“I think prudence and judgment would indicate that those long-term, late-in-career deals in any era have generally not turned out to be very good decisions. I think we’ve been right to [avoid lucrative free agent deals]. I think we’ll be even more right in the next era.”
— Pirates owner Bob Nutting
“We believe [the players’ revenue share] is well below 50 [percent]. Show me a team, after you go through the general fund without selling a ticket, that’s not making $120 million. So where is it going?… Where are [owners] spending it?”
— Agent Scott Boras
This author gathered those quotes for a story that appeared on May 30, 2015, in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
For many players, trouble did not then seem to be on the horizon. When I asked then-Pirates player rep Neil Walker about teams running their operations more efficiently and the possibility of owners taking a greater share of revenues, Walker seemed untroubled. “Frankly, at this point,” he said, “we don’t see it as much of a concern.”
To be fair, owners went out and guaranteed a record $2.4 billion to free agents that following offseason. But then the trouble really began to bubble up for players. Spending declined by a billion dollars the following winter and sits at $746 million to date this offseason, according to Spotrac. As Craig Edwards recently noted, MLB Opening Day payroll could decrease for the first time in a long time.
As detailed here and elsewhere, this is happening for a number of reasons. In part, it’s due to the development Nutting addresses: clubs have more and more become leery of free agency and believe they can win largely through pre-arb, cost-controlled talent. Teams have also learned how to better quantify performance and account for the effects of aging. The new CBA, too, has established something of a hard cap, one without any mechanism forcing owners to spend at the lower range of payrolls. While next year’s historic free-agent class will likely set some records, the aforementioned issues could still present trouble for the vast majority of players.
These are big problems that face the MLBPA in the mid- and long-term. The economic model of free agency, from their perspective, might very well be broken. The market, players would argue, is not working properly. Players are available, but the demand for their services is lacking.
In the short term, meanwhile, the unemployed players simply want to find jobs.
The volume of unsigned free agents this February is pretty astounding — and unrest has begun to develop as a result. Multiple agencies have released statements condemning the lack of action on the part of teams. There was even talk that players would consider boycotting the early portion of spring training, a report which the MLBPA later denied.
Sources: Players briefly discussed the possibility of boycotting the first days of spring training in a conference call last week, among many other ideas. But baseball industry sources indicate it is not currently an option under any serious consideration.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) February 4, 2018
Tensions are rising and players like Brandon Moss seem to recognize that the union failed to anticipate certain challenges on the horizon, that the MLBPA could and should have probably negotiated a better deal.
The situation certainly feels unprecedented. But is it?
Back on Jan. 3, in an attempt to make sense of what had already developed into a slow offseason, I asked whether MLB teams had perhaps learned to wait out free agents. Even then, a month ago, it appeared likely that a historically low percentage of players would be signed entering February.
Last season, for instance, 65 players signed free-agent deals in February, the greatest number since 2009 and the third consecutive year in which February signings had increased in volume. This February, that mark will once again be broken — unless, that is, a large volume of signings move into March.
FanGraphs and Hardball Times contributor Ryan Pollack dug deeper, examining how the lack of signings through January compares to past years. Pollack included all signings, both major- and minor-league deals. What Pollack found is that, by percentage of players signed through January, there has never been a slower offseason in the history of free agency:
And it’s the slowest offseason in terms of volume of signings in at least the last 18 years, Pollack found:
Baseball has made history. And now the players, as a group, possibly face some hard decisions. As we saw last week, there is an increasing amount of anxiety present among them. The CAA agency, by way of an announcement released on Friday, says players are “outraged” and uniting in a “way not seen since 1994.” That was, of course, the last time the sport endured a work stoppage.
There are tough questions facing players individually, too. We expect that most of these available free agents will eventually sign. But it will be interesting to see what type of discount they are willing to tolerate. Teams generally gain leverage as spring training nears, and never before have teams collectively waited so long to sign free agents. Consider that 24 of our top-50 free agents remain available.
I’ve cited Max Rieper’s study from Royals Review on several occasions this offseason, but it bears repeating once again. Rieper found that, from 2013 to -17, free agents who signed before Jan. 1 received guaranteed dollars 4.0% above FanGraphs’ crowdsourced estimates. Free agents who signed after Jan. 1, meanwhile, received 25.3% less than FanGraphs’ estimates.
Those numbers, of course, apply to “normal” offseasons. There has never been a market so flooded this late in the winter. In theory, there should be even greater discounts available as anxiety rises — and opportunities shrink — at the start of training camp.
This has been a weird offseason. Pollack has shown us that it is the quietest offseason of all time. February is the new March. We’ll have to see what that means.