In a surprising turn of events, free agent slugger Manny Machado signed with the San Diego Padres. The ten year, $300 million deal is the richest in the history of American sports. The contract is incredibly lucrative, and there is reason to celebrate (especially if you’re a Padre fan), but the time it took for Machado to reach an agreement is indicative of the deteriorating dynamic between players and owners during free agency.
The Machado deal took a painfully long time to come to fruition, and added to the malaise of a second straight slow moving, even boring offseason in which a shocking number of players remained unsigned into January, and even after teams started assembling in Florida and Arizona for Spring Training in February. The majority of this offseason’s conversation has revolved around possible landing spots for Machado and Bryce Harper, given that their star status and ability to jumpstart a rebuilding franchise made them exciting. But other proven players like Adam Jones, Carlos Gonzalez, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis, Matt Weiters and others are still struggling to find team’s willing to pay for their services. This is troubling. Kimbrel is perhaps the greatest closer in MLB history. Carlos Gonzalez is a star right fielder, with impressive power who has more than proven himself at the big league level. Adam Jones is a veritable star with near universal respect. The notion that these players are either not worth the money, or incapable of helping any big league team is a farce.
In January, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweeted his dismay that Jones still hadn’t signed a contract. His tweet garnered a lot of attention — some of it from MLB players like San Francisco Giants star catcher, Buster Posey.
“What team out there wouldn’t want a Bryce Harper, a Manny Machado, or a lot of the free agents out there?” Posey told NBC Bay Area’s, Alex Pavlovic. “As players, from the time you were five years old, you aspire to play against the best competition, whether it’s in your Little League game, high school, college, and the big league level. I think, as a fan myself, and fans that come to the game or watch on TV, I want when the Giants are playing X, Y or Z, fans to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to get the best competition. We know we’re going to get to see a great game tonight.’”
“We’ve got to figure out a way that each game, fans have the feeling that the competition is at its highest.”
Most of the players who have signed deals have wound up signing for considerably less than they probably would have expected. Take Yasmani Grandal for example: a career .241 hitter with seven years of MLB experience and an All Star appearance, Grandal was certainly the best catcher in this year’s free agent class. He signed a one year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers worth $18.25 million… in mid-January. In 2013, the Yankees signed 31 year old Brian McCann to a five year, $85 million contract. Oh, and that deal was finalized in early December. McCann may have been a better player than Grandal, but the differences in their free agent deals is truly striking. Speaking of strikes (oof… talk about a tough segway), this year’s offseason felt like a long, continued walk towards an impending strike.
This idea isn’t original or new, it has been discussed with increasing regularity. Given the number of teams either rebuilding, and thus not looking to win now, or else looking for young talent they can sign to more team friendly contracts, players have been frustrated to the point of exasperation.
“Maybe we have to go on strike, to be honest with you,” Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen told the Los Angeles Times’, Bill Shaikin, at the annual Fan Fest at Dodger Stadium.
The landscape of professional baseball is certainly changing. Players are struggling to keep up with the explosion of metrics driven decision making in front offices. The likelihood of a work stoppage seems increasingly likely, unless owners and players can come to an agreement on what proven players are worth. Perhaps players will spend less time under team control before they enter free agency, in order to erase the argument that free agents over 30 are declining in value. Perhaps teams with players who are big league ready (I’m talking about you,Vlad Guerrero Jr.) will have call up young stars, rather than keep them in the minors in order to retain team control longer. Perhaps minor leaguers will start earning more, thus making an ultimate pay off in free agency less of a priority for players. Or perhaps there is an as yet unknown solution. Only time will tell.