The non-guaranteed nature of arbitration

With the Red Sox recent signing of Jason Varitek, we’ve yet again been exposed to the non-guaranteed aspect of arbitration contracts. As we learned in late October, a player who accepts arbitration is not guaranteed a contract for the following season. This became a big issue in Yankeeland when the team declined to offer arbitration to any of its free agents. Perhaps now we can gain a clearer understanding of the process.

As we learned from Jon Heyman, Varitek didn’t accept arbitration because he “didn’t believe that accepting arbitration would guaranteed him a spot on the team.” This references a recent and similar case, that of Todd Walker and the San Diego Padres. Following the 2006 season the Friars offered Walker, a Type A free agent, arbitration, hoping he would decline and they would pocket the two draft picks when another team signed him. Walker, apparently foreseeing the lack of interest in his services, accepted the offer. Not only that, but he won the arbitration case, winning a $3.95 million salary vs. San Diego’s offer of $2.75 million.

During Spring Training that year, Walker didn’t hit so well. Over 40 at bats he hit just .225 with just one RBI. Battling with him for the second base position were Marcus Giles, who hit .326 with a homer and 4 RBI, and Geoff Blum, who hit .316 with two homers. The Padres used this terminate Walker’s contract, paying him only $971,000. This was under the non-guaranteed clause:

A Player whose Contract is terminated by a Club under paragraph 7(b)(2) of the Uniform Player’s Contract for failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability shall be entitled to receive termination pay from the Club in an amount equal to thirty (30) days’ payment at the rate stipulated in paragraph 2 of his Contract, if the termination occurs during spring training but on or before the 16th day prior to the start of the championship season. If the termination occurs during spring training, but subsequent to the 16th day prior to the start of the championship season, the Player’s termination pay shall be in an amount equal to forty-five (45) days’ payment at the rate stipulated in paragraph 2 of his Contract.

Walker and the Players Association filed a grievance, hoping Walker could recoup the total of his 2007 salary and become an unrestricted free agent. This did not work out well for them. The Padres were able to prove, via simple statistics, that Walker failed “to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability.” Walker then signed a minor league deal with the A’s, was eventually called up, but ultimately released (in the move which added Dallas Braden to the 40-man).

Given this case, one might understand why Varitek was wary about his prospects should he accept arbitration. However, it’s not like Walker was a mainstay in San Diego. He was a journeyman at that point. In other words, there was no San Diegan loyalty to Todd Walker like there is a Bostonian loyalty to Jason Varitek. I imagine that Theo might catch some flak if he wanted to release the Super Captain after Spring Training.

In the case of Bobby Abreu, well, I’m not so sure this would have been as cut an dry as the Walker case. First and foremost, Abreu is a much, much better player than Walker. Second, the Yanks would have to bank on Abreu having a poor, poor spring if they wanted to release him. Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher would likely have to outhit him in order for the Yanks to even make a case to release him. Not that Swisher and Nady are necessarily worse than Abreu, but it’s not exactly a slam dunk that they’d outhit him in the spring.

Moreover, because of the difficulty in releasing him, the Yankees, as Brian Cashman said at the time, would have had to consider Abreu a signed player, at a minimum $16 million, for 2009 if he accepted arbitration. Considering what we’ve heard from both Cash and Hal back in December and to this day, that might have been enough for them to pass on Mark Teixeira. That means he goes to Boston, and that changes the entire tenor of the off-season.

Looking back on the Walker case helps frame this arbitration debate. Yes, the Yankees could have offered Abreu arbitration, knowing that if he slipped up in Spring Training they could have released him for a fraction of his 2009 salary. However, that would take not only Bobby slipping up, but his potential replacements outhitting him. If that didn’t happen, the Yankees would undoubtedly have been on the hook for his entire 2009 salary, in addition to carrying him on the roster. Clearly, the Yanks couldn’t trade him without picking up a significant portion of the tab. As such, the Yankees would have to take his salary into consideration when making moves this winter. Clearly, the team had bigger plans.

Receiving two draft picks for Bobby Abreu would have been nice, but they weren’t guaranteed. Given Bobby’s contract demands (well, at least until recently), he might have declined the offer and hit the market, only to have his dreams shattered by a complete lack of demand. On the other hand, his agent might have had an inkling of the winter’s chill climate and advised his client to accept, with the hope of getting his multiyear deal in 2010. That would have significantly hampered the Yankees plans. Given how excited most of us are about the upcoming season, I’m fairly certain we prefer the way things eventually unfolded to the speculated outcome of offering Abreu arbitration and netting the draft picks.

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Poor Bobby lowers his contract demands

From the beginning of the off-season we knew that Bobby Abreu’s preference was to remain a Yankee. That was not the team’s preference, though. The acquisitions of Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira essentially spell the end of any reunion talks, giving Abreu even less leverage in a free agent market saturated with corner outfielders. That three-year, $48 million pipe-dream he was seeking earlier this winter? Gone, according to ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick (h/t MLBTR). Instead, he’ll seek a deal more in line with Raul Ibanez and Milton Bradley.

Sadly to say, I don’t think any teams are going to bite even at that price. There are just too many teams that can’t afford him at that price. The Angels could, but why would they pay $30 million for Abreu when there don’t seem to be any other offers? A week ago Chico Harlan of the Washington Post quoted an executive who thought Adam Dunn “will get a max of $5 million per year.” I’m surprised the same wasn’t said about Bobby Abreu.

