BOCA RATON, Fla. — The Kansas City Royals‘ leadership contingent had barely recovered from the World Series victory parade — not to mention the ministerial stylings of Reverend Jonny Gomes — when it was time to return to work.
At precisely 10 a.m. last Wednesday, general manager Dayton Moore and his advisory team settled into a conference room at Kauffman Stadium and began to map out the moves required to earn a third straight playoff appearance and a second consecutive title. On Monday, the MLB Players Association released a list of 139 players eligible for free agency. Three days later, Jerry Dipoto consummated his first trade as Seattle Mariners GM when he acquired pitcher Nathan Karns in a six-player deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. And by the weekend, another significant piece of procedural business was in the books when 20 free agents received $15.8 million qualifying offers from their former clubs.
It will be a compressed offseason, with a strong free-agent crop especially deep in starting pitching. The 30 MLB general managers and their top assistants will begin to get a better feel for the landscape Monday when they gather in Boca Raton for four days of talks, sales pitches and perhaps a preemptive strike or two. Last year, Victor Martinez and Michael Cuddyer both signed multiyear contracts during the general managers meetings.
In conjunction with an annual fall tradition, ESPN.com polled 34 general managers, assistant GMs, scouting directors and other baseball evaluators on seven questions that will help dictate the course of the Hot Stove season. Here are their responses:
Responses: Greinke 19; Price 14. One executive called it a push.
Just as Max Scherzer and Jon Lester dominated the discussion last winter, Price and Greinke are the clear headliners in this year’s group. Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and several other starters should generate plenty of activity, but the bulk of the $150 million-$225 million speculation will be reserved for the two headliners.
Price is two years younger than Greinke, at age 30, and it helps his cause that he’s left-handed and has an ultracompetitive demeanor and a track record of success in the American League. Price also wins points for leadership and makeup over the notoriously quirky Greinke, who is more an island unto himself than a negative influence on a clubhouse dynamic.
Greinke backers cited his resourcefulness, four-pitch mix and ability to flourish without overpowering velocity. Greinke ranked 41st among MLB starters with an average fastball of 91.8 mph and was 13th overall with a 12.0 percent swing-and-miss rate, according to FanGraphs research. Some evaluators think he’s a better bet to hold up long-term because of his command-and-control orientation.
“Greinke is an easy one here,” said an AL scout. “His delivery is too good, his control and command too spot on, his pitchability too high. He’s got athleticism and he’s intelligent — all the characteristics you need to age gracefully. I am not saying Price does not possess these same characteristics. I just don’t think he has them at the advanced levels that Greinke has them.”
A National League scout went the aerodynamic route in support of Greinke.
“He is our modern-day equivalent to Greg Maddux, where we saw a slow decline with his velo, but little drop in his effectiveness because his was a movement and change-of-speed art form that can be just as effective at 89-90 as it is at 92,” the scout said in an email. “Greinke is the same way, with, perhaps, more weapons. I also like that he cruises much like a 747 when it gets to 40,000 feet. I heard they use about 50% of their power capacity at that point, which reduces the wear and tear on the plane. I think Greinke does the same thing. Never out of control, hardly sweats. Cruising. Perhaps it will put less wear and tear on his engine/elbow/shoulder.”
One respondent expressed concerns over Price’s 0-7 record as a starter in the postseason. Discount it as a small sample size or yet another example that wins are a deceptive and/or meaningless stat. But teams in the market for free-agent aces tend to prefer a little John Smoltz October magic with their $200 million-plus mega-investments.
Responses: Heyward 20; Upton 14.
Upton, 28, has been a regular since 2009. Since his first full season, he ranks eighth among MLB outfielders with 173 home runs and 12th in slugging percentage at .478 (minimum: 2,500 plate appearances). But Upton’s free agency comes with some caveats and questions: Is he more a No. 5 hitter than a guy who should be relied on as the centerpiece of a lineup? How will his body type hold up into his mid-30s? And if he adds more bulk, how will that affect his defense, which is already regarded as average at best in baseball circles?
Heyward’s gold-plated glove prompted ESPN.com’s Keith Law to rate him as the top free agent on the market this winter. But the offensive part of the game does not come naturally to him.
“I trust Upton’s ability to be a run producer more than Heyward’s ability to manage that swing type,” a National League scout said. “He has a late, hard trigger, and it needs a lot of maintenance. Hitters get better in St. Louis because the Cardinals have a plan and they’re good at working with guys long-term. If Heyward goes someplace else, he’s going to need someone to help him with that swing. I’m not sure that will happen in a market where he gets the most money.”
