Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Targeting Non-Tender Candidates

There's a new market inefficiency waiting to be exploited by astute major league general managers - non-tender candidates.

Non-tendering is a term used when an arbitration-eligible player is not offered a contract for the upcoming season. That player, in effect, becomes a free agent and can sign with any club. This offseason may see an explosion in non-tendered players, which would flood the free agent market with young veterans who may still have something to offer.

Three such players switched teams last week - the Royals sent Mark Teahen to the White Sox, the Marlins sent Jeremy Hermida to the Red Sox and the Brewers sent JJ Hardy to the Twins. The White Sox may have slightly overpaid for Teahen, but Boston and Minnesota have filled holes while giving up relatively little in the process.

Teahen, Hermida and Hardy were all considered solid young prospects just a few years ago, but each have failed to live up to expectations so far. Hardy has had the best career so far - he hit 50 home runs as a shortstop in 2007 and 2008 combined and developed a reputation as a sure-handed fielder. Unfortunately for Hardy, he struggled mightily in 2009 and was even sent to the minors in August (a move that some saw as an attempt by Milwaukee to delay his ability to become a free agent).

Teahen and Hermida have not been as successful as Hardy, but are intriguing players nevertheless. A natural third baseman, Kansas City has jerked Teahen all over the diamond in the last few years and his offensive production has suffered as a result. Hermida has failed to build on on a promising 2007 season in which he hit 18 home runs and put up a .296/.369/.501 line at the age of 23.

Once the season ended, all three men were at risk of being released by their former team if they weren't traded first. Why would these clubs want to give up on young, moderately-priced talent so quickly? The answer lies in the arbitration process.

A quick explanation: baseball players are bound to their original team for up to six major league seasons before they can become free agents. The club can unilaterally set the player's salary for the first three seasons he is in the majors. For the next three seasons, the player and club can attempt to negotiate a deal that is considered fair by both sides. If no agreement can be reached, the club retains the player's rights but the salary is set by an independent arbitrator.

Each side submits a salary recommendation and the arbitrator decides to accept the player's proposal or the club's proposal. In general, the previous year's salary and the salary of players with similar skill sets are strongly considered when it comes time for the arbitrator to make his decision.

Suddenly, the rumblings about the arbitration process have gotten louder and clubs appear less willing to pay $4 or $5 million a year to players whose production may be easily replaced with cheaper talent. In one sense, that suggests an increased business acumen - I also suspect that it's more a matter of mid-market and small-market teams trying to control payroll.

As a result, players like Teahen, Hermida and Hardy - who in the past never would've been non-tendered - are suddenly in danger of losing their jobs. General managers are taking a harder look at arbitration-eligible players and wondering if they are headaches better passed on to another club, even if the players gotten in return pale in comparison.

In any event, a new undervalued commodity has developed. Big-market clubs - like the New York Mets - should be looking to snap up arbitration-eligible players who may not always be good enough to start, but are still young enough to salvage a respectable career. Why not take a chance on former prospects who haven't quite panned out yet, especially when the commitment is minimal and the price is still reasonable?

Hardy is a natural shortstop, so obviously he would not have made sense for a team still committed to Jose Reyes at that position. However, Teahen and Hermida would've made for terrific reserve options on a team that simply must stop stocking their bench with over-the-hill free agents.

Teahen could've challenged for the first base job in the spring and served as a competent alternative to David Wright on those rare occasions when the workhorse needed a day off. Hermida can play either corner outfield position and could've challenged Jeff Francouer in right field. Both are left-handed and both are better pinch-hitting options than Alex Cora, who the Mets might re-sign this winter.

Was Omar Minaya ever in talks with Kansas City and Florida for Teahen or Hermida? If not, he missed out on an opportunity to strengthen his bench with two young, versatile players who still have time to make something of themselves. On a team with so many holes to fill, Minaya can't afford to miss out on too many of these opportunities.


JE said...

Leaving aside that Teahen has only played 34 big league games at first base, Jack, what makes you think the Mets could have pried him loose from the Royals at a fair price? By your own admission, he did not come cheap to the South Side....

Jack Flynn said...

I'm not sure the Mets could've beat Getz/Fields, because I don't know what Dayton Moore was looking for. It's all subjective, because Moore may have coveted one or both players for some time and may not have been interested in dealing Teahen otherwise. I do know that Fields is a busted prospect and Getz looks like a #8 or a #9 hitter on a bad team. If you don't account for positions, would Moore have taken, say, Nick Evans and Anderson Hernandez for Teahen?

My questions are:
- Did Minaya have any idea that Teahen was available?
- Did Minaya recognize that Teahen filled a team need at a reasonable price?
- Does Minaya understand that calling mid- and small-market teams about players who are about to become arbitration-eligible may yield useful players at bargain prices?