Happy Thanksgiving weekend frents, I hope you are enjoying these couple tree days off from work to catch your breath. Anywho, Wednesday, December 2nd, the White Sox need to decide on whether they will offer a contract to their arbitration eligible players. That list of players is noted below (I stole that list with 3 tiered projections of the potential salaries from MLB Trade Rumors, shhhhh don’t tell anyone).
I don’t have much of a desire to do a “YES tender this guy a contract, NO don’t tender that guy a contract” exercise. Most of you have already done that mentally and some of you have even put it out there somewhere, like in the SoxMachine Off-Season Plans. No, that’s not really what I am interested in here, what I want to do is to discuss the potential decision making process for each group of players. This arbitration eligible pool of White Sox weirdly breaks down the 7 eligible players into 3 distinct group. Each group requires a slightly different lens with which to exam the players, but ultimately some combination of cost / value / market effects will win out.
Before we begin, I quickly want to explain the process. Once MLB players get into their 3rd year of MLB service time they become arbitration eligible, this means that they no longer to have to take the MLB league minimum as their salary, they can negotiation a deal (only with their team) that is a closer facsimile to their actual value (although still often discounted from market value). The team and player negotiate in private and then by December 2nd, the teams need to make the decision of whether or not they will tender a contract to the player. If the team chooses not to tender a contract, the player is a free agent. If they choose to tender a contract, the player can either accept that offer OR they can go to arbitration and have the arbiter decide. MLB arbitration is binary, ie, the team offers a number and the player / agent offers a number and then the arbiter decides which number is the correct one. It’s either or.
Relievers are in gigantic supply, that’s why you see the Rays bringing up random guys that you’ve never heard of and they throw 99 and strike out everybody. It’s why most teams give out non-roster invitations to spring training like comedians got sitcom deals in the ’90s. However, relievers are also very much in demand, with teams shifting a higher and higher percentage of their overall innings to relievers. In 2010, relief pitchers gobbled up ~33% of all innings pitched, where as in 2019, relief pitchers absorbed 42% of all innings pitched, a gigantic jump in merely a decade.
Marshall’s high water mark from the 3 tiered arbitration estimates above is $1.9M. During the period that extends over 2019-2020, he was 20th in ERA and 51st in FIP for qualified relievers. In other words, he slots in as a top 1 or 2 relief arm on the average team. He does this while being a #108thicc KING that throws mostly slowballs as his pitch mix is approximately 70% sliders & change-ups. He has a solid 8.71 K/9 over that period, but when you zoom in on 2020, he had a 32.3% K%, which ranked 33rd out of qualified relievers. BIG, SLOW and DOMINANT. He’d likely earn multiples of his projected arbitration salary as the likes of Joakim Soria got 2 yrs and $15M and Will Harris got 3 yrs and $24M very recently in free agency. Even a post pandemic baseball economy that doesn’t have 1 yr and $10M for Brad Hand could find a way to pay Evan Marshall more than his high end arbitration estimate.
Fry’s high water mark from the 3 tiered estimates above is $1.0M. His statistical performance in recent years is less dazzling then Marshall’s, sporting a roughly league average reliever ERA and a below average reliever FIP across 2019-2020. He is lefty and he does strike out hitters. See below, 2018 Jace Fry was looking like a stud relief prospect.
Those whiff and K percentages while not really throwing that hard is pretty spiffy. Now let’s look at that same chart for 2020.
2020 was less good, although in Fry’s defense, he was injured and he still struck a bunch of mofos out, so still reasonable.
Corner outfielders are in moderate demand, lots of teams are set there and the handful of competitive teams that aren’t, have a robust free agent market in 2021 to fill the spot. Given that Mazara is in his final arbitration eligible year, we can view him basically as a one year free agent rental. As a “starter” Mazara wouldn’t be considered a valued commodity, he was 34th best out of RF’s in wRC+ at 88 over the course of the 2019-2020 combined period. That’s rough. The guys that book end him on this list are Hunter Renfroe, already non-tendered and Adam Jones who is playing overseas. He was also pretty lousy on defense, rating 21st best out of that group over the same period. The high end of Mazara’s 3 tiered projection is $5.9M, so given the combination of his most recent track record and expected cost, he’s not likely to be considered an attractive option.
