Major League Baseball, land of (relative) opportunity and parity, should be thankful The Post has to reach for an NBA analogy to aptly describe this current Hot Stove league:
The owners are the Warriors of recent vintage, and the players are everyone else.
Good grief, what a nuclear winter for free agency. With less than a month to go before Yankees and Mets pitchers and catchers report, just 11 of The Post’s top 30 free agents have landed employers. And just three (Wade Davis, Carlos Santana and Shohei Ohtani) of the top 10. Last year by this date, 20 of 30 and nine of the top 10 had secured their futures.
If the players rally late to cash in handsomely and break new ground for their open-market descendants, then you’ll get a jumbo-sized mea culpa here. Many, many industry folks don’t see that happening, though.
The volume of available players appears too high and the amount of desperate teams too low. Though the crop’s cream — Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez — won’t fall on their faces, none appears poised to push the envelope. And beneath that top tier — as exemplified by the modest, three-year, $39-million deal that Jay Bruce accepted from the Mets this past week — it won’t be pretty.
Call it organic collusion, the collective realization by nearly all teams — which have homogenized thanks to a near-universal embrace of objective analytics — that 1) Large free-agent deals backfire too often; 2) Such a lack of success can be attributed significantly to the player’s age when he signs the deal; and 3) The calendar can be used to the teams’ advantage by starving the players into late January and February. Throw in ongoing concerns about television rights fees and other revenue streams going flat, the $50-million-per team payment for the BAMTech sale to Disney notwithstanding, and you have teams eager to save.
Some one-off factors can help explain this lack of activity: The Yankees and Dodgers, both determined to get under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018 so they can spend on next year’s star-studded class, are uncharacteristically quiet. Scott Boras, baseball’s Most Patient Man, represents Arrieta, Hosmer and Martinez as well as Greg Holland and Mike Moustakas, a more prominent crop than usual for the super-agent.
However, the Players Association (whose executive director Tony Clark politely declined a request to chat for this column) would be wrong to shrug this off as an aberration. Too many non-Boras guys — like Lorenzo Cain, Alex Cobb, Todd Frazier and Lance Lynn, in addition to Darvish — remain on the sidelines to say this is just a Boras thing. Too many other big-market teams, like the Red Sox and Giants, are working deliberately to think that the coasts’ powers will fix everything next time.
Let’s say that next year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, both of whom will be 26 years old on Opening Day 2019, receive record-setting deals from the Cubs and Yankees, respectively. Will that trickle down as it once would have? Or will the other supposed elite guys like Charlie Blackmon (who will be entering his age-32 season), Josh Donaldson (33), Craig Kimbrel (31) and Andrew Miller (34) suffer for residing in the wrong age demographic? Don’t bet against the latter.
The players, to mix sports metaphors once more, need a new playbook. Here are some suggestions, moving forward, to make free agency great again:
1. Change the priorities for the next collective bargaining agreement. OK, this can’t be addressed until after the 2021 season, when the present CBA expires. Yet no doubt exists that this deal damaged free agency by instituting harsh penalties for going too far over the luxury-tax threshold and maintaining, if slightly lessening, the awards (in the form of a draft spending pool) for finishing poorly,. The players made concessions in return for quality-of-life improvements like team-funded meals in the clubhouse. Maybe they can give those back for more capitalism.
2. Be more aggressive. It takes courage for a player and agent to sign very early or very late in the cycle. When so many hang around late, though, that courage doesn’t get you very far. Santana, the highest-paid free agent to date, could have tried to hold out for a four-year deal, a reasonable thought for a guy turning 32 in April. Instead, he jumped on a three-year, $60-million offer from the Phillies, accepting a high annual average value in return for fewer years. Davis, also 32, followed a similar route when he took a three-year, $52-million package from the Rockies.
3. Embrace analytics. If teams are going to sign players based on factors like exit velocity, spin rate and catch probability, then shame on any player who doesn’t do everything he can to enhance his performance there just as he once would have for his batting average and ERA.
4. Elevate the ceiling on pre-free agency deals. If the natural order of things no longer raises the tide — except for setup men last month — then players should work to lift precedents on the deals in which teams buy out arbitration and free-agency years. Those contracts, while providing considerable security on the front end, can keep the player out of free agency until his 30s, the new death knell. So far this offseason, the starting pitcher with the largest contract is Tyler Chatwood, who has never thrown more than 158 innings in a season but who is just 28 and got himself a three-year, $38 million deal from the Cubs.
Having written that, far be it from me to judge any player who desires and has earned such stability — as long he understands the bite he’ll risk on the back end.
5. Behave yourselves. The union should direct all of its members to look at CC Sabathia, who quite possibly would be out there with a boatload of other free-agent starting pitchers if he hadn’t made himself such an integral part of the Yankees’ clubhouse culture. Bruce probably got himself a few extra bucks, too, by showing the Mets how he could help off the field.
6. Lobby to change Social Security’s full benefit age from 67 to 37. It sure looks like we’ll see a bunch of veteran players (Curtis Granderson? Matt Holliday? Ichiro Suzuki?) forced into retirement. Ballplayers just might have to face the reality that teams increasingly prefer young players for reasons both physical and fiscal, and it’s not clear what, if any, legal means can reverse that trend.