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Power outage hits MLB's free agent market

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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Braves catcher Brian McCann is pointed toward a big payday in free agency. (AP)

At the end of the regular season, a pair of alarmed baseball men, not friends who bounce thoughts off one another but adversaries, actually, shared the exact same sentiment about an emerging trend they believe will drive much of the offseason activity this winter.

"Where did all the power go?" asked one.

"Take a guess how many guys hit 30 homers this year," the other asked. "Go ahead."

Thirteen, the reply went, and he was surprised that others knew what so flustered him: The emergence of great young arms, specialized relief pitching and information-loaded scouting data has conspired with fewer players using performance-enhancing drugs to starve home run numbers. The consequence is stark: Power is more expensive than ever in both the free agent and trade markets, and it already is dominating the conversation among agents and executives.

Not one of those 13 who hit 30 homers this season is a free agent, and yet a number of executives believe Brian McCann is going to get $100 million-plus, Mike Napoli a megabucks deal despite strikeout woes and chronic hip issues, Nelson Cruz silly money on the heels of his Biogenesis suspension and even Corey Hart, coming off surgery on both knees, a good nibble. The latter three have cracked 30 before, and McCann plays catcher, where a consistent 20-plus is rare. Among those who could be traded, Giancarlo Stanton is the single best catch among bats, and plenty covet Mark Trumbo in spite of his allergy to plate discipline.

[Free-agent tracker: Position-by-position breakdown]

Why? He launched 34 home runs. It's why the Pirates stick with Pedro Alvarez and the White Sox Adam Dunn in spite of their strikeouts, why Edwin Encarnacion is criminally underrated and Adrian Beltre making a better Hall of Fame case by the year. It's why Paul Goldschmidt's deal is a steal and Evan Longoria's perhaps better, why Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter around and Chris Davis is in a neighboring ZIP code. It's why David Ortiz is Big Papi, Adam Jones is great, Brandon Moss is about to get paid, why Jay Bruce should make Cincinnati think long and hard about a future without him.

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Nelson Cruz's Biogenesis suspension doesn't figure to hurt his free-agent value much. (USA Today)

Those are the baker's dozen of 30-plus guys, the smallest class in a full season since 1992. In both 1999 and 2000, 44 players hit 30-plus home runs. Perhaps 2013 is an outlier – 27 players went for 30 or more in 2012 – but the trend downward has been evident across all measures of home runs. Only Davis and Cabrera exceeded 40 homers in 2013. Just 29 reached 25-plus, the lowest since '92. Only 68 were at 20 or more; outside of the 65 in 2011, it was the fewest since '93.

A few organizations saw the power paucity coming and tried to stock their coffers with young, big bats. The Chicago Cubs are loaded with a United Nations of power: Kris Bryant (college draft pick from the U.S.), Jorge Soler (free agent signing from Cuba) and Javier Baez (high school draft pick from Puerto Rico). The Texas Rangers spent eight figures to sign projectable power bats Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara in 2011, the last year of unfettered spending in Latin America, and the next season spent a first-round draft pick on Joey Gallo, whom one scout called "Adam Dunn Jr. – for the power and the strikeouts."

Prospects – especially the high-risk hitters – flame out with enough frequency that teams resign themselves to seeking out power in the inefficient market that is free agency. Just look at Jose Abreu, the Cuban slugger who defected this offseason. One season there, he hit .453, which means he is either the greatest hitter who ever lived, or the competition in Cuba is not the deepest. Despite scant at-bats against players anywhere near major league caliber, Abreu fetched $68 million over six years from the Chicago White Sox – and had a handful more offers in the $60 million-plus range.

Welcome to baseball in 2014, where the money is what's on steroids. Baseball revenues were at $1.2 billion in 1994. Today, MLB Advanced Media, the $90 million-or-so venture a number of big-market teams begrudgingly invested in, brings in more than $600 million a year and is worth $3.3 billion, according to Bloomberg. Among that and the local TV deals and the $25 million a year extra every team gets this season from the new national TV contract, the money can't all go into owners' pockets. And so it will find its way to the rarest player around: the one who hits home runs.

The Marlins' entire offseason plan is to blow away Stanton with a contract extension even though they're well aware he'd likelier throw hot coals down his pants than wed himself to Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the owner's box. When their stubbornness subsides, they'll realize they need to trade him and retrieve a king's ransom. The Angels are dangling Trumbo because they know back-to-back 30-homer seasons blinds suitors to a career OBP below .300.

It also puts those in a position with such players to consider locking them up before the market correction expected this offseason sends salaries to stratospheric levels. Take, for example, the Reds and Bruce. Only three players have 30-plus homers each of the last three seasons: Cabrera, Beltre and Bruce. And it's not like Bruce is a product of Great American Ball Park's short fences, either. His average home runs traveled 405.3 feet, according to Hit Tracker Online – two feet farther than Cabrera's average homer and about 10 inches shorter than the presumed distance king, Davis.

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Reds outfielder Jay Bruce hit .262 with 30 home runs last season. (AP)

With $50 million freed up from an upcoming Brandon Phillips trade – "He's gone," one executive said Tuesday – and the departure of Bronson Arroyo and Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds have a decent amount of payroll flexibility, even if they extend Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto or Mat Latos, all of whom will hit free agency within the next two years. While the Reds control Bruce through 2017 with three guaranteed years at $34.5 million and a team option for $13 million, the prospect of a pre-emptive extension isn't far-fetched, not when it's precedent for players with premium skills.

At age 26, three years into a six-year extension with an option – exactly where Bruce is – Troy Tulowitzki tore up his deal and signed a 10-year, $157.5 million contract with Colorado. With four years left on his original pact, Longoria tacked on a six-year, $100 million extension with a club option. The Reds have precedent here, too: one year into a three-year, $38 million deal with Joey Votto, Cincinnati added 10 years for $225 million.

While Bruce's agent, Matt Sosnick, said "an extension never has been broached," he didn't quash the idea. "Obviously, Jay loves playing in Cincinnati. He's made it clear in the past that all things equal, he'd like to finish his career there and certainly would be open to anything."

There is creativity, and there is risk, and great baseball teams emerge where the two meet with success. Bruce does not play a premium position like Longoria and Tulowitzki, doesn't have the all-around offensive game like Votto, but his glove is excellent, his baserunning solid and his power unimpeachable. The strikeouts are frightening, but teams treat that as collateral damage for home run hitters, and the prospect of Bruce hitting the free agent market at 30 – an age after which Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Alfonso Soriano, Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard signed contracts totaling $1.06 billion – may indeed concern Cincinnati, even if it does have him locked up through his prime.

The Reds understand Bruce represents a rare breed today. In history, 18 players have hit at least 20 home runs every season from ages 21-26. The first 11 to do it are in the Hall of Fame. Tom Brunansky was the 12th. The others are Darryl Strawberry, A-Rod, Andruw Jones, Pujols, Cabrera and Bruce.

Already the prospect of Cabrera and Davis reaching free agency after the 2015 season must have Mike Ilitch considering raising the price on pizzas and Peter Angelos trying to find a new class-action suit to litigate. Whoever deals for Stanton will do so knowing nine figures is a fait accompli. Unless the game evolves away from the pitching dominance, this will be the new reality, like the steroid era in a funhouse mirror: Everyone digs the longball, only because it's an endangered species, not something bred like rabbits.

As the offseason progresses, don't forget this. It will be obvious everywhere that what one wise man wrote nearly 70 years ago in a dystopian novel now has all sorts of resonance in the modern baseball market.

Power corrupts.

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