December 9, 2013
The AL East Rearms
Re-signed 1B-R Mike Napoli to a two-year deal worth $32 million. [12/6]
Remember when Napoli agreed to a three-year deal worth $42 million last winter, only for a hip ailment to force a do-over and a downgrade to a single season? If he was bitter, it didn't show on the field. Instead, Napoli embraced his role as the everyday first baseman and middle-of-the-order thumper, set a new career-high in plate appearances, and became a local icon for his beard and shirtless wandering. The money worked out okay in the end, anyway; take the guaranteed $5 million from 2013 and the $8 million he earned in health-based incentives, add it to his new contract, and subtract some security and peace of mind, and it's almost as though he signed a three-year deal worth $45 million.
As easy as Napoli's side of the signing is to understand, Ben Cherington's might be simpler. Boston needed a first baseman and, rather than risk it with an uncertain option via trade, chose to bring back a player who’s already comfortable in his surroundings. That the deal is short enough to maintain flexibility and protect against the hip issue—if everything goes south in a second, the end is just 12 months away—is an added bonus.
One thing to watch here is what happens in 2014, otherwise known as David Ortiz's final year under contract. Ortiz has done well to avoid decline in recent seasons, but it has to be coming at some point. Perhaps Napoli will follow an accelerated Mike Sweeney-like path: from established catcher to first baseman to designated hitter in a four-year span. —R.J. Anderson
I went back and forth on listing Napoli as up or neutral here. Napoli’s overall value takes a dip in 2014 because he loses catcher eligibility, but this series is about transactions, and the value he sees in returning to Fenway won me over given that the likes of Seattle and Miami were interested in him, too.
What you see is what you get with Napoli: He’s going to hit around 25 homers, he’s going to drive in around 90 runs in that lineup, and he’ll be particularly valuable in OBP leagues. Whether he’s a Top 10 or Top 15 option at his position is largely contingent upon his BABIP, which fluctuates on a yearly basis.
Napoli tends to be a bit overrated in fantasy circles—he was less valuable as a fantasy first baseman than Brandon Moss last season, for example—but there’s something to be said for consistency, and Napoli’s been very good for three of the past four seasons. With a strong line-drive percentage last season and a return to a friendly ballpark and a good lineup, there’s reason for optimism in 2014. He’s a starting fantasy 1B in a 12-team league.
Poor Mike Carp. The dude hits .296/.362/.523 in 243 PA last season, and he still can’t get his hands on a starting job. Carp is a candidate to be traded this offseason, but if he’s not, expect another 200-or-so PA against right-handed hitters for him, coming with time split between 1B and LF. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to warrant consideration even in AL-only leagues.
Daniel Nava sees the slightest of drops in value from this move as well—he might have been Boston’s full-time first baseman had Napoli signed elsewhere—but he should still see the bulk of the starts in left field for the Red Sox. —Ben Carsley
Agreed to sign OF-S Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million contract, pending a physical. [12/6]
We’ve reached the point where it becomes very difficult to ding any team for the financial component of a free-agent contract. As Jeff Todd observed at MLBTradeRumors, teams have already spent 85 percent as much money on free agents this winter as they did all of last offseason—and with fewer than half as many players signed. Jeff goes back all the way to the 2007-8 signing period, but here’s his data for this year and last (in millions):
As Jeff points out, some of those rates may regress before the offseason is over, since most of the big names are already off the board, but the total can only keep growing. We won’t really know what teams are willing to pay for a win until we can close the book on this winter, but as Russell Carleton told me, “By the time it’s all over, we’re probably looking at $7 million per win as a more real estimate.” And at $7 million per win, we can make the case that almost any contract is justified.
Look, I’ll try it: preliminary PECOTAs project Carlos Beltran to be worth 2.2 WARP next year. Seven times 2.2 is 15.4, and Beltran's going to make $15 million. That was easy! Obviously, Beltran is going to decline thereafter, but maybe inflation will make up for that. And if it doesn’t, well, hey—wins are worth more to the Yankees anyway. This sort of exercise isn’t particularly interesting for anyone. We care about teams spending too much money only to the extent that it prevents them from making subsequent moves, or smarter ones. Even after Beltran, the Yankees have a bit of breathing room before they hit the luxury tax threshold. And as Hal Steinbrenner recently reiterated, the Yankees aren’t going to let limboing under that $189 bar “come at the expense of fielding a good team.”
At some point on the podcast, Sam Miller and I speculated that Beltran would get something close to the two-year, $26 million deal he just completed with the Cardinals. An agent Jon Heyman surveyed said the same thing. Heyman himself, and Jim Bowden, predicted higher AAVs, but no one expected a team to commit to pay Beltran at age 39.
