Making Sense of This Year's Record Number of Non-Tendered Players

This year's non-tender deadline was our first real glimpse of how teams are planning to handle this offseason. It’s not particularly encouraging for the players.
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It does not take much to remember a time when the non-tender deadline was not a major event on the offseason calendar. Just rewind to, say, 2016, and you’ll be back in an era where the deadline appeared functionally the same each winter. There would be a few dozen players at most who would not receive a contract. The majority of this group would be easily predictable: injured pitchers, one-dimensional depth-chart fillers, unlucky guys from teams with a positional backlog.

Over the last several seasons, however, clubs have been opting to non-tender more and more players. The pandemic has only exacerbated the trend: Wednesday’s deadline brought a record-high 59 non-tenders, a list that includes plenty of expected players alongside more surprising names like Adam Duvall from the Braves and David Dahl from the Rockies. It’s not the total bloodbath that some had feared, but it’s still a record number, and a significant data point for figuring out what the rest of the offseason will look like.

It’s our first real glimpse of how teams are planning to handle this winter—stuck between an abbreviated season in 2020 and an uncertain outlook for 2021—and it’s not particularly encouraging for the players. So here are the questions to be asking:

How many of these non-tenders are specific to 2020? How many would have happened otherwise?

It’s impossible to say for sure. But here’s the context for how the number of players non-tendered has shifted over the last 10 seasons:

number of nontenders

The recent movement is pretty striking. The number has been growing over the last few years, and 2020 fits the trend line almost perfectly, suggesting the new record is not due to a financial crunch from the coronavirus so much as it is due to the general direction of the sport. Look no further than one of the first quotes issued by a general manager after the deadline passed: Baltimore GM Mike Elias complimented infielder Hanser Alberto, whom he had just non-tendered and said the team would hypothetically be interested in bringing him back, but “part of our job is to operate within the economic framework of the collective bargaining agreement.”

In other words—an executive in search of a justification for these moves does not have to rely on the pandemic. The current structure of baseball itself will work just as easily. As teams have focused more on trying to find value as cheaply as possible, non-tenders have increased, and this winter has just continued that dynamic.

Did the pandemic have any role in the record number of non-tenders? There was probably some. It makes sense that clubs are going to be tightening their belts, and these non-tenders represent one form of that, just like all the job cuts that have been seen across front offices recently. But the core of the situation here is that this trend was already happening. Even if there had been no coronavirus, with a full season under regular financial conditions, 2020 still might have set a record with 59 non-tenders, anyway.

Do all these non-tenders mean players are screwed this offseason?

Well, not to lead off two answers in a row with “it’s impossible to say for sure,” but… it’s impossible to say for sure! These players still can sign with a different team for roughly what they would have made with their old team. (And they still can sign with their old team—though, of course, that would probably have to involve some real shift in the value of the contract.) A non-tender indicates how just this one club understands the value of a given player. It’s not always reflective of what he might be able to get on the open market.

But it’s still pretty discouraging for players. That’s both as it relates specifically to this winter—which was already fraught with uncertainty and now has dozens of additional guys hitting free agency—and as it fits generally into the bigger picture. With the collective bargaining agreement up at the end of next season, expect this to be a point of contention, whether in a conversation that focuses on an overhaul of arbitration or one that suggests a different compensation model for young players.

Is this another point for the “baseball’s middle class is dying” discourse?

Yes. What is the future for average baseball players? That question has been prompted by free agency in each of the last few offseasons—elite players have continued to break records with huge deals, while players in the middle of the pack have been squeezed, signing shorter contracts for less money than likely would have been the case 10 or even five years ago. And non-tenders fit in that structure, too. The 59 players who did not receive contracts this week are not bottom-of-the-roster sorts. They include guys like Duvall, Dahl, Kyle Schwarber from the Cubs and Eddie Rosario from the Twins—players who’d proven themselves to be above replacement level, if not necessarily by that much, and now find themselves cast out into the market. This goes back to the idea of the structural questions that might be addressed in the CBA next winter. For now, however, being average (or just above) isn’t what it used to be.

Does this mean the market can get going now?

Yes. While the free agent market can be notoriously slow to get going under any circumstances, it makes sense that there was extra incentive for teams to sit out this November, since they knew that there would likely be a slew of non-tendered players added to the market in December. Now that clubs know exactly who will be available… well, don’t count on a bunch of deals right away (this is still MLB, after all, and not the NBA), but it seems like the door should be open for teams to get started in earnest now.