Bullpen option off the board: Balfour goes back to Tampa

About a month after his deal with the Orioles fell apart, Grant Balfour has hooked on with the Rays. He’s returning to Tampa on a two-year contract worth $12M, so the whole failed physical fiasco only cost him $3M total. The Mets reportedly offered the same contract, but Balfour preferred returning home to Florida. Guessing the same would have held true if it was the Yankees.

The Yankees had renewed interest in Balfour after his deal with the O’s fell through but they were never seriously involved as far as we know. The relief corps behind David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton is pretty unsettled, and right now it looks like there will be a massive bullpen competition in Spring Training. They’re going to be asking some kids to shoulder quite a bit of responsibility at the outset of the season.

Olney: Balfour flunked O’s physical because of wrist and knee, not shoulder

Via Buster Olney: Grant Balfour failed his pre-signing physical with the Orioles last month due to concerns about his wrist and knee. I assume it’s the knee he had surgically repaired (torn meniscus) last February. It was initially reported that the deal fell through because something scary popped up in his shoulder, which is obviously a big deal for a pitcher.

The Yankees were said to have renewed interest in Balfour shortly after things fell apart with the Orioles. It has now been 24 days since that deal fell through and, aside from some rumors within the first two or three days, things around Balfour have been very quiet. Very few reports of interested teams, stuff like that. The medicals just might be pretty bad. I’d love to see the Yankees swoop in and get him cheap, but if the guy isn’t healthy, then the guy isn’t healthy and you have to look elsewhere.

Kernan: Yankees have renewed interest in Grant Balfour

Via Kevin Kernan: The Yankees have shown some interest in right-hander Grant Balfour after his two-year contract with the Orioles fell apart. They had interest in him earlier this offseason as well. Baltimore didn’t like something they found in Balfour’s shoulder during the pre-signing physical and walked away.

I wrote about potentially swooping in to sign Balfour at a discounted rate over the weekend. The Yankees need bullpen help, specifically late-inning bullpen help, and he’d be a really nice addition as long as he’s healthy. That’s not a given but two doctors have checked him out since the fiasco with the O’s and insist he’s healthy. Besides, whoever signs Balfour at this point will perform a super-thorough physical of their own anyway.

Yankees get second shot at Balfour after deal with Orioles falls through

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Earlier this week, the Orioles agreed to a two-year contract worth $15M with right-hander Grant Balfour. He was slated to take over as their closer after the team dumped Jim Johnson and his projected $11M salary on the Athletics. It was a nifty series of moves and a very reasonable contract considering how well Balfour has pitched the last three or four seasons.

That deal has fallen apart, however. Orioles GM Dan Duquette confirmed to reporters yesterday that the contract agreement is off after the pre-signing physical revealed an issue with his right shoulder. It’s no surprise Baltimore walked away in that case. Balfour and his agent responded by insisting he is healthy, unsurprisingly. Here is the statement they released yesterday:

“Grant is completely healthy and that was told to us today by Dr. Koco Eaton, a well-respected club physician. Dr. Eaton’s opinion is based upon the fact that the MRI which was taken today is the same as the MRI which was taken in 2011 as a condition of the 3-year contract that Grant signed with the A’s. Dr. Tim Kremchek, another well-respected club physician, reviewed the Orioles’ medical report and advised that he is remarkably impressed that there has been little change in Grant’s arm for almost 10 years. Now factor into the equation that Grant was a 2013 All Star, pitched 65 games and another 3 scoreless innings in the post season with a 94-95 mph fastball. The only reasonable conclusion is that Grant is healthy and the Orioles at the last moment changed their minds.

“Grant is an ALL STAR CLOSER who has converted 55 of 58 save opportunities. Talent wins at the end of the day and if a club wants to win then they need Grant coming out of the pen in the 9th inning”

Eaton and Kremchek also spoke to Ken Rosenthal, if you’re looking for direct quotes from the two doctors. “I would say with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that his shoulder would not be a problem going forward any more than it was a problem over the past three years, and there was no problem over the past three years,” said Eaton.

Balfour, who turns 36 in about a week, had both his labrum and rotator cuff surgically repaired way back in September 2005. He has been relatively healthy since then, only landing on the DL with oblique strains in 2010 and 2011. Balfour did have surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee back in February, but he was healthy for Opening Day and went on to have a strong season (2.59 ERA and 3.49 FIP in 62.2 innings).

