A few days after the World Series, the Orioles lost a number of players from their roster to free agency. Some of them are players they could have hoped to have back, like Nelson Cruz, who has since signed with Seattle. Others, they won't miss, like Joe Saunders. Tuesday night is another of baseball's offseason deadlines: the non-tender deadline.
Teams have control of players, if they want, until they have over six years of service time at the big league level. Generally, for the first three of those years, the player is considered a pre-arbitration player and makes little more than the minimum salary. For the fourth through sixth years, they are subject to arbitration. Each year they make more money in arbitration based on their performance and service time.
If a team wants to pay them the arbitration money, all they have to do is tender a contract and negotiate the rest later. Players they don't want to pay any more get non-tendered and become free agents. These spurned players could turn into Dan Duquette targets. Ryan Webb was let go by the Marlins as part of this process last year. During the winter meetings, Duquette pounced.
The Orioles have eleven arbitration-eligible players. That is a lot. Nearly all of them are no-brainers to bring back. Matt Wieters at what MLBTR projects to be a $7.9 million salary? Sign me up. Steve Pearce at a projected $2.2 million? This is also not a difficult choice to make. It's so easy that it hardly even counts as a choice.
Other no doubters, with MLBTR's Matt Swartz's projected 2015 salary: Bud Norris ($8.7 million), Chris Tillman ($5.4 million), Miguel Gonzalez ($3.7 million), Ryan Flaherty ($1 million), and Zach Britton ($3.2 million).
Wieters, Pearce, and Norris are all in their final year of eligibility before they become free agents. Tillman, Gonzalez, Flaherty, and Britton are first-time eligible players. Britton qualifies as what's known as a "super two" player, which means he has enough service time that he'll get four years of arbitration. That's when a player gets expensive.
Jim Johnson was a fourth year player who was projected to, and did, get a salary of nearly $12 million. The Orioles tendering him last year seemed risky, but when they dumped him on Oakland, that worked out.
Four players present more difficult choices to tender, although it wouldn't surprise me any if all four of them are brought back. Here are the four, in order of my opinion of the least likely non-tenders to most likely.
2014 salary: $10.35 million
2015 projected salary: $11.8 million
In the real world, I'd be stunned if the O's non-tendered Davis. After all, as mentioned above, they even tendered Johnson last year. Even with the baggage of a positive test for a banned stimulant and a season where he batted .196, there is the obvious fact that he hit 53 home runs only two seasons ago.
That guy doesn't get non-tendered, although if the O's think Davis' goose is cooked, perhaps they'll try a Johnson-type salary dump for a second straight year. More likely, they feel like they have to roll the dice and see what they get. For all of his struggles, Davis still hit 26 homers in 2014. The power is still there. Something else just got in the way and hopefully it won't be in the way any more.
2014 salary: $3 million
2015 projected salary: $4.4 million
Hunter isn't getting non-tendered either, and is only mentioned here to briefly state the case against him. He's not the closer any more, he doesn't have any options remaining, and he might be viewed as too expensive for a bullpen arm whose track record has been somewhat spotty.
Still, the guy has combined for a 1.034 WHIP over the past two seasons and has a very small walk rate. He'll be back, although you should prepare for a Tommy-less future all the same. Much like Davis, this is the last season before Hunter is a free agent.
Alejandro De Aza
2014 salary: $4.25 million
2015 projected salary: $5.9 million
With Nelson Cruz already gone and the return of Nick Markakis now deemed less than 50-50, the Orioles suddenly find themselves bereft of an outfield. Even Delmon Young, who manned left field at times last year, is on the free agent market and not sure to return. In that context, a player like De Aza looks a lot better than he might have a month ago.
MLBTR's Orioles offseason outlook considered him the only real non-tender candidate. Why would they get rid of him? Maybe that's because, before trading for him, De Aza was batting .243/.309/.354 with the White Sox. He had a hot 20 September games after being traded to the O's, but whether that will carry over to next season is no sure thing. Maybe he benefited from facing post-September callup pitching staffs. Maybe he just had a hot month.
De Aza stole 17 bases in 2014, which is good, but he was caught 10 times. That's only about a 63% success rate. He has some speed, though this doesn't show in either a good stolen base percentage or in good range in the outfield. The Defensive Runs Saved metric brings him in at -2 runs for the season.
That's probably not a guy you non-tender either, when he comes for a relatively low price of $6 million and your team is currently short on outfielders. It's no guarantee the O's will land any of the free agents on the market who could do as well or better than De Aza. If they sign any of the outfielders they've been vaguely linked to - or bring back Markakis - they can always trade De Aza later.
2014 salary: $2.4 million
2015 projected salary: $2.7 million
I abandon all pretense of objectivity when it comes to analyzing the performance of Matusz. I'm over him and I don't want to see him any more.
He's a LOOGY (on a good day) who can't be optioned as part of Duquette's reliever merry-go-round because he signed a major league contract when drafted in 2008; this also has resulted in his base salary before he hits arbitration being higher than the usual minimum.
The Orioles don't need him taking up space in the bullpen any more, reserved for those situations where only the worst platoon split lefty batters come up and even then he might bomb the spot. For a guy who can only be trusted against lefties, you'd like him to be better than allowing a .626 OPS against lefties, which is what Matusz had this year.
And yet, even so, it's not THAT much money projected to go to Matusz. Should they just unceremoniously give up on the former #4 overall pick? Duquette has flushed away a significantly greater amount of money with busted Asian market signings like Tsuyoshi Wada and Suk-min Yoon in two of the past three offseasons.
One of those baseball truisms is that once you're a first round pick, you're always a first round pick. There's probably always someone who will take a chance on what was once seen as a good pedigree. Another truism is that anyone who is left-handed and has a pulse can find a job. Matusz fits both of these categories.
Even if the Orioles don't want Matusz any more, and I hope they don't, they're probably best off trying to trade him to a team that could use left-handed relief rather than just dumping him onto the free agent market or waiver wire where there's not even a chance of any return. If it gets down to it, they can always get rid of him at the end of spring training. The possibility that he'll either be worth something to the Orioles or someone else is enough to make this modest salary worth guaranteeing.
Do you think the O's will non-tender any of their eligible players? Do you think they should let anyone go? I'd be surprised if anyone gets non-tendered out of the bunch. Things have to get pretty bad for Duquette to give up something for nothing. We'll find out for sure either way by the end of the night.