Will Billy Wagner’s value be impacted by arbitration?

One of the bigger plot lines in the trade that sent Billy Wagner to Boston was the question of arbitration. Wagner wanted the Sox to pledge not to offer him arbitration, something the Sox were not willing to do. Eventually, Wagner capitulated on the caveat his $10 million option was declined.

Since then, I’ve been hearing how the arbitration issue will impact Wagner’s free agent hopes. ESPN’s Buster Olney touched on this during an informal poll of six ‘sources’ — all agreed that Wagner being offered arbitration as a Type-A free agent would pose problems:

Six of six predicted that Boston will offer arbitration. And five of six of those polled believe this will greatly impact Wagner’s market value. “He’s an older guy coming off surgery,” said one person polled, “and there are going to be a lot of closers available this winter. You’d rather go after a guy who doesn’t cost you a draft pick.” Said another executive: “This is going to be really interesting to watch. If I were his agent [Bean Stringfellow], I’d be going to the Red Sox early on and trying to unwind this and see what you can do.”

There’s no question that Boston plans to offer arbitration. If Wagner accepts, they get an high-powered left-handed arm late in games. If he declines, they get compensatory draft picks.

Here’s where I start to diverge from the idea that Wagner will be harmed.

How Type-A free agency works is that the player can opt to sign with any other team during free agency even if offered arbitration. If said player (in this case, Wagner) signs with another team, the arbitration-offering team (Boston) gets the other team’s first-round pick as well as a compensatory pick in a sandwich round between the first and second rounds.

Ah, but the catch is that if a team finished with one of the 15 worst records in the game, they can’t surrender their first round pick. No, they get the team’s second round pick.

Another rule wrinkle: If a team has already signed another Type-A player, they can’t lose multiple first round picks. Let’s use New York as an example. In the 2009 offseason, the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. All Type-As. New York didn’t meet the 15-worst-records caveat, so they lost their first rounder. But only one, not three. They shed their second and third-rounders as well.

As of today, those 15-worst teams in no order: BAL, KC, CLE, TOR, OAK, WAS, PIT, NYM, ARI, SD, HOU, CIN, MIL, CHC, TB. (Seattle could yet wrest the title away from Tampa Bay.)

Of that list, what teams could justify adding Wagner as their closer? Take a peek: BAL, TOR, WAS, ARI, HOU, CHC, TB.

All of these teams, except Washington, can justify to themselves and their fan base — and more importantly, to Wagner — the possibility of a winning season. (I didn’t say they should, just that they can.)

Houston, for example, would represent a homecoming to Wagner and has an owner that likes to win. Houston will be in the market for a closer with Jose Valverde departing. Washington would love someone like B-Wags giving their starters confidence and might even overpay slightly. Arizona wants to compete, and could use a hammer in the back of the bullpen. Tampa Bay is in a similar situation and given Wagner’s unqualified success so far in the AL East, might be their top choice. Chicago could boot Marmol out of his job if Wagner came at the right price.

We haven’t even gotten to double-Type-A free agents as well. Whoever signs Matt Holliday… or Jason Bay… or John Lackey… can import Wagner without fear. What about the Angels? Say they import Jason Bay and then bring Wagner aboard. They wouldn’t care about Wagner’s Type-A status, unless they really were married to keeping their second-rounder.

One thing that this panel got right is that there will be a good amount of closers in free agency. Some names: Mike Gonzalez, Kevin Gregg, Jose Valverde, Rafael Soriano, Fernando Rodney, Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman is expected to return to Milwaukee, so get that out of the way.

For clubs who cannot lose or have already lost their first-round pick, Billy Wagner might be the best closer remaining. Soriano hasnt’ been as lights-out as expected, while Gonzalez hasn’t been a full-time closer his three years in Atlanta. Gregg and Rodney are fringe closers.

Teams that could lose their first round pick by signing Wagner that could be in the hunt for a closer are: DET, LAA, CHW (if Jenks is traded, not a certainty, so should he even be on the list?), TEX, SEA and PHI (which Wagner definitely won’t go back to, Type-A or not).

That gives me two teams I am confident will not go after Wagner because of his Type-A status: Detroit and Texas. Two out of 30 teams. Hardly the “great impact” Type-A free agency will have on Wagner as some would have you believe.

(You didn’t ask, but I’m guessing Wagner returns to Houston.)

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