The deadline for tendering players eligible for arbitration was Friday night. There were a few surprises, and a few players released who could be of interest to the Blue Jays.
People sometimes assume that a non-tendered player must be terrible. After all, their reasoning goes, the team owning their rights could keep them at arbitration pay rates – which are generally held to be substantially less than fair market value – but instead chose to release them for no return at all.
This is sometimes true, but like most things in baseball the truth is more complex. A player could be coming off an injury, or a bad year, or just not fit in with a team’s plans. Or the team could believe that they can release the player and then re-sign him at a lower rate. Or a team could just not see the upside.
All of which begs the question: could any of this year’s non-tendered players be of interest to the Jays?
Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.
Let’s start at what might arguably the Jays’ area of greatest need – starting pitching.
Mike Fiers was projected to make $9.7 million in 2019, his last year of arbitration eligibility. He is coming off a decent 2018, with a combined 3.56 ERA (4.25 SIERA) between Detroit and Oakland (though his 3.59 SIERA and 3.80 xFIP with Oakland gives reason for cautious optimism). Fiers has averaged 31 starts and 168 innings over the last four years, and at 33 years old to start the 2019 season, could be the veteran stopgap that the Jays are looking for.
Shelby Miller is famous (infamous?) for the trade that brought Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte to the Braves in 2015. Arizona saw Miller as a staff ace for years to come. Alas, it did not turn out as expected. Miller had a poor first season with the D-backs, and 2017 Tommy John surgery cost him most of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He was projected to earn $4.9m in his final arb year in 2019. On the face of it, Miller’s 10.69 ERA in 16 innings in 2018 is not appealing, but there are reasons for optimism. First, the usual mulligan about a player coming off Tommy John. Second, Miller’s K/9 was 10.69 and his fastball velocity was a strong 94.5 mph. And his SIERA and xFIP (of 4.11 and 3.94) were both at a #3 starter level. All the usual small sample size caveats apply, but Miller could be an inexpensive gamble – and a good trade chip at the 2019 trade deadline if he does turn things around.
Matt Shoemaker had a strong 2016 for the Angels, with a 3.88 ERA and a 3.5 WAR (tied for 21st best in baseball with two guys names Paxton and Stroman). But his aggregate 108 innings over 2017 and 2018 (at an ERA almost a full run higher) makes the Angel’s decision to release “the Cobbler” at least understandable. But again, there might be reason for optimism.
Matt started experiencing problems with the radial nerve in his right (pitching) forearm in 2017. He had surgery to release the nerve in August, effectively ending his season. He experienced difficulties in early 2018, necessitating a second surgery in May. He returned in September for six starts, in which he averaged a 3.33 xFIP. Shoemaker is under team control for two more years, and could be an interesting injury-risk gamble.
Another area of need for the Jays is the bullpen. While Ken Giles and Ryan Tepera provide a solid back-end, the remainder of the ‘pen comes with questions.
Many writers were surprised when the Angels non-tendered Blake Parker. Parker has performed well over the last two years – a 2.90 ERA (2.95 SIERA) in 133 innings, but there are red flags – his fastball velocity was down in 2018, and his K-BB% decreased by almost a third. Still, he is an experienced, back-end arm (he had 14 saves in 2018) and is not a free agent until 2021.
Brad Boxberger earned 32 saves in 2018 as the D-Backs’ primary closer. But he struggled late in the season (a 11.37 ERA in September, with two key blown saves), and was accordingly removed from the closer role. He might still be a good gamble for the Jays – a veteran reliever with late-inning experience and a 3.41 SIERA over the last two years. Probably not a full-time closer, but a solid bullpen piece and a potential trade deadline flip if he has a strong first half.
Dan Jennings was released by the Rays after spring training in 2018, and picked up by the Brewers. He pitched well for the Crew in the first half, but his weakness against right-handed batters soon became apparent (in 2018, righties batted .310/.399/.528 against him) and he saw reduced time. But might the Jays be interested in a left-handed reliever who has averaged 60 innings pitched over the last four years and whose projected arb salary is only $1.6m? Even if you consider him only a LOOGY, in 2018 left-handed batters hit .220/.266/.304 against him – that is a pretty good LOOGY!
And, just for fun, one wild card. When the Jays acquired Yangervis Solarte, he was one year removed from a 3.5 WAR/600 season with the Pads. His 2018 was <ahem> “a disapointment“, but being non-tendered might possibly be the wake-up call he needs. Solarte may find it difficult to get a major-league contract, and he still has options – would there be merit in the Jays offering him a make-good deal at minimal bucks, and then shipping him to Buffalo?
The bottom line
There are several other players who could be of interest to a Jays team who will likely not contend in 2019, and who can accordingly afford to take risks that a contender could not. These gambles might not only help the 2019 Jays, but also potentially serve as trade bait at the upcoming trade deadline.