Per MLB Trade Rumors, there are still 112 unsigned free agents this offseason, with pitcher and catcher reporting dates for most teams just two weeks away.
Of those 112, I count at least 45 who were starting position players (or had significant backup roles), members of a starting rotation or closers during 2018. I’ve left off players who have announced their retirement, and there are some other pitchers who were significant contributors in 2018.
Martin Maldonado, Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters
Matt Davidson, Derek Dietrich, Alcides Escobar, Logan Forsythe, Freddy Galvis, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Harrison, Jose Iglesias, Manny Machado, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, Mark Reynolds, Yangervis Solarte, Neil Walker
Jose Bautista, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Brandon Guyer, Bryce Harper, Austin Jackson, Adam Jones, Cameron Maybin, Gerardo Parra, Denard Span,
Evan Gattis, Matt Holliday
Bartolo Colon, Yovani Gallardo, Gio Gonzalez, Miguel Gonzalez, Jeremy Hellickson, Edwin Jackson, Dallas Keuchel, Francisco Liriano, Wade Miley, Ervin Santana, James Shields
Brad Boxberger, Greg Holland, Craig Kimbrel, Bud Norris
Now, what do almost all these players have in common, besides not having jobs right now? With the exception of Harper, Machado and Dietrich (and which one doesn’t belong in that group?), they’re all 30 years old or older. You could make a pretty good 2014 All-Star team out of the group above.
It appears that MLB front offices have simply decided that they can get equivalent or better production out of younger, cheaper players than to pay thirtysomethings market value. Or, in the case of Harper and Machado, the money that those two reportedly want is more than teams are willing to pay, so they’re waiting them out.
The summation of this can be expressed simply: MLB’s free-agent system is broken. It’s supposed to reward players for sticking it out for six years through the arbitration system and give them a chance at big money once they’re eligible for free agency. There are quite a few players listed above, and perhaps others in the total list linked above, who could help teams in 2019. Many of these players simply won’t have big-league jobs and might wind up with their careers over.
That’s not the way this is supposed to work. Yes, players agreed to this system in the last collective-bargaining agreement, but you can understand why many of them are now unhappy with it.
There are a number of ways this can be addressed in the next collective-bargaining agreement. Perhaps owners might agree to earlier free agency in exchange for some cost certainty for a player’s pre-free agent years. Or perhaps some form of NBA-style restricted free agency (where the team losing the player has the right to match offers) could be instituted.
Owners, though, seem happy with the system they’ve devised, because it has operated as a de facto “salary cap” through the luxury-tax system, even though there’s no official cap. The amount of overall baseball revenue spent on player payroll has been declining; this Fangraphs article argues for a salary floor for players in exchange for some sort of official salary cap.
The end result of all this is likely going to be a labor dispute after the current CBA expires following the 2021 season. Enjoy the next three baseball seasons, because given all this, there’s a real chance we might not have a season in 2022.