Usually privately, sometimes out loud, Jake Arrieta would say that he was going to make $200 million in free agency. Nobody in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse could tell if he was entirely serious or just trolling, but this was not some one-off proclamation. It was 200 or bust.
Nothing emboldened Major League Baseball players quite like free agency. It was as sure a thing as any in sports. Every winter, agents for the best free agents would lay out their demands. Teams, frothing for talent, accepting of the market’s miserable inefficiencies, would protest and gripe and dissent before their inevitable acquiescence. To teams, free agency was a necessary evil.
Then came this winter, when nearly every team asked itself some derivation of the same question: What if it weren’t so necessary? It really was an extension of last winter, the beginning of the squeeze on free agency. Which itself was an extension of the years before, when teams started manipulating service time, a vise on the front end of players’ earning potential. And that was an extension of collective-bargaining-agreement wins in which MLB positioned itself to remake the economics of the game as it so desired. When the story of this period in baseball labor relations is told in a decade – when the labor war that seems more inevitable by the day is fought – it is this winter that may prove most seminal of all.
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Because this is the offseason in which baseball assaulted the monolith upon which the MLB Players Association was built: free agency. Even if teams did not collude in doing so – MLB denies coordination and the MLBPA has yet to find evidence of any – the severity of the damage is apparent.
“Everything is upside down,” one longtime agent said, “and nothing makes sense.”
If free agency is not altogether destroyed, it is at the very least imperiled and handicapped. Players are shook. Agents are on tilt. If the union has a plan, its rank-and-file doesn’t know it. A confluence of factors – a surfeit of tanking or at least non-competitive teams, a collective-bargaining agreement that in certain places disincentivizes spending, a generation of executives reared to care more about value than precedent – left baseball here, with teams relishing bargains and players who once looked at free agency as their adulthood version of Christmas morning now thinking of it with all the warmth and fondness of April 15.
“I don’t want to get Moosed,” said a free agent in the Class of 2018-19, referring to Mike Moustakas, the Kansas City Royals third baseman whose one-year, $6.5 million deal better than any represented the cratering of the market and the failed effort to wait it out in hopes it would improve. That desire stokes dual fears at the union. First that players no longer see free agency for what it once was and will be likelier to accept deals that undervalue their worth and buy out free-agent years. And then that next winter, with a historically good group of players hitting the market, that they will jump at early offers because nearly all of the best deals signed this winter came to those who signed before the new year.
The depth of the market shift this winter remains somewhat unclear. Next to no one, including executives, expect it to hurt Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, both 26-year-old stars. But what about Charlie Blackmon? He plays in Colorado, and he’ll be 32, and he’s not a center fielder long-term. Or Josh Donaldson? He’ll be 33, and even if his production warrants an exorbitant deal, aging curves don’t lie.
In this new world, over this winter, that’s how teams operated: More often than not they gave reasons why they didn’t want to sign a player, not why they wanted him. It happened to Jake Arrieta. Three years ago, he won the National League Cy Young. The next year he wasn’t quite as good but still won a World Series. Last year he was sharper but wasn’t even a six-inning pitcher. He’s 32, and there’s the crossfire delivery, and from near and far, as the offseason wore on, everyone could see where this was going.
Arrieta wasn’t getting $200 million. He wasn’t getting Jon Lester money, either: $155 million. He didn’t even get $100 million. The Philadelphia Phillies agreed to terms with Arrieta on Sunday night. The deal guarantees him three years and $75 million, with $55 million paid in the first two years, after which Arrieta has an opt-out clause, according to a source with knowledge of the contract. The Phillies can bypass the opt-out and extend Arrieta for two years beyond the original term. All said, totally maxed out, perfect world, the deal would pay him $135 million.
Though as baseball players learned this winter, the perfect world they once inhabited looks more and more dystopian by the day.