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

The Yankees were said to have interest in Balfour weeks ago, just like they were said to have interest in a lot of players. I assume he was looking for a chance to close and New York hasn’t been offering that to anyone. All they’re offering is a closer competition in Spring Training, basically. It’s easy to understand why Balfour and Joe Nathan and other guys like that would gravitate to other clubs. Everyone wants that ninth inning.

Regardless of what his agent and the doctors say, Balfour’s stock took a big hit yesterday. The Yankees are still looking for late-inning bullpen help are there may now be an opportunity to swoop in and land Balfour at a discounted rate. Obviously they would have to perform their own physical and thoroughly check him out, but that goes for any team that signs him. The Mariners, Rockies, White Sox, Rays, Rangers, and Astros are all looking for closers and could represent competition.

What would be an appropriate contract? I don’t really know at this point. That shoulder complicates things. In a perfect world, Balfour would take an incentive-laden (based on days on the active roster?) one-year deal with a $3-4M base salary and a vesting option for 2015. If he hits all the incentives and triggers the option, the contract would be the worth the original two years and $15M he agreed to with the O’s. That is the perfect world contract, right? Balfour gets fairly compensated if he is as healthy as his agent suggests while the team gets some protection in case his shoulder explodes. Makes sense for both sides, at least in theory.

Balfour was a really good fit for the Yankees heading into the offseason, but, on the other hand, the Yankees were not a good fit for Balfour because he wanted to close. The failed physical and non-deal with the Orioles has changed his market considerably. Closing might be off the table completely now and his asking price — at least in terms of guaranteed money — figures to have come down. The two sides could be more compatible now and as long as the medicals check out (not a given, obviously), the Yankees would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity. Balfour has been really good the last few years and there’s a lot to like about adding a high-end reliever with a chip on his shoulder to the bullpen.

Slusser: Yankees have interest in Grant Balfour

Via Susan Slusser: The Yankees are one of several teams with interest in free agent right-hander Grant Balfour. The Athletics did not make their closer a qualifying offer, so he will not cost a draft pick to sign. Bullpen-needy teams like Tigers, Rockies, Angels, and Rays are also said to be in the mix.

Balfour, 36 next month, pitched to a 2.59 ERA (3.49 FIP) in 62.2 innings while going 38-for-41 in save chances this season. He misses bats (10.34 K/9 and 27.5 K%) but walks a few too many (3.88 BB/9 and 10.3 BB%), gives up homers (1.01 HR/9 and 11.1% HR/FB), and is fly ball prone (37.9% grounders). The Yankees could use a veteran late-inning reliever to replace Mariano Rivera and I loved the idea of signing Balfour a few months ago, but I think his huge season may have pushed him out of New York’s price range. He’s a definite fit though.

A way, way too early look at possible trade deadline targets

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

We are now less than three weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting for duty in Tampa, meaning it’s looking less and less likely that Brian Cashman & Co. will pull a major move out of their sleeve this offseason. The Yankees still need a starting catcher (not happening), a DH (will probably happen), bench help (almost certainly will happen), and various depth pieces (will happen) before the start of the season, so the shopping list isn’t small. Since it’s unlikely each of those holes will be filled before the season, let’s look ahead at some players who might be available at the trade deadline.

Now, looking ahead seven months and trying to figure which teams will be in it and who be available is very, very tricky business. At this time last year I was touting Andre Ethier as a potential deadline DH target, yet by time late-July rolled around he had signed a new extension and the Dodgers were suddenly owned by free-spending billionaires. There are surprise contenders and surprise extensions every summer, which throws a wrench into the trade market. Since we like talking about possible trades though, here are a few players in their walk years — I’m assuming the Yankees won’t want to take on any multi-year contracts given the 2014 payroll plan — on projected non/maybe-contenders who might be available at midseason.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Grant Balfour
The Athletics surprised everyone last season with their late surge to the AL West crown, but you don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which they’re out of the race and far behind the Angels and Rangers come the deadline. Oakland had a ton of walk-off wins and nearly all of their rookie arms worked out last year, neither of which I would count on happening again. The Yankees have had some interest in Balfour before, and the 35-year-old right-hander would be an obvious target if things go wrong in the bullpen and another late-game arm is needed.

