By the time December rolls around on the baseball calendar, it used to be that the Rule 5 draft was the Christmas present that any team might give to itself. But in the seasonal spirit of charity and gift-giving, there's a new, bigger redistributive mechanism in place, one that involves more established talent: the non-tender deadline. That's much less the case these days, which makes last Thursday's activity a lot more important than this coming Thursday's grab-bag.
There are two reasons for that. First, in the last CBA negotiations, the union gave away an extra year of chattel status to the people it still doesn't represent—minor leaguers—tying them to their original parent organizations by exempting them from the Rule 5 draft for another season. But second, the non-tender deadline has become the much more significant vehicle, adding coal to the Hot Stove at a point when teams used to be already squared away as far as knowing who was a free agent, and who wasn't.
The change reflects a more dynamic market, one that in its own way brings the game a little bit closer to Charlie Finley's original suggestion for free agency, that everyone be a free agent after every season. The other Lords of the Realm laughed him off—all the better to rid themselves of him—but four decades later we're seeing a market that's become even more fluid in terms of player movement. That's great for teams, but not so great for the players.
This isn't really a surprising development. Whether Gary Huckabay or the late Doug Pappas or yours truly, a lot of us here have been harping on the slow death of baseball's middle class going back to the late '90s. This mechanism merely contributes to that. As a result of Thursday's non-tenders, 50 newly liberated players are about to find out that they stand to make less as free agents than they would have through salary arbitration, because while the panel underpays the great brought before it, as a matter of process and precedent it also overcompensates the mediocre.
General managers have long since figured this out. Where once, in the early days of free agency, the industry feared turnover, to the point that players like Jerry Augustine were getting guaranteed five-year contracts, now it's better understood that the Jerry Augustines of the world don't deserve certainty, any more than teams should settle for five years of Augustinian adequacy. Instead, you get examples like Jack Cust, non-tendered and re-signed last year, only to find that 30 different decision-makers in big-league front offices were less inclined to give him a raise than the three mouth-breathing panelists. Pay cuts via arbitration are almost inconceivable; why limit yourself to just a 20 percent cut, when under the current CBA you might have better leverage to re-sign the guy for even less than that?
So what's available with this year's pickings? First, a pair of tables:
|Russell Martin||Edwin Encarnacion||Willy Aybar #||Fred Lewis *|
|Dioner Navarro #||Josh Fields||Joe Inglett*||Scott Hairston|
|Ronny Paulino||Jack Cust *||Kevin Frandsen||Lastings Milledge|
|Wil Nieves||Eugenio Velez #||Matt Diaz|
|Augie Ojeda #||Ryan Church *|
|Argenis Diaz||Tony Gwynn Jr. *|
|Chris Carter *|
|Travis Buck *|
|Trent Oeltjen *|
|Dustin Nippert||Andrew Miller||Bobby Jenks||George Sherrill||John Maine|
|Lance Cormier||Ryan Rowland-Smith||Jeremy Accardo||Hideki Okajima||Chien-Ming Wang|
|Dustin Moseley||Brian Burres||Todd Coffey||J.P. Howell *|
|D.J. Carrasco||Jose Veras||Alfredo Aceves|
|Blaine Boyer||Joel Peralta||Zach Miner|
|Manny Delcarmen||Donnie Veal *|
|Chris Ray||Sean Green|
|Taylor Buchholz||Sammy Gervacio|
|Matt Albers||Erick Threets *|
Mostly, the free-agent pool just received a big bucket of replacement-level relievers and a selection of outfield bats that may or may not tickle your fancy. By “replacement-level,” I don't mean that in the statistical, abstract sense of some appallingly low standard of performance, but in terms of guys who might contribute, and might not, but who are essentially fungible and not a whole lot better than what you might find on either the major- or minor-league free-agent market, or from within most farm systems. As arbitrary as it might be, most will have to settle for non-roster invites. Then, if they haven't re-signed with employers already intimately familiar with them, they'll have to hope to make a great impression in six weeks, otherwise they're about to get re-acquainted with the exciting range of amenities found in exotic locations like Scranton or Sacramento.
