Is Free Agency Dying?
In the last two months, the Mets, Rangers, Indians, Reds, Giants and Nationals locked up Jon Niese, Ian Kinsler, Carlos Santana, Brandon Phillips, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Zimmerman, respectively. Niese was given a five-year deal with two club options that is guaranteed for $25.5 million, and could be worth as much as $46 million. Kinsler just inked a five-year, $75 million contract extension. Nationals franchise player Ryan Zimmerman will earn $100 million for the next six years of service. Carlos Santana’s deal is for five years and $21 million, and it comes on the heels of a three-year deal the Tribe gave to All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Brandon Phillips will earn $72.5 million over the next six years. Bumgarner’s deal is for five years and the value is dependent on his status as a Super-Two, the top 22 percent in service time among players with two-plus years. If Bumgarner is a Super-Two, his contract will value $40 million, but in the more likely event he isn’t, he’ll earn $35 on that contract. Let’s not forget the Giants also backed the money truck up for young stud Matt Cain, as well.
What we’re seeing more and more of these days, whether it be on the Joey Votto grand scale or the Cabrera smaller scale, is that arbitration and free agency scares the living bejeezus out of front offices. All these deals are designed to buy out arbitration and, in some cases, free agent years and lock up players for significantly less than what they might earn should they continue to blossom as players and eventually hit the open market. What the players receive in return is security, as it’s no safe bet they continue to blossom and could find themselves riding busses to games instead of charters.
It wouldn’t surprise me much if the last year of team control before arbitration eligibility becomes the new “walk year.” The general rule in baseball is that you can pay now, or pay more later. Just look what All-Stars are making on the free agent market. Consider the contracts of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. Looking at the recent trend of locking up franchise players for the long term, we can see that there will be a dearth of stars hitting free agency over the next few seasons. Besides the above-mentioned players, in the past couple of years, studs like Troy Tulowitzki, Joe Mauer, Evan Longoria, the Justins: Verlander and Upton, Ryan Braun and Felix Hernandez are all signed at least through 2014. Alex Gordon and Andrew McCutchen have also been locked up very recently. That amount of talent in young players is not common, and kudos to their teams for understanding that and acting accordingly. It’ll be tough to find a potential franchise player in a pool of free agents in which an overwhelming number are 30 years of age and older, and that is what baseball is heading towards.
Let’s compare left-handed starting pitchers in the NL East. Think about Jon Niese, a young pitcher, with career stats that aren’t very inspiring. But he’s got good peripherals, has suffered through injuries that were non-pitching related, and when healthy, has, of course, pitched for the Mets. But now the Mets are on the upswing, with a better farm system than they’ve had in years, only one financial albatross remaining, a good looking offense that was sixth in runs scored in the NL last year without Ike Davis and David Wright and a full season of Lucas Duda. So you’ve got a much better offense, while Niese himself is maturing and getting stronger. Now I ask you, would you rather have seven years of a 25-year-old Niese for $46 million on an improving team, or seven years of a 31-year-old Cliff Lee for $150 million on a team whose best days are behind them?
While we’re on the Mets, if Ike Davis bounces back and has the type of year people project for him, and hits .270/.370/.500 with 26-28 home runs and 100 RBI, would you take him for Niese’s deal now, or wait a few years, a couple of All-Star selections and maybe a top-10 MVP finish just to make sure he’s the real deal, then pay him huge money at a more advanced age? Do we even need to ask?
It’s going to continue everywhere now. It’ll be like an epidemic. Young, sometimes even unproven players, are going to be making lots of money instead of older players with track records of making TONS of money. The ultimate result will be payrolls around baseball decreasing as a whole, with teams being able to maintain that one identifiable star the fan base can cling to. Sure, there will be the handful of players that never pan out, but doesn’t that happen anyway? If it’s widely accepted that you can’t win ‘em all in free agency (Jason Bay), wouldn’t you rather lose on a $10-$12 million yearly salary on a kid that could still be moved than a $15-$20 million salary, maybe more, on a guy with zero trade value? Ask the Yankees how much A-Rod is actually worth these days, and if they wouldn’t rather have Ryan Zimmerman at third base. Do we even need to ask?
Free agency as an institution will never go away, but the days of depending on it to push a team over the top appears like it will soon become a distant memory.
About the Author: Jesse Elgarten
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