Love Me Non-Tender
Today is the deadline for clubs to submit their Central Tender Letter (CTL) to the MLB Labor Relations Department (LRD), listing all unsigned players on the club's MLB Reserve List (AKA "40-man roster"), and which of them are being tendered a 2012 contract, and which are not.
After checking the letter for possible errors (like "Mr. Hendry, are you really sure you want to tender Koyie Hill?"), the LRD forwards a copy of the CTL to the MLB Players Association (MLBPA), and then the MLBPA notifies each player and his agent.
There are two types of unsigned players, those who are eligible for salary arbitration, and those who are not yet eligible.
A player on an MLB Reserve List becomes eligible for salary arbitration automatically once he has accrued at least three years of MLB Service Time, and certain players with less than three years of MLB Service Time (known as a "Super Two") are also eligible.
A "Super Two" is any player on an MLB Reserve List with more than two but less than three years of MLB Service Time who accrued at least 86 days of MLB Service Time the previous season, where the player is in the top 17% in MLB Service Time of that group (top 22% beginning post-2012).
Unsigned players on an MLB Reserve List who are not yet eligible for salary arbitration ("auto-renewal" players) are pretty much at the mercy of the club. The club has the right to decide unilaterally how much it will pay the player (subject to the MLB minimum salary and the maximum salary-cut rules), and the player can either take it or hold out and not play (and probably go on the Restricted List).
That said, a club (usually the assistant GM) will negotiate with an auto-renewal player (occasionally haggling for weeks over relatively small sums of money, sometimes as litttle as $500), and to keep them motivated, the club almost always wil reward the ones who had good seasons with a raise (sometimes a substantial raise).
Players eligible for salary arbitration are in a much better negotiating position.
First of all, while a player may be eligible, the club does not actually offer salary arbitration to the player on December 12th. A player who is eligible for salary arbitration is only tendered or non-tendered on 12/12, Salary arbitration can't be requested by either the player or the club unless the two sides have not come to an agreement on a contract by January 5th. Then there is a ten-day "window" (ending on January 15th) where either the player or the club can request salary arbitration.
In practice, the club does not request salary arbitration, because if no agreement has been reached by January 15th and the player has not requested salary arbitration by that date, the player automatically becomes an "auto-renewal" player, and the club can unilaterally dictate the terms of the contract (which obviously would be great for the club). So if a player is eligible for salary arbitration and no agreement has been reached by January 5th, the player absolutely, positively WILL request salary arbitration before the window closes.
Once salary arbitration is requested, the two sides exchange "official" salary figures, and a hearing is scheduled before a three-person arbitration panel sometime during the first three weeks of February. In the meantime, the player and the club could have as long as a month to negotiate an agreement.
While an arbitration panel is required to weigh the evidence presented by each side (usually in the form of statistics comparing the player to another similar player) and then choose either the club's salary offer or the player's salary request, the player and the club frequently will decide to essentially "split the difference" (something the arbitration panel cannot do) and settle prior to the hearing, since it's next to impossible to predict how an arbitration panel will rule, and that can be dangerous for both sides, especially if there is a substantial gap between the two salary figures. (An MLB executive who shall remain nameless once told me that he believes the arbitrators just flip a coin).
The Cubs presently have 37 players on their MLB Reserve List (40-man roster), and only seven are signed for 2012. That means 30 players must be listed on the Cubs CTL.
Jeff Baker, IF-OF
Blake DeWitt, IF-OF
Koyie Hill, C
Matt Garza, RHSP
Geovany Soto, C
Ian Stewart, 3B
Randy Wells, RHSP
Darwin Barney, INF
Jeff Beliveau, LHRP
Jeff Bianchi, INF
Alberto Cabrera, RHSP
Tony Campana, OF
Chris Carpenter, RHRP
Andrew Cashner, RHRP
Lendy Castillo, RHRP
Welington Castillo, C
Starlin Castro, SS
Steve Clevenger, C-1B
Casey Coleman, RHSP
Rafael Dolis, RHRP
John Gaub, LHRP
Bryan LaHair, 1B-OF
Junior Lake, INF
Scott Maine, LHRP
Marcos Mateo, RHRP
James Russell, LHRP
Jeff Samardzija, RHRP
Matt Szczur, OF
Josh Vitters, 3B-1B
Casey Weathers, RHRP
So which of the 30 unsigned Cubs players are most-likely to be non-tendered today?
