There is no offseason for MLB front offices, and the Braves’ is no different. While playoff games are still being played, front offices across the league are already doing their due diligence on decisions to be made in the offseason. One of those first decisions to be made will be whether they offer contracts to their players who are eligible for arbitration. For the Braves, that means Alex Anthopoulos and company must decide whether they will tender contracts to nine players from their 2019 roster. Just like their decision on whether to exercise contract options (which I wrote about earlier here), these decisions lay the groundwork for what they do in free agency and on the trade market.
First, a quick primer on the basics of how arbitration works is in order. Players with more than three years (or in some cases, more than two years) but less than six years of service time are eligible for salary arbitration. In arbitration, the players’ salary is based on performance but still falls below what their value on the free agent market would be. Typically, the closer they get to the six-year mark, the closer their arbitration salary should be to their fair market value.
The team has two options going into the arbitration process: they can offer the player a contract and try to negotiate the salary, or they can “non-tender” the player by not offering them a contract, thus making the player a free agent. Salary negotiations for those players who are offered a contract can continue until January, but the team typically makes a decision on whether they will tender the player a contract at all well before then. If the team tenders a player a contract, but is unable to come to terms on an agreement with the player for his specific salary for the next year, the two sides present their cases to an arbitrator in the winter, who must side with either the team or the player, and cannot choose to split the difference. Most arbitration-eligible players tendered come to terms with teams, though — arbitration is generally a last-resort measure that rarely happens these days.
Nine players from the Braves’ 2019 roster are eligible for salary arbitration. They are organized below by how likely I believe that they will be tendered a contract in arbitration. All projected arbitration amounts are by MLB Trade Rumors and are only estimates rather than definite amounts; however, the Matt Swartz-built model used by MLB Trade Rumors has historically been incredibly accurate.
Projected arbitration amount: $3.3 million
2019 season: .251/.325/.422, .317 wOBA, 92 wRC+, -3 Defensive Runs Saved, 1.5 fWAR
Swanson enjoyed his best full season offensively in 2019 but took a step back defensively. Although health and consistency are still issues for Swanson going forward, his offensive step forward can’t be overlooked. He has all the makings of a 3-4 WAR shortstop if he can stay on the field (granted, I said the same thing last offseason). It would be shocking if the Braves were not willing to pay him less than $4 million for his services in 2020. That would also open the door to unpleasant questions about who would play shortstop in 2020...
Projected arbitration amount: $1.8 million
2019 season: .259/.293/.437, .306 wOBA, 85 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR
After Culberson was horrifically injured by a pitch to the face and had to miss the rest of the season, it was clear that he means a lot more to this team than just a utility player. In many ways, Culberson is the heart of the team. He contributes to the team in so many ways and seems to perform at his best in big situations (or at least he did in 2018). With his ability to play anywhere on the diamond and hit coming off the bench, he’s an ideal utility player and teammate. Suffice it to say, Culberson’s contributions are worth more to the Braves than what he will likely receive in arbitration.
Plus, the Braves have historically done things like pay Peter Bourjos $1 million for 47 PAs. How are they not gonna shell out not much more than that for Charlie Culberson?
Projected arbitration amount: $7.5 million
2019 season: 117 IP, 4.54 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 4.73 xFIP, 0.8 fWAR
To say Foltynewicz’s past two seasons were like a roller coaster is like saying Mount Everest is a hill. Technically, you would be correct, but the truth is far more dramatic. The 2018 All-Star who finished eighth in Cy Young voting found himself demoted to Triple-A midway through the 2019 season after posting an ERA north of 6.00. He reemerged in August to pitch well down the stretch with a second-half ERA of 2.65, which earned him two starts in the NLDS, which was one more start than Mike Soroka, and two starts more than Max Fried.
Nothing was more of a microcosm of Foltynewicz’s season than his performances in the NLDS. He pitched the best game of his career in Game 2, throwing seven shutout innings to outduel ace Jack Flaherty and beat the Cardinals. However, in a winner-takes-all Game 5, Foltynewicz had a historic meltdown and allowed seven runs (six earned) in the first inning while recording only one out.
Foltynewicz has proven that he can be a front-end starter, and many of his struggles in 2019 might stem from discomfort throwing his slider due to bone spurs in his pitching elbow. There’s no reason for the Braves to cut bait on a pitcher who has pitched so well in the last one-and-a-half out of two seasons. Hopefully, Foltynewicz can get his elbow healthy and have a 2020 season more like his 2018 season. I fully expect the Braves to tender Foltynewicz, but his inconsistency and rising arbitration cost move him outside of realm of being a lock.
Projected arbitration amount: $1.6 million
2019 season: .233/.279/.384, .279 wOBA, 67 wRC+, -0.5 fWAR
Camargo’s 2019 season was a massive disappointment. He was supposed to be the superutility player that gave the Braves depth but instead was well below replacement-level and had to be demoted to the minors midseason. If there is a silver lining, it’s that Camargo hit well in Triple-A and when he was brought back up to the majors before a leg injury ended his season. Also, he is only 25 years old and a year removed from a 3.3 fWAR season. For about $1.6 million, it is definitely worth it to see if Camargo can turn it around and provide depth and versatility to the roster.
Projected arbitration amount: $1.9 million
2019 season: 72.2 IP, 3.84 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 2.52 xFIP, 1.2 fWAR
Jackson had one of the most polarizing seasons in recent memory. Depending on who you ask, Jackson is either a complete bum that constantly blows saves or a good reliever with good peripherals and bad luck. I agree more with the latter but understand the frustration.
