Early Trends That Will Shape the Rest of the MLB Offseason

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Early Trends That Will Shape the Rest of the MLB Offseason
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Three weeks removed from the end of the World Series. Not even two weeks removed from the general managers meetings. Winter meetings still on the horizon.

Such is the precise location of Major League Baseball's offseason. It's still more or less in the "getting to know you" phase.

Yet there has been a decent amount of moves made, some of which have moved the needle only slightly and some of which have moved the needle a bit more than slightly. There's still much to be determined, but the offseason has begun to take shape.

Is there any way of predicting what the big picture is going to look like? Not really, no. The offseason has a mind of its own that tends to paint awfully messy big pictures.

Based on a couple of early developments, however, we have a sense of how different sections of the big picture are coming together. 

For example, there's what's going on in...

 

The Catching Market

Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

At last check, the answer is "no." Neither Brian McCann nor Jarrod Saltalamacchia has signed yet. The catching market hasn't gotten that much of an early shakeup.

It has not, however, been altogether quiet.

The biggest contract given to any player since free agency opened went to Carlos Ruiz. The Philadelphia Phillies gave him $26 million over three years, an amount that raised a few eyebrows given the sort of player Ruiz is at this point in his career.

Ruiz is no spring chicken, as the 2014 season will be his age-35 campaign. And if you want to go by FanGraphs WAR, Ruiz is coming off his worst season since 2008 with a meager WAR of 1.4. It's also worth noting that he served a 25-game stimulant suspension at the start of the season.

In fairness to Ruiz, he did get better as 2013 progressed, notably hitting .333 in August. But based on appearances, the Phillies gave a nifty multi-year deal to an aging catcher. That makes one wonder what's now in store for other aging catchers.

Well, it sounds like one of them is in line for a multi-year deal of his own. According to ESPN's Buster Olney, the Tampa Bay Rays are circling a two-year deal to keep Jose Molina in the mix.

It's been a good bet all along that Molina would end up back with the Rays, but color me a wee bit surprised at the prospect of him getting a multi-year deal. He'll be 39 years old next year, and he hasn't posted an fWAR of 1.0 or better since all the way back in 2005.

So Ruiz gets a lucrative multi-year deal, and now it sounds like Molina is going to get a multi-year deal. It's highly unlikely that it will be a lucrative one, mind you, but any sort of multi-year deal for a player like him shouldn't be ignored.

A free agent who should be liking the sound of this? How about A.J. Pierzynski.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Despite the fact he was coming off one of his greatest seasons, Pierzynski settled for a one-year contract last winter. He went on to have a typical A.J. Pierzynski season, posting a 90 wRC+ and a 1.6 fWAR. Both numbers slightly outpaced what Ruiz was able to do, and easily outpaced what Molina did.

At 36 going on 37, Pierzynski is in between Ruiz and Molina in age. While that probably makes a three-year deal like Ruiz's highly unlikely, I'll wager that the market has better positioned him for a multi-year offer than last year's market did.

Take Ruiz, Molina and Pierzynski off the market on multi-year deals, and two older starting catchers and one older kinda-sorta starting catcher will have done well for themselves. Concerning the two big-name guys on the market, this can only help.

Heck, the Ruiz deal in and of itself helped McCann and Saltalamacchia. For a simple reason, as McCann's agent, BB Abbott, pointed out to Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas.

“It doesn’t change what we think of [McCann]. But it’s significant in that another catcher is off the market. It’s another puzzle piece that isn’t out there," said Abbott.

If Molina does indeed follow Ruiz off the market and then Pierzynski happens to follow him shortly after, the market's catching depth is going to be pretty thin. The result for McCann and Salty could well be bidding wars that result in eye-popping deals.

Elsewhere, interesting things are happening in...

 

The Outfielder Market

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Like McCann and Saltalamacchia over in the catching district, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz are all still biding their time, quietly watching things take shape.

And taking shape is what things have indeed been doing.

Excluding super-utility man Skip Schumaker, three outfielders have signed contracts out on the open market: Marlon Byrd, David DeJesus and David Murphy. They each got a two-year deal worth double-digit millions: $16 million for Byrd, $10.5 million for DeJesus and $12 million for Murphy.

On Friday, another outfielder came off the market. As reported by Buster Olney, former Arizona Diamondback and Oakland A Chris Young is going to the New York Mets:

What do these four outfielders have in common? Not a whole heck of a lot. Byrd and DeJesus are in their mid-30s. Murphy and Young are both in their early 30s. Byrd's a power guy. Young is a power and speed guy. Et cetera, et cetera.

But if you look back over the last three seasons, one thing these guys have in common is that they've basically been average-ish players.

Early Outfielder Signings
Player 2014 Age 2011-2013 wRC+ 2011-2013 Avg. WAR New AAV (M)
Marlon Byrd 36 106 1.6 $8
David DeJesus 34 101 1.7 $5.25
David Murphy 32 100 1.7 $6
Chris Young 30 96 2.5 $7.25

FanGraphs

A wRC+ of 100 is defined as being exactly average. An average WAR varies, but FanGraphs says that a WAR in the neighborhood of 2.0 is more or less average. 

Three of the four outfield signees have been slightly below-average in the eyes of WAR but have been solid hitters. Young is the guy who hasn't been so great at the plate, but his all-around skill set makes him the biggest 2011-2013 WAR hero of the four.

Yet even despite that, a WAR of 2.5 is nothing special. Nor is a wRC+ between 96 and 106. Thus, "average-ish."

