Winter Meetings roundup: Closer market heats up as Cubs close in on Wade Davis

Wednesday December 7th, 2016

The five-player Chris Sale/Yoan Moncada blockbuster between the White Sox and Red Sox headlined Tuesday’s action at the Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md., but that wasn’t all that transpired. Here’s a quick roundup of the day’s other big moves and rumors.

Cubs agree to trade for Wade Davis, while Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen near astronomical deals

With Mark Melancon having signed a record-setting deal with the Giants on Monday and both Chapman and Jansen set to break that record sometime very soon, focus turned to the suddenly reasonably-priced Davis, who has one more year at $10 million under contract with Kansas City before reaching free agency. Though the Dodgers expressed interest and the Nationals "made a late push" according to ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Cubs, who traded for Chapman and appear ready to let him depart via free agency, agreed to send outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City in exchange for the reliever, reports Bob Nightengale.

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The 31-year-old Davis, who pitched for Cubs manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay from 2009–12, emerged as one of the game's elite relievers upon switching to the bullpen for the 2014 season. In 2014–15, he posted a combined 0.97 ERA with 12.1 strikeouts per nine in 139 1/3 innings, work that helped the Royals win back-to-back pennants and the 2015 World Series; he allowed one earned run in 25 postseason innings over those two years while striking out 38. He was chugging along similarly in 2016, carrying a 1.23 ERA into the end of June before the first of two flexor strains sidelined him; the second, which cost him all of August and then some, effectively hammered a stake in the hearts of the Royals’ playoff hopes. Davis finished with a 1.87 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine but had more days on the disabled list (51) than innings pitched (43 1/3).

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement carries changes to the qualifying offer system such that the Royals would receive a supplemental first-round pick only if Davis signed a free agent deal worth at least $50 million, something seen from only one other reliever (Jonathan Papelbon's 2012–15 deal) before Melancon. By moving him now, Kansas City would get a player who's already established at the major league level, yet still young and affordable. Soler, who turns 25 on Feb. 25, is guaranteed just $15 million through 2020, though he can opt into arbitration after next season. He's coming off a modest .238/.333/.436 showing with 12 homers in 264 PA, but after missing two months with a hamstring strain, he hit .258/.348/.515 in 112 PA over the final two months.

Soler owns a career 107 OPS+ and can play both outfield corners, though his defensive numbers have not been great (-12 DRS in 179 total games). Between Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jon Jay, Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr., the Cubs’ outfield is crowded enough that Soler is expendable to them. With Alex Gordon (coming off a bad season) and Paulo Orlando (.302/.329/.405 with +10 DRS) at the corners, it's not yet clear how he'll fit in, but this could point to a trade of Lorenzo Cain, another pending free agent after 2017.

As for Chapman, USA Today's Bob Nightengale tweeted, "One team says he has offer of $92 million," while FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman reported that it wasn't the Yankees, but that the Cuban fireballer has multiple offers past $80 million, with the Yankees, Dodgers and Marlins all in the mix. MLB.com's Bryan Hoch reports that the Yankees have made offers to both Chapman and Jansen, and WFAN’s Sweeny Murty reports that the team has also talked to the White Sox about former closer David Robertson, one of several players Chicago is said to be willing to deal. The Los Angeles Times’s Andy McCullough reported that the Dodgers are "staying competitive" on both Jansen and Chapman (whom they had a deal in place for at last year's Winter Meetings before the closer's domestic violence issue came to light). The Marlins are in on both but are said to prefer Jansen, who would cost them a first-round pick because he received a qualifying offer.

Red Sox trade Travis Shaw and two minor leaguers to Brewers for Tyler Thornburg, sign Mitch Moreland

Dave Dombrowski was a busy man on Tuesday. In addition to pulling the aforementioned blockbuster, he added a setup man with closing experience in Thornburg, kept his bench stocked with a good-fielding first baseman who swings left-handed, and cleared the way for Pablo Sandoval's return from shoulder surgery.

In Thornburg, the Sox acquired a pitcher coming off a breakout season. In his first year of full-time relief work—his body and stuff didn't hold up to the demands of starting—the 5'11" righty posted a 2.15 ERA while striking out 12.1 per nine in 67 innings, first as the Brewers' top setup man and then, after Jeremy Jeffress was traded to the Rangers at the Aug. 1 deadline, stepping into the closer role. Combining a fastball that averaged 95.2 mph and touched 98 with a curve ball that Dombrowski called "a dominant pitch," he notched 13 saves and was charged with eight blown saves, though three came while he was pitching the seventh or eighth inning and would presumably have yielded to a closer.

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If there's a concern about Thornburg beyond his 2014 ulnar collateral ligament injury (he dodged Tommy John surgery with platelet-rich plasma therapy), it's in how flyball-oriented he is. In 2016, he had just a 32.8% groundball rate and the NL's eighth-highest hard-contact rate among relievers with at least 50 innings (36.3%). He allowed just 0.8 homers per nine while pitching half his games in Miller Park, no picnic for pitchers, but if things go even slightly south in the Fenway-Camden-Yankee Stadium crucible of the AL East, look out. Anyway, the Red Sox have Craig Kimbrel to man the ninth, but with Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler reaching free agency, and Carson Smith likely not back from Tommy John surgery until June or July, they were in need of a late-inning arm and they got an inexpensive one. Though he's pitched in parts of five major league seasons, Thornburg has just three years of service time; he's arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, and figures to make around $2.2 million according to MLB Trade Rumors' projection.

