Cubs Have Two Big Non-Tender Candidates as Friday Deadline Nears

It’s long been said that bad news is best delivered on a Friday, which will be the case for several arbitration-eligible players who will not be tendered contracts by 8pm ET on December 1. The Cubs have seven players among the 200+ impacted by that deadline, two of whom are likely to be non-tendered.

Before we get to that, though, let’s go through a very quick primer on this whole arbitration business. The decision on whether or not to tender a contract is really just the first step in a process that can stretch well into February. There typically aren’t any actual negotiations at this point, but the parties will have a couple months to see if they can come to an agreement on a salary for 2018 (for those players who were tendered, that is).

There are some cases in which a team will trade a player rather than non-tender him and just let him walk away for nothing. It’s also possible that the team will offer a low-ball salary and put the onus on the player to either take the offer or seek gainful employment elsewhere.

Below is a list of the Cubs’ arb-eligible players, along with their projected 2018 salaries, as figured by MLB Trade Rumors.

  • Justin Wilson (5.035) – $4.3MM
  • Hector Rondon (5.000) – $6.2MM
  • Justin Grimm (4.153) – $2.4MM
  • Kyle Hendricks (3.081) – $4.9MM
  • Tommy La Stella (3.057) – $1.0MM
  • Kris Bryant (2.171) – $8.9MM
  • Addison Russell (2.167) – $2.3MM

Most of these guys are no-brainers of the highest order, with Kris Bryant (who I think will get more than what’s estimated above), Addison Russell, and Kyle Hendricks leading the way. Tommy La Stella is a more fungible asset, but he represents incredibly high value at a projected salary of less than twice the rookie minimum. Then you’ve got Justin Wilson, whose bounceback potential is far more valuable than his performance with the Cubs last season.

Those of you keeping score at home should have all the fingers on one hand up, which, if my math is correct, leaves only two players: Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon. As you’ve probably guessed by now, those are the “two big non-tender candidates” indicated by the title (scrolls up for confirmation; yep, that’s many I said there’d be).

Rondon has provided the Cubs with insanely high value since coming over from the Indians in 2013 as a Rule 5 draft pick. He was far from spectacular in that first season, but racked up 59 saves over the next two years as one of the best closers in the league. Even though he lost that status following the Aroldis Chapman trade, the $4.2 million he earned isn’t bad at all for a setup man.

But despite the palatable salary, there were some warning signs beneath the surface of a career-high 10.24 K/9 and career-low 1.41 BB/9. Rondon’s hard-hit percentage ballooned to 32.6, a full eight points higher than his career average to that point. Not surprisingly, his HR/9 more than doubled, from only 0.57 over his first three seasons to 1.41 in 2016. His HR/FB rate likewise skyrocketed from 7.5 to 18.2 percent.

And while the fireballing righty saw his fastball velocity and K/9 numbers tick up this past season, he also saw jumps in BB/9 (3.14), HR/9 (1.57), and HR/FB (19.6). Only 10 qualified relievers allowed more homers per nine innings and only eight allowed more home runs per fly ball. Wanna guess who landed in the top three in both categories?

As much as I’ve touted Justin Grimm and his devastating curveball over the past few years, I’m frankly amazed that we’ve even gotten to the point where we’re discussing his non-tender candidacy. I was certain that he would have been cut loose to make room for Dillon Maples or literally any other pitcher on the 40-man roster. In what has been a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde career, the Cubs were too often forced to hide Grimm in Iowa.

His 2016 season offered hope that he could finally keep it together, but last year provided all too much proof that he may just be a very inconsistent pitcher who can occasionally flash greatness. Grimm’s 9.6 K/9 in 2017 looks respectable as a stand-alone stat, but it’s significantly lower than what he posted in 2015 (12.14) or 2016 (11.11) and his 2.19 K/BB represented a career low.

As big a problem as those numbers were, the most damning aspect of Grimm’s 2017 performance was that he was hit hard. Like, really hard. In fact, the only consistency he displayed on the season was in his rankings among MLB relievers in terms of hard-hit percentage (40.7, third-highest), HR/FB (22.2, third-highest), and HR/9 (1.95, second-highest). If we break it down to binary terms, the two things you need a reliever to do are throw strikes and keep the ball in the park. Grimm did neither last season.

Now, it’s possible that he could rebound and that curveball alone could be worth what is a relatively nominal salary projection. But at 29 years of age, we’re not talking about a youngster who’s still finding his way in the game. What’s more, Grimm no long possesses the flexibility of a minor-league option, which is probably the only reason he remained on the roster last year. The ability to taxi him back and forth from Iowa over the past couple seasons allowed the Cubs to manipulate the bullpen to keep their arms fresh.

Because I’m sure someone, somewhere (I’m looking at you, Facebook) will decry this as a cost-cutting measure, let’s squash that idea posthaste. While the Cubs will save a little payroll if they choose not to tender contracts to either of these relievers, the real value of these potential moves lies in the roster spots. Given the plethora of free agent options, the Cubs should actually end up spending more on the bullpen as they look to create as much high-leverage redundancy as possible. They’ve got more than enough money to make that happen, what they need is room on the 25-man.

If Grimm and Rondon are indeed destined to ply their trade somewhere other than Chicago’s North Side in the coming season(s), here’s to hoping they both benefit from the change of scenery.

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