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Is it a problem that fewer elite players are hitting free agency?

May 17, 2013, 9:48 AM EDT

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Ken Rosenthal has a thoughtful piece up today about how fewer elite players are reaching free agency due to the trend of teams offering big extensions. He talked to one unnamed player who was concerned about it:

The player’s point was this: Free agency helped make the players union into a powerhouse. But now, with fewer top players reaching free agency, who is going to drive the top of the market? Shouldn’t players feel a sense of responsibility to those who came before them and those who will follow?

Rosenthal talks to Scott Boras and Mike Weiner about it. Their responses may surprise you. Overall, it’s a pretty fascinating topic. The “to extend or not to extend” question may be the most important and difficult one for teams and players alike these days.

But I don’t think it’s a problem as the unnamed player put it. The idea behind Marvin Miller and Don Fehr’s work in scuttling the reserve clause, obtaining free agency rights for the players and fighting owner malfeasance wasn’t about players making max dollars for the sake of making max dollars. The idea was to give them the right to choose the circumstances of their employment and not be treated like team property for the duration of their careers.

Today, a lot of players are getting locked up to long-term deals before they reach free agency. But they’re doing it by choice and after weighing the risks of not cashing in when the opportunity is presented to them. While, no, it’s not a 100% open market given that the team does control a player for several years, we’ve reached this state of affairs through arms-length negotiation and with the players armed with rights and choices. What they do with those choices may or may not “drive the top of the market” like that unnamed player desires, but that’s not the most important thing and was never truly the point.

  1. scoutsaysweitersisabust - May 17, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    I fail to agree with the premise. Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Victor Martinez, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes. I’m sorry, who exactly isn’t hitting free agency and jacking up contracts? Maybe there isn’t the flood of free agents like there was 5+ years ago, but isn’t that a good thing? Aren’t fans happy they are more likely to retain their favorite players, while there is still a few decent players hitting the market? What exactly does Rosenthal expect? Maybe all ballplayers should be forced to sign no longer than 1 year contracts, and we can have a draft every year like we do in fantasy baseball?

    • chill1184 - May 17, 2013 at 10:11 AM

      I really wouldn’t use Reyes as an example, the Marlins were more or less bidding against themselves.

      • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - May 17, 2013 at 10:16 AM

        Wouldn’t it be awesome if they really did auction free agents? I would much rather tune in to MLB network f=to watch the Free Gaent Auction than the Amateur Player Draft

      • chill1184 - May 17, 2013 at 10:19 AM

        @sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo

        I have to admit that would be interesting to watch

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - May 17, 2013 at 11:20 AM

        I used to do that all the time in old baseball video games. It’s fun as hell at first time, but by round 35 gets realllly old.

  2. chill1184 - May 17, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    I dont see an issue at all with this. If anything with this trend of superstars getting locked up before hitting FA is forcing teams to focus heavily more on their farm systems. So if team X wants team Y’s superstar, team X is going to have to have some good farm pieces to get it done since FA most likely wont be an option to get said superstar. Also if anything it helps clubs that don’t have big budgets (either market wise or owner wise) to compete with the big budget teams.

    • bmorelikeme - May 17, 2013 at 11:05 AM

      This is my line of thinking as well. It’s really the only way small to mid market teams will be able to field long term competitive teams in the absence of a salary cap. I would much prefer to see teams such as the Rays, who have top notch development programs be able to keep that talent instead of essentially becoming a farm team for the big market clubs.

      Another thing to consider, while it may lower the ceiling of large scale contracts, the more teams start to buy out arbitration, it will start to raise the floor for smaller contracts. At the risk of sounding too liberal (i’m not) isn’t the disparity of wealth between bottom and top earners a major concern these days.

  3. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - May 17, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    Didn’t the record for “highest paid right-handed pitcher ever” get broken TWICE this offseason? To the point, it was once via free agency contract (Greinke) and once visa extension (Felix). Throw in Pujols, Hamilton and others, and I think players are doing just fine.

    Even more to the point, look at Matt Kemp. He cashed in after his monster season, and got more years and dollars than he would probably be able to get if he was looking for a contract right now. He took security over the CHANCE of maximizing his dollars, and it appears so far to be a prudent decision.

    So, if it is a problem that guys in their early twenties are “settling” for their eight- and nine-figure contracts, it is a “First World Problem” of the highest order.

