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The Smallest Big Free Agent Signings

With Spring Training slowly motoring into life, that means another cash-flush free agency session has come to its conclusion. In truth, though, maybe we should think of this time of year — extension-signing season — as the time and place where all of the true money is spent.

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Yankees Spend Modestly In Free Agency, Just Like…Usual?

With James Shields now firmly ensconced in San Diego, the meaningful portion of this winter’s free agency has come to a close. It seemed to me like one thing was missing from the last few months of sizzlin’ stove gossip: the New York Yankees weren’t breaking so many banks in their signature big-money championship pursuit.
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How James Shields Could Now Maximize His Earnings

Well, this whole James Shields situation sure is bizarre.

Back in October, the FanGraphs Crowd collectively projected that Shields would be the fourth-highest-paid free agent of the winter, in line for something like a 5-year/$90M contract. And now, this week, Tony Blengino took a look around the league, found very few teams who both had available money and a need to add to the top of their rotation, and predicted that Shields would sign with the Giants for 4 years/$75M.

If Tony’s prediction comes to pass, Shields would be leaving more than just $15M on the table. The actual contracts received by other top-flight free agents have well outpaced the Crowd’s projections. Max Scherzer received $210M (or so) over seven years after being projected to receive $168M. Fellow mega-earners Jon Lester ($155M v. $132M), Pablo Sandoval ($95M v. $80M), and Russell Martin ($82M v. $56M) also saw very meaningful increases over their crowdsourced projections.

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Which MLB Teams are Blazing New Trails in Scouting?

Last time, I looked at which MLB teams do and don’t pursue players born in the five most prolific non-draft-eligible countries (the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, and Japan). Part of the goal there was to identify which of the 30 MLB organizations are the most aggressive and/or progressive in terms of finding the best talent they possibly can o’er the entire globe.

Of course, looking at how teams approach well-established springs of baseball talent like the Dominican is hardly the only way to identify whether or not a team is looking for new and novel opportunities outside of the Nifty Fifty. In the past twenty or so years, there are five other countries who — while they have not produced a similar total number of MLB players as the aforementioned Established Five — are producing more and more MLB-caliber players as time goes on: Australia, Colombia, Curacao, South Korea, and Taiwan. Teams who sign the most players from these locales are, at the very least, in admirable pursuit of new and unexpected sources of that rare gem: an MLB-caliber player.

This time I will only be tallying which team signed which player as an international free agents — I will not be tallying other MLB teams that each player eventually played for during their careers stateside. Players who were born in these countries but who were eventually drafted in the rookie draft are excluded from the count. I used a lot of help from Baseball Reference and Baseball Almanac. Here we go!

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The Link Between MLB Teams and Specific Countries

At the Cincinnati Enquirer, C. Trent Rosencrans notes that, after Ichiro Suzuki plays his first game in a Miami Marlins uniform, the Reds will be the only of the 30 MLB teams to never employ a player born in Japan at the major-league level. (Tip of the hat to MLBTradeRumors.)

Here is a quote that Rosencrans shares from Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty:

We do have some people who do cross-checking, we don’t have a scout in Japan. It’s too costly.

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Why Jung-Ho Kang Doesn’t Need to be a Brilliant Fielder

It’s very rare for a Major League club to sign a presumed every-day starter to a contract that will total either 4 years/$17M (a sum that includes a 2019 buy-out plus posting fee) or 5 years/$21.5M (a sum that includes a 2019 team option plus posting fee). But, seeing as Jung-Ho Kang is the first position player to ever enter the MLB directly from Korea’s professional league, this is a rare case in which the most refined of projections are still guesses. Unknowns presently rule the day.

At Just a Bit Outside, during the brief period between when Pittsburgh had acquired negotiation rights but had not yet agreed with Kang himself, Rob Neyer had a bunch of questions about Kang’s fit within the Pirates’ line-up. Before the Pirates had acquired negotiation rights, Jeff also had a grip of questions about Kang’s abilities both offensively and defensively. Jeff wrote the following about Kang’s glovework:

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A Brief History of Late-Winter Signees

This offseason has been so full of thrills and spills it’s been easy to forget that two of the FanGraphs Crowd’s four most-valued free agents went unsigned well into 2015, with Max Scherzer waiting to become a Washington National until January 19. We don’t yet know why Scherzer waited so long to sign, or why the almost-as-valuable James Shields has waited even longer. Perhaps they have been sitting with fingers crossed in hopes that they would receive a substantial offer from a team other than the Houston Astros. Maybe they just want to take their time making such a big life decision.

