Tag: Horsehide Chronicles

How Yankees’ Spending Spree Is a Perfect Storm of Opportunity and Necessity

Robinson Cano chose to bolt for the Seattle Mariners over re-signing with the New York Yankees, as one is wont to do when 10 years for $240 million is offered.

But never mind that. They may have lost Cano, but the Yankees most definitely haven’t gotten cheap. On the contrary, they’re in the middle of a classic pinstriped spending spree, one born out of a perfect storm of opportunity and necessity.

After losing Cano to the Mariners, Friday saw the Yankees respond by re-upping with starter Hiroki Kuroda and agreeing to terms with outfielder Carlos Beltran. Kuroda‘s deal is for one year and $16 million, and Beltran’s is for three years and $45 million.

With the $12 million contract Derek Jeter signed instead of activating his $9.5 million option added, this is what the Yankees’ offseason haul looks like so far with data courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors:

Seven players for $319 million. After a quiet offseason last year, the Yankees are back.

The most obvious driving force behind the spending spree is the reality that the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2013. The last time that happened was in 2008, and the result was somebody in the front office pushing a big red button that delivered over $400 million to CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.

Now here we are in the 2013-14 offseason after the Yankees missed the playoffs once again, and things are adhering to the same big-red-button pattern. That’s not a coincidence.

The formula for what’s happening in the Bronx now, however, isn’t as simple as a knee-jerk reaction with precedent. There are financial forces at work as well.

The 2008-09 season was the last year in New York for Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Mike Mussina and Carl Pavano. A rough estimate via the figures on Baseball-Reference.com says the Yankees shed over $60 million when they walked.

As such, the Yankees spent money the ensuing winter because they could. It’s the same thing this winter, except on a much more extreme scale.

Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, here are the salaries the Yankees had come off the books when 2013 ended:

That’s close to $100 million. Even in terms of Yankees dollars, that’s a lot.

The only salaries actually set in stone for 2014 were those belonging to Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano. Add up those players’ 2014 salaries and subtract the money the Yankees are getting from Chicago and Anaheim for Soriano and Wells, and you get about $90 million.

The Yankees’ stated goal is to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014. When the offseason began, there was $100 million standing between them and that goal. Quite the offseason budget, that.

And we haven’t even discussed the possibility that the Yankees won’t be paying A-Rod in 2014. If his 211-game suspension stemming from the Biogenesis investigation is upheld, it will be without pay. The result would be another $26 million for the Yankees to spend.

An offseason with this much payroll wiggle room has been several years in the making. The following numbers aren’t perfect, given that they reflect how things stood on Opening Day, but here’s a look at what Cot’s Baseball Contracts has on record since 2009:

The Yankees were poised to have plenty of money to spend in the offseason once the 2012-13 season began, but nothing like what they found themselves with heading into this offseason. The Yankees began the winter with a blank slate unlike any they’d had in years.

And why would they save this blank slate for a rainy day? The Yankees don’t have any up-and-comers to worry about extending, for one. And for two: They’re the Yankees. Spending money is what they do.

A big reason for that is you have to spend money to make money. And when the Yankees miss the postseason, they have to deal with something more ominous than a mopey fanbase: a skinny bottom line.

Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote a piece about that which can be summed up in one sentence: “When the Yankees fail to make the playoffs, as they did in 2013, their revenues plummet.”

There’s this:

Proceeds from ticket sales and stadium suite licenses alone totaled $295 million through Sept. 30 this year, according to public records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. That is down from $353 million in 2012, $377 million in 2011 and $384 million in 2010, the records show.

And for perspective:

Had the Yankees failed to reach the playoffs in 2012, their ticket and suite revenues would have been closer to $300 million rather than $353 million…

In other words, a Yankees team that wins 93 games and makes the playoffs brings in about 15% more ticket and suite revenue than a Yankees team that wins 88 games and misses the playoffs. And that is to say nothing of the boost in merchandise and concession sales and next-year ticket sales.

Now, we know the Yankees as the richest franchise in the sport, and for good reasons.

Per figures compiled by Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs last November, the Yankees own 34 percent of the YES Network and make $90 million (and rising) per year off it. Next to that, the Yankees get their share of MLB’s national TV deals and of the revenue generated by MLB Advanced Media. The value of the franchise, according to Peter J. Schwartz of Bloomberg, is over $3 billion.

But Costa highlighted something that’s not talked about when it comes to the Yankees’ financial might. They’re an organization that’s used to winning and to the money that comes from winning.

For them, that money’s not a bonus. Ever since it long ago became a fact of life, it’s a necessity.

“I know there’s people out there who have said, ‘Well, the Yankees just have this money machine that just keeps printing money,'” Vince Gennaroauthor of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball, told Costa. “Let me tell you: If the Yankees were an 85-win team or an 83-win team for three or four years in a row, they would suffer financially orders of magnitude more than any other franchise.”

If the Yankees had kept quiet this winter, they would have been risking another less-than-awesome roster for 2014. Given how a less-than-awesome roster fared in a deep AL East in 2013, that would not have been wise.

Rather than risk year two of a doomy-gloomy postseason-less stretch, the Yankees have gone for the quick fix. And though it’s not quite finished, the team they’ve constructed for 2014 certainly resembles a winner far more than the roster constructed for 2013.

So this spending spree? It’s not that wild once you consider the size of the Yankees’ budget; it’s one their bottom line from 2013 demanded to happen, and it already looks like it’s going to be worthwhile.

It’s almost like the Yankees know what they’re doing.


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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Identifying Biggest Buyers and Sellers at Upcoming MLB Winter Meetings

The most common thought of the week—I know because I’ve said it, wrote it, texted it and tweeted it myself—is how there won’t be much left for teams to do at next week’s winter meetings because everything has already happened.

That, of course, isn’t true. It just seems that way after 25 free agents signed major league contracts this week while eight trades were made involving 23 players, according to MLBDepthCharts.com’s Transaction Tracker

In reality, there is still plenty that could occur and several teams haven’t even made their first move yet. Others that have been busy aren’t anywhere near finished making over their roster. And in a setting where general managers can meet face-to-face with fellow general managers, free-agent players and their agents, things tend to happen at a much more rapid pace.  

That setting is Orlando, Florida, home of this year’s winter meetings. Beginning on Monday, December 9, all 30 organizations will be represented heavily by front-office personnel and anyone else involved in making key decisions. By Thursday, most will head out of town and several players will have changed teams. 

Here are five teams to keep an eye on, either because they’re likely to be one of the most active in pursuing impact talent and/or because they have impact talent to trade. 

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (Buyer)

General manager Kevin Towers has yet to add any talent to his big league roster this offseason, but he did clear up some space in a crowded bullpen and freed up $5 million from his payroll when he traded Heath Bell to the Rays. And he could be gearing up to make a splash next week in Orlando.

With reports that Towers is shopping for a power bat—Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported that they were in discussions with the A’s on a potential deal that would’ve landed them Yoenis Cespedes; Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic wrote that they made a strong push for Carlos Beltran before he signed with the Yankees—and/or an ace starter, as was reported by Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, it would be a surprise if the D’backs went home empty-handed. 

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (Buyer/Seller)

The Dodgers have been quiet, making just two notable roster moves thus far. Bringing back veteran reliever Brian Wilson to set up for closer Kenley Jansen and Dan Haren to fill out the back of the rotation has cost the Dodgers a total of $20 million (each is guaranteed $10 million for 2014).

