Free Agent Preview: Padres Edition

If you thought I was going to leave this post blank, you’re evil. Well … maybe not totally.

The Padres probably aren’t going to be big players in this offseason’s free agent market. The Padres have never been big players in a free agent market. While there was early excitement about the possibility of signing Cuban import Yasmany Tomas, speculation has backed off on that front. While that doesn’t mean Tomas can’t sign with San Diego, if you read between the lines here and there, it seems likely that: (1) the Padres won’t ink Tomas and (2) they will be relatively quiet on the free agent market again this offseason.

While big-spending teams have the luxury of buying the best free agents, they also have the burden of risking hundreds of millions of dollars to sign the best free agents, a group that usually consists of 30-plus-year-old players with their best days in the rear-view mirror. That’s not a terrible burden to have, I suppose, but it can quickly turn sour if a couple of deals go wrong. Look at the Yankees — despite having a competent front office and as much money as anyone, they’re stuck in a mid-80s win rut because most of their big free agent splashes have failed.

Last year alone they signed four marquee free agents — Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Jacoby Ellsbury — for a combined 22 years and $438 million. Tanaka, although he lived up to the hype with a sensational domestic debut, was shutdown after 20 starts with “general arm soreness” — Tommy John surgery could loom. Beltran was below replacement level while McCann posted a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Ellsbury was solid but not spectacular, especially for a player hauling in $21 million a year. The rest of the Yankees roster contains more albatross contracts, like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, even though New York did get productive years out of those players in the past. Now, though, they’re left with relatively little roster flexibility and unmovable former stars.

And it’s not just the Yankees who struggle to find value at the top end of the free agent market. For every Adrian Beltre or Jayson Werth it seems like there are two Carl Crawfords or Albert Pujolses — guys who were once great assets but couldn’t maintain the kind of production that their free agent profile called for.

Not being able — or willing — to spend that kind of money isn’t necessarily a good thing. Being handicapped with a spending budget that’s less than half of a division rival’s isn’t a plus, but it does help to keep the Padres disciplined. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Dodgers have $171 million wrapped up in guaranteed contracts for 2017; the Padres only have $41 million guaranteed for next season. Further, as long as Jedd Gyorko turns it around in 2015, the Padres don’t have any contracts close to resembling a long-term albatross deal.

With all of that in mind, and the assumption that the Padres probably won’t make a wild splash this offseason — at least in free agency — let’s discuss some possible players of interest.

Starting pitchers

Over at Gwynntelligence, Change the Padres posted “How to Offseason: A Coherent Plan to Compete in 2015” a few weeks ago. While most of that plan obviously isn’t going to come to fruition, he makes some compelling cases for acquiring different players, even if they’re an atmosphere or two out of the Padres price range.

Max Scherzer is one of those guys, and he’s also probably the most coveted player on the market. The 30-year-old right-handed strikeout specialist has posted back-to-back Cy Young caliber seasons in Detroit, but as Change the Padres notes, one of his only weaknesses is an extremely high fly ball rate that occasionally leads to a home run. Even though Petco isn’t quite the pitcher’s haven it used to be, it’s still a wonderful place for a fly ball specialist, let alone anyone who throws a baseball to make a living.

Scherzer, according to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors, is likely to command a deal in the range of seven years, $175 million. Nice idea; not coming to San Diego. That said, looking for fly ball pitchers who might be underrated on the market but potentially valuable in Petco still makes plenty of sense. Here a list of the 10 highest fly ball percentage free agent starting pitchers (at least 100 innings, from 2012-2014):

FApitchersThanks to FanGraphs for the data

Chris Young is a familiar name; he was an extreme fly ball pitcher back in the middle of the last decade when he made a name for himself in San Diego, and he’s still an extreme fly ball pitcher today. Young had a rebound season last year, not just by posting a league-average ERA in Seattle — he also pitched 165 innings, after having pitchesd just 235 from 2009 through 2013, mostly thanks to the kind of injury track-record that keeps the Will Carrolls of the world in business. It’d be hard to rely on Young for serious contribution, but he’s something to consider for back-end rotation depth, and we know the style plays at Petco.

