Bullpen market gets some fresh faces following non-tender deadline

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

Forty-three players joined the free agent pool at midnight last night — including three Yankees (David Adams, Jayson Nix, Matt Daley) — when the non-tender deadline came and went. Here’s the full list. Most non-tendered players are spare parts not really worth carrying on the 40-man roster all winter, but some are legitimate big leaguers whose projected salary had eclipsed their on and off field value.

The Yankees grabbed Russell Martin three years ago after he was non-tendered and last winter they made a play for Nate Schierholtz before he signed with the Cubs. This year they’re seeking pitching help, both in the rotation and the bullpen, though the non-tender market very rarely offers quality starting pitchers. Bullpen help is plentiful though, and an interesting crop of relievers became free agents last night. Here’s a quick rundown of four newly available bullpen arms who could help New York as they seek a late-inning reliever to pair with David Robertson (and Shawn Kelley).

John Axford
I’m listing these guys alphabetically but it’s fitting we start with Axford, who spent 2007 bouncing around New York’s farm system before being released, tightening up his mechanics, and having lots of success with the Brewers. Years of hefty saves totals beefed up his salary and the Cardinals walked away rather than pay him upwards of $6M to be a seventh inning reliever in 2014. Not a bad idea given all their young power arms.

(Harry How/Getty)
(Harry How/Getty)

Axford, 30, had a 4.02 ERA (4.34 FIP) in 65 innings this past summer. His fastball still sits in the mid-90s and he still backs it up with a nasty curveball that allows him to miss bats (9.00 K/9 in 2013 and 10.82 career) and get an okay amount of ground balls (45.3% in 2013 and 46.9% career). Axford walks a fair amount of guys (3.60 BB/9 in 2013 and 4.05 career) and will occasionally lose the strike zone all together, plus he’s very homer prone, especially these last two years (1.34 HR/9 and 18.2% HR/FB). When he makes a mistake, it gets hit out of the park. That’s not exactly a desirable trait for a late-inning reliever.

I think there’s a good chance another club will offer Axford — who will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2016, by the way — a closing job, which could put the Yankees at a disadvantage unless they promise him the ninth inning over Robertson. The homer problems are very scary but outside of Grant Balfour, Joe Nathan, and Brian Wilson, I’m not sure there’s a better combination of power stuff and late-game experience out there. The Yankees signed Axford as an undrafted free agent back in the day, so they know him pretty well and there’s some kind of relationship already in place.

Ronald Belisario
After missing the 2011 season due to drug-related visa problems, the 30-year-old Belisario has been workhorse in Don Mattingly’s bullpen. He’s pitched to a 3.24 ERA (3.36 FIP) in 139 innings over the last two years while relying on a heavy mid-90s sinker that has gotten a ground ball 62.8% of the time. The sinker doesn’t really miss bats (7.60 K/9) and location can be an issue at times (3.69 BB/9), but at least he keeps the ball in the park (0.39 HR/9 and 9.2% HR/FB) and can hold his own again lefties (.320 wOBA against). Like Axford, Belisario would remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2016, though he figures to come much cheaper as a non-former closer. I was surprised to see the Dodgers non-tender him (that makes me wonder what they know that everyone else doesn’t) but Belisario a versatile and durable reliever, and that’s something every team needs.

Ryan Webb
I’ve always liked Webb, who is a classic “the results don’t match the stuff” guy. His low-to-mid-90s two-seamer runs all over the place and his low-80s slider looks like it should miss bats, but batters have consistently squared him up. Since landing with the Marlins three years ago, Webb has a 3.34 ERA (3.50 FIP) in 191.1 innings with a very good ground ball rate (56.0%) but unimpressive strikeout (6.07 K/9) and walk (3.15 BB/9) rates. His platoon split is┬ámanageable (.321 wOBA against lefties and .296 against righties). Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a history of improving strikeout rates, so maybe he could help Webb turn that nasty stuff into better results. At worst, he’s a decent middle reliever, but I think the 27-year-old has some untapped potential and is something of an upside play.

