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With Patrick Corbin gone, free agent starter market is weak

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The Nationals plucked starter Patrick Corbin off the free agent market on Tuesday, agreeing to a six-year, $140 million contract. Now that Corbin’s gone, the free agent market for starters is quite weak. Here’s who’s left:

From this list, we can extract a handful of players — Eovaldi, Happ, Keuchel, and Morton — as being clearly better than the rest. But all of these pitchers come with warts to varying degrees. The aforementioned four just have the fewest. Those warts include age, recent injuries, and recent poor performance.

Keuchel, for instance, had a career-low strikeout rate in 2018 at 17.5 percent, a four percent decrease from the year prior. He turns 31 when the calendar turns to January and his fastball averages under 90 MPH. Patrick Corbin he is not.

Eovaldi’s stock skyrocketed with yeoman’s work during the postseason for the World Series champion Red Sox. He tossed 22 1/3 innings, including six in relief in the 18-inning barnburner with the Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series. Eovaldi also pitched well during the regular season, compiling a 3.81 ERA across 21 starts and one relief appearance with the Rays and Red Sox. The 28-year-old, however, finished his first full season since 2016 after undergoing multiple elbow surgeries. His durability is anything but a given.

Morton has continued to get better and better following a metamorphosis that appeared to begin with the Phillies in 2016. His average fastball registered between 91-93 MPH with the Pirates, but averaged 94 MPH in his brief four-start stint with the Phillies, then came in at 95 and 96 MPH in the past two seasons with the Astros. Morton’s strikeout rate rose with it, going from 17-19 percent towards the end of his stint with the Pirates, 27 percent with the Phillies, and 26 and 29 percent in his two years in Houston. 2018 was the best year of Morton’s career as he went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA and a 201/64 K/BB ratio in 167 innings. There’s a lot to believe in with Morton. However, he’s 35 years old and last year was the only year in his 11-year career in which he reached the 30-start plateau.

Happ has been both good and durable for much of the past five years. Over that span of time with the Blue Jays, Mariners, Pirates, and Yankees, the lefty made 145 starts to the tune of a 3.62 ERA with 782 strikeouts and 253 walks across 848 innings. Happ actually finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award balloting in 2016, but it’s the only time in his career he’s ever received votes for the award. Despite his durability and reliable production, Happ is now 36 years old and he doesn’t have nearly as high a ceiling as someone as Corbin does. While the Yankees and Phillies — both teams that heavily pursued Corbin — view Happ as a fallback, but it’s name-brand versus store-brand.

The next tier of pitchers — García, González, Jackson, Liriano, Pomeranz, Ramírez, Ross — are not the types of pitchers one would like to ink to multi-year deals. The rest of the list are pitchers likely to land minor league deals with invitations to spring training.

So now that Corbin is off the board, the best starting pitching upgrades are likely to be found via trade. The Indians have reportedly been listening to offers for Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer, for instance. It wouldn’t be surprising to see teams like the Phillies and Yankees head that route and then spend their money on the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.