The Major League Baseball free-agent market has barely moved since I last updated it here. Qualifying offer (QO) free agents are the key to understanding what’s going on. First, let’s review what I wrote over two months ago:
Update Sunday November 4, 2018: A total of seven QO’s were made on Friday, November 2 in MLB. Beyond the expected offers to Bryce Harper & Patrick Corbin, were Houston Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock, and Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu and catcher Yasmani Grandal. These players have 10 days to accept a $17.9 million salary for 2019, or become free agents with draft pick compensation. The five players I listed after Harper & Corbin should all accept their qualifying offers, as they won’t get better deals on the free agent market. Especially Grandal & Ryu.
What’s happened since? Ryu accepted, and kicked back knowing he has $17.9M for next season, with no off-season headaches. Hyun-Jin Ryu (below) will go into free agency in 2020 with no QO tag, as that can only be offered once to a player by their team. That’s what you want as a player– unrestricted free agency.
As I keep repeating here, it’s the draft pick compensation that is deterring the QO free-agents from getting more substantial offers. At least two-thirds of MLB teams have GM’s that value draft picks above veterans– generally speaking. That is a shift towards correct valuation of winning talent, and the MLBPA with the agents, are way behind on this. Their base constituency (veteran MLB players), are getting low-balled due to the new CBA their union “representatives” signed. Virtually every player before free agency is exploited, and now even free agents can’t get a good deal.
For example, ex-Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel (above) began the off-season claiming he was seeking a deal worth ~ 6/$85M. The problem is, he’s in decline, and he comes with draft pick compensation for everyone except Boston, which is probably where he’ll have to go back to, for less that the QO-deal he rejected in November. Time is not on his side, that’s for sure.
Former Diamondbacks center fielder AJ Pollock (above) is in even worse shape, as Arizona just inked utility man Wilmer Flores, so a reunion is becoming less likely. Pollock is worth (maybe) 2/$12M in this market– without a QO-tag on him. With the QO-tag, he’s negative value (losing a draft pick) to most teams, and therefore unsignable at even league minimum. How messed up is that?
One free-agent player decided to fire his agent, and negotiated his own deal this winter. Reliever David Robertson (above) signed a 2/$23M (plus 3rd-year option) with the Phillies. He’ll do much better than Craig Kimbrel, when all is said & done, and plus he doesn’t have to pay an incompetent agent a 5-10% fee for screwing things up.
Robertson said it was a great experience for him, and that he learned a lot about the market and how to negotiate. More players should follow his example. They’ll get paid better if they do. No one cares about your interest more than you, so if you leave it to someone else, expect to get burned.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal (above) is now an example of this. His over-estimation of his value apparently led him to reject a 4/$60M offer from the Mets a few weeks back. This is another lesson of the free-agency season: don’t overplay your hand. Afterwards the Mets moved on and signed catcher Wilson Ramos (2/$19M), and then the market for Grandal nearly evaporated.
Grandal settled for 1/$18.25 with the Brewers. The Brew Crew only give up their #104 pick, because the deal was for <$50M. The Dodgers would have preferred Grandal to have taken the Mets offer, as they would have received a better compensation pick on a $60M deal. That’s what’s going on, and the vultures are picking this market to pieces, while many players’ heads are spinning, as their salaries are falling.
Every off-season there are 2-3 teams that are spending “stupid money.” The Phillies already declared this intention, and the Yankees are always in, but neither are in the market for a catcher. The Mets have been stupid too, and this was the offer you jump on– if you’re Yasmani Grandal. His agent should be fired, for not counseling his client competently, because there were no other big suitors for Grandal, as most AL teams prefer Marlins catcher JT Realmuto, who is on the trade block.
Realmuto is better & younger, with two years of team control remaining, which could net his new team a QO compensation pick, if he’s dealt before the 2020 season. How much you get paid is not about past performance anymore. It’s what do you bring to the organization, and what they project you can do going forward.
Of the remaining QO free-agents, LHP Dallas Keuchel has the best chance of getting a deal north of $50M, but it’s not assured. The lessons of RHP’s Hu Darvish & Jake Arrieta (both busts) from last winter, remain in every GM’s mind. Everyone needs pitching, but overpaying for mediocre & injured/bad starters doesn’t make sense. That’s called wish-casting, and there aren’t many Jim Bowden’s left as GM’s who do that stupid stuff anymore.
That’s why the trade market for RHP’s Noah Syndergaard, Cory Kluber & Sonny Gray has received more interest than free-agent starting pitchers. The Mets, Indians & Yankees are all looking for young talent in return, but most teams won’t give that up anymore. Therefore not much moves.
We wait until SS/3B Manny Machado & RF Bryce Harper sign, and then the remaining position players will get scooped up at a song. Most of the MLB free-agent activity has been in the reliever market. In October, bullpens matter more than ever, and you can’t have too many arms. Position players are a-dime-a-dozen, and (often) youngsters are the best value in that market.
