In baseball this spring, the big story as usual it seems, deals with money rather than baseball itself, which is rather unfortunate and might just be one of many factors which seem to causing attendance and TV ratings to dip of late. Anyway, the story of the spring so far is the mega-contracts… the top two Free Agents, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, as well as the re-signing of Nolan Arenado with his current team.
Machado of course, signed a 10-year deal with San Diego for $300M; Harper just signed on with Philadelphia for a remarkable 13 years and $330M, while Arenado stays with Colorado for another 8-years and $260M. For those not so mathematically inclined, that equals out to average annual salaries of $30M for Machado, $25.3M for Harper and $32.5M for Arenado.
The surprising thing of that is that each of the 3 players can feel like they won. And then again, shouldn’t anyone getting literally hundreds of millions to do what they like feel that? Harper gets bragging rights for the biggest-overall contract, taking home eventually $5M more than Giancarlo Stanton will on his long-term deal. Arenado gets the biggest annual takehome of the trio and didn’t have to go through the ordeal of posturing and visiting all sorts of parks all winter long to get it. Machado falls somewhere in between but has the comfort of having the biggest contract ever handed out by San Diego and getting a better payday each year than Harper, with whom he was constantly being compared all winter long. For those interested in such things, using stats from Sporttrec earlier this year, Arenado should be the 5th highest paid player in the MLB, Machado tied for 7th and Harper 15th (surprisingly Stephen Strasburg leads this year at $38.3M, followed by his teammate Max Scherzer at $37.4M then Arizona’s Zach Greinke at $34.5M.
As skyhigh salaries go, I think the owners got it right this winter. Of the elite trio, Arenado is best, followed by Machado and then Harper. Let’s look at some numbers:
The numbers above are for (columns left to right): career games played, 2018 homers, career homers, 2018 RBI, career RBI, 2018 batting average, career batting average, 2018 OPS, career OPs and 2018 WAR/Career WAR (as measured by Baseball-Reference.
We can see there’s a strong simlarity between the 3. Last year all were 30+ HR, 100+ RBI, with a better-than-league-average OPS. There of course other factors that went into my evaluation as well as, more importantly, the thinking of the owners. For instance, Arenado isn’t quite the roadrunner on the bases as the other pair… Harper and Machado all had double digit stolen bases, Arenado only 2. Harper led the league with 130 walks, which more than compensated for his lowish batting average. However, other factors all make Arenado and Machado more exceptional than Harper. To start with, the two former ones play more valuable postions than Harper’s. And they do it better.
Arenado has won a Gold Glove every year he’s been in the majors, and at the all-important 3B. Last season was the first time in his career his defense hasn’t been listed at adding 2 or more wins to the team tally. Manny, as we’ve seen is equally proficient at Shortstop or 3B, has two Gold Gloves and has been a plus-defensive WAR every year but last year, when a poor showing in LA made him rate a neutral 0. Harper, on the other hand, plays in the outfield, and only does a fair job of that at best. He actually has a -3.2 defensive WAR. Ergo, he cost the Nationals three games over his years there by his glove, compared to if they’d had a run of the mill minor leaguer. That was surely overshadowed by his heavy bat, but is still a consideration. And while the normal trajectory would show Machado and Arenado having another two or three very good years in the infield before perhaps being shifted to a lower-stress LF or 1B position, Harper will in all likelihood have to become a first baseman, or hope that the NL adopts the dH rule soon to avoid becoming a significant sinkhole in the field for the Phils.
Worse yet, he’s the one of the three with a history of injuries. His past knee injuries are especially worrying to a potential employer, as that tends to be something that keeps coming back with age and wear and tear. While Machado played all 162 games last year (split between the two teams ), and has missed a mere 11 games over the last 4 seasons total and Arenado, just 16, Harper has missed 40+ games three times in his seven year career.
My assessment: all three teams are silly to be giving out contracts this long. Apparently the lessons of Troy Tulowitzki, Prince Fielder, Felix Hernandez etc haven’t been taken to heart yet. But Colorado looks the best out of the three. First, they keep a hometown hero which is of course, good marketing. Secondly, he’s the best defensive player of the trio and is least likely therefore to become an anchor on “D” in the duration of his contract.
