Ideas on Guardians Free Agent Final Touches and an Arbitration Primer

Baseball’s off-season has come at a torrid pace. As the calendar flips to a new year, most of Major League Baseball’s biggest free-agent names are already off of the board. In fact, all but 3 of MLBTradeRumors’s top 40 free agents for this off-season have signed on the dotted line and know where they will play in 2023 if not longer.

For so many of the off-season, transactions to be handled so soon after the ball drop in Times Square is a bit surprising when looking at recent baseball history. Indeed, this 2022-2023 off-season has progressed much more quickly than other ones in recent memory. There is a combination of reasons for this year’s progression, but the easing of a global pandemic and good feelings from players and owners after a resolved labor conflict has us in this position today.

Who Could the Guardians Still Add?

And while the hot stove has boiled over and is now returning to a simmer, that leads us to ask about what is next on the off-season docket. For our Cleveland Guardians, a team that has had its most notable off-season moves come in a flurry- a mere three days in the middle of December- they find themselves in a spot where they could look to add some finishing touches. Yes, some interesting (although not marquee) names remain unsigned, even some that the Guardians ought to consider pursuing.

Lefty reliever Andrew Chafin would certainly look good coming out of the center-field bullpen at Progressive Field in 2023, for instance. The Guardians could also look to add depth to a starting rotation that currently doesn’t feel secure beyond its top three spots. Michael Wacha could fit that bill. Lastly, Cleveland could still use another right-handed hitting outfielder to platoon or balance their bench. Adam Duvall could be a possible candidate there.

News of any more additions to the Guardians roster has been slow to come through. There is the possibility that fans will need to be happy with an admittedly productive but brief set of days in mid-December that saw the team sign first-baseman Josh Bell and catcher Mike Zunino and then send former infielder Owen Miller to Milwaukee (outfielder Nolan Jones was also traded in November but technically wasn’t on the 28-man roster).

But even if the team doesn’t continue to add from outside of the organization, the roster technically isn’t entirely set. There is still work to do before pitchers and catchers report in February. For Chris Antonetti and his front office, January brings arbitration hearings and the Guardians currently have seven players on their roster that they will have to come to terms with in order to secure contracts for the 2023 season.

Arbitration for Dummies

For those that may not be aware, after reaching three years vested at a set base salary, players qualify for the arbitration system in their fourth, fifth and sixth years in MLB. During the corresponding off-seasons, a player eligible for arbitration must decide how much he thinks his services are going to be worth for the following campaign. In turn, the team he plays for also decides on a dollar amount to offer the player for the following season. On a given date during the off-season (this year it is on January 13th) the two sides file their offers with one another. Usually, there is at least some difference between the two sides with the team naturally requesting a lower rate than the player.

This filing and interaction allow for each side to know where the other stands and one of two things can occur afterward. If either side is feeling adamant about the figure they have filed, then they can wait for a hearing with a third-party arbiter that will decide which figure is appropriate for the player to be paid for the following season. The arbiter does not meet in the middle. He or she may only choose one of the two offers.

Hearings with arbiters are known to get messy. The team, who is already suggesting to pay the player at a lower rate, has to back up their offer with reasons why the player isn’t worth more. Both sides need to use facts and statistics about the player to make their case on what the player deserves to be paid. This means that the team actively has to talk about their employee’s shortcomings and speak poorly of him in order to justify a lower figure.

And this is why the Guardians organization tries its darnedest to avoid arbitration. Arbitration can be avoided when both sides use their initial filings as a jumping-off point for further negotiations before their potential hearing date (although deals can also be made before the filings as well). If both sides can come to terms before the hearing, there is no need to alienate the player and then act like it never happened come to Spring Training.

Antonetti has been largely successful in avoiding arbitration with his players. The last time the Guardians were unable to strike a deal before a hearing was in 2019 with former starting pitcher Trevor Bauer. That 2019 instance was the second season in a row that Bauer had gone to arbitration, something he publicly stated he insisted upon doing. To his credit, he won in both his 2018 and 2019 cases, though that didn’t stop him from lobbing complaints about the process. Bauer is the only player that Antonetti has ever had go to arbitration in his seven seasons as the head of Baseball Operations in Cleveland.

Who is Arbitration Eligible This Winter?

