Archive for January, 2014

Baltimore Has To Get A.J. Burnett

There might not be a fan base that has suffered through a drearier offseason to date than that of the Baltimore Orioles, which has watched the New York Yankees import Masahiro TanakaBrian McCann and Carlos Beltran while the Boston Red Sox re-signed Mike Napoli and the Tampa Bay Rays added Grant Balfour.

Baltimore, meanwhile, has made more news for the deals it hasn’t been able to close — voided signings for Balfour and Tyler Colvin after physical concerns — than the ones it has actually made. So far, all the Orioles have done is complete minor trades for infielder Jemile Weeks (more of a salary dump of useful reliever Jim Johnson than anything else) and outfielder David Lough along with signing middle reliever Ryan Webb to a two-year deal.

A quiet winter is fine when a team is in the midst of a rebuild, but the Orioles have raised expectations by winning 178 games over the past two seasons, including making it to the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 1997. Despite that, they have rarely even been mentioned in rumors this winter and by most indications haven’t made a serious push for any of the big-name free agents. Will Webb or a potential Chris Capuano or Bronson Arroyo satisfy the Baltimore faithful? Not likely.

Fortunately for the Orioles, luck just might be on their side. Somewhat unexpectedly, the market has a new “best pitcher available,” one who won’t demand a long-term contract or cost a draft pick and who might limit himself to a geographic area, which means the Orioles need to battle only four or five teams for his services.

He’s A.J. Burnett, and Baltimore absolutely has to sign him if it’s going to make something out of this winter as the 2014 season looms.

A rotation that needs help

Chris Tillman is a fine young pitcher, one who would be worthy of a home in the middle of most big league rotations, so this really isn’t meant to put him down. But he is exactly why the Orioles need another good arm because he’s not in the middle of Baltimore’s rotation; he’s at the top.

Even with an All-Star Game appearance last season — one American League manager Jim Leyland freely admitted was given to Tillman over the superior Hiroki Kuroda simply because Tillman had a better win-loss record — Tillman is misplaced as the ace of a team hoping to contend. Among qualifying starters, his 3.71 ERA was 50th, behind Dillon Gee and Ricky Nolasco; his 4.42 FIP was 72nd, behind Edinson Volquez and Wily Peralta. Only A.J. Griffin and Dan Harenhad higher home run rates, and that’s a problem that keeps Tillman from being considered an elite pitcher.

Despite pitching at 37 years old in 2013, Burnett was superior in nearly every way:

 

Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA FIP WAR
Burnett 9.85 3.16 0.52 56.5 3.30 2.80 4.0
Tillman 7.81 2.97 1.44 38.6 3.71 4.42 2.0

 

This illustrates Baltimore’s need for an upper-level starter, and while we’ve compared Burnett and Tillman atop the rotation, the true impact wouldn’t be to displace Tillman. The effect would be that Burnett would take innings that would otherwise go to the overrated Bud Norris, the inexperienced (though talented) Kevin Gausman or the merely decent Miguel Gonzalez. Ideally, those are the kind of pitchers you have ready to step in to fill a gap, not the ones you’re counting on from the start of the season.

Best of the bunch

If we repeat the comparison with this winter’s trio of non-Tanaka free-agent starters, we can see that Burnett had a better season than Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, as well as Matt Garza, who just collected a guaranteed $50 million from Milwaukee.

 

Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA FIP WAR
Burnett 9.85 3.16 0.52 56.5 3.30 2.80 4.0
Garza 7.88 2.43 1.16 38.6 3.82 3.88 2.2
Jimenez 9.56 3.94 0.79 43.9 3.30 3.43 3.2
Santana 6.87 2.18 1.11 46.2 3.24 3.93 3.0

 

Yet while Garza just hit it big and Santana and Jimenez are likely to do the same, Burnett’s age and apparent preference to go year-to-year at this point — as well as the fact that he’s likely to limit the teams he’ll even talk to — should keep his cost at a fraction of their price. Considering that Burnett had a solid 2012 while Jimenez and Santana were replacement-level or below, investing in him is something of a no-brainer.

While moving from the National League Central to the AL East is a concern for any pitcher, Baltimore represents a perfect fit for Burnett for another important reason.

Among all qualified big league starters, only Cleveland’s Justin Masterson induced a higher ground ball rate than Burnett did, thanks to a sinker that Burnett started using as his primary pitch upon his arrival in Pittsburgh. That works with the Orioles stellar left-side defense, since third basemanManny Machado not only led all big league third basemen in defensive runs saved but also put up the highest number at the position since the stat was first recorded in 2003. Next to him is J.J. Hardy, a good enough defender to keep Machado off his natural shortstop position and one who finished fourth in DRS at his position in 2013. (Second base is unsettled, though Ryan Flahertywould be a solid defender if he can hit enough to earn time.)

As a team, Baltimore finished fourth in DRS, and it’s vital for a ground baller to pitch in front of plus gloves.

No place like home

For months, the expectation was that Burnett would either retire or return to Pittsburgh, but it now appears he’s willing to pitch elsewhere. That doesn’t really open up the bidding to any team because he has been consistent about not wanting to leave the area around his Monkton, Md., home, approximately 30 miles north of Baltimore. (Prior to 2012, Burnett reportedly refused to waive his no-trade clause when the Yankees attempted to move him to the Angels.)

The Phillies and Nationals could each use an additional starter, the Pirates will certainly attempt to bring him back, and both New York clubs would have interest in improving their rotations, so bringing Burnett to Baltimore won’t come without a bit of a fight. But Baltimore could argue that it is closer to his home than anyone, that the Mets and Phillies are unlikely to contend and that his initial tour of the Bronx didn’t go smoothly. Burnett could still decide he prefers the National League, in which case the Orioles would be out of luck. If not, they need to make sure he’s wearing orange in 2014. He’s a perfect fit, and he’s the only impact option they have that won’t cost a draft pick.


Five Strangest Moves of Winter

Every offseason, there are some deals that make you scratch your head. Not necessarily for the money paid to the player, but for the return received in trade or how that player actually fits on the roster. The 2013-2014 MLB offseason has been no exception.

Let’s take a look at five transactions where we’re not sure what one team was thinking.

Colorado Rockies trade Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes

Fowler isn’t perfect, but he was the best center fielder the Rockies had. They preferred the upside of Lyles, hoping that they could find another Tyler Chatwood. And perhaps there is logic in that, because they’re both young pitchers who might have been rushed to the majors.

But where Chatwood has a good fastball and gets tons of ground balls, Lyles has neither a good fastball nor generates enough grounders to succeed at high altitude. Last season, among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, just two — Charlie Morton and Samuel Deduno — generated a higher percentage of ground balls than did Chatwood. Lyles, meanwhile, ranked 41st on that list. Perhaps the Rockies can change Lyles’ game, but that’s a big bet when the player you’re giving up is a known and precious commodity — a league-average center fielder.

The issue is that Fowler may be even be more than that. Over the past two seasons, he ranks 10th among qualified center fielders in wRC+, on par with Carlos Gomez. And now that he has left Coors Field, his defensive statistics — advanced and otherwise — will only look better, as the cavernous Colorado ballpark throws off all defensive outfield evaluations. To compound the problem, the Rockies are now hoping to play star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez in center field more frequently, but given the giant pasture there and CarGo’s past knee troubles, that plan looks like a recipe for disaster.

The Astros also gave up Barnes in the deal, but he is likely no better than replacement level, and the Rockies already had two such players in their outfield in Charlie Blackmon and Charlie Culberson. Barnes then became even more irrelevant when the the Rockies traded for Drew Stubbs less than two weeks later. He’ll be lucky to be the team’s fifth outfielder.

