With the World Series set to kick off next week and conclude by the end of the month, now is a good time to refresh out memories regarding some important dates and focal points for the upcoming offseason.
Free Agency: Free Agency will kick off five days after the conclusion of the World Series. This would place it during the first week of November this year. During that five day waiting period agents can begin negotiations with teams, but no signings become official until it is over. Teams must also decide during that five day waiting period whether to extend the $18.9M qualifying offer (the Cubs have no free agents they would even consider this with).
Count on this being a crazy offseason. The top handful of players on the market figure to be the only ones not majorly affected by the pandemic. The best guys will still get top dollar. You can take that to the bank as surely as they will. But where exactly is the cutoff between "The Upper Class" and "The Upper Middle Class?" Because that's the segment of players who will be squeezed the most.
We've recently seen the Cubs become the beneficiaries of presumed high-dollar players not finding the market they initially estimated. Both Yu Darvish and Craig Kimbrel were big name, highly successful pitchers with long track records expected to sign deals above what the Cubs were willing to pay, but due to various factors (durability, declining velo, etc) the markets for both were cooler than anticipated and the Cubs were able to swoop in late and secure both on smaller contracts.
It has happened to a couple of players each of the last few offseasons. Count on it playing out with even more this offseason.
There is a flipside to that scenario which could play out, however. There are going to be players and agents who do not want to be left holding out for top dollar when there are going to be far fewer dollars to go around. Some will attempt to secure short-term (even one year) deals early in the offseason in the hope of riding out the economic downturn in order to re-enter the market once a true recovery takes place.
I know it isn't an exact parallel, but NHL free agency kicked off last week and we already witnessed the top free agent, a former MVP (Taylor Hall) in his mid-20s, once expected to sign an eight figure deal for at least seven seasons in length, instead settle for a one year, eight million dollar contract.
The equivalent of this in MLB which we could see is a higher percentage of players who receive the qualifying offer simply accepting the $18.9M for one year. But it is for this reason that teams will be even more careful extending the offer to players they either want back or they are 100% sure will not accept. The date has not been determined but a player must decide within about two weeks of receiving the QO whether they will accept it.
I expect many of those middle class players will look to sign early for the best offer they receive. I don't envision many 3-4 year deals in the $40-75M range. The $100M+ deals will still occur, but those mid-level players seeking mid-level salaries will likely only find that salary offered on a short-term commitment. A few might be able to work out heavily backloaded or deferred contracts though.
Deferred payments will likely play a bigger role this offseason than any other. The huge deals signed by the like of Max Scherzer and other top players have often included some form of deferred payments in recent years, but I wonder if we'll start seeing it trickle down into smaller deals. For instance, a mid-rotation starter who would normally get a 3-4 year deal at 15M per might end up with a contract which looks the same on its face when reported, but as details leak out we discover the player may only receive 5M or so next season, with the rest of the $10M owed spread out over a five or ten year period.
One outcome I fully expect: there will be far more fringe veterans forced to accept Minor League deals with non-roster invites to Spring Training than is typical. The Cubs found success in this arena with Jason Kipnis and others in 2020, and with more veterans getting squeezed out of guaranteed deals this winter, there will be plenty of guys faced with the choice of an NRI, working out on their own hoping for an injury which opens up a spot on a team during ST, or maybe even just retiring or taking the year off. We could also see more players pursue careers.money overseas.
All of this is to say... expect the unexpected. And while some of my guesses above may play out, some others will not.
Owners/GM Meetings: The usually scheduled meetings for mid-November have been cancelled. This has typically been a target time for some UFA deals to be finalized and lots of trade scenarios begin to take shape.
The same dealings will take place, but with no physical meetings, I expect there will be less pressure to get things done and we'll see news trickle out at a slower pace and instead we may see an even bigger flurry of activity than usual around...
40-Man Roster Deadline: Each team must set their 40-man roster by November 20th for the purposes of the Rule 5 Draft (which takes place in November). There is a always a lot of waiver and low-level trade activity leading up to this deadline, but with money tight, I expect we seen even more this year as teams jockey to secure as much cheap depth as possible.
The biggest name the Cubs had to make room for this year was Brailyn Marquez but they got the jump on that when they added him to the roster on the final day of the season. The two other prospects who are locks to be added in my eye are Christopher Morel and Corey Abbott. I also expect the Cubs will add at least one of their expected right-handed pitching depth at Iowa: Michael Rucker, Dakota Mekkes, Trevor Megill, Keegan Thompson. If they feel P.J. Higgins took enough of a step in 2020 while at the South Bend camp to be the 3rd catcher in 2021, he could also be added.
There isn't much of a roster crunch for the Cubs this season so I expect the team will be as active as ever making deals and trying to utilize the waiver wire to claim and then pass talent through to the Minors around this time. You can, of course, check out the full list of players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft over at The Cubs Reporter.
Contract Deadline: Team must decide by December 2nd whether to tender 2021 contracts to their arbitration eligible (and non-arbitration eligible) players. The Cubs have 12 arbitration eligible players this offseason, the most I can remember them having in a while. I did some rough estimates for arb figures in an article earlier this week, but it was with the caveat that I really had no idea how to factor the pandemic into the arb process, so I knew my figures would likely turn out to be on the high side. Well, MLBTR put out their initial estimates this week, and it does appear that arbitration raises figure to be low or in some cases, non-existent this year.
Only 4 of the 12 Cubs eligible are projected to earn more than 5 million:
Kris Bryant: $18.6M estimate (No raise, earned 18.6M in 2020)
Javier Baez: $10.0-11.9M estimate (earned $10M in 2020)
Kyle Schwarber: $7.01-9.3M estimate (earned 7.01M in 2020)
Willson Contreras: $5.0-7.4M estimate (earned 4.5M in 2020)
There are still a couple of non-tender candidates for the Cubs, even if their arb figures are below what I initially expected: Albert Almora (1.575M), Colin Rea (1.0-1.6M), Kyle Ryan (1.2-1.5M), Ryan Tepera (1.2-1.5M), Dan Winkler (1.0-1.2M) and Jose Martinez (2.1-2.3M).
Winter Meetings: Scheduled for December 6th-10th, I expect the physical meetings will be cancelled or at least scaled back from previous years, but this will remain a crucial focus point for the offseason. Typically we see the largest UFA deals and many big trades go down during these meetings. The amount of activity could soften this year, but it won't evaporate, and could potentially increase as teams look to shape their roster to their new budgets.
Rule 5 Draft: On the final day of the Winter Meetings the Rule 5 Draft will be conducted. This event rarely has an impact equivalent to the amount of time and ink devoted to it, but I do expect to see a greater number of players selected this offseason than in recent years. Again, it offers a means to secure cheap young depth, a commodity which should be in high demand. Of course, it could play out the opposite, with teams protecting more of their own talent on their 40-man rosters in fear of losing it. We'll see.
Arbitration Deadline: In Mid-January arbitration eligible players and teams who have not come to contract agreements already must both submit salary figures to an arbitration panel. Negotiations and agreements can still take place until the actual arbitration hearings which happen in early February.
Teams are typically loathe to go to actual hearings, not just because they may lose (in which case the arbiter chooses the higher salary the player filed) which the team must accept, but the nature of the hearings basically forces the team to argue against their own player which can lead to hard feelings. The two sides typically work out an agreement somewhere in the middle ground before the hearings take place.
With budgets tight though, I expect more teams will take hard line stances and be more willing to fight, regardless of the result (although the some of the players who have the best chances of winning their cases and be awarded salaries teams would deem too high may simply get non-tendered or traded earlier in the offseason).
Filed under: Morning Cubs Roundup