Two days ago, the Cardinals announced the following transactions:
12/2/20: Non-tendered RHP John Brebbia and 1B Rangel Ravelo, making them free agents. 40-man roster at 37.
I’m sure most of you have heard of this thing known as a “non-tender,” but may be uncertain of the mechanics behind it. I’ll do my best to clear that up in this piece and try to explain why the Cards may have taken that action with these players. I will also look ahead to potential roster concerns that will take place over the next month.
I. The Basics
The basic rule is actually very simple. The Major League Rules state that by December 2nd, all clubs must offer contracts for the upcoming season to all players on the 40-man roster who do not already have a signed contract for that season. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies that if a club does not offer an unsigned player a contract by that date, the player becomes a free agent, freely able to negotiate and sign a deal with any club. If that happens, the player is said to be “non-tendered.” The player is removed from the 40-man roster immediately, and the club is not entitled to any sort of compensation should the player sign with another organization.
Teams will have discussions with players about contracts before December 2nd, and will try to sign some of them before the tender date. Mechanically the way the tender process ultimately works is that the clubs finalize their contract offers and send them to the Commissioner’s Office. The Commissioner’s Office compiles a list of each club’s contract offers including possible performance bonuses and split major and minor league salaries, as well as a list of all unsigned players that are not receiving offers. It then submits that bulk list to the MLBPA in what is called a “Central Tender Letter.”
II. Why Non-Tender a Player?
Many people associate non-tenders with arbitration eligible players, and sometimes that is a factor. For instance, the Cubs just non-tendered Kyle Schwarber because he was eligible for arbitration and the Cubs didn’t want to face the possibility of paying Schwarber what he might get from an arbitration panel should the matter go to a hearing and the Cubs lose. But arbitration is not the only factor.
Players that are not eligible for arbitration get non-tendered on a regular basis. Sometimes the club needs a 40-man roster spot, but ultimately wants to keep the player in the organization on a potential minor league deal and doesn’t want to risk losing the player on an outright assignment waiver claim. Sometimes the club wants to try to trade the player before the tender date to get some value back, and non-tenders the player when that fails. Sometimes there are restrictions on outrighting players. Each case is unique. Let’s consider the factors involved for Brebbia and Ravelo.
The Cardinals actually acquired Brebbia in the minor league portion of the December 2015 Rule 5 draft from the AA club in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. Brebbia was initially drafted by the Yankees in the 30th round of the 2011 draft, but the organization released him after the 2013 season. The Diamondbacks signed him to a minor league deal in September of 2015 after he completed a 2-year stint in independent ball. But the Cards decided to pluck him from the Diamondbacks before he could ever pitch in that system. They must have been intrigued by his 0.98 ERA over 51 games and a K/BB ratio of over 5, even if it was with the Laredo Lemurs.
I covered Brebbia’s Cardinal career to date as part of our player preview series in this piece back in February, if you are interested in a detailed review. The Cards added Brebbia to the 40-man roster and promoted him to the big leagues in May of 2017 to take the place of Miguel Socolovich in the bullpen. Although Brebbia was one of the club’s more reliable relievers for the rest of that 2017 season, he didn’t crack the 2018 opening day roster due to, among other things, the emergence of Jordan Hicks in spring training and Mike Matheny’s affinity for keeping Mike Mayers as a reliever under glass. Despite being optioned to the minor leagues 6 times and spending time on the injured list, Brebbia pitched 45 games and led the staff in strikeout rate and DRA. He had a similarly fine season in 2019.
Brebbia would have been a bullpen mainstay in 2020, but the day before spring training camps shut down due to the pandemic, he pitched in an exhibition game against the Mets and felt elbow pain at the end of his outing. An MRI revealed that he blew out his elbow, and after delaying surgery to see if a platelet-rich plasma injection would help, he had Tommy John surgery in June. Fans didn’t find out about it until weeks after the fact when the club put Brebbia on the 60-day IL a day in advance of the deadline to submit their 60-man Club Player Pool. This knocked Brebbia out for the entire 2020 shortened season, likely meant that he would not be available until the 2021 All-Star Break at the earliest, and introduced a non-trivial risk that he would not be able to pitch in 2021 at all.
Brebbia got credit for a full season of MLB service time in 2020 by virtue of being on the 60-day IL. Players on a major league injured list get their full salary and service time credit. That full year put Brebbia over 3 years of MLB service, making him eligible for arbitration. This is a factor on the perimeter, although I’m not sure what an arbitration panel would award a player who might not even be able to pitch in 2021. I suppose it’s possible that if Brebbia was not arbitration-eligible, the Cards might have just renewed him at the major league minimum, and waited to put him on the 60-day IL until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in February. But not only could the Cards stand to clear 40-man roster spots now for possible free-agent signings, the club could have been looking at Brebbia being paid a major league salary for 2 seasons without being able to pitch at all. And the club just didn’t want to pay a reliever a major league salary not to pitch.