Machado is not going to be a Gold Glove-type infielder a decade from now, but could still be hitting 30 or more homers and having an .850 or .900 OPS. Moreover, it shows the Padre fans the team is interested in winning and building a contender in the tough NL West. Coupled with their great farm system (ranked best in baseball right now), with a good added starting pitcher or two, they could be the team to beat by 2020 and stay strong for a few years. Not a bad signing.
Then you have the Phillies. I applaud them for not giving in to Scott Boras and the pressure to give Harper more money per season than anyone else. He simply is not that good. That said, while Harper should add some “oomph” to their improving lineup for a few years, giving a defensive liablility with a wonky knee a 13-year deal is only bound to backfire, and sooner than later.
Now for our Blue Jays… rumors continue that they swept in and signed Clay Bucholz and Bud Norris at the end of last week, which if true will significantly improve their pitching staff and make them a potential .500 club this year , if nothing else. But the team has yet to confirm that, so I’ll look at that if and when …
The “story” of the MLB off-season so far has really been a non-story. Just like last year, the free agent market has been a bit slow and the two players everyone seems obsessed with talking about – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – remain unsigned. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest in them as one might have anticipated. The market for Harper is, if rumors are correct, limited to the Phillies, the White Sox, the on-again, off-again Nationals (the only team he’s played for thus far) and possibly the Dodgers. The market for Machado is slimmer still – the White Sox, the Phils and if we believe his agent “a mystery team.”
This shouldn’t be as big a surprise as most people think it is. First off, both are quality, star players that could add to any lineup. However, neither is really a highest-level superstar; both also have knocks against them (albeit small ones.) Machado didn’t make any new fans when he offhandedly complained he’d never be a “Johnny Hustle” kind of guy. Perhaps that was a bit of miscommunication due to English being a second language for him, but you can bet it made owners look a bit more carefully at hours of video of every at bat he took last year to see just how much he does hustle. As for Harper, he does seem to slowly be maturing, but he didn’t make many fans with the media with his arrogance and at times flippantly worded answers early in his career. Others note that his Natonals have been the most talented team in their division for almost his whole career but for that they’ve missed the playoffs entirely three times and never advanced beyond the NLDS level. It would be unfair to blame Bryce alone for their lack of performance, but it can’t be ignored that he hasn’t yet rallied a team around him to great heights.
That said, the reasons they are attracting so little attention is obvious. Many teams can’t afford the kind of money they are looking to get and many others which could, prefer not to pay out that much over a long term. And who can blame them? Before Manny and Bryce complain and hint at “collusion”, perhaps they should go and yell at some of their counterparts. Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Albert Pujols for starters. All were in similar positions of being elite free agents and signed huge, longterm contracts (albeit all of them except Pujols with their previous team). Few of those contracts have paid off well, at least on the long-term.
Take for example, Tulowitzki. He, like Machado and Harper, was a youngish 26 when he re-upped with the Rockies prior to 2011 on a 10 year deal worth $158M. Note that after 2010, the MLB average salary was pegged around $3M even (currently it’s a shade over $4M, give or take. Exact figures vary due to different critieria about which players are counted as rostered, how to factor in bonuses etc.) Tulo was at the time one of the most promising players in the game, an All Star shortstop with a great glove and bat. the two years before his big contract (2009, 2010) he had numbers like this: .297/32HR/92RBI and .315/27/95. His OPS was 31 and 38% above league average those years and his WAR was 6.5 and 6.7. Signing him for years seemed the only thing for Colorado to do.
It didn’t sour right away. His 2011 campaign lived upto all expectations and got him another All Star spot. He hit .302/30/105 that year with an OPS again 31% better than league average and a WAR over 6. However, the injury bug kicked in in 2012, limiting him to 47 games, 8 homers, and a WAR of a mere 0.4 games better than a replacement. His numbers rebounded in ’13-14, but by 2015 (when he was traded much to his consternation, to Toronto) he’d dropped off to .280/17/70 with a .761 OPS that beat the league norm by only 7%. His WAR- 1.5. After a decentish ’16 with the Jays, he got injured again in 2017, playing just 66 games witha lacklustre .249 average, 7 homers, much reduced infield range and a WAR of a microscopic 0.1. In 2018, he collected about $18M to sit out the entire year due to surgery on his feet. As we know here, he’ll be paid about $18M again this year, mostly by Toronto, to play for the Yankees where he’s seen largely as a stopgap bench player. He’ll get over $20M next year too, no matter if he plays or not.