Right off the bat, we can be sure that Lendy Castillo WILL be tendered, because any player selected in the Rule 5 Draft cannot be non-tendered.
Among the unsigned players who are eligible for salary arbitration, Koyie Hill would seem to be a virtual lock to get non-tendered, and Blake DeWitt is a possibility, too.
Having made $2.2M+ in 2011 as a "Super Two" and being eligible for salary arbitration once again after an atrocious season that saw him get demoted to AAA, Ian Stewart would normally have been a good candidate to get non-tendered, just so he could have had his salary cut by more the maximum-allowable 20%. The Cubs almost certainly won't non-tender Stewart three days after acquiring him in a trade, but they really should have waited a while longer to pull the trigger on a deal that might not even have been necessary, since it's possible that the Rockies might have non-tendered him themselves.
See, one good thing about non-tendering a player is that the club can re-sign the player to a contract without regard to the maximum-allowable 20% pay cut that applies to a player who is tendered a contract. Another advantage of a non-tender is that a player can be removed from a 40-man roster without exposing the player to Outright Assignment Waivers (which are irrevocable) or an Outright Release (a player who is given his Outright Release between September 1st and MLB Opening Day cannot be added back to the same club's 40-man roster and 25-man roster until May 15th).
One GM trick is to non-tender a veteran player who is eligible for salary arbitration, and then re-sign him to a pre-arranged Major League contract with more than the maximum-allowable salary-cut, or (better still) sign him to a minor league contract (with a Non-Roster Invitation to Spring Training, of course), with perhaps an opt-out clause if the player doesn't make the MLB Opening Day 25-man roster.
The former means the player remains on the 40-man roster but without the club having to worry about arbitration or maximum salary-reduction limits, while the latter (which is a REALLY good deal for the club) removes the player from the MLB 40-man roster (creating roster space for free-agents or players acquired in a trade or via waiver claim later in the off-season), allows the club to cut the player's salary more than the maximum-allowable 20%, and permits the player to compete for a job on the MLB 25-man roster in Spring Training without the club having to worry about eventually releasing a player who might be entitled to a sizable severance if signed to a MajorLeague contract. Not every player (or agent) will go for this, but some do, and it's worth considering if you want to try and save some money and/or create additional space on the 40-man roster during the off-season.
Another type of player who could be non-tendered and then immediately re-signed to a minor league contract (even for the same money he would have made if he was tendered) with an NRI to Spring Training is an "auto-renewal" player who is out of minor league options, and where the club believes it might need to send him to the minors if there isn't room for him on the Opening Day MLB 25-man roster, but the club would prefer to not have to risk losing him off Outright Waivers (since he is out of options).
Both Marcos Mateo and Bryan LaHair fit this profile to a "T" (that is, player has some value to the team but there might not be room for him on the Opening Day 25-man roster, player is out of minor league options, and signed to a minor league contract, the player would not have to pass through Outright Waivers if he doesn't make the Opening Day 25-man roster and the Cubs want to send him to AAA Iowa).
Again, you non-tender Mateo and LaHair ONLY if an agreement is in place where the player agrees in advance to sign a minor league contract (which could be for "big league money"--that is, maybe $480K with an $80K minor league split) plus an NRI to Spring Training (and perhaps an opt-out clause for LaHair if he does end up in Iowa and has an opportunity to maybe play in Japan).
Otherwise, you can leave them on the 40-man roster, and then trade one or both at the end of Spring Training if one or the other doesn't make the Opening Day 25-man roster and you don't want to risk losing the player(s) off Outright Waivers. But a non-tender and then a quick pre-arranged re-sign to a minor league contract (with an NRI to Spring Training) would be ideal.