This past offseason, looking at what happened with Scott Feldman, Lance Lynn, and Mike Moustakas, it's pretty easy to see that baseball owners are no longer interested in signing veterans to big contracts. That's not necessarily a bad thing, on the whole -- running a major league baseball team is extremely expensive. The problem is: young players are brought up through the minor leagues with the expectation that some day, years down the road, the real money might come.
But what happens when that isn't the case?
What happens when Scott Feldman, a veteran pitcher who, at this point in his career, is little more than an inning eater, has to settle for a one year contract for $2.3 million after signing a $30-million deal with the Astros a few years ago?
What happens when Lance Lynn has to wait until the middle of the March to get a contract -- which admittedly is the biggest of his career -- despite being one of the better pitchers in the league? His individual performance makes him an ace for quite a few teams in the league. Yet no team wanted to sign him to the long-term deal he was looking for, the kind of lucrative deal that Max Scherzer got a few years back with the Nationals.
What happens when Mike Moustakas, coming off an All-Star season where he hit 38 home runs, has to settle for less money with his old team -- an incentive-laden contract at that? Of course, Moustakas wasn't the perfect player to have in a lineup, as his .234 batting average with runners in scoring position from 2017 would suggest. However, he was highly productive and he should have at least gotten the same $8 million that the Royals paid him last year instead of less money overall.
So what's happening with all these teams, almost every single team in major league baseball, looking to shed salary?
For one thing, owners and general managers alike can't have been blind to the example of Anibal Sanchez. From 2015 to 2017 the Tigers paid $50.4 million for a starter that had a whopping 5.87 ERA ,and appeared only to get worse as time went on.
This winter, Sanchez signed with the Twins for a modest $2.5 million and was released a day before they signed Lance Lynn. Now he's on a minor league deal with the Braves who, with the recent release of Scott Kazmir, appear inclined to give Sanchez a shot at the starting rotation.
While Sanchez might be the most salient example for those of us who are Tigers fans, he is not the only one.
In 2017, Rick Porcello earned over $20 million in exchange for leading the league in losses (17), home runs given up (38), hits allowed (236), and runs given up (125). By any statistical analysis, he had a horrible season.
Ubaldo Jiminez, the Orioles' version of Sanchez, earned $13.5 million for a season where he had a 6.81 ERA. As a 34-year-old pitcher who looked like a punching bag last year, he's not going to earn that much in 2018. He might not even be on a major league roster.
Chris Davis, also of the Orioles, got paid $23 million to strike out 195 times in 128 games and hit .215 for the year. He didn't hit enough home runs (26) to justify regular playing time, much less that high salary.
By comparison, Khris Davis struck out 195 times but hit 43 home runs with a .247 average. He got paid $5 million for his efforts.
The shift in baseball, with what appears to be legal collusion between all thirty owners, is a shift towards paying players less money out of fear that they'll massively overpay for a player that soon becomes past it once the long-term contract kicks in. For players like Scott Feldman, who got used to being paid a lot, this is bad news -- enough to have a legitimate gripe he can take to the player's union when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated in 2021.
Three years is a long time for millionaires who grind all year long in an attempt to perform at a high level for six months out of the year. Many of this year's underpaid free agents are hoping the market shifts next year. All indications are that it will not.
The case in point appears to be the Marlins, who, under the leadership of Derek Jeter, have deliberately tanked the team- leading some fans to speculate that the new ownership group will be worse than Jeffrey Loria. After having a murderer's row of hitters the previous year, the Marlins now have to rely on Justin Bour (a legitimate power threat) and Derek Dietrich (who is not) to power their offense. Bour was paid 552,000 last year while Dietrich was paid 1.7 million.
If the Marlins could shed Martin Prado's expensive 11 million dollar contract, every indication suggests that they would do so in a heartbeat.
The Marlins appear to be a greedy team that is more interested in corporate profits than they are in putting a good team on the field. From one perspective, this perspective isn't a bad one. World series wins and parades are fleeting. The glory days of the Yankees dominating baseball from the 40s to the 60s ended with the introduction of the draft and free agency. A sustainable dynasty- such as that made in the NFL by the New England Patriots- is infeasible in baseball when a franchise's best player can choose to go elsewhere for more money.
At least, that was the theory behind how things were set up. Now, if a young 20 year old player dreaming of major league stardom looks at the situation and sees that they might be deliberately delayed in being called up until the age of 24 or 25 so that teams can enjoy cost-controlled contracts during that player's prime, what incentive do they have to keep pursuing the dream? Might it not be more profitable, for example, to seek employment in the Japanese or Korean baseball leagues? A player who has to decide between being paid 50,000 and 2,000,000 might find this choice an easy one.
What's more, those leagues, in the interest of winning their own championships, might not find it so much of a sacrifice to pay those salaries to unproven players who pass muster with their scouts. College players might not even elect to try their hand in the minor leagues at all, not when the lucrative contracts they might have once counted on is no longer a given.
If this past year's free agency trend continues, the end of the dominance of American baseball over the rest of the world is not outside the realm of possibility. Shohei Ohtani, one of the best baseball players in the Japanese league from last year, happened to be 23 years old. Under the current CBA, because he was under 25, he was defined as an international amateur. This meant that a phenom who throws over 100 miles an hour and can hit fairly well couldn't count on getting Yu Darvish- or even Hiroki Kuroda- money.
(As an aside, Kuroda elected to return to the Japanese league after getting paid 16 million by the Yankees. He played there for two years, still playing well, until his retirement at age 41.)
The problem is, the current CBA has no way for players to get paid exactly what they are worth from season to season. A player who, for whatever reason, completely falls off, cannot just be sent to the minor leagues if he happens to be a veteran. He must be put through waivers. The team that signed such a player is still responsible for most- if not all- of that player's contract.
Putting a veteran on waivers does not nullify a player's current contract and put him at the league minimum salary, which is what ought to happen with players that the team no longer wants on their roster. In trying to get as much money as possible, the MLB players union now finds themselves backed into a corner by backlash from team owners who don't want to pay big salaries to players who are, most probably, performing at a much lower level than what could be had if the team went young and promoted many of their minor league players.
With rookies not getting paid, young international phenoms not getting paid, veterans who used to get paid not getting any longer, it's clear that there are going to be labor problems. A strike is not out of the question- and, let's not forget, a strike essentially ended a team of long standing called the Montreal Expos. The replacement players that were rolled out early in 1995 were just not the same. Nobody was interested except the players themselves, even if AAA ball essentially shifted into major league stadiums.
Sooner or later, the players union is going to realize that they have to give owners more wiggle room on individual contracts. Owners are going to have to realize that players want to get paid what they're used to getting. Chasing young prospects can only last so long- especially when those prospects have it in the backs of their heads that a low salary might be the best they can ever hope for.
Something's going to have change. It's not going to change soon, but when such change comes, it's going to be painful- and necessary.