I’ve been pondering the question of when, exactly, we should start being surprised at each moment passing without more things happening on the Hot Stove front. At some point, it becomes jarring even to check your phone after dinner and a movie and find that nothing has gone down. At some point, Chris Davis, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes should no longer be free agents, or at least they shouldn’t all be free agents, and it’s proper to be vexed by their ongoing unwantedness. Have we reached that point, on January 11th? Probably not. But we’re not far off, right?
Alex Gordon and Denard Span did, at last, come off the market last week. There’s a sense of gathering momentum, just now, a feeling that those remaining big-name free agents could start to fly off the metaphorical shelves of the winter market. Zoom out to take in the bigger picture, though, and there’s a building sense of something different: the slow falling of the hammer the owners have put to the players in the last several CBA negotiations, and a building sense of danger as we look toward the next ones.
Davis, Upton, and Cespedes aren’t the only high-priced free-agent options somewhat stranded in open water. Dexter Fowler and Wei-Yin Chen are out there, too. Last year, the only name-brand free agents to sign after January 11th were Nori Aoki, Colby Rasmus, Max Scherzer, and James Shields. The year before, it was Masahiro Tanaka’s market, and he didn’t sign until mid-January… but even that led only to A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana being stuck on the market. The year before that, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, and Rafael Soriano lasted, and the signings of Mike Napoli and Francisco Liriano got finalized late because of injury complications. Though Scherzer is the best free agent named in this paragraph, the next three are the ones who led it off. This kind of both quantity and quality remaining available into mid-January is essentially unprecedented, and that’s true even when looking only at the top of the market. (It’s worth noting that there are also a good number of secondary options out there, like Gerardo Parra, Ian Desmond, Howie Kendrick, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, and Tyler Clippard.)
This was kind of fun for a little while (“hey, baseball might keep us busy all winter!”), then a bit obnoxious (“I actually wanted a little time off, baseball, please get yourself out of the way”), but now it should genuinely alarm you. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no path to all (or even the majority) of the league’s remaining free agents getting contracts that pay them their fair market rate. The players’ timidity over the last 15 years of CBA negotiations is coming home to roost.
Obviously, one major reason for the slow development (and presumably, the eventual underdevelopment) of the market is the qualifying offer. Davis, Upton, Fowler, Kennedy, Gallardo, Kendrick, and Desmond all have the QO hanging around their necks, and the last few winters have made it increasingly clear that players (or their agents) and teams are unable to agree happily on the discount that should be applied to players who cost the signing club a draft pick. Another big reason: the luxury tax, which kicks in at $189 million for the third year in a row. The Giants, Tigers, and Angels are pressing right up to that threshold; the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox are already well clear of it. In all cases, even for teams who have demonstrated their willingness to spend above and beyond the threshold, that artificially low threshold limits the market for all free agents. It’s possible that none of the three teams on the cusp of having to pay the tax are willing to do so under any circumstances, and even if they are willing to, their offers will be capped by the prospect of paying that tax on top of each marginal dollar spent to bring in the player in question. This is a particularly glaring concern in light of the identity of the teams knocking on the door of paying the tax, and the identities of the players left on the market. Those three fringe teams all entered this winter in need of an upgrade at at least one outfield position, but Detroit traded for the cheap and limited Cameron Maybin, and the Giants went decidedly down-market to grab Span. It’s possible the Tigers will still change their minds and pull the trigger on a deal, particularly with Cespedes, but the Angels seem set on staying beneath the soft salary cap in place. If nothing changes, then three obvious and rich candidates to sign a big-name outfielder will have more or less sat out the top-tier outfield market. Obviously, the Giants got to this point by spending big bucks to acquire both Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and the Tigers signed Jordan Zimmermann early in the winter, but the fact remains that (in addition to whatever internal budget limitations they face) these teams have modified their aggressiveness in a key area of team need, in part because of a negotiated anti-market measure.
At least those three teams are trying, though. By my rough count, the same can’t be said of eight teams in MLB this winter: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, Miami, Milwaukee, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay. That’s only a modestly unusual number, but it’s a more aggressive set of tankers than is typical, especially from a spending standpoint. Contained here are the league’s poorest and cheapest teams, and also, a fistful of full-commitment tanking zealots. Again, blame the rule set: the hard caps on draft spending have made every step up the ladder toward the first overall pick (and each pick itself) much more valuable than it used to be, so teams whose focus is fully on the medium-term future face have huge disincentives to spend money to give away picks and improve their roster from a 70-win cellar dweller to a 75-win also-ran.
Here, it’s important to articulate a sometimes overlooked distinction. The debate over whether tanking is okay (or is okay to a certain extent but not to another, or is not okay at all) continues, but in essence, the conversation is the same as the one we had last spring, about the relative merits of calling up top prospects on Opening Day or manipulating their service time to delay free agency for them. It’s this simple: tanking is a rational, even necessary response to the current way things are in MLB. Team executives who pursue the strategy are, in general, doing the right thing for their team. The owners of those same teams, though, are the ones who pushed to put these rules in place, and the players’ union agreed to these rules. Just as we shouldn’t blame Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer for leaving Kris Bryant in the minors for eight games, we shouldn’t blame David Stearns for steering into the skid and seeking to maximize his opportunities to acquire long-term assets for the Brewers. We also shouldn’t blame Scott Boras for being upset when Bryant loses the right to become a free agent in 2020, nor for being frustrated by the lack of market for Chen and Davis. None of those parties sought out the rules we have in place right now, and all of those parties are doing their best for their constituencies within this system.
We can and should blame Tom Ricketts, Mark Attanasio, and Michael Weiner for this predicament, though. We can and should balk at the way this system almost creates an implicit, no-liability collusion. (Consider the international free agent spending rules, for instance, the penalty system for which has led to the league basically dividing itself into thirds, with somewhere between 8 and 12 teams sitting out each international signing period. There’s no way, none, that top-tier Latino teenagers are getting their full market value under such conditions.) We can and should object to the ongoing padding of owners’ pockets. The Braves are having a new publicly funded stadium built for them, and have used the prospect of its opening as a pretense (somehow) for not spending money. The QO system is a joke. (I can’t say that enough times.) For some inscrutable reason, the players have allowed the owners (under the stewardship of Bud Selig and Rob Manfred) to set their own course when it comes to competitive balance and the financial structure of player payrolls. The results are exactly what you’d expect: a bunch of frustrated players, a bunch of suboptimal rosters, and a bunch of even richer super-rich white guys.
I don’t expect a happy ending to the stories of the many good players still looking for homes. I do anticipate an increase, as the year goes on, in the incidence of things like the grievance the players’ union filed on behalf of Bryant earlier this offseason. I hope we don’t see a work stoppage in MLB anytime soon. If we don’t hear even the slightest rumble of one, though, Tony Clark probably isn’t doing his job. I’m not sure the folks who work in MLB’s main office even remember what a rattling saber sounds like. The players need to remind them, so that next winter, we can enjoy easier, more efficient player movement, and not have to share their frustration over another stunted market.