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Suggesting Some March Trades

With a week to go before Opening Day, several contenders still have glaring weaknesses that can and should be addressed via trade. Today, let’s look at a few deals that should get done before the season gets underway.

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The Phillies Upcoming Firesale

A year ago, the Philadelphia Phillies won 73 games. A year ago, the Phillies had the oldest team in the National League. This is generally not a great combination, as old and bad rarely reverts to old and good, and based solely on those two pieces of information, rebuilding might have been in order for the franchise. Instead, Ruben Amaro doubled down on veterans this winter, signing a 37 year old hurler (A.J. Burnett), a couple of 36 year old catchers (Carlos Ruiz and Wil Nieves), a 36 year old outfielder (Marlon Byrd), and a 33 year old starting pitcher (Roberto Hernandez). The Phillies doubled down on experience and are hoping that last year’s struggles were simply an aberration and not Father Time’s influence taking over.

It’s probably not going to work. The FanGraphs Playoff Odds page currently forecasts the Phillies for 77 wins, 11 games behind the Nationals in the NL East and six games behind the Giants for the second wild card spot. And it isn’t just the forecast distance, but also the quantity of teams that they would have to leap over to get back to the postseason; the Pirates, Reds, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Rockies are all in line behind the Giants and ahead of the Phillies. Their calculated 5.3% chance of winning their division is 10th highest in the National League, and their 6.7% chance of making the Wild Card game ranks only 11th highest in the NL. Added together, only the Brewers, Mets, Marlins, and Cubs come out as less likely playoff contenders according to our forecasts.

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The Tigers are the Team to Beat

The 2014 Detroit Tigers aren’t going to look much like the the last few Tigers teams. Despite making it to the ALCS in each of the last two years, the Tigers spent the off-season overhauling their roster, and they lost some pretty good players in their makeover. Gone are Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, Doug Fister, and Joaquin Benoit, a group that combined for +16.1 WAR a year ago. No team in baseball saw a larger exodus of talent over the off-season than Detroit, and it might be easy to think that the Tigers took a step back this winter.

Don’t believe it, though. According to our calculations, they very well may head into Opening Day as the favorites to Win the World Series.

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Don’t Do It, Mike.

Last week, the Angels agreed to give Mike Trout a $1 million salary for 2014, a record amount for a player with absolutely no leverage. This agreement was quite likely part of ongoing negotiations for a long term deal that will keep Trout in Anaheim beyond the final four years that the Angels control his rights. According to various reports, it is quite likely that Trout will sign a new contract within the next month that will not only guarantee him his arbitration salaries in advance, but will also keep him in southern California for three or four years where would have otherwise been eligible for free agency.

The rumored price tag to keep Trout in Anaheim has ranged between $140 and $170 million, which is certainly a life changing amount of money. That kind of contract not only ensures his own financial security, but likely the financial future of several generations of Trout’s still to come. It’s the kind of guaranteed money that seems nearly impossible to turn down, because after all, after the first $100 million, who is really counting anyway?

But Mike Trout has already proven he can do things that no other human being on earth can do. For his next spectacular accomplishment, he should walk away from the $150 million or so that few of us can imagine turning down. Even with life changing money on the table, Mike Trout should tell the Angels that he’d rather go year to year instead.

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Will Homer Bailey’s Strikeouts Carry Over?

Homer Bailey’s shiny new six year, $105 million extension is a clear sign that the Reds believe that Bailey’s 2013 breakout was no fluke. While Bailey’s career up to last year had been somewhat inconsistent, that kind of price requires Bailey to keep pitching at the level he did last year. And there are reasons to think that he may very well do that.

Perhaps most important in his breakout was a sharp uptick in his strikeout rate, which went from 19.2% in 2012 to 23.4% last year. By ranking, he went from 27th in the NL two years ago to 8th in the NL last year, as even just a few points of strikeout rate can make a big difference. And strikeout rate is the kind of metric that seems somewhat impervious to fluke seasons. You can either get guys to swing and miss or you can’t, and we just don’t see too many Brady Anderson type seasons when it comes to pitcher’s strikeout rates. But how much of a strikeout rate spike can we really expect to carry over from one season to the next?

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A Look Back at Last Year’s Extensions

While a few stray free agents remain unsigned, the upcoming baseball news landscape is going to be dominated by new contracts for players already in camp for spring training. Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman, Michael Brantley, and Julio Teheran have kicked off the start of the 2014 extension season, but they won’t be the last players to sign long term deals with their current clubs. Between November of 2012 and June of 2013, 12 players re-signed with their organizations for deals that last at least five years, and if that trend holds, we’re likely to see another wave of long term extensions over the next few months.

What can this year’s crop of potential extendees learn from the players who signed a year ago? Let’s take a look at those 12 deals and see how they’ve worked out for both the team and the player. For reference, all total listed years and dollars are from the point of the signing through the expiration of the extension, and in some cases, include years already covered by a previous contract.

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If You Don’t Slug, Aim

Freddie Freeman’s $135 million extension raised a lot of eyebrows this week, not just because of the size of the commitment but because of Freeman’s somewhat undeveloped power for a first baseman. The position has long been considered the domain of hulking sluggers, and even in this age of reduced power, it’s a position where teams still expect to get a fair share of home runs. And Freeman is not really a home run guy.

Over the last three years, he’s 21, 23, and 23 home runs, and his 67 total homers in that time frame ranks just 14th among qualified first baseman. And of the top 30 qualified first baseman in home runs, Freeman’s rate of home runs per plate appearance — one every 28.1 trips to the plate — ranks 23rd, putting him in the same category as guys like Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland. If one was to judge Freeman solely on his ability to hit the ball over the wall, he would grade out as an average first baseman at best.

However, even if chicks dig the long ball, not even a first baseman has to specialize in dingers in order to be highly productive and extremely valuable. While Freeman’s home run rate compares with lesser players, it also puts him in the same range as Joey Votto — he’s averaged one home run every 28.7 trips to the plate — and he’s probably the best hitter in the National League. And while Freeman certainly doesn’t have Votto’s track record, there are some similarities here that should make Braves fans less nervous about this large of a commitment to a first baseman who doesn’t physically remind you of The Incredible Hulk.

Freeman’s 2013 breakout season came in large part because of production in hitting the ball to the opposite field, which has been a hallmark of Votto’s career. Last year, 112 of Freeman’s contacted balls were hit to left field, and he posted a .448 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field; among qualified first baseman, only Chris Davis (.648 wOBA) and Votto (.529 wOBA) were more productive when using the opposite field. In fact, Freeman’s opposite field wOBA was nearly as high as his pull wOBA (.464), as he didn’t lose any real production going the other way than when he turned on a pitch.

How is that helpful? Hitters who go use the whole field, rather than focusing on pulling the ball to maximize their power, regularly post higher rates of hits on balls in play. Freeman’s .371 BABIP is almost certainly unsustainable on a yearly basis, but the way he used the field suggests that higher than average BABIPs should be expected in the future. For instance, the 10 left-handed hitters who hit the ball to the opposite field the most often — Votto was #1, and the list also includes guys like Joe Mauer and Shin-Soo Choo — last year combined for a .322 BABIP, 25 points higher than the league average.

Especially with the increased emphasis on the shift as a defensive weapon against left-handed pull hitters, a hitter who can drive the ball to left field has a significant advantage. While pull-focused hitters like Mark Teixeira have routinely seen line drives caught by a defender playing short right field, hitters like Freeman and Votto are harmed less by the shift, because their offensive approach doesn’t involve trying to hit the ball to right field as hard as humanly possible.

