The past few MLB offseasons have moved at a glacial pace, with big-name players lingering on the market into January or later, and Cubs outfielder and union rep Ian Happ has a potential solution.
Major League Baseball should move up the arbitration process.
“It’s not until the first or second week of January that things really kick off with arbitration, which I don’t think makes sense for the timing and the process of the offseason,” Happ told WSCR’s Dan Bernstein on Tuesday.
The past two winters, we’ve seen All-Stars Manny Machado (Feb. 21) and Bryce Harper (Feb. 28) not sign with the Padres and Phillies until after spring training started. Last winter, Marcell Ozuna (Jan. 21), Josh Donaldson (Jan. 22) and Nick Castellanos (Jan. 27), three of the top bats available, didn’t sign until nearly three months into free agency.
Under the current system, teams have until early December (Dec. 2 this year) to decide whether or not to tender their arbitration-eligible players contracts for the next season. But that’s only the beginning of the process. They have until early January (Jan. 15 this winter) to come to an agreement on salary with their arbitration-eligible players.
If the two sides don’t agree by that deadline, they go to a hearing with a panel of arbitrators in February.
That’s a long time for teams to wait to learn how much salary they will have committed to one player on their payroll, let alone several. The Cubs, for example, have 12 arbitration-eligible players this winter (though they and every team could non-tender some next week).
“So we’re waiting until January to get cost certainty, and you wonder why teams aren’t pulling the trigger on free agents until the middle or the end of January or February,” Happ said. “Well, it’s because they don’t have cost certainty.
“A team like the Cubs that has six, seven guys in the arbitration process and four or five of those guys with big numbers, what could be a few million this way or a few million that way, that really changes the ledger when you go down to the total salaries they’re willing to give out.”
This offseason might be slower than even the last few because teams can’t predict next season’s revenues due to COVID-19. With information on vaccines developing, teams may wait until later in the winter to make free agent moves, when they'll have a better idea of how many fans can attend games in 2021 and therefore what revenues will look like.
There’s also the fact that teams sustained pandemic-related revenue losses in 2020, and with the arbitration deadline not until mid-January, some may need to wait until they finalize those salaries before signing anyone.
By moving up future arbitration schedules, teams will have a better idea of what their upcoming payrolls will look like earlier in the free agency period. Perhaps the non-tender deadline moves to November and salaries must be agreed upon by early December, with any hearings scheduled for early January.
“It’s something that I hope when we go into the next negotiation, we reconsider the timing,” Happ said of the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiation. “Because it makes our offseason pretty boring for three or four months.”