Baseball’s free agent market got its last boost of manpower before the winter truly settles in. And while the list of 53 arbitration-eligible players not offered contracts by their teams wasn’t filled with A-listers, it nonetheless tells us a few things about where this hot stove season is going.
Not surprisingly, the news remains grim for those on the outside of free agency’s upper crust.
Fifty-four more players are now flooding the market, many of them middling and not likely to receive major league contracts, anyway. But there’s enough talent set free to tell us two things: Plenty of teams will aim for “flexibility” over fielding the best possible team – and the market will be flooded for infielders and outfielders seeking guaranteed money.
A look at five non-tendered players – and one traded player – and what they tell us about the winter ahead:
Kevin Pillar, Giants
Why he’s free: Giants GM Farhan Zaidi didn’t want to pay an estimated $10 million for a center fielder with excellent defensive skills but a mere .298 on-base percentage.
What it means: That the cold-blooded portion of the Giants’ rebuild has begun in earnest. Fans had largely accepted Zaidi’s pleas for patience, but also know the club certainly could have absorbed the money due the one position player who likely had more to do with their surprise wild-card run than any. Instead, Pillar is gone, Zaidi will dumpster-dive for a center fielder and another year of churn is at hand. It’s all part of the grand plan, of course – but as each moderately charismatic player is cut loose as the GM insists, “Trust me!” the franchise’s sales job gets a little more challenging.
Pillar spent most of the 2019 season with the San Francisco Giants. (Photo: Cody Glenn, USA TODAY Sports)
Cesar Hernandez, Phillies
Why he’s free: A middle infielder with an adjusted OPS of 91 can’t justify an arbitration salary estimated at $11.8 million by MLB Trade Rumors.
What it means: That only so many players can fight an increasingly penal system through arbitration. All-Stars like Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer gladly took their teams to arbitration and prevailed last winter, and players enjoyed a 6-4 edge over their respective teams in the hearing room. But while arbitration is increasingly viewed as a means to regain losses in free agency, that doesn’t apply to rank and file players. And Hernandez’s resume – a valued veteran with a lifetime .352 OBP, five years of service time and at least 14 homers each of the past two seasons – made him too potentially rich for his own good.
Jonathan Villar, Orioles
Why he got traded: Baltimore calculated that it would not receive a sufficient return at the trade deadline for a player who will earn $10 million plus this season, so it opted for a deep minors lottery ticket (lefty Easton Lucas) rather than pay a premium for a middle infielder in another likely 100-loss season. Better a lottery ticket than a straight up non-tendering – but not by much.
What it means: That teams can still be in the tank, but at different points on the spectrum. The Orioles will once again be a very bad team; their efforts to be less bad will again likely revolve around flooding the zone with minor league free agent types and long-faded prospects who have never received everyday playing time. But consider who ended up with Villar, who hit 24 homers and stole 40 bases last season – the Marlins. Miami claimed arbitration-eligible Jesus Aguilar off waivers from Tampa Bay and then snagged Villar for virtually nothing. Yes, the Marlins will be bad again. But those moves at least signal something that resembles a desire to compete.
Blake Treinen, Athletics
Why he’s free: A 4.91 ERA and 1.62 WHIP can’t justify an estimated $8 million arbitration award, even for a guy who finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting a year earlier.
What it means: That relief pitching remains the most volatile commodity. It appeared Oakland pitching coach Scott Emerson had “fixed” the always promising Treinen in a 2018 season that saw him strike out 100 against 21 walks and allow just 46 hits in 80 ⅔ innings. But he regressed badly in 2019, putting the A’s in a damned-if-they-do spot. They couldn’t justify paying him borderline closer money after such a bad campaign – but also wouldn’t be surprised if he returned to form in a new environment. Bullpens, they will always break your heart.
Addison Russell, Cubs
Why he’s free: On-field regression paired with a 40-game suspension for domestic violence made this a relatively expected decision for the Cubs.
What it means: The Cubs made a good faith effort to assist in Russell’s rehabilitation after social media and blog posts from the mother of his child revealed Russell’s abusive behavior. The Cubs took significant heat for keeping Russell in their employ – and for the occasionally tone deaf internal reactions to the case. Now, both parties move on, with Russell left to discover how much his past transgressions paired with a below-average performance will affect his future employment.
Charlie Culberson, Braves
Why he’s free: A valued glue guy wherever he goes, Culberson followed up a 12-homer 2018 season where he produced an adjusted OPS of 113 with an injury-marred regression.
What it means: Sure, Culberson will be no one’s starting shortstop, but consider the fight for jobs that will now ensue among middle infielders. Need one? Choose from among Culberson, Hernandez, Russell, Didi Gregorius, Jose Peraza, Jose Iglesias, Jonathan Schoop, Howie Kendrick, Brock Holt, Eric Sogard, Starlin Castro, Brian Dozier, Jason Kipnis…yeah. It might be a frosty winter for some of those guys.
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