Regardless of their reasons for remaining on the free agent market for so long, we’re just about reaching that point in the offseason when Pitchers & Catchers Reporting is visible on the horizon’s crest. One of the perks of being a phenomenal major league player on the level of Scherzer and Shields is that you are afforded comparatively ironclad job security, especially compared to their journeymen peers, many of whom have to annually shuttle their families to new locales across the nation.

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Pondering the Compressed Standings

The teams who are engaged in the most prolific and dynamic offseasons — namely, the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, and Tampa Bay Rays — still remain somewhere in the middle of FanGraphs’ projected 2015 standings. As Dave noted early last month at Just a Bit Outside, it appears that teams’ response to the new second wild-card spot is to push towards the middle and hope to catch lightning in their bottle, a la the 2014 Kansas City Royals.

The entire standings are getting compressed: as Dave notes in his article, there are only a small handful of teams who are going through a rebuilding cycle (whether aimless or not) and thus can be considered out of the running for the 2015 World Series. What I find most interesting about the current state of the league is that the standings are being compressed from the top as well. Or, as Dave wrote:

This is essentially baseball teams adopting the old adage of not putting all their eggs in one basket. And as more teams adopt this strategy, the less it makes sense for any one team to try and pull away from the pack. After all, if you have to beat 10 or 11 other decent teams for a playoff spot, your margin of error is going to be lower than if half the teams in the league are conceding defeat on opening day.

That explanation makes enough sense. But, also, this article was written back when the Padres’ most significant acquisition was Clint Barmes, and I think A.J. Preller’s subsequent transactions have helped define a new standard as to what is and isn’t possible within the span of an offseason.

Maybe you don’t like the Matt Kemp deal. I still don’t totally know what to make of it myself. That’s fine. We’ll leave it aside for now. Let’s look at it this way: Preller acquired Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Derek Norris in exchange for their starting catcher (Rene Rivera — from whom I have developed a mighty crush), their fourth starter (Jesse Hahn — or fifth starter, depending on your view of Odrisamer Despaigne), and a big bundle of the Padres’ middle class of prospects.

The Padres received value in these three trades by offering sheer quantity as their own value for offer: Preller shipped out 12 players (and two international bonus slots) while receiving 8. (Those numbers jump to 15 players out and 10 players in if you include the Kemp deal.) And, all the while, the Padres’ projected 2015 payroll ($88.9M) is actually a touch under their 2014 Opening Day payroll ($90.6M).

Preller has retained, by Kiley’s rankings, three of the organization’s top four prospects. He traded away the middle class — not the upper class — of his inherited farm system in exchange for significant Major League experience, all the while assuming no financial burdens. Okay, so the Padres don’t look, even now, like a playoff team next year. But it’s hard to find a downside to Preller’s approach — unless the middle class of any team’s farm system at any given time is actually incredibly, incredibly valuable to an organization’s long-term health.

Judging by the behavior of other Major League teams, especially those who are already projected to do well, that middle-class of prospects is just that valuable. Preller is not the only General Manager who was just hired from outside the organization in the last few months. Meaning, he was not the only GM who has just inherited a farm system that was put together by a GM who was ultimately fired. Dave Stewart of the Arizona Diamondbacks has mostly sat on his hands, trade-wise, actually giving up established major league value in Miguel Montero. In Atlanta, John Hart started the offseason from essentially the same position as Preller, but decided to move in the opposite direction, sending away players valuable in the present-tense (Jason Heyward, Upton) for future-tense potential.

Teams with contending-ready cores have also effectively sat on their hands this offseason in the trade market. The Seattle Mariners have only used their organizational depth to acquire Justin Ruggiano (in exchange for Matt Brazis). The Washington Nationals have only received minor leaguers (Joe Ross, presumably Trea Turner) in exchange for their minor leaguers (Steven Souza, Travis Ott). The Pittsburgh Pirates have traded for Antonio Bastardo and Francisco Cervelli.

These right here are the teams that would have taken significant steps closer to the World Series had they engineered the types of trades that Preller made this offseason. But these teams have decided, in effect, that their middle class of minor leaguers is more valuable than the likes of Myers, Norris, Upton.

And, shoot, maybe these already-contending teams are right. The available population of even replacement-level major leaguers is certainly finite, and maybe Preller’s offseason will ultimately make it very difficult for the Padres to fill out their whole roster from 2017-2021.

