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 a reliever who only seems to have success while pitching for the Brewers.
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
2017 Salary: $2.1 million
2018 Projection (via MLB Trade Rumors): $2.6 million
Jeffress is back with the Brewers after a year in Texas that went poorly for him, both on and off the field. The Rangers returned him to the Brewers at the trade deadline, almost exactly a year after getting him as part of the Jonathan Lucroy deal. Jeffress was supposed to shore up the back of the Rangers' bullpen for a playoff push, but instead put up a 4.67 ERA (AND A 5.30 FIP) in 51 games between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Desperately needing some dependable middle-innings help, the Brewers brought Jeffress back. After a short period undoing whatever the Rangers coaching staff did and getting back to what made him successful in Milwaukee, Jeffress rebounded to be one of Craig Counsell's most reliable relievers, putting up a 3.65 ERA and filling in wherever needed -- including finishing a couple games, getting a save opportunity, and even making his first major league start.
The Case for Tendering
From a purely economic standpoint, Jeffress' struggles in Texas might work in his favor here, as he's only projected for a modest pay increase of $500,000, rather than seeing his salary jump by a million or two. Simply put -- and similar to the argument for keeping Jared Hughes -- you can do a lot worse for $2.5 million relievers than Jeremy Jeffress.
Also similar to Hughes, Jeffress provides a different skillset for the bullpen compared to guys like Josh Hader or Corey Knebel. He never turned into the high-strikeout guy we might've expected as he was making his way up through the minor leagues, but he's mastered a power sinker that got opponents to hit a groundball more than 65% of the time in the second half. These days, that pretty much qualifies Jeffress as an extreme groundball pitcher -- something that's extremely valuable when you have a rotation and other relievers that have a bad habit of walking guys and working themselves into trouble.
The Case for Non-Tendering
The catch with Jeffress is he's *also* one of those relievers that works himself into trouble, which makes it hard to feel great about him coming on in the middle of an inning where two runners are already on base. He's struggled with walks his entire professional career -- one of the main reasons he was eventually just stashed in the bullpen -- and that continued this past year, even after the trade to Milwaukee.
In fact, if you want to look at the (small sample) splits, Jeffress' BB/9 actually went *up* after the deal, rising from 4.20 BB/9 (insert your Jeffress pot joke here) with the Rangers to 5.47 with the Brewers. He's always walked that tightrope, which makes him just like any other volatile reliever, regardless of personal/organizational attachments to him. You could argue the Brewers have a couple other cheap arms in the system that offer the same risky control profile with a higher ceiling.
What Should Happen?
Sometimes guys are just more comfortable in one city/organization. Whether it's the fact that the Brewers have stuck with him through thick and thin or there's a better personal support system for him in Milwaukee, it's the only place Jeffress has been a productive reliever. I would say that might mean there's more incentive for Jeffress to sign a deal to avoid arbitration -- there's no guarantee there's work for him anywhere else -- but players also only have a limited amount of time to make as much as possible.
The walks will always be concerning, but with a full year back in Milwaukee, maybe things get ironed out again. When he was at his peak with the Brewers in 2015 and 2016, he was able to keep his BB/9 below 3 and even got his BB% below 6 in that latter season.
There's also something to be said about being a known quantity. For better or worse, Craig Counsell roughly knows what he's getting when he's calling for Jeffress. It's always nice to have Plan Bs and Cs for the late innings, too, and the fact he's excelled there for this team also works in his favor.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs