Up until pre-season games start up in earnest, the fan focus around Rangerland will continue to be Derek Stepan’s unresolved contract situation. The boys around here have done a fantastic job covering the specifics, comparables and negotiating leverage surrounding the Blueshirt’s final RFA, but I wanted to examine a slightly different facet: the gaping hole in the CBA that lead to this situation to begin with.
The age in which a player signs his ELC will determine whether or not he is eligible for arbitration rights during his RFA years. Depending on how long the ELC is, a player could foreseeably have two years (though, usually just one) of RFA eligibility without receiving arbitration rights. This essentially means a player is allowed to seek “market” value (compared to other team-controlled players with no arbitration rights), but is still somewhat at the whim of the team’s valuation, with very little negotiating leverage.
Just to put some practical numbers on this concept, Stepan signed his ELC at age 20. Players who sign their first contract between ages 18-20 require 4 years of service before receiving arbitration rights as a Group II RFA. The amount of required service time decreases as the players signing age increases. Since Step signed a 3-year ELC, he will have one season of RFA eligibility without being able to avail himself of arbitration rights. Hence the hardball strategy Sather usually employs with his “bridge” deals.
My question is, why leave a gap between a player’s cost-controlled years and his arbitration eligible, market value years? This may have been contemplated originally as an opportunity for players to seek offer sheets to enhance their leverage prior to arbitration rights kicking in. However, with offer sheets being seen as a taboo amongst GMing colleagues, you’d think it would have been re-examined in the most recent CBA. Because, as it stands right now, a non-arbitration eligible RFA has only one mechanism to leverage the negotiations: hold out.
As (most) everyone knows, this is where we currently are with Stepan. We’ve been here before with Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Del Zotto. Nobody wins. The relationship between the player and the organization is inevitably strained, and the player ultimately succumbs to the reality of the situation and unhappily accepts a bridge deal. It’s understandable from the organization’s side why they would want to artificially depress the value of these intermediate level contracts, but the system itself makes no sense.
In Major League Baseball, for example, players have three years of pre-arbitration salary (similar to the ELC, except usually done year-to-year), followed by three seasons (sometimes four) of arbitration eligibility before hitting true free agency. This allows for a substantial negotiating window in the off-season between the club and the player before an arbitration hearing will determine terms if the team and player cannot agree. This keeps players on the field and the contract nonsense to a minimum.
This uncomfortable RFA landscape has manifested itself regularly since Lockout II, and has caused problems for almost every team. It makes no sense to allow a player to seek market value for his services yet extend him no leverage. If the league doesn’t want the extra year of arbitration eligibility, then make younger players sign longer ELC’s until they have arbitration rights, or something along those lines. This half in, half out approach does nothing but hurt player’s relationships with their teams and keep kids out of training camp when their club takes a hard line.
While nothing will be done about it during this CBA, this is an issue the league should seriously consider revising for the next agreement. I’m also confident that Stepan’s camp will cave and he will sign a 2-year deal in the coming days, but I can’t help but feel like it didn’t have to be this way.