Friday, December 2nd is the deadline for MLB teams to tender 2017 contracts to players under team control. At the beginning of of the offseason, the Blue Jays had five arbitration-eligible players without contracts; with Marcus Stroman a lock to be tendered and Josh Thole's release, that leaves three potential tender decisions for the Blue Jays. Having looked at Darwin Barney and Ezequiel Carrera, the last is Aaron Loup.
Background: Drafted by the Jays in 2009, debuted in 2012; 2013-15 in Toronto bullpen.
2016 production: Season spit across the disabled list, AAA and MLB. He missed the first quarter of the season with elbow problems. 14.1 innings in 21 games across three second half stints, 5.02 ERA with 15 strikeouts against 4 BB, 3 HBP and 2 HR.
Status: 4.040 years of service (second time arbitration-eligibility), $1.05-million platform salary in 2016.
MLBTR 2017 Salary Projection: $1.2-million
The story of Aaron Loup's MLB career so far is unfortunately that of constantly moving in the wrong direction. After dropping his arm angle as a professional, he ascended rapidly through the minors and had a strong debut in 2012. Not only did he suffocate lefties, but surprisingly for a sidearmer he was great against righties too.
So much so, that four winters ago the prevailing wisdom among the commentariat here was that if it came down to Loup and Brett Cecil (then out-of-options) for one spot in the bullpen as the second lefty behind Darren Oliver, then sayonara Cecil.
Fortunately, the Jays found room for all three, and Loup followed up with another strong year. He continued to dominate lefties, wasn't as good against righties but held them in check though there were issues with contact. Still, very good for a sidearmer. 2014 had similar results, though Loup's walks to righties ballooned as he couldn't find the zone with his change-up. By 2015, things caught up with him and his results cratered as lefties got to him for the time in his career and righties teed off.
2016 proved to be worse yet. In addition to struggling against opposite handed hitters, he couldn't reliably get lefties out. It's not a robust sample, but his ground ball rate plunged especially against lefties (67% career, 44% in 2016). He was relegated to mop-up duty in late August, and was not reliable down the stretch in September. At this point, it's not a matter of arresting the decline in trend, Loup has to be better to merit a spot in the bullpen.
It's not all bad news though. His strikeout rate has increased from bout 18% when he first debuted in 2012-13 to around 24% in 2015-16, well outpacing the league increase. He was actually very effective in Buffalo, 1.83 ERA in 19.1 innings, 26 strikeouts and 3 walks. AAA isn't the majors, but this would suggest he hasn't completely lost the ability to pitch. He hasn't suffered a lost in velocity.
Further working in Loup's favour is a dearth of left-handed alternatives for the bullpen. With Brett Cecil gone, the leading internal options are Chad Girodo and Matt Dermody, with a total of 13.1 MLB innings between them. There's still plenty of time to bring someone in, but paying up for veteran relievers doesn't usually work out so well.
MLBTR is forecasting a small salary increase to $1.2-million, considering how poorly 2016 went it would not surprise me it he had to settle for no increase. Either way, it's not a significant budgetary burden, so it probably doesn't make sense to cut bait now. If he's a complete mess in Spring Training, the worst case would having to pay upwards of $300,000 if they cut him then. And he still has two option years, so there's flexibility unlike a lot of non-tender candidates doesn't have to stick on the
40-man 25-man roster.
If Loup can just back to being tough on lefties, then he's well worth the cost. Even lefty specialists go for $3 or 4 million these days, and given the limited downside it makes sense to at least tender him now. On the flip side, if the braintrust sees a deeper underlying issue, they may want to use the savings on acquiring a more reliable option (Marc Rzepczynski, who spent two years in Cleveland?) so as to avoid another Franklin Morales debacle from a scramble on the eve of the season. Perhaps what Loup really needs is a fresh start.