Because it’s easier to pull a ball over the fence than it is to drive a home run to the opposite field, the trade-off is a lower quantity of home runs, but more hits overall. It is essentially the age-old balance of quality versus quantity, and it is important to remember that there is a quantity of singles and doubles that makes up for a lack of home runs, even for a “power position” like first base.

With $135 million in guaranteed money coming his way, it can be tempting to think that Freeman has to develop more power to justify his contract, and become more of a slugger than he has been to date. But he doesn’t, really. $135 million isn’t what it used to be, and it certainly doesn’t buy elite power anymore. Choo, probably the closest approximation in terms of skillset to Freeman on the market this off-season, landed a seven year, $130 million contract as an opposite field line drive hitter, and Choo is headed for the decline phase of his career. Freeman is already as good as Choo, and is on the upswing of his career; factor in three more years of salary inflation, and Freeman’s eventual free agent price would have been far more than the $22 million per year that he sold his five free agent years for in this extension.

Freeman isn’t Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard, and if you just focus on home runs, than it might be easy to miss the reasons that Freeman is actually a good player. He probably won’t be able to sustain his 2013 batting line — even Votto’s career BABIP is .359, pretty much the upper limit for this kind of player — and some expected regression might make Freeman more of a good player than a great one, but $135 million for the prime years of a good player is simply what the market has dictated in 2014. This contract doesn’t require Freeman to be a superstar, or to hit a lot of home runs, in order to be a good investment. He simply has to keep hitting line drives all of the field and the Braves will be just fine.


Finding the Next A.J. Burnett

With A.J. Burnett deciding not only to return to play in 2014 but to open himself up to bids from teams other than the Pirates, the market for free agent pitchers has changed yet again. Burnett might be a bit older than guys like Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, but he’s also not going to ask for a long term contract, so teams wanting to minimize their overall commitments can pursue Burnett as an upgrade without having to offer up a three or four year deal.

Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that there was no demand for A.J. Burnett. After a couple of miserable seasons in New York — if you judge a pitcher by ERA, anyway — the Yankees just wanted to be done with Burnett, and paid the Pirates to take him off their hands; Pittsburgh assumed just $13 million of the $33 million Burnett had remaining on his contract, and proceeded to give them two excellent years for bargain prices.

So, instead of bidding up an aging Burnett who has re-established his market value, why not look for the next A.J. Burnett, a pitcher at the low point of his value with a contract that could be assumed in lieu of signing any of the free agents on the market. Here are three options for pitchers who might have a Burnett-like career rejuvenation still left in them.

Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox: 1 year, $13.25 million remaining

Dempster’s first year in Boston didn’t go so well, as he posted his highest walk rate since 2007 and the highest home run rate of his entire career. That’s not a great combination, and Dempster ended up losing his spot in the Red Sox rotation after the team acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline. With spring training just a few weeks away, Dempster is on the outside looking in, and his main role with the Red Sox is to provide depth in case one of the starting five get hurt.

However, there are plenty of reasons to think that he can still help a team that doesn’t have Boston’s rotation depth. His stuff didn’t seem to decline at all, as his velocity held steady and batters made contact on just 77% of swings against him, right in line with his days as a quality pitcher in Chicago. If he can get the walks in line, normal regression should fix his home run problem, and the strikeout rate should allow him to return to being a quality starting pitcher.

The Red Sox might enjoy the depth he provides, but $13 million is a high price for a backup starter, and any team who would take his contract off their books would probably not have to give up much to get him. With a decent chance for a rebound and only a single year commitment, Dempster could easily be a nifty acquisition for a team who would rather not pay free agent prices.

Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers: 1 year, $15.75 million remaining

While Beckett is currently penciled in to the #5 spot in the Dodgers rotation, he certainly isn’t guaranteed a spot, as the team’s pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka showed. Even without Tanaka, there have been talks that the Dodgers could pursue a free agent starter such as Bronson Arroyo, and shedding Beckett’s contract would likely encourage them to make a run at one of the starters remaining on the market.

For a team not interested in making a two or three year commitment to a pitcher like Arroyo, however, Beckett could be an interesting one year option. He missed nearly all of the 2013 season with a groin injury, but the good news is that his arm seemed to be in decent shape when he was on the mound. His velocity bumped back up from his final year in Boston, and hitters only made contact on 76% of their swings against him last year, rivaling the numbers he put up back in his glory days in Miami. While it seems like Beckett has been around forever, he’ll only be 34 next year, and his peripheral numbers don’t support the idea that he’s lost his ability to pitch at the big league level.

He might not be an ace anymore, but if he can stay healthy enough to throw 160 to 180 innings, Beckett could easily be an above average starting pitcher. If a team can get the Dodgers to kick in some cash to help facilitate Beckett’s exit, landing him on a one year deal could be a nice little upgrade for a team looking for a rotation boost.

John Danks, Chicago White Sox: 2 years, $28.5 million remaining

The Pale Hose are a team in transition, and GM Rick Hahn made several good moves this winter to help setup their franchise for future success, but they’re unlikely to be contenders in 2014 and maybe not in 2015 either. While Danks is still young enough — he’s just going to be 29 this year — to figure into the White Sox long term plans, he’s more valuable to a contender for the next few years, and the White Sox probably wouldn’t mind getting a chance to reallocate some of his money to fill out the rest of their roster with lower cost players.

While Danks didn’t show the same stuff or strikeout ability as he did before shoulder surgery sidelined him in 2012, he did post the lowest walk rate of his career, seemingly acknowledging that he’d have to find new ways to succeed with a reduced repertoire. Danks is still young enough to reinvent himself as a command oriented innings eater, and while $28 million for a back-end starter is no bargain, a team that could convince the White Sox to eat some of that money in order to facilitate a trade could end up with a better option than paying any of the remaining free agent starters who would take a two year deal.


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.


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 Winter’s Hidden Winner

When you think about which team has had the best off-season, you probably think about the teams that have done the most, or at least, have done the most to improve their chances of winning in 2014. The Nationals added Doug Fister for a song, and not even a hit song; more like a break-up track from a mediocre 1990s boy band. The Cardinals got underrated contributors in Peter Bourjos, Jhonny Peralta, and Mark Ellis, and now their biggest problem is deciding whether to carry four or five relievers who each throw 100 mph. And yet, it is possible that when we look back on the winter of 2013, the best series of off-season moves will not belong to either Washington or St. Louis, nor any other 2014 contender, but instead, to the stealthy rebuild happening on the south side of Chicago.

The White Sox were pretty terrible in 2013, and realistically, they’re not likely to be all that good in 2014 either. They haven’t made the kinds of moves that are going to turn a franchise around overnight, but then again, teams who have tried those kinds of moves lately haven’t been very happy with the results, as the 2012 Marlins and 2013 Blue Jays will attest. Instead, GM Rick Hahn is taking a measured approach to the White Sox rebuild, and this off-season, he’s focused on making smaller moves that might not have made headlines, but could eventually be seen as terrific long term acquisitions that helped pave the way for the next good White Sox roster.

Their big splash of the winter came in October, when other teams were still focused on the postseason, as they shelled out $68 million to sign Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. $68 million for an unproven player who has to hit to have value could be seen as a pretty big risk, but because it’s spread out over six years, it’s actually not that significant of a commitment. For comparison, the Mets committed a total of $67 million to Curtis Granderson and Chris Young for five years between the two; the Twins gave Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes $73 million over seven combined years. This kind of money buys you a lot of risk, whether you spend it on players with MLB experience or not.

Only with Abreu, there is some real upside here. For one, the White Sox signed him for his age 27-32 seasons, which are generally considered to be the peak years for most hitters. While many free agents are signing multi-year deals that will carry them into their mid-30s, the White Sox locked up Abreu’s prime and haven’t really committed to much of his decline phase at all, so it’s unlikely that his skills will decline that dramatically during this contract.

