Rosenthal: Michael Wacha’s free lingering agency, Astros’ GM search and Yankees’ infield options
Ask a major-league executive at this time of year why a free agent isn’t signed, and the exec will invariably respond, “Because he wants too much money.”
Players, though, sometimes have their own perspective. And that perspective often boils down to, “If that player got X, why can’t I get Y?”
Consider Michael Wacha, perhaps the best unsigned free-agent starting pitcher after fellow right-hander Zack Greinke, whose situation I explained in a recent column. Both pitchers simply might want what they consider to be fair value in an escalating market.
Wacha, entering his age 31 season, produced a 3.32 ERA in 127 1/3 innings last season for the Boston Red Sox, the last-place team in the game’s toughest division. His changeup is an elite pitch. Not surprisingly, he is seeking a multi-year deal.
It would be a stretch for Wacha to compare himself to righties Taijuan Walker (four years, $72 million) and Jameson Taillon (four years, $68 million). Walker threw 30 more innings than Wacha last season, Taillon threw 50 more than Wacha. Walker is also a year younger.
In addition, Wacha had a combined 5.11 ERA in the three previous seasons pitching for the Cardinals, Mets and Rays, and his injury history is not insignificant. He was on the injured list at least once in each of the past five seasons, and twice in 2022, for left intercostal irritation and right shoulder inflammation.
On the other hand, Wacha is at least comparable to fellow righty Ross Stripling, who is two years older, threw only seven more innings last season and had almost an identical park- and league-adjusted ERA.
The Giants signed Stripling for two years and $25 million. Wacha certainly would be justified to ask for a deal in that range, and because his changeup is such a weapon, perhaps he could argue he deserves to be higher. Zach Eflin, a pitcher two years younger than Wacha, received three years and $40 million from the Rays even though he threw only 75 2/3 roughly league-average innings last season before excelling as a reliever in the playoffs.
Obviously, the market is different now than it was earlier in the offseason, when teams had yet to spend most or all of their money. The offers to Wacha are not known. Nor are his desires. If he wants say, two years, $35 million, or three years, $50 million, he would explain his lingering unemployment.
Perhaps Wacha will end up settling for a one-year deal — he could reasonably ask for more than Noah Syndergaard ($13 million) and Kyle Gibson ($10 million). For now, the mystery continues. He remains unsigned.
Lefties are still out there
Another curiosity in the free-agent market is the continued availability of three accomplished left-handed relievers — Zack Britton, Andrew Chafin and Matt Moore. In the view of one executive, the expectations for those pitchers changed after the Phillies awarded Matt Strahm a two-year, $15 million deal in early December.
“That deal destroyed the market,” the exec said.
Strahm, 31, threw only 44 2/3 innings for the Red Sox last season, holding opponents to a .664 OPS. Chafin, 32, pitched 57 1/3 innings and held opponents to a .619 OPS. Moore, 33, worked 74 innings and held opponents to a .564 OPS.
Britton, 35, is in a different category, possessing the longest and most impressive track record. He recovered from Tommy John surgery in time to pitch in three games for the Yankees near the end of the season, but the team shut him down before the start of the playoffs, citing shoulder fatigue. He is healthy again, and seeking a one-year deal.
According to sources with knowledge of the market but unauthorized to speak publicly, the teams with varying interest in left-handed relievers and varying amounts to spend include the Rangers, Angels and Astros in the AL West; Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays in the AL East; and Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs in the NL Central.
The Mets have talked about adding a lefty as well, but are wary of signing a veteran who would leave their bullpen short on pitchers who could be optioned to the minors, reducing the team’s roster flexibility.
Latest on Astros’ GM search
A familiar name has surfaced in the Astros’ search for a new general manager — David Stearns, who was the team’s assistant GM from Nov. 2012 to Sept. 2015 before leaving to become the Brewers’ general manager and later president of baseball operations.
Stearns stepped down from a decision-making role in October, saying, “This is a job that requires complete and total commitment. When I began to hesitate about whether I could make that commitment, I knew it was really time to contemplate a change.”
With a year left on his contract, Stearns remained with the Brewers in an advisory role to ownership and baseball operations. Astros owner Jim Crane is intrigued by the idea of bringing him back to Houston, according to two major-league sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly.
Crane would require permission from the Brewers to interview Stearns. It is not known whether he has requested that permission, or if he will. It is also not known whether Stearns would be interested in the Astros so soon after relinquishing his role with the Brewers.
Brewers owner Mark Attanasio at least twice has been denied permission for Stearns to interview with other clubs — the Giants after the 2018 season and the Mets after 2021. Both of those instances occurred when Stearns was the Brewers’ lead decision-maker, as opposed to his current advisory role. Attanasio conceivably could grant permission now, and require some form of compensation, most likely a player, if the Astros hired Stearns.
If Stearns is unavailable, Crane can turn to one of his other candidates. Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown, Guardians assistant general manager James Harris and former Giants GM Bobby Evans are among those Crane has interviewed, according to sources and published reports. Former Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill, the league’s senior vice-president of on-field operations, withdrew his name from consideration, as first reported by the New York Post.
