The Seattle Mariners have 10 arbitration-eligible players this offseason. How might the club go about dealing with them?
First, a quick primer:
Players become eligible for arbitration after three years of big-league service and get three cracks at the process to settle a salary for the ensuing season. Players gain a fourth go at arbitration if they rank among the Top 22 percent in service time among players with more than two years and less than three years of service under their belt. This season, that cutoff is expected to be about two years and 115 days this offseason.
Prior to arbitration status, players get their contracts ‘renewed’ at a salary dictated by the club, as long as it’s equal to or north of the league minimum.
Clubs are not allowed to tender arbitration offers to players that cut their pay more than 20 percent from the previous season, and undercutting on the tender could backfire for the team like being too aggressive can backfire for the player.
Most cases never reach arbitration, and are settled via negotiations. But the process is structured and restrictive. If a player and his agent request $5 million and the team tenders $2 million, which represents a pretty big gap, the two sides likely negotiate somewhere in the middle. But if an agreement cannot be made, the panel that hears arguments from both sides has to choose one side or the other. There are no in-betweens. So if the club low-balled, they could end up paying the player $5 million rather than finding common ground at a lower number, or having a chance to win the case.
And the same goes for the player’s side.
Here are this year’s Mariners players who land in this process and how it could play out in the next few months. The options include tender and non-tender — which makes the player a free agent. Teams can trade arbitration-eligible players before or after their cases are settled.
Several projected salaries were derived from MLBTradeRumors.com.
Tim Beckham, UT
Beckham’s projection lands in the $3 million range after Seattle signed him to a one-year, $1.75 million deal last winter. He had an up-and-down 2019 — started hot, cooled off, struggled more than expected defensively, never found his groove again — and his season ended with an 80-game PED suspension.
There might be some value for Beckham to a club as a non-roster invitee on a minor-league deal, but Beckham’s not likely to get any guaranteed salary for 2020, and it’d be a big shock to me if he landed seven figures.
Anthony Bass, RHR
Bass is an interesting case. He’s projected for a $1.7 million salary in 2020 and posted a 3.90 FIP in 48 innings for Seattle in 2019. His fastball set a career-high 95.1 MPH per Pitchf/x, and the last two seasons he’s struck out nearly 23 percent of the batters he’s faced, more than six percent higher than his current career average.
Bass, who earned a pro-rated $950,000 in 2019 from Seattle after he opted out of his MiLB deal with Cincinnati, also posted a ground ball rate over 50% for the second-straight year and has typically done a good job avoiding the home run ball.
Bass needs another year of service to qualify for free agency.
Of course, this all depends on what the club’s plans are for the relief corps this offseason.
Prediction: Tender, but it’s more than reasonable to believe he’ll be non-tendered, even brought back on a safer deal with less guaranteed money, or even traded.
Domingo Santana, OF/DH
Santana, who earned $1.95 million in 2019, started hot, cooled off and ended 2019 with an injury that limited the slugger to 50 plate appearances after the trade deadline.
He’ll swing and miss a lot — long swing, average raw bat speed — and fell off the cliff defensively this past season, but there’s enough value here as a bat to suggest non-tendering him would be a bad idea.
Santana is likely to draw a little trade interest, and since he won’t cost a lot, he’s among the more likely Mariners players to be dealt this winter.
It’s Santana’s second go of arbitration, and he’s projected to around $4.5 million in 2020 after batting .253/.329/.441 — despite battling injuries in July before sitting out most the rest of the way.
Prediction: Tender, likely traded
Mallex Smith, OF
Smith disappointed all-around in 2019 after a very strong 2018 in Tampa. He appeared out-of-place defensively far more than ever before (he graded as fringe-average or better by all defensive metrics in 2018) and his BABIP fell apart (.296 in 2018, .227 in 2019).
But it wasn’t just bad luck for Smith at the plate. His walk rate dipped a bit (8.6 to 7.4) and he struck out 6.9% more this past season. His line-drive rate sunk from 24.9% to 19% and the difference went almost exclusively to the fly ball category — a bad sign if you’re a hitter with 30 raw power and a swing designed for anything but power.
While there’s middle ground on which to settle for Smith’s future, it’ll have to come as an extra outfielder and it may not be in Seattle, considering all the young players the Mariners want to give time to in the outfield (Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley, Shed Long, Tim Lopes, Dylan Moore, Kyle Lewis) in 2020.
Smith struggles versus lefties and is probably best used in a platoon split, but without a return to form defensively, he’s going to have to hit like 2018 and defend like he did that year, too.
Smith earned a club-controlled $578,400 in 2019 and his projection is in the $2.7 million range — which is about where clubs draw the line on part-time outfielders. But rebuilding clubs with options probably have no business carrying said player.
Prediction: Tender, but try to trade for a flyer arm
Omar Narvaez, C/DH
Narvaez was better than he’s ever been defensively, but his early-season framing fell apart and he remains below average in all other areas, including blocking and throwing where he ranked among the bottom 10% of catchers with at least 50 games caught in 2019.
Most of it is physical; he just doesn’t have the arm strength to make up for technique deficiencies and doesn’t have good feet.
Narvaez is, however, a very good hitter. Problem is, he’s a very good hitter as a catcher. He’s merely a useful one as a DH.
Narvaez’s 2020 arbitration salary is projected to land in the $3 million range. With Austin Nola and Tom Murphy in tow, Seattle is likely to try and move Narvaez, who despite his defensive issues posted 1.8 fWAR in 132 games, to clear space for other options at catcher and DH (Daniel Vogelbach, Domingo Santana, et al).
Prediction: Tendered, traded
Sam Tuivailala, RHR
Tuivailala took a little while to get back on track after leg surgery last fall, but looked pretty good in 23 innings with the big club late in the year.
The right-hander showed most of the velocity he did a year ago (93.5 avg FB vs. 94.7 in 2018), struck out nearly 29% of the batters he faced and perhaps most importantly for his immediate future, showed two improved breaking balls — a slider at 85-88 MPH that serves as his best swing-and-miss weapon and a traditional high-70s curveball he threw for strikes.
This one’s a no-brainer with Tui projected to land a 2020 salary south of $1 million, but if I’m Dipoto here I’d seriously consider a two-year deal in a similar spirit to the contract they handed Marco Gonzales.
I think Tuivailala is one of the better breakout candidates for Seattle in 2020, at least among returning big leaguers that no longer qualify for rookie status.
Ryon Healy, 1B/DH
Healy’s back injury robbed him of the chance to earn seven figures in 2020 and the club of a shot to pay him. There were signs Healy was becoming more of a hitter than a slugger but we never got to see it play out, other than the 187 plate appearances that produced a .456 slugging percentage and .289 OBP.
Not that Healy was going to turn into an all-star of any kind, but he was using the entire field for the first time in his career, and with hard contact. That’s the kind of start I like to see a larger sample of, but alas.
Healy, if healthy, likely is in camp with someone, perhaps Seattle (remember, 1B is not settled for the Mariners, especially if Nola is going to catch more in 2020), but not on an arbitration-based deal where he could land $3 million.
Prediction: Non-tender, chance to come back as NRI
Mitch Haniger, OF
While there’s no chance the Mariners non-tender Haniger, there are no guarantees after that.
He was good in 2017, his first with the club, he was even better in 2018, posting a 137 wRC+ and 4.5 fWAR. He struggled some to .220/.314/.463 before missing the rest of the season on the IL with a freak-accident style injury.
What’s worrisome here for me isn’t the 63-game ‘struggle’ at the start of the year. It’s the reason his rehab was cut short. Now, I don’t say ‘worrisome’ as if there’s some set of data strongly suggesting Haniger’s done being good. That’s absurd.
But there has to be a level of, say, awareness, that a back problem can linger.
A healthy Haniger remains a four-win player, maybe better (he posted 1.1 fWAR in 39% of a season dubbed ‘meh’ to his recent standards) and he’s just 29 (in December).
Haniger will be tendered. His projected salary is in the $3 million range.
One of two questions here is whether or not Haniger has enough trade value at this stage to warrant Seattle moving him this winter, or are they forced to start the year with the former All-Star and hope he rakes so they trade him in July.
The second question is whether or not Seattle wants to move Haniger anytime soon at all. This is a conversation for the podcast, however.
Matt Wisler, RHP
Wisler was picked up via trade after he was designated for assignment by San Diego in July. He was serviceable in the ‘relief’ role the Mariners used him, posting a 4.23 FIP and 28% strikeout rate.
But Wisler’s stuff — 91-93 mph fastballs, both two and four-seam varieties and slider hasn’t played up in short stints after beginning his career as a starter.
He’s 27 and for me still looks like a starting pitching project, rather than a reliever, not unlike Matt Festa. Throwing 93 mph from the right side without a wipeout secondary is less than ordinary and doesn’t play in major-league bullpens anymore.
He used to offer a changeup and throw the occasional curveball and going back to that is, in my opinion, his best bet to become a valued 25-man roster member on a good team.
At one point with Atlanta, Wisler looked like a mid-rotation starter, flashing three big-league pitches and average command.
If Seattle wants to use him in relief and not send him out as a possible back-end rotation arm, tendering him anywhere near his $1 million projection makes little sense.
I don’t have a feel for where the Mariners are on Wisler, but they didn’t go down that road in 2019, so I won’t assume anything’s changed now.
Keon Broxton, CF
Broxton can play center and run, and has above-average raw power. He swings and misses a metric F-ton, however (45.6% in 2019), so he rarely gets to the pop and can’t hit for average.
Broxton’s projected arb salary is $1.3 million, which makes little sense for Seattle, or really anyone else. He’s 29, so he’s not done, but he’s probably settling for a minor league deal this winter.