A big chunk of ice broke loose from baseball’s frozen offseason free-agent market with the Mets re-uniting with Jay Bruce for three years/$39 million on Wednesday. Lest anyone think, however, a thawing of the Hot Stove is finally at hand, with a flurry of megabucks contracts for the likes of J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Yu Darvish now sure to follow, indications are the owners-agents standoff continues — and will likely drag on right up until spring training, especially for the Scott Boras clients.
The only reason Bruce signed with the Mets was because it was for considerably less than the five years/$75 million he’d been seeking. Consider Bruce the first to realize the days of owners doling out longterm (five or more years) contracts of $20 million or more to players in or close to their 30s are coming to an end, thanks in large part to the huge uptick of injuries in baseball that have rendered the majority of these kinds of deals (see: Prince Fielder, Jayson Werth, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, Hunter Pence, Shin-Soo Choo, Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells, David Wright, Alfonso Soriano) onerous financial disasters.
Is the free-agent deep freeze a sign the owners are finally getting smarter?
“We’ll see,” says one high-level major league exec, “but there is no question the rise of injuries is coinciding with an increase in caution among the owners in terms of these huge longterm contracts. Plus, you have this new wave of analytic general managers whose emphasis is to place values and projections on players rather than traditional stats and the owners are listening to them.”
What looms as just as stifling a factor on the market, certainly this year and likely for the foreseeable future, is the new collective bargaining agreement, which enables clubs to reset their competitive balance tax if they are able to stay under pre-determined payroll thresholds (this year $197 million). Whether they realized it or not, by bargaining this provision Tony Clark and the Players Association in effect established a salary cap for the owners. Marvin Miller must be rolling in his grave. Throughout all his rancorous (and ultimately successful) labor negotiations in the ’60s and ’70s, Miller’s pat expression was, “the owners are asking the players to protect them from themselves.”
Well that’s exactly what’s happened this year with the Yankees and Dodgers both feverishly maneuvering to stay under the $197 million threshold. If the Yankees are somehow unable to stay under it, they will be taxed at 60% of their overage this year, and 90% if they go over it again in 2019. But if they do stay under it, their overage tax goes back to 20% in 2019. It’s a no-brainer, but in the meantime it has taken them out of the running for any of the frontline free agent starters: Arrieta, Darvish or Cobb.
Without the payroll threshold restraint, you can bet the Yankees would have surely signed one of those three. With all their vast revenues, what do they care what their payroll is — especially next year with the extra $50 million payout each club is getting from MLB’s sale of BAMtech to Disney?
It is indeed interesting that, given this unexpected $50 million windfall for each club, it should be the coldest free-agent market and seemingly slowest overall offseason in memory. It makes one wonder if this will finally be the winter where Boras meets his waterloo and fails to find the one dumb owner — as he did with Detroit’s octogenarian Mike Ilitch, who bid against himself and signed Fielder to a nine-year/$214 million deal on January 26, 2012, or Tom Hicks, the idiot in Texas who did likewise in signing Alex Rodriguez to the record 10-year/$252 million contract in 2000 that skyrocketed the highest AAV for a player from $17 to $25 million.
Boras is on record as saying Martinez is deserving of a $200 million deal and that Hosmer’s “prestige value” puts him in that category too. Of the 30-year-old Arrieta, who’s lost 2 mph on his fastball since 2016, Boras is said to also be seeking a deal similar to the seven years/$210 million he got from the Nationals for Max Scherzer in January 2015. Nobody so far has apparently come close to those terms.
But Boras continues playing his usual game of January chicken, which this year seems likely to extend into February and maybe into March as he awaits for something to happen — an injury to a key player on a contending team — that will prompt an owner to once again do something dumb, as Ilitch did in 2012 when Victor Martinez tore his ACL in an offseason workout and the Tigers suddenly needed a DH.
Presently, the Rockies’ signing of 32-year-old Wade Davis to a staggering three-year/$52 million deal that made him the highest-paid closer in history — despite the fact that he walked nearly 4.5 batters per nine innings and gave up a career high six homers last year — makes the Monfort brothers in Colorado the “one dumb owner” leaders in the clubhouse this winter. Acknowledging the potential fool-hardiness of that contract, the major league official said: “Nobody wants to take that title away from them this year.”
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