The baseball offseason is full of dates and deadlines. Some are more eventful than others, and the December 2nd non-tender deadline— the date by which teams must offer contracts to arbitration and pre-arbitration players— used to be kind of bland... until this year.
There were 40 players eligible for arbitration who were non-tendered today. Last year, that number was 27. The year before, 19.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 3, 2019
Teams are clearly being aggressive with tenders, recognizing that if there is better value on the open market, using the arb system is not necessary.
Teams no longer appear interested in retaining their fringe players— usually ones they developed all through the minors. An extra million or two has become more valuable than seeing if a player can improve and contribute.
In some cases, such as with Jonathan Villar, no improvement is even necessary. With 4.0 fWAR, he was the fifth best second baseman in MLB. MLB Trade Rumors projected a $10.4 million arbitration settlement for him, which is far less than he would probably receive on the open market. Inexplicably, Baltimore non-tendered him anyway.
Villar is the best player to get the non-tender guillotine, but he’s not the only surprise. Kevin Pillar, César Hernández, and Villar all played at least 161 games last year. If they were really so valueless as to just cast them aside, you’d think their managers would have benched them once or twice! Same goes for Alex Claudio, non-tendered by the Brewers after leading MLB with 83 appearances. He was apparently so worthless that he pitched in more than half of their games.
This is all symptomatic of a diseased system. Instead of making non-tender decisions based on who deserves a roster spot, their increasingly basing them on salary. We could get into all the reasons why it’s ridiculous for any MLB team to crying poverty, but there’s no need to even travel down that road today. It’s really not that complicated.
Theoretically, baseball teams should try to collect and retain good players. Villar and several other quality players let go yesterday are indisputably worthwhile to have on a baseball team, yet they were vanquished anyway. Therefore, the system is broken.
In fact, with so many players cast aside at the non-tender deadline, we can make a 25-man roster, and compare it to the Villar-less Orioles. We won’t even use guys like Jesús Aguilar or Jurickson Profar, who were traded to avoid the non-tender ax. (We also won’t have Addison Russell on the team for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball.)
1. 2B César Hernández, Phillies (MLBTR projected $11.8M)- Hernández is an ideal leadoff hitter: a switch-hitting second baseman with a career .352 on base percentage. He accumulated 12.4 fWAR since 2015, or 2.5 per season, making him a slightly better than average player. With 161 games played in each of the past two years, he’s proven highly durable.
2. SS Jonathan Villar, Orioles (MLBTR projected $10.4M)- The Orioles non-tendered their best player.
2019 Orioles fWAR Leaders
3. 1B C.J. Cron, Twins (MLBTR projected $7.7M)- Cron boasts a career 109 wRC+ and smashed 25 home runs last year. To be fair, so did everyone else on the Twins, but still...
4. LF Domingo Santana, Mariners (MLBTR projected $4.4M)- GM Jerry Dipoto has seemingly been trying to trade Santana forever (he can’t help himself). Regardless, he wasn’t terribly expensive and his career 112 wRC+ is impressive. He ought to be a DH, but strapping sluggers like this aren’t easy to come by.
5. 3B Travis Shaw, Brewers (MLBTR projected $4.7M)- It was a lost season for Shaw, who slashed .157/.281/.270 and spent a lot of time in the minors. However, he compiled 7.1 fWAR and a 120 wRC+ from 2017-2018. With Mike Moustakas singing in Cincinnati, the Brewers suddenly have a hole at third base.
6. RF Stephen Souza, Jr., Diamondbacks (MLBTR projected $4.125M)- Souza’s situation is similar to Shaw’s. His disappointing 85 wRC+ 2019 followed 121 wRC+ in 2018.
7. DH Tim Beckham, Mariners (MLBTR projected $3.0M)- Remember the first week of the season when Beckham looked like Alex Bregman, slashing .423/.516/.885? Neither do the Mariners.
8. C Josh Phegley, Athletics (MLBTR projected $2.2M)- Phegley was the primary starter for the A’s last year, catching 106 games. It became clear they were heading in another direction when rookie Sean Murphy took his job at the end of the season, and they just traded Jurickson Profar for backup catcher Austin Allen.
