Archive for December 2015

A Thought on Free Agent Compensation

December 29, 2015

With current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire on December 1, 2016, one thing that is likely to be heavily negotiated in the new contract is the rules concerning compensation to teams that lose players to free agency.  There are things I don’t like about the current compensation regime, and there are things both the players and some teams don’t like.

The idea of the qualifying offer makes a lot of sense, and my expectation is that this portion of the compensation regime will continue on to the next contract.  However, the current system doesn’t work in terms of the loss and gain of draft picks.

First, some background on what teams and the player’s union hope to accomplish in terms of free agency compensation.  The teams hope to accomplish two things: (1) compensation for teams that lose their elite players to free agency; and (2) strong disincentives to teams signing free agents in order to reduce the amounts of free agent contracts.  The players’ union has only one true goal: to put as little restriction on free agents as possible so that they can command the largest free agent contracts possible.  If a system can be created to compensate teams losing elite free agents that does not impair free agents’ ability to obtain maximum free market contracts, the union is certainly willing to listen.

The current system contains a strong disincentive to signing a free agent: the loss of a first round draft pick to any team that does not have one of the first ten picks in the upcoming Draft.  This means that teams can lose a first round draft pick by signing a free agent even if they are coming off a losing season, and creates a strong disincentive for teams with the 11th to 15th picks of the Draft from signing any free agent linked to compensation, since the probability of getting a great ballplayer who can be controlled for six seasons is pretty high for these draft picks.  However, it discourages teams that might benefit most by signing an elite free agent (those teams at or just under .500 the previous season) from doing so.

This problem could easily be fixed by providing that only teams with winning records lose a draft pick.  This would mean that the number of teams that could potentially loose a draft pick would change every year, but it’s obviously easy enough to figure out which teams didn’t finish with winning records.

More importantly, the current system does not adequately compensate the teams losing elite free agents.  Since teams no longer receive the first round picks other teams lose and instead receive only a sandwich pick at the end of the first round, teams are beginning to trade off their elite upcoming free agents before they reach free agency.

This is how I understand the Reds’ recent trade of Aroldis Chapman for four B-grade or lower prospects.  Some of Chapman’s reduced value was due to the pending domestic violence charges against him.  Some of it is also that the Reds got quantity over quality.  However, I think the biggest part of it is that trading Chapman with one year to go before free agency wasn’t going to bring a big return, but more than the Reds would get with a single sandwich pick, if they retained him and left via free agency next off-season.

In this sense, the current system doesn’t effectively discourage teams from signing elite free agents.  The current system makes it more likely that pending free agents will be traded during their last season before free agency, as happened with David Price and Johnny Cueto last summer.  Players traded in season can’t be given a qualifying offer; thus, there is no detriment at all to signing them as free agents, and they will get maximum free agent contracts, which thanks to salary arbitration pushes up all player salaries over time.

Aside from taking draft picks away only from teams with winning records, I would return to the system were the teams losing elite free agents get the first round pick of the signing team (or a sandwich pick from a team with a first round protected pick).  However, I would give the team losing their first round pick by signing an elite free agent a sandwich pick to replace the higher pick they lost.  This would do a better job of compensating teams that lose elite free agents without making the cost of signing an elite free agent as onerous.

More compensation to teams losing an elite free agent would make teams at least a little more likely to hold onto these players until they become free agents and would likely be readily accepted by the players’ union because it also lessens the cost to players signing elite free agents.

What Ever Happened to Pinch Hitters?

December 24, 2015

I got pinch hitters into to my head today, and I again noticed to my dismay that it is very difficult to find any information on pinch-hitting on baseball reference, at least if you are not willing to pay to find it.  It got me thinking about how much it feels like you just don’t hear anywhere near as much about pinch-hitters and pinch-hitting as I remember hearing as a kid in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

In those days, the purported ability to come in cold and pinch hit successfully was highly valued, and there were more players at the bottom of active rosters who were thought to hold their roster spots due specifically to their ability as pinch-hitters.  Since then, the conversation has decidedly turned toward discussion of performance by bench players when hitting with the platoon advantage, rather than as pinch-hitters.   Also, there are fewer roster spots for the “pure” pinch-hitter in today’s game, since just about every club now carries 12 pitchers.

