MLB’s Free Agency Nightmare

Mega deals are a thing of the past

FLICKR | PHOTO COURTESY Both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are waiting to cash in.

By Feb. 20, all 30 Major League Baseball teams will open their doors for spring training in Arizona and Florida. Meanwhile, two of the game’s brightest young stars remain without a team to which to report.

Such is the state of affairs for MLB in 2019. Free agency has been open for 94 days, and both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. Two superstars — both under the age of 27 and on the threshold of their prime years, no less — are reaching free agency at the wrong time.

This harsh reality for Harper and Machado is evidence of a larger trend in the majors: free agency now moves at a glacial pace. Perhaps, it’s because owners have become miserly with their riches. On the other hand, perhaps those same owners have become wiser after burning their hand on the hot stove too many times. Whichever it may be, players hitting the open market are finding themselves in a free agency ice age.

Analyzing the current market for talent in MLB requires historical context.

Since its inception in 1976, free agency has been an annual bidding war to acquire talent. It didn’t take long for salaries to skyrocket. In 1977, future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt earned the major’s highest salary. His $560,000 compensation more than doubled that of the previous year’s top earner, Hank Aaron. All it took was one offseason for Schmidt and others to reap the rewards of their newfound bargaining power.

Not long after, Nolan Ryan became baseball’s first million-dollar man, a milestone that was quickly surpassed. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and every top star makes eight figures.

It wasn’t just the salaries that ballooned, however. Job security became an essential bargaining issue for players. Owners were happy to acquiesce. In short order, stars hitting the market were landing 10-year contracts.

Eventually, owners began to feel the burn of prolonged commitments.

New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez became the poster child for long-term deals gone awry. In 2007, New York re-signed a 31-year-old Rodriguez to a record-setting 10-year, $270 million pact.

Rodriguez missed the 2014 season due to suspension and two years later was released.

By his release, Rodriguez was a shadow of the prolific slugger he once was, maligned by multiple hip injuries. Resigned to a role as a designated hitter, Rodriguez batted .200 in his final season with a slugging percentage south of .400 for the first time in his career.

The Los Angeles Angels tell a similar cautionary tale. In 2011, the Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million dollar deal. Now, the idea of Pujols delivering on that contract is farcical.

Like Rodriguez, Pujols was over 30 when he signed his massive contract. Also like Rodriguez, injuries will make it impossible for him to deliver on his hefty pact. In the past two years, Pujols has turned in his two lowest slugging percentages of his career. Still, Los Angeles will pay a 41-year-old Pujols $30 million in 2021, the final year of his deal.

What has since ensued has been a seismic departure from the bygone paradigm of throwing money and service time at every star that hits the market. In its wake stand Harper and Machado.

The warning signs of the new normal began surfacing last year. Former Arizona Diamondback J.D. Martinez hit the open market fresh off leading the majors with a .690 slugging percentage. He was met with a jarringly slow-moving market.

It took 117 days for the 29-year-old Martinez to land with the Boston Red Sox on a 5-year, $110 million contract. It was as if Boston was shopping from the bargain bin. Martinez turned in a career year and was instrumental in the Red Sox’s title run.

Go back in time even as little as five years, and Martinez or a player of his caliber would not have found such an arid landscape. This, however, is the environment Harper and Machado are up against.

The market adjustment has been harsh for the pair. Call it the A-Rod Effect. Owners are reluctant to mortgage a decade of their team’s future, even if you are a 26-year-old with your best seasons still to come.

Incidentally, the agents representing Harper and Machado are at least partially culpable for today’s stagnant market. Dan Lozano, who negotiated Pujols’ enormous contract, is Machado’s agent.

Scott Boras, who secured Rodriguez’s mega deal, represents both Harper and Juan Soto, the heir to Harper’s Washington Nationals. It casts an ironic dichotomy. Boras is a figure of the mega deal era, all the while representing the new wave of young talent that is dampening the free agent market.

Players such as Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Gleyber Torres are coming off banner rookie campaigns. Each is 21 or younger and can be secured at a rookie minimum salary of $555,000. With such an influx of precocious talent, dishing out a mega deal is nonsensical.

Players are growing increasingly impatient with ownership. Revenues continue to rise, but players are finding the hot stove is tepid. It sets the stage for an intriguing negotiation when the present collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, 2021. In the interim, Harper and Machado are left to wait for what will surely be a dissatisfying payday.

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