But the Yankees—who were reluctant to give Beltran a third year before Robinson Cano signed with Seattle—weren’t out on an island here. The Diamondbacks reportedly offered Beltran a three-year deal for more than $45 million, which was separate from the three-year, $48 million offer Buster Olney reported that Beltran had received. If the reports are accurate, Beltran actually settled for less money to put on pinstripes, just as he offered to in 2005. Teams are flush with cash, and it shouldn’t bother you that players are making more of it unless you’d prefer to see owners pocket the profits. So while $15 million seems like a lot for someone who projects to be a league-average player (with considerable downside risk), let’s forget about the dollar figure and focus on the player.
Beltran is a powerful, high-average switch-hitter, a below-average defender, and a moderate injury risk. He’s shown only a modest offensive decline, posting a .290 TAv last year, a few points below his .293 career average, though he's chased a little more and walked a little less in recent seasons and he's no longer an asset on the bases. PECOTA projects a .289 mark for next season, and he’ll find Yankee Stadium a much friendlier environment than Busch Stadium was. Between the additions of Beltran, McCann, and Ellsbury, the returns of Teixeira and Ellsbury, and a full season from Soriano, the Yankees should have a much stronger lineup than they lived with last season, even without Cano and Curtis Granderson.
PECOTA projects Beltran for a -6 FRAA in right field, which will eat into his offensive value, but he’ll probably see some significant time at DH. Right field figures to be a timeshare between Beltran and Soriano, with Gardner (barring a trade) and Ellsbury in left and center, respectively, and Ichiro filling in as a pinch runner and defensive substitute for the right fielders. (Vernon Wells is…also on the team.) Save for a few early seasons in Kansas City and his 2008 with the Mets, Beltran has never been an ironman—his nickname should be “balky knees”—but he’s no Nick Johnson, either. Since returning from his second knee surgery in July of 2010, Beltran has had only one DL stint, missing the minimum 15 days for a wrist strain in 2011. He’s two 2011 plate appearances away from a three-season 600-PA streak, despite serving as an everyday outfielder in St. Louis. As he nears 40, the breakdown risk rises, but rotating through—and eventually occupying—the DH slot should help keep him healthy.
Between Beltran, Soriano, McCann, and Jeter, the Yankees have plenty of players who are going to need days off and days at DH, and finding times to use Ichiro and Wells will take some finessing. And the 2016 logjam potential is terrifying: by then, the Yankees will be paying a 33-year-old McCann, a 36-year-old Teixeira, a 39-year-old Beltran, and a 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez, and it’s tough to imagine at least two of those guys wearing a glove. By late next season, the average age of the eight members of the lineup we know about now will be 34. Old lineups are nothing new for the Yankees—in 2012, their position players had an average age of 32.7, and they won 95 games. But last season, we saw how hoarding veterans can backfire. As long as the Yankees keep putting together their teams this way, they’ll have to accept the possibility of a season-long injury stack. And because they’ve signed so many qualifying offer free agents, they won’t have a pick in next season’s draft until the second round, which will make it that much harder for them to escape this cycle.
After years of watching him play in pitcher-friendly ballparks, we’ll finally get to see what Beltran can do in an offensive haven in 2014. Beltran hit 17 of his 24 homers as a left-handed hitter last year, and as you might have heard once or twice, Yankees Stadium is a pretty good place to hit if you’re left-handed. And batting near the top or middle of a good Yankees lineup should afford Beltran Run and RBI totals similar to those he put up during his time in St. Louis, making this an ideal landing spot for his fantasy owners.
Another possible benefit of Beltran’s return to the AL is the opportunity he’ll have to occasionally DH, which might be able to keep him on the field a bit more often. He’ll have relatively few opportunities to do so with the Yankees, as the average age on this club is now somewhere in the Alex Trebek range, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see around 100-200 of his PA come as a hitter only. Beltran was the 21st-most productive fantasy outfielder last season, and he’s an easy Top 20 choice for 2014.
This is a tough one. Beltran’s arrival may not impact Gardner at all, as the speedster could play left field with Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Beltran manning right, and Ichiro Suzuki heading to the bench. But this deal has led to rampant speculation that Gardner will be dealt for an infielder or a starting pitcher, and if that’s the case, his value is almost certain to decrease. It’s hard to envision a better hitting environment for Gardner than Yankee Stadium, other than Coors Field. He’s neutral for now, but if you want to sell somewhat high on him in a dynasty league, you’re not crazy.
If Gardner is traded, there’s still a scenario in which Wells and Ichiro will split time in the outfield, even with Ichiro’s weird reverse-platoon numbers from a season ago. No matter what happens, though, it’s tough to see Ichiro matching the 555 PA he received last season, when he was able to muster only 20 steals and 57 runs. Ichiro didn’t have much business being drafted in any but the deepest of mixed leagues before the Beltran signing, and he’s even less valuable now.
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh