The extended free agency for one of the game’s best relievers and one of its more reliable starters was as frustrating as it was seemingly inevitable given the current economic state of the game. Front offices and ownership groups, increasingly waging a soft war against the players, have spent the last two offseasons more or less ignoring free agency and pushing veteran players to accept lesser deals than years previous. Most bent the knee, but Keuchel and Kimbrel refused. The result was a capital strike, in which teams refused to meet their demands. Instead of a negotiation, what those two got was an ultimatum: Take our offer or don’t.
That every team not only adopted this stance but also stuck to it even as spring training gave way to Opening Day and beyond would usually be indicative of some form of collusion, but that’s a bridge too far sans legal proof. Besides, you don’t need an organized conspiracy among owners, as was the case in the 1980s, to explain not just what happened to Keuchel and Kimbrel but also what left lesser yet still valuable players like Gio Gonzalez or Adam Jones reduced to short deals or minor league contracts. This is simply the new mindset of baseball, and absent pressure from the league, it won’t change going forward.
In this era of free agency, the players seemingly have no leverage. The hardball tactics of super-agents like Scott Boras increasingly look outdated, predicated as they are on desperate-to-win owners telling their general managers to sign stars at any price. The days of George Steinbrenner roaring at his lieutenants to build a winner no matter the cost are gone. In his place is the Ivy League wonk, armed with data and firm in his conviction that this is the price he’ll pay, and not a penny more. There are no appeals to emotion or authority, particularly when a third of the league (at least) isn’t trying to win, thus slicing off an entire chunk of the potential free-agent market.
This is the game’s current economic climate. Several teams are tanking and thus flat-out not signing free agents. The contenders, safe and secure in their playoff spots given the absence of competition, have no incentive to pay top dollar for those free agents either. Rosters are increasingly built on stars in the first six years of their careers—aka the cheapest ones—and those players, seeing how frosty free agency has become, are increasingly willing to sign away their prime years at below-market rates. Fewer superstars make it to free agency; those that do are older and inherently flawed, making it easier for teams to pick nits and lower offers accordingly. The gap between perceived value and fair compensation grows, and the players have no power to make owners or front offices close it.
And this all flourishes because MLB puts no pressure on teams to change. Asked about the free-agent slowdown during the offseason, commissioner Rob Manfred insisted nothing was wrong. Players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado being still available as spring camps opened wasn’t a warning sign, but simply a correction from the spend-happy days of the last decade. “I think it’s important to remember that the Major League Baseball Players Association has always wanted a market-based system, and markets change, particularly when the institution around those markets change,” Manfred said back in February. “People think about players differently. They analyze players differently. They negotiate differently.”
That much is true. Front offices are smarter and more thorough than ever. More information is available than ever. Never before have the game’s decision-makers been more knowledgeable about the players they’re signing or acquiring. And while that flow of data can help both sides, in the case of free agency, all it’s done is weaken the players. Analytics have made it an ironclad rule that paying for a non-elite player in free agency—subsidizing his decline years—is folly. The only way to build a winner is with a core of cheap young players, and if that doesn’t work, you simply tear it down and start again instead of trying to buy your way into contention.
But that leaves players like Kimbrel and Keuchel—the kinds of pieces that contenders sign to put themselves over the top—in the lurch. It does the same to veterans past their prime or fringe roster types, who find themselves losing space to minor leaguers available for a fraction of their price. And that whole system fails the players for whom free agency is the first and perhaps last opportunity to score a big payday after years of playing for relative pennies.
There won’t be any change to that, though, so long as baseball’s economic system rewards teams for accumulating cheap young talent and doesn’t punish them for building non-competitive rosters designed to save money and buy time for prospects to turn into major leaguers. Nor will teams unilaterally decide to change that as they reap all the financial rewards. Remember that owners have been trying to kill unrestricted free agency from its birth. The collusion scandals of the 1980s, the strike in ’94, the advent of the luxury tax and draft pick compensation—all of these were tools invented by owners to reduce the value of free agents and institute cost-control measures. They will never give that up without a fight.
That’s what’s coming once the new collective bargaining agreement negotiations begin in earnest. Within that, there will be some easy potential fixes that could unclog free agency. Doing away with the qualifying offer—the last hurdle teams used to delay the signings of Kimbrel and Keuchel—would be a good start. Beyond that, the MLBPA should advocate for things like a higher minimum wage, a salary floor and a lowering of the limits for things like arbitration service time and free agency. The only way to rescue free agency is to dismantle the systems that allow teams to ignore it; make everything else more expensive or get players out of team control sooner, and things could change for the better.
Until and unless that happens, don’t be surprised when this offseason brings more of the same from 2017 and ’18. The next Keuchel and Kimbrel are already there, marooned in no-man’s land.