In fact, it feels like conversation about pinch-hitters has nearly disappeared since Matt Stairs retired. However, the miracle that is the internet (and I’m old enough to know it really is amazing relative to what came before), means that more information about pinch-hitters is only a google search away.

Baseball Almanac’s list of pinch-hitting record holders is here.

Here’s a Baseball Reference Blog archive listing the best pinch hitters since 1961.

Here’s a Hard Ball Times article on notable pinch hitters.

 

Is Gregor Blanco the Most Underpaid Player in Major League Baseball?

December 23, 2015

I saw a blurb on mlbtraderumors.com today, in which San Francisco Giants GM Bobby Evans said that now that the team has signed two starters, it will focus on adding a left-fielder, because in spite of all the performance Gregor Blanco has given the Giants the last four seasons, management thinks the team would be stronger with Blanco in a fourth outfielder role.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with Evans’ opinion — the Giants could definitely use another right-handed hitting corner outfielder with some pop and Blanco makes a terrific super-sub — it did get me thinking about what Blanco is worth and, in contrast, what he’s getting paid.

According to fangraphs, Blanco has been worth a whopping $70.2 million over the last four seasons and has never been worth less than $15.4 million in any of his four Giants’ seasons.  The reasons for Blanco’s high values should be pretty obvious to anybody with a knowledge of sabrmetrics: he plays great defense, he gets on base a lot and he runs well.

Blanco’s defensive value was down last year, probably due to the fact that he’s getting older, but his on-base percentage was a career high .368, as was his .781 OPS.

Meanwhile, the Giants have paid Blanco a grand total of $8 million for the last four seasons and will only be paying him $3.9 million in 2016.  Part of this low salary is due to the facts that Blanco is not seen as an everyday player, even if he ends up playing like one, and he hasn’t reached free agency.

More of it has to do with the fact that players of Blanco’s type (defense at the corner positions, speed, OBP, no power) simply are underpaid as a group.  Arbitration salaries are determined in substantial part by past arbitration awards, which over-valued things like batting average, home runs and RBIs, and had no way to value plus defensive contributions.

Also, teams (with only a couple of notable exceptions) don’t fully value these kinds of players either.  A perfect example is Nori Aoki, who the Giants decided was too expensive to exercise a $5.5 million option earlier this off-season.  Since then, the Mets have signed former Giant Alejandro De Aza for either a guaranteed $4.5 million or $5.75 million, depending on which of the early reports you believe.

In short, the only thing that can be said in favor of the Giants’ decision to cut Aoki loose is that he and Blanco have exactly the same skill sets, and the Giants, based on the ballpark they play in, can almost always use another right-handed hitting corner outfielder with pop.

In today’s game and salary structures, almost all teams need at least a couple of players like Blanco, who aren’t paid anywhere near their actual value, in order to field a winner.  What bothers me about Blanco is that given his age (he’ll be 32 in 2016), a down year in 2016 could destroy his one true opportunity to really get paid when he becomes a free agent next off-season.

On the other hand, it’s a little hard to feel too sorry for a kid from Venezuela who will make more than $12 million (don’t forget those World Series checks) over a five year period.  By any rational standard, he’s made it, even if he’s relegated to being only a rich man, rather than a rich, rich. rich man.

Baltimore Orioles to Sign KBO Star Hyun-soo Kim

December 18, 2015

The Orioles have reportedly reached an agreement with South Korean star Hyun-soo Kim for two seasons at $7 million total.  The deal is pending a physical, and while it hasn’t yet been reported, I would expect that the O’s have an option for a third season at something more than $3.5 million.

