Archive for December 2018

Oliver Drake’s Ongoing Odyssey and Other Minnesota Twins Notes

December 29, 2018

In the aftermath of the Twins’ signing of Nelson Cruz for $14.3 million for 2019, I was looking at the Twins’ now surplus of right-handed power bats, and I happened to notice that Oliver Drake had a very successful 19 relief appearance run (2.21 ERA) for the Twins last season but is no longer with the team.

Drake played for five different major league teams last year and six since the start of the 2017 season.  The reason for this is obvious: Drake has great stuff and has success in AAA, but he has command issues and was awful at the major league level last year until the Twins selected him off waivers.  Drake started the season for the Brewers, was ineffective and then sold to the Indians, probably for a box of crackerjack.  He pitched poorly in Cleveland, and the Angels selected him off the waiver wire on May 31st.  Drake didn’t pitch well in Anaheim, and was selected off waivers by the Blue Jays in July 26th.  Ditto in Toronto, and the Twins claimed him off waivers on August 3rd.

Despite finally pitching well in the Twin Cities, the Twins tried to pass him through waivers again in late October/early November, and the Rays grabbed him.  The Rays tried to pass him through waivers at the end of the month, and the Blue Jays once again grabbed him.  At least once the regular season ended, Drake’s subsequent travels were virtual, rather than real, and Drake is presumably sitting at home waiting to see whom he ends up with in its time to start Spring Training.

With service in parts of four major league seasons now, but only about 2.5 years of major league service time, Drake isn’t yet arbitration eligible but is certainly out of minor league options.  What that means is that, unless he is first released, the last team to claim him off waivers will likely have to give him a major league contract in the $565,000 to $575,000 range.

Well, that’s small potatoes in today’s game, particularly for a pitcher with his potential.  However, the Twins didn’t think he was worth that modest guarantee, and the Rays didn’t think so either once they obtained somebody they liked better for their 40-man roster, almost certainly because he can’t be sent down to the minors if he’s ineffective without passing him through waivers yet again.  He’s also going into his age 32 season, so many teams may doubt he’ll ever have sufficient command to take advantage of his plus stuff at the major league level.

Drake was originally a 43rd round draft pick out of the U.S. Naval Academy.  He now has a career major league ERA of 4.59 with 151 Ks in 137.1 innings pitched and a WHIP of 1.46.  He’s good enough that a lot of teams want him at the right price, but don’t seem to be willing to give him any guarantees.

With the signing of Nelson Cruz and the earlier claiming off waivers and signing of C.J. Cron for $4.8M, the Twins are now officially overloaded with defensively challenged, right-handed hitting sluggers.  Cruz and Cron will get plenty of playing time because of their 2019 salaries unless either gets hurt, but the Twins also have Miguel Sano, who is too young and has too much potential to give up on yet, and also Tyler Austin, who came over from the Yankees when the Twins traded Lance Lynn at the 2018 trade deadline.  With the corner outfield slots taken up by young lefty hitters Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, one would have to think the Twins would be willing to listen to trade offers for Austin.

Austin is already 27 and hasn’t established himself as a major league regular yet.  He doesn’t hit for average or draw many walks, but he sure has right-handed power with 24 HRs in only 404 major league plate appearances.  He wouldn’t be a bad fit for the San Francisco Giants, who could use another corner outfielder with right-handed power.

Because Austin is out of options, maybe the Twins would be willing to trade him to Giants for minor league reliever (and personal favorite) Tyler Rogers.  Tyler’s twin brother Taylor has had three successful seasons as a reliever for the Twins, and the Tyler has been mighty good at AAA the last two seasons.  Obviously, there would be some great PR for the Twins to have twin relievers pitching on their major league roster to start the 2019 season.  That said, the Twins will probably hold on to Austin since he cheap and provides insurance if Cruz, Cron or somebody else gets hurt.

I have to say that I like the fact that the Twins are active every off-season, seeking out deals at the right price that might reasonably make the team better.  It didn’t work in 2018, but if you keep trying every off-season, it may well work eventually.

