Brandon Moss and the Players’ Flawed Bargain

“When you’re talking about free agency you’re talking about aging players and the trend of overpaying a player’s aging curves has come to an end across baseball.”

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins

“Everybody wants to look up and scream, ‘collusion.’ Everybody wants to look up and scream, ‘This isn’t fair.’ But sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for a system you created for yourself. It’s our fault.”

Brandon Moss on MLB Network Radio

There have been eight work stoppages in MLB history.

Since the first of those, a strike in 1972 that lasted 13 days and 86 total games in duration, baseball has enjoyed its longest stretch of labor peace. Since the cataclysmic 1994-95 strike, which lasted 232 days and wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years, there has been no interruption in play. Revenues have grown exponentially since that strike. By some measures, the sport has never been more popular. No one wants a repeat of 1994-95, when there was no postseason and replacement players showed up for spring training the following February.

But if there were a doomsday-style, labor-unrest clock, it would be inching closer to midnight this winter.

What’s interesting about the comments made by Ross Atkins cited at the top of this post is they suggest the economic system is broken beyond repair for players. The institution of free agency, the right to enter the free market after accruing six years of service time, has changed what it can offer to many players. Clubs, when they can, are ignoring it as a talent-acquisition vehicle. Markets — in the form of multiple bidders — are not developing for many free agents.

What’s interesting about Moss’s comments is that they reflect a player who understands that the system is broken and who is pointing a finger not outwardly but inwardly. When he opened up to MLB Network Radio earlier this week, he offered a candid and sober examination of where the players stand, how they got there, and who they largely have to blame: themselves.

Bill Baer over at NBCSports was kind enough to transcribe and publish the interview. I found the following passage to be of greatest relevance:

“I don’t want to sit here and pretend that I represent all the players. I don’t want to sit here and pretend that this may or may not be a popular opinion. This is just from my perspective as a guy that — my career is almost finished, so I don’t have to deal with this much longer. But the worry is there for me as far as a player now for the players in the future that enough attention is not being paid to the way we allow our system to be ran. I feel like we put more things that are of less value to the forefront. I just feel like we’re starting to have to walk a little bit of a tightrope that we’ve created for ourselves.

“I think that we have given the owners and we have given the people who are very, very business savvy a very good opportunity to take advantage of a system that we have created for ourselves …. What we’ve done is we’ve incentivized owners and we’ve incentivized teams to say, ‘We don’t want to meet that price, it costs us too much to meet that price. It costs us draft picks. It costs us international signing money. It costs us all these different things. We’re going to have to pay a tax if we go over a certain threshold that we’ve set ourselves.’ I just think that by doing all those things, what we have done is we’ve given the owners and teams and franchises an excuse to not pay top free agents. To have a reason to say, ‘No, we don’t want to go after these guys because this is why.’”

I don’t know if Moss is representing a majority opinion with these comments — I suspect he is — but I know a growing number of players are thinking more and more the way Moss is. I have to imagine the majority of players are concerned and that the game’s currently unemployed free agents are particularly anxious. The CAA agency, by way of a statement released Friday, says players are uniting in a “way not seen since 1994.” The CAA’s co-head says players are “outraged.”

The concern has grown since I asked Tony Clark three springs ago if he was worried about his constituency being pinched, losing a percentage of revenue, as owners and front offices figured out how to win more and more efficiently. That was March of 2015. Clark claimed that no player, at that point, had expressed any anxiety about it.

“You’re the first person to ask,” he said.

I think the danger for the players is not so much this offseason, which has raised alarm with regard to the game’s economic model, but where the conversation is headed next offseason.

Next offseason is going to be different. A lot different.

Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, and Andrew Miller — among others — are going to be paid. But they are also the elite of the elite in a class of free agents historic both for its talent and its relative youth. There is always going to be a demand for the top talent in an industry. Across all industries, the top 1% are gaining a greater share of the available dollars.

The record contracts of next winter could obscure a continuing problem for the MLBPA and the majority of its members: teams are still not going to be incentivized to pay for vast majority of free agents (see: Atkins’ comment). A soft cap will still exist, aging curves will still be very real, most free agents will not be under 30, and most teams will still be trying to stock the majority of their rosters with younger, pre-arbitration talent. Baseball’s economic models will still have the same problems for the vast majority of players. Baseball’s middle class might still be contracting, as I suggest in the piece linked to above.

Moss noted those concerns on MLB Network Radio. Other players, too, might be more willing to dig in for a labor fight, aware of how some of the game’s economic structures are working against them, aware that free agency — which they fought so hard to create and protect — ain’t what it used to be for many players.

It will be interesting to see where the conversation is a year from now. It will interesting to see if this offseason is forgotten or it is something of a tipping point with regard to players’ collective will.

The sport has done a good job of avoiding labor strife, but a growing number of players, like Moss, are questioning the cost of that peace.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

The problem is that the owners figured out that overpaying in free agency wasn’t a good idea, but no changes were made to the years of team control and the arbitration system.

The bargain for the players was that they would be underpaid for the first part of their career but make it up with a big free agent contract if they played well. Now the teams just extract all the surplus value up front and move on. The fact that the MLBPA didn’t see this coming (as evidenced by Clark’s quote) even though player valuation was becoming more precise and understood by the general public is pretty damning.

