The Braves were one of the most active teams this winter, but it wasn't chasing after high-dollar free agents or swinging trades for big-name players that kept the team busy.
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Instead, the Braves made it a priority to lock up its young core of rising stars, and they put an exclamation point on the offseason Thursday when they inked walking Web Gem Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year, $58 million contract extension. The new contract will keep Simmons in Atlanta through the 2020 season.
"We believe he is the premier shortstop in the game, and we're thrilled to have him signed through all of his arbitration years and his first two free-agent years," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "It continues with the theme of keeping our core together for a long time, and we think he's an integral part of that."
It was likely the final big-money extension the proactive club will hand out this winter, bringing the grand total to over $280 million in guarantees to five of the team's key members. Along with Simmons, the Braves agreed to multi-year extensions with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel.
In Simmons, the Braves are guaranteeing they'll retain the services of one of the game's premier defensive shortstops. According to FanGraphs, Simmons' defensive value was second only to Manny Machado last season among all position players. Simmons rode that value to posting a 4.7 WAR in just his second season in the majors.
Despite deriving most of his value from his glove, Simmons wasn't a defense-only proposition last year. The 24-year-old showed surprising pop in 2013, ripping 17 home runs in 606 at-bats. In the three seasons prior, Simmons connected for a total of just nine homers in 1,096 at-bats between the minors and majors.
Simmons may be capable of a bit more, but that 15-18 home run range is a more likely output for the shortstop going forward. Of his 17 home runs last season, eight were classified as "just enough" by ESPN's Home Run Tracker, and his 384.53 average home run distance was good for 132nd among players who hit at least one home run last year.
An area in which he is likely to improve is in the batting average department. Simmons batted a pedestrian .248 last season, but it was largely due to a well below average .247 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). If Simmons trades some of those fly balls for ground balls that number should normalize and, paired with the fact that Simmons doesn't strike out much, his batting average should show noticeable improvement in 2014.
The Braves are obviously believers in Simmons' future, both in the field and at the plate, and they've got 58 million reasons to hope they're right.
Orioles Ink Ubaldo
The Orioles have 50 million reasons to hope Ubaldo Jimenez' future looks a lot like his 2013 season, too.
The O's and Jimenez agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract Wednesday, ending a long offseason for the 30-year-old. The Orioles sacrificed a draft pick to sign the right-hander.
Which Jimenez they're getting is to be determined. Jimenez won 19 games in a breakout 2010 before going a combined 19-30 and posting ERAs of 4.68 and 5.40, respectively, over the next two seasons. Last season he seemed to regain his mojo, putting up a career high in strikeout percentage and finishing with a 3.30 ERA over 32 starts.
You'd expect nothing less from his new manager, but Orioles skipper Buck Showalter expressed optimism about his new hurler.
“He’s got a chance to be a quality pitcher for us for a long period of time," Showalter said. "A lot of guys at this stage in their career start figuring it out. I’m very confident in he and [pitching coach] Dave [Wallace] that he’s going to give us some quality innings.”
The Rangers gave Matt Harrison a long-term deal before the 2013 season, but they've yet to reap the benefits of their belief in the 28-year-old.
Harrison will have an MRI on his back and is on his way back to Dallas to be examined by the spine specialist who performed both of Harrison's back surgeries last year. It's a definite setback for the left-hander, who was limited to two starts last season due to a herniated disc in his back.
“There’s obviously some concern there from what happened last year,” Harrison told the Associated Press. “I just hope that it’s not a serious issue and something I can take a few days down and stay on top of my core program and get right back out there, and hopefully that’s the case. It’s not fair to say that I’m not worried about it, because I’ve had a lot of issues recently.”
If it turns out to be serious, it weakens a rotation that doesn't have much room for error. Derek Holland is already out until midseason, and if Harrison misses time the Rangers may be forced to start the likes of Tommy Hanson, Colby Lewis or Nick Tepesch. None of the options inspire much confidence.
It's been a disappointing year for Harrison after posting back-to-back ERAs of 3.39 and 3.29, respectively, in 2011 and 2012. The Rangers will continue to be cautious with the southpaw, and more should be known about his immediate future by next week.
National League Quick Hits: the Braves weren't the only team to get into the long-term extension act this week. The Reds made a splash when they locked up Homer Bailey for the next six seasons. The two sides agreed on a six-year deal worth $105 million, making it official Friday morning. Bailey, 27, was set to hit the free agent market after this season ... Yasiel Puig was held out of baseball activities Thursday with a bruised leg. The injury isn't believed to be much of a concern ... Days after being released by the Royals, Emilio Bonifacio caught on with the Cubs on a minor league contract. He's got a good shot at making the club as a utility player ... Tim Hudson (ankle) is scheduled to throw live batting practice Friday. The right-hander is still working his way back from ankle surgery last season, but he's expected to be 100 percent healthy for the start of the regular season ... Matt Harvey (elbow) was cleared to begin a light throwing program. He's out for the year, but Harvey is on track to be ready to roll for 2015 ... Jake Westbrook officially retired after 13 seasons in the majors. The 36-year-old finished above .500 for his career, ending with a 105-103 record and 4.32 ERA.
American League Quick Hits: Manny Machado (knee) hopes to be cleared for Grapefruit League games on March 15. He hasn't been sliding or running the bases at full speed yet ... Mark Teixeira (wrist) isn't likely to play in Grapefruit League games until March 3 at the earliest. Teixeira said he's "probably a week to 10 days" from taking live batting practice ... The Mariners are likely to deal one of Brad Miller or Nick Franklin before Opening Day, according to Adam Rubin of ESPN New York. The more likely candidate is Franklin, who played 96 games at second base last season but saw his job given to Robinson Cano this winter ... Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz had a private workout with the Blue Jays last weekend. The Cardinals, Yankees, Braves, Phillies and Mariners are also believed to be interested in the 23-year-old shortstop ... The Red Sox signed left-hander Chris Capuano to a one-year, $2.25 million deal. Capuano will compete for a spot in the team's rotation this spring ... An MRI confirmed Jesse Crain is dealing with a right calf strain. He's doubtful to be ready for the start of the regular season ... The Royals claimed UTIL Jimmy Paredes off waivers from the Orioles. Paredes will try to make the team in a similar role as recently departed Emilio Bonifacio ... The Rangers avoided arbitration with Mitch Moreland with a one-year deal. The first baseman will earn $2.65 million in 2014. Other deals of note include Josh Reddick and the A's avoiding arb with a $2.7 million pact, and the Mariners and Justin Smoak doing the same for $2.6375 million.