In this post I’ll feature some of the players non-tendered last night. For their first three years, young Major League Baseball players are “free” (or close enough to the paltry league minimum salary of $535,000 to consider as free, while the non-unionized minor league players earn as little as $1100 per month). Prior to their fourth through sixth seasons, young players’ compensation is subject to mutual agreement or, if impossible to settle, the salary is decided upon by independent arbitrator following a hearing with the two parties.
Non-tenders are these young players who have accrued three or more years of experience, but who are not offered this process of contract negotiation by their former team. The team anticipates the player being awarded a salary too steep, or the player had otherwise fallen out of the team’s future plans for any number of other on or off field reasons. At this point, the player becomes a free agent and any team may offer him a contract.
This post will focus on non-tenders who are especially well suited for a dumpster fire, total rebuild type of team to spend on.
After all, the Baltimores and Kansas Citys of the silly world of grown men throwing and hitting a ball for up to hundreds of millions of dollars each still need to field a major league team, at least in name, in 2019.
It is next to impossible to win much of anything without developing young, productive cost-controlled players in today’s game. However, young players’ career trajectories can be negatively affected by being pressed into major league action too quickly, and even when they aren’t, just because a player is young and talented doesn’t mean he is bound to reach his full potential and settle in as a Major League caliber player.
With a potentially long time horizon to build the next contending core of young talent, teams in this position need to pick at least some reasonable degree of upside in its we-might-lose-a-hundred-games-again mode as they look to fill positions that minor league players on hand likely aren’t ready for.
Upside can come in the form of unlocking untapped potential in post-hype young players, or in the anticipated trade returns from veteran players who tend to be attractive as the midseason acquisition targets of contending teams in need of e.g. mid-to-late game relief arms.
Here are a few non-tenders I would be after at the bottoming out point of an organization’s rebuild:
RHP Kendall Graveman (OAK) – 3-year fWAR: 1.6 (2016), 1.1 (2017), -0.4 (2018)
2018: 7.60 ERA/4.40xFIP in 34.1 IP (7 GS). 7.08 K/9, 3.41 BB/9, 2.36 HR/9, 55.2 GB%
2019 Age: 28
Graveman’s inclusion among non-tenders inspired this article. There is a fair to strong chance that Oakland will retain Graveman on a multiyear contract that offers Graveman a guaranteed salary while he works his way back from his July 2018 Tommy John surgery, a procedure that will cost him all of the 2019 season.
If I steered a rebuilding organization that didn’t have a mandate from ownership to cut payroll, I would be on the phone with Graveman’s agent last night despite Oakland’s likely interest in retaining their pitcher. This is upside worth bidding on, as teams can never have enough pitching, and the ones that look like they do in December are often caught with their pants down come summertime.
Graveman was part of Oakland’s return in the November 2014 trade of future MVP third baseman Josh Donaldson to Toronto. He is predominantly a sinkerball pitcher, throwing the pitch more than half the time and in turn generating grounders on balls put in play against him more than half the time, which limits hard contact and reduces extra base hits against him. He mixes in a cutter, a changeup, and, once in a blue moon, a four-seam fastball that touches 95 MPH.
His average velocity on the sinker is 93.7, a mark which, had he thrown enough innings to qualify for league leaderboards, would have placed him 18th among starting pitchers in the majors last season, in between Twins righty Jose Berrios, one of the better young starting pitchers around, a comfortably 3 WAR (wins above replacement) pitcher with room for more at his peak, and Pirates righty Ivan Nova, a veteran who has eclipsed 2 WAR in four of his seven full major league seasons.
Graveman was actually Oakland’s opening day starter this past season, but he was jettisoned to AAA after allowing 29 earned runs in 28.1 innings, including a then-league leading seven home runs. He wasn’t much better in AAA, and given his diagnosis of a torn UCL and subsequent Tommy John surgery, we can probably throw out these numbers since he was pitching through the precursors of the injury, if not the injury itself.
A steep HR rate is uncharacteristic of a groundball pitcher, and a 27.3% HR/FB rate is extremely high, a metric which tends to “balance out” from year to year for most pitchers. His HR rate alone accounts for the giant three run gap between his xFIP, or what his ERA “should” have been had he run a less fluky HR rate, and his ERA, which are the runs allowed that we actually judge him on, because those are the results that occurred in 2018.
