Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Free Agency Fall-Out

The story of the week has been that, once again, there hasn’t been much in the way of stories to tell.

However, that’s created a story in itself.

Or something like that.

Player and agent angst growing

The slow-moving MLB free agent market has prompted much comment over the past two months and it’s only escalated as each week has gone by with many free agents still not finding a contract to their liking.

The teams will say that they are making offers and it’s not their fault if the players are holding out and waiting for something better.  In other words, the reason free agents are still out there is because players are deciding not to sign contracts on offer.

There’s a certain amount of validity to that position. One of the rumours this week has been that first baseman Eric Hosmer is seeking a deal of eight years or more.  As a relatively young free agent (he turned 28 in October) coming off the best season of his career to date, you can understand him setting his sights high.  However, you can equally understand why teams are reluctant to make such a lengthy commitment in any player, especially one whose performance levels have been inconsistent year-to-year.

MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Hosmer would sign a 6-year, $132m contract in their Top 50 Free Agent round-up back in early November.  There have been rumours of seven-year offers from the San Diego Padres ($140m) and Kansas City Royals ($147m) that subsequently have been denied in terms of the values being thrown about, but there has clearly been interest from several teams and negotiations of lengthy and lucrative deals.

Who is right or wrong in this case is in the eye of the beholder and both sides have strong vested interests in painting the other as the blocker in coming to a deal.

One agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, decided to go on the attack on Friday:

“There is a rising tide among players for radical change. A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of Spring Training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that an agent demanding teams spend more money on his – and other agencies’ – clients is not exactly a shock; however what can’t be denied is that MLB teams do have plenty of money as they like to tell us this is so.

There’s a sense that MLB wants to have its cake and eat it by on the one hand trumpeting their record revenues ($10bn+ in 2017) and revelling in the high prices the clubs sell for (the basket-case that is the Miami Marlins selling for $1.2bn, for example), but then in the next breath pleading poverty and that teams are losing money.

Something doesn’t seem to add up there, although it may be accurate.  The Premier League is a prime example of how normal rules don’t tend to apply to sports teams as the teams enjoy huge revenues and yet consistently lose money.  The reason usually is because of an unsustainable wages-to-revenue ratio so in the case of football some would say the balance is too far the other way, with too much of the money going into the pockets of players and agents.

The difference, of course, is that Premier League teams have to spend money whatever their ambitions are as not doing so and missing out on Champions League money, or getting relegated altogether, has significant consequences.

The heart of the matter in MLB is that teams not only face no penalties for not spending money, but in fact often are incentivised to ‘tank’.

Another view

That leads onto comments made by the A’s Brandon Moss in an interview on Wednesday.

Whilst acknowledging the issues, Moss put forward the persuasive argument that the situation players find themselves in this winter is in part their own fault as all of the aspects that affect the free agency market are collectively bargained for.

The Players Association (union) has faced some criticism for the Collective Bargaining Agreement reached in the 2016/17 off-season, but the leadership of a union is ultimately beholden to its members.  Moss’s thoughtful comments (and it’s well worth watching the full video linked to above) suggest something I’ve thought for a while: that when push comes to shove most players are happy with their lot and it’s only when things really stir up that they’re prepared to do anything about it.

That’s their choice, but you do get the sense that more players are now starting to ask questions and that the next round of Collective Bargaining talks (the current one will run out aft the 2021 season) will be much more fraught than we’ve seen for many years.

Just a thought …

Thinking about the Premier League example a bit more, the other major factor affecting the market in football is that the top English league is competing against other leagues to sign the best players.  Wages keep increasing because footballers can ply their trade in many countries, whether traditional major leagues in Europe or heading off to places like China.

The overriding issue with the players’ position in MLB seems to be that players often have a very short-term view and in particular to benefit current established Major League players. Moss made that very point, noting his career may not have long to run and his concern is for future players.  We’ve seen in previous CBA negotiations how Major Leaguers have been happy to trade away rights for amateur players (courtesy of significant restrictions on U.S. amateur draft bonuses and international draft pool funds) to win other rights for themselves.

Whenever something comes along to promote baseball more widely (World Baseball Classic, playing series in other countries) there’s always a fair amount of resistance (not from all players, it should be said).

This is very much playing the long game, but if there were more leagues to go and play in then that would only benefit the players.  Of course, the best players will always want to be in MLB and will get paid to do so, but it could create a better market for back-of-rotation starters and ‘average’ position players who would have alternative offers they could pursue.

We’ve seen some players taking that route already, often with the aim of rebuilding their value and then coming back to MLB.  Eric Thames is the classic recent example as he played in Korea for three years before signing a 3-year, $16m contract with Milwaukee over the last off-season.

This off-season, whilst Shohei Ohtani understandably gained all of the attention in joining MLB from Japan, Miles Mikolas has also made the same move.  Mikolas made 37 pitching appearances combined for the Padres and Rangers between 2012 and 2014 before trying his luck in Japan by signing for the Yomiuri Giants.  After three seasons in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, back in December Mikolas signed a two-year, $15.5m deal with the St Louis Cardinals.

So, some opportunities are out there already, but MLB players might want to look to the future when it comes to anything they could do to help promote the game outside of the States.  Putting all of your hopes into 30 MLB owners who basically having a monopoly on the market is far from ideal.

Especially, whether in collusion or not, those owners decide they don’t want to pay you what you think you’re worth.

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