Free Agency: Collusion or Common Sense?

SCOTTSDALE, Az. – Fifteen days removed from Opening Day and the free agent market is starting to clear up. On Monday Carlos Gonzalez re-signed with the Rockies, Jake Arrieta with the Phillies, Lance Lynn with the Twins and Jonathan Lucroy with the A’s.

Lynn, Lucroy and Gonzalez each signed for a year.  Arietta agreed to a three-year guarantee with the Phillies. It wasn’t what they were looking for, but then there weren’t many deals that met the expectations of players and their agents this winter.

Among the 84 free-agent signings listed on the ESPN tracker (http://www.espn.com/mlb/freeagents) only four signed a deal longer than four years.

 

There were 39 one-year deals, 32 two-year deals and nine three-year deals.

Is it collusion or common sense or a combination of both?

The agents and Major League Baseball Players Association have indicated concerns that the owners are involved in collusion again.

And, yes, teams like the Marlins, Rays, Royals, Tigers, the A’s, Marlins, Pirates and Reds are in major rebuilds, slashing payroll and moving veterans.

But there are two other factors to consider.

This wasn’t one of those eye-popping free agent crops, like the one looming a year from now when, among others, the potential free agents include Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, both of whom will go on the market in their 20s. They could be joined by Clayton Kershaw, who doesn’t turn 29 until Monday, and has an opt-out in a contract that guarantees him $32 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020.

The one position player that created a lot of conversation in this winter’s free agent field was Martinez. Agent Scott Boras was throwing out a $200 million figure for Martinez after Martinez switched agents and signed up with Boras. The market never developed in light of the fact Martinez’s defense is questioned, eliminating serious interest by NL teams. But it’s not like he is a pauper. Martinez did get a five-year, $110 million deal from the Red Sox.

And it was just four springs ago that Martinez was released out of the Astros’ minor-league camp.

There also is the world of analytics.

The media has become buried under statistical analysis to the point that Carlos Gonzalez hit a home run into the third deck at Coors Field and MLB.com proclaimed that the ball had a 94.6 percent chance of being a home run. Yeah, right. What else would it be if it went into the third deck, a double?

The numbers crunching, however, has shown that what the eyes of scouts and field personal saw for years has validity – players in their mid-30s have a limited upside. And once the new breed executives get all their spread sheets printed off, it does impact the thought process in handing out long-term contracts that have substantial commitments for players when they go past the 35-year-old barrier.

It’s not like free agents have not received sizable annual salaries. They just haven’t received the lengthy guarantees.

Among the 50 contracts with the highest annual average value (AAV) in major-league history, six were signed for the 2018  season, the second largest group of players of any year, behind only 11 in 2016. There were two a year ago – Yoenis Cespedes with the Mets, who is tied for seventh with an AAV of $27.5 million, and Stephen Strasburg, tied for 12th with a $25 million AAV.

There is still money being spent. It’s just the commitment isn’t as long.

This year, after the Rockies had an initial offer of $45 million for three years rejected by Greg Holland, their closer last year, the Rockies signed free agent Wade Davis to fill that role to a three-year, $52 million deal, an AAV of $17.3 million, the largest ever for a reliever.

That’s rub with agents.

Clubs are heeding the lessons of history when it comes to those mega deals for players once they are, in the words of John Conlee, on the back side of 30, short side of life.

Since 2001 there have been 319 players who appeared in 100 or more games after turning 35, and only six compiled a 35-and-older batting average above .300, led by Barry Bonds, and just 14 hit more than .290, according to Baseball-reference.com. And only 17 players hit 100 or more home runs from the season in which he was 35 until retirement.

Among starting pitchers, Roger Clemens (3.28) had the lowest ERA of any pitcher who beginning with the season in which he was 35, and was one of 15 out of 36 pitchers who met that qualification with an ERA below 4.00 for that portion of his career, according to Baseball-reference.com.

Tracy RingolsbyComment