Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's Arbitration Day

Those who were offered arbitration have the remainder of today to announce whether or not they are accepting arbitration. There were 24 players who were offered arbitration and presumably each one will accept, subsequently receiving a one-year contract with an assumed pay raise. There are some more specifics which occur during the arbitration process, and I'll touch on that later.

For now, however, let's look at who was offered arbitration and what that means.

Of the 24 players offered arbitration, nine were hitters. This list is headlined by Manny Ramirez, Mark Teixeira, Raul Ibanez, and Milton Bradley. Also received arbitration were Casey Blake, Orlando Hudson, Jason Varitek, Orlando Cabrera, and Mark Grudzielanek.

From the headliner list, I can see both Ramirez and Ibanez considering these offers. While both would prefer to sign long term contracts, the top heavy depth in this years free agent class for outfielders means neither player may get the dollars they are looking for. Specifically, Ibanez, a type A free agent and arguably less valuable then free free agents Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, and Bobby Abreu.

That is, since neither of the aforementioned trio was offered arbitration, teams do not have to worry about losing a first round selection. Since the performance and subsequently contract demands will extraordinarily similar, it is tough to imagine a team giving up the salary plus a high pick for Ibanez.

The same can be said about Varitek, Cabrera, and Grudzielanek. In the case of these three players, there are similarly talented players available without the cost of giving up a draft pick.

Manny is an interesting case. Here is a player, who if he accepts arbitration will receive a contract exceeding $20M. While Manny would be running the risk that at his age the contract he signs will be his last, he also has to be confident that a single year at $20M is greater then the average annual salary of a three year or more contract would provide. One has to wonder if player for next years salary would be enough to keep the incredibly talented Manny motivated.

In what is a deep free agent pitching class, there may be some interesting decisions among the arbitration eligible pitchers. In all, 15 pitchers were offered arbitration. While CC Sabathia, Oliver Perez, and Jon Garland from the starters, and Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz, and Brian Fuentes will certainly decline arbitration, there are players who have some tough calls to make.

Derek Lowe comes to mind in this case. While he is at a similar point in his career to Manny, in that any contract could conceivably be the last contract, the fact remains that he is likely to make more in 2009 through arbitration then by signing a three or four year contract. There has been plenty of speculation regarding interesting teams, and Lowe has had a long enough career where an extra million or two over the next couple of seasons may not make a big enough deal to risk a major injury.

Another interesting case is Ben Sheets. Here is a pitcher that has been extrmely vulnerable to injury. Entering September, Sheets was having the dream 'contract year' season. He hadn't missed a start and had been performing at a very high level. In all honesty, between he and Sabathia, teams would have been excused for more aggressively pursuing Sheets.

Then the wheels fell off. Sheets suffered an injury in a start on the first of September, and never really got all the way healthy. Sheets tried to pitch through the pain, but failed and didn't even make it onto the Brewers post-season roster.

There is no doubt that this will affect the contract that Sheets is offered, in both length and value. This then raises the question, does Sheets accept arbitration, taking a lesser raise and hopes for a full season in 2009 where he can work to increase his value, or does he simply take the best three or four year offer and run, knowing full well he won't be healthy for the duration of his contract?

AJ Burnett is in a similar position, although it is more clear that he feels as though this is going to be the final contract of his career. That is, Burnett's agent has let it be known that AJ is willing to take a lesser average annual salary in exchange for a fifth year on the contract. While much of this is simply jockeying for position, the Yankees have suggested they would be willing to go no more then four years. Given that Burnett also voided the final two years of a contract that would have paid him $24M from the Blue Jays, it is clear the pitcher is concerned about his ability to maintain his value over the long term.

Paul Byrd is a player who could conceivably accept arbitration. At this point in his career, it is unlikely anyone offers Byrd a multi-year contract and being on an organization with as great of a chance to win as the Red Sox have has got to be a nice bonus for the elder stateman.

Additional fringe players include relievers Darren Oliver, Brian Shouse, Dennys Reyes, and David Weathers. Each of these players are on the fringe of being valuable and may be better served waiting another year when there isn't a KRod, Fuentes, and Chad Cordero.

Cruz is another interesting case, albeit one that will certainly decline arbitration. That is, I am curious as to what sort of contract he would receive if he accepted arbirtation.

There was much made about the Cubs not offering Kerry Wood arbitration, and at first I completely agreed with the mob mentality that suggested this was a foolish decision. However, digging deeper, I realized this was the correct decision to make.

The initial argument was made that the Cubs threw away draft picks by not offering arbitration. This is simply false. Consider the depth of the free agent closer market, where Wood could conceivably be as highly ranked as #1 but as low as #5 or 6. His agent may then suggest that Kerry accepts arbitration and waits a season to go into the market, where he would undoubtedly be one of the top two closers available.

Further, given that Wood is coming off of a year in which he made $8M+ after incentives, his arbitration figure would be close to $10M, if not higher. While $10M is probably the figure he would make annually as a free agent, that he wouldn't be the Cubs closer means they would be paying a premium for a set up reliever.

That aside, Wood's agent may have also advised Kerry that another healthy year as a high leverage reliever will lead teams to forgetting about his failures as a starter. Remembering Wood as a starter may cause teams to be apprehensive to dish out a long term contract.

Thus, there is not a simple conclusion that the Cubs threw away draft picks as Wood was probably 50-50 to accepting arbitration.

Also, consider what that would have meant for the Cubs, owners of one of baseball's most phanatic fan bases. Hendry would have been asked, 'Why are you paying Kerry like a closer while not having him close?' Given that Carlos Marmol is the superior option as the teams closer, Wood's contract would have only muddied what should be an obvious decision.

Furthermore, let's not forget how fragile Wood has been over his career. Imagine the reaction of Cubs fans if Wood was hurt at some point during Spring Training?

All that being said, Hendry took the safe route in not offering Wood arbitration. While he does not receive the obvious benefits of arbitration, he also avoids the equally as damaging side affects of Wood accepting arbitration.

Another positive comes in the fact that Hendry has had these last weeks to decide what to do with the $8-10M that Wood would have cost. Given that the club does not need a closer, Hendry could bring in two relievers and an Adam Everett for the cost of Wood.

I did, however, find it interesting that not one of Abreu, Burrell, nor Dunn were offered arbitration. While I can acknowledge the argument behind Abreu (too costly, too old) and Dunn (unaffordable and unnecessary for the DBacks), Burrell's omission surprised me.

There is little doubt that Burrell would decline arbitration. He is at a stage in his career where a multi-year contract is the minimum requirement.

However, even if Burrell accepted arbitration, the Phillies could certainly afford him. In addition to this, there is a legitimate argument (especially with the news of Chase Utley) that the Phillies need Burrell in order to compete. Considering that the ballclub squeaked into the playoffs to begin with, voluntarily losing a major piece of the clubs offense was not a wise decision.

Teams await the news of whether or not their impending free agents will accept arbitration. They await this news to understand what type of draft they will have lined up for 2009, as well as what holes they need to fill this offseason. The Hot Stove is officially firing up and the excitement of baseball's offseason is just beginning.

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