As reported by Clark Spencer, Wei-Yin Chen has chosen not to exercise his player opt-out, and will return to the Fish for the foreseeable future.
The 32 year-old Taiwanese south paw won’t be doing Derek Jeter any favors. The Captain is notoriously on a mission to cut the Marlins payroll for 2018 down to $90 million. Now that Chen has chosen sit down at the table and claim his 2018 salary of $12.6 million, that mission just became slightly more complicated.
Chen signed on to a five year deal worth $80 million in 2016. Including aforementioned player opt-out, the contract includes another option: a vesting option, granting Chen an additional sixth season for the 2021 season if he ends the 2020 season healthy, and (a) throws 180 innings in 2020, or (b) throws 360 innings over the span of the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
In his days with the Baltimore Orioles, Chen proved to be a reliable middle-rotation starter. From 2012-2015, he made 30-or-more starts in three seasons and pitched in 706.2 innings. Chen averaged a modest 2.35 WAR over said time, and maintained sub-100 ERA+’s in all four seasons. Given his reliability in his time with the O’s, Chen seemingly fit the mold of a 2nd or 3rd spot, innings-eater who could complement Jose Fernandez and the rest of the Marlin’s rotation. Thus, the Fish signed him as a free-agent in January prior to the 2016 season.
Here we are two years later and Wei-Yin Chen has made just 27 starts — less than as many starts as he made in some single seasons. Chen began experiencing elbow discomfort in 2016, when he was shut down for all of August and most of September. Although he made three more starts by the year’s end, the 22 starts would prove to be a career-low. In 2017, Chen made just five starts before a partial UCL tear was discovered on May 5th. Although he had received Tommy John surgery before, Chen opted to take an alternative path to recovery, receiving a plasma injection in his elbow. Remarkably, Chen did return to play in September, however only in a relief capacity.
Although he has a reputation as a sneaky lefty, Chen’s fastball has been his bread and butter pitch. It’s clear that his repertoire suffered a drastic change coinciding with the timing of his injury, around the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. While Chen has relied on his fastball progressively less, 2016 saw the lowest percentage of fastballs thrown in his career. There’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem here. Did Chen’s steadily increasing usage of breaking pitches create the UCL discomfort, causing him to throw his fastball less? Or did accumulating torque from the fastball create the tear, making him resort to throwing softer breaking pitches?
Either way, it’s apparent from his numbers that the Marlins’ Chen of 2016 was actually a fraction of himself. His fastball saw up to a 1.5 mph drop in velocity, and despite the change in scenery from launch pad Camden Yards to the dead space of Marlins Park, Chen saw high watermarks in HR/9 (1.61), HR/FB% (14.9%), and FIP+ (112; 12% worse than average). Said numbers were much improved in 2017, but the sample — five starts and four relief appearances — is much too small for comparison.
Hence, Chen and his zombie elbow will forego testing the free agent market, and will return to the safe harbor of three more years, and a cool $59.8 million in Miami. Chen is still not getting Tommy John surgery. Apparently, aforementioned “platelet rich plasma” injection will reduce the inflammation in his elbow enough so that he can prepare as normal, and be ready for Spring Training.
With that said, there’s no telling how effective Chen will be next year. I’m no medical doctor, but this plasma injection sounds a lot like putting a bandaid on a knife wound. While it may hide the tear for now, there’s no telling when the pain will rear its ugly head again, at the demise of Chen’s performance — and notice how I said “when,” not “if.”
If I were Chen’s agent — just some guy named Scott Boras — in the interest of having a chance at earning that vesting option, I would have had Chen under the knife for Tommy John surgery back in May of 2017. He would have missed out on just his year-end relief appearances, and would be able to come back at full strength mid-2018. Instead, he has a wash of nine games under his belt in the past season, and will come back less than 100% for Opening Day of 2018. Tommy John: Episode Two is in the pipeline; the issue is now that he has pushed it off, it’s going to cut into his 2019 schedule. Unless he makes a full recovery after that and throws 180 innings in 2020 — something he’s only done thrice in his career, and unlikely to do on a post-surgery pitch limit — he’ll have to either earn a renewal with the Marlins the hard way, or hit the free agent market as a 35 year-old.
As of now, Chen is in line to play 2018 with the Marlins for a base salary of $10 million. With that said, (insert boilerplate disclaimer here): anything can happen this offseason now that Jeter is calling the shots. We’ve already seen the dismissal of Ichiro from the team. Compared to the morass that is Chen’s financial obligation, Ichiro only took up $2 million of the payroll, and still, Jeter and Co. didn’t hesitate to decline their option on him. For a middle tier prospect and some payroll relief, Chen could be gone in an instant. Until then, you can pencil him into the number two spot in the rotation for 2018.