Cubs Can Build a 2018 Champion Without Sacrificing Bryce Harper Dream

Anyone looking from afar can be forgiven if they perceive the Chicago Cubs to be so preoccupied with fitting Bryce Harper for a uniform that they're neglecting more immediate priorities.

Fear not. At least, not too much.

The Cubs ended their 2017 season by being thoroughly outclassed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Although this happened just a year after snapping a 108-year World Series title drought, it was apparent then and there that a significant course correction was in order for the North Siders.

In fairness, the Cubs are the rare team that hasn't spent the offseason saying "Nah" to the free-agent market. They've signed a class of newcomers headlined by four pitchers: Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and Drew Smyly.

But, to date, no big fish have been forthcoming.

It was already hard not to wonder if that was because the Cubs were holding out for next year's ridiculous free-agent class, which will notably be headlined by Harper.

After the latest from team chairman Tom Ricketts, it's now impossible not to wonder about this.

"Next year's free-agent class is different than this year's free-agent class," Ricketts said last Friday, per Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago. "I think what you're seeing with teams out there would rather have dry powder a year from now. ... There's a lot of pieces and parts, but ultimately, I think teams are trying to keep their powder dry."

To an extent, this is a weak excuse to presently be pinching pennies. The Cubs are projected to open 2018 with a $157 million payroll. They opened 2016 and 2017 over $170 million. 

Of course, any big fish signed to a multi-year deal will be around beyond 2018. That's a legitimate issue in this case.

Due to new functions in the new collective bargaining agreement, the Cubs must be as afraid of the luxury-tax threshold as the next team. They sure look afraid now, as they're projected at $35.4 million under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for 2018. But even with the threshold due to increase to $206 million, that same space may not be there in 2019.

Chicago's $120.1 million tax figure for 2019 isn't counting a $6.25 million option for Pedro Strop or a $10.5 million option for Jose Quintana. Nor is it counting second trips through arbitration for Kris Bryant (who just made arbitration history with a $10.85 million salary), Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell or first trips through arbitration for Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

Given that Harper could cost as much as $30 million or even $40 million per year, this is a big picture that the Cubs darn well should be wary about if their ultimate goal is to sign him.

Certainly, they're not unreasonable if that is their ultimate goal.

In six seasons with the Washington Nationals, Harper has been an All-Star five times and an MVP once in 2015. Injuries have sidelined him here and there, to be sure. But highlighted by a 1.109 OPS, 42 home runs and 9.9 wins above replacement, that MVP season showed upside that only Mike Trout can match. And he'll only turn 26 in October.

The Cubs happen to have the perfect piece of bait to help reel in Harper. He and Bryant (who just turned 26 this month) both grew up in Las Vegas and are now good friends. Suffice it to say, Bryant wouldn't mind them becoming teammates.

"Who wouldn't want Bryce Harper on their team?" he said last Friday, according to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic. 

In the meantime, though, it's within reason to question whether premature coveting of Harper is causing the Cubs to unwittingly punt on 2018. After all, the list of reasons to have faith doesn't go on forever.

FanGraphs does project the Cubs as the NL Central's best team next year. That has much to do with how well they've spread their money around this winter. They got Morrow and Cishek, who are coming off terrific years, for the price of one Wade Davis. Formerly of the Colorado Rockies, Chatwood is an excellent ground-ball artist who excelled away from Coors Field. It also has to do with expected turnarounds from incumbents, most notably Jon Lester after he was less than ace-like in 2017.

The goal, however, isn't to simply end up atop the NL Central. The goal is to return to the World Series.

That could mean going back through the Dodgers, who still look like the better team. Or it could mean going through the Nationals, who have more than enough talent to snap their streak of first-round exits from October.

To attain equal footing with these two National League rivals, the least the Cubs need is another starting pitcher.

If they also buy that Lester is due for a rebound that would cement him, Hendricks and Quintana as one of the best starting trios in baseball, they could go a low-risk route with a one-year contract. Useful pitchers who might be amenable to one of those are Andrew Cashner, Jaime Garcia and Jason Vargas.

Whether or not the Cubs do that, they could choose to wait and see if they truly need a bigger rotation upgrade. If yes, they could seek one on the summer trade market. Talented rentals who could come available are J.A. Happ, Patrick Corbin or Garrett Richards. Even better would be a controllable ace such as Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Danny Duffy or Marcus Stroman.

Or, there's the nuclear option: The Cubs go for broke now and figure out later, later.

I've already stumped for the Cubs to fill Jake Arrieta's shoes with Yu Darvish. At the start of the offseason, that was a sure thing to be at least a $25-million-per-year investment. Now, it may be at most that much. Possibly less.

That would still eat into whatever money the Cubs have earmarked for Harper, but there's no rule that says they couldn't make space. That could be done by trading some of their arbitration guys, such as Russell or Schwarber. Even better would be offloading some of the $106 million remaining on Jason Heyward's contract after 2018.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs don't have to choose between Harper for 2019 or going for glory in 2018. They just have to choose the best way to try for both.

             

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

MLB Trade Rumors: Top Potential Landing Spots for Players Still on the Block

The trade market has saved the 2017-2018 Major League Baseball offseason from inactivity infamy. Among those who have been dealt are Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Evan Longoria, Ian Kinsler and, most recently, Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen.

That's a lot, yet the end might not be in sight.

There are still a few star players left to be had. The goal here is to look at the markets for seven in particular and list their three top landing spots based on needs, available assets and timing. 

Going roughly in order from least- to most-desirable trade chip, let's take it away.

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Yu Darvish vs. Jake Arrieta: Which Free-Agent Ace Is Best Big-Money Bet?

Although spring training is just over the horizon, Major League Baseball teams in need of a No. 1 starter still have two free agents to choose from: Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

Decisions, decisions.

With a Cy Young Award and World Series ring in his collection, Arrieta owns two pieces of shiny hardware that Darvish doesn't. Arrieta also has the distinction of never having had Tommy John surgery. Despite that, he has only 1,669 professional innings on his arm to Darvish's 2,127.2.

However, Arrieta doesn't have all the advantages.

He has one All-Star nod to Darvish's four. And while both are 31 years old, Arrieta is Darvish's senior by 163 days. Courtesy of the trade that sent him from the Texas Rangers to the Los Angeles Dodgers last July, Darvish also has the advantage of having been barred from a qualifying offer and is thus spared from ties to draft-pick compensation.

So to determine which of them is more worthy of a big-money contract, a deeper dive into their pasts, presents and futures is warranted.

                

Where They've Been

Darvish was only 18 when he began his pro career with the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball back in 2005. Seven years later, he was the proud owner of a sparkling 1.99 ERA over 1,268.1 NPB innings.

That begat a $107.7 million investment—a $51.7 million posting fee plus a $56 million contract—from the Rangers to bring Darvish to MLB in 2012. The right-hander flourished as a rookie with a 3.90 ERA in 191.1 innings and achieved a career peak with a 2.83 ERA in 209.2 innings in 2013.

Since then, Darvish has experienced his share of highs and lows.

Injuries limited him to 22 starts in 2014 before he missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Knowing that, it's understandable if teams have misgivings about handing over a nine-figure deal to a pitcher whose elbow has already been surgically repaired.

But for these clubs, it's worth some comfort that Darvish hasn't missed many beats over the last two seasons.

He returned in 2016 to post a 3.41 ERA in 100.1 innings. Then came a 3.86 ERA in 186.2 innings last year. Along the way, he's struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings while walking 2.8 batters per nine innings.

Thus he has become an above-average BB/9 artist while carrying on as the best K/9 artist in the majors since 2012:

Rank Player K/9
1 Yu Darvish 11.04
2 Max Scherzer 10.91
3 Chris Sale 10.54
4 Stephen Strasburg 10.47
5 Clayton Kershaw 10.15

    

*Per Baseball-Reference.com, minimum 800 IP between 2012 and 2017.

Arrieta's career has humbler beginnings. He was a Baltimore Orioles fifth-round pick in 2007, reached the majors as a 24-year-old in 2010 and then struggled to get off the ground with a 5.46 ERA across parts of four seasons.

The Orioles effectively gave up on him in 2013, sending him to the Chicago Cubs in an early-July trade centered on Scott Feldman. Fast-forward four-and-a-half years, and there's Arrieta standing at the end of the 2017 season with a 2.73 ERA as a Cub.

Arrieta already had a great arm, but the Cubs changed how and what he threw. They raised his arm slot and moved him to the third base side of the rubber. They also freed his slutter, a cutter/slider hybrid that had been sort of a pitch non grata in Baltimore.

"When I go away to righties, when I try and elevate it and I want to expand it off the plate, it's more of a cutter," Arrieta told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today in 2015. "If I want to use it underneath a lefty's swing or in the dirt for a chase pitch to a righty, I'll use more of a slider, take some velocity off it slightly and increase the break of it."

Arrieta achieved his peak in 2015, and what a peak it was. He put up a 1.77 ERA in 229 innings overall and finished the year with a microscopic 0.86 ERA over his final 20 starts. Included within was a dominant no-hitter against the Dodgers in August.

Alas, the only way to go after a season like that is down.

Arrieta regressed with a 3.10 ERA across 197.1 innings in 2016 and fell further with a 3.53 ERA across 168.1 innings in 2017. He's holding steady as an above-average K/9 artist, but his BB/9 rate and HR/9 rate have settled around average.

                          

Where They're Going

The extreme upside Arrieta displayed in 2015 was no fluke.

He pitched off a fastball that sat at a career-best 94.6 mph. And since he prefers a sinker to a four-seamer, batters also had movement to contend with. He also didn't skimp on movement with his slutter or curveball, yet he nonetheless kept his location on point.

Well-rounded dominance resulted. He walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings. When batters did swing, he held them to an excellent 76.3 contact percentage. When hitters made contact, he limited them to an MLB-best 84.0 mph in exit velocity.

The trouble is, there's a fair deal of distance between the guy Arrieta was then and the guy he is now.

His 2017 fastball averaged only 92.1 mph, 2.5 ticks below where he was in 2015. He's also been weaning himself off his slutter, as he threw it only 14.2 percent of the time in 2017. These things help explain why his contact rate shot above the league average, as well as why his exit velocity climbed to 87.2 mph.

In Arrieta's defense, none of this got in the way of his being an above-average starter. But any team that signs him will be hoping for something more like the 2015 version of Arrieta. That's a lot to ask.

Mind you, Darvish has his own red flags.

Although he used his trusty slider for 25 percent of his pitches in 2017, its whiff rate fell to a career-worst 14.5 percent. It's still pretty to look at, but that doesn't erase concerns over whether it's past its prime as his go-to out pitch.

Teams also can't be enthused about Darvish's track record as a big-game pitcher.

He got only one more out (10) than he gave up runs (9) in his two World Series starts for the Dodgers against the Houston Astros. Altogether, he owns a 5.81 ERA in 26.1 postseason innings. Despite issues of his own—including 16 walks in his last four outings—Arrieta owns a comparatively better 3.08 ERA in 52.2 postseason innings.

What can be said in Darvish's defense, though, is that there was weird stuff going on in the World Series.

It was alleged that slicker balls were making it tough for all pitchers to throw good sliders. On top of that, one Astros player told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated that Darvish was tipping his pitches.

Furthering Darvish's defense, his arm appears to be in tip-top shape.

He returned in 2016 with a career-best 93.3 mph fastball, only to beat that mark with a 94.2 mph fastball in 2017. He's also maintaining a deep arsenal. He featured a four-seamer, sinker, slider and curveball in 2017, plus a few changeups and splitters on the side.