Or look at King Felix, the onetime heir apparent to Randy Johnson as the Mariners best-ever pitcher. Felix Hernandez had won a Cy Young when he re-signed with Seattle at age 27, for 7 years for a then unheard of $175M. He was coming off a 2010 Cy followed by two seasons in which he went 14-14/3.47 over 234 innings then 13-9/3.06 over 232 innings. His WARs those years were 3.6 and 5.3. What team couldn’t benefit greatly from a stud starter who can toss 230+ innings and add about 5 wins to the team’s total? The Mariners could and did, and for the first few years three at least, it worked out not too badly for them. 2013-15 yielded the following numbers: 12-10/3.04, 204 innings; 15-6/league best 2.14 ERA (70% better than norm), 236 innings; 18-9/3.53 over 202 innings. WARS of 5.3,6.4,4.5. that’s when the pendulum swung back against Seattle. Since then, three years of 11-8, 6-5 and 8-14 with ERAS of 3.82,4.36and 5.55. Under 160 innings each year. WARS of 1.4,0.8 and -1.2. Meaning statistically, the Mariners lost one more game by having Felix around last year for his $26.9M than if they’d used any random minor leaguer in his place. They don’t expect a lot of upside for the $27.9M they owe him this year… consider that while they jettisoned their high-paid talented players like James Paxton and Edwin Diaz this winter, they seemed to have no calls at all inquiring about the “King.”
Or perhaps the granddaddy of the bad big contracts, Albert Pujols. Pujols was arguably the best player in the game through much of the first decade of this century, so at first glance, no one could knock the Angels for signing him to a 10 year, $240M deal prior to the 2012 season. Mind you, he was already 32, around the typical peak for a position player, so there were warning flags there alone. The two last seasons he played with St.Louis were stellar, as usual: .312/42/118 with an 1.011 OPS (some 73% better thanleague average) then .299/37/99 , .906 OPS. The WAR those years were 7.5 and 5.3. Brilliant.
Los Angeles Anaheim could have looked good if they signed him to a four-year deal, even though he’s only made the All Star team once with them. 2012-15, he was still a star performer. He drove in over 100 twice, had better than average OPS each year, andwhen his batting average dipped to .244 in 2015 he compensated with 40 longballs. His WAR for the cumulative four seasons was over 13. Not bad. Even 2016, at age 36, was quite good: .268/31/119, WAR 1.3 (by this time, he wasn’t adding anything defensively, it should be noted- he was probably a below average first baseman and frequently was a DH instead.) The last two years…not so good. In 2017, he hit .241 with 23 homers, a below-average .672 OPS and actually had a negative WAR of -1.8. Oops, not pleasant for a team to pay $25M to a player who actually was losing games for them.
2018 was a tad better, but not that much- .245/19/64,WAR of 0.5. The real bad news for the “halos”… they have him under contract through 2021, and due to their questionable bookkeeping, his salary keeps going up! He’ll make $30M in 2021, when he’ll be 41 years old.
So yes, right now Machado and Harper look very good Machado’s last two years saw him miss only 6 games in total, play solid “D” at both third and short and post 33 and 37 homers, WARS of 3.4 and 5.7. Harper, although he missed 41 games due to a knee injury (something you bet owners will have in the back of their minds when looking at his long term durability) in 2017, still posted a remarkable .319 average and 1.008 OPS that year and came back with a 34 homer, 100 RBI year last season. His WAR has added to 6 over those years.
Good? Of course. And in all likelihood, they’ll both be good for the next three or four years. Beyond that… things look a bit foggier. Can you blame a team for not wanting to sign them for ten or more seasons? I can’t.
