In the days following the World Series, David Freese pondered his options for the coming spring. At 35, he felt rejuvenated after joining the Dodgers in August. He displayed his value with an excellent postseason, enough for the team to consider picking up his $6-million option for 2019.
The interest coincided with a pair of desires for Freese. He wanted to stay in Los Angeles. And he sought to avoid the demeaning, depleting process that free agency has become. He figured he would prefer retirement to waiting until March for a new deal. So he let the Dodgers cut his pay to $5 million, and sounded thrilled with the outcome.
“It was honestly great not to go into the market,” Freese said this past weekend at Dodgers FanFest.
A day after Freese re-signed, the process repeated on a grander scale. Clayton Kershaw avoided free agency by agreeing to a three-year, $93-million contract. Rather than use his potential departure as a cudgel, Kershaw leveraged his theoretical freedom into effectively what was a one-year extension. He preferred the comfort of the Dodgers over the uncertainty of the market. Hyun-Jin Ryu made a similar choice, opting for the team’s one-year, $17.9-million qualifying offer rather than seeking a larger, lengthier deal with other clubs.
Across the last three decades, as Major League Baseball emerged from the late-1980s scandal of collusion and began to compensate its workforce without manipulated prices, the players treated free agency as a panacea. It was the reward for the years spent riding minor-league buses down dusty roads. It was why they accepted three years of a league-mandated minimum salary, and three more potentially fighting with their employers in arbitration. Free agency was the goal.
If a player was fortunate enough to make it through that sluice with his health and skills intact, he could reap the reward of the open market.
Yet the winter of 2019 has reinforced the foreshadowing from last winter. Those days are gone. The compensation system for baseball players is not broken, but it has mutated in a way that has squeezed out those who had become comfortable with the old paradigm.
Two weeks shy of pitchers and catchers reporting for work this season, the list of available free agents extends beyond the high-profile duo of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Dallas Keuchel, two-time all-star and former Cy Young Award winner, remains unsigned. So does seven-time all-star closer Craig Kimbrel. Multiple other former all-stars are available.
More revealing is the brevity of contracts that have been given out. Only four players — Washington Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin, Dodgers outfielder A.J. Pollock, Boston Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi and Seattle Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi — have netted contracts longer than three years. Fifteen teams have spent fewer than $25 million on free agents this winter.
Consider the case of former Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal. Heading into his age-30 season, he averaged 24 home runs and a .799 on-base plus slugging percentage during the previous three years. His production outpaced that of catcher Brian McCann, who inked a five-year, $85-million contract with the New York Yankees before the 2014 season at the same age after averaging 21 homers and a .770 OPS. Grandal settled for a one-year, $18.25-million deal with Milwaukee.
The era of the irrational eight- or nine-figure payday has ended, as executives have seen the folly of deals awarded to players such as Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million) and Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis (seven years, $161 million).
“Data is laying it out there on how guys play, how they show up later on in these huge deals,” Freese said. “And I guess it’s just not panning out. So teams are just not going to throw that out there — especially if there aren’t more than a team or two fighting for a certain player. Especially if you’re in your 30s.”
Freese understood the logic. But he still fretted over the implications.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I don’t think it needs to be like that. We understand how much money is out there, and the question is: where is the fans’ money going?”
Both Harper and Machado are 26, but have still been caught in this storm. In recent years, the proliferation of teams tanking in the hopes of rebuilding has been replaced by a more subtle scourge. No longer does half the industry abdicate winning in an effort to replicate how the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros assembled their championship clubs. But a majority of the sport has embraced austerity, even the large-market clubs who once used financial might to lord over rivals.
The Yankees diverted their offseason resources to a horde of relievers and second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, rather than Harper and Machado. The Cubs preferred to bring back shortstop Addison Russell, who was suspended in October for violating the sport’s domestic-violence policy, instead of pursuing Machado. Needing to fill a hole in their outfield, the Astros opted for a two-year, $32-million contract with Michael Brantley, a good player who lacks the stratospheric upside of Harper.
The Dodgers have scant interest in Machado and tepid interest in Harper, but they’ve still spent more than most. They added Joe Kelly (three years, $25 million) to the bullpen and tabbed Pollock (four years, $55 million) to fill the void created by Yasiel Puig’s departure.
The team has also benefited from the new reality of the market. They kept Kershaw without requiring a burdensome deal. They retained Ryu for another season. And they convinced Freese to take a discount from his contractual option.
Freese was a free agent once. After the 2015 season, he waited until early March before finding a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. He pondered retirement during those months too. He eventually played his way into an extension with the Pirates, and experienced reinvigoration as a late-season addition to the Dodgers. But he had little interest in repeating the process.