The 2017 Major League Baseball season ended nearly two months ago, but we still have not seen any big moves made in free agency. The biggest move that has been made so far came earlier this month when the Miami Marlins traded outfielder Giancarolo Stanton to the New York Yankees. But at MLB’s Winter Meetings earlier this month, there weren’t any big free agency signings in spite of the fact that this is the place for front office executives and player agents to talk turkey and hammer out deals. And even as the Winter Meetings are finished, many teams around MLB are still focusing on trying to play “Let’s Make A Deal” instead of opening up the vault and the reason behind it is the almighty dollar.
Free agency in Major League Baseball began in 1976 with the first player to strike it big as a free agent being starting pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter when he signed a five-year deal for $3.35 million to join the New York Yankees. The Yankees would continue to set the bar for free agency as in the following year they would sign outfielder Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $2.96 million contract. And following the 1980 MLB season, the Yankees would make outfielder Dave Winfield the highest-paid player in MLB history when they signed him to a ten-year deal for $23 million.
Since then player salaries continued to steadily rise around Major League Baseball, but the deal that changed the game came in December 2000 when the Texas Rangers gave shortstop Alex Rodriguez $252 million on a ten-year deal. The deal was groundbreaking and reckless as the Rangers outbid themselves being that the next closest offer for Rodriguez came from the Seattle Mariners who offered him close to $120 million.
Since then mega contracts have been the norm in Major League Baseball with most players relishing in reaching free agency in order to secure a huge payday. However free agency has become a showcase for “past accomplishments”. By the time that most players become unrestricted free agents they are 30 or 31-years of age with the majority of their prime years in the rear-view mirror. And unless the new team can get something out of those first two or three years from a player after signing him to a long-term bloated contract, then they become stuck with dead money.
A prime example of this is first baseman Albert Pujols who after helping the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series in 2011 elected to test the free agency market. Pujols was 31 at the time with his prime in the rear-view mirror. But this did not stop the Los Angeles Angels from signing Pujols to a ten-year deal for $254 million. In six seasons with the Angels, Pujols’ batting average has dipped nearly 60 batting as he’s batting .262 with Los Angeles. Foot injuries have taken away from Pujols’ effectiveness as he has been relegated to being a full-time designated hitter, and the Angels are on the hook for his contract through the end of the 2021 Major League Baseball season.
Now we are seeing more teams opting to give players less years on their deals in free agency as the new norm is all about drafting and developing players as well as focusing on staying under the luxury tax.
In 2003, Major League Baseball implemented the luxury tax as a tool to punish the big market teams that willingly spent huge dollars in free agency, while providing some competitive balance for the small market clubs. So for those franchises such as Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers who’ve been known the spend money like there is no tomorrow in free agency, MLB created the luxury tax in order to make them think twice in regards to shelling out the big bucks. And now those big market clubs are scaling back on free agency spending with more of a focus on drafting as well as developing talent.
So the guys who are going to be hurt by this are not the Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers of Major League Baseball as they will be able to secure big contracts, but it will be those second-tier players who are looking to strike it rich. So far players such as first baseman Eric Hosmer and starting pitcher Jake Arrieta have yet to find a new team to play for this winter in spite of what they bring to the table.
In seven seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Hosmer batted .284, while he averaged 20 home runs and 87 runs batted in per season. Hosmer was also a four-time American League Gold Glove Award winner, while he also helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series in 2015. Hosmer became a leader for that Royals championship team, but that has not translated to him striking it big so far this winter in spite of the fact that he’s only 28-years of age.
In 2015, Arrieta became a household name as he went 22-6, while recording 236 strikeouts, and posting an earned run average of 1.77. Arrieta easily took home the National League Cy Young Award that year as he became one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers. Arrieta has continued to be a good player as he helped the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2016, but since 2015, his earned run average has increased. Arrieta only completed 168.1 innings of work last season as he spent time on the disabled list. Arrieta will turn 32 in March, but with so many teams around Major League Baseball in dire need of quality starting pitching, I am shocked that nobody has taken a bite on him as of yet.
Then there is another policy that is turning teams off in free agency which is the potential forfeiture of first-round picks. In the current collective bargaining agreement, unless a team finishes in the top ten in regards to having the worst record in Major League Baseball from the previous season, they run the risk of losing their first-round pick in the upcoming draft if the player’s former team offers him salary arbitration. And because of this many teams around MLB have thought twice in regards to going after the marquee free agents.
So whereas this is the new norm around Major League Baseball, I do expect the Players’ Association to get involved at some point as their veterans are being squeezed out of the game, not because they can no longer get it, but more because of the dollars and cents of the game. Through television deals there is money floating around MLB, but not all team owners have the mindset of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who felt that money was no object when it came to winning. Today’s owners are more about keeping their money in their pockets, and if their team can get hot coming down the stretch of the regular season as well as in October, so be it. Gone are the days in baseball of dynasties such as that of the Oakland Athletics of the 1970’s and the Yankees of the late 1990’s which is due to free agency and the luxury tax. The closest thing that we’ve seen to a dynasty in recent years were the San Francisco Giants winning three World Series Titles from 2010-2014 as they alternated on the even years. But even those Giants clubs saw a huge roster overhaul from each championship team with catcher Buster Posey, third baseman Pablo Sandoval, along with starting pitchers Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum being the only players who were on all three title winners.
Many people grew tired of seeing teams such as the Yankees win every year, and what we are currently seeing is a direct correlation to MLB changing its previous ways with a new effort on their part to be cheap.