Non-tender deadline adds intrigue to Hot Stove

Non-tender deadline adds intrigue to Hot Stove

The free-agent pool is about to grow, and it will happen at a precise minute. The baseball executives, players and agents can really get to work, and fans will have even more players to discuss and debate.

Thursday is known as "non-tender day," and at midnight ET that night, the annual free-agent-for-all will become wilder. It's one of baseball's lesser-publicized but intriguing and sometimes season-changing events, and it's further proof that one team's undercooked Top Ramen might be another team's sizzling top sirloin.

Eight years ago, for example, a part-time first baseman/designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins who supposedly couldn't hit lefties named David Ortiz was placed at the top of this pile. Now he's the larger-than-life David "Big Papi" Ortiz, the proud owner of two World Series rings.

Plenty of other bargains are to be had, too, if the stars align for teams in search of new stars.

The fine print behind non-tender day reads as such: The Thursday deadline is for teams to offer 2011 contracts to unsigned players under their control, and the players who are not tendered contracts jump into the already-crowded free-agent pool. Usually, younger players are non-tendered because they're eligible for arbitration and their teams deem their value to be below what they would be awarded in arbitration.

According to the Basic Agreement, when teams tender contracts, they can't cut any more than 20 percent of what a player earned in salary and performance bonuses the previous season, or 30 percent of those figures during the past two seasons. Non-tendered players, however, can be re-signed by their teams at larger cuts.

"There are a lot of reasons why a guy might get non-tendered," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "But just like with exploring trades or free agency, you go into it with an open mind. There could be guys waiting to resurface as quality players, or guys who just happen to be the right fit on other clubs. That's one of the challenges of this job."

The challenges continue to reap rewards.

Jonny Gomes was non-tendered in each of the past two offseasons and became a big part of the Reds' success in 2010. The Orioles picked up Ty Wigginton off the non-tender list in December 2008 and he became an All-Star in 2010. Breakout players from this past season, such as John Buck, Kelly Johnson and Matt Capps, were all non-tendered in late 2009.

Speculation is swirling as the deadline approaches, but until the ring tones start going haywire on the 30 cell phones of MLB's GM fraternity, all we have are "candidates."

Here are some of the players who might become available:

J.J. Hardy, SS, Twins: Rumored to be a non-tender candidate all season, Hardy's prospects of being offered a 2011 contract by Minnesota seemed to take a hit when it was revealed last week that the Twins placed the winning bid for exclusive negotiating rights with Japanese shortstop and 2010 batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Even though Hardy was limited to 101 games last season because of a wrist injury and will be in line for a raise from the $5.1 million he made in 2010, the latest word is that he won't be non-tendered -- although that could mean the Twins have plans to trade him.

Bobby Jenks, RHP, White Sox: Chicago's World Series closer from 2005 made $7.5 million last year, put up a career-high 4.44 ERA, and is in his third year of arbitration eligibility. Those facts add up to the 29-year-old being a strong candidate to be saving games somewhere else in 2011.

Russell Martin, C, and George Sherrill, LHP, Dodgers: This pair of Dodgers makes for an intriguing duo of likely non-tenders. Martin's production was down before he suffered a hip fracture that ended his 2010 campaign, and he'll probably be due for a salary north of $6 million next year. GM Ned Colletti might decide to go elsewhere, which very much seems to be the situation with Sherrill, who made $4.5 million last year, and despite crooked overall numbers, still took care of lefty hitters (.192/.286/.288) in 2010.

Jose Lopez, 2B/3B, Mariners: Coming off a 25-homer, 96-RBI season in 2009, Lopez regressed at the plate, hitting 10 homers and batting .239 with a .270 on-base percentage and .609 OPS. He made $3 million last year, and if Seattle believes super-prospect Dustin Ackley is ready to take over at second base, the club would move Chone Figgins to third, paving the way for Lopez to start anew in a different big league city.

Hideki Okajima, LHP, Red Sox: He's going to be 35 next season, made $2.75 million last year, and had by far his roughest year in the Majors, with a 1.717 WHIP and a career-low 33 strikeouts. His ERA also has gone up in each of his four big league seasons, which might make it easier for Boston to look elsewhere for less expensive and younger lefty-specialist help.

John Maine, RHP, Mets: Maine made $3.3 million last year and could probably be retained for less since he's coming off shoulder surgery, but new Mets GM Sandy Alderson might find it in the best interest of the team to try to spend the same amount of money on a pitcher who hasn't had two consecutive injury-shortened campaigns.

Fred Lewis, OF, Blue Jays: Lewis hit eight homers and stole 17 bases last season and still considers himself an everyday player at the age of 29. But the Jays acquired Rajai Davis from Oakland and already have Vernon Wells and others who could man outfield positions, including 2010 American League MVP candidate Jose Bautista and Travis Snider. Lewis might have to find that consistent playing time somewhere else.

Travis Buck, OF; Jack Cust, DH; Conor Jackson, OF; and Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B, A's: It's never easy to predict what A's GM Billy Beane might do when it comes to personnel, but one thing you can always count on is that he'll try to do things in an economical fashion.

Buck hasn't been on the A's everyday radar for years and is a natural non-tender contender. Cust was non-tendered and re-signed last year and could very well do the same in 2011. It remains to be seen what the A's will make of Jackson, the once-promising D-backs hitter who suffered from injuries and Valley Fever last year. And Kouzmanoff's sub-.700 OPS and $3.1 million salary in 2010 have put him on the bubble, too.

Jeff Mathis, C, Angels: With young catcher Hank Conger on the rise and Mike Napoli's situation still unresolved (the Angels could package Napoli in a trade or keep him to start behind the plate until Conger is ready), the Angels could say goodbye to Mathis, who made $1.3 million in 2010 and batted .195 while missing two months because of injuries.

Dioner Navarro, C, Rays: Count Navarro on the very likely list of non-tender candidates. He made $2.1 million last year, the Rays found a starter -- and occasional leadoff man -- in John Jaso, and Navarro didn't exactly thrill the team's brass when he declined the Rays' request to work out and be ready for possible use in the playoffs after he learned he'd been left off the roster for the Division Series.

Kyle Davies, RHP, Royals: Davies said he turned a corner as a starter, but his 8-12 record and 5.34 ERA didn't exactly agree with that, nor did his $1.8 million salary that's sure to go up next year. And then the Royals traded outfielder David DeJesus to the A's for young righty Vin Mazzaro, which makes it difficult to see where Davies stands with the Royals for 2011.

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