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KT Wiz Re-Sign Mel Rojas Jr. for $1.5 Million

December 28, 2018

The KBO’s KT Wiz re-signed slugging outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. to a deal that will pay Rojas a $500,000 signing bonus, $1 million in salary (likely not guaranteed) and an additional $100,000 in performance bonuses.  Rojas fills the last of 30 KBO major league roster spaces reserved for foreign players, and his contract is potentially the third largest for a foreigner this off-season, after the possible $1.92M that pitcher Josh Lindblom could earn and the possible $1.7M slugger Darin Ruf could earn — all three contracts include performance bonuses which will presumably require the players to remain productive and healthy for the full 2019 KBO season.

I wouldn’t normally write a post just on a single, non-record setting contract to play for a KBO team, but I found this signing interesting because there was a lot of talk this off-season that after a huge 2018 KBO season in which Rojas set a Wiz franchise record with 43 home runs and slashed .305/.389/.590, both scoring and driving in 114 runs, Rojas was hoping for a return to MLB.  Most of the time such expressions of desire to return to MLB turn out to be a negotiating ploy with the player’s KBO or NPB team, as no MLB organization is willing to match what the KBO or NPB team is willing to pay the player for the next season.

Nevertheless, it is a tried and true negotiating position, and with more foreign KBO and NPB players making triumphant returns to MLB in recent seasons, it is a negotiating strategy that’s likely to be better today than it ever was.  In fairness to Rojas and other foreign players who have made noises about returning to MLB, they probably do wish they could return to MLB for roughly same money they made the previous year in Asia.  I don’t think it is easy for foreign players to adjust to living and playing in Japan or South Korea.

The reality, of course, is that the players (with the exceptions of the very best foreigners like Eric Thames and Miles Mikolas) typically can’t get an acceptable MLB deal for precisely the same reasons that sent them to Asia to play in the first place.  They went to Asia to make major league money when no MLB team thought they were worth a major league contract.

If Rojas is truly serious about returning to MLB, he needs to have a 2019 season in the KBO even better than his 2018 season.  That might be what it takes to convince at least one MLB organization that Rojas has really gotten better since he joined the KBO in 2017.

Most of the 4-A players who find success and earn major league money to play in Asia ought to stick to playing in Asia.  As I like to say, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a minnow in the ocean.  That said, a foreigner’s expressions of desire to keep playing for his current KBO or NPB team don’t generally carry a whole lot of weight with these teams.  The Asian teams want on-field production from their foreigners first, second and last and typically dump their foreign players as soon as they believe that their future on-field production won’t justify their substantial salaries.  Just ask Dustin Nippert, who was forced into what increasingly looks like an earlier KBO retirement than Nippert wanted or deserved.

In light of the lack of loyalty Asian teams show their foreign “mercenaries,” foreign players are certainly justified in using whatever leverage they have to obtain the best contracts they can.  In short, for as long as foreign players have successful seasons in the KBO or NPB, they will be threatening, or at least leaking the possibility, that they will return to MLB unless their Asian team makes it worth their while to stay.

The Big Dodgers-Reds Trade

December 23, 2018

In a move apparently designed to open up payroll space for the Los Angeles Dodgers to make a run at Bryce Harper, the Bums sent Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and $7 million to the Cincinnati Reds for Homer Bailey and two prospects, Josiah Gray and Jeter Downs.  Although Homer Bailey is still owed $28 million, including a $5M buyout for 2020, and will reportedly be released in due course, the Dodgers benefit in terms of the salary cap by moving the $18M+ they owe to Matt Kemp, plus the expected substantial arbitration deals Puig and Wood will be earning.

Coming off a 67-95 season, getting one year each of Kemp, Puig and Wood for prospects seems like a strange decision of the Redlegs to make.  I guess they felt they just couldn’t pass up this much talent at such a relatively low price.  I could see the trio making the Reds enough better to finish above .500 in 2019, but they don’t seem like nearly enough to make the team a 90-game winner and a playoff contender.  Not having even been a .500 team since 2013, maybe management feels that a winning team of any kind would be enough for the local fan base.