The allure of Graveman is that there is a comfortable mid-rotation profile here, a surefire starter based off the groundballs he generates, yet one who could put together a couple 3 WAR seasons at peak with even a slight improvement in strikeout rate. Sometimes pitchers add a little velocity after a TJ surgery. And by paying for the lost year upfront, the signing team can lock in a potential bargain asset to either extend and retain, or trade for young talent come summer of 2020. A full recovery from TJ is no sure thing, but the success rate of the surgery has improved tremendously with time. Most guys make it at least most of the way back.
This pool, the Tommy John surgery rehab pool of pitchers, has been a popular avenue for finding potential bargain starting pitching in recent seasons. Michael Pineda signed for two years and $10m total in December 2017, then missed all of 2018 with TJ. Edinson Volquez signed for two years and essentially $2m plus incentives in February 2017, then missed all of 2018 with TJ. Garrett Richards signed with San Diego this November 30th for two years and $15m, and will miss all of 2019 with TJ. Nathan Eovaldi signed for two years and $4m in February 2017, missed the entire 2017 season, and then earned himself a 3-4 year contract worth $40m-$60m as a giant key to the Red Sox pitching staff en route to a World Series Championship.
A cellar-dweller ought to go hard after Graveman with a $6m-$12m guaranteed two-year contract, perhaps pushing a little more guaranteed money at him than his, as compared to above examples, less established track record might merit, especially if doing so could perhaps secure a higher AAV (average annual value) team option for a second year of healthy Graveman in 2021.
Pitching is always in demand on the midseason and offseason trade markets, and even if a rebuilding team doesn’t find the prospect return it expects from a productive veteran player, the attrition rate of young pitchers is so high that it’s not the worst thing to have several established pitchers on hand to take the pressure off rookies as they get their first taste of the big leagues. You’re not going to grow an entire 12 or 13-man pitching staff of minor league prospects, who all miraculously debut and solidify roles at about the same time without attrition, injury or otherwise. That’s just not how this game works.
There isn’t any real downside to signing a player to a TJ rehab contract. The money guaranteed to this niche of player is so relatively low that a failed rehab and prematurely ended career, a worst case outcome, will certainly not hamstring a franchise or derail its rebuild. If Graveman returns and is even 80% of the pitcher he appeared to be before going down, the signing team has already come out ahead based on the observed market reality that it costs several million dollars to secure an anticipated unit of WAR.
2B/SS/3B Tim Beckham (BAL) – 3-year fWAR: 1.0 (2016), 3.4 (2017), -0.5 (2018)
2018: .230/.287/.374 – 6.7 BB% 24.9 K% – .144 ISO –
2019 Age: 29
Beckham was the first overall pick of the 2008 MLB Draft, and throughout his professional career he hasn’t measured up to the very lofty expectations that come with being the first player drafted, in any sport.
That said, Beckham did appear to turn a corner in 2017 after a minor midseason trade from Tampa Bay to Baltimore, where he hit .306/.348/.523 with 25 extra base hits in 230 PA, finishing the year as a 27-year-old shortstop who had put together a 3.4 WAR season. This mark placed him seventh in all of baseball among qualifying shortstops, immediately ahead of young stars Xander Bogaerts, Jean Segura and Javier Baez, who can be better described as a starting second baseman, backup shortstop and MVP candidate.
2018 was not as rosy for Beckham, who was a net negative at the plate and in the field, although his defensive numbers had been better previously. So what happened? Beckham didn’t consolidate the gains of his breakout season into something between that upside and his more modest 2016 season (.247/.300/.434, 1.0 WAR). Did a seemingly improving late-20s player suddenly lose it?
No. Beckham barely avoided the disabled list to start the season, as he suffered a groin injury in spring training. He played terribly for 23 games, striking out in 30% of his plate appearances and batting only .179. Then he missed two full months, undergoing core muscle surgery to address what had become a more serious injury.
Beckham was much more competent upon returning to the field in late June. He improved to a solid if unspectacular .250/.313/.441 in the second half, buoyed by a .297/.348/.484 line in the season’s final month, albeit against the slightly inferior pitching that expanded rosters and out-of-contention teams playing for the future naturally invite as the calendar turns to September. Nonetheless, his season was disjointed, and yet he still looked like a potentially viable major league starter once healthy.
