Hot-stove survey: MLB execs answer questions on Sale, Braun and others

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Major League Baseball's general managers have wasted little time getting to work since Kris Bryant threw out Michael Martinez for the final out of the World Series. The street sweepers have barely cleaned up from the Chicago Cubs' victory parade, and outfielder Cameron Maybinand reliever Pat Neshekalready have switched teams in trades.

Starting Monday, general managers will meet in Scottsdale to address industry business and ramp up conversations with their peers and agents that will pave the way for trades and free-agent signings in the weeks to come.

MLB's collective bargaining negotiations are ongoing, so no one knows precisely what ground rules will be in place this offseason. And this winter's free-agent crop is, by acclamation, one of the weakest in years. Teams in the market for a closer or a power bat have ample options, but impact starting pitchers and middle infielders are next to impossible to find.

As the meetings get underway, surveyed 38 baseball people -- general managers, assistant GMs, scouts and one MLB manager -- for their thoughts on six questions that will dominate the news during the Hot Stove season. Here are their responses:

1. Which free-agent closer -- Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman or Mark Melancon -- will provide the best value for the contract he's likely to command?

Responses: Jansen 19; Melancon 11; Chapman 6; no response 2.

Jansen's supporters point out that he broke into pro ball as a catcher and might have less wear and tear on his arm as a result. He has developed into an elite closer with a cut fastball that he threw 94 percent of the time in 2016.

"He has a simple delivery and one pitch to master,'' one scout said. "There's not a lot to mess up here.''

Take note of the word "value'' in the question. Melancon is the oldest of the three pitchers at 31, and his average fastball velocity of 91.8 mph is easily the lowest. But he has logged a 1.80 ERA and converted 147 of 162 save opportunities (90.7 percent) since taking over as Pittsburgh's closer in 2013. Chapman converted 91.7 percent of his save chances and Jansen 90.1 percent in the same span.

"I'll go with Melancon simply because I think he gets about half what the other two guys get,'' an AL assistant GM said. "He's not as dominant, but he's certainly better than 50 percent of those two guys.''

Chapman maintains his allure with a fastball that routinely cracks 100 mph and was sitting in the upper 90s even when he was gassed because of overuse late in the World Series. "He does it the easiest of the three, which I think makes him the best bet to maintain what he has,'' an AL general manager said.

That said, Chapman's domestic violence incident from last winter is giving some teams reason for pause.

"His off-field issues are a real concern for me long term,'' an AL scout said.

2. Do you think the Cleveland Indians will trade Andrew Miller this offseason? If yes, where will he wind up?

Responses: Yes, 2; No, 35. One respondent said the Indians will hang on to Miller and trade him in July.

Of the "yes'' voters, one picked the Los Angeles Dodgers as the best landing spot for Miller, while another speculated that the New York Mets might be in play because of Jeurys Familia's arrest on a domestic violence charge. The Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants also were mentioned as possible landing spots.

Miller has two years and $18 million left on the $36 million contract he signed with the New York Yankees in December 2014. While that's quite reasonable given what he brings to the table, a $9 million annual layout for a noncloser is out of character for a Cleveland team that ranked 23rd in the majors in payroll this season.

As Indians general manager Mike Chernoff recently observed, Cleveland has done well through the years by trading veterans on the verge of free agency for young talent. The Indians acquired Corey Kluber, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco in such a manner, and they've since blossomed into front-line contributors. "In years where we're not competitive, we have to make some of those painful trades,'' Chernoff said.

Ultimately, survey respondents think the Indians will stand pat with Miller because their roster is good enough to repeat in the AL Central and make another deep postseason run. Even if manager Terry Francona might have to pick his spots with Miller over a six-month haul, Miller is too integral to the mix in Cleveland for the Indians to move him.

"He's too valuable in a bullpen that he turned around,'' an AL assistant general manager said. "If he wasn't with them, they aren't playing in a World Series Game 7. They actually need more pen help.'' Trading Miller now also would be a tough PR sell for a Cleveland team that ranked 28th in the majors in attendance in 2016.

"Given his performance in the playoffs, the Indians' front office might have to go into hiding if they make that move,'' an AL personnel man said.

