Baseball’s labor market is a mess

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado hits an RBI double during the ninth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
Manny Machado has surprisingly few suitors this offseason.  Jennifer Stewart / USA Today Sports

There’s a labor storm brewing in Major League Baseball. When teams are scantly pursuing the market’s two generational free agents, something is wrong. It’s one thing to not break the bank for more mid-tier free agents — say, JA Happ for example. Terrible free agent decisions have certainly hurt teams in the past (oh, who else remembers the Gary Matthews Jr and Juan Pierre extravaganzas? What fun!) but rarely did those transactions involve truly great players.

The fact is, cash invested in great players is rarely wasted if the team wants to win. Unless you just flat out make a bad decision (Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t make sense at the time, for example) you’ll probably be fine. The first Alex Rodriguez contract (signed when he was 26 for 10-years, $252 million) was a reasonable deal for a player of A-Rod’s caliber. He was freaking awesome and at his peak. He contributed an absurd amount of value to the Rangers and Yankees.

But the second deal — signed as A-Rod was sailing past his peak — was a trainwreck and had no hope of being anything but. I probably wouldn’t have done the Giancarlo Stanton deal (13-years, $325 million). It’s just too long.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado fall into the first A-Rod contract territory. Those two aren’t iffy. The pedigree, history, and comparables make signing either a great baseball decision. Elite and young. Never a bad combination. If you want to win, these two are among the best in the world at getting you there.

You simply don’t stumble upon many better free agents than Harper or Machado.

Baseball is raking in the cash these days, to the tune of a record-setting $10.3 billion in 2018. So why aren’t teams willing to spend? Consider what Chris Cwik of Yahoo had to say:

The players are not blameless here. They agreed to a bad deal during the last collective-bargaining agreement negotiations in 2016. In their haste to strike down an international draft, the players agreed to a system that capped international spending, allowed luxury tax penalties to get stronger — giving teams more incentive to treat the luxury tax like a salary cap — and accepted a modified qualifying offer system that’s no better than the previous one.

The teams got a great deal during the last labor negotiations and are enjoying it. Teams like the Yankees and Chicago Cubs, hardly hurting for funds, have decided to stop pushing payrolls deep into the luxury tax. Can they push deeper? Absolutely. Will they? Not really.

The Yankees can certainly use Machado, for example. (Anyone can use an elite young shortstop, but alas.) But will they pursue?

And then we see this:

Seriously? That’s Ellsbury money. Do people not realize that Machado (and Harper) are awesome? What am I missing? These two aren’t Albert Pujols at the time he signed (north of 30, a first baseman) or the aforementioned Ellsbury. Robinson Cano, PED suspension aside, has been worth the big money he signed for and both of this market’s marquee names are vastly superior bets.

Age and awesomeness, folks. Age and awesomeness.

Look, the fact is, every single team should pursue Machado at that money. If the Yankees, a team with more money than they know what to do with, allow an elite young shortstop to slip away at that price tag, the fans should revolt. It’d be absurd. Same for any club wanting to win a championship without an obvious roadblock at shortstop and third base. This isn’t rocket science, guys.

It’s not just fans and analysts making noise about this, by the way. The players are aware and becoming vocal. Take note of what Phillies starter Jake Arrieta said:

Uh oh. Only one major free agent has signed, Patrick Corbin, who inked a fairly large contract with the Washington Nationals for six years, $140 million. Beyond that, it’s been a lot of small and middling deals. (By the way: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are undeniably better players now and better bets going forward than Corbin. Not in the same league.)

The era of massive contracts might be over in baseball, for better or worse. One wonders if the next round of collective bargaining might be quite a bit more heated than before. Rough waters might be ahead for the sport.

In the meantime, Harper and Machado will sign somewhere. Plenty of fans might be disappointed when the details are revealed.