Analysis of Long-term Free Agent Contracts

 Source: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America)

Source: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America)

The excitement that accompanies long-term free agent contracts (8-10 years in length) is followed almost immediately by immense scrutiny. These lengthy deals that buyout at least eight years of free agency are associated with significant risk, and it is usually assumed that the player will provide very little value in the last few years of the contract. Despite the high chance that the team will have a devastating amount of money allocated to an unproductive player, we are seeing more and more players signed to these long contracts. While I have mentioned that I consider these long-term free agent contracts to last a minimum of 8 years, they do not need to be signed on the free agent market. Rather, these deals can be extensions signed prior to free agency, but they must buyout at least 8 years of the player’s free agency. This would not include a player like Freddie Freeman, who signed an 8-year contract after 3 seasons in the Big Leagues, which means his contract only buys out 5 years of free agency. I make this distinction because these early career extensions are usually less money and also a different type of risk, as you pay for less of a known quantity.

What is making teams increasingly willing to pay tens of millions of dollars a year for more than 8 years of free agency? For starters, the clubs must guarantee something in the neighborhood of 8 years to secure a superstar talent in free agency these days. With the amount of money in the game continuing to grow, it reasons that clubs expect this growth to continue and make their payments in the last few years of the deal less substantial in regards to their total payroll. Beyond why these deals are becoming more common, we need to know how completed contracts turned out and the current outlook for ongoing contracts. This is important because it does not appear these long-term deals are going away, actually, we are likely to see more in the very near future with players like Jason Heyward and Ian Desmond set to hit the open market following the 2015 season.

Teams looking for one major addition to push them over the top for the next few seasons are more likely to justify a deal like this as a way to win in the short term, while not entirely ruining their future. After all, the player should provide at least 5-6 years of value before they are not a key contributor for the club, and in some cases even more. This gives the team enough time to develop young talent to arrive just as the star becomes extremely overpaid, so they can remain competitive. However, this is rarely what happens, as teams choose to kick the can further down the road and remain in win-now mode, which is not a bad strategy when you win, but what about when you lose?

The Angels can attest that it puts incredible strain on the farm system without improving the Major League roster enough to reach the Postseason. While they finally made it to the Playoffs in 2014 with the best record in baseball, they accomplished this feat two years after they planned. Despite significant free agent expenditures for Albert Pujols (2012) and Josh Hamilton (2013), the Angels did not make it beyond the regular season until 2014. Baseball Prospectus ranked the Angels’ farm system as the weakest of all clubs for the second straight season heading into 2014. Sacrificing draft picks for star free agents and trading top prospects for Major League improvements failed to help the Angels’ efforts in 2012 and 2013, although it helped them for 2014, they have paid a steep price. Where Pujols should have been the star to anchor the Angels roster, he led to the need for more additions, further delaying the rebuilding of their farm system. This is not to say anything negative about the Angels, more to point out that these deals do not guarantee the club’s success, nor does it guarantee the player will remain a star even in the early years of the deal. The Angels are not the only team that has signed a player to a long-term contract and not immediately experienced success, but each team with such a contract was in win-now mode or nearing such a phase.

Another driving force behind these deals is the record amount of money flowing into the game. While many people would like to believe baseball’s popularity is fading, that just is not true. Revenues have been growing for some time, and in 2014, Major League Baseball saw a 13% increase giving them over $9 Billion in revenue for 2014. MLB’s new television deal with ESPN has led to each MLB team receiving over $25 Million per year, which is a $15 Million increase. This is money that MLB gives to every MLB team, but many teams are now receiving much more money from their own local television deals. This influx of cash has led to more spending in free agency, as teams have more money to spend now and also greater security moving forward. With teams like the Angels taking in over $150 Million per year from these deals, it is no surprise clubs are willing to guarantee long-term deals in order to land a superstar for the remainder of his prime. This is especially the case since inflation will likely make the payments in the later years of the deal less significant than they currently seem. Inflation will not make these deals bargains, but it certainly mitigates some of the risk associated with these types of deals, especially if the club expects increased revenue moving forward.

The general feeling around the game is that these long-term contracts will always end in disaster, and while this is often the case, it is not a guarantee. These types of deals do not always end in multiple years of little production and the entire production over the course of the deal can make up for any lack of production in the later years. 21 contracts have been signed that bought out at least 8 free agent seasons and of those 21 deals, 7 have concluded:

Successful: Among these 7 contracts, three can be considered clear successes for the team. These three are Derek Jeter’s 10-year, $189 Million pact, Scott Rolen’s 8-year, $90 Million contract and Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $252 Million deal. During the 9 years that Jeter would have been a free agent without his deal, he accumulated 46.2 fWAR, which comes out to $3.8M/Win. While this shows his deal was certainly successful when considered in its entirety, Jeter also never faded, always being a worthwhile investment. Scott Rolen’s 8-year deal proved to be even more valuable for the team, as his 35.3 WAR over the course of the contract, coming out to $2.5M/Win. Similar to Jeter, Rolen was a valuable player throughout the life of his deal. Finally, Alex Rodriguez’s first 10-year contract was also a very valuable signing for the team. While he opted out after only 7 years, we can still see how he performed in the three years following his opt out. If he had played the entirety of his deal, Rodriguez would have been worth $3.6M/Win and he also never faded during this time.

Even: Of the 7 concluded contracts, Manny Ramirez’s 8-year, $160 Million deal and Todd Helton’s 9-year, $141.5 Million deal were relatively fair for both the player and team. Both contracts ended with the player averaging $4.8M/Win, which is just about what a win was worth in 2008, according to Dave Cameron. Ramirez’s value faded slightly towards the end of his deal, as his defense deteriorated, but he did finish strong in 2008. Helton also lost some value, as he was about replacement level in 2 of his last 4 seasons, but did rebound each time, so he was not a complete waste of resources at any point.