Adam Engel or “the Wagon” as AliWhiteSox would call him is a different case entirely. It isn’t often that a 19th round defensive specialist is staring down the barrel of an arbitration raise into the neighborhood of $1.4M. There is no doubt that Engel is a great developmental story for the White Sox organization, but how does he look compared to his peers when trying to measure his arbitration value? First thing is first, he’s different from Mazara in that he has 3 years of team control remaining, so buying this year, not only buys “expected value” for the 2021 season, but it also purchases optionality for 2022 and 2023.
If we match Engel up vs just CF’s in 2019-2020, min 300 PA, he fares pretty well, 32nd in wRC+ 95, and 19th Defensively (per fangraphs, but remember defensive is cumulative, so that’s pretty damn good considering his part-time play). However, we pretty much know he’s a back-up in the corner outfield spots. Luis Robert is our centerfielder and if he gets hurt, I’ll cry, shit my pants and commence destructive #108ing.
So let’s zoom out to overall OF and low and behold he still actually fares fine. Engel is 89th in wRC+, which lines up nicely with a good 4th outfielder. Now we know that wRC+ is cheating a little bit, because at least in 2020, the White Sox lined him up for more optimal plate appearances vs LHP, but still decent.
Lastly, the White Sox lack significant depth in their minor league system, so Engel having a minor league option remaining also helps his cause some as he can be demoted if he has a poor performance or if the team acquires enough outside talent in the market.
We don’t even need to discuss Lucas Giolito. Idgaf what his high end arbitration estimate is in the table above, he’s deserves it and more. His peers are all the best pitchers in baseball that make a bazillion dollars, except he’s better looking then all of them dudes and a better person and we are lucky to have him on our favorite team. I am not just saying that because his old man recently bodied me on twitter.
Starting pitchers are in substantial demand, even after noting earlier in this post that the innings load is shifting significantly towards relievers over the last decade. Most of the early free agent “motion in the ocean” so to speak, has been starting pitcher related…and all 1 year deals….Charlie Morton $15M, Drew Smyly $11M and Robbie Ray $8M, not to mention both Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman took the qualifying offer for $18.6M. Even the post-pandemic MLB market seems to demand starting pitching in bulk. This list isn’t the most awe inspiring, but they sure are getting paid and right away.
Carlos Rodon’s high water mark in the 3 tiered arbitration estimate is $4.5M. The last time Rodon was an above average starting pitcher and the last time he qualified for the ERA title was 2016.
Since then, it’s been injuries and ineffectiveness. It makes me sad, as I was, check that, I am a fan. At this point, I am not exactly sure how to measure what I expect out of Carlos in 2021. I do know however that Carlos will get another chance to pitch in 2021, either with the White Sox or with someone else, the pedigree should afford that chance.
Reynaldo Lopez’s top arbitration estimate is $2.2M, which is much lower than the early free agent deals we noted earlier in this section, but also, Lopez is much less good than those dudes…I think? When filtering for starters only with a minimum of 200 IP for 2019-2020, Lopez rates 57th out of 58 in FIP, 56th out of 58 in ERA and 52nd out of 58 in fWAR. Those ain’t good numbers, although just being that durable to get to 200 IP over that time frame is worth something. One pitcher that appears very close to Lopez in all of these categories is newly non-tendered Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams. He at least has a better sense of humor than Lopez.
Lopez, much like Engel above has 3 years of control remaining and he also has a remaining minor league option, so his case isn’t quite as clear as Rodon’s, where it’s like just buying a free agent for a year. There’s additional future upside. Lopez could (in theory) turn a development corner and improve (but he might not)….below is his 2019 Baseball Savant chart. He was durable in 2019 (unlike 2020 when he got injured some), but them numbers ain’t so purty.
These are the cases for the various White Sox tender / non-tender cases. We’ll see what happens on Wednesday and the 108ers will definitely be talking about it on the podcast.