Los Angeles Dodgers sign Chris Perez

There’s no way to sucarcoat it: Last year, Perez was terrible. The Dodgers had a full bullpen of better pitchers — particularly Kenley Jansen, Paco Rodriguez, J.P. Howell, Brian Wilson and Ronald Belisario. In addition, rookies Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez were better. Heck, even Carlos Marmol, in his time with the Dodgers, performed better than did Perez in Cleveland. The Dodgers then added to their stable of competent-to-good relievers when they signed Jamey Wright.

With as many as eight competent relievers under contract, surely the Dodgers didn’t need a ninth? And yet, they decided to lock in Perez. This makes little sense, and will probably cost a kid like Withrow or Dominguez a shot at a big league job.

The deal also didn’t really make much sense from Perez’s standpoint, if his end goal is to try to retain a closer’s job. At best, he’ll be No. 3 on the depth chart for saves behind Jansen and Wilson, and the Dodgers will have no reason to trade him to a contender at midseason, since they will already be contenders. If he doesn’t work out in a middle-leverage role, he’ll be cut. And if he does work out, he may have pigeonholed himself back into the far-less-lucrative setup man territory.

The Dodgers are probably hoping for a rebound from Perez, but given that they already had a whole bullpen full of better choices, and the fact that Perez’s average fastball velocity was the lowest of his career last year, there is little reason to expect such a rebound. On top of all that, there was no reason to lock him up for a major league job in early December when they could have waited for cheaper options to emerge. All things considered, this move just didn’t make any sense.

San Francisco Giants sign Joaquin Arias to two-year extension

Like Perez, Arias is a replacement-level player. He has one skill — he is above-average at third base defensively. The Giants have sometimes made use of this skill — Arias started at third base 18 times last season, but the bulk of his work there has come as a defensive replacement.

In his two seasons with the Giants, he has played 129 games at third base, but he has started just 57 of them, and has played a complete game at the hot corner just 51 times. He’s a defensive sub — around when the team wants to give Pablo Sandoval a breather, and on the bench when they don’t. Nevertheless, the team locked him into a two-year deal this week, to cover his last two arbitration years. The cost will be modest, so it’s an easily corrected mistake, but one that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

For one thing, Sandoval is a free agent after the 2014 season, and the Giants’ next starting third baseman might not need to be replaced defensively. Furthermore, Sandoval is once again in shape this year, and dare we say, the best shape of his life. With such improved conditioning, he might not need to be replaced as frequently himself this season. After all, it’s not like he’s a defensive disaster — for his career, he has a positive UZR at the hot corner.

Finally, the team has Nick Noonan available at the league minimum salary. Like Arias, Noonan is a banjo-hitting utility infielder with a good glove. The difference is that Noonan is a lot further from arbitration, and will make less for the foreseeable future.

Having Arias around this year isn’t the worst thing in the world, but given that the Giants don’t know what third base will look like next year and have a league-minimum earner around in Noonan, it wasn’t necessary to lock in Arias for a second year.

Detroit Tigers trade Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for Robbie Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi

The Nationals may have got the steal of the offseason with this deal. Last year, Fister’s 4.6 WAR (per FanGraphs) made him the 12th-most valuable pitcher in the majors, and over the past three years, only eight pitchers have had a higher WAR.

For their trouble, the Tigers got a utility infielder that they didn’t really need and two pitchers who don’t figure to crack their starting rotation and have just a grand total of 31 innings pitched above Double-A. Ray is a decent prospect, but for a team that is trying to win the World Series right now, this was a perplexing move. The Mariners were the first team to be burned when they got too little in return for Fister, and the Tigers will almost assuredly be the second.

Nationals sign Nate McLouth to two-year deal

McLouth is a good player and the Nationals had some depth issues with their outfield last year. So on the surface, this signing makes perfect sense. But then you read things like the team expects to give him “significant at-bats,” and you see that he will be paid more than $5 million a season, which is more than what most fourth outfielders make. And you start to wonder, exactly how is this arrangement going to work?

By signing this contract, the Nationals are essentially saying that they are confident that one of their corner outfielders — Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth — will get hurt at some point. And maybe that will happen. But what if it doesn’t? What if they’re healthy all season? McLouth is a nice player, but any day he spends in the lineup in front of a healthy Harper or Werth is a day where the Nationals don’t have their best team on the field. McLouth on his best day might be as good as Harper or Werth on their worst, but you’d have to squint to see it. In the past three seasons, McLouth’s best wRC+ is an even 100; that is also Werth’s worst. Harper’s wRC+ hasn’t yet dipped beneath 121, and probably won’t any time soon.

Perhaps the Nationals want to play McLouth in center, but that wouldn’t be a great idea. McLouth hasn’t played significant innings in center since 2011, and he hasn’t played well in center since 2009, and that was really the only season out of his five with significant time in center field in which he was actually valuable.

Scott Hairston would be a better bet to play over Denard Span if he needs a breather. For one, Hairston hits right-handed, which better complements Span. For another, he has played a better defensive center field in his career than McLouth. For their careers, Hairston has been worth 3.4 UZR per 150 games in center, while McLouth’s UZR/150 is minus-12.3. And when you throw in the fact that both McLouth and Span hit left-handed and that Span is McLouth’s equal at the plate and clear superior with the glove (Span’s UZR/150 in center is 6.1), it’s hard to see how you would justify playing McLouth over Span at all, never mind in center field.

McLouth is a nice player, but he is inferior to all three of Washington’s starting outfielders, and in certain situations — specifically against left-handed pitchers — he is inferior to Hairston as well. So unless one of the other four outfielders lands on the disabled list, giving McLouth that aforementioned significant playing time will be a mistake.


Blue Jays need Santana or Jimenez

The Toronto Blue Jays have to sign a pitcher. It’s not a question of desire. They’re short a starting pitcher, maybe two.

Roughly 40 percent of all pitchers who pitched last year will hit the DL at some point in 2014. That means every rotation in baseball — in your average year — needs at least six pitchers. Seven pitchers is a better plan, in case one of those DL stints is longer than most. If you’re the Blue Jays and coming off two straight years of losing more time to pitcher injuries than most of baseball — and still hope to contend — you might want to go eight deep.

Currently, the spots for Nos. 3-8 in the Blue Jays’ rotation are manned by Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, in some order. That group averaged just over 60 innings in the big leagues last season. For a roster that looks to be built for the now, it’s a grim group of pitchers. Even if you add the exciting big-league ready prospect Marcus Stroman, the Jays need another pitcher.

Of course, two potentially elite starting pitchers are available on the free-agent market: Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Blue Jays must make sure at least one of them is toeing the rubber in the Rogers Centre by summer.

Relatively low cost

The biggest reason Santana and Jimenez are still available is that both will cost the team that signs them a draft pick. This is less of a problem for the Blue Jays because they have two of the top 11 picks in the 2014 draft, and the 11th is actually protected because it comes as compensation for failing to sign Phil Bickford, their 2013 first-rounder. In other words, they would only have to sacrifice a second-round pick to sign either pitcher.

A win-now team can afford to lose a second-rounder, especially since by that time, the chance of finding a successful player in the draft has already dropped below 10 percent.

If the rumors are to be believed, the asking price for Santana has fallen below four years, $60 million, and Jimenez is seeking similar terms. That might seem steep for a club whose payroll jumped to $120 million last season after never previously topping $100 million, but it’s a relative bargain when compared to the contract given to Masahiro Tanaka.

So if we assume the Jays need to sign one of these guys, the question becomes: Which one?

Santana vs. Jimenez

If health is your primary concern, then Santana is the choice; he has averaged 206 innings over the last three years to Jimenez’s 183. But age is a component to any discussion about health, and at 30, Jimenez is a year younger, which is worth about an extra percentage point in terms of injury projection.