Unsuccessful: The final two concluded deals have not been so team-friendly. Alfonso Soriano’s 8-year, $136 Million contract and Ken Griffey Jr.’s 9-year, $116.5 Million contract never lived up to the hype associated with such long-term deals. Soriano accumulated 19.6 WAR over the course of the deal, worth $6.9M/WAR, and was eventually released during his final season, as he struggled mightily to a 64 wRC+ through his first 67 games in 2014. Ken Griffey Jr.’s deal is about the worst-case scenario for how these deals can play out. Over the life of his contract, Griffey Jr. accumulated just 9.7 WAR, meaning each win cost more than $12 Million. However, even though his WAR was not impressive, he still carried a 118 wRC+, which may not merit such a significant deal, but he did provide offensive value throughout his deal.

Now let us look at how the ongoing contracts look moving forward. However, with the recent increase in popularity of these deals, many of them are far too early in the contract to make any meaningful conclusions. With that in mind, I will not classify 8 of these ongoing deals because they have not gone beyond two seasons, which is not enough time to gauge the deal’s progress. That leaves us with 6 deals that we can draw some conclusions from:

Successful: Only one of these 6 contracts can be considered a clear success. Tulowitzki’s 10-year, $157.8 Million deal from 2011 through 2020 bought out two non-free agent seasons of 2011 and 2012, so for this exercise, it is an 8-year, $144.1 Million deal beginning in 2013. While Tulowitzki has been hindered by injuries in the two seasons of this deal, he has still accumulated an amazing 10.5 WAR and he still looks to be in his prime. His deal expires around age 36, which means Tulowitzki should be a good bet to finish out this deal while still providing value in the final years. Even if he fades heavily at the end of the deal, he should make the overall investment worthwhile, as he only needs to be worth about 10 more WAR over the final 6 years of his extension in order to be worth about $7M/Win, which is right around market value.

Unsuccessful: I would deem the remaining five deals as unsuccessful or at least certainly looking like they will be by the time they expire. Unfortunately, Alex Rodriguez’s second 10-year deal did not go as smoothly as the first. Forgetting about his off-field issues, Rodriguez has still struggled to live up to his $275 Million contract, providing only one season of a WAR above 4, and only 4 seasons as an above average player. Albert Pujols’s 10-year, $240 Million deal may be even worse, as he has never resembled even the worst form he displayed as a Cardinal. This deal will be very ugly by the end of it. Prince Fielder’s 9-year, $214 Million contract has also gone poorly through its first 3 seasons and is likely to remain a rather poor contract, as he was always expected to age poorly, but now his early performance has not provided the value expected to make that worthwhile. Not quite as poor a deal as those above, but Mark Teixeira’s 8-year, $180 Million deal is not looking very good, as he has collapsed after 4 seasons that were about what you would expect from him. However, he no longer shows signs of the player he once was and the final two years of this deal are likely to be as ugly as the two preceding years, when he combined for 0.6 WAR. The final long-term deal that has not worked out so well for the signing team is Joe Mauer’s 8-year, $184 Million contract. He has the best chance of these 5 players to make his deal at least a fair deal, but his shift from catcher to first base will make that quite the challenge. Mauer’s hit tool is not as impressive at a position that is flush with offensive threats, especially since he does not provide the power typical of a first baseman. With 4 years left on his deal, Mauer should be able to maintain his above-average hitting ability, so he will still provide value, but just not as much as was expected when he signed the deal as a catcher.

It is apparent that these long-term deals carry substantial risk and usually result in a winner and loser, but we already knew that. What these deals do show, however, is that it is not a guarantee that these deals always end poorly for the signing club. If the team is on the right spot on the win curve when they sign the player, then it is likely to make the struggles at the end more bearable, but only if he performs well early in the deal. One thing we can draw from this is that the best deals were those that ended around age 36, but those deals that lasted beyond age 38 were ill advised. Clearly this has to do with players fading less at age 36 than 38, but more importantly those deals expiring before age 38 also bought out better early years from the players. This is because the players are still likely in their primes at the beginning of the contract; however, if the deal extends beyond age 38, the player is likely leaving their prime at the time the contract begins.

With this in mind, I would not suggest signing any players to long-term contracts if they enter free agency at or after age 31. This is partly due to the fact that such a deal would then run into the dangerous age of 39 or later, but also because these players are typically exiting their prime, so they will not provide the value in the early part of the deal to justify paying heavily for little to no production at the end of the contract. These deals can only work if the player plays like a star early on in the deal, as is expected, so it is imperative that the team signs him when he is still in his prime. Another significant criteria for a deal is that the team is prepared to win during the early years of the deal, otherwise, such a deal can hinder a rebuild and actually be a waste of resources, even if the player is productive. We have seen this with Troy Tulowitzki’s deal, while it has been worthwhile by his performance, the club has not been competitive for some time and may now be willing to trade him, despite the immense value his deal has. If these criteria are met, then such a long-term contract is a sensible investment, as the benefits outweigh the risks. However, in order to have a winning team in the future, even with so much money going to a somewhat unproductive player, the club must build its farm system during the early and middle years of the deal in order to have cost-controlled talent on the field, since they may have limited funds.

5 Players Due to Rebound in 2015

(Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

The New Year cannot come soon enough for some players, who want nothing more than to turn the page on a disappointing 2014 campaign. With the new year just two days away and Opening Day less than 100 days away, it is appropriate that we look at the five players most primed to rebound from a down 2014 season. This list includes three veterans, who failed to reach their career norms last season and two youngsters that have yet to truly establish themselves in the Big Leagues. Each of these players has a very promising 2015 season ahead, which will make 2014 the exception, not the new normal.