One more thing. Manny and Bryce should perhaps look at Moneyball. Because while they are almost bound to add to any team they go to; there is a point where the reward isn’t as great as the cost. Statistically, if they get into the $30M or more a year plateau they are asking for, a team could likely add more by spending it on several players. As an example, the Yanks were marginally interested in Machado. But they added pitcher JA Happ who’s had WARS of 3.4 and 3.6 over the past 2 years, for about $17M a year. That leaves them about $13M in which they could add another player. Jed Lowrie went to the Mets for a mere $10M a year and over the past two years he’s tallied an 8.8 WAR. So,unless a team can bank on a huge boost in attendance from a marquee player there’s little benefit in adding one “megastar” at the expense of missing out on two or even three above average “character players.”
Harper and Machado will play somewhere in 2019, and will probably be very good. But they might not have $300 million or more contracts in their pockets… and that is good for baseball.
While I’ve of course focussed primarily on the Blue Jays when discussing the upcoming trade deadline this month and the possibility of players moving around, most if not all of the 30 MLB teams will be busy in the next twelve days. some will be adding, others subtracting (albeit, with an eye to adding to their future selves.) Only a few – Oakland, Washington, for instance- are in a place where they’re not clearly buyers or sellers. Which leads us to the first big. blockbuster trade of the July madness- yesterday’s confirmation of a long-rumored deal sending superstar infielder Manny Machado to the LA Dodgers. In return, Baltimore get back 5 minor league players, a pretty hefty payback compared to most July trades. Who’s the winner?
Well, like most good trades the answer is quite probably “both.” the Dodgers greatly enhanced their chances not only of holding onto the NL West division but returning to the World Series this fall whereas the Orioles, who have nothing much to hope for in the 2018 season (at 28-69, even catching Toronto for 4th place in the AL East is a longshot and their only real objective perhaps would be to best their 1988 mark of 54-107, worst in their team history) should win down the road, assuming even one of the 5 young ‘uns turns into a reasonable major leaguer down the road.
There’s a decent chance of that, since the top name they got back was Yusneil Diaz, an outfielder from Cuba the Dodgers had spent over $30 million on so far, between signing bonuses, legal fees to get his immigration from Castro’s island approved and completed and so forth. Athlon sports noted the 21 year old was “talented” and “hit .332 in AA debut last year”. The others are two pitchers, and two infielders, neither considered sure-things but all rated as having adequate potential. A team winning less than 30% of its games is sure to benefit from even ordinary talent into its system.
For the Dodgers, the payoff is obvious. They’ve been heating up of late, finally overtaking Arizona for first in their division after winning 12 of their last 20, but at 53-43 and with only a half game lead, they’re far from a shoo-in to even make the post-season again, let alone make it back to the World Series for a second straight year. Although leading the West, if they dropped one game, they’d be behind Arizona and behind Atlanta for the final Wild Card spot. Where almost any team would benefit from a solid-hitting, smooth-gloved Machado, LA seems especially likely to see it pay off as their regular star shortstop, Corey Seager is on the DL and not likely to even return this year, recovering from elbow surgery. Since he went down, Chris Taylor’s been filling in, with so-so results. He’s hitting .253 with 11 homers and a .786 OPS and has been caught stealing more times than he’s succeeded. All the numbers are down from last year for him. He’s been of decent, but unspectacular glove in 60 games at short.
Machado will therefore keep playing SS, which he says he prefers over his past spot at third, and where he looks quite at home. So far in Baltimore this year, he’s been just a bit shy of Mark Belanger-ish with his glove at the new position, with only 8 errors but a very sharp 54 double plays turned in 91 games. He looks like a Gold Glove veteran in his first year at that spot, but even if he were lead-gloved, his bat alone would be enough for most teams to want him in the lineup every day.
So far in ’18, Machado’s en route to a career year, hitting .315, with a .575 slugging percentage and .963 OPS, all career highs. His 24 homers and 65 RBI put him on a pace to better his 2016 highs of 37 and 96. While there could be a couple of caution signs for LA to watch for ( for instance, he hits far better in hitter-friendly Camden Yard than on the road, with him hitting only .274 on the road this year and only 7 of the longballs coming outside of Baltimore) there are more reasons to be optimistic (for instance, he improves with runners in scoring position, hitting .352 in such at bats. And last year,he improved after the All Star break, hitting 60 points higher and driving in more runs despite that part of the year being 10 fewer games for him.) All things considered, he’s bound to drive in more runs for LA than Taylor … and add a spark.
