Spring training is typically a time for rebirth, unbridled optimism and a conga line of players showing up in the best shape of their lives.
This year, the traditional reporting date serves another purpose: to help teams and fans move on from the most exasperating, contentious and transaction-impaired offseason in memory.
The Chicago Cubs made big news Saturday when they agreed to a six-year, $126 million contract with free-agent starter Yu Darvish. Now everyone awaits the fallout from the most lucrative deal of the winter. Is this the signing that breaks the logjam and produces a deluge of transactions, or just another temporary break from a prolonged staring contest between cost-conscious teams and unemployed players?
More than 90 of the 166 players who declared free agency in November are jobless, and the players’ association has arranged for a shadow training camp in Bradenton, Florida, to help them stay ready. Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto recently caused a stir when he said the competition for the first pick in the draft is outpacing the race to win a World Series. Tony Clark of the players’ association conveyed the union’s concerns when he charged teams with conducting a “race to the bottom” that “threatens the integrity of the game.” The commissioner’s office quickly fired back and blamed the lack of activity on agents who misread the market and overreached.
While Scott Boras preaches patience, dozens of agents privately grouse about the adverse impact of the game’s year-old labor agreement — and their exclusion from the negotiating process — or drop hints about coordinated activity on the part of owners. Teams counter that it’s all about supply and demand, and that clubs are simply smarter and more efficient in the art of roster-building now.
Against that acrimonious backdrop, it’s refreshing to contemplate the upbeat storylines this spring. Shohei Ohtani, a 23-year-old marvel who captivated scouts with his pitching and hitting prowess as a Nippon Ham Fighter, will pursue his two-way dream before waves of U.S. and Japanese reporters at Tempe Diablo Stadium. With Albert Pujols 32 hits shy of the 3,000 club and Mike Trout still stoked from the Philadelphia Eagles‘ Super Bowl victory, the Los Angeles Angels are ready to make a run at the Los Angeles Dodgers for the honor of Southern California’s most entertaining team this season.
Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge are about to turn batting practice into appointment viewing in Tampa and the Bronx. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria will try to help turn things around for the San Francisco Giants, where the team is intent on rebounding from an embarrassing 68-win season. And the Milwaukee Brewers showed they’re not ready to relinquish any ground in the National League Central when they acquired Christian Yelich in a trade with Miami and signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract.
Those teams and other would-be contenders will have to chase down the Astros, who have added Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to the rotation since August and aspire to become MLB’s first back-to-back champion since the Yankees pocketed three straight titles from 1998 to 2000.
Amid the feel-good stories, questions linger about wallflower teams that have no prayer of contending in 2018 and a system that’s kicking so many established players to the curb. Beyond the big names, there are dozens of non-stars who spent six years striving for free agency and have spent the winter in a state of suspended animation.
“This is very black and white,” said a veteran agent. “The players’ association is ultimately going to be confronted with the question, ‘Did they agree to a system where revenues increase and salaries fall?’ There were 166 free agents when the bell rang. At the end of the day, we will have 60 major league players who will either be out of the game or sign a minor league contract. If more than one-third of the market gets disemboweled, that’s pretty frightening.”
Even with Darvish’s guaranteed $126 million deal in the books, free-agent spending this offseason totals about $925 million, compared to $2.53 billion two years ago and $1.45 billion last winter. Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a $110 million contract with the Mets last winter, are the only two players to consummate nine-figure deals over the past two offseasons.
That total compares to 38 such deals in the span from 2010 to 2016. And as ESPN researcher Evan Wildstein notes, only 10 players this winter have signed deals of three years or more, compared to 27 players two years ago.
The Boston Red Sox are a noteworthy wallflower. After ranking last in the American League with 168 home runs in 2017, they responded to the Yankees’ acquisition of Stanton by signing Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million contract. Meanwhile, the team’s dalliance with slugger J.D. Martinez has been stuck in the mud since Thanksgiving.
The Orioles, Pirates, Marlins, Braves and Rays haven’t signed a single big league free agent this offseason, and Boras has about 20 unemployed free agents in the fold as camps get underway. The list ranges from such marquee names as Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta and Mike Moustakas to earnest job-seekers such as Nick Franklin, Jarred Cosart, Chris Coghlan and Dustin Ackley.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economist, author and Smith College professor who has worked as a consultant for both players’ unions and teams, thinks the current state of inertia has been a long time in coming.
“Over the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been an increased emphasis on analytics and trying to become more empirical and objective about player value,” Zimbalist said. “There’s been a creeping cultural shift away from emotionally driven decision-making. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist or it will ever disappear. But certainly, incrementally, front offices are being held to a different standard and people are behaving more cautiously in that regard. It’s not something that’s all of a sudden hit in 2018. But it’s a contributory factor here.
“It’s also become apparent that a number of teams have followed a policy of building from the base and being patient and not adopting the strategy that you have to win every year. Obviously, Houston’s success last year is a shining example of player development and a more moderate payroll.”
Beyond the analytics, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement is having a significant impact. The Dodgers and Yankees are doing contortions to stay beneath the $197 million competitive balance threshold to avoid the penalties it would bring. At the other end of the spectrum, the Marlins and Pirates have received massive revenue-sharing payments with no impetus or contractual mandate to plow that money back into the payroll.
“When teams at the top like the Yankees and Dodgers that had been pushing the envelope on salaries and setting the standard for superstars have such strong incentives to rein in their spending, you don’t have the extravagance driving the market that it did historically.” Zimbalist said. “That’s a really big factor. And it’s a little bit strange for Tony Clark and the agents to [sign off on] a contract that incorporates all these factors and then complain they’re having an impact. Anybody with a modicum of foresight and baseball knowledge would have told them this is going to be the impact.”