By wRC+, the list of outfielders who have been average-ish over the last three seasons includes Nate McLouth, Raul Ibanez, Jason Kubel and Reed Johnson. Mike Morse belongs in the average-ish crowd as well, as he only has a 98 wRC+ over the last two seasons. If the going rate for an average-ish outfielder on this year's market is $5-8 million per year, then that's what these guys could be in for too.

Once you're beyond them, then you're into the good guys. Here's what they've done over the last three seasons:

Cream of Outfield Crop
Player 2014 Age 2011-2013 wRC+ 2011-2013 Avg. WAR
Carlos Beltran 37 137 3.2
Shin-Soo Choo 30 134 3.0
Curtis Granderson 33 126 3.4
Jacoby Ellsbury 30 123 5.4
Nelson Cruz 33 114 1.3

FanGraphs

Beltran, Choo, Granderson and Ellsbury have all been easily above-average players over the last three seasons in the eyes of WAR and wRC+. WAR doesn't like Cruz so much, but his wRC+ does speak the truth about him: He's not a great hitter, but he is better than the average hitter.

There's never been a question as to whether any of these guys would get paid better than the average outfielder. But based on the early signings of Byrd, DeJesus, Murphy and Young, they now have a general idea of what the average outfielder is worth on a per-year basis on this year's market. It's a price they can look to double, triple or, as a last resort, just plain beat.

Just a hunch: This is what it's going to come to for Cruz. Maybe even Granderson too. 

From here, we head to...

 

The Starting Pitching Market

Brad White/Getty Images

This year's market isn't a particularly strong one for starting pitchers. As Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors pointed out back in September, such markets can result in pitchers being paid more than their talent is worth.

Based on how things have unfolded so far, we do seem headed in that direction.

There have been three starting pitchers plucked out of the market's "worth a shot" bucket. The San Francisco Giants signed veteran sinkerballer Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23 million contract. The San Diego Padres then nabbed Josh Johnson on a one-year, $8 million contract. The Kansas City Royals picked up Jason Vargas on a four-year, $32 million contract.

Hudson comes from the "worth a try" bucket because he's coming off a season that came to an early end in July thanks to a gruesome ankle injury. That and because it's somewhat concerning that his ground-ball and fly-ball rates are trending in directions you don't want to see with a sinkerballer.

For what seemed like the umpteenth time, Johnson put another injury-marred season together in 2013, making only 16 starts due to arm trouble. In the starts he did make, he was shelled to the tune of a 6.20 ERA.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced media via MLB.com.

As for Vargas, a blood clot in his left shoulder required surgery and forced him to miss basically two months of action. That he got four years in light of that is surprising. It's also surprising in light of his career ERA+ of 91, which qualifies him as a below-average pitcher.

Johnson, a classic reclamation project, got $8 million. Vargas, a mediocre pitcher with a medical red flag, got $8 million per year. Hudson, an aging pitcher coming off a severe injury, got $11.5 million per year.

These deals look pretty solid in light of how last year's market played out. MLB Trade Rumors' database returns 23 free-agent contracts for starting pitchers from the 2012-2013 offseason. On average, the AAV of those was about $7.7 million.

Yup. Johnson, Vargas and Hudson all did better than that.

Now we await the fallout. Hudson's deal could mean a nice deal for a guy like Bronson Arroyo or even Bartolo Colon, who ESPN's Jayson Stark says is now on the lookout for a two-year deal. Johnson's deal could mean good things for other project pitchers, such as Gavin Floyd or Jason Hammel. Vargas' deal, meanwhile, could have the biggest impact of the three.

As fellow MLB featured columnist Joe Giglio noted, Phil Hughes could end up being the biggest beneficiary of Vargas' multi-year contract. If a mediocre pitcher like him could get four years, then maybe Hughes, he of the 95 career ERA+, can too. Ditto Paul Maholm, he of the 96 career ERA+.

But inevitably, the pitchers from the "worth a try" bucket are going to run out. That's when it will be time for the really big numbers to be tossed around for multi-year targets like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco and still-got-it veterans like Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon and Bronson Arroyo.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for...

 

More Blockbuster Trades

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When Prince Fielder signed a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers a couple of winters ago, I'm guessing none of use saw a trade coming just two years into their partnership.

Yet that's what happened on Wednesday night. The Tigers sent Fielder and $30 million to Texas for Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler, a deal that I like very much for both sides.

As far as blockbuster trades go, this was the first of the 2013-2014 offseason. And sure, it might be the last. Given the complicated nature of such things, it's not the best idea to apply the same domino-effect thought process that can be applied to free-agent signings. 

However, the pieces are absolutely in place for the norm to be turned on its head this offseason. As Shi Davidi of Sportsnet wrote:

Big names are being tossed around this off-season—more than usual, some sources suggest, although others argue it’s only rumours that are on the rise—and with a relatively thin free agent class inflated by a spike in national TV money, teams may be more motivated to trade rather than shop the open market.

He's right about big-name trade targets being tossed around more than usual, and those with expensive long-term contracts haven't been spared.

Before the Rangers dealt Kinsler, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that Elvis Andrus was a trade target. He's also reported that the Los Angeles Dodgers are listening on Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported back in October that the Cincinnati Reds would shop Brandon Phillips. 

For the longest time, the conventional wisdom on big-money contracts was that they were basically immovable. If a team found itself with a big-money contract it didn't want anymore, too bad. 

These are different times. Plenty of teams have good money coming in from local TV deals, and Davidi mentioned the extra TV money teams have to play with. At an extra $25 million per year starting in 2014, it's not a small amount. The number of potential landing spots for big contracts via trades has increased.

The Fielder-for-Kinsler trade isn't a trend in and of itself. It is, however, a hint of a possible trend. One that we'd all do well to take seriously.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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