Usually privately, sometimes out loud, Jake Arrieta would say that he was going to make $200 million in free agency. Nobody in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse could tell if he was entirely serious or just trolling, but this was not some one-off proclamation. It was 200 or bust.
Nothing emboldened Major League Baseball players quite like free agency. It was as sure a thing as any in sports. Every winter, agents for the best free agents would lay out their demands. Teams, frothing for talent, accepting of the market’s miserable inefficiencies, would protest and gripe and dissent before their inevitable acquiescence. To teams, free agency was a necessary evil.
Then came this winter, when nearly every team asked itself some derivation of the same question: What if it weren’t so necessary? It really was an extension of last winter, the beginning of the squeeze on free agency. Which itself was an extension of the years before, when teams started manipulating service time, a vise on the front end of players’ earning potential. And that was an extension of collective-bargaining-agreement wins in which MLB positioned itself to remake the economics of the game as it so desired. When the story of this period in baseball labor relations is told in a decade – when the labor war that seems more inevitable by the day is fought – it is this winter that may prove most seminal of all.
Because this is the offseason in which baseball assaulted the monolith upon which the MLB Players Association was built: free agency. Even if teams did not collude in doing so – MLB denies coordination and the MLBPA has yet to find evidence of any – the severity of the damage is apparent.
“Everything is upside down,” one longtime agent said, “and nothing makes sense.”
If free agency is not altogether destroyed, it is at the very least imperiled and handicapped. Players are shook. Agents are on tilt. If the union has a plan, its rank-and-file doesn’t know it. A confluence of factors – a surfeit of tanking or at least non-competitive teams, a collective-bargaining agreement that in certain places disincentivizes spending, a generation of executives reared to care more about value than precedent – left baseball here, with teams relishing bargains and players who once looked at free agency as their adulthood version of Christmas morning now thinking of it with all the warmth and fondness of April 15.
“I don’t want to get Moosed,” said a free agent in the Class of 2018-19, referring to Mike Moustakas, the Kansas City Royals third baseman whose one-year, $6.5 million deal better than any represented the cratering of the market and the failed effort to wait it out in hopes it would improve. That desire stokes dual fears at the union. First that players no longer see free agency for what it once was and will be likelier to accept deals that undervalue their worth and buy out free-agent years. And then that next winter, with a historically good group of players hitting the market, that they will jump at early offers because nearly all of the best deals signed this winter came to those who signed before the new year.
The depth of the market shift this winter remains somewhat unclear. Next to no one, including executives, expect it to hurt Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, both 26-year-old stars. But what about Charlie Blackmon? He plays in Colorado, and he’ll be 32, and he’s not a center fielder long-term. Or Josh Donaldson? He’ll be 33, and even if his production warrants an exorbitant deal, aging curves don’t lie.
In this new world, over this winter, that’s how teams operated: More often than not they gave reasons why they didn’t want to sign a player, not why they wanted him. It happened to Jake Arrieta. Three years ago, he won the National League Cy Young. The next year he wasn’t quite as good but still won a World Series. Last year he was sharper but wasn’t even a six-inning pitcher. He’s 32, and there’s the crossfire delivery, and from near and far, as the offseason wore on, everyone could see where this was going.
Arrieta wasn’t getting $200 million. He wasn’t getting Jon Lester money, either: $155 million. He didn’t even get $100 million. The Philadelphia Phillies agreed to terms with Arrieta on Sunday night. The deal guarantees him three years and $75 million, with $55 million paid in the first two years, after which Arrieta has an opt-out clause, according to a source with knowledge of the contract. The Phillies can bypass the opt-out and extend Arrieta for two years beyond the original term. All said, totally maxed out, perfect world, the deal would pay him $135 million.
Though as baseball players learned this winter, the perfect world they once inhabited looks more and more dystopian by the day.
How is $1 million actually worth $5 million?
What sounds like a riddle actually helps explain how this happened – how the players unwittingly put some of their best players in a position to be hosed in free agency. The qualifying offer, a mechanism put in place to compensate teams losing frontline free agents, also includes a salary dampener: it penalizes the teams that sign the players. In the previous CBA, the penalty was a first-round pick. This time around, as the parties were negotiating, they settled on something that may be even worse.
Teams that pay revenue sharing – the richest half – give up second- and fifth-round draft picks if they sign a player with a qualifying offer attached. Multiple GMs pegged the value of a second-round pick between $6 million and $8 million. Additionally, $1 million of their international bonus-pool money is taken away. Teams value that million bucks at more like $5 million because the value of young players from Latin America is so much higher than what teams are allowed to spend. The Red Sox lavished $63 million on Yoan Moncada when he came from Cuba. The Yankees and Padres and plenty of others spent wildly before the latest CBA stopped them from doing so.
And had the MLBPA simply agreed to an international draft instead of this capped system that restricts spending on amateurs, what, multiple sources say, could have been negotiated? An end to the qualifying offer.