Gray was the 72nd player selected in last year’s draft, and he’s a long way from the majors — plenty of time for him to blow out his arm.  Downs, though was the 32nd overall pick in the 2017 draft, and he played really well in the full season Class A Midwest League in 2018, slashing .257/.351/.402 and stealing 37 bases on 47 attempts, for a 19 year old.  The Reds could certainly miss giving up six years of Downs major league career a few years from now.

I can’t imagine that any of Kemp, Puig or Wood is particularly happy about being exiled to the Queen City.  At least for Kemp and Puig, Cinci has always been a good place for sluggers.  Puig will benefit mightily by a big year going into his free agent season, while Kemp has already received his big free agent contract and would likely prefer playing for a contender in a city of his choice.  Of course, a big season in Cinci and he’ll have the ability next season to choose a situation more to his liking as he winds down his career.

Oakland A’s Trade for Jurickson Profar

December 21, 2018

The Oakland A’s were part of a three-team trade with the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Rays, the most significant piece of which is the A’s acquisition of middle infielder Jurickson Profar.  The deal makes clear that the A’s are trying to compete again in 2019.

Profar will presumably play 2B for the A’s replacing Jed Lowrie, who had two extremely productive seasons for the A’s in 2017 and 2018, but is soon to be 35 years old and is looking at a substantial annual pay increase as a free agent.  My guess is that Lowrie will get a contract similar to the two-year $24M deal that Daniel Murphy just signed with the Rockies, which would nearly double what the A’s paid Lowrie the last two seasons.

Profar will be much cheaper.  mlbtraderumors.com projects him to get $3.4M in 2019.  Profar broke through in a big way in 2018, and the A’s will be receiving his age 26 and 27 seasons before he becomes a free agent.

To get Profar, the A’s gave up righted-handed reliever Emilio Pagan, minor league middle infielder Eli White and, most significantly, the 38th pick in the 2019 Draft.  Pagan is a decent middle reliever with five more seasons of control, but it’s the draft pick that has the most value.  The odds are pretty good of drafting a star or at least six seasons of a useful major league player with a selection that high.

The trade for Profar interferes with the incipient major league career of Franklin Barreto.  The soon to be 23 year old Barreto had an .872 OPS in the Pacific Coast League and is currently slashing .356/.425/.550 in the Venezuelan Winter League.  In short, Barreto looks ready to get a chance to be an every-day major league player.

However, Barreto is young enough that sending him back to AAA for as long as it takes for him to prove he’s too good to stay there, won’t impact his major league career.  In the meantime, one of the A’s infielders could get hurt, or Barreto could simply be called up to be the first infielder off the bench.  The A’s have two more years of control over both Profar and also SS Marcus Semien.  However, if Barreto proves he’s ready and the A’s fall out of contention, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the A’s trade either Profar or Semien at the 2019 trade deadline or after the 2019 season.

The Rangers received three pitching prospects, the best of whom is 22 year lefty starter Brock Burke, middle infield prospect White, and some international bonus slot money.   The Rays received reliever Pagan, the 38th overall draft pick, and a pitching prospect.  The trade of Burke for the draft pick looks like kind of a wash, so arguably for the Rays this was about getting a proven major league reliever for a pitching prospect.

San Francisco Giants Sign Switch-Pitcher Pat Venditte

December 21, 2018

The Giants signed Pat Venditte today to a major league contract for $585,000, just a shade over the major league minimum.  It’s not a terrible move, in that Venditte pitched very well at AAA in 2018 and was effective in 15 relief appearances for the Dodgers, and the Giants aren’t laying out much of a commitment to Venditte.  He’s also the kind of player I like to see catch a break.

What is strange about this move is that the Giants have an extremely similar and much younger player already in Tyler Rogers.  The Giants don’t think Rogers is a prospect — they didn’t protect him in the Rule 5 draft following seasons in which he had 2.37 and 2.13 ERAs at AAA Sacramento.  No else in major league baseball thinks he’s much of a prospect either — nobody selected him in either of the last two Rule 5 drafts.

Tyler is in the final year of his initial seven-year minor league contract, so if he pitches well at AAA for the third year in a row and the Giants still don’t promote him, I would think that he’d receive a better minor league offer from one of the other 29 major league teams.  Or he could sign cheap to pitch in Japan’s NPB.