Chris Davis

After two strong seasons from 2012-2013, Davis endured a very difficult 2014 season. After slashing .278/.350/.571 (Avg/Obp/Slg) from 2012-2013, Davis collapsed to a .196/.300/.404 slash line. On the field 2014 was tough enough, but Davis was also hit with a 25-game suspension with 17 games left in the season for using Amphetamines. Davis had been cleared to use Adderall in previous seasons, but not for 2014. However, this suspension is completely behind him and he has actually been cleared to use Adderall in 2015, so there is no concern over a longer suspension. While his K% is alarmingly high, that comes with the territory of being an elite power hitter and many of his other peripheral statistics point to a rebound in 2015. Davis’s BB% actually increased to a career high, which bodes well for his on-base abilities moving forward, but it also suggests that pitchers still feared Davis as a hitter. In fact, his .196 batting average was likely greatly influenced by a career low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .242. His career mark for BABIP is .320, so once that normalizes, Davis will soar above the Mendoza line and more resemble his 2012-2013 self. While Davis will not match his 2013 power numbers, he is likely to surpass his 2012 campaign, where he hit 33 home runs. Even in his down 2014, his ISO (Slugging Percentage – Batting Average) was not far off his 2012 ISO, which shows his power did not go anywhere.

Jay Bruce

Jay Bruce’s 2014 season was painful to watch, especially because it came seemingly out of nowhere. Beyond being painful to watch, it was also painful to play, as Bruce battled nagging knee issues throughout the season that contributed to his reduced production. However, there is no reason to believe this is how Bruce will perform moving forward, even if the knee injuries are not entirely to blame for his struggles. Throughout his 6-year career before 2014, Bruce had been one of the most consistent players in the league, averaging over 2.7 fWAR per season. During his disastrous 2014, Bruce’s Ground Ball% soared, while his Fly Ball% sank to a career low. This does not indicate a healthy power hitter, but rather someone who does not have their legs underneath them and must instead do their damage using their upper body. The Steamer projection system calls for Bruce to post a 1.4 WAR, which would be a 2.5 win improvement. However, I think Steamer is being too conservative in its projection because Bruce should be fully recovered from knee surgery before the 2015 season, which will allow him to return to his previous norms. I would project Bruce to post a season closer to 2011, when he played about average defense and slugged 32 home runs, en route to a .349 wOBA and a 3.0 fWAR.

Evan Longoria

Longoria probably does not fit with the rest of the players on this list because he actually turned in an above average campaign by most players’ standards, but not his own. His 3.4 fWAR would have been a career low, if not for his injury-shortened 2012 season. Despite this being the first unimpressive season in Longoria’s extraordinary career, many fans are concerned about his decline beginning well before his $100 Million extension starts in 2017. Longoria’s 2015 season will quell any concerns about his new extension, at least the first few years of the deal. The 29-year-old third baseman averaged over 6 wins per season for his first 6 Big League seasons, and is unlikely beginning his decline, in what should be the middle of his prime. Instead, Longo suffered from a poor batted ball profile in 2014, which should readjust to his norms and an unusually average season on defense. Longoria saw a slight uptick in his GB%, but more significantly his FB% dropped 4% and saw a 4% increase in Infield Fly Balls (IFFB). Both of these shifts suggest that his timing was off, which is a poor excuse for an entire season; however this is not something that persisted the entire season, as his FB% increased by 10% in the second half and his IFFB% decreased by nearly 4%. He will likely enter this season with his normal timing, which will help him reach his career offensive norms. Longoria also posted the lowest HR/FB rate of his career, which will not repeat itself, as that usually remains near a player’s career norms, so he should expect at least a 5% increase, which will significantly help his power output. On the defensive end, I do not put much weight in one season of fielding statistics, so I do not have any concern over his defense, since he grades out as a gold glove defender by any metric for his career. With improved timing and a normalized HR/FB rate, Longoria will put to rest any mentions of his decline.

Danny Salazar

Salazar differs from the players above, as he has yet to truly establish himself at the Major League level. He dominated during his 50 innings of work in 2013, striking out 11.25 batters per 9 innings. However, in his first chance at a full season, Salazar struggled mightily to match expectations. He finished 2014 with a 4.25 ERA across 110 innings, but his 3.52 FIP suggests he was better than his ERA indicates. But there are plenty of more reasons for optimism heading into 2015 and the Indians should expect a more similar performance to his 50-inning sample in 2013. Salazar is not going to strike out 11 batters per 9 innings again, but he does not need to. 2014 was a season of two halves for Salazar, as he cut his FIP from 4.71 in the first half to 2.83 in the second half, which fit with his ERA dropping more than 2 runs from the first half. The second half version of Salazar most closely resembles the real Danny Salazar, as in the first half he was plagued by an inflated BABIP of .369 and an enormous HR/FB rate of 14.8%. Once these things that are not entirely under his control normalized, Salazar thrived, which is what I expect him to continue in 2015. He should be able to carry over his impressive K/BB ratio of 2014 and he is unlikely to have a BABIP north .340 again, which will help keep his ERA closer to his FIP.

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez is very similar to Salazar, in that he has yet to match expectations at the Big League level, but this will be his first opportunity at being a full-time starter. Even in his time stuck in purgatory between starting and relieving, Martinez’s talent has shined, but the results have not always matched what people have seen. In his 117 2/3 Major League innings, the righty has carried a 4.28 ERA, but a 3.15 FIP, which points to better results ahead, once his surface statistics match his peripherals. While Carlos Martinez has been hurt by an inflated BABIP of .336 for his career, but based on pitchers with a similar profile, that is not likely to persist. The 13 pitchers in 2014 with at least 8 K/9 and at least a 50% Ground ball rate average a BABIP of .293, which suggests that Martinez is likely to see improved batted ball results. One thing he can control is home runs and Martinez has been fantastic at stifling home runs, allowing just .38 HR/9 through his career, which bodes well for future success, especially since he can strike guys out. Martinez will need to limit his walks better, but even when he walked over 3.5 batters per 9 last year, he carried an FIP of 3.18, so if he is more lucky with balls in play, it should not be an issue. I think Martinez should excel in his first opportunity as a full-time starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to reach the 200-inning threshold, as he will need to build up his workload, but also because his high number of walks will drive up his pitch counts.