They’re capable of much more, although general manager Ned Colletti could be more focused on trading one of his outfielders. 

Next week could be his best chance to gauge interest in his trio of outfielders that he’s willing to trade—Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp (pictured). Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported last month that the Dodgers were willing to listen to offers on all three.

Kemp would be the biggest catch and his agent, former big league pitcher Dave Stewart, told Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston that he has a “strong feeling something could happen” involving his client in Orlando next week. Nick Cafardo wrote last month that the Red Sox had inquired on Kemp as a possible replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury, who signed with the Yankees.

With Carlos Beltran, Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson all coming off of the free-agent board in recent days, teams could be more focused on adding outfield help through trades. If Shin-Soo Choo signs over the weekend or early next week, Colletti might be the most popular man around the hotel lobby for the remainder of the meetings.

3. New York Yankees (Buyer)

Carlos Beltran. Jacoby Ellsbury. Hiroki Kuroda. Brian McCann. What an amazing start to the offseason for the Yankees! But they’re not done. At least they better not be. They still have an infield spot to fill, as well as a starting pitcher and at least one late-inning reliever to add before we can declare them playoff contenders once again. 

Free agency is still the likely route for general manager Brian Cashman, although the addition of Beltran and Ellsbury could make Brett Gardner expendable. 

They could also wait for Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka to be posted, although there is no guarantee that his team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, will make him available this year, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. Instead, they could focus their attention on one of the top three free-agent starters, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, all who are still available. 

4. Seattle Mariners (Buyer)

The Mariners made a huge statement when they agreed to sign star second baseman Robinson Cano to a ten-year, $240 million deal early Friday—the news was first reported by Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes. But they weren’t one superstar player away from being legitimate contenders in the AL West. 

And general manager Jack Zduriencik knows that, which is why the M’s are still expected to make news this offseason in free agency, the trade market or both. Acquiring ace starter David Price would be another step in the right direction and the M’s think they have the package of players to make a deal happen, according to Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports

Even if they don’t land Price, the fact that he’s on their radar shows that the M’s aren’t close to being finished in their quest to build a contender for 2014. 

5. Tampa Bay Rays (Buyer/Seller)

The Rays would very likely trade ace David Price (pictured) in the right deal and 17-of-21 front-office personnel surveyed by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick last month think that he’ll be traded. Whether it happens or not, expect this to be the No. 1 topic next week in Orlando.

The Rays are also shopping for a first baseman and they’re interested in re-signing James Loney, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. They could also acquire their next first baseman in a deal for Price or in a smaller deal involving one of a handful of players around the league that could be available, including Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland or Logan Morrison, who the Marlins are willing to listen to offers on, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald


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Fantasy Baseball Impact of Offseason Moves Heading into the Winter Meetings

The hot stove is officially cookin‘, but with Major League Baseball’s winter meetings set to start on Monday, Dec. 9, in Orlando, it’s as good a time as any to take a break from all the heat—and take stock of the fantasy impact from all the activity.

With plenty more action—and transactions—still to come next week and beyond, let’s dissect the fantasy fallout from some of the bigger moves we’ve seen over just the past week or so, with a focus on key players who have seen their value go one way or the other—up or down—thus far.

*All transactions through Friday, Dec. 6


Value Up

Prince Fielder, 1B, Rangers

The trade from the Tigers in exchange for Ian Kinsler (who’s value doesn’t change much, by the way) helps Fielder’s bat a lot. Comerica may have had a slightly higher home run rating in ESPN’s park factors last year, but, c’mon: This is Rangers Ballpark we’re talking about, which ranked No. 7 in 2012 and No. 1 overall in home run factor only two years ago. A return to 30-plus four-baggers should be, well, in the bag.


Brian McCann, C; Jacoby Ellsbury, OF; and Carlos Beltran, OF, Yankees

These three lefty (or in Beltran’s case, switch) hitters—all free-agent signings—get to say, “Hello, Yankee Stadium!” While Ellsbury‘s 32-homer 2011 is going to remain a crazy outlier, it’s not out of the question that he could be a 15-homer, 50-steal guy, which keeps him in the discussion as a first-round pick.

McCann, meanwhile, could put his pull power to use and launch 25-30 homers, which would be super valuable from a catcher position that is lacking in elite options.

And Beltran shouldn’t have much trouble matching, or even exceeding, the 17 of his 24 homers he hit from the left side in 2013. That should allow him to maintain his third-outfielder status for another year.


Doug Fister, RHP, Nationals

Fister, acquired from the Tigers for three non-fantasy relevants, doesn’t get a ton of love in fantasy because his strikeouts are only so-so (career 6.3 per nine). But heading to a more neutral park and the National League, where he’ll face pitchers instead of designated hitters, should bump up his Ks and lower his ERA, too. To wit, he sports a career 7.6 K/9 and 2.09 ERA in 73.1 innings against NL competition.


Jurickson Profar, 2B, Rangers

No more Kinsler means an everyday job for this former consensus top prospect in baseball. Granted, he was disappointing as a rookie (.234 BA, 6 HR, 2 SB), but he was only 20, managed all of 284 at-bats and was shifted all over the field. More stability should lead to more consistency—and double digits in homers and steals at the second-base position.


Justin Morneau, 1B, Rockies

Look, the 2006 AL MVP, who signed as a free agent, is no longer the fantasy stud he once was, but if you don’t think he could have a mini-revival (say, .290 with 20-plus homers) at Coors Field, you could miss out on a roster-worthy utility/backup first baseman in fantasy.


Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers

After shipping Fielder out, Detroit will put Miguel Cabrera back at first base, per Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. That allows top prospect Castellanos, a third baseman who was switched to the outfield and hit .276 with 37 doubles and 18 homers at Triple-A in 2013, to show he’s ready to win the hot-corner gig with a strong spring. If he does, he could be a contender for rookie of the year contender, which is always nice in fantasy.


Kole Calhoun, OF, Angels

Calhoun is the likely starter in left—and in a very strong Angels lineup—now that Peter Bourjos is out of the picture in St. Louis. In near-regular playing time over the second half last year, Calhoun hit .282 with eight homers and 32 RBI in fewer than 200 at-bats. He’s more of an AL-only option, but one with upside.


Khris Davis, OF, Brewers

Milwaukee swapped Nori Aoki in part to open a spot for Davis, who hit .279 with 11 home runs in only 119 at-bats from July on last year. He’s a starter-worthy outfielder in NL-only play and a sleeper in mixed formats.


Jackie Bradley, Jr., OF, Red Sox

Ellsbury‘s successor doesn’t possess loud skills, but the 2011 first-round selection does have the tools to reach double digits in both homers and steals while posting a strong OBP, which makes him an intriguing fourth outfielder in fantasy. If he works his way into the leadoff spot in Boston’s lineup, there’s more production to be had.


Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds

Ryan Hanigan being traded to Tampa Bay clears the way for Mesoraco—a former first-rounder and top-tier prospect only two years ago—to finally get a shot to start in a good ballpark for hitters. The career average (.225) leaves a lot to be desired, but the righty swinger does have 16 career homers in 589 career plate appearances across parts of three seasons.


Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria, RHPs, Rangers

No more Joe Nathan, now a Tiger, means that these two former closers—both now more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery—are the top in-house ninth-inning candidates for a solid Texas team (at least at the moment). Soria might have the arm up, if only because he was healthy by last July, whereas Feliz returned in September. One of them is likely to be an undervalued saves option come March.


Heath Bell, RHP, Rays

Would it really shock anyone if Bell followed in the footsteps of Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney as the latest reclamation project-turned-All-Star the Rays make good on at closer? Just don’t invest in Bell, who was a part of that three-team deal involving Hanigan, as anything more than a third or fourth closer.


Scott Kazmir, LHP, Athletics

Amazingly, Kazmir not only resurrected his career last year, but he also returned to being a strikeout-an-inning guy (162 K in 158 IP). While that might not persist, he’s still only 30 in 2014 and moves to a fantastic park after inking with Oakland.


Drew Smyly, LHP, Tigers

Fister‘s departure opened up a rotation spot for Smyly, who has shown he can get big leaguers out as a reliever. He’ll lose a little as a starter, so last year’s 2.37 ERA and 9.6 K/9 won’t be repeated, but the southpaw now has spot-starter potential for fantasy.


Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon, OFs, Rockies

One or the other could seize a starting role with the departure of Dexter Fowler to Houston. Anyone who gets to hit at Coors Field is worth at least monitoring. For what it’s worth, Dickerson had a .775 OPS in 213 plate appearances, while Blackmon‘s was .803 in 258. They both hit lefty, but Blackmon is better against same-siders (in a small sample), so maybe there’s a platoon possibility. NL-only owners need to know their names.


Tommy Hunter, RHP, Orioles

With the trade of Jim Johnson to the A’s, if the season started tomorrow, the hard-throwing Hunter might be the Orioles closer. Of course, the season doesn’t start for five more months, so this is likely to change once Baltimore brings in someone with ninth-inning experience, like Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney or Chris Perez, as Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com speculates.


Henry Urrutia, OF, Orioles

Nate McLouth is headed to the Nationals, according to Bill Ladson of MLB.com. That means that left field is wide open in Baltimore. We’ve already seen enough of Nolan Reimolds and Steve Pearces to know they’re no good. Urrutia, a 26-year-old Cuban defector has some potential with the bat (.347/.406/.506 across Double- and Triple-A) and could turn into a nice AL-only play next year, if the O’s can’t land the big bat they are chasing, like Nelson Cruz.


Michael Choice, OF, Rangers

Similarly, until Texas finds another corner outfielder to play over Choiceacquired from Oakland—who has some pop, with a .445 SLG at Triple-A last year—the 10th pick in 2010 could be in line for some PT. It’s unlikely the Rangers don’t address this spot, though.


Value Down

Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners

That tweet might help allay some fears about what could happen to Cano’s performance after moving onto the Mariners. While he will remain the No. 1 second baseman on fantasy boards, the fact is that he’s hitting in a worse lineup and a worse park now that he’s no longer a Yankee.

Cano will still be a fantasy first-rounder, but now there are enough question marks surrounding him that he could wind up being 2014’s version of Giancarlo Stanton.

If you dislike downside in Round 1, he might be one to avoid.


Curtis Granderson, OF, Mets

When the offseason began, there was an outside chance that Granderson might’ve stayed in New York—with the Yankees, that is—but instead, he heads across town to a tough place to hit and joins a team that has struggled offensively in recent years. He’s a bounce-back candidate, just not a bounce-back-to-40-homers candidate.


Dexter Fowler, OF, Astros

When you’re traded away from a park where you hit .298/.395/.485 for your career—compared to just .241/.333/.361 on the road—your fantasy value doesn’t just drop; it plummets.


Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Twins

He’ll probably be fine in his new home park after joining Minnesota, but wins are going to be very hard to come by for Nolasco, which matters in fantasy. And don’t expect him to be the guy he was for two months with the Dodgers (2.07 ERA before three clunkers). He’s strictly a spot starter and matchups play.


Scott Feldman, RHP, Astros

Feldman rose from the don’t-bother bin to fantasy relevance last year, when he posted a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. But of all the teams he could have signed with to maintain at least some of that value, Houston probably wasn’t the best choice.


Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Marlins

Leaving Fenway and Boston’s potent offense for Marlins Park and a team with Giancarlo Stanton and little else? Sorry, Salty, but you’ve lost any chance at being a top-10 fantasy catcher again next year.


Brian Wilson, RHP, Dodgers

This one’s only worth mentioning here because Wilson could have been some club’s closer in 2014. Instead, he settled for a setup job behind one of the most dominant fantasy closers around in Kenley Jansen. (That is, if you call getting $10 million for one year of pitching eighth innings settling.)


Tanner Roark, RHP, and Ross Detwiler, LHP, Nationals

These two each flashed intriguing fantasy potential at different points last year, but with Fister joining the rotation after Dan Haren left for the Dodgers, there’s now only one spot to fill. One of these two, probably Detwiler, who could head to the bullpen, is going to be out of a starting job, and the other will need to prove he’s capable of keeping it.


Jordan Lyles, RHP, Rockies

Extremely homer- and hit-prone, Lyles was never a fantasy factor as an Astro. He’s even less so as a Rockie. It’s worth pointing out that even NL-only owners in deep-roster leagues might be better served avoiding the pain that’s likely to come—even by having him on your bench.


For fantasy questions and discussion, follow me on Twitter @JayCat11.

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Why Mike Napoli’s Return to Red Sox Makes Perfect Sense

When the money’s available and there are no clear options to replace him in-house or on the free-agent market, sometimes the best thing to do is re-sign your own guy.

Everyone, let’s thank the Boston Red Sox for demonstrating this concept by agreeing to a deal with Mike Napoli. He will be back in Boston in 2014. And 2015 too.

The news of the agreement was first reported by Rob Bradford of WEEI.com. Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com reported that Napoli’s new contract is for two years and $32 million. 

The man himself, meanwhile, confirmed the deal in modern fashion: by taking a selfie. Because you want to see it, here it is:

Somewhat famously, the Red Sox initially agreed last winter to sign Napoli for three years and $39 million. Then they discovered he had a hip condition that knocked their offer down to one year and $5 million guaranteed, which he ultimately accepted.

Napoli eventually earned an extra $8 million in incentives by staying healthy enough to log 578 plate appearances over 139 games. Along the way, he compiled a solid batting line of .259/.360/.482 with 23 homers. By FanGraphs WAR, only three Red Sox regulars were more valuable.

However, Napoli’s value to the Red Sox extended beyond WAR. Just as the Red Sox hoped, one of the things he did in his first season with the club was play a suitable Robin to David Ortiz’s Batman.

Boston’s batting order was defined by balance all season long, and Napoli and Ortiz were very much a part of that in the middle of the order. Napoli hit behind Ortiz whenever possible, and in the end the two put up some quality numbers. Via Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs:

One of these things is not like the other. Ortiz had a better season than Napoli. No question about it.

But where Ortiz ranked first among Red Sox regulars in the four key categories listed above, Napoli ranked second. If the idea is for a team to have its two most productive hitters in the middle of the action, the Red Sox did it right with Ortiz and Napoli.

Had Napoli departed as a free agent, the Red Sox would have found themselves looking for a new counterpart with Big Papi. Preferably somebody who fit the same mold as Napoli: right-handed with good on-base skills and power (beard optional).

Conceivably, Daniel Nava could have been the guy. He can play first base, and is coming off a season in which he posted a .385 OBP. And while he’s not a righty hitter, he is a switch-hitter. Close enough.