The research on using pitcher types to predict injury is split a bit in the case of these two pitchers. Santana throws more sliders than anyone in the game, and sliders have been shown to stress the elbow. But Jimenez doesn’t have good control and his mechanics get out of whack sometimes — good control has been shown to lead to good health outcomes.

If health is maybe a wash in this situation, then how about performance? Though the shape of their work over the last three years has been different, and they have different strengths and weaknesses, projection systems see them both as pitchers whose ERA will land in the 4.00 range. They’ve each had issues with home runs in the past, and they’d be leaving home parks that suppress home runs to go to Toronto, the eighth-friendliest park for home runs last season.

A look at their arsenals could split the difference. Santana throws a fastball or a slider 93 percent of the time. Against lefties, he throws the change a little more (11 percent the last two years), but he’s really hoping to get a grounder with the pitch, not whiffs. The slider and the sinker have the worst platoon splits in baseball — lefties love them from a righty. And that’s why Santana’s strikeout, walk and home run rates all get worse when he faces a lefty.

Jimenez has a completely different arsenal. By BrooksBaseball’s algorithm, he threw seven different kinds of pitches last year. The sinker and the slider are still his bread and butter, and they too have platoon splits, but he’s added a new pitch that is fairly exciting. His split-finger, which he used almost one-fifth of the time last year against lefties, gets both whiffs and grounders at an above-average rate, and virtually assures that he’ll continue to show even numbers against batters of both hands.

That might be important to the Blue Jays, who had the third-worst numbers against left-handed batters in the American League last year. As a team, they had a 4.56 FIP against lefties and a 4.08 against righties.

Can the Blue Jays add another $15 million to their budget? Right now, they’re projected to have a $133 million payroll, quite a jump from the $84 million they spent in 2012. But with Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista (and R.A. Dickey) locked up below market value through 2015 (with some club options for 2016), this might be their current window of contention.

So who should the Blue Jays sign? A starter. Maybe one whose arsenal fits their team needs best. Maybe the one who comes with the fewest years attached, or the smallest cost. Maybe the team was waiting for Tanaka to set the wheels in motion so it could catch the falling free agent. It all makes sense.

At least if the Blue Jays sign one of these guys in the end.


Make Or Break Contract Years

What’s the most fun part of any baseball offseason? Free-agent signings, of course. How much longer and colder would this winter have felt if we couldn’t have bandied around theories and predictions for where Robinson CanoShin-Soo Choo, and Jacoby Ellsbury would end up, then judge the impact they’ll have after they signed?

Of course, those players are only interesting now because they’re coming off big seasons, since a poorly timed down season can kill a free agent’s value. For example, a season ago, Chris Perezwas coming off his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance and a career-high 39 saves. Yet after a 2013 that saw him post career worsts in ERA, FIP, and WAR –while losing his closer’s job in September — he was forced to settle for a mere $2.3 million guaranteed to work in middle relief for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With no-doubter stars like Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez no longer a part of next winter’s market due to contract extensions, we’re going to be seeing a lot of second-level guys who need to make a huge splash in 2014 if they hope to land huge contracts. Here’s a look at four players who need to excel to avoid being the next Perez.

Chase Headley, 3B | San Diego Padres

In 2011, Headley had a perfectly fine season, contributing 2.3 WAR to the Padres but doing so with only four homers. In 2012, he exploded, crushing 31 homers while playing good defense and ranking behind only David Wright among all third basemen with 7.2 WAR. Then, in 2013, slowed by a broken thumb and a sore knee that eventually required surgery, he put up a .250/.347/.400 line that was his worst of the previous three seasons.

As Headley enters his age-30 season, he’s going to have to do more than ignore the never-ending trade scenarios that swirl around him. He’s going to have to prove he can stay healthy and be consistent, because, at the moment, anyone interested in him can’t be sure which Headley they’re going to get.

Fortunately for Headley, the market should work in his favor. At the moment, the only third baseman under the age of 35 who is even remotely as talented as Headley and headed for free agency next winter is Pablo Sandoval, and there’s more than a few contenders with needs at the position. The Angels and Yankees might be looking for upgrades during or following the season, and the Dodgers, Pirates, and Nationals could all come calling if their current options fail or are moved across the diamond to first base. Now it’s up to Headley to build the demand.

Colby Rasmus, CF | Toronto Blue Jays

Rasmus has had a distinct career to this point, because, after a breakout 2010 season — .276/.361/.498, 4.0 WAR — he was brutal in 2011-12, combining for just 1.6 WAR and a poor .224/.293/.396 line amid conflicts with St. Louis management and a trade to Toronto. He then bounced back to have one of the quietest great years in the big leagues last season, hitting .276/.338/.501 with 23 homers and 4.8 WAR despite playing in just 118 games thanks to an oblique strain and a freak throw to the face.

Rasmus doesn’t turn 28 until August, meaning that he’ll reach free agency in his prime, and a center fielder who can field the position and add offense is a very valuable asset, as Jacoby Ellsbury just showed. But in addition to his up-and-down past, Rasmus is going to have to prove that 2013 wasn’t just a well-timed fluke: His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a high .356, or about what it was in his only other good season of 2010. That’s about 100 points higher than in his down seasons, although BABIP isn’t solely a function of good luck — a career-high 22 percent line drive rate lends some credence to the idea that he was making better contact, thus leading to more hits.

Either way, his 2014 performance could easily make a difference on the scale of tens of millions of dollars on the market.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS | Cleveland Indians

A case of peaking too early? In 2011, a 25-year-old Cabrera made himself into a star by hitting 25 homers while stealing 17 bags and scoring 87 times, to go with a .273/.332/.460 line. In two seasons since, he’s had 30 homers total, and he managed just a .299 OBP last season along with less-than-impressive defense, making him barely better than a replacement-level player.

Due to the name value he built up in 2011, he’ll drive interest on the market, but there are a wide range of possible outcomes, particularly if a team decides he no longer has the range for shortstop.

Step one for Cabrera is merely getting the bat on the ball, since his contact rate fell below 80 percent last season and his strikeout rate increased in kind. That will happen when you offer at five percent more pitches outside of the strike zone than the season before, and a return to simple plate discipline could do wonders, though it’s difficult to see 2011 happening again.

As with Headley, Cabrera’s stock will be improved by his ability to play a position that’s hard to fill. But in a career dating back to 2007, Cabrera has had two very good seasons (2009, 2011), one solid one (2012) and several uninspiring ones. It’s up to him to prove in 2014 that he’s worth paying for the future.

Josh Johnson, RHP | San Diego Padres

A year ago, Johnson was one of the centerpieces of the massive deal between theMiami Marlins and Toronto, expected to help the win-now Blue Jays beat out the beasts of the AL East. It didn’t work out for either side; Johnson made only 16 starts (with a 6.20 ERA) and didn’t pitch after Aug. 6 thanks to a strained right forearm. When he did pitch, he did so with limited velocity, a huge red flag for a pitcher who has now missed big chunks of both 2011 and 2013 with arm injuries, as well as most of 2007 and 2008 due to Tommy John surgery.

Johnson keeps getting a chance because of how good he can be when he’s on; over 2009-10, he was one of the 10 best pitchers in the game, and he was still solidly above average during a mostly healthy 2012. So off he goes on a one-year deal to San Diego, the traditional home for broken pitchers looking to get well again.

If Johnson can show he’s healthy and effective as a Padre in his age-30 season, then some team desperate for pitching will take an expensive chance on him after the season. If not, he might be looking at one-year deals for the rest of whatever career he has remaining.


