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Friday, March 23, 2018

Leitch: Baseball’s Very Tepid Offseason Is Finally Over

When a player is finally in a position to sell himself on the market, he’s often already in decline. Which is how it came to pass that of the 25 highest-paid players in baseball last season — all of whom were, at one point, high-dollar free agents — almost one-third weren’t even average ballplayers. The worst player in baseball last year, according to FanGraphs, was Albert Pujols, who made $26 million — and is still under contract for four more seasons, for which he will be paid nearly $115 million.

[...] But this is a system that was collectively bargained by a players’ union that has, in recent years, valued the comfort of veterans and retired players above what might be just for younger players, often minor leaguers who aren’t even in the union yet. If you force teams to pay more for older players, you are asking them to find ways to avoid using them; if you force them to pay younger players less, you are asking them to value them more.

bobm Posted: March 23, 2018 at 01:12 PM | 7 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: free agency

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   1. Walt Davis Posted: March 23, 2018 at 05:55 PM (#5642501)
His argument isn't strong and he presents no evidence in favor of it -- which isn't to say there is no evidence, just that it's not convincing. And you simply can't make an argument like that in the excerpt without discussing the deferred payment structure that those contracts have built into them.

He further claims that most of the value is in the first 6 years -- I'm not sure that's correct other than "on average" (where that average includes all the players who didn't make it much past 6 years). The bulk of a star's value is generally somewhere around the ages 25-32 ... or for true stars, more likely a pretty consistent 10-year run that tapers at ages 33-34. About half of that peak will be in the FA period and most don't fall off a cliff at 33-34. And then the contracts were structured to run through age 36, intended (and usually being) huge bargains for the teams at the start and big losers for the teams at the end.

The length of the Pujols contract was indeed silly. But as bad as he's collapsed, from ages 31-36, he still put up 20 WAR. If you could have gotten that for 6/$150, you'd have been perfectly happy. (He wasn't an FA at age 31.) What the current "market" is trying to do is to force players like this to sell off ages 31-34 at the same $25 per without giving them the deferred payments at 35-36. It's not "gee we're finally smart enough to know players won't be productive at ages 35-36" it's "let's drive down the price of a win." This is about trying to force Pujols to sign for just ages 31-34 and getting 15 WAR for $100 M rather than 20 WAR for $150 M.

One consequence may be the end of the early FA buyout. Pujols wasn't an FA until age 32 because the Cards bought out his first 5 years of FA. Certainly not a bad deal for Pujols but if teams aren't going to pay past age 34 anymore, it's unlikely anybody's willing to let those years go cheap. Players were probably already taking too many deal where they gave the first year of FA then team options on the next two -- often nice deals from a security perspective, frequently awful from a career earnings perspective ... and then they hit FA at 32-34.

Yelich's deal has 5 more years to run, never pays him more than $15 max, covers his first 3 years of FA and he won't be an FA until age 31. Security is nice but, in theory, he goes FA entering his age 28 season and he gets an Upton/Heyward style contract (plus inflation). If the market changes such that Yelich is at best looking at 4/$80 in his FA contract, the incentive for trading security for cheap early FA years is greatly reduced.
   2. BDC Posted: March 23, 2018 at 07:21 PM (#5642532)
Hasn't it been the case for a long time that higher-paid players are likely to be in decline? I looked at 1985, the earliest year that B-Ref has a salary leaderboard, and of the 20 players it lists, only four (Dale Murphy, Jack Clark, Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson) were still at the peak of their careers. Several of the others were still very good and had some good years left – maybe a higher percentage than in 2017, so TFA could still have something of a point – but several were pretty weak (Steve Kemp, Bruce Sutter, Ron Cey … and Julio Cruz: granted I am not even sure why Julio Cruz got onto the list).

Earlier on, in reserve-clause days, a star player's salary might decline as he got older, but looking at SABR's list of highest-paid players, leader after leader was a great star in his latter years: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, Mays, Aaron. Paying for a player's past is a long-standing tradition.
   3. Walt Davis Posted: March 24, 2018 at 02:23 AM (#5642597)
BDC, I think his argument is "THIS TIME IT COUNTS!" That now everybody is smart so the days of overpaid old guys is over. I have no problem with that ... I do have a problem with the idea that, in the FA era, there was something wrong with that, which is an implicit assumption that players are paid fairly in the early years of their FA contract which is generally not true. It's fine with me if 5/$125, 6/$150 contracts through 36 are replaced by 3/$100 and 4/$120 through 34 ... I'm not sure the players would object that much either.

I'm willing to believe that, even accounting for deferment, that most FA contracts don't work out. That's what you expect in an auction market -- or at least an auction market where the bidders aren't colluding. Trimming off the "winner's curse" would be perfectly rational -- just impossible unless bidders are sharing info.

