MLB power at the plate; can supply meet demand?

Miguel Cabrera

When the 13 players who received $14M one year qualifying offers were announced, one general manager immediately quipped, “at first there were three players who I thought might accept the offers—Curtis Granderson, Nelson Cruz, Kendry Morales—then I thought about it and realized that was ridiculous. All three of those players have power. This isn’t 2004. Corner power, especially right handed corner power, has become so rare that anyone that has it is going to reap the benefits of the fact that the industry is awash in cash.”

Where teams under the last TV deal realized approximately $25M a year in national television revenue, this coming year it runs up to $52M a team. They’re looking at a World Series in which the best team in baseball batted Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava fifth in St. Louis. “Nelson Cruz may be 33, he may be coming off the suspension for his relationship with Biogenesis,” says one GM, “but he’s a right handed power corner bat and a very popular teammate. He will be fine.”

Cruz has averaged 27 home runs the last three years. Granderson has averaged 30, Yankee Stadium, ok, but two serious injuries in 2013 as well. Robinson Cano has averaged 30 homers the last three years, and may be looking at a deal greater than the GNP of Uruguay.

“Look at the free agent market the next three years,” says one baseball sage. Power in the 2014-15 market? Hanley Ramirez will have been re-signed to a long term deal by the Dodgers, so the two principle mid-order bats will be Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley.

Move forward to 2015-16, when Miguel Cabera will be 33 and likely signed, Jason Heyward will be entering the market at 26. Yoenis Cespedes will be 30 and will be still learning the game. Chris Davis will be 30, although the Orioles are expected to sign their prodigious power hitter. Justin Upton will be 28. Matt Wieters will be 29. Billy Butler will be 29. Buster Posey is, well, Buster Posey.

And the following year, Giancarlo Stanton will hit the market at the age of 27. Chances are that Stanton will be traded for a gaggle of prospects long before he reaches the market. But Heyward isn’t likely to be traded; the Braves have not shown any interest in doing a long term deal and one agent thinks “there’s no way Heyward doesn’t get to free agency.” A gold glove defender with power on the market at 26?

“It is amazing how much the game has changed in the last decade,” says one general manager. “Back around 2000 to 2003, power was pretty easy to find. Not now. It isn’t showing up on the free agent market, it isn’t there in the draft. Except for a few teams—notably the Cubs—there isn’t much power around the minor leagues.”

Go back to 2004, the last year before drug-testing was implemented. The average major league team scored 779 runs and hit 182 home runs. In 2013, the average team scored 675 runs and hit 155 home runs.

In 2004, nine players hit 40 or more homers, led by Adrian Beltre’s 48, and including Jim Edmonds (42) and Paul Konerko (41). In all, 37 players hit 30 or more homers.

In 2013, two players hit 40 or more homers, Chris Davis (53) and Miguel Cabrera (44). Davis and Cabrera are included in the grand total of 13 players who hit 30 or more.

In 2004, nine players posted an OPS of 1.000 or better, up to Barry Bonds’ 1.422, on down to J.D. Drew’s 1,006.

In 2013, only Cabrera (1.078) and Davis (1.004) reached 1.000.

“There is no doubt that we are developing a new generation of power pitchers who arrive at the major leagues with fastball command and the ability to change speeds,” says one GM, sounding as if he sees Michael Wacha in his sleep. Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington is still talking of the exhaustion of watching his team grind out victories against the extraordinary power starters of the Tigers and Cardinals.

But as much as the pitching has evolved in the last decade, the power has declined for what is a complicated series of reasons. Drug-testing may be one. Before the 2005 draft, when Boston selected Jacoby Ellsbury with its first round pick, Theo Epstein said, “the game is going to change and we’re going to have to begin adjusting to it.” Ellsbury is about to reap a Carl Crawford-type free agent contract, but the Red Sox got 6-plus seasons out of Ellsbury for less than $21M and won two World Series.

“It wasn’t long ago that we didn’t think much about finding a guy we thought could give us 30 homers,” says one AL GM. “Now…?” Eleven players have averaged 30 homers a year the last three seasons: Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Davis, Stanton, Beltre, Edwin Encarnacion, Prince Fielder, Granderson, Adam Jones, Jay Bruce, Alfonso Soriano.