This is how Mike Moustakas got Moosed. The draft picks and international money gave teams an excuse to offer him that much less money. Concerns over how his husky body would age limited the deal’s length. The lack of viable third-base landing spots allowed for lowball offers. Moustakas misread the market desperately, waiting out a correction that never turned, hoping teams would prioritize winning when they sensed so many of their brethren weren’t, falling prey like so many other players.
The Rockies offered a three-year deal to Carlos Gonzalez last spring. He turned it down. Even in the midst of his poor season there was further talk of an extension, according to sources. It went nowhere. He returned to the Rockies for one year and $8 million, and that was far higher than their initial offer.
The Schadenfreude from other agents toward Scott Boras, who represents Arrieta, Moustakas and Gonzalez, was palpable. He is the industry’s titan in dollars negotiated and words spoken – and his $144 million deal for Eric Hosmer is the biggest of the offseason. His tactics in years past – tightrope walking his clients into huge deals without any margin for error – left peers wondering if he could pull a rabbit out of a hat for others. There was no rabbit. There was no hat.
If he can salvage anything close to the number the Rockies were prepared to give closer Greg Holland earlier this winter – somewhere in the vicinity of the $52 million they eventually gave Wade Davis – it will be a miracle. Boras, of course, is far from the only one pancaked by the market. Alex Cobb, the best remaining free-agent pitcher, easily could have signed for three years early in the winter. One team was ready to give him four at $12 million per. Cobb’s closest comparable, Lance Lynn, settled for a year at $12 million with the Minnesota Twins this week.
For every universally lauded deal – Lorenzo Cain getting $80 million, Carlos Santana signing for $60 million, Davis’ contract – there are a dozen that either underwhelmed or didn’t meet outside expectations. How about this: Until Arrieta signed, the 10th-biggest contract of the offseason in terms of total value belonged to Mike Minor at $28 million. Or maybe this: Jay Bruce signed a three-year deal for $39 million guaranteed. For that outlay, the Mets could have filled right field with Gonzalez, a rotation spot with Lynn, third base with Moustakas – and added Logan Morrison at first base and Jonathan Lucroy at catcher for good measure.
After Arrieta’s deal, teams have guaranteed a total of about $1.3 billion this winter. That’s less than last offseason, one of the worst free-agent classes ever. It’s lower than every year since 2012. In that time, league-wide revenues have jumped 50 percent. The game is exorbitantly rich. It’s just not terribly inclined to share those riches with the players anymore.
At nearly every camp, the bells of doom toll. Players voice anger with no solutions. Executives fear player revolt of some manner or variety.
“So there’s going to be a strike, right?” one high-ranking executive asked this spring. “Nothing we can do to avoid it, is there?”
Technically, there can’t be one until Dec. 1, 2021, when the current CBA ends. Any strike before then would prompt the league to drag the union to court and charge an illegal strike. It’s why union executive director Tony Clark, in his talks with players, says it is now a long play, that as gruesome as this winter was for players, they need to focus on nearly four years down the road.
“Half the room won’t even be in the game at that point,” the longtime agent said. “Shouldn’t the most critical issue be what can be done, will be done, over the next four years to prevent another massacre? I am telling you now that without question or doubt, next year’s market, for any number of reasons, will be worse.”
This agent swears he isn’t Chicken Little, that this winter went according to such an obvious script that the players almost made it easy for teams to do it again. It was obvious as early as November that teams were simply going to wait out players in hopes that the players would get desperate and sign. And what do you know? Here were Moustakas and Logan Morrison, both coming off 38-home run seasons, both signing for $6.5 million, the same sum as catcher Jonathan Lucroy. One-year deals abound, creating an even greater middle-class glut next offseason, when executives are going to put on their trapper hats and bargain hunt.
The threats of players sitting out? Didn’t happen. The hope that the union wouldn’t sit by idly as free agency was deconstructed bit by bit? All the phone calls did nothing to implement a strategy with any teeth. The union understands the difficulty of its position: Complaining publicly about jobs with multimillion-dollar salaries makes players look spoiled, even if the billionaires who own the teams aren’t held to the same standard when they pocket those millions for themselves.
“I feel for Tony,” one agent said. “I don’t know what the hell to do, either.”
For now, it’s regroup, strategize and hope that the behind-the-scenes rumblings questioning union leadership continue to burble rather than boil. There will always be complaints, always be doubts, but with the players getting routed as badly as they did and agents potentially losing clients over it, the pressure on Clark is greater than ever.
Which sounds silly to say after a player in Clark’s union signed a contract guaranteeing him $25 million a year, but the baseball world does not exist in a vacuum. All those times Jake Arrieta said he wanted $200 million, even if he was exaggerating, he wasn’t that far off from what the old market might have paid him. Within the last month, there was the insistence he was worth more than Yu Darvish, whom his old team, the Cubs, gave six years and $126 million.
Down and down that number went, all the way to $75 million, which reflects all of the concerns other teams voiced. The short term protects against health concerns. The high annual value compensates his upside. It’s actually about right, and that’s what may be scariest of all for the union: free agency, the players’ greatest victory and greatest asset, the market beloved for its irrationality, is no longer what it used to be.
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