And it’s not just that the Baltimore Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds haven’t signed a single major league free agent. It’s that the San Francisco Giants, Miami Marlins, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals haven’t spent as much as $10 million on new players.
Check that calendar again. Yep, the first pitchers and catchers are due in spring training a week from Sunday, and every club has players in camp by Feb. 15.
It would be easy to make a lame joke about the polar vortex freezing the market, but this hasn’t just affected Chicago (the Cubs have issued contracts totaling $10.48 million) and Minnesota (where the Twins have been comparatively lavish at $27.9 million).
Players are noticing, maybe in unprecedented numbers. And three years before the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement, they’re preparing for what look to be difficult, if not damaging, negotiations for the next deal.
“It’s tough to kind of pin down just one thing that’s most concerning because it does seem like everything is so interconnected,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said in a phone conversation Thursday. “When you start to zoom in on one thing, you also realize how it affects so many other aspects of the free agent market and the health of the game.”
Now, any piece that offers sympathy to characters who expect to (and eventually will) make millions of dollars needs some disclaimers. Baseball players, in so many ways, live a dream. They play a game as a vocation. They’re paid handsomely; the minimum major league salary for 2019 is $555,000. This isn’t about handing around an offering plate. They don’t need charity, and the vast majority understand how fortunate they are.
But the past two winters are eroding some of what’s at the sport’s core, and it’s concerning if you care about the on-field product.
Let’s start with the notion, quaint by now, that all 30 teams head to spring training with a goal of winning the World Series. They don’t. That’s been true for years. But it’s a near-certainty that the sport has reached its lowest percentage of franchises that are performing even the most basic of competitive endeavors: trying.
For the ninth straight year, the Nationals are trying. It’s both admirable and abnormal if you look around the majors.
“I’m so grateful to be on a team that tries to win every year,” Doolittle said.
He said that because he has colleagues on other teams who can’t say the same. The players, they try to win each time they take the field. So many organizations, though, don’t max out in the same way.
Washington entered the offseason needing a catcher, a second baseman, a starting pitcher and relief help. The noisemaker around the industry was Corbin, the richest deal of a slow offseason. But in signing Anibal Sanchez to start, Kurt Suzuki to catch, Trevor Rosenthal to relieve and Brian Dozier to play second and making two more trades — one for a catcher, another for a reliever — there’s not a box the Nats haven’t checked. They might not win the National League East, but you can’t argue they didn’t look at their needs and fill them by spending $189 million in the free agent market. What a concept.
You know who hasn’t followed suit? Well, try 14 clubs that have combined to spend $187.365 million — nearly half the teams that together haven’t committed as much money as the Nationals have themselves. Yes, we’re looking at you, Blue Jays, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Giants, Indians, Marlins, Orioles, Padres, Pirates, Rockies, Royals, Tigers and Twins. (Hat tip to ESPN’s Jeff Passan here, who originally did this math last week.)
Now, a couple of those teams — the Brewers and Cubs come to mind — have rosters good enough to compete for the postseason as is. The others? They’re not trying.
“That can’t be sustainable,” Doolittle said. MLB set a record last year by bringing in more than $10 billion in revenue. Yet Doolittle, who has engaged fans on social media about the stagnant free agent market and their feelings about the game, said players are worried that if more owners don’t put more effort into producing a winning product, fans will be lost. Attendance fell for the fifth time in six years, and most of that drop was from teams that weren’t in contention for the postseason.
“What’s going to happen if fans get tired and get fatigued from their team maybe being in rebuild mode for another season?” Doolittle said. “Are fans going to continue to spend their hard-earned money?”
Go back more than a decade. Before the 2007 season — the first full season in which the Lerner family owned the Nationals — Stan Kasten, then the team’s president, made it plain what the franchise’s plan for that season would be: They would be terrible. He didn’t use that phrase, of course, but he outlined how the club would rebuild from the skeleton operation it had been while owned by MLB: It would spend money in scouting and player development, not in free agency. It would trade valuable assets for prospects. And only when the time was right — years down the road — would it make even a cursory attempt to attract a major free agent.
It worked. The 100-loss Nats of 2008 and 2009 became the division champs of 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 — with the same expectation for the upcoming season. Subsequently, the Cubs and Astros, under new front offices, burned down their teams only to build them back up. In back-to-back years, they won the World Series.
For an individual franchise that communicates its plan and then follows through, it can make sense. But when that kind of thinking pervades the sport, it’s problematic.
“What’s going to happen,” one general manager told me, “is at some point, a team is going to try this, and it’s not going to work.”
That would mean all-but intentional losing followed by more losing — and, potentially, the complete erosion of a fan base.
Agents describe an environment in which the fundamental way teams pursue free agents has changed, beginning last offseason. Clubs, of course, counter that smarter general managers who lead more analytic front offices are simply making better choices about how and when to spend money. There’s some truth in that. But pitchers and catchers are about to report, and in most major league cities right now, the fans don’t know which pitchers and catchers — or outfielders or second basemen or whatever — will be in what camp.
“We’re asking fans to be so patient,” Doolittle said. “What other product would you do that for? If your cellphone company said, ‘Hey, guess what? For the next three years, we’re scaling back our data packages. We’re only giving you 3G. But in three years, we’ll give you 6G.’ Would you stick around? Probably not. It really puts fans’ loyalty to the test.
“It doesn’t make a ton of sense to me that on one hand we are having these conversations about speeding up the pace of the game and on the other hand we’re like, ‘Just wait three years, and we’ll be good.’ ”
It’s February. This should be the end of the offseason. Instead, two of the game’s marquee stars don’t know where they will play, and 100 other players await job offers. That’s not a way to build excitement about Opening Day. It’s a way to make interest wane and a symptom of a sport that’s dangerously close to losing its way.