NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Slowly, sometimes reluctantly, major league baseball executives are trickling into the Gaylord Hotel—which they will find is larger than Newfoundland– here on the Potomac River. There is a strong sense of relief that Commissioner Rob Manfred reached a deal with Tony Clark and the Players Association, yet most are in freeze-frame because until they’ve read and decoded the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, they really don’t know what it all means for 2017 on forward.
Several small market general managers have privately expressed concern. “It is not good for us,” said one. No draft choice compensation for the loss of free agents, a process that they see as fattening frogs for snakes. Then again, high revenue teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, Red Sox and Cubs haven’t yet figured the magnitude of the competitive balance tax and the surtax percentages have risen as the tax thresholds will rise at a rate likely to be slower than the rise in industry revenues. Wisely, Yankee GM Brian Cashman has decided to take 48 to 72 hours to study the new system before re-engaging agents and other club officials.
Agents, who profit handsomely from an extremely well run industry, are not happy with possible restraints the luxury taxes may impose similar to a soft cap. But, look, we have no idea what the landscape will look like on Opening Day, 2019, where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado and Clayton Kershaw will be playing, or whether some teams badgered into instant gratification will be watching a 24-year old Andrew Benintendi or 25-year old Alex Bregman in their superstar ascensions while dealing with the concerns mid-thirties pitchers create.
We do know a few things. The Kansas City Royals face months of critical decisions now that they know the best of their half-dozen players who can reach free agency by next November will fetch nothing better than second round picks. The hard cap on international free agent signings will only further encourage the rampant cheating—buying farms and houses, providing human trafficking means, etc. under the table—and the continued, dogged pursuit by Commissioner Manfred to drain the swamp and make the cheaters pay.
We do know—with the best explanation from Jeff Passan–that with the international limit lowered to $4.5-$5.5M that what was expected to be a frantic bidding war next fall for Japanese pitcher/slugger Shohei Otani will likely be put off for him to make his debut in 2019. As Passan wrote, if he comes over next season, his age restricts him to $6M. He turns 25 in 2019, and can anticipate something in the $150M-$200M range. We can expect politicians to claim him as proof that the U.S. is attracting jobs from Japan, but three general managers this week, “will he prefer the American League, where he can DH when he doesn’t pitch, or the National, where he hits 30 starts a year, and can DH in interleague play?” That’s a bridge to cross in time.
Other GM’s wondered what this agreement will do to Yu Darvish if he opts for the market at the end of the 2017 season. “The Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox are all going to be cautious because of the luxury tax threshold,” said one GM, “so will he be restricted?” To begin with, Texas isn’t exactly Oakland.
Going back to the small market issue: Kansas City has a predicament. They have a half-dozen players that can be free agents at the end of the 2017 season, including Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. If they make a qualifying offer to any of them, they can be on the hook for $17-18M dollars. OK, they certainly will for Hosmer, a franchise player (and person) wherever he goes. But the others?
They will wait and see how the individual and team season goes. Dayton Moore wants to compete, he doesn’t want to rebuild despite a new group of talented young players like Raul Mondesi, Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier, doesn’t want prospects…and so they will have to see what they get offered.
The interesting case is Davis, who despite some forearm issues has been one of the best relievers in the game the last three years. Between baseball trend-lines, the post-season, and the giant presence of Andrew Miller, relievers are certainly a hot topic this winter. However, would a team looking for bullpen help like the Giants, Red Sox, Mets, Nationals, or Dodgers be willing to trade a major league player for one year of Davis at $10M rather than go 3-5 years at $60M-$90M for Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman or Mark Melancon? Davis pitched 30 innings with a 1.23 ERA before the All Star Break, 14 innings after the break with a 14.0 15 5 5 4 19 line.
Duffy is very interesting if he should be on the market in July. He’s 28. He’s thrown only 623 career innings.
We’re going to see Chris Sale rumors streaming all week. Now, a source close to Jerry Reinsdorf, the most loyal of owners, says he is concerned about Sale’s long-term shoulder wear given his delivery and the extreme effort. Boston may seem a logical place. The organization is far different than the one Theo Epstein created; more than a dozen, many of them key people, have left the organization since Dave Dombrowski took over, he has traded three of their best prospects in the deals for Craig Kimbrel and Pomeranz and the White Sox would want to start with Benintendi or Yoan Moncada. During the last weekend and the playoffs, John Gibbons and Mickey Callaway both offered the opinion that Benintendi made the loudest sound hitting a ball of anyone in the American League, the Indians scouting preparation group said that he was the one Red Sox hitter for whom they could not game-plan, but they traded one of MLB.com’s six best pitching prospects across the game (Anderson Espinoza) for Pomeranz, only to learn he had elbow issues and has never thrown 171 innings in a season.