Given the amount of the contract in terms of current MLB salaries, it’s not a particularly big risk by the Orioles, but it does leave me wondering why not even one MLB team posted a bid for fellow KBO star Ah-Seop Son when he was posted earlier this off-season, because I don’t see much of a difference between the two players in terms of past KBO performance.

Both Kim and Son will be 28 next season.  Kim has a KBO-career slash line of .318/.406/.488, while Son’s KBO-career slash line is .323/.398/.462.  Not a lot of difference there. Kim has nearly 1,200 more KBO plate appearances than Son (4,700+ compared to 3,500+) because Kim reached KBO’s major league a couple of years younger than Son.  At this point in their KBO careers, I don’t think that’s particularly important.

Kim had a better season than Son in 2015, but Son was better in 2014.  Kim has a little more pop than Son, but Son appears to be faster based on stolen base numbers.

I don’t have any idea whether either player was significantly scouted by MLB teams, but based on the statistics, if Kim is worth two years and $7 million, then Son should have been worth at least a $2 million posting bid and a two-year contract offer of $3.5 million.

I feel the same way about Rich Hill and Jhoulys Chacin.  Both pitched well in four late-season starts after spending most of the 2015 season at AAA.  Hill was better than Chacin was, particularly in terms of strikeout rates, but I am at a loss to understand why Hill, who will be age 36 next year, received a $6 million deal from the A’s for 2016, while Chacin, who will be 28 next year, was forced to accept a minor league deal from the Braves.  If Hill’s four 2015 MLB starts are worth $6 million in 2016, weren’t Chacin’s worth at least a guaranteed $600,000, particularly when Chacin is still in his prime?

Based on his past major league experience, my educated guess is that Chacin’s minor league deal probably pays him somewhere between $125,000 and $300,000 for time spent in the minor leagues and somewhere between $650,000 and $950,000 for time spent on the major league roster, so a strong Spring Training and season could mean more money for Chacin than a guaranteed contract at or near the major league minimum.  Even so, a couple of years ago six or seven minor league free agents about the same age Chacin is now received major league contracts, and none of them had anywhere near Chacin’s past major league success, either in career terms or in the season after which they became free agents.

I think everyone but the Braves missed the boat on Chacin, but, of course, we’ll have to wait and see what happens when they begin playing baseball again in the spring.

San Francisco Giants to Sign Johnny Cueto for $130 Million

December 15, 2015

The Giants have reportedly signed Johnny Cueto for six years and $130 million.  The contract provides that Cueto can opt out after two seasons (his age 30 and 31 seasons).

For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I’m not quite as excited about the Giants signing Cueto as perhaps I should be.  He was really great in 2014 at age 28, but his strikeout rate was aberrantly high that one season.  He also threw 243.2 IP that year, which is an awful lot.

He pitched really well for the Reds last year, but didn’t pitch particularly well for the Royals late in the season with the exception of his one World Series start.  All I can say is that I hope Cueto is really healthy the next two seasons, so he opts out of his contract with the Giants only on the hook for $46M paid as of that date, and the team then in a position to reevaluate if it wants to bring Cueto back for more.  If the Giants fade in 2017, the answer is probably not.

This deal has the feeling of the Giants wanting to keep Cueto out of the Dodgers’ hands almost as much as the Giants wanting to him for their own 2016 performance.  That said, Cueto added to Madison Bumgarner and the previously signed Jeff Samardzija certainly gives the Giants a starting rotation as strong as anyone’s going into the 2016 season.

The Giants have certainly addressed their most pressing off-season need, and I’m sure that signing Cueto and Samardzija will give their season ticket sales a boost.  The question now is whether the Giants have enough money left to sign the left fielder they need to replace Nori Aoki and to give the team a little more right-handed hitting pop.

I certainty don’t think that is impossible.  The Giants are absolutely loaded right after three World Series Championships in five seasons.  Their home games are almost all sold out, and their ticket prices are high, due to relatively small number of available seats and the extreme wealth in San Francisco and the Bay Area generally.