Bruce Chen is a guy that I always forget is still in the league; he’s pitched for 10 different teams and stuck around for over 1,500 innings despite giving up 1.5 home runs per nine. He’s 37 and coming off an ugly season that was capped off by a rash of injuries, so it wouldn’t be surprised if he retired. If not, he’s intriguing the same way Chris Young is — Not very, but you could do worse.

I’m not sure if Jake Peavy would consider coming back to the Padres. Word is that he wants to go wherever former teammate Jon Lester goes, and that won’t be San Diego. While he boosted his value with an excellent run with the Giants down the stretch, he still may be had on a somewhat reasonable two-year deal, which puts the Padres in the discussion financially. Peavy has the same bulldog mentality that he possessed with the Padres when he was a perennial Cy Young candidate, only now the fastball checks in a few miles-per-hour slower and each inning feels like an epic struggle for three outs.

Aaron Harang is the same kind of league-average-innings-muncher that he was when he stopped in San Diego in 2011, quietly dealing 200-plus innings of 98 ERA- in Atlanta last year. Fits the back-end mold of Young and Chen, but is slightly more reliable.

In the non-fly ball category, Josh Johnson seems like a good bet to return to San Diego. The Padres declined the $4 million option on him that triggered when he didn’t make any starts last year, but San Diego remains his destination of choice, and both sides are apparently open to a smaller, perhaps more incentive-laden deal. Johnson’s the type of pitcher — at this point — that you can’t rely on, but if you can sign him for $1 or $2 million it’s hard to go wrong. The potential is still there.

Brett Anderson looked like a promising young left hander after his debut 2009 campaign in Oakland, and he was following it up with a solid encore until he began encountering every type of injury imaginable — elbow strain, elbow inflammation, Tommy John surgery, stress fracture, fractured index finger, bulging disk. Bringing in a player with that kind of injury profile is dangerous for a team that’s struggled keeping players — especially pitchers — healthy, but with a new front office in place that might change. Plus, he should be cheap.

***

Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but the Padres don’t need starting pitching.  It could, however, allow them to deal one of Cashner, Ross, or Kennedy for offense, plus the old axiom that “you can never have enough pitching” is one of those old axioms that actually makes sense.

Relief pitchers

Like most of the rest of the free world, I’m not a huge fan of multi-year deals for relief pitchers. This class features a number of them — David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Luke Gregerson, Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano. No thanks.

The Padres should — and likely will — pass on all of them. San Diego already has its expensive (but reliable) reliever in Joaquin Benoit, and while those deals occasionally work out — Benoit’s sure has — relievers are too unpredictable and too replaceable to allocate valuable resources toward, especially when operating  on a tight budget. And even besides Benoit, the Padres have plenty of capable relievers on the roster, like closer-in-waiting Kevin Quackenbush, and Nick Vincent, and Dale Thayer, not to mention a minor league system that has had plenty of past success producing capable bullpen arms.

With that said, there is one reliever I’ve had my eye on since he left San Diego. The Padres dealt Ernesto Frieri* to the Angels back in 2012 for Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach, and everything’s gone downhill since then for the 29-year-old righty. After 2012 he looked like a mainstay at closer, with tremendous strikeout ability and middling, but improvable walk and home run numbers.

*Frieri isn’t technically a free agent, at least not yet, though the Pirates are expected to non-tender him this offseason. 

He saved 37 games for the Angels in 2013, but the home runs allowed ballooned to 11 in just 68 and 2/3s innings. Frieri allowed another 11 home runs last year, splitting time between the Angels and Pirates after LA had seen enough, but this time in only 41 2/3s  innings.

