The non-tender deadline isn’t a date everyone circles on the calendar expecting big moves and excitement, but it does force teams into decisions on a handful of players and causes some movement as well as a handful of new free agents. Last night’s non-tender deadline was more active than most. As Jeff Passan noted, there were 40 non-tenders after a combined 46 over the previous two years. It was busy, and a few productive players were not offered contracts despite expectations for fairly reasonable salaries. There are some big conclusions to reach about the state of the game as well as some small ones based on last night. Here’s what we learned.
Teams Aren’t Paying for a Return to Form
Among the biggest non-tenders in terms of past production and expected salary were players who struggled for various reasons in 2019. Formerly injured pitchers in the process of returning from injury or needing time to return from injury like Taijuan Walker, Jimmy Nelson, and Aaron Sanchez were all non-tendered despite expected salaries in the $4 million to $6 million range. Previous successful players with rough years like Kevin Gausman, Blake Treinen, and Travis Shaw were all let go despite prior track records of success. In the cases of Gausman and Treinen, an expected salary of close to $10 million likely played a role, though it isn’t necessarily clear that the decisions wouldn’t have been the same even if a few million dollars had been shaved off the cost. Steven Souza Jr. has decent projections for next season, but he did poorly in 2018 and didn’t play at all last season. For the most part, teams weren’t willing to roll the dice on bounce-back campaigns.
Anybody Can Play Second Base
While this year’s free agent market wasn’t flush with good second base options, it is deep in role players. Not including Mike Moustakas, who will try to show with the Reds that anybody can play second base, there were eight free agent second basemen projected for between one and two wins next season. We saw the entire American League pass up a similar player in Jonathan Villar before he was claimed by the Marlins and eventually a trade was worked out.
Likewise Cesar Hernandez, with an $11 million price tag, was let go by the contending Phillies. Hernandez jumps to the top of available second baseman along with free agent Brian Dozier, but Asdrubal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick, and Eric Sogard are all coming off seasons as good or better than the former Phillies second baseman while Jason Kipnis, Starlin Castro, Wilmer Flores, and last year’s non-tender Jonathan Schoop not all that far behind.
In addition to those players, middle infielders José Peraza, who put up 2.6 WAR in 2018, Tim Beckham, who was good in 2017 and put up an average hitting line last year, and Addison Russell, who was good enough that the Cubs were willing to overlook his domestic violence suspension and even gave him a contract to make up for money lost during that suspension, were all non-tendered as well. It’s not a good time to be a second baseman looking for a job, though it also isn’t a good time to be looking for a second baseman who is expected to provide better than average production.
Many Players Are Going to Find Themselves in Better Situations
While players losing some guaranteed salaries isn’t necessarily a good thing for them, keep in mind that tendering a contract at this stage only guarantees one-sixth of their salary if they are cut early in spring training or one-quarter of their salary if cut by the end of it. If a player without a guaranteed contract wasn’t going to make the team, making him a free agent is a far better situation, as it allows them to choose a destination with the greatest odds of sticking on a major league roster. Jesus Aguilar, claimed by the Marlins, is going to have many more opportunities to earn a higher future salary with Miami than he was going to have with the Rays. Shaw is going to end up in a situation that is likely better for him, and Maikel Franco is going to to get a fresh start.
Of all the players non-tendered, only four (Hernandez, Kevin Pillar, Gausman, and Russell) put up at least 0.5 WAR in 2019 and are projected to do so again next year. A vast majority of the players non-tendered are your proverbial replacement-level players. They aren’t being non-tendered because their salary is too high, they are being non-tendered because their team doesn’t believe in them. For Hernandez, Pillar, Gausman, and Treinen, they are essentially hitting free agency a year early.
We shouldn’t bemoan players waiting too long to hit free agency and then get upset when it happens earlier. The total expected arbitration salaries for the top-30 players non-tendered is around $117 million, and the same players might end up recouping half of that in free agency. This amounts to maybe 1% of total MLB salaries. There might be a lot of problems with current Collective Bargaining Agreement and the arbitration process, but the non-tender process isn’t one of them.
Arbitration Still Doesn’t Track With Actual On-Field Value
C.J. Cron, Franco, and Domingo Santana might have decent power, but issues between them with walks, strikeouts, and defense make them replacement-level players. Despite those deficiencies, the trio was set to receive around $6 million each in arbitration. It’s not unreasonable for their own teams to see them as replacement-level in 2020, though some other club might see something more like a one-win player and pay them closer to their expected arbitration salary. Similarly, Treinen had a bad year in 2019, but he recorded 16 saves, and his previous 38-save season meant a high salary in arbitration regardless of his actual great performance in 2018 and poor performance in 2019.
Teams Trying Not to Win is Still an Issue
While Villar and Pillar certainly have flaws, they would have made the Orioles and Giants better in 2020 had their teams held on to them. Although their expected salaries were in the eight-figure range, that’s not an unreasonable cost, even for the Marlins on Villar and likely some other team with Pillar. The Giants and Orioles just made themselves worse in order to pocket $10 million. Having the two players might not change their spot in the standings at year’s end, but those two players aren’t blocking anyone, and they might have netted prospects at the trade deadline.
Tanking isn’t about draft position, it’s about saving money. Tanking or rebuilding or whatever you might call it isn’t necessarily the root of baseball’s issues, but non-competitive baseball is a big problem, and two teams just made themselves worse solely to save some money.
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