In his latest column, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports takes a lengthy, thought-provoking look at what has been a downright glacial free-agent market unlike any seen in MLB history. To date, no free agent has agreed to a contract guaranteeing more than three guaranteed seasons, and the vast majority of top-tier free agents remain unsigned with roughly a month to go until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training.
If this sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because Passan tackled the general issue months back, when a slow-down was already apparent. Of course, the plot has thickened in many ways since, even as some free agents have signed in the interim. We took our own look at his arguments at the time, and will do so again here.
So, is there evidence of collusion? Is the luxury tax line effectively creating a salary cap of sorts? Are factors unique to the 2017-18 market really an explanation? What’s really at play here? In many ways, it’s all still uncertain, but Passan argues that the slow market primarily about broader structural changes that have redounded to the benefit of teams — particularly, perhaps, a system of player compensation that no longer aligns with the realities of the game.
Let’s start with the concept of collusion. Unsurprisingly, Major League Baseball issued a staunch denial of any such notion in a statement to Passan that interestingly targets one very notable agent (more on that further below):
“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.”
Certainly, there’s no clear evidence of collusion that has been cited to this point. As Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus argues, there are a few questionable data points on the market, but still no definitive proof of price fixing — in large part because we don’t yet have the full context necessary for interpreting what has occurred to date. As Passan has explained previously, uniformity in team valuations can perhaps create a fairly consistent line in the sand at a certain number of years or dollars for a given free agent. Really, who’s to say whether that — standing alone — represents active collusion, some kind of passive collusion, or simply standardized analytical processes?
It isn’t as if we have yet observed bunches of players settling for contracts far below their market values. To the contrary, while years have been on the light side — no deals have gone past three guaranteed — the overall earnings have been as robust as MLBTR generally expected for those players that have signed to this point. While Addison Reed recently fell well shy of his predicted value (we don’t really yet know why), others, such as Tyler Chatwood and Tommy Hunter (to take but two examples), have received quite a lot more than expected.
As for the still-unsigned players, we just don’t know yet, and what little information we have seems inconclusive. Passan says that “one of the best free agents” feels the offers he has received are “so incompatible with his production” that he might wait until mid-season to sign. Without more information — who? how much? what would he deem fair and is that supportable? — that example really can’t even be assessed. An assistant GM tells Passan he’d rather pay Lorenzo Cain at a big rate ($24MM) for one season than promise him a longer-term deal. That’s an interesting and somewhat curious position, as Cain projects as a quality asset for a few years into the future, though it’s tough to assess without knowing the full context. More to the point, that view from one executive on one team hardly establishes the absence of a reasonable market for Cain.
Asking prices and expectations don’t always coincide with results in free agency. For every surprisingly large contract, there’s typically a supposed bargain. There was perhaps more talk than ever about lofty asking prices for free agents entering this offseason. Over the last several months, there have been reports of asking prices of $200MM or more for J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, and even Jake Arrieta — rates that hardly seemed achievable at the outset of free agency. Players like Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn were both said (at some point, at least) to be seeking nine-figure commitments and/or $20MM annual salaries. We recently addressed just this subject with regard to Cobb, who never seemed likely to command that sort of deal and appears to be receiving some interest within range of what might reasonably have been anticipated entering the winter. Some have suggested that outfielder Jay Bruce was forced to settle for his three-year, $39MM deal, but that’s exactly the contract we predicted back in November.
Passan identifies ten teams that will or may sit out this free-agent period, suggesting that “players are panicking” in the face of the situation. But it isn’t exactly unusual for a variety of teams to forgo significant open-market spending in a given year — for instance, as of February 1, 2016, ten teams had spent $12.25MM or less — and few of the listed clubs seemed to be in position to go for broke in free agency before things got underway. Further, some of the organizations he lists (the White Sox, Tigers, and Athletics, for instance) have already spent at least some money on mid-level free agents. Others (the Royals and Padres) have reportedly offered nine-figure contracts that have helped establish the market for Hosmer. Still more (the Braves seem like a possibility) could still dangle multi-year deals in the right circumstances.
On the whole, while the market hasn’t yet produced nearly as many contracts as is typical at this point on the calendar, it seems premature to presume that this is the beginning of a lasting trend. There’s little question that this is a highly unusual market environment, but just how that’ll shake out simply cannot be known. Even if the result is a lesser overall outlay for the current crop of free agents, moreover, there’ll still be room for interpretation and ongoing developments regarding what it all means going forward. None of that is to say that all players or all agents are setting unrealistic starting points or targets — or that, in fact we aren’t about to see a massive shortfall in anticipated free agent spending. That could yet come to pass.
Even without the benefit of knowing how the market will line up, though, there’s plenty more to chew on here. Passan focuses particular ire on the concept that the new CBA’s luxury tax provisions have created a de facto spending cap. He argues that the actual penalties embodied in the CBA spending provisions aren’t that significant, calling the tax “a well-branded pretext for teams not to spend.”
