As Opening Day drew near, veteran Randy Wolf appeared to be the frontrunner for the No. 5 spot in the Mariners' rotation. That's why it came as a bit of a surprise when he requested his release from the club on March 25th. It turned out that Wolf, who missed all of 2013 as he recovered from his second Tommy John surgery, refused to sign a 45-day advance-consent form. The form, for the uninitiated, would have allowed the M's to terminate the deal during that window for any reason except injury.
While sources tell MLBTR that these requests are common throughout MLB, Wolf told Bob Dutton of The News Tribune that he was quite upset about it. The 37-year-old felt as though he was put in a position where he had to renegotiate his deal just months after hammering out a team-friendly pact ($1MM for making big league roster with $3MM+ in incentives) days before the start of the season. “The fact that I essentially made the team, in theory, I’m proud of that accomplishment.” the veteran told Dutton. “But I’m really disappointed in how it ended. The day should have started with a handshake and congratulations instead of a 24-hour feeling of licking a D-cell battery. So, it’s a really hard time.”
Of course, the Mariners and General Manager Jack Zduriencik acted completely within the rights granted to them by the Collective Bargaining Agreement: the advance consent form has been in place since the end of the 1994/1995 strike. And, as expected, Wolf wasn't out of work for very long, as he signed a similar minor league deal with the Diamondbacks late last week. However, Wolf's ire about the relatively unknown clause raised some interesting questions about how frequently it's used, the ways it could be misused, and how it is viewed by executives, agents, players, and the players union.
"As a general matter, players hate it," one union source said. "These are players, needless to say, who did not have a lot of leverage in their negotiations in the offseason…There's no question that it is a distasteful process for players and their agents."
The use of the form varies greatly from club to club. One high-ranking executive told MLBTR that his club has asked a player to sign an advance consent form just once over the last decade. On the flipside, a National League executive said that anytime his team has a player with five or more years of major league service (the form cannot be extended to those with less service time per the CBA) who does not figure to be an everyday player, they will use the clause in order to give themselves as much flexibility as possible. In line with that thinking, the club often will push for players to agree to optional assignment rather than outright assignment. If the player consents to outright assignment, the club does not have to subject the player to waivers before demoting him. Again, per the CBA, both types are permitted.
Because the request is traditionally made of players who don't have a ton of leverage, they often agree to sign. The NL exec has found that there are times when agents will protest, but with the leverage being in the club's corner, they'll ultimately relent.
Of course, as in Wolf's case, some players do object, and agents will often consult with the union ("We act as a sounding board," the source explained) to talk through their different options. The form can allow for both types of assignments and the length can also be negotiated since the 45-day mark is not a hard number, but rather a maximum limit.
The union source explained that at the beginning of the season, about a dozen players are usually asked to sign a consent form. Over the course of the season, that number tends to grow to "30-to-36" requests. The distinction between the number of players who are asked to sign off and the number of requests is an important one. Several players in any given year will be asked to sign multiple consent forms, which can essentially keep them in a state of limbo.
The aforementioned executive told MLBTR that agents often fret over the possibility of their clients being asked to sign multiple forms, though he was unsure of whether that was common practice or just a fear of player reps. "It's absolutely a reality," the MLBPA source said. "There are players who have signed three advance consents in a season, which obviously covers the better part of a full season." It should be noted that while there have been cases of a player being churned through consecutive advanced consent forms, the union indicated that there aren't specific clubs who are routine offenders.
Wolf felt blindsided by the Mariners' request at the end of March, but the reality is that he wasn't guaranteed at the time of signing that he wouldn't be asked to sign an advance consent form as a condition of making the major league roster, agent Joel Wolfe confirmed to MLBTR. In this case, Wolfe and Wolf had non-roster offers from ten clubs this offseason after he impressed in his winter showcase. Wolf and Wolfe ultimately settled on the M's because they felt that they gave him the best chance to make a big league rotation. However, they were rebuffed when they asked for assurance that they wouldn't be asked to sign off on advance consent.
"They told me, 'We don't do that' and, really, no team that I've dealt with does that. They don't even want to discuss that," Wolfe said. "The team made a decision as a policy, not singling out Randy, that a player in this position must sign an advance consent or he's not going to make the team."
One would be hard-pressed to find a team in MLB that explicitly warns players about a possible advance consent request. The union official indicated that while teams won't do it, agents usually give their low-leverage clients a heads up to brace for the possibility. The NL exec said he does not warn players of the possibility at the time of signing, but if an agent asks, he always answers truthfully.
In a lot of cases, being asked for advance consent is a blow to a player's ego and a very real source of frustration. However, there are certainly cases where it can work in a player's favor. Wolfe explained that he once had a client who seemed destined to either start the season in Double-A or get released. However, the player exceeded all expectations in Spring Training and wound up on course to make the big league roster. The club had Wolfe's client sign an advance consent form and soon after when he suffered an serious injury, he was protected from release since a player cannot be cut due to injury. While Wolf's situation put the notion of advance consent in a negative light, it can also be beneficial for players in a different position.
That doesn't mean that advance consent will be embraced by the majority of major leaguers. As Wolfe explained, an accomplished veteran like Wolf is accustomed to using Spring Training as an opportunity to shake off some offseason rust and get back in the swing of things. When that player is on a non-guaranteed deal, they now have to approach every at bat and every inning as though it were the regular season. After putting in that kind of effort, veteran players don't want to hear, "Hey, you made the team, but…" Whether they like it or not, players will be subjected to advance consent requests for at least a couple more years. Even then, it's far from guaranteed that the issue will be revisited or revised in the 2016 CBA discussions.