Qualifying offers, changing compensation rules and other bells and whistles have put a crimp in free agency in recent years, and the revenue-sharing provisions that former commissioner Bud Selig once championed to bring “hope and faith” to small markets haven’t had the desired impact.
“For multiple CBAs, we created a system that rewards [tanking]. … You’ve created a system that incentivizes losing.”
MLB general manager
The one constant: Franchise values keep increasing. Jeffrey Loria made a massive profit while selling the Marlins to Derek Jeter’s group for $1.2 billion in October, and Jeter immediately traded four of the team’s best players to reduce the massive debt he incurred upon completion of the sale.
“We handed [the owners] a CBA that allowed them to make more money,” said a veteran agent. “More and more of them are good businessmen and not family owners who are tied into the community and want to win, win, win for the town. They want to win for the estate — to make more money and create more wealth. These guys didn’t get to the position where they could buy a baseball team by making bad decisions and spending frivolously.”
The industry focus on “tanking” teams has become more pronounced this offseason. Several executives who declined to speak for attribution point to a system that gives teams numerous incentives to lose.
“It’s not just this past CBA,” said a general manager. “The last three CBAs have all pointed to this. Donald Fehr and Marvin Miller never allowed any sort of spending limits in the CBA. Now all of a sudden, you’ve got a cap on amateur signings and international signings and a soft tax on big league signings and payrolls. On top of that, there was an extremely small increase in the big league minimum this time around [from $507,500 to $535,000]. That’s minuscule on a percentage basis.
“In the past, you would have small-market teams spend big internationally or in the draft. Now they can’t do that, and they still can’t really afford to spend on the [big] free agents. So how can they get talent? They trade for prospects, which lowers their payroll, which the union complains about. Or they finish lower and get access to better talent in the draft. No franchise can survive without access to young talent. And you’ve cut off some of those avenues.
“For multiple CBAs, we created a system that rewards [tanking]. You got the first pick in the draft and a huge amount of pool money that you can spread out, and you got the most money in international, and the top Rule 5 pick and the top waiver-claim pick. You’ve created a system that incentivizes losing. We’re a copycat society, and you’ve seen teams have success doing that. It’s no surprise that other teams are now doing the same thing.”
The Royals, Nationals, Cubs and Astros have all won titles or been successful stockpiling young talent and enduring some trying seasons along the way. Executives with competing clubs take note of that model and sell ownership on the idea of bottoming out rather than muddling along year after year in the 76- to 84-win purgatory.
It’s not “tanking” in the classic sense of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, who posted a 10-72 record three years ago while asking fans to trust the process. But more executives than ever have expressed a willingness to sacrifice wins in the short term while pursuing a long-term vision. And fans in several markets have bought into the rebuilds. If Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford and Philadelphia’s young prospects show signs of progress this year, Phillies fans seem willing to wait for a big free-agent push next winter, when general manager Matt Klentak will have access to a better pool of talent.
“Why spend $50 million to go from a 72-win team to a 75-win team?” said an American League executive. “I think fans and front offices are more sophisticated given the success and prudence shown by some clubs in recent years. If it’s the difference between an 87-win and a 90-win team, hell yeah. Fans are going to be totally onboard with that. But if it’s going to rob a bright future for a mediocre present, why bother?”
The concept of teams “winning the offseason” with nine-figure deals is passé. With performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines less prevalent because of stricter testing, teams are more hesitant to commit to eight- and 10-year deals for players in their decline years.
It doesn’t help when Pujols, a baseball icon and future Hall of Famer, ranked last in the majors with a minus-1.8 Wins Above Replacement in 2017 and is owed $114 million through 2021. Or that the Braves will pay Adrian Gonzalez $20 million-plus to play for the Mets this season. Or that the Dodgers are stuck with a declining Matt Kemp, who is owed $43 million through 2019. Or that the Yankees have been shopping Jacoby Ellsbury for months with no takers.
Many industry observers (Boras notwithstanding) contend that the 2017-18 market was short on the type of difference-makers who warrant massive paydays. And the 2017-18 class looks even less impressive with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw (if he exercises his opt-out) and several other heavy hitters ready to hit the open market next winter.
“Let’s be honest: This was a less-than-stellar group,” said one agent. “There’s not one free agent in this group that’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
Pockets of the market have been immune to the carnage. Wade Davis agreed to a three-year, $52 million deal with the Colorado Rockies in December, and fellow relievers Mike Minor, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Juan Nicasio, Brandon Morrow, Tommy Hunter, Addison Reed, Pat Neshek, Steve Cishek, Luke Gregerson, Brandon Kintzler and Yusmeiro Petit all signed multiyear deals for payouts in excess of $10 million.
But lots of players on the wrong side of 35 are still out there for the taking. Jayson Werth, Brandon Phillips, Matt Holliday, Jose Bautista, Andre Ethier, Carlos Ruiz, John Lackey and Chase Utley are just a few established names who have barely elicited a whisper this offseason.
One unemployed veteran who has been lifting weights and taking part in baseball activities for the past three months is conflicted about the idea of heading to Bradenton with his fellow free-agent orphans this week.
“I told my wife, ‘At least I get to stay home a little longer and hang out with the family,'” he said.
As players for all 30 clubs report to work in anticipation of the 2018 season, those who have yet to move on from 2017 have to be thankful for small favors.