The system is broken — and there’s no end in sight.
With nearly 150 free agents left unsigned and almost half the league yet to hand out a multi-year contract, MLB free agency has lost the allure veteran players were promised when they signed on to play baseball as young prospects.
Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle is understandably upset with the way teams have navigated the free-agent market, appearing on 106.7 the FAN last week and voicing his concerns with how the market has played out over the past two years.
“I think it’s scary, man,” Doolittle said. “I definitely think it’s something that we’ve obviously been keeping a close eye on over the last few years.
“The way that there are so many teams out there right now — there’s more teams heading into Spring Training that are competing for the first draft pick in the draft next season than there are [teams] that are trying to make a run at the World Series.”
As Doolittle went on to point out, the Nationals have been one of the few teams to operate with a spend-happy approach this winter. Just by signing free-agent starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million deal, Washington has outspent 13 teams across baseball — and that doesn’t even begin to include the $42 million the Nats have spent on other free agents.
Although as many as 12 teams (depending on how you look at it) are currently in the midst of a rebuild, the spending problem is even bigger than that. While some clubs can use the excuse of a rebuild to defend their lack of spending, not every team can pull that card.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have appeared in each of the past two World Series but are steering themselves toward a second-consecutive season under the luxury-tax threshold. In a story published Saturday by the Los Angeles Times, Dodgers president Stan Kasten fired back at the narrative that teams portray the luxury tax to be a bigger deal than it actually is.
“If we can do whatever we do and stay under [the luxury-tax threshold], there are a lot of advantages to being under — by the way, a lot more advantages than you all write about,” Kasten said.
“I’m not going to go into that because that’s real inside baseball economic stuff … Some of the things are elsewhere in the collective bargaining agreement that no one’s bothered to look at. Some of the things are inside baseball. So there are more advantages than just a little tax.”
Whatever Kasten deems that “real inside baseball economic stuff” to be, it’s apparently enough to force a team that’s ranked among the top three spenders in baseball each of the past six seasons not to pursue the top free agents on the market.
Of course, Los Angeles did just sign center fielder A.J. Pollock to a four-year, $60 million deal. But that comes on the heels of a salary-dump trade that shipped outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig (owed a combined $31,450,000 in 2019) to the Cincinnati Reds earlier this offseason.
The Dodgers were rumored to be in on Bryce Harper when the offseason began, yet never appeared comfortable extending him the 10-year deal he sought. Instead, they ended up settling for Pollock — and are still reportedly tossing around the idea of trading fellow outfielder Joc Pederson.
Doolittle pointed out on Twitter a few weeks ago that MLB is bringing in record-level profits while allocating significantly less money for players than in years past. This approach is obviously working for front offices, as these clubs collected significant revenues in 2018 despite a league-wide decline in attendance.
I understand it can be difficult to empathize with athletes who make millions to play a kids game but this is troubling and something thing to keep an eye out for in any industryhttps://t.co/5HW4hzI2RD— Sean Doolittle (@whatwouldDOOdo) January 11, 2019
Here’s the kicker: It’s hard to blame owners for cutting back spending when they’re operating within the rules outlined by the current collective bargaining agreement and still getting results. No, there isn’t any league-wide collusion. This is just one of many examples of how front offices are getting smarter and more analytically based.
But while the short-term financial ramifications of this approach are paying off for team owners, negative long-term effects are on the horizon.
When the CBA expires in December 2021, the owners and players union will be caught in a standoff. The union will be tasked with creating a system that incentivizes owners to spend on veteran free agents while allowing them to maintain their same level of profit.
It’s too early to determine whether this will result in a strike, but the entire situation is just bad for baseball. Teams aren’t as concerned about attendance anymore because it’s not as significant to their overall revenue as it used to be. For a league already struggling to attract younger audiences, seeing fewer and fewer kids at the ballpark can’t be an encouraging sign for its future.
Incoming players are going to take notice of this trend too. Kyler Murray, the Oakland Athletics’ top draft choice and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, has already declared for the NFL Draft. While Murray still has plenty of time to opt out of the draft and join the Athletics’ minor-league system, what incentive does he have to choose baseball over football?
Murray is an extreme example, but many multi-sport high school athletes across the country are tasked with making a similar decision. If this issue doesn’t get resolved, many of these potential prospects could decide to go a different route to secure a more stable future.
MLB has always been revered as the sport with no salary cap. But with the luxury tax forcing teams as wealthy as the Dodgers to abandon the high level of spending players are used to seeing, it’d be no surprise to see Murray and players like him choose the security of the NFL, NBA or any other professional sports league.
It’s refreshing to see Doolittle take a stand in defense of his fellow players. Perhaps his comments will spark the players union to take a more active approach to combating this trend.
Until then, don’t expect the free agency freeze to thaw anytime soon.