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Searching for meaning amongst the non-tendered players

Many players were cut from major league rosters this past week and I found there were many surprising names that entered free agency. Why are teams willingly letting these players go?

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five
Based on his performance and his potential 2019 salary, Xavier Cedeno was one of the more surprising players cut from a major league roster this past week.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Every offseason, teams must determine who to keep on their 40-man roster through the Rule 5 draft. Not only are prospects added that are at risk at being selected, but roster spots are cleared by removing pre-arbitration- and arbitration-eligible players. Whether due to injury or poor performance, teams determine these players are no longer worth the salaries they could potentially make the following season and thus are cut loose.

Speaking of those projected salaries, MLB Trade Rumors has become pretty solid at predicting the future dollars to be earned by major league players. For example, recently non-tendered Twin Robbie Grossman was forecast to make $4 million through arbitration, which the Twins deemed to be too expensive for a position player whose only positive was his ability to draw a walk.

The deadline to tender contracts to players was towards the end of November. Every year, there’s a couple names that surprise me, but this year was much different. As I was scrolling through MLB Trade Rumors, I was repeatedly baffled at the names entering the free agent market. Below is each player and the team that let him go, his MLBTR projected 2019 salary, and a brief blurb about the player.

  1. RP Matt Bush, Rangers (projected salary unknown) - Bush was hitting the upper-90s with his fastball and briefly served as closer while enjoying solid seasons in 2016 and 2017, but had elbow surgery and was going to miss half of 2019.
  2. RP Hunter Strickland, Giants ($2.5 million) - An excellent flamethrowing reliever since debuting since his first full season in 2015, but his fastball has lost 2 MPH since that year and he wasn’t anything special this past season while serving as part-time closer.
  3. IF Ronald Torreyes, Cubs (unknown) - Torreyes spent parts of the last three seasons in the majors with the Yankees and then was traded earlier this offseason to Chicago. The Jose Altuve-sized utility infielder is a career .281/.310/.375 hitter while playing adequate defense.
  4. IF Tim Beckham, Orioles ($4.3 million) - The former Rays prospect finally lived up to his billing in 2017 with a 109 wRC+, 22 HR, and 3.4 WAR, but he regressed back to his old ways this past season.
  5. SP Mike Fiers, Athletics ($9.7 million) - Apparently 30 starts with a 3.5 ERA gets you a ticket to free agency. To be fair, Fiers gave up a ton of homers and succeeded more on guile than stuff.
  6. SP Kendall Graveman, Athletics ($2.5 million) - Graveman has been quietly adequate since coming over from the Jays in the Josh Donaldson trade. He’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and I know this is the A’s, but wow...
  7. RP Cory Gearrin, Athletics ($2.4 million) - Gearrin has been a pretty good reliever for his career, was awful to start the season with the Giants, then rediscovered his form after joining the Rangers, and then wasn’t anything special in Oakland.
  8. 1B Justin Bour, Phillies ($5.2 million) - Bour still slugged 20 HR and drew walks over 14% of the time, but that’s all that was good about his 2018 season spent between Miami and Philadelphia. His lack of a contract offer wasn’t too surprising though as the Phillies also traded away Carlos Santana in order to clear first base for Rhys Hoskins.
  9. RP Luis Avilan, Phillies ($3.1 million) - Avilan might be a LOOGY, but he’s a very good LOOGY and has actually fared well against righties in his career, too.
  10. RP Blake Parker, Angels ($3.1 million) - Another part-time closer on this list, Parker had a great 2017 but couldn’t repeat it this past season. He was homer-prone but the rest of his numbers looked pretty good, even if they weren’t on par with the year prior.
  11. SP Matt Shoemaker, Angels ($4.3 million) - A pretty good starting pitcher that hasn’t been able to remain healthy. He missed most of 2018 due to forearm surgery in May.
  12. C James McCann, Tigers ($3.5 million) - McCann had served as Detroit’s starting catcher for several seasons now which was why this surprised me a bit. He’s been better suited for platooning (career 11 wRC+ vs. LHP, 60 wRC+ vs. RHP) but still seemed like a reasonable part-time player.
  13. RP Alex Wilson, Tigers ($2.8 million) - A solid middle reliever that’s been miscast as a setup man due to the Tigers’ bullpen woes. Wilson excelled at inducing weak contact and keeping the ball in the yard, but his inability to generate strikeouts meant he wasn’t a shutdown reliever.
  14. IF Yangervis Solarte, Blue Jays ($5.9 million) - Solarte had been a solid player for the Padres in 2015 and 2016 before regressing a bit in 2017. However, 2018 was a disaster and evidently the Jays weren’t interested in seeing if he could rebound.
  15. RP Brad Boxberger, Diamondbacks ($4.9 million) - Yet another closer, Boxberger comes with a boatload of strikeouts, walks, and home runs. He gives me thoughts of Fernando Rodney.
  16. SP Shelby Miller, Diamondbacks ($4.9 million) - Miller seemed destined for stardom, then the D-Backs unloaded Ender Inciarte along with then-prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair to acquire him. Miller’s repaid the D-Backs by making 9 appearances the past two seasons.
  17. 2B Jonathan Schoop, Brewers ($10.1 million) - I did a double-take the first time I saw Schoop’s projected salary. He had a down year between the Orioles and Brewers and it’s completely understandable why the Brewers would hope to find a cheaper option.
  18. RP Xavier Cedeno, Brewers ($1.5 million) - A cheaper Luis Avilan.
  19. RP Dan Jennings, Brewers ($1.6 million) - A cheaper Luis Avilan without the strikeouts.
  20. OF Avisail Garcia, White Sox ($8 million) - “Little Miggy” finally put it all together in 2017, but then regressed back this past year with 92 wRC+. He still 19 HR in just over half a season, though.
  21. 1B/3B/DH Matt Davidson, White Sox ($2.4 million) - 6 combined home runs in the past two seasons, but Davidson is also a career .226 hitter and shouldn’t be playing third base. With Jose Abreu at first base and Daniel Palka as a DH, there’s no room for Davidson.
  22. IF Wilmer Flores, Mets ($4.7 million) - Flores has some pop in his bat and rakes against LHP, but despite breaking into the majors as a shortstop and having experience all across the infield, he’s best suited defensively as a first baseman. Unfortunately, his bat is best suited for one of the other infield positions.
  23. CF Billy Hamilton, Reds ($5.9 million) - Regarded as the fastest man in baseball until Statcast and Byron Buxton came along, you always knew he’d be horrendous with the bat yet would wreak havoc on the bases and in the field.