And with the rules and context laid out, that brings us to this year. It should be to no one’s surprise that MLB’s youngest team in 2022 will have some of its most valuable members in arbitration. The players with contracts needing to be resolved are:

  • SS Amed Rosario (.283/.312/.403, 4.2 WAR with a league-leading 9 triples… 3rd and last year of Arb)
  • SP Shane Bieber (2.88 ERA in 200 IP, 3.5 WAR in 2022… 2nd year of Arb)
  • SP Cal Quantrill (3.38 ERA in 186 1/3 IP, 1.9 WAR in 2022… 1st year of Arb)
  • 1B Josh Naylor (.256/.319/.452, 28 doubles and 1.8 WAR in 2022… 1st year of Arb)
  • RP James Karinchak (2.08 ERA, 3 Saves and 8 Holds in 39 IP, 1.3 WAR in 2022… 1st year of Arb)
  • SP Zach Plesac (4.31 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 131 2/3 IP, -0.8 WAR in 2022… 1st year of Arb)
  • SP Aaron Civale (4.92 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 97 IP, -0.8 WAR in 2022… 1st year of Arb)

All seven players were major contributors to the Guardians in 2022, whether it be by taking a spot in the starting rotation, the everyday batting order, or being one of the key components to the back end of the Guardians’ bullpen. Projections suggest that Bieber and Rosario will have the highest paydays coming to them with suggested totals being $10.7 million and $9 million, respectively. In total, if projections are accurate, the Guardians would pay out $36.7 million in arbitration salaries to these seven players over the course of 2023.

Though most agreements with arbitration-eligible players are for one season, the Guardians and any of these players may also sign longer-term extensions. These contracts would supersede the arbitration process in the future. Last winter, Cleveland extended center-fielder Myles Straw and closer Emmanuel Clase to multi-year deals that canceled their arbitration privileges (neither player was arbitration-eligible yet, but Straw would have been an eighth eligible player this year had he not signed the extension). In signing the contracts, both players eschewed their future arbitration status for the assurance that a long-term contract brings. They are guaranteed to receive the money in their contracts and aren’t dependent on future performance and the arbitration system in order to ensure a raise. In turn, front offices like to use these extensions to secure players past the six-year mark. Doing so puts off the player’s ability to become a free agent for longer. The player will often trade this delay in their ability to become a free agent for a larger immediate payout, which is what happened in both the cases of Straw and Clase.

Could Any Arb Players Be Extended Beyond 2023?

Looking at this year’s arbitration players, at this point in time, it does not seem likely that Bieber or Rosario will sign long-term. Bieber would have been most likely to sign an extension much earlier in his timeline with the ball club, but both sides were unfortunately never able to come to terms. The closer he gets to free agency, the more likely he seems to be to just decide to test the open market. With Rosario being a mere season away from his own opportunity at free agency and with a bevy of middle infield prospects behind him in the organization to potentially take his spot, it is doubtful that any deal would be longer than one season with him as well.

Quantrill, Naylor and Karinchak could be interesting longer-term candidates, however. Quantrill has firmly planted himself into the Guardians Starting Rotation. Even if the team were to look outward for more depth, he stands to be part of the starting pitching equation moving forward. Naylor did incredibly well to bounce back from a horrid leg injury in 2021 and should at minimum be a quality platoon player at first base moving forward. Both players are also good clubhouse guys and highly competitive, which could increase the Guardians’ interest in a longer-term commitment. Karinchak can be erratic at times and even spent some time in the minors righting himself in 2022, but there might not be a better strikeout pitcher in all of baseball when he is on his game. For the right price, I could see the Guardians being willing to commit to him and having their pitching assignments for the 8th and 9th innings settled well into the future between him and Clase.

Civale and Plesac have been shaky enough that their future prospects in the Guardians’ starting rotation are far from decimated, but are certainly in question. I expect competition in the spring for the fourth and fifth rotation spots, whether or not the Guardians sign another pitcher as the team has many young options in the minors that could compete to make the 28-man roster. For that reason alone, the Guardians are unlikely to extend either pitcher beyond this year.

Of course, teams can extend any player in their first six seasons to longer-term contracts. So while 2022 mainstays like Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, Andres Gimenez and Triston McKenzie are so early in their career that they are not yet eligible for arbitration, it would not surprise me to find out that the team is attempting to agree to extended terms with any of these players. Spring Training is often a great time for such talks.

Conclusion

With a considerable track record of not only being able to avoid arbitration hearings but also being one of the savviest front offices in all of baseball, the Guardians should be able to navigate this arbitration season without issue. I would not expect any large surprises or the long-term signing of a landmark player like Bieber, but Antonetti is unlikely to go stepping on any landmines either. The biggest news I would expect would be the potential extension of someone like Naylor, which would certainly be welcome news, but not a blockbuster headline.

To this point, this has been a calculated and incrementally positive off-season for the Guardians. I don’t expect that to change as the calendar flips to 2023.

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