Replacing Napoli’s right-handed power, though, is something Nava would have been the last candidate on the Red Sox to do based on 2013 Isolated Power:

*That’s power from the right side of the plate only.

Will Middlebrooks was the closest player to Napoli the Red Sox had in the right-handed power department in 2013. But his power came with a .271 OBP in 2013, and with a .294 OBP over 660 plate appearances over a larger sample size. A middle-of-the-order candidate, he is not.

Nor, if we’re being rational, is Xander Bogaerts just yet. The Red Sox surely love his potential, but trusting him to be ready for middle-of-the-order duty as soon as 2014 is a bit much.

So the Red Sox would have had to turn to the free-agent market to find a suitable counterpart for Ortiz. And in terms of righty-swinging first base-types, the market basically comes down to Napoli, Corey Hart, Mike Morse and Mark Reynolds.

None of the latter three hit for as much power as Napoli in 2013. Or over the last three years, for that matter. With an assist from FanGraphs:

On top of these unspectacular numbers are the red flags. Hart is coming off a lost year due to knee problems. Morse has an injury history of his own. Thanks largely to his swing-and-miss problem, Reynolds has outlived his viability as an everyday player.

Now, one thing the Red Sox could have done is chosen to be content with Nava, Middlebrooks, Mike Carp or some combination of the three at first base and signed Nelson Cruz, a righty-swinging corner outfielder to back up Ortiz in the lineup.

Alas, Cruz would have been an easy downgrade from Napoli. He packs plenty of power, but has just a .319 OBP over the last three seasons. That’s 52 points worse than the .371 OBP Napoli owns since 2011. The .327 OBP Cruz posted in 2013 was 33 points worse than Napoli’s .360.

Additionally, there’s defense to consider. Among free-agent position players, Cruz entered the market as one of the worst to be found by what happened in 2013.

The disclaimer here is that a great defensive first baseman isn’t that much more valuable than a below-average corner outfielder. As FanGraphs will tell you, first base really is that unimportant.

Even with that, it’s certainly notable that Napoli was terrific at first in 2013, leading all qualified first basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating and posting 10 Defensive Runs Saved. Going with a motley crew at first and Cruz in the outfield would have meant an overall offensive downgrade.

Thus is it not the least bit surprising that the Red Sox have signed on to pay Napoli $45 million over a three-year period rather than the $39 million they initially wanted to pay him. He was a vital cog on both offense and defense in 2013, and replacing him with one or several readily available players would have been extraordinarily difficult.

In a winter that will likely be defined by the Red Sox losing players to free agency, they’ve kept the guy it made perfect sense to keep.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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Breaking Down the Impact of the Week’s Biggest MLB Moves

This has been a week worthy of the Hot Stove Hall of Fame.

Though the winter meetings don’t kick off until Monday, there were enough free-agent signings and trades made over the last few days for several winter meetings. Notably, the two best free agents are off the board, and some big pieces got moved via the trade market.

Since inspecting the impact of every deal that went down this week would take up a whole ‘nother week, what I’m going to do instead is take a look at the 13 “biggest” deals that went down, analyzing their impact on both individual clubs and the offseason market as a whole.

Let’s take it away…


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

Begin Slideshow

Grading the Latest Wave of MLB Offseason Impact Moves

Bah! Who needs the winter meetings when there’s a perfectly good week for signing and trading beforehand?

All 30 of Major League Baseball’s general managers must have gotten together recently and reached that very conclusion. It’s the only way to explain the current temperature of the Hot Stove.

Starting with the shocker of a trade that sent Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers to the Washington Nationals on Monday night, there’s been a veritable explosion of impact free-agent signings and trades that demand attention.

Who are we to ignore this demand? Rather than do that, we’re going to tackle each impact deal individually (in chronological order, or close enough to it) and assign some grades as we go.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

Begin Slideshow

Where Will the Yankees Spend Robinson Cano’s Money If He Signs Elsewhere?

Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariner?

If the latest report—that the Mariners have all of a sudden emerged as a serious threat to sign the five-time All-Star—is to be believed, the longtime New York Yankees second baseman-turned-free agent could be on his way to the Pacific Northwest, turning his would-be former team into something like a puzzle without its biggest piece.

After all, the Yankees’ chances of retaining Cano are “less than 50-50,” per a source cited by Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York in the report referenced above.

That may well be the case, but it is a bit—how should we put this?—curious that this news is breaking not long after some, like Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports (and yours truly), began wondering just what the actual market for Cano looked like after a wishful-thinking 10-year, $300 million contract was floated at the outset.

At least on the surface, this might appear to be a response by Cano’s camp, including his agent Brodie Van Wagenen and Roc Nation Sports founder Jay Z, to make it known that, “Hey, someone is into the idea of giving us a lot of money!”

That’s not to say, though, that Cano couldn’t realistically bolt from New York, exit stage left, to Seattle or some other destination. And that’s a possibility the Yankees need to be considering. And they are, it seems.

“We’re going to focus on those who gravitate closest to us or try and get a deal done with us,” general manager Brian Cashman told George King of the New York Post on Monday, the day before this Cano-to-the-Mariners scuttlebutt started. “We hope Robbie is part of that process, too, and we will stay engaged with him, but we seem to be more engaged with others right now.”

All this, then, does at least raise the question: If the Yankees do not re-sign Cano, what could they do with the money that appears earmarked for their longtime second baseman?

In short, they could do quite a lot. That’s because, according to various reports, the Yankees have made it known they’re willing to work with Cano in the range of $160-$170 million over seven years—somewhere between $22 million and $25 million in average annual value (AAV).

At the moment, the good news for the Yankees is that this offseason has been busier on the trade front than the signings front—there were, oh, approximately 27 trades across Monday and Tuesday alone—meaning there are still plenty of options on the market from which to choose.

It’s really up to Cashman and Co. to decide what to do in the event Cano chases the cash elsewhere. Because that, of course, would leave a lot of dough for the Yankees to work with.

Want a solid mid-rotation starter to fill in behind CC Sabathia (and perhaps Hiroki Kuroda, if he returns)? There’s Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza, as well as innings-eater arms like Scott Feldman and Bronson Arroyo. And eventually (possibly?) Japanese stud starter Masahiro Tanaka, if a new posting agreement can be worked out.

In search of a reliever or two to help cover for the retirement of Mariano Rivera and likely losses of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain, among others? Take your pick of proven late-inning vets like Joaquin Benoit, Fernando Rodney and Grant Balfour.

Looking for a dynamic bat to add some speed or thump to a lineup that already added Brian McCann but could use more, especially if Cano walks? Why, then, how about Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran, who’s been linked to the Yankees all offseason? Or even old friend Curtis Granderson.

Point being, while losing Cano would hurt the Yankees, Cashman would have two things he won’t if Cano stays: the first is options; the second is money, and lots of it, which likely would mean multiple options.

For instance, going after Choo and Garza. Or Ellsbury and Tanaka. Or Jimenez, Beltran and Balfour.

Some scenarios likely would cost more than the $22-$25 million or so that’s pegged for Cano, but the numbers would be within that AAV range. Yes, even if the Yankees are aiming to stay under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold. And even if they have to pay Alex Rodriguez some or all of his $25 million base salary for 2014.

