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A’s sign Burch Smith, avoid arbitration

He was already under team control, but now his salary is decided

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s agreed to a one-year contract with pitcher Burch Smith on Tuesday, reports Bob Nightengale of USA Today. Smith, who was eligible for salary arbitration this winter and now avoids that process, will receive $705,000 in 2021.

We’ll begin with a look at Smith, followed by details about how the arbitration system works and what this news means.

Burch Smith

The right-hander was acquired from the San Francisco Giants last February, the first MLB trade between the local rivals in three decades. He earned a spot in the A’s bullpen this season and turned in by far the best performance of his career, retiring 36 of the 44 batters he faced. All three runs he allowed came on one homer, with the rest of his work being nearly flawless.

Smith, 2020: 2.25 ERA, 12 ip, 13 Ks, 1 BB, 1 HR, 2.36 FIP, .213 xwOBA

That’s basically a perfect stat line. Lots of strikeouts, almost no walks, the inevitable homer accounting for the only runs, and Statcast says he earned every bit of his success with an incredible xwOBA mark.

It wasn’t just the small-sample numbers, though, as there were physical adjustments to point to as well. His 94.4 mph average fastball was a career-high by more than a mile, and was two full ticks above his 2019 velocity. He also threw his heater far more than ever before, while cutting back on his curve and changeup.

A couple of Smith’s outings were particularly high-leverage and earned him wins in the box score, and on two other occasions we went long and chipped in at least three innings at a time. He entered the season with virtually no expectations as a nondescript replacement-level pickup, but he quickly jumped onto the radar of A’s fans.

However, there was one problem. His sixth and final appearance ended when he pulled himself from the game, and afterward he went on the injured list with a right forearm strain and missed the rest of the season.

That leaves Oakland with a familiar conundrum. They have six games and a dozen innings worth of brilliant breakout dominance, combined with a big injury question mark. Was his success real or a fluke? Will he be healthy enough to get out there and prove himself again next summer? For just a hair over the league minimum salary, they will indeed roll the dice and give him another look. (Analysis: Easy call, fully agree on bringing him back at this price.)

Smith will pitch next season at age 31. He still has an option remaining, which means he can be stashed in Triple-A next summer if roster flexibility is needed in the MLB pen.

What is Arbitration?

The A’s have 10 players eligible for salary arbitration this winter. That means those players are still under team control and they aren’t free agents, but their salaries aren’t yet determined, leaving the two sides to either negotiate a number or let the court decide for them.

The deadline for teams to tender contracts to eligible players is Dec. 2, which is Wednesday (tomorrow). The parties don’t have to agree to exact numbers by then, but the club must at least commit to keeping the player and paying whatever it ends up costing. Players who don’t receive such an assurance by Dec. 2 are called “non-tendered” and they become free agents.

Here are Oakland’s eligible players, along with their salary projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. The projections are complicated this year, depending what method the market ends up using to evaluate the unusually short season, so there are three figures for each player instead of one:

  • OF Mark Canha – $5.4m / $8.2m / $6.1m
  • LHP Sean Manaea – $4.2m / $6.4m / $4.7m
  • 1B Matt Olson – $3.5m / $6.4m / $3.5m
  • RHP Chris Bassitt – $3.1m / $5.6m / $5.5m*
  • 3B Matt Chapman – $2.9m / $4.3m / $2.9m
  • UT Chad Pinder – $2.2m / $2.4m / $2.2m
  • RHP Frankie Montas – $1.6m / $2.4m / $1.6m
  • UT Tony Kemp – $900k / $1.2m / $900k
  • RHP Lou Trivino – $900k / $1.1m / $900k
  • RHP Burch Smith – $600k / $800k / $600k

Smith gives us our first real-life data point, and he finished right in the middle of his expected range. As more players sign (some in the next 24 hours, others over the next couple months), we’ll get an idea of whether reality skews toward the higher or lower end of MLBTR’s suggestions.

Analysis: With Smith locked up, the only player at risk of being non-tendered is probably Kemp. It’s also possible that all 10 players get tendered and remain in the organization for now, whether to be on the 2021 roster or be traded later this winter.