From a free agency perspective, this has been one of the most underwhelming offseasons in MLB history. Pitchers and catchers report in 25 days and yet still most of the top free agents remain unsigned. Baseball’s biggest action has come via the trade market where teams like the Yankees, Astros and Giants have made most of their acquisitions.
So what gives? There isn’t a shortage of talent on the market and the two best players on the market, pitcher Yu Darvish and outfielder J.D. Martinez, won’t cost a team a compensatory selection since they were acquired by their previous teams midseason. There are plenty of teams in need of a top of the rotation pitcher who owns a career ERA of 3.42 or a corner outfielder who slugged 45 home runs last year.
Perhaps general managers are finally wising up to the mega-deals of the past. In December 2011, the Angels gave Albert Pujols a 10-year $254 million deal as he entered his age-32 season. Last year, he was one of the worst players in baseball and while he is a surefire Hall of Famer, at age 38 he is a shell of his former self and the Angels are still on the hook for another four years and $114 million.
And Pujols isn’t an anomaly. It seems that every year there are players who sign a colossal deal only to regret it – sometimes immediately. The Padres traded James Shields in 2016, one year after signing him for $75 million, the Angels wound up eating the remaining $73 million on Josh Hamilton’s contract when they traded him back to the Rangers and the Marlins cleaned house just a year after their massive 2012 spending spree that brought in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell.
The truth is that the MLB gives too much control to teams when it comes to owning a player’s rights. Many MLB players don’t enter free agency for the first time until they are already in their thirties. Under the current rules, a MLB player isn’t eligible for free agency until he accrues six years of service time, and there are ways to push back the clock on this. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was sent back to the minors in 2015 for the first 12 days of the season to make him eligible for the league’s Super Two rule, making him eligible for arbitration for a fourth season instead of the standard three and giving the Cubs control of him until 2021, making him eligible for free agency in his age-30 season.
At this point, why offer a seven-year deal to a free agent? Why even offer a five-year pact? Teams are realizing more and more that they are better off stocking up their farm and cutting back on payroll instead of paying an eight-figure salary to a 35-year-old who really shouldn’t even be on the roster.
If you need any further proof, take a look at the five best free agents of 2013, five years ago: Zack Greinke was a great signing for the Dodgers who became a stud No. 2 pitcher behind Clayton Kershaw and even found himself in the running for the Cy Young Award, Hamilton was discussed earlier, Michael Bourn was traded mid-contract after poor performance at the plate, Anibal Sanchez has seen his ERA balloon since the 2013 season and B.J. Upton underwent a name change, was traded twice and was ultimately released before his contract expired. And many times to facilitate these trades, teams are stuck eating a portion of the player’s remaining salary in order to get a decent return.
The league has shown that the biggest offseason spender doesn’t equate to a championship in recent years too. The last three teams to win the World Series entered the season with the No. 18, 14 and 19 payrolls and none of them entered the season with a payroll north of $117 million. All three had a similar philosophy too – build your team through the farm system, make a midseason acquisition if needed – preferably on a rental player since they cost less – and don’t overspend in free agency.
So what does this mean for this year’s free agency class? These players are eventually going to sign a deal, thought likely not for as much as they would like. But this could be the beginning of the end for these massive baseball contracts. When the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021, the players need to fight for less team control to allow the players to enter free agency as younger players, making their upside more appealing in free agency. Plus, this opens up more players entering free agency in their primes, like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will do next year, who can command top dollar on the market.
There has been a bubble on the MLB free agency market for a while now and it appears that the bubble has finally popped.