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Contract Extension Fever Isn’t Just About Economics

You may have noticed that a number of baseball players have signed extensions this spring. By my count, since Aaron Hicks re-upped with the Yankees on February 25th, 22 players have signed contracts that guarantee them a combined $1.82 billion in new money, and have collectively given 68 years of free agency to the only teams with which they could negotiate. Here are some numbers:

The Spring 2019 Extension Class
Name 2019 Age Term # FA Years Guaranteed New Guarantee (TCV) New Guarantee (AAV) Service Time Prior Gurantee
Mike Trout 27 2021 – 2030 10 $360.0 $36.0 7.1 $115.2
Alex Bregman 25 2020 – 2024 2 $100.0 $20.0 2.1 $1.8
Aaron Hicks 25 2020 – 2026 7 $62.0 $8.9 5 $12.0
Nolan Arenado 28 2020 – 2026 7 $234.0 $33.4 5.2 $61.5
Ozzie Albies 22 2020 – 2025 2 $34.4 $5.7 1.0 $1.1
Xander Bogaerts 26 2020 – 2025 6 $120.0 $20.0 5 $25.3
Matt Carpenter 33 2020 – 2021 2 $39.0 $19.5 7 $50.7
Paul Goldschmidt 31 2020 – 2024 5 $130.0 $26.0 7.1 $45.5
Chris Sale 30 2020 – 2024 5 $145.0 $29.0 8.1 $59.9
Eloy Jiménez 22 2019 – 2024 0 $43.0 $7.2 0 $0.0
Miles Mikolas 30 2020 – 2023 4 $68.0 $17.0 2 $15.5
Ryan Pressly 30 2020 – 2021 2 $17.5 $8.8 5 $6.7
Brandon Lowe 24 2019 – 2024 0 $24.0 $4.0 0 $0.0
José Leclerc 25 2019 – 2022 0 $15.5 $3.9 2 $2.0
Ronald Acuña 21 2019 – 2027 3 $100.0 $11.1 0.2 $1.1
Randal Grichuk 27 2019 – 2023 3 $47.0 $9.4 4 $9.2
Blake Snell 26 2019 – 2023 1 $50.0 $10.0 2.1 $1.2
Kyle Hendricks 29 2020 – 2023 3 $55.5 $13.9 4.1 $13.4
Jacob deGrom 31 2020 – 2023 3 $52.5 $13.1 4.1 $21.6
Justin Verlander 36 2020 – 2021 2 $66.0 $33.0 13 $226.5
Germán Márquez 24 2019 – 2023 1 $43.0 $8.6 2 $1.7
David Bote 26 2020 – 2024 0 $15.0 $3.0 0.1 $0.6

A few notes on this table: I’m only interested in new money for the purposes of this article, so Trout’s deal is recorded as starting in 2021, leaving his 2019 and 2020 salaries entirely alone; he would have gotten those anyway. I’ve also excluded any team and vesting options in the “New Guarantee” column because, well, they’re not guaranteed (I have included any buyout in the contract value columns, because that money is guaranteed). I’ve also included players’ age and service time at the beginning of the 2019 season, as well as the earnings they had received or were guaranteed prior to signing extensions, because I think all three factors are relevant to understanding why these particular players might have been open to extensions.

The table is sortable, so you can play around with it as you would like, but I’ll admit that I find it difficult to draw any general conclusions by examining each deal in its particulars. It does seem to be true, broadly speaking, that the deals involving several free agent seasons have been signed mostly by established players (Trout, Arenado,  Hicks, Bogaerts, and Goldschmidt) while those deals locking in cost certainty for years already under team control are mostly the province of younger, less-experienced players (Bote, Jiménez, Acuña, Albies, etc.). The young stars who already got paid during the draft, meanwhile (think Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa) are largely absent (Bregman excepted). They, for the most part, don’t need what’s being sold right now.

It is possible to look at each individual extension signed in the past six weeks and find nothing there of great concern — to find, in fact, a number of personal circumstances that militate in favor of one deal or another, from the perspective of a particular player and his idiosyncratic preferences. It is only when the deals are viewed in the collective, when we choose to view owners and players as classes attempting to exercise power upon each other, that the degree to which the modern labor environment has narrowed choices for players becomes visible.

