How To Shop In the Non-Tender Market… Successfully

I imagine that, for a front office exec, there’s nothing quite like the buzz you get from picking up another team’s non-tender and getting value from that player. Maybe it’s just ‘one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,’ but in a business where one sector of the market has to continually work to find value in surprising places, it’s an important moment.

But is there much success to be found in the bargain bin? These are players that their own team has given up on — and we have some evidence that teams know more about their own players than the rest of the league, and that players that are re-signed are more successful. What can we learn from the successes and failures that we’ve seen in the past?

To answer that question, I loaded all the non-tendered players since 2007 into a database and looked at their pre- and post-non-tender numbers.

The first thing that leaps out at the page is that this is a tough thing to do. Since the 2007 season ended, 233 players have been non-tendered. That’s not counting this year’s 43. Of those 233, 20 were worth a win or more the season after they were let go. You’d have to invite twelve non-tenders to camp to get one of those guys — and be good enough to know in Spring Training which one was your guy.

There’s another way to tell that teams are generally pretty good at knowing which guys to let go. If you look at the non-tender list as a whole, 41% were above replacement the year they were non-tendered, and 27% were the next season. Not only did they pick players that didn’t get better, it looks like they were mostly right about which way those players were headed. Players normally get worse, this isn’t a group of 30-year-olds for the most part. In order to be non-tendered, you have to be under team control in the first place.

Eight non-tenders went on to have above-average seasons the next year: Willie Harris in 2008, Kelly Johnson, John Buck and Jack Cust in 2010, Russell Martin in 2011, Jeff Keppinger and Joe Saunders in 2012, and Mike Pelfrey last season. Just from looking at the success stories — particularly the number one former non-tender in the sample, Kelly Johnson (5.4 WAR) — you get a sense that you want your guy to have demonstrated defensive skills at interesting positions. Or, in the case of Keppinger and Harris (3.2 WAR, and second), the ability to play all over the diamond. Or, in the case of Cust, a singular skill at the plate.

So, the easiest way to spot a future contributor in the non-tenders? It’s so simple it’s stupid. Look at their value last year. Of the 20 players that contributed a win after being set free, only four were below replacement the year their team let them loose. That’s Matt Capps (1.2 WAR in 2010), Alfredo Aceves (1.1 WAR in 2011), Jonny Gomes (1.1 WAR in 2009) and Aaron Miles (1.8 WAR in 2008) in case you were wondering, or a platoon slugger, two relievers and an infielder that had one good year with the glove. Eight successful non-tender pickups put up between zero and one win before getting released, and the other eight were worth more than a win. So if you only look at non-tendered players that were above replacement, you double your odds of finding a useful player.

It’s still no better than a one-in-five shot if that’s your player pool. But it does say that Jerome Williams is probably a better acquisition than Dylan Axelrod, just by the numbers. Perhaps the usefulness of past non-tendered catchers makes J.P. Arencibia interesting, but Chris Nelson, coming off a below replacement level season and having struggled to show defensive value at any position — he’s got a major hill to climb until he’s productive for a major league team.

If you set your sights low — say, a fourth outfielder, a backup catcher, a super-utility guy, or a swing man between the bullpen and the rotation — you might find your guy in the non-tender list. You’ll want to look into players like Justin Turner, Ryan Webb, Jerome Williams and Derrick Robinson, probably. At least that way you’ve bettered your odds.

Here’s the dataset if you’d like to poke around.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

24 Responses to “How To Shop In the Non-Tender Market… Successfully”

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  1. Gareth says:

    What about John Axford?

    For a team like the Indians who have just lost Joe Smith, Matt Albers, Rich Hill and Closer Chris Perez wouldn’t this be a worthy pick up? He’s projected to earn $5.7 million. This fairly large amount was the primary reason he was cut (not performance) – he was actually quite productive for St Louis after he was traded there.

    Tampa Bay just took on 5.5 million of Heath Bell (Who is worse) and traded stuff away.

    The Athletics just took on 11 million of Jim Johnson, giving up Jemile Weeks.

    These are two of the smartest Front Offices too. Wouldn’t Axford look like a steal compared to these deals?

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    • Ryan says:

      Johnson I can’t speak to, but Bell was not just valued at $5.5M — he was valued at $500K. Taking on Bell’s salary was what Tampa Bay paid to get Ryan Hanigan. The D-backs gave up extra value, so their side of the trade is what sets Bell’s true value — they gave up an asset worth about $5-6M (David Holmberg) just to be rid of $6M owed to Bell.

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  2. Smog says:

    Can’t believe the Angels didn’t tender Jerome Williams. They need decent pitchers for cheap. Jerome is a decent pitcher they could have kept for cheap. Instead…they dump him? And kept Jepsen? Such an incompetent front office. It’s stunning how stupid they are.

