This Friday is the non-tender deadline in baseball, making it one of the final league-wide transaction deadlines that could impact free agency. Teams must decide who to tender contracts to for the 2017 season by this date. This involves players who are making near the league minimum, along with arbitration eligible players. Teams could decide to non-tender anyone from those two groups, although the focus tends to be on the arbitration eligible players, since they are the most likely to be non-tendered.
The Pirates have eight players who are eligible for arbitration, and not all of them will be tendered contracts. They will try to reach deals with as many of these guys as possible before the non-tender deadline. Some of them will be tendered a contract, even if a deal isn’t reached. The two sides would then work to try and complete a deal before the player officially files for arbitration in mid-January. Once that happens, the Pirates decide to go to the arbitration process, with both sides submitting a salary figure, and an arbiter deciding which salary figure to choose for the 2017 season.
Here are the players who are eligible for arbitration, and their projected figures from MLBTR, along with my analysis of each situation.
Tony Watson, 3rd Year – $5,900,000
Watson will be tendered without question. The only question is whether he will be on the team in 2017, as his name has been speculated in some trade rumors, and it would make sense for the Pirates to deal him with such a big seller’s market for relievers and lefty relievers. He’s coming off a down year, but so was Brett Cecil, and Cecil got a four-year, $30.5 M deal. Watson has a lot of value at one year and a projected $5.9 M, especially with his performance prior to 2016 factored in.
The Pirates don’t need to trade him before the non-tender deadline, and they will definitely tender him a contract, since he’ll be worth keeping around for one more year at this price if they don’t end up trading him.
Juan Nicasio, 3rd Year – $4,600,000
Nicasio shows the other side of what the non-tender deadline means for a team like the Pirates: A chance to add lower cost talent for the 2017 season. Last year, the Dodgers non-tendered Nicasio, which allowed the Pirates to pick him up for $3 M on a one year deal. Since he finished the 2016 season with less than six years of MLB service time, he’s eligible for arbitration one more time at a projected $4.6 M. I’m sure that the Pirates will be going after a few other non-tendered players this year, hoping to get a similar deal.
As for Nicasio being tendered, I don’t think there’s any question about that. He had a 1.3 fWAR last year, and an 0.9 fWAR in 2015. Both numbers would be worth his $4.6 M salary on the open market. The Pirates would have to pay a little over $8 M on a one year deal to get a reliever with his expected performance through free agency. So he’s a bit of a value, even with a higher price tag than what they usually spend on non-closers.
There is the question of whether he could be traded. The idea with Watson being traded is that he could bring a nice return in a seller’s market, while freeing up some money for some lower cost help. Nicasio is also essentially on a one year deal now, so it might make sense to try and deal him for future help in the same way, and use his money to try and find next year’s version of Nicasio. Of course, by trading Nicasio, you’re weakening the argument to trade Watson, since you’re removing one of the few hard throwing late inning relievers already on the team. And Nicasio probably wouldn’t see the same value as Watson, since he’s not a lefty, and doesn’t have the years of success that Watson has seen in the past. So I’d expect the Pirates to keep Nicasio for 2017.
Gerrit Cole, 1st Year – $4,200,000
There is absolutely no question that Cole will be tendered. In most cases, you’d be talking about the possibility of an extension when a player reaches this point in his service time, but I don’t see that happening here, as Cole is a Scott Boras client. He’s also the team rep for the Player’s Union, meaning there is pressure on him to get the best deal possible. We saw that play out last year when he had a grievance with his salary, resulting in the Pirates adjusting his league minimum pay. With no questions about tendering or extensions, the only question would be whether there would be another controversy this year. I’m guessing that’s less likely with him coming off an injury filled 2016 season.
Jeff Locke, 2nd Year – $4,200,000
I’ve got Locke as a non-tender candidate, simply because there is no room for him on the team. You don’t want him in the starting rotation, as he could be a bounce back candidate, but would be one with little upside. He might be better in the bullpen, but the Pirates already have three lefties in Watson, Felipe Rivero, and Antonio Bastardo. Plus, $4.2 M is a lot to pay for a long reliever, when the Pirates have numerous prospects in Triple-A who can do the same job at possibly the same success rate for the league minimum.
