The players are mad right now. They are mad at owners for not spending and they are mad at union leadership for not anticipating the lack of spending this winter. The owners are also mad — or at least pretending to be — because the players aren’t signing the contracts that the owners want them to sign. Finally, the fans are mad. Mad at the owners for not spending, at the players for not signing, and at writers like me for not writing more about baseball.
What we all really need are actual games. We won’t have that for a while, of course — although the wait for a new collective bargaining agreement between players and owners will continue even beyond this season. Because the players have to wait years for that shot, there isn’t a whole lot they can do right now. Maybe that’s why they are voicing their frustrations to the press. A spring-training boycott, such as was rumored recently, is unlikely to get them very far. Disbanding the union is a rather drastic step for the moment.
However, there is one thing players could do right now that would help them in the future — namely, stop signing contract extensions before reaching free agency.
This year’s hypothetically amazing free-agent class is missing. Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, and Mike Trout all signed team-friendly contract extensions earlier in their careers. The same thing was true last year when Madison Bumgarner, Freddie Freeman, Buster Posey, Chris Sale, and Giancarlo Stanton would have all been able to offer their services to any of the 30 teams.
The year before that, it was Wade Davis and Andrew McCutchen in a free-agent class that was already very good. It might seem counterintuitive to propose that players should be trying to get to free agency without extracting larger guarantees from their teams when the problem right now is that teams are not spending in free agency, but getting more, higher quality players to free agency would help the players immensely.
Last year, when the Red Sox were desperate for a pitching upgrade, they used prospects to acquire Chris Sale and his team-friendly contract. If Chris Sale had been a free agent, they — or another team — would have paid Sale $200 million or more. Instead of transferring money to the player, however, they transferred prospects to the White Sox. That transaction gained the players nothing.
Similarly, the Giants have no need to go out and buy an ace on the free-agent market because they already have Madison Bumgarner on a cheap deal. The Brewers traded away a bunch more prospects to the Marlins for Christian Yelich because he has five years on his deal instead of just two. Adding more good or even great players to free agency changes the spending dynamic completely, and it makes trades for cost-controlled players less desirable. When teams can’t exchange prospects for talented major leaguers, they are forced to spend money on them.
Two years ago, I ran the numbers on the early-career contract extensions signed between 2008 and 2011. I found that teams saved around a half-billion dollars in value from the few free-agent years teams had negotiated away from players. Those deals ended up neutral in free agency half the time with only a handful of deals turning out bad for the owners.
Those deals that did turn out bad for clubs presumably represented instances in which the individual player was smart to have signed the extension — because he wouldn’t have gotten paid later, that is. That would certainly seem logical. And yet, of the eight such deals I found matching that description, six of the players involved actually later signed contracts that guaranteed them more than $10 million anyway. Moreover, the $500 million in savings I’ve cited above might even understate the benefit to club, as players hitting free agency would likely sign for far more years than they gave up, increasing the payroll numbers down the line.
It’s possible that players and agents are already attuned to the pitfalls of these discounted extensions. Dave Cameron wondered a year ago if perhaps we were already witnessing the extinction of star-level contract extensions. A number of players signed such deals last year, but players like Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor weren’t among them.
We don’t know, though, that players who signed extensions won’t yet become stars. Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, and Anthony Rizzo weren’t stars when they signed their extensions, but they are now. Jose Ramirez’s deal from last season is already looking really good, and maybe Tim Anderson, Odubel Herrera, or Rougned Odor will take steps forward in the coming seasons.
Asking players not to sign extensions that will set them up for life is a difficult proposition. This is what I wrote last year when Carlos Martinez agreed to a deal that could prove incredibly team friendly:
It’s important to keep in mind that Martinez doesn’t get to make an extension decision 100 times and take the average outcome. He doesn’t even get to do it two times. He has this one decision to make, and passing up $50 million is a difficult decision.
The players and owners have agreed to a system that depresses salaries for a player’s first six-plus seasons in exchange for riches in free agency. That system favors smaller guarantees the further away a player is from free agency. Many players are willing to take a chance to get to free agency. Others are not, and teams still happily take advantage.
Overall, players would be much better off if nobody agreed to a contract extension before free agency — particularly that strain of deal that comes before a player reaches arbitration. Individual players, however, aren’t likely to feel the same way. The union needs to provide some sort of incentive or insurance should a player become hurt or otherwise regress as he proceeds through the arbitration process. Perhaps the MLBPA could offer a lump sum — like 10% of a potential contract offer — to be paid back with 10% of future earnings until it is fully reimbursed or forgiven if the player’s earnings never reach that level. Fantex is doing something like that on the open market, attracting players like Maikel Franco, Andrew Heaney, and Jonathan Schoop, but the player’s union might be in a position to offer better terms.
There’s not a whole lot the players’ union can do right now to battle back against the owners. One thing they can do to show unity and get themselves more money in the future is refuse to sign any contract extensions that gives away free-agent seasons. This has been a Scott Boras tactic for years, and it has generally gone very well for his clients. Rejecting that kind of money likely doesn’t make financial sense for some players, however, so the union needs to help those particular individuals to ensure solidarity. Simply advising against the deals isn’t going to be enough. Tangible, financial help is necessary to prevent players from agreeing to a lifetime of financial security. The CBA is going to be around for many more years. If players want to work within the system, getting as many of their peers to free agency as possible is the goal. The best way to do that is not to sign away prime, free-agent seasons for bargain prices.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.