Free agency — the crowning and bitterly contested victory of the first generation of MLBPA members and leaders — is now perceived by many of those who won it as an exercise in humiliation. “Craig Kimbrel is one of the best closers in the history of the game,” one player grumbled to me last week, “and he still doesn’t have a deal [in the middle of April]. It’s ridiculous. Why would I want to put myself and my family through that when the time comes?” Manny Machado and Bryce Harper got paid this offseason, yes, but only after most of the league’s franchises had convincingly demonstrated that they were unwilling to compete for the two men’s services. Players got the message loud and clear.

One interpretation of this set of facts might be to suggest that our present position — in which powers collectively won are only being effectively exercised by highly specific tranches of the player population — is the consequence of the market “sorting itself out,” literally assigning to different groups of players different prerogatives and different rewards that result from one choice or another. But baseball is not a free market. Baseball is a group of 30 owners in constant, though only occasionally explicit, contention with the union labor that is its raison d’etre. That means that insights from economics, with its neat lines of preference and consequence, can tell us only so much about the state of the game today. We must turn as well to political science, which is the study of power and how it’s used.

A labor environment that is the product of power relations between two parties naturally in contest with one another does not have a state of equilibrium from which we have somehow fallen and to which we can soon return with one technical adjustment or another. It only has two camps competing with one another over a given pool of resources, and being more or less effective in their exercise of power over the other in order to enable that competition. That makes it a normative, and not exclusively a positive (read: objective) exercise.

Baseball’s owners have of late been remarkably effective in their exercise of power over the players with whom they are in contest, to the point that it is possible to point to a hundred individual deals made in those years and find few wanting in isolation and yet a union full of players who are convinced, and not without reason, that they are in the process of being hosed. Individual choices made among an array of options limited by an exercise of power against those individuals as a group are not particularly meaningful choices at all. The last year has brought with it an awakening of player consciousness to the narrowing of choices they face, a realization that something must be done, and an increasing willingness to do it. The question, of course, is what.

Here, I think, there is room for optimism. There is no particular reason that players and owners should have to tear each other down in public quite so often as they have, even as they will always remain inevitably in conflict. There are ways that the two camps can collaborate to grow the game such that it generates more money for everyone, as we saw clearly after the agreement reached after 1994 strike set the table for an unprecedented period of revenue growth for baseball. Ads like “Let The Kids Play” are important because they build power for players and the league alike, and grow reserves of good will that can later be turned into money, which can thereafter be used to expand the circle of players receiving the lion’s share of dividends from the game’s windfalls, to players in their first six years of big-league time, perhaps, or even to those in the minor leagues. Whether or not the players are actually being hung out to dry right now, many of them think they are, and that perception may well lead to a period of labor unrest that shrinks the scope of the game’s cultural meaning in a way that we haven’t seen since ’94.

I hope that doesn’t happen. And in the meantime, I hope that fans will continue to grow in their understanding that deals which look good, or at least reasonable, in isolation can begin to smell poorly in combination, and that just because a given deal is understandable does not make it justifiable, or something we should necessarily be happy about. In other, simpler, words: Can does not necessarily mean should. Thinking about the recent deals as a result of a competition of power, rather than the inevitable result of some market-clearing activity, opens the door to expressions of opinion on the balance of the power that results.

We as fans of the game have the means, through our voices and our wallets, to express our opinions on the balance of power in major league baseball, and I can think of no particular reason we should want to shore up the position of owners as a class having considered that balance. Major league baseball — as opposed to baseball as an amateur game we play only for ourselves, or our friends — exists because of the cultural meaning we fans assign to it, and the money and attention we pay to effectuate that meaning. That makes us shared stakeholders in its future, perhaps not as entitled to a voice in its direction as the players who play it and the league that facilitates it, but entitled enough to an opinion nonetheless. What we say matters, and how we choose to react to the choices teams have made this offseason can and should affect the way the game moves forward.


Mariners Hitters Are Walking the Line

Through their first 701 plate appearances of the 2019 season, the Seattle Mariners hit 38 home runs and posted a wRC+ of 145. Both marks were the best in the game by a fair margin, though you probably knew or could have guessed that already, because Jay Jaffe wrote about the team’s strong offensive start on this site last week. What you might not know is that if you ask Seattle’s hitters about the source of their success, they’ll tell you — after getting through the usual platitudes of “just playing as a team” and “taking it one game at a time” — that this year’s daily hitters’ meetings, led by first-year hitting coach Tim Laker, have been good. Really good.

