Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Seager Secures Extension

Seager's underrated but still worth the money (FootballsFuture)
The Seattle Mariners just gave Kyle Seager a seven-year, $100 million contract extension that locks up his arbitration years and first four free agent seasons, plus an option for an eighth year.

Hold the phone, Seattle just gave $100 million to whom?

Since debuting in 2011, Seager has quietly established himself as one of the better (and more underappreciated) players in the game. Over the past three years, Seager was the sixth-best third baseman in baseball per fWAR, ahead of established superstars such as Evan Longoria, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval.

While Seager is not well-known, he's worthy of this deal for a number of reasons. One is that he's just 27, smack dab in the middle of his prime. Another is that he's a great two-way third baseman, and thus excels at a tough position.

But really, Seager deserves the dough because he's a terrific baseball player.  He's steadily improved throughout his four big league seasons, peaking with last year's 5.5 fWAR, first All-Star appearance, and first Gold Glove (which should have gone to Josh Donaldson, but Seager's smooth defensively nevertheless). He also popped 25 home runs--his third straight season with at least 20--and knocked in 96 runs, both career highs.

Wait, there's more. Seager's incredibly durable, having played at least 155 games in each of the last three years and leading all third basemen in games played during that span. He doesn't strike out a lot for a guy with good power and walks a fair amount. His offense was 26 percent better than average last year after adjustments for league and park, and like I said his numbers have only trended upwards. Even if 2014 was his peak and he regresses back to the player he was in 2012 and 2013, he's still a 3.5 win guy, which is very valuable, especially to a team on the brink of contention like the Mariners.

This deal makes a ton of sense for Seattle, setting them up at the hot corner for the foreseeable future. It also makes a ton of sense for Seager, because $100 million is a lot of money.

Monday, November 24, 2014

White Sox Add Adam LaRoche

LaRoche landed in the Windy City (CBSSports)
The rebuilding Chicago White Sox injected some much-needed lefthanded power into their lineup by inking first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal.

With reigning AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu already entrenched at first base and considerably younger, the 35 year-old LaRoche expects to replace the retired Adam Dunn as Chicago's everyday DH. LaRoche is a great bet to reach or exceed Dunn's 2014 production, which included 20 home runs, 54 RBI, and a .773 OPS (LaRoche has averaged 22, 76, and .811 per season to this point).  Abreu was a disaster defensively, but he's also seven years younger than LaRoche, who has annually rated among the game's more defensively-challenged first basemen, his 2012 Gold Glove notwithstanding. At this stage in LaRoche's career, getting him off the field definitely makes sense.

Besides, the White Sox aren't paying LaRoche for his glove; they made this move because of what he can do in the batter's box. One of the steadiest power bats in the game, LaRoche has exceeded 20 home runs every year but one dating back to 2005, with an injury-riddled 2011 (just 43 games played) the exception. Incredibly durable, LaRoche has played at least 140 games in eight of the past ten seasons.

And while LaRoche's age may be a concern for some, he has showed no signs of slowing down. Last year he batted .259/.362/.455--right in line with his career .264/.340/.462 marks--with 26 home runs and 92 RBI in 140 games. He also posted the best full-season walk rate of his career (14 percent) while posting the second-lowest strikeout rate of his career. His batted ball data didn't change and he didn't have negative run values against any kind of pitch. He also fared well against power pitchers (.800 OPS), finesse pitchers (.821 OPS), and everyone in between (.821 OPS). Like fellow DHs David Ortiz and Victor Martinez, LaRoche has aged gracefully and should continue to do so.

Plus, moving from power-stifling Nationals Park to the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field should help alleviate any natural decline. If LaRoche stays healthy, he may have a shot at threatening his high-water mark of 33 home runs and 100 RBI, both reached in 2012. That represents his ceiling, obviously, but his floor is pretty high as well. Only once has he batted below .250 in a full season (2013) or slugged below .450 (also 2013), and his OBP has never been lower than .320. In today's run-parched environment, those are all pretty decent and certainly playable numbers.

So as far as 35 year-olds go, LaRoche is a pretty safe investment.

Sox Sign Sandoval

As expected, Sandoval signed with the Sox (RantSports)
Shortly after the Boston reached a five--year, $90 million agreement with Hanley Ramirez, they landed another prized free agent bat in Pablo Sandoval. Of the three teams that offered Sandoval approximately five years and $95 million (San Diego and San Francisco were the others), Boston was Sandoval's choice (wonder how much Fenway Park played a role in that).

The Red Sox said they were all-in on Sandoval and willing to do whatever it took to get him. Seeing as how they got their man, I guess they weren't kidding.

While I was initially hesitant about the six years and $100+ million I expected Sandoval to receive, I'm much more comfortable with the actual terms. The deal covers Sandoval's age 28-32 seasons, meaning the Red Sox can expect Sandoval to be productive over the life of the contract, especially at the beginning when he's still in his prime. He might even be able to man the hot corner for the entirety of the contract, though I wouldn't be surprised to see him DH frequently when David Ortiz retires.

More importantly, adding Sandoval makes the Red Sox significantly better in the short-run. Boston third basemen--mainly a combination of Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts with a dash of Brock Holt--batted just .211/.271/.308 with 10 home runs and 54 RBI last year. Those numbers wouldn't play at shortstop, let alone one of the corner infield positions. Much was made about punchless Red Sox outfield last year (looking at you, Jackie Bradley Jr.), but third base was actually the team's least productive position OPS-wise.

In Sandoval, Boston now has one of the best-hitting third sackers in the game. Since debuting in 2008, he's been the sport's seventh-most valuable third baseman per fWAR while maintaining an .811 OPS and 122 wRC+. His numbers should receive a significant boost from Fenway as well. A switch-hitter with solid power and on-base ability, Sandoval beefs up Boston's lineup considerably and projects to be about a three-win player.