Even if his slider is losing something, what he has is more than enough to keep getting by just fine. To wit, his contact rate is staying safely below the league average, and he finished 2017 having allowed just 85.7 mph in exit velocity.

                            

Survey Says: Darvish

To be clear, there's been plenty of interest in both these pitchers throughout the winter.

According to Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram, Darvish is said to be weighing returns to either the Rangers or Dodgers. He's also considering the Cubs, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.

Arrieta could still return to Chicago. The Milwaukee Brewers also have interest, according to Jim Bowden of The Athletic. Others have speculated the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals could be fits.

Of course, either hurler will require teams to invest significant money in a significant risk. They're both older pitchers, after all. The breed isn't known for reliability. 

But between the two, Darvish takes the proverbial cake.

It would be a different story if Arrieta were still functioning like the otherworldly ace he was in 2015. But by all accounts, he isn't the same pitcher anymore.

Even if Darvish doesn't have any upside left, the pitcher he is now is roughly equivalent to the pitcher he's always been. Maybe his slider isn't the same, but he still boasts great stuff and improved control. 

True, he'll likely cost more money than Arrieta. But it's a fair trade-off that he won't require a team to lose one or more draft picks.

Either way, let's end with a plea for all pitching-needy teams out there: Would somebody please sign these guys already?

              

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball. Contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yu Darvish vs. Jake Arrieta: Which Free-Agent Ace Is Best Big-Money Bet?

Although spring training is just over the horizon, Major League Baseball teams in need of a No. 1 starter still have two free agents to choose from: Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

Decisions, decisions.

With a Cy Young Award and World Series ring in his collection, Arrieta owns two pieces of shiny hardware that Darvish doesn't. Arrieta also has the distinction of never having had Tommy John surgery. Despite that, he has only 1,669 professional innings on his arm to Darvish's 2,127.2.

However, Arrieta doesn't have all the advantages.

He has one All-Star nod to Darvish's four. And while both are 31 years old, Arrieta is Darvish's senior by 163 days. Courtesy of the trade that sent him from the Texas Rangers to the Los Angeles Dodgers last July, Darvish also has the advantage of having been barred from a qualifying offer and is thus spared from ties to draft-pick compensation.

So to determine which of them is more worthy of a big-money contract, a deeper dive into their pasts, presents and futures is warranted.

                

Where They've Been

Darvish was only 18 when he began his pro career with the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball back in 2005. Seven years later, he was the proud owner of a sparkling 1.99 ERA over 1,268.1 NPB innings.

That begat a $107.7 million investment—a $51.7 million posting fee plus a $56 million contract—from the Rangers to bring Darvish to MLB in 2012. The right-hander flourished as a rookie with a 3.90 ERA in 191.1 innings and achieved a career peak with a 2.83 ERA in 209.2 innings in 2013.

Since then, Darvish has experienced his share of highs and lows.

Injuries limited him to 22 starts in 2014 before he missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Knowing that, it's understandable if teams have misgivings about handing over a nine-figure deal to a pitcher whose elbow has already been surgically repaired.

But for these clubs, it's worth some comfort that Darvish hasn't missed many beats over the last two seasons.

He returned in 2016 to post a 3.41 ERA in 100.1 innings. Then came a 3.86 ERA in 186.2 innings last year. Along the way, he's struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings while walking 2.8 batters per nine innings.

Thus he has become an above-average BB/9 artist while carrying on as the best K/9 artist in the majors since 2012:

Rank Player K/9
1 Yu Darvish 11.04
2 Max Scherzer 10.91
3 Chris Sale 10.54
4 Stephen Strasburg 10.47
5 Clayton Kershaw 10.15

    

*Per Baseball-Reference.com, minimum 800 IP between 2012 and 2017.

Arrieta's career has humbler beginnings. He was a Baltimore Orioles fifth-round pick in 2007, reached the majors as a 24-year-old in 2010 and then struggled to get off the ground with a 5.46 ERA across parts of four seasons.

The Orioles effectively gave up on him in 2013, sending him to the Chicago Cubs in an early-July trade centered on Scott Feldman. Fast-forward four-and-a-half years, and there's Arrieta standing at the end of the 2017 season with a 2.73 ERA as a Cub.

Arrieta already had a great arm, but the Cubs changed how and what he threw. They raised his arm slot and moved him to the third base side of the rubber. They also freed his slutter, a cutter/slider hybrid that had been sort of a pitch non grata in Baltimore.

"When I go away to righties, when I try and elevate it and I want to expand it off the plate, it's more of a cutter," Arrieta told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today in 2015. "If I want to use it underneath a lefty's swing or in the dirt for a chase pitch to a righty, I'll use more of a slider, take some velocity off it slightly and increase the break of it."

Arrieta achieved his peak in 2015, and what a peak it was. He put up a 1.77 ERA in 229 innings overall and finished the year with a microscopic 0.86 ERA over his final 20 starts. Included within was a dominant no-hitter against the Dodgers in August.

Alas, the only way to go after a season like that is down.

Arrieta regressed with a 3.10 ERA across 197.1 innings in 2016 and fell further with a 3.53 ERA across 168.1 innings in 2017. He's holding steady as an above-average K/9 artist, but his BB/9 rate and HR/9 rate have settled around average.

                          

Where They're Going

The extreme upside Arrieta displayed in 2015 was no fluke.

He pitched off a fastball that sat at a career-best 94.6 mph. And since he prefers a sinker to a four-seamer, batters also had movement to contend with. He also didn't skimp on movement with his slutter or curveball, yet he nonetheless kept his location on point.

Well-rounded dominance resulted. He walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings. When batters did swing, he held them to an excellent 76.3 contact percentage. When hitters made contact, he limited them to an MLB-best 84.0 mph in exit velocity.

The trouble is, there's a fair deal of distance between the guy Arrieta was then and the guy he is now.

His 2017 fastball averaged only 92.1 mph, 2.5 ticks below where he was in 2015. He's also been weaning himself off his slutter, as he threw it only 14.2 percent of the time in 2017. These things help explain why his contact rate shot above the league average, as well as why his exit velocity climbed to 87.2 mph.

In Arrieta's defense, none of this got in the way of his being an above-average starter. But any team that signs him will be hoping for something more like the 2015 version of Arrieta. That's a lot to ask.

Mind you, Darvish has his own red flags.

Although he used his trusty slider for 25 percent of his pitches in 2017, its whiff rate fell to a career-worst 14.5 percent. It's still pretty to look at, but that doesn't erase concerns over whether it's past its prime as his go-to out pitch.

Teams also can't be enthused about Darvish's track record as a big-game pitcher.

He got only one more out (10) than he gave up runs (9) in his two World Series starts for the Dodgers against the Houston Astros. Altogether, he owns a 5.81 ERA in 26.1 postseason innings. Despite issues of his own—including 16 walks in his last four outings—Arrieta owns a comparatively better 3.08 ERA in 52.2 postseason innings.

What can be said in Darvish's defense, though, is that there was weird stuff going on in the World Series.

It was alleged that slicker balls were making it tough for all pitchers to throw good sliders. On top of that, one Astros player told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated that Darvish was tipping his pitches.

Furthering Darvish's defense, his arm appears to be in tip-top shape.

He returned in 2016 with a career-best 93.3 mph fastball, only to beat that mark with a 94.2 mph fastball in 2017. He's also maintaining a deep arsenal. He featured a four-seamer, sinker, slider and curveball in 2017, plus a few changeups and splitters on the side.

Even if his slider is losing something, what he has is more than enough to keep getting by just fine. To wit, his contact rate is staying safely below the league average, and he finished 2017 having allowed just 85.7 mph in exit velocity.

                            

Survey Says: Darvish

To be clear, there's been plenty of interest in both these pitchers throughout the winter.

According to Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram, Darvish is said to be weighing returns to either the Rangers or Dodgers. He's also considering the Cubs, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.

Arrieta could still return to Chicago. The Milwaukee Brewers also have interest, according to Jim Bowden of The Athletic. Others have speculated the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals could be fits.

Of course, either hurler will require teams to invest significant money in a significant risk. They're both older pitchers, after all. The breed isn't known for reliability. 

But between the two, Darvish takes the proverbial cake.

It would be a different story if Arrieta were still functioning like the otherworldly ace he was in 2015. But by all accounts, he isn't the same pitcher anymore.

Even if Darvish doesn't have any upside left, the pitcher he is now is roughly equivalent to the pitcher he's always been. Maybe his slider isn't the same, but he still boasts great stuff and improved control. 

True, he'll likely cost more money than Arrieta. But it's a fair trade-off that he won't require a team to lose one or more draft picks.

Either way, let's end with a plea for all pitching-needy teams out there: Would somebody please sign these guys already?

              

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball. Contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Will J.D. Martinez’s $150M FA Gamble Pay Off or Blow Up in His Face?

J.D. Martinez aims to get what he wants, come hell, high water or even spring training.

With pitchers and catchers due to start reporting Feb. 12, the Major League Baseball offseason is at a point when spring training is no longer some shimmering blob on the horizon. It's right there, and that means the regular season can't be far behind.

Yet Martinez is one of many top-shelf free agents who still doesn't have a job. That leaves him with two options: start sweating or keep cool.

According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, he's choosing the latter. 

Fresh off a year in which he led MLB with a .690 slugging percentage and slammed 45 home runs in only 119 games with the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks, Martinez is said by "Miami acquaintances" to be willing to hold out for a suitable contract, even if it means staying unemployed into spring training.

Mind you, chances are this is simply Martinez's camp attempting to strike a spark meant to light a fire under his suitors. 

As it is, Heyman and Bob Nightengale of USA Today have reported the 30-year-old slugger has a five-year offer from the Boston Red Sox. The former suggests Martinez may also have another five-year offer elsewhere.

Trouble is, his offers are said to max out at $150 million. Although that's a big sum that doubles as a sensible depiction of where his market is at, it's well short of the $200 million price tag Martinez and agent Scott Boras are rumored to have wanted from the beginning.

It's tempting to compare the situation to the ending of The Thing, wherein (spoilers) Kurt Russell and Keith David agree to just sit and wait for a while to see what happens. The major difference is the encroaching threat. Rather than the Antarctic winter, it's the bright sunshine of Florida and Arizona.

To this end, Martinez's willingness to hold out until spring training is headline news because that's not a tactic high-profile free agents tend to prefer.

Per MLB Trade Rumors, there have been only 11 contracts signed in February and March that were worth even as much as $20 million. James Shields' four-year, $75 million deal with the San Diego Padres in February 2015 is the overall high mark. That's, at best, half of what Martinez is hoping for.

Not that anyone should be surprised. By the time spring training rolls around, teams typically have all the leverage. Most roster needs have been filled, leaving outstanding free agents with few potential places to turn to. Plus, there's the lure for players to get in some games and get ready for the season.

The danger of choosing to play hardball into spring training is best epitomized by what happened to some of the top free agents on the 2013-2014 market.

Among those who went into February still looking for work were Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett and Kendrys Morales. Jimenez landed a four-year, $50 million deal from the Baltimore Orioles, but nobody else got better than a two-year deal. Drew and Morales even had to settle for one-year deals well after the regular season was underway.

Granted, the qualifying offer was a factor in this. That's something Martinez doesn't have to worry about. The July trade that sent him from Detroit to Arizona barred him from receiving a qualifying offer, thus sparing him the disadvantage of being tied to draft-pick compensation.

Still, he's attempting to do something that is optimistically described as risky and pessimistically described as reckless. If he waits until spring training only to find even worse contract offers than the ones in front of him right now, everyone will be able to say "told you so."

