Why so early? To control spending

Originally Published: December 2, 2005
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

The winter meetings, which commence Monday in Dallas, are being held a week earlier than usual this year. For some, the change is barely worth noting.

But others in baseball aren't so sure. Some believe that Major League Baseball intentionally moved up the meetings to depress spending on free agents.

Here's why: The deadline for teams to offer their own free agents salary arbitration is Dec. 7, which comes on the second-to-last day of the winter meetings, when teams are all but packed to return home.

" I think history has taught us that [MLB] will go to great lengths to keep a lid on salaries. So I don't put anything past them. "
An agent

That could result in a drag on free-agent signings, since many teams hold off on signing Type A free agents until the deadline has passed and a determination on salary arbitration has been made. That way, if Team A is intent on signing a free agent from Team B, they'll know whether they have to offer compensation -- usually, their first-round draft pick, depending on where they finished the previous season -- to the team losing the player.

Here's how it works: Team B gains a draft pick from Team A as compensation if Team B offers salary arbitration to the player by the Dec. 7 deadline. If Team B fails to offer the arbitration by Dec. 7, it is not compensated with a draft pick.

Take, for instance, the case of lefty reliever Mike Myers, who has interest from a number of clubs, including the New York Yankees. The Yankees need a lefty specialist and want Myers.

But they won't sign him until after Dec. 7, and by then they'll know whether the Red Sox have offered Myers salary arbitration. If the Sox do offer Myers arbitration, however, they'll run the risk that Myers will accept, take them to arbitration, and use Scott Eyre's recent three-year, $11 million deal with the Cubs as a benchmark for a huge raise over last season's $600,000 salary.

So how do the winter meetings fit into the equation? Simple. MLB doesn't like its teams to get into a free-spending mode when everyone is housed together. Remember, the winter meetings were canceled altogether in the mid-to-late 1990s when the game's leadership believed that agents had hijacked the process and sent spending out of control.

The theory was that teams feel too much pressure to come home from the meetings with something to show their fans. They would often overspend, especially when agents orchestrated multi-team bidding for their clients.

Now, some believe a slightly more subtle clampdown might be in effect.

"We haven't gotten any mandates, per se," said one general manager. "But [MLB executives] don't like spending of any sort. And they let you know about that."

And the earlier date for the meetings?

"I hadn't given it much thought, to tell you the truth," said another executive. "But there may be something to it -- who knows?"

Some agents, who recall the collusion cases from more than a decade ago, are more certain there's a reason for the shift.

"I think history has taught us that [MLB] will go to great lengths to keep a lid on salaries," said one. "So I don't put anything past them."

Ironically, as one executive pointed out, while a drag on spending might be the goal, baseball might unwittingly be hurting small-market teams by its actions.

Say a small-market team would like to get compensation for one of its own mid-level free agents, but is wary of offering arbitration for fear that it might be accepted, leading to a big payday that would bust the team's budget.

In the past, the team could hope for the player to sign elsewhere before the salary arbitration date, then offer the player arbitration, knowing that it couldn't be accepted. That represented a free draft pick in the June draft to a team that could use all the additional young (and cheap) talent it can find.

But with teams waiting to see whether a player will be offered arbitration, that same player might now wait until arbitration isn't offered before going elsewhere. That would leave the original team without so much as a draft pick in return.

"I'm not sure it's going to make much of a difference," said a major-league executive. "The teams that are determined to spend and get better will -- and losing a draft pick won't matter much if they like the player enough. And even if they wait until after the [date], they're still going to spend. They're just not going to do it in Dallas."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.