CLEVELAND — In early March, Neil Walker was confronted by the most bizarre of sights. At the grounds of the quiet IMG Academy baseball complex in south Bradenton, Fla., he found himself surrounded by acres of farm land, a sprawl of housing developments, and some 25 fellow free-agent ballplayers. They had all authored long, successful careers. None had a contract for the coming season.
Last winter was an unusual one, historically unusual, as readers of this Web site well know.
At the end of February, still unemployed and with little if any clear interest from major-league teams, Walker left his offseason home in the north hills of Pittsburgh and reported to the free-agent camp. The camp at IMG had enough players for three- and four-inning intrasquad games. The free agents there also competed against a Japanese minor-league team, Walker said.
“I was thinking something isn’t right,” Walker told FanGraphs. “Typically, you think about about the consistency of the player [in free agency]. Maybe there’s factors that go into the middle tier of free agents not getting years or something along those lines, but to not get either the years or the figures… that was somewhat alarming. I’ve had a few injury things over the last couple of years, but it’s nothing that they could say… is going to cause me to keel over as a 32-year-old. It was alarming, not just for myself but for a lot of people.”
Walker represented the middle-class tier of player that has been squeezed in recent offseasons. Because of his experience, and with the beginning of the next offseason just four-plus months away, FanGraphs recently approached Walker when the Yankees visited Cleveland. Walker’s fear is that the trend for the middle tier of player like himself will only continue.
While clubs entered the winter having exhibited less and less willingness to pay for modest upgrades in free agency, preferring lower-cost pre-arbitration players, there had never been an offseason quite like this one since the repeal of the reserve clause. There had also never been a free-agent camp quite like the one in Bradenton, though Walker had heard about the existence of during a spring of labor strife in the 1980s.
Last winter and early spring, clubs operated within the rules. There is nothing forcing teams to spend. The Pirates didn’t sign a single major-league free agent. They didn’t have to. The Marlins shed most of their valuable assets, and most expensive players, in trades. They’d probably like to shed more. There’s no incentive to go from 68 to 70 wins, or 75 to 77 wins. Moreover, a stiffer luxury tax had stopped clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees from spending to reset their tax statuses. The players agreed to this system and didn’t perhaps foresee these issues as well as they should have. Walker was a player rep for the Pirates.
We know the story, but Walker lived it.
“Guys were frustrated,” Walker said of the players at the free-agent camp. “Kyle Kendrick was down there. Tyler Clippard was down there. Lot of guys that could help teams… The conversations were all the same. We hadn’t heard much from anybody [save] for coming in on a minor contract here or there. Guys were kind of baffled, and there weren’t many answers. On my side, I didn’t have much dialogue with anybody until maybe the first week of March. There were no productive conversations. There were baseline conversations early [in the offseason], and then that disappeared for a while. It was strange.”
Moreover, teams have perhaps learned to use the spring calendar as leverage to reduce contract demands.
On March 12, he finally reached an agreement on a one-year, $4-million deal with the Yankees. On the same day, Jake Arrieta signed a three-year deal with the Phillies and Lance Lynn with the Twins. They were the three remaining unsigned free agents ranked among Dave Cameron’s top 15 last November.
FanGraphs projected Walker to post a 2.5-win season in 595 plate appearances. Dave predicted a three-year, $33-million deal. The crowd? A three-year, $39-million deal. While some back issues had begun to pop up, while he was entering his age-32 season — an age at which many players experience decline — he had posted seven consecutive seasons of at least 2.2 WAR.
In retrospect, one could argue teams did well to shy away from Walker, that they perhaps saw something in evaluations. His poor April this year might count as a point in favor of that argument. But, as Craig Edwards found, other late-signing free agents also struggled (though albeit a small population of which to study. There is probably some value in training with a team, surrounded by one’s peers. Walker said it wasn’t until weeks into the regular season that he regained his timing.
You could argue teams are simply operating efficiently, replacing marginal value added from 30-something free agents to younger more cost-effective players. Often they are, indeed. The problem, Walker says, is the institution of free agency is built upon rewarding service time. That’s how players expect wealth to be distributed. To earn market value, players must accrue experience. Teams value experience less than ever before.
While teams, populated more than ever by talented analysts, are operating rationally, the practice threatens balance, as Walker sees it.
“Now it’s almost getting chopped on both sides,” said Walker in reference to the suppression of service time on the front end of careers and the reluctance to pay for players’ 30-something years. “The window is much smaller than it used to be.”
“You hope this trend with middle-tier guys doesn’t continue through this collective bargaining agreement, because there are going to be many, many more guys that are affected. It’s not the top top-tier guys. It’s not the relievers. It’s not the top-tier [starting pitchers]. It’s the guys in between. There are a lot more guys in between than the guys I just spoke about. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know there are teams out there that didn’t spend a dime. There are teams out there that sold off most of their assets. That’s something, when you look around the league, it makes it pretty top heavy and bottom heavy. That’s alarming. That’s not the greatest situation in my opinion for baseball.”
Perhaps Walker is on to something: two million baseball fans were missing through June 15. The only AL playoff berth up for grabs is the second Wild Card.
We’re more than halfway through the regular season and just over four months away from the beginning of the next offseason, one which will be followed closely by players. There are three more years remaining in the current collective bargaining agreement.
While Manny Machado, Bryce Harper (despite his relative modest 2018 campaign so far), and others might threaten to break contract records this coming winter, Walker and many others who lived through last offseason are curious about — and bracing for — what happens to the middle-tier of free agents. Walker will be entering the market again this coming winter.
“You could say you need to force teams at the bottom to spend. I know it’s not as simple as that,” Walker said. “All the signs are pointing to not very friendly conversations leading up to the new bargaining agreement. I’m on the back end of my career, but you feel for the 23-, 24-year-old player going right into this buzz saw, this new bargaining agreement. It’s going to be interesting to see how it is handled from both sides.”