Postseason races are heating up and there is a lot on the line these next few weeks. It's not just postseason berths and individual awards either. Many players are playing for 2020 contracts, and in the current free-agent climate, that can be a scary thing. Free agency is not all it's cracked up to be these days.
. We've been keeping tabs on the upcoming free-agent class all season with weekly looks at players whose stock is on the rise, and players whose stock is slipping. Here are two players who are putting themselves in good position going into free agency, and one trending in the wrong direction.
Sometimes a change of scenery can do a player a world of good. Nicholas Castellanos, who emerged as one of the game's most dangerous young hitters with the Tigers from 2016-18, had a sluggish 100-game stint with Detroit this year before being dealt to the Cubs at the trade deadline.
With Chicago, Castellanos has been a force, going 31 for 79 (.392) with seven doubles and eight home runs in 19 games. That includes four hits and a home run Wednesday night, his third straight game with a long ball.
"The best way I could put it is you're underwater for a long time and you breathe hard for a real, real long time, and then you finally break the surface," Castellanos said during a recent interview with 670 The Score, referring to how it felt being traded from a last place team to a team in the postseason race.
Of course, Castellanos is not truly this good, and teams won change their evaluation of him based on 19 games with the Cubs. The read on Castellanos was already pretty good though. He's shown he can be an impactful MLB hitters -- his 120 OPS+ from 2016-18 made him a top-35 hitter in baseball -- and he's only 27. Castellanos will turn 28 in March.
The downside comes defensively and on the bases, where Castellanos has negative value. He can really hit though, and he's entering what should be his peak years, and right now he's showing he can be a centerpiece for a postseason contending team. A flawed player? Sure. A player who can help a contender? No doubt.
I suspect we'll hear rumblings about the Cubs and Castellanos discussing an extension at some point, though probably not until after the season. The defense will hold down his earning potential -- an American League team is the best fit, clearly -- but, given his age and bat, a multiyear deal in $12 million to $15 million per year range is on the table.
For the first few weeks of the season, it did not look like the Braves would get their money's worth from Josh Donaldson. The former AL MVP signed a one-year deal worth $23 million over the winter, and, on June 13, he was hitting .236/.349/.419 with nine home runs through 65 games. Good, but not truly great.
Since then, the 33-year-old Donaldson has been a force for Atlanta, hitting .300/.420/.652 with 20 home runs in his last 59 games. He's also playing solid defense at the hot corner and, most importantly, staying healthy. Calf and shoulder trouble sabotaged his 2017-18 seasons, but Donaldson has had no such trouble this year. He's been healthy.
This two-month surge was not unexpected, at least not to Donaldson. He felt it coming. Here's what he told Gabriel Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 16:
"I felt like I was right there, it was just a matter of time," Donaldson said. "I got on the field to get in some early work (Saturday) in a relaxed environment, work at my own pace, see some breaking balls. Over the course of the weekend, I had five or six (hits) against the off-speed. That's something that I've been lacking all year."
"It's no secret (breaking balls) are what I've been getting a lot of this year," Donaldson said. "It's nice to get in a controlled setting, work on some things (in batting practice). ... It translated, but the great thing about baseball is you get the chance to come do it again tomorrow."
Prior to his batting line bottoming out on June 13, Donaldson hit .198 with a .372 slugging percentage against breaking balls. Spin the ball and he wasn't going to make you pay. Since then though, Donaldson is hitting .323 with a .723 slugging percentage against breaking balls. The underlying numbers against breaking balls indicate this isn't a fluke:
|Exit Velo||Weighted on-base average (wOBA)||Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA)|
First 65 games
Last 59 games
The numbers indicate Donaldson may have been a little unlucky against breaking balls earlier this year -- Statcast calculates xwOBA using exit velocity and launch angle, things like that -- and is maybe getting a little lucky against breaking balls now, but the improvement is real. He's hitting breaking balls harder and getting much better results (actual and expected).
For all intents and purposes, the MVP version of Donaldson has returned, at least over these last two months or so, and he's doing it in the middle of the order for a World Series contender. I know the Braves have Austin Riley ready to step in at third base, but gosh, Donaldson is such a wonderful fit given their roster construction. An extension is worth pursuing.
A few weeks ago it seemed Donaldson was heading to another one-year contract this winter, this time with a much lower salary. This resurgence could push him to two guaranteed years, or at least increase his 2020 salary, especially if he keeps it up through October. Even with his 34th birthday coming in December, I think two years and $30 million to $36 million total is now possible.
What a rough year for Indians righty Corey Kluber. The two-time Cy Young winner had his forearm broken by a comebacker on May 1, then, during a rehab start over the weekend, . There is a very real chance Kluber's 2019 season is over.
Even before the injury, Kluber did not look like himself. He posted a 5.80 ERA in seven starts with his lowest strikeout rate (22.6 percent), his highest walk rate (8.9 percent), and his highest opponent's batting average (.297) since breaking out as one of the game's best pitchers in 2014. Kluber labored a bit down the stretch in 2018 and it carried over to 2019.
Kluber's contract includes a $17.5 million club option for next season, and for the longest time, that looked like a no-brainer. Of course the Indians would pick it up. Now though? Between the injuries and the possible declining effectiveness, the club option is suddenly no longer a lock to be exercised. Not with a cash-strapped team like Cleveland.
The Indians traded Trevor Bauer at the deadline partly because he is due $20 million or so through arbitration next year, and aside from Jason Kipnis (assuming they decline his $16.5 milion option), they don't have much money coming off the books after this season. And remember, they're going to owe Francisco Lindor a huge arbitration raise.
Kluber's option includes a $1 million buyout, so it is effectively a $16.5 million decision. The way I see it, the Indians have three options here:
- Decline the option and let Kluber leave as a free agent.
- Exercise the option and keep Kluber next season.
- Exercise the option and trade Kluber over the winter.
If the Indians decline the option, they wouldn't make Kluber the qualifying offer, and thus would not receive a draft pick should he sign elsewhere. You don't decline a $17.5 million club option tonly to make the $19 million or so qualifying offer. If Kluber leaves as a free agent, Cleveland gets nothing. Hard to see that happening.
The Indians could go into 2020 with Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber fronting a rotation that also includes a hopefully healthy Carlos Carrasco and upstart youngsters Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. They don't need Kluber, per se, but there is no such thing as too much pitching. Picking up the option and keeping Kluber makes baseball sense. Financial sense? Eh, not sure.
Option 3 is the most intriguing. As ugly as his 2019 has been, Kluber's track record is so strong that I believe he would still generate healthy trade interest. It's only a one-year commitment (Kluber's contract includes a club option for 2021 as well, but that season isn't guaranteed), so contenders are the most realistic trade partners, and it's a chance at a true ace.
The difficult part won't be finding trade partners for Kluber. It'll be agreeing on trade value. Even these days, $17.5 million is a lot of money, so I don't think trade partners would offer their best prospects unless the Indians eat some salary, and even then the offers might not be great. A bidding war could quickly drive up the price, however.
Not too long ago Kluber's option decision was an easy call. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball and picking it up was an obvious decision. After his early season struggles and these injuries, as well as the team's financial situation, that is no longer the case. I'd still bet on the Indians picking up the option, even if it's only to cash Kluber in as a trade chip. The fact that option has become a question though tells us how far Kluber's stock has fallen.