Seemingly every winter, we are inundated with stories and curiosity about how the free agent market has developed. With this one being particularly slow, and involving a rather unimpressive crop of free agents, there has been amazement at just how little is going on. We have seen the GM Meetings and Winter meetings pass, and yet the biggest signing is… Carlos Santana? Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, Eric Hosmer, and a handful of others remain in the waiting room, and they don’t want the news.
All of the talk has started people whispering “collusion.” And far be it from me to not side with labor on any dispute anywhere or aligning myself with management in any fashion. My punk sensibilities and pinko leanings don’t allow much else. It’s a strange new world in baseball, and it sort of mirrors what’s gone on in the country that MLB resides. Certainly, we live in a baseball and real world where those who wield the power are doing pretty much every can to keep their money right where it is, right down to labor. This is where the debate about how you’d define “collusion” can get awfully muddy and deep. Like that Alabama mud in “My Cousin Vinny.” Let’s ride through it together.
What some baseball insiders are struggling with is the idea that teams are not run the same way they used to be, and also the perfect storm of events that have combined to keep teams from hurling contracts at any free agent that walked by like roses at figure skaters. Teams know that once your championship/competitive window closes, there’s no point in hanging around the middle. Middle is death in all sports now. Barely scraping together a wild card spot is maybe a one-year plan, but not a long-term solution. So they’re more comfortable bottoming out and collecting long-term “assets.” After the success of the Astros and Cubs, that kind of approach is only going to be more popular and easier to sell to fanbases. But “assets” certainly is a cold way to describe actual people, and that point of view from the executives’ offices to the production floor, be it the baseball field or elsewhere, has colored labor relations of late, if not completely soured them.
What should scare fans, and players, is that plan is not a given. For every success story like the Astros or Cubs you have teams that never realized the dream on the same path. The Brewers of a few years ago… or the Brewers of a few years before that. The Mets got to a World Series, but now look at them. Texas even got two bites at it. Atlanta and Philadelphia are currently on that track but they can’t both win the division in a year. Perhaps the greatest tale of all is the great Cleveland team of the 90’s, who looked for all the world to be headed to a dominant, home-grown team and never managed a parade.
Of course, no approach is ever a guarantee, especially in something as volatile and unforgiving as baseball. Is this is the smarter approach? Probably. Is it the cheaper? Almost certainly.
Which limits the pool of teams that are going to spend money. If we squint, we can maybe make an argument that 17 teams are actively trying to win this upcoming season. And that number could drop if the Jays trade Josh Donaldson, the Braves think it’s a year too early, and the Mariners realize the jig is up along with a couple others.
Further handicapping leverage for free agents is that the big spenders are all trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold. The Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs have so much young talent that they’re going to have to pay a lot of money down the line that they’re not committing to doing that for older talent as well now. Without getting a look at the Cubs’ or Yankees’ books, I can’t sit here and tell you that if they’re paying a 40-50% surcharge on their overages for years how that affects their bottom line. I have my suspicions, like everyone else, but also having to spend near $250-$300 million just on payroll is an awful lot of money too.
I don’t think there was some secret meeting with all the owners where it was agreed to stone the free agent class. If that meeting took place, it was during the CBA negotiations that put this system in place, and the players had their chance to fight it. They didn’t. And they’re one of the more powerful unions you can find, perhaps the most powerful in sports.
There’s a prevailing argument that teams are just better run now, common in baseball circles. They’re most streamlined or efficient, know what’s important to pay for and what isn’t. The counter to that of course is, better run for who? If we allow that even all of this is just partially born out of the “Moneyball” way, that was still generated out of necessity because the Oakland A’s owners around the turn of the century couldn’t, or wouldn’t, spend money like others. They had to find a cheaper way to go about it. And now everyone does it, even teams that you don’t think of having to go a cheaper way. It’s a little jumbled.
How many industries does that sound like?
One of the things in this country that ripped open a divide between the working class and, let’s call it an “intellectual class,” is that for the first time younger, better educated people were coming down to manage and run industries, companies, and factories even though they had never worked there before. This is obviously one of just many problems the USA faces today, but it is one. No longer were supervisors and bosses just promoted from those who had worked together for years. Much like in baseball, GMs are no longer former players and managers who simply aged and rose to that rank. They come from the Ivy League or other esteemed universities with multiple degrees, just as they have come to other industries. But they didn’t “play the game,” as it were.
The workers had never seen these people before, and their ideas and methods were greeted with hostility. Even more so as they “streamlined” businesses, which caused jobs to either change or be eliminated completely through technology, or redundancies, or simple cost-cutting. And it left many without anywhere to go, knowing nothing else but the job they’d done for years and years. Yet those in the executive offices were never hurt by losing jobs or income, and in fact the latter often grew. Isn’t baseball making more money than ever now? And yet free agents sit. Hmmm….
We’ve seen it in baseball. Different jobs have become scarcer or not pursued at all, like the slap-hitting middle infielder or a multi-inning reliever (though that may be coming back). Jobs have changed, different skills are valued, leaving older, more expensive players out in the cold. Younger, cheaper, more flexible talent is prized for the financial flexibility it gives teams, or companies, overall.
And as we’ll all soon see, for a certain section of players—the middle veteran, if you will—wages might just be depressed. Hosmer isn’t going to get what he would have five or ten years ago. Arrieta might not get the contract length. And on and on it goes. There’s a special class next year who will get that money and those years, with Harper and Machado and maybe Kershaw hitting free agency. But the system has changed.
In many industries, and not just manufacturing, we probably all know someone who got laid off or fired for simply being too expensive, i.e. too good at their jobs. Many are displaced, with agencies or companies figuring, “Why pay one person this, when I can pay three recent grads just a little less combined, and maybe get the same production?” How many bullpens are being constructed this way? Just here in town, the Cubs declined to pay Wade Davis and are getting both Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow for the price of Davis. Throw in the cost-controlled Justin Wilson in the mix as well as Carl Edwards Jr… you see where this is going. At least Davis still has somewhere to go. How many people in other industries don’t?
Baseball might not be the nation’s pastime anymore, but it might remain the most inscribed by the time and place it inhabits.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports