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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 30, 2009 at 10:05 AM

Arbitration deadline looms for free agents

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Update 4 p.m.: Dave Cameron gives good insight into the economics of the decision at fangraphs.com, and predicts yes on Beltre, no on Bedard.

Update 3:37 p.m.: MLBtraderumors.com’s Tim Dierkes has made predictions for every ranked free agent on whether or not they’ll be offered arbitration, and he disagrees with me on both Erik Bedard and Adrian Beltre . Tim doesn’t see the M’s offering arbitration to either of them. Who knows — he could be right, if the Mariners get spooked by the risk of getting stuck with about $20 million worth of contracts. But to me, it’s a gamble worth taking, because I believe that both will wind up signing elsewhere. I’m sure there’s some soul-searching going on right now on Edgar Martinez Drive.

Update 1 p.m.: The Mariners must also make a decision on whether to offer salary arbitration to their non-ranked free agents — Russ Branyan, Endy Chavez, Mike Sweeney, and Miguel Batista. However, without draft-pick compensation attached to them, there is little to gain from offering arbitration, and I doubt if any will get the offer. WIth or without a salary arbitration offer, the Mariners can continue to negotiate with those players — most notably Branyan, the one they would most like to retain. Realistically, Branyan is the only player in this group they would even consider offering arbitration to. But I suspect they would rather negotiate with Branyan on the open market.

One of the hallmarks of the offseason arrives tomorrow, when teams must decide whether or not to offer salary arbitration to their free agents.

Please note that this has nothing to do with non-free agent players who are eligible for salary arbitration (in the Mariners’ case, Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez, David Aardsma, Mark Lowe and Ryan Langerhans); their day of reckoning will come on Dec. 12, when teams must decide whether or not to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players; but put that aside right now.

The issue on the table right now involves free agents, and the tough decision that teams must make regarding an offer of salary arbitration. It’s necessary to do so to get draft-pick compensation if the player signs with another team — but the risk is that the player could decide to forgo the whole free-agency process and accept salary arbitration. Players have until Dec. 7 to accept or decline arbitration. If they accept, they are regarded as a signed player, with their salary to be determined via the arbitration process. If they decline, they remain a free agent, able to negotiate with all teams — including their previous team.

This issue is particularly vital for those players who are ranked as Type A or Type B free agents via the Elias Rankings. The Mariners don’t have any Type A free agents. Teams that lose a Type A get two draft picks in compensation if they offer salary arbitration and the player signs elsewhere — the signing team’s first-round pick (unless that team chooses in the top half of the first round, in which case that team gives up their second-round pick); and a supplemental pick between the first and second round.

The Mariners do, however, have two Type B free agents: Adrian Beltre and Erik Bedard, that they must make a decision about offering salary arbitration. If they do so, and those players sign elsewhere, the Mariners would receive a supplemental draft pick between the first and second rounds. That’s nothing to be trifled with for an organization like the Mariners that believes strongly in its drafting ability and wants to build up the farm system (like every other team, come to think of it).

The way I see it, Beltre is a fairly easy call: Offer him salary arbitration. Worst-case, he takes it, and the M’s have their third baseman for next year. Yes, it would be a high cost — somewhere near the $12 million he earned last year — but Beltre is a Gold Glove caliber fielder who should hit better now that his latest shoulder surgery, apparently successful, is behind him. It’s probably a moot point, however, because there’s little chance Beltre would accept arbitration to return to the Mariners. He’s a coveted free agent who is likely to get a multi-year deal (probably two, though his agent, Scott Boras, is seeking three or four) with a team like the Phillies, Cardinals or Red Sox, all of whom have been linked to Beltre in rumors. There are others in the running, though I see him landing with the Phillies.

Bedard is a tougher call, but I believe the M’s will offer him arbitration as well. Remember, the rule governing salary arbitration offers for non free agents (the salary offer may not be less than 80 percent of the player’s total compensation from the year before, or less than 70 percent of his compensation from two years prior) does not apply to free agents. So based on the fact that Bedard has made just 30 starts over the past two years, the Mariners could possibly make a case for a cut for Bedard from last year’s $7.75 million that is higher than 20 percent. Not a bad deal for a guy that, if and when he recovers from his second shoulder surgery, could still have a breakout season. When he was out there, Bedard pitched very well over the past two seasons. Again, I think it’s a moot point, because a vigorous market is developing for Bedard (Baltimore, KC, Boston and others), and I see him signing elsewhere.

The Mariners stand to get two valuable supplemental picks in next year’s draft if they offer arbitration to Beltre and Bedard. Sure, there’s some risk attached, but the upside is high and the downside is not that bad, either.

(Seattle Times staff photo by Jim Bates)

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