The one thing that really kills Rogers’ future major league chances is that his history is that he needs time to adjust each time he tries a new league.  His first two trials at AA and AAA were unsuccessful, and he pitched poorly in the Arizona Fall League and the Dominican Winter League following the 2016 and 2017 summer seasons.  I suspect that the expectation that he won’t be a good major league pitcher for his first 15 or 20 appearances no matter how well he pitches at AAA is a major factor for why the Giants didn’t give him a 40-man roster spot and a September call up last summer.

Venditte is really a left-handed pitcher, at least in terms of getting major league hitters out, so he has greater value as a left-handed short man, than Rogers does.  However, Rogers has been exceptionally good at preventing the home run ball in the minors.  If he can just get some major league experience to learn the hitters, I still think there is a real chance that Rogers could be a valuable middle reliever who could eat up 70 or 80 major league innings a year.

KBO Retrenches on Foreign Players for 2019

December 21, 2018

The KBO instituted a new rule this off-season which limits foreign players signing a first contract with any KBO team to maximum total annual compensation of $1 million.  The $1 million cap also applies if a foreign KBO veteran is released by his old KBO team and signs a first contract with a new team.  While KBO teams have routinely cheated on foreigner player salary caps in the past, the penalties in the new rule are pretty draconian and are likely to be enforced better than in the past.

The new cap was obviously designed to save KBO teams some money and to prevent the wealthiest KBO teams from signing a better class of foreign player than the poorer teams could afford.  It has very much worked to serve these purposes, and KBO teams jettisoned a bunch of still effective veteran foreign pitchers this off-season in order to sign younger and cheaper foreigners.

With all but two of the 30 total KBO roster spots now filled, including all 20 pitcher slots, only six foreign veteran pitchers will be returning to the KBO for 2019.  Among the still-effective-in-2018 veterans who got cut are Henry Sosa, Dustin Nippert and Ryan Feierabend.  Additionally, no team brought back Esmil Rogers, who pitched very well in 13 starts in 2018 (3.80 ERA) before his hand was broken on a batted ball and who is currently pitching well in the Dominican Winter League.

The Hanwha Eagles cut Keyvius Sampson, who led the league with 195 Ks (in 161.2 IP), and no other KBO team picked him up.  Hector Noesi, who won 20 games against only five losses in 2017, won’t be coming back either.  He was one of the KBO’s best paid foreigners, he didn’t have great season in 2018 (11-10 record, 4.60 ERA), and South Korean tax changes on foreign players applied retroactively meant that he’d have a tax bill amounting to more than half of his $1.7M 2018 salary if he had returned to the league in 2019.

Except for Sampson, all of these veteran aces are at least 32 years old in 2019, with Nippert the oldest at 38; and all could reasonably have been expected to make more than $1M if they had been re-signed for 2019.  It is still surprising that once their current teams decided not to re-sign them, no other KBO team tried to swoop in and sign any of them at a bargain price.

Dustin Nippert, in particular, made clear how much he wanted to pitch at least one more season in the KBO and likely could have been signed for well less than $1M if that was his best KBO offer.  It is an ignominious end for the best foreign pitcher in KBO’s history.

Henry Sosa’s 3.52 ERA last year was the circuit’s third best in a notorious hitters’ league, and while he didn’t really pitch that well (he allowed 12 unearned runs), his 181 Ks was the league’s second highest after the also jettisoned Sampson.

It’s all only more evidence of the way KBO teams treat foreign stars as highly fungible commodities and move on quickly if a foreign player is no longer among the best of the best.

Josh Lindblom, Tyler Wilson and Seth Frankoff, who finished respectively 1st, 2nd and 4th in in ERA in 2018, all received big raises.  Lindblom will be receiving $1.77M (plus $150K in possible performance incentives), Wilson $1.2M (+ $300K performance incentives) and Frankoff will earn $1.18M (+ $50K performance incentives).  In Lindblom’s case in particular, he better be very nearly as good as he was in 2018 or better next season if he wants to keep his KBO job at anything close to that salary.