“Those hitter meetings,” says fellow first-year Mariner Tom Murphy, “have been fantastic. It’s been one of the things that’s stood out to me this year. From the analytic staff to the hitting staff to the players speaking out about what they’re seeing, it’s been a triple-headed effort. Not only are we getting the statistics on what guys are throwing, their locations and pitch tunnels and stuff, we’re also getting real-world advice from players and hitting coaches together. That communication has been spot-on, and I really think it’s contributed to our success.”

Laker, 49, came up as a coach in the Diamondbacks’ system after spending parts of 11 seasons as a big-league catcher, mostly for Montreal. In Arizona, under the guidance of  instructors Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc, he developed an approach to hitting and communication that focuses on finding the intersection between a hitter’s natural strengths and a pitcher’s natural weaknesses, then communicating an approach based on the center of that Venn diagram that’s simple enough for hitters to take to the plate without needing a cue-card.

“Pitchers have ranges, philosophy-wise, in which they throw their pitches,” Murphy says. “And our hitting team has put that into a simple system, which says, for example, that if a guy has low-ride [meaning a pitcher’s pitches do not deviate substantially up or down from their apparent path upon release] then he’s a ‘zero-ride’ and if he’s high, you’ll go up to three. Nice and easy. And then from there you can visualize the center of the strike zone, and know that a fastball right down the middle that’s a three-ride would play up at the top of the zone even if visually it starts out right in the middle. And if a guy has a lot of sink, anything that starts down in the zone is not going to be a strike, regardless of whether my eyes are telling me it’s a strike out of his hand. You have to find ways to prepare in advance for the tricks your eyes are going to play on you.”

Put that way, the system sounds almost too simple — bucketing continuous data into three or four tranches is not, after all, rocket science. But in the psychological world of hitting, simplicity is a virtue in its own right, and finding ways to communicate complicated data simply and actionably is where teams are currently looking to find any edge they can. In the Mariners’ case, the particular challenge they’re working to tackle this year is finding ways to get their players attacking each night’s particular starting pitcher while not getting too far out of their own comfort zone. That’s a tall order for hitters who have often been raised spend their days thinking of ways to keep their approaches consistent, not tailor them to each night’s starter. But Laker things he’s found an approach that works: translating the message into a specific external cue or physical action.

“For example,” says Murphy, “if we’re facing a big sinker-ball guy, then maybe a good external cue for most guys is to try to hit a popup or a ball way up in the air, so we get underneath that ball path and our swing plane plays better to that guy. Whereas against a guy with a lot of rise on his fastball, like a Verlander, we’re going to try to hit a lot of line drives or almost ground balls to manipulate ourselves without thinking too mechanically to get the desired bat path to that ball. That’s what we do well as players, is move physically, and Laker has been great about taking the statistics and giving us a plan to take into the game that’s more externally focused; that’s still us, but tailored to the pitcher.”

“I think what we’re looking for is guys that have swings that can cover more than one spot,” Laker told me. “I think our guys are good enough that if we adjust the slices they’re swinging in just a little bit on a monthly basis, that they’re good enough to hit in different zones and not just get pigeonholed into one specific spot where they are kind of at the mercy of the pitcher, just hoping that he’s going to make a mistake in the one spot that they’re looking at.”

Perhaps to Laker’s surprise, that approach has found resonance even with Seattle’s veterans, like Jay Bruce. “I think you have to try and walk the line a little bit,” he told me. “Because at the end of the day, they have to throw the ball over the plate. They’re going to miss, and they’re going to make mistakes. And on the one hand if you go chasing what they do you get yourself in trouble, but also I think being cognizant of their approach and their plan and what makes them have success against you is important, too. Finding that balance has been good this year.”

For a relatively young team, hearing that message from all angles — coaches, analytics staff, and veterans — is critical. “That’s when those meetings become really powerful,” says Laker, “When our younger guys can listen to Jay or Edwin, guys who’ve faced other starters a number of times, and hear them say, ‘Here’s what he’s done to me, here’s what his pitch looks like to me, here’s how it moves, here’s what he’s trying to do.’ I think that carries a lot of weight. I think the more we can get hitters involved in what we’re trying to do, and have a collaboration in an open forum, that’s good.”

