The Sounds of Silence
BY DEB SEYMOUR
Watching the Arizona Fall League championship game Saturday night, the crawl across the bottom of my TV screen provided the names of the 2023 MLB Most Valuable Player nominees and Rookie of the Year nominees, the names of the Cy Young candidates, and the names of the Silver Slugger winners.
But that wasn’t all. Listed across the bottom of the screen were all the important MLB offseason dates – up to, and including, the opening date of spring training 2024.
For many baseball fans, as soon as the books are closed on the World Series, there basically is silence from the MLB world until that critical spring training opening day. That is, they go on with their lives until there is “real” baseball to talk about again, and they don’t pay much attention to what’s going on for the many busy baseball executives between November and February/March.
Not so in the world of MLB. The list of critical offseason dates is not a short one, and those dates have a significant impact on what happens in spring training and beyond. For MLB decision makers, those dates are the sounds of silence. For the fans paying attention, they’re busy watching the Hot Stove.
The Hot Stove isn’t just about who ends up signed in free agency or who gets traded, or any other number of moves both players and teams make that their most devoted fans follow closely. It’s also about some very intricate (and some would say overly complex and archaic) rules, contractual peculiarities, and quid pro quo activities that have sprung up over the years in baseball and not only stuck, but have acquired even more quirks along the way.
Here are some important dates to pay attention to if you’re interested in the Hot Stove and its entailments, or if you just want to be more knowledgeable about how MLB executives and player agents are spending their time this offseason:
The Qualifying Offer Deadline: The qualifying offer is a one-year offer worth the mean (or exact average) salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players; this year, that amount is $20.325 million. The value, which changes by the year, was $19.65 million for the 2022-23 offseason. As the average player salary increases, so does the annual qualifying offer. In theory, there is no ceiling as to what the qualifying offer number could become.
This year, offers had to be made to a team’s eligible players (their new free agents) within five days of the conclusion of the World Series, and players then have until 4 p.m. ET on Nov. 14 to accept or reject.
If the free agent accepts the qualifying offer, he’s contractually obligated to his team from the previous season for another season. If he rejects the offer, however, he’s free to explore free agency.
Yet here’s where it gets a little complicated: if he elects free agency (rejecting the qualifying offer) and signs elsewhere prior to the next amateur draft, the team who lost him receives a compensatory draft pick. And the team who ultimately signs the player who rejected the qualifying offer is subject to the loss of one or more draft picks (though a team’s highest first-round pick is exempt from forfeiture).
So, in other words, if a team signs a player who rejected his qualifying offer from another team, what they’re giving up is draft pick(s) for the privilege.
Complex enough system? But wait, there’s more…keep reading.
Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer speaks to reporters in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Nov. 8, 2023, the second day of Major League Baseball's three-day general managers meetings. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
The Salary Arbitration Deadline: Players with three or more years, but less than six years, of major league service time are eligible for salary arbitration (if they do not already have a contract in place for the upcoming season).
Want to sound really knowledgeable about the technicalities of major league arbitration? Here’s an interesting wrinkle. Players with less than three – but more than two – years of service can also qualify if they meet a certain service-time threshold that changes by the year (these are known as Super Two players).
If arbitration-eligible players and their teams have not agreed to a contract by a specific date in mid-January, they must both put forth a salary figure for the upcoming season and a hearing is scheduled for February. If they still can’t come to an agreement by the time of the hearing, a panel of arbitrators listens to each side’s case and then selects one of the two salary figures (nothing in between) as the player’s salary for the upcoming season.
Because of the “nothing in between” provision, there is no longer any room for compromise once the hearing occurs. That’s one reason so many arbitration hearings are averted beforehand – players and their agents know that if they cannot compromise on salary with the team before the hearing, the salary may become the team’s number.
This offseason, the deadline to agree to a contract before exchanging salary figures is Jan. 12, 2024. Arbitration hearings will be held Jan. 29 through Feb. 16.
The number of technicalities built into the salary system is what makes it so intricate.
Nestor Cortes, Jr. is one example of a Rule 5 Draftee - picked by the Orioles from the Yankees but returned to the Yankees in 2018.
The Rule 5 Draft Date: The Rule 5 Draft is a quirky part of how Major League Baseball works that’s certainly a little different from how most other major leagues operate. The Rule 5 Draft allows clubs that do not have a full 40-man roster to select certain non-40-man players from other clubs. One purpose it serves is as an avenue for teams to identify and give a major league opportunity to players they feel have been held back elsewhere, for any of a number of reasons.
Players signed at age 18 or younger must be added to their club’s 40-man roster within five seasons, or else they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players signed at 19 or older must be protected within four seasons, or they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.
Like the amateur draft (officially known as the Rule 4 Draft), the Rule 5 Draft is held in reverse order of the standings from the previous season. Unlike in the amateur draft, however, not every club will make a selection in the Rule 5. Those that do must pay $100,000 to the club from whom the player was selected, and the player must remain on the new club’s 26-man roster (or injured list) for the entirety of the following season – or else be placed on outright waivers.
Another wrinkle: if the player clears waivers, he must be offered back to his original team for $50,000 and can be outrighted to the minors only if his original team does not take him back. (This prevents teams from appropriating players from other teams and then simply stashing them in their minor league system.)
This winter’s Rule 5 Draft will be held Dec. 6.
Apart from these dates and deadlines, there are the owners’ meetings, being held November 14-16; the winter meetings, to be held December 3-6; and the draft lottery, to be held December 5.
A busy few months, indeed, if you’re engaged in the inner workings of team roster construction and contractual negotiations. And ultimately, all of these nuances figure into the Hot Stove, if you stop to think about it. The beauty of being a fan, though, is you can choose just how much you want to pay attention to all of it.
Source: Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com, November 2, 2023: https://www.mlb.com/news/mlb-offseason-dates-rules-and-terms