Archive for December, 2013

Salvaging Atlanta’s Winter

It’s been an active offseason in the National League East, where four of the five teams have made steps to improve themselves in 2014.

The Washington Nationals stole Doug Fister from Detroit and added role players Jerry Blevins andNate McLouth to fill out a roster that was among the league’s hottest down the stretch in 2013, while the New York Mets imported Curtis GrandersonBartolo Colon, and Chris Young in an attempt to show some respectability. The Philadelphia Phillies should see some benefit fromMarlon ByrdRoberto Hernandez and the returning Carlos Ruiz, and even the Miami Marlinsdipped their toes in the free-agent waters, adding Jarrod Saltalamacchia to an impressive collection of young talent.

Those teams are all attempting to catch the defending champion Atlanta Braves, who have worked to maintain their edge by … acquiring a catcher who can’t catch (Ryan Doumit) and a pitcher who can’t pitch (Gavin Floyd, recovering from May Tommy John surgery) while bidding farewell to star catcher Brian McCann and longtime starter Tim Hudson.

It’s hard to see those moves as anything but a step down, and so from a baseball perspective, it’s been a decidedly disappointing winter in the Peach State.

The Braves do have enviable young talent on the field and in the rotation, along with the best closer in baseball. But they also have two expensive black holes in the lineup — second base (Dan Uggla) and center field (B.J. Upton) — and are limited by a poor television deal that pays them a fraction of what other clubs receive, as well as a notoriously tight-fisted ownership group that regards the team as merely a minor line item on a larger ledger.

That makes Atlanta’s flexibility limited, since the Braves usually spend about $90 million annually, and a steady payroll is a declining one in today’s increasingly wealthy game. Including Doumit and Floyd, the Braves now have about $55 million committed for 2014, but they still need to set aside approximately $30 million for what was the largest arbitration-eligible group of players in baseball at the beginning of the offseason. Unless ownership suddenly finds itself in an unexpectedly generous mood, Atlanta looks to be getting close to its payroll limit, and the team has little choice but to give Upton a second chance to prove himself.

That said, there is still time for the Braves to salvage the winter, and here are three things they can do to prevent this offseason from being a complete disaster.

Start signing extensions with young players

This isn’t going to immediately make the 2014 roster stronger, because the Braves will have these players anyway. But in addition to helping make a public relations splash by showing that they’re “committing to the future,” or whatever they think ticket-buying fans would like to hear, this would help alleviate in future offseasons what’s limiting them now — an unusually high amount of arbitration cases making for difficulty in projecting cost certainty (see table).

There’s probably a half-dozen such players Atlanta might want to extend — Mike Minor and Andrelton Simmons among them — but tops on the list ought to be Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, two 24-year-old established stars who should represent the core of the Braves’ lineup for years to come.

Freeman is probably just outside the very elite at first base — no slight when we’re talking aboutChris DavisPaul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto — but comfortably ranks as the sixth or seventh best first baseman in baseball by most of the major offensive and total value metrics. Heyward has had some health concerns, but has been a star-level producer in his two completely healthy seasons of 2010 and 2012. Considering their age and talent, the Braves need to buy out a few free-agent seasons while they still can.

Fix second base

There’s bad, and then there’s what Uggla was in 2013, which ended with him not even making Atlanta’s postseason roster as the Braves instead went with Elliot Johnson. Yes, Uggla hit 22 homers, but he also did so with a .364 slugging percentage, making him the only man in the history of the game to hit that many homers with such a low slugging percentage. (Uggla had just 13 other extra-base hits, and only one total after

Over the past two seasons, he’s hit only .201/.330/.374, a huge drop from the six consecutive seasons when he slugged at least .450, all while striking out a whopping 31.8 percent of the time.

Some cling to the fact that late-season laser eye surgery can help him rebound, but it’s unlikely we see a big turnaround at age 34 after two consecutive down seasons. That said, the Braves still owe him $26 million over the next two seasons, and the internal options — mainly reserves Tyler Pastornicky andRamiro Pena, with prospect Tommy La Stella unlikely to be ready in April after just 81 games above Class A — are questionable.

The Braves may need to live with Upton, but it’s difficult to see a contender going into a season with the potential for zero offensive production at three spots, including the pitcher. So what to do?Howie Kendrick is a great fit, since he’s been reportedly very available in trade talks, and the Braves are a good match for an Angels team that is thin on both pitching and prospects. The Giants may be willing to discuss the reliable Marco Scutaro, or Atlanta could try to make a rare deal with the Mets for the very available Daniel Murphy.

