MLB Teams Clear Roster Space Via Ultimatum Offers

Image credit: Drew Gagnon (Rich Von Birbenstein/Getty Images)

By MLB rules, players who are not under 2020 contracts cannot be outrighted off the 40-man roster.

Effectively, that should mean very few players on a 40-man roster are eligible to be removed via outrighting on the day 40-man rosters must be set in advance of the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12. After all, almost all players who have zero to two years of MLB service time do not sign contracts until much closer to the 2020 season. Many don’t agree to deals until spring training has begun.

The tender deadline this year is Dec. 2 (Editor’s Note: This date had been corrected). So, MLB teams have not yet tendered contracts to arbitration-eligible players. Those players are contract-less as well.

But last year, nine players were outrighted off of 40-man rosters on Nov. 20. Similarly, this year the Mets outrighted Drew Gagnon in the first of likely several moves of the sort.

So what’s happening? Through arcane roster rules, MLB teams have figured out how to squeeze out extra roster spots at the time they need them.

To get the ability to outright a player who has yet to reach arbitration, what teams do is offer an ultimatum to a young player who is not yet arbitration-eligible. The proposal: Sign a 2020 split contract (with set salaries for when the player is in the majors and a lower amount if they are playing in the minors). The player signs the deal and then is almost immediately outrighted off the 40-man roster. If the player slips through waivers (as usually happens), the player is then brought to spring training as a non-roster invitee.

And if the player says no? The team releases the player. At that point, the player is a minor league free agent, free to sign with any team. But if he opts to sign back with the team that released him, he cannot play in the majors until May 15 because MLB rules prohibit a player released from the 40-man roster after Aug. 1 from playing in the majors for that team before May 15 of the next season.

The player can sign a minor league deal with another team, or even potentially an MLB deal with another club, but the players who are presented these ultimatums are usually up-and-down players like Gagnon without the leverage to be confident of receiving another MLB deal.

If they sign as a minor league free agent with another team, they are not guaranteed they will get a spring training invite (although it is likely). And they may not get more money on the minor league side of the new contract than they are already receive from their current team’s take-it-or-leave-it offer.

There are a few benefits to being outrighted. If the player is later re-added to the 40-man roster and then outrighted again, he can opt for free agency. Or the player could opt to accept the outright assignment, but they still would become a free agent at the end of the season if they are not added to the 40-man roster.

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