It's past time for MLB to do away with transfer fees

Leave a comment

In case you missed it — and most everyone did — the Twins recently engaged in a modestly shady transaction, adding Juan Morillo to their 40-man roster in advance of him becoming a minor league free agent.
It wasn’t an unusual move in itself, but the Twins didn’t do it with an eye towards having Morillo compete for a job next season. No, they needed to keep the 26-year-old reliever in their organization for a little while longer so that they could lock in a transfer fee for his pending sale to a Japanese team, expected to be the Hanshin Tigers. Holding the player hostage for a little while was just part of the process.
And that’s why it’s time to end the process. We’re long past the days in which MLB teams were needed to broker deals between players and Japanese teams. The clubs in Japan already know which players they’re targeting before free agency even hits, and at last check, they weren’t serious threats to bring in a Matt Holliday or a John Lackey.
The transfer fees in themselves are largely harmless. Few players are sold for more than $500,000 or so. The Yankees’ sale of Darrell Rasner for $1 million last November was the largest fee in years.
The fees, though, did spawn a gentleman’s agreement that has no business being a part of baseball. With one very notable exception, teams have declined to interfere with Japanese transfers, even if the player appears to be of some use. There’s nothing in the rules that would have stopped the Royals from claiming Rasner off waivers last year and either using him themselves or cutting their own deal with a team in Japan. They didn’t because of the agreement in place.
The one time said agreement was violated was when the Red Sox stepped in and blocked Florida’s sale of Kevin Millar to the Chunichi Dragons prior to the 2003 season. The Marlins didn’t look to trade Millar in order to improve their team, and there’s no way they were going to release him. They simply wanted the $1.2 million they were set to receive from the Dragons.
The mess than ensued proved worth it for Boston, even though the Red Sox ended up giving the Marlins $1.5 million on top of what they paid Millar. It was a selfish move for the Red Sox, but it was also clearly in the best interests of the game, not only from a quality of play standpoint — Millar was, at that point, one of the game’s top 15 first basemen — but also in that it set a precedent; no team has since tried to sell an established, in-demand major leaguer to a Japanese team.
The way I see it, no player should be headed to Japan unless he’s a free agent or completely unwanted by all 30 clubs. The gentleman’s agreement simply doesn’t belong in baseball, and there’d by no need for it at all if transfer fees were abolished. Alternatively, MLB itself could keep the transfer fees, with the entire pool being spread evenly among all 30 teams. Either choice would benefit the players and guarantee that there are no more Millar-type fiascos in MLB’s future.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
10 Comments

The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.