- A few years ago, Charlie Blackmon would have been one of the most desired free agents on the market. In 2018, he was better off signing an extension.
Since becoming a full-time outfielder for the Rockies in 2014, Charlie Blackmon has hit .308/.367/.516 with a 121 OPS+, 106 home runs and 15.2 Wins Above Replacement in a touch over 2,700 plate appearances. In that span of time and same number of trips to the plate, only Jose Altuve tops him in batting average. Just nine other players have a higher on-base percentage, and just eight have posted better slugging percentages. By OPS+, home runs and WAR, Blackmon is 16th among all hitters over the last four-plus seasons. He’s done this all at a premium defensive position in centerfield while playing 143 games or more every year. And to that impressive résumé, you can add two All-Star nods, a pair of Silver Slugger awards, and the National League batting title in 2017. He finished fifth in last year’s MVP voting after a career-best .331/.399/.601 line, 37 homers, 141 OPS+ and 6.0 WAR while leading the majors in hits (213), runs (137) and total bases (387).
In older days, a player like that would’ve caused a stampede in free agency: a top-25 hitter with plus power who can play centerfield and steals bases. Nine-figure contract offers would have come flying his way, and when the dust of the winter had settled, Blackmon would likely have been the recipient of one of the game’s biggest deals.
But after an offseason in which the hot stove practically grew icicles, Blackmon—who would’ve been a free agent for the first time in his career after this season—played it safe. On Wednesday afternoon, he signed a six-year, $108 million contract extension with the Rockies that will pay him $21 million per year from 2019 through ’21 before a pair of player options worth another $21 million in ’22 and potentially as much as $18 million in ’23. It’s a massive windfall for a player who didn’t establish himself until 27 after three so-so abbreviated seasons in Colorado. But it also reflects just how drastically and quickly the market for players has changed, as the chill of this offseason extends into spring.
Blackmon isn’t a perfect player, or anything close to it. For all his excellence with the bat, he posts his numbers under the suspicion of his home park, Coors Field, the most offense-inflating stadium in the game. Whether Blackmon is purely a creation of Coors or simply a beneficiary of its thin air and endless power alleys is unclear—and, with his extension, something we’ll probably never know. But his home/away splits point toward a player who’s made the most of his friendly environs (.346/.406/.566 at Coors) but can’t replicate those results on the road (.266/.314/.436). Beyond that, he’s an average defender at best in centerfield, and for all the bases he’s swiped, he’s been decidedly inefficient, with a success rate of just 71% since 2014.
Then there’s the number that would’ve hurt Blackmon the most had he put his services up for bid: 32. That’s how old he’ll be as of July 1, and while he’s a relatively late bloomer, having become a full-time player at 27, his age would’ve been a blood-red flag for front offices. Signing Blackmon to a multi-year contract would’ve been an acceptance of paying tens of millions of dollars for seasons of decline—of subsidizing increasingly feeble at-bats and a move to a corner outfield position in his mid- to late-30s, and potentially hamstringing a team financially by doing so. It also would’ve been out of the norm in a league where signing a player past 35—or giving him nine figures once he’s past 30—simply doesn’t happen anymore.
These flaws all would have been obvious to any general manager and his research staff, to say nothing of what further nitpicks they could’ve made with access to advanced numbers, Statcast, and other proprietary statistics designed to break a player down to the last decimal point. They would have led some teams to ignore Blackmon entirely, and others to low-ball him, citing that age and mediocre defense and Coors Field. His agents would’ve pointed to those offensive stats up above, or how he seems to be getting better despite getting older. But it would’ve been easy to see, had Blackmon turned down Colorado’s extension offer, a drawn-out free agency in which he and his representation agitated for big money but were quietly or openly rejected and were stuck without a team as 2018 turned into ’19 and winter gave way to spring.
In the past, the disinterest of the majority of the league or the existence of black marks on Blackmon’s resume may not have mattered. After all, all it took was one team to get desperate or value him differently, and there would be Blackmon, holding up a new jersey at a press conference after increasing his bank account by $100 million-plus. But that reality doesn’t seem to exist any more. MLB players just came out of a winter in which free-agent spending hit one of its lowest levels in decades, where All-Stars were left waiting to sign until the first days of spring training and where established veterans and future Hall of Famers are still looking for employment. Coming off a 38-home run season, 29-year-old Mike Moustakas was forced to settle for a one-year, $5.5 million deal that would’ve been more appropriate for a middle reliever. Two years after winning the NL Cy Young award, 32-year-old Jake Arrieta could manage only a three-year commitment from the Phillies—one he had to wait until the middle of March to sign.
That was Blackmon’s future: short deals for less money than expected, or scrambling to find a team a month before the season begins. Even despite his numbers, he has the misfortune of being a player in his 30s who isn’t perfect in a game that increasingly refuses to spend on virtually anyone, no matter how good they are. Add to that the qualifying offer he certainly would have received from the Rockies—which would’ve compelled his new team to surrender draft picks and international signing money—and his demand would’ve shrunk even further.
Free agency used to be the dream of every player—the big payday they were all promised in exchange for years of toil, first at poverty salaries and then on bigger deals that still grossly underpaid them for their production in their primes. But last winter showed just how warped the game’s finances have become. Had he become a free agent, Blackmon would’ve found several teams not even bothering to spend, choosing instead to tank and horde prospects and jockey for draft picks. The contenders, meanwhile, would be fighting to stay below the luxury tax limit, choosing to subsist on those cheap younger players instead of splurging for veterans in free agency.
Baseball has popularized and incentivized going cheap. The result is players like Blackmon, who before would’ve found teams willing to pay for the present and hold their nose for the future, left holding an empty bag. All the forces of the game are aligned against them: the qualifying offer, the league’s tacit approval of tanking and the owners’ realization that fans will stick by losing teams even if it’s intentional. And with the next collective bargaining agreement still years away, there’s no way for the embattled players union to fix any of those issues in time for him or the rest of the players set to hit free agency this winter. Some will succeed regardless: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and (perhaps) Clayton Kershaw will find suitors without issue. But it’s those players below them who would have been left in the cold by a game that has never scrutinized them more or been less willing to pay for what they can do.
No one will weep for Blackmon, who still will make more money than most people in this world can dream of. Even if his contract feels light compared to what he could’ve gotten had he been a free agent five or 10 years ago, he still comes out ahead in the grand scheme of things. But despite all the home runs and the batting title and those top-20 finishes, Blackmon found himself with two options: Bet on yourself and hope you can buck the trends and market, or take the safe route, which feels these days less like a choice and more like a player’s only recourse.