On the Coming Deluge of Non-Tenders

As many readers have likely deduced from some of the early offseason transactions and the flurry of cuts made to scouting, player development, and other parts of baseball ops, owners are tightening their belts after a gate-less season and the repercussions are diffusing across the industry. If these early moves — like Brad Hand’s $10 million option being declined, and no team picking him up on waivers — are indications of how teams are going to behave this offseason, then this will, among other things, modulate some of the already-changing, pre-COVID shifts in the thinking surrounding payroll allocation and roster construction, which was already cutting deeper into the bottom of rosters.

I’d like to specifically talk about how I think the COVID-19 financial ripples will impact the way teams approach non-tendering players this offseason. It’s logical to assume that teams will be apt to non-tender players more often this year than ever before because of financial fallout from the pandemic, but based on recent trends, the game was perhaps likely to see a record number of non-tenders anyway. Here are the past 12 years of league-wide non-tender totals:

MLB Non-Tenders by Year
Year Number of Non-Tenders
2008 35
2009 39
2010 52
2011 29
2012 37
2013 43
2014 33
2015 36
2016 35
2017 25
2018 41
2019 53

Note that the two years with the fewest non-tenders are the years in which new Collective Bargaining Agreements were ratified, but largely the number of annual non-tenders has lived in the mid-thirties (with occasional spikes above that) until the last two seasons, when the number has climbed.

Why is the number of non-tendered players rising? The number of front offices who view the bottom of their rosters as fungible is growing. This type of thinking is also why teams more often shuttle several relievers back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues during their option years. They’d rather a) slow down the rate at which those players accrue service time so they can be controlled for longer and b) have fresh, low-leverage relievers at the ready rather than keep their fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-best relievers on the active roster all the time, and you could argue it’s fraught to assess your last few relievers (and beyond) with that level of granularity. They see relievers 6-10 (or so) as very similar to one another, especially if they’re an org that has intentionally built depth in that area.

Often these types of relievers are accruing service time while their option years are simultaneously withering away. Once those happen in concert with one another, they need to be good enough to stick on the roster or else they are at risk of being non-tendered (that is, if they’re not traded “downstream” to a worse team without as much pitching depth). Because teams have intentionally built this kind of depth, they often have comparable talents in the upper minors who can still be optioned.

Are there other types of players who are regularly non-tendered? Let’s take a look at some notable names from the last several years to get an idea. These were included either because of the player’s pre- or post-non-tendering performance, or their name/prospect recognition. I’ve abbreviated some names to keep the table from looking too hideous and also included links to source materials with a complete list of the players cut loose in each year. A hearty thanks to Jason Martinez as well as the people at MLB Trade Rumors who have been excellent stewards of this information for such a long time.

It’s common for injured pitching, especially if those injuries are chronic and/or the pitcher has accumulated the kind of stats that influence arb salaries, to be non-tendered, as we see with Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Domingo Germán, Drew Smyly, and several others.

For hitters, the players most often non-tendered are, again, the ones teams see as imminently replaceable: 1B/DH types who might post impressive stats in a vacuum, but because they’re part of a deep, mashing position group, they’re typically 1-ish WAR types who are getting deep into their arbitration years. There are lots of these. Jesús Aguilar, C.J. Cron, Mark Reynolds, Chris Carter, and on and on.

You also occasionally see volatile, ultra-aggressive hitters — who often have a very strong statistical season or two on their resume — non-tendered because teams don’t trust them to repeat that peak level of production, like Avisaíl Garcia, Tim Beckham, and Jonathan Schoop.

There’s also the “Infielders Without Power” bucket, home to Cesar Hernandez, Tyler Saladino , Yolmer Sánchez, etc. This demographic has been cut loose more frequently in recent years as heavier-hitting, shift-dependent infielders like Asdrúbal Cabrera have become more prevalent.

Then we have catchers. There are several backstops non-tendered every year, and most of them were third or fourth on the depth chart and pressed into duty by injuries to 40-man occupants ahead of them, but then the team didn’t want the backup to take a 40-man spot next year. Every once in a while one of them pans out in a pretty big way, with Tyler Flowers, Russell Martin, and James McCann representing the most significant of these.