However, it may be just as likely Martinez will walk away happy in the end.

Although there's no real precedent for what he's willing to attempt, there's also the reality this offseason in general is unprecedented. It's extraordinary that players like Martinez, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas remain unsigned. And they are just the tip of a sizable iceberg, as more than 100 free agents are still without clubs.

The longer they go unsigned, the longer big needs are going to be unfilled. That alone creates the possibility of there being a relatively normal free-agent marketplace, even amid the routine stretching, light jogging and soft tossing of spring training.

Then there's the possibility teams that have been patient could have the tables turned on them. Some are undoubtedly trying to use the encroachment of spring training to leverage free agents into taking discounts. Will these teams give in if players dig in their heels and use the forthcoming regular season to leverage more lucrative deals?

Martinez, in particular, is uniquely positioned to succeed with such a strategy. 

Between the year he just had and the overall elite offensive numbers he boasts since 2014, he's a much hotter commodity than any of the 2013-2014 cautionary tales.

"He's a superstar talent," Boras said in November, according to Nick Piecoro of azcentral. "He's done things that few players have done."

For at least two of his rumored suitors, adding a bat of Martinez's caliber is more of a necessity than a luxury. The Red Sox badly need to inject some home runs into an offense that produced only 168 of them in 2017, the fewest in the American League. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, would be bringing back Martinez to fill big shoes that are empty.

In similar boats are the San Francisco Giants, who finished dead last in MLB with 128 homers last year, and the Toronto Blue Jays, who have to replace Jose Bautista.

No other free agent comes close to offering the kind of offensive thunder Martinez could give these teams (and whatever mystery teams may be lurking). Among the trade targets who could, one has already been moved (Giancarlo Stanton), one almost certainly isn't available (Josh Donaldson) and another probably isn't available at a reasonable price (Manny Machado).

As long as this remains the case, Martinez has a few reasonable excuses to wait as long as he likes. Still another could arise if a big slugger suffers a serious injury during spring training or even before then (i.e., Victor Martinez in 2012).

The waiting game will continue, but it's not difficult to see why Martinez is willing to gut it out. For him, the ticking of the clock isn't necessarily the turning of the screw.

               

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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Odds for Each Suitor on Top Free Agents Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish and More

On one hand, it's disconcerting that many of Major League Baseball's top free agents are still looking for work with spring training games less than six weeks away.

On the other hand, that should mean the hot stove should finally heat up sooner rather than later.

Ahead is a look at the top seven free agents left standing and their top suitors' odds of winning the sweepstakes for them. The suitors are plucked from reports containing rumors or reasonable speculation. Their odds for signing each star are based on factors such as team needs and spending capacity and are meant to convey a general scale of likelihood.

Going in order from smallest star to biggest star, let's get to it.

Begin Slideshow

One Thing MLB Could Do to Make Its Offseason as Exciting as the NBA’s

Not much can be done to make baseball like basketball. They're both sports, of course, but they're otherwise about as akin as spiders and spider monkeys.

Perhaps it's not too much to ask, though, that the between-seasons business of Major League Baseball be made to more closely resemble that of the National Basketball Association.

Even with baseball season in full swing last summer and fall, it was impossible to ignore what CBSSports.com's Matt Moore termed "the wildest offseason in NBA history." From Dwight Howard to Jimmy Butler to Chris Paul to Paul George to Kyrie Irving to Carmelo Anthony, there were blockbuster trades galore. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward left the Utah Jazz for a huge deal from the Boston Celtics, while Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin secured even huger deals from their respective teams.

That's a heck of an offseason. And if there's a way to make it look like an even hecker of an offseason, it's to compare it to this winter's hot-stove season.

The trade market has been just fine, thank you. The New York Yankees scored Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, in a blockbuster with the Miami Marlins. Evan Longoria, Marcell Ozuna, Dee Gordon, Ian Kinsler and Stephen Piscotty were also dealt.

The free-agent market, however, has been a Darko Milicic-level bust.

Not counting the Los Angeles Angels' modest investment in two-way Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani, a search on MLB Trade Rumors' transaction tracker returned only 45 contracts worth a grand total of $577 million. These figures lag well behind where the previous five offseasons were at this point:

Offseason FA Deals FA Dollars (Millions)
2017-2018 45 $577.0
2016-2017 62 $1,179.0
2015-2016 86 $1,798.9
2014-2015 72 $1,352.2
2013-2014 92 $1,549.9
2012-2013 87 $1,245.7

Note: Through Jan. 8; counts major league contracts of at least one year.

Obviously, it's not over yet. Still out there are Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alex Cobb and Greg Holland. The first four are candidates for nine-figure pacts. The others could get multiyear deals worth eight figures annually.

But with spring training just a month away, a ticking clock is stripping these players of leverage to get the contracts of their dreams. Players in the middle and lower tiers of the free-agent class will also start feeling the spring training squeeze.

Free-agent spending peaked at $3.8 billion in the 2015-2016 offseason, according to Spotrac. Last winter, spending plummeted to $1.4 billion. From the look of things, there will be another step down this winter.

For those who are wondering, the list of reasons why this is happening is about as long as the time between Pedro Baez's pitches.

Like last year, it's just as easy to notice who's not a free agent this year. Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Paul Goldschmidt would have been available if they hadn't signed extensions. Alas, they did. The result is a second straight hot-stove season with a decidedly weak free-agent class.

In stark contrast to this is what's looming next year. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Brian Dozier, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller are slated to be free agents. Clayton Kershaw could be too if he exercises his opt-out.

In light of all this, patience might be the best solution for "fixing" the MLB offseason.

In light of other factors, however, it might not be so simple.

Though the MLB Players Association scored a few victories—such as a less grueling schedule, All-Star Game and Home Run Derby bonuses and less severe penalties attached to free agents who reject qualifying offers—in the latest collective bargaining agreement, it also signed off on harsher penalties for teams that go over the luxury tax.

That's proving to be a bullet to its members' collective feet this winter. Big spenders like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are striving to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold. Others are giving it a wide berth.

Elsewhere, there's nothing to force rebuilders and small-market teams to spend. So no matter where they turn, free agents are finding owners who, despite being billionaires, resemble the deadbeat dad statue from The Simpsons, smiling sheepishly with empty pockets in hand and saying, "I just don't have it."

Another issue that's notably gotten attention from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic is the lack of diverse thought within MLB front offices. The obsession with statistical analysis and projection has effectively created a hive mind that churns out cookie-cutter player valuations.

There's also a common opinion of and common strategy for free agency: It stinks, and the best thing to do is wait it out.

"Teams are smarter. They know how terrible free agency is," one general manager told Passan.

Said another GM of his approach to the free-agent market: "Of course I'm waiting. Because they're going to worry they won't get a job, and I'm going to get a discount."

The strategy of waiting out free agents isn't making its debut this offseason. Indeed, it's evolving. Per Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs, the number of free-agent signings during February (i.e., the first month of spring training) rose in each of the last three years. Yet another rise should occur this year.

According to Rosenthal, the situation is so disconcerting for players and agents that some are grumbling about collusion. That's a stretch, but there's no denying the free-agent freeze is a bad look for a league that, according to Maury Brown of Forbes, produced $10 billion in revenue last year. And for players, there's fear that the damage will have lasting power.

"The profits for clubs this offseason will be staggering. The impact on future markets will be mind-boggling," one agent told Rosenthal. "Of those players who sign, how many will sign below market, thus creating a new lower value for comparable players in future markets?"

It's easy to brainstorm fixes that would even the negotiating balance between owners and players. A softer salary cap would help. With or without that, a payroll floor would also help. Perhaps best of all would be to cut clubs' control of players down from six years. That would allow players to enter free agency sooner, thereby allowing them to maximize their earning power during their prime years.

But since these may be so many pies in the sky, a potentially agreeable alternative is to take a cue from the NBA for the sake of disincentivizing the free-agent waiting game.

The NBA doesn't jump headlong into the business portion of its offseason. The Finals conclude in mid-June, and then the league takes a couple of weeks to do its draft and hand out awards. Then there's a weeklong moratorium in which players and teams can negotiate but can't sign contracts.

The light doesn't turn green until July 6, about two-and-a-half months before training camps open. Rather than try to wait out players, teams engage in a frenzy of signings and trades right out of the gate.

In MLB, players become free agents the morning after the World Series concludes. There's then a five-day window for teams to negotiate with their free agents. After that, they're let out to wander the free-agent wilds with three-and-a-half months until spring training.

In theory, the extra time can be justified under the reality that baseball rosters are larger than basketball rosters. Hypothetically, more time and effort are needed to fill them.

But in reality, teams are putting just as much time and effort into tending to their bottom lines as they are to filling out their rosters. While not the reason, the sheer length of baseball's offseason is a reason they can get away with this. There just isn't a sense of urgency.

If the start of free agency were pushed back to, say, Dec. 1, November could turn into a month for awards, new coaching and front office hires and negotiations and handshake agreements between teams and pending free agents that could help set market prices before the doors even open. Once the doors do open, the clock would start ticking on teams to fill needs. Better hurry before the best players are gone.

For the average baseball fan, this would be a great deal more exciting than a long, slow, mostly empty crawl to spring training. If it were to also prove successful in transferring negotiating power from teams to players, the benefit for the latter would be obvious.

The benefit for the former could emerge in the long run in the form of ongoing labor peace. Since that hardly seems guaranteed at present, that would surely be an acceptable compromise.

If nothing else, it's something worth thinking about. It's not as if there's anything else going on, after all.

    

Free-agent data courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors.

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What Eric Hosmer Must Do to Avoid Being Colossal $140M MLB Offseason Bust

A free-agent market that's been stagnant all winter may finally be ready to dish out a nine-figure contract. The potential lucky recipient is at once unsurprising and arguably undeserving.

Eric Hosmer, come on down.

According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Hosmer has two seven-year offers in front of him. One is from the Kansas City Royals, the only team he's known in his seven-year career, and worth $147 million. The other is from the San Diego Padres and worth $140 million.

Obviously, nothing is final until the 28-year-old first baseman signs on the dotted line. Plus, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune has heard that the Padres' offer is less than $140 million. 

Then there's the other caveat: Beyond what the Royals and Padres apparently think, whether Hosmer is worth a nine-figure contract varies depending on who you ask.

Projections for his contract—see mine, as well as those from Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs—at the outset of the winter were all over the map. The same appears to be true of opinions about Hosmer within Major League Baseball front offices.

"In my heart, he's a $100 million player," one general manager told Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. "In my head, I'm not so sure."

On the one hand, there's Hosmer's Jekyll side. He's a four-time Gold Glove winner who also has a Silver Slugger, an All-Star Game MVP award and a World Series ring. He was never better than in 2017, when he posted a career-best .882 OPS with 25 home runs and four wins above replacement.

And then there's his Hyde side. He's too often flirted with replacement-level status (0 WAR). Overall, he comes with a modest .781 career OPS and defensive metrics that are at odds with his Gold Glove reputation.

The Royals' and Padres' reported offers strike a balance between Hosmer's lackluster production and his sparkling upside. My projections extrapolated the former to be worth $17 million per year and the latter to be worth $25 million per year. His reported average annual value would fall nicely in the middle.

Even still, there's no ignoring how Hosmer's track record suggests to take the under on the question of whether he would underperform or overperform such a contract.

And that, in turn, raises the question of what he would have to do to avoid becoming the latest in a long line of free-agent busts.

If nothing else, Hosmer would have to retain his intangibles. Local and national reporters alike have raved about his worth ethic and clubhouse presence. So have teammates and managers, no matter how temporary.

