6 million in the process.

All Other Qualifying Offer Recipients: The terms of this offer make it clearer than ever that assigning draft pick compensation to a free agent is akin to a kiss of death.  The system, which forces a team to hand over its’ first round draft pick to sign said player, is a non-issue for superstar free agents like Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury.  But for mid-level free agents like Cruz, Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Stephen Drew, and Kendrys Morales, losing a draft pick can be too steep a price to pay.  The system depresses the market for these players, leaving some (Drew, Morales and Santana) still unsigned deep into Spring Training.

Specifically, Kendrys Morales: As a defense-challenged power hitter tied to draft pick compensation, Morales’ fate was very much tied to Cruz’s.  By accepting the one year, $8 million deal, Cruz has set the market for Morales at a much lower cost than Morales expected to receive at the beginning of the offseason.  Additionally, Cruz signing with the Orioles takes them off the table as suitors for Morales, limiting the number of teams interested.  A few teams — specifically, the Pirates, Royals, and Mets — are rumored to have varying degrees of interest in Morales, but seem reticent to give up a draft pick to sign him.  More than likely, Morales will end up back in Seattle (as the Mariners do not have to give up a draft pick to sign him) at a rate lower than the $14.1 million deal he declined back in December.

Evaluating the Homer Bailey Deal

After an offseason of conflicting reports and protracted negotiations, Homer Bailey’s contract odyssey has finally reached its conclusion (I’m sure I’m not the first person to use some form of that joke). Today, Bailey and the Cincinnati Reds agreed to a 6 year, $105 million extension that will keep him in the Chili Capital of the World through at least the 2019 season.  After a disappointing start to his career, Bailey has emerged over the past two years, showing flashes of dominance amidst his vastly improved performance.  But is he worthy of the nine-figure contract bestowed upon him?

It has always been expected that Bailey would develop into an ace.  Drafted by the Reds with the seventh overall selection of the 2004 draft, Bailey was saddled with huge expectations by a franchise that had never developed a Cy Young Award winner.  After an incredible 2006 season, in which as a 20-year old, he put together a combined 2.47 ERA and 156 strikeouts between single-A and AA, Bailey was rated the 5th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America, six spots ahead of Tim Lincecum.  Bailey was called up to the big leagues in 2007 amidst much fanfare (the atmosphere surrounding his debut was described by one writer as “Homer-mania”), but struggled in his first stint in the big leagues, and was shuttled back to Triple-A Louisville.  Over the next three years, the trip to Triple-A would become a familiar one for Bailey; he started each season from 2007 to 2009 in Louisville, and posted poor numbers in his major league stints.  In 2010, he finally made the major league team out of Spring Training, but went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, and was uninspiring even when healthy.  Bailey failed to impress again in 2011, and started 2012 in similar fashion; after a poor start in Milwaukee on June 27th, his ERA stood at 4.42.  At 26 years of age, it seemed Homer Bailey would never achieve the mountainous heights predicted of him.

And then, seemingly out of the blue, Bailey’s luck began to change.  He won his next four starts, going the month of July without a loss.  He dominated in September, averaging close to seven innings a start, with a 1.85 ERA.  He threw a no-hitter.  He struck out ten in his lone postseason start.  Then, in 2013, his success carried over, and he had far and away the best year of his career.  His fastball, which had averaged 92 miles an hour over the past three years, jumped to 94.  His strikeout rate increased dramatically, and his hits to innings pitched rate was the lowest it had been since his standout minor league season in 2006.  For good measure, he even threw another no-hitter.  At the age of 27, he seemed to have finally realized his potential, becoming the starter so many envisioned he would be.  And the Reds gave him the contract to match.

But was the contract really a good idea?  I really don’t think so.  Even in Bailey’s last two years, inarguably the best of his career, he really hasn’t been THAT good.  Yes, he has the no-hitters and the above average strikeout rate.  But he hasn’t exactly been as dominant as those statistics would indicate.  Over the last two years, Bailey has compiled an ERA+ (which accounts for the cozy confines in which he plays) of 111, a shade better than Ross Detwiler and a shade worse than Wade Miley.  BaseballReference says Bailey has been worth 5.7 WAR over the past two years; FanGraphs is slightly more generous, putting the total at 6.2.  Considering Bailey’s annual salary in the new deal ($17.5 mil), and the marginal cost of a win (around $5 mil), Bailey must produce about 3.5 wins per season to be worth the price tag.  If he regresses from his 2013 production even slightly, the contract will look like an overpay.

And the Reds, a team in a smaller market who has already devoted a sizable amount of money towards making Joey Votto the best-paid first baseman east of the Mississippi, cannot afford to overpay another player.  Coming off their third playoff berth in four years, the Reds had several holes to fill this offseason; their center fielder/leadoff hitter became a free agent, and they had less-than-optimal choices at catcher, shortstop, and left field.  But given their budget constraints, the Reds could not afford to fill any of those holes — their center fielder went to the Rangers, and their biggest offseason acquisition was Skip Schumaker.  In addition, the Reds have two pitchers in Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto, who have not only proven more effective than Bailey, but are both up for free agency after 2015.  With the Bailey deal, it seems unlikely they will be able to re-sign both or even one of those two players.  If the Bailey deal goes sour, it will become near-impossible for the team to compete in the future.