Why Pirates Should Sign Morales

Even with the extra wild-card team additions a couple of years ago, making a return trip to the postseason isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world to do. Half the teams that made the playoffs in 2012 didn’t get there in 2013, and a similar scenario is likely to occur this season. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a strong team with a bright future, but if they want to avoid being one of the teams on the outside looking in, they need to upgrade at two spots — first base and starting pitcher. There are myriad options for the latter, particularly A.J. Burnett, whom the team is still waiting on to decide whether he will come back to the Steel City or retire. But for the former, there is really one desirable option: Kendrys Morales.

Last season, the Pirates ranked just 19th in wRC+ as a team at first base. Gaby Sanchez is capable of crushing left-handed pitchers, but he is basically Rey Ordonez against right-handed pitching. The Pirates acquired Chris McGuiness earlier in the offseason ostensibly to help fill that void, but McGuiness will be entering his age-26 season in 2014, and he has just 34 major league plate appearances on his résumé. (The Pirates will be his third organization.) He didn’t reach Triple-A until age 25, and when he did, he didn’t exactly set it on fire — he hit just .246/.369/.423 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Banking on him should definitely not be Plan A. Although Sanchez hits lefties extraordinarily well and plays decent defense, he can’t be trusted to play every day. The Pirates need more.

They can get more in Morales.

Morales has his flaws, to be sure, particularly on defense. But hitting right-handed pitching is not one of them. Over the past two seasons, he has posted a 117 wRC+ against righties. That’s not star-level, but it is a lot better than the Pirates hit against them in 2013, when they posted just a 97 wRC+. And even that is misleading, as the two Pirates hitters who fared best against them were Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones, and both were jettisoned in the offseason. Sanchez, the one remaining first baseman, posted just a 73 wRC+ against righties and has posted just an 80 wRC+ against them in his time in Pittsburgh.

It is especially important to have a first baseman who can hit righties when you look at the starting pitcher composition of the Pirates’ foes in the National League Central. There are a bevy of great left-handed starters in the game today, but none of them resides in the NL Central. As it stands now, here is how they will break down:

Projected starting rotations for NL Central teams
CHC — Samardzija, Jackson, Wood, Rusin, Arrieta, Villanueva/Coleman
MIL — Lohse, Gallardo, Peralta, Estrada, Thornburg, Hellweg/Fiers
STL — Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn, Garcia, Miller, Martinez/Kelly
CIN — Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Leake, Cingrani, Reynolds/Corcino

Just four of the 20 starting pitcher slots are projected to go to southpaws, and no teams are slated to have a lefty at the top of their rotation. Furthermore, much of the depth behind them will be right-handers as well. This makes having a first baseman who is competent against righties that much more important.

Defense may be an issue, of course. It has been four seasons since Morales logged 1,000 innings in the field. (He has started 28 and 31 games defensively the past two seasons.) He might have played more frequently, but the presence of Albert Pujols in 2012 when Morales was with the Angels, and the Mariners’ strong desire to see whether Justin Smoak could be productive in 2013, made it unnecessary for Morales to log more time in the field. With Sanchez available for late-game duty, it should be less of a concern than it would be if the Pirates didn’t have him there for depth.

Morales does come with draft-pick compensation attached, but not all first-round picks are created equal. Back in 2005, Rany Jazayerli found that while a top-five pick — which the Pirates had for a number of years — would reach the majors more than 85 percent of the time, a pick in the 20s reached the majors around 70 percent of the time. The calculus has likely changed a little bit over the past decade, but probably not by much. This year, the Pirates’ first-round pick would be 25th overall. And while they would also lose some of their draft budget as well, it’s still far from the end of the world. Seven of the 10 players ranked as the top Pirates prospects by Baseball America were either signed as international free agents or were drafted outside of the first round. That is a credit to the Pirates’ scouting and player-development team and shows that they are capable of finding the gems that it takes to build a robust farm system.

Forfeiting a draft pick and having to dole out a large contract would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a non-star-level player, but Morales’ market is likely much more modest at this point. At the offseason’s outset, it was assumed that players like Morales and Nelson Cruz would find paydays in excess of $50 million, but that no longer appears likely. Morales’ price is probably more like two years, $20 million, and that makes him a much more attractive option.

This isn’t to say that Morales is the only option for Pittsburgh. Trading for players like Ike Davis of the Mets or Mike Carp of the Red Sox would be potentially great moves as well. But the Mets have demanded a high price for Davis, and the Red Sox aren’t exactly shopping Carp. In other words, it takes two to tango, and any player or players the Pirates relinquish in a deal with either club may be just as valuable as the player they would draft this spring, especially when you consider where the Pirates are right now on the win curve.

A first-round draft pick will no doubt help keep the farm system stocked, but the Pirates’ window for contention is likely the next four years, maybe five. The Pirates have to balance how much value that potential pick will provide in that time frame versus how much Morales could provide in the next two to three seasons. Perhaps Morales would bring in less value, but if it is even close, signing him should be a no-brainer. Sanchez can hit lefties just fine, but they are in short supply in the NL Central, and the only other option the team has is an untested, 26-year-old non-prospect. The Pirates need to do better if they want to experience another Buctober.


Yanks Infield Could Be Worst Ever

In 2013, for the first time in 11 seasons, the wins above replacement (WAR) posted by the New York Yankees’ infield starters was less than 10.0. In fact, it fell well short of that mark, as Lyle Overbay, Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez combined for a more modest 5.3 WAR. This week, two pieces of news came out that might make 2014 even more bleak, at least on the field.

Read the rest of this entry »


Choosing a Path: A Young Ace’s Problem

After signing his new seven year, $215 million extension, Clayton Kershaw is officially the highest paid player in baseball, becoming the first player in the sport’s history to crack an average annual salary over $30 million. And, because he also got the right to opt-out of the contract after the fifth year, there is a pretty good chance that this won’t even be the largest contract of Kershaw’s career. With a few more dominant seasons and relatively few health problems, Kershaw could hit free agency again at age 30 and command another monster contract. By the time he retires, Kershaw could very well have earned more than $400 million in salary.

For contrast, let’s take a look at Chris Sale. While Sale doesn’t have Kershaw’s reputation, he’s actually #2 in baseball (behind only Kershaw) in ERA- since he debuted in 2010, and it’s not like he’s outperformed his peripherals in a significant way; he’s #6 in FIP- and #3 in xFIP- over the same time period, so no matter you prefer to analyze a pitcher’s performance, Sale rates as one of the game’s best starting pitchers.

However, Sale chose to cash in early in his career, and signed a long term extension with the White Sox last spring. The deal guaranteed him $32.5 million over five seasons, and then gave the White Sox a pair of team options, so if both are exercised, the total deal will pay Sale approximately $58 million over seven years, with the potential for a little more than $60 million if he finishes highly in the Cy Young voting during any season during the contract. Like Kershaw, Sale is in line to hit free agency after his age 30 season, and like Kershaw, he simply needs to stay healthy and keep pitching well for the next few years in order to set himself up for a monstrous paycheck that will carry him through his 30s.

However, through their age 30 season, Kershaw is in line to have career earnings of approximately $175 million, while Sale is going to be in the $60-$65 million range. Kershaw is a better pitcher than Sale, but the dramatic difference in price dwarfs the difference in their abilities, and reflects the fact that Kershaw was able to negotiate his deal with the leverage of impending free agency, while Sale traded in some future earnings for the right to get guaranteed money earlier in his career.