Power is an absurdly expensive tool to try and acquire in free agency — just look at the reported asking price for Nelson Cruz, an aging mediocre player coming off a PED suspension — and the White Sox have given themselves a chance to add a quality big league slugger in his prime for a moderate price. There is some chance that they’re just completely wrong about him and that they wasted $68 million on a guy who can’t hit big league pitching, but this is the kind of risk a rebuilding team should be taking. Rather than throwing their cash at aging players coming off mediocre seasons, the White Sox bet big on a guy whose best days should still be in front of him.

We’ve seen that same pattern emerge in the two significant trades Hahn has made as well, and in both cases, he’s managed to pluck a potentially interesting player from the Diamondbacks without sacrificing any real pieces from the White Sox future. While Chicago was considered the third wheel in the Mark Trumbo trade, simply serving as the conduit to help the D’Backs and Angels trade hitting for pitching, I wouldn’t be stunned if Eaton and the White Sox ended up as the big winners of the deal.

Eaton is the kind of players that often gets overlooked; good at a lot of things without being great at any one particular thing. He draws walks, makes contact, has some power, and plays good enough defense to hold down center field, and while he’s not a burner, he’ll provide some value as a baserunner as well. This is kind of the template for an underrated contributor, and Eaton could easily follow in the footsteps of guys like Shane Victorino, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, and Denard Span as quality big league outfielders who don’t necessarily stand out until you appreciate their contributions over an entire season. In Eaton, the White Sox may have just found an average or better center fielder who is under team control for five more years, and all it cost them was a swingman who probably fits better in a relief role than in the rotation anyway.

And then, in a similar kind of swap, Hann shipped closer Addison Reed to Arizona in exchange for third base prospect Matt Davidson. Reed’s a decent arm, but as a guy with a lot of saves of his resume, he was going to command some pretty serious paychecks in arbitration, so his days of providing value above and beyond his salary were coming to an end. Reed could easily be the next Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, or Chris Perez, all of whom were valuable assets as young cheap closers, only to see their value tank even before they reached free agency.

Rather than seeing that happen in a White Sox uniform, Hahn used Reed’s trade value to acquire a young third baseman with enough skills to compete for a big league job in spring training, and yet, they’ll retain his rights for the rest of the decade. Davidson isn’t a sure fire big leaguer, but even if he’s just an average hitter and fields the position at a passable level, he’ll be a useful player keeping the team from embarrassing themselves and won’t cost them any money to do so.

In Abreu, Eaton, and Davidson, the White Sox have added a combined 17 years of team control. The big knock against all three is that they don’t project as stars, and might top out as solid average players, but solid average players aren’t cheap — see Jason Vargas, Scott Feldman, and Omar Infante, for instance — and the White Sox will pay the three of them a combined $8 million next year. Even in Abreu’s “expensive years”, the trio probably won’t cost as much as a single season of Shin-Soo Choo, who might not even be a better player than Eaton for that much longer.

While other teams have made big splashes, the White Sox have had the kind of low-key off-season that might look surprisingly prescient in hindsight. They’ve bet on interesting young players, and while it probably won’t manifest in terms of a playoff berth in 2014, the moves the team is making now have put them back on the path to respectability.


The Next Batch of Cheap Closers

LaTroy Hawkins for $2.5 million. Jose Veras for $4 million. John Axford for $4.5 million. If there’s been one clear trend this winter, it’s been a move away from expensive multi-year contracts for ninth inning specialists. After years of getting burned with long contracts for inconsistent relievers, Major League teams are now going after multiple cheaper options, perhaps having noted that Koji Uehara (signed for $4 million last winter) was the Red Sox third choice at closer last year, and having him around as insurance ended up being a critical reason the team won the World Series.

More and more, baseball is learning that closers are made, not born, and that you don’t necessarily need experience in the ninth inning before you can be trusted to get the final three outs. So, with teams hunting for bargains in the closer role, let’s look at a few low profile relievers who could make excellent closers if given the chance.

Casey Fien, Minnesota Twins

The Twins have an excellent closer in Glen Perkins, a hometown kid who isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so Fien might be the Twins reliever to target in trade talks. At 30 years old with an average fastball and a non-descript track record, he doesn’t look like a closer-in-training, but he certainly pitched like one last year. His 6.08 K/BB ratio was 5th best in the majors, just ahead of some guy named Mariano Rivera, and it wasn’t just because he was dominating right-handers in a setup role: his K/BB ratio against LHBs was 4.83, better than the mark put up by Jonathan Papelbon, David Robertson, or Greg Holland, for instance.

Because Fien leans heavily on a cutter and doesn’t have top shelf velocity, it’s easy to write him off as just another generic middle reliever, but pitchers like Rivera and Kenley Jansen should have taught us to not underrate cutter-centric relievers by now. His ability to control the strike zone while getting a lot of swings and misses, against both left-handers and right-handers, makes him an interesting option for a team that is looking for a cheap bullpen upgrade. The Twins won’t give him away, but convincing them to trade a 30 year old setup man is a better bet than throwing a lot of money at a guy with a bunch of saves on his resume.

Brandon Kintzler, Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have become a model club for the make-a-closer-out-of-nothing formula, first turning John Axford and then Jim Henderson from non-prospects into dominant 9th inning options in short order. Henderson is going to be the 9th inning option in Milwaukee again this year, but if he falters, don’t be too surprised if Brandon Kintzler doesn’t take the role and become another obscure but effective closer for the Brew Crew.

Unlike Axford and Henderson, Kintzler isn’t a big strikeout guy, as he comes more from the Jim Johnson family of relievers: lots of groundballs, hardly any walks, and enough strikeouts to get him out of jams when he needs them. While pitchers of this ilk can often struggle against opposite handed hitters, as the two-seam fastball dives right into their wheelhouse, Kintzler was actually better against left-handed hitters last year (.235 wOBA allowed) than he was against right-handed hitters (.264 wOBA allowed), so he’s not simply a match-up specialist. His fastball works against hitters from both side of the plate, and his command gives him the ability to work the corners while in search of ground balls.

As Johnson showed in Baltimore, you don’t have to strike everyone out to be a good closer, and Kintzler’s overall profile suggests he would do well in the 9th inning if given the chance.

Nate Jones, Chicago White Sox

Jones is more of a classic closer prospect, given that his fastball averages 97 mph and he regularly hits 100 on the radar gun. Last year, only Aroldis Chapman, Kelvin Herrera, and Craig Kimbrel posted a higher average fastball velocity than Jones, so his stuff certainly suggests dominance is possible.

His 4.15 ERA doesn’t match up with the stuff, but the underlying peripherals certainly do. With a 3.42 K/BB ratio and a 50% GB%, Jones put himself in a group of just 13 other relievers who managed that combination last year. The average ERA of the 14 pitchers who managed that 3.0 K/BB/50% GB combination was 2.78. Among the relievers in this group were Mark Melancon, Bobby Parnell, and David Robertson, three of the game’s most dominant relievers last year. If you control the strike zone and keep hitters from putting the ball in the air, you’re most of the way towards shutting opposing hitters down.

The White Sox just showed a bunch of faith in Jones’ future by trading away proven closer Addison Reed, and it’s likely that they’ll give Jones a shot to finish games next year. Don’t be too surprised if he’s even better than Reed was.


Matt Kemp’s Bad Season Not That Unusual

A player’s peak age is generally considered to be somewhere between ages 26 and 29, and during this stretch, it is reasonable to expect a majority of players to perform at the best levels of their careers.  This is the point at which they have gained experience and wisdom but have not yet begun to see their physical skills decline, creating the ideal combination of youth and maturity.

