For so many teams, the salary arbitration process is the great unknown: how much money is a team going to have to lay out to keep some of its peak-performance players? What money should the Giants budget for Brandon Crawford? Should the Yankees try to design an extension on Michael Pineda or risk playing out the string?
As I detailed earlier in the season, Boston’s in a rather stable position going into the 2015-2016 arbitration window. With most of the team’s most critical players either still playing out the string on league-minimum deals (Mookie! Xander! Hooray!) or in the midst of pricey open-market deals and extensions (Porcello! Pablo! Boo!), the Sox are a team without a whole lot of uncertainty going into the arb process.
Recently, Matt Swartz came out with his offseason arbitration projections over at MLB Trade Rumors. Predicting things is a terrible business, but just like the old BP Annuals, Matt’s projections are deadly accurate. Using these arbitration projections as a guide to what a player will end up with is almost always a safe bet, and a great way to manage expectations.
Today, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the team’s current arb-eligible players, and find out what tact the team may take when it comes to the offseason. Knowing what we know now — that the team will likely be looking to build a fresh bullpen and hopefully reload to leap back into contention — I think we can make a reasonable guess as to which players will return, barring a trade or three. And that’s especially true given that all seven players for which the Sox need to make an arbitration decision come from the team’s sketchy bullpen.
The Definites: Junichi Tazawa, Joe Kelly and Robbie Ross
These three relievers (well, two relievers and a should be reliever) are, perhaps, the team’s best relievers under the age of 40, and for that reason it is extraordinarily unlikely that the team would non-tender any of them. In addition, none of these players has the counting stats that become overvalued in the arbitration process: namely saves and innings pitched. Let’s try to break them down one-by-one.
Junichi Tazawa — Projected 2016 Salary: $3.3 million
Unlike most of the pitchers on this list, I think there’s a pretty solid consensus that Tazawa is both an above-average reliever and under-valued compared to the open market. Junichi is heading into his final arbitration season, and for a player with both his pedigree and time in the league, this is a great value.
More than any other pitcher in the Boston bullpen, Tazawa has a proven “true talent” ability. cFIP, which measures this, posits that Tazawa has a score of 84 for his big league career, which is solidly above-average. While his seasonal ERA and DRA were down in ‘15, he got BABIPed to death (.349) and had tough luck with his strand rate (71%). He should be a keeper, and be a fine late-relief option, if not a dominant relief ace.
Joe Kelly — Projected 2016 Salary: $3.2 million
Here’s the thing: if Kelly does somehow transform into a relief ace, then his arbitration cost is just fine. If Kelly continues to be used in the rotation, pretty much at any non-disaster level of performance, then his arbitration cost is fine. But if he’s a bullpen JAG (just another guy), then while 2016 may be an okay term, the team will almost certainly have to trade or non-tender him after next season.
As a swingman, well, you’re probably not very excited about Kelly. Neither am I. I’d love to see if his already-nice fastball picks up a few ticks in short work, and maybe he can mothball his not-so-nice curveball. We already know that Dombrowski has come out in favor of Kelly as a starter, which is fine, I suppose, but on a team that could use bullpen weapons and has good-ish starters galore, I’d like to see them consider converting him.
He’ll be fine. And either way, he’s likely worth the money.
Robbie Ross — Projected 2016 Salary: $1.1 million
Robbie Ross may have been the team’s closer and best reliever near the end of the season, but there’s no circumstance where the team wishes for him to be the ninth-inning guy in 2016. Ross is left-handed and okay, which is great, since no one else currently in the bullpen is both left-handed and okay. His overall numbers for 2015 are pretty average: a cFIP of 99 says that he’s about league-average in terms of true talent, and a DRA of 4.07 says that he about got what he deserved in terms of runs against. Of course, Ross seemed to improve in the second half of the season, and it’s possible that he’ll beat his 2015 numbers rather than fall apart.
Ross’s salary projection is $1.1 million, which is chump change for a slightly above-average reliever. Boston should end up paying this in a heartbeat, if they don’t figure out some sort of short-term extension instead. Going year-to-year on Ross is fine, but extending him on a value contract is great too, as the stability of having a solid ‘pen lefty is a nice thing to have. He’ll be back.
The Maybes: Anthony Varvaro, Jean Machi, and Ryan Cook
Anthony Varvaro — Projected 2016 Salary: $700k
I’m inclined to dump off Varvaro, but mainly because of his injury issue. To put a fine point on it, Varvaro’s flexor tendon tear, which took him out of the bullpen in May after just 11 innings, caused Varvaro to be waived, claimed by the Cubs, and then returned to the Sox after his injury was found to be more serious than anticipated.