Brooks Raley and Angel Sanchez will both have an opportunity to earn more than $1M in 2019, even though neither one of them pitched as well the released foreign aces named above.

Foreign sluggers Darin Ruf ($1.4M + $300K incentives), Jared Hoying ($1.1M + $300K incentives) and Jamie Romak ($1.05M + $250K incentives) are all going to be well paid by KBO standards after big years in 2018.  The KT Wiz are trying to re-sign Mel Rojas Jr., who set a franchise record with 43 HRs last year, but there have been rumors that Rojas may jump to NPB or seek a return to MLB.

There were two big free agent contracts handed out by the KBO this off-season.  Star Catcher Yang Eui-Ji received the second largest free agent contract in KBO history, receiving four years and 12.5 billion won ($11.1M) from the NC Dinos.  Only returning MLBer Dae Ho Lee‘s four year, 15 billion won (then worth $12.9M) two off-seasons ago was bigger.  Yang is getting a lot of money for a catcher who turns 32 next June, the Dinos can likely afford it, given the restrained nature of KBO salaries generally.

Choi Jeung re-signed with the only KBO team he’s ever played for, the SK Wyverns, for six seasons and 10.6 billion won ($9.4M).  This is only the second KBO contract for more than four seasons in the KBO’s history, and the first since 2004 when Jung Soo-Keun received a six-year contract.  While the average annual value of Choi’s contract is not huge, he signed what was then a record-setting free agent deal four years ago, and the intent of this contract is obviously to keep him a Wyvern his entire professional career.

Given that foreigners have so far only received one-year deals KBO (options for second seasons are common though), one can see that the most productive foreigners actually get squeezed on salary compared to the KBO stars who reach free agency.  Part of this is simply that KBO teams don’t have to pay foreigners more, because foreigners don’t have a lot of other options for making the kind of money they make now in the KBO.  Get as much as you can while you can, foreign players, because KBO teams as a group don’t show much loyalty.

You Could See This Coming

December 19, 2018

MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation (i.e., the Cuban government) have reached a deal that will allow Cuban Serie Nacional veterans to sign with MLB teams without the previous requirement that the ballplayers defect first and then wait to get authorization to live and work in the U.S.

Cuban players over age 25 could demand a release, in which case they would be allowed to sign with an MLB team without restriction, but the Cuban government would get a “release fee” on a sliding scale between 15% and 20%, assumably based on the amount of the contract signed by the player with his new MLB team.  For players under 25, it is at the Cuban government’s discretion whether or not to allow the player to sign with an MLB team.  If so, then the Cuban government would get a 25% release fee based on the amount of the contract signed by the player.  For players under age 25, the contract amount would count against the team’s international signing-bonus pool, but the “release fee” would not.

This is a fairly obvious solution to the strong demand pressures for MLB teams to sign elite Cuban players and for elite Cuban players to want to play in MLB.  I think that NPB will almost certainly quickly seek to arrange some kind of similar deal, if such a deal isn’t already in place between NPB and the Cuban Baseball Federation.

The big question now is whether or not the Trump Administration decides to let this deal go forward, since it would obviously have American businesses putting money into the Cuban government’s hands in exchange for Cuba’s best baseball players.  I would think that conservative Cuban American interest groups might be willing to support this arrangement, because it allows Cuban players to come to the U.S.  It is also a fairly clear demonstration of the fact that the U.S. economic system works better than Cuba’s — there aren’t any North American players looking to be given the opportunity to play in Cuba’s Serie Nacional.  With the Trump Administration, you can never be too sure in advance what they will decide to do, as logic and predictability are not strong points of the Trump Administration.

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows that I want as many qualified Cuban baseball players playing in MLB as possible and that these players shouldn’t have to sit out for a year of their typically brief professional careers awaiting approval after they have defected.  Again, the fact that the Cuban government agreed to this new arrangement is an admission that their economic system doesn’t work and they need to make some changes in order to improve the lives of the majority of the Cuban people.  I hope our current government does not stand in the way of what seems like a win-win for almost everyone.