With today being the deadline for teams to give out a qualifying offer for their eligible free agents, you could argue the MLB offseason officially starts in earnest today. With that in mind, let's look ahead to another upcoming deadline -- the one to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. This year, that day is December 1st.
The Brewers originally had nine players eligible for arbitration this winter, up from eight a year ago, but the Brewers already took care of a couple of those cases by signing Chase Anderson to a multi-year contract and outrighting Carlos Torres off the roster.
As we get closer to the deadline, we'll take a look at the cases for each of the seven remaining players to see whether the Brewers should go forward in the arbitration process with them, or cut them loose now. Today it’s one of the unsung heroes of the 2017 bullpen.
RHP Jared Hughes
2017 Salary: $950,000
2018 Projection, via MLB Trade Rumors: $2.2 million
Difference: $1.25 million
The Brewers signed Hughes one day before the start of the 2017 regular season after he was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of camp. His original arb contract with Pittsburgh was for $2,825,000, but the Brewers were able to scoop up the veteran reliever by giving him a $950,000 deal after the Pirates cut him from his non-guaranteed one-year pact.
Hughes ended up being a solid middle inning option for manager Craig Counsell, putting up a nearly identical season compared to his 2016 in multiple categories (3.02 ERA compared to 3.03 in 2016, 67 games in both years, 59.2 innings compared to 59.1), but some adjustments the Brewers made did lead to a better season when you look at some of the underlying numbers.
Hughes ended the year with a 3.02 ERA in 59.2 innings, striking out 48 batters. He struck out nearly 20% of the batters he faced, his highest mark since his debut season of 2011. Punching out 2 full batters more per 9 innings than he did last year, Hughes provided a solid option for Craig Counsell in the middle innings, often bridging the gap between the starter and the back end of the bullpen in the 5th or 6th inning. He was also Counsell's go-to guy in groundball situations, inducing a grounder on 62.2% of balls put into play against him in 2017.
The Case for Tendering
Traditionally a sinker/groundball specialist with pedestrian strikeout totals, Hughes made a change in the middle of the season that ended up paying off -- he started challenging batters with a high fastball. With so many focusing on the low stuff, when Hughes went high, he was able to get plenty to chase and swing out of their shoes. As a result, he struck out nearly 20% of the batters he faced, his highest strikeout rate since his rookie year in 2011. He also struck out 2 full batters more than he did in 2016 as a result of the switch, climbing from 5.2 K/9 to 7.2.
Despite the switch, he still stayed true to his roots. He threw the sinker 72% of the time in his appearances and increased his groundball percentage from 57.9% to 62.2%. That was a return to career norms for him, as he's averaged a 61.2% GB% in his career. Hughes also put up an ERA+ of 146 this year, his best mark since 2014 and trailing only Corey Knebel among Brewers relievers with at least 50 innings this year (Josh Hader did have a 213 ERA+, but only threw 47.2 innings).
The Case for Non-Tendering
A.) Beware statistical spikes for relievers
B.) Beware statistical spikes for guys on the wrong side of 30
C.) Beware relievers who dare guys to make contact
Despite the increase in strikeouts this past year, Hughes will still be a 32-year-old reliever without typical strikeout stuff who is -- more often than not -- at the mercy of BABIP. This year, that number was at .278, which isn't unsustainable, but was still lower than each of his last two seasons (.295 and .306). That wide variance might be enough to give you pause about hanging on to a veteran reliever who might end up costing more than twice what you paid him last year. With so many young arms coming up in the Brewers' system, an argument could be made that the roster spot should be used on someone with a higher ceiling that can get batters out more consistently on his own.
What Should Happen?
If you go by WAR -- which is sort of dicey when you're talking about relievers -- Hughes is fairly replaceable, with his 0.5 fWAR this past season representing the highest total of his career. Still, a projected salary of just over $2 million would represent pretty good value for that kind of production.
While Hughes -- even with the slight change in approach -- isn't the type of high-strikeout reliever that's starting to dominate baseball in this era, that might be an argument for keeping him around. It's nice to have a variety of skillsets to turn to in different situations. While we'd all love a bullpen of Seven Corey Knebels, sometimes it's nice to have a guy with a 60% groundball rate to help you get out of some more difficult jams using fewer pitches.
If anything, the Brewers could take a similar route to what the Pirates did last year, even if it might not be totally fair to Hughes -- sign him for about $2 million, then cut him loose near the end of camp if it looks like there are better options available to fill out the roster.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs