Teams have until Friday, December 1 to decide whether to tender a contract to players not under contract, not eligible for free agency, but eligible for arbitration. Tendering a contract allows the team to continue to negotiate a contract with that player for the up coming season, and if there is no resolution they can go to an arbitration hearing.
Those players that are not tendered a contract are called “non-tendered” and become free agents. The Royals have four players eligible for arbitration this year - Kelvin Herrera, Nate Karns, Brandon Maurer, and Mike Morin. According to estimates based on a formula of historical results, MLB Trade Rumors has projected each player to get the following salary, with their service time in parenthesis:
- Kelvin Herrera – $8.3M
- Nate Karns – $1.4M
- Brandon Maurer – $3.8M
- Mike Morin – $700K
Kelvin Herrera really struggled last year, which may cause some fans to question whether he is worth that hefty price tag. Over the last four seasons, however, Herrera has been one of the most valuable relief pitchers in baseball. He is still just 27 and is a pretty good candidate to bounce back and return to his previous form. For a team that has bullpen issues and could use valuable trade assets, it would make the most sense to hold onto Herrera, allow him to redeem his value, and try to flip him to a contender next summer.
Nate Karns is a no-brainer to tender at that salary, even with his major health risk. He was a fairly solid starter when healthy, and with their lack of depth, the Royals cannot afford not to keep around a useful starting pitcher like Karns. I could see Mike Morin getting non-tendered just to save a few hundred thousand dollars, as they could bring him back on a minor league deal to clear up a 40-man roster spot. Morin has been a decent reliever in the past, but he’s pretty replaceable if the Royals somehow lost him.
That brings up Brandon Maurer. To say Maurer had a rough 2017 season is an understatement. He began the season as the Padres closer and did convert 20 of 23 save opportunities, but posted a 5.72 ERA. That ERA skyrocketed once he was dealt to Kansas City in a six-player trade, as he gave up 18 runs in 20 innings. Out of all relievers with 50 innings pitched or more, Maurer had the worst ERA at 6.52.
However we know that ERA is a rather crude tool for evaluating relievers. If one reliever hits a batter, and is taken out and the next guy gives up a two-run home run, the first reliever gets charged a full run. FIP can be more useful as a way of evaluating events the pitcher can actually control, and by that measure, Maurer was at least decent in 2017. Maurer had a FIP of 3.93, better than the MLB average of 4.16 for relievers. Maurer still struck out nearly a hitter-per-inning, and was very unlucky on balls put in play, with a BABIP of .361.
What could be a bit concerning for Maurer going forward is that hitters seem to be less deceived by his stuff. The percentage of contact made by hitters on pitches in the strike zone spiked for Maurer to 86.3% last year, his highest number since his rookie season. The percentage of swinging strikes he induced fell significantly last year to 9.;9%, one of the lowest marks among qualified relievers. Like many pitchers, Maurer also saw his home run rate spike significantly. He was also one of the worst relievers in baseball in RE24, which assesses the run expectancy for each relief pitcher appearance.
Maurer posted a high ERA in 2016 as well at 4.52, although again with a low FIP (3.46) and strong strikeout rate. The numbers are a bit mixed for Maurer with recent trends pointing downward, which may make a team reluctant to invest nearly $4 million in him. It is possible the Royals decide to cut bait after just two months of the Brandon Maurer experience.
Still, despite being a small market club, the Royals are not a team that typically non-tenders players to save a few bucks. Since the 2009 season, the Royals have had 57 players eligible for arbitration, and only non-tendered five of them (as well as a few more that weren’t eligible for arbitration, just to remove them from the roster). Greg Holland was the most notable name, when he was let go in 2015 following Tommy John surgery, but the rest were pretty forgettable names like Chris Getz, Josh Fields, John Buck, Aaron Laffey, and Josh Anderson. The Royals only non-tender guys they feel have no future in baseball. Heck, they tendered Kyle Davies a few times!
The Royals are so short on talent, it seems very unlikely they would let Maurer go for nothing. Like Herrera, it seems their best play is to let Maurer try to resurrect his value, perhaps allow him to compete for the closer’s role, and if he can straighten his numbers out, flip him at the deadline for prospects. Royals fans have been spoiled by years of lights out relievers in recent years. The 2018 season will likely involve lots of crossed fingers and hopes that flawed pitchers can turn their careers around.
Would you tender Brandon Maurer a contract?
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