"He's every manager's dream as a player," said Jim Leyland, who managed Hosmer with Team USA in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, according to Passan. "I can tell you that. And I only had him for a couple of weeks."

What will matter a lot more in the long run, however, is Hosmer's play on the field. To that end, his top priority regardless of how much money he signs for should be to fix a bat with a disappearing/reappearing threat level.

Hosmer has the makings of a great hitter. He has yet to post an above-average strikeout rate and has recently become an above-average walk artist. His home runs are proof he also has good oomph in his swing. He hits a few moonshots here and there and a lot of lasers in between.

This is when he can get the ball off the ground. As these numbers show, keeping the ball on the ground is a habit he just can't quit:

This isn't news. What would be news is if Hosmer committed himself to correcting his ground-ball tendencies, which is a pool he has been hesitant to dive into.

"It's something that I can't worry about," he told Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star in April. "When I'm going good with myself, there's certain keys I focus on, and it takes care of all the other stuff. Specifically, I don't go and look at launch angles, or this angle or that angle. Whatever little key it takes for me to get going, it takes care of all the other stats."

It would be understandable if Hosmer came by this attitude by trying and simply failing to adjust his swing for more fly balls.

But to conclude "I can't worry about that" isn't a good look at a time when hitters all over have joined the Launch-Angle Revolution (also known as the Fly-Ball Revolution or Air-Ball Revolution) and ushered in the most extreme home run era in MLB history. More so than any hitter who hasn't yet joined in the fun, Hosmer has the most to gain from doing so.

While he's at it, he should also seek to improve his defense.

Hosmer's Gold Glove reputation isn't without merit. It might be easiest to notice first base defense when the guys at the not-so-hot corner are scooping bad throws out of the dirt. Hosmer excels at that, tallying more scoops than any first basemen since 2011.

But while he may be excellent at securing outs, he's not great at stealing hits. His minus-39.0 "Range Runs" since 2011 is by far the worst mark of any first basemen. Per Inside Edge fielding data, he hardly makes "Remote" or "Unlikely" plays.

Hosmer's range issue seems to stem from suboptimal reactions and reads to batted balls. FanGraphs' August Fagerstrom covered that in a 2016 article, and it's evident on plays from 2017 like this one and this one.

On the bright side, it's not as if he's some lumbering, slow-footed oaf who plays first base because it's the only position that will have him. He's a good athlete. Were he to make better use of his athleticism, he could easily live up to his Gold Glove reputation.

In short, living up to a seven-year deal in the realm of $140 million comes down to Hosmer's ability to cease being the player he's been and become the player he can be. It's a weird thing to say about a decorated veteran. Yet it's true.

It's also a rare selling point for a free agent. Most of them can only get worse. Hosmer can only get better.

                

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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Yankees Must Avoid Regretful Trade Splash on Doorstep of World Series

The New York Yankees have entered the new year as arguably the winners of the offseason and, after coming just one win short in 2017, as arguably the team to beat in the race to the 2018 World Series.

This doesn't mean they can do no wrong as the winter winds down.

Mind you, it's not as if the Yankees' hot-stove checklist still contains an endless column of empty boxes. They arranged one of Major League Baseball's most fearsome offenses when they added Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, to a lineup that already had Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. When they re-signed CC Sabathia, they effectively re-upped with one of last season's best pitching staffs.

It's apparent, however, that these Yankees believe overkill is underrated.

According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, the Bombers have their eye on free-agent ace Yu Darvish. Alex Cobb is another talented free-agent starter on their radar. Regarding trade targets, Heyman added to a chorus of reports that have sent Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer strutting into Yankees fans' imaginations.

The club's interest in Darvish and Cobb should be taken with a grain of salt. The Yankees are projected to be $16 million under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for 2018. They likely can't sign Darvish or Cobb without wiping out that space, thereby reneging on a supposed goal.

"You can have a world championship-caliber team and not have a $200-plus million payroll," principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said in November, per David Lennon of Newsday, "and I think we're finally getting to a point where that's coming true for us because we've got a lot of good young players on our team."

If the Yankees deem this goal expendable, well, so be it. It's only money. They crank that stuff out like Motown cranked out hits in the 1960s.

But trades? Different story. 

After years of failing to put together a good farm system, the Yankees revamped their system in 2016 and kept it in good enough shape in 2017 for it to end up at No. 3 in Bleacher Report's rankings. Headlined by shortstop Gleyber Torres, the darn thing is loaded.

Alas, there's no way the Yankees could get Archer (29 and controlled cheaply through 2021) or Fulmer (24 and controlled cheaply through 2022) without blowing it up. Their acquisition costs probably include literal arms and legs.

Since he's 27 and only controlled through 2019, Cole should cost less. However, Heyman has reported that the Pittsburgh Pirates want Torres in a Cole deal. The Yankees apparently prefer to part with outfielder Clint Frazier, a 23-year-old who's not far removed from being an elite prospect. But the reality that a deal hasn't been done yet indicates the Pirates aren't willing to settle at that price.

Either that, or the Yankees have asked the necessary question: Is any of this worth it?

Their rotation is already headed by an electric ace (Luis Severino), with a mostly dependable producer (Masahiro Tanaka) in the No. 2 slot and a recent Cy Young finalist (Sonny Gray) in the No. 3 slot. After combining for 304 innings and a 3.79 ERA in 2017, Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery look like an above-average back-end duo.

There's an embarrassment of bullpen riches headlined by Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Tommy Kahnle. This might be the best collection of relief pitchers in recent memory—which, given the contemporary importance of the breed, makes it possibly the best collection of relievers ever.

Of course, whatever urge general manager Brian Cashman may be feeling to pile on can be justified. Rebuilders hoard prospects so they can build from the ground up. Contenders, on the other hand, are free to deal from their prospect caches to satisfy needs and advance win-now agendas.

But given that the Yankees don't have any real "needs" in their pitching staff, the smart play would be to leave good enough alone and hold off until such needs arise.

Injuries and ineffectiveness always ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The best way for contenders to adjust to that is by using the summer trade market.

The Yankees beautifully illustrated the concept when they used their prospect depth to deal for Gray, Robertson and Kahnle last July, after which they finished strong at 34-24. If they hold off on blockbuster trades now, they'll have everything they need to rescue themselves all over again this summer.

Besides, they have other "needs" to attend to in the meantime.

It's not because of pitching issues that FanGraphs' projections expect the Yankees to finish with the same record (91-71) as the Boston Red Sox in 2018. They have red flags on the other side of the ball, such as potential regressions on the part of Judge (who's also coming off shoulder surgery) and Aaron Hicks.

Then there are the much more conspicuous red flags at third base and second base, where the Yankees are set to give untested rookie Miguel Andujar and light-hitting utility type Ronald Torreyes regular at-bats. FanGraphs expects the duo to combine for just 1.9 wins above replacement. That's unbecoming of a championship contender.

This is a glaring invitation for the Yankees to pursue a reunion with slugging third baseman Todd Frazier, who can likely be signed without sacrificing the team's remaining tax space. They could then go for a low-cost second baseman, such as old friend Eduardo Nunez or a sturdy veteran like Brandon Phillips.

None of this would be as exciting as if the Yankees emptied the farm to land a big-name pitcher. That would have the same kind of allure as if the Galactic Empire put an extra super-laser on the Death Star, just in case.

Instead, the Yankees should be looking to seal up problematic exhaust ports. It's all they need to do to get ready for 2018, and it wouldn't preclude them from more drastic maneuvers down the line.

All they'd have to do then is play the games.

          

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Jake Arrieta for Yu Darvish Swap Would Put Cubs Big Step Closer to Another Title

As they seek a return to the World Series after winning it in 2016, the Chicago Cubs are a rare team that's done its part to breathe life into Major League Baseball's hot stove.

Yet their starting rotation still lacks a replacement for former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Simply re-signing him is one option; an even better one, however, is a pivot to Yu Darvish.

There are strong indications the Cubs have already figured this out. Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago noted on December 16 that Darvish was on the team's radar. He and Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports subsequently reported the two sides had met:

Since then, the only rustling in this corner of the rumor mill was Darvish himself reaching into the overplayed hashtags barrel and dropping #fakenews on a report that he and the Cubs had reached a deal. 

However, since the hot stove is presently cold enough for a wampa infestation, a union between Darvish and the Cubs is worth talking about just to pass the time. More to the point, it's worth taking seriously because there might not be a better team-player match to be found this winter.

As a four-time All-Star who's coming off a solid 3.86 ERA over 186.2 innings in 2017, Darvish has a strong claim to the title of the offseason's best free agent. He's also not tied to draft-pick compensation since he was barred from receiving a qualifying offer, which should make him extra desirable.

Unfortunately for the 31-year-old, most of MLB's big spenders either can't spend a lot of money this winter or simply don't want to. What is fortunate for him, though, is the Cubs are an exception.

They've already committed $82 million to Tyler Chatwood, Drew Smyly, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. With $36.6 million in space still between them and the $197 million luxury tax threshold, they can afford to add Darvish for, say, $25 million-$30 million per year without signing up to pay any penalties.

It would be cheaper for the Cubs to re-sign Arrieta. But that would still require a significant investment, and they would be going to a pitcher who's trending in a direction that teams don't want significant investments to trend.

Arrieta had a quiet breakout with a 2.53 ERA across 156.2 innings in 2014 and then romped his way to a Cy Young with a 1.77 ERA across 229 innings in 2015. But his ERA rose to 3.10 in 2016 and then to 3.53 in 2017, the latter of which was compiled over just 168.1 innings.

There's not a whole lot of trickery going on here. In 2017, the 31-year-old's average fastball was down 2.5 mph from 2015. His contact rate has risen accordingly. As has his hard-contact rate.

Granted, the contact being made against Darvish the last time he pitched was downright ear-splitting. After allowing just two runs over 11.1 innings in his first two postseason starts (one of which was against the Cubs in the National League Championship Series) with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he got lit up by the Houston Astros for nine runs over 3.1 innings in two World Series starts.

But as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported, the shellacking of Darvish came courtesy of him tipping his pitches. That's easy to fix. And he doesn't need many fixes on top of that.

Although Darvish is a Tommy John survivor who's only 163 days younger than Arrieta, his stuff is just fine. He's coming off a career-best fastball average of 94.2 mph. And after some initial struggles, the Dodgers helped revive his slider's whiff habit in August and September.

Thus he finished tied for 12th with Stephen Strasburg with a 73.7 overall contact percentage. That carried on his legacy as one of the best contact avoiders in MLB since 2012:

Rank Player Contact%
1 Francisco Liriano 70.5
2 Max Scherzer 72.5
3 Clayton Kershaw 72.9
4 Yu Darvish 73.0
5 Corey Kluber 73.6

 Via FanGraphs, min. 800 IP

This ought to be music to the Cubs' ears. A low contact rate was a driving force behind their starting pitching staff's torrid run through 2016. Alas, their starters were one of the biggest losers in contact rate from 2016 to 2017. That contributed to an ERA slump from 3.15 to 3.95.

Another thing worth throwing out there is the Cubs may also be just the team to squeeze further potential out of Darvish.

The ugly 178-point gap in his OPS splits versus lefty batters (.778 OPS) and righty batters (.600 OPS) in 2017 was a variation on a frustrating theme. A possible cure for that is a dependable off-speed pitch, which Darvish has always lacked. He peaked at 5.8 percent splitters in 2012, and at 3.9 percent changeups in 2014.