Both Brown and Harris are Black; the White Sox’s Ken Williams is currently the league’s only Black president of baseball operations or GM. Brown also has ties to Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, a special assistant to the GM with the Astros. The two were teammates at Seton Hall in the late 1980s, along with former major leaguers Mo Vaughn and John Valentine.
“The Astros need evaluators,” a rival executive said, referring to Brown. “He’s one of the best.”
Yankees’ infield gluten
All is quiet with the Yankees at the moment, but something has to give with their infield. Excluding first base, they’re currently looking at six players for three spots, including top prospect Anthony Volpe, who is not yet on their 40-man roster.
The easiest path to start the season would be to demote Volpe, who has played only 22 games at Triple A. But barring injuries, a trade of second baseman Gleyber Torres, shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa or third baseman Josh Donaldson eventually might be necessary to clear the impending logjam.
DJ LeMahieu, coming off an injury to his second right toe, is working out at the Yankees’ spring training facility in Tampa and “looks good,” according to general manager Brian Cashman. Kiner-Falefa will compete with Volpe and Oswald Peraza at shortstop.
The Yankees are smack up against the highest luxury-tax threshold of $293 million. Their preference almost certainly is to move Donaldson, who owed $21 million this season and a $6 million buyout on his $16 million mutual option for 2024. Torres, however, is probably of greater interest to clubs. He asked for $10.2 million in arbitration, and is under club control through 2024. The Yankees offered him $9.7 million.
“We’ll only make a trade if something makes sense,” Cashman said. We’re not going to make a trade just to create a spot for a kid. We’ll make a trade if we feel like we’re getting some sort of value back.”
Still, how much longer can the Yankees wait for Volpe and/or Peraza? The team has shunned free-agent shortstops the past two winters, and benched Kiner-Falefa in both the Division Series and American League Championship Series last season, starting with Oswaldo Cabrera at short three times and Peraza once.
Volpe, 21, is No. 14 on Baseball America’s newly released Top 100 prospects. Peraza, 22, is No. 62. The two Rookies of the Year last season, the Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez and Braves’ Michael Harris II, were the same age. Volpe is now — 21.
Cashman said Volpe and Peraza will “get a legit shot,” but added, “the veterans are ready to defend their positions.” There isn’t much else he can say at this point. Not until he figures out a resolution.
NL pennant race: Over before it starts?
I’ve said my piece on the ill-advised public comments by Reds president Phil Castellini, but at least when it comes to the National League, he wasn’t entirely off when he bemoaned the increasing percentage of teams that will be out of contention by Opening Day.
Another NL executive said the league’s playoffs likely will feature the same six teams as last season — the Phillies, Braves, Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres. For a different result, one of those clubs must slip and another team — perhaps the Cubs, Brewers, Diamondbacks or Giants — must enjoy a season in which nearly everything goes right.
The Reds, Pirates, Nationals, Marlins and Rockies? They figure to be on the outside looking in. But when Castellini said the seemingly preordained fate of such clubs reflects “an industry in crisis,” he ignored the role uninspired team management plays in the process. With the Reds, it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some of this also is cyclical. The AL this season should be more competitive than the NL. The AL East will feature four and maybe five postseason contenders, the AL Central and AL West at least three each.
Around the horn
Information from major-league sources:
• The Orioles continue to explore trades for a starting pitcher. They also spoke with Grienke at one point and investigated the possibility of signing free-agent outfielder Jurickson Profar, though they are not especially confident of landing either player.
Profar, perhaps the best remaining free-agent position player, is a better fit for a team with a more pressing need in left field — the Yankees, for example, or the Rangers. But after turning down a $7.5 million player option with the Padres, he almost certainly wants a multi-year deal with at least that average annual value. The Yankees have luxury-tax concerns, and the Rangers’ estimated $196 million Opening Day payroll would be a club record by about $30 million.
• Without closer Liam Hendriks, who is recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the White Sox are unlikely to trade a reliever. Rival clubs, scared off by free-agent prices, previously had inquired on various members of the Sox’s bullpen, knowing they had depth.
The loss of Hendriks cannot be diminished, but the White Sox will still feature Kendall Graveman, Reynaldo López, Joe Kelly and Jimmy Lambert from the right side, and Aaron Bummer and Jake Diekman from the left. Another lefty, Garrett Crochet, is recovering from Tommy John surgery last March, and should be back at some point in the first half.
• And finally, could this be the season in which the Rays dramatically reduce their use of openers? If the team’s projected rotation of Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Drew Rasmussen, Zach Eflin and Jeffrey Springs stay reasonably healthy, the need to use relievers as occasional starters will not be nearly as acute.
The Rays introduced the opener in 2018 and have employed the concept over nearly a full season of games since. Including postseason, they are 91-60 with Openers. Last season they used one 21 times, and went 12-9.
(Top photo of Michael Wacha: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)