In a Twins lineup loaded with power hitters, center fielder Byron Buxton can get lost in the shuffle. Buxton’s nevertheless a valuable member of the reigning AL Central champions’ roster, though, and after undergoing left shoulder surgery last September, he’s recovering well, Phil Miller of the Star Tribune reports.
The 26-year-old Buxton received medical clearance this week to swing a bat again and could be ready to face live pitching by the time the Twins’ full-squad workouts begin Feb. 17. That’s yet another bit of encouraging for the Twins, who won 101 games a season ago and, after they struck a deal with star third baseman Josh Donaldson last week, appear very likely to open 2020 as the favorites in their division.
Buxton’s known to play the field with reckless abandon, which helped lead to injuries that limited him to a meager 87 games and 295 plate appearances last year. Despite an abbreviated campaign, he was an important part of Minnesota’s superb effort. The former No. 2 overall pick managed 2.7 fWAR, hit .262/.314/.513 with 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases, and posted 10 Defensive Runs Saved, a plus-8.7 Ultimate Zone Rating and 12 Outs Above Average in center. None of that production is easily replaceable, and if Buxton’s healthy enough to start 2020 in the Twins’ outfield, it’ll make an already strong team even better.
The Josh Donaldson free-agency derby came to a long-awaited end Wednesday when the star third baseman agreed to a four-year, $92MM contract with the Twins. Previous reports indicated Donaldson’s preference was to re-sign with the Braves, with whom he thrived in 2019, but it doesn’t appear they made a spirited attempt to retain the 34-year-old.
Asked by Alison Mastrangelo of WSB-TV whether Atlanta made him a “competitive” offer, Donaldson said, “No, I mean, they ended up offering me late, like a day or so before.” Donaldson went on to state that he “really enjoyed” his one-year stint with the Braves, whom he called “a good fit for me,” and added that it was “a dream come true to be able to play there.”
Details of Atlanta’s offer to the former MVP are unclear. Regardless, the loss of Donaldson is an enormous blow to the Braves, who are now tasked with replacing one of the foremost players in the game at a time when free-agent choices have greatly decreased. Donaldson was among the Braves’ premier players in 2019, their second straight NL East-winning season, and there’s essentially no way to fill his void via the open market even if the club signs one of the two best bats available in outfielders Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna.
For one, neither Castellanos nor Ozuna is in Donaldson’s stratosphere. Furthermore, signing one of the two would still leave the Braves devoid of a high-end option at third base, where they’re currently projected to rely on Johan Camargo and Austin Riley. There are answers on the trade market in the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant – players capable of replicating or bettering Donaldson’s 2019 production – but it doesn’t seem the Braves are prepared to swing a deal for either of them.
Besides the fallout from baseball’s much-publicized sign-stealing fiasco, the Braves’ 3B situation stands as one of the game’s most interesting storylines as spring training nears. They still boast a very talented roster, yet they’re unquestionably weaker after failing to pony up for Donaldson. General manager Alex Anthopoulos is now likely at work to find a hitter with the ability to help make up for Donaldson’s loss, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll pull it off before the season begins.
The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal from their World Series-winning 2017 season has cost them a GM and a manager this week. The club let go of Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, who were regarded as two of the best in the game at their jobs, on Monday after Major League Baseball suspended them for one season apiece. So what’s next for the Astros? Owner Jim Crane spoke about the team’s direction Friday with Jake Kaplan of The Athletic, Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle and other reporters.
Houston has hit the ground running in its managerial search, having reportedly interviewed two out-of-work candidates – John Gibbons and Buck Showalter – as well as Cubs third base coach Will Venable this week. Venable hasn’t managed before, but prior experience in that role is “not mandatory, by any means,” according to Crane. To that end, would the Astros consider one of their franchise legends? Crane didn’t shoot down the possibility of hiring, say, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio.
“We’ve talked to all of our Killer Bs and they’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed interest that they’d like to help,” Crane said (via Rome). “Berkman, Bagwell and Biggio have all called me and said, ’Hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’ We’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”
Regardless of whether Venable or one of the Killer Bs lands the gig, the Astros’ goal is to find a replacement for Hinch by Feb. 3, per Crane, who noted the team’s current coaching staff should stay largely intact under its next manager. The Astros don’t expect to make “any wholesale changes” to their list of coaches, Crane revealed.
While the Astros have already gotten going on talks with potential new managers, Crane indicated they won’t begin interviewing GM possibilities until next week. The individuals who end up occupying the Astros’ two suddenly vacant, high-profile positions will be inheriting one of the most talented teams in the game – a club fresh off a World Series appearance and three consecutive 100-win seasons.
The Mets find themselves in need of a new manager after first-timer Carlos Beltran stepped down this week. Now in their second offseason search for a skipper, the Mets are considering veteran Dusty Baker for the role, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports.
