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Kelly Johnson, David Ortiz, Francisco Rodriguez accept arbitration, for the last time

Toronto second baseman Kelly Johnson has accepted arbitration, taking him off the free agent market.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Toronto second baseman Kelly Johnson has accepted arbitration, taking him off the free agent market. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
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Free agent players had until midnight last night to decide whether to accept arbitration from their former clubs, guaranteeing themselves a one year contract with their former teams, or whether to decline arbitration and proceed with free agency, taking their chances on the open market. Three players; Kelly Johnson, David Ortiz, and Francisco Rodriguez were the only players to accept arbitration.

That only three players out of a potential 37 free agents accepted arbitration is not unusual. What is different this year is that this will be the last time that players go through this process, since the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) reached between players and owners will abolish the arbitration process for free agents, and with it the compensation that clubs will receive for losing all but the most elite players via free agency. After this year, only some players who are not yet eligible for free agency will have an arbitration process.

Ortiz and Rodriguez found themselves staring into the abyss of a free agent market that was very unlikely to pay them what they could make by accepting arbitration with their former clubs. The Brewers had declined an expensive $ 17.5 million option on "K Rod" at the end of the season, but took the chance that he would decline arbitration to seek a closer’s job, something that was not available for him in Milwaukee. As the jobs for closers began to fill up, the chances of Rodriguez accepting arbitration, and a lucrative one year guaranteed contract probably in the range of $ 13- 15 million, became an increasing possibility. Strangely, this will create a situation which neither the player nor his club wants, as the Brewers do not want to pay nearly that much for a set up man, and Rodriguez would much prefer a ninth inning job in another town. In the end, the money was too good to pass up.

The only decision that may impact the Tigers is that of Kelly Johnson, the Toronto second baseman who decided to accept arbitration. The Tigers are very much in need of a full time second baseman, despite remarks by Tiger management to the contrary, and there are not many second basemen on the free agent market. Although Johnson was coming off a sub par season at the plate for him, it would seem that he would be better off financially by declining arbitration and signing a multi year deal as a free agent. In all likelihood, his agent was unable to stir up any immediate interest in his client's services among MLB clubs.

Oddly enough, the Jays traded Aaron Hill, their former second baseman, to Arizona late in the season for Johnson, most likely just so that they could receive compensation for him. The Diamondbacks gave Hill a two year extension worth $ 11 million in November. In fact, under the terms of the new CBA, a club would not have had to pay any compensation for signing Johnson. This was done to make it easier for certain free agents to find new clubs without the deterrent of compensation being attached to their signing. The only way that the Jays would not receive two high draft picks was if Johnson accepted arbitration, and he did that late Wednesday night.

Of the three players that accepted arbitration, only Ortiz would have cost his new club any compensation to sign him. The 36 year old Boston slugger made $ 12.5 million on a one year contract in 2011, and stands to make probably in excess of $15 million in arbitration after having a fine season at the plate for the Red Sox. He is said to want a two year contract, and the parties may yet work out such a deal, but again, the money in a potential arbitration award is too good to pass up. The two sides appear to be genuinely interested in continuing their contractual relationship.

Thus ends the process of clubs making offers of arbitration to potential free agent players, a ritual that has been a part of baseball’s winter meetings for a few decades now. Beginning next fall, clubs will be required to offer their potential free agent players a one year contract worth approximately $ 12.4 million, or let them walk away without compensation. Offers will have to be made within five days of the end of the World Series, and players will have another seven days to decide whether to accept or decline the offers. Only those that decline such large offers will bring compensation to their former clubs.

For the Tigers, the question has to be asked: WHY? Why were the Tigers unable, or unwilling to make an offer to Kelly Johnson that was more attractive to him than accepting Toronto’s offer of arbitration? After all, arbitration only guarantees a player a one year contract. Surely, the Tigers would like to have upgraded their lineup at second base by offering a rather reasonable two year deal to a player like Johnson, no? Kelly shows three year statistics that include a .248 average, .331 on base percentage, and a .773 OPS, while playing above average defense at the keystone position. Is something better in the works?

Not until the Tigers meet in Lakeland in February, 2012, will it become clear whether the Tigers have made the right decision, but it does appear for the moment that at least one opportunity to upgrade the roster at a very reasonable cost has been passed up, and it’s not the first time this winter that has happened. Earlier in the winter, the Tigers failed (and I’ve chosen that word carefully) to offer arbitration to Wilson Betemit, their former third baseman who is a much better hitter than anyone else that they have for that position, despite his questionable defense. Dave Dombrowski may have other plans in mind to upgrade these two positions where improvement seems imperative, but he can not say that no upgrades were necessary, or available to him.

Patience. Patience.