Tomorrow is another one of those important housekeeping dates on the Major League Baseball offseason calendar. By 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, teams must offer their arbitration-eligible players contracts or non-tender those whose services they’re no longer interested in.
While some Nationals players have multi-year contracts - think Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and other guys who helped push the team’s 2015 opening day payroll north of $162 million - others are still under team control from year to year. They may or may not be eligible for arbitration, and of those who are arbitration-eligible, the team must decide if their salary has exceeded their value, in which case they are non-tendered. You can get a full explanation of the arbitration rules and process here.
Players offered contracts for next season fall into two camps: those who can be renewed for no less than 80 percent of the previous campaign’s salary (the bulk of the roster) and those eligible for arbitration. In the arbitration process, the team extends the player a contract offer and the player either accepts or rejects it. If he rejects the offer, the player and his agent file in mid-January for an arbitration hearing, where an independent panel of three arbitrators weigh the team and player’s arguments before deciding on one or the other’s figures, which have been previously exchanged.
Let’s be clear: No one likes going to arbitration, where the team takes great pains to point out a player’s flaws and weaknesses, and players often feel unnecessarily bullied. It’s a contentious dynamic, which is one reason few cases proceed that far. Even after they exchange salary figures and before hearings, which are usually scheduled for early-to-mid-February, teams and agents talk, trying to hammer out some middle ground both find palatable. It’s in both sides’ interests to find the point of compromise.
Last season, the Nationals tendered contracts to all 10 of their arbitration-eligible players. This season, they have eight players who are eligible for arbitration: right-handers Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen; catchers Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton; infielders Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon; and first baseman/outfielder Tyler Moore.
Strasburg, 27, has been mentioned a candidate to be traded this offseason, as he’s entering his final season before free agency. MLBTradeRumors.com predicts that he’ll earn $10.5 million through arbitration after avoiding the process by signing a $7.4 million deal in January. Given the loss of Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann to free agency, it would be difficult for the Nats to think about swapping Strasburg, but general manager Mike Rizzo could be overwhelmed by a deal and make such a move.
Rendon qualified for Super Two status, which means he gets an extra year of arbitration eligibility, and this is his first bite of the arbitration apple. Last winter, the Nationals picked up the $2.5 million option on the four-year, $7.2 million deal he signed after being selected sixth overall in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. Rendon, 25, can’t be a free agent until after the 2019 season, so he remains under team control. Because he battled injuries last season, the Nats will probably want Rendon to re-establish himself before talking about a long-term extension. MLBTradeRumors.com expects him to get $2.5 million through arbitration, but I suspect he’s in line for a slightly larger raise, based on his stellar 2014.
Storen is an interesting case, considering that his success as a closer will factor heavily into what he’d be awarded through arbitration. MLBTradeRumors.com predicts an $8.8 million deal for the 28-year-old, who signed for $3.45 million last winter. Remember, the Nationals were worried that righty reliever Tyler Clippard would cost them $10 million through arbitration last winter and traded him before he came to terms on an $8.3 million deal (actually, $8,300,001, if you want to be exact) with the A’s. Storen is another trade candidate, but more because the Nats have lost confidence in him and because he wants an opportunity for a new start with a new team.
No player reinvented himself more last season than Espinosa, whose good glove and resurgence at the plate make the 28-year-old a key player the team wants to retain. He could play second base or shortstop, or even fill in at third base. That’s a far cry from last offseason, when he was at a sort of career crossroads. Espinosa earned $1.8 million last season, his first of arbitration eligibility, and MLBTradeRumors.com thinks he’s in line for a raise to $2.7 million. With Rendon’s health, Ian Desmond gone and Trea Turner’s contributions unknown, he’ll be an important piece in 2016.
MLBTradeRumors.com expects the two arbitration-eligible catchers, Ramos ($5.3 million) and Lobaton ($1.5 million), to get increases in salary. Ramos, 28, earned $3.5 million last season, when he stayed healthy and caught a career-high 125 games, but slumped at the plate to a .229 batting average, his lowest in six seasons in D.C. But Ramos’ power numbers - 15 homers and a career-high 68 RBIs - were among the best by a catcher and he was a finalist for a Gold Glove. Lobaton, 31, agreed to a $1.2 million deal last offseason, his first of arbitration eligibility. Some view him as a non-tender candidate, but with no other catcher in the system ready to step in as Ramos’ backup, the Nats could decide to give the switch-hitting backstop with high marks for pitch framing another season. Different managers have different views of backup catchers. Matt Williams valued defense and didn’t care if Lobaton didn’t hit. We’ll see what Dusty Baker thinks.
Moore, 28, is a first-time arbitration-eligible, and MLBTradeRumors.com thinks he’ll get a bump from the $518,200 he made in 2015 to $1 million for 2016. That’s essentially double last year’s salary after slashing .203/.230/.364 in 97 games, including a paltry .109 as a pinch-hitter. Clint Robinson became the fourth outfielder and backup first baseman, playing substantial chunks of time when Werth and Zimmerman were hurt. Moore’s lack of production and decreased playing time have ruined what little trade value he had, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him non-tendered. It also wouldn’t be a shock if he came to spring training to battle for a roster spot - and you can be sure the Nats will bring in players to compete with and push him. But if the Nats are going to be cost-conscious with his roster spot, Moore could be in jeopardy.
That leaves Stammen, whose presence in the bullpen was sorely missed when he underwent April surgery to repair two torn flexor tendons in his right forearm. Prior to last season, the 31-year-old had averaged 54 games a year in the previous three seasons, filling multiple roles, from long relief to set-up duty. With the Nationals remaking their ‘pen, Stammen’s steady hand would be welcome. MLBTradeRumors.com predicts a raise to $2.4 million (over last season’s $2.25 million) in his last year of arbitration eligibility. He could be a non-tender candidate, with the Nats re-signing him to a deal for a lesser price and giving him the opportunity to prove he’s healthy.
MLBTradeRumors.com predicts Lobaton, Moore and Stammen will be non-tendered. Do you see any of the Nats’ arbitration-eligible players as non-tender candidates?