The Cubs now employ Jim Hickey as their pitching coach. He previously oversaw a Tampa Bay Rays staff that, as Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs noted, worked wonders with changeups of all shapes and sizes. The fast-moving, sharp-breaking splitter/changeup hybrids preferred by Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi sound like just the weapon for Darvish, who generally favors movement over changing speeds.

Even if it's asking too much for Hickey to wave a magic wand and enchant Darvish with a new pitch, he wouldn't need to be better than he already is to earn his keep in Chicago. Where most teams would need him to be a steady No. 1, the Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to pick up the slack.

Add Darvish to the mix, and Chicago's rotation instantly becomes one of the best in baseball. With Morrow and Cishek, the club's bullpen has already gotten necessary upgrades following a rough showing in 2017. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo still anchor a lineup that excels on offense and defense.

At the very least, that's a team that would be safely above the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central pecking order. More likely, the Cubs would be right there with the Dodgers and Washington Nationals in the broader scheme of things. As it is, FanGraphs' projections for 2018 already offer enough to argue the point.

The Cubs snapped a 108-year drought when they won the World Series in 2016. If they add Darvish, they'll have what they need to stop their current drought at one year.

             

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Brooks Baseball. Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Evan Longoria Trade Means Giants Have No Choice but to Go on Big Spending Spree

The San Francisco Giants have acquired a three-time All-Star and Gold Glover to play third base, thereby adding a significant upgrade over what remains of Pablo Sandoval.

Now all they need is more.

A lot more.

For now, Evan Longoria is the newest Giant. They acquired him on Wednesday from the Tampa Bay Rays in a blockbuster deal, the details of which Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times has the full readout:

"We are pleased to bring Evan Longoria to the Giants organization," said Giants general manager Bobby Evans, via SFGate.com. "Evan gives us a Gold Glove-caliber player at third base and also provides us a middle-of-the-order presence in the lineup. His durability and leadership will strengthen our club moving forward."

Longoria, 32, will serve as the Giants' everyday third baseman in 2018 and beyond. He's one year into a six-year, $100 million contract that runs through 2022 with an option for 2023.

Nobody should need to be sold on his being an upgrade over Sandoval, but some numbers are in order anyway. Over the last three seasons, Sandoval has averaged 69 games, a .644 OPS and minus-0.8 wins above replacement (via Baseball Reference). Longoria's averages in this span: 159 games, a .781 OPS and 3.5 WAR.

But if the Giants are hoping that he'll be a one-man fix for a team that lost 98 games in 2017, well, they're sorely mistaken.

Longoria's calling cards are power and defense. The latter remained strong enough in 2017 to add Gold Glove No. 3 to his collection. The former fell flat, however, as his home run total dropped from 36 in 2016 all the way down to 20.

The big red flag is how Longoria went from being a leading member of Major League Baseball's air-ball revolution to being largely absent from it. He achieved a career-low ground-ball rate (32%) in 2016, only to turn around and post a career-high rate (43%) in 2017.

And now comes the obligatory reminder that AT&T Park is no country for sluggers. When all the home runs Longoria has ever hit are measured against its dimensions, a handful fall short of the fence:

It's not at all unbelievable that the acquisition of Longoria barely moved the needle for the 2018 Giants' record projection at FanGraphs. They were projected to win 80 games. Now they're projected to win...[drum roll]...81 games.

Whether this is a true reflection of their quality is negotiable. But it speaks not just to Longoria's less-than-almighty ability, but also to how many holes the Giants must still fill.

They needed a center field upgrade even before they salary-dumped Denard Span on the Rays. With Gorkys Hernandez now projected as their everyday center fielder, that need looms even larger.

The other outfield spots also lack solid foundations. In right field, the Giants have an aging Hunter Pence who hasn't had a healthy, productive season since 2014. In left field, they're set to go with a Jarrett Parker/Mac Williamson platoon that failed to make an impact in 2017.

With Matt Moore having been traded to the Texas Rangers, San Francisco's starting rotation is Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and then two spots that are more or less open. 

On the bright side, the Giants have Buster Posey, the best catcher in baseball, behind the plate and one of the best infields in MLB with Longoria at third, Brandon Crawford at shortstop, Joe Panik at second base and Brandon Belt at first base.

But in an NL West division with three 2017 postseason teams—most notably the reigning National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers—it's hard to argue that the Giants are destined to go places as long as they need solutions for 100 percent of their outfield and 40 percent of their starting rotation.

According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the next shoe to drop may be the signing of free-agent slugger Jay Bruce:

He would fix one of the corner outfield spots, but not center field.

So while they're looking at Bruce, the Giants should also consider signing Lorenzo Cain. If they prefer someone younger, they could rekindle their trade interest in Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, for whom Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported they were the "strongest" suitor.

On the pitching front, Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are the top prizes on the free-agent market. Lesser prizes include Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner.

On the trade market, the Giants might turn back to the Rays and ask about Chris Archer. Of course, since he's ultra-talented and signed for cheap through 2021, that would mean sacrificing some combination of outfielder Heliot Ramos, slugger Chris Shaw and right-hander Tyler Beede from their farm system.

Regardless of how the Giants choose to continue their renovation, seeing it through to a rational end will be severely costly. Indeed, there's a good argument that they simply can't afford that.

Without Arroyo, a farm system that Bleacher Report ranked at No. 26 at the end of the minor league season is now even worse. And while the final picture won't be clear until the amount of cash going from Tampa Bay to San Francisco is known, it's a safe assumption that the Giants have even less than the $15.5 million in luxury-tax space that they started with on Wednesday.

And that's just for 2018. As noted by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the long-term outlook of San Francisco's payroll is even worse:

With this ahead of them and their last World Series championship now three years behind them, the Giants could have been forgiven if they were committed to rebuilding this winter. But they made it clear with their hot pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton that they're not ready to do that. With the Longoria trade, they officially committed to not doing it.

The only explanation is that the Giants view their long-term future as far more hopeless than their short-term future. Rather than punt on all of it, better to try and make the most what short-term hope they have.

So be it. But to make the most of it, they need more.

     

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll and contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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The MLB All-Star with 38 Home Runs Nobody Wants to Sign

Mike Moustakas is a two-time All-Star who's coming off a career-high 38 home runs and is only two years removed from winning a World Series ring. Who wants to sign him as a free agent?

...Anyone?

Apparently not. Moustakas' rung of the hot-stove rumor mill has been pin-drop quiet. So much so, in fact, that ESPN's Buster Olney heard an idea that the 29-year-old third baseman would be wise to settle for a one-year deal, potentially with the New York Yankees:

It's safe to say this isn't what Moustakas, a seven-year veteran of the Kansas City Royals, had in mind when he became a free agent.

Nor is it what hot-stove prognosticators had in mind. Projections for his contract from people like myself, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and the MLB Trade Rumors crew fell in the five-year, $80 million range.

It's worth stressing that the idea of signing a so-called "pillow contract" is just that: an idea. Everyone could wake up tomorrow to find out he'd signed a nice, fat multiyear deal at some point during the night, and that would be that.

But as far as ideas go, this one has legs.

The qualifying offer isn't helping Moustakas' market. By rejecting a deal that would have returned him to Kansas City in 2018 for a $17.4 million salary, Moustakas tied himself to draft-pick compensation. Signing him thus costs more than just money.

He's also caught up in an offseason market that's been slow-moving for all big-name free agents. Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain, his potentially soon-to-be-former teammates, remain unsigned. So do J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

Before the winter meetings, the easy explanation for the molasses-paced free-agent market was that teams were waiting for the Miami Marlins to trade National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton and for Japanese two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani to pick his Major League Baseball home.

After the winter meetings, it's easy to speculate that the problem is how focused big spenders like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are on next year's free-agent class, which Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will headline.

"Next year's free-agent class is going to tempt them [and just about every club] because it might be the most star-laced ever, including Machado," Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles are peddling Machado on the trade market. There have also been rumors about Tampa Bay Rays veteran Evan Longoria and Toronto Blue Jays slugger Josh Donaldson

Beyond playing in the AL East, one thing they have in common is they're all third basemen. Moustakas therefore doesn't have the market for third base upgrades to himself.

Nor does he have center stage, as Machado, Longoria and Donaldson are frankly better than he is.

Per Baseball Reference, Moustakas was worth 1.8 wins above replacement in 2017 and has a career peak of 4.4 WAR. Machado (3.5 and 7.1), Longoria (3.6 and 8.1) and Donaldson (4.8 and 8.8) each has those numbers beat easily.

While he's typically a capable performer on defense, Moustakas is coming off a season in which he posted below-average defensive metrics. That could be just a random blip. Or it could be something more alarming.

On the other side of the ball, Moustakas' main flaw is his general inability to get on base. His career on-base percentage is just .305, and he's had an above-average OBP in a season just once.

This leaves power as Moustakas' best selling point. He earned the 38 homers he hit in 2017 by making better use of the strength bundled into his 6'0", 215-pound frame. Like many hitters throughout MLB, he hit fewer balls on the ground and more in the air. That's obviously the most direct avenue to power.

However, home runs suddenly aren't as valuable as they once were. Whereas dingers were few and far between as recently as 2014, a record number of balls cleared the fence in 2017.

For Moustakas, the insult to injury is that third base has been one of the biggest gainers in home runs over the last four years. Via Baseball Reference:

So the idea about taking a one-year deal with the Yankees? Beyond being one that has legs, it's indeed a good one.

He's not only primarily a fly-ball hitter but primarily a pull hitter as well. At Kauffman Stadium, he didn't play in a park that catered to such hitters. At Yankee Stadium, he most certainly would. 

Consider a plot from Baseball Savant that shows all the fly balls and line drives that Moustakas ever hit at Kauffman Stadium overlaid onto Yankee Stadium, which reveals something to be gained from a move from one to the other:

Whether it's with the Yankees or someone else—say, the San Francisco Giants or the St. Louis Cardinals—Moustakas has other incentives to take a one-year contract.

The newest collective bargaining agreement contains a change to the qualifying offer rules that bars players from receiving an offer more than once. Moustakas has already received his, so taking a one-year offer would allow him to re-enter the market next year without any ties to draft-pick compensation.

On the downside, this would mean sharing the free-agent market with Machado and Donaldson. On the plus side, there will be more money to be had next winter. The luxury-tax threshold will increase from $197 million in 2018 to $206 million in 2019. That gives the big spenders (especially the Yankees and Dodgers) more breathing room.

As of now, Moustakas' free-agent saga is a bummer and a bore. But give it enough time, and it should have a happy ending.

            

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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Red Sox Must Avoid Making $300M Eric Hosmer-JD Martinez Panic Move

You will know the Boston Red Sox have overreacted to their biggest rival's offseason splashes when they drop a few hundred million dollars on Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez.

It's been easy to speculate that the winter winds will blow the Red Sox toward one or the other. But when the winter meetings were coming to a close Thursday, Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald reported that the Red Sox's aim is to sign both.

"I've read that, but I don't know where we'd play those two bats," cautioned Dave Dombrowski, Boston's president of baseball operations, to Silverman and other reporters. "I'm trying to figure that one out. But I would say we'd be more limited to probably one bat."

Dombrowski typically isn't one to resist temptations to infuse his rosters with megastars, however. And in this case, these stars would fill glaring needs.

After finishing last in the American League with 168 home runs in 2017, the Red Sox need power. Coming off a career-high 45 homers that were hit at a league-best rate, Martinez has lots of that.

With Mitch Moreland having served his one-year contract, the Red Sox also have a need for a slick-fielding, left-handed-swinging first baseman. With a lifetime .284 batting average and four Gold Gloves, Hosmer would seem to be the perfect solution.