However, if the team really wanted to get creative, Atlanta could attempt to send Uggla to a non-contender who is looking for an effective way to spend its cash. That is, a team like the Astros or Cubs may prefer to effectively “buy prospects” from Atlanta in exchange for taking on a decent amount of Uggla’s contract, rather than throw money away on a Nelson Cruz type.

No matter what direction they go in, the Braves can’t simply assume Uggla will rebound. His age and several years of decline say otherwise.

Don’t go crazy for an “ace”

The Braves are unlikely to have the financial resources to be in on Masahiro Tanaka, and don’t seem willing to completely clear out their farm system for David Price, so perhaps this is a given anyway. While certainly every team would love to add another elite starter, the narrative that the Braves can’t succeed without one doesn’t ring true.

As a group, the Atlanta rotation was top-six in both ERA and FIP last year, and while no one will confuse Minor with Clayton Kershaw, Atlanta’s underrated lefty was one of the 30 best starters in the game. As Julio Teheran continues to mature along with Kris MedlenAlex WoodDavid Haleand (when healthy) Brandon Beachy and Floyd, the Braves have a solid enough rotation while waiting on prospects like J.R. Graham and Lucas Sims to arrive.

If a Matt Garza drops into their laps, then fantastic, but it’s not worth the risk considering the other needs this team has.

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.

Fixing Surprising Team Weaknesses

The offseason is barely half over, so teams still have time to fill the remaining holes on their rosters before spring training starts. Some of those weaknesses are obvious; everyone knows, for example, that the Angels need another starting pitcher and that the Yankees, as currently constructed, might not be able to cobble together four healthy infielders at the same time.

However, some teams’ flaws are flying a bit more under the radar and, unless fixed, could have an impact on 2014’s pennant races. Here’s a look at four teams with surprising weaknesses and potential fixes for each.

Team: San Francisco Giants | Weakness: Starting pitching

For a team that has long survived — excelled, really — on great pitching carrying a merely decent offense, the Giants have started to lean the other way over the past year or two. The problem with last season’s 86-loss team wasn’t the lineup, which had three star-level performers (Brandon BeltHunter Pence and Buster Posey) and at least two wins above replacement from all eight lineup positions, counting the combination ofAngel Pagan and Juan Perez in center. It was the starting rotation, where Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong each fell apart, Matt Cain had his worst year since his rookie campaign and Tim Lincecum continued to look like a shell of his former elite self.

Tim Hudson, going on 39 years old and coming off a severely broken ankle, was the Giants’ big winter upgrade, although he should still be a considerable step up from Zito. Even so, a rotation led by underappreciated young ace Madison Bumgarner is largely treading water and, afterranking 27th in MLB in WAR last season with 6.4, is projected to reach just 9.6 this year. (By comparison, Detroit led the majors in 2013 at 25.3.)

Proposed fix: Vogelsong’s comeback story was nice, but he’s best served as depth rather than guaranteed a rotation job. A No. 14 overall pick is too much to give up for free agents Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, so adding Northern California native Matt Garza, the most talented pitcher remaining who’s not subject to a qualifying offer, makes a lot of sense for a team that needs to improve to compete with the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers. The Giants won’t, but they should.

Team: Cincinnati Reds | Weakness: Outfield

Last season, the Reds had three of the better offensive performers in the National League in Shin-Soo ChooJay Bruce and Joey Votto, along with reasonably productive infielders Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips, so it’s somewhat surprising to see them ahead of just five other offenses in FanGraphs’ 2014 WAR projections. That gets less surprising when you see that both left field and center field are projected to be barely above replacement level, with each position ranking worst in the league.

The downgrade from Choo to talented-but-risky Billy Hamilton is obvious, yet it’s really Ryan Ludwick who’s the issue here. Ludwick will turn 36 this year, is coming off a 2013 that was marred by a shoulder injury and poor performance, and has been worth fewer than 2 WAR in three of the past four seasons. Because he’s also a negative defender, he shouldn’t be counted upon to be an everyday player at this point, especially if the Reds are going to gamble on Hamilton in center.

Proposed fix: Choo would be ideal but likely will be priced out of a return to Cincinnati, and the outfield free-agent market behind him, including the overrated Nelson Cruz, is barren. Instead, this is a rarely discussed but smart landing spot for Andre Ethier, whom the Dodgers are likely to deal. Yes, he’s overpriced, but the Dodgers can eat enough salary to make him palatable, and as a top-10 hitter against righty pitching over the past three years, Ethier would make for a great complement to the right-handed Ludwick while adding some Hamilton insurance after spending most of 2013 playing a surprisingly not-awful center field.