The Mariners probably aren’t going to have the best offense in baseball all year long. They might not even have the best offense in baseball all April long. But if you’re chalking up their early-season numbers to mere good luck, or running into a stretch of pitching that’s performing below its level, I’m not sure you’re correct. Pitching has under-performed against Seattle for much of this young season (the just-concluded Astros series perhaps excepted) because the Mariners have been highly intentional about finding ways to make it so, and about communicating with their players in such a way that tailoring an approach to each night’s pitcher doesn’t feel like telling hitters to do things they’re not used to. So far in 2019, it may just be working.


Tim Beckham Has Found What Works

After a strong 2017 campaign for Tampa and Baltimore led some observers to declare, perhaps prematurely, that the former No. 1 pick had finally figured out how to sustainably deliver on his sky-high potential, Tim Beckham’s 2018 performance was sufficiently awful (a 79 wRC+ over 402 plate appearances) that the Baltimore front office declined to tender him a contract and left him to sign a $1.75 million deal with the Mariners in early January. Well, for a guy who was probably only intended to hold the middle of the field warm until J.P. Crawford gets the call up to Seattle at some point later this summer, Beckham has had a remarkably good first week in the Queen City:

Tim Beckham’s Good Week
G PA H BB HR ISO wRC+ WAR
7 31 11 5 3 0.462 319 0.8

Usually, I wouldn’t note a first week like this except in passing — Preston Tucker was hitting .435 through his first seven games of 2018, after all — except for two things. First, Beckham was hurt — with a core muscle injury that required surgery — throughout much of 2018, which suggests that perhaps his poor performance over the full season was less a reflection of a regression from 2017’s breakout and more what you’d expect from a player toughing it out through a debilitating injury. Second, Beckham has actually had a pretty good five weeks, dating back to September 1st of 2018. Since that date, his wRC+ of 186 is eighth-best in the game.

Beckham has always had good power to all fields, but until 2017, that power was too often undercut by a tendency to end at-bats early by swinging at the first pitch he saw offered close to the zone. In 2017, he solved the mental hurdle that had pushed him to try to do too much and instead started taking a few pitches early in at-bats until he found the one he wanted. “These days,” he told me back then, “I want to see the ball in the zone where I can drive it, and if it’s not” — here, a pause — “I want to trust that it’s going to be a ball.” The core injury hindered his ability to execute on that mindset in 2018, yes, but since September of last year, he’s been able to put it into practice again. The results have been impressive. Read the rest of this entry »


Houston Rewards Pressly’s Liftoff with Two-Year Deal

It wasn’t the biggest extension announced yesterday — it wasn’t even the biggest Astros extension announced yesterday — but Ryan Pressly’s two-year, $17.5 million deal with Houston, which was first reported by Chandler Rome, was a big deal for Pressly, a big deal for Houston, and a big deal for relievers. The deal will pay Pressly $2.9 million in 2019, his final arbitration year, then $8.75 million in each of 2020 and 2021. There’s a vesting club option for 2021, as well. It’s believed to be the biggest extension ever signed by a reliever not expected to close games for his team (that’s still Roberto Osuna’s job, at least for the time being) and is a tremendous accomplishment for a player who had a 4.70 ERA (with a 4.36 FIP) as recently as 2017.

But of course that 2017 performance isn’t what the Astros are paying for. They’re paying for what he did in Houston last August and September (which is strike out 32 men and walk just three in 23.1 innings pitched) and what they think he can do for them going forward (which is presumably more of the same). Héctor Rondón, Joe Smith, Collin McHugh, and Will Harris are all expected to become free agents at the conclusion of the 2019 season, and locking Pressly up now means the Astros will have one less thing to worry about next winter. For Pressly, this deal gives him the job security that has absolutely never been a guarantee in the years since he signed with the Red Sox as an 11th-round pick back in 2007.

The conventional wisdom is that relievers are inherently volatile — with a few, Mariano Rivera-shaped exceptions — and so giving them multi-year contracts is the kind of thing you only do when you’re competing for their services on the open market. You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a forward-thinking team like the Astros locking up a reliever with such a short track record of success — during his time in Minnesota at the beginning of 2018, Pressly had a 3.40 ERA and a 2.95 FIP — for two additional years when they’re competing against nobody but themselves. Read the rest of this entry »


2019 Positional Power Rankings: Third Base

You’ve read the intro. You’ve read about first basemen and second basemen. You know how to count. You know what time it is. As our positional power rankings continue, let’s talk about third base.


