Baseball Has a Problem, But Whose Problem Is It?

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Baseball fans across the nation are gathering around the water cooler as we draw closer and closer to February 2019 — the month in which pitchers and catchers report, Spring Training begins, and baseball is back.

At this point in the year, the talk is focused on what teams will rise above the rest, the improvements that have been made in the offseason, and what prospects have risen above the rest in the winter leagues. However, for the second year in a row, a different conversation is being had.

The conversations are focused around what will happen with the big name free agents who are still without a team.

It’s the morning of January 29, 2019, and four of the top 5 free agents (at least, according to MLBTradeRumors.com) have yet to sign with a new team. There has been speculation since November about the impending destinations of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, but as of right now, they are still unsigned.

A year ago, as Bryce Harper was on the final year of his contract with the Washington Nationals, the discussion was whether or not he would be the first player in history to sign a $400 million contract. Now, the primary focus of the conversation is how few suitors he seems to have.

Sure, the rumors are out there. But a poor 2018 season has significantly dropped the interest in the once hyped baseball prodigy. While he did have his highest single-season RBI total in 2018 (100), Harper saw his batting average drop 70 points from the 2017 season, and his strikeouts were at a career high as well. Those are the kinds of numbers that teams watch.

In the advanced metrics (the ones even I haven’t taken the time to really understand), Harper also has one of the worst showings in his career. But, of course, super-agent and spinmaster Scott Boras isn’t going to let a little thing like a poor season cost his client (and himself, notably) a chance at a major payday.

However, big payroll teams like the Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Angels and Mets don’t seem to be in on Harper. The Phillies seem to be the most discussed name right now, but placing those rumors on the “hot stove” would be a gross overestimation of what we are seeing right now.

Machado is the other big-name hitter free agent who is still without a home. Much of the talk around Machado has been around the Phillies, White Sox, Yankees and Padres, but it doesn’t seem like there has been a lot of traction lately.

Machado may have hurt himself some in the playoffs with everything from his comments about not being a “Johnny Hustle” to a handful of the actions many people called him on as dirty plays. Maybe right before you go into a major contract negotiation is not the right time to be a jerk to people.

Machado’s insistence on moving to shortstop last season also seems like a bad move. He was quite possibly the premier third baseman, especially in the American League in his previous seasons. But his insistence to move to shortstop, while possibly a ploy to show off his versatility, also distracted from the bigger picture. Instead of people looking at him as a top tier third baseman, they saw him as a player who wanted to do what he thought was best for him, regardless of the impact on the team.

Is Machado a selfish player? I don’t know, but he may come off that way, and perception is all that really matters in times like this.

Dallas Keuchel is a Cy Young winning pitcher who has led a pitching staff and won a World Series. He has had a 20-win season, and three times has pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in a home park with a short left field porch. That’s a pretty good resume.

He’s also 31, which could be detrimental if he is looking for a 5 or 6 year contract (though most indications seem to point to him looking at 4 years). Of course, balance that with the fact that he’s a lefty, and maybe you can look past his age to some extent. (Look, it’s not like 31 is old, people!)

In recent days, the Astros seem to be most linked to their former pitcher. A possible reunion is definitely in play. The surprisingly active Cincinnati Reds are another team that has been mentioned a lot in the Keuchel sweepstakes, but not much has taken place as of late.

When the offseason started, the reliever with the most unique approach to getting signs from his catcher was said to be looking for something around 6 years and over $100 million. That would certainly set a record for richest contract for a relief pitcher.

It’s not unreasonable to seek that kind of contract for a player whose worst season as a closer is still better than a lot of others. In 2016, Kimbrel’s first season in Boston, he “only” had 31 saves and a 3.40 ERA. That was his worst year (and he only blew 2 saves that entire season). There is some concern with his walks being up and his strikeouts being down, but, frankly, his 2017 season was so good that those ratios should have been expected to come back to earth just a little.

However, the last few offseasons have not been kind to relievers — even the ones who do get good contracts have not seemed to live up to them so far. Greg Holland was one of the best closers in all of baseball in 2017. He didn’t sign until Opening Day when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. When he finally made his 2018 appearance, it was atrocious. In fact, with a near 8.00 ERA, the Cardinals cut him loose and literally paid him to play somewhere else at the end of the season. As a Cardinal fan, trust me, he was THAT bad in St. Louis. He did seem to recover at least a little in Washington, but the damage was done.

I don’t know if the years, the salary figure, or the fickle nature of the position is the sticking point with Kimbrel, who, like Keuchel, is 31. One way or another, however, there just hasn’t been a lot of movement.

There have been a good number of signings. Patrick Corbin is the only free agent of the top 5 who has signed with a team (the Nationals for 6 years, $140 million). Numbers 6–18 on the list have all signed as well, so it’s not like teams aren’t signing players this offseason, just not the expected big contract players.

But, the real question here is: whose fault is it? Why do we have so many top shelf players who are… sitting on the shelf?

Like most things in life, it’s never as simple as just blaming one person. We can’t just say that the owners aren’t putting up the money. Of course, for players like Harper and Machado, there are a significant number of teams who wouldn’t be part of the negotiations in the first place, simply because the asking price would be too high of a percentage on their payroll.

It is also possible that the players haven’t liked the contracts they have been offered and so they are waiting to see if something better comes in. Maybe the agents are playing a major role and things are at a stand still because of them.

Baseball is in a major transition period. The old ways of doing things are not the way of the future. Advanced metrics are coming into play, and the salary creep seems to be slowing way down. General managers don’t want to pay for past performance any more, but the way the system is set up, the past performance is what the players have to offer. Trends are examined much more closely than before, and many in ownership and management are more risk-averse than in years past.

Baseball still has yet to figure out how to handle this transition. Big market teams, small market teams, everyone has the potential to compete (as the Rays and A’s showed last season), but it takes looking into the future of the game, not it’s past. Younger players are cheaper players, and, sometimes, they are the better players. Teams are looking to find gold with such players, and when they do, they have a winning formula: success + cost effectiveness.

In order for baseball to move past this problem of free agents still being on the board until the start of Spring Training, both players and management are going to have to bend a little. Is a salary cap the solution? Probably not. Is a salary floor? Unlikely. Maybe there needs to be changes in the arbitration system so that players can become free agents at a younger age. Maybe they need to do away with guaranteed contracts, so that teams can move on more easily from bad contracts; though, that certainly brings a high level of risk to the players, and I don’t see that happening.

One this is certain, however, baseball is still a great game. It has the richest history of any sport in the United States, and I have no doubt that it will be just fine as the days and years move on.

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.

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