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AO 06-01: Preston Wilson

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Preston Wilson makes his case before an impressionable audience

Subject: Preston Wilson (a/k/a "P-Wil," "P-Dub," "Community Service")
Position: Outfield
2005 Statistics: .261/.329/.443; 10 HR, 43 RBI, 3 SB, 20 BB, 71 SO (with Nationals only)
Status: Filed for free agency (see here for MLB transactions calendar)
Short Summary: Acquired from the Colorado Rockies on July 13 for pitcher Zach Day and outfielder J.J. Davis, Wilson was expected to provide a supplemental power source and assist a team hindered by injuries at the prime offensive positions. Wilson's overall offensive contributions were largely ineffectual, and he proved awkward in centerfield, calling into question the wisdom of those behind the move, including Bob Boone. Late in the season, with the playoff drive over, Wilson continued playing regularly, despite apparently not being in the team's long-term plans; Frank Robinson explained that he wanted to reward Wilson by enabling him the opportunity to reach 90 RBI for the season. On the strength of a .324/.393/.608 performance with runners in scoring position for the Nationals, Wilson met the goal. Furthermore, while the team's record declined precipitously following his arrival, Wilson provided professionalism to an overcrowded and unstable outfield.

Questions Presented:
  1. Is Wilson subject to the twenty percent maximum salary cut?
  2. Should the Nationals offer salary arbitration to Wilson?

MAXIMUM-CUT RULE

The subject of the maximum-cut rule frequently arises with respect to Wilson; specifically, commenters---as here---cite the rule for the proposition that the Nats' hands are tied by Wilson's $12 million (or perhaps $12.5 million) salary in 2005:

Preston Wilson is gone for sure. The Nats hands are tied by the CBA. They cannot offer him less than 20% of last year's salary which is way to[o] much given his numbers.

While twenty percent of twelve million is certainly too much for a player of Wilson's age, skills, and weaknesses, the thought that the Nats are bound by the number appears to be ill-conceived. Certainly, the maximum salary cut provision exists in the Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Agreement; the language is found in Article VI, Section D:

(1) No Player's contract shall be renewed pursuant to paragraph
10(a) of the Uniform Player's Contract in any year for a salary
which constitutes a reduction in excess of 20% of his previous
year's salary or in excess of 30% of his salary two years previous.

Importantly, though, Wilson's "contract [would not] be renewed pursuant to paragraph 10(a)," which, as noted by the late Doug Pappas, contains the following language:

Unless the Player has exercised his right to become a free agent as set forth in the Basic Agreement, the Club may retain reservation rights over the Player . . .

Two considerations are gleaned from this passage: first, section 10(a) does not apply to prospective free agents, because, second, section 10(a) is a reservation clause. As noted by Pappas in another context (the attempted Dennys Baez salary manipulation scheme by Mark Shapiro), "[t]he maximum-cut rule, which predates free agency, is the only salary protection for a reserved player who is not yet eligible for salary arbitration." Indeed, the maximum-cut rule is inapplicable to a six-year free agent such as Wilson, pursuant to Article XX, Section B:

(3) Rights of Former Club to Sign Free Agent
The following provision shall apply only to those Players who
become free agents under this Section B.
The former Club of a free agent, no later than by the December 7
following the free agency election period, may offer to proceed with
the Player to salary arbitration under Article VI of this Agreement,
for the next following season. The Club's offer shall be communicated
to the LRD, which shall notify the Association in writing. Said
offer shall be effective upon receipt by the Association and the Club
will not be permitted to retract the offer. If the former Club of the
free agent does not so offer, it shall not be entitled and shall lose all
rights to negotiate with, and sign, the free agent, until the succeeding
May 1.
On or before December 19, the Player may accept the Club's
offer to arbitrate. The Player's acceptance shall be communicated to
the Association, which shall notify the LRD. The Player's failure to
accept the Club's offer on or before December 19 shall be deemed
to constitute rejection of the offer.
If the Player accepts the offer to arbitrate, he shall be a signed
player for the next season and the parties will conduct a salary arbitration
proceeding under Article VI, provided, however, that the
rules concerning maximum salary reduction set forth in Article VI
shall be inapplicable
and the parties shall be required to exchange
figures on the last day established for the exchange of salary arbitration
figures under Article VI.

(emphasis added)

Thus, while there are myriad reasons not to retain Wilson, the twenty percent (or, perhaps in Wilson's case---see his 2004 salary---thirty percent) rule is not among them.

OFFER TO ARBITRATE

Notwithstanding the (in)applicability of the maximum-cut rule, the Washington Nationals still should not offer salary arbitration to Wilson. Of course, by declining to do so, the Nats would relinquish two rights: first, the right, as a practical matter, to retain Wilson's services for 2006, and, second, an entitlement of draft pick compensation for Wilson signing with another team. With the first consideration, the Nats would be ineligible to sign Wilson until May 1; with the second, the Nats would reap no benefit for acquiring Wilson in the first place.

Neverthless, the Nats should cut their losses with Wilson and move on. If Wilson and the Nats were to proceed to arbitration, a single-year contract would be decided by an arbitrator; given Wilson's bloated 2005 contract value, the Nats no doubt would operate from a position of weakness, both in negotiations to avoid arbitration and---should it proceed to the arbitration table---before the arbitrator. For this reason, the Nats cannot risk the possibility that Wilson would accept an offer to arbitrate by the Nats. It appears, both from here and here, that Wilson is considered a distant second-best among free agent centerfielders, and it seems likely that Wilson could earn more through arbitration than he could on the open market.

Jim Bowden does not include Wilson in his plans for the Nats' future (a pity, one might conclude, since Bowden himself acquired Wilson not even four months ago). Wilson is a fairly-low average hacker/RBI vulture whose range in centerfield has declined owing to knee problems. His perceived value outweighs his actual value, and some team will sign him---though not to terms Wilson would necessarily desire, potentially---if only because he drove in 90 runs this season. That team will sign Wilson to a two- or three-year deal, but the Nats will not be that team.

Thus, the only reason to offer arbitration would be to secure draft pick compensation. While it is advisable that a team stockpile as many high draft picks as it can, draft pick compensation is an insufficient motivation and a bad risk for the Nationals. Should Wilson accept arbitration and play another season for the Nationals in hopes of a strong season to boost his 2006-07 free agent standing, the Nationals would have gained nothing by the venture. Instead, all they would have done is spend several million dollars on a rental who is still not part of the team's long-term future.