Hot Stove season begins in earnest
Qualifying offer period has passed; players can sign with other teams at midnight
The pens and reams of paper are out. Decisions are about to be made. The Hot Stove season is now in Major League overdrive.
The end of the World Series on Wednesday night and the beginning of free agency a day later was only the beginning. After a relatively quiet weekend, Monday brings about the next significant phase of roster redefinition as we count down the days until Spring Training and the 2014 season.
Teams have had five days to make one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers to their free agents, and that time period expired at 5 p.m. ET on Monday. Teams then have until midnight ET on Monday to sign those players to a contract of any value exclusively, because on Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. ET, the players are free to sign with other teams.
If the players turn down qualifying offers and elect to sign with other teams now or later in the winter, clubs are entitled to Draft-pick compensation. A player has one week to accept the offer -- that deadline is 5 p.m. ET on Nov. 11 -- and be locked in to his current team at one year and $14.1 million, or he can decline and hit the open market.
Those who received qualifying offers are Carlos Beltran of the Cardinals; Shin-Soo Choo of the Reds; Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees; Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli and shortstop Stephen Drew ; Braves catcher Brian McCann ; Mariners designated hitter Kendrys Morales ; outfielder Nelson Cruz of the Rangers; starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez of the Indians; and Royals right-hander Ervin Santana.
In addition, there is Masahiro Tanaka, who was 24-0 for the Pacific League's Rakuten Golden Eagles this season, but saw his string of 30 consecutive starts without a defeat -- dating back to last August -- end in Game 6 of the Japan Series on Saturday. He is expected to ask that he be posted, and a bidding war is expected for the right-hander, who just turned 25.
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."
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.
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-sign 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 Halos. 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 outcomes for 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 example in recent history 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 World Series championships and putting forth a Fall Classic 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 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 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., 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 at the Meetings or soon after. Or monster trades could happen. That's part of the fun.
Also on tap in Lake Buena Vista 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 Draft 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.