Friday is the deadline for major league teams and their arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary figures in advance of a hearing. That is somewhat important, but teams still have a chance to settle between Friday and the day of the hearing. That is, unless you are talking about a “file-and-trial” team like the Rays–if they don’t agree to terms with their players by Friday, they are going to a hearing. Why do they do that? As we discussed almost exactly a year ago, one big reason is that they have never lost an arbitration hearing (they’re 5-0 under Andrew Friedman) and can tell players “here’s our final offer, and if you don’t accept it, we’ll beat you in arbitration and you’ll get less.” But could Friday prove to be the deadline for something else as well? Looking at the Rays’ arbitration eligible players, we see a player who has little chance to make their Opening Day roster: Jose Lobaton. Marc Topkin suggests that the Rays could look to deal Lobaton so that the team that acquires him can worry about agreeing to terms with him. With that in mind, should we expect Lobaton to be traded in the coming days?
One of the biggest ironies of baseball is that contracts take forever to be finalized and confirmed by the signing team while trades are announced almost immediately by all parties. Why is it so much more complicated to agree to a deal with one player than a trade featuring several? The reason is how complicated contracts are. There are often incentives involved for various things, and even if there are not, there are various clauses in the text of the contract that could be haggled over for days or even weeks. You have to involve the player, his agent, his lawyer, and his wife to go along with multiple members of the team’s front office and maybe even a lawyer or two on their end. The baseball part of the contract isn’t so complicated, but the legal stuff can be overwhelming. For a trade, meanwhile, it’s simply a baseball move. All the contracts are already in place, and even if a player is getting extended, at least they have the language from his current deal to use as a starting point. It’s strictly a baseball move and much easier to handle. But if the Rays trade Lobaton before agreeing to a deal with him, suddenly that goes out the window.
What does the team that acquires Lobaton possibly have to gain by doing the deal themselves? The Rays are more familiar with the players and the specific things they are looking for a deal, and it makes things much more simple to just let them do it. What if the Rays give Lobaton more money because they are trading him anyway? They will not because a lower salary would help their case to trade him. And it is not just that the Rays will try as hard as normal to get Lobaton to agreed to terms–in fact, they are one of the best in the business at doing so. Data has shown that the Rays are one of the best in the business at getting players to agree to lesser deals than what they are expected to make. Put the ball in the Rays’ court to get the deal done, and the acquiring team could get Lobaton for say $900,000 instead of the projected $1 million and put the extra $100,000 in their pockets. If a team wants to acquire Lobaton, their best move is to wait until the Rays agree to terms with Lobaton.
It would be nice for the Rays to have one less player to negotiate with, but it really does not make sense for the Rays to trade Jose Lobaton right now. If they keep him until after they sign him, they will be able to simplify things for the acquiring team in terms of the language of the contract and quite possibly get him to sign for less than people would have expected and raise his trade value by a tick. Jose Lobaton is extremely unlikely to stay with the Rays when the regular season begins. However, expect him to stick around through this Friday’s deadline because the Rays have no incentive to deal him right now.