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A look at the non-tender candidates for the Red Sox

They have about 36 hours to decide

New York Mets v Boston Red Sox

Friday marks another important date on MLB’s offseason calendar as teams further finalize their roster before really picking things up in free agency and on the trade market. (We hope, at least.) By 8:00 PM ET on Friday, teams must have tendered contracts to all arbitration-eligible players they would like to keep for the 2019 season. Anyone who is not tendered a contract will become a free agent.

For a little refresher on how all of this works, tendering a contract is not the same as agreeing to terms and is just the first step in the overly complicated process that is arbitration. Once a team tenders a contract, they will negotiate a deal for the 2019 season and possibly beyond. If the two sides do not agree to a deal by January 11, each side has to submit a salary they deem fair for the player in 2019. They can continue to negotiate after this, though teams have different feelings on this. Some do negotiate and often come to terms somewhere around the midpoint between the two figures. Other clubs opt for a file-and-trial approach, meaning once figures are exchanged negotiations are done and they go to an arbitration trial. Once a trial occurs, both sides argue in front of a panel of arbitrators — often not “baseball people,” which is why they largely rely on more traditional and basic stats — and the panel picks one side or another. There are no compromises once it reaches trial. One of the two figures is chosen.

Got all that? Like I said, it was needlessly complicated and I hate it a whole lot, but that’s a conversation for another day. The Red Sox currently have a large number of arbitration-eligible players and like everyone else they need to decide if they will tender everyone a contract for 2019 or if they will let some hit free agency. Let’s take a look at all of the names and see if there are any real non-tender candidates in the bunch.

The no-doubt tenders

The majority of Boston’s arbitration candidates are no-doubt tenders, so let’s just take a very quick look at that group. Note that the projected arbitration figures come from MLB Trade Rumors.

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  • Mookie Betts

Projected 2019 Salary: $18.7 million

  • Xander Bogaerts

Projected 2019 Salary: $11.9 million

  • Jackie Bradley Jr.

Projected 2019 Salary: $7.9 million

  • Eduardo Rodriguez

Projected 2019 Salary: $4.8 million

  • Brock Holt

Projected 2019 Salary: $3.4 million

  • Matt Barnes

Projected 2019 Salary: $1.5 million

  • Brandon Workman

Projected 2019 Salary: $1.4 million

  • Steven Wright

Projected 2019 Salary: $1.4 million

  • Blake Swihart

Projected 2019 Salary: $1.1 million

The Non-Tender Candidates

Now, we get to the possible non-tender candidates. There are only three names that I think are even slightly realistic non-tender candidates, and even that may be too high. The three are ranked in order of likelihood to be non-tendered, starting with the least likely.

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  • Heath Hembree

Projected 2019 Salary: $1.2 million

Hembree is an interesting case to me even though I’d be pretty surprised if the Red Sox actually did fail to tender him a contract. That projected salary is just so low that Boston can afford to at least bring him into camp and see what the bullpen looks like before possibly cutting him lose. Even if they do have to eventually release him if no one claims him on waivers, eating that salary is not a huge deal. That being said, Hembree is obviously not a late-inning arm, and he is also out of minor-league options. The Red Sox have long favored hoarding relief depth above all else, but his spot on the roster could be more valuable in the hands of someone else. Again, I don’t really expect this to happen, but if the Red Sox really want to be aggressive in rebuilding this bullpen there’s at least an outside possibility of this happening, although a trade would certainly be more likely.

  • Sandy León

Projected 2019 Salary: $2.3 million

We all know by now that one of the biggest storylines of the offseason is what the Red Sox are going to do about their three catchers on the 40-man roster. Steve Pearce re-signing in Boston all but assured they wouldn’t be able to carry all three on the active roster like last year. The expectation is that one of the three will be traded, and León seems the most likely to be the odd man out given the relative youth from Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. As with Hembree, I don’t really expect León to be non-tendered, and a trade is the more likely method to get him off the roster. In a similar vein, the best move may be to wait until spring training to make the catcher decision, both to see how their catchers look after the offseason and more importantly to hedge in case of any injury situations. Obviously, if they want to wait that long they have to tender León a deal. That being said, perhaps Dave Dombrowski has inquired around the league and the interest was not as high as he was hoping for with León. In that case, there’s a possibility he doesn’t want to commit to the ~$2 million and just cut bait for free while he can. Again, this isn’t something I’m expecting, but it wouldn’t be totally surprising.

  • Tyler Thornburg

Projected 2019 Salary: $2.3 million

If the Red Sox are going to non-tender anyone this winter, it’s going to be Thornburg. He is far and away the most likely, and while I don’t think it’s a sure thing it wouldn’t surprise anyone. The Thornburg trade is now infamous to Red Sox fans, and it’s really been the one straight-up bad trade of the Dombrowski era. Travis Shaw continues to grow in the Brewers lineup and Mauricio Dubon is expected to debut in 2019 after missing essentially all of 2018 with injury. Thornburg did make his return to the majors in 2018 after missing all of 2017, and while there were some flashes that he could return to his Milwaukee self he was mostly disappointing. His command was way off and opponents crushed him, and matters were only made worse by his inability to miss bats. At $2.3 million the salary isn’t that huge that they can’t keep him around and give the righty one more chance to turn it around, particularly given a normal spring training. That being said, the Red Sox have some up-and-coming relievers and room needs to be made at some point. Thornburg is perhaps the most likely current major leaguer to lose his spot, and cutting bait now would probably make the most sense even if it means fully admitting the trade was a disaster.