The interest in Baker represents a change in direction for the Mets, as he wasn’t among their candidates before they hired Beltran in November. However, as Puma notes, Baker could act as “a calming influence” for an organization sailing through tempestuous waters in the wake of Beltran’s sudden exit over the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing scandal. And although a World Series has eluded him, Baker would still be one of the most accomplished Mets hires ever, having managed the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals to a combined 1,863-1,636 record with nine playoff berths from 1993-2017.
Since Beltran stepped down Thursday, Baker’s the second reported possibility to arise for the Mets, who are also considering Luis Rojas, their quality control coach. Rojas was among several candidates the Mets interviewed before hiring Beltran, so it stands to reason those who haven’t gotten managerial jobs since then could also be in the mix.
The Reds have signed left-handed reliever Jesse Biddle to a minor league contract, C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic reports. The deal includes an invitation to major league spring training.
Biddle’s the second veteran reliever the Reds have added on a minors pact this week. They previously picked up former White Sox standout Nate Jones on a low-risk accord.
As recently as 2018, Biddle was a standout in his own right. The former first-round pick (2010, Phillies) fired 63 2/3 innings of 3.11 ERA/3.88 FIP ball with 9.47 K/9, 4.38 BB/9 and a sterling 55.6 percent groundball rate as a member of the Braves. But things went south in a hurry for the 28-year-old, who divided his 2019 among the Braves, Mariners and Rangers. Biddle dealt with shoulder troubles and stumbled to an 8.38 ERA/6.46 FIP across 28 frames, and the rest of his numbers also took a turn for the worse. He struck out 8.36 hitters per nine, posted a whopping 7.07 BB/9 and saw his grounder percentage plummet to 45.8. His average fastball velocity also tumbled a bit, going from 94.5 mph the prior season to 93.9.
Despite the difficulties Biddle endured last season, there’s no real harm in taking a flier on him from the Reds’ standpoint. He’ll compete for a spot in a bullpen that has one lefty lock, Amir Garrett, and could also feature Cody Reed.
The Cubs have done surprisingly little this offseason to date. Despite being amidst a four-team race in the NL Central, their only external additions to the 40-man roster have beenCasey Sadler,Jharel CottonandCD Pelham.
If anything, much of the conversation the past few months has revolved around whether the Cubs could subtract from their roster.Kris Bryant andWillson Contreras have emerged as possible trade candidates, although it’s far from certain whether either will ultimately end up on the move. Extension talks withAnthony Rizzo went nowhere and were shelved, at least for the time being. Rizzo reiterated today (via Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic) that no talks between the sides are pending, although he again expressed a willingness to broach a long-term deal in the future.
Payroll constraints no doubt play a role in the lack of movement, as ownership reiterated yesterday. Particularly, the $208MM competitive balance tax threshold seems to be a key factor. The Cubs were one of three teams toexceedthe CBT last season. With a projected $213.8MM luxury tax bill for 2020, per Roster Resource, they are certainly in danger of doing so again.
“The longer you go over [the luxury tax], the more youre paying,” board member Laura Ricketts told reporters (via Madeline Kenney of the Chicago Sun-Times). Chariman Tom Ricketts expanded on the luxury tax issue (via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic), calling the CBT “a real factor.Its not the defining factor of this offseason. What were going to do with CBT is not something we discuss publicly.But fans should know there is a cost if you keep your payroll high enough long enough. Youre paying money into the league, which ultimately goes to other teams, and you can lose draft position. Its a factor. Its not the defining factor of the offseason.
While penalties do escalate for those who repeatedly exceed the luxury tax, it’s highly questionable whether the tax should deter the Cubs from upgrading this offseason. Chicago paid $7.6MM in taxes last season. If they were to exceed the threshold for the second straight year, they’d be line to pay a 30% tax for every dollar spent between $208MM and $228MM.
Using Roster Resource’s $213.8MM estimate of Chicago’s current CBT ledger, the club would be in line to pay around $1.74MM in fees as things currently stand. That’s an insubstantial sum for MLB organizations. The draft pick penalty to which Ricketts alluded hardly seems an issue, as at least by public estimates, the Cubs are nowhere near the $248MM CBT level at which a team’s draft standing would be affected.
To be sure, it could benefit a team to get underneath the luxury tax line, if for no other reason than to reset their tax bracket. (Penalties escalate only when teams exceed the tax in consecutive seasons, so dipping below the threshold for one season resets future fees to the lowest level). Given the crowded NL Central, though, ownership’s focus on the CBT- even taking Ricketts at his word that it’s not “the defining factor of the offseason“- seems a bit odd.
Nevertheless, the Cubs’ front office is left to work within those constraints. They’ve made a couple minor league free agent signings in recent days, bolstering their bullpen depth withJason Adam andTyler Olson. They’ve also explored adding outfielderJacoby Ellsbury on what would surely be a minor-league pact, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). Ellsbury, of course, is a former teammate of Cubs’ manager David Ross, and he shined for the Red Sox while Theo Epstein was in Boston’s front office. As Heyman notes, though, Ellsbury hasn’t played in two years due to injury. His addition would be no more than a flyer, and Heyman characterizes a deal as “a long shot” in a follow-up tweet.
