Free Agency Isn’t Broken, Arbitration Is.


MLB Hot Stove has been subject to some sizzling controversy the past two off-seasons for the dilution of both AAV (average annual value) and years on each impending deal. The largest contract signed last offseason was that of baseball’s premiere sluggers J.D. Martinez who hits for impeccable contact, walks at a very high rate and has towering, monstrous power as he now abuses Fenway’s aptly named “Green Monster.” He signed for $22 million a year, on a five year deal, with an opt-out. That was during Spring Training. If this was 5 years ago, he’d probably have received somewhere in the ballpark of 7 years, $200 million (or $28,500,000). That’s only a fraction of what he ultimately received after a monster campaign split between the Tigers and the Diamondbacks. That and the contract signed by former Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (Padres, 8 year-$144 million) were seemingly outliers in a once-baseball common place.

After Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners for a then-record $252 million contract, baseball’s free agency handouts skyrocketed. Players ranging from Hall of Fame greatness such as Albert Pujols to mediocre Homer Bailey were rewarded with an eye-popping amount of money. So much so, that this year two 26 year old phenoms, arguably the greatest statistical closer of all-time (MLB record 1.91 ERA with a minimum of 500 IP), and a former Cy Young Award winner hit the market expecting a lot of money and are still left jobless at the beginning of Spring.

Credit: Michael Dwyer.

In the case of former Braves/Padres/Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, he has had a stellar career but the 7x All-Star is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career and faltered in the postseason for the now-World Champion Boston Red Sox (6.24 ERA in a 10.1 inning postseason sample size). He’s also 30, and his velocity has gradually declined with age. A team will obviously be more than eager to take a flyer on him, but not for the money that he’s demanding. For Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, they’re demanding long-term, $250+ million deals and quite frankly, neither are worth the asking price.

While yes, both are exceptional athletes, they’re both very poorly rated defenders at the position they intend to play. Machado is an elite third baseman, but doesn’t have enough range to play its counterpart at shortstop. Harper is deemed best fit to be a designated hitter. Harper has raw power and an astounding command of the strikezone, but isn’t a top 3 outfielder in the game with the bat (Trout, Betts and Judge). Both have underlying issues as one could argue that Bryce is injury prone. He’s reached 150 games only a mere two times in seven years of MLB service. As for “Mannywood,” he has a history of on field antics and brawls, as well as disrespecting the sport. This past postseason, he tried to break Jesus Aguilar’s ankle, went to the media and said he doesn’t hustle, and then thought he had sent a baseball to the moon like it was Neil Armstrong only for it not even to reach the Dodger Stadium warning track. He settled for a single on something that should’ve been an easy extra-base hit in the game’s championship round. I, for one, wouldn’t want that on my team for the next 10 years.

Manny Machado. Credit: CBSSports

It’s not only them, but individuals such as ace Dallas Keuchel, utility specialist Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Harrison, Mike Moustakas and Adam Jones. So many ballplayers are watching Spring Training from the outside looking in that players around the game have commented on it.

Sean Doolittle has mentioned it in passing in his tweets, while former MVP Justin Verlander was blunt in an interview that the system is flawed and that there’s no reason for these players to be available.

3-time All-Star Evan Longoria (who, ironically, is massively overpaid) posted on Instagram that “fans should want the best produuct on the field for their team” and ripped into owners for not giving it to them. That’s simply not the case at this point. Yes, a lot of teams are tanking, but the Rays won 90 games (after being under .500 in 2018) by trading away their big name, overpriced talent. Ironically, the most notable name on the list was Evan Longoria.

For the sake of comparison, Homer Bailey made 23 million dollars last season. He had the worst ERA in the league, with it over 6. ERA (earned run average) is how many runs you give up on average over every 9 innings pitched (in layman’s terms, a full game). He had 75 strikeouts, and a -1.5 WAR. If the Reds had a replacement level player over Bailey, they would have won more ballgames. He had 1 win and 15 losses.

Blake Snell won the American League Cy Young award; voted the best pitcher in his league. He had a 1.89 ERA, averaging less than 2 runs per 9 innings pitched. He had 221 strikeouts and a 7.5 WAR. They won almost 8 more games than they would have with a replacement level talent, and he had a 21-5 record. Nobody in baseball won more games than Blake Snell.

Why did I compare the 2? Blake Snell made 545K. Snell was the best pitcher in the league, and made $22.5 million less than the worst pitcher in the league. The disparity is huge. Why am I going to pay Homer Bailey a bloated contract when I have the best possible replacement for literal peanuts in comparison? It’s not teams not trying to improve the team, they have cheaper options for better. Snell can’t even reach arbitration to get a market value contract until the 2020 season. So, he will again be underpaid, while Homer Bailey is being paid over $25,000,000 to play for Kansas City’s AAA club.

For all of the big contracts around the game there is a guy like Bailey or Chris Davis (abysmal .168 batting average in 2018) who flat-out suck now. There’s also guys who sign these big deals, and for different circumstances cease to even stay on the field. Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano played less than a combined 130 games in 2018. They made a total of $42.2 million in earnings, which would have been $54 million had Cano not forfeited half of his contract due to an 80-game suspension. PED suspensions, or in Cabrera’s case: injury, can screw teams out of a lot of many. There’s more instances in a player not performing to their contract than there are those that do. Why am I going to pay top dollar for bargain bin production? That’s like going to McDonald’s and paying $20 for a 10 count McNugget.

You don’t need top free agents to win a World Series. In 2015, the Royals built their core entirely through their farmsystem and won. The Astros then did the same thing, only adding the missing piece (Verlander) through a trade with the Tigers. In between that, the Cubs broke their curse. The Cubs are a mix of building through the farm and spending top dollar (Lester, Heyward, Zobrist). The best product is a World Series championship, and the mindset that you need to spend to win has deteriorated.

Royals 2015 “Core Four” (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain). Credit: KCStar.

Market capitalization has been a much needed thing for a long time, and with the restructured market, the players are left feeling undervalued. Why is that?

As previously mentioned, a player like Blake Snell was the best of the best last year. He didn’t even make a million dollars. That’s because team control allows teams to have 6 seasons of players at a massively reduced rate, leaving players underpaid. This was implemented to try and improve teams such as the Royals, Rays, Pirates, Athletics and others to have their own way to build a championship caliber squad. It has given the league more parity amongst the teams, but teams also abuse the now-outdated system. This, and this alone, is the real problem in baseball. The final 3 years are fine, because you have guys like Nolan Arenado getting $26 million on a one year deal, but he will make more in 2019 than he did in his first 3 years by $11 million. In those first 3 years, he was arguably the best statistical offensive and defensive third baseman in the sport. When MLBs collective bargaining agreement is renewed in 2021, this is what the players union needs to address, because they won’t get far in the free agency debate with such biased argument that has as many holes in it as it does.

What are your thoughts? Sound off in the comment section or tweet us @ProSportsExtra.

You can tweet me personally @TheJameus.

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