It’s tough to over-estimate the effect the addition of a star to the lineup can make at the mid-summer break or just after. It shows the players their bosses have confidence in them, brings more cheering fans to the stands and in many cases brings in a new level of work ethic or enthusiasm in the dugout. Last year’s World Series champs knew it, picking up aging Justin Verlander just minutes before the final trade deadline. Justin looked rejuvenated, pitching like the 2011 MVP version of himself, going 5-0 with a microscopic 1.06 ERA in September, then continuing on to be a rock in the playoffs, with a 2.21 ERA in five starts and one relief appearance. (since joining Houston, he’s a cumulative 18-6 with a 2.09 ERA through 31 starts). There’s little doubt the Astros would not be World Champions without his addition late last year. Likewise, the 2016 World Champion Cubs benefitted no small amount by solidifying their bullpen at the end of July by bringing in fireballing Aroldis Chapman who did the best pitching of his career through August-September of that year, picking up 16 saves, striking out 46 in just over 26 innings and boasting an ERA barely over 1. He was a bit iffy for Chicago in the playoffs, but it’s highly doubtful they’d have made it to Game 7 of the Fall Classic without him.
Will the Dodgers benefit similarly come October? Well, there’s still a lot of baseball to be played and surprises always happen, not to mention more players to be traded. But I think they greatly enhanced their chances to win it all and have all but locked up the NL West again this year. I didn’t expect Arizona to hang onto the division before, now they’re going to really have to up their game- and probably their payroll via trades- to have a ghost of a chance. Going into the post-All Star period, I now see LA as being the National’s most likely champion and about on par with Boston as the likeliest to be partying come November.
My current predictions on team’s chances to be World Series champions are like this (number is percentage chance, which I arrive at by chances of winning division or wild card,then of winning the league playoffs)
LA Dodgers , Boston 17%
New York Yankees 12%
Chicago Cubs 10%
Arizona, Atlanta, Washington 4%
Seattle, Philadelphia 3%
Oakland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Colorado, San Francisco 2%
That of course could easily change with a Cole Hamels going here or Adam Jones there! Bring on the “Second Half”!
Sigh. At the start of the season, I suggested the Jays might have a valid shot at the playoffs, perhaps even the World Series… if everything went more or less perfectly. Well, not surprisingly, things haven’t been perfect. Sure, Luke Maile has shown himself to be a better hitter than we’d imagined, we suddenly know who Yangervis Solarte is and the bullpen, for the most part has been all we could have hoped for. But of course, then there are the things which are far from as good as expected. While Maile has impressed, Russell Martin’s impressed with his versatility but led to questions as to whether he’s a legitimate big league bat anymore. Justin Smoak’s been OK, but far from last year’s All Star first half first baseman. JA Happ has been decent enough but the rest of the rotation has been, well, let’s admit it, crap… and now 40% of it is on the DL. And let’s not even get started on Roberto Osuna, who was establishing himself as one of the league’s elite closers before he ended up in jail. Clearly, things haven’t played out according to our rose-colored plans.
Which brings us to today’s topic. It’s time to say “goodbye, thanks for the memories” to Josh Donaldson, or at least put him on the baseball equivalent of e-bay. Now, not later. There are really about half a dozen reasons. And I might add, at first I was going to preface it with “after seeing if he’d sign a two or three year extension at something like $10M per…which he almost certainly wouldn’t” but now, I’d not even suggest that. If there’s a need for him next season and the market treats him like it did Mike Moustakas this year, we can make an offer. Right now is the time to cash him in for what we can.
The big reason begins and ends with the team’s play this month. With today’s come-from-behind loss, Toronto sit at 22-24. Now, I still think they can turn it around a bit and get back to .500 or so and reclaim third spot, but playoffs? Let’s get real, that ship has sailed. With Boston and New York both rolling along in overdrive, there’s little chance of winning the division and it’s unrealistic to think anything short of 90 wins will snag the second wild card spot (93 or 94 might be more the reality of it.) To get to 90, T.O. would have to go 68-48 the rest of the way, or .586. A pretty tall order for a team below .500 and dropping and which is 24th in the bigs in ERA. So even if Josh starts to bring the rain again, he’s not going to propel the team into the post-season…. and if he does, it will only make it more likely he walks away as a free agent anyhow.
