Look Ahead: Arbitration's in the air

Look Ahead: Arbitration's in the air

There are only a few shopping days left before Christmas, and Major League general managers are checking their lists of players and potential players more than twice heading into the final work week before Yuletide.

It has been a busy offseason so far. There have been 36 trades consummated since the end of the 2005 season, involving 93 players, but one of hottest trade rumors of last week -- Manny Ramirez from the Red Sox to the Orioles for shortstop Miguel Tejada -- fizzled quickly when Tejada said he didn't really mean to say he wanted to be traded.

So, while Manny continues to be Manny in Boston and Tejada seems content on playing the third year of a six-year contract with the Orioles, it's time to look ahead and focus your attention on two other potential roster-shuffling events.

Free Agency: It has been nearly two weeks since MLB clubs decided whether to offer their free agent-eligible players salary arbitration. Players have until midnight ET on Dec. 19 to accept third-party input in determining their 2006 salaries.

A player who accepts arbitration is locked into his team, and the two sides can continue negotiations toward a one-year or multiyear agreement before reaching a hearing. Those declining the offer face a Jan. 8 deadline to be re-signed; thereafter, they cannot sign with their old teams until May 1, as with free agents who were not offered arbitration on Dec. 7.

If a player goes to arbitration, both the player and organization must file between Jan. 5-15 with figures being exchanged on Jan. 18. Hearings begin on Feb. 1.

Either way, the ball is in the court of the free agent-eligible players that have been offered salary arbitration.

And there are some big names involved.

Bernie Williams, who has spent his entire professional career with the Yankees, can extend his tenure at least one more season by accepting the Yankees' offer of salary arbitration. Yankees pitchers Al Leiter and Ramiro Mendoza are in the same, though less lucrative, boat as Williams.

The same decision awaits Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon, who has been exploring the free agent market, just in case he decides to continue his career elsewhere.

Free agent pitcher Kevin Millwood and his agent, Scott Boras, seem committed to landing a five-year contract, but there always is a chance of the right-hander returning to the Indians, who have offered salary arbitration to the American League's 2005 ERA leader.

Several players offered salary arbitration have already signed, either with their former club or with other teams.

The latest is pitcher Scott Elarton, who signed a two-year contract with the Royals on Friday, two days after outfielder/designated hitter Carl Everett reached agreement on a one-year contract with the Mariners for a reported $4 million. Prior to the Everett signing, shortstop Rafael Furcal went from the Braves to the Dodgers for $39 million over three years; left-handed closer Billy Wagner changed addresses -- from Philadelphia to New York (Mets) -- for $47 million (four years); starting pitcher Matt Morris changed divisions, moving from the Cardinals to the Giants for $27 million (three years); catcher Ramon Hernandez accepted a 3-year, $27.5-million offer from the Orioles and third baseman Bill Mueller agreed to a 3-year, $9.7-million offer from the Dodgers.

In each of those signings, the players' previous employers will receive a draft choice as compensation.

Meanwhile, catcher Brad Ausmus (2 years, $7.45 million) and outfielder Orlando Palmeiro (2 years, $1.9 million) re-upped with the Astros.

That still leaves primo free agent pitchers Millwood and Jeff Weaver facing midnight deadlines on whether to accept salary arbitration and return to their former teams, or move on.

Some players might not have a choice, which takes us to Tuesday.

Non-tender: Players eligible for salary arbitration must be offered a contract for 2006 before midnight ET on Tuesday, or they become free agents. This leads to a lot of squirming in GM chairs because no one wants to discard the next David Ortiz.

Whenever there is an office water-cooler conversation about non-tenders, the name Ortiz invariably surfaces. The Red Sox's designated hitter, one of the most dominant hitters in the big leagues, has been the non-tender poster child for the past three years.

As the Dec. 20 tender deadline approached in 2002, the Twins decided that Ortiz, who had batted .272, hit 20 home runs and driven in 75 runs that season, would more than likely at least double his $950,000 salary in arbitration. So they didn't offer Ortiz a contract for 2003, and the rest is history.

In his three seasons and 1,631 at-bats with the Red Sox, "Papi" has hit 119 home runs, driven in 388 runs, helped the Sox capture the franchise's first World Series championship since 1918 and finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting this past season. In his six seasons with the Twins, Ortiz hit 58 home runs and drove in 232 runs in 1,447 at-bats.

More recently, there were 41 players that became free agents a year ago, a group that included David Eckstein. The sparkplug shortstop with a peculiar but effective throwing motion, went on the free agent market and signed with the Cardinals for a modest raise -- $180,000 more than the $2.15 million he made during his final season with the Angels.

Eckstein was instrumental in St. Louis capturing the National League Central championship and having the best record (100-62) in the Majors.

But Eckstein was the exception to the rule among castaways. A large majority of the non-tendered players last season never showed up on the radar screen, an indication that GMs did their homework exceedingly well.

And that takes us to this year.

The Mariners have been trying to add at least one starting pitcher besides lefty Jamie Moyer, who re-signed, but rumor has it that they might subtract at least one. Right-handers Gil Meche ($2.535 million) and Ryan Franklin ($2.6 million) are a combined 29-46 the past two seasons and conceivably would still make in the neighborhood of $3.5 to $4 million apiece next season through salary arbitration.

Other hurlers that could soon enter the free agent market include Devil Rays reliever Joe Borowski, the toast of the town in Chicago in 2003 when he saved 33 games for the Cubs, and Brewer-again Dan Kolb.

The Brewers traded for Kolb at the Winter Meetings and would like to give him a chance to return to his 2004 form, but only if he agrees to be non-tendered and re-signed at a price significantly reduced from the $3.4 million he made last year with the Braves.

Other non-tender possibilities include catcher Jason Phillips (Dodgers), Junior Spivey (Nationals), Hee-Seop Choi (Dodgers), Corey Patterson (Cubs), Russell Branyan (Brewers) and Wade Miller (Red Sox), who also was non-tendered last season by the Astros.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.