Rangers Lock Up Leclerc
Despite persistent trade rumors this offseason, the Rangers’ ensured that closer Jose Leclerc would remain an essential component of their long-term rebuilding effort, agreeing to a four-year contract extension with the 25-year-old right-hander on Wednesday. According to multiple sources, the deal contains four guaranteed years, worth a total of $14.75 million. It also contains a pair of club options (2023 and 2024) that could push the overall value to $27 million. It’s impossible to overlook that this is an extremely team-friendly deal. Yet, it also represents a substantial raise for Leclerc, who was expected to earn close to the league minimum salary ($575,000) this year and wouldn’t have been arbitration-eligible until next offseason.
Simply put, Leclerc was always the quintessential “if he ever harnesses his electric stuff and irons out his chronic control issues, he’s going to be an high-leverage reliever” long-term developmental project. After walking nearly eight batters per-nine (7.86 BB/9) over his first 59 career appearances, he finally put it together out of the Texas bullpen last year. Not only did he slash his bloated walk rate to fewer than four per-nine (3.90 BB/9), but he finished his breakout campaign with a microscopic 1.56 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 85/25 K/BB ratio over 57 2/3 innings. His fantasy stock skyrocketed once he took over as the Rangers’ closer following the departure of veteran righty Keone Kela, who was traded to the Pirates in late July. Over the final two months, Leclerc converted 12-of-12 save opportunities and did not allow a run in 18 appearances.
This long-term extension comes as a bit of a surprise, especially considering the Rangers’ realistic playoff odds -- PECOTA projects them for 70 wins and a last-place finish in the AL West this season -- and the fact that there were credible reports of multiple teams reaching out to the Rangers regarding a potential Leclerc trade this winter. However, now that he’s locked up for ostensibly the next half decade, he won’t be going anywhere unless there is a true Brad Hand/Andrew Miller/Aroldis Chapman-style “Godfather offer” out there at the trade deadline.
From a fantasy perspective, Leclerc’s newfound contractual security provides a legitimate boost to his fantasy value in 2019 and beyond. Most importantly, it eliminates any incentive for the Rangers to remove him from the closer role for the sole purpose of suppressing his potential earnings in salary arbitration. It’s become less common these days, but it’s not unprecedented. We witnessed this phenomenon most notably with Ken Giles in Philadelphia and Cody Allen in Cleveland. Considering the dystopian wasteland that is the turnover-filled closer landscape, Leclerc is one of the most attractive fantasy targets at the position right now. Even if his control regresses, he still misses enough bats to overcome it and is one of the few closers that isn’t a threat to lose their job. That’s more valuable than you think in 2019.
Brewers Bullpen Scare
While fantasy owners received some clarity in Texas, the Brewers’ complex bullpen situation became a bit murkier when veteran righty Jeremy Jeffress exited his Cactus League debut Wednesday with an apparent injury. The 31-year-old right-hander, who racked up 15 saves last year, departed with shoulder soreness after throwing just three pitches against the Diamondbacks. This isn’t a positive development, especially considering that he has been dealing with the shoulder issue all spring, and the closer situation in Milwaukee will have to be closely monitored moving forward.
The odds seem to favor Corey Knebel, who recorded a team-leading 16 saves, despite dealing with a hamstring strain and effectiveness issues in 2018. If the 27-year-old’s inflated home run to fly ball ratio from last year regresses to his career mark, he should be a lock to outperform his current NFBC average draft position (145th overall). Of course, the dark horse to monitor is dynamic multi-inning fireman Josh Hader. The 24-year-old southpaw has struck out all six hitters he’s faced over two appearances this spring and his numbers from last year -- 2.43 ERA, 0.81 WHIP 143:30 K:BB ratio in 81 1/3 innings of work -- are truly eye-popping. The Brewers seem reluctant to lock him into the ninth inning, but if Jeffress isn’t ready to go by Opening Day, they may not have a choice.
Quick Hits: Salvador Perez underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery on Wednesday. … Steven Wright has been suspended 80 games for violating MLB’s joint drug prevention and treatment program. … Chris Sale said this week that he and the Red Sox are "mutually invested" in working out a contract extension. … According to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, the Astros and Phillies have been in touch with free agent left-hander Dallas Keuchel … Clayton Kershaw (shoulder) is playing catch every day now, but there is still no timetable for him to throw off a mound … Rays manager Kevin Cash officially named Blake Snell as the club's Opening Day starter on Wednesday. … Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters that both Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga could open the year in the rotation. … He also said he expects CC Sabathia (heart) to have a "short" stay on the injured list to begin the season. … Angels manager Brad Ausmus said Justin Upton (knee) will make his Cactus League debut "sooner rather than later". … Nick Senzel has been held out of Cactus League games this week due to hamstring tightness … Walker Buehler threw a bullpen session on Wednesday. … Sonny Gray (elbow) is scheduled to throw another bullpen session Thursday and could start against the Padres on Saturday. … Ryan Yarbrough (groin) is expected to throw off a mound Wednesday or Thursday. … Robert Stephenson (shoulder) is expected to throw live batting practice on Thursday. … Luiz Gohara (shoulder) could make his Grapefruit League debut in a couple of days. … Gregory Polanco (shoulder) is playing catch from 120 feet and doing sliding drills. … Nick Martini (knee) has started to do cardio work. … A's manager Bob Melvin announced that Chris Herrmann is likely to undergo surgery on his right knee. … Jacoby Ellsbury (hip, foot) is expected to report to Yankees camp on March 16 or 17. … Silvino Bracho will undergo Tommy John surgery. … Tigers signed INF/OF Taylor Motter to a minor league contract.
Alex Bregman left Wednesday's Grapefruit League game against the Marlins with back stiffness. … Fernando Tatis Jr. went 2-for-4 with a triple and a run scored in Cactus League action against the Reds on Wednesday. … Freddie Freeman launched his second homer of the spring -- a grand slam -- against the Tigers on Wednesday. … Matt Harvey yielded a run over three innings Wednesday in his Cactus League debut against the Rockies. … Jon Gray fired four scoreless innings with five strikeouts in a start against the Angels. … Touki Toussaint turned in three hitless innings against the Tigers. … Trevor Story went 1-for-3 with his third steal of the spring against the Angels … Nick Kingham tossed four scoreless innings against the Red Sox. … Mike Clevinger spun three scoreless innings in a start against the Dodgers. … Robbie Ray whiffed eight batters and allowed three runs over 3 2/3 innings in a start against the Brewers. … Tyler O’Neill went 2-for-4 with a solo homer against the Yankees on Wednesday. … Jose Quintana turned in three shutout frames in a start against the Royals. … Jhoulys Chacin fired three innings of one-run ball against the Diamondbacks. … Aroldis Chapman pitched a scoreless inning against the Cardinals on Wednesday. … Aaron Sanchez tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings Wednesday in a start against the Phillies. … Drew Steckenrider was tagged for six runs and recorded just one out Wednesday against the Astros.