SBJ/Nov. 8-14, 2010/Labor & Agents

MLB free agent rules change, but will they speed process?

The MLB free agent market will operate under new rules under an agreement announced earlier this year by the league and the MLB Players Association, as part of a deal to settle the union’s collusion investigation of the free agent market the last several years.

The new rules will get more players into the market quicker, a move intended to prod MLB clubs to secure free agent talent rather than wait. For the last several years, the free agent market has been sluggish, with large numbers of free agents still on the market into and beyond January, something that agents said caused players to panic and take below-market deals.


GETTY IMAGES

Cliff Lee, who helped pitch the Rangers into the
Series, will be one of the top free agents.

But agents and other baseball sources are not sure whether the rules will have the intended effect. Sources asked for anonymity for a number of reasons, including that they didn’t wish to anger the union or the league.

Among some of the major changes under which free agency will operate:

• A five-day period at the end of the World Series (shortened from 15) during which only the free agent’s original team may sign him to a new contract.

• Earlier deadlines for the original teams to offer, and for the players to accept, salary arbitration under the rules of the collective-bargaining agreement.

• An earlier date for clubs to make tender and non-tender decisions.

The new rules, one baseball source said, will “force teams to move quickly with their current guys, and if they don’t, it adds 10 days to the free agent period.”

An agent said, “It gets everyone on the market quicker and takes away from teams the excuses for not signing players, like, ‘Who is going to get tendered?’ and ‘Who is going to get salary arbitration?’ They [teams] provide excuses to say, ‘We have to wait and see what happens.’”

Some agents are hopeful the changes will work in the players’ favor.

But one baseball source said nothing’s going to change. “The teams have figured it out,” said this source. “The top free agents are going to sign in November,” he said, adding that would be the top three to five superstars. The rest, he predicted, would not get signed until December, January or beyond.

“I remember when guys were getting on planes to see teams in November,” said this source. “Oh, yeah, your top 10 to 15 [free agent] guys were signed in November.”

LEE’S AGENT FIELDING CALLS: Darek Braunecker, the agent for arguably the hottest MLB free agent this winter, Cliff Lee, first met Lee in 1999, and at that time “There were not a lot of agents beating down his door,” Braunecker said. In fact, Braunecker got a meeting with Lee by cold-calling his father that spring, when Lee was in junior college, and has represented him since then, as his adviser and then as his agent.

More than 10 years later, multiple clubs interested in Lee were calling Braunecker, one of three partners in sports agency Frontline Athlete Management, which represents about 50 baseball players, including 17 major leaguers.

Braunecker would not reveal his strategy for negotiating a deal for Lee, other than to say reports that money was the only factor were dead wrong.

Braunecker has represented Lee through a lot of trials in his life, including when his infant son was diagnosed with leukemia — he is now in full remission — and a tough 2007 season in which he was injured and struggled. Lee won the Cy Young award in 2008 while pitching for the Indians, before helping the Texas Rangers to the World Series this year.

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.

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