That low salary and level of club control is why the Red Sox gave up three players to get Thornburg: infielder Travis Shaw and prospects Mauricio Dubon, a shortstop, and Josh Pennington, a righty. Shaw, who turns 27 on April 16, spent most of the final months of the 2015 season playing first base and beat out Sandoval for the third base job last spring. He hit a sizzling .329/.400/.573 with six homers in 160 PA through May 17, but the league caught onto him; he batted an anemic .205/.265/.356 in 370 PA the rest of the way and finished at .242/.306/.421 with 16 homers and an 88 OPS+. He was overexposed against lefties (.187/.235/.364 in 115 PA), but respectable against righties (.257/.325/.437 in 415 PA). That's not a lineup centerpiece, but Shaw's glovework makes him a very usable player, particularly for a rebuilding club; via Defensive Runs Saved, he was 10 runs above average in 105 games at third base, and four above average in 50 games (28 starts) at first, often in relief of Hanley Ramirez. He's two years away from arbitration eligibility, also ideal for a rebuilder, and will likely pair in a hot corner platoon with righty-swinging Hernan Perez.

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With Sandoval coming back from season-ending left shoulder surgery and presumably in better shape than he was in 2015, when he hit a dismal .245/.292/.366 after signing a five year, $95 million deal, it made sense to move Shaw. The more notable prospect going to Milwaukee is Dubon, a 22-year-old former 26th round 2013 pick out of a Sacramento high school. Dubon split the 2016 season between High A Salem and Double A Portland, batting .323/.379/.461 with six homers and 30 steals in 37 attempts, a performance that vaulted him to seventh on the recent Red Sox’ Top 10 Prospects lists of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. "The offensive profile is slash-and-dash, but his quick wrists and bat control allow him to be an asset at the plate without much in the way of power," wrote the latter while noting that Dubon fared well in his first full year of shortstop work, showing an above-average arm and the physical tools for the position if not a plus glove. As for Pennington, the 21-year-old was a 29th-round pick in 2014 who made 13 starts at Low A en route to a 2.86 ERA with 4.3 walks and 7.8 strikeouts per nine. He's got a fastball in the upper 90s that he struggles to command, and a curve with the potential to be above-average, but he's a long ways off from the majors.

As for Moreland, whom the Red Sox signed to a one-year, $5.5 million deal, it appears he'll take over for Shaw as Ramirez's first base caddy. Fresh off his first Gold Glove win—one that's backed by the metrics, including +8 DRS—the 31-year-old lefty socked 22 homers but didn't do much else with the bat, hitting a meager .233/.298/.422 for an 87 OPS+ with the Rangers. He's generally better than that (116 OPS+ in 2015, 100 career), but nobody who should play against lefties, ever (.240/.295/.378). Where Shaw can play third base (as can utilityman Brock Holt, still a Red Sock), Moreland's secondary position is rightfield, where he's played 45 games, though most of those were in 2010–11. He's also available for mop-up duty, having thrown a scoreless inning in 2014 and done relief work at Mississippi State.

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Rays agree with Wilson Ramos on two-year contract

Ramos, who turned 29 on Aug. 10, was enjoying a career year at the plate (.307/.354/.496 with 22 homers and a 123 OPS+, not to mention his first All-Star berth) for the playoff-bound Nationals when he suffered a crushing blow both to his season and his pending free agency on Sept. 26. He tore the ACL of his right knee as well as both his medial and lateral meniscus; it was his second ACL tear, after his first in 2012. He underwent surgery on Oct. 14, with a 6-to-8 month recovery time placing his return anywhere from late April to late June.

A month before the injury, Ramos turned down a three-year, $30 million extension offer, which he probably would have bettered on the open market had he stayed healthy. The deal is still pending a physical, but assuming it goes through, the Rays struck a halfway decent deal with him under the circumstances, as he’s guaranteed $12.5 million with incentives that can take it to $18.25 million, plus he’ll return to free agency at age 31; he doesn’t need to rush back. The Nationals filled the starting catching spot by trading for the Padres' Derek Norris last Friday, which ruled out a return for Ramos.

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Ramos owns a career .269/.313/.430 line for a 100 OPS+, which is an asset from a catcher, especially a defensively sound one. He's has a good arm, throwing out 37% of would-be base thieves, 10 points above the NL average, and via Baseball Prospectus’s pitch-framing numbers he was 7.4 runs above average in that department, good for 16th among the 77 major league catchers with at least 1000 chances. The Rays have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to seeking value in pitch framing, and all four catchers they used in 2016—Curt Casali, Hank Conger, Luke Malle and Bobby Wilson—were above-average in that department, but they combined to hit just .202/.265/.349. Conger and Wilson are gone, leaving the other two to share the job until Ramos is ready, barring another upgrade.

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