 

I expect Longoria to turn in the best season of the players on the list, which isn’t surprising as he is the only established star and the one coming off the best season. Jay Bruce is my pick for the largest improvement, because I believe his performance was heavily influenced by his knee injury, which should be behind him. Of the pitchers, I’d expect Martinez to turn in the best season because I believe in his incredible talent, but also because his profile of high strikeouts and groundballs bodes well for success.

Anthony Cacchione

5 Players Due to Regress Significantly in 2015

Source: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

Source: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

With all of the exciting moves that have already happened this offseason, it is time to turn some attention to the coming season. Even with major stars left on the Free Agent market, such as Max Scherzer and James Shields, we can take a look at some players that do have a home. The following list includes 4 players coming off career best seasons and one coming off yet another very strong season. While each of these players is coming off a strong season, they are all due for significant regression from last year. While it is unlikely that these players would repeat their career best numbers, all of these players are going to see a large drop in production in 2015. However, it does not seem that every Major League team agrees, as three of these players have been traded this offseason, and another landed a 4-year, $68 million contract.

Alfredo Simon

The first player on this list is in for the toughest season ahead. Alfredo Simon enjoyed a very successful season in terms of traditional metrics, as he completed his first Major League season as a full-time starting pitcher. Simon was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Detroit Tigers in return for a young Major League shortstop and a 2013 1st round draft choice. The 33-year-old had a 15-10 record with the Reds supported by a 3.44 ERA, however, his peripherals tell a different story. Simon only had a 5.82 K/9, which contributed to his less than appealing FIP of 4.33. His strong ERA likely was not a mirage, but more a result of playing in front of the best defensive team in baseball, as the Reds ranked 1st in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with 67 last year. Unfortunately, Simon will now pitch in front of the 28th ranked defense of the Tigers, who totaled negative-67 DRS. The righty will also be moving to the American League, which will be another challenge for him, as he struggled during his 4-year stint with the Orioles before 2012. While he enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2014, Simon will likely finish this season with much worse numbers, as he will be pitching in front of a significantly lesser defense and in a much tougher league.

Mat Latos

The second player on this list is another Former Cincinnati Reds pitcher, who was just traded. Now a member of the Marlins, Latos contributed another successful season for the Reds in 2014, as he posted a 3.25 ERA over 102 1/3 innings while he battled numerous injuries. However, those injuries are a major cause for concern moving forward, especially because they had such a powerful impact on his velocity. His velocity also did not improve after he returned from his injuries, suggesting this could be a lasting result. Latos lost over 2 mph off his fastball from 2013, and while his ERA remained strong, his strikeout rate dropped to a career worst 6.51 K/9. His groundball rate also dropped nearly 8% from 2013, which is not a positive sign for a pitcher who struggles to strike batters out. Just like Simon, Latos is going to a worse defensive team, as the Marlins ranked 18th in DRS last season, which could hurt Latos quite a bit, especially if his strikeout rate remains below his career norms of around 8 K/9. Despite his consistent performance in the past, Latos will likely turn in a very disappointing season in 2015.

Dee Gordon

Dee Gordon broke out in a pretty big way for the Dodgers in 2014, as he posted a 3.1 fWAR while slashing .289/.326/.378 (Avg/Obp/Slg). However, prior to 2014, Gordon had a negative-0.9 fWAR. His entire game is predicated around his speed, as he is not a strong defender and has no power to speak of. 2014 was Gordon’s first season with an above average wRC+ and he still only reached 101, which is just 1% better than league average. However, what makes 2014 seem like an aberration rather than Gordon’s new normal, is that it was powered entire by his .346 BABIP. It is easy to believe that his speed is the reason for his inflated BABIP, but in his two previous seasons Gordon posted BABIPs of .281 and .292 respectively. Gordon’s already low walk rate also got even lower last year, which will be a more significant issue when his BABIP normalizes and needs other ways to reach base and utilize his only real weapon, his speed. If the Marlins are expecting a repeat performance from Gordon, (which they likely are because they gave up their top prospect in Andrew Heaney) then they are going to be very disappointed.

Victor Martinez

Unlike the above players, Martinez has not changed teams this offseason, thanks to the Tigers resigning him with a hefty $68 Million to play the next 4 years with them. What was so shocking about Martinez’s career season was that it came when he was 35 years old. He has always been a productive hitter, but in 2014, the DH turned into a real force in the middle of the lineup. In the past, he was more of an OBP machine with extra-base power, but he never reached 30 homers and hadn’t reached 20 since 2010. Martinez’s power made an appearance in 2014, however, as he mashed a career-high 32 homers, while improving in just about every other offensive statistic. More than just his age, it is unrealistic to expect Martinez’s newfound power to carry over into 2015, as he was helped by a career-best 16% HR/FB rate, which was more than his last two seasons combined. Martinez will still be a productive hitter in 2015, but he will not be the homerun threat he was in 2014, which makes him more of the average DH he was in 2011 when he accumulated 2.5 WAR.

Steve Pearce

The 31-year-old Pearce was one of the great stories of 2014, as he enjoyed an unexpected breakout from being nothing more than a bench player for the earlier parts of his career. And unlike most of the other players on this list, Pearce has not changed teams or landed a new big contract. Pearce posted a 4.9 fWAR after accumulating just 0.2 fWAR over his first 5 Major League seasons. Throughout his Minor League career, Pearce always posted strong On-Base numbers and has had strong walk rates in his Major League career, as well. However, his power in the Minor Leagues never translated to the Majors until 2014, when he slugged .556 and reached 21 homers in just over 100 games. However, Pearce’s power spike was largely aided by a HR/FB rate of 17.5%, which is more than his two previous seasons combined. He is not likely to regress too far from that rate, however, as he has made some mechanical adjustments that made him a much more impactful hitter against fastballs. After such an impressive breakout campaign, the league is likely to adjust to Pearce’s approach, which mainly involved mashing fastballs, especially those up in the zone. Pearce could be the next Jose Bautista, but it is more likely that this is an outlier season and he is now likely to turn in just league average or slightly better seasons. Once the league adjusts and his HR/FB rate normalizes, he will not be as much of a threat in the box, but he is still likely to remain productive at reaching base.

