The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has
contributed to been bothered by the obsessive coverage of Donald Trump. It has gotten to the point where I judge entertainment based primarily on its ability to make me forget about the president of the United States.
Super Bowl LII did a pretty good job of that. But something else should have been doing that for the past few months and has not: baseball’s hot stove league.
Between November and February, baseball teams with an interest in making the playoffs are expected to trade for some good players and sign some quality free agents. Some of this has happened this offseason. The Miami Marlins fire sale was great for contending teams. Some cornerstone players, like Evan Longoria, got traded. But on the free-agent side of things, this has been a complete dud of a hot stove league.
Connor Byrne of MLB Trade Rumors summarized the problem last Friday:
As FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards pointed out Friday, the majors’ cumulative payroll is almost sure to stagnate or decrease compared to 2017, even though all 30 owners received a $50MM payout this year from MLB’s sale of BAMTech to Disney. To this point of the offseason, only two of MLBTR’s top 10 free agents — the Brewers’ Lorenzo Cain (five years, $80MM) and the Rockies’ Wade Davis (three years, $52MM) — have found teams. Of MLBTR’s pre-offseason top 50 free agents, nearly half are currently unsigned, which is staggering given that the market opened three months ago and spring training is only a few weeks away.
The lack of action frustrated hardcore fans and beat reporters. Last month The Post’s Thomas Boswell noted, “You could construct a hypothetical 25-man roster that would make the playoffs, and maybe go deep in October, out of the 160-plus unsigned free agents.” The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham is flummoxed by the Red Sox failing to sign free agent slugger J.D. Martinez: “with spring training two weeks away, the Red Sox have a win-now roster and they haven’t filled in the gaps to win now. … There has to be a point where their interests meet. Waiting into spring training hurts both the team and the player.”
What gives? Dave Cameron of Fangraphs offered an intriguing explanation last month:
The potential culprits are numerous. If you’re inclined to see owners as evil profiteers, it’s easy to talk yourself into a collusion theory. Or this is the consequence of the Players Association accepting a luxury tax that might be acting as a de facto salary cap. Or maybe it’s just that every team has figured out that prices go down as spring training draws closer, so now everyone is trying the same wait-it-out game plan. Or maybe these particular free agents just aren’t that good. Or maybe it’s that next year’s free agents are too good.
Each of those theories seem to have some validity, and I think there’s probably a bit of most of that going on. But I think there’s also an explanation that makes everyone’s passivity perfectly rational: a lack of sufficient divisional competition to create the sort of pressure that justifies high-risk free-agent signings….
The spending on relievers and useful role players suggests that many teams are willing to make deals, but only deals that don’t force them down a certain path in 2018. Like an unattached swiper chatting with 15 potential hookups on Tinder, these sorta-contenders seem to want options, not commitment.
The unsigned guys? They’re the commitment types. They’re the ones to whom you give no-trade clauses, or enough money that the contract they sign effectively becomes a no-trade clause in itself.
Outside of the NL Central and AL East, the divisions have such dominant teams (Cleveland, Houston, the Nats) that they do not feel in any hurry to improve their roster, and the laggards in their division are focused on rebuilding and signing players who can be traded.
Baseball super-agent Scott Boras, who represents many of the best free agents available, ain’t buying this theory. He told Fanrag’s Jon Heyman: “The players I represent are not seeking anything from owners that the owners haven’t done in the past. These players are just seeking what owners have done before despite revenues in MLB being up from $7 billion to ($10B-plus) over (six years).”
There is one other factor, however: the convergence of information has caused all baseball front offices to act in a similar manner. Consider what Mets GM Sandy Alderson told one reporter:
Traditionally, the free agent market has been akin to the classic winner’s curse problem in auction markets. This helps to explain Boston’s conservative approach to signing Martinez. As Abraham notes, “The Red Sox employ dozens of scouts, analysts, and medical professionals to evaluate free agents. But they badly misjudged players such as Carl Crawford, Rusney Castillo, and Pablo Sandoval.”
While this makes some sense, the fact remains that baseball revenues have gone way up but MLB payrolls are going down. The winner’s curse might be unfair to MLB owners, but since star players do not earn the bulk of their income until they hit free agency, the current market correction is not exactly fair to the players either. Unless the overall compensation problem is addressed, I fear that Yahoo’s Jeff Passan is correct:
What’s clear is the free-agent impasse represents a reckoning long in the making — one that marries shifting power in labor relations, the emergence of analytics and cookie-cutter front offices, and the willingness of teams to treat competitiveness as an option, not a priority. Combined, they pose the greatest threat to a quarter century of labor peace and have people at the highest level of the sport asking whether a game-changing overhaul in how baseball operates isn’t just necessary but inevitable.
As spring training approaches, the market will hopefully start to clear. But as a baseball fan, it would be great if this happened sooner rather than later. I do not want to see another catastrophic baseball strike, and I really want to spend part of my day not thinking about Trump.