30 years ago today, John Cerutti was newly a free agent by virtue of having not been tendered a 1991 contract by the Blue Jays before the midnight December 20/21 deadline to do so. As a result, Cerutti holds the distinction of being the first player in franchise history to be non-tendered, a list which has expanded over the years and earlier this month reached 25 when A.J. Cole and Travis Shaw became the latest.
Interestingly, though non-tenders for economic reasons began to occur as a strategy by the mid-1980s to counter players receiving huge raises through the arbitration process from the 1970s onward, that was not at all the case here. The Blue Jays were actually doing him a favour.
Drafted in the first round of the 1982 draft as compensation for losing Roy Howell, Cerutti debuted in 1985 and spent the next three years as a swingman between the rotation and bullpen (53 starts, 71 relief appearances). After posting a 3.13 ERA over 123.2 innings in 1988, Cerutti won a starting job in the 1989 rotation and followed up with a 3.07 ERA in 205.1 innings.
1990 didn’t go so well. A strong run in June had his ERA as low as 3.74 after eight innings against Boston, but by late August it has bloated to 4.78 and the Jays moved him to the bullpen in favour of Frank Wills. Cerutti wanted to start, setting up the parting of ways in the offseason as related in a report from the Ottawa Citizen (12/20/1990, B2:
[Cerutti agent Craig] Fenech talked with Pat Gillick, the general manager, and Gord Ash, his assistant.
“We agreed that we disagreed on the best way to utilize him,” Fenech related. “I asked if they would move him in the winter and they said yes. They were unable to include him in a trade so they asked what we wanted them to do.”
Don’t tender him a contract, Fenech replied, and the Blue Jays complied.
“It was extremely honorable of them to honor the request”.
In January, Cerutti signed a one-year deal with Detroit, for what was reported as a $1-million but was likely $800,000 plus incentives (compared to $762,500 in 1990). He failed to win a job in their rotation out of spring training, starting only eight of 38 games with a 4.57 ERA in 88.2 innings. That turned out to be the end of his major league career, though he threw 150 AAA innings in 1992. Of course, he came back to Toronto as a broadcaster, tragically passing away in October 2004 at age 44.
The Blue Jays continued to shy away from non-tenders, with the next not coming until 1997. As part of a push to return to contention after 1996, Gord Ash attempted to shore up the hole left at second base when Roberto Alomar left after 1995 by acquiring Carlos Garcia from Pittsburgh as part of a nine player deal in which he gave up six prospects.
Garcia was the prototypical middle infielder of the era, considered a slick fielder with the ability to post a respectable batting average, if little else (career .278/.320/.392 line, 86 wRC+ to that point). A starter for four years, he made the 1994 All-Star team although he was the type of player who was overvalued at the time, with just 2-3 career WAR. He had two years of arbitration eligibility remaining building off a $1.35-million salary in 1996 and agreed to $2.55-million for 1997.
Alas, Garcia’s production totally collapsed, one of the many reasons the 1997 Blue Jays badly disappointed. His batting cratered to an abysmal .220/.253/.309 (42 wRC+), he was terrible in the field. It worked out to -2 WAR in 381 plate appearances, and his career was effectively over after a couple of short and similarly ineffective stints in 1999.
As the Blue Jays looked to cut salary to stem losses that bulged from the ill-fated push, Garcia an obvious candidate to upgrade and save money. On December 11, 1997 him and prospect Jeff Patzke were designated for assignment to clear room for the signings of Tony Fernandez and Mike Stanley. With the 10-day period set to expire, they were both non-tendered nine days later. It was a curious move with Patzke, who could have been sent outright after clearing waivers, though he re-signed as a free agent.
Garcia was typical of non-tenders of the era, that is more about moving on from players whose performance had deteriorated rather than with reasonably productive players for primarily financial reasons. There had been a few similar cases previously where the Jays might have come close to non-tendering veterans.
The year before, Juan Guzman was coming off a 4-14 season with a 6.32 ERA in 135.1 innings (on the heels of a 5.68 ERA in 1994). With a $2.8-million salary, if tendered a 1996 contract it put an absolute floor on his salary at $2.24-million with a maximum 20% yearly cut permitted. That’s where they struck a deal on December 20th, Guzman rebounded with a 2.87 ERA and signed a multi-year extension (which didn’t work out great).
In 1989, Rance Mulliniks slipped to a .646 OPS at age-33 after averaging .833 in the previous six years. Though eligible, he opted not to file for free agency, effectively gambling that he wouldn’t do better on the market than a the maximum potential cut from his $650,000 salary. The Jays ended up tendering him and he agreed to a one year deal for $520,000, he rebounded in 1990 and cashed in with a two year, $1.5-million free agent deal that winter.
The next non-tender—and the first where financial considerations were the driving factor—would come in 2002 with Jose Cruz Jr. One of the few veterans left as J.P. Riccardi gutted and remade the roster, Cruz was the frustrating toolsy player who perpetually seemed on the verge of stardom, but prone to deep slumps.
Nonetheless, about to enter his age-29 season and last year of arbitration eligibility, he was a quality regular who consistently posted 2+ WAR seasons. The problem was his $3.95-million salary, expected to increase to about $5-million as Riccardi was cutting payroll and trying to make more out of less.
A further headwind was the new collective agreement agreed to in September, which for the first time implemented a luxury tax to restrain spending by the highest spenders. Combined with broader economic slowdowns, it really crimped the market for solid players.
The Jays tried to move Cruz, but found no takers, and he was one of a historically large wave of quality veteran non-tendered across MLB including the likes of Brad Fullmer, All-Star Robert Fick, and Shane Spencer. For all intents and purposes, this was the start of the modern era. Cruz signed with San Francisco for $2.5-million, the first of seven stops over the next six years, and the Jays replaced him with Frank Catalanotto (who had been similarly non-tendered).
From there, non-tendered have increased rapidly. From effectively none by Gillick in over 15 years, to effectively one by Ash in six years, there were five in eight offseasons under Riccardi. That jumped to eight under Alex Anthopolous in six years, and now nine more under Shapiro/Atkins in their six offseasons.
Below is a table summarizing all 25 non-tendered in franchise history.