Money Bag

And now, a free agency primer

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It’s free agent season! Yay!  What’s free agent season?

I know most of you know this stuff, but in an effort to be welcoming to all of the new fans baseball’s blockbuster World Series brought into the fold this year, let’s run down the basics of baseball free agency so that we are not adrift on a sea of ignorance this winter.

The basics:

What’s a free agent?

Simple: a player with no contractual commitments who is free (get it?) to sign with any team he chooses.

Who is a free agent?

The short answer: Anyone not under contract or not otherwise under team control. Those are players who have at least six years of service time on a major league 25-man roster and who do not have an existing contract with a team. Here is an exhaustive list of the guys who are eligible for free agency. Easy, right?

Wait, there are guys who will be free agents without six years of service time, right?

Yep, a few! Players with between three and six years of service time — and some with a little less than three years called “super twos,” but let’s leave that for now — are not free to change teams, but they aren’t in a take-it-or-leave-it situation with respect to their salary for the next season either. Rather, they are eligible for salary arbitration. We’ll get to the details about that in a second. In the meantime, know that sometimes a team doesn’t want to even play the arbitration game and will simply refuse to tender them a contract offer of any kind (i.e. the team will be said to “non-tender” the player) in which case he is free to sign with anyone, just like a guy with six-years of service.

What are these “options” I keep hearing about?

Say a player has a five-year, $50 million deal, and five years have passed. At that point, the contract is usually over. But not always. Sometimes the contract calls for a “team option,” a “player option,” or a “mutual option” at the end of the term. All that means is that built into the contract was an additional year at a given price which either the team, the player (or sometimes both) have the right to simply exercise in order to keep the player out of the free agent pool.  If it’s a team option and the price is a bargain for the team, they’ll exercise it. If it’s a player option and the salary is better than the player thinks he can get on the market, he’ll exercise it. If those conditions don’t exist, the option will be declined and the player will go out on the free agent market.

So, we have all of these free agents, however they got there. Everyone now just goes Galt and the free market decides where they end up, right?

Not so fast, Mr. Rand. We’re almost there. There is one last wrinkle before the greenback bacchanalia begins. We have to deal with Qualifying Offers.

What’s a Qualifying Offer?

In the past, teams who lose a player to free agency could, under certain circumstances, be compensated for their loss by being given a draft pick from the team who signs the player. Kinda took a bit of the “free” out of free agency, given that it costs the signing team and by extension lowers the value of the free agent a bit.  That has been radically changed with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but there is still an element of compensation involved.

Now, if a team losing a player to free agency wants draft pick compensation, they have to first make a legitimate one-year contract offer to that player equal to or greater than the average salary of the top 125 free agents from the previous winter based on average annual value. That will change every year, but for 2013, that salary is $13.3 million.  In other words, if you have a free agent on his way out the door, you have to make him a one-year contract offer of $13.3 million in order to get a draft pick back from the team that ends up signing him. The offer must come within five days of the end of the World Series. That’s by this Friday.

Now, the player could just accept the offer in which case his old team has him for that $13.3 million (he has until seven days after the World Series to accept or decline). If he declines, he can still negotiate with his old team at a different price. If he declines the offer and signs someplace else, the old team gets a draft pick at the end of the first round of next year’s draft and the team which signs him loses a first round draft pick in the next draft. Exception: if the signing team had a top-10 pick in the next draft, they lose a second round pick instead.

Got that?

I think so!

Good!

So, players can now sign anywhere?

Not right now. They can sign new contracts with their old teams now. The open free agency period in which players can sign anywhere begins at 12:01 AM this Saturday.

At any price?

Yep.

And no salary cap?

Nope. Baseball loves freedom. Ask yourself: why do those leagues with salary caps hate America?

Do the salaries get nutzoid?

It comes and goes. Baseball goes through cycles in which, in some years, teams hand out ridiculous contracts to players, often way more than they’re owed. Then in other years they come back to a more frugal footing and dollars are harder to come by, especially for the non-superstar free agents.  The sense around baseball right now is that this winter is going to be a bit crazy, as new television deals for the league and many local TV deals for teams are giving team owners at least $30 million more a year in their pockets than they had last year. Sometimes much more. That, combined with (a) baseball’s overall financial health and; (b)  the fact that not as many good young players are hitting the market as they used to due to teams signing younger players to longer contracts before they hit the market, means that the bidding may soon get fierce for the available talent.

