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Non-tender deadline looming


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12/17/2003 1:24 PM ET

Non-tender deadline looming

Recent Winter Meetings trades hampered by deadline

By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com

 

NEW ORLEANS -- Major League Baseball teams have a Saturday deadline to offer contracts to any unsigned player on their respective 40-man rosters they wish to retain for the 2004 season.

Those not retained as a result of "non-tender" decisions basically are players teams were willing to grant free agency as opposed to salary arbitration, with clubs surmising they could acquire comparable players at more favorable prices in an open market.

 

This approach has been used more frequently in recent years, and it begged the question at this year's annual offseason gathering of general managers, player agents and industry officials: What impact does the deadline have on activity at the Winter Meetings?

 

"You've got to pay close attention to who will be tendered and who won't," said Ed Wade, general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. "This year there could be as many as 80 (players who become unrestricted free agents, joining the more than 200 still in the pool). Teams have clearly begun to use non-tender as a way of adjusting their rosters."

 

The number of non-tendered players escalated in the last three years, from 23 in 2000 to 34 in 2001 to 46 in 2002.

 

And thus, those decisions definitely play into what teams do at the Winter Meetings. Why make a trade for a player you may be able to sign on your own in a matter of days? Why pay a free-agent first baseman $4 million today when you may be able to wait and sign a relatively comparable talent for less?

 

An example of a possible non-tender player going in a trade at these meetings was Florida swapping right fielder Juan Encarnacion to the Dodgers for a low minor-league prospect. The arbitration-eligible Encarnacion had been replaced by exciting rookie Miguel Cabrera in the Florida outfield.

 

The Marlins, with a $55 million payroll, did not figure to risk Encarnacion taking them to arbitration. He probably would've been non-tendered by next Saturday. The Dodgers could've waited, but they didn't want to take the chance and lose an exclusive negotiating period. They signed Encarnacion to a two-year contract on Monday.

 

"I could probably give you a pretty good feel of who I think is going to be non-tendered based upon the conversations with some clubs we're having at this point," said Dave Dombrowski, president of the Detroit Tigers. "All of a sudden those conversations intensify with those teams trying to move those players. It becomes a chess game at that point."

 

There's been some talk about moving the Dec. 20 non-tender deadline to an earlier date to prevent it from having an inhibiting effect on trades at the Winter Meetings. But that matter would have to be collectively bargained and is not expected to change for the term of the current Basic Agreement, which expires on Dec. 19, 2006.

 

The next two Winter Meetings tentatively have been scheduled -- for Anaheim from Dec. 10-13, 2004, and Dallas from Dec. 5-8, 2005 -- before the currently established non-tender date.

 

Until late in the last century, waiver rules sparked greater urgency at the Winter Meetings. All non-waiver trades had to be completed by midnight at the end of the last night of the Winter Meetings. From then until the first day of Spring Training, no player could be traded unless he cleared waivers.

 

Under waiver rules, a player must be waived before he can be traded. Teams have the ability to block trades by putting in a waiver claim on the player. The team trying to make the trade then typically pulls the player back from the waiver list. Now, teams have one waiver period: from Aug. 1 until just after the World Series. For the other nine months, waivers are not necessary to make a trade.

 

"There is no deadline at these meetings. There is convenience here, but that's not always a good reason to get something done," said Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi. "The only things that happen here happen out of convenience. That's the only reason they are going to get done. Every year is the same, and it always has been the same since they took the waiver rule out."

 

Thirty years ago, in the days before Major League Baseball players secured free agency, the players association was in its infancy and ballplayers were still bound to their clubs for perpetuity by a reserve clause that was part of all contracts.

 

The owners maintained that clause, which was interpreted by MLB lawyers to mean that any team owning the rights to a player for one season automatically retained the player for the following season, through 1976, when an arbitrator's decision led to its removal.

 

Before that, owners offered up salary arbitration as an alternative to free agency. Under that system, at a stalemate in negotiations, management would submit one figure, the player another and an independent arbitrator would hear the case and then pick between the two proposals. The results were, and still are, binding.

 

Over the years, even after free agency became reality, arbitration rulings skyrocketed in favor of players, with arbitrator awards generally based on salaries negotiated by those who had tested the free-agent waters as six-year veterans. In recent years, general managers have countered that by opting to non-tender certain players rather than risk avoidable multimillion-dollar hikes.

 

"Last year there were a number of decent players available," Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said. "It's a sign of modern baseball."

 

Last year, Toronto non-tendered outfielder Jose Cruz, Jr., who was signed by the Giants; Atlanta non-tendered reliever Kerry Ligtenberg, who was signed by the Orioles; Kansas City parted with starting pitcher Jeff Suppan, who was signed by the Pirates; and the Angels non-tendered designated hitter Brad Fullmer -- coming off a 2002 salary of $4 million -- then re-signed him for $1 million.

 

This holiday season, the non-tender shopping figures to just as interesting. Top-line players such as Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada and Keith Foulke are getting top-line dollars. But this year's free-gent market also is loaded with first- and second-tier players who are tempting potential buys.

 

"You never know what's going to happen," Rangers general manager John Hart said. "We have tried to gauge potentially what the non-tender market will be, but you can't really handicap that one because you just don't know. I think people will be trying to trade guys before they have to non-tender them. We are certainly thinking there might be some guys there."

 

The deadline for all of this, again, is fast approaching on Dec. 20. Through the end of the meetings on Monday, 10 trades had been completed -- the biggest of which was the Dodgers sending pitcher Kevin Brown to the Yankees for pitcher Jeff Weaver, two minor leaguers and $2.4 million. Most of the rest of the trades were for lower-profile players.

 

"The expectation out there is that there is going to be a greater number of players non-tendered than we've seen in the past," Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker said. "Those clubs that at least are price-conscious, that are looking for bargains out there, are more apt to wait until after the 20th to see who in fact was non-tendered before they might pull the trigger on the trade, unless there's something out there that really makes sense."

 

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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That's not exactly correct. For example, the Marlins own the rights to Beckett and Cabrera but they are not eligible for arbitration. Why? Because they have not accumulated enough service time. You need three years (two years in some special cases, I think Burnett was one) before you are elibible. And you need six years before you can file for free agency.

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