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MLB: Why Free Agency Is More Dangerous Than Ever


Ageism has always been a prevalent part of our society because it’s the one ism that people can get away with; especially in sports.

Society’s ageisms typically come in two forms. One, if you’re too young, people don’t think you have enough experience for a job/responsibility (often true). And two, if you’re too old, then people think you’re not going to adapt to the new future (less than the former, but still often true).

Those forms of ageism revolve around the mental abilities/smarts of a person. Sports ageism is different. It’s the complete opposite of politics. Because in sports, the younger a person is, the more valuable he is typically. While a player who is 30 is often wondering how much he’s got left in the tank before retirement, 30+ is the mandatory age to run for U.S. Senator.

It’s just a fact of sports. Players in their 30s don’t get better, they decline because of wear and tear on their bodies. Arms are more susceptible to injuries (like Tommy John) and other things like bat speed, velocity, power, running speed, and reaction times decline.

The contrast is no more transparent than when free agency (especially in baseball) comes around. The idea of free agency is that this is where the few athletes who are worth their weight in gold can cash in. To get to free agency, a player has to live up to their three-year rookie deal and then go through three arbitration years before they can hit free agency.*

There are many exceptions, but the process is six years of team control.

So take the typical player. They are 22-23 sometimes before they reach the majors due to time spent in the minors. Maybe 24-25 if they finished college. That means they will be at a minimum of 28-31 years of age before team control is up and free agency arrives. There’s the slight unavoidable Catch-22 to MLB free agency. Players are rewarded for their past achievements but technically they are paid for future production that won’t often be reproduced.

For example, take Josh Hamilton. With the Texas Rangers, he had five all-star years with the 2010 AL MVP. He was going into his age-32 season when he signed a five-year deal with the Angels. He hit 142 home runs over five years with the Rangers, but only 31 with the Angels over two years and his averages sank like a glass boat across the board.

For a long time, these things didn’t keep free agency from being exciting for fans. Often there was legitimate free agents who weren’t disappointments. In fact, free agency used to contain the perfect gems for teams needing that final piece to the puzzle. For many years, free agency was a fun place for a general manager because he could wine and dine premium talent and secure a ring in the process.

For example, the Braves signed Greg Maddux. The Red Sox signed David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, and Manny Ramirez. The Diamondbacks signed Randy Johnson. The Yankees got Reggie Jackson. These moves paid off with pennants. Teams willing to spend were able to win. Why was that?

Well often is was because teams wouldn’t pony up the cash. The Red Sox got a steal in David Ortiz because the Twins were pinching pennies, same with Damon and the Royals. The Braves paid big bucks for Maddux because Chicago wouldn’t meet demands. Those kinds of free agents are nonexistent now, so what happened to make free agency so treacherous now?

There is no one answer but rather several pieces to the puzzle. What happened was the advent of HDTV, the new ballparks, and this new electronic age we’re living in. Forget the numbers (mainly because I don’t have time to do that much research) and just imagine for a second.

New luxurious ballparks that were designed with luxury boxes and amenities were introduced. Baseball games are now not just for fans, but they are an event. A fun activity that can cater to people not glued to their seats. The parks don’t seat as many, but attendance has gone up in many cities.

For those who aren’t at the games, television screens are only getting better and better. Teams like the Rangers, Mariners, Angels, and others have gotten individual multi-billion-dollar TV deals from network like FOX to show their games and those are separate from the MLB’s joint multi-billion-dollar TV deal that is split up along with the annual revenue from tickets, memorabilia etc. due to the revenue sharing policy that MLB has now that basically makes sure for parity in competition.

All of this leads to teams beyond New York and LA to get more money and with that money, teams can lock up stars and not just cry poor.

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, and San Francisco’s Buster Posey are all examples of franchise players who received $100 million extensions over 7-10 years in contract lengths that are statements from the teams saying this is our guy. So cross those guys off the wish list of the big spenders.

Not every team has that however. A TV deal comes when the team is good and owners who don’t spend typically don’t have good teams. So there are still star players that show up but not as many as there could be.

Another reason free agency success and excitement has gone down is the abolishment of steroids/PEDs. What many people forget, don’t know or ignore is that there are drugs that increase bat speed, that increase speed on a fastball, that keep a person fresh, make them faster in running base paths etc. Far more than take a few shots and you look like the Hulk without the green.

Common sense says that players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens did steroids. But for using examples who admitted they used needles, take Manny Ramirez mentioned earlier. He for sure used PEDs (caught twice) and he’s a perfect example of how using steroids will help players succeed in their 30s. Whether it’s equaling past performance, exceeding past performance, or just battling the natural decline the body goes through.

Ramirez spent ages 21-28 in Cleveland and then signed his eight-year $160 million contract with two one-year options for additions $20 million each (he really wanted a $200 million deal). He was eventually traded to the Dodgers in 2008 in the eighth year of the deal. Let’s do some comparing.

Cleveland Manny Ramirez: .313/.407.592 batting line 236 homers, 237 doubles. 967 games

Boston Manny Ramirez: .312/.411/.588 batting line, 274 homers, 256 doubles. 1,083 games.

They are almost the same guy from the beginning to the end. That’s not natural. Ramirez was often regarded as a batting savant. Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, is positive that Ramirez would intentionally work a 3-2 count with a runner on first in a two out scenario. Why? Because when he smacked that double in the outfield, the runner would already going given the situation. His stats probably don’t do him enough justice.

Ramirez was 36 when he was jettisoned from Boston after developing a watermelon sized ego and ended up for 2+ years with the Dodgers. How did he do there? In 223 games, he had a .322/.433/.580 batting line.

It’s believable that a high average was helped by Ramirez’s incredible ability to identify pitches, but the power is not believable.

Other guys like Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Miguel Tejada did the same thing. They used PEDs (some allegedly are not guilty, but it’s believable) and they used them to battle back Father Time and in many cases overcame him and set absurd highs for home runs at their age in the process. When steroids were “juiced” out of the league, the hitters in their 30s didn’t have the abilities to artificially live up to their contracts.

With the best players locked up and without PEDs unable to help, free agency has become mostly players who are declining, some rapidly, or others who are about to end their prime and then start declining.

Here’s a list of some of the “elite” free agents from recent memory who significantly declined after their age 30-seasons to give a clearer picture. Carl Crawford, CC Sabathia, B.J. Upton, Jose Reyes, Anibal Sanchez, Matt Garza, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann; there are so many of them with Crawford being the worst in my eyes.

Cases like these and Josh Hamilton are why teams are very hesitant or at least very cautious to sign a free agent in their 30’s or even close to it because they know with a lot of these guys, they won’t live up to expectations for every year of a 4-6 year deal.

A simple solution obviously to all of this would be short-term deals. That way a player isn’t overpaid and teams are encouraged to spend money while not jeopardizing their budgets down the line. Perfect solution in an ideal world. One that MLB doesn’t live in. The players don’t want that.

Players want security for their families and they should because this is possibly their last payday before retirement. Say 32-year-old free agent ace Zack Greinke gave a team friendly three-year deal. If he has an injury at 35 or a terrible year then he’s released, the billionaire owner saves a ton of money, but what’s Greinke supposed to do? No one is going to give him millions without getting something in return.

So, instead, Greinke has a seven-year deal and he’s not worth his contract for the last four years. That’s part of business. It’s called cost of acquisition. A team cannot get a stud player’s prime without buying his decline. Greinke spent three years for minimum cost with the Royals and three more arbitration years getting a good paycheck but nothing long-term guaranteed. If he tore his arm up, he’d be done. He, like all other players, want and some even need to feel secure. Sure, an average person can snide at the idea of a millionaire living paycheck to paycheck, but with more money comes more expenses and a desire to keep that financial freedom.

So often the annual amount is not an issue, but the guaranteed contract length for the player that will give them security.

That’s the way baseball has been for a very long time. It’s just other factors like more money, the subtraction of steroid users, the fact that pitching is getting better and better with specialized bullpens like the Royals used to win the World Series have caused hitters to lose their luster in free agency.

As for pitchers, an additional cause can be the Tommy John epidemic going around. Aces like Yu Darvish, Josh Johnson, John Lackey, Matt Harvey, etc. have had the procedure and it hurts big time because a player is out for more than a year recovery time.

It’s one thing to have a bad or declining pitcher. Work on mechanics, and another pitch, move him to bullpen, maybe pull him after 4-5 innings and work with bullpen whatever. A clever manager (or a desperate one) can figure out some way to make a guy useful. To where even if he’s being paid say $15 million a year, but the team’s getting $4-5 million out of him. That’s not so bad. But Tommy John means the pitcher contributes zero value but gets the paychecks. Pitchers like Greinke and David Price have to have potential red flags for Tommy John.

That’s not to say that free agency shouldn’t be endorsed. The 2013 Red Sox won a World Series off a strong free agency class. The Mets got Granderson, Colon, and Cuddyer via free agency. The Royals signed Edison Volquez. The Rangers got Adrian Beltre and that was a classic home run there. The Phillies, even with him injured the last two years, got exceptional value from Cliff Lee for his first three years. The Cardinals had a great 2-year deal with Carlos Beltran.

But understand that MLB free agency has become an even more crowded cruddier minefield and it takes exceptional analytics combined smart managers and general managers to navigate and pick which free agents will excel and which will blow up in your face.


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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at [email protected]

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