Major League Baseball may not warrant mega TV ratings for their amateur drafts each June as the NFL does in April, but they certainly know how to entertain the masses come the offseason.
It’s hard to even call it an “offseason,” with all the business being handled: the Arizona Fall League, World Baseball Classics, the Winter Meetings, and let’s not forget Boston’s own Truck Day, a teaser of sorts in preparation for pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training.
But with all the moving parts comes the Hot Stove season. A lot gets lost in translation amongst the casual, and even hardcore baseball fans.
When does Free Agency start? What’s a qualifying offer? Who’s Scott Boras? How do I thoroughly microwave a hot pocket? Why did my favorite player just get released?
So I’ve put together a cheat sheet of sorts, as no baseball fan should enter a sports conversation without having some of the basics locked down. I’ll define free agency, arbitration, player options and qualifying offers.
1. Free Agency.
I’ve previously outlined this topic, and it’s quite interesting. Free agents weren’t a thing until the mid 70’s, but it’s hard to imagine the 130 year old sport without them. A free agent is a player whom is available to all 30 teams to be signed to a contract.
Now, a player is not eligible for free agency until they’ve fulfilled six years of major league service; typically, a player will hit free agency for the first time in, or prior to, the prime (ages 28-32) of their career. This is their best chance at a cash windfall, and why so many players opt to sign with the club who offers them the most money. Baseball contracts are guaranteed – once the contract is official, every dollar on it will go to the player; as opposed to the NFL, where the only guaranteed money is in the signing bonus.
An example of a free agent this year is Mitch Moreland. He was signed from the Rangers to a one year contract, and with that one year up, he can now pursue another agreement with any team interested in his services. He was not “released” by Dombrowski, he is not being “traded.” He simply is seeking employment from one of the other clubs in baseball.
2. Arbitration eligible.
This, can be a bit tricky. In the aforementioned bullet, we learned that a player has six years until he’s a free agent. So, at the end of each season between years 3-6 of service, he goes up for arbitration. Himself and his agent present a salary, and the team makes their own offer. If one of the numbers isn’t mutually agreed upon, they face an arbitration panel who will determine what said player will earn in the upcoming season.
If you’re running a team, and simply don’t want the player anymore, he can be NOT granted arbitration, and would then be able to seek a new team via free agency. Part of the appeal of fielding young players is that you “control” them, meaning as long as they’re within their first six seasons, the team has complete sovereignty over playing, demoting, trading, signing, or releasing him, all for an incredibly low salary. Remember Mike Trout’s insane 2014 MVP season? He only made a million bucks.
This year, Xander Bogaerts is up for arbitration, as it’s been his fourth season in the bigs. This will go on for the next two offseasons, and unless the front office, Xander, and his agent – Scott Boras – agree on a contract between now and then, he’ll be granted free agency. (Note: Dan Duquette made a phenomenal under the radar move by signing Nomar to a cheap contract amidst his early years of arbitration eligibility; it saved the team tens of millions over the following years, as Garciaparra was locked up before becoming a perennial All-Star, when he would certainly demand more money from a potential contract).
3. Player Options.
Guys who crack the 40 man roster are given three Minor League options. An option allows said player to be sent to the Minor Leagues without first being subjected to waivers. When a player is optioned to the minors for more than 20 days, he loses an option. After the third option is lost, the ballplayer cannot be sent down to the minors without passing through waivers; if you’re on waivers, any team can claim you, beginning with the club’s who has the worst W-L record of that current/prior season.
4. Qualifying Offer.
Essentially, when a team is about to lose a player to free agency, they can tender the ballplayer a QO, which is a one year agreement, salaried at the average of the highest 125 paid athletes in baseball. This year, that number is roughly $17M.
If the player accepts it, he will rejoin the team on a one year basis, and a contract extension could be worked out over that year. It can be offered only once. If they player rejects the offer, the team will receive a compensatory draft pick. It can make for an interesting scenario, as general managers may not want to lose a player to free agency without garnering compensation, but may not want to dole out 17 big ones, so a QO will be made, in hopes that the player turns it down and the GM can recoup a draft choice.
A player does not have to be given a qualifying offer, however, as we saw this week with Dombrowski and Eduardo Nunez: had DD made a QO, it would have been for $17M. The risk of Noonie taking up that much payroll outweighed the possibility of being compensated a draft pick; both sides still have the ability to work out a long term contract.
Lastly, I’d be remissed if I didn’t follow through on my introductory paragraph. Hot Pockets: they’re best when baked at 350° for 20-25 minutes, not microwaved. After all, what’s a Hot Stove used for anyway?