February 6, 2019
It’s only a week until pitchers and catchers start reporting for Spring Training and yet two of baseball’s biggest stars remain without teams. Bryce Harper, who has played his entire career with the Washington Nationals, and Manny Machado, who last played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, are both 26-year-old elite hitters at the peak of their careers – and yet they are still struggling to find employment. How exactly did this happen and what could it mean for the league going forward?
Are Harper and Machado really worth long-term contracts?
Yes. At times, Harper has competed with the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout as the best player in the game. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2012 and led the league in home runs in 2015, when he also won the National League MVP at the age of 23, the youngest ever to win the award unanimously. He’s a six-time All-Star and capped off his Washington career by winning the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park last year. Machado, while not quite the player that Harper is, is a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, a lifetime .282 hitter who has already hit 175 home runs in the major leagues.
Are there any reasons teams are hesitant to sign either of them?
Well, Machado has a reputation among fans as a dirty player. He’s been a part of several bench-clearing brawls, most notably in last year’s playoffs after a hard slide into the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jesus Aguilar. Previously, when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, he got into a physical altercation with Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura which led to a four-game suspension.
Harper too has had his moments of hotheadedness, including being part of a fight with pitcher Hunter Strickland in the 2017 National League Division Series. That year, he also spent some time on the DL with a bone bruise, which theoretically could be a flag for some teams, although he’s been pretty durable for a MLB player. It doesn’t feel like either of those factors should affect his desirability, particularly given his undoubted talent.
So why hasn’t anybody signed them?
No one wants to spend money. No, seriously, that’s the reason. Major League Baseball remains a ridiculously lucrative enterprise: the league brought took in $10.3bn last year, and most teams remain well in the black. Famously, MLB doesn’t have a salary cap, merely a luxury tax, so freeing up money for big name free-agents shouldn’t be a problem. As far as the luxury tax goes, only the World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the Nationals themselves went over the $197m threshold last year, and not re-signing Harper should take care of clearing that hurdle for the Nationals this year.
As super-agent Scott Boras has rightfully observed, there are a number of clubs that look like they’re not even attempting to field competitive teams (we’re looking at you Miami Marlins). The rest of them have mostly been spending their offseason filling out their rosters by signing players on bargain contracts. As the Ringer’s Michael Baumann points out, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for major market teams to sell fans the idea that “payroll flexibility” is preventing them from offering big contracts to free agents, particularly for the likes of a Harper.
Are there any other quality players in the same boat besides Harper and Machado?
Sure. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel (last with the Houston Astros) and Gio Gonzalez (last with the Brewers), closer Craig Kimbrel (last with the Boston Red Sox), third baseman Mike Moustakas (last with the Brewers), infielder Marwin Gonzalez (last with the Astros), outfielder Adam Jones (last with the Orioles), among many others, all currently remain unsigned.
It’s a weird coincidence that every team stopped spending money at once …
Isn’t it though? It’s hard not to invoke Occam’s Razor here and assume that there’s some sort of informal agreement going on between clubs to keep wages low. The longer this offseason has gone on, the more analysts have begun to bring up the possibility of collusion. The idea has even come out of the lips of current and former players. Yankees legend Alex Rodriguez has brought up the topic, saying, “salaries have stayed flat for almost 20 years … It’s just interesting what’s happening, and the owners are doing a terrific job working closely together, obviously, and keeping these salaries down.”
Is there collusion?
Well, as Marc Normandin pointed out recently for Deadspin, it’s not exactly unheard of when you look at the history of the league. In any case, even if there is, as our president likes to repeatedly insist, “NO COLLUSION” going on here, there’s certainly the appearance of it and that’s not good for the league.
Where do Machado and Harper eventually end up?
At this point, your guess is as good as anybody’s. The Philadelphia Phillies, among others, are reportedly in discussions with Harper. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman recently speculated that Machado may accept a one-year deal and hope that next year’s offseason isn’t as bleak for free agents. It’s not inconceivable that Machado and Harper will remain unsigned by the time Spring Training games start and if that happens, we’re pretty much in unknown territory.
What does this mean for the MLB’s future?
When reports came out that catcher Yasmani Grandal signed a one-year/$18.25m deal with the Dodgers, Baseball Twitter erupted with dark jokes about how everyone was going to spend the inevitable players’ strike. Here was one of the best catchers in baseball forced to sign a deal that had him immediately auditioning for his next contract. Even the players who have signed free-agent deals this offseason have signed contracts far below those available to equivalent free-agents just a few years ago.
As Normandin has detailed, the luxury tax now works as a de facto salary cap: MLB is continuing to see rising profits and players are starting to get paid less. If these trends continue, the Major League Baseball Players Association is going to have to push back. It’s doubtful that owners are going to give in to demands, especially since they are well-aware that players get the brunt of the blame whenever there’s a players’ strike or owners’ lockout. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021 and as that date nears we could be facing a lost season for the first time since the 1994-95 strike. So, enjoy baseball while you can, fans.