The point is well-taken, on the one hand: it serves as a comfortable reference point when teams need to explain why they’re suddenly clamming up. For many organizations, though, that level of spending is so far from actual payroll levels that it doesn’t even enter the picture. And it isn’t as if the biggest spenders can’t afford to pay some taxes, as they have in the past.
Still, is there legitimacy to teams wanting to dip beneath the line? If so, what does that tell us? Passan says that limboing under the luxury tax for one year and then jumping back to a $246MM payroll would save the Yankees and Dodgers “only $12 million in luxury-tax penalties.” But his approach — simply comparing the hypothetical 2019 tax rate between scenarios in which these organizations do or do not end up over the luxury line in the prior year — seemingly ignores a few other factors. Since the tax rate rises with each consecutive year in which the line is passed, there’s more than one future season of payroll to consider. Plus, the new CBA includes a surcharge on exceeding the tax by more than $20MM (12%) and exceeding it by $40MM or more (a whopping 42.5% plus a loss of ten places in the first-round draft order; 45% on the second consecutive time). As ESPN.com’s Buster Olney notes on Twitter, the Dodgers and Yankees “might have a $100+ [million] incentive to get under” for one year, all things considered.
Still, the general point regarding the luxury tax seems to be correct: it isn’t the sole or even a major cause here. But it is a factor, especially as a part of several other somewhat one-off considerations that may be lining up to make this a unique offseason. Given the history of spending from the Yankees and Dodgers (to say nothing of the Giants, who are engaged in their own staredown with the CBT threshold and reportedly prefer to remain south of that $197MM mark), it could be this really is mostly a one-year dip. Taking those teams out of the top-level market-driving position, perhaps in part as they anticipate chasing younger, better free agents next winter, could have a major short-term impact without necessarily indicating that the balance of power has shifted for good against players.
How about that other factor that’s popularly mentioned and which the league itself (rather remarkably) suggested in its statement? On the one hand, it’s probably too neat an explanation to say simply that the Boras Corporation is holding things up. While Scott Boras is notoriously willing to run the clock, he doesn’t exactly make a habit of negotiating well into January and February; to the contrary, he usually isn’t forced to drag things out, as Passan notes. And he does represent a huge number of this year’s free agents, including top-tier names like Hosmer, Martinez, Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland in addition to second- and third-tier free agents such as Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Tony Watson, Matt Holliday and Jayson Werth.
While it seems hard to believe he’s single-handedly responsible, Boras is reportedly sitting on big offers for Hosmer and Martinez that seem at least to approach the bounds of expectations when the winter started. Those players are well within their rights to wait and seek more, but the figures they seemingly have in hand to this point aren’t unexpected. And the fact they haven’t taken deals yet does hint at the influence of Boras to some extent. For his part, true to form, Boras provided Passan with a cheeky analogy to express his position: “I wouldn’t blame the baker if the flour doesn’t show up.”
In mixing the free agent batter, Boras and his compatriots on the agency side do seem to be running into some unexpected interference, too. But what’s the root? Another somewhat unique circumstance that may be impacting this year’s market is that identified by Dave Cameron (formerly) of Fangraphs: with fewer than ten teams currently projected to run roughshod over the remainder of the league, there’s a lack of incentive for win-now spending from mid-level organizations. That, in turn, helps decrease the need for the top teams to maintain their edge through spending. It’s a phenomenon that is not entirely dissimilar from what we’ve seen at the non-waiver deadline, where Wild Card contenders are at times reluctant to make significant splashes knowing the endgame to be a one-game playoff.
Passan does recognize a few of these factors, but perhaps views them in a different light. He says that “33 percent of baseball teams declare themselves unwilling to spend and others still pronounce themselves unfit yet to win,” suggesting that modern baseball’s emphasis on wise spending also serves as an excuse not to try to win. He contends that the preference to trade, rather than to sign mid-level free agents, has “almost destroyed baseball’s so-called middle class of veteran non-stars.” (Counterpoints come in the form of Chatwood and Bruce, among others.) One GM told Passan: “Why would I pay a guy now when I can trade for one every bit as good in July and give up almost nothing?”
While there’s likely some structural element to all this, it’s difficult to simply reject the unique circumstances of this winter out of hand. We don’t always have an abundance of what Cameron calls “super teams” — at least, that is, not until some big-market bullies have gone out and bought up the best veterans. With so many teams entering the winter with already impressive arrays of talent, along with the other circumstances discussed above, the stage was perhaps set for a slow-down that could stand apart from any broader forces.
As we suggested back in November, if there is indeed a broader force at play that strongly explains what we’re currently seeing, perhaps it’s the ongoing youth movement that has occurred since the steroid era. The fact that more on-field value is coming from younger players suggests a reason that older, mid-level players are encountering a market that isn’t interested in promising many years. After all, as more teams are able to find equivalent production from within at a cheaper rate, future roster spots may be increasingly anticipated to be occupied by current prospects.
Many of the points Passan makes touch upon this very factor. Sources on both the league and union sides tell him that the free agent model (six years of service before the open market) is simply outdated. He spends considerable time discussing the union’s blind spot on this subject in recent CBA talks. The MLBPA focused on lifestyle changes while letting the league have a hard cap on international amateur spending, doing nothing to boost spending (some would argue the contrary) in setting luxury tax rules, and (we’d add) failing to do anything to boost significantly the earning capacity of pre- and mid-arbitration players (save for some nominal increased to the league’s minimum rate of pay).
Of course, it’s also worth emphasizing that the union went to great lengths to revamp the qualifying offer system in an effort to scale back the reluctance teams had expressed when weighing the pursuit of players who’d rejected the QO under the previous CBA. That was a significant talking point both in the media and at the negotiation table as the MLBPA sought to eliminate instances of players being “forced” to settle for short-term deals due to the burden of draft-pick compensation. Just how well that worked is not yet fully clear thanks to lack of data the slow-moving offseason has provided, though Carlos Santana and Wade Davis had no issues finding healthy contracts that beat most expectations — at least in terms of average annual value.
The union’s assumption, presumably, was that open-market spending would continue to support the size of the players’ pie slice, particularly with lesser penalization issued to teams seeking to sign players that had performed well enough to receive a QO. In turn, the MLBPA undoubtedly hoped that said slice would continue to be allocated to the best veteran players (even if their more youthful brethren will be expected to produce more value on the field in the years to come). While the offseason has clearly not played out in that fashion, current calls for wholesale changes to the arbitration system and service time requirements for free agency weren’t pushed as hot-button topics on which the MLBPA needed to focus — at least not to the extent that changes to the QO system were underscored as a critical need.
While the general situation could set the stage for a labor conflict over the coming years if these trends continue, as Passan suggests, there’s probably also room for developments to push back in the other direction. The union might press back before it reaches the point of labor unrest. Some of the unique circumstances on this year’s market may ameliorate the situation. Of greatest interest, perhaps, is the possibility that the inefficiencies created by aging curve trends will begin to resolve. The market has already shown some means of adaptation, as with the advent and increasingly frequent use of opt-out clauses. Some very youthful free agents are expected to hit the open market in the seasons to come, with age still well on their side in no small part because they were promoted early and were able to resist extensions by locking up plenty of money through arbitration and endorsement deals. These players will still have ample opportunity to land massive contracts.
There could be a trickle-down effect for extension scenarios, too. If teams forgo mid-level free agents, they’ll be giving more time and opportunity to younger players, who’ll in turn reach arbitration eligibility and free agency sooner. Teams will continue to search for extension bargains, as ever, but there’s no particular reason at this point to think that’ll be a problem so much as a further opportunity. Passan says in a somewhat accusatory manner that “every team tries to sweet-talk its young players into under-market long-term contracts that delay their free agency, leading to a paucity of 26- and 27-year-olds in free agency.” That’s a hardly a new trend, of course, as John Hart-led Indians largely pioneered that practice roughly a quarter century ago.
While the examples like Jose Altuve, Christian Yelich, Paul Goldschmidt and Madison Bumgarner are among the many team-friendly deals, there are also plenty of examples that turned into largely sunk costs. Jon Singleton, Cory Luebke, Jose Tabata, Allen Craig and Devin Mesoraco all provided little in the way of long-term value on their respective early deals, whether due to poor performance or persistent injuries. And let’s not forget that Houston reportedly tried and failed to give money to players such as Matt Dominguez and Robbie Grossman.
Other top stars have, to date, resisted the urge to take money in exchange for giving up their rights to the open market. If players like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant and Mookie Betts won’t rush into extensions, then they’ll hit the market at young ages with huge earning potential — as, of course, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will next winter. If those players continue on year-to-year paths, teams hoping to find value through extensions may need to promise more money and years than they’d prefer to mid-level players, which ought to be beneficial to players in such uncertain situations.
Furthermore, younger stars that do ultimately accept long-term extension offers could very well see those markets move forward if teams do indeed begin to cut back on investments in aging free agents; Lindor reportedly received and rejected a nine-figure extension offer last winter. That would’ve crushed Andrelton Simmons’ $58MM pre-arbitration record for a player between one and two years of service time.
Turning back to the immediate market, though, it does still seem possible that some of this winter’s free agents will be caught in the middle of these broader forces. But it should not yet be assumed that there’ll be a far-reaching spending drop in the form of a permanently changed free-agent market (even if this year’s overall market falls well shy of reasonable expectations). The market for baseball players is highly susceptible to change from nuanced, often uncertain variables. We ought to see how they all play out before passing final judgment.