Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Arbitration Preview: Mike Minor

What a difference a year makes for a player like Mike Minor. When the last December ended, he was coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him throw 204.2 ING with a 3.21 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 3.5 fWAR. Everything was looking up for Minor. And then, there was 2014 with its oddball injuries, 4.77 ERA, 4.39 FIP, and 0.2 fWAR. Last year, Minor looked like a guy the Braves might extend. This year, it could be the toughest arbitration case the Braves have.

When this offseason began, the Braves had potentially eight players eligible for salary arbitration. Through releases, non-tenders, and trades, that number has been decreased to three, all pitchers. The most notable of the group is Minor so I will start the arbitration previews with him. You may recall that Minor was a first round selection out of Vanderbilt in 2009 and joined the Braves for a cup of coffee the following season. After struggling until the second half of 2012, Minor was able to turn it around and finish strong setting up what we hoped was a breakthrough 2013. After all, it sure looked like a breakthrough season. The southpaw built his success around solid, though not spectacular stuff, that helped get strikeouts at a nice clip (8 K's per nine) plus superb control (2 BB's per nine). A flyball pitcher, homers were a given, but solo shots are the thing you can deal with when you are keeping runners off base. Of particular interest for Minor's success was modest increases in O-Swing%, First-Pitch Strike%, and SwingingStrike%. This told a story of a confident pitcher who was getting ahead of hitters and forcing them to swing at his pitches versus the nibbler he had been.

His 2013 was almost perfect. Well, except for a December 31st surgery to "repair scarring around his urethra." Because, ya know, that happens. That immediately sidelined him when the Braves opened camp. Add in some shoulder tendinitis and Minor was behind schedule, which led him to open the season on the disabled list. He finally made it back on May 2nd and never appeared to have the same stuff and control that made his 2013 season so good. He was even skipped once in August and the Braves shut down early because something just wasn't right.

Hardly the kind of season one wants to have right before entering arbitration for the second time. For Minor, it's the second of four seasons as he's Super 2 eligible, a fact that made Minor all the more attractive as extension candidate before his depressingly bad 2014 season. While the Braves will have plenty of money to cover his arbitration this time around, an extension would appear to most definitely be off the table. A one-year pact would appear the only sensible solution to his contract situation for 2015. But what could he expect?

Last year's season definitely throws a wrench into the works and will add some tough variables. I've identitified three pitchers I believe are reasonable comparisons to Minor as they headed toward their second arbitration filing. First, I'll handle the basics on Minor and follow with the pitchers I am going to compare him to.

Minor is a 27-year old pitcher who has started 110 games in five years at the major league level, plus one game out of the bullpen in 2010. He has maintained an ERA of 4.10 with a low of 3.21 (2013) and a high of 4.77 (2014), excluding a 5.98 ERA in 40.2 ING during 2010. He has a career high of 204.2 ING set in 2013, but has only averaged 176 innings over the last three seasons. His WHIP was at its lowest in 2013 when it was 1.09, but it ballooned to 1.44 last season. His homer numbers are pretty consistent in the 1 HR/9 to 1.3 HR/9 area. He made $3.85M in his first season of arbitration last year. Fangraphs values his current WAR at 6.9, including 0.2 in 2014.

Phil Hughes was headed into his age-26 season when he was eligible for salary arbitration for the second time. In 120 games, he had started 71 for the Yankees between 2007 and 2011 with an ERA of 4.46 and a WHIP of 1.30. Like Minor, Hughes had what was considered a breakthrough season ahead of his first year of salary arbitration when he went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP in 2010, which landed him a spot in the All-Star Game. However, he had less starting experience than Minor, having been used almost exclusively out of the pen in 2009. He agreed to $2.7M during his first year of arbitration, more than a million less than Minor. He followed with an awful 2011 that included a 5.79 ERA and 4.58 FIP over 74.2 ING, a season that was both shortened by injury and his ineffective play. He agreed to $3.2M ahead of the 2012 season, a modest increase of $500K. At the time, Hughes had amassed 7.3 fWAR, but only 0.7 fWAR in 2011.

Before 2014, Bud Norris was 29 and had pitched in 130 games, including 127 starts - mostly with the Astros ahead of his 2013 deal to the Orioles. He had a 4.36 ERA, a 4.12 FIP, and a 1.42 WHIP to use as ammo for his second trip through the salary arbitration proceedings. He also had impressive strikeout numbers, including 700 in 740.1 ING. During his first run in arbitration, Norris had agreed to $3M with the Astros and completed a 30 start season in 2013 with a career-best 4.18 ERA, though he was better with Houston than he was with Baltimore. Fangraphs only valued Norris as a 4.9 WAR pitcher with 1.5 WAR coming in 2013. He would sign for $5.3M, a raise of $2.3M.

Finally, Mike Leake was heading into his age-26 season when he agreed to salary arbitration for the second time. During his first four years in the majors, Leake had started 109 of 114 games with a 3.99 ERA and 1.31 WHIP to go along with a 4.32 FIP. Much like Norris, he "peaked" at the right time in that he went 14-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 201 while setting new highs in innings pitched and strikeouts. His advanced metrics were poor and Fangraphs only valued his best season at 1.6 WAR, giving him a total of 4.8 WAR. Still, he was able to secure $5.925M in his second year of salary arbitration, nearly doubling his $3.06M salary of 2013.

While Minor compares favorably overall with both Norris and Leake, he shares a common thread that muted Hughes' salary - a season of disappointment. Now, it is unlikely Minor only makes $3.2M or even around that number in 2015 after making closer to $4M in 2014. How big of a raise is debatable. MLBTradeRumors suggests that a good landing point is about $5.1. My first impressions is that number is soft even when taking into account Minor's poor 2014 season. With the rising price of players and what a player like Leake received just last season, I would think $6M is fairly reasonable, though common sense should side with the team getting a little bit of a break considering Minor's struggles the previous season. With that, I'll put my prediction at $5.5M, a raise of less than $2M. If the team and player do exchange figures, I see the team lowballing around $4.8M and Minor overvaluing closer to $6.1M. That again provides a solid middle around at about $5.5M. Minor again becomes an intriguing extension candidate if he pitches himself back into form in 2015.

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