A look at the Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Morton, and J.A. Happ signings.
As my managing editor Matt Provenzano recently discussed, the Winter Meetings are boring. What was once the focal point of the offseason for major signings and transactions has been rendered mostly unnecessary thanks to cell phones and texting. It now serves mostly as an excuse for those in the business to get together, and those looking to get into the business to try to do so.
Still, while free agent juggernauts Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remain on the market, some notable free agents did sign. In Part 1 we will look at the McCutchen, Morton, and Happ signings. Part 2 will come out sometime in the next few days covering Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Jeurys Familia, and the Tanner Roark trade.
The Phillies signed McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million deal with a team option for a fourth year at $15 million. Perhaps my opinion was affect by last winter’s slow market, but I thought McCutchen would get less than that. In fact, I was half expecting him to take a one-year pillow contract. It is a fair deal for both sides, and I am happy to see Cutch get paid what he is worth.
The Carlos Santana trade — well, the first one — made room at first base for Rhys Hoskins, a very good hitter who should only be allowed to play left field in emergency situations. It seems to me that most analysts see McCutchen as a fringe average corner outfielder at best, but I am a little higher on him than that. I think he is solidly average out there. Regardless, even a 40-grade defender is better than Hoskins.
McCutchen’s bat is far from what it was in a prime that saw him win an MVP award, but he is still quite good at the plate. Last year he hit .255/.368/.424, good for a 120 wRC+. What’s strange is that his baserunning has been sub-par over the past few seasons, even though his sprint speed has not diminished much. Steamer projects his true talent at 2.9 WAR for 2018, which is easily worth what he is being paid considering how much money the Phillies have and how competitive the NL East is shaping up to be.
Speaking of which, the competitiveness of the NL East is important to keep in mind for any future transactions their teams execute this winter. Cutch is being fairly paid, but it is absolutely worth overpaying for wins in this division. Those extra wins could be extremely valuable.
Phillies GM Matt Klentak recently said that the Phillies have to be a 90-win team if they want to compete for the division. He’s right. Adding McCutchen to a team that had a 79-win BaseRuns record is a good start, but more needs to be done. Cutch likely adds ~3 wins when looking at the defensive improvement over Hoskins and the offensive improvement over Santana. With Jean Segura having been added earlier this offseason, this move probably puts this team at 85 or 86 wins. Signing Machado or Harper would easily put them over 90 wins.
Morton’s signing was a pleasant surprise on two fronts: Morton getting more than I thought he would and the Rays actually spending money. The deal is for two years and $30 million with a third option year at an additional $15 million. It is a vesting option that scales based on how much time he spends on the DL. If he spends over 200 days on the DL, the third year option will be worth only $1 million. The 35-year-old Morton was already considering retirement before he signed this contract, so I suspect he will almost certainly retire if that third year gets to $1 million or close to it.
You are likely well aware of the career renaissance Morton experienced when he joined the Astros in 2017. He had a career 5.12 RA9 and -0.5 WAR before arriving in Houston, and then had a 3.67 RA9 and 5.3 WAR over his two years on the Astros while striking out over 27 percent of batters faced.
Morton is an injury risk, so look for the Rays to limit his innings. I doubt we will frequently see him go past the sixth inning unless there is an opener used, but despite the risk, he fills a need for a Rays team that won 90 games last year. That being said, the Rays have a steep hill to climb if they want to make the postseason as a result of being in the AL East.
As good as this team is, they have virtually no shot at overtaking the Red Sox and Yankees for the division. The second Wild Card slot is probably the most they can hope for. A $30 million contract is not much, but one has to question going for it when a road Coin Flip game is your ceiling.
The Yankees decided to bring back J.A. Happ on a two-year, $34 million deal. He has a third year vesting option for $17 million that will vest if he pitches 165 innings or starts 27 games in 2020. He has accomplished each only four times, though he crossed both those thresholds in 2018.
It is a solid move for a Yankees team that needed another starter. Right now their rotation looks like this: Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and C.C. Sabathia. They do not have a whole lot of depth beyond that, though, and at least three of those starters are likely to see time on the DL.
Happ was able to reinvent himself on the Pirates in the second half of 2015. Over the three years since he has turned in a 3.77 RA9 and averaged 3.8 WAR per year. In 2018, he struggled a bit on the Blue Jays with a 4.82 RA9 over 20 starts, but then excelled on the Yankees with a 2.83 RA9 over his last 11 starts. However, that came with a low .250 BABIP and a high strand rate. DRA saw him as roughly the same pitcher in Toronto and New York, with a 4.00 DRA in the former and a 3.89 DRA in the latter.
Steamer projects 2.8 WAR for Happ in 2019. If he is worth at least 2 WAR per season for the Yankees, he will easily be worth his contract. For the richest team in the sport that happens to be chasing their arch rivals for the division, this is really not much money to fill out the back of the rotation.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.