Team: Colorado Rockies | Weakness: First base

It’s been a long time since the Rockies needed to fix up first base; the last time they entered a season not expecting Todd Helton to be the primary first baseman was 1997, when the Diamondbacks and Rays had yet to play their first games. With Helton finally riding off into retirement, Colorado went out and signed former Twin Justin Morneau. That would have been fine if this were still 2006, but at age 33, with declining defense and negative value on the bases, Morneau is barely above replacement-level these days. Throw in a total inability to hit lefty pitching — .298 career OBP, a number he hasn’t even managed in a season since 2010 — and it’s easy to see how first base in Colorado could be among the least productive positions in baseball.

Proposed fix: Fortunately, the Rockies have an in-house solution for this problem in Michael Cuddyer, who won a batting title in 2013 but isn’t likely to repeat the .382 batting average on balls in play that helped make it happen. He’s still a reasonably productive hitter, however, and giving him 50 percent or so of the time at first base would not only help minimize Morneau’s exposure, but it also would keep one of the worst defensive right fielders of 2013 from doing as much damage in the outfield. So far this month, Colorado has added defensively proficient outfielders Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs, giving it both the depth and flexibility to make such a move. The Rockies have some interesting pieces, but they just need to deploy them correctly.

Team: Toronto Blue Jays | Weakness: Starting pitching

A year ago, Toronto’s rotation was newly assembled and fascinating, with NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Miami ace Josh Johnson and the reliable Mark Buehrle joining Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ. Beset by injuries and Dickey’s inability to repeat his 2012 performance, last season the Jays ended up using 13 starters, including digging up discards like Ramon Ortiz and Chien-Ming Wang. Now, Johnson is gone to San Diego, Dickey is 39, Morrow’s health can’t be counted on and the Jays suddenly have a rotation that’s middle-of-the-pack at best. In a tough American League East and with a still-dangerous lineup, Toronto badly needs a starter it can rely on in order to make the run it was supposed to go on last season.

Proposed fix: Because Toronto failed to sign its 2012 first-round pick (No. 10 overall) and finished with the No. 9 overall pick this year, the Blue Jays have two protected first-round picks. That means that signing a player who received a qualifying offer would cost them only their second-round pick (their third in the draft, somewhere around No. 45 overall) and shouldn’t cause hesitation on moving on such a player the way it might for other clubs.

Santana is a possible fit, but the better choice is Jimenez, who is less homer-prone than Santana while missing more bats, important in an offense-friendly Toronto park. The draft pick is immaterial here, while the boost to what is clearly a win-now Toronto team is essential.

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.

Boston Should Bring Back Stephen Drew

Earlier this week, we heard reports out of Boston indicating that the Red Sox would “wait out” the market on shortstop Stephen Drew, with the intention of jumping back in if the terms were right. That’s probably an improvement over what they figured would happen at the beginning of the offseason, since a solid player represented by Scott Boras in a very weak field for left-side infield help would have been thought to be an appealing item.

But more than a month into the winter, Drew’s market has been relatively soft. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team most desperately in need of a shortstop, instead signed Jhonny Peralta. Other potential fits like the New York Mets have spent their money elsewhere first, and rumored trade targets like Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera further complicate the market.

Considering his rocky health history and the qualifying offer/draft-pick compensation that hangs over his head, Drew might not be finding a home as easily as we may have thought he would.

For the Red Sox, this presents the perfect scenario, one that they can use to their advantage: they need to bring Drew back.

Depth is a good thing

Considering how many teams have holes on the left sides of their infields, it may seem like the Red Sox are in good shape without Drew, because 21-year-old shortstop/third baseman Xander Bogaerts and 25-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks represent an enviable young duo. Yet the Boston infield pair is still high on risk, as Bogaerts has all of 50 major league plate appearances to his name and Middlebrooks was so inconsistent that he found himself back in Triple-A for a stretch in 2013 before being buried on the bench in the World Series.

Teams that are relatively far from contention can handle the risk of going with two uncertain young players — three if you count the possibility of Jackie Bradley Jr. starting in center — but teams hoping to win a World Series (or in Boston’s case, another World Series) need to have a little more certainty. Even if adding a solid veteran to a part of the roster that already has talent (plus young third baseman Garin Cecchini maybe a year or two away) seems like an embarrassment of riches, well, the Red Sox are one of the teams that can easily handle the financial cost — particularly if Drew’s market forces him to accept a deal below what he’d envisioned.

Drew isn’t a star, but he’d do more than a little to mitigate that risk, having proven himself to be a solid shortstop over his eight seasons in the big leagues. After an excellent 2010 (.355 wOBA), he suffered a badly broken ankle in July 2011 that cost him nearly a full year of play, ruining most of his 2012 as well.

