Fixing MLB Free Agency?

Last week, Jeff Passan wrote a column on about MLB’s free agency and why it is imperative for baseball to fix its free agency processes/procedures ASAP.  I like Jeff Passan; I almost always read his reports in their entirety when I run across them; I learn a lot from them.  Regarding last week’s offering on the “broken” free agency system, I must politely offer dissent.  Here is the opening paragraph of that column:

“On this, the 97th day of free agency, four days before the first pitchers and catchers report to spring training, less than six weeks ahead of Major League Baseball opening its regular season, the two best free agents in more than a decade remain unemployed. This is not a black eye for baseball. It is a ruptured spleen, a punctured lung and a lacerated kidney.”

Fortunately, the metaphors employed here stopped short of imminent fatalities…  The “problem” with MLB free agency – if there is one – comes down to intransigence on both sides of the negotiations.  If the players/agents have a fixed set of parameters in mind and the GMS have a fixed set of parameters in mind, there will never be any agreement if both sides refuse to budge.  It takes both sides to make a deal and both sides will have to be willing to live with the deal once it is made; that second condition argues against any type of coercive action to “get a deal done”.

The column states that players are wary of the clubs’ intentions to reign in salaries; OK, I believe that.  The column states that MLB is embarrassed that two young star players remain unemployed as Spring Training begins; maybe this is true and maybe not.  The column also states that:

“Fans are rightfully tired of waiting and guessing.  Intrigue has evolved into annoyance.”

That is where I get off the train.  If indeed the fans are tired of waiting and guessing, let me suggest that the source of that fatigue is not the fault of the players or their agents or the teams.  The wellspring of that weariness is the huge over-abundance of “reports” written by baseball writers since the end of the World Series about where either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado was going to sign.  Baseball writers beat this to death; resuscitated it; and then bludgeoned it to death again.  Either with no real sources at all – or with hugely uninformed sources at best – multiple dozens of writers have bombarded baseball fans with those sorts of “insider information” to the point that I cease to read past any headlines any more.  My fatigue is real; my fatigue was brought on by the journalists and not the players or the GMs.

Please follow this link to read Jeff Passan’s column in its entirety; it has some good insights there, but I do not believe that there is a palpable danger to baseball lurking in the last two winter’s of free agency – – unless both sides decide to go to the mattresses when the current CBA expires in 2021.

Having said all that, let me offer up a really radical idea that might make future winters of free agency less like winters of our discontent [H/T to William Shakespeare].  My suggestion contains two provisions; one of them has been anathema to the MLBPA for over 40 years; the other continues to be anathema to baseball’s owners.  Here it is in simple English:

  • Point #1:  Institute a salary cap – a hard cap – for every MLB team.  I don’t know what the number is, but some smart business analysts can figure that one out.  I can hear the gasps and the cries of chest pains emanating from the MLBPA offices all the way down here in Curmudgeon Central.
  • Point #2:  Institute a salary floor – a hard floor – for every MLB team.  I don’t know what this number is either, but I am confident that some smart business analysts can come up with it.  Moreover, what the salary floor will require is a real and robust system of revenue sharing among the teams so that the “small market teams” can stay afloat while they also incur payrolls in the region between the floor and the ceiling.  I am sure that idea is as welcome a turd in the punchbowl at the next owners’ meeting.

My point here is that the “problem” is resolvable by itself but if it is truly existential, then it is going to take something about as radical as what I have proposed here.  Until you start reading those sorts of suggested “solutions” to the free agency problem, do not buy into the dystopian future that is predicted.

After months of speculation – that stretched back to last year’s trade deadline – the Marlins got a deal they liked for catcher, JT Realmuto, and sent him to the Phillies for a catcher and two minor league pitching prospects.  With Realmuto leaving South Florida, the dismantling of what was a young and building Marlins team when new owners rode into town is complete.  Last year, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna were auctioned off; now Realmuto is gone too.

Given that all four of the very good Marlins’ players sent off in trades were young players, what is the point of the team stockpiling “prospects”?  History shows that once the “prospects” prove to be capable major league players, they get traded away for more “prospects”.  The Marlins drew a total of 811,104 fans to their 81 home games last year; that is about 350,000 fewer fans than the next lowest draw in MLB.  At least some part of those dismal numbers can be attributed to the personnel strategies exhibited by the team.

Finally, since today was devoted to baseball, consider this comment from Bob Molinaro in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot:

“For what it’s worth: Free-agent signee and former Colorado Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino will be the first Yankee to wear No. 0, also making him the only current Yankee to wear a single digit. But, then, he’d have to be. It’s the only single jersey number the Yankees have not retired. Maybe future generations of Yankees should consider wearing fractions on their backs.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



8 thoughts on “Fixing MLB Free Agency?”

  1. Maybe a lot of GM’s remember the Yankees paid Alex Rodriguez $42 million to do nothing for the last two years of his ridiculous contract.

    1. David:

      AND fresh in the minds of GMs because it is an ongoing tire fire is the Albert Pujols contract that has 3 more years to run where the angels will pay him close to $90M. If Pujols were a free agent this year, I suspect he would still be looking for a team that would give him a Spring training camp invitation.

  2. Where is it written that every year a new free agent contract must set a record? The Nationals made a generous offer to Harper (10 years for $300M guaranteed). How does that signify a broken system? I think MLB is wary about Machado, who is not the easiest guy to get along with. I am not surprised that no one is running forward to offer him a long term deal.

    1. Gil:

      It is certainly written – or implied – in the Scott Boras business model that every year one of his clients is to get a record-setting deal. That is a big reason that he acquires new and younger players to represent.

      I believe the problem with Harper and Machado and their reps is that they are seeking deals that are longer in duration than teams are willing to sign up to. As I pointed out here before, there is a litany of long term deals that have come back to haunt the teams in the later stages of the contract. Maybe Harper and Machado will still be great players in 2029; maybe not. Is it worth $350M – $375M to find out? Only if it is someone else’s $350M…

  3. Excellent column Mr Curmudgeon. You succinctly stated that which all reasonable people already know. It takes both sides to reach an agreement. If one side or the other (or possibly both) enter negotiations with the “my way or the highway” attitude, and never come off of it, then no contract is likely.

    Also, teams need to be wary of large, multi-year contracts that can and do hamstring organizations for years either paying players that never lived up to expectations, or futilely trying to find a trading partner to off-load said disappointment.

    I understand the players desire to get as much money as possible, but baseball is a business and businesses must make money in order to stay in business. It seems that too many players and their agents (and many fans for that matter) just don’t see baseball in that light.

    1. Mark:

      Welcome aboard. Don’t be a stranger…

      There is another dimension to these negotiations/stalemates. Baseball is indeed a business; it is an entertainment business. Players and clubs and the league as an overarching entity are partners in that entertainment business. When teams are seen as cheapskates (like the Marlins or the Rays) fans do not react well. When players are seen as greedy mercenaries, fans do not react well. Having fans in a state where they are not reacting well is potentially disastrous to anyone in the entertainment business.

  4. Curm… Did you know of the Marlins top 25 WAR career leaders they traded 23? They tried to trade A J Burnett but it fell through and Fernandez died in the boat accident

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