I don’t know how long MLB players are going to accept a system that never rewards anyone, except the most-elite superstars. This MLB CBA runs 2017-2021, and anyone with eyes can see a labor war on the horizon, as two more years of this will lead to revolt and (likely) a work stoppage. The money is too big, and the disparity is too wide. This process mirrors every other sector of our global economy. What’s not sustainable, must be revolutionized, otherwise it goes into the ashcan of human history. That will be the legacy of MLB’s “qualifying offer free agency.”
Update: Sunday 20 Jan 2019 ~3:40 PM EST
An alternate title for this piece could be, “Padres GM AJ Preller Whips MLB Free Agency.” The San Diego Padres have been the most speculated & media-buzzed team of this Hot Stove season. The reason is simple, they have the best minor-league system (by far), along with an interesting collection of young (cost-controlled) MLB talent.
Their Achilles heel is big-league starting pitching, which dooms them to the 2nd division, until their minor-league talent arrives. The Padres have been prominently linked to every big-name starter made available via trade over the winter, including: Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays), Sonny Gray (Yankees), Cory Kluber (Indians), and Noah Syndergaard (Mets).
Every rival GM wants at that talent, but AJ Preller has resisted all trade offers, and held his top prospects close to his vest. They are HIGHLY valued by the entire organization, including ownership. Therefore, they won’t be foolishly dealt for expensive rentals, bounce-back potential, decline years, or injury risks.
AJ Preller’s influence has also been a factor in holding up MLB free agency signings, as GM’s will exhaust their options to obtain young talent, before settling for a bargain in free agency. The “JT Realmuto effect” on the catching market has already been discussed above.
It’s a young man’s game, and it’s always been that way. Those who know the game recognize that much better now, due to advanced metrics & the sharing power of the internet. Many young players & MLB fans now know these issues better than the people running/ruining the game.
Here’s Evan Longoria on Instagram & ESPN.com:
We are less then a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games biggest starts remain unsigned. Such a shame. It’s seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should “value” for your team even be a consideration? It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.
I respect Giants (Rays) 3B Evan Longoria, but his complaints to the media about Manny Machado & Bryce Harper not being signed yet, show that he really doesn’t understand what’s going on. Those two elite players have only one top offer apiece, and are waiting around for no good reason, as nothing better will materialize– for either of them. It is their agents who are (mis)advising them, as they are in denial. These “super-agents” (Boras & Lozano) keep trying to inflate the MLB superstar contract bubble, at the expense of younger, underpaid players who generally provide more winning value to franchises.
As of this publication, the Chicago White Sox have reportedly made Machado a seven-year, $175 million offer. Manny Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, disputes this– which is seen in the industry as bluffing. The Phillies aren’t going to go that high (in years or money), and the Yankees appear to be out. No one else is (or was) serious. Machado should sign, and let the market move again, but he & his agent are being egotistical & greedy. This is what knowledgeable baseball fans REALLY don’t like.
The Nationals reportedly offered Bryce Harper a 10-year, $300 million deal, a while back. There’s no reason to not believe it. No other franchise will go higher, especially with draft-pick compensation added to the signing cost. Bryce Harper & agent Scott Boras are also grandstanding & flexing for everyone, and it’s really disrespectful to the other position players who are waiting for a decision, so they can then find a job.
For example, 3B Mike Moustakas can help a lot of teams in need. But everyone is waiting for SS/3B Manny Machado to make a decision first. Until then no one knows what the 3B market is. The best at any specific position can hold up that entire market, because they are always coveted by teams that want to win. No one goes to their fall-back plan, until Option A pans out.
Evan Longoria asks on social media, “As fans, why should ‘value’ for your team even be a consideration?” The obvious fan answer is, “Because ‘overpays’ drive up ticket prices, and kills any team’s chances at winning.” When a MLB GM makes a bad deal of this magnitude, it has a HUGE ripple effect. It’s like trading LHP David Price, for LHP Drew Smily & prospects. The Rays never recovered, and their fans deserted them.
If MLB players want to stop their salaries from going down, then they better get smarter, and start organizing for themselves. Those who deny metrics & remain clueless as to how players are valued, will sign dumb long-term deals– like Evan Longoria did. It sucks to be taken advantage of, but when it’s your own doing, you can only be mad at yourself. I say, “Educate yourself,” or else you’re just blowing-off hot air, like so many others.
Update: Fri 25 Jan 2019 6:15 PM EST
The LA Dodgers have made some moves this off-season, and none of them are going to help them get back to a third consecutive World Series. Jettisoning contracts Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig & Alex Wood to the Reds gets them under the luxury tax threshold, and that was the only purpose of that deal from LA’s perspective. Dodgers eat $28M from RHP Homer Bailey’s contract in return, whom they released.
In 2019, the final year of the Matt Kemp contract, he’ll be paid $21.75M. The Dodgers pay $3.5M & the Padres $2.5M, from the original deal that sent Kemp to San Diego. The Braves have also taken a bite of this deal, as this is Matt Kemp’s fourth trade during this contract, which is commonly regarded as one of the biggest albatrosses in MLB history.