But, I may not be the only one who is starting to doubt whether this is going to be Josh’s MVP- the Redux year. Currently, he’s at .229 with 5 homers and a .760 OPS- lowest since his rookie year. In his last 8 games, he’s just 5 for 30. And whatever he brings to the bench or into the clubhouse is no longer translating into a dogmatic, can-do attitude for his teammates. Toronto is in fact 5-11 since he came off the disabled list. Now, I’m going to bet that at least some other GMs would bet that Donaldson will get hot again, and we all know that if Bringer of Rain is in a groove, he can be the most dominant hitter in the AL. Some teams clinging on to playoff hope will give up a bit to get that chance for 100 or 110 games. But should Donaldson continue to slump, for say even two weeks more , there might be fewer takers to take on a guy who could be hitting below the Mendoza line for 80 or so games.
The other compelling reasons for trading him now come down to supply and demand. On the one hand, the elephant in the room is there’s a much better left-side infielder bound to be hitting the seller’s floor soon in Manny Machado. Machado is having an MVP style year (.347/14/42 in only 44 games) and is both younger and more versatile than JD as he’s now playing short and could fill that position or third well enough for a new team. It would be smart to beat Baltimore to the punch….
Given that there are not that many likely suitors anyway. Right now the list of teams potentially vying for the playoffs is getting shorter by the week. One has to be truly the eternal optimist to assume Philly or Atlanta weill still be there with the behemoths come Labor day, and surprising as it seems, another losing week or two could easily bury the Dodgers until 2019. The longer the Jays wait, the fewer teams will be around to potentially benefit from a short-term addition. As it is now, the list of potential “buyers” may be no more than four or 5 teams.
Washington seem good with Anthony Rendon, likewise the Cubs with Kris Bryant,Astros with Alex Bregman and Dodgers (if even considered a team still in the running) with Justin Turner coming off the DL this week. Teams which might be considering him would likely include St. Louis (rumored to have been very interested in him back in winter), and, wait for it, Boston and the Yankees.
The Cards have been using both Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko at third so far, and neither’s been “all that”. Carp seems on pace for a career-worst season, hitting .173 with 3 homers, 15 RBI and a lowly .615 OPS in 38 games. Gyorko on the other hand is off to a solid start in 26 games (.292, .905 OPS) but is better suited to shortstop. At only two games out, the Cards could still be bigtime suitors… and as we know, there’s a hotline between Blue Jays and Cardinals front offices based in the number of trades of late.
Even more in need could be our two arch-rivals. The Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored, the Yankees right behind them. Both can pretty much assume their spot in the post-season, but both would surely enjoy having the division and not having to go through that sudden death wild card game. And for both teams, it would seem their Third Baseman might be their achilles heel.
New York are using rookie Miguel Andujar. He’s not terrible- his defence has been quite solid and he’s hitting .277 with 3 homers , 15 RBI. (he’s struck out 29 times to only 3 walks , but that seems to be less embarassing in this day and age than it was a generation back.) Still, you know the Pinstripes wouldn’t turn down a veteran all star to give them that added kick to the finish line.
The Red Sox are even more in need. We’ve talked about Rafael Devers here before, and their young third bagger is doing OK at the plate- .243/7/25 , a .704 OPS but he’s a bull in a china shop in the field , already making 10 errors in 42 games.
If all three were interested, Toronto could drive up the price and could have a say in shaping the AL East. They could trade off to St. Louis, if the offer was good, or if they just wanted to not assist a divisional rival, or they could actually work to weaken their rivals down the road by giving up Donaldson in return for a couple of very good prospects.
Bottom line, Josh Donaldson’s being wasted staying in a Jays uniform. A trade for a couple of solid high-level prospects (the types that could make their presence known in 2019,not A-level kids good to go in 2022 or thereabouts) , or even one ace prospect and a decent major league pitcher who won’t be a free agent after this season would be a smart move. Do it now, Toronto, while the window of opportunity is open.
One more word on the subject. While it may be time for JD to move along, that still doesn’t make it Vlad time. As we noted here last time, there’s no pressing need to rush Guerrero Jr. to the big show, as amazing as his feats in AA have been so far this year.