The thought I keep coming back to, though, is how much prices on the trade market inflate at the Trade Deadline. Any combination of the Mariners, Nationals, and Pirates will be positioned as buyers late next July. If they make a move then, unlike now, they are doing so because they know for sure that they are well-positioned for a postseason run. But if they make a move now, unlike then, the price tag is significantly lower. Like: what if Preller traded for Upton this winter purely in anticipation of flipping him at the Deadline? The package that Preller would receive for a half-season of Upton would no doubt exceed in perceived value the package that he gave up for a full season of Upton. (Not to mention it would be a pretty slick new way to rebuild a team.)

Basically, what I’m saying is: I really like the mindset behind the offseason that Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, and company have put together for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Currently the Dodgers are projected by FanGraphs as the best team in baseball, a 91-win team over the Mariners’ 89. I very much admire their “double-trade” tactic to separate the wheat from the chaff of their roster. For instance: with Dee Gordon’s trade value no doubt at its highest, the Dodgers trade him, Dan Haren, and Miguel Rojas to the Miami Marlins for a package that includes Andrew Heaney. Heaney is then traded, straight-up, to the Angels for Howie Kendrick. While there are other players moving around in this trade, the effect is that Gordon is swapped for Kendrick at second base, a cunning way of improving major-league talent without significant effects to minor-league depth. The same double-trade maneuver was triggered by the Kemp deal: the Dodgers acquired Zach Eflin for Kemp, and then sent Eflin to Philadelphia (with Thomas Windle) for Jimmy Rollins. The Dodgers turned their outfield logjam into a veteran starting shortstop and netted Yasmani Grandal in the process.

Maybe, across the majors, teams are scared of pushing their chips to the middle because the 2014-15 Oakland A’s loom like a cautionary tale — an organization depleted after they pushed in their own chips. But there’s more than one way to interpret the last 12 months in Oakland, and one interpretation is: their error was not pushing all of their chips in, but rather waiting until July to do so.

Whether or not it earns the Dodgers the World Series, I commend them for proactively attempting to separate their team from the pack.

Moving Toward a Unified Theory of the A’s Offseason

Perhaps all of the wheeling and dealing is not over just yet, but seeing as it’s been a few weeks since the Oakland A’s have made a trade, perhaps Billy Beane’s manic winter has wound down to something like a conclusion. Here’s more or less what’s happened so far:

In Out
Taylor Thompson Adam Dunn
Billy Butler Daric Barton
Ike Davis Hiroyuki Nakajima
Franklin Barreto Alberto Callaspo
Kendall Graveman Geovany Soto
Brett Lawrie Jason Hammel
Sean Nolin Jed Lowrie
Joey Wendle Jon Lester
Chris Bassitt Jonny Gomes
Josh Phegley Luke Gregerson
Rangel Ravelo Josh Donaldson
Marcus Semien Kyle Blanks
Mark Canha Brandon Moss
Eury De la Rosa Josh Lindblom
Jesse Hahn Jeff Samardzija
R.J. Alvarez Michael Ynoa
  Austin House
  Derek Norris
  Seth Streich
  Nick Punto

I’ve been a big fan of what Beane has been doing this offseason because, heck, it’s entertaining! Things have been so unpredictable in Oakland that no move would surprise us next. Sometimes proponents of different schools of thought are split when it comes to grading transactions, but this is a rare case of universal bewilderment.

It feels like we’ll only truly understand these moves in hindsight, once some actual games have been played. Will Oakland be positioned as a buyer or as a seller during next July’s trade deadline? Either option seems a viable possibility.

While I could be proven wrong if Oakland rolls out a 70-win season, here’s my best guess as to what it all means: Beane is trying to fill up his roster with as many players who are league average or better (2+ WAR) as he can. That is, Beane would be willing to trade away one star-level player (i.e., Jeff Samardzija) in exchange for two players who project as about league-average (i.e., Marcus Semien and Josh Phegley). As Dave has written about recently, the difference in value between a star player and an average one just might be a lot smaller than we think. Perhaps Oakland is operating under the assumption that a lineup without weak spots totally makes up that gap between star and mere starter.

