Money Bag

And now, a free agency primer


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!


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?


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 international draft is all about MLB making money and the union selling out non-members

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 13:  A fan flies the Dominican Republic flag during the game against Cuba during Round 2 of the World Baseball Classic on March 13, 2006 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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On Monday we passed along a report that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA are negotiating over an international draft. That report — from ESPN’s Buster Olney — cited competitive balance and the well-being of international free agents as the reasons why they’re pushing for the draft.

We have long doubted those stated motivations and said so again in our post on Monday. But we’re just armchair skeptics when it comes to this. Ben Badler of Baseball America is an expert. Perhaps the foremost expert on international baseball, international signings and the like. Today he writes about a would-be international draft and he tears MLB, the MLBPA and their surrogates in the media to shreds with respect to their talking points.

Of course Badler is a nice guy so “tearing to shreds” is probably putting it too harshly. Maybe it’s better to say that he systematically dismantles the stated rationale for the international draft and makes plan what’s really going on: MLB is looking to save money and the players are looking to sell out non-union members to further their own bargaining position:

Major League Baseball has long wanted an international draft. The driving force behind implementing an international draft is for owners to control their labor costs by paying less money to international amateur players, allowing owners to keep more of that money . . . the players’ association doesn’t care about international amateur players as anything more than a bargaining chip. It’s nothing discriminatory against foreign players, it’s just that the union looks out for players on 40-man rosters. So international players, draft picks in the United States and minor leaguers who make less than $10,000 in annual salary get their rights sold out by the union, which in exchange can negotiate items like a higher major league minimum salary, adjustments to the Super 2 rules or modifying draft pick compensation attached to free agent signings.

Badler then walks through the process of how players are discovered, scouted and signed in Latin America and explains, quite convincingly, how MLB’s international draft and, indeed, its fundamental approach to amateurs in Latin America is lacking.

Read this. Then, every time a U.S.-based writer with MLB sources talks about the international draft, ask whether they know something Ben Badler doesn’t or, alternatively, whether they’re carrying water for either the league or the union.

President Bill Murray speaks about the Cubs from the White House

CHICAGO - APRIL 12:  Celebrity Bill Murray clowns around with Chicago media before the opening day game between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 12, 2004 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Pirates defeated the Cubs 13-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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I don’t know why Bill Murray is in Washington today. I don’t know why he’s at the White House. But I do know that he was there in Chicago Cubs gear, standing at the lectern in the press briefing room, voicing his full confidence in the Cubs prevailing in the NLCS, despite the fact that Clayton Kershaw is going for the Dodgers tomorrow night.

“Too many sticks,” president Murray said of the Cubs lineup. And something about better trees in Illinois.

Four. More. Years.