He rebounded in 2013 to contribute more than 3 WAR to the Red Sox in 2013, putting up a .337 wOBA with valuable defense, and giving him a case to be made as a top-10 shortstop in MLBvthis year. Though his strikeout rate has increased, he’s also pushed his walk rate over 10 percent in each of the last two years.

No one should expect Drew to suddenly become a superstar at age 31, but he doesn’t need to be in order to be a valuable player. Most projection systems expect he’ll contribute between 2-to-3 WAR, with double-digit homers and plus defense. Barring another serious injury, it’s difficult to imagine him collapsing completely in the next two or three years.

Increasing trade options

That’s not to say that Bogaerts or Middlebooks won’t work out in 2014, either, just that it’s a lot to expect both of them to be productive everyday players, simultaneously, at this point in their careers. (We saw what happened when Bradley broke camp last April.) Bringing Drew back would not only provide much-needed depth and stability, it would open up a world of possibilities — such as making Middlebrooks available via trade in a market mostly devoid of third baseman.

Middlebrooks has been a particularly difficult player to value, because in 169 career games and 660 plate appearances — essentially one full season — he’s hit 32 homers, which is very good. But he’s also done so with a .294 OBP, 5.0 percent walk rate, and a 25.5 percent strikeout rate, numbers which hurt his value deeply. Big power is nice, but it can’t be the only tool accompanied by contact issues and few walks; if that was okay, Toronto wouldn’t have non-tendered J.P. Arencibia.

Then again, it’s so difficult to find power from third base these days that it’s not hard at all to think that teams would be willing to take a risk on a cost-controlled young player who can’t be a free agent until after 2018. That’s especially so if teams think there’s more growth there as he gains experience and gets further away from a 2012 broken right wrist, and having Drew and Bogaerts at the big-league level with Cecchini on the way would give Boston an intriguing trade chip.

The market there would be fascinating, because his youth and low cost would attract teams without large budgets or contention hopes — the White Sox, Marlins, and Indians all badly need third base help — while his power at a position of need would bring in win-now clubs. (Which is why the “Andre Ethier-for-Middlebrooks” rumors never seem to die.)

The main argument against bringing back Drew is that the Red Sox wouldn’t collect a draft pick that they might have otherwise added had he left. Even that’s not much of a negative, however, because the Sox have already added a pick thanks to Jacoby Ellsbury’s departure to New York, and the value Drew adds to a championship-level team right now is likely to be more than the long-term value of a pick somewhere around No. 32 overall.

With the market for reliable infielders being what it is, they might just be best off taking advantage of retaining a player they already know, one who they have the special privilege of signing without losing their own draft pick, and who would allow them to market Middlebrooks for help elsewhere. There’s a right situation to go all-in on youth with a third of your lineup, but a team looking to win right now is probably not that situation.

Ace Trades Don’t Always Work Out

Forget the Robinson Cano contract, and press pause on the Masahiro Tanaka posting saga, because no possible move this winter has the potential to shake up the game more than Tampa Bay following through on plans to move ace pitcher David Price.

There’s just so much intrigue involved: Who might get him? When would he be traded? And perhaps most importantly, just how massive of a return would the Rays demand? While Tampa fans certainly don’t want to see him go, it’s a bit easier to stomach when they can dream about prospects like Jurickson Profar, Corey Seager or Taijuan Walker wearing Tampa blue.

Perhaps the Rays will be able to pull off another heist like they did last year by swiping Wil Myers and several other prospects from Kansas City for James Shields and Wade Davis, but the sobering truth is that it rarely works out that way. The recent history of teams dealing ace starters very often ends up with a team shipping out its best pitcher for very little return at all.

But what defines an “ace”? There’s no industry standard for the term, of course, so for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll need to set some ground rules. We’ll limit our boundaries to pitchers traded since 2008 who had put up at least one season of 6.0 RA9-WAR in either of the two full seasons prior to the trade, or in the season of the trade itself. That gets us 23 pitcher seasons from 14 pitchers, encompassing 17 trades. (Cliff Lee was traded three times; Zack Greinke twice.)

For the sake of brevity, we’ll eliminate Josh Beckett and Ian Kennedy, both of whom had seen their value drop precipitously by the time of their trades. We’ll also skip last winter’sR.A. Dickey and Shields deals, since it’s simply too soon to draw conclusions, though the latter deal certainly looks good for the Rays. Now we have a list to work from.

We’re left with 13 trades involving topflight pitchers since 2008. How many have actually worked out? It’s overly simplistic to just add the WAR and make a judgment that way, so that shouldn’t be taken as more than adding some context, but it does make for an interesting comparison.