This, friends, is a very good time to like watching baseball men play a good third base. Fully half of the top 10 players by WAR last year were third basemen, and only three of those five men make the top five of our rankings. The 8th-ranked player on this list, Nolan Arenado, is projected for nearly five wins this year, and the 10th-ranked player is the consensus top prospect in the game. Your mileage may vary, but I see roughly four tiers here: An elite No. 1-8, any one of whom can at times threaten to be among the best players in the game; a very strong second tier No. 9-13, the top of which contains players who have been in the past or could be in the future very good; a perfectly solid and mostly indistinguishable third tier running from No. 14 to No. 29, containing every possible diversity of age, experience, upside, and talent; and then the Royals. Let’s dive in. This will be fun. Read the rest of this entry »


Kyle Seager Gets Six More Weeks of Winter

Update: Following Seager’s surgery, it appears that he will now miss 10-12 weeks, rather than the six weeks or so estimated at the time this article was written. Please update your misery accordingly.

Last Friday, Kyle Seager dove for a ball that was smacked down the third-base line by the Cubs’ Javy Báez and hurt his hand in the process. Scott Servais removed Seager from the game during a subsequent pitching change, and the Mariners announced Monday that the third baseman would undergo immediate surgery to repair an extensor tendon in his left hand. I am not intimately familiar with extensor tendons as a matter of course, but I understand they’re what allow you to straighten your fingers and thumbs. Since you need to be able to do those things in order to play baseball, Seager will be out six weeks.

Because the Mariners aren’t expected to be very good this year — their 75-87 projection is better only than the Rangers’ in their division — this isn’t the kind of injury that you’d expect to materially affect the way the season plays out for Seattle, but it is kind of a bummer for Seager, who had a pretty bad year last year and could use a bounceback. Here are Seager’s numbers for 2011-2017 and 2018, respectively:

Kyle Seager’s Bad Year
Seasons PA AVG OBP ISO K% BB% wOBA wRC+
2011-2017 4,213 .263 .332 .184 16.7% 8.5% .337 117
2018 630 .221 .273 .178 21.9% 6.0% .288 84

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that some of Seager’s under-performance last year was due to an unusually low BABIP (.251, compared to a career mark of .281), and that .178 ISO isn’t too far off his career mark of .183, but it’s hard to write off the sudden spike in strikeout rate — Seager posted a 14.3% full-season mark as recently as 2015 — especially when it comes, as it does, alongside a three-year slide in contact rate, from 83.4% in that 2015 season to 78.8% last year. Last year, for the first time in his career, Seager had a negative run value  on fastballs (-0.69 per hundred seen). Something, clearly, was a little off. Read the rest of this entry »


Adam Warren Arrives in San Diego

The Padres announced Friday that they have signed 31-year-old Adam Warren, lately of Seattle, originally of North Carolina, and most notably of New York, to a one-year, $2 million deal, with a $2.5 million club option (and $500,000 buy-out) for 2020. In San Diego, Warren will join Kirby Yates, Craig Stammen, and Matt Strahm at the head of what should be a reasonably effective relief corps; the Padres’ 3.2 WAR projection is sixth-best in the NL and matches precisely that of division rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco. Warren might also, in the event the somewhat-less-impressive San Diego rotation does not perform at its best, throw a few innings at the beginning of games, either as a traditional starter or as an “opener.”

It is this mostly-theoretical capacity — to pitch relatively effectively both as a spot starter/long reliever and in more traditional relief roles — that has long tantalized the various clubs that have sought Warren out since his debut for the Yankees in 2012, though this appeal has dulled somewhat since a poor turn as a swing-man for the Cubs in the early part of 2016 (his 5.83 FIP during that half-season was his worst mark since 2.1 poor innings in his debut season by more than half a run). The Mariners, for whom Warren pitched from late July of last year to the season’s close, were unique among his three clubs in only using Warren out of the ‘pen, and he rewarded them somewhat poorly by posting his worst performance (4.82 FIP, 1.88 K/BB ratio) since that half-season in Chicago in 21.2 innings of work. He has not started a game since 2016, or more than one game a season since 2015. Read the rest of this entry »


White Sox Miss on Machado, Sign Santana

Ervin Santana, who made his major-league debut for a 2005 Angels squad that also included Steve Finley (who made his debut in 1989) and a 32-year-old Bartolo Colón, last week signed a minor-league contract with the White Sox that’ll be worth $4.3 million if he makes the big-league roster out of spring training.

