By Marc Normandin
Non-tenders can be a weird bunch. Sometimes it's not even that a player isn't expected to be any good, it's just a matter of whittling a roster down to 40 individuals, and, sometimes more important, 40 paychecks. Every year, a few interesting names -- waiting to fulfill their initial potential or looking to recapture it -- end up as additional free agents this time of year, and some of those players find a new home and themselves. Our goal here is to figure out who those non-tenders might be.
Spoiler alert: Many, many relievers are involved.
Bailey is one such reliever, and he was non-tendered due to 2013 shoulder surgery that will keep him out for half of 2014. He's expected back, and is even expected to pitch well once he is, but he also would have cost around $4 million in his final year of arbitration. In addition, he would have eaten up a roster spot on the crowded Red Sox 40-man until spring training, when the 60-day disabled list becomes a tool teams can wield.
While pitching between DL stints in 2013, Bailey logged 39 strikeouts in 28 innings, punching out 3.3 times as many batters as he walked. Homers were a problem, but much of that came from moments of velocity loss caused by the very injury that ended his season. Given his talent during the times he actually does take the mound -- Bailey owns a career 2.64 ERA over his five years and 218 innings -- he's absolutely worth a look for a club that can stash him, especially with an incentives-based deal. Hey, it worked for Brian Wilson this past summer, and now he's in line for a closer-esque payday as a free agent once more.
Axford is another former closer, though he was deposed from that role with the Brewers and sent packing to the Cardinals, who would non-tender the mustachioed one rather than keep him aboard in their stacked, young bullpen. He missed a ton of bats in 2012, but missed the strike zone far too often, walking more than five batters per nine, ruining what had been a sterling reputation. He lost some of the strikeouts this past season, but also shed free passes and managed to cut more than half-a-run off of his ERA.
He's still not exactly a reliable fireman yet, but 2014 is also the first season Axford is arbitration-eligible. While he is a super-two arb player, he is also coming off of consecutive seasons with an ERA greater than 4.00, and didn't record a save in the second of those. For a team looking for a relatively inexpensive potential stopper -- say, the Orioles, who just traded their expensive closer, Jim Johnson, in a salary dump with the Athletics -- Axford could fit the bill. His short stint with the Cardinals was far more Axford of old than what came with the Brewers. Expecting an exact replay is asking for disappointment but something between the old and the new would certainly suffice at his price.
Let's get this straight right now: A useful Arencibia in 2014 is a long shot. However, there are a few reasons to believe, at least at the price he'll be at as a first-time arbitration-eligible player, that he is worth betting on for a team desperate for some help behind the plate. Arencibia wasn't good offensively with the Blue Jays, especially not in his dismal 2013 campaign, but he posted a 91 OPS+ between 2011 and 2012, which is right around the average output for a backstop. It's not pretty, but average will do the trick for quite a few teams.
Why should someone expect him to be closer to that than the dumpster fire that was his .194/.227/.365 2013, though? Part of it is simply because he'll be out of the Blue Jays' system, in which players have been encouraged to sellout for power. Arencibia has too many holes in his swing, and not enough patience, to do that while still posting a successful line. He might prove to be a better hitter, or at least a more competent one, if he stopped swinging so big and focused on trying to see a few more pitches and going with them instead of trying to rip each one. Should someone take a bet on him doing just that, and it fails to work out, he can be non-tendered again or cut mid-season without much financial penalty. If he manages to drive his average and on-base percentage up to more tolerable levels, he could avoid being the hole in the lineup as he was this past year.
Kalish used to be ahead of Josh Reddick on the Red Sox prospect outfield depth chart, but Reddick managed to stay healthy, while Kalish could never seem to figure that out. He's had multiple neck and shoulder surgeries that have cost him playing and development time, and a setback during his 2013 recovery from one procedure pushed his expected return back to 2014. Now, it's believed Kalish will be ready by spring training, and a team that lacks outfield depth in the upper levels of their system should give him a shot.
As a 22-year-old at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2010, Kalish hit .294/.356/.476, and played defense well enough to man centerfield. His bat might never get to that point in the majors considering the time missed between that youthful campaign and what will be his age-26 2014. The defense should still be there and useful, and if the bat manages to get to league-average levels, a team in need will be glad they picked him up.
Not to say this is Kalish's future, or even a potential one, but things once looked this lost for Jayson Werth, who bounced around three organizations dealing with injuries and lost time before finally blossoming in his late-20s with the Phillies. Aiming that high with Kalish is ill-advised, but if he can actually manage to stay on the field for once, there might be a big-league ballplayer here, one who won't be a free agent again until 2018 at the earliest, and still has one option remaining should he make his way back to a 40-man roster.
Webb wasn't non-tendered because he was ineffective. No, that would have occurred after 2012, were it going to, when he posted a 4.03 ERA with nearly 11 hits per nine allowed. Instead, the Marlins cut Webb following a bounceback campaign in which he pushed his ERA under 3, struck out twice as many batters as he walked and induced ground balls more than 50 percent of the time a ball was put in play -- this season pushed Webb to a career 118 ERA+ over 276 innings. That might have cost the Marlins some money in his first year of arbitration -- not a lot, but enough, apparently -- so they non-tendered him instead, making him available to anyone else in need of some relief help.
Granted, Webb has spent his career pitching in parks that favor moundsmen to batters, but still, he's succeeded to the point where throwing a million or two dollars his way isn't a terrible investment or use of a roster spot. Teams pay significant amounts of money for competent relievers, so it wouldn't be shocking to see Webb scooped up from the non-tender pile and inserted into the bullpen of a quality team in need of depth. Unlike many of the other relievers in his predicament, Webb isn't coming off of injury or a terrible campaign: he's just the victim of downsizing.
Belisario is a little sketchier than Webb -- he's had a larger range of outcomes over the years -- alternating between dominant and self-destructive. In 2013, he was somewhere in the middle, posting a 3.97 ERA while seeing a reduction in his strikeouts and K/BB, but part of it was likely due to a spike in his batting average on balls in play.
Put Belisario in front of a solid infield defense where his extreme ground ball ways can shine, and he could look like a force of nature on the mound, as he did in 2012 when he posted a 150 ERA+ and .243 BABIP thanks in part to more than 64 percent of balls in play on the ground. He's a super-two player, and his 2013 wasn't awful, so he might be pricier than your standard first-year arb-eligible reliever, but as he's shown in the past, there is a very good chance he can be worth that and more.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.