Let’s look at the 2015 Steamer600 projections for all the players who ended the 2014 season with the A’s, and then all the players who are currently on the Oakland roster. I included everybody who was projected for at least 100 PAs or 30 innings pitched in the majors:

2014 A’s in 2015 WAR600 2015 A’s in 2015 WAR600
Josh Donaldson 5.3 Brett Lawrie 4.2
Josh Reddick 3.4 Josh Reddick 3.4
Jon Lester 3.3 Stephen Vogt 2.7
Brandon Moss 2.9 Sonny Gray 2.6
Stephen Vogt 2.7 Scott Kazmir 2.6
Sonny Gray 2.6 Craig Gentry 2.4
Scott Kazmir 2.6 Ike Davis 2.3
Jeff Samardzija 2.5 Marcus Semien 2.3
Derek Norris 2.5 Coco Crisp 2.1
Craig Gentry 2.4 Josh Phegley 2.0
Jed Lowrie 2.3 Eric Sogard 1.8
Jason Hammel 2.3 John Jaso 1.4
Coco Crisp 2.1 Billy Butler 1.4
Eric Sogard 1.8 Jesse Hahn 1.2
Geovany Soto 1.7 Jarrod Parker 1.2
John Jaso 1.4 Sam Fuld 1.1
Kyle Blanks 1.3 Nate Freiman 1.0
Jarrod Parker 1.2 A.J. Griffin 1.0
Sam Fuld 1.1 Sean Doolittle 1.0
Nate Freiman 1.0 Andy Parrino 0.8
A.J. Griffin 1.0 Ryan Cook 0.5
Sean Doolittle 1.0 Eric O’Flaherty 0.4
Alberto Callaspo 0.9 Fernando Abad 0.3
Andy Parrino 0.8 R.J. Alvarez 0.3
Adam Dunn 0.6 Evan Scribner 0.3
Ryan Cook 0.5 Dan Otero 0.2
Nick Punto 0.5 Jesse Chavez -0.1
Eric O’Flaherty 0.4 Drew Pomeranz -0.1
Luke Gregerson 0.4 Sean Nolin -0.1
Fernando Abad 0.3 Eury de la Rosa -0.3
Evan Scribner 0.3 Chris Bassitt -0.4
Dan Otero 0.2    
Jonny Gomes 0.2    
Jesse Chavez -0.1    
Drew Pomeranz -0.1    

So if the A’s returned their exact same lineup for 2015, they would have 13 players who are projected to produce at least 2 WAR over the course of a full season of playoff time. With the lineup the A’s actually have, they now have 10 such players.

Obviously 13 is a larger number than 10. But consider: the A’s end-season roster from last year was the result of some very expensive trade-deadline moves. Lester, Samardzija, and Hammel were purchased at a high price, with both Lester and Hammel due to become free agents at the end of last season. For all of the big names they’ve traded away this offseason, it’s remarkable, then, that the A’s have ended up with almost the same number of average-or-better players they had before their trade deadline action. (Yoenis Cespedes, traded for Lester, was another projected average-or-better player on Oakland’s roster last year.)

This is actually a pretty unique piece of roster construction. The Seattle Mariners, which FanGraphs currently projects as having the second-best record in 2015, only have eight average-or-better players (Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, Chris Taylor, Austin Jackson, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma). The Angels, projected to finish two games better than the A’s, also have eight (Mike Trout, Erick Aybar, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, Chris Iannetta, David Freese, Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs). After pushing so many chips in the middle of the table this winter, the White Sox have all of six (Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Adam Eaton, Chris Sale, Samardzija, Jose Quintana).

Projected to have the league’s best record, the Dodgers have an impressive 13 of these players (Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson, Carl Crawford, A.J. Ellis, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu). The main difference being that the Dodgers will spend about four times as much on their team in 2015 as the A’s will.

By acquiring league-average players in addition to intriguing prospects, Beane just might be giving himself his best possible chance at fulfilling the intrinsically opposite goals of (1) cutting payroll and (2) remaining in contention. On Opening Day last year, the A’s had a payroll that was about 130% the size of their payroll a year previous, and about 160% the size of the payroll the year before that. If reducing payroll was the A’s top priority heading into the winter, well, Beane has definitely made lemonade out of lemons here.

Or, shoot, maybe he’s just rebuilding.

Foreshadowing the Padres Spending Spree

For the first time since perhaps lovable Tony Gwynn Sr. was swattin’ singles around the yard, the San Diego Padres have commanded the full attentions of the baseball world. The architect of these numerous wheelings and dealings, first-year General Manager A.J. Preller, would be hard for even dedicated fans to pick out of a crowd simply because he has been on the job for slightly over four months (and one of those months was the thrilling playoffs, when nobody was too concerned about the Padres).

Today, let’s get to know Preller a little bit via the stray scraps of video interviews that have been released since his hire. Personally, count me a fan of his simultaneously methodical and relaxed demeanor. More importantly, let’s comb through this unofficial archive in search for any clues that the Padres would dramatically reshape their team this offseason. Presented in chronological order:

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