Tomorrow, the Cubs will have to make a handful of decisions as it relates to the non-tender deadline. Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. are the two cases with the most Major League intrigue, but I’ll admit to being more fascinated by the cases of Duane Underwood Jr. and Danny Hultzen.
You may wonder why I am mentioning them in relation to the tender deadline tomorrow. Let me explain.
Although we always focus on arbitration-eligible players at the tender deadline, technically, it is the deadline to tender contracts to ALL players who are under control but not signed for the next season – i.e., it includes pre-arb players. It’s just that, typically, if you’re still on the 40-man roster come tender day, you’re tendered a contract, since there isn’t a significant financial obligation involved. So, again, the typical focus for the tender deadline are the arbitration guys on the fence of being tender for financial reasons.
But not always, and that’s what brings us to this discussion.
If tendered contracts, Underwood and Hultzen will make the league minimum next season. A non-tender is not a cost-saving measure in their cases. Rather, a non-tender would be a calculated – and possibly prearranged gamble – to provide roster flexibility. This flexibility would be two-fold: it would open up more space on the 40-man roster (which stands at 38 after the C.D. Pelham waiver claim), and it could also provide leeway with how the Cubs deal with Underwood and Hultzen going forward specifically.
Both relievers enter next season out of minor league options. If they don’t begin the season and remain on either the 26-man roster or the Injured List, they’ll need to be placed on waivers, and both are talented enough where they very well could be lost at that point. Without options left, there’s no wiggle room once Spring Training ends.
If, however, the Cubs non-tendered Underwood and Hultzen tomorrow and subsequently re-signed them to minor league contracts, they could begin the 2020 season in Iowa. They’d be able to be called up only when needed via a big league injury, or because their performance demands it. Once called up they’d face the same sink-or-swim outcome, but the likelihood of positive contributions to the big league team would increase because they wouldn’t *have* to be there on day one.
To do this successfully, the Cubs will have to walk a narrow line. First, they will approach the agents of Underwood and Hultzen about their willingness to re-sign if they get non-tendered. Why would they do this? Well, the Cubs would likely have to provide a financial incentive above the traditional split contract they’d receive elsewhere. A little more money for their minor league team, perhaps a hair above minimum during their Major League time.
The most likely response, I’d imagine, would be that they would re-sign unless given a Major League contract offer elsewhere. And so this would be what the Cubs have to weigh: are the odds of losing either player to another more interested team higher than the value increase on having the players off the 40-man roster?
(Note the Cubs managed to pull this off last year with Allen Webster, and, while that obviously isn’t a success story, it did allow them to give him the best opportunity to succeed while preserving roster flexibility. He just wasn’t able to capitalize on the opportunity.)
So, after the logistical stuff, we get to the essential question: are these guys capable of capitalizing? Are they worth the maneuvering, or do you just let them eat their 40-man spot until you need it for someone else? Compete until they can’t hack it?
Underwood’s 2019 Major League season is fascinating for its bookends. On August 6, his debut, he struck out all six batters he faced, the lone bright spot in an ugly loss. In the season finale, Underwood gave up home runs to Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt, the first home runs he’d given up since July 18. And in the middle, Underwood was a pretty bland reliever: 7.2 innings, 10 hits, 5.87 ERA, 3 BB, 5 strikeouts.
But let’s also not ignore his AAA contributions, where he excelled once moved into the bullpen (a conversion the Cubs waited painfully too long to accept). In the three month period from June 11 to September 11, Underwood appeared in 26 games between AAA and the Majors. He struck out 49 of the 149 batters he faced, and had a 2.86 ERA despite a .369 BABIP, and allowed just two home runs in 34.2 innings with the juiced ball.
From a scouting perspective, what stands out is that Underwood’s changeup has progressed to being a real Major League weapon. The pitch had a 20.75% whiff rate in 2019, and was equally effective to right- and left-handed hitters. His curveball is a show-me pitch, thrown really only to freeze a right-handed hitter. The Cubs feeling on whether this pitch can be improved is massively important in their determination of what to do with Underwood. His fastball was 95 mph on average, and his command is just fine, but it was also the culprit to six of the seven big league extra-base hits he allowed.
With Hultzen, I have written about his stuff and deception before, the problem is that the sample of how his stuff worked in the Majors doesn’t tell us much. I’m intrigued that he threw 16 offspeed pitches to left-handed hitters and they whiffed on six of them, but no, I’m not going to use that to make a point either. You could just as easily cite that he had just two whiffs in 32 total pitches to right-handed hitters, which would be a serious problem going forward with the incoming three-batter-minimum rule. I like what I saw from Hultzen, but I didn’t quite see enough of it to make a career determination.
The Cubs have more information about Hultzen’s arsenal, and given how teams now seem to be paying for process (stuff) more than results, perhaps that will be the bellwether for their decision. As for me, I think I’d pursue the non-tender then re-sign path with Hultzen, while I’d tender Underwood a contract and allow him to compete in camp for a job.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.