That doesn’t mean things are always rainbows and lollipops for everyone, though.  For Matt Kemp, his age-28 season was a combination of extended stays on the disabled list and a fairly miserable performance when he was able to play.  Rather than living up to his earlier billing as one of the game’s best players, Kemp regressed heavily, and now faces questions of whether he can return to his prior glory, or if this year was an indication that his body is breaking down prematurely.

There’s some good news for Kemp and the Dodgers, however; age-28 regressions are actually pretty common, even for good young players who had established themselves as high quality players at a young age.  And in most of the cases, the guys who took a year off from hitting well bounced back to perform at a high level again.

To show the extent of the drop-off, I looked for players who had been productive hitters (100 wRC+ or better) from ages 25-27, and then had an age-28 drop-off of at least 30 points in wRC+ from their 25-27 average; for reference, Kemp’s drop-off was 36 points, from 139 to 103.  I found 12 such players over the last 30 years, including some of the biggest names in baseball.  Carlos Beltran had a similar down year at age-28, as did Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Alex Rios.  Among non-active players, we find pretty interesting names like Jeses Barfield, Jason Bay, Andy Van Slyke, and Jose Canseco.   This isn’t a list of guys who just washed out of the league at a young age.

Name 25-27wRC+ 28wRC+ 29wRC+
Jose Canseco 147 101 134
Shin-Soo Choo 142 106 131
Jason Bay 140 93 133
Andy Van Slyke 131 96 133
Jesse Barfield 131 99 116
Bobby Higginson 128 90 131
Carlos Beltran 126 96 148
Jacoby Ellsbury 119 84 113
Alex Rios 117 77 109
Felix Jose 116 72 112
Nate McLouth 115 70 92
Austin Kearns 107 70 78

In fact, in their age-29 season, the 12 players nearly hit as well as they did before their collapse.  In their age 25-27 seasons where they performed well, they combined for an average wRC+ of 126, making them 26 percent better than the league norm in those years.  In their miserable age-28 seasons, they averaged an 88 wRC+, making them 12 percent worse than the league norm.  This is roughly the equivalent of the difference between replacing Prince Fielder (in 2013) with Matt Dominguez.  But then, at age-29, they averaged a 120 wRC+, and every single hitter on the list got better, with 10 of the 12 improving by at least 20 points of wRC+ in the next season.

In a few cases, the down year immediately preceded a season even better than the ones that had come before it.  Carlos Beltrant went from a 126 wRC+ to a 96 wRC+ and then bounced back to a 148 wRC+, which stood as the best mark of his career until 2011, when he put up a 152 wRC+ following another down year.  The two best offensive seasons of Carlos Beltran’s career have come in the seasons following his two worst.

It wasn’t just Beltran either.  Bobby Higginson went 128/90/131.  Andy Van Slyke went 131/96/133.   Shin-Soo Choo (142/106/131) didn’t quite get back to his 25-27 performance in his age-29 season, but he then went on and posted a 151 wRC+ in his age-30 season, so two years after his collapse, he posted the best offensive season of his career.  Likewise, Alex Rios also had his career year after turning 30, but it should be noted that there was another disaster season mixed in there as well.  But his age-28 flop certainly didn’t portend the end of his productive days as a hitter.

Even the two players on the list who didn’t get at least 20 points of their wRC+ back immediately still rebounded down the line, even if that rebound left them as role players.  Nate McLouth took four years to become an average hitter again, but his 2013 season was strong enough to earn him a two year contract with the Nationals this off-season.  Austin Kearns had two miserable seasons at 28 and 29, but then became a useful part-time option at ages 30 and 32.  Neither one was able to consistently get back to their prior levels of production, but they bounced back for short stretches at least.

And let’s be honest: Matt Kemp has a lot more talent than Kearns or McLouth. The guys who hit like Kemp did, and then regressed down to being league average hitters, almost all bounced back to become terrific hitters once again. Kemp’s injury history absolutely is a concern, and his declining defensive skills means that he’s going to have to hit at a high level in order to justify his salary, but there are plenty of reasons to think that Matt Kemp is going to hit again, and probably in the not too distant future.


Five Trades That Should Happen

It’s already been an active winter on the trade market, with Doug Fister, Prince Fielder, Jim Johnson, Peter Bourjos, and Dexter Fowler being among the more prominent names changing cities. Here at Insider, we’d like to encourage this hot stove to keep raging out of control, so here are four more trades that we believe should happen post haste.

Tampa Bay Rays trade David Price to Pittsburgh for prospects Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Alen Hanson, and Josh Bell.

The Pirates have a window of opportunity, and they should seize it. After a breakthrough 2013 season, the Pirates are legitimately one more elite player away from being legitimate World Series contenders, and David Price represents the rare elite talent that they could actually afford to acquire. With two more years of team control at arbitration prices that should total about $30 million over two years, the Pirates could squeeze Price into their modest payroll and give them two years to bring a title to the Steel City.

Price is the kind of impact arm who could allow the Pirates to keep up with the Cardinals in the NL Central, and then give them an ace to match up with the game’s best starters in October. The cost to outbid other suitors for Price’s services would be steep, but Pittsburgh has the depth of young talent to make a deal happen.

For the Rays, this deal might not return one Wil Myers-style elite prospect, but the Pirates farm system is brimming with upside, and this package would give Tampa Bay four shots at developing more home grown stars for the future. Glasnow and Kingham are both potential rotation staples, while Hanson and Bell are athletic youngsters with high ceilings; Keith Law rated Hansen as the 34th best prospect in baseball headed into the 2013 season, and he managed to reach Double-A in his age-20 season.

The Pirates load up for a two year run at a title while the Rays re-stock their system with upside. It’s a win-win.

Cincinnati Reds trade Brandon Phillips to Toronto for Brett Cecil

While the Reds suggest that they are open to keeping Phillips long term, it seems like this is a marriage that has sourced, and a relocation may be best for both parties. Enter the Blue Jays, who have a glaring hole at second base, and are in no position to shrink back from trying to win in the short term given their current roster. Jose Bautista won’t be an elite slugger forever, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle aren’t getting any younger, and the Jays window to win is going to get shorter if they don’t make some real upgrades this winter.

Phillips represents a massive upgrade for Toronto, given that they have no real internal options at second base, and taking on the remaining $50 million due Phillips over the next four years doesn’t seem that crazy given what free agents are signing for this winter. The Jays have enough bullpen depth to ship the Reds a quality arm in exchange for Phillips, and getting an above average second baseman should help the Jays try to win with their current core before Father Time catches up with them.

New York Mets trade Ike Davis to the Tampa Bay Rays for Matt Joyce.

This Rays trade is a little less splashy, but still helps fill some holes for both teams. The Mets have two first baseman and a shortage of outfielders, while the Rays have too many outfielders and no first baseman. Davis is a classic Rays acquisition, buying low on a player with some upside who might be able to turn things around in a new city and provide several years of low cost production before he hits free agency. He’d follow in the fine tradition of James Loney, Casey Kotchman, and Carlos Pena as busted first base prospects the Rays have managed to extract value from.

Joyce is a bit more of a known commodity as a power hitting lefty outfielder who probably should be platooned. In many ways, Joyce is similar to Curtis Granderson, whom the Mets are negotiating on a multi-year contract for many millions of dollars, and whose signing would cost the team a pick in next year’s draft. Trading for Joyce would be an effective way to get most of what Granderson would offer without having to surrender the pick or give a lot of money to an aging outfielder on the down side of his career.

Milwaukee Brewers trade Yovani Gallardo to the Seattle Mariners for Brandon Maurer.