Frieri still possesses solid strikeout and walk numbers — the strikeouts have trended down, but so have the walks — but the home run issues have made two straight teams sour on him quickly (the Pirates released him in September). Frieri is another fly ball pitcher, like the starters we discussed, with a career fly ball rate hovering near 55 percent. It hasn’t worked outside of San Diego:

frieri2009 was only two innings worth of work;  I didn’t mean to include it in the image

Frieri’s completely lost most of his value, so he could be had on the cheap. While the change-of-scenery swap to Pittsburgh didn’t work, a return to the heavy air of Petco might do the trick.

Position players

Yasmany Tomas still makes a lot of sense here. According to Baseball America‘s Ben Badler, the oft-cited $100 million price tag might be a little high:

Then there’s Tomas (see Baseball America’s complete guide to Yasmany Tomas), who is free to sign any time. Media reports continue to assume that Tomas is asking for $100 million, which is wrong. I haven’t had a team yet tell me that Tomas is asking for $100 million, just that his camp is looking for more than what Rusney Castillo got from the Red Sox. That could mean topping Castillo’s $72.5 million total contract, or it could mean beating what essentially works out to a $12 million average annual value.

Badler goes on to suggest that a shorter-term, higher average-annual-value deal might make sense to both player and team, as there are some concerns about Tomas’ physique down the road. Either way, that only makes Tomas even more realistic for San Diego, even though we haven’t heard much on that front in weeks. We’ve discussed Tomas enough already, but he makes sense for a variety of reasons: his age, power potential, and the excitement surrounding his signing to name a few. In the end, the (multi) million dollar question comes down to how good Preller and the Padres front office and scouts think he is.

On the offensive side for the Padres, the only two positions you can rule out from potential upgrades are catcher and second base, and even second could be upgraded with the idea of moving Gyorko to third. At the same time, besides the aformentioned Tomas, there aren’t a whole bunch of intriguing options on the market.

The top of the class is either too expensive (Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval) or too immobile (Victor Martinez, Nelson Cruz), and one player who otherwise makes sense — Chase Headley, to be specific — isn’t coming to San Diego. There are a few mid-tier options that might make sense:

Colby Rasmus — The 28-year-old has a number of things going for him: (1) he’s young, (2) he can handle center field, and (3) he’s had a couple of years (2010 and 2013) in which he looked like an emerging star.

On the other hand, he’s surrounded those years with major disappointments, and even though his power output was solid last year, the .287 on-base percentage was a step in the wrong direction. He’s struggled mightily versus lefties and is up-and-down defensively in center.

He might not be an upgrade over a healthy Cameron Maybin, but Maybin’s almost impossible to rely on at this point, and Rasmus could be a  younger, slightly better version of Will Venable. The price shouldn’t be too high, but there has to be a question about whether Rasmus would take on Petco in a short-term deal to reestablish his value.

Jed Lowrie — Just as Lowrie figured out one part of his game (staying on the field), he lost another as his batting average and power both took big hits last year. The average fell to .249 from .290 and the power output went from 62 extra base hits all the way down to 38 (in nearly 100 less plate appearances in 2014). The defense at short comes with mixed reviews.

The Padres need to decide if they are going to give Everth Cabrera another shot at shortstop, and they might be waiting until his legal issues are cleared up to make that decision. If they move on, there aren’t a whole lot of inspiring internal options to fill in, so Lowrie could make sense in that scenario. Another possible candidate is Asdrubal Cabrera, who like Lowrie is an offense-oriented shortstop coming off a down year.