Given the difference in total salaries earned, it is easy to say that Kershaw made the right decision in betting on himself, while Sale probably left a lot of money on the table. However, we’re making those comments with the benefit of hindsight, and if both pitchers had blown out their arms in 2013, Sale would have been the one with a guaranteed paycheck coming. Given the rate at which pitchers have to visit the surgeon’s office, it can be a logical decision to choose to become very rich now instead of hoping to become absurdly rich in a few years.

If you were to list the three young pitchers in baseball who might have a chance to follow in Kershaw’s footsteps, you’d probably start with Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, and Matt Harvey. Each have been dominant hurlers at the big league level at a young age, and to date, all three have avoided signing multi-year contracts with their current club. Strasburg is the closest to free agency, as his current track would put him on the market after the 2016 season, while Harvey and Fernandez are on pace to reach free agency after the 2018 season.

Besides talent and some early Major League success, these three also have something else in common, or more accurately, someone else. They are all represented by Scott Boras, whose clients have rarely signed long term contracts before they hit free agency, as Boras believes these contracts are often too heavily slanted in favor of the organization. Boras has done some long term deals before a player reaches free agency — Elvis Andrus with the Rangers last year, Jered Weaver with the Angels and Carlos Gonzalez with the Rockies in 2011 — but his stated preference is to follow the Kershaw model and bet on the player staying healthy and performing well in order to negotiate from a place with more leverage.

However, both Strasburg and Harvey have already required Tommy John Surgery, and it is certainly possible that the experience could convince either or both to pursue a little more long term security at the expense of maximizing overall dollars earned. Fernandez, perhaps, could look at the fate that befell both pitchers and decide that getting a nice paycheck now isn’t such a terrible idea. After all, the lost season for Strasburg is a great example of how an early injury can have a snowball effect on a pitcher’s arbitration earnings.

Because of the lost 2011 season, Strasburg reached arbitration having only made 75 career starts, so he simply didn’t have the gaudy career numbers needed to argue for a big first time arbitration salary; he settled with the Nationals for just a $3.9 million salary in 2014, nearly half of what Kershaw got in his first round of arbitration. The arbitration system is based on raises, so a lower first year total will also hold down Strasburg’s future arbitration earnings as well. Even if he stays healthy and pitches well over the next two seasons, he can probably expect to make about $30 million over the course of his three arbitration eligible season. Including the $22 million he’ll make in the first year of his deal with LA, Kershaw will have taken home $41 million for his three arbitration years. As good as Strasburg and Harvey look like they could be, that lost year of performance is going to keep them out of Kershaw’s range in arbitration payouts, and thus, give Boras less leverage to keep his clients away from free agency.

After all, it’s easy to play the wait-and-see game when you can sign a two year, $19 million guaranteed deal like Kershaw did after his third season. Strasburg doesn’t have that guarantee, and with his health history, a five year contract that still allowed him to reach free agency before he turned 30 might be an appealing option, even if it did delay the chance at a massive contract for an additional two years.

There is no obvious best path for every pitcher. No one knows enough about predicting future pitcher health to advise every pitcher to either sign early or let it play out, and for each of these young aces, they should weigh the pros and cons of security now versus striking it rich in free agency, or at least getting close enough to it to use it as a serious bargaining chip. The allure of following in Kershaw’s steps might be appealing, but Sale’s decision probably doesn’t look so bad to a couple of young arms who have already had their elbows operated on.


Filling The Derek Holland Void

Panic! Texas Rangers left-hander Derek Holland seriously injured his left knee in a fall at home earlier this month, likely costing him half the season and depriving the Rangers of their No. 2 starter behind Yu Darvish. There’s no way around the obvious: This is bad, potentially very bad, for a Texas team that has to contend with the A’s, Angels and aggressive Mariners in the American League West.

Holland broke out in a big way in 2013, giving Texas 213 innings of 3.42 ERA ball that was closely backed up by the advanced metrics FIP (3.44) and xFIP (3.68). After several years of showing nearly as much inconsistency as talent, Holland managed to cut down his home run problem significantly in 2013, relying heavily on his slider and sinker to keep the ball in the yard while continuing to miss bats.

Now, Holland is expected to be out until around midseason, and if that’s all it is, Texas will take it — the Rangers got burned in a similar situation last year when Matt Harrison was expected to return near midseason after April back surgery, yet after continued setbacks, he never did reappear.

But in the meantime, Texas has a hole to fill and a pennant race in which to compete. There are a few directions they could go, but they are set up in such a way that they don’t need to go add another pitcher. 

Option No. 1: Go big

The Rangers already had been one of the teams rumored to be interested in both Tampa Bay ace David Price and Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, and calls for either or both certainly won’t quiet now that Holland is injured. But after adding two big contracts in Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder this winter, it’s difficult to see Texas coming up with the cash to outbid the desperate Yankees and opulent Dodgers for Tanaka, even if the righty did want to come to Texas.

The Rangers have the prospects to land Price, yet if GM Jon Daniels was unwilling to meet Tampa Bay’s demands before, it’s probably not realistic to think he’ll suddenly be willing to make a franchise-altering trade simply as a reaction to a few missed months of Holland.

Instead, Texas may look to the second-level trio of pitchers all waiting on Tanaka to sign, thoughMatt Garza was less than stellar in his time in Texas last year and Ervin Santana’s fly ball tendencies seem like a dangerous fit for Arlington. Ubaldo Jimenez? Perhaps, but it really does depend on how much is left in the Texas budget.

Option No. 2: Go reasonable

With all the attention given to Tanaka and the trio behind him, it often gets overlooked that there are some intriguing (and less expensive) options in the stalled pitching market. Certainly there’s no one in this group as good as Holland, but that shouldn’t be the expectation. At a lower cost, Texas could replace a portion of Holland’s performance while also providing themselves with rotation depth (or a swingman) upon his return.

One of those names is Jerome Williams, whom the Rangers have reportedly already been in discussions with, but he’s essentially replacement level; better options might be fellow southpawsnChris Capuano and Paul Maholm. The underrated Capuano has consistently put up solid K/BB rates, actually beating former Dodgers teammate Zack Greinke (3.38 to 3.22) in that department last year. And while Maholm faded down the stretch for Atlanta, he’s got a career ground ball rate north of 50 percent and years of performance in the 2-WAR range. At a fraction of the cost of a Jimenez or Santana, these lefties could help fill the gap.

The Replacements

The Rangers have plenty of guys who could fill in admirably for Holland.

PITCHER ’13 IP ’13 FIP
Michael Kirkman 22 4.00
Colby Lewis 105 3.88
Alexi Ogando 104.1 4.36
Robbie Ross 62.1 3.18
T. Scheppers 76.2 3.74
Nick Tepesch 93 4.19

Option No. 3: Keep it internal

Every win counts in a tight race, but if the Rangers choose to look on the bright side, they can do it in this way: Holland’s loss is a tough one, yet perhaps not as fatal as it seems. The various wins above replacement systems differ on how good Holland was last year, but the midpoint was about 4 WAR. If we assume he misses half the year and comes back strong — hardly a given, of course — then Texas has lost approximately two wins. You can look at that as giving back some of the gain added by the arrival of Choo, and that hurts.

But it’s important to remember that the “r” part of that WAR equation is “replacement,” and Texas is in the enviable situation of not needing to give Holland’s starts to the freely available Triple-A type that the term infers. Instead, they have a quintet of useful young pitchers, along with the formerly useful Colby Lewis as he attempts to return from a missed season, to fill out the two spots behind Darvish, Harrison and Martin Perez[see table].

There’s some real talent there, one of whom was likely to fill out the last spot in the rotation anyway. While it’s not ideal, Texas could get by with a second one as well until Holland returns. Of course, that not only thins out the available depth if another starter gets injured, it could create a ripple effect down the staff — Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers pitched exclusively in relief in 2013, so a move to the rotation would weaken a Texas bullpen that already saw Joe Nathandepart for Detroit. However, both are preparing to arrive at camp to compete as starting pitchers, as the Rangers weigh their options.