Under the hood, Beckham actually lowered his swinging strike rate by 3.4%. He swung at 2.4% fewer pitches, but made contact 4% more of the time. This is a good combination of improvements. If a player swings less often, and he misses less often when he does swing, he puts the ball in play more often and stands to reach safely more often, so long as the increased contact is quality contact.
It wasn’t. Beckham’s struggles at the plate in 2018 are captured by three metrics: HR/FB, Hard%, and his runs above average against fastballs. His HR/FB was an unsustainable 20.6% in 2017 and plummeted to 13.5% across the most recent season. Fewer of the balls he lofted in the air left the park. This wasn’t a case of luck evening out, as the rate of balls in play that he made hard contact with dropped more than 8%.
His 2017 breakout was anchored by Beckham rating as 15.5 runs better than average against fastballs; he only had a positive value for one other pitch type, the curveball. Despite seeing slightly more fastballs in 2018, he was 3.8 runs below average against the pitch. Softer contact, fewer flyballs turning into home runs, and getting overmatched by the fastball. Those ideas overlap and are probably all a part of the same thing, more or less.
I was a little surprised to see a 115-loss team non-tender a not-old Beckham, although perhaps the Orioles saw his anticipated arbitration payout as too steep and will try to retain him for less. This looks like a case of a season lost from the start, and because hindsight is always clearer, we can also look at the steep HR/FB rate he feasted on with Baltimore in 2017 and see that he probably wasn’t actually quite as good a player as his triple slash line indicated.
I’d be a little surprised if Beckham ever posts a 3 WAR season again, but it’s possible. And I think that’s the best reason to sign him for what will surely be a low guarantee contract. It can be very difficult to find even 2 WAR players in the middle infield, and Baltimore is a team that appears to be thin in the infield. Among qualified starters, a 2 WAR player in 2018 would slot in a 16th-place tie at 2B, a 14th-place tie at SS, and 17th at 3B.
Given what modest production it takes to be a back-of-the-middle-of-the-pack starting infielder, the 50th percentile outcome (the result that would occur most often for a given player if we could somehow play the 2019 season 100 times) for what several teams may end up trotting out at those positions in 2019 is considerably lower. A team in such a position absolutely doesn’t need to be bringing in a 34-year-old retread with minimal potential trade value to contending teams. I would bet against Beckham ever doing what he did in 2017 again, but I think he could be a competent regular for a few years, especially if his defense ticks back up to average or slightly above it.
RHP Ricardo Rodriguez (TEX) – 3-year fWAR – n/a (2016), -0.1 (2017), 0.1 (2018)
2018: 4.05 ERA/4.45 xFIP in 6.2 IP. 4.05 K/9, 1.35 BB/9, 0 HR/9, 40.7 GB%
2019 Age: 26
Rodriguez was signed as an international free agent in December 2010 and steadily improved through three seasons of rookie ball. He began 2015, his age 22 season, by bizarrely skipping two levels to make a couple AAA appearances a month apart from each other before returning to repeat low A. Now a full time reliever, he had thrown 102.2 innings of 3.07 ERA (4.07 FIP) the previous season, split across 12 starts and 17 relief appearances.
Then he tore his UCL and missed the last several weeks of 2015 and all of 2016. Once back on the mound in 2017, Rodriguez looked like a different pitcher and potential future relief ace, racking up 17 saves across high A and AA en route to earning a call to the big leagues shortly before his 24th birthday, skipping AAA entirely.
Rodriguez appeared in 16 MLB games in 2017, and despite a 6.23 ERA (4.81 xFIP), he pumped the zone with 95 MPH fastballs, sliders and the occasional curveball across thirteen inning and held his own. Rodriguez allowed three home runs in his first 13 MLB innings, which is almost entirely responsible for his high ERA, demonstrated by the nearly 1.5 run gap between his ERA and xFIP. In 263.1 career minor league innings up to this point, he had only allowed 10 home runs, a fantastic rate.
Let’s get back to what earned him this ahead-of-schedule promotion. Combining his two stops, across 47 innings he allowed only 24 hits and 10 walks while striking out an impressive 61 batters. Rodriguez hadn’t run double digit K/9 rates since rookie ball, and the young reliever who shows skill in limiting walks and home runs with swing-and-miss stuff is the setup arm of tomorrow. He allowed a run in only three of his thirty five appearances.
