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Major League Baseball’s previous couple offseasons didn’t necessarily favor the players. Some free agents sat on the open market far longer than expected, while others signed for less than expected or didn’t receive guaranteed contracts (or any deals) at all. Count the game’s most famous agent, Scott Boras, among those disgusted with the way free agency has gone in recent years, as Bob Nightengale of USA Today details. Speaking at this week’s GM meetings, the always colorful Boras lamented the lack of teams going all-out to win, saying that “the industry is in a competitive hibernation, and the fans are reacting to it,” referring to drops in attendance (as Nightengale notes, even the Nationals, Astros and Yankees drew fewer fans).
“We got a decline in attendance. We got owners charging more for generations that want to see the game, while we’re losing a generation of young people that are only interested in competition,” said Boras. “Clubs feel there are greater rewards for losing than winning. And there is nothing to drive them to win because they don’t think it’s smart.’’
Boras even took aim at current commissioner Rob Manfred, whom he criticized for finding the luxury tax and the present system as a whole “wonderful.” That system, in Boras’ estimation, is “corrupt,” as it fails to “properly place progressive values of players at all. It’s always regressive.”
Of course, Boras’ hope is that the system doesn’t penalize his newest free-agent clients. And he’s representing several prominent players now on the open market, including superstar right-handers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. Boras is also the agent for Red Sox J.D. Martinez, who elected against opting out of the remaining three years and $62.5MM on his contract. The agent discussed those clients this week.
In regards to Cole, who looks likely to smash David Price’s record guarantee of $217MM for a pitcher, Boras stated (via Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer): “If this were major-league Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that clearly wanted a lump of Cole. I think starting pitching has become back in vogue. It’s an aggressive market.”
Boras also represents outfielder Bryce Harper, who signed the largest deal ever for a free agent last winter at 13 years and $330MM. He opined that Cole and Strasburg are in line to have even more teams after them than Harper did last offseason, per Breen. And while there has been speculation that Cole, a Southern California native, wants to sign with a West Coast team, that’s not necessarily the case.
“I don’t think geography matters to any of these guys as much as the continuance of winning and being able to achieve their goal of getting that rare ring,” Boras said. “And I think in Gerrit’s case, when you’re that close, you’re looking at this process as one where I’ve got a box to check and I want to go out and put together the best effort to put me in that position to do that.”
You wouldn’t expect Boras to say anything else in this case, as doing so could have decreased his client’s earning power. But, regardless of whatever geographic preference Cole may or may not have, the East Coast-stationed Phillies will heavily push for him, Breen reports. They won the bidding for Harper a year ago, and though general manager Matt Klentak has suggested he’s averse to signing more free agents saddled with qualifying offers (as Harper was, and as Cole is), Cole would greatly help a Phillies rotation in dire need of front-end aid.
The Phillies are among the teams that may be in the market for “a lump of Cole,” but that wasn’t the last of Boras’ holiday-themed metaphors. In regards to Castellanos, he stated (per Patrick Mooney of The Athletic): “Old Saint Nick delivers once a year. Young Saint Nick delivers all season. So you’ve got a pretty good market for that kind of player.”
Whether “young Saint Nick” (Castellanos) really “delivers all season” is debatable. He’s clearly a flawed player, one who has been more good than great at the plate throughout his career and has clearly struggled defensively in the outfield and at third base. Nevertheless, as a 27-year-old who does bring an above-average bat to the table, expectations are that he will fare well in free agency. MLBTR has him landing the eighth-highest guarantee of anyone on the market – a four-year, $58MM deal.
Martinez is something of a souped-up version of Castellanos, but he’s a half-decade older (32) and perhaps even a less viable defender. No doubt, Martinez would have had difficulty outdoing the money left on his pact had he opted out. Boras addressed Martinez’s decision, saying (via Alex Speier of the Boston Globe): “J.D. wanted assurance of competition at a high level and the fact that he played so well in Boston, we looked at it and with those two things in mind, we wanted to make sure that was the focus and for that reason he decided to opt in. The contract we structured allowed him choices after each season so it was something that, in this year at this time, we felt really that was the best decision.”