Jackson undeniably had bad luck this season, as all of his actual rate stats (batting average, wOBA, etc.) were significantly higher than his expected stats (e.g. hitters had a .266 average against him despite an xBA of .207). The fact that his bad luck reared its head often in high leverage situations only added to the perception that Jackson didn’t have what it takes to be a good relief pitcher in the majors. But consider these numbers:
Luke Jackson’s 2019 peripherals
|MLB rank||Top 7%||Top 14%||Top 14%||Top 10%||20th*||3rd*|
If this were a free agent that the Braves would have the opportunity to sign for one year, $1.9 million, wouldn’t you hope they would jump at the opportunity?
Projected arbitration amount: $800,000
2019 season: 12 IP, 3.00 ERA, 6.21 FIP, 4.70 xFIP, -0.1 fWAR
Injury is always a concern for Dayton, as he missed the entire 2018 season after Tommy John surgery and went on the 60-day IL with a fractured toe in 2019. However, he looked really good at times this season when he did pitch. The Braves are also short on left-handed relievers with only Sean Newcomb and A.J. Minter (whose future is murky after a bad 2019 season that ended with him on the 60-day IL) on the 40-man roster to return. For only a little above league-minimum salary and with more option years remaining, Dayton is certainly worth a shot to see what he can do in 2020. The Braves would have to pay anyone else taking up his roster spot around two-thirds of what he’d make in arbitration anyway, due to MLB’s league minimum.
On the bubble
Projected arbitration amount: $6.5 million
2019 season: 2.30 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.97 xFIP, 23 saves, 0.9 fWAR
Some might be surprised to see the 2019 All-Star in this “on the bubble” section, but the Braves tendering Greene a contract is far from certain. A salary of about $6.5 million for a 30-year-old reliever who has struggled with consistency over the past two seasons makes this a tougher decision than many might think.
Greene had the best stretch of his career during his 2019 campaign with the Tigers, posting a 1.18 ERA through July before being traded to the Braves (although his -0.061 wOBA - xwOBA and .178 BABIP indicate that his ERA benefited from a healthy dose of luck). After a bad start to his tenure as a Brave which cost him the closer role, Green settled in and pitched well in September. Overall, his tenure with the Braves so far has been decent but not great (4.01 ERA, 3.94 FIP, -0.34 WPA, 0.2 fWAR). Zooming out a little, Greene did not pitch well in 2018, as he was just below replacement level (-0.1 fWAR) with a 5.12 ERA that was inflated due to bad, rather than good (as in 2019) luck. (His xFIPs of 4.05 and 3.97 were pretty similar in those two years.)
A couple factors weigh in favor of the Braves tendering Greene a contract, though. First, the Braves could lose several relievers to free agency, namely Chris Martin, Josh Tomlin, Darren O’Day, Anthony Swarzak, and Jerry Blevins. Losing Greene would mean only three relievers from the Braves’ active roster at the end of the season would be returning in 2020. With needs in so many other areas, the Braves might want to avoid a complete revamp of the bullpen again, especially when it performed so well at the end of the regular season. Second, although I would hope this wouldn’t factor into a decision that should be forward-focused, the optics of non-tendering Greene after trading a good prospect in Joey Wentz for him could factor in.
I think that the Braves will keep Greene, but this is a tougher decision than many might realize. The historical track record of relievers making substantial money making good on their salaries isn’t great.
Projected arbitration amount: $3.8 million
2019 season: .267/.315/.567, .360 wOBA, 121 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR in 41 games
What the Braves do with their third outfield position will be one of their most fascinating decisions of their offseason. The team has several internal options to fill it in Duvall, Austin Riley, Nick Markakis, and even the prospect of re-signing Matt Joyce. They also have top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, who might contribute to the big-league club this coming season. None of these options inspire much confidence, though, in their chances of winning a World Series in 2020.
However, the possibilities are abundant. They could bring back all these outfielders and hope that one of them emerges capable of a regular starting role or platoon a couple of them until Pache and/or Waters are ready. Or they might prefer a more direct platoon of Markakis and Riley. Or they could upgrade via trade for someone like Mookie Betts. Or they could sign a veteran free agent, like Nick Castellanos or Marcel Ozuna. There are simply too many viable options to have any degree of certainty about what they ultimately choose to
The Braves should tender Duvall, and I think they will. The main reason that I think they will tender him is that he won’t hinder their plans if they decide to pursue an upgrade later in the offseason. Duvall showed this season, especially in the playoffs, that he can provide good at-bats and defense in a bench role. The Braves tendered him for $2.875 million last season when his stock was significantly lower, so I expect they will do the same this season. But with so many possibilities out there, it’s far from certain.
John Ryan Murphy
Projected arbitration amount: $1.2 million
2019 season: .175/.246/.413, .276 wOBA, 66 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR (only 1 PA for Braves)
Murphy was acquired at the Trade Deadline to be a backup option in case McCann or Flowers were injured before the playoffs. Even after McCann was injured, though, the team signed Francisco Cervelli instead of giving Murphy a shot at playing time. This makes it difficult to imagine that the Braves would be willing to pay Murphy about $1.2 million, especially when he has no more options left. You can expect the Braves to non-tender Murphy.
Ultimately, I think the Braves will tender everyone but Murphy. However, that doesn’t mean that these decisions will be easy or inconsequential.