Hosmer and Martinez might be on Boston's radar not by way of careful calculation, however, but by way of a panicky instinct to do something, anything, to keep up with the New York Yankees.

The Yankees are positioned to be the Bronx Bombers like never before after adding National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to an Infinity Gauntlet of sluggers that already contained Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. They also cleared some money by trading Chase Headley. Some of that has already been reinvested in CC Sabathia. A move for a veteran bat (e.g., Todd Frazier) could be next.

In short, the Yankees are upgrading a team that came just one win shy of the World Series in 2017. To boot, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs posit that their 91-win season was more like a 100-win season.

So it's understandable if the Red Sox fear the Yankees. They should.

Just not so much to jerk their knee and end up with Hosmer and Martinez on their payroll.

Signing the two of them could cost as much as $300 million, as they are both expected (including by myself and Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports) to land contracts in the $150 million range. Just one deal like that would come with an enormous amount of risk. Double the number, double the enormous risk.

And while Hosmer and Martinez are fits for the Red Sox, neither would be perfect.

Hosmer's defensive metrics don't align with his Gold Glove reputation, which raises the seemingly unfathomable question of whether the Red Sox would be better off with Hanley Ramirez at first base. 

With just a .781 career OPS and a peak of 25 homers, Hosmer also hasn't provided the offensive thunder associated with first base. Put him in Fenway Park, and the hope would be he could translate his excellent opposite-field track record (1.100 OPS) into a steady supply of hits off and over the Green Monster. Trouble is, his annoyingly indestructible ground-ball habit would keep his power ceiling low.

Martinez comes with poor defensive metrics of his own. Even if the Red Sox were to neutralize that by using him as a designated hitter, they could be disappointed by his power output.

Since he's a right-handed slugger, it's easy to assume the Green Monster would help Martinez even more than Hosmer. But Martinez is more an all-fields hitter than a dead-pull hitter. Barring a change to his approach, his home run prowess could be hurt by deep center field and right field dimensions that would have swallowed up many of the homers he's hit since his 2014 breakout:

Even more painful than any disappointing short-term gains would be the potential long-term toll.

This winter's free-agent class has nothing on what's coming next year. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Charlie Blackmon will head the list of available hitters. Assuming he opts out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw will head the list of starting pitchers. Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel, currently employed by the Red Sox, will head the list of relief pitchers.

The specter of next winter is haunting this winter. Teams have been hesitant to dip into the free-agent market. The Yankees and Dodgers, meanwhile, have maneuvered to get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018. This way, they can avoid paying harsh penalties and reset their luxury tax standing just in time to back up so many trucks for so many stars next offseason.

The Red Sox aren't in the same boat. 

With a luxury tax projection of $201.2 million for 2018, they are already set to be over the $197 million threshold. They also have $100.1 million in tax-adjusted commitments for 2019, which is on the high end of the spectrum:

Say the Red Sox sign Hosmer and Martinez, each for $25 million per year. Because the luxury tax calculations use the average annual value of contracts, that would boost them to a whopping $150.1 million in tax-adjusted commitments for 2019.

Add Boston's arbitration expenses, which are projected at $49 million for 2018 and could stay in that range in 2019. Then add Chris Sale's $13.5 million option for 2019, which will certainly be picked up. Then assume David Price won't opt out of his $31 million-per-year contract, which is a fair assumption following his injury-marred 2017 campaign.

Add it all up, and the Red Sox would probably be over the $206 million threshold for 2019. As offenders for a second straight year, their tax rate would go from 20 percent to 30 percent.

These numbers obviously aren't final, but they point to the Red Sox having extremely restricted leeway to compete for the premier players from the best free-agent market in MLB history—at least when compared to clubs like the Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies and, most distressing of all, the Yankees.

Signing Hosmer and Martinez isn't worth that sacrifice. One would be excusable—especially if it's Martinez, whose power is worth the risk despite the Fenway nitpicks—but signing both would effectively be an all-in bet on 2018. Were the effort to fail, the Red Sox would be facing down all sorts of regret as they find themselves unable to match exorbitant offers for significant upgrades.

As odd as it feels to say it, now is a good time for the Red Sox to show restraint.

               

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

After four days of trades, signings and rumors about trades and signings, Major League Baseball's annual winter meetings came to a close Thursday. 

It'll be years before fair judgment can be passed on the winners and losers. But for now, it's clear enough who appear to be the winners and losers of the meetings. The list ahead covers four of each and includes both teams and players.

Be warned that the New York Yankees and Giancarlo Stanton are not among them. Although the Yankees made their blockbuster trade for Stanton official during the first day of the meetings Monday, it was conceived a couple of days before executives, coaches, agents and players descended on Orlando, Florida.

Otherwise, it's on with the show. 

Begin Slideshow

Manny Machado’s Down Year, Rental Status Make Blockbuster Trade a Massive Risk

Manny Machado is on the block and teams are lining up to trade for him. Because what could go wrong with a deal for one of Major League Baseball's top superstars?

Plenty, actually.

A few days ago, it wasn't worth the mental energy to sit down and weigh the pros and cons of a Machado trade. He was a member of the Baltimore Orioles and all but guaranteed to stay that way for 2018.

But on Tuesday, the second day of the winter meetings, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Orioles had gone from merely listening on Machado to actively shopping him. On Wednesday, Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com indicated that the Machado sweepstakes are heating up:

Per Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, "several" teams have already made offers for the three-time All-Star third baseman.

This is all perfectly sensible.

In the Orioles' immediate past is a last-place finish in the AL East. In their immediate future is a good deal of uncertainty. The New York Yankees added to the latter when they acquired reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton. The Orioles should be looking to cash in their best trade chip. And plenty of teams should be interested in bartering with them.

"I don't think it's that far down the track," Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, said of the Machado trade talks to Rosenthal. "It's prudent to find out which way the wind is blowing."

Of course, all trades involving superstars are risky by default. This one is made even riskier by three realities:

  • Machado is set to earn $17.2 million via arbitration in 2018, per MLB Trade Rumors.
  • 2018 is also his final year before free agency.
  • He's coming off a down year.

Regarding that last point, the 25-year-old did well to crank 33 home runs but his OPS fell from .869 across 2015 and 2016—he was a top-five MVP finisher both years—to just .782 in 2017.

That number looks worse in the context of how Machado played half his games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an extreme hitter's park. Using OPS+ to adjust for that, Machado's OPS was just seven percent better than average. That tied for 75th among qualified hitters.

The bright side, such as it is, is that bad luck evidently played a role in Machado's struggles.

His walk (7.2 BB%) and strikeout (16.7 K%) rates stayed steady, and his hard-hit rate jumped to a career-best 39.5 percent. He may not have gotten many hits to fall, but it wasn't for lack of effort or ability.

Still, Machado's prospective suitors would surely prefer that he was coming off a year in which his process matched his results, so as to eliminate any questions about a damaged relationship between the two. 

There's also an interesting wrinkle in the Machado trade talks that has to do with his defense.

According to Rosenthal, he wants to move from third base to shortstop in his final year before free agency. As I've previously covered, Machado has the experience and the skills to qualify as an upside play at shortstop. But he's far from a proven product at short like he is at third, where he's won two Gold Gloves and generated a smorgasbord of highlights during his six-year career.

If the 29 teams outside Baltimore could view Machado as a chance to add a long-term piece, his offensive and defensive questions wouldn't cause executives to lose much sleep. Barring an unlikely contract extension, however, he's only going to be a one-year rental. One who'll cost a pretty penny, to boot.

And that's after paying an enormous acquisition cost to get him.

Per Rosenthal, the Orioles want two young and controllable starting pitchers for Machado. That's a big ask under any circumstances. It's a bigger ask at a time when good starters are suddenly hard to find. According to FanGraphs WAR, starting pitchers just had their worst year of the 30-team era (since 1998).

The ideal team to acquire Machado therefore would ideally be able to slot him at shortstop or third base, must have young starters to spare and, above all, must be a good enough contender to justify giving them up for him.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians are set at short and third. For them, a deal for Machado is unnecessary.

The Philadelphia Phillies (per Heyman) and Chicago White Sox (per Rosenthal) are supposedly interested and have the prospects to deal. But neither is looking at contending in 2018. For them, a deal for Machado would go to waste.

Machado could fit with either the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Angels, but not at shortstop. Besides, neither is rich with young pitching. Or ensured for contention in 2018. For them, a deal for Machado is a huge gamble they probably can't make.

The New York Yankees are a possible fit and are interested, per ESPN's Buster Olney. However, trading some of their young pitching within the AL East could come back to haunt them. The same is true of the Boston Red Sox. For these two rivals, a deal for Machado might not be worth the long-term headache.

The one team that checks all the boxes is the St. Louis Cardinals.

Coming off a disappointing 83-win season, the Cardinals made a major statement Wednesday by getting All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna in a deal with the Miami Marlins, according to Craig Mish of SiriusXM. That only cost them one player (Sandy Alcantara) from a collection of upper-tier pitching prospects, per Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald. Lastly, they can stand to upgrade over either Paul DeJong at shortstop or Jedd Gyorko at third.

Yet even with them, there's an "are you sure this is a good idea?" element. An attempt to go all-in on 2018 would require throwing their hat in the ring with the NL heavyweights in Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago. It's worth a shot, but failure could leave the Cardinals paying the price for years.

From the sound of things, no such hand-wringing is going to preclude a trade from happening between the Orioles and the Cardinals or the Orioles and whoever. The signs point toward a deal.

In this case more than many others, whoever pulls the trigger had better know what they're doing.

                 

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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How Many HRs Will Yankees Hit? Giancarlo Stanton Can Push Them to New MLB Record

The New York Yankees are indeed the Bronx Bombers.

Throughout Major League Baseball history, the franchise has cranked out 1,952 more home runs than any other. They've led the American League in homers 40 times. The latest entry occurred in 2017, when super-youngsters Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez paced an effort to 241 taters.

And yet it's appropriate to say the general dinger-loving public hasn't seen anything yet.

In fact, the Yankees may now be on an explosive path to setting new all-time records in 2018 thanks to the arrival of a 6'6" home run machine to pair with Aaron Judge.

Just how many blasts will the Yanks hit this coming season? Bleacher Report will dive into the numbers below to figure it out, and pitchers should be downright horrified.

For anyone who's spent the last few days hanging out in the Mariana Trench, the newest Yankee is a fella named Giancarlo Stanton. Yes, that Giancarlo Stanton. The one who just led MLB with 59 long balls en route to winning the National League MVP.

The Yankees acquired him—and, for anyone scoring at home, $265 million of the $295 million remaining on his kaiju-size contract—over the weekend and officially introduced him Monday.

"I feel sorry for the baseballs," the 28-year-old slugger said, via the Yankees' Twitter. "... We're going to be tough. It's going to be hard to get through us all."

He's right about the baseballs, you know.

The 6'7", 282-pound Judge is one of few people on earth who can make the 6'6", 245-pound Stanton look small by comparison. But the power they pack is about equal. They ranked 1-2 in batted balls of at least 110 mph in 2017. Only Stanton hit more 450-foot homers than Judge. The latter took the high-water mark at 495 feet.

Coming the closest to that was Sanchez, who topped out at 493 feet. He also pulled off the not-so-easy feat of upsetting Stanton on his own turf, Marlins Park, in the 2017 Home Run Derby.

Judge and Stanton have the power to join Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle from 1961 as only the second pair of teammates to each top 50 homers. The two of them plus Sanchez would also have an outside shot at becoming just the fourth trio of teammates to each top 40 homers.