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    • BJsworld says:

      My sentiments exactly. Given their weakness in the rotation and the low cost to retain Williams it seemed like a no brainer. I can only hope they are negotiating a new contract with him at a lower than arb rate.

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      • Dave S says:

        Yes! And why the hell were the Phillies not ALL OVER Williams the second he got non-tendered? Phils wasted 46 sub replacement starts on Lannan, Cloyd, Ethan Martin, and the carcass of Roy Halladay last year. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt on Roy, thats still 33 starts down the drain.

        Plus, once you have the back end of the rotation filled, they could move Ethan Martin to the bullpen where his 2-pitch repertoire could play well.

        And even if Williams doesn’t work out… he didn’t cost you 25 million dollars, or a draft pick.

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  3. Ryan says:

    Can the discrepancy between 41% (previous season) and 27% (next season) be explained by injury? Pitchers poised to miss most of a last arb year, as well as pitchers poised to miss nearly all of a penultimate arb year, are routinely non-tendered for that reason.

    Just wondering — all it would take is about 25 of those guys (Daniel Hudson types) to even up the percentages.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      The ratio of above RL one year to below RL the next year in the non-tender sample is 1.55 for the whole sample. For hitters, it’s 1.87! So more hitters went under RL after being non-tendered than pitchers.

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  4. Z..... says:

    Ryan Webb is very similar to Jim Johnson, has 2 more years of control, and was scheduled to make $1.5 million in arbitration compared to Johnson’s $10.8 million. He pitched in 65+ appearances 3 straight seasons for the Marlins, including 80 very good innings last season where he got a ground ball pretty much whenever it was needed in a multitude of different roles out of the bullpen. A team like the A’s actually takes on Johnson’s salary, but the cheap Marlins couldnt at least try to find a trade out there for Webb? I find it hard to believe there wasnt any possible move out there, and even though there are some decent options to replace him internally, the things he did for this team last season arent that easy to replace. The sad thing is that I saw the non-tender coming b/c I knew the $1.5 million was to expensive for them…

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  5. Scott says:

    How does a guy like Brandon Moss figure into this. He became a Free Agent and signed a minor league deal with the A’s, then was called up and had a few successful seasons by your standards. Did Philly, actually or in effect, non tender him and/or should he and players like him be put into your basket of players to examine.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Non-tendering is different than being granted free agency at the end of your years of control. It’s basically saying that you’ll be more expensive in arbitration than you’re worth to the team.

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      • Scott says:

        But The A’s still have x years of control of him just like someone who was drafted by them. This seems to be the exact same class of player to me. He wasn’t arb eligible till this year as well.

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  6. japem says:

    Kalish and Daniel Hudson could turn out to be real steals if they ever fully recover (or just plain old recover) from their various injuries. Both are really promising talents and one, Hudson, has even put up 4.8 win season while Kalish was one of the most exciting young players in the game before his injuries.

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  7. DD says:

    Eno, what did you see in the data on guys who were injured and non-tendered, then came back healthy? Interested in what this might mean for guys like Dan Hudson or Tommy Hanson.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      It looks like there are more below-RL to above-RL success stories if you lower the threshold to .1 wins… and a lot of those are injured pitchers coming back with a new team. So maybe there’s something there, but the reward is still very muted.

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  8. psualum says:

    2 of the 8 best guys non-tendered were released by the Mets, as well as one of the guys this year you specifically mentioned to eye up (Turner). Can’t even do the bargain shopping right..

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  9. vivalajeter says:

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out how Mike Pelfrey was ‘above average’ last year. I see that he posted slightly more than 2 WAR, and had a 3.99 FIP in about 150 innings, but I don’t see where those numbers come from. His era was over 5, his xFIP was over 4.5, he struck out less than 6 per 9 innings, and he gave up more than 1 1/2 baserunners per inning. Across the board, he sucked.

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  10. James R. says:

    Labeling these players as ” trash ” is offensive and misleading. Sure many are in the last stages of careers but some were non-tendered because of salary constraints by their former teams. The trash term is being used by many writers and its in conjunction with people who are first and foremost, people. And many times superior athletes. I get the jist of why a term like this is used. And I am sure there are many writers who at one time enjoyed their time in the sun and are now, struggling.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Sorry. Really all I can say. Was just a term that seemed to fit the moment — after all, the odds are that less than one in ten of these go on to contribute meaningfully — and didn’t mean to imply they were trash themselves. Still part of a tiny population of successful professional baseball players.

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  11. Wil says:

    Can we get an article like this about waiver claims?

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