Brebbia’s non-tender actually indicates to me that the club actually has a possible interest in re-signing Brebbia to some sort of minor league deal with the hopes that he can come back. The rules did not permit the club to cut Brebbia’s salary by more than 20%, but by non-tendering him and making him a free agent, the Cards are free to re-sign him to a minor league deal at a reduced rate and possibly nurse him through his injury. Although Brebbia is injured, the Cards could have actually tried to outright him to AAA Memphis, as long as they did so before reserve lists were filed on November 20th. Contrary to popular belief, clubs are permitted to outright and even option injured players to the minors if certain conditions are met. Let’s suppose they tried to do this. There might have been some club out there with sufficient temporary 40-man roster space that likes Brebbia and believes in his potential recovery. That club could have put in a waiver claim and carried him on the 40-man until putting him on the 60-day IL in spring training. Or that club could have claimed him and non-tendered him, but told him it would nurse him through his recovery. By risking losing him to another club in this manner, the Cards would have been sending a message to Brebbia that he wasn’t valued enough by the organization.
Although you won’t see Brebbia in 2021, and it’s possible that he’s done as a Cardinal, I wouldn’t close the book on the possibility that Brebbia will be back at some point in the future.
Ravelo is not even close to being eligible for arbitration. He was initially drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 draft by the Chicago White Sox out of high school. Less than a month after adding Ravelo to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, the White Sox traded him to the Oakland Athletics organization in a deal involving pitcher Jeff Samardzija. After exhausting two of his options, the A’s outrighted him after the 2016 season to make room for Matt Joyce, and although they invited him to camp as a non-roster player in 2017, they ended up releasing him before the minor league season started.
The Cardinals signed Ravelo almost immediately after that, and he spent the better part of the next 3 seasons with AAA Memphis. The problem with Ravelo is that he was basically limited to first base defensively, but didn’t have the power traditionally associated with that position. Indeed, when the Cards acquired Ravelo, he had only slashed .265/.332/.391 over 500 plate appearances at the AAA level in the Pacific Coast League. At age 25, he started to solve AAA pitching, and slashed .307/.386/.480 over the next 3 seasons with AAA Memphis in 284 games and 1,125 plate appearances. Maybe some of it was the juiced ball, although Ravelo did not have real home run power, as he averaged only about 11 homers each year. Ravelo never did strike out much, always maintaining a strikeout rate of less than 20%. He did improve his walk rate slightly, but the major difference, at least initially, was his BABIP, which was 60 points higher in his first season with Memphis (2017) than it had been in his final AAA season in the Athletics organization (2016). Ravelo ended up getting basically the same number of hits, doubles and homers, just in fewer trips to the plate, which helped his ISO increase by about 30 points.
To Ravelo’s credit, he did maintain those gains for the next two seasons, through 2019. But he still remained a player without a real position. He was blocked at first base by Paul Goldschmidt, and although the club tried him a bit at third base and in the outfield, those didn’t seem to be viable long term options. Ravelo finally got his first shot in the majors on June 17th, 2019 when Yairo Munoz went on the paternity list. At that point in time, 40-man roster players Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Drew Robinson and Ramon Urias were all on the Memphis injured list, and the Cards decided to promote Ravelo over Edmundo Sosa and Adolis Garcia due to his stronger bat overall. Ravelo rounded out a 4-man bench along with Matt Wieters, Jose Martinez and Tommy Edman. He would be optioned a few days later, but would bounce back and forth between the big club and Memphis a few more times before being recalled for good once rosters expanded in September.
Ravelo did smack two homers in 43 plate appearances with the Cards in 2019, including a monster bomb in Colorado, but otherwise didn’t hit or walk much and only got 5 starts at first base. He was left off of the 2019 postseason roster. After both Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena were traded to the Rays in the off-season, Ravelo hung on for 2020 once it was decided that clubs would open the season with a 30-man roster and the designated hitter in play. He opened the season on the bench, and it appeared that the plan was for Ravelo to DH against left-handed pitching. He got to do this job in the Cardinals’ 5th game of the season, a July 29th affair against lefty Rich Hill and the Twins, but it turned out that the Cards would not play another game until August 15th due to a COVID-19 breakout in the Cardinal clubhouse. Ravelo was one of the players infected, he was placed on the COVID-19 Related IL on August 5th, and did not return to action until September 2nd, at which time he actually replaced Dexter Fowler on the active roster, who had his own health problems. At this point, the Cards would play 31 more games to close out the season. Ravelo would only get into 13 total games, with 3 more starts as a DH and 1 start at first base. Mike Shildt even farted around with giving Ravelo 5 starts in the outfield. He only appeared 3 times as a pinch hitter, with 1 walk and no hits. Ravelo didn’t hit at all, but his BABIP was a paltry .167 over 41 trips to the plate, and he walked (4) almost as much as he struck out (6). It’s difficult to read too much into a player’s numbers when the season was short and the player contracted the virus.