The Yankees also have a shortstop in Didi Gregorius who's coming off a 25-homer campaign. Left fielder Brett Gardner hit 21 homers. Center fielder Aaron Hicks went deep 15 times in only 88 games. First baseman Greg Bird has homered 23 times in 405 regular-season and postseason plate appearances.

In the face of all this power, outrageous possibilities for what the team might achieve must be considered. Up to and including the mother of them all: the single-season home run record.

It's held by the 1997 Seattle Mariners, who were led to a whopping 264 homers by Ken Griffey Jr. (56), Jay Buhner (40), Paul Sorrento (31), Edgar Martinez (28) and Alex Rodriguez (23).

That's a lot of home runs. So many, in fact, that even these Yankees face a tall task in getting there.

The 13 hitters on their projected roster, per Roster Resource, combined to hit "only" 228 home runs in 2017. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Steamer projections (via FanGraphs) for 2018 forecasted "only" 249 home runs for the whole team:

Note that this was before third baseman Chase Headley (who hit 12 homers in 2017 and was projected for 15 in 2018) was traded to the San Diego Padres in a deal that brought back only salary relief and outfield depth in the person of Jabari Blash.

That's no help to New York's pursuit of the single-season home run record. And there could be other pitfalls later.

Though Judge beat Mark McGwire's rookie home run record in 2017, his progress was slowed in the second half by a sore left shoulder that required surgery in November. Any ill effects from that procedure could diminish his explosive power.

Bird missed all of 2016 while recovering from shoulder surgery and a good portion of 2017 while recovering from ankle surgery. Stanton, of course, comes with durability questions of his own.

Even if Stanton stays healthy, anyone thinking he'll get a significant power boost from Yankee Stadium should temper their expectations. Mike Petriello of MLB.com threw cold water on that idea:

It's awfully hard, however, to imagine the move to New York hurting Stanton's power output.

This past year was a fine example of why Yankee Stadium deserves its bandbox reputation. Per Baseball Savant, fly balls and line drives went for homers with greater regularity there than anywhere else:

Rank Stadium HR per FB/LD Rate
1 Yankee Stadium 12.9%
2 Oriole Park at Camden Yards 12.4%
3 Great American Ball Park 12.1%
4 Guaranteed Rate Field 11.7%
5 Citizens Bank Park 11.6%

That home-field slugging advantage can only help Stanton and his pinstriped cohorts. And if it's going to permit anyone to fly above the rest, it'll probably be Bird.

Albeit in limited exposure, the lefty swinger has showcased extraordinary abilities to keep the ball off the ground (28.4 GB%) while hitting primarily to his pull side (44.8 Pull%). Thus is he a classic fit for a stadium design that's catered to lefty sluggers since Babe Ruth roamed the Bronx.

So should he stay healthy, Bird can do better than the 28 homers that Steamer projects him to hit next season. Gregorius, a fellow lefty hitter with a Yankee Stadium swing, has already shown he can do better than his projection of 19 home runs. Judge and Sanchez are likewise underestimated by their projections of 37 and 30 home runs, respectively.

 

If Judge, Stanton, Sanchez, Gregorius and Gardner can repeat their 2017 seasons, the Yankees would get 190 homers out of them. Throw in, say, 30 by Bird. Then follow the Steamer projections for Hicks (18), Ronald Torreyes (five) at second base and Miguel Andujar (1) at third base, plus 13 from a four-man bench of Jacoby Ellsbury (five), Austin Romine (two), Tyler Austin (four) and Tyler Wade (two).

That adds up to 257 home runs. That's really close to a record-busting 265, and it doesn't require much sleuthing to deduce from whom the Yankees could get extra homers.

Andujar is certainly capable of hitting more than a single homer. Power is the 22-year-old prospect's calling card on offense, and it's already taken him as high as 16 homers in the minors.

Fellow top prospect Gleyber Torres, who's hit as many as 11 homers in the minors, could start over Andujar at third or play alongside him at second base. Standing by for regular playing time in the event the Yankees trade Ellsbury is Clint Frazier, whose power potential far exceeds his minor league high of 16.

Or the Yankees could use the money they saved in the Headley trade to bring back Todd Frazier. He went yard 11 times in 66 games after coming over from the Chicago White Sox in July. All told, he owns 131 homers dating back to 2014.

It may not be a straight one, but there's enough path before the Yankees to take them to 265 homers and beyond in 2018. As soon as they get there, the 1997 Mariners' record will fall.

Frankly, it's about time it did.

Major League Baseball's infatuation with the home run has generally grown over time, and it reached an all-time high in a 2017 season that produced a record 6,105 home runs. A takedown of the team home run record is the next logical step.

Who better to do it than the team that does dingers best?

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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How Many HRs Will Yankees Hit? Giancarlo Stanton Can Push Them to New MLB Record

The New York Yankees are indeed the Bronx Bombers.

Throughout Major League Baseball history, the franchise has cranked out 1,952 more home runs than any other. They've led the American League in homers 40 times. The latest entry occurred in 2017, when super-youngsters Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez paced an effort to 241 taters.

And yet it's appropriate to say the general dinger-loving public hasn't seen anything yet.

In fact, the Yankees may now be on an explosive path to setting new all-time records in 2018 thanks to the arrival of a 6'6" home run machine to pair with Aaron Judge.

Just how many blasts will the Yanks hit this coming season? Bleacher Report will dive into the numbers below to figure it out, and pitchers should be downright horrified.

For anyone who's spent the last few days hanging out in the Mariana Trench, the newest Yankee is a fella named Giancarlo Stanton. Yes, that Giancarlo Stanton. The one who just led MLB with 59 long balls en route to winning the National League MVP.

The Yankees acquired him—and, for anyone scoring at home, $265 million of the $295 million remaining on his kaiju-size contract—over the weekend and officially introduced him Monday.

"I feel sorry for the baseballs," the 28-year-old slugger said, via the Yankees' Twitter. "... We're going to be tough. It's going to be hard to get through us all."

He's right about the baseballs, you know.

The 6'7", 282-pound Judge is one of few people on earth who can make the 6'6", 245-pound Stanton look small by comparison. But the power they pack is about equal. They ranked 1-2 in batted balls of at least 110 mph in 2017. Only Stanton hit more 450-foot homers than Judge. The latter took the high-water mark at 495 feet.

Coming the closest to that was Sanchez, who topped out at 493 feet. He also pulled off the not-so-easy feat of upsetting Stanton on his own turf, Marlins Park, in the 2017 Home Run Derby.

Judge and Stanton have the power to join Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle from 1961 as only the second pair of teammates to each top 50 homers. The two of them plus Sanchez would also have an outside shot at becoming just the fourth trio of teammates to each top 40 homers.

The Yankees also have a shortstop in Didi Gregorius who's coming off a 25-homer campaign. Left fielder Brett Gardner hit 21 homers. Center fielder Aaron Hicks went deep 15 times in only 88 games. First baseman Greg Bird has homered 23 times in 405 regular-season and postseason plate appearances.

In the face of all this power, outrageous possibilities for what the team might achieve must be considered. Up to and including the mother of them all: the single-season home run record.

It's held by the 1997 Seattle Mariners, who were led to a whopping 264 homers by Ken Griffey Jr. (56), Jay Buhner (40), Paul Sorrento (31), Edgar Martinez (28) and Alex Rodriguez (23).

That's a lot of home runs. So many, in fact, that even these Yankees face a tall task in getting there.

The 13 hitters on their projected roster, per Roster Resource, combined to hit "only" 228 home runs in 2017. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Steamer projections (via FanGraphs) for 2018 forecasted "only" 249 home runs for the whole team:

Note that this was before third baseman Chase Headley (who hit 12 homers in 2017 and was projected for 15 in 2018) was traded to the San Diego Padres in a deal that brought back only salary relief and outfield depth in the person of Jabari Blash.

That's no help to New York's pursuit of the single-season home run record. And there could be other pitfalls later.

Though Judge beat Mark McGwire's rookie home run record in 2017, his progress was slowed in the second half by a sore left shoulder that required surgery in November. Any ill effects from that procedure could diminish his explosive power.

Bird missed all of 2016 while recovering from shoulder surgery and a good portion of 2017 while recovering from ankle surgery. Stanton, of course, comes with durability questions of his own.

Even if Stanton stays healthy, anyone thinking he'll get a significant power boost from Yankee Stadium should temper their expectations. Mike Petriello of MLB.com threw cold water on that idea:

It's awfully hard, however, to imagine the move to New York hurting Stanton's power output.

This past year was a fine example of why Yankee Stadium deserves its bandbox reputation. Per Baseball Savant, fly balls and line drives went for homers with greater regularity there than anywhere else:

Rank Stadium HR per FB/LD Rate
1 Yankee Stadium 12.9%
2 Oriole Park at Camden Yards 12.4%
3 Great American Ball Park 12.1%
4 Guaranteed Rate Field 11.7%
5 Citizens Bank Park 11.6%

That home-field slugging advantage can only help Stanton and his pinstriped cohorts. And if it's going to permit anyone to fly above the rest, it'll probably be Bird.

Albeit in limited exposure, the lefty swinger has showcased extraordinary abilities to keep the ball off the ground (28.4 GB%) while hitting primarily to his pull side (44.8 Pull%). Thus is he a classic fit for a stadium design that's catered to lefty sluggers since Babe Ruth roamed the Bronx.

So should he stay healthy, Bird can do better than the 28 homers that Steamer projects him to hit next season. Gregorius, a fellow lefty hitter with a Yankee Stadium swing, has already shown he can do better than his projection of 19 home runs. Judge and Sanchez are likewise underestimated by their projections of 37 and 30 home runs, respectively.

 

If Judge, Stanton, Sanchez, Gregorius and Gardner can repeat their 2017 seasons, the Yankees would get 190 homers out of them. Throw in, say, 30 by Bird. Then follow the Steamer projections for Hicks (18), Ronald Torreyes (five) at second base and Miguel Andujar (1) at third base, plus 13 from a four-man bench of Jacoby Ellsbury (five), Austin Romine (two), Tyler Austin (four) and Tyler Wade (two).

That adds up to 257 home runs. That's really close to a record-busting 265, and it doesn't require much sleuthing to deduce from whom the Yankees could get extra homers.

Andujar is certainly capable of hitting more than a single homer. Power is the 22-year-old prospect's calling card on offense, and it's already taken him as high as 16 homers in the minors.

Fellow top prospect Gleyber Torres, who's hit as many as 11 homers in the minors, could start over Andujar at third or play alongside him at second base. Standing by for regular playing time in the event the Yankees trade Ellsbury is Clint Frazier, whose power potential far exceeds his minor league high of 16.

Or the Yankees could use the money they saved in the Headley trade to bring back Todd Frazier. He went yard 11 times in 66 games after coming over from the Chicago White Sox in July. All told, he owns 131 homers dating back to 2014.

It may not be a straight one, but there's enough path before the Yankees to take them to 265 homers and beyond in 2018. As soon as they get there, the 1997 Mariners' record will fall.

Frankly, it's about time it did.

Major League Baseball's infatuation with the home run has generally grown over time, and it reached an all-time high in a 2017 season that produced a record 6,105 home runs. A takedown of the team home run record is the next logical step.

Who better to do it than the team that does dingers best?

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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10 Blockbuster Trade Ideas MLB Teams Should Pull Off This Winter

MLB's Hot Stove season has yet to produce any blockbuster trades. Perhaps what it needs is a few ideas.

Ahead lie 10 blockbuster trade concepts that are within the realm of possibility. Some exceptions aside, they involve star players on sellers who make sense for buyers with enough assets for big deals.