The Giants reportedly offered Zack Greinke $195 million for six years, which, if true, makes the big money Cueto signing a no surprise.  If the Giants had signed Greinke, I’m still certain they would have signed a second starter, albeit a less expensive one than Cueto, or an outfielder.  Thus, while I wouldn’t expect the Giants to sign the top remaining corner outfielder (Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes), I wouldn’t count them out on the likes of a Alex Gordon or Dexter Fowler, although I’m kind of doubtful either Gorden or Fowler is really worth the free agent contracts they are likely to get.

The Jason Heyward Contract Is Great for Everyone

December 13, 2015

I’m generally not a fan of teams deciding to give player opt-out clauses in high-paying, long-term contracts, but I think that the Cubs’ recent eight-year $184M deal with Jason Heyward that allows Heyward to opt out after both years three and four is a great deal for both player and team.

Obviously, this is a no-lose situation for Heyward.  If he peaks in his age 26 through 28 or 29 seasons, he can opt out and get an even bigger deal a few years from now.  If he gets hurt, he’s still guaranteed $184 million.  While he could have gotten another $20 guaranteed, there really isn’t much of a difference between $184M and $204M in terms of the life the contract in the worst of eventualities will allow Heyward and his family to lead.

The contract is kind of a no-lose deal for the Cubs also, because unlike most of the other opt-out contracts that teams have agreed to, it appears pretty clear from multiple reports that the Cubs saved money (the aforementioned $20M other teams were willing to add to a long-term deal) in the worst case scenario — Heyward gets hurt and doesn’t perform.  In the best case scenario in terms of Heyward’s future performance, the Cubs arguably win also.  This isn’t the Yankees blowing out everyone else on contract amount and giving the player an opt-out also.

If Heyward plays in his age 26 to 28 seasons the way most players who are major league starters in their age 20 season end up playing, he will surely opt out of the contract.  However, the Cubs will have thereby received Heyward’s age 26 to 28 seasons, which could well be spectacular, at what would turn out to be a tremendous bargain price, since the Cubs will be under no obligation to be the team that breaks the bank to re-sign Heyward with a second mega-contract.  The odds that Heyward’s offensive production will jump forward playing his home games in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field with a lot of other good hitters hitting around him is pretty high.

I am absolutely sure this is why Theo Epstein offered Heyward the contract he did.  The Cubs have a reasonably good chance of getting three superstar seasons for only three years of salary, which is unheard of for an elite free agent.  If the Cubs win a World Series in the next three seasons, then the Cubs will be under a lot of pressure to be the team that shells out for Heyward on his next free agent deal, but that is obviously a dilemma the Cubs would love to have.

If the Cubs don’t win a World Series in the next three years, they can simply let someone else overpay Heyward for the fine seasons he just had.  It seems like a win-win for player and team any way you slice it.

The Next Dennis Sarfate or Marc Kroon?

December 10, 2015

For San Francisco Giants reliever Eric Cordier has just signed a deal to play with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan next year.   He reminds me of Dennis Sarfate or Marc Kroon, two pitchers with plus MLB stuff but minus MLB command, who became hugely successful closers in Japan’s NPB.

Cordier has a 100 mph fastball.  That pretty much says it all.  The Giants were willing to give Cordier a major league contract before the 2014 season, in spite of the fact that Cordier was soon to be 28 years old and had not yet pitched in the major leagues.

Cordier pitched extremely well at AAA this year, but didn’t pitch well in an eight game trial with the Marlins late this past season.  He’ll be 30 in 2016, and there is just no reason to think that his command is going to improve enough for him to be regular major league reliever before he gets old and looses a foot or two off his fastball.

Japan’s NPB, with its wider strike zone and overall inferior hitters, is an ideal place for Cordier to seek his professional baseball fame and fortune.  They don’t see many 100 mph fastballs in NPB, or in any event far fewer than in MLB.  Cordier is right on the cusp of being an MLB player, and those are the guys who tend to do best in Japan.

Sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, than a small fish in a big pond, especially when Japanese teams will pay $2M to $4M a year to their big fish.