Dodgers also inked premium righty reliever Joe Kelly to a 3/$25M deal, and replaced Yasmani Grandal at catcher with Russel Martin at 1/$20M. Now they’ve reportedly added center-fielder AJ Pollock at either 4/$55M or 5/$60M, pending a physical. Dodgers also give up a compensation pick to the Diamondbacks by signing Pollock- who is a significant injury & crash risk. This is an overpay.
It all adds up in LA to a core roster that is year older, with less outfield power, while losing lefty starter Alex Wood. The Reds got a huge upgrade in this Dodgers salary dump. The Dodgers compounded that mistake with this AJ Pollock deal.
Finally, soon-to-be age-31 LHP Clayton Kershaw wisely declined his “opt-out,” and stayed with the Dodgers for 3/$93M. He’s pitched 149.0, 175.0 & 161.1 innings in the last three seasons. He’s still great, but he’s breaking down, like all pitchers in their 30’s.
The Dodgers are still the best in the NL West, but their window is closing, as this roster will soon resemble the SF Giants’ current situation. Hot Stove activity like this accelerates that process in LA. At least the Giants won 3 World Series in their 5-year run. The Dodgers have squandered their golden opportunity to challenge that feat, with severe over-spending & some highly-questionable deals over the past several years.
Update: Sun 10 Feb 2019 10:30 AM EST
I mentioned a few weeks back that the Padres are the key team this off-season, and since then, they’ve been in the MLB rumor mill– a lot. Their involvement in the JT Realmuto deal (finally dealt to the Phillies) was probably an effort to define the market and move things along, instead of any real interest in the All-Star catcher.
The Marlins were being unrealistic for too long, about Realmuto’s value, with only 2 years remaining on his contract. Everyone wants the Padres prospects, and AJ Preller held firm on what his top young talent is worth, which is a lot more than two years of JT Realmuto. Especially since the Padres aren’t expected to compete for the post-season in 2019 or 2020.
So what have the San Diego Padres been doing in the Bryce Harper & Manny Machado free agency sweepstakes? For a long while the Padres were the “mystery team” in this ordeal, which tells you what that’s worth. When the Padres finally came out, and declared their interest, it was (again) tepid at best, as neither player fits their competitive window, for the costs involved. Yes, the Padres can afford to sign either one, but it wouldn’t move the needle on their becoming a winning team enough to justify the contract. So what are they doing!?
Padres GM AJ Preller is trying to move this market along, by engaging these two free agents. Since no one was making an offer, Preller requested a meeting with both superstars. Harper complied, and met with them in Las Vegas, while evidently Machado refused. In both cases the true intention was to let these players and their agents know that whatever offers they’ve already received, the Padres (and everyone else) won’t go higher.
Since neither is interested in signing for a bargain, they may as well take their best offer. That’s the message. MLB.com & ESPN are calling it “due diligence” by the Padres. I believe Preller prefers signing free agent 3B Mike Moustakas, as a low-cost alternative. He’s just waiting for Machado & Harper to sign somewhere.
Over the last few days rumors have been reported as fact, that the Yankees have offered SS/3B Manny Machado a $220 million deal, and now the White Sox have raised their offer to $250 million over 8 years. No one will confirm any of this, so serious fans take it as bluffing. I still stand behind my prediction that Machado will sign with the pale hose for $175M, as that’s the top offer that has been reported, and verified by the White Sox.
Whether Harper’s $300M offer from the Nationals is still on the table is unknown, but he should have taken it when he had the chance, if he wanted max money. If Bryce Harper wants out of Washington, then he’s taking a pay cut from that.
Pitchers & catchers report this week, so it’s time for these two to make a decision. They’ll both be taking less than what they had hoped for, and will possibly be going to teams they don’t prefer, just to get paid. That’s MLB free agency in 2019, and it’s a catastrophe for the players & fans.
The fundamental issue that keeps getting swept under-the-rug is the MLBPA’s role in all this. These union bureaucrats & officials, counseled by the heavy-clout super-agents that advise them, are all complicit in the lowering of MLB-player salaries. This is the root of the impasse between free agents & the organizations these past two off-seasons.
The GM’s that run these franchises for their owners are all smarter now. Thus, they aren’t handing out any more Albert Pujols contracts, like the Angels regret. Their splurges are now more measured & contained. The presumed job of these union functionaries is to follow these trends, and understand its importance when collectively bargaining for the players.
In this task, they have completely whiffed. The MLBPA’s allegiance to veteran players, as measured by free-agent contracts, no longer fits the MLB organizational spending model. Today, GM’s understand its cheap, young players that provide winning value. That’s the core which organizations build around, and when they mature (and ONLY then), is when free-agency (or dealing prospects for valuable veterans) makes sense.
Just because a team has money to spend, doesn’t mean they should spend it. Unexpected good fortune, or rainy days, could be just around the corner, and teams need to retain flexibility with their payroll. After all, this is baseball, and no one can predict it.