Deadlines tend to bring about activity, which means Wednesday's non-tender deadline could be a very busy day around Major League Baseball.
All 30 clubs must decide whether to tender contracts to players with fewer than six years of big league service time by 8 ET tonight. That includes any player with enough service time to be arbitration eligible, many of whom could see significant salary bumps in 2021 if they are tendered contracts by their current teams.
Players who have yet to accrue the necessary service time to become eligible for arbitration rarely have much to worry about when it comes to the non-tender deadline, but those potentially headed for arbitration -- players aren’t technically arbitration eligible until they are tendered a contract -- could find themselves thrust into the free-agent market.
“First-time eligible guys probably won’t be hit that bad,” one American League executive said. “Mid-range players may have tough sledding.”
The group of non-tendered players can often be impactful; a total of 56 players were non-tendered last year, and several of them went on to have solid seasons for their new clubs.
Kevin Gausman was non-tendered by the Reds, then posted a strong enough season in 2020 for the Giants to extend him a qualifying offer, which he accepted. Other notable non-tenders last year included Taijuan Walker, Cesar Hernandez, Blake Treinen, Maikel Franco and Kevin Pillar.
The expectation within the industry is that more potentially arbitration-eligible players than usual will agree to “pre-tender” deals prior to the deadline in order to avoid the chance of being non-tendered.
For the club, such a pre-deadline deal provides cost certainty. For the player, it means a measure of job security heading into the upcoming season.
“It’s going to be crazy over the next few days, in my opinion,” one National League executive said. “I think you’re going to see a bunch of deals get done and I also think you’ll see a bunch of non-tenders, including some legit players.”
In most years, teams and agents alike can crunch numbers to speculate how the arbitration process might shake out. Player comps from previous years help both sides set their expectations in terms of a salary for the upcoming season.
But as we all know, 2020 isn’t “most years.”
The shortened 60-game regular season has presented a complicated situation when it comes to arbitration. Should a player’s 2020 statistics be projected out over a 162-game schedule? Should the 60-game stats simply stand alone? There is no previous comp for such a season, making it difficult for either side to state a rock-solid case.
“Without clear direction, there’s more risk on both sides,” an industry source said. “It will certainly have an impact.”
How much of an impact? That remains to be seen. The NL executive believes that a player’s value and talent will be the ultimate factors in the tender/non-tender decision, rather than how the arbitration process might play out.
“I don’t think that in most cases the uncertainty will create enough of a gap that would put a team in a spot to want a guy in one situation and not want him in another,” the NL exec said. “The real difficult part is that the only way to find any of that out is by starting negotiations now, which typically doesn’t happen with guys that are definite tenders. Agents don’t like to engage right now unless they feel like they are saving a guy from a non-tender.”
Another problem facing players this year? With a relatively quiet start to free agency -- only five big league free agents had signed new deals as of Tuesday -- there isn’t much information for agents to use in an effort to gauge the market should their clients be non-tendered.
“Usually there are some signings on the board to help a player judge his likely market value,” one agent said. “But in this climate, there are almost zero signings for these at-risk players to point to. That makes this even more of a game of chicken than usual.
“A big concern advising these types of players is that they aren't likely to get a job immediately. In a normal year, there's a bit of a feeding frenzy the day after [the tender deadline] to scoop up the best of the bunch. Now, there's little reason to expect that will happen except in rare cases.”
Some prominent names have been mentioned when projecting potential non-tender candidates, headlined by the likes of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Gary Sánchez and Tommy Pham.
While a trade seems to be a more likely scenario for these players than a non-tender, the fact that the latter is even a remote possibility could be a glimpse into the way clubs are approaching the offseason.
“The big names can be moved later, so there’s not as much of a hurry on them -- but it’s certainly possible,” the NL exec said. “I have no clue what the financial situations are with all 30 clubs. It could be that someone decides to do something like that if they can’t get a return they like [in trade talks] or if clubs are asking them to take money back in any deal.”
“I think it’ll be similar to past years,” another AL executive said. “I doubt there will be any major surprises.”
Whatever happens Wednesday, the free-agent market seems destined to be a little more bloated come Thursday morning. The infusion of more talent into free agency should also spark some activity on that front, as teams will have a better idea of what the market at each position looks like following the tender decisions.
“Should make for an interesting week,” the NL exec said.