As Boras noted, Martinez will have another chance to opt out after next season. In the meantime, Boras is sure to focus his attention on several other clients who – despite his (arguably justifiable) distaste for the current system – could break the bank in the coming months.
The latest on Philadelphia…
Free-agent third baseman Mike Moustakas “is very much on the Phillies’ radar,” Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes. The 31-year-old Moustakas would provide an affordable, short-term Band-Aid at third for the Phillies as they continue to wait for prospect Alec Bohm to take the reins at the position. And Moustakas would be a major upgrade over Maikel Franco, who, after disappointing yet again in 2019, now looks like a surefire non-tender or trade candidate.
Signing Moustakas to handle third for what would presumably be a reasonable sum would make it easier for the Phillies to dedicate a significant amount of cash to their uninspiring starting staff. Indeed, the likelihood is that the Phillies will use most of their spending room on pitching, according to Salisbury, who adds that the club will at least participate in the sweepstakes for the No. 1 starter available, Gerrit Cole. Signing Cole, a qualifying offer recipient, would cost the Phillies their second-highest draft pick and $500K in international bonus pool space (but more importantly an enormous sum of money). While general manager Matt Klentak seems averse to surrendering draft capital for a free agent, Salisbury contends he’d be willing to do it for the right player. That could prove to be Cole, who – like now-Phillie Bryce Harper a year ago – may be in position to sign the richest contract of anyone on the open market. While the Phillies gave Harper a 13-year contract last offseason, there’s at least some hesitance on their part to make an overly long commitment to a pitcher. “Pitching is fragile and if you’re relying on free-agent starting pitching to build your organization, you go into that knowing you may be left disappointed at some point in that contract,” Klentak said. “Even the Phillies during their great run from ’07 to ‘11, some of the more notable pitchers (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) that they brought in were really good at the front end of those contracts and not healthy at the back end of those contracts.”
The Phillies’ roster remains a work in progress, but they already have their manager in place for 2020. The club hired former Marlins/Yankees skipper Joe Girardi a couple weeks ago, and doing so unsurprisingly cost Philly a decent chunk of money. The Phillies awarded the onetime World Series-winning skipper a three-year deal worth roughly $11MM in guaranteed money, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network. That total falls just shy of the $12MM the Angels handed new manager Joe Maddon, Heyman notes.
Though Madison Bumgarner did not hit the open market with as much fanfare as once seemed likely, he’s still a prominent part of the landscape for starting pitching. And it appears that strong early interest is coming together for the veteran lefty.
The Phillies have “checked in” on Bumgarner, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription link), who notes the potential interplay between the Phils and their division rivals from Atlanta. The Braves are known to be interested in the hurler, who grew up not far from Atlanta in Hickory, NC.
Those aren’t the only eastern seaboard teams considering Bumgarner. The Yankees also intend to reach out to MadBum’s reps, New York GM Brian Cashman tells John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Of course, Cashman has already made clear he’s interested in other, even bigger free agent fish. And he emphasized that point to Shea, stating that the Yanks will look at the full field.
That’s an important point to bear in mind more generally as we gauge early indications of market interest. With a market as full of good options as it is full of needy teams, we’re hearing of a lot of broad explorations on both sides of the balance. Teams are trying to get a sense of price tags. And there’s a balance for players and their agents as well. Most any pitcher would prefer to draw a nice run of early bidding to waiting around and hoping that demand remains strong. It’s better to be Nathan Eovaldi or Tyler Chatwood than Dallas Keuchel, generally speaking, as recent free agent experiences are concerned.
Bumgarner isn’t likely to be a market darling in the nature of Eovaldi or Chatwood. But neither is there reason to think he’ll end up facing the Keuchel conundrum. Bumgarner isn’t the monster he once was on the mound, and he now carries a notable injury history, but he just turned 30 years of age and was still capable of spinning 207 2/3 innings of 3.90 ball in 2019.