Varvaro had been pretty good in the two seasons before coming to Boston, where he saw his walk rate and BABIP get much, much worse. But given his injury issues, I’m not certain that the Red Sox would need to offer him anything above the league minimum to retain him. Varvaro’s reverse platoon split is nice to have when your bullpen isn’t exactly stacked with lefty-killers, but there’s already been a lot of performance variance, and the injury issues are a red flag. I’d think the team could let him fly, and perhaps bring him back on a minor-league show-me deal instead.
Jean Machi — Projected 2016 Salary: $900k
Machi’s ERA in his two seasons prior to this most recent one is immaculate, but his 2015 performance was … not. It’s a long walk from his ERA from being in the mid-twos to five-plus, but Machi’s underlying peripherals didn’t change all that much. You saw how his Boston run was damaged by giving up lots of hits and homers, something that perhaps an improved Boston defense could help mitigate in 2016. At the same time, Machi has never had dominant stuff, and his career cFIP of 100 basically screams league-average.
Though Machi hasn’t looked sharp in his short time with Boston, his 1.3 WARP in each of the two previous seasons shows he’s got the potential to be better than just an okay bullpen piece — those are really good numbers. I’d expect somewhere between half a win and three quarters next season and, on a cost of less than a million, I’d keep that.
Ryan Cook — Projected 2016 Salary: $1.4 million
This is the toughest decision, for me at least. Even though Cook looked pretty good as recently as 2014, his 2015 was a hot mess. You can forgive his terrible eight-and-two-thirds innings at the big league level as a small sample size, but his run at Nashville before coming over to the Sox was pretty shoddy as well. However, his time in Pawtucket was very, very strong in a limited sample.
Cook has potential, sure, but I have to think a non-tender is the right move here. Yeah, a million and a half is chump change for this team, but it’s also an unnecessary risk for a squad that needs a complete overhaul. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a non-tendered Cook finds his way onto a roster only as a minor-league contract guy, so the team should save the money and perhaps put it toward a less risky bullpen option. But I’m not a scout, I’m looking at the stats. The real questions are: (1) are there better options out on the market somewhere and (2) is Cook going to stay healthy AND effective?
My best estimate is that the team rolls the dice on the dicey Machi, lets Varvaro fly, and Cook is a bit of a wild card. The team’s internal scouts and talent evaluators are going to make judgement calls here, and either way they probably can’t go wrong on Machi and Varvaro. When you’re talking about $700k-$900k, arbitration doesn’t drag a player too much up from the league minimum, so risk is low.
Cook’s a different issue. The team acquired him from Oakland despite an awful run there, so they must see something in his work that makes them want to take the risk. Both his bad run in Boston and his good run in Pawtucket are small samples, so I have to imagine there’s something the team likes here, and they keep him, even though I’d personally be more skeptical. Get a guy like this on a minor-league deal, and save a million.
The No: Alexi Ogando
Alexi Ogando — Projected 2016 Salary: $2.4 million
Ogando’s 3.99 ERA belies just how bad his peripherals were last year. Alexi gave up 12 homers in about 65 innings (not good) and walked too many hitters (3.9 BB/9). In fact, FanGraphs’ FIP-based wins above replacement pegged him at -0.9 fWAR, which is only the second-worst career mark of any Red Sox pitcher … in the team’s history. DRA is slightly kinder, as Ogando’s DRA-based WARP put him at 0.1, or right around replacement level.
But whether’s he’s the FIP-centered disaster or the DRA-based replacement-level pitcher, it seems as if investing more money in Ogando isn’t the best option. It’s not like this was an exceptionally down season; his cFIP in each of the last three seasons has been over 100, meaning his true talent level is less than league-average by this metric. There’s little reason to invest money in a low-upside option in the bullpen when low-upside options are in no short supply. The difference between a Jonathan Aro and Ogando is probably only $2 million. He should be non-tendered as well.
So with my guesses on who gets non-tendered, paired with Matt Swartz’s projections, it looks like the Sox will have to drop about $8.5 million in arbitration salaries on four bullpen pieces … and Cook is a $1.5 million wild card, barring trades. Investing in this team’s bullpen is a necessary evil, and all three of Tazawa, Kelly, and Ross could very well be above-replacement options. They’re locks. From a context-free perspective, spending $10 million of five bullpen pieces is great! Look at all the money they’re saving!
However, with all these pieces ranging from uninspiring to shruggie-guy-emoticon, saving a couple million here and leaving Cook / Varvaro / Machi off the roster is less about saving the money, and more about freeing up roster spots that could go to higher-upside or lower-risk options from trade or free agency.
In the end, that’s what Boston’s bullpen arbitration decisions are all about. There are some no-brainers here, but Boston’s choices will be keeping around a good chunk of the existing bullpen at a discount price, or opening up cash and spots for some new faces.
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