Some quick hits:

  • Aramis Ramirez might have made sense at third, but he (probably somewhat surprisingly) recently accepted his half of a mutual option, keeping him in Milwaukee for another season.
  • Nick Markakis is a name thrown around often, but he feels like a Will Venable clone.
  • The options at first base are slim, with Adam LaRoche leading the way. Dierkes predicts that the Padres will nab him, which is possible. He’s the same type of player now as he was when he came up with Atlanta in 2004, with a slightly lower batting average and more patience. Wouldn’t be a bad short-term upgrade at first if the Padres pull the plug on the Yonder Alonso experiment, but the age (35) is a concern.
  • Billy Butler and Mike Morse could also be options at first, though Butler apparently wants to stay in Kansas City and Morse might be more of a designated hitter than a first basemen at this point.
  • Alberto Callaspo is a more competent version of Alexi Amarista, with experience at every position outside of catcher and center field. He’s probably redundant on a team with utility infielders to spare, but he could be a nice value buy.
  • Speaking of Alexi, Nori Aoki graduated summa cum laude from the Amarista School of Outfield Defense, but the numbers say he’s somewhat effective out there. He’s ultra consistent with the bat, posting batting averages between .285 and .288 and on-base percentages between .349 and .356 in each of his first three seasons in the majors, though his power is trending down. His high-contact offensive style might be a good fit in Petco, though he isn’t a clear-cut upgrade over a Will Venable or Seth Smith.
  • Ryan Ludwick, anyone?

***

Overall, the Padres probably won’t be overly active in free agency. Dierkes and RJ Anderson combined predicted that San Diego would only sign one out of their respective top 50 free agents (LaRoche), although Anderson’s random number generator gives us Luke Gregerson and Luke Hochevar.

Even if the Padres are quiet in free agency, it could still be a busy offseason, depending on how quickly Preller and company want to improve the team. There are plenty of assets to trade, with Ian Kennedy and Benoit leading the way, and Cashner and Ross behind them if the Padres want to make a bigger splash. While the system has fallen off in recent years, primarily because of injuries, there are still plenty of tradable assets on the farm, as well.

And there’s always the Rule 5 draft!

For anyone interested in the Alex Gordon near inside-the-park single in the World Series, I wrote about it at Baseball Prospectus.

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  • ballybunion

    Last year was the third year of injury suppressing performance, and I’m a believer that bad things come in threes, so I’m assuming the injury bug has moved on. That means we have to hope to see rebounds from Grandal, Quentin, Alonso, Gyorko, and Maybin. If we can see improvement from just three of those five and the pitching remains solid, we could see a winning team next year, but maybe not enough wins to get into the playoffs without a big offensive addition like Tomas, assuming he’s for real and ready.

    The front office has seen him three times, so they must have an idea whether to make an offer. They might want to backload a 6 or 7 year contract, and give Tomas an opt out at the 4 or 5 year mark to limit the risk. That might work with Tomas’ agent who said he turned down an eight year proposal that would have reduced chances of his NEXT contract. Seven years with an opt out after five would let him seek a richer contract after age 28. If he doesn’t work out here, he can be traded after three years with two more years of control before opt out giving him some trade value.

    The bottom line though, is that A.J. Preller can’t remake the team in one off-season.

    • Dustin

      That’s a good point on Tomas; I could see an opt-out clause in his contract at 4-5 years (maybe even after three years), so he can hit free agency again before 30 and get another big payday — assuming he turns into a star-level player.

      Regarding your last line there .. I mean, I think Preller *could* remake the team in one offseason, if he really wanted to. It all depends on how much turnover he wants, how quickly he and management/ownership want to put together a playoff contender, how much money he has to spend, etc. But with trades and a few signings and some call-ups from the farm, the 2015 Opening Day roster could look a lot different than last year’s.

      • ballybunion

        Well, let me clarify the last line. Yes, you’re right, Preller COULD “remake” the team with wholesale changes, really churning the roster in one off-season. What I meant was, remake the team for the better short term while also building for sustained future success. That’s a little harder.

      • Dustin

        Oh yeah, I hear you.

        I don’t think the Padres are as far away as some think from putting a borderline contender on the field. If they wanted to do it next year, I think it’d be doable without sacrificing much over the long haul.

        But, like you mention, building a long-term, consistent winner is difficult, especially in a division with the free-spending Dodgers and the three-titles-in-five-years Giants.