Jacoby Ellsbury & MLBPA vs. New York Yankees

This week the MLB Players’ Association filed a grievance against the New York Yankees on behalf of the team’s former center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in an attempt to recoup the remaining $26 million that he argues is owed to him. After winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, Ellsbury signed a seven year, $153 million contract with the Yankees, however went on to miss a staggering 452 games between 2014-2019. For reference, in that same time frame the Yankees played 972 games (excluding playoffs), meaning the speedy outfielder appeared in just over 53% of those contests. If that wasn’t already hard enough to stomach, according to Fangraphs, Ellsbury registered a wRC+ (explanation below)* of 96 as a New York Yankee, so he was roughly 4% worse than league average.

While it is impossible to understate how disappointing Ellsbury’s tenure in the Big Apple was, his contract, like the vast majority of MLB contracts, was fully guaranteed therefore the $153 million was never contingent upon performance or even playing for that matter. However, the Yankees allege that the former silver slugger violated his contract by receiving unauthorized medical treatment which allowed them to convert his contract to “non-guaranteed” and then subsequently release him.

According to the Yankees, the 36-year-old was treated for an injury by Dr. Viktor Bouquette in Atlanta without the team’s consent, yet Ellsbury argues that the treatment was for a non-baseball-related injury, which does not require permission. The CBA essentially states that as long as the “Non-Work-Related Injury does not affect the Player’s ability to provide services,” then the player is exempt from disclosing treatment procedures. However, seeing as Ellsbury had not played a game since the end of 2017, which coincidentally is around the same time it is alleged that he started seeing Dr. Bouquette, it will be tough for the MLBPA to prove that there is no link between the two.

Though Ellsbury’s medical records are protected under medical privacy, if there is truly no causal connection between his NWR injury and the right oblique strain that was the first of his slew of 2018 injuries, then he and the MLBPA could and should release those medicals to prove that they are wholly unrelated.

There is a lot at stake for both sides in this case that will be heard by arbitrator Mark Irvings, who will be making a significant ruling next month in another dispute between player and club. For the Yankees, after the historic Gerrit Cole signing, their 2020 payroll ballooned to $243 million, which carries a significant luxury tax. The tax threshold (number at which team’s must pay extra for every dollar over) for next season is $208 million. The Yankees will pay 30% on ever dollar between $208 million and $228 million, 42% between $228-$248 million, and 75% beyond $248 million. So, the Yankees would stand to gain substantially if they lower that figure from $243 million, which would represent $12.3 million in taxes, to $217 million, which would only tax them $2.7 million.

As for Ellsbury, he is still rehabbing but is looking more like a liability than an asset so this $26 million could represent the last paycheck of his player career. However, for the MLBPA it goes a bit deeper as this case could set a meaningful precedent. It brings to mind a 2010 dispute between Carlos Beltran and the New York Mets over a similar issue that never reached litigation. In any case, the verdict in this conflict between the MLBPA and the Yankees could either be the final insult for foolish free-agent spenders or a sign to those same regretful investors that there are in fact legal ways to wriggle their way out of those abominable contracts.

*wRC+ means weighted Runs Created adjusted. This statistic is meant take external factors (such as ballpark or era) into account to paint a picture of a player’s overall value to any given MLB team. 100 represents league average, so a player with a wRC+ of 150 means that player is 50% better than league average and vice versa. wRC+ is widely regarded as one of the best indicators of a player’s true value.

Checking in on Boston’s 2019 Payroll

Image result for red sox contractDespite dropping two out of three games against the Chicago White Sox, the Red Sox stand at 44-22 on the year, good for best in all of baseball. While the team has been experiencing incredible success, it has certainly come at a steep cost – $235 million to be exact, also best in baseball by a large margin. Playing in a large market, Boston is always expected to have a big payroll, however this year’s is the highest is has ever been. It is a result of a combination of factors such as a trio of poor, past investments (see: Pablo Sandoval $95 million, Hanley Ramirez $88 million and Rusney Castillo $72 million), a wealth of mid-money talent and large contracts for the team’s most reliable stars like J.D. Martinez and David Price. The good news, however, is that a lot of money will be coming off the books after the season, when several players will have to make decisions about their free agency.

The first round of savings will come from the aforementioned poor investments made under General Manager Ben Cherington. Hanley Ramirez, who was cut from the team earlier this season, was signed by Cherington to a 4 year, $88 million dollar deal in 2014, so the Red Sox will have $22 million dollars to play around with in free agency if they are comfortable with their current payroll figure. Moreover, the John Lackey trade that brought Allen Craig to the Red Sox will take its toll for the final year, as the team will shed the last $1 million of the $25 million the team has paid (for close to zero production might I add).

The next group of players, Chris Sale, David Price and Eduardo Núñez, all have options, be it club or player, that will have just as big an impact on next year’s payroll. While Sale has a club option (meaning the team gets to choose whether or not he is on the team next year), Price and Núñez have player options. However, it is hard to imagine any of them not being a part of the 2019 ball club.

