This winter, we saw an unprecedented phenomenon: a stalemate in the Major League Baseball free agent market. While three of the top free agents Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have found homes in recent weeks, it took a huge pay cut and leaked over into Spring Training to do so.
So what is the reason behind some of baseball’s biggest names losing market value? Tony Clark chalks it up to teams wanting to tank in order to obtain better draft picks.
“There’s a question as to how many teams are actually interested in winning,” Clark said. “That’s a problem.”
“Competition and competitive balance is the foundation of the CBA itself, and if that is being called into question and if that is manifesting itself in such a way that we’re seeing historic changes to how the game is governed and dictated, that’s a problem.”
“So the guys are concerned as they should be. The guys in this clubhouse are concerned about the guys who aren’t in clubhouses right now.”
However, Major League Baseball dismissed this notion, saying things like this happen and the league has its ebbs and flows.
“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned,” the league issued in a statement. “What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures.”
“It is the responsibility of players’ agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics and the impact of the new Basic Agreement. To lay the responsibility on the clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted and inflammatory.”
Regardless of the reason, there hasn’t been a freeze like this since the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike.
The game of baseball is changing.
The introduction of new technology to the game has played a big part in this change. Front offices throughout the league are becoming much more analytically-driven, and realize the issues that come with expensive, long-term deals. Baseball has also seen a larger emphasis on relief pitching in recent years due to an increase in analytics, which raises their value on the market.
This was apparent very early on in the offseason, as at the General Manager and Winter Meetings players such as Bryan Shaw, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Anthony Swarzak and Wade Davis were some of the first players to fall off the board.
We saw this during the 2017 regular season, when at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, when only one position player was moved.
Relievers are getting more money than ever, while position players, and even starting pitchers in some cases, are left to sit on their hands.
There have been reports that the baseball used in games is wrapped tighter, which has lead to record breaking home run numbers over the last two seasons. This is symbiotic with starting pitchers unable to go deep into games like they have in the past.
Can you blame teams for not wanting to dole out millions upon millions of dollars to players that just aren’t going to change the whole culture of a team? If this was just five years ago, players like J.D. Martinez would have easily got $100 million more on the open market. But in the present day, it took nearly the whole winter for him to solidify a deal.
Baseball is a numbers game.
We saw in the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers that both teams utilized their bullpen. Starting pitchers would go out, hand in three or four innings and be replaced by a relief pitcher.
With new sabermetric stats such as wOBA and wRC+ being taken into consideration more by teams, it’s also changing how pitchers are used and how teams determine if they want to spend on a hitter in free agency.
So, is Tony Clark right to say that teams are trying to tank? Or are ownerships just wary of being stuck with an albatross contract for five years which can bog them down from spending on other free agents?
Or are they just getting smarter? You throw some cash, (usually a lot less than other players get) at relievers and build up your bullpen, an area where you believe success can lie. Hell, we just saw it at the forefront between Houston and L.A. Teams think, “Hey, if they can do it, so can we.”
As this year’s offseason wraps up, it will be interesting to see how teams will react to the market in the upcoming years. One option players could consider more is accepting qualifying offers. These allow teams to offer players a set contract of one-year, $17.4 million if they have never been offered one before. If the player chooses to sign with another team, the original team will receive draft compensation for the player they lost. However, if the player decides to reject the qualifying offer, that same team could offer them another contract at a lower price later down the road.
Mike Moustakas is kicking himself for this reason. He originally rejected a qualifying offer from the Royals in hopes of a bigger contract on the free-agent market. What he found was, simply, nothing, and ended up signing with the Royals for one-year, $6.5 million. $12.2 million was left on the table.
Coming off a career season in which he hit a franchise record 38 home runs, Moustakas was also forced to take a $2.2 million pay cut from last year. He was paid $8.7 million in 2017.
So, what next?
It’s a tough question that I don’t think players have an answer to. Next season, marquee players such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Craig Kimbrel will hit the market for the first time. They will likely land themselves big deals, but will it take just as long as it did this year?
What about players such as Matt Harvey, who is in his walk season and will be hitting the open market for the first time? Whether he rebounds or not, will he have a contract this time next year?
For players, accepting the qualifying offer may be wise. They can also try to work out contract extensions with their incumbent teams, if at all possible.
At the end of the day, however, record breaking players should never lose value. We’ll see if more players will consider qualifying offers in the future for guaranteed pay and job security, or if this is just an aberration and next year it will correct itself.
Free agency is more of a crapshoot than ever, and with the current climate of the game, this may be a recurring theme until changes are able to be made to the collective bargaining agreement in 2021.