Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two young star players of baseball, found their teams a month ago. However, it took more than three months for them to sign the deals and still, over 40 players remain unsigned. These high-profile deals notwithstanding, the free agent market is not great for players right now.
MLB teams are closing their wallets as various kinds of systems that allow the teams to analyze data become more widely used. The numerous cases of big contracts with star players that did not produce results for their teams was the basic motivation. For instance, living legend Albert Pujols spent a historic 10 years with the Saint Louis Cardinals and joined the LA Angels with a huge deal. The Angels’ expectations for him was gigantic, but he didn’t live up to those expectations, and with all the money they had spent on Pujols, the Angels have had a hard time rebuilding. Stories like this have led owners to pay close attention to player data to save their money. They focus on specific functions of each player and offer the most cost-effective deals. This results in saved money for teams, but players are finding themselves at a disadvantage and are getting upset about the way owners are handling free agency.
The teams’ new penny-pinching methods have had some notable successes, encouraging teams to continue the trend. In 2017, the World Series Champion was the Houston Astros. Shockingly, they had been the weakest team four years ago–but that is when they had decided to “tank” the season as a deliberate strategy to help them build for their future. The Astros sold their best players and fielded a lackluster team that lost, badly. But by sacrificing their season, they secured early round picks in the player draft. As a result the strategy ended up being very successful. The players that Houston selected are currently today’s star players and they managed to win the World Series. After the Astros, other teams started copying what they did, fielding weak teams and emptying out their own stadiums. They try to keep young players on a low-paying contracts until they become old, but they are not interested in paying the good veteran players. As more teams find ways to economize, more players are left unsigned.
The free agent market is where players are rewarded for their work on the field. However, the road to the market is very tough. It requires at least 6 years in the major league, calculated by the day. Teams are exploiting the system by calling up players from the minor leagues a month after the start of the season, shortening their total service time enough to allow the team hold onto the player for an extra season. “It’s awful. So awful,” Kris Bryant said.“It happens every year. I could understand it if you go out and have a rough spring training where you don’t look ready. But there’s certain people who put the time and the effort into the offseason so that they do show up to spring training and they prove that they’re ready to go. I feel like you should be rewarded for that.” But for clubs, there is an undeniable advantage in manipulating the system.
Even at this late date, a lot of big name players are still struggling to find teams. Matt Holladay is one of the victims in these changes. As theScore writer Bryan Mcwilliam put it, “the 15-year veteran showed he could still hit… But now he’s 39 years old, and with plenty of outfielders left unsigned, this is likely curtains for Holladay. If so, it’s been a fantastic career; he’s a seven-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, and a World Series champion.” Even though his career is perfect, the teams want to give more chances to their prospects rather than the unsigned veteran because the young players, with stronger defensive and base-running skills, give more options to managers. Not only Holladay, but other strong veterans such as Jose Bautista, Craig Kimbrel, and Dallas Keuchel also remain unsigned. As one of the veterans, Verlander, tweeted, “100 or so free agents left unsigned. System is broken. They blame ‘rebuilding’ but that’s BS.” The conflict between players and teams may intensify if players and owners cannot reach agreement on free agency practices.
Both unsigned players and veteran star players have voiced their concerns in interviews. They have even suggested the possibility of a “shutdown.” Wainwrights, Cardinals’ pitcher, pointed out the problem of poor condition and low incomes for minor leaguers. He said, “Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent,” which shows the situation’s seriousness. The players’ walk-out would be good for no one since MLB earns money through the players and the players get paid by the owners. Wainwright was clear about who he feels bears the responsibility: “Thirty owners need to be answering.”
Picture from Rachel Xiao, Pixels