9. CF Kevin Pillar, Giants (MLBTR projected $9.7M)- His once legendary defense has dropped off to merely “pretty good,” but he was still one of the best overall players on the team last year. Their outfield left-to-right now looks like Alex Dickerson-Stephen Duggar-Mike Yastrzemski.
IF/OF Charlie Culberson, Braves (MLBTR projected $1.8M)- Culberson is below average hitter, but can capably play every position except catcher (including pitcher).
3B Maikel Franco, Phillies (MLBTR projected $6.7M)- Franco is a below average starter, but he can hit a few home runs. With him and Hernández both out of the picture, the Phillies need to shop for a new infield.
OF Guillermo Heredia, Rays (MLBTR projected $1.1M)- Even such a low projected salary was unpalatable to the Rays, whose apparent goal is to have 25 players making the league minimum.
OF Joey Rickard, Giants (MLBTR projected $1.1M)- See the Heredia comment about salary and the Pillar comment about Giants outfielders.
C Kevan Smith, Angels (MLBTR projected $1.3M)- We had a lot of non-tender options for backup catcher, including Kevin Plawecki, and Luke Maile.
RHP Kevin Gausman, Reds (MLBTR projected $10.6M)- Gausman was pretty bad as a starter with the Braves— though his FIP and DRA were both much better than his ERA— but superb in a brief relief stint with the Reds. Overall, he posted a 96.6 DRA- and 1.6 fWAR.
RHP Junior Guerra, Brewers (MLBTR projected $3.5M)- Guerra was an acceptable reliever last year, but a quality starter in 2018 and 2016 (don’t ask about 2017).
RHP Jimmy Nelson, Brewers (MLBTR projected $3.7M)- Clearly, patience is in short supply in Milwaukee. Nelson hasn’t yet bounced back from a devastating shoulder injury.
RHP Taijuan Walker, Diamonbacks (MLBTR projected $5.025M)- Walker threw only one inning in 2019 and just 13 in 2018. If he can bounce back from arm troubles, he may once again become a decent mid-rotation starter.
RHP Jason Adam, Blue Jays (~$565K)- Adam was non-tendered despite being pre-arbitration. He surrendered just one home run to the 91 batters he faced.
RHP Matt Andriese, Diamondbacks (MLBTR projected $1.4M)- Nothing wrong with a 74.3 DRA- in 70 2⁄3 innings of relief work.
LHP Ryan Buchter, Athletics (MLBTR projected $1.8M)- Buchter’s 2.98 ERA doesn’t match his 5.94 DRA, but lefties with a 25.3 percent strikeout rate are hard to find.
LHP Alex Claudio, Brewers (MLBTR projected $2.2M)- Left-handed hitters managed only a .293 wOBA against Cluadio, which is very good for a LOOGY.
RHP Derek Law, Blue Jays (MLBTR projected $1.3M)- Law features a career 91.7 DRA- through parts of four seasons.
LHP Josh Osich, White Sox (MLBTR projected $1.3M)- Osich limited left-handed hitters to .200 on base percentage against 115 batters.
RHP Blake Treinan, Athletics (MLBTR projected $1.3M)- Treinan was arguably the best reliever in baseball in 2018, leading all relievers with 3.6 fWAR. Obvoulsy he backslid considerably in 2019, but there is a ton of potential for a bounce back.
How Good Are We?
Truth be told, some of these players probably should be non-tendered (but not most). This 25-man roster accumulated 11.2 fWAR in 2019. That’s still better than the Tigers and Marlins, who tied for last in MLB with 8.6. It’s also within striking distance of the Orioles (11.9). Those teams all lost at least 105 games last year, and this roster probably would, too.
That being said, it doesn’t account for players who have been better in the recent past, such as Shaw, Souza, and Treinan. It’s reasonable to expect some of these players will outperform their 2019 numbers. Pitchers in particular are unpredictable, and it seems likely that a few of the hurlers listed above will pitch quite well in 2020.
The total projected payroll would be $114.5 million, which would have been 20th in MLB last season. Admittedly, that’s not great value for a 105-loss team, but it underscores the affordability of these players. We’ll see what kind of offers they receive on the open market.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.