Looking back at these players, I saw a couple trends. Some of these players were coming off injuries or were expected to miss some amount of 2019. Most weren’t statistically good in 2018 and teams weren’t willing to bet on them returning to their prior forms. A couple - Schoop and Garcia - were legitimately expensive. Some of the relievers on here like Avilan, Cedeno, and Gearrin were especially surprising.

We already understand the game of non-tendering players. However, it felt like teams were a bit more ruthless this past week with whom to cut. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I look at this list and feel that teams would have kept similar players as recently as five years ago. I still remember after the 2016 season when first baseman Chris Carter was designated for assignment by the Brewers after slugging 41 bombs. It also came with a .222 average and absolutely no defensive value in the field, but it signaled that teams had set a much higher bar on what a player was worth.

FanGraphs has multiple articles on the “embattled middle class” of ballplayers, the ones Travis Sawchik defined as having their respective salaries fall between 10% above the major league minimum salary and three times the average salary. In essence, the list of players above. FanGraphs has covered the multiple reasons why this MLB “middle class” has been shrinking over the past few years. Teams are starting to realize that a player’s prime is actually in his mid- to late-20s, they’ve discovered similar production is available from pre-arbitration-eligible players and that free agency is not a worthwhile manner to improve a team, and there’s no existence of a salary floor in the league. There’s no incentive to pay this middle class when younger, cheaper talent is readily available. Hence, teams will keep releasing these players into the free agency pool, then play the waiting game to suppress their salaries even more.

Ultimately, many of these players will still find jobs for the 2019 season. Quite a few will find them on minor league, incentive-laden contracts. Nearly all will likely sign for base salaries beneath what they were due in pre-arbitration or arbitration this winter. Then the process will repeat again next year, and again and again after that. For the players, there is no easy fix. The teams and owners have more power right now and when negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement come up, the players will have to argue for more rights that tips the scales back to even. Teams look to milk as much worth out of the young guys with less than three years of service time, so one suggestion would be to increase the salaries of these younger players. Bring them closer to the middle tier and suddenly teams don’t have as much incentive to nickel and dime the veteran players. Until then, though, we’ll just keep seeing the same charade happen every winter.