A Look into MLB Free Agent Activity, or the Lack Thereof
Last winter, just a month before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report, nine of the top 20 free agents in Major League Baseball (MLB) remained unsigned. Among this irritable group were mega-stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The league-wide slumber party was unprecedented in the sport’s offseason history. The MLB is the very league that created the concept of free agency after the landmark Supreme Court case, Flood v. Kuhn. With the unexplained offseason inaction, finger-pointing ensued; who was to blame for the lack of employment of some of the most talented baseball players on the planet?
Some (after walking out of their local theater) felt that Billy Beane and his low-budget Oakland Athletics were to blame. The A’s figured out how to spend less and win more, and now other teams must be following in their footsteps. New analytical statistics have shed a deeper light onto talent evaluation, and many inexpensive players were found to be criminally undervalued.
Others felt that the free agents’ predecessors were responsible for paving a contract-deprived road for them. Miguel Cabrera signed an eight-year, $248 million contract extension with the Detroit Tigers in 2014. The Tigers are likely going to have to pay him $30 million annually until at least 2023. Granted, at the time the extension was signed Cabrera was putting up numbers typically only seen in video games. However, with 20/20 vision, the Tigers were the worst team in baseball last season and Cabrera had one of his worst years as a pro. History has scared many teams away from investing top dollars and term into single players based on their past performance. The graph below highlights three players, including Cabrera, whose level of play significantly tailed off after landing massive contracts. Their level of play is measured by WAR, or Wins Above Replacement (Player).
Another theory that buzzed around the media was that teams intentionally saved their money in an effort to “tank” for a high draft pick. Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto alluded to this theory last winter. “You could argue you’re going to compete with more clubs to get the first pick in the draft,” Dipoto told Seattle reporters, “than you would to win the World Series.” Maybe the current draft system that rewards the league’s worst teams with not just the highest draft picks but also millions of dollars more in their draft pool should be restructured. Super-agent Scott Boras agreed with Dipoto’s claims. “We have a non-competitive cancer that’s ruining the fabric of this sport,” Boras said, “And until we change the system, this is going to continue.”
Many flipped the script onto Boras, pointing out the fact that a handful of the unsigned free agents late last winter, including Bryce Harper, were his clients. Among those throwing Boras’ name into the culpable fray were Rob Manfred and the MLB. In a statement to Yahoo Sports, the MLB said, “There are a variety of factors that could explain the operation of the market. We can say that without a doubt collusion is not one of them. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause, but it certainly is relevant that an agent who has a long track record of going late into the market controls many of the top players.”
While the free agency period led many to call for an overhaul of the entire system, it must be noted that it ended with the signing of two of the largest contracts in pro-sports history. Bryce Harper went on to sign a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies and Manny Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres. The troubling matter surrounding those deals is that they were signed on February 28th and 21st, respectively. The Cactus League had its first spring training game on February 21st last season. Free agent pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel weren’t signed until after the June draft! Talented players signing after spring training begins creates a losing situation for everyone.
Managers face greater difficulty preparing their clubs for the season. Fans delay buying tickets when they don’t have a clear sense of what their favorite team’s roster will look like. Unsigned players live in uncertainty about the approaching season as the pressing need to begin their regimented physical training heightens. Agents, wanting to shift their focus to in-season accommodations for their clients, are stuck in lingering contract negotiations.
The blockbuster Harper and Machado deals temporarily put the suspicious, stagnant 2018/19 offseason into the rear-view mirror. Earlier this month, however, Atlanta Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos reignited the conversation and witch-hunt with some controversial comments. He said the following while speaking to reporters about the upcoming free agency period: “Every day you get more information, and we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs – obviously the Astros and (Nationals) being in the World Series, they were tied up – but we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.” These comments brought to life one of the prevailing theories behind the sluggish offseason: collusion.
Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams are explicitly prohibited from coordinating and sharing information about their free agency plans. This is in an effort to promote free market competition. Price suppression is a matter taken very seriously by both the league office and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).
Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, announced that he launched an investigation to see if there is any validity behind the statements. “The statements made by Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos call into question the integrity of the entire free-agent system,” Clark said in a statement. “The clear description of Club coordination is egregious, and we have launched an immediate investigation looking into the matter.” Could teams have been illegally working together to suppress the price of free agents? Anthopoulos would later retract his statement, asserting that he had misspoke and intended to speak only about trades. What isn’t retracted, however, is one of the slowest offseasons in MLB history that we just witnessed.
This approaching offseason looks to be a crucial one in shaping the operation of free agency. There are some immensely talented players poised to draw immensely lucrative contracts. Three of those players, all of whom played in the World Series, and all of whom receive representation from Scott Boras, are Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, and Anthony Rendon. Boras recently said that MLB teams are more eager for talking this year. “Clubs are wanting meetings and wanting to get in front of the players,” Boras said at the general managers meetings. “They’re all telling me they want to make much earlier decisions. I did not hear any of that last year.” Hopefully, this past winter’s slumber party is a thing of the past, and owners’ checkbooks will make appearances early and often this offseason.