MLB’s non-tender deadline was Wednesday, December 2. The non-tender deadline acted as the cutoff for MLB clubs to agree to a contract with their arbitration-eligible players. Anyone with less than six years of service time was eligible for a non-tender.
As The Game Haus has documented this offseason, teams needed to consider numerous factors before granting players a contract. Arbitration salaries, payroll flexibility next year and overall effectiveness were just a few such considerations posed to MLB executives. In all, clubs non-tendered 57 players by the December 2 deadline. Those players immediately became free agents.
This offseason’s crop of non-tendered pitchers did not own the same level of production as non-tendered hitters. Pitchers accounted for more than half of all those who were non-tendered, among whom 24 were right-handed.
Projecting future pitcher success is a difficult enough undertaking. It becomes more complicated with only 60 games to fully judge last year’s performances. Many of those pitchers listed here will likely function, then, as cost-effective options for teams next season. Any potential efficiency will be an unexpected bonus.
Here is a brief analysis of the top 5 non-tendered pitchers who’ve hit the free agent market after the non-tender deadline. Spoiler alert — they all hold some level of risk, which is probably why they were non-tendered in the first place.
1. RP Archie Bradley, Age 28
Bradley, by nature of his 2.95 ERA last season, is the most polished reliever on this year’s market. 2020 was a year in which Bradley excelled in short spurts between the Diamondbacks and Reds. He recorded less than 20 innings across 16 games a year ago and struggled in his lone postseason appearance.
But Bradley has a fantastic track record from his days in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen. The right-hander hasn’t turned in an ERA above 4.00 since 2016. Bradley spent most of his time on the mound in the seventh inning and later — the highest leverage spots. He’s capable of closing (like he did in 2019 en route to 18 saves), but he also excels setting up for closing pitchers. Bradley led MLB in holds in 2018 when he recorded 34.
Put it all together, and logic stands that there was one reason for the Reds to non-tender Bradley. That, of course, would be money.
Bradley’s pro-rated earnings in 2020 totaled $4.1 million. Had the reliever gone to arbitration with the Reds, he would’ve been due for a significant raise. Being that Cincinnati’s current needs focus around a starting shortstop for next season, Bradley’s salary quickly becomes expendable.
Should he find a home in a bullpen with proven fixtures, Bradley can expect to flourish again next season. He can take the stress off back-end arms and pitch effectively under a multi-year contract. Bradley’s already proven he’s worth that much.
2. RP John Brebbia, Age 31
What Brebbia brings to the table is his quiet reliability. His track record was definitely an asset in his first three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he posted an ERA above 3.50 just once. Strikeout and walk numbers for him also offer good peripheral support for his game.
However, the Cardinals and other teams might be concerned with Brebbia’s latest injury developments. During the opening week of this season, president of Baseball Ops John Mozeliak announced that Brebbia had undergone Tommy John surgery. That meant he would miss the remainder of the shortened season and at least half of 2021.
Teams in need of bullpen help would clearly regard this timetable as being worth the risk. Brebbia has pitched in 50 innings every season of his major league career and has proven his reliability. Recent numbers show he allowed just 25 percent of inherited runners to score in 2019, which is well below league-average. The statistics clearly support Brebbia earning a contract somewhere.
St. Louis had stressed that they wanted to decrease payroll this offseason, which put Brebbia as the odd man out. Conservative estimates place Brebbia throwing off a mound in February, with a return date in July or August. For teams with financial flexibility looking for bullpen depth, Brebbia would seem like a perfect addition.
Especially as one of the top 5 non-tendered pitchers this offseason.
3. SP Tyler Anderson(L), Age 31
Anderson makes this list mostly because of what he did in his first season in San Francisco. The southpaw saw his first game action since mid-2019 after suffering a knee injury. The Giants claimed Anderson off waivers from Colorado late that season and resigned him to a one-year contract last offseason.
2020 was kinder to Anderson than previous years. He put up a 4.37 ERA, which was his best since his rookie season. He also allowed the lowest home run rate of his career, which had been a consistent problem for the left-hander. Anderson has always been a fly ball pitcher, but he managed to finesse those skills into a starting rotation spot in San Francisco.
