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Wagner And The 2010 Option

The Red Sox acquired Billy Wagner from the Mets today after a few days of drama surrounding the waiver claim, ranging from Wagner and Papelbon sparring over Twitter (is anyone surprised, with these two involved?), Wagner apparently invoking his no-trade clause to block the deal, and finally his “change of heart” that allowed the trade to be completed. The deal was certainly complicated, and came down to the last few minutes before the 48-hour window expired for everyone to get on the same page.

However, the most curious part of the negotiations center the team’s right to exercise his 2010 option, worth $8 million. Wagner apparently demanded that the Red Sox guarantee they would not pick up the option, making him a free agent this winter. However, he did not get the same assurance that they would not offer arbitration, and as a Type A free agent, Boston will have some incentive to do so.

By turning down his option and then offering arbitration, the Red Sox get the best of both worlds. If he accepts, they have him for 2010 at a price that should be in the same ballpark as his 2010 option was worth – maybe a bit more, but not outrageously so. If he declines and signs with another team, they’ll get two compensatory draft picks, which is the outcome you have to believe they’re hoping for.

But if Wagner thinks he’s going to hit free agency with Type A status hanging over his head, after just a month of pitching in the big leagues, and land a significant contract as a 38-year-old, he’s kinda crazy. Juan Cruz just had to suffer through a miserable off-season of avoidance as teams decided that relief pitchers weren’t worth both the loss of a pick and a big contract, and he finally ended up taking a two year, $6 million deal with the Royals as a last resort. And he wasn’t coming off arm surgery, nearly 40 years old, and known as a guy who causes issues with other players.

If the Red Sox offer arbitration and Wagner declines in order to become a free agent, he’s unlikely to get anything close to what he feels is fair market value for his services. Teams might be willing to give the pick if he’ll sign for peanuts, but I can’t imagine a 1 year, $2 or $3 million deal is what he’s looking forward to at the moment.

The only way this works out for Wagner is if the Red Sox decide not to offer him arbitration. Of course, if he pitches well down the stretch, that doesn’t seem likely, so the scenarios that involve them not tendering an arbitration offer also include Wagner not pitching well in September, and that isn’t likely to lead to a big payday for him either.

All in all, it seems like Wagner should have been asking the Red Sox to guarantee his option for 2010, exactly the opposite of the thing he negotiated. It was the only way he was going to get a guaranteed paycheck for 2010. Now, he’s going to have to hope for a pretty interesting set of circumstances to occur – he has to pitch well enough to re-establish his value to other clubs but not well enough for Boston to risk the chance that he could come back as a highly paid set-up guy for one year. I’m not sure I see too many ways that happens.