The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Baseball's Free Agent Market Not Keeping Pace with Stock Market

It’s been a record-setting time for the U. S. stock market during the past year (even considering the jolting sell-off it experienced last week).  Investor optimism has contributed to a thriving market.  However, it seems Major League Baseball hasn’t shared the same optimism with regard to its free agent market.  There are only a couple more weeks before pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training, and yet there are still a boatload of unsigned free agents out there.

Only three of the Top 10 free agents have been signed to date, including Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Santana, and Zack Cozart.  Only half of the Top 50 have signed, and there remain over 100 unsigned free agents.  Until Cain signed with the Milwaukee Brewers last week for five years, no player had inked a deal more than three years during the off-season.

Still available are top-flight players such as J. D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

There are usually only a handful of unsigned players this close to spring training.  It’s got baseball people scratching their heads why.

It seems that major league front offices have determined that it’s generally bad business now to sign free agents in their early thirties to long-term mega deals.  Of course, those players figure it’s their prime time to land lucrative deals.  They want to lock up longer contract terms that keep them from having to compete in the market multiple times before their eventual retirement.

However, too many GMS have been burned by such deals in past years.  Only a few actually worked out favorably for the clubs.  All too often, the players’ production on the field falls off significantly in the latter years of their contract, and teams wind up not getting their money’s worth.  Sometimes it’s due to the players’ health dwindling before the end of their terms, or their increasing age naturally diminishing their skills.

Consequently, the clubs get stuck with players they can’t use in order to be competitive.  For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly carried over $100 million on their payroll in 2017 for players who were not on their current roster because the team ultimately decided to dump them before the end of their contractual commitments.  Former American League MVP Josh Hamilton finally came off the Los Angeles Angels payroll in 2017, but he hadn’t played for them since 2014.

One of the strategies being employed by practically all the major league clubs, including the usual high spenders, is to get under the payroll luxury tax limit (a form of salary cap), so as not to pay overrun penalties to MLB.  In the past, the cap hadn’t prevented clubs like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox from going out and signing the best free-agents in the marketplace, but most clubs are holding down payrolls now by focusing on building their rosters through the annual amateur draft and player development.  In this way, the teams have contract control of its younger players for five to six years at salaries much lower than that of veteran free-agents.

Of course, the free agents in their thirties are frustrated with the current situation.  They feel like they aren’t getting their due financially.  Their agents are encouraging them to reject lesser offers, while GMs seem to be steadfast in holding the line on their preferred contract terms.  This stalemate is the main reason there are over 100 players still unsigned.

In fact, it has some player agents beginning to hint at the possibility of collusion occurring among the GMs in their efforts to hold the line on contract terms and salaries.  That’s a pretty heady assessment at this point, one that would get the players’ union awfully riled up if there was some merit to it.

But what is likely happening is that many teams are positioning their payrolls now to be able to afford some of the premium free agents coming onto the market after the 2018 season.  It’s expected to be a bumper crop with superstars like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Andrew McCutchen, and Clayton Kershaw being available.

Fans of teams finishing low in their division’s standings are starting to think their favorite team is “tanking,” purposefully not signing available free agents that can improve their team in the near term, but rather are content re-building with youth for the longer term at a much lower payroll.

However, there are some good players out there now for teams on the cusp of breakthroughs.  The Milwaukee Brewers recognized this and recently added outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, who represent significant upgrades to a team that nearly captured a wild card spot last year.

The next few weeks will be interesting to watch.  Who will finally give in?  The players or the teams?  Will this off-season be an anomaly with regard to free agent signings, or is this truly the wave of the future?

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