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Arbitration Time Again

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By tomorrow night, at 10pm, the Diamondbacks must decide to which of their free agents they should offer arbitration. The importance of this is, if they do not do so, then they will receive absolutely no compensation when/if the players signs with another team. In a couple of cases - David Eckstein and Tony Clark - this isn't significant, because those two were not deemed sufficiently important to qualify as "Type A" or "Type B" players. However, for everyone else, the decision to offer could require some consideration, based on what happens if the player accepts.

Over on MLB.com, Steve Gilbert has written a useful primer on the topic, explaining the time-table involved [players have until December 7th to accept or decline], and what we get for the two types of players. He reckons - and these are pretty much no-brainers - that we will offer arbitration to Hudson and Cruz, but not to Johnson, for fear he might accept. If he does, even if he lost in arbitration, we'd still likely be on the hook for a much bigger sum than the 3-4 million we offered Johnson. Not many arbitration hearings result in a player getting even half of his previous season's pay, so that's pretty much a no-win situation for Arizona.

Cruz is an interesting case, because I am wondering if the team might be looking to spend a good chunk of the $10m [or so] available on bolstering the bullpen. They clearly aren't looking to use it on starting pitching; that much is clear, based on the nominal offer made to the Big Unit. And second-base is about their only other position that there's a vacancy, yet all the signs are, they aren't even bothering to go after Hudson - and there's a huge drop-off in terms of likely salary to the other free agents at that position.

The decision to concentrate on the bullpen might make some sense. That's because the key difference between the 2008 team and the 2007 team wasn't the actual performance. This season, we scored 720 runs and conceded 706; last year, the respective figures were 712-732. So the team was (fractionally) better offensively, and defensively, than in 2007. But last year, we outperformed Pythagorean expectations by 11 games: this season, we were dead on the expected figure. Perhaps the organization has decided to work on improving the two areas which were key in our title-winning year: our relief corps and the bench. The former proved brilliant at holding narrow leads, while our pinch-hitters had a .782 OPS, compared to only .656 in 2008, and drove in 21 more runs too.

The Diamondbacks didn't blow that many more leads overall this season: 35 against 33. But when you break it down by innings, the difference becomes much more marked. We lost 15 games where we were ahead after six innings in 2008; that's almost twice as many as the eight we lost in 2007, certainly enough of a difference to cost us the NL West. I also note that, where we were tied after seven, the Diamondback's record was only 6-12 this season, almost the exact reverse of the 11-6 record posted the year before. Again, because we ended up only two games behind the Dodgers, those late defeats proved extremely costly.

It's a somewhat risky strategy, since conventional wisdom is that Pythagorean performance is largely "luck", and so going after players to improve it, is like signing free-agents because they are "clutch". However, getting solid relief pitching to cover the late innings seems a necessary move, and someone like Cruz, who made only $1.9 million, would seem a good candidate for arbitration - even if he won, would he end up getting more than, perhaps, three million or so? Given he has an ERA+ of 161 over the past two years - better than Broxton, Valverde, Hoffman or Cordero - I can think of worse ways to spend money.

Tying into this is Brandon Lyon: before this season, it would have been a no-brainer to let him roll off 30-40 saves, offer him arbitration, and get the draft picks as he signs elsewhere for the big closer bucks. The baseball gods, however, decreed otherwise, and he ended the season the same way he ended 2007: the set-up man in Arizona. He already earns over $3m, so it is a pricier proposition - as a comparison, his ERA+ in 2007-08 was a decent, if not spectacular 130. He's also only a Type B, netting us a single supplemental pick, so the upside of offering him arbitration is lower, if he refuses. Gilbert says, "Lyon is comfortable pitching in Arizona and has several close friends on the team." This could be a case where we decline arbitration and work out something as free-agency.

That only leaves Adam Dunn, whom I think we will offer arbitration to, albeit with no intention of actually paying him. He earned $13m, and with his fifth straight 40-homer season under his belt, would get more than that in 2009, which would bust the Diamondbacks' budget wide open, like a chair-shot to the head of Mick Foley. However, we would then simply be able to turn round and trade Dunn to another team, for whatever (cheaper) parts we needed - relief pitching, a second-baseman, another left-handed hitter. Or if he refuses arbitration in favor of immediate free-agency, we shrug our shoulders, pick up a couple of draft picks and move on.