Similar to Beckham, Rodriguez dealt with a March 2018 injury but hit the disabled list for his, missing the first two months with a biceps issue. Once healthy, he showed 2017 was no fluke and thrived in his first meaningful AAA exposure. Across 25.2 innings at a 2.45 ERA (3.53 xFIP), Rodriguez posted a 9.47 K/9 and a 1.4 BB/9, and he surrendered only a single home run.
Rodriguez earned two brief stints in the majors to cover for injuries, but he only appeared in four games, despite the fact that Texas’ season was over almost as soon as it began. The team lost 95 games, finished 36 games out of first place, and it declined to tender a contract to Rodriguez after declining to give him an extended look during an especially pointless September.
A player’s most recent team knows more about the given player than any other team would be privy to, presumably, but the handling of Rodriguez is confusing. A player with such limited major league exposure requires only the league minimum salary if rostered, and Texas surrendered control of the pitcher through as long as 2023. A team signing Rodriguez would still be able to option him to the minors this season, since only two of his three options have been used since first being added to Texas’ 40-man roster in 2017.
Rodriguez has struck out batters at a far greater rate since returning from his 2015 Tommy John surgery without hurting his ability to suppress walks and home runs. He has the mid-90s heat and low-80s slider that can comfortably project into a stable middle reliever, and the best of those work the 7th and 8th innings of tomorrow. He has shown signs of being able to corral MLB hitters in limited trials with little high minors experience, and he is ready for an extended look in middle relief.
Even if there weren’t statistical indicators suggesting 8th inning upside, there is no downside to signing this type of pitcher. A signing team controls Rodriguez for up to five seasons, and he can be optioned to AAA throughout the 2019 season if so desired. His salary cost is minimal.
8th inning arms with multiple years of control remaining are highly sought after pitchers on the open market who have commanded returns of top prospects. Recent examples include catcher Francisco Mejia in the Brad Hand/Adam Cimber trade in 2018, and pitcher Justus Sheffield (who recently became the centerpiece of acquiring two years of young front end starting pitcher James Paxton) and Clint Frazier for Andrew Miller in 2016. Hitting on relief pitchers with a greater than outside chance at ascending to high leverage relief innings down the line has, for the past several seasons, appeared to be one of the most effective ways for a rebuilding team to quickly restock the farm system.
OF Bubba Starling (KCR) – no major league experience
2019 Age: 26
Starling was the 5th overall pick of the 2011 MLB draft. He was a consensus top 50 prospect before his first professional at bat (#17 MLB.com, #24 Baseball America, #27 Baseball Prospectus). He proceeded to hit .275/.371/.485 with ten home runs in 232 plate appearances for rookie-level Burlington, but he also struck out in 29.9% of his trips to the plate. Despite this flag, he again garnered top 50 honors (#26 MLB.com, #35 Baseball America, #49 Baseball Prospectus) before batting .241 with little power in his full season debut at low A, the last time he would ever post a walk rate above 10%.
Starling was only 21, but had already established himself as a swing-and-miss pull hitter without secondary on-base skills, or even enough usable power, for that matter, to make the total package work. Starling provided reason for optimism when he spent most of his age 22 season getting his first taste of AA and cut his K% to 24.8%, the lowest of his professional career, en route to a modest, but better, .254/.318/.426 line in 367 PA.
Cautious optimism was quickly extinguished by the disaster of a season Starling had in 2016. Batting .185 and back to striking out more than 30% of the time, Bubba was inexplicably promoted to AAA at the beginning of July, where he was, unsurprisingly, somehow worse than that. For the season across the two levels, he “hit” .185/.235/.298 with a career-worst 5.1 BB% and a career-worst 33.6 K%. Starling was effectively done as a prospect in the public’s eye. His less bad but not good 2017 season in a return to AAA Omaha was cut short by an oblique injury that followed him into this year. He dislocated a finger on a July visit back home “getting out of bed” that again ended his season early, having played just 11 more games in AAA.
Something worth thinking about is whether it’s more productive to focus on what a player can’t do well over appreciating what he can do well. The foundation of Starling’s skill set is strong defense and a plus arm that can comfortably play center. In addition, his speed projects to add value; although he will never steal more than a small handful of bases in the majors, his high success rate in the minors (72 SB, 17 CS, 80.9 SB%) gives managers the option to utilize him to not just pinch run and hit-and-run, but also to attempt the occasional straight steal. This profile on its own is a useful backup outfielder that complements a bat-first outfielder well as a late inning replacement.
