Important Dates, Facts All MLB Fans Must Know Heading into Free Agency
The MLB free-agency process can be confusing.
Eligible players immediately become free agents after the World Series, but they can't actually sign a new deal. Teams can receive compensation picks for lost free agents, but only under certain circumstances.
From comprehending qualifying offers and arbitration eligibility to predicting when the big stars will sign, there's a lot to take in as the Hot Stove League heats up.
Here's a quick guide to the important dates and facts all MLB fans must know going into free agency.
Who's Eligible for Free Agency?
To be eligible for free agency, a player needs to have accumulated six years of MLB service time and to be out of a contract for the upcoming season.
This year's class could be as large as 192 players according to CBS Sports. Not all those players will hit the open market, however, as teams around the league pick up club options on certain players.
For the premier free agents like Mike Napoli, the process becomes complex. It all starts with the qualifying offer.
What Is a Qualifying Offer?
The idea behind the qualifying offer is to provide compensation to teams that lose stars via free agency.
To receive a draft pick in exchange for an outgoing free agent, a team must extend a qualifying offer to the player. MLB and the MLB Players Association have set this year's qualifying offer at $14.1 million for a one-year deal.
The figure is an average of the top-125 contracts in baseball, and works out to an $800,000 bump up from last year.
If a player accepts the offer then the free-agency process is over. The player returns to the team on a one-year deal at $14.1 million. A team can only make a qualifying offer, however, if the free agent spent the entire season with the club.
If the player rejects the offer, however, the situation gets complicated.
Last offseason, nine players received qualifying offers, and all nine turned the offer down. If a player turns down a qualifying offer and goes on to sign with a new team, the former team gets a compensation pick at the end of the first round of the draft.
Meanwhile, the team that signed the player loses it's first-round pick. If the signing team's pick is within the top 10 in the draft then it is protected. Instead, the club loses it's next highest selection.
The idea is to compensate teams who lose big-name free agents. The catch is that a team can't just make a qualifying offer to any player in order to land a draft pick. There are only so many players worth $14 million per season, and for that reason a player like Rafael Furcal will not be receiving a qualifying offer.
So, what's the timeline on the qualifying offer process?
What Are the Deadlines for Giving and Accepting Qualifying Offers?
The process moves quickly.
Teams have until 5 p.m. ET on the fifth day after the end of the World Series to extend a qualifying offer to a free agent. This year that date will fall on November 4. The player in turn has until 5 p.m. ET on the seventh day after receiving the offer to decide whether to accept it.
As mentioned before, accepting the offer locks the player into a one-year deal. Turning down the qualifying offer, however, doesn't mean it's the end of the road for a player and a team.
Last year, David Ortiz rejected a qualifying offer from the Boston Red Sox before arriving at a two-year, $26 million deal with the club. The designated hitter got his multi-year security, but the per-year amount was $300,000 less than the qualifying offer rate for one year.
Now that qualifying offers have been dealt with, the next question is this: When can players sign with new teams?
When Can Players Sign with Teams Other Than Their Own?
Eligible players become free agents once the World Series is over, but there's a cooling-off period before they're allowed to sign with a new team.
Free agents can talk with potential suitors, but it's not until the sixth day after the World Series that they can ink a deal with a new club. This year, the date is November 5. Plenty of bench players and lower-tier free agents sign deals in the opening weeks of November, but for the fringiest big leaguers the process can be much longer.
The players who fill out the back end of the roster often have to wait until January or February once all the other holes have been plugged. If a team doesn't want to offer a player a major league contract, they can give them a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training as a non-roster player.
When Do the Big Stars Sign?
Last winter Ortiz was the exception to the rule.
The Red Sox slugger re-signed with Boston on November 5, but most of the big chips don't fall until the start of December.
During the first two weeks of December 2012, the following players all landed multi-year deals: Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino, Josh Hamilton, Anibal Sanchez and Zack Greinke.
The reason behind the flurry of deals in December is simple. Last offseason, MLB held the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee from December 3-6. The Rule 5 draft takes place during the event, but the winter meetings also function as a centralized gathering of GMs, agents, executives and sometimes even players.
This year, the Winter Meetings will run from December 9-12 in Orlando, Florida. That means the free-agent market should begin to develop in the buildup to the meetings, and the biggest free agents should snag deals right around that time.
Can Receiving a Qualifying Offer Harm a Player's Value on the Market?
A select group of free agents will have to wait much longer than the winter meetings to learn their fate.
Last offseason, Kyle Lohse didn't secure a new deal until less than a week before Opening Day. Why the long wait for a pitcher coming off a 16-win season?
Potential suitors simply didn't want to part with a top draft pick for a 34-year-old starting pitcher. As Jerry Crasnick of ESPN reported, Lohse and the Milwaukee Brewers ultimately agreed on a three-year pact for $33 million. That meant that the right-hander took a substantial loss as compared to the $13.3 million qualifying offer that Lohse turned down from the Cardinals.
This winter, another Cardinal could find himself in a similar situation.
In 2013, Carlos Beltran hit .296/.339/.491 with 24 home runs, which makes him one of the more productive power hitters on the market. The right fielder's free-agent value will be damaged, however, if the Cardinals extend him a qualifying offer and Beltran turns it down.
In such a scenario, teams might be hesitant to give up a first-round pick in exchange for a player who will turn 37 next April.
What's Salary Arbitration?
For the first three seasons of a player's career, the club has total control over how much a player will make.
As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, a player doesn't qualify for free agency until playing six seasons. So, what happens in years three to six?
The player finally gains some power—so long as the team offers the player a contract by the non-tender deadline of December 2. If both sides can't agree on a salary figure, then both sides submit a number to an arbitration panel by January 14.
The arbitrator then has to pick one of the figures, and can't choose a number in between. According to Sports Illustrated, last offseason 133 players filed for arbitration.
For the first time since 1974, however, no player went to a hearing as they were all able to come to terms with their respective teams. If a hearing is needed this offseason if would take place in St. Petersburg, Florida between February 1-21.
There's also the “Super Two” exception to consider.
A group of players with less than three years of service time can actually qualify for salary arbitration. As FanGraphs explained, a Super Two needs to have played at least two seasons and also has to rank in the top 22% of two-year players in service time.
This year, 28 players qualified for Super Two status per Sportsnet. That means bigger payouts for all of those players as they will be eligible for four years of salary arbitration rather than the normal three.
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