Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Is the Hot Stove about to heat up?

Compared to the weeks before it, the last seven days have been relatively busy in MLB.

None of the biggest names on the free agent market have found a new club, but there have been some free agent signings plus the deadline for salary arbitration submissions on Friday has created more certainty over payroll commitments and may well help to push the free agent and trade market on next week.

We can but hope.

Bruce to the Mets, Reed to the Twins

Two free agents came off the market with outfielder Jay Bruce reuniting with the New York Mets (after a couple of months with Cleveland) and the news on Saturday that reliever Addison Reed has agreed a deal with the Minnesota Twins.

Bruce signed a three-year, $39m contract and is the type of player who isn’t going to have people doing cartwheels on finding that their team has signed, yet is a decent experienced Major Leaguer and it turns out was available at a relatively reasonable price.

Bruce in the past has been a player who could get you some home runs but didn’t offer a huge amount of value otherwise. However, he had a good season last year combined with the Mets and Cleveland in what was his best year since 2013 with Cincinnati.  Although you may try to chalk that up to it being his ‘walk year’, FanGraphs notes that Bruce did display a new approach at the plate in 2017 and so the hope is he has made an adjustment that will continue to produce results.

The Mets are an interesting team to ponder for 2018.  Last year was nothing short of a disaster and there are so many fitness question marks over their pitching staff that it’s easy to just write them off.  You look at their roster though and you can put forward an argument that a Wild Card run might not be completely out of the question, albeit requiring a fairly long list of ‘ifs’ to work out in the Mets’ favour.

The Minnesota Twins are also a team that many seem to be overlooking.  They took everyone by surprise last season by winning an AL Wild Card in what turned out to be a somewhat weak race and so it’s understandable that there is doubt over whether they can back that up in 2018.

That shouldn’t obscure the fact that they’ve got some real talent on their roster though and Reed will certainly add to that list.  Rumours continue to swirl that the Twins are determined to add a quality free agent starter too this off-season and whilst I’d guess they will fall short in their pursuit for Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb could well fall into their price range and slot in very nicely alongside Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios.

Gerrit Cole

The Gerrit Cole trade story so far essentially goes like this:

  • He was on the verge of being traded to the Houston Astros
  • Then he wasn’t
  • He still might be
  • But he hasn’t gone anywhere yet
  • Although Buccos fans are expecting they’ve seen the last of him in their uniform

The Astros are in the best possible situation with a World Series win behind them, a talented roster in place and a strong farm system of Minor League prospects to deal from if they wish.  Whilst you could justifiably argue they don’t need much in the way of additions, other than an upgrade in the bullpen perhaps, that’s a very strong position in which to trade from.

[LATE EDIT: Cole is now an Astro!]

Arbitration explained

Friday was the deadline for salary arbitration numbers to be submitted and this prompted one reader query around quite how the MLB contract process works.  That’s one of many topics I cover in my Baseball Basics for Brits series, which I’ll be updating over the next two months. Here’s a basic guide to the MLB contract situation and how arbitration fits in.

When a player begins his MLB career he is under contract for six years, at the end of which he becomes a free agent unless he has negotiated a contract extension prior to this.

For the majority of players, during the first three years of their initial MLB contract they receive the MLB defined minimum salary.  This typically increases slightly every year. In 2018 the MLB minimum salary will be $545k (just under £400k). A team is able to pay more if they wish. If they do it tends to be by a small amount – no one wants to pay more than they have to – although slightly larger raises can be paid occasionally if the player is exceptional.  The team may still only pay them a little bit more in that situation – $100k, say – but it’s more a matter of principle than the money itself.

For years 4 to 6 the player becomes ‘arbitration eligible’.  The player is under contract with the team regardless (unless they release him) but how much they will be paid is negotiated year-to-year (again, unless the team and player agree a multi-year deal instead).