Mat Latos is likely in for the most significant drop from his expected performance, but he should still be able to be a league average starter, if healthy. Alfredo Simon will likely be the least productive of any of the players on the list, especially since he had less than inspiring peripherals in a more pitcher-friendly league. Of the above players, Steve Pearce is the most likely to match or come close to his 2014 performance.

Anthony Cacchione

Trade Market For Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels is coming off one of the best seasons of his career at the age of 30 years old. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Phillies are looking to trade their ace for a substantial haul. After finishing last in their division with a 73-89 record, the Phillies plan to undergo a rebuilding phase in order to restock their talent supply. The Phillies current roster is full of veterans signed to poor contracts, but Hamels is one of the few players who could bring back a significant return in a trade. Hamels is signed to a reasonable 6-year contract worth $144 Million through 2018, which is just about what he is worth, leaving little surplus value. While the Phillies appear willing to deal Hamels and expedite their rebuilding process, it appears they are expecting a significant haul in return for their ace. According to Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com, the Phillies are seeking “at least three top prospects”. They are looking for 2 of those players to be Major League ready. This is essentially the same asking price reported at the 2014 Trade Deadline when the Phillies were unable to make a trade. While the Phillies certainly have the right to ask for whatever they want, the market is unlikely to meet their demands, if only because few teams have this level of talent that they are willing to trade.

For the 5th straight season, Hamels eclipsed the 200 inning plateau with better than an 8.0 K/9. In 2014, he also posted the best ERA of his career at 2.46, which was supported by 3.07 FIP. For his career, Hamels has been very consistent with a career ERA of 3.27 and FIP of 3.48, in route to a career fWAR of 34.4 over his 9 seasons in the league. While Hamels is an outstanding talent and will certainly garner a great amount of interest on the trade market, there are still plenty of obstacles to any trade. For starters, Hamels has a 21-team “no trade” clause, which was recently updated, so it is unclear who is on the list. While Hamels will likely approve a deal to any contender he will have leverage to demand more money or some other compensation in order to waive his “no trade” clause. Another challenge for the Phillies in trading Hamels will be finding a team that is willing to meet their asking price, rather than signing one of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer or James Shields and not sacrificing any talent, except the draft pick. Hamels has only 4 guaranteed years remaining on his deal and will likely earn less average annual value (AAV) than each of the above, except Shields. Teams will likely prefer signing one of the free agents and retaining their prospects, rather than pay Hamels similar money and lose 3 top prospects. Despite the fact that many teams are interested in acquiring a true ace like Hamels, the market for his services will be relatively thin because few teams can come close to the Phillies’ demands.

There are seven teams that both have the financial will power and prospect depth to make a deal for Hamels.

Dodgers: They were linked to Hamels at the Trade Deadline because of their incredible financial flexibility and elite Minor League talent. With the possibility of Zack Greinke opting out of his deal after next season, the Dodgers could pursue Hamels to go for it in 2015 and also give them an option if Greinke departs. In terms of Minor League talent, the Dodgers have shortstop Corey Seager, outfielder Joc Pederson and left-handed pitcher Julio Urias. Each of these players are consensus Top 50 prospects, but there is no chance the Phillies land all three for Hamels, and would likely only receive one added with lesser prospects in any deal.

Cubs: The Cubs seem poised to go for it as early as 2015 and if they miss on the Free Agent aces, they could turn to the Phillies. They have an unmatched pool of offensive talent in the upper minors, so they could afford to deal a few of their prospects and still be among the top systems. Some players the Cubs could offer include shortstop Javier Baez, shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Albert Almora, catcher Kyle Schwarber, right-hander CJ Edwards, and outfielder Billy McKinney. A deal involving either Baez or Russell would likely only include them and a couple lesser prospects. Deals starting with the other players above would likely involve two of the names, as they are lesser prospects, but still very valuable.

Cardinals: The Cardinals have 7 candidates to be above average starters 2015, but they are still among the few teams that have the finances and Minor League depth to acquire an ace like Hamels. They are the least likely team to acquire Hamels, but were linked to him at the Deadline, so those talks could resurface. Trade talks would likely center around one or two of right-handed Carlos Martinez, left-handed Marco Gonzalez, and Rightfielder Stephen Piscotty with other lesser prospects added in.

Red Sox: The Red Sox were interested in Hamels at the Trade Deadline, but because they were not in contention decided against paying the steep price, in the hopes that it would go down in the offseason. The Red Sox have plenty of prospects in the upper minors, but many scouts differ in their assessments of each. One of utility man Mookie Betts, catcher Blake Swihart or left-hander Henry Owens plus some of the more advanced but lower ceiling players would likely get the deal done. However, the Red Sox will be very reluctant to part with either Betts or Swihart as they are both elite talents that will have good opportunities with the club.

Yankees: The Yankees obviously have the financial capacity to take on his contract and are in the market for an ace to anchor their rotation, but they lack the Minor League talent in the upper minors to match the current asking price. The Yankees do, however, have enough high upside talent to entice the Phillies. Prospects they could offer include right-hander Luis Severino, outfielder Aaron Judge, and catcher Gary Sanchez, along with a few other lower level players.

Mariners: The Mariners may not necessarily need an ace, since they have both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but they have the financial room and prospect depth to get Hamels and push them over the cusp of the playoffs. A deal would center around one of left-hander James Paxton or right-hander Taijuan Walker. The Mariners would likely have to include shortstop Brad Miller and another talented prospect.