The Mariners want to add a starting pitcher to bridge the gap between their two veterans and their young kids, but as the Robinson Cano affair continues to show, it’s not always so easy for the team to get people to take their money. So, instead, perhaps they should simply focus on trading for players who don’t have a choice, and Gallardo could provide a reasonable alternative to the free agent innings eaters who are looking for long term deals anyway. His drop in strikeout rate in 2013 is a concern, but swapping one non-elite pitching prospect for the chance he rebounds to prior form is a worthy risk for a team with money burning a hole in their pocket and a yearning for some rapid improvement.

The Brewers, meanwhile, could use the savings to pursue a real first baseman so that they don’t end up using Yuniesky Betancourt at a hitter’s position ever again. Losing Gallardo would make the rotation worse while they rebuild, but getting enough money to buy a first baseman who can get on base more than 25% of the time is worth the downgrade.


Nelson Cruz and Scarce Power

Nelson Cruz is the kind of free agent that comes with a ton of red flags. He’s heading into his age-33 season, and is reportedly looking for a long term contract after turning down the Rangers qualifying offer of $14 million for 2014. He’s been historically injury prone, having suffered a collection of injuries that tend to reoccur, and has only played in more than 130 games once in his career. Despite playing in a hitter friendly ballpark in Texas, his career on base percentage is .327, and over the last three years, it’s just .319. He’s not a particularly good defensive player, and could very likely have to move to DH in a year or two. Oh, and he’s coming off a 50 game suspension after being connected to the Biogenesis PED scandal.

There are plenty of valid reasons for teams to avoid paying big money to Nelson Cruz, but he didn’t make a mistake in turning down the Rangers offer of arbitration, as he knows that he possesses a skill that is becoming rarer and rarer in today’s game: right-handed power. Over the last three years, only 13 right-handed hitters in the game have hit at least 80 home runs, and Cruz is one of those 13. The growing scarcity of power, especially from the right side of the plate, is going to lead someone to give Cruz a pretty hefty contract. After all, basic economics suggest that the rarer something is, the more it should cost, and Cruz is one of the rare power hitters on the market this winter.

However, I’d like to suggest that baseball teams should not pay a premium to acquire power hitters simply because we’ve moved into an era where offense is harder to come by. Just because home run hitters are now harder to find does not make them significantly more valuable now than they were when everyone could jack 20 bombs a year.

Let’s deal with the scarcity issue first. Yes, there is now a lower supply of home runs than there used to be, and when supply goes down, price usually goes up, assuming demand holds steady. However, a baseball game is not a very good model of economic theory, because the scoring system of baseball is not designed to reward scarcity. If events were valued based on how rare they were, the triple would be baseball’s ultimate hit, as there were 4,661 home runs last year, but only 772 triples. Of course, no one thinks triples are more valuable than home runs just because there are fewer of them, because the currency of baseball is runs, not scarcity of events.

At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is how many runs a team scored and allowed in a given game. Even over a full season, the standings usually track very consistently with total runs scored and runs allowed. How you score runs does not really matter so long as you do. Home runs certainly help in that regard, but they don’t become exponentially more valuable simply because they become more scarce.

Without boring you too much with heavy math, many of the modern statistical models are based on a concept called Linear Weights. Linear Weights models take every event that happens over the course of a season and assigns an average run value to those events based on the run environment of that season. So, when offensive levels are high and there are lots of baserunners, home runs are more likely to occur with men on base and result in multiple runs scored than solo home runs, so the run value of a home run is higher in offensive booms than it is when pitching is dominating.

This is true of pretty much every offensive event, not just home runs. The value of reaching base goes down when it’s less likely that the guy behind you will drive you in. So, what we really care about are the change in relative values between things like singles and home runs in different run environments. To illustrate these changes, here’s a graph created by my colleague Steve Staude, for a post he wrote earlier this year.

Single-and-HR-values2

Notice how the blue line for singles and the green line for home runs move in near unison over time, as offense ebbs and flows into and out of baseball. They don’t move in perfect lockstep, but they move very similarly in nearly every era of the game, including the one we’re living in now. There have been times in baseball history where the value of a home run and a single have differed from their norms — specifically, the Dead Ball Era, where no one could score and a home run was one of the few ways you could guarantee some offense — but at anything close to normal levels of run scoring, the relative value of the home run and the single don’t change much at all.

Now, you might wonder why you should care about what Linear Weights has to say about this, because the game is played on the field and not in some spreadsheet, or so I’ve been repeatedly told. While it is certainly true that the game is not played on a spreadsheet, the fact is that models built on Linear Weights have proven to be very accurate estimators of run scoring. If these models built on Linear Weights were undervaluing the effects of home runs, we’d expect teams that hit a lot of home runs to outperform the models expectations.

That is not what we actually find. In 2013, the top 10 teams in home runs combined to underperform their expected runs total by an average of 3.7 runs per team, while the bottom 10 teams in home runs combined to outperform their expected runs total by 9.2 runs per team.

The team with the largest difference between actual runs scored and expected runs scored was the Cardinals, who scored 61 runs more than their linear weights would suggest; the Cardinals finished 27th in the Majors in home runs, with just 125 long balls on the season. Meanwhile, the biggest underachiever in run production was the Tampa Bay Rays, despite finishing 11th in the majors in home runs.

But perhaps no team in baseball offers a more severe warning sign against overvaluing players like Nelson Cruz than last year’s Seattle Mariners. After struggling to score runs for years, the team loaded up on one dimensional power hitters in an effort to boost their offense. Their major off-season acquisitions included trades for Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales and free agent contracts for Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. They traded defense for offense, and bet big on the value of the home run. It sort of worked, as they hit 188 long balls, more than any other team in baseball besides the Baltimore Orioles.

However, they only scored 624 runs, 22nd most in baseball. They too underperformed their expected runs total based on Linear Weights, even though their offense was relatively prolific at hitting the ball over the fence, as their lack of ability to get on base meant that 63% of their home runs only resulted in a single run, and it takes more than a bunch of solo home runs to win baseball games.

Nelson Cruz will hit home runs for whoever signs him to a big contract this winter, but he won’t do much else, and the reality is that players who hit home runs and do little else to help a team win just aren’t particularly valuable players overall. Rather than focusing on labels like “power hitter”, teams should simply seek to maximize their run differential. Nelson Cruz might do a thing that not many can do any more, but the things he can’t do make him a mediocre player, and unlikely to be worth the contract he’s going to get this winter.


Bad Contract Swap Meet

Earlier this week, the Tigers and Rangers got together to help each other out by exchanging contracts that neither team wanted any more. The Tigers dumped $138 million of the $168 million remaining on Prince Fielder’s deal, and in exchange, they took back the $62 million guaranteed that Ian Kinsler has left on his contract. And perhaps this won’t be the last deal like this we see this winter.

With all the new television money flowing into the game, teams have financial resources to absorb large contracts, but the supply of free agents worthy of such deals isn’t getting any larger. As teams look to spend money but are either spurned by free agents or unimpressed with the available crop, they may very well look to other teams for chances to exchange overpriced contracts. So, let’s look at a few other big contract swaps that might actually benefit both teams.

Dodgers Trade OF Matt Kemp to Yankees for LHP CC Sabathia

Kemp’s Remaining Contract: 6 years, $128 million
Sabathia’s Remaining Contract: 4 years, $96 million

The Dodgers have a crowded outfield, and likely have to trade one of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, or Carl Crawford due to the emergence of Yasiel Puig (and top prospect Joc Pederson isn’t far behind). They reportedly are in the market for another starting pitcher, but don’t want to part with a draft pick to sign one of the better starters on the market. By swapping Kemp for Sabathia, they could kill two birds with one stone.