Where the Cubs go from here remains an open question. As has been apparent for a while now, they don’t figure to make any big acquisitions. In possession of a handful of valuable potential trade assets, though, the Cubs’ roster could still look plenty different by the time spring training breaks.
The Red Sox have designated right-hander Travis Lakins for assignment, Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com tweets. His designation clears roster space for newly acquired southpaw Matt Hall.
This could bring an end to a Boston tenure that began when the team chose Lakins in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. Injuries have been a problem since then for Lakins, once a solid Red Sox prospect who suffered elbow fractures in both the 2016 and ’17 seasons. But Lakins persevered through those issues to make his major league debut last season, when he posted a solid 3.86 ERA/3.64 FIP with a strong 47.2 percent groundball rate across 16 appearances (three starts) and 23 1/3 innings. Lakins didn’t put up particularly impressive strikeout or walk rates, though, as he fanned just under seven batters per nine while recording a 3.86 BB/9.
Lakins spent the majority of last season as a member of Triple-A Pawtucket, with which he struggled to prevent runs after a successful (albeit brief) debut at the minors’ highest level in the previous campaign. The 25-year-old pitched to a 4.60 ERA/4.58 FIP with 8.4 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 over 45 Triple-A frames in 2019.
Let’s check in on a few roster situations from the National League.
- TheNationals plan to giveCarter Kieboom an opportunity to win the third base job, manager Dave Martinez told reporters (including Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington). The 22-year-old is a consensus top prospect coming off a year in which he hit .303/.409/.493 with 16 home runs in 494 plate appearances. Kieboom has played mostly in the middle infield in the minors, but Martinez indicated he’ll be used strictly as a third baseman for the time being. Washington hadn’t previously had room for Kieboom at the hot corner, but the departure ofAnthony Rendon and failure to reel inJosh Donaldson created an opening. If Kieboom doesn’t prove ready for everyday playing time on a contender,Asdrbal Cabreragives Martinez a fallback option. Starlin Castrois on hand, too, but it seems Washington will keep him at second base full-time, relays Sam Fortier of the Washington Post.
- Marlins’outfield prospectMonte Harrisonhas an opportunity to win a spot on Miami’s season-opening roster, relays Joe Frisaro of MLB.com as part of a reader mailbag. Harrison, one of Miami’s top prospects, slashed a solid but unspectacular .274/.357/.451 in his first crack at Triple-A last season. Given the continued struggles ofLewis Brinson, who was acquired alongside Harrison in the regrettableChristian Yelich trade, there could be an opportunity for Harrison to claim the center field job. As Frisaro notes, Harrison is already on the Marlins’ 40-man roster, so no further move would be necessary.
- Mike Yastrzemski seems likely to get the first crack at the center field job for theGiants, relays Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area. That could give an opportunity for prospectJaylin Davis, acquired last summer from the Twins, to stake a claim to a corner outfield spot. Yastrzemski was quite good for San Francisco in 2019, slashing .272/.334/.518 (121 wRC+) while serving primarily in the corner outfield, although he did start a pair of games in center. It’s an open question whether he can sustain that level of offensive production, considering he was previously an unheralded 28-year-old rookie.Steven Duggar’s also on hand and is a more natural fit in center defensively, but Pavlovic notes that he’s unlikely to have an everyday role. That’s not surprising, as Duggar owns a woeful .241/.286/.358 line (72 wRC+) over the past two seasons.
The Cubs have signed catcherJosh Phegley to a minor-league contract, reports Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune (via Twitter). No further details are available, although it seems likely Phegley will receive an invite to MLB spring training. Phegley is represented by Pro Star Management.
Phegley (32 in February) has been with the A’s the past four seasons. He got his most extensive MLB action in 2019, logging 342 plate appearances of .239/.282/.411 hitting (82 wRC+). That’s passable work at the dish for a catcher, but Phegley’s framing metrics were among the league’s worst. With top prospectSean Murphy reaching the big leagues last September, Oakland elected to non-tender Phegley after the season.
The Cubs’ catching tandem ofWillson Contreras andVctor Caratini is among the league’s best, so Phegley could have an uphill battle cracking the roster. Contreras, though, has been bandied about as a potential trade candidate this offseason.
Rockies’ relieverJustin Lawrencehas been suspended without pay for 80 games, MLB announced today. He tested positive for dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, a performance-enhancing substance.
Lawrence, 25, was selected to the Rockies’ 40-man roster last offseason, although he has yet to make his MLB debut. After breaking out with a strong season in High-A and in the Arizona Fall League in 2018, Lawrence regressed last season. In 37 innings between Triple-A Albuquerque and Double-A Hartford, he managed just an 8.76 ERA with 29 walks and 32 strikeouts. In their postseason write-up of the Rockies’ farm system, Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen called Lawrence “an upper-90’s siderarmer with very poor pitch execution.”