Another well-traveled baseball figure, Ruben Amaro Jr., apparently still feels a deep connection with the Phillies organization for which he once served as GM, according to a profile from Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer (link). After a two-year stint with the Mets in which he served in both coaching and front office capacities, Amaro Jr. is again a professional “free agent” this offseason–and one unabashed about stating his desire to work with his old club in Philly. “I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t want to work in the organization in some capacity again,” Amaro Jr. said of the Phillies. “I would love to come back. It’s home for me.” The veteran baseball man and Philadelphia native also indicated to Brookover that there are currently a number of vocational paths open to him (as one would expect of someone with his resumé), but it’s still worth noting that the 54-year-old would welcome a return to the team that relieved him of his GM duties late in the 2015 season.
With the offseason now firmly underway, let’s survey the baseball landscape with a few brief Saturday notes…
A flurry of teams sent scouts to watch Kwang-hyun Kim of the KBO’s SK Wyverns, according to Dan Kurtz of MyKBO. Scouts from more than ten teams—including the Padres, Twins, and Dodgers, among others—were recently spotted at one of Kim’s games. Though he hasn’t yet been posted, Kim has expressed his desire to play in the Majors in 2020, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who also reports that his club is “weighing its options” regarding Kim’s posting. A 31-year-old lefty, Kim logged a 2.51 ERA in 190 1/3 innings of work in the 2019 KBO season, striking out 180 batters while walking just 38. He’s had previous opportunities to play stateside, most notably in 2014 when he and the Padres failed to agree on a contract. He could slot in as a mid-tier free agent option for clubs unwilling to pony up the money necessary to pursue the top options on the market.
The Reds have hired a new assistant pitching coordinator, with Eric Jagers announcing on Twitter that he’ll join the Reds staff after a year in the Phillies organization. With the Phillies, Jagers worked in the minor league player development department, filling a new position in the organization as a pitch strategist. He broke into the MLB coaching scene after cutting his teeth as Driveline Baseball’s pitching coordinator. Notably, with the Reds he’ll work alongside another Driveline alum, Kyle Boddy, who founded the company and parlayed its success into a position as the Reds’ pitching coordinator. The addition of Jagers continues the organizational overhaul of its pitching infrastructure, which began with the team’s hiring of Derek Johnson, who coached the club to the National League’s fourth-lowest ERA in 2019.
As the offseason drew near, it became obvious that star third baseman Josh Donaldson could again be a major early target. Teams wishing for top-level production without the lengthy commitment will be vying for the veteran.
At least two clubs — the Rangers and Phillies — are already making their interest known, according to reports from Jeff Passan of ESPN (via Twitter) and Mark Feinsand of MLB.com (Twitter link). Both were among the best on-paper fits entering the open market, as we noted in the course of our list of the top fifty free agents.
Before those and other lurking organizations can put in their bids, Donaldson will have to formally decline the qualifying offer he was issued by the Braves. That’s a formality, but it’ll keep the offers off the table until November 14th. (Interested teams can chat with Donaldson’s reps in the meantime, it’s worth noting.)
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Last winter, the Braves were able to lure Donaldson with a one-year, $24MM offer. But that came on the heels of an injury-riddled campaign for the former MVP, who more than made good on the hefty bet placed by the Atlanta organization with a strong and healthy 2019 season.
Donaldson is a month away from his 34th birthday. And he wasn’t quite at the height of his powers in the just-completed campaign. But he was an outstanding performer against any measure other than his own top-of-class ceiling. Over 659 plate appearances, Donaldson turned in a .259/.379/.521 batting line (132 wRC+) with 37 home runs and a healthy 15.2% walk rate.
It wasn’t just a return with the bat. Depending upon one’s defensive metric of choice, he was either a good or excellent performer at the hot corner, resulting in something like a 5 or 6 WAR season. If you’re not a fan of the glove grades … let’s just say the former Athletics and Blue Jays superstar pretty much looked like his old self in all respects.
Donaldson is a fiery leader who would certainly light a spark for these or other organizations. He’s also going to hit the market carrying draft compensation as an added cost of signing him. That always must be factored into an open-market offer, though it’s perhaps of particular note for the Rangers and Phillies. The former team is arguably not quite ready for a full push for contention, though the new Texas field (synthetic though it may be) could desperately use some of the rain that Donaldson is wont to bring. As for the Phils, they’re putting out word that they’re loath to surrender more draft picks this offseason. There may be something to that, but it’s also plainly a wiser public statement than last winter’s unintentional slogan.