To stick with broad strokes, let's bullet our way through the choicest bits in the various groups:
- Catcher: Finding Russell Martin here is a nice surprise addition to the market after some teams settled too quickly for lining up the likes of Rod Barajas or Yorvit Torrealba. In light of his steep power decline and last year's season-ending hip injury, you can understand why the Dodgers didn't want to give him a raise beyond the $5 million he made last year, but an incentive-based deal with playing-time triggered options could provide a new employer with OBP and a strong arm at a position where some people have been willing to get by with… well, Wil Nieves, among others. Like Martin, Navarro is far from a sure thing, but he'll draw interest, not flies. We'll see who decides to look past the balance of Ronny Paulino's suspension (eight games) to add the strong-throwing lefty masher as a reserve.
- An Established Saves Dude: Somebody is going to want to sign Bobby Jenks to close for them, hoping that there are enough things going right for him—with a much-improved strikeout rate and a HR/FB ratio that returned to normalcy at 2009's jacktasm—to make him a completely functional option. Anybody inclined to shrink from Jenks' price can always amuse themselves with Jeremy Accardo, a 30-saves guy back in 2007, for all the job security that earned him.
- Worthwhile Place-holding Bats: I'd put Fred Lewis, Cust, and Encarnacion in a pile of people you could sign up to get by with in an outfield corner, at DH, or third base, respectively. Of the three, Cust might be the one most hosed by another non-tendering, because the number of clubs inclined to fancy his virtues makes shorter still a list of possible employers limited to the AL and teams who haven't already got a DH. If you're feeling forgiving, forgetful, or just generous, you can add Scott Hairston and Matt Diaz to the list, with the understanding that the latter's a useful platoon option with some value on defense, nothing more.
- Flirt-worthy Swingers: For teams looking to fill the utility pitcher role, I'd certainly take a look at Dustin Nippert, but Lance Cormier, D.J. Carrasco, and Dustin Moseley have all proven adaptable.
- Experiments: Do you want to be the team that turns around Andrew Miller, because one of your scouts or a pitching coach in your employ says he thinks there's something they can do? I don't know anyone admitting they were among the Lastings Milledge people back in the day, but if you still believe, there he is.
- Relief Arms: Here again, more than just performance analysis is going to tell you who you want and why. Do you think that Hideki Okajima or George Sherrill just needed changes of scenery to get away from situational usage patterns? That your manager can use Jeol Peralta to good effect? That you're the team that can tap into the upside some people thought Manny Delcarmen had? Guys like Todd Coffey, Jose Veras, and Taylor Buchholz have had their moments; if they're your 10th or 11th pitcher, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
- Infield Question Marks: Willy Aybar was never a good idea as a DH, but maybe a move back to the NL and a shot at regular playing time at second or third base would yield value; it should beat throwing seven figures at Melvin Mora or the like. You can say much the same thing for Josh Fields at the hot corner; the frequent disappointment he's produced aside, he's still interesting enough to consider bringing in for clubs utterly without a third baseman, and unconvinced Encarnacion is a playable alternative.
- Retreads: The only guys with extensive records as starting pitchers added to the pool, John Maine and Chien Mien Wang, are both coming back from unending litanies of injury. The last full season either of them made it through was 2007. J.P. Howell's shoulder might not be ready by Opening Day, but he could be an important bullpen asset in the second half.
Generally, there just isn't much in the way of big-time talent that has been added. I'd identify just two guys who might profit from their late addition to the list of free agents seem fairly straightforward: Jenks for reputation, Martin by virtue of position scarcity. Beyond that, for everyone else on this list you end up having to start off with a caveat or two. Cust's options are still limited; he would be a fine fit on a team like the Orioles or Rays if he doesn't just scuttle back to Oakland on their terms, and once it becomes clear whether the Twins and Rangers are just bringing back last year's starters, he might actually get a raise if either team expands its search. But as the poster child for next-gen roster management and the contemporary cruelties for life among the middle class, he really shouldn't count on it.