Sunday, May 7, 2017

Diamondbacks Offseason: How Free Agency Gone Awry Made My Team Better

I started this offseason with both my Cy Young award-winning SP, Midre Espinosa and my starting LF, Bryant Cashner both turning down my FA re-signing period offers, saying they wanted to test free agency. This would ultimately turn out well for one of them; the other, not so much.

After arb signings, I  went into free agency with about $40M, needing to fill three holes. First I needed a solid SP to replace Espinosa. His 253 IP at a 2.23 ERA and 1.03 WHIP were going to be difficult, if not impossible, to adequately replace.

I also wanted a stud Setup A, as last year's patched together bullpen top three of Mac Rivera, BJ Ulrich, and Enny Lopez was solid but needed to throw more innings. The three combined for 212 IP last season with a 3.15 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. They added 43 saves against five blown saves. The rest of the pen combined for 169 IP with a 5.41 ERA, a 1.54 WHIP, four saves and seven blown saves. Clearly, the back of my bullpen was a weak point. I knew that Stuffy Ponson and his $6.3M salary would return, but I could place him in a mopup role. I still needed to fill 100 IP with better relievers.

Finally, I wanted to improve the offense.We finished third in runs scored in AL last season with 779, but our .725 OPS was only good for eighth in the league. The 155 [SB-CS] helped with that, as did being third in the league in fewest GIDP. Still, I felt it was a bit of a fluke and wanted to bump up the OPS.

Other, less pressing needs included a 12th pitcher to stash in AAA, as I had no one in my minor league system I would want to promote in case of an injury. And though I have budgeted 20/18 for training/medical there are bound to be injuries: Stuffy Ponson (44 health), BJ Ulrich (47), Alex Pomeranz (63) and Patrick Hunter (68) all make me nervous.

I also had no position players in my system that merited promotions to the Majors this season, a product of trading every possible usable piece to form last season's roster. So I needed someone there also, but like the 12th pitcher, it was a secondary need.

Before free agency began I dealt Murray Hellweg, a #1 pick last season, to the Giants for Carlos Gonzalez. I was OK dealing a prospect with possibly nine years of ML control for another who had not reached the majors. In this case I was dealing what I though was a potential #3 SP for a DH and cleanup hitter. The Giants, apparently, valued the SP potential over the limited value of a DH in the NL.

This meant that last year's Silver Slugger DH, Luis Mendoza, would need to move back to RF, and there would be a significant defensive downgrade there. Last year each of our starting OFs won a Gold Glove. Last's year's LF, Cashner, was now gone and Bill Matthews would be slated to move from RF to LF. Cashner had made 15 plus plays again two errors last season, and he was being replaced by Mendoza's lifetime two plus plays, 12 minus plays, and six errors in RF across 290 career games there. This becomes really important when you look at the GB/FB ratings of the top three returning SPs, Patrick Hunter (58), Erv Daley (53), and Alex Pomeranz (47).

Gonzalez then would need to not only cover Cashner's 88 RC last season, but also enough additional RC to make up for the defensive downgrade in RF. Good luck there, rook.

I would have liked to gone after Luis Osuna, the best player available in FA, But I needed one SP, two RP (one maybe a bargain Setup B available after Rule V for less than $2M) and another position player. I had $40M to spend, and I was not confident that I could get anything at the end of Rule V to fill any of those roles. Osuna was obviously going to get a max contract, and although I had a good pitching coach (94) returning, I didn't want to tie up the vast majority of my cash waiting for Osuna to sign during the last two cycles. Too much risk there.

So I decided to go after Espinosa, Garrett Ward, and Christian Robinson in FA, and worry about an 11th pitcher and other needs later. I figured I could get those three for less than $36M, and have room still left to spend on other additions. Ward was a Type B that I felt was the best RP available, and he had averaged over 150 IP the past few seasons. Robinson was someone I felt could provide the same defense as our incumbent 2B, Pascual Estrada, but with an improved offense. Robinson had performed well in season 35 and 36 with 68 and 72 RC respectively, compared to Estrada's 63 last season. He also would be moving from a pitcher's park in St. Louis to a slight hitters park in Arizona.

In the AM cycle Part 1 early Wednesday morning I initially offered Espinosa a four year deal with a mutual option totaling $57M, which was $9M more than I had originally offered him at the beginning of the year. I started Ward off at three years, $21M, and Robinson at 5 years, $31M. At this point I had $12M in reserve and was feeling pretty good with everything.

It took all of two cycles before Espinosa was considering someone else. Thus began a cycle-by-cycle back-and-forth game of "Can You Top This?" Meanwhile, someone jumped on Ward in the PM cycle Part 2. Ward's back-and-forth at this point isn't as severe as Espinosa's, but it is getting mildly annoying. Nothing about Robinson through the day, though, so I am thinking I could sail by with him. Still, I had started out with $12M in reserve and this was quickly dwindling.

Somewhere around here I did inquire with Seattle about the availability of Otto Little, just in case Espinosa's demands became too high. We didn't have a really good fit, though, and crabman understandably wanted to take more time to think about it (he ultimately ended up with a much better deal).

