Mothers, teach your children to grow up to be relief pitchers.
That has been the lesson of the 2017-18 MLB Hot Stove, where only bullpen arms have been getting paid in free agency so far. Position players like J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are still on the shelf, and starting pitchers like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb are still looking for a home.
This couldn’t be more pathetic than if they were all bouncing around a Petco storefront, begging potential shoppers to take them home and play with them.
So many of the top free agents on the market are still available, and there’s no sign that the hiring freeze is going to thaw. Carlos Santana and his three-year, $60 million deal is still the largest contract signed by any free agent this winter, and your Philadelphia Phillies are the ones who pulled the trigger. Not only that, the Phils have signed three of the top 11 free agents (Santana, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter) so far this off-season.
On this week’s episode of The Felske Files, MLB Editor for SB Nation Marc Normandin offers his potential reason for it all... collusion (18:06 mark).
No, we’re not talking collusion like in the 1980s, when MLB owners hatched a plan behind closed doors to band together and keep free agent contracts low. As Normandin pointed out, this is more of a legal form of collusion, one the owners snookered the players’ union into agreeing to in the latest collective bargaining agreement.
By agreeing to stricter penalties for going over the luxury tax, the owners have essentially created what the union has always been steadfastly against - a salary cap. Teams like the Dodgers and Yankees are divebombing below the $195 million number for this year so they don’t have to pay crippling penalties when they want to get involved in a better free agent class next year.
Of course, that screws over the players who are seeking big deals right now.
But calling this “collusion” may be taking it a step too far, just like calling rebuilding “tanking” is taking it a step too far. The players union agreed to these rules. They had to know what would happen. Sure, the owners sold them a bill of goods, telling them that the savings owners are getting in the international market would be spent on their own free agents, but that just hasn’t happened.
At least, not yet.
There are other factors at play, too. As Normandin pointed out, the Marlins’ fire sale, and the trade of Giancarlo Stanton, complicated things at the start of the Hot Stove season. Teams waited to see what happened on that front, as well as on the Shohei Ohtani front. However, those deals were finished a month ago and don’t really work as reasons why the market is stagnant right now.
It’s also true that MLB general managers have essentially agreed that acquiring players through free agency is essentially a bad deal unless that player is under 30. Massive contracts to stars leaving their prime (Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, etc.) have proven to be boondoggles that teams are desperate to get out from under. GMs rightfully believe that players are worth a certain amount of money ($/WAR), and are unwilling to pay for past performance the way they used to.
Still, the almighty dollar is the main reason for the delay. Teams want to do more than just get good players — they want to get them at a discount. You don’t get your picture on the cover of GM Quarterly (no such publication actually exists, gang) by jumping the market and signing JD Martinez to an 8-year, $200 million deal anymore.
As for the Phillies, they seem, unlike most teams, ready to spend now. They are about $100 million under the luxury tax for this year (once pre-arb and arbitration contracts are signed) and are likely still looking to add more pieces to the 2018 roster. Are they overpaying for players like Arrieta, Lynn or Darvish? No, and they seem to be just as disciplined as everyone else in the league, which is good.
But they should be willing to slightly overpay the market for players they really like. Unlike many teams, they have the financial wherewithal to do it, and owner John Middleton does not seem like a guy afraid to spend on players. It just has to be the right player at the right time.
The free agent market will loosen up, but players and agents may have to accept the reality of the new CBA. Until the luxury tax penalties are made less severe, teams are going to avoid paying free agents what they feel they’re worth. Call it “collusion” if you like, but what’s clear is that this could all lead to a dreaded work stoppage when it’s time to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season.
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