Archive for December 2016

Colby Rasmus on a One-Year Deal?

December 31, 2016

There was an article today on mlbtraderumors.com about the San Francisco Giants’ remaining needs this off-season.  It has me thinking that Colby Rasmus could be an excellent sign for left field if the price is right.

I feel better about Giants’ current options at 3B (Eduardo Nunez and Connor Gallaspie as a platoon with Kelby Tomlinson and either Ehire Adrianza or Jimmy Rollins as the other back-up possibilities) than I do about the team’s third, fourth and fifth outfielders being Mac Williamson, Jarrett Parker and Gyorkis Hernandez.

I don’t hate any of these three — I’m confident that Jarrett Parker will be a major league back-up outfielder in 2017, and Hernandez could become the next Glegor Blanco or Andres Torres — but it’s hard for me to imagine that the Giants will go into the 2017 with three mostly LFers who have this little major league experience.  I also can’t see the Gints thinking that Michael Morse who will be 35 next season and hasn’t played since last April is a realistic veteran option.

Thus, Colby Rasmus, who might come very cheap off a season in which he hit only .206.  His 2016 OPS (.641) is more than 100 basis points lower than his career OPS (.744), so he’s a great bounce-back candidate at age 30, particularly given that he still runs pretty well.

Rasmus also plays good D in LF, which would be valuable with a CF in Denard Span who doesn’t cover a lot of ground anymore.

As for right-handed relievers, the Giants did sign one player this off-season which hasn’t received much attention, since it was a minor league deal.  However, this guy has up-side.

The Giants signed Neil Ramirez, who will be 28 next May.  He is a former 1st round draft pick who had a terrific 2014 season for the Cubs, when he had a 1.44 ERA in 50 relief appearances with a pitching line of 43.1 IP,  29 hits, two HRs and 17 walks allowed and 53 Ks.  He had shoulder and left abdominal injuries in 2015, and in brief stints with three different major league teams this past season he had trouble throwing strikes.  However, he was very effective in 16 appearances and 20.1 IP at AAA Rochester at the end of the 2016 season.

Ramirez definitely has up-side if he’s healthy in 2017, and he could be the next in a long line of effective (at least in the short term) right-handed relievers the Giants have signed  to minor league deals in the last two decades.

Foreign Players in the KBO: Get Your Money Up Front

December 28, 2016

Two recent signings in the KBO have me thinking about the different rules that apply to foreign players in Japan’s NPB and South Korea’s KBO.  Starting around 2011, KBO teams have been aggressively seeking to sign foreign players of the caliber who previously signed exclusively with NPB teams.  To do so, they have had to pony up initial one-year contracts as good or even better than what NPB teams are offering.

It has certainly worked.  The caliber of play in the KBO since 2010 has definitely improved, as KBO teams may now sign up to three foreign players to play on the field at one time and they are paying for the best talent available, at least in terms of what KBO teams can afford to pay in light of average league attendance that is only a little over 12,000 per game.

However, once a foreign player signs with a KBO team, he is effectively locked in with that team for the rest of his KBO future.  As a result, future salary increases for successful KBO performance are much more modest than in NPB.

What has me thinking about this is the recent signings of Eric Hacker and Xavier Scruggs by the NC Dinos.  Both players reportedly signed for an even $1 million for 2017.  The contract amounts have a lot more to do with each player’s leverage than past performance.

Hacker has put in four full seasons with the Dinos, as one of the first foreign players they signed up joining the KBO as an expansion team in 2013.  Hacker was arguably the best pitcher in the KBO in 2015, when he went 19-5 and finished first in wins and winning percentage, second in ERA and fifth in strikeouts.  Based on that performance, he received a $900,000 contract for 2016, roughly half of what some new foreign pitchers with more leverage received that off-season from other KBO teams.

In 2016, Hacker missed about eight starts to injury, but still went 13-3 and led the Dinos to their first Korea Series appearance, in which the team lost to the Doosan Bears.  That earned him only a $100,000 raise for 2017.

Nick Evans is another foreign player who had a fine season for the Champion and relatively wealthy Doosan Bears in 2016 and re-signed for only a modest raise that will pay him less than $1 million for 2017, despite his strong 2016 performance.  Similarly, Hector Noesi had an excellent first season in KBO in 2016, when he was one of the league’s top starters, but he re-signed for 2017 for the same $1.7 million he received last year when he had the leverage to command an initial contract of this size.