Thursday morning in the first signing cycle I immediately go to the GM/Edit Roster page and slowly look through the player salaries, hoping for a ML one. Only Christian Robinson has signed. I am thrilled with this - part 1 of the three-part plan has gone OK - but I am getting stretched by Espinosa and Ward by now, 24 hours in.

All day Thursday back and forth, nearly every cycle, on both Espinosa and Ward. I don't want to get in the situation of deferring salaries to upcoming years to make the offers work, but I am slowly moving toward that point. Finally, Friday morning, after having an offer for $92M over five seasons (20/20/20/10/20 with a $2M bonus) topped, I needed to back off Espinosa. 250+ IP, ERA in the low twos. Just was not going to happen. He ends up signing with Atlanta in the PM cycle Part 1 for $95M over five years.

The next best available FA SP at this point is Alex Martin, but I think he'll be the go-to guy for everyone who lost out on Osuna (who had signed by now) and Espinosa. So I need another plan. I have 350 IP to fill with the loss of Espinosa and the replacement of last year's poor RPs. There is no other SP on the market that will give me 250 IP, so I need to step up and get a decent 200 IP SP, along with a good 11th pitcher (rather than a $2M bargain).

I thus go after two players, Doug Stoops, with a 3.92 career ERA, who fits the mold of what I like in a pitcher (80+ CTL, VEL, GBFB), and Julio Petit, also in that mold, and who sports a 3.73 lifetime ERA. I always assume that pitchers will perform better than their career average on my team, because we will be fielding a better defense and have a catcher with high PC (80+). Petit threw for 218 IP last season and Stoops 75. Combined with Ward, whose price tag is still slowly escalating, I can get my 350 quality IP I am looking for. It's not Espinosa, but it will do.

I offer Stoops two years at $4.8M per, which he accepts in the Friday PM1 part 1 cycle (same as Espinosa). Even with Ward's ever-increasing demands, I know I'll have a hard time spending all $40M of my available FA money. I never, never go into the first game of the season without spending virtually everything I have (save for a ML injury promotion and enough to sign draft picks). I thus offer Petit a $7M bonus and reduce his salary to $3M/yr for three years. He likes it but waits until the PM2 cycle Part 2 before he actually signs late Friday night.

So Saturday morning I take the lead on Ward with a four year, $48M offer. Yes, ridiculous for a RP, but he can pitch 140+ innings, if I can find that much work for him. And with his 80/89 L/R splits and good supporting numbers, I figure he'll be worth it. And then Saturday morning my offer is topped. Dammit. Losing Espinosa was difficult, but it occurred early enough in FA that I could regroup. What to do now? Ward is 36, showing a slight decline, and I cannot imagine giving him a fifth year, let alone a fourth season without an option. He eventually signed for $51M over three years with a year three mutual option.

But I know it's time for me to back off Ward and get creative. I put my money into two players. The first, Alex Leach, again fits the mold of player I like, and he comes with a 3.49 lifetime ERA. I give Leach a 3 year, $13M contract, which includes another $10M signing bonus. He pitched 71 innings last year, so combined with Petit and Stoops, I reach a little past my goal of adding 350 solid IP from my FA pitchers. Certainly not the way I planned it, but nonetheless getting to where I wanted to be. Even with the downgrade from Espinosa to Petit, overall my pitching staff is much better because of the massive upgrades of Stoops and Leach.

I still have money left over, even after throwing out $17M in signing bonuses to lower salaries in future seasons. So I have been watching JT Whiten through free agency, and he is a good defensive ML SS whose salary demands have dropped to $1.7M on a one-year deal. Since he's only 27, and his defensive skills should not deteriorate until after 30, I offer him four years, $7M, with $3M coming in bonus money. I am now up to $20M in bonus money this year, which should bode very well for next year. Whiten has MILB options left, and 72 patience, so he should be good spending this year in AAA, and taking over a ML role for Ringo Frye next season.

With about $4M still left over, I am looking for a young 20-something pitcher that can serve as my 12th pitcher awaiting an injury call-up. I need someone with options, preferably, and if possible no ML experience, so that I can pay big for their first season, and get close to minimum salary for the next two. No one like this is really interesting to me.

About five minutes before the PM cycle Part 2 I notice that Ricardo Profar is still available, and asking for $3.4M/yr for two seasons. He's a Type A FA, but since I have already signed/offered three Type As at this point, I'd just be giving up a fifth round pick in the draft. I have no real need for Profar, but he's a bargain, and I figure I can use him or trade him. I give him what he wants, and 10 minutes later I pick up Leach, Whiten, and Profar. My $40M is spent. Profar will take the place of Franklin Aaron, who I later traded for a couple of prospects because I feared the ratings drop if I demoted him to AAA.

All in all, free agency did not go nearly how I planned. I did not get Espinosa or Ward, but I ended up with three excellent pitchers, one upgrade at 2B, a backup SS/insurance against injury, and a still-productive Ricardo Profar. As a bonus, I reduced salary costs by nearly $6M/yr in the next three seasons. It is certainly an outcome I can live with.

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