The verdict: Like any team, if Texas has the ability to get Tanaka, then that’s obviously the best choice, though that was always the case and won’t change simply because of Holland’s knee. Considering the limits of a budget that already has added Choo and Fielder, Texas’ best option is to sign one of the lower-priced free agents to take Holland’s spot, and let their internal options fill the other rotation opening. And if they don’t think Maholm or Capuano is a big enough upgrade, standing pat isn’t the worst idea in the world.


Four Quieter Upgrades This Winter

If the goal of any team’s offseason is to improve its roster, then there are several pretty obvious places where that has occurred so far. Seattle, of course, improved enormously at second base by adding Robinson Cano. The Yankees, even having lost Cano, collected big upgrades behind the plate and in the outfield with Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury.

There are more than a few situations like that — Texas’ outfield, the Angels’ rotation, etc. — but anyone who has been even casually following baseball this winter knows about them. What about the quieter upgrades, the ones that maybe weren’t so obvious but could still lead to nice gains for their teams in 2014? Today, we shine a spotlight there.

New York Mets: Outfield defense

For most of the first third of 2013, the corner outfielders in New York wereLucas Duda in left and Marlon Byrd in right, flanking a rotating combination of Rick Ankiel, Collin Cowgill, Jordany Valdespin and Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field. Defensively, it was a disaster.

While Byrd was somewhat above average in right before being traded, Duda played left like the first baseman he is, putting up a shocking minus-42 defensive runs saved (DRS) in parts of four seasons for the Mets, including minus-11 in just 58 games in 2013. Duda was eventually replaced by Eric Young, but even he was only slightly better, with minus-7 DRS for the season. (Obviously, single-year defensive stats are more guidelines than anything concrete, though these pass the sniff test.)

Things turned around when Juan Lagares took over the bulk of time in center, since even in a partial season he proved himself to be one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. And now that Lagares is going to be flanked by Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the Mets should head into 2014 with one of the better defensive trios in baseball.

For years, Young roamed center for Arizona and was very good at it, putting up top-three Fielding Bible Awards finishes in 2010 and ’11 while coming in second in DRS at the position in both years. Granderson was obviously signed for his bat, but he has years of center field experience as well, putting up a total of 27 DRS in his time there.

At this point in their careers, neither Young (right field) nor Granderson (left field) should be expected to be what they were at their peak in the field, but the Mets didn’t sign them to play center, and any steps they may have lost will be less noticeable in the corners. With Lagares in the middle — as long as he hits, which is no guarantee — the Mets have three center field-quality outfielders, a huge improvement over last year’s troubled group in a big home field.

Oakland Athletics: Bench

In the grand scheme of things, Oakland signing 36-year-old utility infielder Nick Punto for a mere $3 million guaranteed barely registered a blip on the baseball radar. When Billy Beane later swapped young outfielder Michael Choice to Texas for outfielder Craig Gentry (along with minor prospects on both sides), it was mainly notable only within the confines of the AL West.

Yet these are exactly the kind of moves that keep the A’s in the hunt every year, because for the price of a minimal financial outlay and a decent-but-hardly-elite outfield prospect, Beane greatly improved his team’s depth and flexibility.

When Hanley Ramirez was unable to stay healthy for the Dodgers last year and backups Dee Gordon and Justin Sellers flopped miserably, it was Punto who answered the bell, starting 33 games at shortstop (along with 38 more at second and third) and doing so with plus defense and some amount of on-base skill (.328 OBP). Punto now moves to a team that has a shortstop with an injury history (Jed Lowrie), no real backup at third, and some open questions at second. It’s not dissimilar to the situation he left, and the Dodgers will miss him.

Gentry was rarely more than a part-time player in Texas, and he’ll largely take the playing time vacated by Chris Young and Seth Smith in Oakland. But in 556 plate appearances over the past two seasons — or roughly the equivalent of one full season — he was worth more than 6 WAR to the Rangers, thanks to his outstanding defense (37 defensive runs saved for his career, mostly in center) and his elite baserunning skills.

For his career, Gentry has been successful on 85 percent of his stolen base attempts, and roughly equivalent to Ellsbury on the basepaths. Ellsbury is obviously in a completely different galaxy as far as overall offense goes, and that’s what drives huge free-agency paydays. But for a fraction of the price, Oakland added an outfielder who will add more value than his slash line would indicate. Along with Punto, the A’s now have a pair of undervalued yet productive bench pieces.

Colorado Rockies: Bullpen

Believe it or not, Colorado actually had a reasonably useful bullpen last year. Despite having a relief corps asked to throw more innings than any bullpen other than Minnesota’s, the Rockies finished with middle-of-the-pack marks in FIP and xFIP. But that was largely concentrated in the trio of Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle and Adam Ottavino, with far too many opportunities given to the likes of Edgmer Escalona and Rob Scahill. With the injured Rafael Betancourt’s career possibly over and Josh Outman traded to Cleveland for outfielder Drew Stubbs, depth was suddenly a huge issue.

Enter the ageless LaTroy Hawkins, signed to a very reasonable one-year deal; lefty Boone Logan, who received a far-less-reasonable three-year contract; and former Rockie Franklin Morales, acquired from Boston for infielder Jonathan Herrera. With Logan (.281 wOBA against lefties), Morales (.215) and Brothers (.230), manager Walt Weiss now has a trio of southpaws who proved to be well above average at neutralizing same-side hitters in 2013. (MLB as a whole allowed a .317 wOBA to lefties.)

A bullpen sextet of Hawkins, Brothers, Logan, Ottavino, Belisle and Morales isn’t going to win any name recognition contests. But in a winter where the Rockies have done little to upgrade their team other than take a shot in the dark on Brett Anderson and add the well-past-his-prime Justin Morneau, they’ll at least have a surprisingly deep bullpen to call upon.

St. Louis Cardinals: Infield and outfield defense

More than a few people have had St. Louis atop their “best offseasons” lists to this point, and it’s not hard to see why. Jhonny Peralta should bring a huge offensive upgrade at shortstop over Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, and getting some trade value for declining third baseman David Freese was seen as a coup.

Yet while most of the focus on St. Louis is on the talented group of young arms and the impact that Peralta will have on the lineup, what the Cardinals have really done is improve their defense throughout the field. Jon Jay’s defensive follies in the playoffs probably made him look worse than he was, but he’s long been overmatched in center, and now the Cards get to replace him with Peter Bourjos (acquired for Freese), who has not only been great enough with the glove to push the otherworldly Mike Trout to left, but who is either the best defensive center fielder in baseball or very close to it.

If that was all they did, that’d be improvement enough. But moving Freese — who has never had the defensive metrics to back up his reputation, and who bottomed out badly in 2013 — set a chain reaction of moves into motion. The trade with the Angels allows Matt Carpenter, who had been surprisingly valuable in a crash course at second base in 2013, to move back to his natural position of third, where he should be an upgrade over Freese on both sides of the ball. Replacing Carpenter at second will be a combination of rookie Kolten Wong and veteran acquisition Mark Ellis, who has lasted in the big leagues this long almost entirely because he’s a plus defender. (Ellis has been ranked by both DRS and UZR/150 as being above average in every season of his career, despite repeated leg injuries.)

From a strictly statistical viewpoint, Peralta is a step down from Kozma on defense, but not by nearly as much as their respective reputations would have you believe, and his offense obviously makes it worthwhile. Throw in the fact that Allen Craig — or Jay, or rookie Oscar Taveras, or some combination — will replace the aging legs of Carlos Beltran in right, and the Cardinals’ defense is going to be a real asset in 2014. That’s just what the rest of the NL Central wants to hear, anyway: more advantages for St. Louis’ dangerous young pitchers.


