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MLB Transaction Watch: Manny Machado and the free agent freeze

The White Sox are reported to have offered Machado seven years and $175 million.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five
Manny Machado reacting to striking out in the World Series
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

At times it has felt like there has been a lot of action this offseason, however, for free agents that was a mirage. The vast majority of the action this postseason has been in the form of trades. It’s been a downright frigid environment for all but a few of baseball’s free agents.

Earlier in the offseason I noted that the sheer number of free agents exploded at the non-tender deadline. There were 201 free agents at the start of the offseason, that then ballooned to 245 MLB players. Of those, four players have opted to retire (Adrian Beltre, Jaime Garcia, Chris Gimenez, and Joe Mauer). Which leaves us with 241 free agents and less than a month until pitchers and catchers report, so I wanted to take a minute to check in and see how things are shaping up for those free agents.

Not great, Bob. Not great.

Only 108 players have signed contracts as of January 15, meaning 56 percent of the free agent field is still available. That number alone is shocking, but the next one is worse. Only 29 of those contracts have been for more than a single year. That’s right, 73 percent of the contracts free agents have signed in 2019 were one-year deals. That’s at least 79 players who will turn right around and re-enter free agency next year, swamping the 2020 market with talent so we can do this whole dance all over again just in time for the 2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.

While we can quibble about whether some of these players signed fair deals or whether the free agency contracts of the 2000s were overly lucrative (particularly for players over thirty) it seems pretty obvious that the baseball free agent market is broken. Some players have started speaking out about this more openly:

You may recognize blunt Jake Arrieta from previous Twitter appearances like: “Whatever keeps your hopes alive, just know it doesn’t matter.” Suffice to say, the former Cubs ace doesn’t mince words and after he sat out a similar free agent environment in 2018 before settling for a 3-year/$75 million deal with the Phillies I’d say he’s uniquely qualified to be tuned into player sentiments on this issue.

Well, today Buster Olney leaked the apparent White Sox contract offer to Manny Machado into the same environment:

It’s interesting that he compares this deal to the deal J.D. Martinez finally signed with the Red Sox in late February last year. I would compare it to the same deal, and frankly, that contract was highway robbery for one of baseball’s best hitters. Manny Machado should be insulted by the White Sox offer and the MLB Players Association should be alarmed.

The numbers here are staggering. Manny Machado is a 26 year old infielder who has accumulated 33.8 bWAR in his first seven seasons in MLB. He is one of the most talented, and youngest, free agents to hit the open market in years. It’s even more impressive than it sounds, here are the players in the last 50 years to accumulate more than 30 bWAR before turning 26:

That’s it. That’s the list.

So it seems reasonable that even in a market that has been a bit messed up Manny Machado should command one of the largest contracts ever, right? Well...

Let’s take a look at the largest baseball contracts in history. Below you’ll see Fangraphs’ compilation of the 20 largest contracts in MLB history adjusted to 2019 dollars. I augmented it with bWAR information and each players’ age at the time their contract was signed. Specifically, I added bWAR prior to the contract and bWAR accumulated during the life of the contract. Players currently in the middle of their contracts are in italics:

