The Free Agent Disconnect

History, with all its permutations, has merged with the analytics abyss, with all its permutations, to leave Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and several other illustrious free agents on the sidelines as spring training camps open in Arizona and Florida and veteran players bemoan the fate of their unsigned brethren.

Make no mistake, this is not the owner orchestrated collusion of the 1980s, but make no mistake, there is enough latent ugliness in this and other issues that management and the players union may have a difficult time escaping the first work stoppage in almost 30 years when the current CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2021.

If Scott Boras and Dan Lozano, the agents for Harper and Machado, had thought by now they would have emerged with 10 year, $300 million-plus contracts for their respective clients, both in the early primes of their careers, there is no indication either is close to one and stronger indication neither will accept a short term compromise.

How good must Patrick Corbin, the former Arizona free agent pitcher, feel having signed a stunning six year, $140 million contract with Washington early in the offseason that remains at the top of the market with Harper and Machado unsigned along with Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Mike Moustakas, Adam Jones and about 120 other free agents. The fact is, this is the second consecutive cold winter for free agency with 22 of the 30 teams having failed to sign a free agent to a contract longer than two years, prompting Kris Bryant to join the many players who have been questioning how clubs are using their revenue sharing money: “Not enough teams are trying to be competitive,” he said.

Well, that is definitely part of it. The idea that revenue sharing would lead to true competitive balance hasn’t worked in an industry where teams are allowed to disappear for three to five years while rebuilding–as revenue sharing income is spent on the draft and international pool or banked–as screams from the skeptical union go unheeded and analytics play a bigger role in the game and in the formulation of rosters.

“It seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players,” Giants third baseman Evan Longoria complained recently.

Certainly, every club now has a large analytics department, virtually every club has a game day preparations coach, and virtually every club is working toward a younger, more versatile and less expensive roster compared to an older, less flexible and more expensive roster. In the most recent Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci points out that a record 1,271 players appeared in major league games last year, a 15.8% increase in jobs since 1998, the first season with 30 teams. Yet, while revenues again went up, the average salary went down for the first time since 2004. The current environment is good for young players with options and far less healthy for older free agents. Last year alone, for example, there was a 58% decrease in games by players of 33 and older since 2006 and a 21% increase in games by players 25 and younger.

And, of course, there’s the dreaded luxury tax, which began as a modest union payback in 1995 after Sonia Sotomayor, then 40 and the youngest federal judge in the Southern District of New York, angrily ordered the owners to restore arbitration and free agency and get back to bargaining after the 1994 work stoppage and World Series cancellation.

Now, as Marvin Miller rolls over in his grave, the tax and its onerous penalties has become a de facto cap on the teams that might otherwise be giving consideration to a prime time 10 year contract and the union has gained little except for some amenities it considered important at the time.

Will Harper and Machado eventually be signed. Almost certainly.

On what terms. I have no guess.

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