    • wonkypenguin - May 17, 2013 at 10:18 AM

      I thought of this, too. There is a security in locking yourself in long term that, given your profession being determined on your ability to stay healthy which may not always be in your control, makes way more sense than waiting for a future paycheck. Didn’t Lincecum forego a large extension and now is on a short contract? His worth has to have diminished significantly.

    • Tick - May 17, 2013 at 10:27 AM

      Exactly and all great examples. Felix and Verlander definitely drove the market higher through extensions and Kershaw will drive it even higher. Top talents are going to drive the market higher regardless of whether they hit the free market or not. That’s a genie that’s not going back in the bottle.

  4. danaking - May 17, 2013 at 10:19 AM

    Limiting the number of top-tier free agents will tend to push the top of the market higher. If you’re the Yankees/Angels/Dodgers and you desperately need a pitcher, and there’s only one top-tier pitcher available, you’ll pay whatever it takes. This was Miller’s plan all along. At one point the owners considered making everyone a free agent every year. He sweated bullets until they backed off their bluff. It’s to many free agents what depresses how much each can make, not too few.

    There are also the benefits to the game of making the large market teams wait a little longer before vacuuming up the best platers from the smaller cities, but the unnamed player seemed only to be interested in how much he was going to make.

    • someguyinva - May 17, 2013 at 12:42 PM

      “At one point the owners considered making everyone a free agent every year.”

      If memory serves, it was Charlie Finley who first proposed the idea, and he couldn’t get his fellow owners to listen to him about the wisdom (for them) in the plan, because you’re right, in that abundant supply drives prices down, not up. The owners were convinced that making everyone a free agent every year would drive player costs up.

      • ashoreinhawaii - May 17, 2013 at 6:02 PM

        Good catch. You’re right about Finley coming up with the idea. By that point Finley was held in disdain by owners and players alike. No one listened to him. Sure would have been interesting to see what would have happened. I think both sides would’ve been begging to get together and work something out after a year or two of that kind of chaos.
        Great book on baseball’s labor history, with a bunch of great stories, Lords of the Realm, by John Helyar.
        Among other things you’ll see why Jim Bunning became one of the biggest hypocrites in the world when he became a U.S. Senator ( Looking at Rand Paul, I guess you do have to be an idiot to represent Kentucky).

  5. brewcrewfan54 - May 17, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    As stated, this is a choice the players get to make. I don’t really see the issue.

  6. raysfan1 - May 17, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    No, it’s not a problem, and long term extensions at below market rates are the only way my favorite team gets to keep anybody good past free agent eligibility.

  7. whacko4flacco - May 17, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    Teams (especially mid market ones) have become smart about buying out arbitration and a few free agency years to sign up and comers to extensions, and they sell it to the player as a less riskier option. “A lot can happen in the next 3-4 years… injury, performance, etc… too many variables. Are you sure you want to turn down $60M now to make $300K year to year for the next 3 with the CHANCE to make $100M?”

  8. derekjetersmansion - May 17, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    Pro sports (esp. baseball) always want “Young, Cheap, Good”. Preferably all 3 together.

    As an example, the Yankees haven’t figured this out yet and it’s why everyone thinks the Yankees will (are?) be mediocre after the big contracts are done.

  9. hisgirlgotburrelled - May 17, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    Ryan Howard couldn’t disagree more…

    Along with the several other players who signed extensions pretty close to what you’d expect in the open market: Hamels, Verlander, F. Hernandez

    • heyblueyoustink - May 17, 2013 at 11:06 AM

      Compared to the Hamilton and Pujols deas, the Howard contract looks less and less insane day after day. ( still insane, mind you )

      Especially if he heats up amd actually gives you some production.

  10. echech88 - May 17, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    This can only mean good things for the Angels, drunk sailors of the free agent market.

  11. mybrunoblog - May 17, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Baseball media types don’t like the lack of superstar free agents because it makes the off season a lot more dull. When there are 7 or 8 big names out there in free agency, Nov, Dec, and Jan can be exciting. Without that we’re stuck watching Karl Ravitch’s bad hairpiece and dreaming about opening day.

    • 18thstreet - May 17, 2013 at 12:43 PM

      I think Bruno’s right. The only thing bad about it is that it makes the offseason less interesting. That’s very bad news if you’re a baseball writer 12 months a year.

