Backup Plans for MLB Contenders Losing Their Own Star Free Agents
Even for contending teams, it’s commonplace to lose star players to free agency. But while subtracting an ace pitcher or slugging outfielder can create a huge roster void for teams, general managers must find ways to replace the departed.
In the case of the New York Yankees, the team might find themselves sporting a lineup without Robinson Cano for the first time since the homegrown star took the field in 2005. With poor internal options and uninspiring free-agent replacements, the Yankees might find themselves overpaying Cano to avoid a headache.
But not all teams are enduring sleepless nights. The Cincinnati Reds, for instance, will likely use super prospect Billy Hamilton to replace Shin-Soo Choo, who is projected to cash in on his superb 2013 campaign. And while Hamilton will never be the power hitter Choo is, the speedster does boast 395 career minor league stolen bases over just five seasons.
Read on to see all the backup plans for MLB contenders losing their own star free agents.
Note: DRS is a metric created by Fielding Bible, but FanGraphs.com lists it in their defensive statistics section for every player.
Jacoby Ellsbury (Boston Red Sox)
After being injured and ineffective during 2012, Jacoby Ellsbury came roaring back this past season. Ellsbury posted a .298 batting average, park-adjusted 114 OPS+, nine home runs and 52 stolen bases over 636 plate appearances. The 30-year-old also ranked fourth in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved above average) amongst center fielders with 13 defensive runs saved.
Ellsbury is rumored to be searching for at least a seven-year, $142 million deal according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, which makes a return to the Boston Red Sox unlikely.
Luckily, the Red Sox have a solid internal option in Jackie Bradley Jr. While Bradley didn’t impress in 107 plate appearances last season, posting a 69 OPS+ with a 32.6 percent strikeout rate, the 23-year-old has long been a touted organizational prospect.
The Red Sox could also bring in a veteran like free agent Rajai Davis as an insurance policy for Bradley. Davis, who spent the past three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, has experience at all three outfield positions and swiped 45 stolen bases in 2013.
Robinson Cano (New York Yankees)
Robinson Cano hasn’t budged much from his 10-year, $310 million demand. And according to New York Yankees president Randy Levine in an interview with Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, the team isn’t in the mood to play a game of chicken with the second baseman.
We're not waiting around. […] If guys start to come off the board, we're going to sign them, which will affect the amount of money we have left for other players including [Cano].
But even though the Yankees are playing it cool, losing Cano would be a huge loss for a team coming off a fourth-place finish in 2013. And unless the team considers 25-year-old Corban Joseph, who posted a mere .712 OPS in Triple-A in 2013, a suitable replacement for Cano, the Yankees might be forced to pony up the cash.
The Bombers could alternatively look into signing free agent Omar Infante, who enjoyed a stellar campaign for the Detroit Tigers in 2013. Infante hit to the tune of a .318 batting average, a park-adjusted 113 OPS+, 10 home runs and five stolen bases. While FanGraphs.com liked Infante’s defense, with a 2.4 UZR/150, Fielding Bible (view both metrics here) was less pleased, calculating a minus-five DRS.
Regardless of Infante’s offerings, a more Yankees-esque move would be acquiring Brandon Phillips from the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds have seemingly made Phillips and his remaining $50 million contract (over the next four years) available. The 32-year-old would hypothetically replace some of Cano’s power, as the North Carolina native swatted 18 home runs in 2013. But Phillips’ OPS+ has also fallen 26 points since 2011.
Neither Infante nor Phillips would actually replace Robinson Cano's production. But unless the Yankees hand out yet another contract of historic proportions, the homegrown star might be playing elsewhere in 2014 (and beyond).
Shin-Soo Choo (Cincinnati Reds)
The Cincinnati Reds made a big splash last offseason by acquiring outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from the Cleveland Indians. Despite little experience in center field, the Reds slotted Choo up the middle regardless.
Even though the 31-year-old struggled mightily defensively, gloving an abhorrent minus-17 DRS, according to Fielding Bible and minus-17.0 UZR/150, according to FanGraphs.com (view both metrics here), Choo made up for it with an elite park-adjusted 143 OPS+.
And while Choo was a big factor in the Reds’ playoff push in 2013, the team will likely move on in 2014 as the star outfielder will be too rich for the Reds’ blood. Luckily for the Reds, speedy Billy Hamilton will finally be ready to become an everyday player this coming season.
Hamilton’s biggest asset is undoubtedly his blazing speed. The 23-year-old swiped 395 bases in his minor league career, including a 155 stolen-base campaign in 2012. In fact, Hamilton was primarily used as a pinch runner by the Reds when the team recalled him in September, stealing 13 bases in just 13 games.
But considering Hamilton only posted a .256 batting average and .651 OPS in 2013 for Triple-A, the youngster will have to find a way to get on base before he can utilize his speed.
Brian McCann (Atlanta Braves)
Even with consecutive injury-plagued seasons in 2012 and 2013, Brian McCann is still the premier free-agent catcher on the market. McCann posted a .256 batting average, park-adjusted 115 OPS+ and 20 home runs in 2013 for the Atlanta Braves, which marked his eighth straight season of double-digit home runs.
And while the 29-year-old has served as the Braves’ starting catcher since 2006, it appears as though the team is ready to move on. Given the emergence of folk hero Evan Gattis, perhaps the Braves are making the correct move.
Gattis collected a .243 batting average, 106 OPS and 21 home runs over 382 plate appearance as a rookie last season. Even though the 27-year-old has yet to prove himself as a full-time starting catcher, the Braves also have backup Gerald Laird, who posted a 103 OPS+ in 2013, to ease the burden.
It will be difficult to imagine the Braves without McCann behind the dish, but aging catchers with big contracts is hardly a formula for success.
Ervin Santana (Kansas City Royals)
The Kansas City Royals acquired Ervin Santana in a pure salary-dump trade last offseason. After posting a 5.16 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 74 ERA+), 1.27 WHIP and 2.18 K/BB in 2012, the Los Angeles Angels felt Santana was not worth his $13 million salary in 2013.
But as the 30-year-old’s inconsistent career has illustrated, Santana is capable of posting brilliant individual seasons after a stinker. And fortunately for the Royals, his 2013 was just that.
Santana pitched to the tune of a 3.24 ERA (versus a 127 ERA+), 1.14 WHIP and 3.16 K/BB over 211 innings for the Royals this past season. But as a free agent looking to cash in on his top-notch production, it’s unlikely the Santana/Royals union will last.
With uber prospect Yordano Verntura ready for the big leagues, the Royals might not have to look further than their own roster to replace Santana’s shoes.
The 22-year-old showed signs of brilliance in the minor leagues, posting a 3.14 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings ratio between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. Even in Ventura’s short 15.1 inning stint with the big league club last season, the right-hander tossed 3.52 ERA (versus a 120 ERA+), 1.23 WHIP and 1.83 K/BB.
If the Royals decide to venture outside the organization to replace Santana, the exploration could be an expensive one.
Seeing as the team was forced to overpay for Jeremy Guthrie last offseason, signing the right-hander to a three-year, $25 million deal, the Royals would likely find themselves in a similar position this offseason, too. The Royals could target mid-to-low level free-agent options like Scott Feldman, Phil Hughes or Jason Vargas.