Sale, again pitching at a Cy Young caliber level, is on tab to earn $15 million next season. Yes, it is a nice bump from the $13 million he is earning this year, but it is well below market value for a pitcher of his pedigree. So, the Red Sox will certainly activate the option and he will have to wait one last year before a large payday in free agency.

Price’s player option for 4 years and $127 is slightly trickier. Much has been made about Price’s struggles and unhappiness in Boston, but a large portion of this has been overblown by the media driven by last year’s altercation with fan favorite Dennis Eckersley. In reality, Price is the second ace on a team that will be a World Series contender for the foreseeable future and is pitching well in a big market like Boston. Couple this with teams’ unwillingness to give big contracts in last year’s free agency, it is virtually impossible to see Price walking away from so much guaranteed money and a chance to win his first-ever World Series ring.

Núñez is in the midst of a subpar 2018 campaign where he has hit .256 with four home runs. His player option for next year is for $4 million, which is about right for a middle infielder with his levels of production. Although originally signed as a utility player, he has seen much more starting time than anyone anticipated thanks to the recurring knee injuries to Dustin Pedroia. So, while he has not exactly impressed, he is serving a decent replacement role that adds value to both himself and the club. Barring a strong second half, it is hard to see Núñez testing free agency, especially with a 2019 market that includes plenty of other strong infield options.

The final area where the Sox can cut some payroll is from their pending 2019 free agents. This class consists of Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, and Joe Kelly. Kimbrel is earning $13 million this year, but is in line for a big raise, having recorded 86 saves alongside a 2.23 era for the Red Sox since they acquired him in 2016. While the team will certainly want him back, they will have to open up their wallets as Kimbrel has arguably been the most reliable closer in the league over the last decade, with over 300 saves. The good news for Boston is that Zach Britton and Kelvin Herrera, both very strong relievers, will also be free agents in 2019. So, if the team elects not to get in a bidding war, there are fallback options, however they have been thrilled with Kimbrel’s production thus far and will do everything they can to have him back in uniform next year.

Drew Pomeranz has faced a little “Clay Buchholz syndrome” during his brief time in Boston. After the controversial trade in which the Padres failed to disclose Pomeranz’ necessary medical information, the curveball-heavy pitcher has been off, then on, then off-again in what has been a rollercoaster experience with the Sox. Given, it is hard to say what he could earn on the open market. Teams will likely be wary to invest multiple years into Pomeranz with his recent performance and injury struggles, so he will likely sign a one-year deal to build up some value. However, it is hard to see the Red Sox being that team. Between Steven Wright impressing in his first few starts of 2018 and top prospect Jalen Beeks knocking on the door, there is simply no need for Boston to bet on a Pomeranz renaissance campaign.

And finally, Joe Kelly. His first four years with the team saw many ups and downs and he was probably the hardest player to “figure out” on the team. While he always possessed a fastball that could touch 99 mph, he often struggled with control and composure late in games, even leading to a demotion in 2016 to AAA Pawtucket. However, Kelly in a new player in 2018. An early season brawl with the Yankees’ Austin Martin has made the reliever a fan favorite and given him a new edge on mound. He has been stellar in his 28 appearances so far and has provided stability to the setup role, which has sorely missed Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg to injury. Kelly is another hard case to predict what he might earn in free agency given his spotty past, but a two to three year contract averaging around $5 million per year should be a reasonable price tag to retain him.

Ultimately, while the Red Sox are shedding some money from their payroll next year (likely around $32 million), they will need a sizable chunk of that cash to bring back Kimbrel and Kelly (or another reliever). This also does not yet account for arbitration eligible players like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, amongst roughly ten others, that will all be due for a slight bump in pay. So, while the 2019 free agent class is loaded with young talent, the same can be said with the current Red Sox team which features five key starters age 25 or younger. Accordingly, don’t expect to add any big names to next year’s jersey wish list, because the team will likely be investing in their own talent rather than entering what is likely to be a competitive free agent market. But that’s not such a bad thing after all, because the 2018 Boston Red Sox already have the talent they need to make a deep playoff run and they will be back to do it all over again in 2019.

The Curious Case of the Slow Offseason

 

eric-hosmer

It is now Christmas day and many of the top free agents are still available including names such as Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez. The sluggish pace of the market is a result of a few factors, the first couple being Shohei Otani’s posting and shortstop new owner Derek Jeter’s dismantling of the Miami Marlins. With the majority of the MLB contending for the services of Otani and/or Giancarlo Stanton, free agents have had to be patient for these dominos to fall before teams turned their attention to their likeness. However, now that these two stars have found new homes with the Angels and Yankees respectively, one would imagine that the market would have picked up pace. Instead, negotiations have continued at a slow clip, with the only notable signings coming in the form of SS Zack Cosart (Angels, 3 years/$38 million) and 1B Carlos Santana (Phillies, 3 years/$60 million).