The annual salaries are almost identical, with Sabathia making just a few million dollars more per season each of the next four years, so this wouldn’t have a significant impact on either team’s budget, but would free up some longer term commitments for a Dodgers balance sheet that already has a lot of long term commitments on the books. And this deal could actually benefit both teams on the field as well.

The Yankees outfield is kind of a disaster. They tried to patch their holes with Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano last year, but neither one should be starting on a team trying to win in 2014. Same goes for Ichiro, actually. The Yankees need a legitimate every day corner outfielder, and at this point in his career, Kemp probably shouldn’t be asked to play center field anymore. In New York, playing next to Brett Gardner, he could simply focus on staying healthy and hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and the cozy dimensions and east coast humidity should help revitalize his offensive performances.

And the marginal cost of adding Kemp is only $32 million over and above Sabathia’s contract, which mitigates some of the risk that Kemp doesn’t bounce back to his previous levels. Even if he just becomes more of a solid regular than a superstar, he’d fill a gaping need for the Yankees outfield, and would inject some youth into a very old roster.

For the Dodgers, it would simply be a reallocation of assets, plus a small cost savings down the line. Much like Kinsler in Texas, the Dodgers aren’t likely going to get the full value due to overcrowding, so turning an above average outfielder into an above average pitcher makes the roster more efficient. And don’t let Sabathia’s ERA fool you; he’s still a good pitcher, with a strong track record that suggests a big rebound is possible in 2014. Adding Sabathia to Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu would give the Dodgers a ridiculous playoff rotation, and would allow them to use the rest of their 2014 payroll to pursue a starting third baseman and depth around the infield.

In both cases, the teams would be selling low on a star and hoping for a rebound from a change of scenery, but the Dodgers need a pitcher more than an outfielder while the opposite is true in New York. This is the kind of deal that could make both teams better.

Angels trade OF Josh Hamilton to White Sox for LHP John Danks

Hamilton’s Remaining Contract: 4 years, $98 million
Danks’ Remaining Contract: 3 years, $43 million

The Angels are looking to trade a bat for an arm, but are reportedly shopping young, low cost players like Howie Kendrick, Mark Trumbo, and Peter Bourjos in order to upgrade their pitching staff. Instead, maybe they should look at moving the older guy who caused the outfield logjam in the first place. Sure, dumping the $98 million left on Josh Hamilton’s contract isn’t going to be easy, but if they pick up some of the cost and take back another bad contract, they could potentially add a rotation piece and keep their good young players that are worth building around.

The White Sox present one such an opportunity, as they’d likely to be happy to be free of John Danks’ contract, and could certainly use another offensive upgrade, even after adding Cuban defector Jose Abreu to play first base. If the Angels were willing to even out the salaries for the next three years, thus neutralizing payroll for both sides for the duration of Danks’ contract, then the White Sox would only be picking up the $30 million that Hamilton is due in 2017. For that additional $30 million commitment, they could turn some of their rotation depth into a left-handed power bat with some legitimate upside. While Hamilton certainly had a miserable 2013 season, there are reasons to believe he could bounce back to something closer to what he was with Texas, in which case, the White Sox would get a significant upgrade from what Danks will likely provide over the next three years.

The Angels, meanwhile, would add a competent left-handed pitcher to the back of their rotation, while also shaving some of their future commitments off the books, but most importantly, they wouldn’t have to punt on guys like Bourjos, Trumbo, or Kendrick. These are the pieces the Angels should be looking to retain, not move, and dealing Hamilton and some cash for a bad contract pitcher would let them do just that.

Braves trade 2B Dan Uggla to Brewers for 2B Rickie Weeks

Uggla’s Remaining Contract: 2 years, $26 million
Weeks’ Remaining Contract: 2 years, $22 million

This is a straight up challenge trade, with two teams exchanging struggling second baseman who might just need a fresh start to get their careers going again. The Braves would likely have to cover the cost difference and perhaps throw in something else to convince the Brewers to take an older version of what they already have, but both teams should be interested in moving what they have for something new.

Overall, both are kind of similar players, as they are high-walk, high-strikeout, power hitting second baseman who don’t play the field particularly well. Both lost their jobs down the stretch, and neither have a clear future with their current organization. By swapping their problems, both players could get a chance to start over and see if a change of scenery could reinvigorate offensive abilities that were present in past years. Even if the Braves had to kick in one of the 10,000 good relief pitchers they seem to have lying around their organization, a 2B-for-2B swap could still help both teams.


Jacoby Ellsbury’s Excellent Aging Curve

A lot of people don’t trust speed-and-defense players to age well. They’re one knee injury away from being worthless! Once the speed goes, what’s left! Just look at what happened to Carl Crawford! The skepticism over the value of production that is not hitting is never more evident then when a player like Jacoby Ellsbury hits the free agent market. While some might grudgingly admit that Ellsbury has had a couple of terrific seasons lately, his lack of power and dependence on his legs have created some doubt about whether he’ll be able to be an impact player for much longer.

Is such skepticism actually warranted, however, or simply another instance of hitting being overvalued relative to other skills? Rather than just lean on conjecture, let’s actually look at how players with similar skill sets and performances at Ellsbury’s age have done after they turned 30. To find a good set of comparable players, I looked at all outfielders over the last 30 years, then narrowed down the list to just players who were in the same general range of production as Ellsbury during those three seasons and had a significant part of their value come from defense and baserunning.

Including Ellsbury, I found ten outfielders who matched this skillset and performance to a pretty high level, and have actually completed their age-36 season, so that we can compare their performances over a seven year period, the length of contract I expect Ellsbury to land this winter. Here is the table showing Ellsbury’s performance relative to those age-27 to age-29 peers.

Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ OFF/600 DEF/600 WAR/600
Lenny Dykstra 0.312 0.400 0.428 0.373 134 28 11 6.2
Jacoby Ellsbury 0.303 0.356 0.469 0.359 123 23 12 5.8
Rickey Henderson 0.285 0.387 0.450 0.374 133 33 2 5.7
Kenny Lofton 0.324 0.381 0.474 0.372 118 20 11 5.0
Tim Raines 0.297 0.395 0.461 0.371 135 30 -3 4.8
Andy Van Slyke 0.271 0.341 0.451 0.352 126 19 6 4.7
Ichiro Suzuki 0.328 0.374 0.440 0.350 118 17 6 4.4
Devon White 0.253 0.314 0.402 0.322 98 2 18 4.1
Steve Finley 0.279 0.331 0.406 0.328 106 6 10 3.7
Marquis Grissom 0.286 0.337 0.435 0.336 100 2 12 3.3

OFF/600 and DEF/600 are simply the number of runs created through offense or defense per 600 plate appearances, and then WAR/600 is Wins Above Replacement per 600 plate appearances, so that we see each player’s totals on a scale that is roughly one full season’s worth of playing time.

In terms of total production, Ellsbury was actually better than most of these guys over the three years being measured, even though he missed half a season during his age-28 season and had limited production when he did manage to play. His production in his two healthy seasons was so great that it puts him in the top tier of these types of players even with his mediocre 2012 season included.

Overall, these players give us a pretty decent group of outfielders who were productive at this stage in their careers despite moderate power, primarily succeeding through excellent baserunning and tracking down balls in the outfield. Devon White, Marquis Grissom, and Steve Finley were more defensive specialists than total all around stars, but it’s still informative to see how guys who were more defense and less offense did as they got older.

