The last two years of free agency have signaled a culture change in Major League Baseball. We are likely done seeing long-term, big-money deals given to players after their age-31 seasons like Albert Pujols and Zack Greinke. After the 2015 season, 11 players signed contracts that lasted at least 5 years. In the 2017 and 2018 offseasons combined, just 8 teams handed out deals of 5 years or more. Granted, the Pujols and Greinke deals have not worked out as well as the Angels and Diamondbacks would have liked. However, this movement towards shorter term contracts (and consequently less money) is not just owners being smart with their money. Rather, it is the result of teams abusing a flawed system. The free agency system in place disproportionately hurts the players and gives the owners all of the power in dictating the players’ earning power. If the current course continues, the league will be likely be facing a work stoppage when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. To prove how flawed the free agent system is, lets look at some of the contracts, or lack thereof, handed out in the last couple years.
This year, Madison Bumgarner perfectly illustrates the problem with the free agent market. Bumgarner has put together an excellent career, although he has endured a few rough seasons the last three years. Still, Bumgarner’s career ERA and FIP of 3.13 and 3.32 are comparable to or even better than the career numbers of Zack Greinke and David Price. Both of these pitchers inked contracts worth north of $200 million after the 2015 season, yet Bumgarner is unlikely to reach even $100 million. Teams have clearly been scared off of signing pitchers to big deals, and Bumgarner’s wallet is going to suffer because of it. While this change is not without reason—Greinke and Price have not quite performed up to expectations—it is still shocking how drastically the free agent market has changed since these big deals were signed. Not only is Bumgarner the same age or younger than these two pitchers, but he has pitched just as well as them in the regular season and has gone above and beyond in the playoffs. Nevertheless, his contract this offseason won’t come anywhere close to what Greinke and Price received. We are seeing a culture change in the MLB, one that will not bode well for player-owner relations in the near future.
Dallas Keuchel is another example of what is wrong with free agency. The former Cy Young winner entered free agency last year after his age-30 season in which he posted a sub-4.00 ERA over 204.2 innings. There is not a single team in baseball that wouldn’t benefit from having a durable left-handed starter who provides an ERA better than league-average. Even so, Keuchel did not sign a contract until June of this year. Why should a pitcher of his caliber go unsigned for so long? He was the best pitcher in his league for an entire season, and while he hasn’t quite continued that pace, Keuchel is certainly a serviceable pitcher. Keuchel’s inability to get a long-term deal should not be attributed to owners being savvy with money. It is a disrespectful and intentional abuse of power by the owners, and the free agent system allows it to happen.
The flawed free agency system does not just affect left-handed pitchers, though. Mike Moustakas, a power-hitting infielder who can play multiple positions well, has had to settle for a one-year contract each of the last two seasons. After the 2017 season in which he posted a slash line of .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs and was named an All-Star at 28 years old, Moustakas had to wait until the start of spring training in March to finally sign a one-year contract with the Royals worth $6.5 million. He followed up that season with another above-average year with 28 HR, 33 doubles, and a .774 OPS in 152 games. Still, Moustakas was unable to garner a long-term deal and he signed a one-year contract with the Brewers in February worth $10 million. The Brewers were rewarded with an all-star season from Moustakas and another season of 30+ home runs. This offseason, Moustakas returns to free agency, and it would be a crime if he has to sign another one-year deal. The market should not be icing out a durable infielder with 30-home run pop, yet Moustakas has had to spend most of the last two offseasons without a job.
MLB players cannot become free agents until they have 6 full years of service time in the big leagues. This means that many players do not reach free agency until they are somewhere between 28 and 30 years old. The issue here is that the free agent system is set up to pay players for what they have done in those 6 years. However, teams now do not want to risk giving out bad contracts, so they only want to pay players for their prime years. Most people consider the prime of someone’s career to end around 32 or 33 years old, meaning teams perceive most players to have 5 years or less of prime production. Consequently, for the majority of a player’s prime, they are stuck in the miserable process of arbitration where teams actively work to pay the lowest contract possible. Then, when they reach free agency, teams look at them as nearly past their prime. When a 31-year old player tries to negotiate with a team during free agency, they have to rely on their past accomplishments because the system didn’t give them any real bargaining power until at least 6 years into their career. Bumgarner is a victim of this problem. He has assembled an excellent body of work, but now that he is a 30-year old free agent, teams do not want to give him a long-term, big money contract.
With the current structure of free agency, the owners and teams have all the power. They get to lowball a player for 6 years, then once he reaches free agency, they complain that the player is too old for a big contract. If a player is kept from the open market for the first 6 years of his career, then owners need to reward players for what they have done. If players were granted free agency after 2 years, then it could be reversed—teams would hand out contracts based on potential instead of previous accomplishments. It has to be one way or the other, but teams now have shifted all the power to their side. Sure, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper received huge contracts in free agency, but those are the superstars of the sport and they both debuted before their 21st birthday. The debate about whether athletes should ever be paid hundreds of millions of dollars is not the point here; the owners have the money to pay players like Bumgarner or Keuchel this amount, but they manipulate the system so that they don’t have to.
In the end, Bumgarner, Keuchel, and Moustakas should be paid more than they will likely get this offseason. Unfortunately, the free agency system is flawed at its core. When the MLBPA goes to the negotiating table with the owners after the 2021 season, Bumgarner, Keuchel, Moustakas, and many others should be at the front of the MLBPA’s push to change the service-time requirements for free agency.
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What incentive is there for owners to sign a big and to a long-term contract, other than prospective performance over the life of the contract? As a result of free agency, players aren’t associated with teams anymore, the way that Willie Mays was a Giant and Jackie Robinson a Dodger. There’s nothing in it for the owners to have a marquee player anymore. Is that part of the problem?
You’re right that the only incentive to signing a long term contract is prospective performance. That’s not necessarily a problem, but the current system diminishes a lot of the players’ future production potential by keeping them out of free agency for 6 years. You make a good observation that players aren’t associated with specific teams the way they used to be. Still, I think the bigger problem is that the free agency system is set up to pay players based on what they have done before free agency, but owners aren’t doing that.
Hi Josh – Really enjoying your articles. In Bumgarner’s case, I think caution is warranted. His home/road splits the last two years have been gruesome, while his home park is the most favorable to pitchers on baseball. He’ll probably stay in California (SD, Oakland, or SF). The Dodgers would also be a great option for him, but somehow. I don’t think so…
Good point about the home/road splits. But why would that mean staying in California? Are the west coast ballparks especially good for pitchers?