Of course, while it would bring more options and more money, let’s not pretend that letting Cano go wouldn’t also leave the Yankees with problems. For one thing, there is no in-house replacement for Cano. A play for Omar Infante, a quality second baseman with a solid glove and bat (not to mention, some postseason experience), would all of a sudden seem very logical. After Infante, though, second base pickings get thin, quick.

For another, the top remaining free-agent hitters that could be added to the lineup—which would suffer a major hit, let’s not forget—are outfielders, which just so happens to be the team’s one area of depth (if not strength). With Brett Gardner and Alfonso Soriano as the likely starters in center and left, respectively, that would leave one opening to fill with, ideally, Choo ahead of Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells, who fit better as backups.

The key for the Yankees is that any such addition, no matter the position, would be a clear upgrade to the current state of the 25-man roster and the club’s current chances to return to the postseason next year.

The Yankees’ offseason puzzle has only just begun to be put together by Cashman and his front-office cohorts. McCann was one piece. Cano has been expected to be another all along, so if that doesn’t happen, it would come as a bit of a surprise.

There are still, though, plenty of other pieces in play. And if Cano leaves, even more millions to spend.

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Will Joe Nathan Finally Solve the Tigers’ Ninth-Inning Achilles’ Heel?

For the first time in what feels like forever, there’s no doubt about who will be taking care of things in the ninth inning for the Detroit Tigers. Rather than a day-by-day question mark, the club now has a clear strength at the closer position.

To a certain degree, anyway.

Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi of FOXSports.com were the first to report on Tuesday that the Tigers were closing in on a deal for veteran closer Joe Nathan. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that the two sides are in agreement on a two-year contract:

Ken Rosenthal has the financial terms:

It’s not a shocker that Nathan has been drawn to the Tigers. It was just a couple of weeks ago that he professed his love for the organization on MLB Network Radio. Via MLB.com’s Jason Beck:

I definitely love the Tigers, know them very well, having competed against that squad for so many years when I was with the Twins, knowing some of the guys over there, knowing how deep they are, rotation deep. Their lineup and offense obviously are impressive. I think one of the things is that their defense has definitely improved. It’s a good ballpark to play in, a good crowd to play in front of. Detroit’s definitely a very appealing and attractive team to look at, I think.

The 39-year-old right-hander has spent the last two years closing games for the Texas Rangers. And since the Rangers declined to make Nathan a qualifying offer, signing him doesn’t mean a lost draft pick for the Tigers.

That’s not to say there aren’t any strings attached to this deal, however. It’s coming less than 24 hours after the Tigers traded right-handed starter Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for spare parts. They saved themselves from having to pay Fister a raise of a couple million dollars in arbitration, and it looks like that money is being rerouted into a contract for Nathan instead.

If that’s the case, it’s hard to see the logic. Even swapping out an average starter for a closer isn’t such a good idea. Swapping out one of the game’s best starting pitchers for a closer is certainly not a good idea.

But sure, we can be optimistic for a moment or two. While swapping out Fister for Nathan doesn’t look so great, it has to be granted that the Tigers are better off in the ninth inning now than they were before.

Ever since Jose Valverde went 49-for-49 in save opportunities in 2011, the Tigers’ issues at closer have been well-documented. Valverde’s ERA rose from 2.24 in 2011 to 3.78 in 2012, and he pitched himself out of a job with a series of rotten performances in the postseason.

Things were better in 2013…Sort of.

After some early uncertainty, Joaquin Benoit took over Detroit’s closer role in June and finished the season with a 1.98 ERA and 22 saves in 24 tries in his final 41 appearances. But both of his blown saves came in the final week of the regular season, and he was the one who gave up David Ortiz’s series-shifting grand slam in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

Now along comes Nathan, who brings with him one of the most impressive closer resumes in major-league history.

With Mariano Rivera retired, Nathan is MLB’s active saves leader with 341, and he’s the only member of the 300-save club with fewer than 40 career blown saves (he has 38). For some perspective, Nathan has as many career saves as Hall of Fame member Rollie Fingers, but 29 fewer blown saves.

Then there’s what Nathan did in 2013. Courtesy of FanGraphs, here are the key numbers:

The 1.39 ERA Nathan posted was the second lowest of his career after the 1.33 ERA he posted in 2008, and that 2.5 fWAR was his best since 2006.

That 2.5 fWAR also put Nathan in elite company among his contemporaries. It tied him for third among qualified relievers, behind only Greg Holland and Koji Uehara, and ahead of Craig Kimbrel.

To be fair to Benoit, he had a darn good season in his own right, finishing with a 2.01 ERA and a 1.6 fWAR that tied him for ninth among qualified relievers. When Benoit had the ball, the Tigers were quietly in pretty good hands right up until he ran out of gas at the end of the season.

Based on both track records and 2013 performance, however, going from Benoit to Nathan is undeniably a significant upgrade for the Tigers. One way to put it is that they’ve gone from solid closer to “proven closer.”

If you’re looking for the inevitable catch, however, here it is: Nathan shouldn’t be expected to be the otherworldly dominant closer he was in 2013 all over again in 2014.

The Steamer projections for Nathan, which you can view at FanGraphs, see his ERA going from 1.39 to 2.70 and his WAR from 2.5 to 0.8. “Regression” is the word that fits, and it’s fair to expect Nathan to experience some of that regardless of the numbers he ends up with.

As good as Nathan is, his 2013 season was a classic case of everything going right all at once. Here are a couple of things that stand out:

Since line drives are more likely to result in hits than any other type of batted ball, it doesn’t make sense that Nathan’s BABIP decreased despite a line-drive percentage much higher than usual. It also doesn’t make sense that he saw so few fly balls go over the fence despite a relatively normal fly-ball percentage. 

Especially not in light of Nathan’s more recent history. From 2008 to 2012, his HR/FB rate was over nine percent each year, and rising to boot. He did add a sinker to his arsenal along the way, but it didn’t play that much of a role in 2013.

Per Brooks Baseball, Nathan’s sinker only accounted for about 15 percent of his pitches. And while it did pick up more ground balls than his four-seamer, his sinker didn’t get in the way of him posting one of the lowest ground-ball rates of his career at an even 32 percent.

Elsewhere, it also doesn’t make much sense that Nathan’s strikeout rate finished above his career norm despite a swinging-strike rate below his career norm. Contributing to the suspicion is how, according to Brooks Baseball, the whiff/swing rate on Nathan’s four-seamer rose even while its velocity fell.

For that matter, the velocity on all of Nathan’s pitches—four-seamer, sinker, slider and curveball—fell in 2013. He still has good stuff as far as stuff goes, but hardly overpowering stuff relative to other closers and, indeed, what he used to feature.

For what it’s worth, the 0.8 fWAR that Steamer is projecting for Nathan in 2014 is twice as good as the 0.4 fWAR projected for Benoit, so the notion that the Tigers are better off at closer now than they were before still stands.

It’s also worth noting that Nathan’s projected fWAR is better than those projected for Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour and Brian Wilson. The Tigers went after the best closer they could have possibly acquired on the free-agent market, and that’s what they should get in 2014.

To that end, the Tigers’ agreement with Nathan is a case of mission accomplished.

But because it’s hard to imagine Nathan repeating the season he had in 2013, this agreement is less than a slam dunk destined to go down as one of general manager Dave Dombrowski’s all-time greatest moves. And while Nathan is a fine addition to Detroit’s bullpen, it’s hard to say with a straight face that it looks like a better overall team after parting with Fister on Monday.

