Future Hall of Famers Clayton Kershaw (left) and Justin Verlander could both change teams this winter. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

2022 MLB Free Agency Cheat Sheet

When does free agency begin for the 2021-22 offseason period? What do “service time” and “non-tendered” mean? You have questions, Boardroom has answers.

The 2021 MLB season barely ended a week ago. Various Joc Pedersons and Danbsy Swansons could very well still be recovering from the beverage-driven bacchanal that erupted around Atlanta in the wake of the World Series.

But it’s time to drink a tall glass of water, rip an espresso, and move on from all of that — because it’s MLB Hot Stove time. Already.

Along with some potential pitfalls regarding an expiring collective bargaining agreement, MLB free agency is once again the main event this offseason. And to get you set for the inevitable mayhem, Boardroom has answers for your frequently asked questions about how it all works.

What’s MLB free agency’s start date?

Technically, eligible players became free agents as soon as Swanson threw to Freddie Freeman for the final out of the 2021 World Series in Houston last Tuesday, Nov. 2. But…

When can MLB teams sign free agents?

Once the Fall Classic wrapped, a five-day period began during which teams were required to wait before signing eligible free agents. That period ended late Sunday night, Nov. 7. The next day, Nov. 8, was the first full day of “true” MLB free agency for 2021-22.

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

What is a free agent, exactly? Who is eligible?

According to Major League Baseball’s official resources:

  • A player enters free agency after hitting six years of MLB service time OR when they are released from their organization prior to reaching the six-year threshold.
  • If a player below six years of service time signs with any club, he remains under “team control” until the six-year period is completed.
  • Service time and team control rules still apply even if a player’s contract expires.
What are MLB’s service time rules? Does “one year” mean 365 days under contract?

Under baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement, a league year is defined as 187 days. Players who log at least 172 days on either the active roster or injured list are deemed to have completed one year of MLB service time.

What is a qualifying offer in the MLB?

Teams who want to receive draft pick compensation if they lose an imminent free agent on the open market must extend a qualifying offer to that player before free agency officially begins. Baseball’s qualifying offer is a one-year contract of a predetermined value as determined by the CBA based on past contracts signed by similar players.

Further:

  • Teams can only extend a qualifying offer to players who have never received one before.
  • A player is ineligible if he did not spend the entire previous season with the team in question.
  • Players are given 10 days to either accept or decline a qualifying offer.
What do “tendered” and “non-tendered” mean?

A player is tendered if he and his club have agreed to a contract while he is still under team control as determined by service time rules.

Logically, a non-tendered player is one who has not reached service time requirements, but also did not agree to terms on a contract for the following season by a set date — this year, the tender deadline is Dec. 2.

Who are some of the big names available in MLB free agency for 2021-22?

Shortstop Carlos Correa, most recently of the AL champion Houston Astros, is the consensus top target. Other stars on the free agent market include Corey Seager (Dodgers), Trevor Story (Rockies), Kris Bryant (Giants), Freddie Freeman (Braves), Kevin Gausman (Giants), Marcus Semien (Blue Jays), Justin Verlander (Astros), Javier Baez (Mets), Max Scherzer (Dodgers), and Robbie Ray (Blue Jays).

Outfielder Seiya Suzuki of Japan’s NPB promises to attract notable attention on the market, too.

Click here to read Boardroom’s ranking of the top 2022 MLB free agents.

What are the options for a player who isn’t eligible for free agency yet?

This subset includes either pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible players. Pre-arb players have less than three years of service time (excepting certain special cases) and do not have input over their salary numbers for the following season.

Arbitration-eligible players have at least three years of service time. They can either (a) agree on a salary number with their incumbent teams for the following season, or (b) fail to come to terms by a set deadline and have their salary number decided by a labor arbitrator in February.

Alternatively, a pre-arb or arb-eligible player can agree to a multi-year extension (as with young stars like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr.) or simply be released. Released players become free agents.

Who signed the first free agent deal of the 2021-22 offseason?

That distinction goes to pitcher Andrew Heaney, formerly of the Yankees, who signed a one-year contract with the Dodgers worth $8.5 million.

Who signed the biggest fre agent contract in the MLB last year?

George Springer’s six-year, $150 million deal with the Blue Jays was the largest free agent contract of the 2020-21 offseason by total value.

The largest deal by average annual value went to Trevor Bauer, who signed with the Dodgers for three years and $102 million, an AAV of $34 million. However, due to his extended administrative leave due to a domestic violence allegation, Bauer will end up earning far less than the original $102 million figure.

When was MLB free agency created?

The notion of “free agents” in Major League Baseball dates back to at least the 1930s, but as an official status in the eyes of labor laws, free agency emerged from the aftermath of the landmark legal case Flood v. Kuhn that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

The litigation arose after Cardinals attempted to trade All-Star and two-time World Series champion outfielder Curt Flood to the Phillies even after his contract with St. Louis had expired. Due to Major League Baseball’s “reserve clause,” teams still held a player’s rights even after the point of expiry — but Flood refused the trade.

Critically, the case itself did not create MLB free agency. SCOTUS ruled 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball (the Kuhn in question was then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn), upholding its antitrust exemption under the Sherman Antitrust Act. But thanks to the power of Flood’s influence among his fellow players, the case set events in motion that led to the elimination of the reserve clause and the formal creation of free agent status in the collective bargaining agreement adopted by the league and the players in 1976.

Speaking of collective bargaining, when does baseball’s current CBA expire?

The active collective bargaining agreement between the MLB and MLBPA expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 1.

Will there be a new deal in place by the deadline, or will there be an MLB lockout?

The possibility of a lockout cannot be ruled out — in fact, a majority of outside observers tends to be of the opinion that baseball will see its first work stoppage since the infamous 1994 strike that canceled the World Series and extended into 1995.

The wild card here? Teams have barely begun to recoup the massive financial losses that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Losing even a small portion of scheduled games in 2022 would produce disproportionately harmful effects. If there’s anything the owners and players can possibly agree on, it’s avoiding new economic shortfalls at all costs.

How would an MLB lockout affect free agency?

It goes back to the fundamental difference between a lockout and a strike. The latter is a decision made by organized labor, while the former involves the owners figuratively and/or literally locking the players out of the workplace.

If and when this occurs, any transactions — free agency, arbitration, pre-arb deals, etc. — will not be able to take place.

Wait, there was actually an MLB commissioner named Bowie Kuhn?

Yeah. But wait until you hear about Paul Giamatti’s dad.

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.