Santana has spent much of the last decade and a half being a perfectly acceptable starting pitcher for four big-league teams (his mean annual WAR is 2.0 on the dot), and much of the last twelve months being a hurt and bad for the Twins. Last year, an injury to his throwing hand kept him out of the rotation until late July; he would head back to the injured list in mid August and finish his season there. In between, he pitched poorly. He posted a 7.94 FIP. His 8.03 ERA was third-worst among starters with as many innings (24.2), behind only the Orioles’ Chris Tillman (who checked in with a 10.46 ERA) and new rotation-mate Carson Fulmer (8.07). Unfortunately for the White Sox, their rotation doesn’t get much better after Fulmer. Our depth charts have the White Sox dead last in projected rotation WAR for 2019: Read the rest of this entry »


Hunter Pence Returns to Lone Star State

Hunter Pence was born in Fort Worth, Texas, played high school ball for Arlington (manning shortstop his senior year), and then played college ball for Texarkana College in Texarkana and UT Arlington back home. Two years later, he hit .283/.357/.533 with 28 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Double-A Hooks in Corpus Christi in 2006, then .326/.387/.558 in a brief stop in Triple-A Round Rock to start off the 2007 campaign before finally making his debut for the Astros on April 28th. Friday, his decades-long quest to play at least one game for every amateur and professional team in the great state of Texas reached a new and likely final phase, as he signed a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers worth $2 million if he makes the club.

There was a time not too long ago when Pence couldn’t be had for a sum as small as $2 million, not even for a few months of play, but those days are well behind us now. Pence’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, isolated power, BABIP, walk rate, and wOBA have each dropped in each of the last three seasons. Last year, he was worth -0.9 WAR for the Giants in his sixth full season for the team. That team, mired in fourth place and under new management, had no place in its outfield for Pence (the old guard did give him a custom scooter), and when it became obvious that the end of this five-year deal was the end of the road in San Francisco, it wasn’t clear whether the 35-year-old would play at all in 2019.

He will, at least in springtime in Arizona, and that’s a small blessing to us all. Pence has always seemed like one of those guys who might have invented baseball accidentally had he been born into a world in which it did not exist. Ever-so-slightly bow-legged, tall, and lanky, he doesn’t look like someone who should be among the very best at what he chose to do, but he was for a time and maybe still can be in Texas. At the plate, he often coils backwards, hands hidden behind his torso, then unspools violently like a length of chain pulled suddenly taut. Eyes wide and utterly fixated on wherever the ball has gone, he is prone to regain his balance and, arms and legs flying, careen into first and beyond, if he can make it. Pence at his best is a joy to watch play the game.

And he has been, at points in his career, a player to rally around. Pence’s first seasons with the Astros, as the team eased out of the Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman-Beltrán era that peaked with a 2005 NL Championship, and began their slow descent into the sordid Yakety Sax years, did not do much to burnish Pence’s national star even though he quietly put up four-and-a-half extremely solid years in Houston. When he was traded to Philadelphia, mid-way through 2011, Pence had accumulated 14.4 WAR at just 28 years of age. That’s not a Hall of Famer, but it’s a player well worth having. An NLDS run with the Phillies in 2011, on the tail-end of their dynasty, put Pence on the map, until he finally caught on with a team at the right time with the Giants in 2012. That run produced three titles (two for Pence) and also this hilarious video which I hope he recreates with the Rangers this year:

“Hunter helped lead the charge to our World Series in 2012,” former Giants’ GM Bobby Evans told me this week, “and his bat and leadership drove us to another World Series in 2014. He plays each game like it’s his last, and will forever be a fan favorite in San Francisco.” Well, he hasn’t played his last game yet: Pence says he’s changed his swing significantly this year, so maybe there’s a few more miles left in the tank. Texas doesn’t really need outfielders, what with Joey Gallo, Delino DeShields, Jr., and Nomar Mazara all already in the fold (and Willie Calhoun available in reserve besides), but they could use a strong bench bat or two and there’s no clubhouse in baseball that couldn’t use Hunter Pence.

I’m never optimistic about players’ ability to re-tool their games after 35 — this is increasingly a young man’s sport, and there’s precious little margin to get it right — but in Pence’s case I hope I am wrong, and that Pence makes the roster and contributes for Texas this year. Hunter Pence is not like many we’ve seen before in this game, and we need more like him. He’s home in Texas now, ready for one more try.


