Mariners spring training: Trimming roster involves playing by rules

Finding one’s way through major league contract specifics is challenging but necessary part of spring

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.comMarch 15, 2014 

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, left, and manager Lloyd McClendon have their work cut out for them as they try to get down to a 25-man roster.

TONY GUTIERREZ/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PEORIA, Ariz. — Let’s play “inside baseball.” Pull up a chair alongside Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and listen in on a player-evaluation meeting in a second-floor office at the Peoria Sports Complex.

The cuts have started in big league camp, but those were the easy ones, mostly young guys who were only around in the early days to get a taste of what it’s like — an incentive of sorts.

Decisions are about to get harder, particularly when it comes to the final few spots on the roster. That’s true for all teams, of course, and often it isn’t simply a matter of which player is best.

“Depth is important,” Zduriencik said. “Sometimes you get to a point in spring training when options become a factor. Players who are on your (40-man) roster or off your roster become a factor.”

These factors typically only matter when competition is tight, but they’re worth keeping in mind if you’re trying to anticipate upcoming roster moves as the calendar moves toward opening day.

“At the end of the day,” Zduriencik said, “you have to put what you feel is your best club on the field. You have to make some decisions, and some decisions are painful.”

The greater the pain, the deciding factor often is the desire for “inventory.” That’s the word that gets used a lot by club officials, and it entails keeping as many serviceable players as possible in the organization.

“You always try to increase your inventory because you’re going to need players,” Zduriencik

said. “There’s nobody who finishes the season with the 25-man roster they had on opening day.”

That desire for inventory favors players already on the club’s 40-man roster who are out of options. Players who have options remaining, or who are in camp on a minor league contract, are at a disadvantage.

Here’s why:

A player with options can be sent to the minors without going through waivers. Players on minor league contracts can simply be reassigned.

That preserves inventory.

A player who is out of options must clear waivers (i.e., all other clubs must pass on the opportunity to select him and the terms of his contract) before he is sent to the minors on an outright assignment.

Furthermore, a player can only be forced to accept such an outright assignment once in his career. Thereafter, he can choose to become a free agent, although in doing so he forfeits the terms of his contract.

Eyes glazing over yet? Let’s take a couple of hypothetical situations:

Say Hector Noesi, Brandon Maurer and Zach Miner, all right-handed pitchers, grade out roughly the same this spring as long-relief candidates. The advantage goes to Noesi because he is out of options.

In contrast, Maurer has an option remaining and can be sent to Triple-A Tacoma — or anywhere in the minors, for that matter — at the Mariners’ discretion.

Miner faces an even bigger hurdle because he’s in camp as a nonroster invite on a minor league contract. That means he can be reassigned to the minors if the club chooses.

Not only that, but the Mariners would have to add Miner to their 40-man roster to keep him on the big league club. Because they have no openings, that means someone else must come off and, in all likelihood, be placed on waivers.

Right-hander Scott Baker is one of several candidates battling for a spot in the rotation, but he joined the club as a major league free agent who agreed to a minor league deal — and that carries a big benefit: Under Article XX (B) of the players’ collective bargaining agreement, Baker must be notified by March 25 if he will make the 25-man roster. Catcher Humberto Quintero and outfielder Endy Chavez also enjoy this status.

Such players can choose to become free agents if not on the club, or they can accept a minor league assignment, which includes a $100,000 retention bonus and a June 1 opt-out clause if not in the majors by that date.

That gives Baker an enormous advantage — again, if the decision is close — over those who have options remaining (Maurer and right-hander Blake Beavan) or those in camp on minor league deals (left-hander Randy Wolf).

Want more wrinkles?

A player with at least three years of big league service can refuse an optional assignment and become a free agent even if he has options remaining, although he then forfeits his salary.

As an example, the Mariners could option outfielder Michael Saunders to the minors, but he still would get his big league salary of $2.3 million. (There is no indication that the Mariners are planning to option him.)

Because of the financial guarantee, clubs seldom option such players to the minors, but when they do, it’s rare that the player chooses free agency.

Furthermore, if a player has five or more years of service, even if he has options remaining, he can refuse the assignment, become a free agent and still get paid in full.

For this reason, clubs rarely try to option such players to the minors. For example, it’s effectively meaningless that, say, utilityman Willie Bloomquist has options remaining.

And still more: Clubs can generate significant savings on players who do not have guaranteed contracts by cutting them before two separation dates, one of which has just passed.

Clubs were obligated for only roughly one-sixth (30 days of a 183-day season) of a player’s salary if they had cut him by Wednesday, and roughly one-fourth (45/183) if they cut him by March 26.

The next date is key because if a player remains with the club after March 26, his salary is guaranteed through the end of the season.

Got all that? Now, try to pick the 25-man roster … It’s easy to see why these evaluation meetings can last for hours, isn’t it?

“You want to break with the best guys you can,” Zduriencik said, “but if things are really close, there are other factors that might tie into it.

“Those are things you take into consideration when talking to the coaching staff, which is around them; with the training staff, which is dealing with them every day; and between us who are evaluating them every day.”

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners

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