Matt Garza & Ricky Nolasco
The Yankees have plenty of pitching depth at the moment, but we know how this stuff goes. It has a way of disappearing quickly. CC Sabathia is coming off elbow surgery, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are up their in age, Phil Hughes seems to perpetually walk the tightrope, and no one really knows what to expect out of Ivan Nova and David Phelps. Since Adam Warren and Brett Marshall are the next-in-line guys in Triple-A, a veteran starter could easily be on the trade deadline agenda. The Cubs and Marlins aren’t going anywhere and they’ve already been shopping Garza and Nolasco, respectively, so it’s a safe bet both guys will be moved at some point before the end of July. Garza, 29, has AL East experience while the 30-year-old Nolasco is more of a break glass in case of emergency option. The Yankees have had interest in both in the not-too-distant past.

Corey Hart
Hart, 30, was supposed to have knee surgery yesterday, but he pushed the procedure back so he could get a second opinion. He was expected to miss three or four months once he had the operation. Hart is basically another Mike Morse, except he hits for a slightly lower average and makes up the on-base numbers with walks. He hits for power from the right side and can play either corner outfield spot in addition to first base. DH is always an option as well. The Brewers overhauled their league-worst bullpen from a year ago but didn’t add any starting pitching, so contending in the tough (but winnable!) NL Central will be a chore. For what it’s worth, Brewers GM Doug Melvin was non-committal when asked about signing Hart to an extension a few weeks ago.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty)
(Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Todd Helton
This one might be coming out of left field, but I think there’s potential here. Helton, 39, fits the Ichiro Suzuki/Lance Berkman mold of a former great who has been toiling on a non-contender for years and could request a trade in hopes of one last shot at a World Championship. He’s battled knee, hip, and back injuries in recent years but still provides value at the plate because he’s very disciplined (13.8 BB% in 2012, 14.4% career) and he doesn’t strike out much (15.5 K% in 2012, 12.1% career). Yes, the guy has been in the big leagues since 1997 and he still has more unintentional walks (1,111) than strikeouts (1,088) to his name. His power (.164 ISO last two years) is mostly the product of Coors Field — Yankee Stadium is a pretty good place to hit as well — and he will need a platoon partner. Helton has already hinted at retiring after the season, and if the Yankees need a left-handed hitter for their DH spot come July, and I bet his name pops up in rumors. He fits the good clubhouse presence, veteran change of scenery guy mold perfectly.

Carlos Ruiz
Ruiz, 34, has to serve a 25-game amphetamines-related suspension to open the season, but he’ll still have about three months before the deadline to prove last season’s 151 wRC+ wasn’t a fluke. I don’t expect him to ever hit like that again, but he’s been an above-average hitter over the last four seasons because he takes walks (career 10.4 BB%) and doesn’t strike out (career 11.1 K%). He’ll probably go back to hitting single-digit homers again, but that’s fine given his batting average and on-base ability. Chooch has consistently ranked in the top-six of the various catcher defense rankings (2010, 2011, 2012) and he’s thrown out base-stealers at a league average rate or better throughout his career. If the Phillies skid to the finish and make Ruiz available at the deadline, he’d be the perfect rental for New York even if he doesn’t repeat 2012 and reverts back to his 2008-2010 form.

Mailbag: Balfour, Pitchers, Upton, Andrus

Got four questions for you this week, and remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us future mailbag questions.

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Mark asks: I know the Yankees have liked him in the past, since Oakland appears to be in sell mode – how does Grant Balfour look as Joba Chamberlain insurance?

Balfour, 34 had a rough start to the season but has settled down and pitched to a 3.14 ERA (3.74 FIP) overall. He’s making $4M this season with a $4.25M club option for next season ($350k buyout), so he’s a rental. There are three big red flags here. One, his strikeout rate (6.70 K/9 and 18.8 K%) is way down compared to the last few years (8.82 K/9 and 24.8 K% from ’10-’11). Two, his walk rate (3.77 BB/9 and 10.6 BB%) is way up (2.84 K/9 and 8.0 BB% from ’10-’11), and three, his fastball velocity is down into the low-90s and has been trending the wrong way for a few years now. That’s like the red flag trifecta right there.

Brian Cashman tried to work out a sign-and-trade deal for Balfour last offseason, before ownership stepped in and signed Rafael Soriano. I’m not sure if they still like him given this year’s decline, but the price shouldn’t be high at all. The Athletics could save some cash and get maybe a Grade-C prospect in return as part of a trade, which is better than holding on to him for another two months and losing him for nothing after the season. Balfour has AL East experience and that’s always nice, but that won’t save him if the fastball and ability to miss bats is gone. If the Yankees can get him real cheap, sure try him out. Low risk move. I wouldn’t expect a ton out of him, however.

