The smallest adjustment can make an enormous difference for a Major League Baseball player, which is part of the game’s allure.
Trevor Hoffman frantically searched for a solution in the spring of 1995 after hurting his shoulder diving on the beach at 26 years old, and when he tried a changeup grip showed to him by teammate Donnie Elliott, he discovered the off-speed pitch that will propel him into the Hall of Fame later this year.
Jamie Moyer was within a few months of his 33rd birthday when the Orioles cut him in 1995, just as he felt he had started to make progress in the art of working inside. Moyer was 49 when he finally threw his last pitch in the majors.
That uncertainty about when a player’s breakthrough might occur is why some agents are reluctant to advise their clients to jump at a long-term offer of guaranteed money. Under certain circumstances, taking a team-friendly deal might feel a little like burning Powerball tickets before the numbers are drawn.
But after the brutally harsh conditions for free agents this winter, more players might reflexively grab guaranteed dollars when they are offered, because there have been too many examples of peers who left money behind. Mike Moustakas rejected a qualifying offer of $17.4 million last fall and then settled for $6.5 million this spring. Neil Walker turned down a $42 million, three-year proposal in the winter of 2016-17, and after making $17.2 million last summer, he took a one-year, $4 million deal with the Yankees.
Cautionary tales are swirling throughout baseball right now, and one agent said the other day he assumes that the spawn of "Moneyball" front offices will use the desperation against free agents next fall. “Those m-----f---ers just can’t wait to get into talks next fall, because they know there will be some players scared to wait and will jump at bad deals early,” the agent said.
The tectonic shifts in baseball’s contractual landscape already seem to be occurring. In past years, the Cleveland Indians and then the Tampa Bay Rays spearheaded an effort to sign young prospects to long-term, team-friendly deals that created an early guarantee of millions of dollars -- in return for a deferral of the players’ free agency by a year or two and cost certainty for the team. Jose Altuve, who had been told as a teenager to not bother showing up to one tryout camp, agreed to a contract like this with the Astros in 2013, guaranteeing himself $12.5 million for four years -- and he has outperformed the terms of that deal by many tens of millions of dollars. (We’ll have more on his new contract below.)
In recent years, agents have said they’ve been encouraged to get more players into free agency, rather than take a contract like Altuve’s, to push salary ceilings higher. But over the last couple of winters, the free-agent market has been saturated with a higher number of available players, fueling a voluminous supply-and-demand problem that teams exploited. Of about 200 free agents -- the players who weren’t tendered a contract last fall, in addition to all the players who hit the open market with six-plus years of service time -- only four got deals of more than three years (Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain). Just 10 players landed three-year contracts. About 90 percent of the free agents got contracts of one or two years, or minor league contracts.
A question asked increasingly among agents, then, is if very young players offered long-term deals should consider them, rather than risk the current brutal conditions of free agency. Said one agent: “The lesson to be learned is that for a lot of players, if you get offered a fair deal when you’re young, you should take it -- to make sure you get paid. Then, if you get to free agency later, that can be the bonus on top.”
Altuve’s initial deal of $12.5 million doesn’t sound like much in a world in which elite pitchers make more than $1 million per outing. Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million seems like Monopoly money. But for first- or second-year players assured only of the MLB minimum of $545,000, a guaranteed of $12.5 million can seem like a mountain of money.
Some agents, however, continue to strongly believe that long-term deals don’t make sense for some players. If the player appears to be an upper-echelon talent -- a Bryce Harper, or a Francisco Lindor, who reportedly turned down an offer in the range of $100 million last year -- then it still makes sense to get to free agency, to foster a bidding war.
“But in a lot of cases, it could make a lot of sense,” said another agent. “That’s where you have to have some honesty between the agent and the client about what the player is, and how good he is.”
For example: If the player’s resume is built mostly on hitting home runs, then it might be wise to grab some early money, because those types of players have struggled. Chris Carter led the NL in homers and then was cut. Moustakas mashed a career-high 38 homers last season, but he found no takers in free agency.
Teams seem to be more willing to pay for defense perceived to be elite (Jason Heyward with the Cubs for $184 million, for example), but analytics indicate that for a lot of players, decline in glove work starts around age 28 to 29 -- or when most players become free agents.