But sure, there are lots of incentives, both financial and baseball incentives, to rely on cheaper, younger players and dip your toe into the FA pool with caution. By agreeing to barely raise minimum salaries and agreeing to keep them largely flat, the MLBPA increased the gap between cheap and FA alternatives for the more marginal roster slots/players. But that has little impact on the top of the market ... you don't pass on JD Martinez or even Mike Moustakas cuz you've got a 26-year-old who hit pretty well at AAA that will only cost your $500 K. Well, it has little impact on the top of the market except for financial/tanking reasons.
   4. ptodd Posted: March 24, 2018 at 07:03 PM (#5642708)
The weakness in this FA market is exaggerated. Last year this year was looked upon as a much better FA market. Also, the biggest issue was the middle class of the market. The top guys got paid, albeit later than usual (Passan wrote an article in November saying GMs told him it was the plan to get better deals) . It was the guys who normally get 2-4 year deals looking at 1 -2 year offers or no offers at all.

While every FA class has busts, I'd like to see someone look at the top 10 FA signings in each of the the last 10 years and quantify the performance vs dollars paid. How many busts, how many as expected, how many better than expected

And lets consider the fundamental issue here. The games financial model was designed so
that the teams can make a killing on a players first 6-7 years in MLB. The deal was the few players reaching free agency would get much of that surplus value obtained from the young

If MLB wants to change the rules of the game that have existed the past 30 years (post collusion years), then prepare for much higher salaries for younger players and a lengthy work stoppage that could pop the franchise valuation bubble
   5. cardsfanboy Posted: March 24, 2018 at 07:26 PM (#5642712)
I think this off season was an aberration, for many of the reasons mentioned in the article. A clearly superior free agent class coming up, is a big part of it. Then you add in that there was just a host of similar B level players and zero A level players on the market.

I do not see any real difference between Arrieta, Darvish, Cobb or Lynn and none of them are aces. So you have a bevy of number two pitchers, each with their own question marks and if you are an owner, it makes perfect sense to either 1. make the first move, a relatively low ball offer to all four (say 4 years 85 mil) early in the free agency to see if any bites on the offer, or wait it out and see what the actual market is... the funny thing is that the lowball offer would have been a good offer by February, but if my team would have signed any of those four for that amount of money, I would have been happy.

And the same can be said about the position players, Cain was the cream of the crop, but way too much of his value is tied into his speed, the skill that probably deteriorates quickest as you age, he's a plus centerfielder at his peak right now, but he doesn't produce numbers that make you open your eyes, and doesn't really look like a guy who can move to the corner and still be a beneficial bat as he ages. He signed a 5 year 80mil contract, to be honest, that was probably a good signing, even accepting that he will more than likely be useless the last year of the contract, if not the last two. You just don't expect non-hof centerfielders to age well. And he's not a hof centerfielder. And yet it was still a good signing if that happens... he'll more than likely produce a minimum of 10 war over the life of the contract if not 15. (I could see a 4/4/3/2/1 with rounding to 15 type of performance out of him going forward, and in fact think that is very likely)

Jd Martinez is probably overpaid this season, and that is by a team that can afford to make that type of signing, and needed it for pr purposes.
And Hosmer was a disaster signing... If he produces even 1.5 Waa in any season over the length of the contract, I would be shocked. They paid 20mil a season for a league average player. You have to hope that the predictability of his performance, his relative healthy career up to this point in time, and his bench presence all help out the team, but ultimately the Padres are signing a guy to be a league average first baseman for the next 7 years, simply to have stability at the position while they transition their team... (and I don't really have a problem with that, if that is the purpose, but if you think he's a good player, then there is something wrong with your definition of good..... the Cardinals probably have 5 players in the minors/bench who could do what Hosmer does at a fraction of the cost, and I don't think the Cardinals are alone in that situation)

This was just not a good free agent period, there was nobody out there that was a difference maker.

Espn top ten ranked free agents is
Darvish number one(and again I don't really see any difference between him and a few others)
Cain 2nd (and I can see that)
Cozart third... a guy who just had a career year at 31 that was so out of line with the rest of his career, that nobody was going to offer him real money.
Arrieta 4th(see Darvish)
Carlos Santana 5th..... really? a 32 year old DH/1b who put up a 112 ops+ last season.... who the #### would spend on that more than a 2 year 20 mil offer? .... The Phillies? Of course.
Martinez --overpriced good bat guy that is going to a team that has no real budget limits, makes sense.
Hosmer
Cobb(see Darvish)
Frasier a third baseman that has played 147 games the past two seasons, entering his age 32 season, if this doesn't scream "don't sign me long term" then you really need to brush up on your sign reading ability.
Carlos Gomez.... how in the hell does a guy like this make it onto the top ten list of free agents? That is how bad this free agency season was... Carlos Gomez, a guy who hasn't played in more than 120 games in a season for the last three years, who has put up a 96 ops+, is a poor defensive centerfielder now, and not a good hitter, is listed in the top ten free agents..... This is the reason that it was tepid off-season, the names on the free agent ledger were crap players or just not that good, or loaded with question marks.

   6. puck Posted: March 25, 2018 at 04:47 PM (#5642836)
Can the offseason be over before Greg Holland signs?
   7. stig-tossled, hornswoggled gef the typing mongoose Posted: March 25, 2018 at 05:38 PM (#5642846)
Can the offseason be over before Greg Holland signs?


Considering that my SI league auto-drafted him for my team ... NO.

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