Travis asks: Considering the depth of pitching the Yankees have, do you see them making a big free agent signing? They have CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, David Phelps already in the rotation next year and in AAA, they will have D.J. Mitchell, Adam Warren, Brett Marshall, Vidal Nuno, Mikey O’Brien, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. That’s a lot of fourth and fifth starters (and some second and third) in the minors. Hard to see giving multiple years to pitchers this year and coming years.

That’s the problem, the vast majority of those minor league guys you mentioned are back-end starters. You don’t really make room for those guys, especially if you’re the Yankees. You let them come up and fill-in if someone gets hurt and you need a spot starter. I mean, if the choice is adding a Cole Hamels or leaving a spot open for someone like Brett Marshall … that seems like an easy call to me.

That said, the 2014 payroll plan is going to impact the team’s free agent decisions more than anything. They’ll need a few of those guys for depth reasons but I wouldn’t let them stand in the way of adding an impact arm. Heck, I wouldn’t let them stand in the way of re-signing Hiroki Kuroda. We’ve written this before, but the Yankees can add a guy like Hamels on a huge contract and still get under the luxury tax threshold in a few years, but it will take some serious creativity. Perhaps it involves dealing a few of those arms for a cheap outfielder or two as a way to offset the cost. I love prospects as much as anyone, but the Yankees don’t have anyone in their system right now that you can point to as a surefire impact pitcher.

Nick asks: So I know there is speculation about a Justin Upton trade. You had mentioned that to get him you would open up the farm system for him. Is there anyway the Yankees can get him AND hold onto Mason Williams or Gary Sanchez? If so, who would you prefer to keep?

(Christian Petersen/Getty)

I suppose there’s a way to do it, I just don’t know how they could. The Yankees and Diamondbacks don’t matchup well in a trade because Arizona has a ton of pitching and needs a third baseman and a shortstop. Maybe they really, really like Brandon Laird and Eduardo Nunez, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I can’t imagine a lower level guy like Dante Bichette Jr. would work; if you’re trading a franchise-type player like Upton, you can’t accept A-ballers in return, especially if you’re as close to contending as the D’Backs are.

As far as Williams and Sanchez, I’d prefer to keep Mason but honestly I wouldn’t let either guy stand in the way of a potential trade. Williams has a much more well-rounded game and while Sanchez has serious impact potential, I do still worry about his strikeouts a bit (27.1 K% last year, 23.2 K% this year). Love both guys though and would be willing to move one or the other in a package for a guy like Upton no questions asked. Hell, if those two were going to be the centerpieces of a trade with some miscellaneous pieces added, go for it. I’d have no problem giving up Single-A kids — even super high-ceiling ones like Williams and Sanchez — for a player of Upton’s caliber and potential.

Daniel asks: If the time comes when Elvis Andrus hits the free agent market, can you see the Yankees being major players for him? I believe he’d hit the market at age 25 or 26.

Oh yes, definitely. Andrus is the guy I’m hoping the Yankees will grab to replace Derek Jeter when the time comes. He’ll become a free agent right as the Cap’n’s deal is up and Texas has Jurickson Profar coming. Andrus is still only 23 (!) and will hit the open market at 26, so you’re getting all of his peak years. This is a guy that is already an elite defender at short who gets on-base (.368 OBP this year, .345 career), doesn’t strikeout (12.3 K% this year, 13.0 K% career), steals bases (30+ in each of the last three years plus he’ll get this year again), and stays on the field (145+ games played every year of his career). He also has World Series experience and that’s certainly not a negative.

Now obviously a lot can change between now and then, but Andrus makes a ton of sense for New York if they’re looking for a Jeter replacement in two years. I suspect Texas will either a) trade him, or b) trade Profar and extend Andrus before then, however. If he does hit the open market though, the bidding will be out of control. Middle infielders that productive and that young just don’t become free agents these days. I don’t think a deal worth $20M annually across 8-10 years is out of the question if he keeps this up.

Quick Update: Andrus is a Scott Boras client, so the odds of him signing an extension with Texas are small while the odds of him signing a megadeal as a free agent are huge.