3. Which free-agent slugger do you like best: Edwin Encarnacion, Yoenis Cespedes, Mark Trumbo or Jose Bautista?

Responses: Encarnacion 17; Cespedes 17; Trumbo 1; Bautista 1. One no response.

Encarnacion will play at age 34 in 2017. He's the second-oldest player in this group behind Bautista, who just turned 36. But he has built an impressive portfolio in Toronto in a very quiet and methodical way.

Since 2012, Encarnacion ranks second in the majors in home runs to Chris Davis (193), second in RBIs behind Miguel Cabrera (550) and fifth in slugging percentage (.544) behind Cabrera, David Ortiz, Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton. He's regarded as a solid teammate and a low-maintenance producer, and he received the coveted Big Papi seal of approval at the All-Star Game.

Cespedes wins points as the best athlete and easily the best defender of the four. He loses support because of the widespread perception that his attention strays and he can become disengaged at times. That perception helped the Mets snag him for three years (with a one-year opt-out) when he hit the open market at age 30 last winter.

"Trumbo would be wise to stay where he is [in Baltimore],'' an NL scout said. "He's such a great fit for that ballpark, and Buck Showalter is the perfect manager for him. I think Encarnacion is the best hitter of the group, which makes him less susceptible to wild year-to-year swings. You can make the case that Cespedes is capable of the best single season given the crazy tools, but I'll go with Edwin if I'm throwing out 3-5 years. Bautista's options could be limited given his age and defensive limitations.''

4. What's the most likely scenario: (1) Ryan Braun gets traded; (2) Yasiel Puig gets traded; or (3) they get traded for each other?

Responses: Braun gets traded, 13; they're traded for each other, 9; Puig gets traded, 9. Five respondents think Braun and Puig are traded, but not for each other. Two survey participants declined to answer.

Braun, who turns 33 this month, is coming off a productive season (.305/.365/.538) and is now three years removed from the stain of a 65-game suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal. But he still has four years and $76 million guaranteed left on his contract, which makes him a tough fit for a franchise that's in the middle of a youth movement. The Brewers traded All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy in August, and it's only natural to think they'll move Braun to complete the transition.

Puig always seems to be one flare-up away from exhausting the patience of Dodgers management. He hasn't come close to the success he enjoyed as a rookie in 2013, and the Dodgers sent him a message when they demoted him to Triple-A Oklahoma City in August. But he's still only 25 years old, and the Dodgers have to be wary of the possibility of a light bulb going on with a new team.

"I think they're afraid of trading Puig and seeing him return to stardom,'' an NL scout said. "They would never hear the end of it.''

Reports surfaced during the summer that the Dodgers and Brewers were talking, and it makes sense in a lot of ways. The Dodgers are desperate for a big right-handed bat, and Braun would be going home to Southern California. Puig, conversely, would be able to play under a lot less scrutiny in Milwaukee. As an added bonus, the Brewers play under a retractable roof, so he wouldn't have to worry about hitting amid snow flurries in April.

"Braun is a very good fit for the Dodgers given how bad they have been against left-handed pitchers,'' a scout said. "It will be an interesting cat-mouse game, though. L.A. knows Milwaukee probably wants to move Braun's money. Milwaukee knows L.A. probably wants to move Puig. I assume there will have to be other pieces here. Maybe Milwaukee sends another major league piece to the Dodgers, and the Dodgers send back prospects. It's a good fit on paper, but it might not be super easy to get the right deal.''

5. Which free agent this winter do you think will land a contract that's far above and beyond what people expect (i.e., the "what were they thinking'' award)?

Responses: Ivan Nova 8; Rich Hill and Jeremy Hellickson, 6 each; Ian Desmond 5; Andrew Cashner 4; Edwin Encarnacion 3; Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Michael Saunders, Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo, 2 each; Aroldis Chapman, Justin Turner, Mike Napoli, Matt Wieters, Derek Holland, Joe Blanton and Jason Castro, 1 each.

