PEORIA, Ariz. — Let’s play inside baseball. Pull up a chair alongside Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and listen in on a player-evaluation meeting in a second-floor office at the Peoria Sports Complex.
The cuts already have started in big-league camp, but those were the easy ones, mostly young guys who were only around in the early days to get a taste of what it’s like; an incentive of sorts.
Decisions are about to get more difficult, particularly when it comes to the final few spots on the roster. That’s true for all teams, of course, and often it isn’t simply a matter of which player is best.
“Depth is important,” Zduriencik said. “Sometimes you get to a point in spring training when options become a factor. Players who are on your (40-man) roster or off your roster become a factor.”
Now, these factors typically only matter when competition is tight, but they’re worth keeping in mind if you’re trying to anticipate upcoming roster moves as the calendar moves toward opening day.
“At the end of the day,” Zduriencik cautioned, “you have to put what you feel is your best club on the field. You have to make some decisions, and some decisions are painful.”
The deciding factor is often the desire for “inventory.” That’s the word that gets used a lot by club officials, and it entails keeping as many serviceable players as possible in the organization.
“You always try to increase your inventory,” Zduriencik said, “because you’re going to need players. There’s nobody who finishes the season with the 25-man roster they had on opening day.”
That desire for inventory favors players already on the club’s 40-man roster who are out of options. Players who have options remaining, or who are in camp on minor-league contracts, are at a disadvantage.
A player with options can be sent to the minors without going through waivers. Players on minor-league contracts can simply be reassigned. That preserves inventory.
A player who is out of options must clear waivers (i.e., the other major-league clubs get a chance to select him and the terms of his contract) before he can be sent to the minors on an outright assignment. Further, a player can be forced to accept such an outright assignment only once in his career. Thereafter, he can choose to become a free agent although, in doing so, he forfeits the terms of his contract.
Eyes glazing? Let’s take a couple of hypothetical situations:
Say Hector Noesi, Brandon Maurer and Zach Miner, all right-handed pitchers, grade out roughly the same this spring as long-relief candidates. The advantage goes to Noesi because he is out of options.
In contrast, Maurer has an option remaining and can be sent to Triple- A Tacoma (or anywhere in the minors, for that matter) at the Mariners’ discretion.
Miner faces an even bigger hurdle because he’s in camp as a non-roster invite on a minor-league contract. That means he can simply be reassigned to the minors if the club chooses. Not only that, but the Mariners would have to add Miner to their 40-man roster to keep him on the big-league club. Because the 40-man roster is full, someone else would have to come off and, in all likelihood, be placed on waivers.
Scott Baker is one of several pitchers battling for a spot in the starting rotation, but he also joined the club as a major-league free agent who agreed to a minor-league deal — and that carries a big benefit: Under Rule XX (B), Baker must be notified by March 25 if he will make the 25-man roster. (Catcher Humberto Quintero and outfielder Endy Chavez also enjoy this status.) Such players can choose to become free agents if not on the club, or they can accept a minor-league assignment, which includes a $100,000 retention bonus and a June 1 opt-out clause if they’re not in the majors by that date.
In short, that gives Baker an enormous advantage — again, if the decision is close — over those who have options remaining (Blake Beavan and Maurer) or those in camp on minor-league deals (Randy Wolf).
Want more wrinkles?
A player with at least three years of big-league service can refuse an optional assignment and become a free agent even if he has options remaining, although he then forfeits his salary. So, just for example, the Mariners could option outfielder Michael Saunders to the minors, but he would still get his big-league salary of $2.3 million. Because of the financial guarantee, clubs seldom option such players to the minors, but when they do, it’s rare when the player chooses free agency.
Further, if a player has five years or more of service, even if he has options remaining, he can refuse the assignment, become a free agent and still get paid in full. For this reason, clubs rarely try to option such players to the minors. Thus, it’s effectively meaningless that, say, Willie Bloomquist has options remaining.
And still more.
Clubs can generate significant savings on players who do not have guaranteed contracts by cutting them prior to two separation dates, one of which just passed. They were obligated for roughly one-sixth (30/183rds) of a player’s salary if they had cut him by Wednesday, and roughly one-fourth (45/183rds) if they cut him by March 26.
The next date is the key one because if a player is still with the club after March 26, his salary is guaranteed through the end of the season.
Got all that? Now, try to pick the 25-man roster.
It’s easy to see why these evaluation meetings can last for hours, isn’t it?