|Friday, December 20
Updated: December 21, 3:12 PM ET
Expect plenty of non-tenders to fill the market
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
For years, talk was that plenty of arbitration-eligible players were going to be non-tendered in late December. But when the deadline rolled around, it turned out to be just that: talk.
Not this year.
As teams do some collective belt-tightening and everyone strives for the operative buzzwords -- "payroll flexibility'' -- it's expected that there will be more players non-tendered (not offered contracts by their teams, and thus, made free agents) by midnight Friday.
"There's going to be a glut,'' predicts one major league official. "Teams are bottom-feeding like crazy, looking for bargains. I think that's one of the reasons we didn't see a lot of activity at the (winter) meetings -- everyone was waiting to see who was going to be out there as non-tenders. I think a lot of teams have deals in place with agents.''
The problem, simply, is the cost of salary arbitration. While free agent salaries are dictated by the marketplace -- and, as such, are down sharply as teams watch their dollars like never before -- salary arbitration figures exist in a vaccum, ultimately determined by third parties.
Service time -- and not necessarily performance -- drive arbitration figures and settlements. Players with four and five years of major league service time are positioned for healthy raises, often with little attention paid to performance.
"The arbitration market is inflated, relative to the actual market of supply and demand,'' said one major league GM. "And this winter, teams just don't have money. Or put it this way: they have more financial committments then they have money to spend.''
While free agents wait to see where the market is going, arbitration-eligible players reap big gains, thanks to a salary structure that is no longer particularly relevant.
"Arbitration numbers are tied to current salaries,'' said another general manager, "and not necessarily performance.''
"This is where the system just doesn't work,'' remarked another general manager about the arbitration process. "You've got to pay a guy $5 million because of the class he falls into, but he's not worth that. You might pay him $2 million, but you can't do that. So this year, I think you let the player go and use his money to fill a couple of holes. Everyone's looking to maximize their money.''
The list is expected to feature some attractive players, with starting pitching and first basemen expected to be featured prominently. Kansas City starter Jeff Suppan, Tampa Bay starter Paul Wilson, Boston first baseman Brian Daubach, Anaheim DH/first baseman Brad Fullmer, Philadelphia first baseman Travis Lee, Toronto outfielder Jose Cruz Jr., Texas outfielder-infielder Frank Catalanotto and Baltimore outfielder Chris Singleton are just some of the names expected to be granted free agency.
Suppan and Wilson aren't pitchers around whom a rotation can be built. But they could serve nicely as an innings-eaters for young staffs, or serviceable back-of-the-rotation pitchers for contending teams. Suppan has pitched 200 or more innings in each of the last four years, making him both durable and affordable.
Daubach, though not worth the risk to the Red Sox that he could win $4 million from an arbitrator (he made $2.35 million in 2002), has hit 20 or more homers and knocked in 70 or more runs in each of the last four seasons. Stripped of the leverage of arbitration, which forbids a salary cut of more than 20 percent, and forced to enter the open market, he and others will be relative bargains.
Some wonder if projections about non-tendered players isn't so much tough-talking bluster on the part of clubs.
"I know there are going to be some,'' said a prominent agent. "I just don't think there are going to be as many as some people think.''
Agrees a club executive: "A lot of general managers just aren't conditioned to let a player of value get away for nothing, so they end up overpaying for a player, just to save face. We'll see who blinks this time.''
For the past week, teams have attempted to deal potential non-tenders to get something in return as happened when Philadelphia sent Jeremy Giambi to Boston for pitching prospect Josh Hancock. But most teams are reluctant to part with prospects for a player about to be made available to the highest bid.
In Giambi's case, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein rationalized the deal by noting, "There was an active trade market for Giambi.''
"In the end,'' said another general manager, "it comes down to this: Is the player worth the money? You totally exhaust all the avenues, try to make a trade, and in the end, you have to make the call.''
Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.