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2021 Non-tender candidate: A.J. Cole

Will one of the more reliable if unheralded members of the 2020 bullpen be back?

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday, December 2nd is the deadline for MLB teams to tender 2021 contracts to players without contracts under team control. The Blue Jays have a small class of arbitration eligibles this year, with Teoscar Hernandez a complete lock and Ross Stripling a virtual guarantee to be tendered a contract, so we’ll look at the cases of others for whom that’s not the case leading into the deadline.

Background: Signed as a minor league free agent in November 2019, contract selected when season began in July; career 0.6 fWAR / 0,5 bWAR in 197.1 innings. Former top prospect now entering age 29 as a full-time short reliever for three years.

2020 production: 3.09 ERA and 4.28 FIP in 23.1 innings; 0.3 fWAR / 1.0 bWAR.

2021 projections: 5.00 ERA/5.06 ERA by Steamer; 4.81 ERA and 4.74 FIP by ZiPS (including partial starting role which is out of the question at this point), 4.28 ERA by Marcel

Status: 3.124 years of service, $850,000 platform year salary, out-of-options

2021 MLBTR Salary Projection: $800,000 to 1.1-million

Estimated likelihood of tender: 33%

Cole was one of six Blue Jays relievers who threw 20 innings in 2020; his 3.09 ERA was the third best among those. He was a solid if unspectacular option of out the bullpen, and with 19 scoreless outings out of 24, generally one of the more reliable.

With a 2021 bullpen that otherwise consists right now of Rafael Dolis, Jordan Romano, perhaps Julian Merryweather and a lot of question marks, at first glance it would seem pretty straightforward to bring Cole back given a modest commitment. His underlying metrics and the broader dynamics or the market and roster however make it at best a close call.

While the headline run production numbers were excellent, Cole’s his FIP was merely mediocre and 5.20 xFIP replacement level. The explanation is an obvious one, as he posted a career low .254 BABIP. These things tend to heavily mean revert, though it’s not to say he was merely lucky. With a lot of popups and very low rate of “hard hit” and “barreled” balls by Statcast, it was earned via generating weak contact.

The more pressing issue is that his strikeout rate fell to a below average 21% from 27% in 2018-19 as a reliever. Both are smallish samples with less than 100 innings combined, but Cole has always had tenuous control and to be a productive reliever if he’s not striking guys out then he’s entirely reliant on suppressing contact. That’s inherently a more volatile game, but more critically, 2020 is really the only year he’s shown the ability to do so.

There have been some changes to his pitch mix. The main stuff has been pretty constant, his fastball averaging around 94 MPH as a reliever, roughly MLB average. He’s leans very heavily on his mid-80s slider, using it more 40% annually and up to 45% last year making it actually his most common offering. The main difference is that as he moved to the bullpen he shelved his curve. In 2020, he mixed in a high-80s cutter to give him something in between his straight fastball and slider.

Whatever one makes of the above taken together, it’s the bigger picture that may be more determinative. The Blue Jays are pursing additional starting pitching, need to upgrade the bullpen as well and so undoubtedly will add a couple relievers as well. The 40-man is full and with 22 pitchers already and relatively few obvious fringe candidates to remove, needed spots are going to have to come from somewhere.

The even broader context is the expectation of a coming league-wide wave of non-tenders next week, partly driven by recent trends of maximizing flexibility but also the economic factors related to pandemic considerations. In some sense, this can become a self-reinforcing process, where the expectation of excess supply drives down the market to where it makes less sense to tender players, creating even more supply.

In any event, the bottom line for the Jays is that there’s about to be a market rife with compelling buys for a team with some money to spend, even if the monetary cost isn’t much, it makes little sense to tie up roster spots now. A non-tender would not rule out bringing Cole back, and based on how things have shaken out in recent years, it wouldn’t be surprising it he ended up with another minor league deal.

Finally, in terms of predictive factors it’s worth noting that just last winter, coming off a decent 3.81 ERA / 3.83 FIP season over 26 innings with Cleveland, Cole was sent outright off the 40-man right after the season to become a free agent. He then had to settle for a minor league deal, though the fact that he signed earlier suggests the Jays were aggressively interested and likely given assurances he had the inside track at a major league job.

All told, I think it’s more more likely than not Cole is non-tendered a week from now, but it wouldn’t be a shock if we were kept around.


Should the Blue Jays tender a 2021 contract to A.J. Cole?

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