The Cards could afford to carry Ravelo last year because the season was short and the designated hitter was in play. There were also injuries and ineffectiveness from other Cardinal bench players. There have been rumblings that the DH will return next year, but the default rule right now is that there is no DH, and the Cards have to behave right now as if it will not be available. While the Cards might not mind having Ravelo around as insurance, he’ll be 29 years old, his glove basically only plays at first base, he’s not enough of a power threat that you feel like you need to have him on your bench to pinch hit against lefties, and most importantly, he’s out of minor league options.
One might ask, if Ravelo was not eligible for arbitration, why not just try to outright him to the minor leagues? The Cardinals could have done that before reserve lists were filed on November 20th. If he was claimed, the Cards could have made a small amount of cash, and if he wasn’t, he would still be in the organization. Because Ravelo has been outrighted previously in his career, he would have the option to elect free agency in lieu of the outright assignment, but if that happened, it would really no different than him being non-tendered. The best answer has probably been provided by Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch, who recently reported that Ravelo has received interest from teams in the Asian market, and indeed was looking to play in Asia last season before the Cards traded Jose Martinez. The Cards don’t see a long term role for Ravelo next season, and have a player in John Nogowski that fits the Ravelo mold and has minor league options available. Ravelo can’t be optioned, likely hasn’t drawn much interest from other MLB clubs and could make more money in Asia than he could on a split contract in MLB in 2021. It’s possible that the Cards waited until after November 20th to determine if Ravelo had feelers in Asia, and once that was confirmed, non-tendered him now to give him the maximum time to get a job.
C. Summary of offseason 40-man transactions to date
*IF Brad Miller, C Yadier Molina, RHP Adam Wainwright, 2B Kolten Wong, C Matt Wieters-Article XX-B Free Agency
*IF Max Schrock-claimed by the Chicago Cubs on outright assignment waivers
*RHP Nabil Crismatt and LHP Ricardo Sanchez-outrighted to AAA Memphis, then declared Rule 55 minor league free agents
*RHP John Brebbia and 1B Rangel Ravelo-non-tendered
*RHP Dakota Hudson and RHP Miles Mikolas-activated from the 60-day IL
*RHP Jordan Hicks-reinstated from the Restricted List
*C Ivan Herrera and RHP Angel Rondon-added to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule 5 draft.
III. The Month Ahead
A. The Rule 5 Draft
The Rule 5 draft will be held next Thursday December 10th as the final order of business at the winter meetings. The Cardinals do have a few extra spots if they want to draft a player and it is possible with payrolls down and a 26-man roster that you could see some activity, as clubs might look for cheaper ways to add someone like a young reliever. Then again, this is what people thought last season, and it turned out draft participation in the major league phase was lower than it had been in years. I’m not sure if the financial situations of the clubs might spur more picks, but it is possible. There’s always more activity in the minor league phase than the major league phase.
B. Potential Arbitration Cases
With Brebbia gone for now, the Cards have 5 potential arbitration cases to worry about. RHP John Gant, RHP Jack Flaherty, RHP Jordan Hicks, RHP Alex Reyes and OF Harrison Bader are all eligible. I’m most of you know how arbitration works, but there are a couple of points I wanted to make clear.
Having been tendered contracts, these 5 players may file for salary arbitration by January 12th if they don’t sign the contract the Cards just tendered to them. The two sides can negotiate up until a hearing begins, which are scheduled some time in February. The Cards have adopted a “file and trial” policy in recent years, and went through with it in 2017 when they couldn’t come to terms with Michael Wacha. The Cards won that hearing when the arbitration panel chose the Cardinals’ figure of $2.775 million over the $3.2 million salary that Wacha wanted. Their last arbitration hearing before that was in 1999 with reliever Darren Oliver. The club would avoid arbitration with Wacha for his next two arbitration years, paying him $5.3 million and $6.05 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
If a case goes all the way to a hearing, the panel must choose either the salary submitted by the Cards or the salary requested by the player—”splitting the baby,” so to speak, is not permitted. Whatever salary the panel awards is a straight non-guaranteed 1-year deal, with no minor league split salary and no performance bonuses. This leaves the possibility open that a club could release the player in spring training, and only be on the hook for a fraction of the salary unless he is injured and unable to play. The MLBPA is always vigilant about these situations, however, as releasing a player a player purely for financial reasons is against the rules.