"They should just name this the Jason Heyward Award,'' joked an AL front-office man. Heyward crafted a happy ending to his first year with the Cubs with an inspirational speech during the Game 7 World Series rain delay, but it's hard to get past that .230/.306/.325 slash line in the first year of an eight-year, $184 million deal.

The 38 survey participants gave a total of 49 responses because the options were so abundant and a lot of people had trouble settling on one player. An AL scout, for example, picked Cashner as his "buyer's remorse'' pitcher and Desmond as his position player.

The votes for Hill, Nova and Cashner were predicated on two factors: (1) They're the best available options in an abysmal starting pitcher market; and (2) since all three were traded midseason, they can't be given a qualifying offer by their last club. That means they'll all hit the open market unburdened by the anchor of draft-pick compensation.

The Phillies are more inclined to give Hellickson a qualifying offer of $17.2 million. He can either accept it and return to Philadelphia, or reject it and go shopping for a deal on the open market. But interest is likely to be tempered if the team that signs him knows it would have to surrender a draft pick in return.

Nova raised his profile considerably by going 5-2 with a 3.06 and a stunning 52-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio after the Pirates acquired him from the Yankees at the non-waiver trade deadline. But he turns 30 in January and has a career FanGraphs WAR of 8.9. He has yet to surpass a 2.4 WAR in a single season.

"Someone will make a silly deal with Nova after a great second half in Pittsburgh,'' a National League evaluator said. "He's hit the market at the perfect time in a pitching-starved market and had the second half of his life. No wonder the Pirates haven't re-signed him yet. He's banking on a huge payday, and someone is going to give it to him and regret it in a few years. He is the pitching land mine of the free-agent market.''

While scouts love Hill's competitiveness and pitching acumen, he'll turn 37 during spring training and has a lengthy injury history. Hill is 15 months removed from a stint with the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League, and the 110 innings he amassed with the Oakland A's and the Dodgers in 2016 were the second-highest total in his 12-year major league career.

Cashner has long teased front offices with his mid-90s fastball, but he went 1-4 with a 5.98 ERA for Miami after the Marlins acquired him from San Diego with hopes he could be a difference-maker in a pennant race. Cashner's brief tenure in Miami was most notable for his complaints about the team's facial hair policy.

"[Radar] gun pointers might fall all over themselves over his velocity, but the bottom line is that he can't go through a lineup twice,'' a scout said. "He might be a piece in a pen, but somebody will overpay.''

6. Will Chris Sale be traded this offseason? If your answer is yes, what do you think is his most likely destination?

Responses: No, 18; Yes, 18; No response, 2.

Most likely destination: Red Sox 5; Dodgers 4; Yankees, Nationals and Rangers, 2 each; Cubs, Braves and Astros, 1 each.

Sale is one of MLB's elite starting pitchers, but his fractious relationship with White Sox management was on display for the world to see when he cut up the team's old-time uniforms during a spat in late July. The White Sox held on to Sale at the trade deadline, but they might be tempted to gauge the market this winter. Given the unappealing free-agent options, contenders in need of rotation help will be exploring deals for Sale, Sonny Gray and even $206.5 million man Zack Greinke this winter.

"I think the White Sox have had enough of his antics,'' a National League evaluator said of Sale. "I see the Dodgers making a huge play for him and finding the young, necessary chips to push to the middle of the table to get an ace.''

Skeptics counter that the White Sox just hired a new manager, Rick Renteria, and are motivated to make one more big push under the team's 80-year-old patriarch, Jerry Reinsdorf. "I'll say no, because I don't think Reinsdorf will ultimately sign off on a deal,'' an American League GM said.

Sale's team-friendly deal is also a factor in trade talks. He's under contract for $12 million next season, and the White Sox have club options for $12.5 million in 2018 and $13.5 million in 2019. That's another reason for general manager Rick Hahn to set an asking price that might be too exorbitant for the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees and other clubs with high payrolls and deep farm systems.

"You've got his ability, for one thing,'' an AL executive said. "He's a No. 1 starter. Then his contract makes it even more valuable. I just don't know who's going to ante up and give them what they're looking for. If I'm the White Sox, what's the urgency to trade him? They've got a window here to compete if they can get their act together and start making some better decisions.''