The Failed System that is MLB Free Agency

Writer: Layten Praytor

“Hope springs eternal.” Or so the saying goes anyhow. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Spring Training in two weeks, the trucks have begun loading up and heading off to the sunny solaces that are Florida and Arizona. The dawn of a new baseball season is almost upon us. It’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year for a baseball fan, right? One would think, at least.

Unfortunately, there happens to be a bit of a giant dark cloud hanging over the sport as we speak. Free agency in Major League Baseball has become an utterly broken system. And it is in danger of doing permanent damage to the sport if something doesn’t give.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the biggest and best players on the free agent market, have yet to sign that record setting they set out to get in what feels like a lifetime ago when free agency opened on November 1st. But it isn’t just those guys. The other two main pieces still floundering on the market in Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel are also still looking for their big money as well. Not to mention the other 100+ players still looking for jobs with Opening Day roughly two months away.

So, what the heck is the hold up? There once was a time when the offseason in professional baseball was one that rivaled that of the NBA during the summer and certainly was superior to the NFL. Free agency was nothing but a whirlwind of massive deals being handed out to star veteran players year after year. The annual Winter Meetings during the first week of December was a time to be glued to Twitter looking for every update you could get to see what blockbuster trade was going down and which big name free agent had signed. But now, for the third straight winter, we have seen marquee free agents stay out on the market into January and now pushing into early February. The Winter Meetings have been nothing but an anticlimactic result to a huge build up of anticipation only to be followed by disappointment. Frankly, the offseason has become absurdly and painfully boring.

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Many have begun to question the methodology and use of sabermetrics in which front offices now use in order to evaluate talent and determine the worth of a player. Some would claim there is too much “groupthink” for the sport’s own good. Also, baseball is unique from other professional sports as it is the only sport that does not have a salary cap. Though the luxury tax-threshold serves as a cap on a team’s spending to some degree, it is by no means a big enough deterrent to slow spending down as much as teams would like us to believe. Thus, logic would dictate that the average spending in baseball would be much higher than that of the NBA and NFL.

So, what exactly has changed?

For starters, teams are less likely to overpay for free agents that are not going to be worth the money they are demanding. For some context, a player must have at least three years, but less than six years of MLB service time in order to be arbitration eligible. Most players don’t even begin to start their service clock before age 24. Therefore, the first three years of service time are spent as pre-arbitration eligible, meaning the team determines their salary. Once they enter years 3-6 of service time, players can begin to negotiate salary with their teams. Should neither side come to an agreement, both parties will go to salary arbitration for the case to be heard before a panel to determine the salary. By doing some simple math, a player typically doesn’t reach free agency until the ages of 28-31 years old. In sports years, these guys are already on the downhill trajectory of their careers. Which means these players don’t even get their first crack at real money until it is essentially too late. Thus, herein lies the misconception that their is more money to be had in baseball as opposed to a sport such as football. (i.e. Kyler Murray)  

This is where the new wave of analytics and new generation of front office executives got smart. They realized that it doesn’t make hardly any sense to pay a player past his prime $25 million a year for the player he once was. You are paying him for the player he is going to be moving forward, which is likely not going to be worth $25 million a year. Therefore if they have a long enough staring contest these players and their agents, the price tag will come down to a more comfortable level. This is just one of the many reasons why free agency has begun to drag out longer than it used to.

In the cases of Machado and Harper this winter, that hardly applies. They’ve hit free agency in the prime of their careers at age 26 and are coming off excellent years. It’s the perfect storm, right? Meh. We’ll discuss here in a bit why more and more players will start reaching free agency in their prime eventually. However, the issue with guys like Machado and Harper is that while they are coming off great years and are at prime ages, they are outliers currently. They are both wanting deals well past 10 years and money well over $300 million. Teams simply are not willing to invest $30-$40 million annually into one player when they could take that same money and spread it around to improve multiple areas of their club. However, now that we’ve reached the aforementioned period where the price tag for each guy has started to come down some, albeit not by much, we’re seeing teams enter the fold in the bidding that originally were thought be out from the onset. Teams like the White Sox and Padres are suddenly viable players in the sweepstakes for Machado and Harper and actually have legitimate sales pitches if they can sell them well enough.

Secondly, while Machado and Harper hold up the rest of the market, there becomes a huge backload of players that have yet to sign that fall into the typical category of reaching free agency past their prime. Add that on top of now not even getting the chance to sign until the top end guys go, which has been late January the past few offseason, we’re routinely seeing guys sign into the middle of Spring Training and even into the regular season. And so, those players’ timelines are pushed back and don’t get the proper preparation time which leads to issues in the regular season.

I mentioned that we will start seeing more players end up in the position that Machado and Harper are being that will begin to hit free agency at an earlier age than we are accustomed to seeing. This is because we are seeing more prospects reach the big leagues quicker than ever before and have more success than ever before. Instead of starting a player’s service clock at age 24 or 25, more guys are starting their time at ages 19-21 and putting themselves on the fast track to free agency. But it comes at a risk. And it is a risk that can cause hard feelings between players, agents, front offices, and fans. Front offices again got smart and understood that if they kept these prospects, who were clearly ready for the big leagues, in the minors for a certain period of time they could gain an extra year of control and delay the player’s free agency by a year.

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So the big question remains, how do you fix the debacle that is free agency?

For one, putting a deadline on free agency to artificially speed up the process would not be a bad place to start. Forcing the hands of these teams to spend a little bit more is not the end of the world. I understand wanting to avoid making bad financial commitments as much as the next person, but there is a happy median somewhere to be had. Teams don’t have to spend stupidly, but they also can’t not spend at all. Next, I believe you’ll start seeing more player sign extensions before they ever even reach free agency out of fear of what they’ve seen their fellow man have to endure during these past few winters. Some players would prefer the security over the chance to make a few extra dollars. Finally, nothing can really be drastically changed by MLB or the MLBPA for another three years when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. Whether or not anything would come of those negotiations remains to be seen seeing as those baseball is notoriously slow at adapting to anything.

Spending money increase fans excitement in their team and creates buzz, which quite honestly baseball could use more of if they want to keep up with basketball and football on a culture level.  Being aggressive matters to fans because it shows that teams are committed to winning, which is even more important to players of course. And in a sport where the focus is on teams who are rebuilding or tanking, it can only help to inject more energy by having more teams show the willingness to be aggressive and spend more.