Rangers: Texas’s interest in Hamels depends entirely on whether they feel they can be competitive in 2015, after finishing last in the AL during an injury-plagued season. If they feel Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will be healthy and productive then Hamels could be a possible addition, especially with all the injury concerns associated with their current rotation. Jurickson Profar could be the centerpiece of a deal, if the Phillies believe the injuries are behind him. Otherwise a deal could center around Joey Gallo and some lesser prospects.

The Cardinals and Rangers are the least likely of the above teams to swing a deal for Hamels, but they do have the necessary pieces to pull off a trade. The best move for the Phillies is likely to wait until the three Free Agent aces sign with teams and then try to deal Hamels to the teams that were unable to land one of the Free Agents. The Red Sox or Cubs seem like the most likely destinations, assuming they cannot sign a Free Agent. Either way, it is unlikely the Phillies will receive the steep price they are demanding, but nevertheless, will receive an impressive haul if they do trade Cole Hamels.

Anthony Cacchione

Significant Off-Season Ahead for Reds

The Cincinnati Reds just completed a disastrous season, in which they fell from just 1.5 games back at the All-Star Break to 14 games back by the end of the season. They have experienced more than their fair share of injuries, but even without all the injuries, this probably is not a playoff team. The Reds’ offense has multiple holes it will need to fill in order to contend in the competitive NL Central. Defensively, the Reds excelled, ranking as the best defensive team in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Offensively, however, they were among the worst teams in baseball, ranking 30th in wRC+. That means when removing context from events, the Reds were the worst offensive team this season. Even when considering all the injuries they suffered, this is not a good offensive team. They also have a pitching staff that ranks 27th in baseball in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), meaning their pitchers are near the bottom of the league in what they can control. Recently extended General Manager, Walt Jocketty, will need a very effective off-season to return the Reds to contention, but he’ll need to do it without much financial flexibility.

In 2013, the Reds’ posted a wRC+ of 97, which was slightly below average, but still 13 points higher than the figure they posted in 2014. It is easy to attribute most of this difference to the injuries suffered by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, however, neither of them were having particularly strong seasons offensively. Votto slashed .255/.390/.409 (avg/obp/slg), which is partly due to his injuries, but even prior to his first DL stint, Votto’s numbers were down. While I certainly expect Votto to return to his prototypical form in 2015, there are no guarantees that his knee injuries will be behind him, as he also had knee issues in 2011. Brandon Phillips on the other hand has provided little offensive value for the last two seasons. While his defense is still among the best at 2nd base, Phillips’s offense has been declining for a few years and I do not believe his struggles are due to his thumb injury. His OBP and SLG% have declined in each of the last 3 seasons. The Reds also have significant offensive holes in Leftfield, Centerfield and Shortstop. Leftfield will be their biggest area of need this offseason, as they ranked 29th in WAR from their Leftfielders. Billy Hamilton will again be their centerfielder in 2015, but he will need to make substantial improvements on offense, where he often looked overmatched. Their shortstop position seems to be set, as well, with Zach Cozart providing enough defensive value to overcome his shortcomings on offense. Cozart posted the worst wRC+ of any qualified hitter this season, but rated as one of the best defenders in the game, so he will likely remain entrenched at short for the Reds. Their offense has three glaring holes, and that is assuming that Jay Bruce returns to his normal form, after an abysmal 2014. They will likely be able to find an upgrade in Leftfield, but will likely receive little offensive production from the Centerfield and Shortstop positions.

The Reds experienced some more injuries on the pitching side, as Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman all landed on the DL. However, even with each pitcher healthy, their staff is not all that imposing. They ranked 16th in ERA, but 27th in FIP, which is more evidence as to how good their defense is, but also a result of a good amount of luck. The pitching staff ranked 26th in BB/9, but also posted the 3rd lowest BABIP, which will be difficult to repeat, even with their strong defense. If they are going to improve their offense this off-season, it will likely happen by trading away one of the starters, which will further weaken their rotation. While their rotation is considered one of their strengths, it is not deep enough to sustain trading away one of its top members. Assuming everyone is healthy they have 5 quality starters that appear ready for the rotation in 2015, with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Alfredo Simon under control for next year. However, Bailey just had surgery on his forearm and this is Simon’s first season as a starter and he has far outperformed his peripherals. If one of these starters is dealt, the Reds do not have many internal candidates to fill the void. Tony Cingrani struggled in his sophomore season, David Holmberg has been hit hard in his debut season and top prospect Robert Stephenson struggled mightily in Double-A this season. There is plenty of uncertainty in their rotation and their bullpen was a complete disaster this season, ranking 24th in ERA and FIP.

Unfortunately, the Reds do not have much financial flexibility in order to add top talent through Free Agency. Their 2014 payroll of $112 Million was the highest in franchise highest and does not appear to be a very sustainable figure, considering their payroll increased by $25 Million from 2012 to 2013. Their payroll for 2015 will likely be in a similar range to this past year, which does not leave them much room for outside personnel. They already have $71 Million committed to their 2015 roster, and that covers only 10 players. This leaves them with around $45 Million left to sign their arbitration eligible players, as well as their $10 Million club option on Johnny Cueto. With at least $20 Million going to arbitration eligible players, the Reds will only have around $15 million to allocate to free agents. With such little flexibility, the Reds are certainly out of the running for the top free agents, which means they will likely fill smaller holes through free agency and trade one of their starters to improve one of the more significant weaknesses, such as Leftfield. While the Reds would love to trade Brandon Phillips and his remaining $39 Million over the next 3 years, not many teams will be interested, unless the Reds eat a chunk of his salary. The most likely player to be dealt is Johnny Cueto, as his value has reached it peak, following a Cy Young-type season. If Cueto is the starter to go, the Reds will need someone like Latos to step up as the Ace, but Cueto will bring back a significant haul.