The outfielders’ wins-above-replacement totals reflect their respective sales pitches. Upton has a 22.5 career offensive WAR and a minus-3.5 on defense in the Baseball-reference.com calculations. Heyward has a career 17.5 career offensive WAR, with a 9.8 on defense.
“I really have a pet peeve with Heyward,” an AL talent evaluator said. “So much of his value is tied up in defense that it makes me nervous giving him a huge deal. The speed and defense will begin to erode in the 30s and then you are left with a tweener bat [13, 11, 14 HRs in past three years]. Upton is two years older, but the consistency with the power gives him more offensive value going forward.”
Two other opinions:
• “If Upton were to get in a Toronto-type lineup, he would prosper,” an AL scout said. “If Heyward got into a Kansas City-like offense, he would prosper. Upton is the ‘hurt-you-with-power/run-production guy.’ Heyward is a keep-the-line-moving guy who really contributes on the defensive side of the ball — a more well-rounded player. It really depends on what you are trying to put on the field. For my money, I think Heyward will have the more consistent career and will be involved with more winning teams.”
• “I gotta go with Heyward,” an NL scout said. “He plays harder, and he affects the whole team by making others better with his [hard-nosed] defense and aggressive play. Yes, Upton has more sex appeal with the power consistency, but Heyward touches the game many more times in ways other than the long ball.”
Responses: Cespedes 17. Davis 15. Two respondents said they would pass on both.
Davis, 29, leads the majors with 159 homers since 2012. Edwin Encarnacion is second with 151, and Nelson Cruz is third with 135. But all that pop comes with some downside. Davis is also first in baseball with 749 strikeouts over the past four seasons — well ahead of Jay Bruce‘s 634.
“In my view, he’s developed a pretty big chip on his shoulder from being traded so many times in recent years. I think that will drive him for a while.”
A baseball scout on free-agent Yoenis Cespedes
Although Cespedes’ gifts are readily apparent, he has found that stability is fleeting. He has played for Oakland, Boston, Detroit and the New York Mets since July 2014, and this year was a whirlwind. In September, some analysts were touting Cespedes as a National League MVP candidate. Then he hit .222 in the postseason and the euphoria faded. It’s uncertain how much a lingering shoulder injury and some other dings affected Cespedes’ October production.
“This is a tough one,” a National League personnel man said. “Davis has a much better overall track record and special on-base ability that is a major Cespedes weakness. But Cespedes is much more athletic and gives a club outstanding defense on the outfield corner. Short-term, I would take Davis, but long-term I feel more comfortable with how Cespedes will age.”
For all the scrutiny he endured while hitting .150 in the World Series, Cespedes brings a certain bravado and a comfort in the spotlight. He does not fear the big stage, and other hitters appear to feed off him when he’s on a roll.
“In my view, he’s developed a pretty big chip on his shoulder from being traded so many times in recent years,” a scout said. “I think that will drive him for a while.”
Responses: Murphy 22; Rasmus 9. Three survey participants had no preference.
In summation, no one expects Murphy or Rasmus to come close to emulating their October ballistics. It’s more a question of building off it.
After a productive enough regular season, Murphy went berserk in the NL playoffs, belting homers in six straight games and slugging 1.294 against the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Rasmus, meanwhile, homered four times in 17 playoff at-bats against the Yankees and Royals.
Both players have warts. Rasmus has struck out 29 percent of the time in the majors, with a career slash line of .219/.298/.377 against left-handed pitching. He has also been tagged with a reputation as a loner and a bit of a clubhouse misfit going back to his Tony La Russa days in St. Louis. One scout described Rasmus as “indifferent,” while another characterized him as a “flake.” It should be noted that Rasmus began to amend the narrative this year in Houston, where manager A.J. Hinch and his younger teammates were raving about him at the end.
“I think Rasmus sees himself as a power guy,” a scout said. “He sees himself as a mistake-lift-pull guy. In this game, in this era, that has value, because nobody cares about the strikeouts.
“I think both guys will be productive and have value. But Murphy is a better hitter. If he goes to a park like New York’s, he’ll hit .275 to .285 with 13-15 home runs. If he goes to a smaller ballpark, he could end up with 20-22 homers.”
Murphy’s biggest shortcoming is a substandard glove. Over the past four seasons, he ranks 31st, 33rd, 31st and 30th among MLB second basemen in defensive runs saved.
“If I was a team and I had a market for Murphy, I’d want him playing third base,” an AL special assistant said. “I don’t like him at second. The ball finds him, like it did in the World Series. He got exposed there.”
5. Which of these free agents is more likely to bounce back from his disappointing 2015 season in 2016 and beyond — Ian Desmond or Jeff Samardzija?
Responses: Samardzija 18. Desmond: 15. One called it a push.
