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Grant Balfour a Popular Relief Target
Teams in need of late-inning bullpen arms have no shortage of choices in this year’s free agent crop. One of the most popular in the early going appears to be Balfour, who spent the last three seasons with the Athletics and was Oakland’s closer in 2012 and 2013.

The right-hander is represented by the Levinson brothers at ACES and earned about $12 million on his most recent contract. Balfour overcame a surgical double whammy in 2005, when he underwent Tommy John surgery in May and a shoulder operation to repair his labrum and rotator cuff in September, but his arm has been healthy since then. He will turn 36 on December 30, but appears poised for at least one more strong year.

Balfour is a fly-ball pitcher who benefited from the A’s excellent outfield defense and the vast dimensions of their home ballpark. His strikeout rate climbed from 24.4 percent in 2011 to 24.9 percent in 2012 to 27.5 percent in 2013, the last of which represents his best effort since the 2008 season, but his walk rate has hiked along with it, rising to 10.3 percent this past campaign, its highest point since 2009. As a result, Balfour has alternated solid FIPs with decent ones since 2007: 3.63, 2.25, 3.81, 2.65, 3.80, 2.98, 3.52.

Those who buy into the trend might expect a terrific 2014, but the smart money is likely on a repeat of the righty’s 2013 performance, or a moderate regression if he lands with a club whose outfielders cover less ground than Coco Crisp and company did. Susan Slusser, who covers the Athletics for the San Francisco Chronicle, heard from a major-league source that the Levinsons are fielding calls from the Angels, Rockies, Tigers, Yankees, and Rays. All five of those teams could use a late-inning boost, and at least three of them would offer a clear path to save opportunities, assuming that Balfour is their lone addition.

Yankees Kick the Tires on Brandon Phillips
When the dust settles this offseason, the Yankees’ second baseman is likely to be the same slugger who has handled the position since his major-league debut in 2005. Robinson Cano is the marquee free agent on the market this offseason, but general manager Brian Cashman has ample funds to bring him back, whether or not owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner order him to adhere to the $189 million luxury-tax cap imposed by the collective bargaining agreement.

Nonetheless, Cashman is laying the groundwork for alternatives at the keystone, where Cano has provided the Yankees with five or more WARP in every season since 2010. The top second baseman rumored to be on the trading block is Phillips, a three-win player in his heyday who was dogged by injuries in 2013.

Trade speculation regarding Phillips dates back to October 16, when Cincinnati Enquirer beat writer John Fay reported that the team was looking around for his successor. According to Fay, the Reds were as concerned with Phillips’ behavior—most notably, his calling team CEO Bob Castellini a liar—as they were with his performance, which came in at 1.8 WARP despite myriad ailments over the course of the year. Phillips also had a clubhouse run-in with Fay’s Enquirer colleague, C. Trent Rosecrans.

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported on Tuesday that the Yankees checked in with Reds general manager Walt Jocketty to gauge the price tag on Phillips, who is owed $50 million on a six-year, $72.5 million extension that runs through 2017. Heyman noted that Cashman balked at Jocketty’s request, though it is possible that the sides will reconnect if Cano appears destined to leave the Bronx. The Yankees have also reportedly made contact with the agent for ex-Tigers second baseman Omar Infante, who is a free agent and was not given a qualifying offer.

The Dodgers’ four-year, $28 million pact with Cuban import Alexander Guerrero indirectly slashed the odds of a trade that would send Phillips to New York. For one thing, Guerrero was the successor that Fay envisioned in the afore-linked article, in which he cited the Reds’ interest days before Guerrero chose Los Angeles. For another, by signing the 26-year-old Guerrero, the Dodgers put their money where their mouth is on not courting Cano this winter.

With the Dodgers out of the picture, the Yankees almost certainly will present Cano’s agent, Jay Z, with most lucrative offer. Cashman’s calls regarding Infante and Phillips may be nothing more than a ploy to improve his leverage in negotiations, which began on a rough note with Cano asking for a mega-deal worth at least $300 million.

In the end, all of this is likely to be a lot of smoke and no fire. The more salient story out of the Bronx appears to be a $33,900 watch that Jay Z gave to Cano, a possible violation that has drawn the attention of the MLB Players Association.

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Watchgate and luxury cap issues yield an updated total of 101 problems.