Junichi Tazawa

Flashing Forward to Arbitration

During the upcoming offseason, there’s no doubt that the Red Sox will face many important roster decisions. After 2015 — a year that will undoubtedly be seen as a disappointment unless the team rips off 20 straight wins and dominates in the playoffs — you have to imagine that the team will look to re-tool for 2016.

Part of that re-tooling includes free agents and trades, sure … but also decisions on arbitration-eligible players. Every offseason, teams make tough arb decisions. Tender or non-tender? Go to arb court or settle before things get too testy (a tried and true Red Sox tradition)? Go year-to-year or try for a longer-term extension?

Fortunately for the Sox, this coming offseason isn’t going to posit a host of mission-critical arbitration decisions. As of this writing, the team only has six players for whom they’ll need to consider arbitration. The Sox’s long-terms commitments are a mix of really young pre-arb guys (your Mookie Betts/Xander Bogaerts/Eduardo Rodriguez types), and guys with big ol’ contracts like Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and Rick Porcello.

No, the Red Sox’s arbitration cases will determine some roster spots on the fringes, primarily in the team’s bullpen. That’s hardly a major concern. And, of course, there’s a slight chance that one or more of these players could be gone in the next few weeks. Let’s take a look:

Name Arb Year Previous Salary 2015 WARP
Junichi Tazawa Arb 3 $2.25MM 0.8
Alexi Ogando Arb 3 $1.5MM -0.1
Daniel Nava Arb 2 $1.85MM -0.3
Joe Kelly Arb 1 $603K 0.7
Robbie Ross Arb 1 $567K 0.1
Anthony Varvaro Arb 1 $577K 0.1

We’ll start with the most important player from this group — setup ace Junichi Tazawa. Tazawa’s going into his final year of arbitration, and his performance this year harkens back to his stellar run in 2012. While Tazawa isn’t a lockdown setup guy in the Wade Davis mold, he is quite consistent, and more than capable of striking out a batter per nine.

There’s no question Tazawa would have a contract tendered were he to make it to this coming offseason in a Sox uniform. The bigger question is just that — will the Sox deal him for another piece at the deadline? My gut says no, because he’s a solid contributor, and even though he’s reaching his final round of arbitration I’m not so sure he’s due for a powerful raise. Arbitrators tend to look at “traditional” stats … and for relievers, saves are still king. While Tazawa’s strikeout rate and WHIP are good, I’d imagine he’s in for a raise that would max him out near $3.5 million or so if the team and Tazawa agree to terms and avoid a hearing.

 With all that in mind, Tazawa’s a pretty useful piece for a more-than-fair contract, even through arbitration. I’d guess that Boston keeps him, wrings him dry before free agency, and then sweats a real decision on whether to try to retain him after 2016.

Daniel Nava looked like a steal coming into 2015 at a measly $1.85 million, but after a stinker of a performance this season, there could actually be an argument to dump him via non-tender and cut bait. I mean, his .192 True Average is really, really awful … even for the Sox. He wouldn’t make the Mets lineup at this point. (Just kidding, he’d be batting cleanup for the Mets or the Phillies.)

And yet … he’s another guy where I think that if he remains with the team — and I don’t think the Sox are trading him — the Red Sox will look to retain him through arbitration. Nava’s not exactly covering himself in glory this season, but it isn’t making him any more expensive either. The arbitrator probably won’t see 20-30 career homers and downright-awful 2015 performance and think “let’s give this guy a huge raise.” Nava might see a slight bump, maybe something around $2 million, and the Sox could probably still use a guy at that low of a cost. At least so long as he can get halfway back to his pre-2015-apocalypse performance.

Make all the jokes you want about Joe Kelly’s dumb-ass Cy Young prediction, but he hasn’t been a complete mess. Yes, he’s given up a boatload of runs, but his FIP (4.11) showed there was room for improvement. His future in the big leagues may be in the bullpen, but any workable starter is worth a couple million dollars per year.

Kelly is jumping up from the minimum salary into his first arbitration-eligible season, and he’s doing it with an ERA that keeps climbing and no more than two dozen wins. If Ivan Nova took home about $3.3 million last year, I think Kelly could be worth about that much coming into 2016. Do the Sox want to spend that kind of money on Joe Kelly? I’m guessing that even if Brian Johnson is the next big thing, the team could really use that kind of depth, and that they wouldn’t want to cut bait on Kelly just yet.

So, after going three-for-three on these gents, the next three arbitration cases are all relatively insignificant bullpen pieces: Alexi Ogando, Robbie Ross, and Varvaro. Ogando is a third-year arbitration-eligible guy, so he’d be the most expensive of the bunch. While I thought he could be a dynamite part of a strong bullpen, his home run issues (eight in 40+ innings) have robbed him of almost any positive value. If he’s going to earn a big raise — and he might since he’s had a nice little run of success early in his career — it may not be worth it for the team to hold him at $2 million and change.

Ross and Varvaro are, well, a nice matching pair. They both are making close to the minimum, and they’re both hovering around replacement level. Ross probably has the better pedigree, with two strong seasons in relief before stumbling in the rotation last year, and he’d be the guy I’d want to hold of the two. But I’d imagine neither are going to earn much more than a million in arbitration, and have take-it-or-leave-it written all over them. They’re more fungible than not.

So, in the end, arbitration may not be the big deal for the Sox that it can be for other teams, but the team may swing four-to-six reasonably priced players out of the process. Sure, they’d be a setup guy, a 25th-man on the bench, a backup starter and some back-of-the bullpen options, but no one is going to command a king’s ransom. The game can be won at the margins, and these marginal guys could turn out to be a terrific value at a low risk.

Photo by Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports Images

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