The Quiet Start to Free Agency

Free agency in Major League Baseball officially started on Sunday.  Tonight at 12:01 AM players were able to negotiate with other teams for the first time.  In leagues such as the NFL or the NHL you usually see a flurry of moves when free agency begins.  That’s not the case with baseball.

Despite the “official” launch to free agency taking place today, we probably won’t see things really heat up until a month from now.  There are several stops between now and then which really make the first few weeks of free agency go by slowly.

The first event comes on November 23rd.  That’s the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to their departing free agents.  This date is mostly a road block for Type A free agents, as teams have to give up a draft pick if they sign these players – but only if those players are offered arbitration.

Let’s say that a team goes out and signs Roy Oswalt this weekend.  With a $16 M salary in 2011, Oswalt isn’t really a candidate to receive an offer of arbitration from Philadelphia on November 23rd.  However, if a team signs him before November 23rd, they’re essentially giving up a pick, as it allows the Phillies to offer arbitration and guarantee the draft pick.  To avoid this type of situation, teams will usually wait until the 23rd to see who is offered arbitration.

It’s not over there.  The deadline to accept arbitration is December 7th.  Some players will immediately turn down arbitration, knowing they will receive more on the open market.  C.J. Wilson is an example of that.  He doesn’t need to wait until December 7th to decline arbitration, as he’s almost guaranteed to receive far more than the raise over his $7 M salary from the 2011 season.  There are some cases where players might wait until the last minute to decide what they will do, using the arbitration as leverage.

As a hypothetical example, let’s say Mark Buehrle is offered arbitration, which would net him a raise over his $14 M salary from 2011.  That’s essentially an offer that he has on the table, which means any team wishing to sign him would have to make an offer that would trump what would probably be a one year, $15+ M deal.  Most teams will wait in these scenarios until the player turns down arbitration, which allows the team to spend less money on the player, once that offer is off the table.

After that December 7th deadline is when we usually see the free agent market kick off.  That’s also in the middle of the winter meetings, which is a big event for free agency.  There are other smaller events along the way that impact free agency.

On November 18th teams will set their 40-man rosters.  Some players will be placed on waivers, some players will be non-tendered early, and some players will be left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft.  December 12th is the deadline for clubs to tender an offer to their unsigned players.  This leads to non-tenders, which adds to the free agent market.  In each case, you’ve got more options emerging.  Most teams want to wait and see what all of their options will be.  Why sign a guy in early December when there could be a better option that is non-tendered on December 12th?

The real start to free agency begins tonight, but we probably won’t see the free agent market heat up for at least another month.  Sure, there will be some signings along the way, but nothing compared to what we’ll see around the winter meetings.  It makes you wonder why MLB spreads things out so much.

Do we really need three weeks for teams to decide whether to tender arbitration to their departing free agents?  It seems like that could be done right now, when the players are first eligible to sign with other teams.  And do we really need two weeks for players to decide whether or not to accept that offer of arbitration?  Do we need a month and a half for teams to decide which players they will tender an offer towards?  Why do we wait two weeks until the 40-man rosters are set, and why do we wait three more weeks until the Rule 5 draft takes place?

The “hot stove league” name is fitting for baseball’s offseason.  The off-season is like a pot of water on a stove.  You turn the stove on, but the water doesn’t immediately boil.  Slowly the water starts to bubble as it heats up, but not to the boiling point.  Eventually it does start to boil.  Tonight we turn the stove on.  We’ll probably see a few bubbles around the last week of November.  By the middle of December, we’ll be in a full boil.

While we wait for things to heat up we’ll probably hear a lot of rumors about who the Pirates may be interested in, and who they might be pursuing.  We heard this last year, although some perspective is needed.  A player being mentioned doesn’t necessarily mean the Pirates are going hard for that player.  At the same time, we might not even hear about interest in some players until they’re signed.  That was the case with guys like Kevin Correia and Lyle Overbay last year.

Throughout the off-season, we’ll keep track of all of the rumors and the players the Pirates are linked to in the “Pirates Rumors” section.  We’ll also be including some notable trade candidates, regardless of whether the Pirates have been linked to them or not, just to give an idea of what all is out there.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    Good Article, very informative

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