The arbitration element kicks in where the two parties can’t come to an agreement.  There is a hard deadline at which both parties must submit the figure they want – this past Friday in this year’s case – and then an independent arbitration hearing will be scheduled.  Negotiations can continue right up until the hearing and in the majority of cases the two parties will come to an agreement.

However, if they still can’t agree then the hearing takes place with both sides arguing in detail why their submitted figure is appropriate.  The main reason why parties like to avoid this situation is that ultimately it results in the team having to explain why the player isn’t as valuable as he thinks he is, which is not a particularly comfortable situation. The arbitration panel will listen to the submissions and then make a decision on which of the two figures is fair.  They can’t just split the difference or suggest something else, either the player ‘wins’ or the team does.

An important part of this process is that there is an underlying principle that a player deserves to be paid more as he gains more service time in the Majors. In other words, if a player had a downturn in performance in his fourth year, he would still get a salary raise for his fifth year, albeit not so much as he would have done had he performed better.

What this means is that salary arbitration negotiations aren’t just about the coming season, but also about future arbitration seasons as – if it ultimately goes to the arbitration panel – the main consideration will be how big a raise from his previous salary that the player deserves.

For example: Team A wants to pay Player X £5m in his fourth year, Player X wants $7m. If Team A ‘wins’ and the player still performs well then the fifth year salary might be $7.5m and the sixth year salary $9.5m.  If the player won then his salaries might go $7m, $9m and $11.5m.  So the initial case wasn’t simply about a difference of $2m but actually a difference of $5.5m.

There are some additional variations on this process, the main one of which to be aware of is that the very best players (as defined by specific criteria set out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement) become arbitration eligible a year early.  These players are known as ‘Super 2’ players.

An elephant never forgets, and neither does agent Scott Boras

One such Super 2 is the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant. Jon Heyman tweeted a message about Kris Bryant and the Cubs coming to an agreement on a one-year deal on Friday to avoid an arbitration hearing and stated that the team would like to do a multi-year deal with the player.

I’m sure they would, just as they would like to do a deal with him down the line to keep him as a Cub for years to come rather than lose him to free agency when that time potentially comes.

However, the latter point is firmly at the front of Bryant’s, and particularly his agent Scott Boras’s, mind.

Let’s not forget, the Cubs royally screwed Bryant over at the start of the 2015 season.  They deliberately delayed his debut for a couple of weeks solely so that he would be unable to accrue a full year of Major League service time in 2015 and his post-six year free agency would therefore be delayed by a whole season.

It would be fair to say that it’s the rules that are really at fault there – given that those are the rules, it was a logical business decision for the Cubs to make – but the Cubs still knew what the longer term impact on the player would be when they made that choice.

Bryant’s deal of $10.85m is a record for a first-time arbitration eligible player and you have to think that there is an acceptance on the part of the Cubs that they have to give a bit of ground in the circumstances.

Game times released

Fans could start doing a bit more planning for the regular season from Wednesday as MLB updated their regular season schedule by adding in game times.

They take on added importance to us based on the convenience of watching live games with earlier start times.  The details are subject to change, so you shouldn’t get too tied to first pitch times too far ahead, but we should be able to rely on the current start times for the opening series being accurate.

As already known, Opening Day on Thursday 29 March is going to be a baseball feast with the first game – Chicago Cubs at Miami – from 12.40 Eastern Time (17.40 our time) and the final two games – Cleveland at Seattle and Colorado at Arizona – getting going at 10.10pm ET (03.10 am for us).

Fans of 24 teams will be able to catch their opener at a convenient British evening time.  The San Francisco and LA Dodgers are the other two starting at night US time (7.08 ET, 00.08 am for us) making it six teams for whom their UK fans will need to be up in the early hours to see their season opener live. That shouldn’t be too much of a hardship though, especially as it’s Good Friday the following day.

If one of those final two games goes 3.5 hours we’d be looking at 13 solid hours of baseball by which to welcome MLB back.

Sounds good to me!

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