The Phillies have hired Juan Castro as their new infield coach, the team announced after the news was reported by MLB.com’s Jon Morosi and Todd Zolecki (Twitter link). He takes the position vacated by Bobby Dickerson, who is now the Padres’ bench coach.
Castro was already with the Philadelphia organization, having served as its minor-league infield coordinator in 2019. He also played with the Phillies briefly in 2010 — one of the final stops in a big-league career that spanned 17 seasons and five clubs.
Despite possessing little in the way of MLB-worthy hitting ability, Castro commanded nearly three thousand lifetime plate appearances owing to his magical glovework. After wrapping up his playing career following the 2011 campaign, and before landing with the Phils, Castro worked in varying capacities with the Dodgers and the Mexican League’s Tijuana Toros.
The Phillies’ pair of playoff misses in 2018-19 prompted a managerial change, and with veteran skipper Joe Girardi now at the helm, postseason expectations are even higher. With those postseason aspirations comes the expectation of an active offseason — a topic which general manager Matt Klentak discussed with Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie on the 94WIP Midday Show yesterday (link includes full audio). Unsurprisingly, bolstering the rotation is a key goal for the Phils.
“We’ve built a pretty solid core, we think, on the position-player front,” said Klentak. “So I think it makes sense for us to look to pour some more resources, and our time and attention, into improving our run prevention. That starts in the starting rotation.”
Aaron Nola will once again head up the Phillies’ starting staff in 2020, and Klentak said within the interview that Jake Arrieta is expected to be ready for the start of Spring Training after undergoing August surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow. (The hope, of course, is that better health from Arrieta will lead to better results than 2019’s 4.64 ERA in 135 innings.) Beyond that pairing, 25-year-old righty Zach Eflin seems likeliest to have a tentative rotation spot, although he briefly lost his starting gig in 2019. The team’s other primary starters in 2019 — Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas — either struggled greatly (Pivetta, Velasquez), have since departed via free agency (Smyly) or both (Vargas).
At bare minimum, it’d seem the Phillies have two rotation vacancies to address. The good news is that this year’s free-agent market is deeper than many recent offseasons in terms of starters. Fans, however, shouldn’t necessarily hang their hopes on Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg or Zack Wheeler coming to town. While Klentak didn’t firmly decree that the team won’t sign a player that has rejected a qualifying offer, he implied that the organization will need to stop doing so at some point.
“I’m more bullish on the farm system than some,” the GM explained when asked about improving his minor league talent base. “One of the things we’ve got to try to do, if we can, is to not forfeit draft picks, and that’s hard when you’re fishing in the deep end of the free-agent pond. But we lost our second-round pick last year and our second and third the year before. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s where Scott Kingery comes from. That’s where Spencer Howard comes from. That’s where Connor Seabold comes from. … We’ve got to try to hang onto that as much as we can.”
Again, it’s not a firm declaration that such a move won’t happen. The Phillies certainly have the payroll capacity, in both the short- and long-term, to add a high-end arm on the open market, and they’ve clearly been willing to make draft sacrifices recently. But if the preference is to maintain as much draft capital as possible, the team could also look to non-qualified free agents to bolster the staff. Cole, Straburg, Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Odorizzi are the five starters that received (and will likely reject) qualifying offers.
Reigning NL ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer, though, and the Cubs opted not to extend a QO to old friend Cole Hamels, who just yesterday expressed interest in a return to Philly. Other notable free-agent names include Dallas Keuchel, Michael Pineda and Rick Porcello, among many others.
Beyond the pitching staff, Klentak briefly touched on some notable points pertaining to the lineup. McCutchen, like Arrieta, is expected to be ready for day one of Spring Training after suffering a season-ending ACL tear back in June. Barring setbacks, he’ll reclaim a spot in the outfield, but the composition of that unit is in many ways dependent on the status of Odubel Herrera, who sat out the final 85 games of the season under a domestic violence suspension.
Klentak was noncommittal on Herrera’s future when asked, instead focusing his response on the competition that arose in center field during his absence. Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn and Kingery impressed in center, per the GM. Kingery, in particular, drew extensive praise from Klentak, who noted that the 25-year-old’s versatility is not only a luxury for the manager but for the front office.