For comparison, last year at this time, the majority of major free agents had already been signed, but teams are being more patient this time around opting to build their teams through trades and top prospects, while they wait out the demands of players’ agents. This can largely be attributed to last year’s Collective Bargaining Agreement which has discouraged larger market teams from going over the luxury tax line of $197 million by increasing the penalty for consecutive years of spending overage. This modification was put in place with the intention of making the league more competitive, which makes sense, because it is admittedly hard for a team like the Milwaukee Brewers to be considered on the same playing field with a payroll of $63 million when going up against the LA Dodgers with a payroll exceeding $240 million. In turn, these big market teams are curbing their traditional heavy spending methods in an effort to get beneath that 197 million-dollar threshold – and it’s working. Despite six teams (Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Cubs, and Giants) paying the luxury tax last year, all but the Red Sox seem positioned to avoid the penalty in 2018.

So what does that mean for this free agent class? Well, for starters, there is less money to go around and that is especially bad news when two of the top free agent hitters, J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, have Scott Boras as their agent. As his reputation affirms, Boras is seeking multi-year deals worth big money for his prized players – seven years and $200 million plus – to be exact. He has dubbed J.D. Martinez the “King Kong of Slug” and Eric Hosmer as the elite talent that will take a team to “Playoffville.” While Boras’ demands are likely farfetched (especially in this year’s market), it is not hard to imagine that he will produce the offseason’s largest contracts in these two players. What will make his job harder this year however, is the new CBA, which is limiting teams’ willingness to get into bidding wars – the very thing that allows him to reel in the crazy contracts his clients dream of.

The reality is that Martinez and Hosmer will likely sign for far less than the 7 year, 200 million dollar benchmark that Boras has established, but even when they do, what’s next for the rest of the free agent crop? The usual suspects that can be counted on to make a least one major splash each year are scrambling to get under the $197 million threshold. Is someone like 3B Mike Moustakas, who is coming off a productive .272/38-homer year, supposed to get a 100 million dollar contract from the Tampa Bay Rays? Or the Oakland Athletics to sign Jake Arietta to a multi-year deal? These are good players that will find new homes one way or another, but as the offseason drags into January they are going to have to temper their expectations as the reality of a new MLB market sets in.

As the calendar flips to 2018, one of either Boras or the teams with which he’s negotiating will have to blink at some point and contracts for the Hosmer/Martinez slugging duo will get done. After a couple months of waiting, this will finally set the market for the offseason and for better or worse, determine the earning capacities of remaining free agents. However, until then, the rest of the league will be waiting and watching as teams and agents alike adapt to the complexities that the new CBA has introduced to the 2017-2018 offseason.

Spring Training Battles: Bullpen Pt. 1

Bullpen Picstitch

Can you name each of the Red Sox relievers show in the picture above? Answers at the bottom.

The Red Sox enter Spring Training returning with an even stronger bullpen than last year, which now carries more depth. The 2013 season got off to a rocky start with Joel Hanrahan being named closer. He only ended up pitching 7.1 innings allowing eight runs and blowing two saves before the announcement was made that he would be out for the season due torn muscle in his right arm. Then, manager John Farrell tabbed Andrew Bailey as the replacement closer. Although Bailey was an improvement to Hanrahan, he still struggled and blew five saves in his short stint as closer, before he too would be declared out for the season, caused by labrum and capsule damage to his shoulder. This injury came on the heels of a season-ending injury to  another key reliever, Andrew Miller, who required foot surgery that would not allow him to pitch again in 2013. This  crippled a Red Sox bullpen that had quickly lost its abundant depth. That’s when the more-overlooked at the time, Koji Uehara stepped in as closer and was lights out. Uehara recorded one of the best seasons as a closer baseball has seen, allowing only nine runs in 74.1 innings. He also put up one of the best runs a closer from August 21st to September 13th, in which he pitched 12 innings without allowing a runner to reach base, the closer’s equivalent of a perfect game and then some.  Uehara, who was originally signed for $4.5 million in the offseason, was projected to be extra depth in the bullpen coming out of Spring Training. What’s more is the medical staff was worried about overuse, pitching as a 38 year old, nevertheless, he helped guide the Red Sox to the playoffs and was named ALCS MVP, appearing in five games against Detroit, saving four and winning a fifth. When General Manager Ben Cherington signed him to a contract last year, he cleverly included an option that would trigger if Uehara pitched in 35 games. So, Red Sox fans can rest assured that when the final cuts for the 25 man roster come at the end of Spring Training, Koji will be safe. As for the eight others competing for what is presumably six other bullpen spots, they don’t necessarily have this same guarantee. Here’s the breakdown, these eight others include:

Returners: Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara

Acquisitions: Edward Mujica, Chris Capuano, Burke Badenhop

Rookies: Brandon Workman, Drake Britton

In the next post, each reliever will be summarized with a projection on their chances of making the 25 man roster and where they could land in the bullpen.

Answer Key (from left to right):

Top: Breslow, Tazawa, Mujica, Uehara

Bottom: Britton, Workman, Capuano, Badenhop, Miller