Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening – whichever is applicable to you. In 1970 the MLB arbitration process was created. While I don’t want this post to become a tribute to the process itself, a little understanding of the process is needed for fantasy . For the first three seasons of a player’s career his salary is determined solely by the club. After six seasons a player is eligible for free agency, and during free agency a player’s salary is essentially determined by them. A player’s salary in years 4-6 is dictated by the arbitration process in which players are paid based on production compared to others.
As fantasy owners, most of us are familiar with the ‘Super Two” impact of the arbitration process. If you’re questioning yourself on this, just think back to last year and Kris Bryant’s April call-up to the Cubs. While this headline seems to get the only attention, I feel it’s about time we began to notice the effects arbitration has begun to play on bullpens around the league.
In simple terms, the arbitration process has yet to embrace the analytical movement. In layman’s terms, the arbitration process leans favorably towards the traditional numbers on the back of the baseball cards. Thus, for relievers, the Save leads to the big payday. By all accounts, Brett Cecil has been among the best middle relief pitchers in baseball the last 3 years. During his time in the pen he has registered a 2.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, a K/9 rate of 11.25 and 11 career saves. In his final year of arbitration Cecil settled for a one year $3.8 million dollar deal. In comparison, Addison Reed has posted a 4.01 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, a K/9 of 9.33 and 105 Saves. This off-season Reed settled for a one year $5.3 million dollar deal and still has one more year of arbitration before hitting free agency. Kevin Jepsen, in his final year of arbitration, settled for a one year $5.312 million. Jepsen has posted a 3.62 ERA, with a 1.31 WHIP, 8.48 K/9 with 20 career saves. Drew Storen, in his final year of arbitration, settled for a one year $8.375 million dollar deal. Storen has posted a 3.02 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 8.65 K/9, and 95 SV for his career. Yes, Storen has been the better pitcher, but suggesting he’s 58% better is a hard sell for me.
Avoiding the “Super Two” status is commonplace among organizations all around baseball. It’s only a matter of time before bullpen assignments will be handled the same way. While we are not in the universal stages yet, I do feel strongly that certain teams will embrace this approach. The potential savings will appeal to smaller market teams as well as teams in rebuilding modes. Bullpens are also used differently in today’s game. No longer is the best arm always designated for the 9th inning. All around baseball it can be a rather easy argument to claim the 8th inning arm is more talented than the closer. The flexibility of using those arms when the game dictates they’re needed proves more valuable from the team’s standpoint than who gets those final three outs.
Take a brief trip with Doc Brown to this time last year. Dellin Betances was the Yankees RP to own. Rivera had hung up his cleats, and Betances was coming off a year for the ages, having posted a 1.40 ERA over 90 innings of work, with a jaw dropping 135 strikeouts. The Yankees had brought Andrew Miller in on a 4yr/36M contract, closer money if you will, to presumably take the setup role. All was settled, or so we thought. Naturally the Yankees announced Miller the closer and fantasy owners went scrambling to put in Waiver claims. Was the Yankees decision based on the fact they were already paying Miller closer money? Did they prefer Betances in a setup role? Could it be possible that both played a part in addition to the Yankees looking at 2017 when Betances heads to arbitration for the first time?
Taking the arbitration process into consideration, I found three bullpens whose ADP may not sync with how the 2016 season could play out:
Atlanta Braves – Arodys Vizcaino is the presumed closer in terms of ADP, and he is the 28th relief pitcher off the board according to NFBC ADP. Vizcaino is 25, could very well be a part of the Braves rebuilding plans, and hits arbitration for the first time in 2017. Next in line in terms of ADP are Jason Grilli (37th) and Jim Johnson (112th). Both Grilli and Johnson are free agents at the end of the season; both would have increased trade value if they could pitch effectively late in games, and neither figures to be in the Braves plans beyond 2016. From an organizational standpoint it makes zero sense to voluntarily increase the salary of a potential long-term fixture. The “proven closer” tag that can be placed on both Grilli and Johnson just made the decision that much easier to sell.
San Francisco Giants – Santiago Casilla is the clear closer to begin the season, but it would seem fantasy owners are not quite sold on Casilla holding the job all year. Hunter Stickland is currently the next Giants bullpen arm coming off the board at 41st among RP in NFBC drafts, followed by Sergio Romo at 51. Strickland’s circumstances are a little different than Vizcaino’s. Strickland is 27 years old now and won’t hit arbitration until 2018. Given the likelihood that the Giants should be a more competitive team than the Braves, it’s likely the Giants would be more willing to pay the premium if need be. I just don’t see a scenario where the need will be there. I can easily envision a scenario where Casilla will fail – Romo, however, will get first shot. Strickland will still provide the Giants with a solid late inning situational arm, while Romo possesses the “proven closer” tag. By choosing Romo over Strickland the Giants on the field record would likely not be affected. From an organizational standpoint the Giants would save millions.
Texas Rangers – Shawn Tolleson falls in the same camp as Santiago Casilla. He’s clearly “The Guy” heading into the season, yet fantasy owners are less than enthusiastic about the potential results. Keona Kela is the 57th RP coming off the board according to NFBC drafts. Tom Wilhelmsen is the next Ranger bullpen arm coming off at 74. Keone Kela is 22; his first arbitration eligible season will be 2018. Much like the Giants, the Rangers expect to compete for a division title. While I’m less confident in Wilhelmsen than Romo, I still feel strongly that Wilhelmsen will be given the first shot should Tolleson fail. Leaving Kela to pitch when the game dictates and the Rangers to save millions in 2018.
Organizations do not attempt to deny the role Super Two status has on when prospects make their debuts. Sure, they may claim improvements are needed before said prospect gets the call, yet they never flat-out deny the arbitration clock doesn’t play a part. Many teams have handled their bullpen the very same way for years: we as fantasy owners have just failed to notice it.
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