2011 Mariners week continues with a look at the arbitration eligible players. Arbitration functions as a process to transition players from the league minimum salary to whatever their value is on the open free agent market. As such, all arbitration eligible players are a good value in theory.
There is a catch in most cases though. Often, players are out of minor league option years by the time they hit arbitration. So, offering arbitration to a player is often attached to a commitment to keeping the player on the team.
While there is the occasional budding star mixed in arbitration, the majority of these players are in the serviceable to solid range. In other words, the majority are supporting pieces on a roster. Since the majority of arbitration deals come at good value, the real question is if the piece is worth keeping or not.
- 1B Casey Kotchman ($3.5175 million) - Right off the bat, a tough decision. With the acquisition of Justin Smoak, Kotchman is a reserve on the 2011 squad that would come with a price tag in the $4 million range. His glove is great, but his bat hasn't been. However, the patience is there, and a recent power surge makes it easier to see him being a decent pinch-hitter. There are question marks all around this impending decision, and if Kotchman continues to flash power (particularly in more of a bench role), the picture gets even cloudier.
- RHP David Aardsma ($2.75 million) - Easy decision. Aardsma hasn't been great this year, but his irregular work and bad luck with fly balls (an abnormal amount leaving the yard even by his elevated career rates) leave strong reasons to think he will bounce back. He will return.
- RHP Brandon League ($1.0875 million) - Even easier decision. League is erratic at times, but at the end of the day, one of the better relievers in the bullpen, and still a good deal as he progresses through arbitration.
- RHP Jamey Wright ($900,000) - Wak loves Wright, so who knows. I am surprised he is still in the arbitration process, to the point that I'm not sure he actually is. It wouldn't surprise me to see Wright get non-tendered, and then re-sign as a free agent.
- OF Ryan Langerhans ($525,000) - Langerhans has to stick in the majors, and he seems to always be on the razor edge on this roster. For me, this decision is easy. I keep him. He is dang near the perfect fourth outfielder in my view. However, it is tougher to say what the team will actually do.
- LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith ($440,000) - RRS won't break the bank, especially with the terrible year he is having, but he is about to get a little pricier, and he can't get sent to the minors. Those are two significant strikes with the way he has performed. I would be surprised if he was non-tendered, but he needs to show improvement to be safe.
- RHP Sean White ($415,000) - White is another Wak favorite, but he has shuttled between AAA and the majors this year. He is pretty close to the definition of a replacement level reliever in my book, meaning I wouldn't hesitate much to cut him loose. I feel like the decision will be more difficult for the M's though.
- LHP Jason Vargas ($412,500) - No brainer. Vargas has emerged as a dependable starting pitcher. Possibly the easiest of all the decisions.
- LHP Garret Olson (league minimum) - Olson is another one to watch the rest of the year. His struggles the past couple years have been frustrating enough, but they will only get worse as he starts to earn more money, and runs out of option years. My hunch is that he is safe, but if I were running the team, his performance the rest of the year would have a significant impact on the decision.
To me, a healthy roster can be peeled back in layers. The most important pieces have the guaranteed contracts. The next most important are the ones in arbitration. Filling out the roster are all the league minimum guys. There will be some exceptions, namely young stars and veteran bench players, but for the most part I think this conceptualization of a roster works well, particularly for a team with financial resources like the Mariners.
So, assuming the whole core is on the roster, and the arbitration eligible players I keep make the roster, here is what the 2011 team looks like so far:
2B: Dustin Ackley
SS: Jack Wilson
3B: Chone Figgins
CF: Franklin Gutierrez
DH: Milton Bradley
BN: Jose Lopez
BN: Ryan Langerhans
SP: Felix Hernandez
SP: Jason Vargas
SP: Ryan Rowland-Smith
RP: Garrett Olson
RP: Brandon League
CP: David Aardsma
Ideally, the significant contributors are already on the team above, and any significant production from the remaining holes is gravy. Obviously, that cannot be the case with this roster. Power is still needed on offense, and at least one more good starter is needed in the rotation. Looking at the final pieces, the league minimum players, will address these questions, and who can fill the remaining gaps.