Meanwhile, Scruggs, who will be a KBO rookie in 2017, got the same $1 million from the Dinos that Hacker received, solely because Scruggs had to be convinced to join the KBO in the first place and the market for new foreign player has gone up sharply the last few seasons.   The upshot is that foreign players joining the KBO need to get the big contract up front, because yearly salary increases are modest, and the initial contract sets the floor for future contracts.

As I write this, the Doosan Bears have yet to announce a deal with their foreign ace Dustin Nippert.  Nippert’s 2016 season, his sixth in the KBO, was one of the best seasons by a pitcher in KBO history.  Nippert went 22-3, led the league in wins and ERA and propelled the Bears to their second consecutive Korea Series title.

My educated guess is that Nippert feels he deserves a record-setting $2 million contract (foreign players are only officially allowed to sign one year deals), and the Doosan Bears don’t want to give it to him, because they know he doesn’t have many other good options.  Nippert will be 36 in 2017, so he’s a little old to attempt a return to MLB or to try his luck in NPB.  Aside from that, Nippert has married a Korean woman and gone on record stating he wants to finish his professional career as a Doosan Bear.

KBO free agent Choi Hyung-woo signed a record-setting four-year $8.5 million contract this off-season, so if Nippert is seeking $2 million for one year, the ask is entirely reasonable.  However, Choi was a free agent with all the leverage that entails.

It is entirely possible that foreign players could be deemed free agents after nine KBO seasons.  However, no foreign player has yet earned nine full seasons of service time in KBO’s history, so for the time being that is a moot point.

In Japan’s NPB teams, initial contracts for foreign players are rarely higher than recent KBO initial contracts.  However, foreign players can often leave their original NPB teams after two or three seasons and effectively become NPB free agents.  This off-season, for example, it is virtually certain that Cuban star Alfredo Despaigne will leave the Chiba Lotte Marines, his team for the first three seasons of his NPB career, to sign a deal for more money with the wealthier SoftBank Hawks.

The upshot is that foreign players in NPB are better remunerated for past performance, since NPB teams want to hold on to their best foreign players.  NPB has its own effective salary cap of about 600 million yen ($5.1 million), but that’s a lot better than what a superstar can earn in the KBO.

What’s Going on with Eri Yoshida?

December 25, 2016

In years past I have frequently written about Japan’s “Knuckle Princess” Eri Yoshida, most recently in June 2014.  Since then, I have periodically looked for information on the internet about her goings-on, but by and large there hasn’t been a whole lot to report.

On June 29, 2015, Eri won her first game for the Ishikawa Million Stars of Japan’s Baseball Challenge League, basically a Japanese Independent-A league.  Eri had been associated with the Million Stars since 2013, so that first win was a long time coming.

In 2016, she tried out for Japan’s Women’s Team and reportedly gave up her knuckleball during her try-outs, instead trying to make the team as a “normal” pitcher.  However, she was not one of the six pitchers to make the team.

Japan’s Women’s team is the best in the world, going 8-0 in the Women’s Baseball World Cup held in September 2016, with four of the games complete routs that ended early due to a ten-run mercy rule and a championship game in which Japan beat Canada 10-0.  Even so, Yoshida has been playing with men for years, so her inability to make Japan’s Women’s team strongly suggests her participation in male leagues has been solely as a box office attraction, rather than based on any actual ability.  Either that, or she should have stuck with the knuckleball during try-outs.

Yoshida turns 25 in January, so she is still young.  I was once hopeful that she would develop her knuckleball and become at least a legitimate Indy-A pitcher.  I definitely believe that the very best female pitchers could at least compete at the Indy-A level, as Ila Borders did in the Northern League in 1999.  It is not yet out of the realm of possibility that Yoshida could do it too, but after essentially no professional progress since the 2012 season, I’m not particularly hopeful.  The bloom is definitely off Yoshida’ rose at this point.

If Yoshida intends to continue to pitch professionally, she might be best served returning to the U.S. and playing in one of what I call the fly-by-night Indy-A leagues, like California’s Pacific Association, for example, that are the bottom tier of the American Indy-A leagues.  I suspect Japan’s Baseball Challenge League is too good a league for Yoshida’s currently modest baseball talents.

 

What Do NPB Players Make 2016

December 24, 2016

Here’s a list of the 34 best paid players in Japan’s NPB in 2016.   There aren’t many surprises to those knowledgeable about NPB’s salary structure.

Hiroki Kuroda made 600 million yen ($5.1 million), as the highest earner in NPB in 2016.  He’s got both the NPB and MLB career record to be making what is the de facto cap on NPB salaries. The facts that he had a strong season in 2015 and signed only a one-year deal for 2016 also helped him earn what is effectively NPB’s maximum salary.

Both Dennis Sarfate and Chihiro Kaneko both earned a reported 500 million yen ($4.25 million) in 2016.  It is not surprising for NPB’s top closer to be one of its most highly paid players — elite closers are highly valued by NPB teams.

I thought that Kaneko would come to MLB a couple of off-seasons ago because he was one of NPB’s top three starters two years in a row, but MLB teams were apparently concerned about his small stature, his injury history and his age. Turns out MLB teams were right, as Kaneko has had injury problems the last two seasons.  He ended up signing a four-year two billion yen ($17 million) deal with Orix Buffaloes, which is almost certainly better than any first contract he would have received from an MLB team.

Six other players made at least 400 million yen ($3.4M) in 2016, and another ten made at least 300 million yen ($2.55M).  The five players at the bottom of the top-30 list made 220 million yen ($1.87M).  NPB stars make good money, but they don’t become as fantastically rich as MLB stars.

As I’ve written many times before, the wealthiest three NPB teams could afford to pay much higher salaries, but they don’t because they don’t have to.  NPB has what amounts to a gentlemen’s agreement that the richest teams won’t spend as much as they reasonably could, so that there is some semblance of competitive balance and everyone in NPB can make money or at least break even.

NPB’s players association is extremely weak.  As I understand it, NPB players don’t even have a pension plan, and the only time the players ever went on strike (a very brief two day strike in September 2004) was when the league threatened to reduce the number of teams from 12 to 11.  The NPB players association won that battle with the creation of the expansion Rakuten Golden Eagles, and had the full support of NPB’s fans, who also hated the idea of only 11 teams.  However, the NPB players association has never again used the strike power to gain more favorable terms of employment.

I’m repeating myself — this is really just a more detailed article that I wrote last June.

The Cubans Are Coming

December 23, 2016

I saw this list from MLB.com of the 30 top international prospects to be signed since the beginning of the current signing season in July 2016.  What is most notable about the list is that eight of the top 11 (and 11 of the top 19) are Cubans .  Of these eight, only Lourdes Gurriel, who turned 23 in October, is old and experienced enough not to count against international signing bonus limits.

Of the top 30, 12 are Cubans, ten are Dominican and eight are Venezuelans.  These are the kinds of numbers one would expect to see if there were essentially no limits or restrictions on Cubans leaving Cuba to play in the MLB system.  It makes me wonder if young Cuban players are now essentially being allowed to defect by the Cuban government for the purpose of allowing them to make big money in the U.S., and thus pay high taxes and/or spend money back in Cuba if they are allowed to return there freely.

In a situation in which Cuban players could freely join the MLB system, I would expect that Cuban “amateurs” would rank more highly than young Dominicans or Venezuelans by virtue of the fact that many of the young Cubans have played in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, a very good league.  The 16 and 17 year old Dominicans and Venezuelans who are signed every year have never yet played in a league comparable the Serie Nacional, since the Dominican and Venezuelan Winter Leagues rarely field even home-grown players who haven’t reached at least the A+ level in the MLB system.

In short, the difference between signing a 16 or 17 year old Dominican or Venezuelan and signing a 19 or 20 year old Cuban with Serie Nacional experience, is similar to the difference between U.S. high school and elite college players.   College players selected in the draft consistently out-perform high school players drafted in the same slots, at least when taken as a whole, because college players are much further along in their development and have played against a much higher level of talent than high school players and are thus easier to project as professional players.  College pitchers also tend to out-perform high school pitchers by virtue of the fact that highly drafted college pitchers have at least proven they can handle college pitching loads without experiencing a major injury.

It is a bit interesting that not one young amateur from Curacao, Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan or Japan made MLB’s top 30 list.  Nowadays, there are usually a couple of players from these countries on the list each year.  It looks like this year the increase in Cuban amateur signings has squeezed all of these countries out of the running.

Needless to say, with so many Cubans ranked as among the top foreign amateur signings, a number of these players will eventually reach the majors, and clearly the number of Cubans playing in MLB at any given time will continue to rise.  However, normalization of relations with Cuba is unlikely to continue under a Trump administration at the same pace as during Obama’s second term, so this year’s signings could be a high-water mark, at least until Trump is no longer in office.

What Did Kenta Maeda Make in 2016?

December 22, 2016

Kenta Maeda ended up earning $12,025,000 in 2016, including the pro-rated portion of his signing bonus.  His base salary was $3.125M, including pro-rated signing bonus, so he earned total incentives worth $8.9 million, the biggest chunk of which was for making 32 starts for the Bums.

He was a bargain.  fangraphs values his performance at $26.6M.  He got hit hard his first two post-season starts, but Dave Roberts pulled him too soon in Game 5 of the NLCSThere was a lot of over-managing with the relievers this post-season.

Yomiuri Giants Sign Arquimedes Camerino

December 19, 2016

The Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s NPB just signed former Seattle Mariner and Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Arquimedes Camerino to a $1.15 million contract for 2017.  I don’t usually write about individual signings of players from the Americas to play in Japan or South Korea, because most readers don’t really care, but I decided to write about this one because it seems like such a good one for Yomiuri.

Most former MLBers who go to play in Asia for more money are 4-A players, who are a little too good to keep playing at AAA but haven’t succeeded in MLB in limited opportunities, or veteran players who are trying to squeeze out one or two more years of major league level pay at the end of their MLB careers.  However, there are surprisingly few proven MLB players still relatively close to their primes who elect to go to Japan or South Korea, like Camerino has now done.

Camerino did not pitch as well last year as his 3.66 ERA would suggest, particularly after the Pirates traded him to the Mariners.  The Mariners are reportedly deep in right-handed middle relievers and may not have had room for Camerino, even though he is not yet arbitration eligible and would have been a very low re-sign at somewhere between $550,000 and $600,000, depending on what the M’s scale is for not yet arbitration-eligible players with two-plus years of MLB service time.  Even if the Mariners didn’t want him, it’s hard to believe they could not have found a trade partner, in light of Camerino’s record over the last two MLB seasons (130 games pitched with a roughly 3.6 ERA) and the fact that Camerino has one of the best fastballs in MLB.

Given his age (he’ll be 30 next season), it certainly makes sense for Camerino to jump at the chance to make twice as much money to play in Japan in 2017 than he’d make in MLB.  His odds of success in Japan have to be considered high.  He reminds me, in terms of major league track record, of Dustin Nippert and Randy Messenger, both of whom have made my lists of the most successful foreign pitchers to pitch in the KBO and NPB respectively.  Camerino’s big fastball but not quite MLB command reminds me of Marc Kroon and Dennis Sarfate, the most successful foreign closers (in terms of career saves) in NPB history.  With a slightly wider strike zone and hitters who aren’t quite as good as MLB hitters and thus can be challenged with a high 90’s heater more often, these pitchers can be absolutely dominating in NPB.

Why don’t NPB and KBO teams sign more somewhat successful major leaguers like Camerino?  It mostly comes down to money.  A few KBO teams are now willing to invest $1.15 million on a foreign rookie to KBO.  However, KBO teams want starting pitchers for this money, not relief pitchers like Camerino.

Even in NPB, $1.15 million is a lot of money for a foreign rookie relief pitcher, and Yomiuri is one of only three wealthy NPB teams reasonably willing to make this kind of commitment.  Yomiuri, the Hanshin Tigers and the Softbank Hawks could all reasonably afford to sign a better class of former MLB players than they typically do, but they for the most part obey an unwritten league-wide salary structure which allows these teams to spend just enough more than the other nine teams to consistently remain in the top half of the standings each year and no more.

Asian teams tend to treat their foreign imports as a fungible commodity until an individual player actually develops a track record in NPB or KBO.  Given the money Asian teams are willing to pay, and the quality of players they typically sign, it is really hit or miss whether any one player will succeed or quickly wash out in Asia (Asian teams are not patient with the rookie foreign players except in rare cases when the player’s entire contract is guaranteed), so Asian teams don’t want to make a big financial commitment, even for only one year, to a foreigner who hasn’t yet proven he can excel in Asia.

Add to these facts, the fact that a lot of players from the Americas don’t want to play in Asia under any circumstances.  Camerino is also somewhat exceptional in that he is definitely a late bloomer.  A pitcher only two years younger than Camerino with the same MLB track record and service time would be far more likely to want to take his chances remaining in the MLB system.  Camerino is the kind of pitcher who can blossom late, because his fastball is so big that he’s got more time to improve his command than a typical professional pitching prospect would.  That’s also exactly what makes him such a promising prospect to become a major star in Japan.