MLB Free Agency: Don't overthink it — Sign the best players available
Go after the best players: That’s not the most trenchant analysis of the free-agent market, I suppose. But it’s seemingly the one that is ruling the day this offseason — at least among the teams that are making their way onto “winners” lists.
Just more than a month since the World Series wrapped, this winter’s star-studded free-agent class has largely been snatched up — not because so many teams are interested in the top talent available but, rather, because a handful of teams are interested in many or all of those players.
Or, to be less circumspect about it, the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants set out to make a splash and were able to do so through repeated attempts and concerted efforts (read: lots of money). Both were reportedly in on Aaron Judge, who ultimately returned to the Yankees. The Padres also missed out on Trea Turner — who reportedly passed up more money to spend upward of a decade in Philadelphia — before signing Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year, $280 million deal. This despite the fact that they already have two shortstops in Ha-seong Kim and Fernando Tatís Jr., with Manny Machado entrenched at third.
The Giants pivoted quickly from Judge to agreeing to a 13-year, $350 million deal with Carlos Correa, the flashiest in a deep shortstop market, even though Brandon Crawford, who has played more than 1,500 games at shortstop and none anywhere else over the past 12 years, is signed through 2023.
Meanwhile, the New York Mets went for quality and quantity, signing reigning AL Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander (two years, $86.66 million) and international ace Kodai Senga (five years, $75 million) while retaining closer-turned-musical-event Edwin Diaz (five years, $102 million) and second-best outfielder available Brandon Nimmo (eight years, $162 million).
This is not unlike last offseason, when the Texas Rangers signed a couple of star shortstops — Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million) and Marcus Semien (seven year, $175 million) — in quick succession despite having lost 102 games the season before, only to end up missing the postseason again and doubling down by offering Jacob deGrom the $185 million for five years that he couldn’t get elsewhere.
And it’s spiritually similar to the Phillies’ whole vibe recently: first signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal that proved to be ahead of its time, then building the whole plane out of designated hitters, and finally, adding a second mega-deal in the form of Turner’s 11-year, $300 million contract.
It might seem like I’m simply regurgitating the unremarkable news of baseball teams signing baseball players who are good at baseball. But this kind of behavior has quickly been labeled “insanity,” as one executive told Jayson Stark of the Athletic. “It’s irrational people operating in an illogical market.”
“Irrational” is also how Ken Rosenthal described the environment this offseason — perhaps all a reference to Andrew Friedman’s semi-famous aphorism warning that if you’re rational about every free agent, they’ll all end up somewhere else.
“Will it make a difference?” Sports Illustrated wondered last winter about the Rangers’ “spending spree.” “But are they getting any better?” ESPN asks of the Mets’ many moves this year.
(Also, these deals have been repeatedly labeled “above market,” even though they are literally the result of players letting the — actually quite limited — market determine their worth. More accurately, the market itself is different than anticipated.)
Now, this is not a media criticism column, but to answer SI and ESPN: Yes! Even for the Rangers, even though they missed the postseason again! Good players raise the talent level of a team. No, they can’t single-handedly flip its fortunes, but you need someone to man the middle infield, so he might as well be among the best at it.
The current era in MLB has been defined by a pervasive belief that being smart means being cautious, and making major moves is inherently reckless. That logic underpins Friedman’s quote. Even if he intended to argue against being overly “rational,” the implication is that any modern front office would have to go against its better judgment to offer a player what he’s going to end up getting paid.
Baseball wins are a tricky equation. You need a nonspecific amount of production, which is a fluid resource that exists along a continuum and can come from any player or perhaps the right deployment of relief pitchers or defensive positioning. Superstars represent a discrete, limited supply of presumably ample production, plus a little extra pizzazz. They’re an obvious answer, but sometimes it seems that teams would rather treat roster construction like a puzzle, cobbling together just enough production from smaller, more fungible sources.
The fetishization of market inefficiencies ushered in by “Moneyball” is, at its core, about assembling something greater than the sum of the players’ apparent individual talent. (This argument was not supposed to be explicitly built on WAR, but that’s basically what I’m talking about in a less overtly quantified sense.)
The reason for this overcomplication is not some sort of mystery: It’s money. It’s cheaper to not pursue stars — and just as cheap to come in second or third in the bidding for them. As such, the contracts awarded so far this offseason have been stunning both for their total dollar value and for the number of years, even though in some ways the latter offsets the former.
As a relatively objective fact, MLB teams have more money than ever — including a recent windfall from the sale of BAMTech. The first competitive balance threshold jumped $20 million this past season, with the dawning of a new CBA, and will continue to rise from there. The inevitability of inflation and current high interest rates mean that the same number of dollars in the future is less valuable in terms of today’s money (seriously, click that link for a very thorough explanation of how that factors in).
And perhaps most important, a longer contract spreads out the average annual value, which is advantageous when it comes to calculating a team’s position relative to the CBT thresholds. Teams trying to win now are giving up a diminishing percentage of salary-cap space later — in the form of commitments to late-30s players who probably won’t be “worth” that much on a per year basis anymore — in order to have more of it now, when it’s at a premium.
What many of this winter’s splashy signings have in common is an apparent disregard for — or dispensing with being overly fussy about — fit and future payroll flexibility. That mindset, of course, has potential pitfalls. But consider that baseball is a closed system and a zero-sum game: Getting a great player who necessitates shuffling your defensive alignment is much better than not getting a great player and letting him go somewhere else. As for the flexibility, there’s the savvy bit of CBT circumnavigating mentioned above, and besides, stars are always going to be expensive. You can prioritize the future indefinitely, but where’s the fun — or the World Series rings — in that?
And that’s ultimately what it comes down to, isn’t it? Only one team can win the championship, so some or all of the teams dominating headlines by lighting up the hot stove will go home empty-handed. Twenty-nine teams won’t win the World Series, but only some will have given themselves the best chance possible and given their fans something to root for. And, of course, one team will win it all.
Signing stars isn’t the only way to be successful — it just helps.