“The Love Me Tender” deadline for Arb-Eligible players

The Washington Nationals came into the off-season with nine arbitration-eligible players — and with a few signings, and a a couple of DFA’s, the team is in a position today to move forward with all of their four remaining players who are arb-eligible and will receive tender offers, if they do not agree to firm salaries before that, for the 2024 season.

Going into the offseason, here was the Nationals arbitration-eligible list of nine players sorted by service time and their MLBTR projected value:

As expected, Chavis was an early DFA, and he could return on a minor league deal, and Smith was the one player to get the “Luke Voit” treatment of coming to terms on a market rate deal per a source, or get the DFA. Well, Smith is now gone via a DFA. The four remaining players will all be retained, and general manager Mike Rizzo will try to negotiate their 2024 salaries before today’s deadline just like he did with Vargas, Robles, and Rainey. Here are the final four:

With just those players remaining on the arb-eligible list, the team is in fairly good shape compared to some others that are struggling with this decision day. Last night, the Atlanta Braves made a blockbuster trade with the White Sox for five of their players of which four players were on their 40-man roster, and two of which were part of their 13 arb-eligible players.

Teams will be trying to lock players up today to 2024 salaries closer to fair market values, and if they non-tender a player(s) they simultaneously become a free agent. The deadline to agree to a contract before exchanging salary figures is Jan. 12, 2024. That process has the team and the player’s agent exchange their salary numbers. If they go to an arbitration hearing, the arbiter can only choose one of those salary numbers at the hearing, there is no middle ground. Often, arb hearings are intense and negative as the team tries to beat the player down on why they aren’t worth what the player is asking for. Arbitration hearings will be held Jan. 29 through Feb. 16 which is much earlier this year to wrap most of this up before Spring Training camps have their first team workouts.

You may hear the terms “file and trial” and that was popularized by teams with the firm stance that they treat the arbitration figure exchange date as a hard deadline.  The Nats are not one of those teams, but the Nats like all teams, do not want to go to arb hearings. Teams that are unable to avoid arbitration prior to exchanging salary figures, the understanding is that they will no longer negotiate one-year deals with that player. However, that is not a binding decision, and the Nats have been known to keep negotiating to avoid going to an arbitration hearing.

In their history, the Nationals have rarely gone through the arbitration hearing route. There was the time that reliever Jerry Blevins thought it would be cool (true story) to go to an arb-hearing and a month later Rizzo traded Blevins to the New York Mets for Matt den Dekker. Some say that if you take a team to an arbitration hearing, it creates friction. It seems that players who do that with Rizzo do not get many favors going forward — or like Blevins, do not stay around to see Opening Day. Before the 2019 season, Rizzo went to arb hearings with both reliever Kyle Barraclough and Michael A. Taylor which the Nationals side won. Barraclough was DFA’d during the season, and Taylor headed to free agency after the season.

In 2012, John Lannan had his arbitration hearing before Spring Training camp opened and was supposed to be the fifth starter on that squad, and his manager, Davey Johnson, publicly named Lannan as his fifth starter and days later, Lannan was sent to Triple-A Syracuse as Rizzo went with Ross Detwiler as the team’s fifth starter. Maybe that arb hearing had nothing to do with it — but maybe it did. The Nats list is small on players who go to arbitration hearings, but the warning is don’t push Rizzo.

First off, let’s explain that arbitration rules generally cover players with at least 3-years of MLB service time and not on a long-term contract. These arb-eligible players have a chance to negotiate a set salary for the upcoming season and get paid above the league minimum salary of $760,000. There is also the Super-Two rule for players with less than three years of service time to become arb-eligible and a player must rank in the top 22 percent in terms of service time among all players who have amassed between two and three years of service time in the Majors.

Some would say it was time to move on from the former top prospect, Robles, but that isn’t Rizzo’s M.O. He has a history of sticking with his former top prospects, and expects better results. If there was any good news, Robles stepped up his offense in 2023 before he hurt his back, limiting him to just 36 games. Unfortunately his defense had suffered in his 2023 season. We reported that the Nats were considering a trade of Robles per a source, and it was “lukewarm” on any talks during the GM Meetings. Of course, the team could still trade him at any time given Rizzo has Jacob Young, and top prospects Dylan Crews and James Wood in the wings.

This is a good time to look out for salary dump trades like the Braves did last night with Mike Soroka and Nicky Lopez. There are several more players on the non-tender bubble per MLBTR. Again, if a player is non-tendered, they automatically become a free agent. But you can trade an arb-eligible player today, and the acquiring team then has the decision today to tender or non-tender.

We will say today how many love me tender players there are, and how many get their non-tender notifications.

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