While the Reds can argue that they would have been able to compete without so many injuries, injuries happen to every team, and this team was not all that good even with a healthy roster. They have far too many holes on offense and a pitching staff that far outperformed their peripherals. With such little financial flexibility, the Reds will need to find improvements from within their organization that can add around 15 wins. Otherwise, the Reds will need to trade one of their top starters in order to bring in an offensive upgrade at an affordable price. With so much money allocated to such few players, the Reds need to improve this roster, while those players are still performing up to their contracts. That makes this offseason that much more important, as their window to contend with this core will not be open much longer.

Anthony Cacchione

Should We Be Concerned With Oscar Taveras?

Oscar+Taveras+Milwaukee+Brewers+v+St+Louis+YzJuqF9lmG8l Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Oscar Taveras entered this season as a unanimous Top 5 prospect in baseball, and many scouting outlets felt he was already Major League ready. He tore up every stop in the Minors, even winning the Texas League MVP award in 2012, while in Double-A. If not for an injury plagued 2013 campaign, Taveras may have made his MLB debut last year. Instead, he began this season in Triple-A, where he continued to dominate. Finally, after what seemed to be too long of a wait, Taveras made his MLB debut on May 31, and did it in grand fashion, as he hit a towering home run in his 2nd at bat. However, the Cardinals Rightfielder has struggled to dominate the Majors in the same way he did the Minors. In 205 Big League plate appearances (PA), the 22-year-old has slashed just .224/.268/.292 (avg/obp/slg) with only 2 home runs. It isn’t too surprising to see a young prospect struggle in his first taste of Big League action, but there are some red flags in Taveras’s performance thus far.

As I said, there are some concerning trends in Taveras’s production thus far, but there are also some very promising things. The first thing in Oscar’s favor is that he is still very young at just 22 years old. This is not Oscar at his peak, as he is going to get stronger and will make adjustments to help his chances of competing at this level. Along with his youth, just about every scouting outlet agrees on Taveras’s ability and overall potential, with all of them believing that his elite bat speed and exceptional plate coverage will make him an outstanding regular in the Majors. And to a certain extent, those outlets have all been correct, as his bat speed and plate coverage have helped him post a far better than league average K%. Another good sign for Oscar Taveras is that he does not seem entirely overmatched, as he is swinging and missing just 5.1%, which is 4.3% below league average. Oscar’s ability to make contact bodes well for him being able to keep his K% well below league average. Even as the other statistics like his slash line have not matched the hype quite yet, we are dealing with only 200 PA and Taveras has a strong track record in Minor Leagues that suggests he is much better than this. One last reason for optimism is it seems Taveras is getting quite unlucky, as he has posted just a .256 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). The league average for BABIP is .298, and there does not appear to be any strong correlation for BABIP from season to season, which suggests Taveras should be able to rebound in the future.

Now that we have looked at the positives for Oscar Taveras, it is time to point out some red flags in his performance. Starting with where we finished in the positives, his BABIP. As I explained, Taveras is likely to see his BABIP rise just due to regression to the mean, but BABIP is also affected by certain types of batted balls, as some balls in play go for hits more often than others. For example, Infield Flyballs (IFFBs) go for outs almost as often as strikeouts, Line Drives on the other hand go for hits the most frequently. Taveras, unfortunately, has a very poor batted ball profile thus far in his career. Among the 320 hitters with at least 200 PA, Taveras ranks 40th in Groundball% (GB%). This may not seem overly concerning, but the majority of the players ahead of him are speed first, low power guys. Taveras is not fast and he is supposed to at least have 20 HR power, so this is not a good trend for him. Even more concerning, however, is the fact that he ranks 13th with a 17.6% IFFB%. As I stated above, IFFBs go for outs nearly every time. Taveras also sits 4% below league average in LD%, so he is not hitting enough balls that go for hits most frequently. Taveras’s poor batted ball profile culminates in him posting a very poor BABIP. His BABIP is still likely to rise just by regression, but if he continues to hit balls in play like he has, then he will continue to post a below league average BABIP. Further reason for concern is Taveras’s inability to hit Major League fastballs. Against hard pitches, as classified by Brooksbaseball.net, Taveras has hit just .218 and slugged a disappointing .242. It seems Taveras has been unable to catch up to Major League velocity, as he has yet to pull a fastball in the air. Unfortunately for Taveras, he is not much better against breaking and off-speed pitches, but he has managed a .333 slugging percentage against both pitch types. Taveras’s struggles against breaking and off-speed pitches stems mostly from his poor plate discipline, which was well documented throughout his Minor League career. In the Minors he was able to make solid contact, whereas he has not been able to do so thus far in his brief MLB career. There is no doubt that Major League pitching is much better than even Triple-A pitching, and right now it seems that Taveras’s aggressive approach is overmatched in the Majors.

Taveras is still just 22 years old and has ranked among the top prospects in the game for years, but he is really struggling at the highest level. Every young player has to make adjustments when they first come up and there is no doubt Taveras will improve. Yet, it is worth asking whether we should be concerned. Taveras’s ability to make contact at a much better than league average rate, bodes well for his future, but right now his contact has not been good contact. With too many GBs and IFFBs, Taveras will need to improve his batted ball profile in order to develop into the All-Star hitter many scouts predict him to be. And for Taveras, his bat is his only way to help his team, as he is a below average defender and base runner. With just about all his value coming from his offense, Taveras will need to make many adjustments at the plate in order to develop into the solid regular that experts expect him to be. Many of his issues thus far can be attributed to poor timing, resulting in too many GBs and IFFBs, but 200 PA is a long time to have poor timing. This off-season will be vital for Taveras, as he has plenty of adjustments to make in order to compete at this level.

