The MLB offseason hit a major landmark last week, with the deadline for teams to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. As usual, several dozen players around the league were non-tendered and are now free agents.
This annual non-tender market often brings the chance to find hidden gems. In some cases, the problem isn’t that the player isn’t good, just that his team wasn’t willing to pay the salary raise he was entitled to under the arbitration system. But at open market prices, there’s the opportunity to find bargains.
That makes this an especially appealing avenue for a team like the Oakland A’s, who have several roster holes to fill but are always on a tight budget. In particular, the A’s need to rebuild their bullpen this winter, and there’s good news — over the last few decades they’ve been wildly successful at polishing other teams’ castoff relievers into stars, and one common route has been accepting pitchers whose previous teams didn’t want to pay their arbitration bills.
Is the next star A’s reliever somewhere within this year’s non-tender market? Or if not a star, then at least someone who can be decent at a low salary? It’s worth a look.
Here are seven pitchers to consider, mostly relievers. I’m specifically looking at cheaper names, so there’s no Archie Bradley, who I assume will get paid by somebody. I’m also leaving out Hansel Robles, who’s too big of a name after spending 2019 as a closer. (Note: League average xwOBA was .325 this year, split between .328 for starters and .320 for relievers.)
Tyler Anderson | LHP
Cut by SFG at arby projection: $3-4 million
What better place to start than with the only starter on the list? Anderson was roughly average for the Giants this year. He was also roughly average for the Rockies in 2017-18, and even better as a rookie in 2016. He mostly missed 2019 to an injury, but it was his knee not his arm. He’ll be 31 next season.
Anderson, 2020: 4.37 ERA, 59⅔ ip, 41 Ks, 25 BB, 5 HR, 4.36 FIP, .322 xwOBA
Can I interest you in a league-average lefty starter for just a couple mill? Fill that No. 5 spot with five solid innings per game, and add some depth to the rotation? Sure, on paper there are enough prospects, but now one fewer of them would have to pan out. Statcast agrees with the average-ish traditional stats, and it’s always liked him when healthy. And it’s been over a year since we had a southpaw named Anderson on Oakland’s staff, so we need our fix.
Now on to the relievers!
Matt Andriese | RHP
Cut by LAA at arby projection: $2+ million
The Angels keep losing because they have no pitching, so naturally they cut one of their better pitchers (in my opinion) from their big-budget payroll over a matter of a little over two mill.
Andriese, 2020: 4.50 ERA, 32 ip, 33 Ks, 11 BB, 5 HR, 4.28 FIP, .284 xwOBA
Those surface numbers are only mediocre, but Statcast loved him, and it loved him in 2019 too in twice the workload. He doesn’t throw hard, just low-90s, but he can go multiple innings in a game, as he did in half his appearances this year. That could be particularly useful in 2021, behind an inexperienced rotation coming off an extremely short season when nobody got to put in anything approaching a full workload.
He can even make a spot start if needed, offering swingman flexibility in the pen. You may remember this summer when he followed Shohei Ohtani’s disaster start (zero outs recorded) and shut the A’s down into the 6th inning (total 5⅔ ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 69 pitches).
Can I interest you in a 31-year-old long man who can eat as many league-average innings as you need (with Statcast seeing upside for higher quality) for just a million or so more than the minimum salary?
A.J. Cole | RHP
Cut by TOR at arby projection: $1 million
Former A’s prospect alert! Oakland acquired Cole from the Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez trade, then he spent 2012 in the system, and then he was shipped back to Washington in the John Jaso trade (which also sent Blake Treinen to the Nats, only to have him swapped back to the Bay years later).
The former Top 100 prospect finally made the majors in 2015, but was cut by the Nats a few years later. Then in 2019 he was good for the Indians in a small sample. And in 2020 he was good for the Blue Jays in a small sample. Here’s the two-year total.
Cole, 2019-20: 3.47 ERA, 49⅓ ip, 50 Ks, 17 BB, 7 HR, 4.05 FIP, .262 xwOBA
His ERA was lower in 2020, but so were his Ks and hits, so his FIP was higher. But what gets my attention are his Statcast marks: .281 xwOBA in 2019, and .239 this year, which are phenomenal numbers. Not only is his recent success trustworthy, but there could still be further upside and he’ll only be 29 next season.
Can I interest you in a proven above-average reliever in his prime, who throws 93-94 mph and dials up to 96, for slightly over league minimum salary?
Ryan Tepera | RHP
Cut by CHC at arby projection: $1+ million
To sum up his career: He was consistently good from 2015-18, then injured and hurt in 2019, and then good again (for a new team) in 2020 despite his velocity being a mile or two lower than it used to be. The lower radar readings didn’t stop him from posting an insane swinging-strike rate (19.5%, fifth-best in the majors), with a gaudy strikeout total to match.
Tepera, 2020: 3.92 ERA, 20⅔ ip, 31 Ks, 12 BB, 2 HR, 3.34 FIP, .286 xwOBA
He got a turn as the Blue Jays closer in 2018 and it didn’t go great. But he was a different pitcher this year in Chicago, missing bats like never before — and he already used to strike out a batter per inning back in Toronto. For his career, his ERA is 19% better than average, and he’s always beaten league-average xwOBA when healthy. Now he’s upped his Ks significantly, and at 33 he’s not too old to keep the party rolling.
Can I interest you in a proven good reliever who might be breaking out toward greatness, at barely more than league minimum salary? Tepera checks all the boxes of previous A’s out-of-nowhere All-Star closers, except for not being Australian.
Nick Tropeano | RHP
Cut by NYM at arby projection: unclear, maybe $1 million?
He’s actually been cut by two teams this winter. The Pirates waived him, the Mets claimed him, and then New York non-tendered him, though MLBTR doesn’t offer a projection for him. He made league minimum in 2020, and a million in 2019. Whether he’d cost a million again, or a bit more, or even less (literally the Pirates didn’t want him), his most recent numbers certainly grab your attention.
Tropeano, 2020: 1.15 ERA, 15⅔ ip, 19 Ks, 4 BB, 1 HR, 2.55 FIP, .298 xwOBA
Let’s be clear. This is barely more than a dozen innings, and it came mostly out of nowhere, so we can’t trust it yet. From 2014-16 he was a solid starter with a good strikeout rate who couldn’t stay healthy, and he missed 2017 to Tommy John surgery. His return was rough the last couple years, and then suddenly this summer he was briefly great for just long enough to get your attention.
There are two key points here. One is that we’re talking about a starter converting to relief, and we’ve seen that unlock greatness in the past. Even better, there is an actual change in his game that corresponds with his newfound success, as he added a splitter to his arsenal and made it one of his primary pitches.
Can I interest you in a 30-year-old extreme breakout reliever, who has been on our radar in the past as a starter, for something between minimum salary or maybe a couple mill? Former starter returns from injury, adds a new pitch, and dominates in the pen. That sounds exactly like an A’s star closer origin story. Or maybe Reliever Rich Hill. Or at least another Burch Smith.
Matt Wisler | RHP
Cut by MIN at arby projection: less than $2 million
He’s a former Top 100 prospect, back in 2014-15. But he didn’t cut it as a starter in the majors, and struggled in his 2019 transition to the bullpen (5.61 ERA). But his peripherals suggested hope that year (4.23 FIP, .301 xwOBA, both better than average), and he struck out 11 batters per nine innings. Then this year he put it all together.
Wisler, 2020: 1.07 ERA, 25⅓ ip, 35 Ks, 14 BB, 2 HR, 3.35 FIP, .247 xwOBA
There was a major change, too, as he dumped his entire five-pitch arsenal and threw almost exclusively sliders — 81.3% of the time, with his only other offering being a four-seam fastball that averaged 92 mph. I’m not usually a fan of slider-heavy relievers, so I don’t necessarily envision the next A’s closer here, but clearly he has something to offer. The ERA will rise, and he has a poor record with inherited runners, but Statcast loved his latest work and he has a lot of room to step back from his 2020 breakout and still be good.
Can I interest you in a 28-year-old reliever who might be a top-notch slider specialist, and who could at least pile up strikeouts in the middle innings, all with a former top prospect pedigree, for less than two mill?
Nico’s pick: Kenyan Middleton | RHP
Cut by LAA at arby projection: $1 million
As long as we’re making a list, let’s add a name that’s already been discussed on AN in Nico’s post on Tuesday.
To sum up Middleton’s career: He was a good reliever in 2017, then had TJS in 2018 that kept him out for most of two seasons. He came back for a dozen innings this year.
Middleton, 2020: 5.25 ERA, 12 ip, 11 Ks, 6 BB, 2 HR, 5.02 FIP, .295 xwOBA
The results weren’t great, but that’s not a dealbreaker this soon after a TJS recovery. And anyway, Statcast was encouraged behind the scenes.
Nico points to Middleton’s velocity, which fully returned to form this year at 97 mph, as well as his strikeout ability, though that didn’t yet come back all the way in his most recent small sample. Now that he’s healthy again, and still only age 27, it’s easy to see how those tools could turn into something great moving forward.
Can I interest you in a high-octane reliever who had TJS in 2018 but is now healthy, at barely more than minimum salary, as a lotto ticket to see if he can be the next breakout late-inning arm? The Angels already took him through his whole recovery and are now offering the fruits of that labor as a gift to the league. The downside is probably a merely decent cheap reliever.
As a reminder, the A’s pen currently includes Jake Diekman, Lou Trivino, and J.B. Wendelken. Maybe one of Burch Smith or Jordan Weems will force a job out of spring, but both can be optioned to the minors. There are also two more prospects on the 40-man roster (Miguel Romero and Wandisson Charles), plus any surplus starters who might move to relief, plus the usual contingent of minor league free agent signings with invites to camp. In other words, figure there are at least four spots open in the eight-man pen right now.
What do you think, Athletics Nation? Do any of these names strike your interest at a couple million dollars or less? My favorites are probably Tepera, Tropeano, and Cole, in some order, but I’d be happy to try out any of them.
Vote for your favorite reliever in the poll below! I left out Tyler Anderson because he’s a starter, so he’s not a comp for the others. Also honorable mention to Alex Claudio, an interesting lefty (.264 xwOBA this year), but everyone else on the list is a righty so let’s stick with that category.
Which non-tendered reliever would you like to see on the 2021 A’s?
This poll is closed