Rich Hill will likely sign this week; one team dropped out on Hill before the weekend and believes he’ll go back to the Dodgers for three years and $40+M. Mark Trumbo may sign as well, with Colorado involved heavily.
It is clear that Houston is a rising power in the AL West, adding Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Charlie Morton (to go with Joseph Musgrove and Francis Marte) and now Carlos Beltran. Carlos’s friends say he loved Houston when he played there after being traded from Kansas City in 2004. Now the ‘Stros lineup has Beltran hitting fifth and Yulieski Gurriel hitting eighth. And Beltran’s help with Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve may be immeasurable.
PITCHERS IN TOP 30 PROSPECTS (mlb.com)
3 Lucas Giolito, Washington
4 Alex Reyes, St. Louis
5 Tyler Glasnow, Pittsburgh
13 Anderson Espinoza, San Diego
29 Francis Martes, Houston
30 Jason Groome, Boston
–Go back to the top 30 MLB.com prospects five years ago, in 2012. Nearly half—14—were pitchers. The half-dozen GMs I talked to cited the market cost of starters; 9 are already on deals over $150M. And that the importance of developing frontend starters is more important that ever, which makes the Astros acquisition of Francis Martes in a deal for Jake Cosart and the Padres’ acquisition of Anderson Espinoza for backend starter Drew Pomeranz, career 25-36.
–When the Red Sox got to spring training in 2015, they thought Christian Vazquez was their catcher of the future. His nickname was The Fourth Molina Brother for the work he did with the brothers, his receiving stillness, his throwing. But that spring he hurt his elbow and required Tommy John Surgery. And as Matt Wieters found out, a catcher’s TJ rehab is far more complicated, and last year—despite David Price’s declaration that he is the best catcher to whom he’s ever thrown—had not regained the strength, either throwing or hitting.
In the last month at Pawtucket, his skills began returning, and in Puerto Rico he has shown his arm strength, receiving and line drive power. So now Boston has the spring to decide between Vazquez and Sandy Leon, who hit .310 with an .845 OPS. And then there’s Blake Swihart, the switch-hitting athlete who one National League GM predicts will be a “starter, despite having his 2016 season cut short by an ankle injury caused by a collision with the left field wall.” Swihart is such a remarkable athlete that he could play left, third, first, or catcher. However, he is still raw behind the plate; he was converted when he signed in 2011, but has caught less than 500 games, and to be a utilityman might be a boom to Boston’s offense, but to get the necessary fundamental catching work at batting practice might be tough to pull off. Considering the lack of catching—especially coming up in this country—the Red Sox will be reluctant to trade him, at least until and if they get into a panic mode.
Dave Dombrowski came to the meetings focused on pitching. So when Matt Holliday texted to family friend John Farrell right up to his signing with the Yankees, the Red Sox did not return the call…Everyone acknowledges that Jose Bautista would be a best in Fenway Park, but he is sticking to his request for a long-term deal. “He turned down a one year, make good contract when he turned down the qualifying offer,” says one Toronto official. “But I’ll say this; if you study his real numbers, he’s a great objective hitter and player whose value may be lessed by subjective judgement.”
–One GM was critical of Boston picking up Clay Buchholz’s option at $13.5M, claiming that he will not bring anything in a deal. But the Red Sox want him on one year, and Inside Edge has an interesting factoid on him: righthanded hitters had a line drive percentage of 10.7 against him in 2016, lowest of 142 qualifying starters, and he induced 12 double plays in 52 opportunities, third best in the game. Interesting, third time through the order, Buchholz had the 4th best swing-and-miss percentage among qualifying starters. Good indicators.
–There will also be a massive Andrew McCutchen watch this week. However, Pirates sources indicated they were not far down the line with the Nationals or anyone else on a deal, and that they were not shopping him, per say. They tried to extend McCutchen in the spring, fell far short, and nothing has yet happened to narrow the gap.
–There is an extraordinary piece in Baseball Prospectus by Jeffery Paternostro on judging the hit tool, as he breaks down Boston prospects. He references Kyle Schwarber, who has the ultimate hit tool (he is a great hitter who has power, just watch his hands in BP), and Benintendi, writing “we may not get a semi-eligible prospect with this combination of raw hitting ability, polish and statistical production for years to come.”
–There will be an interesting Tyson Ross chase between now and the first of February. Several teams have checked in since he was non-tendered by the Padres, his return schedule for now is somewhere between February and the first of April, and being that it is his free agent year and he is very smart and thoughtful, it may be a deliberate, calculated decision.