The Tigers may have a shiny new closer lined up for 2014, but they’re not better positioned to win the World Series than they were a day ago.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


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How Large Should Jacoby Ellsbury’s Injury History Loom in His Free Agency?

It’s impossible to read anything about Jacoby Ellsbury‘s free agency that doesn’t mention his injury history. “Point X, Point Y, Point Z, but then there’s his injury history,” they all (basically) say. 

And rightfully so. According to Baseball Prospectus’ injury database, the up-until-now Boston Red Sox star has missed 256 games with injuries between 2010 and 2013. The speedy center fielder’s injury history is not the elephant in the room; it’s more like the blue whale in the room (behold a handy graphic for reference).

But this is a situation where it’s appropriate to ask what’s fair. Is Ellsbury‘s injury history a thing to dwell on, or is merely acknowledging it as far as one should go?

In essence: How large should it loom in his free agency?

My confession is that I’ve tended to dwell on it, with my usual line being that Ellsbury can’t be trusted to stay healthy in light of his track record. So far as I can tell, that’s a common opinion.

But without giving too much away at this juncture, I’d now say that dwelling on Ellsbury‘s injury history isn’t really fair. There’s one notable injury in Ellsbury‘s past that does warrant some serious scrutiny, but it and the others deserve to be treated as water that’s safely under the bridge.

We’re all familiar with the big injuries on Ellsbury‘s record: the busted rib cage he suffered early in 2010, the partially dislocated right shoulder he endured early in 2012 and, most recently, the compression fracture he suffered in his right foot late in 2013.

Ellsbury‘s ribs never healed in 2010, a season in which he was limited to only 18 games. The shoulder injury in 2012 cost him 79 games. This year’s compression fracture knocked him out for 19 games.

As for what these injuries have in common, I’ll give the floor to Ellsbury‘s agent: the mighty Scott Boras.

“He’s a durable player,” Boras told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports in September. “The only [significant] injuries he’s had are collision injuries. They were due to exterior forces.”

Boras is right, of course. Ellsbury‘s rib troubles in 2010 stemmed from his nasty collision with Adrian Beltre in April, which we can relive here:

That’s 220 pounds colliding with 195 pounds. No wonder the result was “Crunch!”

The initial collision cost Ellsbury 37 games. When he came off the disabled list in May, he was back on it just a few days later. It was the same story when he tried another comeback in August.

There were questions about Ellsbury‘s toughness along the way, and there was apparently some grumbling in Boston’s clubhouse about his preference to rehab away from the team in Arizona.

“I don’t know what’s going on with Jacoby,” said Kevin Youkilis, according to Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. “I don’t think any of us really know.”

Youk added, “One thing I can say is there’s a lot of guys here that are hurt and supporting the team. We wish Jacoby was here supporting us, too.”

Lots of controversy, to be sure. What there wasn’t, however, were any lingering effects.

Ellsbury came back in 2011 and hit .321 with a .928 OPS, 32 home runs and 39 stolen bases while playing excellent defense in center field. In the number-crunchy opinion of FanGraphs WAR, he had the best season of any player in the league.

Make that one collision injury overcome. 

For the sake of convenience, we’ll flash forward to the other collision injury Ellsbury has overcome: the compression fracture he suffered in late August of 2013.

Ellsbury was able to play through the pain for a few games, but he was forced to shut it down after aggravating the injury September 5.

There were some doomy thoughts going around. And when Ellsbury did return, he acknowledged that the injury wasn’t fully healed. That was an alarming statement, especially coming from a guy whose game depends so largely on speed. A speedster can’t be speedy without healthy feet, after all.

But what did Ellsbury do? He went on to steal six bases in the postseason, including one in each of the first four games of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. He was also able to play center field in each of Boston’s 16 postseason games.

Make that two collision injuries overcome.

If it was just the rib and foot injuries on Ellsbury‘s record, I doubt anyone would be overly worried about his injury history. These two injury incidents would be there as things that cost him games, but not as things that ultimately hindered his performance in any tangible way.

…But then there’s the other collision injury on Elllsbury’s record. You know, this one:

It looked bad when it happened, and it proved to be about as bad as it looked. Ellsbury was on the DL for about three months.

And now, well over a year later, it’s this injury that sticks out the most on Ellsbury‘s record. That’s because of how it has coincided with the one aspect of Ellsbury‘s free agency that has some teams worried: his loss of power.

This according to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com:

Even elite free agents elicit varying opinions from baseball people, so the disagreement among some over center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is typical.

One rival executive said that his team’s statistical analysis rated Ellsbury as the top Red Sox player last season, ahead of even second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

Others in the industry, however, are wary of Ellsbury’s diminished power—he has hit only 13 home runs in 880 at-bats over the past two seasons.

Whether teams are chalking the disappearance of Ellsbury‘s power up to his shoulder injury is something I can’t tell you. My guess, however, is that the opinions on this are also varying. Because while there’s clearly correlation at work, the question of whether there’s causation is not an easy one to answer.

We’ll get to that in good time. But first, let’s take a look at the correlation. If we use FanGraphs data to stack up Ellsbury‘s pre-2011 power, his 2011 power and his post-shoulder injury power, we get a picture that looks like this:

The degree to which Ellsbury‘s post-shoulder injury power looks like his pre-2011 power is uncanny, and that’s obviously not a good look for his free agency.

Teams can look at this data and come to two conclusions. One is that Ellsbury‘s power in 2011 was a total fluke and that he’s gone back to being the player he was, in which case his shoulder injury is neither here nor there. Or they can view his 2011 power as legit and his shoulder injury as the thing that killed it.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a shoulder injury did such a thing. Most notably, Adrian Gonzalez’s power hasn’t been the same since he underwent surgery on his right shoulder after 2010. Fellow Los Angeles Dodger Matt Kemp seemed to have zero strength in his left shoulder when he was able to play in 2013 following offseason surgery of his own. 

Like Gonzalez and Kemp, Ellsbury‘s shoulder injury was to his follow-through shoulder. So where we already had numbers that aren’t encouraging, here we have a narrative that’s not encouraging.

So what is encouraging?

A couple things, starting with the fact that the larger sample size doesn’t tell the whole story.

Around the All-Star break this year, Boras had this to say to Peter Abraham and others regarding Ellsbury‘s shoulder: “Last year he came back early and played. But his shoulder strength was not there.”

Then he added:

As the strength started coming, he’s now made the adjustment to understand more about that he does have that strength. Now he’s starting to certainly let the ball get deeper. I can see more power and lift coming to him. He understands the mental side of it, too. He’s now back to being healthy.

There are numbers to support Boras‘ claim. Through his first 49 games in 2013, Ellsbury had 12 extra-base hits and an .087 ISO. But beginning May 26, he picked up five extra-base hits in his next four games and was off to the races.

Ultimately, he posted a .152 ISO over his last 406 plate appearances, which spanned 85 games. After hitting one home run in his first 49 games, he hit eight the rest of the way.

Naturally, this didn’t happen entirely by accident.

One major change was in Ellsbury‘s ground-ball rate, which began to dwindle in June after peaking at darn near 60 percent in May. With data courtesy of FanGraphs, we get this progression:

Because ground balls don’t tend to go for extra-base hits, fewer ground balls are most definitely what’s best for power. Line drives and fly balls are better, and the latter is obviously what leads to the ball going over the fence.