6 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

I strongly disagree that free agency, worts and all, isn’t a good idea for teams. It will almost certainly end up bad on the back end but FOs need to assess the present needs exponentially more than the several years down the road. Known quantities are why trading deadline deals’ prices are inflated but still worth it. If you’re close to a playoff spot, it makes no sense just to stand PAT. Good teams can get bad in a hurry.

This doesn’t even apply just to “bubble teams”. Teams that are good need to push their status to elite. John Lester and Ben Zobrist (especially) are going to be albatrosses in their final years of the contracts. Ditto Josh Reddick. Making “rash” overpays like this is just the cost of doing business.

This same mindset of the rational act of assessing the present exponentially over the future applies to the trade deadline. The Astros paid a hefty price for Verlander. The Cubs paid a king’s ransom for Chapman. The Royals needed Cueto to start a do or die Game 5 in the ALDS, etc. etc. etc. Teams need to “overpay” in order to push through. Free agency is a necessary and rational cost.

6 years ago
Reply to  RMD4

What you are saying makes sense – judge FA deals on front end and expect losses on the back – but misses the point.

Teams are becoming more and more reluctant to spend on free agents, namely the middle/lower class, because there is too large of a discrepancy b/t FA prices and pre-arb prices. Every club has guys in the minors who they likely believe has a chance at producing 1-2 WAR next year. Why not take a risk on these guys (who would make ~$550k) vs pay ~$9-18M for very similar performance risks? And the free agent will likely want a multi year deal (which is guaranteed). If the prospect fails you are out virtually no money and can simply call up the next prospect or acquire a cheap half year rental at the deadline (see JD Martinez, Jay Bruce, etc).

The high end free agents will continue to get their money. The middle and lower class FAs will struggle. The union should have/needs to address the super cheap pre-arb years.

6 years ago
Reply to  Okra

It will cycle back for the players. Every one of those guys who are cheap now will be young free agents 6 years from now

6 years ago
Reply to  Andy

This is exactly right. Playing cheap younger players means starting their service clock earlier. Means they get to free agency younger on average. Means they are a better proposition for a multi-year free agent contract than they are today on average.

6 years ago
Reply to  Andy

No, not “every one of those guys who are cheap now will be young free agents 6 years from now.” That assumes they last. How many players produce for 1-5 yeas and are done before they reach free agency, and thus never collect? And, of the ones who last, how many have their best years in their early/mid-20s, then wind up moderately paid FA’s? It’s a problem.

6 years ago
Reply to  Okra

while your reasoning sounds solidly argued, keep in mind none of the top 5 ranked free agents have signed yet. and no one has received a contract with a higher AAV of $20M.

6 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

Part of me wants to believe that it’s just rational selfishness, but I can’t help but wonder about who has the ears of the veteran team reps of the MLBPA. Obviously, the answer is the agents.

The only people who benefit from a crazy top heavy scheme are the elite players and the agents. If you’re a super agent working off a percentage, why wouldn’t you push for top heavy salaries?

Doing so means that you get the same amount from a Kershaw deal as you would get from 10 or 20 other deals. That’s a lot less work per dollar. You know the total amount of money spent isn’t going to fluctuate a lot, but the distribution can.

I would be very curious to see how many team player reps someone like Scott Boras represents. I can’t seem to find a list of who the team player reps are though.

Part of my distrust of the agents stems from the fact the NFL and NBA both have player agent commission caps, but the MLB somehow escaped the cap. It seems like something that would benefit everyone, so why wouldn’t it be in place?

John Autin
6 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

Excellent points, but the conclusion seems a bit harsh. Free agency as practiced for 40 years always depended heavily on SOME irrational exuberance among buyers, which inflated the market for everyone. It’s easy to say “that can’t last forever.” But when you weigh all that history against the CBA’s 5-year term, is it fair to expect union leadership to predict accurately when that bubble will burst? We don’t even know yet if what we’ve seen this winter predicts the future of free agency.

But I do hope the union is already thinking hard about the next CBA.

Deacon Drakemember
6 years ago
Reply to  Andrew

The difference is that the Players themselves didn’t want to hire a resource that exposed their flaws. Agents have to take some of this as well for not establishing a realistic market. Smart players extended early, taking a hometown discount in some circumstances, to get some guaranteed money in the bank before their “valuation” (flaws, age, defense, regression) were realized.

The bubble popped. Teams are much more inclined to pay for the player they will be over the player they were. Within the existing CBA, agents can get the top 1% paid, but the 1-2 WAR guys are seen as expendable by process of throwing prospects at the wall and seeing what sticks. These guys probably don’t have the luxury of pushing for an extension prior to arbitration and free agency, but I’m sure the majority would push that button now, just so that they know that they’d be under contract through their prime.

The new CBA is going to be driven by the big revenue teams and salaries. It needs to be driven by the guys getting buried in AAA for year to delay their earning potential. There should be no incentive ever to bury a player so you can extend control. Eliminate draft picks for free agents. That’s insane. In theory it works, but that basically incentivizes small market teams to only be token players in FA, and over time, more teams are forced to hold on to their picks as they have taken risks in the past. And for the love of god, the players need to understand that the game is numbers and they need to market and play to the right ones.