Worked out well …


The Wins

Ace From To Return Return WAR
Dan Haren D-backs Angels Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, Joe Saunders (Matt Lindstrom), Rafael Rodriguez 8.3
Zack Greinke Royals Brewers Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi 9.2
Greinke Brewers Angels Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena 2.6


There are really only three deals that stand out as nice wins, with the gold standard being the 2010 deal that sent Dan Haren from Arizona to the Angels less than a year after a top-five Cy Young finish. At the time, it was seen as a big win for the Angels, but while Haren was very good for a year and a half and mediocre for another, the Diamondbacks receivedPatrick Corbin, who broke out in a big way in 2013; Joe Saunders, who contributed more than 400 innings of decent ball; and nicely regarded prospect Tyler Skaggs.



Really, these two Angels deals, in addition to the first-round picks they sacrificed to sign all their big recent free agents, are more to blame for their current situation than anything else. It’s difficult to compete when you’re constantly moving young talent elsewhere.

… not so much


The Losses

Ace From To Return Return WAR
*Dunn and Vizcaino were later involved in larger trades for Dan Uggla, Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson, not fully accounted for here.
Jake Peavy Padres White Sox Aaron Poreda, Adam Russell, Clayton Richard, Dexter Carter 0.9
CC Sabathia Indians Brewers Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson 5.4
Johan Santana Twins Mets Carlos Gomez (J.J. Hardy), Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, Philip Humber 4.0
Cliff Lee Indians Phillies (w/ Ben Francisco) Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Jason Knapp 3.9
Lee Phillies Mariners Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, J.C. Ramirez -0.6
Roy Oswalt Astros Phillies Jonathan Villar, J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose (Brett Wallace) 0.6
Javier Vazquez Braves Yankees (w/ Boone Logan) Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn, Arodys Vizcaino -1.1*
Lee Mariners Rangers (w/ Mark Lowe) Blake Beavan, Justin Smoak, Josh Lueke (John Jaso/Mike Morse), Matthew Lawson 2.3
Ubaldo Jimenez Indians Rockies Drew Pomeranz, Alex White (Wilton Lopez) 1.8
Roy Halladay Blue Jays Phillies Travis d’Arnaud (R.A. Dickey), Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor (Gose) 1.9


Ten of the 13 trades haven’t quite worked out as well, with the obvious caveat being that in some cases, young players may yet change the score. In most cases, the cumulative value that came back to the teams didn’t equal even a single year of their departed ace.

Generally, what we see here is a whole lot of prospects who just never amounted to anything, with a great example being the CC Sabathia deal in 2008. Matt LaPorta was the big get for Cleveland, but he was a huge bust, putting up negative value in more than 1,000 plate appearances, and he didn’t even see time in the bigs in 2013. The only real value the Indians got was from Michael Brantley, who has been a good-but-not-great outfielder for a few seasons. Just three weeks after the trade, Cleveland did far better by trading three months of decent third baseman Casey Blake to Los Angeles for catching prospect Carlos Santana, who has established himself as one of the better young hitters in the game.

The Roy Halladay deal looked good at the time, since all three prospects were highly regarded. But Kyle Drabek blew out his arm and his future remains uncertain; Travis d’Arnaud was of course part of the Dickey deal, while Michael Taylor turned into Brett Wallace and then Anthony Gose, who has speed but massive plate discipline problems. Even when players involved have panned out, it’s been for other teams, like Carlos Gomez, who has developed into a star for Milwaukee, or Melky Cabrera, who was horrible in Atlanta before finding success in Kansas City and San Francisco.

Then there’s Cliff Lee, who was famously traded three times for a total of 11 players within the span of a year, starting in July 2009. Nearly as famously, all three trades turned out to be enormous busts for the teams that let Lee go. Believe it or not, the most productive player involved in any of the deals may have been Lou Marson, who gave Cleveland a few seasons of decent play as a backup catcher before being non-tendered on Monday.

The most highly regarded prospect at the time was probably first baseman Justin Smoak, who has spent nearly 2,000 plate appearances since then proving that he’s merely a replacement-level player. The others have been slowed by injury, legal issues or just plain mediocrity.

Obviously, this isn’t an exact science, particularly since Price has two full seasons of control left while some of these pitchers had only one or even less — and if there’s any front office that has shown it knows how to trade an ace, it’s Tampa’s. But the Myers trade, immediately panned by nearly every non-Royals observer, is the baseball equivalent of a lightning strike. It’s going to be difficult to expect that kind of return to happen twice.

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.