Fixing the Reds Lousy Winter

Last year, the Cincinnati Reds won 90 games and qualified as a Wild Card entry into the postseason, where they were bounced by the Pirates. Two years ago, the Reds won the NL Central, finishing with the second best record in the majors, but were also eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. This is a team that has recently been quite good, and has been on the cusp of a World Series run. By nearly any definition of the word, they’ve been contenders.

And yet, this off-season, the Reds have basically just sat on the sidelines. Shin-Soo Choo left to sign with the Texas Rangers for more money than the Reds could afford, but the team has yet to acquire anyone who could replace him in their outfield or their line-up. Bronson Arroyo, also a free agent, also seems unlikely to return, based on recent comments made by GM Walt Jocketty. With Choo and Arroyo departing, the team will be down two valuable contributors from their 2013 roster.

And yet, their biggest off-season acquisition to date is utility infielder Skip Schumaker, who has been below replacement level in nearly 1,500 plate appearances over the last four years. Their only other free agent acquisition, Brayan Pena, was brought in to replace Ryan Hanigan as the team’s backup catcher, as Hanigan was shipped out to Tampa Bay. In other words, besides adjusting their bench, the Reds have done basically nothing this winter, despite having the roster of a contender with a few real weaknesses.

But the off-season isn’t over, and the Reds still have 2 1/2 months left until Opening Day. There are moves that could still be made that would restock their roster and put them back in position to keep up with the Cardinals and Pirates again. Let’s take a look at a few moves that could salvage the Reds off-season.

Sign a cheap veteran starting pitcher.

While the Reds have wisely decided not to meet Arroyo’s request for a multi-year deal as he heads towards his 40th birthday, the team could use another starting pitcher. Yes, youngster Tony Cingrani might be able to step in and give the team a good performance in Arroyo’s stead, but every contending team should plan on using more than five starters during the season, and with Cingrani in the rotation on Opening Day, the Reds would have a real depth problem. With young arms like Cingarni and Leake, and a big health question mark in Johnny Cueto, acquiring a starter to replace Arroyo shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, but instead, a necessity.

Instead, adding a cheap but effective veteran like Jerome Williams, Paul Maholm, or even Freddy Garcia (if they’re really pinching pennies) could give the Reds some needed rotation depth without requiring any long term commitment or significant dollars, and would allow the team to keep Cingrani’s innings down early in the season, then have him join the rotation in the second half of the year, in a similar way to how the Cardinals used Michael Wacha last year. Delaying Cingrani’s rotation turn would also allow him to serve as the fill-in for when a starter inevitably gets hurt, and a reduced workload early in the season should allow him to be able to pitch in October, should the Reds get back to the playoffs.

Call the Royals about their outfield logjam.

When Kansas City acquired Norichika Aoki from the Brewers, it gave them two solid fourth outfielders in Jarrod Dyson and Justin Maxwell, and the Royals won’t have enough playing time for both. Neither players are household names and both profile better as part-time players than everyday regulars, but that’s exactly what the Reds need; a part-time contributor who can act as a cushion in case top prospect Billy Hamilton proves not quite ready for prime time yet.

Dyson is a similar player to Hamilton, providing almost all of his value through speed and defense, so he could act as a redundancy in case Hamilton needs more Triple-A time, giving the Reds a chance to still have a rangy fly-catcher in center field. Maxwell would be more of a complement to Hamilton’s skillset, as his power would let the Reds go with a little more offense on days that they expected their starters to keep the ball on the ground; like, say, when Mike Leake is pitching. Either option would be useful, and the Royals asking price for an extra outfielder shouldn’t be too terribly high.

Sign Homer Bailey to a long term contract.

Most of the conversation about Bailey has been about using him as a possible trade chip, but the Reds should instead look to keep him in Cincinnati as a rotation anchor. The jump in his velocity and his strikeout rate suggest that last year’s performance was no fluke, and Bailey should be viewed as one of the better pitchers in the National League. When you see the bidding war taking place over Masahiro Tanaka, who doesn’t project to be significantly better than Bailey in 2014, it doesn’t make sense for the Reds to let Bailey get to free agency, as another strong season probably puts him in line for a contract similar to what Zack Greinke got from the Dodgers.

Instead, the Reds should take the money that they are not giving to Choo and Arroyo this year and use it to keep Bailey around for the long term, ensuring that they won’t have another big piece walk away in free agency next year. Even if it costs $100 million over six or seven years, re-signing Bailey will keep the team’s competitive hopes alive and show the fan base that they’re not just sitting on the new television revenue that each team received this winter.


Good Pitching, For Cheap

Masahiro Tanaka has the attention of nearly every team in Major League Baseball right now. Not every team is going to bid on the Rakuten’s ace, but interest in him is so high that it has essentially shut down the market for other starting pitchers as well, as pitchers like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, and Ubaldo Jimenez are waiting until Tanaka signs so they can be market themselves as a Plan B to the teams who fell short in the bidding war. The trickle down effect has basically pushed back the market for starting pitchers, so even though we’re only a few months from spring training, there are still some interesting pitchers left unsigned. And the good news is, there are even some pitchers who won’t break the bank. Even teams that are dealing with tight budgets could still add a quality arm by looking beyond Tanaka and the rest.

Here are three pitchers who are likely going to sign for a fraction of what the top pitchers get this winter, but could be perfect fits for teams looking to add quality innings without spending an arm and a leg.

Chris Capuano, LHP

Perfect Fit: Seattle Mariners

Here’s a fun fact for you: Capuano and teammate Zack Greinke posted identical 3.22 K/BB ratios as starting pitchers in 2013. Two other starting pitchers also posted a 3.22 K/BB as starters last year: Jose Fernandez and Mat Latos. Madison Bumgarner was just behind them, at 3.21, while supposed big time free agent Matt Garza checked in at 3.24. Pitching isn’t just walks and strikeouts, but if you can get batters to swing and miss while throwing strikes, you’re most of the way to being an effective hurler, and that’s exactly what Capuano did last year. And it was actually the third consecutive year in which Capuano ran a K/BB ratio over 3.00. From 2011 to 2013, Capuano posted the 29th best K/BB ratio of any regular starting pitcher in baseball.

Because he’s given up some hits on contact and hasn’t done a very good job of stranding runners, his ERA doesn’t match up with his underlying numbers, but those variables bounce around a lot, and with a little bit better luck, Capuano could easily be a quality mid-rotation starter again in 2014. And for a team like Seattle in need of multiple starters while also planning a big offer for Tanaka, a cheap effective hurler like Capuano could be just what the doctor ordered. After all, Dan Szymborski called Erasmo Ramirez the “worst #3 starter in baseball” earlier this week, and even signing Tanaka wouldn’t fix their depth problem.

Toss in the fact that Safeco Field is still a pretty decent place for pitchers, even after they moved in the fences last year, and Seattle should be an appealing destination for Capuano. While the marine layer on the west coast didn’t exactly save his 2013 ERA, these pitch-to-contact strike-throwers do best in west coast parks where the ball doesn’t carry as well in the summer, and no west coast team needs a cheap effective starter as much as the Mariners. Even if they sign Tanaka, Capuano should still be in their sights, but they definitely shouldn’t let Capuano get away while they ponder a bid for Rakuten’s ace.

