PORT ST. LUCIE — As a pitcher, Justin Verlander has no problem going nine innings, or throwing 120 pitches.
As a tweeter, though? The Astros’ ace keeps his work short and sweet.
“System is broken,” Verlander, the former Most Valuable Player, Cy Young Award winner and Rookie of the Year, wrote on Twitter as part of a larger diatribe criticizing the glacial pace of baseball’s free-agent market.
It sure seems that way. As of Friday, with pitchers and catchers already having reported for all 30 teams, the popular website MLB Trade Rumors listed 60 free agents, including superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, as unsigned. Tensions between players and owners have soared, and the specter of a 2021 work stoppage looms.
A series of unfortunate events, most of them designed with the intent of improving the greater product, have converged to transform the Hot Stove League from seasonal to virtually perpetual. Consider that veteran bat Matt Holliday, following a shaky 2017 with the Yankees, didn’t find a 2018 employer until he returned to the Rockies in late July.
If you launched into space on the evening of Dec. 9, 2015, after learning earlier that day of the five-year, $90 million contract that good-but-not-great pitcher Jeff Samardzija signed with the Giants, and just returned an hour ago, you probably wonder how the heck baseball got here. Consider this your cheat sheet:
1. Analytics and the aging curve. The 10-year, $240 million albatross Albert Pujols signed with the Angels in December 2011 should not deter teams from committing huge dollars and years to Harper and Machado. After all, the Cardinals great Pujols was about to turn 32 when he headed West, whereas Harper and Machado are both 26.
Instead, Pujols should be blamed for the many players over 30 who receive surprisingly little love. Even very productive pitchers such as Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, both of whom are entering their age-31 campaign, remain unsigned in part because teams aren’t willing to reward them the same way they once did Samardzija, who got paid at age 30, or Mark Melancon, whom the Giants rewarded about a year later at 31.
That’s thanks to the simpler analytics, the actuarial tables that can tell you pretty clearly about the risks of committing to a guy over 30 in this age of increased testing for illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
2. The 2016 collective-bargaining agreement. This has turned out to be a real doozy for the players, who appeared more focused on quality-of-life advancements, such as a team chef on the road, and less inclined to battle for financial victories.
Consequently, the Players Association signed off on a deal that significantly penalizes teams that go too far over the luxury-tax threshold ($206 million this year) and rewards clubs that stay under that figure. At the moment, just four clubs — the Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals and Dodgers — appear likely to surpass the threshold.
It’s evident that teams now regard that threshold as a soft salary cap. The Yankees and Dodgers both got under it last season to reset their tax rates moving forward. This development has proved particularly harmful to Harper and Machado, both of whom aimed to set records for annual average value.
3. Tanking. It was the 2011 CBA that really fired the starter’s pistol for baseball tankers. That joint effort created a system that capped spending in the amateur draft and allotted the most “draft pool” money to the worst team, then the second-most funds to the second-worst club and so on.
Suddenly, teams had even less incentive to try to win games unless they felt that they were bona fide contenders. It made increasingly more sense for rebuilding entities to slash payroll, not stock up on free agents and reap the benefits. The Astros and Cubs worked the system to perfection — stocking up on high draft picks from low-cost, lousy teams and producing long-awaited championships for their fan bases.
Now many teams each year try to follow that model, which leaves nearly half the league not particularly engaged in the free-agent market.
4. A change in team strategies. Though a winter transactions deadline has seemingly never existed, teams used to eye the December holiday season as an ideal time to finalize the major touches on roster renovations. They had tickets to sell, obviously, and the more time to pound the drums on their new and improved products, the better.
Gradually, it occurred to many clubs: Whatever they lost in ticket sales from playing the calendar differently could be recouped and then some by waiting out free agents. Last year, the Royals re-signed third baseman Mike Moustakas, who had turned down a qualifying offer for $17.4 million, for a paltry $5.5 million in March. And here we are in mid-February with plenty of big names still looking for work.
5. The less-involved owner. Scott Boras, who has used the wait-out strategy most prominently and who represents Harper, Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez, among others, used to be particularly skilled at going over the heads of front offices and cutting deals with club owners. However, in accordance with teams’ growing reliance on analytics, owners are paying their front offices considerably more to crunch the ever-expanding numbers, then authorizing those baseball operations folks to make more calls on free agents.
And since general managers and their deputies get paid to act objectively rather than emotionally, free agents largely can no longer rely upon spur-of-the-moment decisions such as the 2012 Tigers responding to Victor Martinez’s season-ending injury by rewarding Prince Fielder with $214 million.
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