Tender is the night for Nats

Tender is the night for Nats
December 12, 2011, 2:00 pm
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One of baseball's complicated, oft-misunderstood deadlines comes tonight at midnight when all teams must tender contracts to all players who don't have 2012 contracts yet but are under team control.

What in the world does that mean? Let's try to explain in simple terms...

Only a handful of players on every team's 40-man roster right now have actually signed 2012 contracts. Pretty much the only ones who have are veterans with long-term deals (like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman) or younger players who were given multi-year contracts right out of the draft (like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper).

Everyone else on the roster is under the team's control -- they aren't eligible for free agency -- but don't yet have 2012 contracts with agreed-upon salaries. Before midnight tonight, teams must declare whether they intend to sign (i.e., tender) those players or cut them loose (i.e,. non-tender).

The majority of players who fall into this category (those with fewer than three years' big-league service time) are tendered contracts, because their salaries are minimal and not guaranteed. The only real decisions that must be made involve those players who have more than three years but less than six years of service time: the arbitration-eligible players.

Arbitration-eligible players almost always receive significant raises, and in fact are required to earn at least 80 percent of their previous year's salary. That rule is what prompts general managers to sometimes decide not to tender a player a contract, especially those coming off seasons in which they underperformed or were injured.

In the Nationals' case, seven players are arbitration-eligible this winter: Tyler Clippard, Jesus Flores, Tom Gorzelanny, John Lannan, Michael Morse, Doug Slaten and Jordan Zimmermann. (Clippard and Zimmermann each have slightly less than three years of service time but qualify as "Super-2" players.) Let's run through each of these players and determine whether any of them are candidates to be non-tendered by the end of the night:

Service time: 2 years, 148 days
Arbitration year: 1st (Super-2 qualifier)
2011 salary: 443,000
Clippard has become a vital member of the Nationals' bullpen and one of the best setup men in baseball. His 1.83 ERA was sixth-lowest among all relievers who made at least 60 appearances, and his 104 strikeouts were second among all relievers only to Atlanta closer and NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel. The 2011 All-Star will earn a significant raise in his first season of arbitration, but the Nationals will happily pay for one of the most important players on their roster.
Verdict: Tender.

Service time: 4 years, 79 days
Arbitration year: 3rd
2011 salary: 750,000
After missing two seasons with a major shoulder injury, Flores finally returned healthy this year. Though he didn't play much and hit only .209 during his limited time on the field, he should be back in 2012 as Wilson Ramos' backup. The fact Flores has hit so well in Venezuela this winter confirms he's both healthy and capable of being productive. Even if he receives a modest raise, it's worth bringing him back.
Verdict: Tender.

Service time: 4 years, 160 days
Arbitration year: 3rd
2011 salary: 2.1 million
Acquired last winter from the Cubs, Gorzelanny was supposed to entrench himself as a member of the Nationals' rotation. But inconsistent work on the mound cost him his starting job and landed him in the bullpen. The left-hander did perform well in that role, and he could yet prove valuable as a reliever. But 2.5 million or more is a lot to spend on a middle reliever. The Nationals could elect to non-tender Gorzelanny, then re-sign him at a lower salary. Or they could choose simply to let him go altogether.
Verdict: Non-tender, but re-sign at a lower salary.

Service time: 4 years, 11 days
Arbitration year: 2nd
2011 salary: 2.75 million
Lannan has been a model of consistency during his four full seasons with the Nationals, always winning between 8-10 games with an ERA in the high-3.00s (aside from his brief hiccup in 2010). He posted career-bests this season with 10 wins and a 3.70 ERA, and barring the acquisition of a veteran starter who would perhaps make him expendable in a trade, Lannan is entrenched as either the Nationals' No. 3 or No. 4 starter. He'll see his salary jump up to perhaps 5 million, but that's the going rate for a middle-of-the-rotation guy these guys.
Verdict: Tender.

Service time: 4 years, 114 days
Arbitration year: 2nd
2011 salary: 1.05 million
Nobody on the Nationals' roster is more deserving of a major raise this winter than Morse, who went from a part-time contributor to fearsome cleanup hitter. One of only four NL players (along with Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki) to hit at least .300 with at least 30 homers and at least 95 RBI, Morse has firmly established himself as a key force in the heart of the Nationals' lineup.
Verdict: Tender.

Service time: 4 years, 43 days
Arbitration year: 2nd
2011 salary: 695,000
Slaten was remarkably ineffective when healthy this season, posting a 4.41 ERA, allowing an astounding 43 percent of batters he faced to reach base while also allowing 47 percent of runners he inherited to score. The left-hander missed considerable time with an elbow injury, but he wasn't any better after returning (posting an 11.25 ERA in eight September games). He's not terribly expensive, but the Nationals can probably find a more reliable lefty specialist.
Verdict: Non-tender.

Service time: 2 years, 154 days
Arbitration year: 1st (Super-2 qualifier)
2011 salary: 415,000
This was a breakthrough season for Zimmermann, who after fully recovering from Tommy John surgery began to establish himself as one of the better young right-handers in the NL and a perfect complement to ace Stephen Strasburg. By promoting him to the big leagues in mid-April 2009, the Nationals ensured Zimmermann would qualify for an extra year of arbitration as a "Super-2" player, but the organization won't complain too much about paying its No. 2 starter 2 million or more in 2012.
Verdict: Tender.