Wesley Wright
With Boone Logan likely leaving as a free agent, the Yankees figure to cast a wide net and target a bunch of lower cost players to compete for the lefty reliever spot. Wright, 28, is a pure specialist, holding lefties to a .228/.313/.342 (.296 wOBA) line in his career while righties have tagged him for a .263/.356/.500 (.367 wOBA) line. His strikeout (10.42 K/9) and ground ball (55.3%) rates against same-side hitters are very good despite a soft upper-80s fastball and low-80s slider. Wright has been around for a while and figures to get a guaranteed contract somewhere, and that might not jibe with what New York wants to do at this position. I get the sense they’ll add some pieces via waivers and minor league deals and see what happens in camp between Cesar Cabral, David Huff, and whoever else. If they are willing to sign someone to a low cost big league deal, Wright could be the guy.

* * *

Some of the big name non-tenders like Andrew Bailey (shoulder capsule) and Daniel Hudson (Tommy John surgery twice in the last 17 months) come with major injury concerns and aren’t expected to be healthy enough to pitch until the second half of the season at the earliest. Given the nature of their injuries, I think 2015 is a more realistic target for a return. Others like Tommy Hanson and Dan Bard are too far removed from consistent success to warrant anything more than a minor league contract at this point. Everyone loves a good reclamation project, but the Yankees need healthy players who can actually help them come Opening Day right now given the state of the roster. Once they’ve brought in a few of those, they’ll be in better position to roll the dice on guys with something to prove.

Mailbag: Axford, Qualifying Offers, Judge, Aoki

Six questions and six answers this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send up questions, comments, links, or anything else throughout the week.

(Bob Levey/Getty)
Axford. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Mat asks: What are your thoughts on acquiring John Axford? With the need of another arm down the stretch wouldn’t it make sense to acquire him?

Axford, 30, has pitched to a 3.86 ERA and 4.46 FIP this year, losing his closer’s job to Jim Henderson. He struggled last year as well (4.67 ERA and 4.06 FIP), mostly because he was walking everyone (5.06 BB/9 and 12.6 BB%). Axford has cut back on the free passes this year (3.60 BB/9 and 9.2 BB%), but instead he’s crazy homer prone (1.54 HR/9 and 15.8% HR/FB). The homers have been trending in the wrong direction for years now.

The problem with Axford isn’t so much his performance — he does still miss a ton of bats even though his 9.51 K/9 and 24.2 K% are career-lows — but his salary. He’s earning $5M this year in the first of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two, so his salary is only going higher and higher. Saves pay, and he had a ton of them early in his career. Axford is going to be an $8M+ reliever as soon as next year, at which point he might be a non-tender candidate. I do like him as a buy-low guy in terms of what he can do on the mound, but there’s no way I’d be okay with the Yankees paying him that much. Way too risky.

John asks: Which free agents can the Yankees provide a qualifying offer to at the end of the season? I’m assuming Phil Hughes and Curtis Granderson would be eligible? Joba Chamberlain wouldn’t be? Are Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda?

Any player with more than six full years of service time is eligible for a qualifying offer, so all of those guys you named plus Robinson Cano, Travis Hafner, Boone Logan, Mariano Rivera, and Kevin Youkilis can receive one. Tim Dierkes has estimated the qualifying offer at $14M for this coming offseason, so right off the bat we can rule out offers for Joba, Hafner, Logan, and Youkilis.

Cano is absolutely getting one if he does reach free agency, there’s no doubt about that. Rivera is retiring, so there’s no sense in making him an offer and risk having him complicate the payroll situation by surprisingly accepting. Pettitte is the same boat since it’s Yankees or retirement for him, plus at this point it’s debatable if he’s even worth that salary. If Kuroda continues to pitch has he has this year (and last), I think he’d get an offer. I think they’d welcome him back with open arms at that salary in 2014, especially since it’s a pay cut.