He's also a beast in October, which means something to a perennial contender like the Red Sox. Sandoval is coming off a postseason in which he notched 26 hits--an MLB record. A proven postseason performer, he also has the highest batting average (.344) of anyone with at least 150 plate appearances in the playoffs. Sandoval was part of three World Series winners with the Giants and has shown the ability to succeed under pressure.

Adding Ramirez and Sandoval to a lineup that already features Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Yoenis Cespedes, and Shane Victorino gives Boston some serious thump, which is exactly what they need after fielding one of the American League's five worst offenses last year. Now they must focus on adding arms, either by splurging for Jon Lester or packaging prospects (possibly Bogaerts now that Boston has an All-Star shortstop and third baseman) to the Phillies for Cole Hamels. The Red Sox have already committed close to $200 million for just two players in the past 24 hours, but they still need to go the extra mile and acquire a frontline starter or two.

Otherwise, they're going to be just like the many good but not-good-enough teams of Red Sox past--plenty of bats but short on arms.

Ramirez Rejoins Red Sox

9 years after Boston traded him, Ramirez is back (ProSportsBlogging)
10 years ago Hanley Ramirez was the Boston Red Sox's shortstop of the future, heir apparent to Nomar Garciaparra. Then the Sox traded him to the then-Florida Marlins for Josh Beckett in a move that altered the course of both franchises.

Boston, of course, went on to win the 2007 World Series on the backs of Beckett and Lowell, that year's ALCS and World Series MVPs. Meanwhile, Ramirez blossomed in Florida, winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2006 before earning three top-10 MVP finishes and a trio of All-Star nods over the next four seasons. The former batting champion spent the last two and a half seasons with the Dodgers, helping them to division titles in 2013 and 2014.

Now, Ramirez is returning to the team that signed him as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic when he was just 16. With 10 big league seasons under his belt, the 30 year-old has delivered on the superstar promise he flashed in Boston's farm system. He returns a fully-formed product.

While HanRam's defense has suffered in recent years, necessitating a move off shortstop (likely to third), his bat has remained potent. In 2013 he slammed 20 home runs to go along with a sky-high 1.040 OPS (189 OPS+), followed by a 132 OPS+ performance in 2014. Excluding his two-game cameo with the Sox in 2005, Ramirez has had an above-average OPS in all but one of his seasons--his injury-marred 2011. His bat is most valuable at shortstop, obviously, but still plays at the hot corner or in the outfield should he move there.

2011 was an aberration in terms of Ramirez's offensive production, but it was not out of the ordinary in regards to his health. He missed time the year before that (2010), played just 86 games in 2013, then sat out 34 games last year. That's 205 missed games over the past five seasons, an average of 41 per year. Ramirez is going to be 31 next year, so the Red Sox shouldn't expect to get many, if any, full seasons out of him. But like Jose Reyes, Ramirez is so good when he does play that he still earns his keep: just make sure you have a quality backup plan.

A righthanded hitter with good power (career .200 ISO), Ramirez should excel in Fenway Park. Trading the run-parched environment of Dodger Stadium for one of the best hitter's parks in baseball should help ward off any age-related decline in the immediate future. He's also a versatile offensive performer, capable of hitting .300 with 20 homers and a similar number of steals when healthy. He walks a fair amount and doesn't strike out much, so one would expect him to age gracefully anyways.

The Red Sox are going to pay Ramirez $90 million over the next five years, an average annual value of $18 million per season. That's a considerable pay bump from his contract that just expired, a six-year, $70 million that paid him less than $12 million a season on average. Ramirez is not nearly the all-around force he was five years ago, but inflation and free agent scarcity means he'll be paid more to do less. It's still a pretty good deal if Ramirez continues to play shortstop or third, less so if he moves to left field.

So while Ramirez has question marks about his durability and defense, there's no disputing the fact that he makes Boston's lineup significantly stronger. He's still a four-win player, and I'm more optimistic about how his early 30s will play out than I am about, say, Billy Butler's. The Red Sox didn't need a shortstop with Xander Bogaerts already there, but they could certainly use a third baseman (unless Pablo Sandoval also signs) and a big bat in general. Ramirez fits the bill.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boston Finds Francisco

Francisco is a slightly better, lefthanded version of Middlebrooks (BR)
Though the Boston Red Sox appear to be odds-on favorites to win the Pablo Sandoval sweepstakes, it never hurts to have a backup plan. That's why they claimed third baseman Juan Francisco off waivers today.

And as far as backup plans go, Francisco's not a bad one to have. He's a league average bat (99 OPS+) who's popped 34 home runs over the past two years in limited duty, including 16 in just 320 trips to the plate for Toronto last year. A very good source of lefthanded power, Francisco has slugged 48 dingers in just under 1,000 career at-bats and owns a .203 career ISO. He's also 27 years old, the perfect age for a baseball player.

Francisco's flaws (loads of strikeouts, poor defense, horrible against righthanded pitching) prevent him from being an everyday player, but at least he'd be able to hold a timeshare of third base with the righthanded Will Middlebrooks. Both have glaring platoon splits, but utilizing Middlebrooks against southpaw and Francisco against righties would likely result in 30 home runs and a .760 OPS between them. Platoons aren't ideal, but they work better than giving a bad player more playing time than he deserves.

Of course, none of this matters if and when the Sox sign Sandoval, at which point Francisco may be non-tendered, traded, or held in reserve. He's not going to move the needle much for Boston, but at least he gives them another option at the hot corner should Sandoval sign elsewhere. The team needs every scrap of power it can find to bolster what was an anemic offense last year, and Francisco fits the bill.