WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For 40 years, baseball free agency was always described as "an auction," with teams bidding against each other, sometimes wildly, for players. Fans egged their teams on. Agents fed rumors about mega-contracts. Then, a few years ago, that long trend began to change. Max Scherzer was among the first to experience it four years ago as a free agent.
MLB teams, he thought, were learning to flip the marketplace into a kind of reverse auction in which rich teams publicly identified themselves as not interested in specific free agents while poor or “rebuilding” teams just tanked and refused to compete for free agents at all. Supply and demand were turned upside down. Scherzer saw this whole winter coming. And he called it.
In September in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, he was animated and annoyed as he predicted, on background, what would happen this winter. He didn’t want to make a bleak public stink just before his own teammate, Bryce Harper, entered the market. “But just watch,” Scherzer said.
Back in 2015, the rumor mill whispered that Scherzer’s unorthodox mechanics would ruin his arm and lead to a short career. In the end, three weeks before spring training, he got his $210 million deal. But he saw the trend.
So, you can imagine how ticked Mad Max was on the first day of workouts for the Nats’ pitchers and catchers here Thursday as four of the offseason’s five biggest free agents — Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel — remain unsigned.
“Teams go to the media and say they don’t want you. . . . [To kill interest] they discuss not wanting players,” Scherzer said here Thursday. “We know every intention of every single team.”
“It should not be happening. No other sport has this in their free agency.”
For example, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon went on MLB Network at the winter meetings and outlined, point by point, why Harper was not a fit for his club. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman told his local media three times to ignore the Harper story because he wasn’t going to end up in pinstripes. At the World Series, Dodgers execs pointed out to reporters how poorly Harper’s left-handed bat would fit in the Los Angeles lineup that already had too many lefties.
Scherzer is also disgusted that MLB is now the sport of tanking.
“Too many teams are not trying to win. It poisons the game . . . When it’s over a third of the league, that’s a problem,” he said. “Every player is here to win . . . But for teams, there’s an increasing acceptability to lose.
“That also creates fair-weather fans,” Scherzer added.
Fans, with good reason, might stop buying tickets during a give-up era when the owner still makes a profit from revenue shared throughout MLB. If the rebuild works, will those fans come back? Maybe not.
Scherzer probably ventured out of his lane when he used the term “tampering” to describe a pattern of MLB teams expressing disinterest in specific star free agents.
“Other leagues don’t allow it. . . . Why is this exclusive to baseball?” he asked, praising NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
After consulting with The Washington Post’s NFL and NBA beat writers on the rules in their sports, what Scherzer is describing would not be tampering but might be a circumstantial indication of collusion. No major sport forbids an executive from expressing disinterest in a player. If there were a leaguewide pattern, that might be part of a collusion case. In other words, Scherzer and many other baseball players think something stinks, but that alone doesn’t prove anything.
Just as the wide acceptance of analytics has led teams to lower the value they place on a player past age 30, owners also might have learned that it holds down salaries if teams uninterested in a Harper or Machado simply say so.
None of this helps Harper, who is now the Free Agent Who Can’t Come in from the Cold.
The only team that openly covets Harper — and claims it will pay big bucks to get him — is the Phillies. But why would they bid against themselves? If Harper really wanted to play in Philadelphia, a long-term deal probably would be done already. The longer Harper and the City of Brotherly Love don’t exchange rings, the frostier that courtship may become.
The Padres and Giants, both rebuilding, have circled back to Harper, trying to lowball him with short-term deals. The 100-loss White Sox have interest. That’s it? No wonder Harper told ex-teammate Shawn Kelley recently that the market is even slower than the public thinks.
At this point, Harper may wish he had taken the 10-year, $300 million offer the Nats made in September but took off the table when he became a free agent. Now, after all the money the Nats spent this winter after they “moved on” from Harper, the Nats themselves sense there’s no way to bring him back. In the abstract, anyone would want Harper. But in the real world, pro athletes can do the arithmetic.
The Nats have added $240 million to their contract obligations this winter, assuming they pick up catcher Yan Gomes’s options for 2020 and 2021 and that reliever Trevor Rosenthal pitches 50 games to vest for his 2020 contract. The Nats also want to re-sign Anthony Rendon, who’s in his walk year. In total contract, he may cost only half of what Harper eventually gets. After 2021, the Nats need to extend Scherzer or replace him — either will be costly.
“Very appreciative to have an ownership group that has been aggressive in free agency and . . . be in a win-now mode,” Scherzer said. “We’re not seeing that across the league . . . so right now I’m very thankful.”
For decades, baseball players have been thankful for the day that their free agency arrived. The only outcomes were “good” and “fantabulous.” Now those assumptions have been smashed. Tanking teams and the hard reality of the reverse auction have arrived. After 2021, MLB will have tough issues to face in its next collective bargaining negotiation.
Until then, every player who approaches free agency is going to see what has happened with Harper and Machado. Those two were supposed to be the ultimate free agents, the Hall of Fame-bound 26-year-olds who called all the shots and broke the bank.
They still will get enough money for many lifetimes but not as much as expected. Perhaps most disappointing, they may not end up in the town or with the glamorous team of their dreams — Machado has always loved the Yankees, while Harper would look at home with the Dodgers.
The grass on the other side will never look as green again.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.