Sports

NICK CAFARDO | SUNDAY BASEBALL NOTES

Baseball’s big hitters aren’t connecting on free agent market

Chris Davis led the majors in home runs last season but doesn’t have a contract for 2016 yet.
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/File 2015
Chris Davis led the majors in home runs last season but doesn’t have a contract for 2016 yet.

It’s January, and the top hitters in free agency and the trade market are still available. What gives?

Has it become that much of a pitching-oriented game that setting aside dollars for an impact hitter is no longer important? After all, it is about runs — both preventing them and scoring them — isn’t it? So the league is paying top pitchers who work every five days north of $30 million per season while hitters who take only five games off a season are still looking for work?

Think about it. Baseball’s top home run hitter of 2015, Chris Davis (47), has yet to be signed. Yes, he turned down $150 million over six years, but there has been no sign that teams are knocking down the door for a 40-plus-homer, 110-plus-RBI player. He’s a very important hitter in the big scheme of things, whether or not you think he strikes out too much. The bottom line is that he produces a bottom line that would seem to be attractive to any team seeking a middle-of-the-order hitter.

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Davis’s agent, Scott Boras, likens it to a young person’s first dance and all that goes into that first step.

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“Why did it take so long to finally dance with someone?” said Boras. “You have to know when the dance is over. Only then does the decision-making process advance.”

Boras is always very patient with the market developing. He remembers Greg Maddux not signing until March after winning 16 games for the Braves in 2003.

Justin Upton will be playing at age 28 this season. He’s a good defensive outfielder and has a 26/84/.271/.825 OPS slash line for his 162-game average, according to Baseball-Reference. That’s a righthanded-hitting corner outfielder you’d want in your lineup, isn’t it?

Granted, scouts have often commented that there’s something missing with Upton, mainly that passion for the game that baseball people like to see. But the results are the results, and he produces.

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Yoenis Cespedes was credited with sparking the Mets’ offensive revival, producing a .942 OPS in 230 at-bats. Overall, he was a 35-homer/105-RBI guy for the Tigers and Mets and won a Gold Glove in the American League. Now the $140 million-$150 million price tag on him has turned off a few teams, but here again, baseball executives witnessed firsthand what Cespedes did for the Mets lineup, so why isn’t that as valuable as what David Price or Zack Greinke gives you — again, pitching every fifth day?

Then we have Alex Gordon.

Baseball execs love the left fielder, who this past week denied that he has ruled out returning to the Royals. They love what he brings in terms of leadership, and his defense is off the charts, but he’s not the offensive producer that the aforementioned players are.

Gordon’s 2014 season pretty much typifies what he is offensively: 19 homers, 74 RBIs, .266 average, .783 OPS. But again, he’s a great run preventer in the Jason Heyward mold, even though he’ll be 32 years old Feb. 10.

On the trade front, who wouldn’t want Carlos Gonzalez? The Rockies’ 40-homer outfielder definitely has benefited from Coors Field, where he has a career .332 average and 1.016 OPS as opposed to .255/.752 on the road. The Rockies are seeking a big package of three top minor leaguers and/or young major league-ready players.

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The good news for all of these players is that there are still teams with incomplete rosters. The Orioles, for instance, will not start the 2016 season without picking off one of them. And they’d love to see Davis accept their offer to stay where he really wants to stay — where he feels comfortable and can hit a lot of home runs.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette has stayed quiet on the ongoing Davis saga, feeling his organization has made a solid offer. When asked what’s behind the slow market for hitters, he said, “Not sure, other than the prices of these hitters and that clubs are looking at the history of recent mega-deals.”

He’s probably referring to Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Troy Tulowitzki, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Carl Crawford, Ryan Braun, Ryan Howard, and pitchers CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander. Teixeira, A-Rod, Votto, and Tulowitzki have been productive within their contracts but they’ve been a ball and chain for their teams in terms of limiting what else they’re able to do.

Of course, Duquette’s mega-deals have worked out. For all of Manny Ramirez’s foibles, he performed well in all eight years of his $160 million contract. Pedro Martinez (six years/$75 million), whom he traded for and then signed long-term, made it to the Hall of Fame. Johnny Damon lived up to his four-year, $31 million deal. And in Baltimore, Adam Jones (six years/$85.5 million) has worked out as well.

The Giants are another team that needs offense. They have picked off two prime-time starters in Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto for $220 million and likely have a big payday left for an impact hitter. Right now, they would go into the 2016 season with an outfield of Hunter Pence, Gregor Blanco, and Angel Pagan. They need to be better than that.

Will the Tigers really start the year with Anthony Gose as their left fielder?

Will the Angels be content with a left-field platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry?

Will the White Sox, who seem to be really going for it, try to upgrade in right field from Avisail Garcia and go after one of the free agent hitters?