MLB’s most valuable contracts (AAV) adjusted to 2019 dollars by bWAR

Player Year Age Years 2019 Adjusted $ AAV 2019 Adjusted $ Total Actual bWAR over contract Actual bWAR/Mil $ Prior bWAR Prior bWAR/Mil $
Player Year Age Years 2019 Adjusted $ AAV 2019 Adjusted $ Total Actual bWAR over contract Actual bWAR/Mil $ Prior bWAR Prior bWAR/Mil $
Alex Rodriguez 2001 25 10 592 59.2 75.6 0.13 38.1 0.06
Manny Ramirez 2001 29 8 376 47.0 33.2 0.09 30 0.08
Alex Rodriguez 2008 32 10 448 44.8 23.4 0.05 94.4 0.21
Derek Jeter 2001 27 10 444 44.4 28.1 0.06 42.7 0.10
Kevin Brown 1999 34 7 297 42.4 16.7 0.06 45.5 0.15
Clayton Kershaw 2014 26 7 277 39.6 29.1 0.11 32.9 0.12
Jason Giambi 2002 31 7 276 39.4 22.2 0.08 29.3 0.11
Carlos Beltran 2005 28 7 263 37.6 21.8 0.08 45.8 0.17
CC Sabathia 2009 28 7 259 37.0 21.3 0.08 32.5 0.13
Ken Griffey Jr. 2000 30 9 330 36.7 13.3 0.04 64.1 0.19
Max Scherzer 2015 30 7 254 36.3 29 0.11 23.8 0.09
Mark Teixeira 2009 29 8 290 36.3 20.5 0.07 31.3 0.11
Joe Mauer 2011 28 8 289 36.1 21.9 0.08 33.2 0.11
Justin Verlander 2013 30 7 252 36.0 27.4 0.11 36.4 0.14
Albert Pujols 2012 32 10 358 35.8 13.3 0.04 86.8 0.24
Mike Hampton 2001 28 8 284 35.5 2.6 0.01 18.2 0.06
Prince Fielder 2012 28 9 319 35.4 6.8 0.02 16.8 0.05
Felix Hernandez 2013 27 7 245 35.0 17.1 0.07 33.9 0.14
Miguel Cabrera 2016 33 8 258 32.3 6.2 0.02 64.2 0.25
Robinson Cano 2014 31 10 310 31.0 23.6 0.08 45.5 0.15
Manny Machado (Offer) 2019 26 7 175 25.0 0.00 33.8 0.19
Player contracts adjusted to 2019 money by bWAR. bWAR is separated into accumulated prior to signing and during the life of the contract. Current contracted players in italics. Fangraphs and Baseball Reference compiled by Sara Sanchez

I also attempted to get an idea of the value of a million dollars per bWAR. Obviously this isn’t an exact science, but it gives you an idea that for the most lucrative contract on this list (Alex Rodriguez’s original deal) he was paid $1 million for every .06 bWAR he had previously accumulated. Interestingly, that is one of the few deals that actually worked out. If you look at the actual bWAR/mil you’ll see that he was paid $1 million for every .13 bWAR he accumulated. Higher numbers in the prior bWAR/mil indicate less value for the player based on previous performance. Higher numbers in the actual bWAR/mil indicated more value for the team based on actual performance.

In terms of player value, the White Sox offer to Machado is squarely in the bottom quarter of contract values for players. His 0.19 value there is tied for fourth lowest in the ranking of most lucrative contracts. The White Sox are basically trying to pay 26-year-old Manny Machado at rate similar to what the Reds paid 30-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. — 19 years ago.

Maybe you think that’s okay. After all, Griffey is a Hall of Famer and we have no idea what the next 10 years of Machado will look like. However, it is worth noting that 33.8 bWAR before 26 just doesn’t earn a player what it used to despite soaring baseball revenue, which goes a long way to explaining the MLBPA’s angst at current market conditions.

Just for fun I also calculated an average prior bWAR/mil to see if I could project what Machado should get with his numbers. I mean, after all, while there are bad deals in this mix, there are some good deals as well. Using those numbers the average prior bWAR/mil was 0.13, almost exactly the same as CC Sabathia’s. Fortuitously, Sabathia signed a 7-year deal that is on the above table, so it’s easy to compare the two. Sabathia’s deal was worth $259 million in 2019 adjusted dollars. That’s $84 million more than the White Sox are reportedly offering Machado. It seems like here is a good place to point out that Sabathia was two years older with an extra season under his belt and slightly less total prior bWAR than Machado when he signed that deal. So logically I’d expect Machado to get more than Sabathia, not less.

Manny Machado should turn down this deal, and if I were in his camp I’d be insulted by it. Other players currently on the market and approaching free agency should be up in arms. This deal tells us a lot about the current market conditions that players are facing and there is every indication that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Not great, Bob. Not great.