Adam Jones and Martin Maldonado Find New Homes

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.

2019 ZiPS Projection – Adam Jones
.274 .310 .432 565 64 155 30 1 19 72 25 96 4 89 -9 0.7

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.

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.

2019 ZiPS Projection – Martin Maldonado
.219 .283 .340 347 33 76 16 1 8 35 21 93 0 89 4 0.7

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 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.

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5 years ago

At this point, is Adam Jones any better than, say, Nick Williams? Williams can probably be had for some international spending money and a modest prospect, and at least has some untapped upside to dream on.

More money to younger players just sets up a shell game with FO’s that will say, even moreso than today, that they aren’t willing to meet the asking prices on 30+ year old declining veterans. While I agree younger players should earn closer to their on-field value during their prime, Dan is right that players and their union need to accept aging players who don’t provide positional flexibility, a carrying trait that ages well (i.e., can compete with cheap young players with whom they are vying for roster spots), or who have a history of injury or inconsistency will not get the deals of yesteryear. Baseball is more than ever a young man’s game, and we are going to see far fewer players approach 40 and remain on MLB rosters as a result. The union must embrace and adapt to this reality in the next CBA.

5 years ago
Reply to  DD

Agreed. But the union exists to protect those older players. For this reason, Marc Normandin’s reporting on the collusion of the 80s, and more importantly the resolution of it, has me thinking — and hoping — that expansion will again play a role in ensuring labor peace. There are deeper issues– service time, most notably — that will require a much deeper conversation, but adding two franchises and expanding rosters to 26 will create 82 additional jobs. In this MLB universe, players like Adam Jones and Josh Harrision become more valuable (especially if teams cannot carry more than 12 pitchers on their 26-man rosters). With Forbes estimating the average MLB franchise value at $1.3 billion, the owners will, in turn, pocket a massive expansion fee. In other words, the owners will be able to have their cake and eat it too. This would probably result in the thornier issues (see above) being kicked down the road, but expansion would allow both sides to — very importantly — save face while still enjoying real benefits. Rob Manfred has already expressed his interest in expansion; only time will tell if the owners and players agree.

5 years ago
Reply to  DD

This is exactly what you’d expect from a league that’s experiencing an ever increasing level of talent but a static number of roster spots. It’s harder and harder for any player not at their peak level of performance to stick in the league. The MLBPA should make pushing for expansion, an easy prospect when league revenues are at an all-time high.

The league could easily support an additional ten teams especially if the owners ended their backwards policy of allowing territorial monopolies/duopolies over the game’s best markets.

5 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Woah, 10 more teams?

While I do agree that it’s disappointing to see so many players sitting around without a team.. players that, may not be All Stars anymore, but can still play at a high level — left out and unsigned.

But that many more teams would just water down everything. This season, you already have a pretty pathetic American League overall; with so many teams that can barely put together a competent starting rotation. To add too it, all of these teams that are deciding to cut payroll and just flat out not spend on the few top-tier players that are actually available.

I mean yah you you’d have a team for all of these players like Adam Jones, Curtis Granderson…etc, but they’d consist of nothing but players like Adam Jones, Curtis Granderson…etc..

I’m not sure that would be MORE enjoyable than the current state.

5 years ago
Reply to  CL1NT

I absolutely agree that expasion won’t produce better baseball, but the (older) players want to be paid, and with aging curves being what they are and with service-time restrictions unlikely to be bargained away by the owners, expansion is something everyone can agree on.

Richard Bergstrom
5 years ago
Reply to  CL1NT

I think that more teams in the league makes it harder to tank since it’d be harder to guarantee getting that top draft pick.

Also with expansion it opens up a lot of minor league jobs and coaching/front office positions for ex-players.

5 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Ten may be an exaggeration, but adding two should be real simple. Put a new Carolina franchise in one of the East division and a Portland, OR in the other West division. (Other candidates could be Montreal, San Antonio, a 3rd NY/Northern NJ franchise, Vegas, etc.)

5 years ago

Going to 32 teams would likely require realigning divisions, as right now there is an even 3 5-team divisions per league. We’d have to see similar alignment as the NFL likely, with 4 4-team divisions per league. 2 8-team divisions would provide less incentive to push for the playoffs.