SCOTTSDALE, Az. — Theo Epstein left the Red Sox less than a month before Jonathan Papelbon departed as a free agent. But even if Epstein had stayed, it’s doubtful he would have outbid the Phillies for Papelbon, who signed a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract.
Epstein, in 14 years as a lead executive, has spent big on a free-agent closer only once — back in 2003, when he signed Keith Foulke to a three-year, $20.75 million contract. Part of that was due to circumstance — the Red Sox drafted and developed Papelbon; the Cubs, while rebuilding, did not need an accomplished closer. But given Epstein’s history, it’s probably unwise to expect him to sign Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen or even Mark Melancon.
Even as bullpens become more prominent, especially in the postseason, some executives believe that they can create closers or develop them cheaply. While Chapman was a high-priced international signing, Jansen is a converted catcher, and Melancon was traded three times before he became a top closer. Epstein’s Red Sox drafted Papelbon as a closer, but used him as a starter in the minors.
The Cubs clearly need help in the back of their bullpen; manager Joe Maddon trusted Chapman but few others as the postseason continued. But rather than spend say, $80 million, on Chapman or Jansen, they could seek lower-priced alternatives, leaving the Dodgers, Giants, Nationals and Yankees to battle at the top of the market. And remember, Epstein always could adjust at midseason, just as he did when he traded for Chapman in July.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, on the other hand, seems to view an established, dominant closer as more of a necessity.
“When we’re looking at different dynamics of how games are won, the bullpen has really turned out to be one of the places where teams can improve themselves,” Rizzo said Tuesday.
“As we saw in the playoffs, we thought we had a pretty good rotation, but we had one pitcher go six-plus innings. Bullpens come into play. They are a more weighted part of your roster now than ever before.
“The last three outs, there is a reason those guys get paid what they get paid. They’re the most difficult three outs to get.”
ENCARNACION: WHO’S IN?
The Blue Jays’ push to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion failed to produce a quick agreement, leaving a clear path for other clubs that want the free-agent first baseman/designated hitter.
But who exactly are the suitors?
The Red Sox, at least to this point, are not serious players for Encarnacion, focusing on shorter-team solutions such as Carlos Beltran and Kendrys Morales, sources say.
The Rangers also do not appear to be heavy on Encarnacion. The Astros have expressed interest, but might not want to invest $125 million or so in a single player when they also need starting pitchers and left-handed hitters.
As always in the offseason, things are not always what they appear. Encarnacion’s agent, Paul Kinzer, clearly sees viable alternatives to the Blue Jays. And teams could intensify their interest as it becomes clear that Encarnacion is willing to leave Toronto.
ANOTHER INDIAN SUMMER IN THE MAKING?
The defending American League champion Indians might be the biggest beneficiary of the machinations in the AL Central, where the Tigers and White Sox both could deconstruct, and even the Royals might take a step backward.
Tigers general manager Al Avila maintains that he will listen to any and all trade offers, while saying that the team’s retooling might be a gradual process that takes as long as three years.
Best bet: He trades right-fielder J.D. Martinez and second baseman Ian Kinsler, and maybe even right-hander Justin Verlander.
White Sox GM Rick Hahn will not publicly show his hand, but he repeated Tuesday that the team will choose a firm direction one way or the other and not pursue additional stopgap solutions.
Best bet: He sells, starting with left-hander Chris Sale.
Then there are the Royals, who did not make a qualifying offer to free-agent DH Kendrys Morales and would be left with a slew of high-end players in their free-agent years if GM Dayton Moore declines to make a series of trades.
Best bet: He completes at least two deals for younger talent to make for a smoother transition in 2018 and beyond.
THE MARKET FOR NOVA: HOW CRAZY WILL IT GET?
I tweeted Monday that the craziest prediction I’ve heard from a GM is Ivan Nova, five years, $75 million.
Not even Nova’s representatives believe they will get that much, but Paul Swydan of the Hardball Times and Fangraphs drew a comparison between Nova and Ian Kennedy to point out that perhaps the GM’s forecast wasn’t that crazy.
Nova and Kennedy, Swydan said, have essentially the same expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) for their careers (the xFIP metric estimates a pitcher’s expected run prevention independent of the performance of his defense).
Kennedy signed a five-year, $70 million free-agent contract with the Royals last offseason. He was one year older than Nova is now, entering his age 31 season. He also had a much better strikeout rate.
