Generally, you can think of a player's contractual career in three phases: the pre-arbitration phase, the arbitration phase and the free agent phase. Players within each phase are compensated differently; the longer you've been producing at the MLB level, the more money you're expected to make. During a player's pre-arb years, teams can effectively determine a player's salary without negotiation; most players within this phase make the league minimum, but special players are often exceptions to this rule (like Buster Posey, who makes over $100,000 more than the league minimum in 2011).
Once a player reaches arbitration after accumulating three years of service time, his compensation begins to climb according to his actual market value. In a player's first year of arbitration, he's generally expected to make about 40% of their actual market value. In the second and third years of arbitration, that number rises to 60% and 80%, respectively. And once a player reaches free agency after six years of service time, he's able to earn whatever the market bears. Generally, different tiers of players last a certain amount of time within this system. High-quality regulars and starting pitchers obviously last all the way through their arbitration years; even as their salaries climb, their on-field production will almost always outpace what they'll make through arbitration. Lesser players, like non-elite relievers and solid platoon players, will often be non-tendered by their employer as their compensation increases through the arbitration system. Essentially, this means that the club would rather not pay the player what he's likely to make through arbitration, and prematurely grants the player free agency.
But sometimes, there are exceptionally close cases. In situations where a player's on-field value is remarkably similar to his expected 2011 salary, teams are forced to make tough choices: pay the player or let 'em go. In some cases, the team will simply opt to go in a different direction; key names that were let go under these circumstances over the winter include Bobby Jenks, Russell Martin, Jack Cust and Edwin Encarnacion.
But just as often, you'll see the team retain the player in question, and I thought I would take a look at some of the most questionable arbitration tenders for 2011. In other words, I'm looking for the least valuable players under contract for next season that landed said contract through the arbitration system. These aren't necessarily bad players; it's just not clear that these players are going to be worth their salaries, and I wonder if teams could've allocated these resources better. And to note, I'm excluding players that signed long-term extensions in favor of one-year agreements.
RHP Jonathan Papelbon, BOS - Salary: $12M - ZiPS Projection: 3.20 ERA in 65 IP
Probably one of the most obvious guys here. There was talk about non-tendering or trading Papelbon during the winter, but ultimately the Red Sox decided to retain their closer for one more year. He's not a great value at $12 million, although I suppose that he would've gotten more guaranteed money on the open market given his 188 saves over the past five years. It helps that they only had to sign him for one year, so either Jenks or Daniel Bard can take over closing duties in 2012 (if not earlier), but generally you don't want to spend $12 million on a reliever unless they're clearly among the cream of the crop. After the way that he pitched last season, I don't think that you put Paps in that group anymore.
RHP Matt Capps, MIN - Salary: $7.05M - ZiPS Projection: 3.90 ERA in 67 IP
Another reliever- you'll notice that guys with shiny save totals generally end up being overvalued by the arbitration system. It's why guys like Papelbon, Capps and Heath Bell are among the most expensive players going through the arbitration system right now. Great position players or starters generally get long-term deals, but relievers are more volatile and teams generally like to go year-to-year with them. So the top relievers that do manage to stay healthy and continue to perform end up getting compensated big-time for their save numbers, and teams generally have a tough time dumping off good relievers on one-year deals even if they're overpaid a tad. I would argue that Bell is really the only one of the aforementioned three that's deserving, though: he's clearly the best pitcher of the trio, and a definitively elite closer at $7.5 million is a no-brainer. Capps, on the other hand, isn't an elite reliever, but he's paid similarly to Bell because of all of the saves. I know that Joe Nathan is coming back from surgery and the club lost multiple key arms to free agency, but $7.05 million for Capps seems like an awful lot. Not only did the Twins give up Wilson Ramos to acquire Capps, but now they're paying him nearly $9 million as well. Not too good, I'd say.
1B James Loney, LAD - Salary: $4.88M - ZiPS Projection: .279/.338/.416 in 156 games
I'm actually kind of surprised that the Dodgers are giving Loney another chance. The best thing that you can say about his past three years is that he's knocking in roughly 90 guys per season, but he's also been proving that his impatience and lack of power are very legitimate issues. He's batted .279/.341/.409 over the past three years, so that's obviously the basis of Loney's 2011 projection; I'm just wondering why the Dodgers believe that Loney's due to break out of his mediocrity in 2011 after nearly 2500 plate appearances in LA. He's no longer a bargain (his 2010 was valued at $4.2M by FanGraphs), and you have to think that the Dodgers could have found a solid alternative with the roughly $5 million that they're spending on Loney. He's only 26 and other teams have shown past interest in trading for him, so he's not a completely lost cause, but at this point I'm not optimistic.
SS Clint Barmes, HOU - Salary: $3.92M - ZiPS Projection: .245/.299/.385 in 133 games
Going into the offseason, Barmes was considered a prime non-tender candidate. But the Rockies managed to find a trade partner in Houston, and now Barmes is locked in as the club's shortstop and projected No. 2 hitter. Frankly, I'm wondering why the Astros did this. The former Rockie is a quality defender at shortstop, but he's 31, has no on-base skills, and has been remarkably inconsistent in terms of his overall offensive production. His $3.92M salary for 2011 isn't crazy, particularly if he continues to be a plus glove at shortstop, but there's a decent chance that the Astros just gave up Felipe Paulino and nearly $4 million for a slightly above replacement-level player.
OF Conor Jackson, OAK - Salary: $3.32M - ZiPS Projection: .221/.313/.326
I just absolutely, positive don't get this one. I know that Jackson's only 28, but he hasn't even been a useful player since 2008, and he's only played in 90 games over the past two years. ZiPS doesn't believe in him at all whatsoever, and I similarly doubt that he'll be able to bounce back and be a quality contributor in 2011. Factor in that the A's are already set in the outfield (Crisp, DeJesus, Willingham, Sweeney) and at first base (Barton) before even mentioning Chris Carter's name, and this seems like a really, really curious decision on Oakland's part. Moneyball? More like Funnyball on this occasion.
RHP Shawn Camp, TOR - Salary: 2.25M - ZiPS Projection: 4.06 ERA in 64 IP
Generally, I don't have a problem when a team tenders a guy that's only going to earn a couple million bucks anyways. But this one just doesn't seem to sit well with me. Camp put up a solid ERA last season, but he's already 35, tops out at 89-90 MPH, and has career ERA and FIP marks of 4.44 and 4.20, respectively, in 422 innings. The Blue Jays have a pretty deep bullpen anyways, and spending $2.25M on a middle relief guy like Camp just doesn't seem to be too prudent. They'd be better off saving the cash and going with someone like Carlos Villanueva, no?