The interesting thing about arbitration hearings for this season is that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed that statistics for the shortened 2020 season WILL NOT be permitted to be discussed at the hearings. One can imagine that, depending on the situation, that could either help the player or hurt the player. The arbitration situation of each of the 5 Cardinal players is interesting:
*John Gant signed a $1.3 million deal to avoid arbitration before the 2020 season. He had made $571,300 in a 2019 season in which his surface superficial statistics looked good at first. But he ended up walking the world, and it got so bad that he ended up being left off of the 2019 postseason roster. But he still more than doubled his salary for 2020. Gant improved across the board last year, but sustained an unfortunate groin injury that made him unavailable for the playoffs. His improvements will not be admissible evidence if he goes to a hearing. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported yesterday that the Cardinals agreed to pay Gant a guaranteed 1-year, $2.1 million 2021 salary to avoid arbitration, but there has been nothing confirmed by the Cardinals, the Post-Dispatch or the MLB transaction pages so far. Over the past 2 seasons, Gant has been the reliever you want out there if you have men on base and you need a ground ball to get out of a jam.
*Jordan Hicks blew out his elbow in late June of 2019 and hasn’t pitched a major league game since. He has never been sent to the minor leagues after surprisingly making the major league club out of camp in 2018. The Cards thought he might have been available to come back and pitch last season around the All-Star break, but the season was delayed due to the pandemic, he had a setback in his throwing program and ended up opting out. Because his Type 1 diabetes made him a “high risk” player, he was given a full year of MLB service time, which put him exactly 3 years of MLB service and arbitration eligible. I have no idea what a panel would do with his case. Before his injury he threw the ball harder than basically everyone on the planet, and while he walked more guys than you might like, was the Cardinal closer and a core bullpen piece. The Cards hope he returns to form, and he’s supposed to be ready for spring training.
*A similar, yet more confounding situation is Alex Reyes. At one time the #1 prospect in the game, the Cards added him to the 40-man roster all the way back in early August of 2016, where he finished out the season. You all know the story since then. Tommy John surgery cost him the 2017 season. After an impressive rehab assignment in 2018, he made one start on May 30th of that year, only to be removed and be knocked out for the year again, this time to have surgery on his lat. Reyes made the club out of camp in 2019, but after control problems plagued him in his 4 games pitched, he was optioned at the earliest possible opportunity, then ended up punching a wall in frustration and breaking a finger on his non-throwing hand after a minor league start. Further injuries and ineffectiveness derailed his 3rd season in a row. Going into the 2020 season, Reyes had pitched in only 17 career MLB games in 4 years. We were worried that it might be more of the same for Reyes in 2020 when he came down with COVID-19 before the season started. This resulted in him being optioned to start the year. He did return and pitch 15 games and showed flashes of great pitching. It’s difficult to analyze a season in which a reliever throws less than 20 IP. He threw hard with a 31.4% strikeout rate, but also walked over 16% of the batters he faced, which is not good, regardless of how long the season is. Reyes is eligible for arbitration—despite only having 32 games under his belt—because he got MLB service time credit for all that time he spent on various MLB injured lists. The prorated credit he got for 2020 put him over the 3-year mark. There’s no precedent that I can think of like Reyes, and to the extent he improved in 2020, that may not be discussed at a hearing.
*Harrison Bader needs no introduction, as his elite defense, inability to hit and benchings in favor of various players have been constant topics in articles and comment sections on this site for the last two years. Hilariously, Bader led all Cardinal outfielders in wRC+, OBP and SLG in 2020, despite the fact that he couldn’t hit right handed pitching or indeed anyone that didn’t pitch for the Cincinnati Reds. With Dylan Carlson now in the mix and Fowler signed for 2021, the discussions about the Cardinal outfield for next year will feel like the movie Groundhog Day. “Rise and shine campers. And don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach? Not hardly.” Same as it ever was. Right now the speculation is that either Bader, our most recent offensive leader in the outfield and elite center field defender, or Tyler O’Neill, our gold glove winning left fielder will be traded. With Kolten Wong now gone, maaaybe we at least won’t see Tommy Edman in the outfield for the 3rd year in a row in 2021, but who am I kidding?
*Last, but certainly not least, we have Jack Flaherty, who is ready to get paid. The Cardinals renewed his contract the last two years, forcing him essentially to pay small fines for refusing to sign the contracts the club tendered him. Flaherty has been outspoken about the compensation system and has not appeared interested in signing any team-friendly extensions. I have heard of no talks of signing him to a long-term deal, and it honestly wouldn’t surprise me to see Jack take the Cards to a hearing in each of his arbitration years until the Cards are ready to buck up significantly. He didn’t have the season in 2020 like his superb 2019, but again, that won’t be admissible.
As always, let me know what you think about the hot stove season in the comments, even if it means more talk about the outfield.