February 6, 2014
The Truth About One-Day Contracts
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (SEO Power Boost!) was even to most baseball fans the most recognizable name taken in baseball’s Rule 5 draft, and by far the most recognizable name taken in the generally ignored minor league phase.
That’s only because the biggest name available was passed over, though.
For $4,000 in the Double-A phase (the one for players not on either the 40-man roster, the Triple-A reserve list, or the Double-A reserve list), you could have had a two-time Cy Young Award winner months removed from active duty and two years removed from being worth five-plus WARP—albeit a broken one. It would have been just as symbolic as the Rangers snagging Wilson from the Rockies to be a motivational speaker, but technically, according to major league sources and a literal reading of a symbolic signing, Roy Halladay was very much available.
The story told is that Halladay signed a one-day contract to retire as a Blue Jay. That’s how BlueJays.com (and pretty much every other outlet) told it, and that’s sensible. It’s the language that’s used across sports and is understood as something purely symbolic, the same as when Hideki Matsui retired a Yankee and when Frank Thomas retired with the White Sox.
What Halladay signed was a somewhat modified form of a plain old contract, which goes for a year. It was a minor league contract, so there would be no need to have space on a 40-man roster. And it came with the understanding that Halladay would voluntarily retire, which he did. But the contract was still out there and unprotected on a reserve list for anybody who wanted to spoil the party for $4,000.
The one-day contract isn’t the only way to bring a retiring player back into the fold, nor does it even always suit its supposed purpose. Michael Young, who retired last week, did so without the formality of a one-day contract and still had his press conference at the ballpark soon to be known as Globe Life. And Halladay signed a ceremonial contract to declare that despite his ending his career with the Phillies, his true allegiance is to the Blue Jays. And then he celebrated by taking a gig guest-coaching spring training with the Phillies.
But the reality is that despite the ubiquity of the name and the brevity of the service, there really isn’t any such thing as a one-day contract.
The whole episode, though, is part of what made me wonder what would happen if there were one-day contracts in baseball. Not so much in the case of a player like Halladay, whose intentions were clear and whose process was simple despite the complicated language of the contract. But what about one-day contracts that could be signed during the season and would obligate the free agent player to one day of service, then make him a free agent again?
The first instinct, even before getting into anything about the purpose of team sports, would be that the union would never allow this. We live in an increasingly one-day-contract world, whether your industry calls it temp jobs, freelance work, or day labor. Jobs with commitments and benefits are disappearing in favor of work for much shorter units of time (and more importantly, fewer benefits), and unions tend to be against this sort of thing.
But this isn’t to say that there would be no benefits for players to go with the potential benefits to a team, which could sign a free agent if it has no farmhand ready and avoid starting service clocks and committing to full-year salaries for part-time players.
As we get to the part of the offseason where we wonder about deals for players who are rehabbing or unable to find deals to their liking, a one-day pact would be the ultimate pillow contract. You’d be risking even more than in a pillow contract, taking one day’s worth of salary. It could be 1/183rd of the major league minimum (around $3,000), or it could be much higher if you have competing offers for say, this Wednesday.
Scott Kazmir earned $1 million last year plus what he made from $1.75 million in potential bonuses. Francisco Liriano got $1 million plus an option that vested at $6 million and kept him from a free agent market where he’d have been heartily paid. Those are the exceptions, but they’re illustrative of the high end of the payoff spectrum if players were allowed (and risk-loving enough) to sign micro-contracts.
Play a game, look at the market, maybe sign up for another game, and if you find a team with enough of a need that they’ll buy high, there might just be a match there for a traditional contract.
Obviously, this can’t continue forever. The concept of a team sport like baseball would be sort of ruined by players playing for 22 teams in 96 days over the course of one season. A World Series title would be even more of a general manager’s award than it already is.
In some ways, the system would probably control itself. Some team is going to be willing to jump in at some point and offer guaranteed money to a player who has shown something in his one-day deals. But a limit might have to be established, and for that, we can turn to the closest example already out there in major American team sports.
The NBA doesn’t have true one-day deals either, but it does have 10-day contracts that could serve as a model. Once a player completes his 10-day contract, he and the team can sign another one for another 10 days. However, after that, if the team wants to retain his services, he must be given a contract for the remainder of the season.
(The New York Times ran an excellent feature on life with a 10-day contract and its positives and negatives for player and team.)
But there could also be other uses beyond an evaluation period or short-term replacement.
Bringing back a celebrity: There was nothing limiting this from happening before, whether it was with Satchel Paige or, more recently, Adam Greenberg, who reportedly had the commissioner’s office’s permission for a non-standard deal. But a formalization of the one-day contract would probably open the doors for more, maybe even a player opening himself up to bidding among teams. Who wouldn’t want to see Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez auction off his services to come back and hit for one night? (Don’t answer that.)
A player going venue shopping: Have a guy at the end of his career who just wants to be in a comfortable place? He can spend a day in each clubhouse at the start of the year to evaluate the feel, the fit, the coaches, the cuisine…and then decide based on what feels right.
We certainly wouldn’t want baseball to be a never-ending sequence of choosing up teams each night. But if this concept were carefully limited, and maybe even stretched out to 10 days or a month, it could make for some interesting stories and at least some benefits to both sides.