He faces much less competition than Kennedy did in the open market — no Zack Greinke, no David Price, no Johnny Cueto, no Jordan Zimmerman.
FOR ORIOLES, A FINANCIAL CRUNCH
Teams do not normally reveal their projected payrolls, but it isn’t difficult to figure out why the Orioles declined to make catcher Matt Wieters a $17.2 million qualifying offer.
If Wieters accepted — unlikely, but possible — the team’s budget crunch would have become even more severe than it is now.
The Orioles, after fielding a club-record $147.7 million Opening Day payroll last season, have $95.9 million committed to eight players for 2017, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Those commitments do not include the team’s $17.2 million qualifying offer to outfielder/first baseman Mark Trumbo, which is likely to be rejected. Nor do they include the team’s numerous arbitration cases — right-hander Chris Tillman and closer Zach Britton are entering their third year in the process, third baseman Manny Machado and righty Brad Brach their second, right-hander Kevin Gausman and second baseman Jonathan Schoop their first.
The O’s will need to sign Trumbo or replace him. They also will need a catcher to replace Wieters. And they would like to add a left-fielder as well. But it’s unlikely they will increase their payroll significantly after losing nearly 150,000 in home attendance last season, an average of 2,555 per game.
Wieters accepted the team’s $15.8 million qualifying offer last offseason under different circumstances — he had appeared in only 75 games in 2015 coming off Tommy John surgery. It’s doubtful he would have accepted again, particularly with Scott Boras as his agent. But the Orioles understandably feared paying $17.2 million to a catcher who batted .243 with a .711 OPS last season.
For a team in this position, perhaps re-signing free-agent first baseman Chris Davis for seven years at $23 million per season a year ago was not such a good idea.
AROUND THE HORN
*Interesting that the Braves are lukewarm on Wieters even after hiring the Orioles’ former pitching coach, Dave Wallace, and bullpen coach, Dominic Chiti.
Manager Buck Showalter raved about Wieters’ handling of pitchers, but not everyone in the organization shared his view, believing the catcher’s skills have gone backwards.
*The Phillies’ trade for reliever Pat Neshek, who will earn $6.5 million next season, was a prototype for the kinds of moves that the team will pursue this offseason.
The Phils want to add a series of veterans on one-year contracts, players who would help them better compete and might also attract trade interest at the non-waiver deadline.
Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson would fit that description if he accepted the team’s $17.2 million qualifying offer. So would the Dodgers’ Howie Kendrick, whom the Phillies have discussed adding in a trade.
*The Tigers, if they had received greater trade interest in Cameron Maybin, would have exercised the outfielder’s $9 million option, then used their leverage to seek a greater return, according to major-league sources.
The Angels, however, were the only team to seriously pursue Maybin, sources said, leaving the Tigers with the choice of giving the player a $1 million buyout or making a trade. The Tigers chose the latter, parting with Maybin for minor-league right-hander Victor Alcantara.
*Speaking of the Angels, their ill-advised signing of Cuban infielder Roberto Baldoquin in Dec. 2014 helps explain why their farm system remains one of the weakest in the game.
Baldoquin received an $8 million bonus, at the time the highest ever for an amateur under the international signing rules. Not only did he prove a flop — batting .198 with a .507 OPS in his second year at High A — but the Angels incurred the maximum penalty for exceeding their bonus pool and could not spend more than $300,000 in the following two signing periods.
How many quality players did that cost them? Perhaps five each signing period, meaning that the addition of Baldoquin by former GM Jerry Dipoto amounted to a poorly executed 10-for-1 trade.
*Rays third baseman Evan Longoria will gain full no-trade protection in April 2018, when he becomes a player with 10 years of service, five consecutively with the same club. But while it might be wise for the team to start listening to trade offers for Longoria, club officials remain highly reluctant to move him.
Longoria, remember, is the Ray who chose to stay, twice signing long-term deals to remain with Tampa Bay. He has given no indication that he wants out, and club officials — at least for now — are inclined to return his loyalty.
*Rockies GM Jeff Bridich: “I believe there is a groundswell of internal belief that is real. That’s an important step for us. The next in adding to that groundswell is to be consistent and competitive for six-plus months in a season and be a winning organization.
“The internal expectation is for us to win more games than we lose. That’s a realistic and positive goal for us.”
The Rockies, who finished 75-87 last season, have not had a winning record since 2010.