  12. billybawl - May 17, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Agree with other comments that the elite players now have a meaningful choice between a long term deal with their current club or free agency, and lifetime security by their mid-20s.

    But doesn’t the scarcity of “elite” free agents on the open market drive up the price of less-than-elite free agents who do hit the market? Would guys like Michael Bourn and Kyle Loshe have been better or worse off if there were more elite free agents last offseason?

    FWIW, back in the 1970s when the owners were coming to grips with the reality of free agency, Charlie Finley implored them to make every player a free agent each year. It would have kept salaries low.

  13. HFS Richard - May 17, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    So heres the thing, this unnamed player obviously has super high expectations for the economics of baseball.
    Look at the top contracts ever signed by yearly pay (pulled from about.com)
    1. Alex Rodriguez Yankees 2008 $27.5 million
    2. Alex Rodriguez Rangers 2001 $25.2 million
    3. Felix Hernandez Mariners 2013 $25 million
    3. Ryan Howard Phillies 2012 $25 million***
    5. Zack Greinke Dodgers 2013 $24.5 million
    6. Albert Pujols Angels 2012 $24 million
    7. Cliff Lee Phillies 2011 $24 million
    8. Prince Fielder Tigers 2012 $23.78 million
    9. CC Sabathia Yankees 2009 $23 million
    10. Joe Mauer Twins 2011 $23 million**
    11. Johan Santana Mets 2008 $22.9 million
    T12. Manny Ramirez Dodgers 2009 $22.5 million
    T12. Mark Teixeira Yankees 2009 $22.5 million
    T12. Joey Votto Reds 2012 $22.5 million
    How many of those were signed in a year that wasn’t part of the current decade? 6. 6 contracts, 2 by Arod, and then Santana, Manny, Teixeira, Sabathia.

    CBS did a story yesterday on the 50 top paid athletes. 25 are baseball players. http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/blog/eye-on-baseball/22247988/mlb-dominates-50-highestpaid-athlete-list Half of the top 50, all other sports combined have as many as baseball.

    What exactly did he expect?

    Now heres an interesting aside, he gets annoyed by players signing extensions and it not benefiting everyone else, do you know who Edinson Volquez is? 2 seasons ago he was still with the Reds and they offered him a contract extension rumored to be around 17 Million dollars. He was coming off a pretty ok season in 2010 with a 4.31 ERA having come off a injured season. He turned it down (thank god) and will never make that money back he will probably end up making around $11 million in the same time frame.

    He lost out on $6,000,000 assuming he doesn’t get another $5m payday from the padres for next season. (they couldn’t possibly right?)

    Long term extensions are risk reward for both sides and everything needs to be taken into account. If the reds had waited to get to Joey Votto until after this season do you think he gets as much? coming off knee surgery? I’m still happy we have him but he signed for security and the team signed him for security as well.

  14. jeffa43 - May 17, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    I think it helps loyalty… It would be nice to see more Brett, Gwynn, Biggio, Bagwell, and Ripken types.

    It’s bad for those who ignore drafts and development from the minors. Those teams throw money at free agency year after year (Angles) learn the hard way. It makes you a perenial loser.

    The key is to develop your own and reward them before they hit the market. Bet the halos wish they signed Matt Harvey, instead of refusing to pay a few hundred more k… Instead throw hundreds of million to players rewarding them for their prime that has past.

    Free agency is best used when you develop your own, and you add a piece or two to complete your team… Not build through free agency… Marlins, Angles, Dodgers etc…

  15. 13arod - May 17, 2013 at 1:18 PM

    yes

  16. mazblast - May 17, 2013 at 5:15 PM

    Locking up your players while they’re still in their arb years, extending them into their post-arbitration (potential free agency) means that the big fish (Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, etc.) have to wait longer to get these potentially dominant players. Once they’re locked in, the big fish can’t just snap them up, they have to offer quality prospects to get them.

    That’s what has the big-market teams upset. They’re not generating the top prospects for their own use, they’re not generating them to use as overhyped trade bait, and most of the small-market teams are on to the big teams’ hype of mediocre prospects.

    The good young stars aren’t winding up on the “right” teams’ rosters, and that has the big-market teams and their media sycophants all bent out of shape. They can’t handle the demise of “we want, therefore we get”.

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