If this was 2013-15 Locke, I’d argue that he’d be worth the price tag. He might be worth picking up for a weaker team, hoping to convert him back to that pitcher. He was always under-rated in Pittsburgh, seen as a Quad-A guy, rather than what he was as a back of the rotation starter with the upside of a solid number four. The reason he was under-rated was because of his inconsistent performance. The Pirates tried to add more consistency by overhauling his mechanics in 2016, but that led to him taking a step back, to the point where he actually did look like a Quad-A guy. He’d probably be better off switching back to the old mechanics and settling for being a back of the rotation starter, or trying to go the Zach Duke route as a reliever.
Jordy Mercer, 1st Year – $4,000,000
Mercer will get tendered, as he’s the starting shortstop, and has averaged 1.3 fWAR over the past four seasons. That’s a number that can be improved upon, but the Pirates will wait until Kevin Newman is ready to take over and try to get the upgrade through that method. I could see Newman arriving in 2017, especially if Mercer gets injured in the second half. I think ultimately, Newman would take over at some point in 2018, with Mercer potentially sticking around in a Clint Barmes role as the backup, and as a mentor to the rookie.
Jared Hughes, 3rd Year – $2,500,000
I’ve got Hughes as a non-tender guy, but I don’t think the decision will be that simple. In previous years, he’s been a great situational reliever, with the ability to come on and get a weak double play ball with runners on base. His sinker wasn’t as effective in 2016, leading to a drop in his ground ball rate, along with a rise in his walks. More alarmingly, he had a drop in soft contact by three percentage points from 2015 to 2016, and saw the highest hard contact rate of his career.
The Pirates have sinkerball guys in the minors who could replace Hughes for a fifth of his estimated price. Trevor Williams would be the top guy, although it’s hard to say whether he’d be as effective as Hughes in that role. The same goes with Frank Duncan, who is lower on the prospect lists than Williams. The reason it’s hard to say whether they’d be as effective is because Hughes is one of the best ground ball relievers in baseball when he’s on. He ranked 5th of all qualified relievers from 2014-2015 in ground ball rate, and ranks in the top ten when you include his entire career, with 2016 included.
I could see the Pirates trying for a lower deal before the deadline, hoping to get Hughes back and get him to return to his 2014-2015 self. At the same time, it might be a better gamble to go with Williams or Duncan in that role, and use the extra $1-2 M elsewhere.
Drew Hutchison, 2nd Year – $2,200,000
Hutchison will be tendered a contract, since the Pirates are looking at him as an option for the rotation. He’s almost like a reclamation project, with the hope that they can fix his mechanics and get him to be a productive big league starter. I don’t think he’ll be a top of the rotation guy, but this is a guy who posted a 3.82 xFIP and a 2.3 fWAR in 184.2 innings in 2014. So it’s not like it’s out of the question that he can get back to being a productive starter in the majors.
Wade LeBlanc, 1st Year – $1,600,000
When the Pirates added LeBlanc for basically nothing, I felt he would be a good reliever. He showed that ability in a small sample size, with a 3.65 xFIP in 12 innings, which was actually higher than his 1.98 FIP (he didn’t allow a home run, which leads to the higher xFIP). The Pirates already have three lefty relievers who are better than LeBlanc, and while $1.6 M isn’t a lot for a middle reliever, it’s a lot for a fourth lefty. LeBlanc would make sense if the Pirates did trade Watson. It might also make sense to try and work a deal before the non-tender deadline for a lower price. If they can get him for around $800,000 to $1,000,000, that would essentially buy them an option year, since most teams wouldn’t want to claim him at that price once the season is underway, and he wouldn’t opt for free agency, since he’d forfeit his salary (this is similar to what the Pirates have done with guys like Vin Mazzaro in the past).