Here's the deal: Free agency's role is changing
Impact signings on the wane as teams lock up homegrown talent
One of baseball's topics du jour -- or topics du, uh, whatever the French word for "week" is -- is the supposed "death of free agency." A ton of talent has been locked up for the long haul in recent days, including Justin Verlander, Buster Posey, Elvis Andrus, Adam Wainwright and Paul Goldschmidt.
Take it back over the last few months, and you can include Felix Hernandez, Evan Longoria, David Wright, Chris Sale, Matt Harrison and Allen Craig. Take it back over the last year, and you've got Joey Votto, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Brandon Phillips, Starlin Castro, Adam Jones, Miguel Montero, Ian Kinsler and… Good Lord, will there be any free agents available in future winters?
Well, the answer is yes, of course. Free agency isn't really dying. But it is definitely changing, to the point where an increasingly significant percentage of the pool will be made up of short-term solutions and stopgaps, rather than franchise-altering superstars.
"Remember Shrinky Dinks?" said Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, referring to the once-popular plastic sheets kids could put in the oven and shrink to small plates. "That's the free-agent market. It's the way of the world now."
And it's a great way to ensure some feel of familiarity, both for the players and the fan bases. Not to oversimplify things, but we seem to be returning, in some sense, to the so-called "good ol' days" when teams had an identity based off their homegrown talent. Kids today will grow up knowing Buster Posey is the Giants and Justin Verlander is the Tigers and Giancarlo Stanton is the Marlins. (Well, OK, ignore that last one, but you get the idea.)
"It's easier to be a fan," said Jay Bruce, who is locked in with the Reds through 2017, "when you don't have guys shuffling in and out. You think about the Big Red Machine back in the day. No one left that team. That's why you had eight Hall of Famers on one team. Of course, if you had that today, you might have a $600 million payroll."
There is, indeed, some amazing money to be made in the game today, but we're seeing a greater percentage of players making it with the teams that drafted and developed them. Extensions are nothing new, but the size of these extensions is significant. The Posey, Verlander and Andrus agreements reached in a three-day span this past week were all nine-figure deals. Not exactly the "hometown discounts" we've come to know and love.
"Fortunately for us," Bruce said, "the dollars have become so large that even when you're signing deals with your team early, they're still close to market. I understand the competitive market and not pushing the market down for players coming after you. I respect that, and that's a big part of keeping things on the up and up on our side. But I don't think that guys are just signing anything put in front of them. There's so much information out there that if you do any due diligence at all, you're going to understand [what's fair]."
The definition of fairness has certainly shifted. Many in the industry were stunned to see the Angels give Mike Trout just $20,000 above the Major League minimum after his historic rookie season, because the new norm is to reward guys even in their pre-arbitration years. The guess here, though, is that Trout gets his reward in-house eventually, given that the Angels are pretty well-armed on the economic front.
Now, obviously, the game's present financial trends are not finite. All that TV money floating around today won't last forever. But the immediate future of free agency is sparse, to say the least. Among the noise of the extensions signed this past week was the news that Robinson Cano is switching agents -- from Scott Boras to Jay-Z -- in a move that seems likely to seal his status with the Yankees for the long term.
Take Cano out of the free-agent forecast for 2013-14, and you're left with a position player cast highlighted by the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, Justin Morneau and Ben Zobrist. Good players all, but they all have their share of question marks preventing them from being labeled as outright "superstars." The pitching stable will be even weaker, fronted as it is by Josh Johnson and his history of health woes.
What we could see, then, are increasingly lively trade markets. It is a fact that priorities and contention windows change and evolve, so there will likely be situations in which big-market teams essentially rescue small markets from backloaded contracts that have albatross potential, with prospects and/or salary relief changing hands. To me, trade transactions are eminently more interesting than free-agent signings, anyway, so the Hot Stove should still burn bright.
That's the takeaway here: There will always be major player movement in this business because, well, it's a business. It's just that, right now, much of that business is being taken care of in-house, and it's going to leave us with some pretty tepid free-agent waters.