So what was this arbitration you mentioned earlier?

Guys with zero to three years of service have to take whatever salary the team gives them. Sorry, dudes. Sucks to be you.  However, arbitration-eligible players — guys with between three and six years of service — have some salary leverage. They can’t freely change teams, of course, but they can enter into a negotiation with their teams each winter over what next year’s salary will be. If they agree — and they can negotiate about it for months if they want — great. If not, they enter into an arbitration hearing in Februay in which the player argues that he should be paid X and the team argues that he should be paid Y. A panel of arbitrators decide who wins. They can’t split the baby here: they pick either the player’s or the team’s proposed salary.

OK, I think I got it all. Anything else?

Nothing I can think of. But if you think of any other questions, put ’em in the comments, and we or our well-versed readers will tackle it.

And be careful out there. With free agent season come free agent rumors, which are a whole ‘nother topic.  Just don’t believe anything you hear about a player’s potential destination. Unless, of course, you hear it from us …

The idiocy of baseball’s replay system was on full display in St. Louis last night

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 29: Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals scores the game-winning run against the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth inning at Busch Stadium on September 29, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Baseball’s current instant replay system, in place since the beginning of the 2014 season, has experienced hiccups, but it has generally avoided extreme controversy or high profile failures. Last night in St. Louis, however, the replay system failed in spectacular fashion, potentially costing a team a playoff berth.

We wrote about the play last night: bottom of the ninth in a tied Reds-Cardinals game, Matt Carpenter on first base, Yadier Molina at the plate. Molina hits a ball which should’ve been a ground rule double, halting Carpenter at third. The umpires missed the ball bouncing out of play, however, and Carpenter was allowed to run home, scoring the winning run. Due to the noise and confusion of the Cardinals’ apparent walkoff win, Reds manager Bryan Price could not hear the phone call from his video coordinator telling him to challenge the play. By the time the message got to Price, he was told his challenge was too late. Game over.

The lack of a replay review in that situation was huge. The call would’ve, without question, been overturned if it were reviewed. If that had occurred, there is a possibility that the Cardinals would’ve lost that game, putting them two games back of the Giants with three to play. Instead, they were gifted a win and are now one game back with three to play. At the very least, this will cause the Giants to have to play one more meaningful game this weekend than they might’ve otherwise had to, in turn giving them one less game to rest players and set up their pitching staff for the Wild Card game. It could also, of course, prove to be the difference between them making the Wild Card game and going home after Sunday’s finale against the Dodgers.

If this comes to pass, Major League Baseball will no doubt characterize Thursday night’s events as a freak occurrence. Just one of those things that you could never predict and thus could never prepare for. If you don’t buy that they’ll admonish you that this outcome would’ve occurred the same way had it happened before replay was instituted in 2014 and, hey, we’re doing the best we can. If you’re still not satisfied, baseball will ignore you and pivot to the fans who care less about it, casting the replay failure as a charming and memorable historical event, a la Merkle’s Boner, the Pine Tar Game or Don Dekinger’s blown call at first base in the 1985 World Series. One which, however bad it seemed at the time, is poised to become just another chapter in baseball’s grand history, ready for highlight reels and preroll ad-sponsored video clips. Baseball will turn the page on this, so why can’t you?

Don’t buy any of that. Not for a second. Don’t buy the notion that this was some sort of freak play because freak plays are, by definition, unforeseeable. And while the narrow specifics of last night’s replay failure in St. Louis may not have been predicted, the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of instant replay as implemented were foreseeable from the moment baseball idiotically decided to use a challenge system to initiate replay reviews.

We sharply criticized the use of a challenge system for instant replay in baseball at the time it was adopted in August 2013. Indeed, we sharply criticized a challenge system almost a year earlier when it was merely suspected that baseball would go in that direction with all of this. The reasons were pretty straightforward. Conceptually speaking, it should not be the responsibility of managers to correct the mistakes or oversights of umpires on the field, which is what a challenge system requires. Moreover, a challenge system, and its rules limiting the number and manner of challenges, subordinates getting the call right to strategy and gamesmanship with respect to when and how to use the arbitrary number of challenges granted, and that makes zero sense when the point is to simply correct mistakes.