“You can’t put all of the players in one box,” one agent said. “Because you don’t know if they’re going to have a bust-out year.”
Hoffman and Moyer can testify to this. So can Jose Ramirez, who was never really regarded as a superstar prospect and got a five-year, $26 million deal after the 2016 season -- and finished third in the AL MVP voting last year, in his age-24 season.
Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez, 26 years old, agreed to seven years that guarantee him $66 million, and even before the deal was finalized, some agents debated over the wisdom of the contract. “That guy is going to be a star, you wait and see,” said one agent. “If he waited, he could kill it [in free agency].”
Another agent noted that it was just a few years ago that Suarez was traded by Detroit in a deal far less than a blockbuster -- he was swapped for veteran pitcher Alfredo Simon: “Look at his history. You have to take it.” And there’s the matter of his home/road splits, a problem which has historically undercut Colorado players in free agency -- last year, Suarez had a Clark Kent-like .694 OPS on the road, versus .978 in cozy Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
The winter storm that buried free agents in this most recent offseason may be only one in a wave of annual avalanches, with the future circumstances perhaps worsening -- or, at the very least, remaining unchanged. The terms of the CBA won’t change for another three-and-a-half years, so some teams will continue to tank; the spawn of "Moneyball" will continue to veer away from risk like insurance salesmen; the next classes of free agents will continue to grow in size, fed by the turnover of players limited to one- and two-year deals. Additionally, union chief Tony Clark has repeatedly warned of a future labor war, and for some players, this might heighten an instinct for a money grab.
All of this ensures that more players -- and their agents -- will seriously weigh the first multiyear offers very differently than three or four years ago.
News from around the majors
Altuve has generated 26.2 WAR in his career, according to FanGraphs, and for his first six seasons, he has made less than $15 million. He’ll earn $6 million this year, then $6.5 million in 2019 -- before the salaries of his new five-year, $151 million deal kick in. He was so productive early in his career that even if he never got another hit -- and rest assured, there will be more high-end work from the 2017 AL MVP and three-time All-Star -- the Astros will have more than justified their multiyear investments in him. Houston’s front office is noted for carefully extracting value, and so the Astros would not have agreed to this kind of extension 20 months before Altuve’s free agency unless they felt comfortable that the deal would be favorable for them.
Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez won the AL ERA title two seasons ago, and after a blister issue sabotaged his 2017 season, rival evaluators have raved about his work this spring. “Incredible,” one said. “He overpowered us.” Sanchez has declined to discuss how he’s working through this spring without a blister recurrence -- this could be a bit of classic baseball superstition, to avoid mention of something going well -- but the adjustments he has made have apparently worked. ... If MLB awarded an MVP award for spring training, Braves superstar prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. might be the frontrunner. He has shown patience, power, speed -- the whole thing. He is 20 years and 3 months old, and he may be on the same path to the big leagues as Harper, Mike Trout and Kris Bryant; he could spend a few weeks to a month in the minors before his promotion.
In meetings this spring, players privately say that union head Tony Clark has taken some hard questions from constituents unhappy about the winter market -- about whether he stands by the terms of the 15-month-old collective bargaining agreement, about the qualifications needed to run a union. Agents report that players have discussed structural adjustments within the union, but it remains unclear whether this is a case of small pods of players complaining to each other or if the unhappiness will evolve into an organized movement for change.
Baseball Tonight podcast
Friday: Jessica Mendoza talks about what she saw in the camps of the Dodgers, Giants, Angels and Cubs; Karl Ravech plays buy or sell on narratives about Gary Sanchez, Manny Machado, the minor league pace-of-play initiatives, etc.; and Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times on the luckless spring of the Mariners.
Tuesday: Boog Sciambi on the Yankees’ cost-efficient signing of Neil Walker; Marly Rivera of ESPN Deportes on the Astros’ visit to the White House; and Langs plays the Numbers Game.
Monday: Nationals GM Mike Rizzo on the Washington bullpen, and the constant Arrieta rumors; Tim Kurkjian on Shohei Ohtani’s struggles; Todd Radom’s first uniform and logo quiz.
And today will be better than yesterday.