Jerome Williams, RHP

Perfect Fit: Houston Astros

The Astros already threw $30 million at Scott Feldman to give their rotation a boost, but Williams would also be a good addition to a team that doesn’t yet have five big league starting pitchers. While his lack of an out pitch gives him limited upside, Williams has shown the ability to get ground balls and avoid walking too many hitters, which is the basic recipe for a classic innings, and in that regard, isn’t too terribly different from Feldman.

Only Williams should cost Houston a lot less than the $10 million per year they spent on their first free agent starter, since the Angels decided to non-tender him rather than risk offering him arbitration and having him earn roughly $4 million in salary next year. The fact that he was put on the free agent market rather than get paid $4 million for one year suggests that there’s not going to be a dramatic bidding war for his services, but Williams could provide a team like Houston with some additional innings of major league quality without any of long term commitment or financial outlay. And if Williams ends up giving them 100 good innings by the All-Star break, then they’d have a decent little trade chip on their hands, having rehabilitated Williams’ value and signed him to a team friendly contract. For a non-contender with a little bit of money to spend, guys like Williams are a great place to use a few million bucks.

Paul Maholm, LHP

Perfect Fit: Toronto Blue Jays

If you stopped paying attention at the halfway point of 2013, you probably remember Paul Maholm having a pretty decent year. At the break, he had thrown 115 innings and had a 3.98 ERA, and had helped the Braves build a nice big lead in the NL East. Then, in his first start of the second half, he gave up seven runs in three innings and was subsequently placed on the DL with a left wrist contusion, which caused him to spend the next month on the sidelines. He was pretty mediocre after returning from the DL in late-August, and then was left off the Braves playoff roster, ending his season a pretty sour note.

But, prior to those 35 bad innings in the second half, Maholm was on a 450 inning run of consistently solid performances. He ran a 3.66 ERA/3.68 FIP in 2011, and then followed that up with a 3.67 ERA/4.00 FIP in 2012. At the All-Star break, he was at 3.98 ERA/4.07 FIP. These aren’t sexy numbers, but they’re perfectly serviceable for a major league starting pitcher, and that’s not the kind of track record you want to ignore because a guy had 35 bad innings surrounding a stint on the DL.

As a 32-year-old lefty with an 87 mph fastball, though, Maholm doesn’t exactly get anyone excited. However, it isn’t hard to make a case that Maholm can give a team most of what Jason Vargas could put up, and Vargas got $32 million over four years earlier in the off-season. On a cheap one year deal, Maholm could be a great addition to a team like the Blue Jays, who need a short term upgrade but hate giving long term deals to pitchers. Maholm won’t be the kind of signing that gets Blue Jays fans excited like last year’s trades did, but he’ll help make sure that they don’t have to watch Ricky Romero take the mound again in 2014, and that makes it a move worth doing in and of itself.


The Underappreciated Edwin Encarnacion

If you think about the five most dangerous hitters in baseball (as ranked by wOBA) over the past two years, you’ll certainly come up with the top two (Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout) pretty easily. The No. 3 (Joey Votto) and No. 4 (Andrew McCutchen) bats probably wouldn’t be too difficult to discern either. But which player would round out the top five: Robinson CanoBuster PoseyGiancarlo Stanton?

That trio and many others are valid guesses, but none of them make it into the top five, and if not for the big picture at the top of this article giving it away, you might have been cycling through names in your mind for hours before coming up with Edwin Encarnacion. Often thought of as not even being the best hitter on his own team, the truth is that the soon-to-be 31-year-old Toronto slugger is one of baseball’s elite bats and still is almost certainly the sport’s most underappreciated power source.

Nomadic beginnings

If fans haven’t properly respected Encarnacion, they’re not alone, because the sport itself hasn’t always either. For years, he had been a quiet favorite of some stats-oriented observers, who looked past lousy third base defense and poor batting average (he failed to top .251 in four of his first six seasons) in favor of impressive on-base and power skills. In parts of five seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Encarnacion hit a solid .262/.345/.449, all before the age of 27, butoccasionally clashed with manager Jerry Narron and found himself fighting for playing time with the likes of Ryan Freel and Rich Aurilia.

In 2009, Encarnacion was shipped off to the Toronto Blue Jays in the Scott Rolen deal, but even then it wasn’t smooth sailing. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster in 2010, spent time in the minors and was waived again following the season, briefly landing in the Oakland organization before the A’s let him go as well.

Just three years ago, any team could have had Encarnacion for nothing at all, and that’s shocking when you look at what he has done. Since 2010, he has more home runs than David Ortiz and only one fewer than Stanton and Cano. His wOBA over that span is identical to Shin-Soo Choo’s, who just collected a budget-busting contract from Texas, and hiswRC+ is exactly the same as that of respected stars Joe Mauer and Carlos Beltran. Even when judging Encarnacion by wins above replacement, which penalizes him for that unimpressive defense, he has been worth roughly as much asMatt Kemp in that span.

That’s pretty strong company to be mentioned in, and it hardly stops there. Over the second half of last season, Encarnacion was an almost identical offensive performer to Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who ended up as the National League’s second-place finisher in the MVP ballot. Here’s a look at how they compared over that span:

Goldschmidt: .288/.408/.544 16.4 walk rate, .399 wOBA, 152 wRC+
Encarnacion: .286/.401/.538 16.2 walk rate, .398 wOBA, 152 wRC+

If one thing separated them, it was that Goldschimidt struck out 20.7 percent of the time in the second half, which isn’t out of the ordinary; the sport as a whole struck out 19.9 percent of the time in 2013. But Encarnacion whiffed a mere 6.7 percent of the time in the second half and 10 percent overall, making him the rare power hitter who doesn’t pile up absurd strikeout numbers, and that puts him in some other rarified company.

Contact hitter

Since the turn of the century, just five other players have done what Encarnacion accomplished in 2013, which is to hit at least 36 homers while striking out fewer than 62 times. Two of those players — Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols — rank among the best who have ever played, and two others — Todd Helton and Gary Sheffield — will have strong Hall of Fame cases to make when they become eligible. Only six qualified hitters struck out at a lower clip than Encarnacion did last year, and they were mostly Marco Scutaro types, not power hitters, with none coming within 100 points of Encarnacion’s .534 slugging percentage.

If you take that further, looking only at power hitters who know how to take a walk without piling up strikeouts, you’ll find Encarnacion’s name nearly alone at the top of the peak. Over the past two years, 28 hitters displayed an ISO of at least .200, and just five from that group walked at least 13 percent of the time; of those five, only Encarnacion and Votto walked more than they struck out. When you’re piling up free passes, not whiffing and showing immense power, you’re usually doing something right.

Of course, simply not striking out doesn’t instantly correlate with success — strikeouts aren’t often much worse than other outs — but putting the bat on the ball more often does put Encarnacion in position to take advantage of his natural skills. Again looking at 2012-13, Encarnacion has the third-highest fly ball rate in the game, and the 14th-highest rate of home runs per fly ball. The equation there is simple: more contact leads to more fly balls leads to more homers.

That’s easier said than done, and in Encarnacion’s case the key came through coaching. Prior to 2012, he was advised to shorten his swing by keeping both hands on the bat, rather than letting his top hand come off in his follow-through, and to stop attempting to pull every ball to left field. It worked, and quickly: Of Encarnacion’s 24 career homers to center and right field, 11 have come in the past two seasons.

Playing for a team outside of the media spotlight and often overshadowed by teammate Jose Bautista, Encarnacion generally gets left out of the conversation about baseball’s best. He finally made his first All-Star team in 2013, but that’s just a small step toward the recognition his performance deserves considering how great his past two seasons have been. When he’s an MVP candidate in 2014 (assuming he will have no ill effects following minor wrist surgery in September), don’t say you didn’t see it coming. After all, the past two awards went to a powerful corner infielder who didn’t offer much defensive value, either.