The problems with a challenge system were not all conceptual, however. Some were practical. In January 2013, Mike Port, who served as Major League Baseball’s vice president in charge of umpiring between 2005 and 2011, talked about how managers were the weak link in a challenge system, saying “you would be amazed how many managers, coaches, and players are not conversant with the rules.” He might’ve added, as others have, that managers cannot possibly see everything that happens on the field from their vantage point, including balls hit to the boundaries. As a result, the notion that a manager can always instantly and knowledgeably pop out of the dugout to challenge a call is unrealistic. He’s going to need some help.

Which is why every team hired a video coordinator, sitting in the clubhouse watching the plays, ready to call the manager in order to tell him when to challenge and when not to. This arrangement solved one problem — the manager’s inability to see it all — but created others. For one thing, it creates potential inefficiencies and inequalities, with some clubs inevitably having more savvy or highly-skilled coordinators, giving them an edge that fair and impartial umpiring would never have created. For another, it necessitated the use of technology — video and phone lines — and technology can always fail. Just as it did last night when Bryan Price’s phone could not be heard over the roar of the crowd in a pre-playoff frenzy.

It was a technological failure that last night’s crew chief, Bill Miller, implied could’ve been fixed if Price had “made eye contact” or something but, hey, he didn’t, so the game was over. When baseball first announced the challenge system in 2013, John Schuerholz, tasked with defending it, said that it would create “a happy balance that will retain the uniqueness and charm of baseball.” I suppose there’s something “charming” about the need for a major league manager to have to gaze into the eyes of an umpire in order to get a blown call corrected, but one would hope that, in 2016, there are better ways to handle things.

Of course it was obvious that there were better ways to handle it in 2013 when Major League Baseball came up with this dumb system. Baseball’s managers, who did not want a challenge system, knew it. Baseball’s former umpire chief knew it. Even dumb bloggers in their mother’s basement knew it. In 2013, baseball had carte blanche and the support of everyone in the game to institute a system that got calls right. They chose, however, to go with a system that, by definition, does not have getting calls right as its sole objective and by necessity limits the ability for calls to be reviewed in the first place due to managers not being omniscient and omnipresent and due to technological limitations.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of an answered phone call, a playoff spot might be too. It never had to be this way, but baseball wanted it this way. If the Giants end up sitting at home next week rather than playing the Mets in a Wild Card game, I’m pretty sure they won’t be comforted by whatever baloney Major League Baseball dishes out to tell everyone why this is all OK.

Cardinals walk off on controversial double by Yadier Molina

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after he was called out on strike against the San Francisco Giants in the top of the six inning at AT&T Park on September 15, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Update (11:09 PM EDT):

*

From unlucky to lucky, the Cardinals maintained their position in the National League Wild Card race with walk-off victory over the Reds on Thursday night.

The Cardinals went into the top of the ninth with a 3-2 lead over the Reds, but saw the game tied when Scott Schebler dribbled a two-strike, two out ground ball down the third base line. It seemed as if the baseball gods had turned their backs on the Cardinals.

In the bottom of the ninth against reliever Blake Wood, Matt Carpenter drew a one-out walk. Randal Grichuk then struck out, leaving all of the Cardinals’ hopes on Yadier Molina. Molina went ahead 2-0 in the count, then ripped a 95 MPH fastball to left field. The ball bounced high and over the left field fence for what seemed like an obvious ground-rule double. Carpenter motored around third base and scored the winning run.

The Cardinals poured onto the field in celebration and the umpires walked off the field. Manager Bryan Price wanted to have the play reviewed, but when he went onto the field, the umpires were nowhere to be found. Price chased after them but to no avail. As the Cardinals left the field and the stadium emptied, the Reds remained in the dugout. The Reds’ relievers were left in a bit of purgatory, standing aimlessly in left field after exiting the bullpen. Finally, the game was announced as complete over the P.A. system at Busch Stadium. The results are great if you’re a Cardinals fan, but terrible if you’re a Mets or Giants fan.

As Jon Morosi points out, the rules clearly state that the signage above the fence in left field is out of the field of play. The umpires got it wrong.

Price, however, also took too long to speak to the umpires. Per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

If this happened between two teams playing a meaningless game, it would’ve been a lot easier to swallow, but Thursday’s Reds-Cardinals game had implications on not only the Cardinals’ future, but the Mets’ and Giants’ as well.