Neither Adam Jones nor Martin Maldonado, two players who signed one-year contracts over the weekend, classify as major signings in 2019, but they do have one thing in common: both contracts say a lot about where baseball is in 2019 and convey important lessons to players hoping to improve the next collective bargaining agreement.
Let me start by saying that I do feel that there’s a payroll problem in baseball. There are multiple reasons for that problem, but chief among them is that the sport’s fastest growing areas of revenue have become increasingly decoupled from the win-loss record and gate attendance of any particular team. This has had an inevitable drag on player salaries. Teams are still motivated to win baseball games, but when winning also increases revenue, it’s going to be more valuable (and likely yield higher average payrolls) than in situations when winning doesn’t.
If a thrifty (or cheap, depending on your point of view) team doesn’t derive significant benefit in revenue sharing from winning, and only sees minimal revenues of their own as a result of a good record, wins can start to become seen as a cost rather than an investment. Wins are good, but wins and more money is better.
This is the new reality in baseball. Many writers and players have taken to social media this winter to bemoan the phenomena, which is admittedly troubling on the macro level, but has also manifested in a particular concern over the lack of a market for Adam Jones. But the thing is, Adam Jones’ situation has little to do with baseball’s salary problems. If the players go into the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the owners thinking that cases like Jones’ are what they need to address, they’re going to be sorely disappointed as they watch compensation issues compound.
Adam Jones is a great guy and is known for his clubhouse leadership as much as any player can be. He is a significant part of the history of the Baltimore Orioles in the 21st century and is much beloved in my hometown. He was a very good player and at times a deserving All-Star over a period stretching from 2009 to 2016, give or take a year on either end.
All of these sentences are true. So is this one: Adam Jones is unlikely to be an even average starter in 2019. And more importantly, few or possibly any teams (I haven’t done a full Jayson Stark-esque poll) seem to think that he’ll be an average starter in 2019. That’s why Adam Jones will only make $3 million on a one-year deal with up to $2 million in incentives as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The compensation system may be broken, but not every signing is a symptom of those fractures.
At this point in his career, there was simply a limited market for a player with Jones’ skillset. Even looking past the fact that he was the 14th-worst qualifying hitter in 2018 at 0.5 WAR, his profile is such that he doesn’t even make for a particularly good role player.
With smaller benches of four or even three players — though there may be some amelioration of that if 26-man rosters and a 12-pitcher limit become a reality — not being able to count on Jones to play centerfield is nearly a dealbreaker, as absent an incredibly versatile lineup like those that the Cubs and Dodgers have assembled, teams essentially need to have a catcher, an infielder who can handle shortstop, and a center fielder among those three or four bench bats.
Also hurting Jones is the fact that he doesn’t have an exploitable platoon split; he’s not actually a right-handed bat off the bench in the traditional sense. Yes, he’s literally a right-handed hitter, but when we think of this type of player, we generally think of someone who can knock around lefties a bit. Jones is unusual in that he has a reverse platoon split over enough plate appearances that it matters (.728 career OPS vs. LHP, .791 against RHP). Not having this utility is another strike against his value as a role player. Jones is a better player overall than, say, Wes Helms was, but the latter was able to hang around as a lefty-crusher because he had a .795 OPS against them for his career.
At this stage, Arizona was probably one of the best fits for Jones. The team’s outfield depth is shallower than an Uwe Boll film and the players they do have on the bench — most likely Socrates Brito and, when he recovers from a significant oblique strain, Jarrod Dyson — have dissimilar skillsets to Jones’.
The Diamondbacks also don’t require a dedicated middle infielder among their reserves as two starters at other positions, Eduardo Escobar and Ketel Marte, have extensive experience there. Jones’ job, at least based on the current roster, will largely be to spell a corner outfielder once or twice a week and be a DH option in interleague road games.
At this point in his career, that’s what Jones is qualified to do. If he’s dragooned into a larger role, he can earn up to $2 million more, which is fair, though note that he will not get the amount of playing time below unless something quite unlikely –surprising bounce back, bubonic plague, etc. — happens.
That brings us to Martin Maldonado, another 2018 starter largely lost in the offseason reshuffle. Maldonado’s signing made some additional news, with the revelation that he had moved on from agent Scott Boras due to dissatisfaction with how his free agency had progressed.
Ken Rosenthal reported that the deal Maldonado’s camp turned down at the start of the offseason was worth two years, $12 million.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) March 8, 2019
That’s about the going rate for a one-win player for a contending team that ought to be valuing higher floors on the major league roster more than higher ceilings. Maldonado’s a good defensive catcher and is regularly above league-average in framing numbers. He’s a good defensive caddy who complements a better-hitting catcher with less defensive value.
But I can’t see a market in which a team was going to throw more than $12 million at Maldonado and to end up only getting $2.5 million guaranteed for a single year after turning that down has to be anger-inducing. Defense is valuable, which is why he has a job at all. Jeff Mathis got a two-year contract. But offense matters as well, and Maldonado has posted a 73 and 74 wRC+ the last two seasons, below even the position’s anemic offensive standards. The days of team executives actually meaning “anything he brings on offense is gravy” are largely behind us.
Kansas City’s sudden need for a catcher after losing Salvador Perez to Tommy John surgery less than a month of the start of the season turned out to be fortunate for Maldonado. Given that the Royals aren’t going anywhere in 2019, I would have been inclined to see what Cam Gallagher can do, but taking the higher-floor player makes sense given the team’s apparent insistence that they can get back into contention without rebuilding. (No, I don’t get that, either, but I’ll save my Royals skepticism for a later piece.)
The setbacks for players like Maldonado and other Boras clients not in the first-tier of free agency makes you wonder if the wait-and-see approach for these types is an outdated as a negotiation strategy. Teams will still chase after Bryce Harpers, but see little reason to get into bidding wars on complementary talent. Other Boras clients who waited for the market have also struggled to find interest, like Mike Moustakas, Matt Wieters, and Jose Iglesias. The ones who closed deals early, like Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Harvey did a good deal better.
Boras has repeatedly derided analytics, using terms such as “catastrophe,” but analytics aren’t going away anytime soon. Now, admittedly, Boras’ job is to advocate for his clients, not to be “right” in his analysis. But there isn’t a CBA coming that will ban modern front offices anymore than there is one that will recreate team interest in old, declining outfielders. Even if baseball fixes its system of how players are compensated, there are going to be a lot of Adam Joneses and Martin Maldonadi out there. A fairer system will likely be one that gets a greater share of total revenue to players, and more money to young players, when they are in their primes and under team control, or to players on optional assignment. That would yield a better system, and less contentious offseasons, but it seems unlikely it would have changed Jones’ or Maldonado’s fortunes.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.