Ellsbury‘s decline in ground balls didn’t immediately beget a rise in fly balls. But that eventually did happen in the second half. After posting a 27.3 fly-ball percentage in the first half, Ellsbury posted a 30.0 fly-ball percentage in the second half. Likewise, his HR/FB rate jumped up from 3.4 to 12.5.

The catch is that Ellsbury‘s power didn’t return to the level it was at in 2011. But the thing about his 2011 season is that the extreme power he was showing off wasn’t a season-long thing. It was mainly a second-half thing, as these splits show:

That Ellsbury‘s power skyrocketed wasn’t entirely a fluke. He did hit more fly balls, and plenty of those went over the fence. Even still, to go from a .175 ISO to a .298 ISO from one half to another is pretty ridiculous, and the odds of Ellsbury sustaining that power never were that great.

But that’s not to say that Ellsbury‘s real power potential is his pre-2011 power. Maybe his real power potential is the power he was showing off before the All-Star break in 2011.

If so, that puts the power he was displaying down the stretch in an interesting light. It’s not too dissimilar from his pre-break power in 2011:

On the whole, Ellsbury wasn’t hitting for as much power as he was before the break in 2011. But it’s encouraging that his second-half fly-ball percentage was pretty close to the one he had before the break in 2011 and equally encouraging that his HR/FB rate was a smidgen better.

Ellsbury was on a pace to hit 21 home runs when the All-Star break rolled around in 2011. After the break this year, he put himself on a 22-homer pace. 

If a 20-homer guy is who Ellsbury really is, then, well, it’s a good look for him that that’s what he was down the stretch in 2013. This was a time when, if you believe his agent, he was finally enjoying the benefits of a healthy shoulder. The numbers we just looked at say that’s a plausible stance.

What’s more is that it’s actually debatable that the residual weakness in Ellsbury‘s right shoulder was even the cause of his lack of power early on in 2013. 

Dan Farnsworth did a terrific analysis for FanGraphs that compared Ellsbury‘s 2011 swings to his 2013 swings. But rather than Ellsbury‘s upper half—as in, the half where his right shoulder resides—Farnsworth kept coming back to Ellsbury‘s lower half as the problem.

There were timing and movement issues with Ellsbury‘s right leg, leading to this note:

This greater side-to-side movement with the front leg makes the hip action longer and slower, forcing him to engage his upper body more to drive balls over the fence. In Ellsbury’s case, he’s not strong enough to hit a wealth of home runs with just his arms, complicated by the fact that he may have been dealing with some weakness in that front shoulder from his 2012 injury, as many suggested earlier this year.  

In other words, Ellsbury‘s shoulder was probably a contributing factor. Not definitely the contributing factor.

Farnsworth ended with his two cents on Ellsbury: “If he is able to get a few full seasons of plate appearances, I feel comfortable betting on a 20-plus home run season or two, with the floor of a high AVG guy who plays great defense and steals a bunch of bags.”

So we have numbers suggesting that Ellsbury could be a 20-homer guy going forward, and we also have a swing expert suggesting that he could be a 20-homer guy going forward. That sounds a lot better than numbers and a swing expert suggesting that Ellsbury‘s power is forever compromised thanks to his 2012 shoulder injury, don’t you think?

I think so, too. Because if that shoulder injury can be chalked up as water under the bridge, then it’s in the same category as the other two injuries Ellsbury was able to overcome without any real difficulties: the ribcage troubles in 2010 and the compression fracture this year.

We set out to answer the question of how large Ellsbury‘s injury history should loom in his free agency. Due to the nature of them, the three key injuries he’s dealt with in recent years aren’t the kind that are a threat to keep popping up as he progresses. After that, we determined that none of those key injuries are a legit threat to keep Ellsbury from being the player he has the potential to be.

Short version and grand conclusion all in one: Ellsbury‘s injury history is there to be acknowledged, but it shouldn’t keep him from being paid what he’s worth.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


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MLB’s Growing Trend of Long Deals to Young Stars Will Forever Change Free Agency

Oh, the names that could have been out there on the free-agent market.

Sure, Robinson Cano is pretty great. Ditto Jacoby Ellsbury. Shin-Soo Choo’s on-base prowess makes one swoon. Before he was picked up by the New York Yankees, Brian McCann stood out as a very rare breed of free agent: an elite offensive and defensive catcher.

But after these guys, this winter’s position-player market is sorely lacking in overall talent and, even worse, youthful talent. Things are even worse on the pitching market. When Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco and Ubaldo Jimenez are the best there is? Just, no.

You know who could have been out there for the taking? According to MLBTradeRumors.com, how about Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Justin Upton, Adam Jones, Alex Gordon, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Gomez, Billy Butler, Yovani Gallardo and Johnny Cueto. Another name for the pile is Adam Wainwright, who would have been by far the most attractive starter on the market had he not…

Well, had he not done what all the rest did: signed an extension. If you were looking to know what’s responsible for the shallowness of this year’s free-agent market, there you go.

Better get used to it. These things aren’t going away, and the nature of free agency will continue to evolve as a result.

Why aren’t these things going away?

It’s simple. Players want to get paid what they’re worth, and most will gladly take it from whichever team can offer it. Free agency used to be the best place for players to meet these teams, but that’s no longer the case in the Age of the Monster Contract Extension.

A search on MLBTradeRumors.com returns 25 contract extensions that have been worth at least $100 million. And of those 25, 18 have been signed since the beginning of 2010.

If we take a look at those 18 with an emphasis on the ages of the seasons the players signed away, we get this:

Beyond considerable talent, what the highlighted guys have in common is that they agreed to give up those oh-so-precious prime free agent years of a player’s late-20s and early-30s when they signed on the dotted line.

Not pictured, however, are the extensions some of the players inked before they signed their big extensions. Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman, Joey Votto, Cole Hamels, Evan Longoria, David Wright, Justin Verlander and Dustin Pedroia are all dual-extension guys.

And yeah, some of the highlighted guys are too, namely Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez and Elvis Andrus.

There are only two players in the table who don’t fit into the general trend at play. One is Howard, as the three-year, $54 million extension that preceded his $125 million extension began in his age-29 season. Among the other dual-extension players, Votto‘s and Verlander’s first extensions started the latest at age-27.

Then there’s CC Sabathia. The five-year, $122 million extension he signed with the New York Yankees in 2011 prolonged a free-agent contract, one that he was about to opt out of

Howard and Sabathia make two players who didn’t sign big-money extensions rather than offer their prime years to the free-agent market. Everyone else did. That’s 16 out of 18, and that’s remarkable.

Want to know how many $100 million free-agent contracts have been signed since 2010? According to MLBTradeRumors.com: only nine. That’s half as many $100 million extensions that have been handed out in that span, and three fewer than had ever been handed out before.

That’s how it is nowadays. Free agency isn’t where all the money is anymore. There’s plenty of it in extensions, and they appeal to both players and teams. Players get paid while the getting’s good, and teams get to keep the players who have turned into stars on their watch.

For teams, it’s not the desire to do so that’s new. It’s the ability.

There are people who like to talk about how baseball is dying. Because we’ve actually been paying attention, you, I and all baseball fans know better. Major League Baseball is currently enjoying a period of extraordinary success.

According to MLB.com, attendance has never been better than it’s been in the last 10 seasons. And according to Maury Brown of BizofBaseball.comMLB‘s revenues for 2012 amounted to $7.5 billion. The league’s 2013 revenues haven’t been reported yet, but last year’s trend was an upwards trend.