Hughes is very much up in the air and right now I lean towards no offer. That could change in a hurry if he pitches well in the second half though. Some team will give him Edwin Jackson money this winter (four years, $52M), but even if he surprises and accepts a qualifying offer, he’d be tradeable. The Yankees might have to eat some salary, but it’s doable. Hughes is definitely a wait-and-see thing, no sense in giving a definitive yes or no in early-July.

Thomas asks: What seems to be the holdup on signing the supplemental first round pick Aaron Judge?

Judge. (Presswire)

Earlier this week, both Jon Heyman and K. Levine-Flandrup reported there has been no change in negotiations. The Yankees offered him slot money (~$1.68M) and they’re waiting for him to accept. As our Draft Pool page shows, the team has more than $300k in pool money saved, so they could offer him roughly $2M before next Friday’s signing deadline if push comes to shove.

Jim Callis recently said every unsigned first round pick will sign before the deadline — Judge and four others remain unsigned at this point — so I’ll defer to the expert and say it’s only a matter of time. It would be very tough for Judge to return to school and come out as a senior next year with improved stock and earning potential, though it is certainly possible. He and his advisor are presumably holding out for every last penny, which is understandable.

Tom asks: What about Norichika Aoki of the Brewers as a trade target? Looks like he has an option for ’14 so he could contribute in the OF now as well as next year.

Aoki, 31, is one of the very best bargains in baseball. He’s hit .289/.354/.410 (112 wRC+) since signing a two-year, $2.25M contract prior to last season, and this year’s at .292/.364/.373 (108 wRC+) in 360 plate appearances. That dirt cheap contract includes a $1.5M (!) club options for 2014, which will be picked up no questions asked.

The Yankees need to add some on-base skills to their lineup, and Aoki is basically a better (and cheaper) version of Ichiro Suzuki at this point. He doesn’t strike out (7.6%) but will walk (7.7%), steal bases (39-for-55, 71%), and play strong defense in right. Aoki is a big-time ground ball hitter (58.4%), so Yankee Stadium won’t automatically boost his power output. I don’t know what the trade cost will be, but it won’t be cheap given his salary and production. If the price is right and the Yankees could somehow unload Ichiro, they should absolutely go for it. I just don’t see it happening.

Hard to believe he made it to MLB despite being so afraid of the ball. (Bob Levey/Getty)
Hard to believe he made it to MLB despite being so afraid of the ball. (Bob Levey/Getty)

Winter asks: Is Chris Carter a potential trade target? He’s better than Lyle Overbay, has some OF experience, is a good young player under team control until 2019 (not arb-eligible until 2015), and plays for a non-contender who’ll be a seller at the deadline.

The 26-year-old Carter is a classic three-true outcomes slugger. He strikes out a ton (36.7%), walks a ton (11.6%), and hits for plenty of power (17 homers and a .235 ISO). It’s any park power — hitter’s park, pitcher’s park, you name it and he can clear the fence. As you said, he’s still in his pre-arbitration years and has plenty of team control left.

People hate strikeouts, but there’s nothing wrong with having one high-strikeout masher in the lineup. It’s a problem when you have three or four in the lineup. Granderson is almost certainly a goner after the season, which would leave Carter as the team’s lone grip-it and rip-it hitter. At the very least, he could platoon with Overbay at first and Travis Hafner at DH while spot starting in left field despite his awful defense.

I don’t know what the Astros want in return, but they did give up Jed Lowrie to get him, so I doubt he’d be cheap. The Yankees need power in the worst way, especially from the right side, so Carter would be a very good fit despite his obvious flaws. As we’ve seen this year, it’s very tough to win in the AL East when you can’t hit the ball out of the park.

Paul asks: What have you replaced Google Reader with?

Consider this the rare non-baseball-related public service question. Though I guess it is baseball-related if you read a lot of baseball blogs.

Anyway, I’ve settled on Feedly after toying around with Hive Reader and The Old Reader. Feedly just added a GReader-esque web app — previously it was a browser plug-in, which was annoying — and I think their Android app is top notch. Joe and (I think) Ben are using Digg Reader with positive reviews. I haven’t tried it yet. Pretty much everyone I know is using one of those four services at this point. Hope that helps.