By Cee Angi-
(CBS) The White Sox will need to sign some free agents this season, and some of them might currently be on the roster.
That might sound a little confusing, but stick with me here – signing those free agents is actually the third step. You’ve heard the old cliché, “If you love someone, set them free,” right? Well, it may seem paradoxical, but the White Sox have options beyond retaining the players they have and not retaining them:, To retain them the right way, they have to let them go first.
There are a lot of perplexing nuances in baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, but perhaps none is as complex–or at very least intimidating– as the salary arbitration process. You can dive into the CBA if the details of Super Twos and the legal jargon associated with contract settlements is your jam, but for our purposes there are really just a few basics you need to know:
By December 2nd, organizations must decide what they want to do with their arbitration-eligible players. There are three options:
- The team can make the player an offer; if the two sides agree to terms, they can sign a contract for the duration and dollars agreed upon, thus avoiding arbitration.
- If a team decides they want to keep a player but the two sides can’t settle on a salary, the player can file for an arbitration hearing in which their salary will be settled by a third-party panel.
- The team can decide not to offer the player a contract (to “non-tender” him), in which case the player would become a free agent.
Most organizations work hard to avoid the arbitration process because it highly favors the player. It’s great that there is a mechanism in place for settling disputes, but since there are strict rules about what a team must offer in relation to the player’s current salary and what comparable talent will earn, teams always end up paying more in arbitration than they would otherwise. It’s also a no-win situation for the team in the sense that in order to win they must present a case which denigrates the player, something which often engenders bad feelings. Non-tendering a player doesn’t necessarily mean that the team isn’t interested in retaining him, it just means they don’t want to pay him as much as he’d make in arbitration.
The White Sox have five arbitration-eligible players this year. Predicting what a team might have to pay-out in terms of one-year salary for arbitration players is difficult, but Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors has developed a model which is accepted as the standard in predicting these things. Here are the estimated 2014 salaries for the players in question:
- Alejandro De Aza- $4.4 million
- Gordon Beckham- $3.5 million
- Dayan Viciedo- $2.8 million
- Tyler Flowers- $1 million
- David Purcey- $600,000
If the Sox wanted to keep all five of these players, it would cost them roughly $12 million dollars, which would bring the Opening Day payroll to approximately $60 million for next season. While the Sox have some financial flexibility, they also have a fiduciary responsibility to select the best talent at the right price, and when you consider that these arbitration-eligible players totaled just 1.3 Wins Above Replacement this season (or 2.2 fWAR if you’re inclined to trust FanGraphs’ assessment of De Aza), paying out $12 million to players that continually struggle to meet their upside doesn’t seem to be positioning the organization for future success.
In order to get maximum value for their dollar and on the field, the Sox should non-tender all five players and explore other options, since all of these players are replaceable at a much lower cost. If the Sox do non-tender any of these players, they could still sign them back to the roster as free agents at a slight discount compared to what they might have realized in arbitration, but they’d more than likely be permanently severing ties with the players, as it’s rare for a player to take a decrease in salary even as a free agent. It’s a risk, but only a slight one given the mediocrity of the players in question; to adapt a line of Branch Rickey’s to the current situation, the White Sox can finish last without Alejandro De Aza.
Non-tendering these players may be tough for the organization to even consider given that Flowers, Viciedo, Beckham, and to a lesser extent De Aza, all represent the organization’s experiment with a youth movement that has largely failed. It’s been years of, “Just wait and see what this player can do!” for all of these guys; thus far the results have been grossly disappointing. It is one thing to watch a player fail when he’s making the league-minimum salary or just above it, but it’s different when they enter their arbitration years and start demanding higher paydays. There’s a fierce loyalty to these players, especially Beckham, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft, but all of these players have been given great latitude and playing time to reach their upside, and they haven’t developed enough to justify the payday.
De Aza’s performance this season looked much better on paper than it did in reality. He hit .264/.323/.405 (about average for a center fielder in 2013), but that doesn’t tell the full story of a player that struggled defensively and was a complete liability on the basepaths.
Flowers, who was supposed to be the everyday option behind the plate, struggled and forced the organization to call up Josh Phegley to try and boost the offense (which didn’t happen, either). Flowers has hit just .200/.279/.372 in his major-league career, and his poor defense and the fact that he was shut down in September for shoulder surgery makes even the $1 million payday seem like too much of a gamble.
There might be an argument to keep Viciedo given his youth, strong finish, and if there’s a plan to move him to an infield corner, but he hasn’t developed offensively and isn’t capable of defending left field. Purcey, a journeyman lefty, 31, has control problems that seemed to temporarily get better, but his low ERA with the Sox will likely not be repeated.
As much as the organization has hoped that Beckham would develop into a focal point of the lineup, his 638-game slump makes it impossible to justify a projected $3.5 million payday. He’s good defensively and has always been a well-liked player despite his struggles, but they may already have a serviceable replacement in the organization Marcus Semien. I have a hunch that the Sox will probably give Beckham one more season to try and put it all together given his pedigree and the fact that he’s been one of the few top prospects they refused to trade over the years.
Finding wins and spending money responsibly is one of the trickiest aspects of managing a baseball team; if all teams were good at it, they’d all be contenders. The White Sox are probably going to have to spend the $12 million in question here no matter what next season, whether it be to these players in arbitration or arbitration-avoiding settlements or as part of the cost of their replacements. That means that instead of feeling obligated to a handful of players who weren’t that good in the first place, all of the possibilities of how they could spend the money should be considered. The free agent possibilities aren’t great, but just speaking hypothetically, if the White Sox non-tendered these players, they could sign a second baseman and centerfielder for $10 million each and the marginal cost would be just $8 million.
Alternatively, they could seek out five players making the league-minimum to replace the arbitration-eligible players, and that would give them $9.5 million in flexibility to spend on other free agents or save until such time as a major free agent would help turn a rebuilding team into a contending one. Those players would likely be nothing more than stopgaps, but that’s the whole point: the players in question are stopgaps as well, just increasingly expensive ones.
What seems most likely is that the Sox will work out deals with some of the arbitration players, and perhaps non-tender one or two of them. That would minimize the risk, because a known mediocrity is more predictable than a player you haven’t yet identified.
Even a compromise solution like that would be better than paying these players in 2014 and teeing up the whole “will this be the year…” song and disappointment dance for Beckham and Viciedo again.
Sometimes it’s better to find new faces and names to dream on, or even some players that are known quantities: At least they’d know where they stand and could get comfortable with the cost. If the White Sox are going to have low expectations, at least they could be inexpensive ones.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.