This winter, seven Chicago Cubs – including Kris Bryant and Addison Russell – are eligible for salary arbitration, and that almost always means a pay raise is in order for next season.
But just because a player is arbitration-eligible, that doesn’t mean the team is necessarily locked into a contract they don’t want. The Cubs, for example, can decide to non-tender any of their seven arbitration-eligible players, which would immediately send that player into free agency. The deadline for those decisions is this Friday at 7:00 pm CT. (You’ll want to circle that on your calendar, not only for the decisions themselves, but also because the deadline sometimes spurs trade activity.)
Of the Cubs’ seven arbitration eligible players, five are mortal locks to be tendered a contract (Justin Wilson, Kyle Hendricks, Tommy La Stella, Bryant, and Russell), while two others, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm, may not be as obvious.
Grimm may only be projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn $2.4M in arbitration next season, but he’s struggled with inconsistency out of the pen for a few years now. And while Rondon may have a greater ceiling (and even a higher floor) than Grimm, he’s projected to earn $6.2M in arbitration, which isn’t peanuts. Given how many quality free agent relievers there are out there this winter, saving nearly $9 million in 2018 by non-tendering these two arms may not be out of the question. (Also note: arbitration-level contracts are not fully-guaranteed in the same way that free agent contracts are. Teams can cut a player in Spring Training for a portion of their contract (30 or 45 days termination pay, depending on when they’re cut) to save a big chunk of money if they can tell in Spring Training that the player simply doesn’t have it.)
But those two decisions are not the focus of today’s post. Instead, I want to direct our attention to the other potential non-tender candidates throughout the league, because, like the Cubs’ relief duo, there are a few interesting names who could soon become available to the Cubs (either by way of being non-tendered or if the Cubs swing a trade just before the Friday-night deadline to avoid competition in free agency).
Steve Adams (MLB Trade Rumors) got us off to a great start with what he considers the 40 potential non-tender candidates for the 2018 season. I’ve then separated the more interesting names by position and listed them below.
Note: In my estimation, the Cubs would use this group of players to find Major League relief help, starting pitching depth, and/or a back-up catcher for the Major League level. Keep that in mind as you peruse the names.
Relief Pitcher (Age in 2018, Team)
Blake Wood, RHP (32, Angels)
Bruce Rondon, RHP (27, Tigers)
Zach Putnam, RHP (30, White Sox)
Jeremy Jeffress, RHP (30, Brewers)
T.J. McFarland, LHP (29, D-Backs)
There are obviously many more interesting names on Adams’ list than the ones listed above, but I singled these particular players out because something about their age/recent stats stuck out to me. As I’m sure you can imagine, though, each player’s good comes with plenty of bad – otherwise, they wouldn’t be non-tender candidates.
For example, take McFarland (62.1 GB%) and Jeffress (58.5 GB%) – these two relievers have both posted relatively elite ground ball rates throughout their careers, but the former has a 13.7% strikeout rate over five seasons, while the later saw a huge jump in his walk rate this past season (7.5% in 2016, 11.5% in 2017).
For another example, look at Wood (3.67 FIP, 25.3 K%) and Morin (3.29 FIP, 29.0 K%). Each pitcher posted solid strikeout rates and FIPs, but the former allowed a .282 AVG and a 9.9% walk rate, while the latter had similar, but worse problems (.323 AVG, 13.2% walk rate).
All things considered, Wood is a pretty interesting name to watch, because that solid K-rate came alongside a really good ground ball rate (52.1%), plenty of weak contact (20.6%) and less than average hard contact (27.1%). In the end, an unfavorable .369 BABIP may have done him in.
Mike Fiers, RHP (33, Astros)
Drew Smyly, LHP (29, Mariners)
Tom Koehler, RHP (32, Blue Jays)
If you’re looking for an innings-eater, you might be attracted to someone like Mike Fiers, who’s made 88 starts over the past three seasons and saw an uptick in his strikeout rate in 2017 … but I think the Cubs could do better than him elsewhere, even as a depth option (he had a 5.22 ERA and 5.43 FIP last year).
For the long-time prospectors, Drew Smyly’s name probably sticks out, and, after a 30-start, 175.1 IP, 2.0-WAR season in 2016, I could understand the interest. But Smyly underwent Tommy John surgery this past season and didn’t throw a single inning, so he’s a fairly big unknown at this point. Then again, he did work with current Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey during his time with the Rays, so maybe there’s some intimate knowledge/familiarity there other teams wouldn’t necessarily have.
So if the Cubs were intrigued by the pedigree, youth, and upside, they could absolutely target someone like Smyly and let him rehab and return slowly. It’s something they’ve done many times before.
Josh Phegley (30, Athletics)
Jesus Sucre (30, Rays)
Sandy Leon (29, Red Sox)
Austin Romine (29, Yankees)
With a offensively-sound, young catcher, the Cubs will probably be looking for a veteran back-up, with plenty of experience and solid receiving/defensive skills. Age will be less of a factor here given how much Contreras is expected to play, so there are a fair number of options. In fact, the catchers with more experience might be preferred.
According to the advanced defensive metrics, Leon stands out the most (7 DRS), with five more defensive runs saved than any of the other catchers, but Sucre’s overall 6.0 DEF ranks first and 27th among all catchers with at least 400 innings behind the plate.
With that said, Leon’s +31 calls framing pitches last season outpaces the rest of the group, who were all negative framers in 2017.
So in the end, if the Cubs were determined to grab a reliever to stash in the bullpen, some starting pitcher depth (with upside) and a backup catcher to play behind Willson Contreras next season from among the possible non-tenders, your favorite targets should probably be Blake Wood, Drew Smyly, and Sandy Leon.
… now let’s see if they’re tendered a contract.