This was just a bad time for Bobby to become a free agent. It’s not only the market in general. It’s hitting free agency at the same time as five other corner outfielders. It’s the fact that he’s 35 years old and has seen a diminished OBP and walk rate over the past two years. It’s the recent and prominent criticisms of his defense. It’s all come together at once and it’s working against Bobby getting anything more than a one-year deal.

Before long Bobby will find a new home, and it will probably be a one-year layover until he has to do this all over again next off-season. Maybe then he’ll find a few takers at a price more in line with how he values himself. Seeing as he’ll be another year older, I don’t think that will be the case.

Check out those guns

Over at The Hardball Times, John Walsh analyzed the outfield arms across baseball. He uses a rigorous methodology which you can read about at THT to come up with a metric that “represent[s] the number of runs that an average fielder would save playing half his games in [his team’s home] park.” The numbers for the 2008 Yanks were not pretty. Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon cost the Yanks -9.7 below average, and while Melky’s center field contributions were positive, his 3.0 runs saved above average mark couldn’t counteract the corners. Xavier Nady, splitting time between two teams, put up a 4.4 positive contribution. It will be interesting to see how the seemingly revamped Yankee outfield does in 2009, and these numbers don’t make a strong case for Damon in the outfield.

Heyman: Half of teams in baseball can add impact player

About an hour after I asked which teams can afford to sign a free agent, Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated provided his own take on the situation. Except his is a bit more inclusive. The only team which shows up on my list but not his is the White Sox, though I think he underestimates Ken Williams’s penchant for sneaking in a deal. All told, he thinks half the teams in baseball can afford another “big deal or two”: Dodgers, Giants, Mets, Brewers, Braves, A’s, Cubs, Red Sox, Angels, Nationals, Orioles, Yankees, Twins, Rangers, Mariners.

I guess “big deal” is a relative term. I’m still skeptical that the Mariners, Rangers, Twins, or Orioles will add more than $5 million in 2009 payroll. The Nats might be willing to add more, but will it really help them compete in the stacked NL East? Still, I think most of these teams are out on the guys we ran down in today’s RAB Radio Show.

A couple of other Yankee-related notes from Heyman:

  • The definitive word on Pettitte: “But where else is he going to go?” I still think a deal gets done as February approaches. It makes sense for both parties.
  • “Hal Steinbrenner is thought to be against signing [Manny] Ramirez.” That was pretty much a given.
  • “The Yankees are said to be getting more interest in Nick Swisher than Xavier Nady.” I can understand why, in terms of Swisher being locked up for the next three years. Then again, it’s not like he’s played since last season. Perhaps part of the reason is teams think they can get Swisher on the cheap. No, I’m sure Cashman wouldn’t trade him for Aaron Heilman.
  • Heyman says that Bobby Abreu’s defense isn’t as bad as we might think. “Abreu, in fact, is fifth in assists among right fielders over the last three years and third in fielding percentage.” I imagine him saying this with a completely straight face, as if any of us believes that fielding percentage — for an outfielder, no less — counts for a damn thing. Almost all advanced defensive metrics out there have Abreu at the bottom of the league.

No team for corner outfielders

While RAB readers are busy predicting Bobby Abreu’s eventual home. the former Yankee is watching his options dwindle. As MLBTR reported earlier this evening, Abreu’s price seems to be too steep for Cincinnati. At this point in the off season, the Reds seemed to be emerging as Abreu’s most likely destination, but with this news, my guess is that we’ll just have to wait for the Manny Ramirez dust to settle before Abreu finds a home for less money than he had hoped.

Open Thread: A one year ‘what if?’

Over at MLBTR, Alex Walsh has a Reds-related Bobby Abreu update. He writes:

The Reds won’t sign a veteran outfielder to a multi-year contract. If the Reds do sign such an outfielder, like Bobby Abreu, the deal will be for one-year. With the economy the way it is, such a deal may become increasingly more favorable to a player like Abreu.

So let met toss out some idle thought. What if Bobby Abreu ends up settling for a one-year deal? Should the Yankees get involved?

There’s no doubt that Bobby Abreu is still a very good hitter, if a terrible fielder, but I’d believe, without analyzing the situation, that one year of Abreu would be better than one year of Nady or Swisher. if the Yanks sign Abreu to a one-year deal, they could easily move Nady while maintaining Swisher, who is under contract for a few more years.

Of course, there are some limitations here. With Swisher and Nady, the Yanks have the luxury of seeing what they have. They can go with one and trade the other. It gives them roster flexibility. As soon as they commit to Abreu, he would be the starting right fielder and whichever of Nady or Swisher remains with the Yanks would be either be relegated to the bench or left field with Damon in center. The outfield defense would suffer, but the bench could be stronger.

In the end, it’s just a though. Feel free to debate this or anything else tonight in your open thread. Just play nice.

Abreu in line for real estate disappointment too

Barring a Mets deal, Bobby Abreu’s days as New York resident are numbered. To that end, Abreu is looking to sell his two-bedroom apartment in One Beacon Court, and Luxist takes a tour of the property. Abreu is asking $7.9 million, but as will be the case when he finally signs with a new team, he won’t get his asking price for the apartment either. No matter though; he’ll turn a profit on his original $3.5-million investment. (Hat tip to Shysterball.)