With Votto in his prime and a strong nucleus of starting pitching, the time to compete for the Reds is now.  But the Reds had to choose the pitcher who would lead the in the future, and they chose Homer Bailey.  If Bailey doesn’t continue to develop — if the velocity spike is an aberration, if his strikeout rate drops to its previous levels — that future might not be too rosy.

 

Extensions: The Braves Take a Play from the Rays

Among the so-called Big Four sports in the United States — football, baseball, basketball, and hockey — the national pastime is unique in the wide payroll disparities between its franchises.  The NFL and NHL  have both a hard salary cap and a hard salary floor in place; there are fixed parameters in which each team’s payroll must fall.  The NBA lacks a hard cap, but it’s soft cap means that there are only a few exceptions that allow teams to exceed the cap, most of them designed to keep star players in their original cities.  By contrast, the MLB lacks any kind of salary cap, hard or soft.  While the MLB does have a luxury tax if a team exceeds a certain annual payroll (set at $189 million for the next three years), teams with excess resources (like the Yankees or the Dodgers) have no problem paying the tax and continuing to spend.  Thus in baseball, you can end up with two teams, one (the Yankees) with a payroll over $228 million, and another (the Astros) with a payroll that barely exceeds $22 million.  It would appear that baseball, with its wide payroll gaps, would stand no chance of achieving the on-field parity of a league like the NFL.

And yet, that really hasn’t proven to be the case.  As ESPN’s Jayson Stark argues every year, by almost every objective measure of parity — number of teams to make playoff appearances, number of World Series winners — baseball comes out on top.  How can teams like the Rays, with payrolls less than half the size of their division-rival Yankees and Red Sox, still manage to compete?  They have to be very smart.  If you are one of the teams with limited financial resources — limited by a small market or bad TV contract — it becomes a necessity to figure out which players can provide value while, due to their age or skill set, can be had cheaply.

The Atlanta Braves, thanks to one of the worst television deals in baseball, are one of those teams.  Their TV deal, a 20-year contract signed in 2007, pays them less than $20 million a season, and is said to be worth between $200 million and $400 million over the life of the deal.  By contrast, the Dodgers recently agreed to a 20-year TV contract with Time Warner Cable that will pay them $300 million dollars.  Not over the life of the contract.  Per year.  The Braves’ market, the 15th-largest in baseball, isn’t nearly big enough to overcome a TV deal that poor.  The Braves’ payroll has stagnated; it was roughly the same in 2013 ($90 million) as in 2000 ($86 million).  And with revenues elsewhere on the rise — the Braves’ payroll ranked 3rd in 2000, but slipped to 16th in 2013 — the Braves, who have enjoyed extraordinary success over the past two decades, will need to take cues from other successful small-market teams to continue competing.

So how have the Rays done it?  Of course, it has started with brilliant drafting, and a keen eye for talent.   The key pieces of the Rays’ 7 year run of success — Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, David Price, Matt Moore, James Shields, etc. — were either drafted by the Rays or acquired (in Zobrist’s case) before they had made an impact on the major league level.  But where the Rays’ real brilliance shows is in the way they make sure that their homegrown talent stays in Tampa at below-market rates.  With the exception of Price, all the players mentioned above signed extensions that have proven to be team-friendly (Longoria has done it twice, signing a 6 year, $17.5 million contract in 2008, then a 6 year, $100 million extension on top of that in 2012).  The players don’t sign these extensions out of the kindness of their heart; the Rays approach them early on in their careers, before the game has made them rich, and get them to trade the opportunity to break the bank later in their career for the certainty of financial security today.  Shields signed his deal (which gave the Rays three more years of team control) with less than two years of service time.  Moore’s deal, which gave the Rays two more years of team control, was signed after Moore had played less than a month in the MLB.  And Longoria signed his first extension with six days of major league experience under his belt.

This offseason, the Braves have gone on an extension binge, to some extent aping the strategy of the Rays.  Freddie Freeman, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, got an 8 year deal said to be worth $135 million.  Otherworldly closer Craig Kimbrel, also in his first year of arbitration, signed a 4-year deal, with a club option for a fifth year that could make the deal worth as much as $58.5 million.  And young starter Julio Teheran, with just one year of service time, signed a 6 year, $32.4 million deal with a $12 million option that could keep him in Atlanta through the 2020 season.

The Teheran extension is far and away the most team-friendly, with the Braves paying only $6 million a season until 2020 for someone who has the potential to be a top-flight major league starter.  But both the Kimbrel and Freeman deal have the potential to greatly benefit the team.  The Kimbrel deal is far and away the biggest given to a reliever who wasn’t a free agent.  But Kimbrel, with his incredible save and strikeout numbers, was due to make a killing in arbitration — his incredible statistics actually broke Matt Swartz’s arbitration model.  The deal gives the Braves’ cost certainty as well as two more years of team control at a rate that, if Kimbrel keeps producing the way he has been, will be far below market-value.