Transaction Roundup: On Pitching Moves Most(ly) Minor

Last week brought with it a flurry of relatively minor pitching deals — the sort that weren’t enough to divert the industry from the apparently never-ending saga of bigger stars left unsigned, and which are fairly typical of this time of year. Here they are:

  • The Orioles signed 31-year-old Nate Karns to a one-year deal worth $800,000, with an additional $200,000 possible in incentives.
  • Cleveland signed 32-year-old Alex Wilson to a minor league deal that could be worth $1.25 million in guaranteed money and an additional $750,000 in incentives should Wilson make the squad out of spring training.
  • The Diamondbacks signed 36-year-old Ricky Nolasco and 33-year-old Marc Rzepczynski to minor league deals and invited both to join big league spring training. Rzepczynski’s deal could be worth $1.5 million guaranteed if he makes the team, with $500,000 in incentives besides. The terms of Nolasco’s deal have not yet been reported.
  • Lastly, the Royals inked 33-year-old Homer Bailey to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training; they did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Bailey’s probably the best-known of the names on that list, but I also think he’s among the least likely to accomplish much in 2019. You may recall that, earlier this winter, Bailey played the part of “salary offset” in the deal that sent Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood to Cincinnati. So underwhelming was his 2018 — in which he allowed 23 home runs in just over 106 innings pitched — that even the Dodgers’ brass, who stash spare pitchers in their overcoats when they’re just going around the corner for a gallon of milk, released Bailey immediately upon his arrival in Los Angeles. He was in blue and white for less than 20 minutes. In Kansas City, he’ll join Brad Keller and Jakob Junis in the Royals’ rotation and work to find a second wind.

Nate Karns — another 30-something with success in his past and a terrible team in his present — has always been a little bit interesting for his ability to keep the ball on the ground with a four-pitch mix that features a two-seamer, a curveball, a change-up, and a heavy sinking fastball. The big question at the moment is how he’ll recover from the thoracic outlet surgery that ended his 2017 season near the end of May of that year, and kept him off the field for the entirety of 2018. Before the injury, Karns was carrying a terrific 50% groundball rate and 27% strikeout rate for the Royals — both improvements on his already-solid 2016 for the Mariners and in line with his 27 and 23% strikeout rates during his heyday with the Rays in 2014-15.

Karns going to Baltimore, which is under new management, is probably good news for everybody involved. Karns, obviously, would like the opportunity to prove that he is healthy and can return to being the quality big-league starter he has already been at various points throughout his career. The Orioles would like that too — Karns has one year of arbitration left, and the Orioles will still need rotation help in 2020. Alternatively, depending on the state of the trade market next summer or the summer thereafter, Karns could be traded to a contender in exchange for some area of need for Baltimore. That, too, would presumably be welcome news for Karns.

I already wrote a little bit about Cleveland’s bullpen situation in my writeup of the Óliver Pérez deal last month, so I won’t say much more about the Wilson deal except what I said then:

Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway.

Alex Wilson, apparently, is one of the arms destined to take the strain off of Óliver Pérez and Brad Hand. He was remarkably consistent for the Tigers during his last four years in Detroit, posting a 3.20 ERA and a 2.77 K/BB ratio over 264.2 innings pitched. Importantly, too, he’s demonstrated an ability to throw in different roles: over the course of his career, he’s pitched 50.1 innings in the sixth, 84.1 in the seventh, 97 in the 8th, and 54.1 in the ninth or later. The question, then, is whether the Tigers’ decision to non-tender him this winter was due to some concern about his future not visible to external observers or simply a consequence of the cost-cutting ethos that seems to have overtaken Detroit. I suspect it’s the latter, and like this pickup for Cleveland.

As for Rzepczynski and Nolasco, it’s hard to get too worked up about those deals either way. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen wasn’t outright terrible last year, though it certainly had room for improvement with a 4.08 collective FIP, and Rzepczynski is second bit of the two-part bullpen improvement plan that started with Arizona signing Greg Holland. He got beat up pretty badly between Seattle, Cleveland, and Triple-A last year (an 8.25 ERA in 12 minor-league innings!), so I’m not sure how well that’ll work out, but given his past success against lefties (he’s held them to a .227/.296/.305 career line), it’s worth a shot. Nolasco, too, had some good years for the Twins once upon a dream, but didn’t pitch in the majors last year and will struggle to win a rotation spot this year. These are the kinds of deals you make at the end of the winter, when spring seems close at hand and the snow just days away from melting.