Another important offseason deadline will approach at the end of this week as teams must tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players by Friday at 8 p.m., otherwise making them free agents.
The Orioles are expected to tender contracts to all seven of their seven arbitration-eligible players — third baseman Manny Machado, closer Zach Britton, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, right-hander Kevin Gausman, setup man Brad Brach, shortstop Tim Beckham and catcher Caleb Joseph — by Friday’s nontender deadline, but there’s no question the Orioles will scour the list of suddenly disposed players turned free agents for opportunities to improve the club for 2018.
When catcher Welington Castillo was nontendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks last offseason, the Orioles signed the veteran backstop two weeks later, filling their most glaring offseason need early in the hot-stove season after Matt Wieters became a free agent.
Arizona’s move to nontender Castillo was a surprise because he was projected to make $5.9 million in his final year before free agency. But the Orioles’ one-year, $6 million deal with Castillo offered the veteran catcher more security because it included a $7 million player option for 2018 that allowed him to choose whether to test the free-agent market again. And Castillo decided to do so.
The move worked out for the Orioles, who received 2.1 wins above replacement from Castillo, who finished with a career-high 20 homers, an .813 OPS and a league-leading 49 percent success rate at throwing out potential base stealers.
And just because players are nontendered, it doesn’t mean they won’t be solid contributors elsewhere. It has more to do with how players fit — or don’t fit – into a team’s budget for the upcoming season as they continue to receive arbitration raises throughout their career.
That was the case with Pedro Álvarez after the 2015 season. The Pittsburgh Pirates tried and failed to trade Álvarez, a 2008 first-round draft pick with defensive problems and poor performance against left-handed pitching, before the deadline and nontendered him instead of paying him a projected $8.1 million salary.
The Orioles followed Álvarez’s stagnant market throughout the offseason before signing him to a one-year, $5.75 million deal in March 2016, slotting him as the designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Álvarez posted an .826 slugging percentage in 376 plate appearances that year, and returned on a minor league deal in 2017.
MLBTradeRumors.com assembles a list of nontender candidates every offseason, clarifying that it doesn’t suggest the selected players will be nontendered but lists those they believe have a 10-20 percent chance of not being offered a contract.
Last year’s list included first baseman Yonder Alonso, who had an all-star season with the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, Minnesota Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar, who hit 21 homers in 2017, and Cincinnati Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett, who posted an .874 OPS last season, though not with the same team that tendered him. All three were tendered contracts and enjoyed solid seasons well worth their salaries.
This year’s list from MLBTradeRumors.com offers some interesting possibilities. According to the site, left-handed hitter Stephen Vogt could become available if the Milwaukee Brewers don’t see his projected $3.9 million salary in their plans. The Orioles need left-handed bats and Vogt, 33, could add depth at the catching position.
Another left-handed batter that could be nontendered is the Boston Red Sox’s Brock Holt ($2 million projected salary), who could fit in as a utility man to replace Ryan Flaherty. Keep in mind that the Orioles paid Flaherty $1.8 million in 2017 in his last season of arbitration eligibility.
If nontendered, the Orioles could also potentially pursue reclamation project pitchers such as the Toronto Blue Jays’ Tom Koehler and the Houston Astros’ Mike Fiers, two veterans with strong track records coming off bumpy seasons and projected to make around $6 million in arbitration.
Last season, the Orioles nontendered swingman Vance Worley — he was projected to make $3.3 million — and were interested in re-signing him to a minor league deal, but the right-hander instead signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals.
While the nontender deadline seems to be a rubber-stamping event – the arbitration process of negotiations, agreeing to terms and, when needed, arbitration hearings continues into February — there have been major moves to occur at that time. After the 2013 season, the Orioles decided to trade closer Jim Johnson at the deadline, shipping him to the Athletics for second baseman Jemile Weeks and a player to be named that ended up being minor league catcher David Freitas.
The trade was made as a cost-cutting move when Johnson, coming off back-to-back 50-save seasons, was projected to make $10 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility.
Even if the Orioles decide to deal closer Zach Britton this offseason, it won’t come at Friday’s deadline but later in the offseason as they look to capitalize on a reliever market that has yet to develop. Plus, the value of closers has skyrocketed since the trade of Johnson, and even though Britton is coming off an injury-plagued season, he would still be one of the Orioles’ top trade chips should they decide to move him for his final season before free agency.