For MLB’s 30 clubs, there are several different avenues from which to draw cash. Some clubs have big-money local TV deals. The booming success of MLB Advanced Media has, according to Peter J. Schwartz of Bloomberg, reached a point to where it’s now worth $600 million annually. All teams have an equal share in that money.

And of course, there are the new national TV deals that go into effect in 2014. Those are worth $1.5 billion per year, which FanGraphs‘ Wendy Thurm pointed out means $25 million more per year for every team over the money they were getting from the old national TV deals.

One’s first instinct is to guess that the bubble will burst sooner or later, but it’s hard to imagine why it would be sooner rather than later.

Baseball’s enormous popularity won’t go away overnight, neither should the cash flow. While Maury Brown did bring up good reasons to believe that local TV deals are due to hit a glass ceiling, let’s face it: it’s impossible for 162 games’ worth of programming to not be valuable property in this day and age of the DVR. Elsewhere, it’s largely paid subscriptions that make MLBAM such a huge success.

In other words, who’s ready for the next round of extensions?

The soon-to-be-free-agent who comes immediately to mind is Clayton Kershaw. He only has a year between him and free agency, but it’s hard to imagine him actually getting there as long as the Dodgers are willing to go as high as $300 million for his services.

Others? How about Hanley Ramirez, Max Scherzer, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward? Even Giancarlo Stanton, set to hit free agency after 2016, can’t be ruled out.

Then there are the youngsters who are next in line to join the dual-extension club. Madison Bumgarner, Derek Holland, Carlos Santana, Matt Moore, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutchen all signed extensions before they were even arbitration-eligible. Once free agency is on the horizon, any one of them could find himself staring at an extension offer worth fair market value.

Then you have the super-duper pre-arb guys who will be needing extension attention before long. Mike Trout is bound to get best-player-in-baseball money soon enough. And how does a 12-year deal for Bryce Harper sound?

The two of them are undeniably big drops in MLB’s bucket of supremely talented youngsters, but also in there are Matt Harvey (assuming he gets healthy), Jose Fernandez, Manny Machado, Andrelton Simmons, Starling Marte and Jean Segura.

Are all of the aforementioned players going to sign extensions? That would be something else, but, well, no. Of course not.

The cash is out there, but not every team has a bottomless pit of the stuff. Really good players are going to continue to find their way to the open market by circumstance. Others will continue to find their way there thanks to a good, old-fashioned desire to test the free-agent waters.

But what has become of free agency in the last couple of years is bound to continue to be the norm. There will be a small collection of bona-fide stars at the top each winter, but extensions will continue to make sure these collections stay small.

There will be side effects. Some of those are already taking shape. 

Take, for example, the willingness to throw piles of cash at unproven players with nothing more than star potential. The obvious targets are going to be players coming from outside MLB’s ranks.

Big money was thrown at Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, both Japanese hurlers, in 2006 and 2011, respectively. That money, however, is likely to pale in comparison to the money that will be thrown at fellow Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka once he’s finally posted.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the posting fee for Tanaka could be as high as $75 million, or roughly $25 million more than the posting fees for Dice-K and Darvish. Then would come the contract, which would push the total price well over $100 million.

Players from Cuba stand to be the other big beneficiaries. Since the big investments made in Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have all worked out, it’s no wonder Jose Abreu got $68 million and Alex Guerrero got $28 million.

Signings such as these will always have bust potential. But you can say the same of any big signing, and the fact is that the appeal of hitting on the next great player from beyond MLB’s borders is going to be stronger than ever with great players fading from existence on the free-agent market. And if the money keeps flowing, then the luring power of MLB for players in Japan, Cuba and wherever else will certainly be pushed to new heights.

But since there are only going to be so many appealing imports out there every winter, we’re bound to see another recent trend keep up: that of big paydays for modestly talented players.

Think Edwin Jackson, a pitcher with a 98 career ERA+ through the 2012 season, getting a $50 million contract last winter. Or Angel Pagan, a player with only three full seasons under his belt through the age of 30, getting $40 million.

So far this winter, we’ve notably seen Jason Vargas, a pitcher with a 91 career ERA+, get $32 million. Carlos Ruiz, a soon-to-be 35-year-old catcher coming off a suspension-shortened season, got $26 million. Though he’s a good player, nobody saw Jhonny Peralta getting a $50 million contract.

It’s not that clubs are stupid. Whether or not X Player deserves Y Money is always a fun argument to have whenever an apparent overpay happens, but teams don’t have much of a choice. They have money to spend, needs to fill and, hey, what’s out there is what’s out there. 

The eyebrow-raising contracts for fair-to-middling players aren’t going to stop. Another thing we’re bound to see more of is something of an offshoot of that: teams handing out as many of these contracts as they can in hopes of achieving what the Boston Red Sox were able to achieve.

The Red Sox spent $100 million on Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Koji Uehara last winter. The total cost would have been well over $100 million if Napoli‘s three-year, $39 million agreement hadn’t been taken off the table thanks to his hip defect.

It seemed at the time that the Red Sox were paying way too much for players who could only help so much. But these many months later, we know that they paid big bucks for pieces that complemented what was already a solid core of talent. Doing so had a huge hand in them winning the World Series and, thus, looks like an idea worth copy-catting.

David Wright is on record saying he hopes his New York Mets give the Red Sox model a try.

“It seemed like it worked for Boston last year,” the third baseman told Newsday. “If you can get three or four—maybe not those marquee free agents—but three or four guys that are very good, solid, players I think it helps us fill more holes. And ultimately we become a better team because of it.”

Joel Sherman of the New York Post doesn’t think Boston’s model is going to work for anyone else. He may be right. But other organizations are surely going to try it, and the model certainly is appropriate for what free agency has been turned into. With a shortage of star players to throw big money at, spreading money around over several solid pieces is going to be the next-best thing for plenty of teams.

However, it’s the deeper-pocketed teams that are bound to be the most aggressive in pursuing the Boston model. Though no team is completely broke these days thanks to the various streams of money that exist, spending, say, $100 million on a handful of complementary players just isn’t practical for MLB’s shallower-pocketed teams.

So they’ll have to do what they always do: dig up bargains any way they can.

There’s the Moneyball way to do that, which is to target undervalued players. Whereas teams have seen Bartolo Colon as an ancient pitcher with a sketchy past, the Oakland A’s have benefited from seeing him as a strike-throwing innings-eater. Whereas other teams saw James Loney as an afterthought, the Tampa Bay Rays benefited from seeing him as a quality hitter who could play a mean first base.

Then there’s the reclamation project avenue. The Pittsburgh Pirates benefited from signing Francisco Liriano to a low-risk deal and remaking him into an ace pitcher. The Cleveland Indians scored with Scott Kazmir. A couple years ago, the A’s scored with Brandon McCarthy.

What will be interesting is if shallower-pocketed teams develop ways to turn scoring big on small investments into an exact science. Rather than dwelling on the Red Sox model, deeper-pocketed teams could be more and more inclined to try and get bang for their buck by gathering as many potential bargains and reclamation projects as they can and going from there. 

Regardless of how it’s done, getting bang for one’s buck in free agency will be the name of the game for all teams like never before. There will be flashes of the old days when whatever established stars there are on the market get what they have coming, but only flashes.

Those old days, I’m afraid, have run their course.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Extension data courtesy of MLBTradeRumors.com and Baseball Prospectus.


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