Including the three lesser hitters also helps serve to balance things out, so that the total production of the nine players we’re looking at nearly matches Ellsbury’s own production. Overall, the average wRC+ posted by these players in their 27-29 seasons was 119, just a little below Ellsbury’s 123. They were approximately nine runs above average defensively per season, while Ellsbury was 12 runs above average per season. Not every player matches Ellsbury perfectly as a comparison, but as a group, these guys comprised most of the same skill levels as he does now.

So how did they do from their age-30 to age-36 seasons? I’m glad you asked.

Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ OFF/600 DEF/600 WAR/600
Rickey Henderson 0.287 0.418 0.453 0.393 148 40 -2 6.0
Lenny Dykstra 0.285 0.401 0.440 0.374 126 21 5 4.6
Ichiro Suzuki 0.332 0.377 0.426 0.348 114 16 5 4.1
Kenny Lofton 0.287 0.368 0.422 0.349 107 8 10 3.7
Andy Van Slyke 0.280 0.354 0.434 0.350 117 12 -2 3.2
Tim Raines 0.284 0.376 0.408 0.352 116 15 -6 3.0
Devon White 0.272 0.332 0.435 0.336 100 2 8 2.9
Steve Finley 0.275 0.338 0.476 0.349 110 8 -3 2.3
Marquis Grissom 0.264 0.304 0.413 0.311 84 -13 -1 0.7

Grissom is the warning sign that people often point to, as his performance regressed to the point that he was barely worth playing, and he produced little value after age-30. Of course, he was also the worst player of the comparable age-27 to age-29 group, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that he was also the worst player beyond age-30.

Lenny Dkystra and Andy Van Slyke could also be pointed to as moderate warnings, or at least reminders that future health is not guaranteed. Both Dykstra and Van Slyke were pretty effective players even beyond age-30 when they were on the field, Dykstra managed just 1,600 plate appearances and Van Slyke just 2,300 after their age-29 season. We don’t see the precipitous decline in production with either of them that we do with Grissom, but they failed to age well because they weren’t able to stay in the line-up often enough, and both were out of baseball by the time they were 35.

The other six, though? Pretty obvious success stories. Henderson got better, even as he moved to a corner outfield spot full time. Ichiro maintained almost all of his value, staying basically the same player that he was in those first three years. Raines and Lofton both got worse, but both were still excellent players even after their speed began to slip. Devon White and Steve Finley, despite starting from lower baselines, actually hit better after turning 30, and the increases in offense helped to offset their defensive downgrades, leaving them as productive regulars for the bulk of their age 30-36 seasons.

Overall, these nine players maintained an average of 70% of their ages 27-29 WAR/600 rates. If you apply that 70% rate to Ellsbury’s +5.8 WAR/600 from his last three seasons, he’d forecast as a +4.0 WAR per 600 PA player over the next seven years. Even if we include the players whose careers ended early, the group of comparables still averaged 522 plate appearances per year over their 30-36 seasons. Take 70% of Ellsbury’s last three year performance and project it out to 525 plate appearances per year and you’re still left with a guy who averages +3.5 WAR per season over the next seven years.

The idea that Ellsbury-type players fall apart as their speed declines is simply exposed as a myth. Players like this that have come before have simply made adjustments to compensate for their declining speed, and have continued to produce at a high rate even as their speed and defense diminished. Don’t buy into the idea that Jacoby Ellsbury is headed for a crash as he slows down. In fact, if he performs like the average of the similar players who came before him, the rumored price tags of $120-$140 million might end up proving to be a bargain.


Mystery Team, Make Your Move

There are plenty of moves that, from the outside, look fairly predictable. The Tigers want a proven closer, and Joe Nathan is looking for a job shutting the door for a contender. The Giants are looking for another starting pitcher with some upside, and Dan Haren wants to go back and pitch on the west coast again. The Mariners need a leadoff hitter and a center fielder, and Jacoby Ellsbury is looking for his first and probably only long term contract.

There are players and teams that look tailor made for each other, but more often than we might expect, the baseball off-season surprises us. The often mocked “mystery team” has been making more and more appearances of late, with teams signing or trading for players who weren’t such obvious fits at the beginning of the off-season. It’s happened so often that maybe we should begin to expect the unexpected. So, here are three acquisitions that might not seem so obvious from the outlook, but should be candidates for surprise transactions that make sense in retrospect.

New York Mets sign Robinson Cano.

The Mets currently have two players under contract for 2014 — David Wright and Jon Niese — and they account for just $25 million in salary obligations. The team has another 11 players who are up for arbitration, meaning that the Mets control their rights and will be on the hook for some salary north of the league minimum, but even if the Mets brought all 11 of those players back (an unlikely result at best), they’d still only be on the hook for approximately another $25 million or so between them, leaving them with at least $40 to $50 million to spend this winter just to get back to their 2013 payroll levels. If they use some of the money the league has distributed to the teams from the national TV contracts, they could go even north of that, maybe even pushing to $60 or $70 million in additional spending.

The Yankees are dancing with the luxury tax, and seem to have been turned off to long term free agent deals by some of their recent signings. Cano is Jay-Z’s first big client, and as such, he probably isn’t in a position to give the Yankees a big discount. Perhaps the Mets should make everyone happy, allowing Cano to land a monstrous contract while also staying in New York, but letting the Yankees off the hook for another 10 year deal that probably won’t end all that well.

With the ownership’s financial situation hindering the team’s spending in recent years, the Mets fan base could use a jolt of energy, and few things would invigorate Queens like stealing the Yankees best player. While a 10 year, $250 million commitment might appear like an albatross waiting to happen, the Mets have the current budget space and the long term financial capability to make such a bold move work, and Cano would transform a Mets line-up that could desperately use an elite left-handed stick.

The Mets should be one of the most aggressive spending teams this winter, and Cano is the best player on the market. They’ve got the geographic advantage in allowing him to remain entrenched in New York, and have the financial capability to let Jay-Z make his first big splash while showing that he won’t be beholden to the Yankees. They have the need and the cash, and putting Cano on the Mets would would make the Subway Series a fun rivalry once more.

Oakland A’s acquire Max Scherzer.

Billy Beane and his crew have kept the A’s alive by hoarding draft picks and trading stars away before they get too expensive, so they’re not the kind of team you expect to give up the farm to acquire a guy who is a year away from free agency. However, the A’s have a contending roster in place, and just need one more good piece to push them into being a legitimate World Series contender, and Max Scherzer could be that piece.

Even with the expected Cy Young Award in his back pocket, Scherzer’s unlikely to get more than $15 million in arbitration this winter, meaning that he’ll be relatively affordable in terms of salary compared to other elite players at his level. And Scherzer could be a difference maker in a rotation that lacks a front line starter.

Bartolo Colon gave the A’s a miraculous performance in 2013, but when the postseason rolled around, it became clear once again that Oakland didn’t have any arms that could match up against Scherzer or Justin Verlander, and for the second year in a row, the Tigers power arms sent the A’s home in the first round. Now, however, the Tigers probably can’t afford to keep all of their star players for the long term, and might choose to cash in on Scherzer before he commands a $150 million contract next winter. And the A’s should capitalize on the Tigers need to rearrange their roster.

The A’s control the rights to Yoenis Cespedes for another two years, and the Tigers are looking to get more athletic in the outfield. Cespedes is exactly the kind of player that could convince Dave Dombrowski to make Scherzer available, and if the A’s could work in additional pieces to get Andy Dirks coming back to Oakland, they could use their outfield depth to rent-an-ace and make a run at winning it all in 2014. Yes, they won’t be able to sign Scherzer to an extension, but if they acquire him this off-season, they’ll be able to turn his exit into a 2015 draft pick, which has extra value to teams like the A’s who need to build through the draft. Getting a full year of a legitimate ace and then collecting draft pick compensation next winter when he walks should be enough to entice the A’s to make a bold move for a player who could put them over the top.

