The list of arbitration-eligible players is out, a fine subject for scrying the future, for hidden somewhere in the list is a group of unexpected free agents, players whose teams will not send them contracts so as to escape the expensive “heads I win, tails you lose” business of arbitration. How appropriate that it is Friday the 13th.
The depressing thing about arbitration is that no one ever takes a pay cut. The player submits his desired salary and the team submits what it wants to pay, lower than the player’s figure, but still more than he made the year before. Either way, a young player tends to get a bump from six figures to seven, and those who have been through the process — all players between three years of Major League service time and those under six years (the six-year guys get to be free agents), plus a handful of so-called “Super-Twos,” players who qualify despite less than three years of service — go from one seven-figure salary to a higher seven-figure salary.
Most of these cases settle before an actual hearing, but those that actually go before an arbitrator are depressing for everyone, as a team has to slag the reputation of a player it wants to keep and the player has to listen to it. “Let me tell you why Arnold Smoof is not worth a quintillion dollars. Sure, he drove in 187 runs on 43 home runs, sure, he batted .387, but he’s still completely lame compared to Albert Pujols. Also, he’s a total klutz in the outfield. And he smells. Bad.” As Tom Hagen said, “This is business, not personal,” but you can’t help but take it personally when people who have formerly professed to love you are telling a total stranger what a loser you are. It’s like a divorce hearing without the divorce — there’s no coming back from that.
The list is long, containing 209 players, including what seems like the entire Dodgers roster. Teams have until December 12 to tender these players a contract. If they do and the player doesn’t dig the proffered salary, the player can opt for arbitration. At that point, everyone negotiates with a gun to their heads, trying to compromise before the actual hearing, and most of the time they do. Even then, a big raise is inevitable, so with some players, teams would prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Those players never even get a contract. The deadline passes and they’re set free. Their teams can still negotiate, but at that point they’re fair game for anyone. This makes perfect sense. To pick a player at random, Ryan Church is a useful outfielder, but you don’t really want to pay him the gross national product of Luxembourg for his services, which is what you’re going to end up doing if you send him a contract. Better to gamble on losing the player than blowing the budget on someone who is basically replaceable.
The Yankees have five players on the list, and four of the five probably shouldn’t be tendered a contract. The no-brainer is Chien-Ming Wang, who made $5 million this year. He pitched in 12 games, was pounded like Berlin in ’45, and underwent shoulder surgery. He could be out until 2010 All-Star break, perhaps longer. There is simply no reason to commit anything to Wang right now, let alone a figure north of $5 million. You could make a similar argument about Brian Bruney, who gets hurt often, pitches well sometimes, and is “just” a right-handed reliever, a breed of player which is (1) highly variable in its performance, and (2) available in huge, heaping numbers. However, the Yankees apparently plan to make him an offer.
More troublesome is the case of Chad Gaudin, a pitcher who obviously has some ability but rarely got to demonstrate it with the Yankees, who were always holding him back for an emergency that never came. I’ve been calling him “The Fireman of Atlantis.” It’s a novel role, but it might not be worth paying for. On the other hand, the guy could probably be a league-average starter, and you never know when your staff is going to be kneecapped by injuries (or the Joba Rules), so Gaudin could be handy.
The remaining players are Sergio Mitre, who can’t be non-tendered fast enough as far as I’m concerned, and Melky Cabrera, who is going to get an offer above this year’s $1.4 million base salary and should, players who can field his position and hit (sort of) being in short supply. More importantly, the Yankees have to hold Cabrera at all costs until their Sally League prospect Melky Mesa is ready, so that they can play the first two-Melky outfield in Major League history, sell T-shirts that say, “Got Melky2?” and so on. It might be awhile — Mesa has a whole lot of learning about the strike zone to do before a dual-leche pasture can become a real possibility.
As for the non-Yankees players on the list who might actually have use to the Yankees and could conceivably bet set free, there’s the platoon outfielder Matt Diaz, a career .347/.384/.537 hitter against southpaws; Conor Jackson, who missed most of the season suffering from Valley Fever but would be a decent left field candidate if healthy; power-hitting center fielder Cody Ross; and Rays fourth outfielder Gabe Gross. Chances are there will be many more non-tendered, and perhaps some top-quality players will be in there, but it’s tough to anticipate what teams will do in this depressed economy of ours. If teams are in more of an austerity mode than anticipated, it’s possible that some very good names will be available for signing in a month. Until then, alas, things will go slowly.