Cruz has averaged 27 the last three seasons, including his suspension. Kendry Morales has averaged 25 for four, but that includes a horrific injury in 2010 that limited him to 11 homers, as well as the fact that he played the four years in pitcher-friendly parks in Anaheim and Seattle. Hunter Pence has averaged 17 for the last three years, and got a very lucrative deal from the Giants. Napoli’s three year average is 27.

“Between the lack of power and the money coming into the game, it’s easy to understand why players will turn down the qualifying offers and try the market,” says one AL GM.

It could be the Padres trade Chase Headley at the deadline, but if their pitching depth is as good as it appears and they are in the hunt for a wild card berth, they are more likely to go the qualifying offer/draft choice route. There are several teams, including the Red Sox, who may be willing to trade prospects to the Giants for Pablo Sandoval, use him as a first baseman or DH, and try to get him signed before he reaches the market.

But if you are Scott Boras and you are representing Davis, are you going to sign him before he reached the market at the age of 30 just because Camden Yards is a great place to play? Is Yoenis Cespedes, who already has 49 homers in only 264 major league games, going to sign a long term deal to stay in Plumbers Park or try the market at age 30? That has the makings of a Billy Beane megadeal. Will the Orioles hold onto Matt Wieters, or trade him to the Yankees before he reaches the market in two years at 30?

Then think about Heyward after the 2015 season at the age of 26. Or Stanton the following winter at 27. You probably don’t have to think about Hanley Ramirez coming out after next season, because the Dodgers will address him and get it done.

It makes one realize how smart Beane and Billy Owens were when they nailed Cespedes. Ditto Logan White and the Dodgers for running down Puig in Mexico. Their power isn’t available in the draft, hence the $68M the White Sox gambled on slugging Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, who may or may not have the bat speed of Cespedes and Puig to handle major league velocity.

It also makes one realize why Rick Renteria’s bilingual developmental background was so important. Besides the second pick in the 2013 draft, Kris Bryant of light tower power, the Cubs are loaded with potential power bats in Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, as well as Bryant. It makes one realize why the Rays would trade James Shields, because Wil Myers has legitimate 30-40 home run corner power. We see the potential value of potential power bats at shortstop with Addison Russell of the Athletics and Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, as well as Miguel Sano at third with the Twins and George Springer in center field with the Astros; one club has Springer’s power as second only to that of Puig among players who spent time in the minors last season.

“What we’re not seeing is much power in the draft,” says a general manager. “We had the one big college power bat in Bryant.” It could be that the Yankees and Mariners felt they had to overdraft outfielders Aaron Judge with the 32nd pick and Austin Wilson with the 49th because they were college players with massive power potential, and as rare as power may be, it sometimes develops late; after Miguel Cabrera, Bautista and Davis are second and third in the majors in homers over the last three years, and each was past the age of 25 and had been traded before their power began to play consistently.

So don’t be surprised at what Napoli or any power hitter gets on the market. Take the Red Sox. No one in their system hit 20 homers; Bryce Brentz led the organization with 19 in 88 games at Pawtucket, but while he also struck out 90 times in those 88 games, limited by injuries, he has legitimate, serious power and will get his shot someday. “It’s why we don’t even think about giving up on Will Middlebrooks,” says one Sox official. “It’s why Bogaerts being able to play shortstop is so important.” Another official adds that the next power potential bat in the upper reaches of the organization may be second baseman Sean Coyle, who hit 16 homers and slugged .500 in 60 games in a season plagued by injuries and spent with three different teams. Athletic second baseman-shortstop Mookie Betts had 15 homers, a .417 on base percentage and .506 slug in A ball and could be fast-tracked at several positions, but his skills go way beyond raw power.

Worry not about the impact of Biogenesis on Nelson Cruz, or the freak injuries to Curtis Granderson, or the foot and hip of Napoli. They have power, the industry has the kind of cash it had in 2000, when Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Mike Hampton, et al got so wealthy.

You might want to worry about baseball losing the powerful athletes to other sports, but that is another issue entirely. But if you’re University of San Fransisco center fielder Brad Zimmer, Clovis, Ca. SS-CF Jacob Gatewood or Asheville, N.C. 1B Braxton Davidson, you’re going to be seeing a lot of scouts in the stands before June, because you may have what almost every team is looking for, namely power.

  • CT

    I hope the Braves find a way to keep Heyward longterm, but it looks like it’s going to cost them to do it. The unfortunate thing for the Braves is all the young guys that are starting to cost money and need to be signed longterm. It’s a shame the money they’re spending on BJ and Uggla isn’t going for Heyward or Freeman.