But clearly Anderson is not an ace in-the-making; he was a non-tender candidate for a reason. Reliance on the fly ball out won’t make Anderson effective in the long-term. He spent parts of four seasons in Colorado and this past year in San Francisco, two ballparks with large outfields. Another productive season with a lower ERA should be the next focus for Anderson, who could turn that into a multi-year contract.
Still, the left-hander shined at certain points last season, including winning his final three decisions of the year. That served as a sharp contrast to the non-tender’s struggles against opponents he faced more than once. Anderson matched up against the Mariners and Padres twice last season, and pitched against the Diamondbacks in three consecutive starts. Spreading out those starts would benefit Anderson more in a normal season.
As far as a back-of-the-rotation starter, Anderson fits a lot of categories teams will look for. An average start of five to six innings, with three runs allowed gives teams the chance to win. For that repertoire, Anderson should be higher on teams’ radars this offseason.
4. RP Ryan Tepera, Age 33
Hey, maybe there was something to the mistaken MVP vote.
One man’s mistake is another man’s claim to an NL MVP vote. Thanks Rick! Honored by the vote. 😂 https://t.co/wsqJpbHpcN
— Ryan Tepera (@RTepera) November 13, 2020
Tepera is the oldest player among this year’s bunch to be non-tendered, but he should still expect a contract offer for his services next season. Not only did Tepera experience a bounce-back year in 2020, but the reliever’s pitch quality was also top-shelf. Among those who qualified, Tepera posted the fourth-highest whiff-rate among relievers last season, at an awe-inspiring 46.3 percent.
More swings and misses usually translates to more strikeouts, and Tepera experienced an uptick there as well. He went from an average 8.5 Ks/9 to last season’s ridiculous figure of 13.5 Ks/9. Tepera’s use of his cutter, specifically, produced a 65 percent whiff rate, the highest among any pitch last year.
Most of the right-hander’s peripheral stats were okay during his year with the Cubs, but Chicago is similarly trying to shed payroll. Yu Darvish and Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez need all the money new GM Jed Hoyer can find them. For the immediate future, that would suggest re-negotiating Tepera through arbitration.
Any sort of projection here is closer to fools’ gold than certified platinum. With relievers above the age of 30, pitching performances can be pretty volatile, Tepera being no exception. A slight adjustment to a pitcher’s stuff could spell disastrous consequences for a final stat line.
Maybe a team takes a flyer on Tepera for next season. Perhaps it’s more likely that the Cubs re-engage with Tepera for a lower-price, team friendly contract for 2021. It’d be best for Tepera to keep all his options on the table.
5. RP Keynan Middleton, Age 27
Of any non-tendered pitcher, Middleton might be the biggest wild card. The right-hander is just 27, but he’s missed time with elbow problems, UCL damage and most recently Tommy John surgery. Needless to say, then, a medical record review might do-in the former Angel farmhand. However, when Middleton is right, his performance places him among MLB’s best relievers. Definitely, Middleton sits among the top 5 non-tendered pitchers this offseason.
Look no further than 2018 and ’19 — both years in which Middleton sustained injuries. Cumulatively, he pitched his way to an ERA of 1.78, which is elite-level work. Even Middleton’s rookie season was polished, pitching in 64 games with a 3.86 ERA and three saves. The quality of his pitches was also the best of his career, with a fastball that averaged almost 97 miles per hour and an 88 mile-per-hour slider.
Both of those metrics have declined since 2017, and his recovery from Tommy John is still in process. He limped toward a 5.25 ERA in 2020 in 13 innings of uninspiring performance. Middleton was even optioned to the Angels’ alternate site for a month. There, he worked to regain a feel for his pitches but found little success.
A change in venue might spark Middleton’s game. Certainly there’s little glory to be found as a former member of the Angels bullpen. New pitching coaches combined with a year free from injury would be a major jumping off point for Middleton’s raw ability.
And he’s still young, which makes Middleton a steal in terms of payroll. If he can return to his 2018 form, Middleton would be the biggest non-tender signing of the offseason, bar none.
Featured Image Courtesy of Phoenix.com
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