In the end, the hitters will likely get their mega-deals from teams desperate for offense.

CRYSTAL BALL

Peering ahead to next season

What are the stories to follow in 2016?

One of the big ones will be the collective bargaining talks, which should begin this month. There will be a lot of important issues discussed. Large-market teams have long believed the luxury tax is unfair for payrolls that surpass the limit, which for the past couple of years has been $189 million.

Look for the tax threshold to increase under the new agreement, but we wonder whether the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers/Tigers/Giants etc. may have specific ideas on how to reduce the burden of the tax. The big-market teams also believe it is unfair to subsidize smaller-market teams. They’d like to see some tweak to that as well.

Also look for changes in compensation for losing free agents as well as changes in the draft allocations.

This will be the first labor negotiation for Rob Manfred as commissioner and Tony Clark as union president, though both (especially Manfred) have been central figures in CBA talks in the past. While the talks have gone smoothly in recent times, with both sides making so much money, these ones may be a little more difficult with so many important issues on the table.

We’ll also see how analytics continue to affect the game. Opponents feel the numbers have made the game stiff with silly defensive shifts that take away the effectiveness of some of the biggest sluggers in the game.

No batter in baseball had shifts employed against him more times than David Ortiz, with 626. Chris Davis was next with 517. Last season, Ortiz had only 21 singles that were pulled, down from 33 in 2013 and 29 in 2014.

There will be discussions about limiting the movement of infielders. As one opponent of the shifting pointed out, “The analytics are going to be a wash after a while because it’s getting to the point where all teams have the same information.”

The use of replay, new rules for sliding into bases, advanced technology, the strike zone, and limiting media access even more will all be part of the CBA discussion. The long-awaited international draft could pick up steam.

For the players, the issue of an increasingly difficult travel schedule will likely be addressed. Other things: expansion, the reduction of the 162-game schedule, expanded playoffs.

On the field, we’ll follow Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki’s quest for 3,000 hits, which will stamp his place in the Hall of Fame. The final season for Ortiz will trigger a debate on whether a DH can be a Hall of Famer.

We’ll see an emphasis on super bullpens and likely see the innings for starting pitchers decrease. All eyes will be on the top money-makers — Zack Greinke with the Diamondbacks and David Price with the Red Sox — and whether the outlay of more than $30 million a season is worth the investment.

We’ll watch for the further advancement of “faces of the game” players such as Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, and Kris Bryant.

The Cubs will continue to be America’s Team as we follow the next steps in their quest to end a 109-year drought.

It’s an even year, and that usually means success for the Giants.

Can the Mets’ Fab Five dominate again?

Did the Blue Jays mess up their karma in losing Price and general manager Alex Anthopoulos?

Can the Red Sox get out of last place and contend for a World Series again?

Will Hanley Ramirez adapt to first base?

The Red Sox, White Sox, Tigers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Mariners won the offseason. Can they win the regular season?

Will Alex Rodriguez continue to hit?

Will the annually disappointing Nationals finally live up to expectations?

The domestic abuse cases of Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, and Jose Reyes should provide fascinating news.

Apropos of nothing

1. Where do we begin to tell the story of how wonderful a player the late Frank Malzone was?

Red Sox consultant Ken Nigro was a beat writer for the Baltimore Sun during Brooks Robinson’s prime, and he always felt for Malzone because “he was an excellent third baseman, but a combination of the Orioles’ success in winning over 90 games every year and Brooks’s extraordinary defense resulted in Malzone never getting proper credit.” Nigro is right. Malzone won the Gold Glove in 1957 when there was only one winner for both leagues. He won it again in 1958 and 1959, but once Robinson became established, he took the honor from 1960-75.

As we wrote last week, Malzone’s No. 11 is certainly worthy of consideration for the Red Sox to retire.

Willie Mays slid into third, just under a tag from Frank Malzone, in the 1960 All-Star Game.
Ernie Sisto/New York Times/File
Willie Mays slid into third, just under a tag from Frank Malzone, in the 1960 All-Star Game.

2. In the first five years of his seven-year contract (two with Boston and three with the Dodgers), Carl Crawford has played in 451 of a potential 810 games, and has had 436 hits in 1,582 at-bats (.276 ) with 32 homers, 168 RBIs, and 71 stolen bases. The next two years of his contract will pay him $43.464 million.

3. Mariners closer Steve Cishek ran a successful first Winter Wiffleball Classic at the Antonucci Field House in Falmouth last Sunday. The Falmouth native raised more than $6,000 for the Falmouth High Baseball Boosters and Falmouth Youth Baseball.

The 22-team tournament was won by Advanced Performance Training, which outlasted Huge Ichiro Fans. Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons was a special guest of the tournament, which Cishek hopes will be an annual event. Cishek recently signed a two-year, $10 million deal with Seattle.

