Planning ahead: Free agency launches offseason
Chase for next year's crown begins with the first of many important Hot Stove dates
The beauty of baseball is that it never rests.
Sure, the World Series just ended, on Wednesday, and the victorious Red Sox left the Fenway Park field, celebrated in the clubhouse, will get ready for a big parade and won't play again until Spring Training.
But that's already a page in the history book, to be filed under 2013.
The 2014 season starts now, as teams begin to reshape their rosters in hopes of enjoying their own late-October parties this time next year. Over the course of the days and weeks that will lead us to February and that magical moment of pitchers and catchers arriving at the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, deals will be struck, contracts will be signed, waves will be made, eyes will be rolled, fists will be pumped, second-guesses will be offered and water coolers will be crowded as deals and transactions are made.
So here we go, primed for the Hot Stove season that begins in earnest once again.
First things first: With the World Series over, eligible players are now free agents.
No team can sign a free agent from another club until a five-day exclusivity period expires. Until then, a free agent can only re-sign with the club he was with at the conclusion of the season.
Teams now have five days to make one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers to their own free agents, and if a player turns down the offer and elects to sign with another team, the former club is entitled to Draft-pick compensation. A player has one week to accept the offer and be locked in with his current team at one year and $14.1 million, or he can decline and hit the open market. If a team declines to make a qualifying offer, it is not entitled to Draft-pick compensation when the player signs elsewhere.
Some of the biggest names likely to be available on the open market are Robinson Cano of the Yankees, Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, outfielders Shin-Soo Choo of the Reds, Curtis Granderson of the Yankees and Carlos Beltran of the Cardinals, Red Sox first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli, Braves catcher Brian McCann, starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez of the Indians, Matt Garza of the Rangers and Ervin Santana of the Royals, and relievers Brian Wilson of the Dodgers, Grant Balfour of the A's and Joaquin Benoit of the Tigers.
In addition, there is Masahiro Tanaka, who was 24-0 for the Pacific League's Rakuten Golden Eagles this season. He is expected to ask that he be posted following the conclusion of the Japan Series later this week, and a bidding war is expected for the right-hander, who turns 25 on Friday.
And there will be many more players available.
Whether a team decides to be aggressive in the free-agent market or play it conservatively and continue building from within, here's the most important tip for general managers: Don't get complacent. Not for a second.
"You have to be realistic about how you're going to allocate your dollars," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "Some of these things drag out, and if you're sitting there waiting on one chip, other chips in front of you might go away and you end up with nothing."
Before we move on, a little bit more about those qualifying offers. This year, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association determined the $14.1 million figure, which is $800,000 more than a year ago. The figure is set by the average of the 125 most lucrative contracts, as detailed by the Basic Agreement.
The deadline for a club to make an offer is 5 p.m. ET on the fifth day following the conclusion of the World Series, so that's Monday. A player has until 5 p.m. ET seven days later -- Monday, Nov. 11 -- to accept. If he doesn't and signs with another club, his former team receives a compensation pick at the end of the first round. The club signing the player loses its first-round pick in the Draft, unless that pick is one of the first 10, in which case the signing club loses its next-highest pick.
To get a general idea of how this stage of the offseason might go, consider what happened last year. All nine players who were given qualifying offers declined them. Eight of the nine signed with a new team, with only Boston's David Ortiz opting to re-up, on a two-year deal.
"It was a formality for us," Rangers GM Jon Daniels said last year of the qualifying offer the team made to current Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton, one of the most sought-after free agents a year ago. Hamilton signed a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels. Texas received a 2013 Draft pick near the end of the first round.
"Josh wasn't taking a one-year pay cut," Daniels said. "We know all the possible ways it can play."
It's safe to expect similar regarding Cano, Ellsbury and the other free agents who will command the longest deals and the biggest bucks.
But there will be bargains to be had, and the date to watch for some of those is Dec. 2, otherwise known as the tender deadline. It's the last date for teams to offer contracts to unsigned, arbitration-eligible players, and if they don't, the players become free agents.
Some good players are likely to be non-tendered. It could be because their current teams don't have a place for them on their rosters. It could be that the projected payroll won't allow for their projected salaries. It could be the result of a mutual agreement to give a guy a fresh start somewhere else.
Whatever the case, it's always worth watching, because big names have been non-tendered in the past. Sometimes these decisions are made prematurely along the career path of a budding star, and the team that scoops up that player can benefit, big-time. The most famous recent example would be Ortiz, who hit .203 against lefties for the Twins in 2002, was non-tendered that winter and signed a one-year, $1 million deal with Boston before the 2003 season. All he did was help redefine Red Sox history, helping the team to three championships and putting forth a World Series Most Valuable Player performance this year.
"David always could hit," former Twins teammate Torii Hunter said. "I still don't understand why the Twins non-tendered him. Now that I'm older, I'm really like, 'That was stupid.'
"The worst mistake [Twins GM] Terry Ryan ever made was to non-tender David Ortiz. Boston got a diamond in the rough in 2003 and gave him a shot. He led those boys to the World Series championship. David Ortiz turned that franchise around. They might not say it, but I saw it."
Last year, non-tenders such as outfielder Ryan Sweeney, starter John Lannan and the aforementioned reliever Wilson moved on to new teams and fresh starts. Intriguing possibilities for non-tenders this year include first baseman Ike Davis of the Mets, closer Chris Perez of the Indians, and starting pitchers James McDonald of the Pirates and Jeff Niemann of the Rays, but we won't know until Dec. 2.
A week after the non-tender date, the real wheeling and dealing should begin at the Winter Meetings, which will be held at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort from Dec. 9-12.
Not every big deal will get done when the Meetings commence, but there will be action. There always is. Any of the top remaining free agents could sign in Orlando or soon after. Or monster trades could happen. That's part of the fun.
Also on tap in Orlando will be the announcement of the latest voting results by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee and the Rule 5 Draft, which is held on the final day of the Winter Meetings.
For the bargain-basement price of $50,000, (half of which is refundable if the drafted player does not remain on his new team's 25-man roster for the entire season), astute GMs might just score a player in the mold of Johan Santana, Hamilton or Shane Victorino, all of whom were Rule 5 selections.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein did a good job of summing up the proceedings at the Winter Meetings in 2008.
"I guess it was a typical Winter Meetings day," said Epstein, then with the Red Sox. "Some talks, couldn't get anything done. It took a half-hour to get through the lobby. It was all right."
As is the Hot Stove season. So buckle up, because it's just getting started.