Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
As a diehard baseball fan, those are the two names I have constantly had to see in articles and on TV this winter.
Harper and Machado are generally regarded as the top two free agents available this offseason. Yet here we are, just days from Spring Training games beginning, and Harper remains unsigned, with Machado just signing with the San Diego Padres on Tuesday.
And that’s only part of the problem. Over 100 free agents still linger on the market – including star players such as starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel.
So why are all these talented players currently unemployed? Are players and their agents asking for too much? Are team owners too hesitant to pony up the necessary money to sign these guys?
Currently, Major League Baseball players must play six seasons with their original team (barring a trade to another team or being released) in order to reach free agency, the point at which they can sign with any team they please. However, by the time many players accrue enough service time to reach this mark, they are at, near or have passed the age of 30.
So why is being at or over 30 a bad thing?
In recent years, many teams have opted not to sign players over the age of 30 to long-term contracts. This is due to a simple concept – athletes naturally tend to decline with age. So from an ownership standpoint, why would you want to sign a player who may be declining to a long-term, expensive contract?
Many long-term contracts have proven to be disastrous in the past. Players such as Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million with the Los Angeles Angels) and Prince Fielder (Nine years, $214 million with the Detroit Tigers) experienced a significant decline in performance following their signings.
Pujols, who at the time of his signing with the Angels was arguably the best player in the sport, compiled a .328 batting average to go along with 445 home runs and 1329 runs batted in (RBI) over his first 11 seasons as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Following his move to the Angels, Pujols has hit .260 with 188 home runs and 653 RBIs in seven seasons – all while battling various injuries.
Fielder, who hit .282 with 230 home runs and 656 RBIs in his first seven years with the Milwaukee Brewers, hit .283 with just 89 home runs and 372 RBIs in last his five seasons (split between the Tigers and Texas Rangers) – a far cry from the player he was in Milwaukee. Fielder was forced into retirement at the age of 32 due to a serious neck injury.
I understand injuries happen. There’s nothing teams can do to control whether players get hurt or not. But looking at cases such as Pujols and Fielder can help explain why teams may be so reluctant to hand any free agent a long-term contract.
It was not only contracts such as Pujols’ and Fielder’s that have had an impact on today’s stagnant free agent market. To pick a single deal that I believe has contributed to the lack of free agent signings in the current market, we need look no further than the 13-year, $325 million mega-deal extension signed by then-Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton in 2014. While Stanton never reached the free agent market, his contract has set a bar for free agent stars.
The traditionally financially restricted Miami Marlins quickly came to regret the Stanton contract, and he was traded to the New York Yankees in December of 2017.
So how does Stanton’s deal impact this year’s free agent class?
To start on the team ownership side, contracts like the ones signed by Stanton, Pujols and Fielder, among countless others, have proven to become a financial burden on a team’s roster. So with Harper and Machado reportedly looking for long-term contracts in excess of $300 million, according to an article published by Bleacher Report that references The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, why would any team be willing to take such a risk, even if both are just 26 years old – seemingly far off from any decline they may experience?
To put it simply, baseball has proven time and again that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. In reality, any time any player steps on the field, he could get hurt. One bad injury could ruin a whole career. And from a business standpoint, one injury could lead to financial strain on a team’s roster if that player is earning in excess of $30 million per season over several years.
From the player side, both Machado and Harper can reasonably make a case that they should receive contracts similar to the one Stanton got. Machado’s deal with San Diego (10 years $300 million) is the richest free-agent contract in all of professional sports according to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand.
Over the course of 162 games, a full MLB regular season, Stanton has averaged .268 with 43 home runs and 109 RBIs, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Harper, meanwhile, has averaged .279 with 32 home runs and 91 RBIs. Machado – .282, with 31 home runs and 90 RBIs. Yes, Stanton has put up more impressive home run totals, but by and large, both Harper and Machado have put up comparable statistics to Stanton.
In the field, Stanton has averaged a .981 fielding percentage, while Harper (.983) and Machado (.970) have also put up similarly superb numbers.
So if you’re Harper and Machado, or their respective agents, why would you not ask for a contract similar to Stanton’s if you’ve proven you are able to match his production level?
As referenced above, here’s the issue: players are asking for too much and owners aren’t willing to give it to them.
Here’s how this can be fixed.
I believe that MLB should reduce the number of years required to reach free agency from six seasons to four, similar to the National Football League. This would cause players to reach the market at younger ages, which in turn could enable more teams to be interested in signing them.
In terms of contract length, I believe if MLB limits the maximum length of any contract to five seasons, more teams would also be willing to sign free agents. On the other hand, free agents seeking long-term security can be guaranteed a salary for five years from a team that would like to sign them for that amount of time.
By reducing the requirements to reach free agency, along with limiting the length of contracts, it would be a win-win for players and teams.
Baseball fans can simply take a look at the names left lingering in free agency, beyond just Harper and Machado, and see that there are too many talented players who do not have baseball homes despite the season being right around the corner. The current free agency system clearly is not working, and needs to be fixed. A compromise between players and teams could be just what solves the problem.