Midnight brings non-tender deadline
An already crowded free-agent pool could get a few additions
LAS VEGAS -- Major League Baseball's deadline to tender contracts for the coming season to non-free-agent big league players without one is at midnight on Friday night.So when the clock strikes the witching hour, an already crowded free-agent market is only going to become more crowded. "You keep paying attention to free agents," St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said this week at the just-concluded Winter Meetings. "Because, as time passes, guys don't get the deal they want and all of a sudden you might be able to get a guy for a year or two." And La Russa was talking about the players already out there. Dodgers reliever Takashi Saito, Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles, Pirates right-handed reliever Denny Bautista and Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes are likely non-tender candidates. Most often, younger players under club control are non-tenders because they're eligible for arbitration and the host club might not want to subject itself to a salary it isn't willing to pay. A player who isn't offered a contract by midnight Friday then goes into the free-agent pool. If he is tendered, he's locked into the 2009 season at a figure to be determined later, either in arbitration or negotiations. According to the Basic Agreement, when teams tender contracts, they can't attempt to cut any more than 20 percent of what a player made last season in salary and performance bonuses or 30 percent of those figures during the past two seasons. "Sometimes people will think, 'We like a guy with a club, but he might be non-tendered, so we'll just wait and see what happens [before trying to make a trade or sign another free agent],'" said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and GM. "And I think it will sort of push forward some things next week with clubs talking with one another." This week, free-agent pitchers CC Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez got their money. Sabathia is on the brink of signing a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees and K-Rod joined the Mets for three years at $37 million. Among the closers still out there, Kerry Wood underwent an Indians physical Thursday, and the Cardinals are pursuing Brian Fuentes. Enter Saito, who the Dodgers could swiftly add to the mix. The Japanese right-hander has saved 81 games in three seasons for the Dodgers, including 18 last year before he hurt his elbow and missed the final two months of the season. Therein lays the rub. Should the Dodgers risk a rich arbitration award or just cut Saito loose right now? "We're still trying to figure something out on that," said general manager Ned Colletti. "It'll be a tough call. The last time he needed to pitch, he couldn't pitch. Is he healthy since then? We don't know. It's a serious situation." Through arbitration, Saito could earn around $3.5 million after receiving $2 million in 2008. The Dodgers want to avoid arbitration by getting him signed for around $2.5 million and are using the leverage of the non-tender in an attempt to reach an agreement before the deadline.
The Tigers, still in the market for a closer, are watching closely. Otherwise, Trevor Hoffman, MLB's all-time leader with 554 saves, already is a free agent.Saito isn't Colletti's only decision. He's also trying to determine what to do about light-hitting shortstop Angel Berroa, who filled in admirably when Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra were injured this past season. Berroa's case is unique. He's coming off a multiyear deal in which the Royals paid him $4.75 million last season. Because of the 20-percent cut rule, which applies to all contract renewals, the Dodgers would be bound to offer $3.8 million in arbitration, more than they're seemingly willing to pay. Because of that, Berroa is likely to be non-tendered and become a free agent, whom the Dodgers could sign later. "Just because you don't tender doesn't mean you can't sign him later," Colletti said. "He'll probably shop and see [what's available]." Elsewhere, the Angels are weighing their options on utility man Robb Quinlan, the Rockies are mulling outfielder Willy Taveras, the Astros could part ways with third baseman Ty Wigginton, and pitchers Daniel Cabrera of the Orioles, Tim Redding of the Nationals and Chad Gaudin of the Cubs all could be on the bubble, USA Today reported on its Web site Thursday. Brewers left-hander Chris Capuano, who is working back from Tommy John surgery, may also find himself left out in the cold. He earned $3.75 million last season, but did not pitch because of the injury. If the Brewers decide to non-tender Capuano, they could still try to re-sign him to a new, less expensive contract for 2009. And finally, Giants left-hander Jack Taschner will not be left out there. Despite the free-agent acquisition of left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt, general manager Brian Sabean said on Thursday that he intends to tender Taschner, another lefty reliever who's been with the organization for 11 seasons. "He just needs to pitch in a spot in the pecking order where he can relax and have some success," Sabean said. "He's been overexposed a little bit. And to have three lefties, including him, really helps. Not many teams can do that."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.