The Milwaukee Brewers’ Yasmani Grandal deal—reportedly one year for $18.25 million—is a smart move that makes a good team even better. It’s also a fairly damning indictment of baseball’s current free agent market.
Grandal was the best free agent catcher available and maybe the best catcher in baseball. (J.T. Realmuto, who may or may not be traded soon, is his strongest challenger to those titles.) The Dodgers extended him a qualifying offer—$17.9 million is this year’s figure—which he rejected, as had been expected. Why wouldn’t Grandal reject the qualifying offer? It seemed unlikely, if not unthinkable, that he wouldn’t be weighing multi-year contracts. FanGraphs’s free agent predictions had him down for three years; MLB Trade Rumors went with four. Grandal has been the best defensive catcher in the game over the last four seasons, according to Baseball Prospectus’ framing and blocking stats. He’s never had a season below average at the plate—that’s below average for any hitter, not just for a catcher. He’s durable, one of five backstops to appear in more than 600 games since 2014. And he only just turned 30. A sizeable contract for a few years seemed reasonable, and more than that, it seemed inevitable.
There were a few signs for concern, just as there are with almost any player: Grandal’s lousy postseasons—he lost his job to Austin Barnes in October 2017 and hit .129 with 15 Ks in 34 PAs in 2018—were a red flag as were worries about potential physical breakdown that accompany any catcher. But those factors don’t take much away from his clear status as a premium player at the game’s most difficult position. There’s nothing in Grandal’s stat sheet to indicate that he’s a guy who should need a pillow contract like this. But here he is, all the same—signed for a single year to receive just a smidgen above the qualifying offer that he rejected two months ago.
It’s great for the Brewers. It could be fantastic for the Brewers. The catcher’s position was the only significant hole that they had to fill on their roster; without Grandal, it would have been held by an acceptable, if underwhelming combination of Manny Piña and Erik Kratz. Now, Milwaukee’s upgraded to one of the best backstops in baseball at a fairly minimal cost. (The draft pick attached to Grandal’s qualifying offer is the Brewers’ third-highest for 2019, which is No. 104.) The team improved without surrendering much; meanwhile, their main division rival, the Chicago Cubs, has been quiet all winter. Milwaukee had good reason to enter this offseason feeling pretty good about its chances. Now, it should feel even better.
But how should the rest of baseball feel? Grandal’s deal is another sign that baseball’s economic model is fundamentally broken. Rewind to the last major catcher signing: Russell Martin’s $82-million, five-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015. Martin was two years older than Grandal is now. In the three seasons leading up to his free agency, Martin was just a step behind Grandal, both at the plate (108 OPS+ versus 113) and behind it (54 Adjusted Framing Runs Above Average versus 71.7). If baseball’s free agency worked in 2019 as it did four years ago, Grandal’s contract would have exceeded Martin’s. Grandal is a little bit better, a little bit younger, and everything’s a little more expensive than it was four years ago.
But baseball’s free agency doesn’t work like that—not anymore. Martin’s deal exemplifies that.
After a solid performance in his first two years in Toronto, Martin has struggled in the seasons since. If you’re looking at the last few years in a vacuum, the contract looks like an overpay. It might even look like a reason not to give such a hefty contract to any catcher in free agency.
But the old model of free agency wasn’t built on that vacuum view. It was built on a view that saw top players underpaid, often wildly so, for the first six years of their career before they became free agents. And then they got to make up for that in free agency, where they might be seen as overpaid—particularly on long deals, in which teams understood that they’d have to eat some cost on the last few years of a contract in order to get premium talent on the first few years. The balance was precarious, but it was, for the most part, there until the last two offseasons.
Now, teams are disincentivized from high spending with the harsher luxury tax, and they’re increasingly comfortable with sitting out years at a time in order to attempt a new window of contention from the ground up. There is more emphasis placed on prospects and draft picks, and less on free agents. Charitably, you could read that as teams starting to prioritize youth over veteran talent. Realistically, you could read it as prioritizing cost-controlled players over all else.
There might be a tendency to classify all of this as the product of front offices getting smarter. There are fewer contemporary deals that could be labeled “mistakes.” If Grandal’s body begins to break down in the coming years, Milwaukee won’t be paying him $20 million in 2023 the way Toronto will be paying Martin in 2019. Front offices are better at saving money and being more efficient all as the league boasts record revenues.
But it’s not quite as cut and dry as general managers being smarter. If a team has any interest in winning, it stands to reason that there’s a point at which “payroll money saved” will cease to outweigh the cost of missing out on a strong talent. And if the league has any interest in keeping a peaceful relationship with its players, then this system will have to change—unless it wants a work stoppage, which is beginning to feel more and more likely.
There’s scarcely a month left until pitchers and catchers report. Many premium free agents still remain available, and of those who have signed already, most have been on short-term deals, such as Grandal. The economics of the game are markedly different than what they were just a few years ago, and this deal is only the latest red flag on what could be a bumpy road ahead. The Brewers, though, stand to benefit in the meantime.