4. Rusney Castillo might very well come into his own in 2016, but I still believe the Red Sox would be best suited with another righthanded power bat in right field. Chris Young would help, but a 30-homer thumper would be better. Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in a text, “We are always open minded, but our club is primarily set at this time since most of our major needs have been filled.”

5. Justin Morneau is a player you haven’t heard much about in free agency. He’s had his concussion issues, but it appears that Morneau, 34, still wants to play after being limited to 49 games last season. The Rockies could re-sign him, and a team such as the Orioles, Pirates, or Brewers could take him on. Morneau hit .382 over his last 18 games last season. Good teammate and leader.

Updates on nine

1. Andrew Miller, LHP, Yankees — It’s more likely that the Yankees will keep their uber-bullpen intact rather than trade Miller, according to a major league source. Teams like Houston and Toronto have inquired about Miller, but the Yankees want back a young top-of-the-rotation starter, and that doesn’t appear to be available to them. Lance McCullers was the target in Houston, but he is off-limits. The Blue Jays would have to give up someone such as Marcus Stroman, and that’s just not happening.

2. Mark Melancon, RHP, Pirates — He has been available all winter in the right deal, but as time passes, it seems more and more likely that Melancon, who led the majors with 51 saves last season, will remain a Pirate. Melancon stands to make a big salary in arbitration, likely north of $10 million. Because the Pirates will again be playoff contenders, he may not be available at the trade deadline.

3. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers — There are still no takers on Ethier, who remains an expensive backup. The Dodgers would have to pick up a hefty amount of the $18.5 million this year, $17 million next, and then deal with a vesting option for 2018. Some believe Ethier could be a full-time player again, and while he may never be effective vs. lefties, the fact that he has had only 45 lefty-on-lefty at-bats the past two seasons isn’t helping him get better. Ethier hit .306 with a .900 OPS vs. righties last season. If a team picks up half the contract, Ethier could fit nicely with someone such as the Angels, who are looking for a lefthanded bat.

4. Wade Miley, LHP, Mariners — Besides his durability, the innings, and the fast pace with which he works, another aspect of Miley’s game that GM Jerry Dipoto liked when he traded for him is Miley’s ability to hold runners. Over the least five seasons, the overall stolen base success rate in the majors was 72 percent, but the rate against Miley was just 42 percent. The rate against Jon Lester was 74 percent, including a whopping 80 percent last season.

5. Alexei Ramirez, SS, free agent — The former White Sox shortstop remains a possibility to return to Chicago, but San Diego could also be a destination.

6. Gerardo Parra, OF, free agent — While defensive metrics show a decline in Parra’s Gold Glove defense over the years, scouts don’t seem to buy that it’s a permanent hindrance to his overall play. “He’s still one of the best defensive outfielders in the game,” said an American League scout. “He takes very good routes to balls, and as a pitcher or manager, you feel comfortable with him out there.” Colorado seems interested; Parra’s offense could also come around there. The Royals also seem like a good fit.

7. Yovani Gallardo, RHP, free agent — Is the Scott Kazmir deal with the Dodgers (three years, $48 million) a good comparable for Gallardo’s future earnings? He and Wei-Yin Chen are the best starting pitchers still available. Gallardo has suitors in the Orioles, Royals, and possibly Cardinals.

8. Ivan Nova, RHP, Yankees — Nova has drawn some interest as a back-end starter, and the Yankees could decide on something with him over the next month. Including Nova, the Yankees have seven starting pitchers (Masahiro Tanaka, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda) so they could part with one if it brings back a good prospect or a major league-ready outfielder. Miami has had interest.

9. Fernando Rodney, RHP, free agent — He had a terrible season for the Mariners last year (5-5, 5.68 ERA), but once he got to the Cubs, he made 14 very good appearances, going 2-0 with an 0.75 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. The 38-year-old veteran has been a tough sell, but the Cubs have talked about bringing him back and the Padres have shown interest. The Blue Jays have also kicked the tires.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Nick Markakis hit just three homers in 2015, yet drew 11 intentional walks; Chris Davis hit 47 homers and had only six intentional walks.” Also, “In 2014, Ben Revere hit .306 with seven triples and two homers. In 2015, Revere hit .306 with seven triples and two homers.” And, “In 2014, Brian McCann hit .232 with 15 doubles and one triple. In 2015, McCann hit .232 with 15 doubles and one triple.” . . . Happy birthday, Luis Rivera (52) and John Leister (55).

Challenging work

Baseball expanded replay in 2015 to allow managers to challenge calls made on the field. It’s an option that yielded various results. Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash went to it a league-leading 54 times, but only won 17. The Yankees’ Joe Girardi had only 30 challenges, tied for fifth-fewest, but won 22 of them for a success rate of 73 percent, best in the game.

Compiled by Richard McSweeney

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.