Transaction watch will make another appearance this week and I’ll have a lot to say about trades around the league, including the blockbuster deal between the Mets and the Mariners. However, today I wanted to take a special look at the players who were non-tendered last week. It was particularly unusual because of both the quantity and quality of players who were not offered contracts and while it’s not as flashy as sending Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Mets, it’s going to have a much larger impact across the league.
The state of free agency
There were already 201 MLB free agents on the 2018 market. And while the markets for some players are stronger than others, the fact remains that there are a lot of very talented players who were already seeking new deals for the 2019 season. The sheer magnitude of the market has led many to speculate that aside from a couple of mega deals that could still materialize for young superstars like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper this really is a buyer’s market. There were simply too many similar players available and in all likelihood they are going to drive down contract values for each other, both in terms of years and dollars.
Well, that market gained 41 more players who were non-tendered by their clubs on Friday. Including some players who had pretty solid 2018 campaigns and others who have put together quality seasons recently. Below are some notable names and statistics for these new free agents:
Notable non-tendered players
|Player||Team||Position||Age||2018 Contract||2018 fWAR|
|Player||Team||Position||Age||2018 Contract||2018 fWAR|
|Avisail Garcia||White Sox||OF||28||6,700,000||0.0|
|Matt Davidson||White Sox||1B/DH||28||570,000||0.8|
|Yangervis Solarte||Blue Jays||3B||32||4,000,000||-1.3|
To put this in perspective: In 2017 20 players were non-tendered by their clubs and the biggest name on the list was Drew Smyly, who was coming off Tommy John surgery (you might remember him from rehab starts like this one). Non-tendering players like Justin Bour, James McCann and yes, even Ronald Torreyes, over relatively small contract increases in arbitration is new and it has potentially troubling implications.
Last year’s cold stove
One thing that jumps out about this list is that it makes the free agent market a lot younger than it was last Thursday. Prior to the non-tender deadline 26 of the 201 available free agents would be under 30 for the 2019 season. That was 12.9 percent of the total market and would have represented real value for those players as they negotiated their 2019 contracts. However, just with the list of notables above the number of free agents under 30 has grown to 37 out of 222 free agents, or 16.7 percent of the market. That’s a meaningful shift and presents some much cheaper options for teams looking to add position players, in other words younger free agents in 2018 probably just lost a decent amount of money just by the virtue of competing with additional, cheaper options.
This is all happening on the backdrop of the remarkably slow 2017 offseason where the free agent market seemed to drag to a halt before players like Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez ultimately signed deals well below what many expected them to earn. In early January Ken Rosenthal reported in the Athletic that only 31 of 166 free agents had signed, making 2017 a “historically slow” market. By mid-January Jeff Passan raised the alarm that baseball’s economic system might be broken. And while MLB wanted to place the blame squarely in the camp of agents asking for outlandish contracts for weaker players (oh hello there, Scott Boras) the player’s union was seething at management. As January turned to February more writers began speculating about collusion and other factors that might have frozen the free agent market.
I have no evidence that there is collusion in the current labor market, but it appears that the same factors that Passan identified last January are already evident in the early decisions teams are making relative to their players on the bubble. Specifically, analytics departments and their calculations of player value that are considered shrewd for each team in isolation, just unleashed a flood of new, cheap, talent into a free agent market that hasn’t really caught fire yet. I mean, the most notable deals so far include Clayton Kershaw negotiating an additional year, Josh Donaldson getting a $23 million contract, but only for one year, and Jesse Chavez signing a two-year deal for $8 million.
The fact that a generational talent in Kershaw and a former MVP in Donaldson are only looking at an additional year should raise the same alarms Passan set off last January. I have no reason to doubt Al’s analysis of how the Cubs likely evaluated Torreyes’ potential $300,000 raise in arbitration. However, the cost to owners in terms of their good faith with the players is likely to be a lot more expensive if this offseason results in the second year in a row of depressed contracts across the board.
The 2021 CBA
All of this will continue to develop at Winter Meetings next week in Las Vegas. And who knows? Maybe the hot stove will catch fire, Harper and Machado will sign their mega deals and other highly valuable players like Craig Kimbrel, Marwin Gonzalez, and Brian Dozier will quickly follow. But if the non-tender deadline is any indication, teams don’t appear to be willing to pay what players and their agents think their skills are worth and we could be looking at another stalemate.
Last year that stalemate initiated some discussion of a player boycott of spring training and inspired the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) to bring on sports litigation expert Bruce Meyer as their Senior Director of Collective Bargaining and Legal. Those were warning shots to MLB’s owners to tread carefully in terms of how they treat players. If those warning shots aren’t heeded in 2018, I’d look for the MLBPA to fire some similar shots in early 2019.
The owners currently have the upper hand, particularly since the next time the MLBPA can truly flex its muscles on this issue is 2021 when the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is renegotiated. However, while analytics departments are trained to squeeze the maximum value out of every player contract, the owners are making a strategic error doing this en masse in a way that could cause ongoing damage to their broader relationships with players. Allowing this to continue to simmer and boil every offseason between now and 2021 will ensure the most contentious renegotiation of the CBA since the 1994-95 players strike.