Saturday, January 10, 2015

Arbitration Preview: James Russell

Before the end of 2014, I took a look at Mike Minor, who represented, at the time, a third of a dwindling class or arbitration-eligible players the Braves had. At the beginning of the offseason, eight players could have been in line for a pay raise through arbitration, but the whirlwind offseason has led to many of them seeking employment elsewhere. Another player recently was moved in David Carpenter, leaving the Braves with only two players eligible for arbitration. Minor and today's player to be profiled, James Russell.

Acquired at the deadline with Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs, Russell was supposed to provide the stout left-hand relief the Braves were lacking. That actually didn't happen as Russell, like Scott Downs the year before him, under-performed what the Braves were expecting. He continued a reserve split trend that was actually much more pronounced with the Cubs where righties were doing doing worse than lefties even though Russell's job was entirely based on his ability to be devastating against lefties. Again, the splits weren't as huge after the trade (righties OPS'd .500 points worse as a Cub, about .150 points worse as a Brave). Plus, when we look at his career marks and the three-year sample before 2014, it's hard not to be convinced that last season was an odd outlier in an otherwise solid career against left-hand hitters.

I wonder, though, if his success against right-handed hitters will actually be used to build a case for a bigger pay raise for 2015. Overall, the season was still a success. His 3.44 FIP was actually a career low and as was his 2.97 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Even though he didn't dominate left-hand hitters as we grew to expect, it was the kind of season that yields good returns in arbitration. He even started his first game since 2011 when he went four scoreless against the Phillies in the season's final game. There seems to even be some talk about throwing his hat in the ring for a shot at being a starter in 2015. Signing Josh Outman only legitimatizes those rumors.

Last year, Russell made $1.775 million in his second year of arbitration, which means Russell will be a free agent after 2015. MLBTradeRumors.com projects a $2.4M salary for Russell in 2015 and I think that's reasonably close, if not right on, to what we should expect. Minor's case was more complicated with his troublesome 2014 following what we considered a breakthrough 2013. While Russell can argue that he has improved against righties, he's unlikely to receive a much larger pay hike than $500K to $800K. Similar lefties like Sean Burnett ($2.3M) and Joe Thatcher ($2.375M) were in the same financial neighborhood for their sixth year of service time.

Russell's 2015 will be interesting to watch. Will he get a real shot to be a starter in the spring? If he finds his previous success as a LOOGY, what kind of prospect will the Braves get provided they sell off veterans in July? We'll know more in March. For the time being, I imagine that Russell's 2015 salary will be in the $2.3-$2.5M range.

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