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Fractured free agency needs a fix

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A disastrous winter for MLB’s free agents means it’s time to find solutions — or another work stoppage in 2022 may be inevitable

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speak before a game.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Let’s be crystal clear, here: Nobody is going to feel sorry for professional ballplayers making millions of dollars a year while most of the working world struggles to get by.

With that said, this year’s crop of MLB free agents are struggling.

Take Royals 3B Mike Moustakas, who turned down Kansas City’s qualifying offer of $17.4 million for the 2018 season, only to wind up settling on a one-year deal (with a second-year option) for only $5.5 million guaranteed (incentives and bonuses could push the deal over $22 million).

Meanwhile, RHP Jake Arrieta — with a Cy Young Award and World Series ring on his resume — still can’t find work, as he seeks a long-term deal for roughly $20 million per season.

MLB free agency is broken. The collapse wasn’t sudden, and really shouldn’t be all that shocking. It has been trending this way for years. And the players have nobody to blame but themselves.

The system is currently set up to ensure the truly elite players (Los Angeles Dodgers LHP Clayton Kershaw, Washington Nationals OF Bryce Harper, Angels OF Mike Trout) still get paid. But the cream of the crop make up less than five percent of players.

Everyone else is being punished for a bad collective bargaining agreement, and a mix of circumstances set up to hurt wealthy owners/teams and help the poor ones:

  1. Luxury tax penalties: Put in place to make sure the wealthiest, big-market teams can’t simply buy championships, and it’s finally working. The Dodgers, for instance, simply got sick and tired of paying the luxury tax and decided they wouldn’t add a high-priced free agent without dumping contracts first. As a former GM and two former players told me: Owners don’t mind paying players big money, but they can’t stand writing checks for $20-$40 million to be shared among other, slightly less wealthy owners.
  2. Compensation picks: Designed to help the competitive balance, if a team signs any free agent who received a qualifying offer it must “trade” a high draft pick (used in the sandwich round between the first and second rounds) to the free agent’s former team. It’s a lofty price to pay in a league that is valuing draft picks and prospects more than ever. Which leads to …
  3. Building for long-term success: Following the blueprints put forward by the San Francisco Giants, Royals and Chicago Cubs, more teams are realizing the value in drafting well, developing young talent and winning with homegrown players as opposed to high-priced free agents. Successful teams are turning to free agency only to add a piece or two as needed, while all the “kids from the system” are under team-friendly contracts before their free agency kicks in.
  4. Advanced stats/metrics: They’ve revolutionized the game, giving each general manager a plethora of material to dissect and analyze before making any roster moves. It’s great for determining the best all-around players and defensive alignments/configurations, as run prevention has become as important as runs scored. But it has also hurt free agents, as teams want specific players to execute their ideal strategy of the team they want to field. No longer is the slugger who belted nearly 40 HR last season coveted strictly for his bat if he’s a liability in the field.
Chicago White Sox Photo Day
The White Sox moved quickly to sign their main target in free agency, catcher Welington Castillo, but it has been a long offseason for several of the big-ticket players on the open market.
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

There are other reasons free agency is broken, but the details are a bit too convoluted. Instead, here are a few ideas on how to fix the system:

Pick one penalty, eliminate the other: It has just become too big a burden for teams who spend big in free agency to both pay a luxury tax for having a high payroll and lose high draft picks when signing free agents (especially considering many teams never planned to bring back their stars in the first place). Both of the punitive measures were put in place for parity’s sake, helping end long postseason droughts endured by small-market clubs like Kansas City and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But on top of both of these factors, the creation of a second wild card in each league has made baseball more competitive than ever. When the calendar flips to September, at least 20 teams are still within striking distance of the play-in game, and therefore one win from a potential run to a title. Competitive balance has been achieved. Lose the luxury tax penalty or draft pick forfeiture, and owners with money will spend big again.

Say goodbye to an AL-only DH: Advanced defensive metrics have an age bias. Yeah, I said it … numbers are biased. (OK, not really, but hear me out.) As players get older, naturally their range decreases. They lose speed, and thus the ability to cover ground in the outfield or get to as many balls at shortstop. It’s understandable, and part of life’s aging process. But many of these players can still hit for high average and/or with immense power.

With teams placing so much emphasis on the glove now, baseball must stop limiting where players in their mid-30s can play. If one is best suited to become a full-time DH they have, at most, 15 teams interested in their services, and likely far fewer, as several of the 15 already have an Edwin Encarnación type under contract. Baseball has flirted with the idea of bringing the designated hitter to the NL for years. It’s time to finally do it.

NFL contracts, meet MLB: Do away with guaranteed years and money and move to NFL-style deals. Injury risks (especially for starting pitchers) and getting burned by players suddenly “finding their stroke” in a contract year has made many owners/GMs skittish of long-term, nine-figure deals. Let teams give a signing bonus up front, thus decreasing the “salary cap” hit (and thus a potential luxury tax penalty) and allow teams to cut players and terminate contracts whenever they see fit.

Sure, it’s hard to believe the players would go for this, as they’d lose job security, but there are a few dozen current free agents who might feel differently after a miserable winter wondering where their next paycheck is coming from. Trade in some job security for more money up front.

These are big changes that inevitably would need to be fine-tuned by legal experts. And yeah, there are certainly other solutions to today’s fractured free agency. But the bottom line is that the next CBA needs to be totally reworked, or we’re looking at another work stoppage as early as 2022.

That 2022 season could be exactly when the White Sox rebuild is ready to leave its mark. And no Sox fan wants another to relive 1994.