The reason a rebuilding team might prefer Starling to a run-of-the-mill, older backup outfielder, is that the defense can play in the majors, but there is at least a nonzero chance of some upside at the dish, however remote.
That said, there is a lot of work to do beyond the obvious contact and swing-and-miss problems that will always be a part of who this player is as a hitter. Starling has serious quality of contact problems when he avoids striking out. He is a dead pull hitter, never pulling the ball less than half of the time at any minor league stop, and over 60% for the entirety of his AA experience. The MLB average for pull rate in 2018 was 40.3%.
He also tends to hit a lot of infield fly balls, harmless popups which tend to be all but automatic outs, and maybe once every fifty times the fielder trips over the pitcher’s mound and the batter reaches. The lowest IFFB% rate Starling has managed at any minor league stop is 17.6%, which is nearly twice the MLB average in 2018 of 10.3%. Starling has at least doubled this rate at every other level, including an almost impossibly high 46.7% (AA) and 40.0% (AAA) during his disaster of a 2016 season. If your calling card at the plate is going to be tapping into raw power and yet nearly half the balls you put in the air are traveling a hundred forward feet, if that, you’re not a major league caliber hitter, period.
The impact of all the infield popups illustrates how the weak outs nullify his theoretical power production. The effect of the higher end of his infield fly rate spectrum upon his home run rate is obvious:
2014 – A+ / age 21 – 31.5 IFFB%, 6.2 HR/FB (549 PA)
2015 – AA / age 22 – 31.5 IFFB%, 11.2 HR/FB (367 PA)
2016 – AA / age 23 – 46.7 IFFB%, 8.3 HR/FB (255 PA)
2016 – AAA / age 23 – 40 IFFB%, 4.4 HR/FB (176 PA)
If I saw these home run rates out of a pitcher outperforming his stuff, I’d have a hard time choosing whether I expect regression, or whether I believed the pitcher has an unexplained but apparently well above average home run suppression skill. This, however, is a hitter, and these marks are indicative of poor quality of contact.
Even when Starling appeared to have enjoyed a small breakout upon reaching the hitter-friendly Texas League in 2015, he still ran an infield fly rate three times above the major league average, and he only pushed a double digit home run rate thanks to a strong 25.8% line drive rate. However, Starling doesn’t appear to be a line drive hitter, having failed to even approach the MLB 2018 season average of 21.5% during his first three professional seasons, and unable to top 20% in more than 500 AAA plate appearances so far.
This is an exploitable hitter with a one dimensional approach that will not work in the majors as currently comprised. He has not demonstrated an ability to show power to all fields, or to at least sacrifice power for contact the other way when behind in the count. He also puts the ball in the air, a lot, but without the power production that the era of optimizing launch angle and prioritizing hard, barrel-to-ball contact has begotten for power hitters from Justin Turner to J.D. Martinez.
Perhaps the right hitting guru is out there to bring out the potential that made Starling a top five draft pick seven years ago. Starling can provide some ancillary value at the margins of a roster as he is today, as a AAA/MLB shuttle player who can pinch run and replace less athletic outfielders in close-and-late situations to protect a lead. That’s a profile of more or less freely available talent, however.
Starling possesses more theoretical upside than the typical AAA lifer, but it’s going to take major changes to his plate approach and swing to unlock it. I wouldn’t bother signing Starling without confidence in the staff that are going to be working to try to salvage a career as something more than the last guy on the roster accruing sparse playing time and doing little .
26 isn’t too old for player growth, and Starling wouldn’t be the first guy already long ago declared a bust to salvage a short run as a decent enough regular. Even that modest hypothetical career, well short of the expectations that come with draft pedigree, has to be considered a 90th percentile outcome at this point. If forced to choose, the unusable plate approach would ultimately push me to look to Rule 5 Draft talent and mid-March waiver claims for a fourth outfielder with a hint of something more, over dreaming of what could have been in Kansas City.
At the same time, this young man has lived in Kansas his whole life, excluding his out-of-state minor league assignments, and the past several years of life in Kansas have brought tremendous pressure and scrutiny. Sometimes a change of environment is a fresh start that allows a young man to get back to playing baseball, rather than trying to hit an 8-run homer every time he comes to the plate. Someone should and will offer him a minor league contract, because why not?