Baseball’s offseason is its own season, a time of banter and bartering and signings big and small.
Fans of all 30 Major League clubs have an emotional stake in what tactics those teams take to set themselves up for the upcoming season, which is why the “Hot Stove league,” as it is commonly called, often piques rooting interest as much as the actual games.
The "Hot Stove," however, is a league with a lot of legalese, dates and deadlines that the average fans might not grasp. So here’s a handy guide to the ins and outs of the offseason.
When does free agency begin?
Officially, players become free agents the day after the conclusion of the World Series. However, they cannot sign with a new team until five days after the conclusion of the World Series. So while teams are able to reach out to player representatives, the five-day period serves as an exclusive window in which teams can retain their departing free agents. Quite often, this is a period with very little activity.
What about trades?
Trades involving players signed to Major League contracts are prohibited from the Trade Deadline to the conclusion of the World Series. The trade market opens up again the day after the World Series finale.
What is a contract “option”?
An option is a potential extension to a player contract, negotiated at the time the contract is signed. If the option is not exercised, the player becomes a free agent.
A “club option” means the team has the full authority to decide whether the option will be exercised. Often, this type of option includes a buyout if it is not exercised, meaning the club must pay the player a negotiated fraction of the value of the option year. So if the team has determined the player’s performance will not merit the value of the option, it can pay the buyout instead, and the player becomes a free agent.
Another form of option is the “player option” in which the player is the one who determines whether or not to exercise the option year.
A “mutual option” can only be exercised if the team and player both agree to it.
A “vesting option” is a negotiated option that only becomes guaranteed if the player reaches certain defined statistical thresholds in the previous season. (Typically, these are based on plate appearances, innings, games played or games finished).
When must options be exercised?
Within five days of the conclusion of the World Series.
What is an “opt-out”?
A negotiated contract provision in which a player can opt out of his remaining contract and become a free agent. Opt-outs have become more commonplace in contracts in recent years, and they are a means for players to potentially cash in if they perform well in the initial years of a contract.
A prominent example is CC Sabathia signing a then-record seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees prior to 2009. The deal had an opt-out after the third year. Sabathia exercised it and then negotiated a new five-year, $122 million deal with the Yankees, essentially making his original contract worth a grand total of eight years and $191 million.
What is a qualifying offer?
A qualifying offer is a means by which teams can receive Draft-pick compensation should a particular departing free agent sign with another club.
Teams can only receive compensation if they have made a qualifying offer to the free agent, and such an offer can only be made to players who have never received a qualifying offer previously in their career and who were on the team’s roster for the entirety of the previous season (i.e., were not acquired via trade midseason).
The qualifying offer is a one-year offer worth the mean salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players. This value changes by the year. For the 2020-21 offseason, the value is $18.9 million.
If the free agent accepts the qualifying offer, he is bound to his team from the previous season for another season. If he rejects the offer, he is free to explore free agency. If he signs elsewhere prior to the next amateur Draft, the team that lost him receives a compensatory Draft pick. The team that signs a player who rejected the qualifying offer is subject to the loss of one or more Draft picks (though a team’s highest first-round pick is exempt from forfeiture).
Click here for a more in-depth look at the factors that determine which specific Draft-pick positions are gained or surrendered in this process.
What is the deadline for offering and accepting or rejecting a qualifying offer?
Teams have until five days after the World Series to extend a qualifying offer to their free agents. The players who receive the offer then have 10 days to decide whether or not to take it. If they reject it, they are immediately eligible to sign with another team.
What is salary arbitration?
Players with three or more years but less than six years of Major League service time are eligible for salary arbitration if they do not already have a contract in place for the upcoming season. Players with less than three but more than two years of service can also qualify if they meet a certain service-time threshold that changes by the year (these are known as “Super Two” players).
If arbitration-eligible players and their teams have not agreed to a contract by a certain date in mid-January, they must both put forth a salary figure for the upcoming season and a hearing is scheduled for February. If they still can’t come to an agreement by the time of the hearing, a panel of arbitrators listens to each side’s case and then selects one of the two salary figures (nothing in between), as the player’s salary for the upcoming season.
When is the arbitration exchange deadline?
For the 2020-21 offseason, it is 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 15, 2021.
What does it mean to be “non-tendered”?
When a club “non-tenders” a player on its 40-man roster (i.e., not yet eligible for free agency), it has declined to give that player a contract for the upcoming season. The player then becomes a free agent.
When this happens, it is typically because the player’s likely raise in the arbitration process exceeds what the club projects his on-field value to be. Or a club can non-tender a player simply to clear a spot on the 40-man roster.
The decisions made at the non-tender deadline can often significantly expand the free-agent player pool.
When is the non-tender deadline?
For the 2020-21 offseason, it is at 8 p.m. ET on Dec. 2.
• Important dates
What is the Rule 5 Draft?
A draft that allows clubs that do not have a full 40-man roster to select certain non-40-man players from other organizations. Essentially, it is an avenue for teams to identify and give a Major League opportunity to talent that they feel has been held back elsewhere.
Players signed at age 18 or younger must be added to their club’s 40-man roster within five seasons or else become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players signed at 19 or older must be protected within four seasons.
Like the amateur Draft (officially known as the Rule 4 Draft), the Rule 5 Draft is held in reverse order of standings from the previous season. Unlike the amateur Draft, not every club will make a selection in the Rule 5. Those that do must pay $100,000 to the club from which the player was selected, and the player must remain on the new club’s 26-man roster (or injured list) for the entirety of the following season or else be placed on outright waivers. If the player clears waivers, he must be offered back to his original team for $50,000 and can be outrighted to the Minors only if his original team does not take him back. (This prevents teams from pilfering players from other teams and then stashing them in their Minor League system.)
When is the deadline for protecting players from the Rule 5 Draft?
For 2020, Rule 5-eligible prospects must be added to their club’s 40-man roster by 8 p.m. ET on Nov. 20 or else be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft.
When is the Rule 5 Draft?
Typically on the final day of the Winter Meetings. For 2020, this is Dec. 10.
Who are the most prominent free agents and trade candidates this offseason?
Catcher J.T. Realmuto, right-hander Trevor Bauer, outfielder George Springer, outfielder/DH Marcell Ozuna, and infielder DJ LeMahieu are among the top free agents this winter. Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Rockies shortstop Trevor Story and third baseman Nolan Arenado are some of the big-name trade candidates.
The coronavirus pandemic and its effect on team revenues in 2020 could lead to a larger percentage of declined options and non-tenders this winter.
Why is the offseason called the “Hot Stove”?
The term is said to date back to the 19th century in small-town America, where people convened at general stores or post offices in the winter months and discussed various topics -- baseball among them -- while warmed by a pot-bellied iron stove. As the 20th century evolved and the sport took on added prominence in the country, “Hot Stove” came to be embraced by sportswriters as a means of describing offseason chatter and speculation that bridges the gap between the end of a season and the start of Spring Training.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.