There's just one three-part catch: None involve Giancarlo Stanton, the San Francisco Giants or the St. Louis Cardinals. That particular section of the offseason rumor mill doesn't leave much room for imagination for now, and should come to a resolution soon. It's best to just let that play out.

Otherwise, it's on to the aforementioned 10 trade ideas, going in order from smallest to biggest blockbuster.

Begin Slideshow

How Red Sox Can Get Superstar Slugger Without Risking $100M Megadeal

At a time when the Boston Red Sox badly need a slugger, it's not encouraging that their options are dwindling.

According to Craig Mish of SiriusXM, the Red Sox are out of the running for Miami Marlins superstar Giancarlo Stanton. Dave Dombrowski, Boston's president of baseball operations, informed the media Sunday that the team is also out on two-way Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani.

On the bright side, the free-agent market has barely been touched yet. J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer are the biggest stars among the available hitters. Carlos Santana lurks as the best value buy.

On the less-bright side, Martinez and Hosmer are each going to command nine-figure contracts, and Santana is more of a good hitter than a great slugger.

The Red Sox thus have incentive to think outside the box, which is probably why they're considering a trade for Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. As Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported:

Abreu fits the bill as the next player to go in Chicago's ongoing rebuild. He's expensive and is under club control for only two more seasons. He's also talented enough to command a good return in a trade.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are a win-now team with an opening at first base and a humongous need for power following a year in which they finished last in the American League with 168 home runs. The 33 homers Abreu hit in 2017 would have easily cleared Mookie Betts' 24 dingers for the team lead.

That power surge was nothing new for the 30-year-old Cuba native. He's one of only eight active players to have topped 30 homers at least three times since 2014.

Before 2017, the red flag flying above Abreu's head was that his offense was on the way down following an explosive breakthrough in 2014. But in pairing an excellent .304/.354/.552 slash line with his 33 homers, he showed otherwise this past season.

The difference was an approach that featured a smaller rate of swings outside the strike zone. That didn't benefit Abreu's walk rate but did allow his hard-hit rate to soar to a height befitting of a guy with a massive 6'3", 255-pound frame:

Power of this magnitude is Abreu's main appeal to the Red Sox. But just as important as what he would bring to the team is what he wouldn't take away from it.

It's not by accident that the Red Sox finished sixth in the AL in runs despite ranking last in homers and only 11th in OPS. They couldn't take a big bite out of pitchers but could peck away due to their top-to-bottom penchant for refusing to give away easy outs. To wit, the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros were the only AL clubs with lower strikeout rates than Boston.

That's another area where Abreu is trending in the right direction.

He got down to a 17.6 K% in 2017, well below the league average of 21.6 percent. It also tied him with George Springer for the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among the league's 41 sluggers of 30 or more homers.

Player HR K%
Joey Votto 36 11.7
Francisco Lindor 33 12.9
Anthony Rizzo 32 13.0
Nolan Arenado 37 15.6
Mike Moustakas 38 15.7
Manny Machado 33 16.7
George Springer 34 17.6
Jose Abreu 33 17.6
Mike Trout 33 17.8
Charlie Blackmon 37 18.6

Of course, the White Sox aren't simply going to give Abreu to the Red Sox.

They have an exciting future precisely because general manager Rick Hahn hasn't settled in high-profile trades of Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana and a three-player package of Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. He doesn't mean to settle for Abreu either. According to ESPN.com's Scott Lauber, one rival evaluator set his price at "an arm and both legs."

However, there is hope that Hahn could be talked down from there.

Per MLB Trade Rumors, Abreu is projected to earn $17.9 million via arbitration in 2018. That's a hefty raise on the $10.825 million he earned in 2017. Assume another raise in 2019, his final year before free agency, and his two-year cost should be in the realm of $40 million.

Abreu is awfully good, but probably not good enough to drastically outperform earnings like those. He thus has less trade value than Sale, Eaton and Quintana, whose combination of talent and cheap long-term control made them each worth several top prospects.

This is the point where Jackie Bradley Jr.'s name usually comes up, but the White Sox can and should do better than an inconsistent 27-year-old who's only three years from free agency.

How about Michael Chavis instead?

The 22-year-old third baseman is a former first-round pick who rekindled his stock with a 31-homer season at High-A and Double-A in 2017. He's a top-100 prospect for Baseball America (No. 96), MLB.com (No. 92) and us right here at Bleacher Report (No. 96). Even if those specific numbers don't qualify him as good enough for a straight-up-swap, they're good enough for him to be a centerpiece of a bigger deal.

A trade of Chavis would take away yet another top prospect from a Red Sox system that's lost quite a few since Dombrowski arrived in 2015. However, Chavis is blocked by Rafael Devers at third base anyway. The White Sox, who have a long-term opening at the hot corner, need him more.

Ultimately, the ball is in the White Sox's court. They have no need to rush a trade of Abreu and also have enough cash to keep paying him in the meantime. They can wait as long as they like for a suitable trade offer.

Nobody matches up with them like the Red Sox, however. And since the Red Sox indeed have other options, it wouldn't be the worst thing for the White Sox to deal sooner rather than later.

          

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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Yankees Could Cut $40M in Payroll This Offseason and Still Get Much Better

Even if the 2018 Major League Baseball season started tomorrow, the New York Yankees could still go out and improve on a 2017 season that ended at the doorstep of the World Series.

This, despite how their only offseason move of note has been finding a new manager.

The job that belonged to Joe Girardi for a decade now belongs to Aaron Boone, a man with baseball bloodlines and a loaded resume of baseball achievements. Although managerial experience isn't among the latter, the hope is he can put the Yankees in the World Series much like he once did in 2003. 

A quick glance at the Yankees' payroll makes it look like their next move should be doing what they usually do during the winter. They are only projected to spend $156 million in 2018, $40 million short of where they opened 2017. That's license to go full-Steinbrenner on the free-agent and trade markets.

But, nah.

New York's mission is to get under the luxury tax, which precludes it from its typical brand of lavish spending. Most winters, that would be a problem. Here's a look at why it's not this time around.

             

They Are Owed Wins

With a few exceptions—notably CC Sabathia, Todd Frazier, Matt Holliday, Michael Pineda and Jaime Garcia—the Yankees are set to bring back the same roster that produced 91 wins in 2017.

That's a solid sign in and of itself, and a great sign in context of how many games the 2017 Yankees should have won. Baseball Reference put their true record at 100-62. FanGraphs did that one better, putting it at 101-61.

These aren't concoctions of eccentric science. They are concoctions based on how many runs the Yankees scored and allowed. Their good-not-great record was backed by a run differential that was bested only by the Cleveland Indians', per ESPN.com.

The implication is that even a repeat of 2017 could lead to better results for the Yankees in 2018. They need not load up their roster with additional stars. Simply rounding it out with enough depth should be good enough.

But there is still the matter of how the Yankees will materialize their outstanding wins. What should help is...

           

Boone's Bullpen and Clubhouse Wizardry

When it comes down to how, exactly, the Yankees fumbled their shot at a 100-win season, the best answer is they struggled to finish close games. To wit, they went just 18-26 in one-run games. 

The irony is they were precisely the kind of team that should have dominated such contests.

Nothing secures close games like elite relievers, and the Yankees had more than their share of those. Their bullpen only finished third in ERA but first in OPS allowed and, according to FanGraphs, wins above replacement.

Barring a trade, the gang is due to return in full in 2018. Although Chad Green, Chasen Shreve and Tommy Kahnle are regression candidates, David Robertson is as steady as they come and Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances could both be a lot better than they were in 2017.

One reason this bullpen's results didn't match its ability in 2017 is what Joel Sherman of the New York Post referred to as a "panicky bullpen strategy" on the part of Girardi. Boone sounds like just the guy to bring more tact to that part of the job.

"I find myself managing games all the time and thinking about strategies and how I would handle different situations," he said, per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "Certainly, it's fair to question my experience in actually doing the job, but I would say in a way I've been preparing for this job for the last 44 years."

Boone is also lauded for how he communicates and connects with people. That promises to be another welcome change from Girardi, whose struggle to connect with his players was a fundamental element of his ousting. A flip from one extreme to another won't raise the Yankees' overall talent level but should help make them equal to the sum of their parts.

Elsewhere, there's how...

           

Their Starting Pitching Can Be Better

It may have felt like Luis Severino was their only dependable starter at any given moment, but Yankees starters did well enough to finish with a 3.98 ERA in 2017. Only four teams did better.

Up next is the doable task of improving on that performance.

Severino will be back, and there's little reason to expect worse from him. He may get by on electric stuff and little else, but he proved something in 2017: The grind of a full major league season won't necessarily stop him from staying healthy or from maintaining his stuff.

After Severino is Masahiro Tanaka. In light of the 4.74 ERA he put up in 2017, it looks like he did himself a favor by not opting out of his contract. And considering how he finished the year with a 3.12 ERA over his final 19 starts, however, he did the Yankees a favor by not opting out.

New York can also look forward to a full season of Sonny Gray. Acquired in a July blockbuster with the Oakland Athletics, he managed a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts thereafter. Not his best work but in line with his track record as an above-average starter.

Then there's Jordan Montgomery, who's fresh off an overlooked rookie season that featured a 3.88 ERA in 29 starts. Even if some regression is in order, he still makes the grade as a good No. 4 starter.

Shohei Ohtani, best known as Japan's Babe Ruth, would have been a dandy of a choice for the open spot in New York's rotation. Alas, Hoch reported Sunday that the Yankees are out of the running for him.

On the bright side, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported that they have Sabathia in mind for a Plan B. The veteran was a stabilizing force in 2015 and 2016, yet could be had at a reasonable rate for 2018.

The Yankees also have in-house options to pin their hopes on. Among their best prospects are three pitchers who will be ready to contribute in 2018: right-handers Chance Adams and Domingo Acevedo and left-hander Justus Sheffield.

With their pitching squared away, the Yankees would only need their offense to do its part. On that note...

         

Their Offense Can Be As Good, If Not Better

The Yankees finished 2017 ranked second in MLB in runs and first in home runs. That doesn't leave much room for upward mobility.

Even Aaron Judge may be powerless to push the offense higher. It would be asking a lot of him to repeat the 1.049 OPS and 52 homers that won him the AL Rookie of the Year even if he was fully healthy. Following surgery on his left shoulder, it's asking too much.

Still, a Judge regression wouldn't be the end of the world for this offense.

Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird could pick up whatever slack Judge lets out. The former was good enough to post an .876 OPS with 33 homers in 2017, but his excellent finish (a .944 OPS and 17 homers over 50 games) indicates he still has unexplored upside. The latter was a forgotten man who re-emerged with a .910 OPS and 11 homers over 42 games (postseason included) at the end of the year.

The Yankees offense also stands to get a boost from full seasons from 2017 breakout star Aaron Hicks, who was limited to 88 games, and veteran second baseman Starlin Castro, who was limited to 112 games. It would also help if Didi Gregorius stayed his course and matured even further as an offensive threat.

The big question is what the Yankees will get out of the designated-hitter and third-base slots that were offensive black holes for much of 2017.

However, there are in-house options to fall back on here as well. Clint Frazier is a big-time sleeper coming off an unspectacular rookie season. Gleyber Torres will be arguably baseball's best prospect if he recovers well from Tommy John surgery. Not to be overlooked is Miguel Andujar, who packs a promising bat at third base.

The Yankees will be heard from before the offseason is over. Everyone can count on that. But even as things stand, the cheapest Yankees team in years should be one of the best Yankees teams in years.

             

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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