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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.