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25 MLB Players Under the Most Pressure in 2014

The lifestyle of an MLB player seems like a blast, right?

Yes, unless you’re an impending free agent, highly touted young player, oft-injured veteran or something in between. Then there’s pressure.

That’s what all professional athletes sign up for. Along with copious amounts of money and fame, you’re burdened with responsibilities to your teammates, fans and front-office executives.

The following 25 guys are either justifying an existing contract or proving themselves worthy of a new one while eyeing the 2014 World Series.


*Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise specified.

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Predicting 10 MLB Players Who Will Have Big Bounce-Back 2014 Seasons

Looking at an MLB player’s stats alone, it can be difficult to distinguish between simple disappointment and the onset of a decline.

However, evaluating these 10 individuals within the proper context suggests that their 2013 seasons fell into the former category. They’re due to bounce back strong this coming year.

Once-great sluggers like Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira succumbed to severe injuries, as did power pitchers Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow. Several of these players found themselves in environments that didn’t suit their skills, and all of them fell victim to bad luck.

To earn inclusion on this list, these veterans needed to give us reasons to trust that they’ll put their lost 2013 seasons behind them and rival their production from previous years in 2014.


*Stats provided by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

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Is Grant Balfour Now a Viable Buy-Low Option on MLB Free-Agent Closer Market?

After trading away closer Jim Johnson in early December, the Baltimore Orioles locked in on free agent Grant Balfour as their ideal replacement.

They even reached a two-year agreement with the right-hander this past Tuesday, per Roch Kubatko of Only a routine physical exam stood between them and an official deal.

However, executive vice president Dan Duquette stated that Balfour’s performance on the exam didn’t meet Baltimore’s standards, according to Kubatko:

“The Orioles were disappointed that we couldn’t complete a contract with Grant Balfour,” Duquette said. “The reason is the club’s not satisfied with the results of the physical exam.

“We would never say never or close the door, but we’re turning our attention elsewhere for now to look at some other options to try to staff our team and try to build a contending team for 2014.”

Now, the other 29 MLB teams have an opportunity to get him. Question is, what exactly will they be getting?

Per Kubatko, Duquette wants “to protect confidentiality,” so we don’t know which of Balfour’s bodily regions is damaged, nor can we infer what the severity of the injury is.

The only irrefutable statement that can be made about the fiery Australian is that he’s among the best closer candidates remaining:

*Finished 2013 on the disabled list (shoulder strain).

If whatever ails Balfour is benign enough to heal prior to Opening Day 2014, then he could still be line for a multi-year deal elsewhere.

Unfortunately, there’s a possibility that he’s battling a legitimate injury. Notice the contrast between the first four and final two months of his age-35 season:

Balfour threw a lower percentage of strikes down the stretch, and his shaky results reflected that. That’s worth noting because command issues occasionally arise when an injured pitcher modifies his delivery to avoid using a sensitive muscle group.

Then again, Balfour’s velocity barely varied at all throughout the summer. According to Brooks Baseball, his fastballs averaged between 93.57 and 94.37 miles per hour during every month of the regular season.

Balfour fans can breathe sighs of relief. If there were a torn ligament in his elbow or shoulder, for example, we would expect to observe reduced heat.

Nonetheless, the Orioles must’ve uncovered something substantial. The fact that Duquette expressed no willingness to renegotiate with Balfour after valuing him at $15 million mere days ago indicates that he probably isn’t fit to take the mound at the moment.

Perhaps Balfour’s heavy workload toward the end of 2012 has caught up to him.

The Oakland Athletics used him on five consecutive days from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 in order to ensure an AL West title. In each of those last four appearances, he completed a full inning on zero days’ rest. That’s a streak matched by only 10 pitchers so far this millennium!

But so much for that theory. Balfour tells Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he’s physically in All-Star form:

Although Balfour doesn’t consider himself a buy-low candidate, the fact remains that Baltimore backed away from him, thus shrinking his list of potential suitors. As a free agent, he’s fighting for the best contract possible, and other teams recognize that, so they’re more likely to trust Duquette‘s words over his.

Prior to that aforementioned stretch of August/September sloppiness, Balfour had spent the previous few years flaunting above-average swing-and-miss stuff and complementing it with solid strike-throwing ability. Consistency distinguished him from Chris Perez, Fernando Rodney and everybody else who’s still on the market.

Therefore, the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners (among others) shouldn’t hesitate to inquire about Balfour and haggle for a discounted-yet-incentive-laden deal.


Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.

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Offseason Mistakes MLB Teams Won’t Be Able to Recover from

Through less than two months of MLB offseason activity, the following teams have already done irreparable damage to themselves.

We’ve witnessed baseball’s version of binge eating from several clubs this winter, those who made big-name acquisitions that they’ll inevitably regret, both in the short term and several years down the road. Meanwhile, heavy-spending franchises who expect to contend immediately made questionable decisions that will ultimately impede them from qualifying for the 2014 playoffs.

Although additional shrewd moves can minimize these mistakes, they won’t fully offset them.


*Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise specified.

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What Omar Infante Deal Means for Short-Term Plans for Royals, Yankees

The Kansas City Royals exacted their revenge on the New York Yankees, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, by outbidding them for second baseman Omar Infante. They agreed to terms Friday on a four-year, $30 million deal.

Olney visualizes the Royals’ potential Opening Day lineup, which is about as menacing as any you’ll see from a small-market team:

But this doesn’t mean that their offseason work is complete. And rest assured, the Yankees don’t intend to hibernate through the rest of the winter, either.

Let’s consider how the Infante signing will influence the conduct of these playoff hopefuls between now and the start of the 2014 season.


What’s Next for Kansas City?

The player in the Royals organization who’s most directly affected by the Infante news is Christian Colon.

The 24-year-old was added to the 40-man roster in November, via Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star, to protect him from being taken in the Rule 5 Draft. He slashed .273/.335/.379 through 131 games at Triple-A last summer. Assistant general manager J.J. Picollo referred to Colon as a second baseman with the potential to be a “very steady, everyday player” at the major league level.

How’s he going to get that opportunity with Infante under contract through 2017?

Presumably by changing teams.

The versatile Emilio Bonifacio, who has substantial MLB experience in both the infield and outfield, now slides into the utility role that Colon was hoping to compete for in spring training.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore could use Colon as the centerpiece of a package for a controllable starting pitcher. Although Moore inked left-hander Jason Vargas to a $32 million deal in November, he’s not expected to individually replace Ervin Santana’s production.

Completing a signing of this magnitude could also be an indication that Billy Butler is getting dealt. The All-Star slugger is owed $8 million in 2014, plus there’s a 2015 club option worth $12.5 million ($1 million buyout).

Butler hogs the designated hitter’s spot on a daily basis, and that type of player has gradually become less popular around the American League. Moore even admits to Dutton that he’d like to rotate several players using the DH rule.

Either way, change seems imminent.


What’s Next for New York?

The Cincinnati Reds approached the Yankees about a Brandon Phillips trade during the winter meetings, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman.

They rejected it.

Now, this Infante development could send Bombers general manager Brian Cashman begging to get his seat back at the negotiating table. That’s because beyond Phillips, there don’t appear to be any potentially available second basemen who are definitively better than New York’s own Kelly Johnson.

The Atlanta Braves’ Dan Uggla is a year older than Phillips, owed more annually for the remainder of his contract, inferior with the glove and coming off a summer in which his strikeout total (171) nearly matched his batting average (.179). Free agent Brian Roberts never ceases to find new ways to sustain significant injuries. Mark Ellis is the oldest of them all—turns 37 in June—and although very effective in the field, he’s not a steady source of power, speed or durability.

On the bright side, settling for Roberts or Ellisor ignoring the second-base market entirelyencourages the Yankees to pursue top-tier free-agent starting pitching. Masahiro Tanaka appears to be the top priority, but Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez also compare favorably to the question marks currently filling out the back end of the club’s projected rotation.

The New York Post conveniently monitors the Yankees’ 2014 payroll to show how much wiggle room they have left before exceeding the $189 million luxury-tax threshold.

Here’s how they’re shaping out:

Looks like the Yankees have maxed out, right?

Keep in mind, however, that the signings of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have given them a surplus of outfielders. Unless an injury occurs early in spring training, either Brett Gardner, Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki or Vernon Wells will depart prior to the regular season.

And how could we forget about the Alex Rodriguez saga? If his 211-game suspension holds, there will be another $27.5 million removed from their books. Even a reduction to 50 or 100 games would enable Cashman to acquire one of the aforementioned arms.

Missing out on Infante was certainly a disappointment for the Yankees, but they won’t dwell on it for long.


Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.

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Will Masahiro Tanaka Be Posted Now That Japanese Owners Will Help Foot the Bill?