The Freeman deal has a far greater amount of guaranteed money, so it might be harder to see as a good deal for the team.  But Freeman broke out this year, posting a career-high 5.4 bWAR and finishing fifth in the MVP vote, and at the age of 23, seems to be a better candidate to improve than regress.  Assuming the cost of a marginal win is $5 million, Freeman needs only to average 3.4 bWAR over the life of the contract to be worthy of the money, and he has the potential to be worth far more than that.

By extending players who were multiple years away from free agency, the Braves have almost admitted their own constraints, recognizing they have to act more like a small-market team than one with unlimited resources.  But as the Rays have shown, those constraints do not have to adversely affect the product a team puts on the field.  As unlikely as it seems, in baseball, anything is possible.

Further Reading: The Raysification of the Atlanta Braves by Grant Brisbee

Nationals Acquire Jose Lobaton

As pitchers and catchers reported to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida today, the Washington Nationals made a move that left them with one more catcher, and one fewer pitcher.  The Nationals made a deal to acquire catcher Jose Lobaton, from the Tampa Bay Rays, in exchange for right-handed pitching prospect Nathan Karns.

One of the Nationals’ biggest needs at this point in the offseason was a backup catcher for Wilson Ramos, and Lobaton is well-suited to fill that position.  With Ramos’ injury history, the Nationals felt the need to acquire a backup catcher they could trust in the event of an injury, and Lobaton has far more of a track record of success than the Nationals’ internal options, Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon.  In 100 games last year that included 76 starts behind the plate, Lobaton hit .249/.320/.394, good for a .714 OPS and league-average 100 OPS+.  And while this was the 29-year old Lobaton’s first year of big league offensive success, he hit well in the minor leagues, compiling a .751 OPS in 10 minor league seasons.  Lobaton can step in for Ramos on occasion without a serious loss of offensive production (especially against righties, against whom Lobaton had a .744 OPS last year, comparable with Ramos’ career .760 mark), and could conceivably take over if Ramos went down.

While the Nationals get a valuable piece in Lobaton, they also lose one in Karns.  And the Rays, who had a logjam at catcher (with Lobaton, Jose Molina, and the newly acquired Ryan Hanigan all vying for playing time), must be thrilled with receiving a player of Karns’ caliber for what amounted for them to spare parts.  Karns, the ninth-best prospect in the Nationals’ system according to Baseball America, has impressive stuff and the stats to match it, with a minor league strikeout rate of 10.7 batters pr nine innings.  He struggled in a 12-inning stint for the big club last season, but there were numerous positive signs from his three appearances, including 11 strikeouts in those 12 innings.

But Karns is far from the perfect prospect.  He has a long history of injuries, including major shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2010 season.  Because of the surgery, Karns got a very late start on his professional career, and is already 26 years old, with only 316 professional innings under his belt.

Perhaps most importantly, the Nationals don’t seem to have room for Karns in their starting rotation, in either the present or the future.  The Nationals have at least seven starters — Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, and Taylor Jordan — who both sit above Karns on the depth chart, and are under contract for at least the next two seasons.  While added pitching depth is never a bad thing, odds are that Karns will not see big league action as a starter any time soon.  And by the time there is an open spot in the Nationals’ rotation, Karns will be 28 years old, and the next wave of prospects (Lucas Giolito, AJ Cole and the like), will be ready for the big leagues.

Karns is a talented arm, and for the Rays, turning a backup catcher into a talented young arm is the type of deal that has made them so successful in their small market (additionally, the Nationals might or might not be getting two other players in the deal).  But a Nationals team in position to win now has to be willing to pay a big price to fill the small holes that could be the difference between championship and disappointment.

UPDATE: According to Adam Kilgore, the Nationals are receiving two prospects from the Rays in the deal, both of whom are in the top 30 in the Rays’ system.  And according to SBNation’s Chris Cotillo, one of them is left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero.  Rivero, the 20th-best prospect in the Rays’ system after the 2012 season, put together a strong season at high-A Charlotte, posting a 3.40 ERA in 127 innings, though with less-than-impressive strikeout totals (only 6.4 per nine innings).  The 22-year old Venezuelan has a fastball that tops out at 94 MPH, with a a strong curveball and an improving changeup (scouting report via this website).

UPDATE II: The deal is now official:

In addition to Lobaton and Rivero, the Nationals receive 22-year old minor league outfielder Drew Vettleson.  Vettleson, drafted 42nd overall in the 2010 draft (as compensation for the loss of catcher Gregg Zaun), was rated by Baseball America as the 9th best prospect in the Rays system in 2010 and 2011, and as the 11th best after the 2012 season.  He hits from the left side and throws from the right, although in high school, he showed the ability to pitch with both arms.  Vettleson had something of a down year in 2013; his power dropped off from the previous two years, leaving him with a respectable but unspectacular .274/.331/.388 triple-slash at High-A Charlotte.