“If we’re looking to add a bat, for instance, we don’t have to look at just one position,” said Klentak. “We can look at a variety of different spots, knowing that Scott Kingery can not just capably, but masterfully, fill in defensively just about anywhere. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s our best defensive second baseman, shortstop, third baseman and center fielder.”
The Phillies have a pair of trade/non-tender candidates at second base (Cesar Hernandez) and third base (Maikel Franco) in addition to the aforementioned uncertainty in center field, making that comfort with Kingery at four different positions particularly noteworthy. That creates a relatively blank canvas for Klentak and his staff when looking to improve the lineup and/or the defense. As is the case with the rotation, Klentak will have virtually innumerable avenues to explore, setting the stage for another offseason of heavy lifting for the Philly front office.
Veteran lefty Cole Hamels is a free agent for the first time in his excellent 14-year career, but unlike many free agents he doesn’t sound laser-focused on securing one last, lucrative multi-year deal. Rather, he tells MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki that his focus is on signing with a club that is making a clear push for postseason play — even if it means taking a one-year deal.
“I can do one year here and there and just play as long as I can play,” says Hamels. “I think that’s what will help give me an opportunity to play on teams that are trying to go to the postseason. If you need one guy, I can just kind of bounce around.”
There’s some degree of strategy to the decision. Locking himself into multiple years could, conceivably, lead to being stuck on a club where things go south for in 2020 but he’s retained with an eye toward 2021. Plus, on a one-year deal, even if the team with which he signs performs poorly and falls out of contention, there’s always the possibility of being traded to a club making a more definitive postseason push.
Hamels has one World Series ring to his credit already, which he secured more than a decade ago when he was named both the NLCS MVP and World Series MVP for the Phillies’ last championship in 2008. A second tour of duty with the Phillies holds appeal to the veteran Hamels, who says he would “love the opportunity to come back” and recognizes that the organization is “finally trying to make that push.” Notably, he adds that he’d consider a multi-year pact to return to Philly.
Of course, the Phillies’ starting staff quite likely needs more help than Hamels alone can provide, but his willingness to take a one-year pact could allow Philadelphia (or any other win-now club with multiple starting needs) to spend more aggressively on a higher-end rotation augmentation. At present, the Phillies have Aaron Nola atop their starting staff and little else in terms of certain commodities. Jake Arrieta is under contract for another season, but he struggled considerably before undergoing season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow. Zach Eflin finished out the year with respectable but unspectacular numbers, while fellow righties Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez both turned in ugly 2019 campaigns.
Hamels, 36 in December, experienced something of a career renaissance with the Cubs after being traded over from the Rangers prior to the 2018 non-waiver deadline. His 2019 season crumbled after he returned from an oblique injury — the lefty admits to Zolecki that he rushed back far too soon — but from the time of his trade in 2018 to this year’s IL placement he posted a 2.71 ERA with 8.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.77 HR/9 and a 49.7 percent grounder rate in 176 innings.
It’s tough to wholly ignore the 42 ugly innings that Hamels posted upon returning from that injury, though. After allowing just nine homers, issuing 35 walks and hitting three batters in his first 99 2/3 innings of the season, Hamels served up eight homers, yielded 21 walks and plunked four batters in those final 42 frames. The result was a woeful 5.79 ERA in that stretch of 10 starts, leaving him with a combined 3.81 ERA in 141 2/3 innings in 2019.
It’s worth emphasizing that being open to a one-year deal and strictly preferring a one-year deal aren’t the same thing. Hamels may be open to a one-year arrangement, but that doesn’t limit him to signing for only a single season. Most contenders would surely prefer a one-year term, but it’s possible that there’ll be enough interest to create multiple two-year offers from World Series hopefuls. The fact that the Cubs opted not to make him a qualifying offer, thus absolving him of the burden of draft-pick compensation, only makes him more appealing to contenders with rotation needs.
Regardless of contract length, the four-time All-Star’s comments make it clear that he has no plans to sign on as a veteran mentor for a rebuilding club: “I just want to have the opportunity to get to the postseason, just so that I can try to win.”comments powered by Disqus