Kansas City Royals acquire David Price

Last year, the Royals and Rays hooked up on perhaps the most notable trade of the winter, with the Rays sending James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City in exchange for super prospect Wil Myers and a few less prospects not quite as super. It was the Royals declaration that they were tired of losing and tired of waiting for the future, so they were pushing their chips and making a run when they saw the opportunity. They did win 86 games, but finished well behind Detroit and Cleveland in the AL Central race, and now they face a 2014 season that could be Shields’ last year in Kansas City, as he’s set to hit free agency next winter.

So Dayton Moore should go back to the well and make another trade with the Rays to bring in a frontline starting pitcher. This time, the Rays are going to be looking for a buyer for David Price, and the price again is going to be steep. However, the Royals have already pushed their chips into the middle of the pile, and backing off now because of concerns about what it might do to their future could leave them stranded in a position where they’re not good enough in 2014 and not good enough to contend after Shields’ off-season exit. The Myers trade made this their window, and they should do what they can to make sure they give themselves a real opportunity to take advantage of their chance to win.

Maybe it costs them Eric Hosmer, who would certainly appeal to Tampa Bay as a cheap young first baseman. Or maybe it’s Billy Butler and flame-throwing pitching prospect Yordano Ventura headlining the package. Price isn’t going to come cheap, and like with the Shields trade, it’s probably going to require giving up some talent from their 2014 roster in order to outbid other interested suitors. But Hosmer and Butler could be replaced, at least in the short term, while Price would give the Royals another frontline player to allow them to make a serious run at a Detroit team that might be in for a step back next year.

The cost is again going to be painful, but the Royals made the decision to push the gas pedal last winter, and slamming on the breaks right before you go crashing through the wall only leads to a totaled vehicle. At this point, it should be pedal to the metal, and the Royals have the pieces that could get Price. If it works, and a playoff push leads to an attendance surge, maybe they even find a way to re-sign Shields next year, and then can flip Price in 12 months to recoup some of the talent they gave up to borrow him for a year. And if it doesn’t, well, at least they really tried.


Robinson Cano’s Aging Curve

Free Agency officially begins on Tuesday, as players will have the right to begin negotiating with all 30 teams, and financial figures can start to be officially exchanged. No free agent is going to be asking for bigger numbers than Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. He is undisputedly the best player on the market this winter, and early reports have suggested that he’s looking for a monstrous contract, maybe even aiming to become baseball’s first $300 million player.

With any deal for a player of Cano’s stature, we’re essentially guaranteed a minimum of seven years, and recent trends suggest that elite position players — Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder most notably — have enough leverage to demand eight, nine, or even 10 year contracts. Joey Votto got a 10 year deal from the Reds when he was two years from free agency, effectively making that a 12 year commitment, and he didn’t even have the leverage of other teams bidding up his price. However, there’s one thing those three players all have in common; they play first base, and their value comes almost entirely from their hitting skills.

Cano is a second baseman, and while he’s an amazing hitter relative to other second baseman, his offense wouldn’t be quite so impressive at a less demanding position. A significant part of Cano’s value comes from the fact that he can play an up the middle position, and teams have historically not paid the same price for defensive value as they have for offensive value. Especially when it comes to signing a player into his late 30s — Cano just turned 31, so even an eight year deal would take him through his age-38 season — teams have historically been skeptical about betting on up the middle players sustaining their value, at least relative to the bets they are willing to make on players who derive their value from standing at the plate and hitting the ball really far.

More specifically, there seems to be a decent amount of skepticism about how second baseman in particular will hold up towards the end of their careers. Roberto Alomar, for instance, completely fell apart after his age-33 season, going from an MVP caliber star to a nearly worthless scrub almost overnight. He was one of the best players to ever man the position, but was totally washed up by his 34th birthday. One theory espoused for the unexpected and dramatic declines of second baseman; they take a physical beating from hanging in on the double play, having years of players slide into their legs and knees, and eventually, it just wears them down.

However, the theory is usually based on anecdotal evidence. It’s one thing to point to Roberto Alomar or Ryne Sandberg, but is there actually evidence that players who play second base and hit like Cano are more likely to flame out than players at other positions?

This is a little bit of a tricky question to answer simply because there are so few second baseman who hit like Robinson Cano. But, there have been some, and we can look at their careers to see if we see a pattern of early collapses.

For a fair comparison, here are the top five offensive second baseman over the last 50 years, from ages 28-30, sorted by wRC+:

Joe Morgan: 2,019 PA, 156 wRC+, +26.8 WAR
Rod Carew: 1,994 PA, 152 wRC+, +20.0 WAR
Robinson Cano: 2,059 PA, 142 wRC+, +19.1 WAR
Chase Utley: 2,007 PA, 141 wRC+, +23.4 WAR
Craig Biggio: 1,907 PA, 137 wRC+, +15.3 WAR

For all five, the playing time during those three seasons was pretty similar, ranging from 416 games for Biggio to 480 for Cano. He actually has more games played and more plate appearances during his age 28-30 seasons than any of the other four players on the list, so relative to his peers, durability seems to not be an issue.

How’d the other four do in the latter stages of their careers, performance wise, starting with their age-31 seasons? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Joe Morgan: 5,390 PA, 135 wRC+, +46.7 WAR
Craig Biggio: 6,744 PA, 113 wRC+, +33.6 WAR
Rod Carew: 4,915 PA, 130 wRC+, +28.4 WAR
Chase Utley: 1,858 PA, 121 wRC+, +15.9 WAR

Morgan played until he was 40, and was even better after turning 30 than he was before. His two best seasons came at ages 31 and 32, and even at the end of his career, he was still an excellent player. He played second base all the way to the end of his career as well, never moving to an easier position even after 20 years of turning double plays.

Biggio also had the two best years of his career at ages 31 and 32, and he played until he was 41, but he’s actually a bit more in the Alomar camp than the Morgan camp, as he was essentially an average player from 34-41. He hung around, but wasn’t a very effective player at the end of his career, and his decline from greatness to mediocrity was pretty swift. He was so good in his early 30s, however, that the overall performance during that span is still excellent.

Carew is a bit of a mix of the two, at least in terms of age-31 excellence, as he also had the best year of his career in that season, but he comes with a bit of a caveat; he moved to first base full time at age-30, and spent the second half of his career playing a much less demanding position. Still, the move to first base didn’t keep him from being a fantastic player in his 30s, as he retained almost all of his offensive value and was a very good player through age-36 before tailing off in his last few years.

Finally, we have the incomplete story of Chase Utley. He just finished his age-34 season, and his last four years have been full of injuries. However, Utley’s been so good when he has been on the field that he’s been at least a +3 WAR player in each of his age 31-34 seasons, even while only averaging 108 games per season. We don’t know what Utley’s next few years will look like, but if he represents the injury prone downside of taking a beating at second base, that’s a pretty great worst case scenario.

Of the four second baseman of the last 50 years who were comparable to Cano heading into a similar point in his career, two are in the Hall of Fame, one should be, and the active player will have a decent case if he can stick around for a few more years at the level he’s been playing recently. It’s hard to get a better set of comparables than that.

Maybe going to 8+ years for Cano won’t turn out to be a good idea, just as it doesn’t appear to have been a good idea to give Prince Fielder a nine year deal or Albert Pujols a 10 year deal. These long contracts come with tons of risk. However, the evidence that great second baseman in particular come with extra risk seems to be lacking. I’d be leery of giving any player on the wrong side of 30 a deal that runs for nearly a decade, but teams shouldn’t be less willing to give that kind of deal to Cano just because he plays second base.