Yes, it’s mixing apples and oranges to compare a shortstop and a starting pitcher. But Desmond and Samardzija are united by 2015 struggles that put a crimp in their free-agent aspirations.
After winning three straight Silver Slugger awards at shortstop, Desmond picked a bad time to regress. His .233 batting average, .290 OBP and 187 strikeouts were career worsts, and his 27 errors were his highest total since 2010. With the exception of a terrific August, the entire season was a slog.
By most accounts, Desmond pressed after turning down a reported seven-year, $107 million offer before spring training.
“From the time he couldn’t come to an agreement, he was playing so hard for dollars,” an NL scout said. “He overswung 90 percent of the year. Once he gets his money, he will settle in and be a very good player.”
While Samardzija surpassed 210 innings for the third straight season, he took a big step backward from 2014. Samardzija allowed an AL-high 29 homers and finished with the 35th-best ERA (4.96) among 37 AL starters with at least 160 innings. He has been exasperating enough that some baseball observers think he could benefit from a shift to the back end of the bullpen, a la Wade Davis.
“Samardzija has always been a huge underperformer considering the stuff he has,” an AL scout said. “It drives me crazy. There is some ceiling with the stuff, but I don’t have much confidence he gets significantly better.”
Responses: Castro 20; Baez 11. Three participants had no opinion.
Castro has four years and a guaranteed $38 million left on the $60 million extension he signed in August 2012. He’ll begin next season at age 26 — a mere nine hits short of 1,000 for his career. Castro hit .265 with 11 homers last season and moved to second base from shortstop in August to accommodate Addison Russell.
Baez, 22, intrigues teams with his mammoth power potential. But his ongoing contact issues are reflected by his 119 strikeouts in 289 major league at-bats.
By trading Castro, the Cubs could free up some money to address other pressing needs. They could probably get a bigger return of talent for Baez because he has only one year of big league service time and will barely surpass the MLB minimum salary in 2016.
“Baez would definitely bring more of a haul, and they have enough overall depth to gamble that he doesn’t turn into Gary Sheffield,” an AL scout said.
Either way, the Cubs have no need to keep both players with Russell entrenched at short. The Padres, Mariners, White Sox, Mets and Twins are among the teams that could be looking for an upgrade at the position, and the Cubs could find a market given that the prime free-agent shortstop options are Ian Desmond, Alexei Ramirez and Asdrubal Cabrera.
“Castro showed enough at two positions this year that his contract will seem like a fair deal once the free-agent class this year gets paid,” an AL general manager said. “I don’t see the Cubs’ leadership parting with Baez given his upside, but I also see some teams shying away from his boom-or-bust approach.”
One NL executive suggested the Cubs should consider shopping lefty basher Kyle Schwarber, even though that idea might not sit well with Wrigley Field denizens.
“Send him to the AL so he can DH,” the exec said.
Responses: Gordon 25; Zobrist 7; Cueto 2.
The vast majority of responses came in before the Royals gave Gordon a qualifying offer, and Ben and Julianna Zobrist welcomed their third child, daughter Blaise Royal Zobrist, into the world Friday. If you’re a sentimentalist, you might regard that middle name as a tipoff to where Zobrist’s heart lies.
Survey respondents who chose Gordon cited his heartland sensibilities as a Nebraska kid and his history with the organization. The Royals chose Gordon with the second pick in the 2005 draft and watched him progress from a questionable third-base bat to an All-Star left fielder and a pivotal part of the clubhouse dynamic. It’s not going to be easy for either side to cut the cord. Since the Royals have extended Gordon a qualifying offer, they’ll at least get a draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere.
Zobrist should generate a lot of interest on the open market because of his versatility and reliable bat, but he turns 35 in May and won’t require the same long-term commitment that Gordon does. Zobrist’s shorter-term horizon could put him more in Kansas City’s wheelhouse from a financial standpoint. Even with Omar Infante signed to a multiyear contract at second base, the Royals can find a place for him in the outfield.
“From watching Zobrist during the postseason, it looked like he had been there for five years playing with those guys,” an NL scout said. “My gosh.”
Two respondents took a flier on Cueto to return to Kansas City. One scout cited Cueto’s friendship with Edinson Volquez and the opportunity to work with one of baseball’s best catchers, Salvador Perez, in a pitcher-friendly park. The question, of course, is whether the Royals have the wherewithal to pursue Cueto. Even if his free-agent payday took a hit with his second-half issues, he’s likely to be pricey by Royals’ standards.
“I just have a gut feeling that’s a good place for him,” said a scout who knows Cueto. “It’s a similar city to Cincinnati, where he thrived. I don’t think Johnny is a New York or an L.A. guy. But as you know, money talks.”