New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles

The idea of players being non-tendered can be a little difficult to understand for regular people who don’t spend their days & nights buried in the fine print of the collective bargaining agreement. “Non-tendering” a player grants him early free agency, forsaking the remaining years of club control while freeing the club from paying his way. Arbitration raise are baked into the system, so the rules dictate players earn raises

After three years of team control where they are entitled to little more than the league minimum, baseball players enter their arbitration years. Their salary slowly begins coming into line with their performance ever so slightly.

Players earn raises based on their service time and performance as laid out in the CBA. Agents and teams have a good understanding as to what a player will earn in arbitration. Sometimes that potential earning rises beyond what a team is willing to pay and, if they cannot work out a trade with another team eager to pay that same price, they can opt not to tender the player a contract, essentially renouncing their rights to the player.

Players can re-sign with their original team for lesser terms once they become a free agent. Even after they hit the free market, the existing service time rules dictate their terms moving forward (i.e. they are still eligible for arbitration but not free agents until the earn six years of service time.)

It can look a little strange from a distance but it goes a long way to “paying back” players after their first three seasons making minimum wage. Think about a player like Mike Trout – think of all the value he already delivered the Angels in the last two years. Darn right he will start making some of that money back.

MLB Trade Rumors publishes their list of players who might get non-tendered, based on the arbitration calculations reverse engineered by Matt Swartz. There is always an entertaining list of players. The non-tenders list always contains a few surprises, players who will go on to produce at their next stop when others counted them out.

There is one good rule of thumb to remember on baseball’s non-tender day: good players do not get non-tendered. It is really that simple. Even as arb costs rise, good players are almost always worth it, because even though they’re expensive, replacing them will only cost more time and money.

The most common players we see go the non-tender route are limited players – guys who might do one thing particularly well but have priced themselves out of use to their current club. Jim Johnson was the Orioles closer the last two years. While he isn’t likely to be non-tendered, he salary figures to rise beyond his current talent level.

The reward system is powered by a few key stats – some of which tend to overrate certain players. Saves are a great way to get paid in arbitration, and Jim Johnson just notched 50 in 2013. But all those saves come a price, as the Orioles reliever is set to earn more than $10MM in arbitration. Johnson is a nice reliever but is he worth more than ten million dollars? I can’t say that he is.

It cuts both ways for players like Johnson. They fight and work to maximize their earnings but then find themselves out of a job because suddenly they’re worth more than any team is willing to pay them.

This is the exception to the rule. Most of the names on the non-tender list are really bad middle infielders who struggle to meet even the lowliest of offensive barriers for shortstops and the like. Relievers coming off terrible year(s), platoon outfielders and busted prospects. It’s a grim list, though there are always diamonds in the rough.

Scott Kazmir signing a two-year contract worth $22 million after being out of baseball completely in 2012 shows you never really know where the next diamond might turn up. The Rule 5 draft, non-tendered players and free agents wandering the wilderness, there are contributions lurking everywhere. Just don’t be surprised when your team signs a recently non-tendered guy and it turns out he isn’t very good. That’s sort of the way it works.