Friday, December 1st is the deadline for MLB teams to tender 2018 contracts to players under team control. The Blue Jays have 11 arbitration-eligible players, four of whom I identified at the beginning of the offseason as less than complete locks to be tendered. Each will be examined this week, and having looked at Ezequiel Carrera and Ryan Goins, next up is Tom Koehler.
Background: Acquired in August 2017 deal with Marlins for Osman Gutierrez. Fringe backend starter from 2013-16 in the NL East.
2017 production: -0.6 fWAR / -0.9 bWAR due to 6.69 ERA and similar FIP in 72.2 innings. Solid as a reliever with the Jays, 3.00 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 12 innings.
Status: 4.152 years of service (repeating service class due to only 136 service days in 2017), $5.75-million platform year salary, no options remaining.
MLBTR 2018 Salary Projection: $6.0-million
Estimated likelihood of tender: 15-20%
On August 19th, Koehler was acquired from the Marlins for prospect RHP Osman Gutierrez. Gutierrez was not a name on Top 20 or Top 30 lists, essentially a fringe lottery ticket type prospect. Nonetheless, especially given that he something had perhaps clicked and he was coming on strong, not an asset that should just cavalierly tossed away either.
The 2017 season was lost at the point of acquisition: on that evening, having lost to the Cubs, they five games under .500, four games out of the second wild card with six teams to pass. Therefore, the only way made sense to give up something of value for Koehler if in turn they expected future value beyond 2017 from Koehler.
If they non-tender Koehler, they will have in effect given up something (Osman Gutierrez and perhaps some cash) for essentially nothing (some meaningless innings playing out the string). The alternative, I suppose, is that acquiring him was a last ditch, relatively low cost effort at patching the rotation to retain a hope and a prayer of making a run. That doesn't seem to fit with the modus operandi of this front office, and doesn't really fit with Koehler only making one (effective) start before Brett Anderson was slotted into the rotation.
That's not to say they should, or will, tender him a 2018 contract at a projected $6-million because of that. Whatever was given up is an entirely sunk cost. But I think it might be a useful backdrop into might otherwise be considered a pretty slam dunk case for non-tendering him. After all, even prior to his rough 2017, he was really only a fringe backend starter in a division where he frequently pitched against weaker hitting/rebuilding teams. Theoretically he could be considered rotation depth, but there's much better ways to spend $6-million on next year's roster.
Instead, after making that one start, he worked out the bullpen the rest of the season. His velocity ticked up, and pared his offspeed mix to primarily focus on his curveball. It was a small sample of just 12 innings, but the results were good, and passed the eye test for me in terms of ability to be an effective reliever.
That leaves two questions. First, how much one can read into how effective Koehler would be in a full season as a reliever? These days, decent middle relievers frequently get multi-year contracts with around this salary level, and I think Koehler could be that. There may even be some further upside as he gets used to relieving and focussed on short outings with his best pitches.
The second part is whether, even presuming he can be an effective reliever, is whether the Jays should commit that kind of money in the bullpen. For the first time in a number of years, the Jays actually have some decent depth in the bullpen, especially from the right side. Ryan Tepera, Dominic Leone, Danny Barnes and even Carlos Ramirez all figure to be decent bridge options in the pen. Adding another solid arm would certainly be a luxury, but there's a lot of holes to fill that are much bigger priorities with the limited resources available.
Given that, I would expect Koehler to be non-tendered a contract if it's a binary option between tendering at something on the order of $6-million and non-tendering. But there's also the possibility of mutually agreeing to a lower amount. Maybe Koehler doesn't mind hitting the free agent market, or prefers to remain a starter, but he is coming off a pretty brutal year. The Jays gave out a couple of $3-million deals to relievers last year, and if the Jays view him as a viable reliever than something like $3- or $4-million would actually be pretty palatable to layer in more bullpen depth.