Now that a universal DH seems to be on the horizon and electronic strike zones are just beyond it, sizeable changes are coming to the catching position. Without pitchers hitting, catchers will become the most desirable position for which to pinch hit, and roster expansion will enable teams to carry an extra catcher to facilitate this. An automated zone will eliminate the importance of framing and place emphasis on other catching traits (arm strength, ball-blocking), but it will likely take time for players who have been acquired and developed in this context to occupy the position across the league. Because there are so many, teams most frequently tell you what kind of players/traits they like via lesser, unsexy transactions, and I think it’s now time to look for anticipatory patterns as it pertains to the future of catching.

Can the Mets, and Other Spenders, Gain Ground?

A market flush with more above-replacement talent could be a boon for teams willing to spend, as it presents them a unique opportunity to swiftly patch several holes in their roster and/or add depth to it. Under new ultra-rich ownership which wasn’t subject to the MLB-specific financial cramps of 2020, the Mets are an obvious candidate for this, and they’ve already signed several players to minor league deals. The Phillies have deep pockets and obviously need to Frankenstein together a better bullpen for next season, but the fact that they did not leap at Brad Hand perhaps indicates they’ll be less likely to throw money at their problems this offseason. The Blue Jays and Angels have similarly obvious needs.

Anaheim’s proclivity for spending in free agency and their obvious needs on the pitching side are strong signals, but we don’t yet know how new GM Perry Minasian will approach anything, and the way the club treated scouts during the summer is an indication, Arte Moreno may be more frugal for a while. The same caveat applies to John Henry’s Red Sox, who could obviously accelerate their rebuild by adding high-priority non-tenders, even if they’re just used as trade pieces later. The rebuilding, well-funded Giants are a logical fit, but their 40-man is quite full and they have several prospects worth adding before the Rule 5 deadline, so perhaps they lack the roster space to improve their team via non-tenders.

Will There Be A Non-tendered Player Diaspora?

I think it’s fair to assume that not all of the non-tendered players will easily find a new job, so where will all the extra players go? The KBO and NPB should both loosen roster restrictions on foreign players to take advantage of this. Currently, KBO teams are only allowed to roster three foreign-born players — two pitchers and one hitter — who are allowed to make an annual maximum of $1 million. There are some ways that a signing bonus and incentives can override that limit, but not by a lot, and that capped amount creates a very narrow, circumstantial band of major leaguer who has financial incentive to play in Korea. There are similar rules in the NPB and CPBL, which limit teams to four foreign-born players on the active roster. Many of the players who are non-tendered in a given offseason would not only be upgrades for most pro teams in Asia, but many could become stars over there.

This, combined with the growing ease of global media access (you can VPN a Korean IP address and watch practically all the KBO games on Twitch) and the uncertainty surrounding 2021 sports in the United States due to our poor collective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, makes for an interesting global viewership opportunity for the KBO and NPB if we have a gap in American sports at some point next year like we did in 2020. It’s not as if they’re going to pull stars overseas right away, but I submit that more ex-MLB player name recognition would increase the likelihood of baseball fans in the Western Hemisphere watching and engaging with Asian baseball, and it could also buoy the level of play, closing the gap between those leagues and the majors.

Later this week I’ll examine the individual players who are candidates to be non-tendered.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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3 years ago

I do wonder if players will be a bit more willing to negotiate salaries under their projected tenders. The example I am thinking of is Austin Hedges. I can’t imagine Cleveland trading for a guy so soon and then cutting bait on him, but I also can’t imagine them paying him over $3M next year, and I would also guess that Hedges–as a catcher who can’t seem to hit–would be very motivated to sign a contract to avoid a historically bad free agent market

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, hard to imagine “cash-strapped Cleveland” paying $8.5 million combined for Hedges and Perez, which is more than they’ll likely pay for their entire outfield. Heck, it may be more than what they’ll spend on their bullpen.

Anyway, I agree that the price for Hedges is a bit too steep when they could probably bring back Sandy Leon for 1/3 to 1/2 of the price.