Anthony Cacchione

It Is Time To Appreciate Stephen Strasburg

Source: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images North America

Source: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images North America

Just a few days ago, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote why Stephen Strasburg is not an ace. Schoenfield is not alone with this claim, as many fans and pundits alike have argued that Strasburg has failed to develop into the ace that many thought he would become when he was selected 1st overall by the Washington Nationals in the 2009 Amateur Draft. When looking at his career, Strasburg has been one of the best starters of all-time in rate statistics (K/9, ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), etc.). However, the largest knock on Strasburg has always been his inability to pitch deep into games. For his career, Strasburg has averaged just 5.9 innings per start, which is not ace-caliber production. When Strasburg is on the mound, however, he is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Aside from Strasburg’s lack of deep outings, many people look towards his ERA and see that he has yet to post a sub-3.00 ERA in a season with at least 150 IP and conclude that he is not a front of the rotation starter. His ERA of 3.39 in 2014 is a career high and much more than respectable. The flamethrower is still criticized for not being among the league leaders in run prevention, but other starters, such as David Price, James Shields and Jered Weaver, are considered to be undisputed aces, despite posting similar ERAs. These three starters certainly have longer track records, but Strasburg has actually been better than each of them, although Price does have a better ERA this season. Likewise, few people would argue that pitchers like Alfredo Simon or Henderson Alvarez are aces, but they both have sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014. Relying on any one statistic for evaluation is a very risky proposition and often leads to rather poor conclusions. Strasburg, however, excels in many categories and is certainly among the most elite pitchers in the MLB.

During his nearly 4 full seasons of MLB service time, Strasburg has made 99 starts and compiled 585 2/3 IP, which equates to 5.9 IP/start, certainly validating the claim that he does not work deep into games. While this is due to his own shortcomings, it is also due to the Nationals attempting to protect their prized investment. Strasburg actually underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, his first year of professional baseball, despite being on strict pitch counts and innings limits. The Nationals have remained incredibly cautious with their 26 year-old ace, as they imposed an innings limit on him in 2012, his first full season after surgery, that forced them to shut him down before their brief trip to the Postseason. The Nationals have since lifted Strasburg’s restrictions and he has averaged over 6 inn/start each of the past two seasons, still not among the elite, but he is improving. Even as he has averaged more innings per start, Strasburg is still lacking in complete games, as he has just one career CG. Strasburg is not among the top pitchers in the game in terms of innings pitched, but he does excel in just about every other facet of the game.

Criticisms of Strasburg are nothing new, as he entered the league as one of the most-hyped players in the history of the game. He had a fastball that could reach 100 mph with a devastating curveball and changeup. He breezed through the minors and then dominated MLB hitters in his 68 innings before going down to Tommy John. After just two Major League starts, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “National Treasure”. At that time, Strasburg’s fate was sealed; it would be almost impossible for him to ever live up to the otherworldly expectations that many had placed on him. While these expectations have always been there, they are leading to even louder critics this season, as Strasburg has posted the worst ERA of his career. The worst ERA of his career is 3.39, which is more than respectable, maybe not an ERA you would want from an ace, but there are plenty of flaws with using ERA. Strasburg has been hurt by an unsustainable Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), which sits at .341. It is not always bad luck that contributes to a high BABIP, and David Schoenfield does point out that Strasburg has been hit hard when he has fallen behind in the count. It is still not realistic to expect Strasburg’s BABIP to remain this high when his career mark is .302, which is right around league average. Despite these unspectacular numbers, Strasburg has excelled in the statistics he has the most control over, such as K/9, BB/9 and HR/9. Strasburg has a K/9 of 10.53, which ranks 3rd in the MLB. He has also been fantastic at limiting walks and home runs, as his 1.96 BB/9 is far better than league average and his HR/9 of .83 is also better than league average. All of these statistics culminate in Strasburg posting the 11th best FIP in baseball, ahead of bona fide aces Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, David Price and Max Scherzer, to name a few. Even in the midst of a down season in terms of run prevention, Strasburg is among the elite pitchers in the game when isolating his performance from his defense and luck.

However, looking at one season’s worth of data is not nearly enough data to substantiate a claim that any starter is an ace. Strasburg’s career numbers help to further strengthen his case as an MLB ace. Looking at pitcher’s career statistics for all starters with at least 550 career IP, Strasburg ranks among the best starters in the history of the game. There are 812 starters that have reached this benchmark and Strasburg has posted the best FIP of any of them. This is largely due to his ability to generate strikeouts, while also limiting walks and home runs. He ranks 2nd in K/9, but 1st in K% and K-BB%. His ranking as the best pitcher in terms of FIP shows how effective Strasburg is at all the things he has the most control over. But, even in terms of ERA, Strasburg has ranked among the top starters of all-time. He ranks 17th all-time in ERA, with a 3.07 mark. It may not be entirely accurate to compare Strasburg’s first 585 2/3 IP to other starters that have compiled more than 1500 IP. However, that is the only sample that we can look at and all of his advanced metrics point to this being a sustainable performance. He excels at the three statistics that are most under his control, which will help him to sustain this high level of performance. The real challenge for Strasburg will come when he begins to lose velocity, but with his ability to limit walks and generate so many strikeouts, he should continue to succeed at the level of an ace.

While Strasburg entered the league with unrealistic expectations, that does not mean that he should need to do more than others to be considered an ace. In statistics that he has the greatest control over, he ranks among the best starters in the MLB, not just in 2014, but also for his entire career. Even in terms of run prevention, Strasburg has matched the level of other elite pitchers. Despite what seems to be a disappointing season for Strasburg, he has remained among the best starters in the game. It is time to accept that Strasburg is never going to match the hype that was put on him when he was drafted, and realize that he has still developed into the ace that many would expect of a #1 overall pick. He has also done all of this by the age of 26, which leaves him plenty of time to continue to improve as an ace. He certainly needs to improve his ability to pitch deep into games, but now that he has graduated from the Nationals’ overprotective period, he will be free to throw more pitches per outing and more innings per season.

*All statistics as of August 7, 2014

Anthony Cacchione