It definitely felt like a problem for baseball when Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remained unemployed at the start of spring training.
Now? Not so much.
Despite nearly four months on the free-agent market, both players got pretty much what everyone expected them to get when this process began in November.
Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres on Feb. 21 and a week later, Harper agreed to his 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies. Somewhere in between, the Rockies handed Nolan Arenado an eight-year extension worth $260 million.
The initial reaction around spring training clubhouses was just short of a standing ovation. The news that Harper had surpassed Giancarlo Stanton’s previous record of $325 million — over 13 years, signed before the 2015 season — had been something the players were waiting for, but they didn’t seem entirely convinced that it would materialize.
“As a player, you like to see guys do that,” said J.A. Happ, who signed his own two-year, $34 million contract to rejoin the Yankees. “I’d like to see more of that happening.”
According to Spotrac, a site that provides salary and payroll information, MLB has spent roughly $1.8 billion on free agents, up from $1.5 billion last year and $1.4 billion in 2017. Looking at those numbers, you would think the money is trending upward — good news for labor, right? But it’s top-heavy, with three players — Machado, Harper and Patrick Corbin — accounting for $770 million of that total, or 42.8 percent of the entire haul.
In 2018, Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish and J.D. Martinez — the only three players with $100-plus-million contracts — made up 22 percent of the free-agent money spent. In 2017, Yoenis Cespedes’ $110 million contract from the Mets was the only one to reach nine figures, and together with Aroldis Chapman ($86M) and Dexter Fowler ($82.5M), they represented 19.6 percent.
Harper now may be the record-setter, but will he pull the rest of his colleagues up on the pay scale by doing so? The players would like to believe that’s the case. We just haven’t seen any evidence of that, and might not until Mike Trout — universally regarded as the planet’s best player — either signs an extension with the Angels or gets to free agency after the 2020 season.
“I think that’s positive that Bryce was able to get that length of the contract,” Mets outfielder Michael Conforto said. “But hopefully we start seeing the dominoes start to fall and guys start finding jobs and we can just focus on baseball and not have to talk about all these free agents that are on the market. I hope everybody gets a job and things are right again.”
Conforto just turned 26 on Friday — the same age as Harper — and shares the same agent as Harper, Scott Boras, who still has a few top free agents looking for jobs, including former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. If not for Boras’ special talent for drumming up competition for Harper, luring in the Giants and Dodgers to push the Phillies, he probably doesn’t get to $330 million. Just as Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, was able to slow-play the Padres into forking over $300 million after his market seemed relatively flat for a perennial MVP candidate.
Should there have been more suitors for the game’s brightest stars? Probably. And the limited market for Machado and Harper only feeds into the players’ suspicion that merely a handful of teams are trying to win.
Commissioner Rob Manfred frequently refutes those claims, and last month he suggested that the free-agent stagnation, as well as the middle class being frozen out, is the product of a changing economic system.
“I do think the way people think about the game, and the way they analyze the game, that’s not going away,” Manfred said then. “And the challenge is going to be, can you alter the system in the way that produces the result that is more acceptable to the players? We don’t even know what that result is that they’re looking to achieve.”
Fewer players unemployed in early March would be a good place to start, and based on what we’ve witnessed recently, the current climate seems to have scared players about free agency. Look at Aaron Hicks, who jumped at the chance to sign a seven-year, $70 million extension rather than test the open market in six months.
His explanation? “I felt like it was a fair deal for both sides,” Hicks said.
Do the contracts for Machado and Harper fit that description? From a market standpoint, value is determined by what someone is willing to pay, and those two hit their price. It’s not any more complicated than that. Credit the agents for getting the money during what again has been a difficult time to do so, for the second straight winter.
Could the market stall again next offseason? With Arenado locked up in Colorado, will the biggest pending free agents — Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Madison Bumgarner, Marcell Ozuna, J.D. Martinez (opt-out), just to name a few — skip testing the waters and stay with extensions? The debate over the sport’s contentious economic system is a long way from being over.
No clock, but still ways to save time
This past week, we questioned the Commissioner’s Office’s sudden interest in trading away the pitch clock — seemingly the No. 1 priority in Rob Manfred’s pace-of-play agenda — for the sake of other time-saving measures, and in the process, maybe improving labor relations with the Players Association.
Manfred had vigorously stumped for the 20-second clock, and with the CBA on his side, he could unilaterally impose the rule this season, given that it had been proposed (and rejected by the union) the previous year. Finally, we thought, something could get done beyond just talking about tightening up the game.
As it turns out, maybe Manfred’s pitch-clock hammer will wind up being the instrument for meaningful change. The sides are in the midst of negotiations that could produce a new set of rule changes within the next few days — and in time for Opening Day, according to a source.
Contained in the talks for dumping the pitch clock, MLB is pressing to institute the three-batter minimum for pitchers, cut back mound visits from seven to six and shorten the break between innings, trimming it down from 2:25 to an even two minutes (with the help of the split-screen ads that are popping up more and more in sports broadcasts these days).
Also, MLB is willing to increase active rosters to 26 players (up from 25) through August but limit them to 28 (rather than a potential 40) for September — something that not only should help save time but do more to maintain the integrity of the game. Another proposal that should help do that is having a single trade deadline — still July 31 — and erasing the Sept. 1 date for waiver deals.
Thirty additional jobs should be a big carrot for the union, in addition to ditching the clock. Manfred knew there would be pushback, but the degree of acrimony — no doubt spurred by the sport’s tug-of-war over economic issues — made the unilateral implementation of a pitch clock less appealing from the commissioner’s viewpoint.
And perhaps more useful as a bargaining chip, as long as Manfred is able to broker these new agreements with union chief Tony Clark. Based on recent history, however, that’s hardly a guarantee.