The Brewers have until the end of November to decide what to do with the 13 remaining players they have on the roster that are eligible for salary arbitration. They’ve already taken care of a couple of cases, picking up a team option for Jeremy Jeffress to avoid arbitration and outrighting Stephen Vogt off the roster.
For the remaining players, we’ll take a look at what they did during the 2018 season, what they’re expected to make in a hypothetical arbitration hearing, and whether the Brewers should tender them a contract or non-tender them. Today it’s a reliever that was leaned on heavily early in the year before falling out of favor.
LHP Dan Jennings
2018 salary: $750,000
2019 projection: $1.6 million
Jennings was released by the Tampa Bay Rays at the end of last spring training, with the Rays only having to pay a quarter of the $2.375 million he was awarded in arbitration. The Brewers picked him up for $750,000 and he joined the team shortly after the start of the season.
For much of the year, he was one of Craig Counsell’s most-used relievers, pitching in nearly half of the team’s games in the first half of their schedule, racking up 38 appearances in the first 81 games and accounting for 38.2 innings. While he still appeared in 34 games in the second half, he was no longer asked -- or maybe trusted -- to handle full innings, and he only combined 25.2 innings in the second half of the season as he was passed over on the depth chart by multiple other relief acquisitions.
The Case for Tendering
The way the Brewers used their bullpen in 2018 and handled Josh Hader’s workload required Craig Counsell to have a few rubber-armed middle relievers capable of working two or three days in a row to cover the middle innings. For much of the year, Jennings was one of those arms, pitching on no rest 17 times and only one days’ rest 23 times. He was also frequently one of the first arms out of the bullpen, coming into the game in the 5th inning 10 times, the 6th inning 9 times, and the 7th inning 21 times.
When he came into the middle of an inning, he largely did his job, allowing less than a third of the runners he inherited to score. Despite being left-handed, Counsell also frequently let him soak up entire innings as a way to bridge the gap between the middle innings to the late innings. While not possessing the pure strikeout stuff of some of the Brewers’ other relief arms, he did represent a bit of a change of pace from the rest of the bullpen and was largely a solid middle reliever. While that doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, having non-elite relievers still perform at a dependable level does provide some value -- especially when the bullpen is leaned on heavily at times -- and it’s hard to find quality bullpen arms for the low price Jennings would command.
The Case for Non-Tendering
While he was frequently used for full innings, there’s a pretty good argument that he shouldn’t have been allowed to do so as much as he did. Xavier Cedeno was considered a pretty strict LOOGY by the Brewers, but was much better against right-handed hitters (.212/.316/.288) than Jennings was (.320/.399/.528). Jennings was largely able to work himself out of those jams, but he allowed a baserunner in nearly 2/3 of his 72 appearances.
Plenty of fans grew frustrated with Jennings’ tendency to try to work the corners even when his command was off -- he simply doesn’t have the stuff the challenge anyone, so it was mostly out of necessity -- and while he cut down his walks this year to 3.22 per 9 innings, his career average is nearly 4, at 3.92 per 9 innings. In other words, we actually saw better command than Jennings has typically shown in his career. Whether or not that’s good enough when the Brewers could bring back Cedeno -- who was more effective against batters on both sides of the plate -- at a similar price is a question the Brewers will likely ask themselves this year.
What Should Happen?
The Brewers don’t have many non-Josh Hader lefties as bullpen candidates at the upper end of their system, but it would likely be redundant to have more than one in the bullpen on Opening Day. While Cedeno is likely the better of the two, if the Brewers have doubts about his ability to hold up to the kind of usage rate Jennings posted this year, we could easily see the Brewers bring both in to camp knowing they could cut one loose before the end of Spring Training and only be on the hook for a portion of the cost assigned to them through arbitration.
Being cut in that way two years in a row would be a tough break for Jennings, but such is life for a league-average reliever in his arbitration years. Luckily, there are no shortage of teams looking for cheap left-handed relief options that have proven themselves at the big league level, so if the Brewers do decide to release him, he should catch on somewhere else relatively easily.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference