As we approach February of a second straight long-gestating free agent winter, the top two free agents remain curiously unsigned. Rather than drive a bidding war, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s concurrent free agencies have snailed along with only the White Sox and Phillies as definitive suitors. More so than usual, there is a growing sense of discord between the owners and players, steering these economically-opposed-but-conjoined forces towards a potentially destructive labor negotiation in 2021, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe.
Teams at both ends of the competitive spectrum are contributing to this contentious ecosystem. At one end, bottom feeders like the Orioles, Marlins, and Blue Jays are realizing the long odds of winning their divisions and choosing the judicious (and totally understandable) approach to team building, largely abstaining from free agency. At the same time, there are more than a few teams with wide-open competitive windows who nonetheless remain passive in free agency, citing financial limitations or a need for future flexibility. The competitive balance tax, intended as a punitive fee to help balance the league, has instead become a scapegoat for large market teams to avoid significant free agent spending. Public opinion lands on both sides of the fence, with owners painted as evolving at best and collusive at worst, while the players are viewed, alternatively, as a whiny group of greedy millionaires or a disenfranchised labor force facing an unemployment crisis.
Receiving the brunt of the criticism at present is the Dodgers, back-to-back National League champions whom many expected to make a play for Harper. Despite their reputation as big spenders, however, it’s been quite some time since the Dodgers played the part of spendthrift, tweets Fancred’s Jon Heyman. When they hired former Rays GM Andrew Friedman before the 2015 season, there was excitement over what Friedman could do when given the reins to the Los Angeles machine. What has conspired instead brings to light a whole new question: how much revenue can the Dodgers clear under Friedman’s watchful spending? In theory, they’ve stuck a perfect balance between large market spending and small market creativity, but the reaction hasn’t been quite so laudatory.
For example, in staying true to his ever-creative roster management, Friedman shipped the erratic trio of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood to the attraction-starved Reds for a pair of promising prospects and the remains of Homer Bailey, whom they released. We asked MLBTR readers for your opinion, and 45% thought the Reds won the deal against only 18% who pegged the Dodgers as the winner. There was another 24% who thought the trade was a win-win, but it was an overall underwhelming reaction to a move the Dodgers likely view as a creative means to acquire future assets in return for volatile performers who proffered no future value to the club beyond 2019.
The above trade, combined with their complete lack of interest in Harper and Machado gives the impression of a team disinclined towards large payroll expenditures. Accurate or not, the optics have born itself out in the public reaction – so long as Harper and Machado remain on the market, the cries for ownership to open up their wallets and “do whatever it takes to win” will not cease. And yet, the “throw money at it” approach to problem solving, long en vogue among sports franchise front offices, has gone decidedly out of style.
When pressed about the their lack of interest in Harper, Dodgers president Stan Kasten rejected any idea of frugality on the Dodgers’ part, per Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times. Kasten repeatedly cites attendance numbers to rebuke the idea of fan discontent while also railing against the public invention of false narratives. While that does sound an awful lot like another billionaire using the “fake news” moniker as blanket refutation of public sentiment, it’s worth considering his perspective. On the one hand, the Dodgers are being targeted here not because they’ve made poor decisions, necessarily, but because their market, the current competitive landscape, and traditional expectations of free agency peg them as one of the likeliest overspenders. That they aren’t taking the bait and competing literally at all costs shouldn’t necessarily make them the poster team for the current lack of spending. They did, after all, make the largest cash commitment to a position player thus far this winter.
And yet, with those sky high attendance numbers in tow, it’s certainly possible that the Dodgers are both among the highest-spending franchises in baseball and also among those most at fault for stifling the market. Keep in mind this exploration from Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports, this isn’t simply a Dodger issue – this is a categorical questioning of the fairness, or smartness, or rightness of team spending throughout the league. The Dodgers are the team currently left holding the bag, but the Cubs, Yankees, Giants, Astros, Indians and others could all be accused of underspending, to various degrees. Only the Red Sox and Nationals had the gall (pride? guts? willingness?) to exceed the luxury tax in 2018. Of course, it’s not “crossing the tax line” at issue, it’s that the refusal to engage the free agent market leaves wins on the table. The rigidity with which large market teams are refusing to pay the tax is baffling, especially as more and more GMs attest that there’s no mandate from ownership to do so. The party line in front offices across the league isn’t that ownership won’t pay, it’s that ownership is finally hep to the fact that big contracts means big risk that sometimes turns into a big, constant reminder of ownership’s failings. In Los Angeles, the Angels have the best player in baseball, and the best argument against these monster contracts. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have a string of six straight division titles and two straight pennants. It’s easy to understand why Kasten believes in his club’s approach.
Time remains for Harper and Machado to land the types of mega-deals they’re seeking, and they will, no doubt, end up with a sum of money that, out of context, will boggle the mind. But in context, it’s more complicated. See Grandal, Yasmani. Teams are spending less in free agency than they used to and it’s incumbent upon the game’s biggest stars to set the market. Anything less would be a disservice to the players who don’t have the same leverage.
So where do MLBTR readers stand on the state of free agency in 2019? Have teams evolved to the point that’s simply frustrating for players? Are owners valuing revenue over contention in a way that threatens the underlying infrastructure of the sport? Should players readjust their expectations? Or is this the battle that’s worth going to the mattresses?
Even, is this just what a flatter marketplace looks like? With opposing sides taking longer than usual to find a middle ground? Regardless, the debate rages on. What do you think?