This coming Monday ought to be a day for rejoicing around Major League Baseball, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the revised posting system for international players will be ratified.

Great! That means Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old who’s been compiling video-game numbers for Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles, will finally make the leap to the majors, right?

Although Rakuten‘s decision-makers were noncommittal at MLB‘s winter meetings, ESPN the Magazine‘s Buster Olney passes along a new development that might motivate them to post him after all: 

The subtext here is that the other Nippon Professional Baseball teams are suffering so much from Tanaka‘s right arm that they’d literally pay the Golden Eagles to get rid of him. With filthy splitters that make even Cuban stars look silly, you can understand why he’s been so successful.

Under the previous rules, professional teams overseas were allowed to collect blind bids from MLB suitors.

For example, Japanese stars Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish were posted for $51.1 million and $51.7 million, respectively, and all of that money went directly to their former employers. Then there was a 30-day window during which the player could negotiate his major league contract.

Entering this offseason, the expectation was that the dearth of front-line starting pitching available in free agency and spike in revenue from television contracts would compel contending teams to bid even more on Tanaka.

The problem is they’re not allowed to anymore.

The maximum allowable posting fee will be only $20 million. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! SportsRakuten assistant general manager Aki Sasaki has hinted that he doesn’t see that as much of an incentive—especially with Tanaka under team control through 2015 and bound to generate profit off the field.

President Yozo Tachibana has also issued comments on the subject. As Baseball America‘s Ben Badler translates, “If Tanaka wants to go to MLB, they would like to let him leave.”

It’s essentially the same message, but with a different tone. Tanaka has already established that his “dream” is to pitch against the world’s toughest competition in the U.S. and Tachibana wants to grant his wish…if it makes business sense.

The resolution to this drama will partially hinge on how much money the other 11 NPB teams offer.

Tanaka‘s undefeated season—which earned him the equivalent of a Cy Young Award—led the Golden Eagles to the 2013 Japan Series title. Without their ace, the odds of repeating would obviously be reduced dramatically, thus opening the door a bit wider for everybody else. 

How much are those competitors willing to spend to increase their championship odds?

Aside from upsetting the numerous MLB clubs eager to bid for his services, the pitcher himself might also react poorly to the news that he’s being withheld from advancing his career.

What if Tanaka spends 2014 pouting? And if he fails to replicate those brilliant results, would he still generate much buzz among Rakuten‘s fanbase?

There’s also the risk of his insane workload—30 complete games since 2011 and about eight innings per start—resulting in a serious injury that deters any team from posting $20 million the following offseason.

After weighing all of those factors, the Golden Eagles will likely allow Tanaka to depart, wiping their tears of sorrow with wads of cash.


Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.

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All 30 MLB Teams’ Biggest Needs, Targets Coming out of the Winter Meetings

The MLB winter meetings were lacking in major transactions, but all 30 teams returned home with a better understanding of their roster needs and which players are capable of addressing them.

Rest assured, front office staffs intend to continue exploring free agency and the trade market in preparation for the 2014 season.

There’s still enough time remaining in the offseason to think ambitiously. Multiple teams still have their sights set on Shin-Soo Choo, Masahiro Tanaka, David Price and others with franchise-changing talent.

With two months to go until spring training gets underway, here’s a look at who’s being targeted by each club.


*Stats provided by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

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Are Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury Deals Enough to Offset Yankees’ Losses?

Nobody is offering the New York Yankees a shoulder to cry on following Friday’s free-agent departures of Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson.

That’s because the club opened up its wallet this week for Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, a pair of All-Stars with comparable offensive potential. Including the newly introduced Brian McCann, the Yanks have committed $283 million to three lineup fixtures, while the competition spent $300 million even to lure Cano and Granderson away:

Now, let’s consider how much production is coming and going from the Bronx: 

So that’s pretty fascinating—the overall value that these newcomers have provided over the past four years has been eerily similar to what New York was getting from Cano and Granderson. They—mostly Ellsbury—offset the lack of sheer power with superior efficiency on the basepaths.

And Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch is at least partially responsible for the discrepancy in those aforementioned home run numbers. MetsBlog’s Maggie Wiggin used ESPN Home Run Tracker data to show that the “Grandy Man,” in particular, would generate substantially fewer round-trippers at another ballpark.

The Yankees’ high-profile signees should similarly reap the benefits of the stadium’s friendly dimensions. Ellsbury and McCann both swing from the left side of the plate, while the switch-hitting Beltran does for the majority of his plate appearances.

One concern for the 2014 offense, however, is how it will fare against southpaws.

The three prominent additions all posted dramatic platoon splits this past summer:

  • Beltran in 2013: .871 OPS vs. RHP, .729 vs. LHP; Beltran in MLB career: .847 OPS vs. RHP, .878 OPS vs. LHP.
  • Ellsbury in 2013: .863 OPS vs. RHP, .641 OPS vs. LHP; Ellsbury in MLB career: .813 OPS vs RHP, .733 OPS vs LHP.
  • McCann in 2013: .869 OPS vs. RHP, .616 OPS vs. LHP; McCann in MLB career: .857 OPS vs. RHP, .744 OPS vs. LHP. 

The 2013 team won 58.2 percent of the time when lefties started against them, per, compared to only 52.5 percent of their games overall.

Could the advantage they had suddenly morph into an Achilles’ heel?

It probably won’t, thankfully. As you can see, the struggles were uncharacteristic in each of case. If these players’ future performances bear more resemblance to their lifetime norms, then yes, they’re capable of offsetting the Yankees’ losses of Cano and Granderson.

Fans of the pinstripes can eagerly await plenty more “See ya!” moments. They’ll just have to get used to attributing them to new faces.


Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.

Follow @MrElyminator


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Grading Newest Wave of MLB Major Offseason Transactions

Who needs the MLB winter meetings? 

Teams evidently didn’t want to wait until the second week of December to complete major offseason transactions. Impact players like Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Beltran all made decisions about their baseball futures on Thursday and Friday.

Grades for the latest signings and trades hinged on the financial consequences, of course, but also the “goodness of fit.” Adding experienced, talented (and, often, expensive) individuals is only appropriate when there are rosters that can be markedly improved by their presence. We’ve exposed a few violators of that concept.

Let’s recap and evaluate this exhilarating wave of moves.


*Stats via Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

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Nostalgia, Loyalty Not Enough to Keep David Freese a Cardinal

Barely two years removed from establishing himself as a World Series hero and a contract-extension candidate, David Freese was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday afternoon:

This expulsion from the organization speaks volumes about how disappointed St. Louis was in Freese’s recent performance. Acquiring him from the San Diego Padres was John Mozeliak’s first major transaction as general manager (h/t Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch), so letting him go was understandably gut-wrenching:

In general, the Cardinals are extraordinarily loyal to players that rise through their farm system. The vast majority of their 2013 NL-pennant-winning roster was comprised of such individuals.

But the front office evidently doesn’t trust Freese to improve upon this past summer’s replacement-level production.

From an offensive perspective, his age-30 season was clearly inferior to his previous three campaigns:

St. Louis used to be grateful for his high batting average and solid on-base skills, but that 2013 triple-slash line wasn’t any better than what MLB third basemen posted collectively.

And Freese’s rough defense at the hot corner didn’t come close to compensating. According to FanGraphs, only Miguel Cabrera rated worse at the position in terms of DRS, and nobody rivaled his awful -22.7 UZR/150.

These struggles were also easily recognizable to the naked eye.

Consider the following postseason examples:

Mind-boggling production with runners in scoring position isn’t going to carry the Cardinals to another NL Central title; improving with the gloves was a high priority entering this offseason.

Despite a .988 fielding percentage, they ranked 27th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating and allowed the National League’s third-highest batting average on balls in play.

Of course, Freese shouldn’t be held wholly responsible for their subpar fielding. Center fielder Jon Jay also had issues, and Matt Carpenter never looked completely comfortable at second base.

However, as ESPN’s Jim Bowden explains via Twitter, exchanging Freese for Peter Bourjos instantly remedies several of the team’s ills:

Although it seems cruel that the Cardinals shipped Freese across the country, the move spared them from a more awkward situation—not tendering him a contract.

Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors projected him to receive a pay raise from $3.15 million to $4.4 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility. That’s a gutsy commitment to make to a possibly declining player who’s vulnerable to injury.

There was also a non-analytical side to all of this.

Freese grew up in the St. Louis area and admired the Cardinals. During his outstanding hot streak in the 2011 playoffs, he told Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger about how he was “flattered” by the community’s outpouring of support.

With that said, those closest to Freese admit that representing his hometown team also had its challenges:

Cardinals fans will always cherish Freese’s clutch contributions, but shouldn’t let nostalgia affect their perception of this trade. It’s in the best interest of all parties.


Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter. 

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