Mike Moustakas’ deal shows just how broken free agency is

Getty Images
96 Comments

In case you missed it, last night Mike Moustakas agreed to a one-year deal to return to the Royals this year. He’ll make $5.5 million. Presuming that the mutual option he and the Royals stuck in the deal is declined — and they’re almost always declined — he’ll get a $1 million buyout next year, so he’s guaranteed only $6.5 million.

Reliever Brian Duensing got a $7 million guarantee over a couple of years. Steve Cishek will get $6.5 million for each of the next two years. Anthony Swarzak will make $14 million over the next two. So will catcher Wellington Castillo. There are a lot of players not as good or as young as Mike Moustakas who did better in free agency than he did this year. Given what even the most conservative outlets were projecting he’d make last fall, it’s shocking how cheaply a guy who hit 38 homers, slugged .521 and isn’t yet 30 years-old came for his old club.

To be sure, I don’t believe that Moustakas is some elite superstar. I don’t think he is as good as he is famous. Yes, he hit a lot of homers, but he also doesn’t get on base that well. He’s not a lumbering first baseman or a DH, but no, he’s not exactly a plus defender anymore, if he ever was. And yes, given the needs of various other teams and how they went about filling them this past offseason, there were limits to his market and the limits became more acute as the winter wore on. Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs has a good overview of all of that here.

But $5.5 million and a cheap buyout? Is THAT how limited a player and how limited a market there was for Mike Moustakas? That seems insane to me.

It seems insane to me none of the other 29 teams in baseball believed that Moustakas was not worth around $6.5 million for a single year commitment. Insane even when you acknowledge that Moustakas may not be as valuable as his fame suggests. Insane even when he had draft pick compensation attached to him via the qualifying offer (it’d be 2-3rd round pick, with slot money that could easily be acquired in very minor trades over the course of the season). Insane even when you take away the teams that had no need for a third baseman heading into the offseason.

Then again, maybe it’s not so insane when you realize that we have a Collective Bargaining Agreement which actively discourages teams from signing guys like Mike Moustakas. A CBA which has created a system which favors young, cost-controlled players, emphasizes the draft (which itself favors the worst clubs most), affirmatively penalizes clubs for signing free agents AND has no enforcement on competitive balance-encouraging measures like revenue sharing. A system which has created a big, big downward escalator on salaries and opportunities for guys like Mike Moustakas.

It has done so in the following ways:

  • The Luxury Tax: The threshold which imposes penalties on teams for high payrolls is proportionately much lower now, compared to revenues, than it was when it was first instituted. Indeed, it was envisioned by those who came up with the concept that it would grow commensurate with industry revenues. It hasn’t done that. Meanwhile, the tax imposed has escalated to a point that it is oppressive. Those levels were negotiated by the MLBPA. They messed up. The Yankees, Tigers and Giants all might’ve had some interest in Moustakas but for the tax as currently configured;
  • The Qualifying Offer: It continues to penalize the signing club which then passes the damage down to the top free agents. By lowering the value of the best free agents it lowers the bar for all players, costing them money. While the 2nd or 3rd round pick attached to Moustakas is not super expensive in the grand scheme, it’s not cost-free. Its only purpose is to penalize teams for trying to improve by signing him. If your goal is to compensate teams who lose free agents, you could do that with a supplemental pick that doesn’t impact signing teams. Why the union ever agreed to a penalty like that is beyond me;
  • Revenue Sharing: Recipients of revenue sharing are, theoretically, supposed to show the manner in which sharing that money has improved the on the field product. There is no real safeguard or mechanism in the CBA to ensure that this happens, however, and multiple teams are ignoring it. The MLBPA has filed grievances to this effect, but very little is likely to come of them, meaning that there was no pressure or incentive in place for the Rays, Pirates, Marlins, Braves or White Sox to look at Moose. I suspect what has happened here is that the union assumed that, as overall revenues grew, teams would naturally spend that money on players. It was a naive assumption which suggests an ignorance of how baseball owners have tended to operate when they’ve gotten extras cash over the past 150 years;
  • The amateur salary cap: In contrast, the slots for draft picks come with penalties so severe that it serves as a cap on drafted players. Setting aside that, as a matter of principle, the MLBPA should never have agreed to a cap, be it an explicit or a defacto one, it has created a tremendous incentive for teams to focus on younger, controlled players over veterans simply as a matter of cost. There are several teams who didn’t look at Moustakas because they have cheaper, team-controlled players who are worse than he is but who are preferable, financially speaking;
  • The international salary cap: Like draftees, most international free agents worth a damn are capped severely in the new CBA. The international concessions serve MLB’s interest in payroll reduction and maintaining good relationships with foreign leagues, with which it partners in various ways, but what does it do for MLBPA members? Why did they agree to it? They likely did due to the same assumptions the union made about the owners spending more money when revenues increased which, again, was a bad assumption. While Shohei Ohtani is primarily a pitcher, his bat is also envisioned to help deal with the Angels’ 1B/DH issues. If the Angels had to pay market price for him, might they have at least considered getting more creative in addressing the club’s overall needs? Might the things that would’ve put into motion based on that have benefitted Moustakas, even if indirectly?

Many people I talk to think about all of these things and say, in effect, “hey, that’s the system, whaddaya gonna do?” What many overlook, however, is that the system is not set in stone. All of the above conditions which make up that system were negotiated by the MLBPA, mostly recently. They are not immutable facts of life in place since the dawn of time. All of the things listed above which inspire teams to or discourage teams from signing a given player are a function of the CBA and the incentives and disincentives it creates.

Mike Moustakas would’ve looked great in Yankee pinstripes and could’ve provided at least some credibility to a Tigers team that will be a joke in 2018, but the luxury tax incentivized both of those clubs to steer away. The Giants made sense but the luxury tax considerations likely scared them away early and, later, when Moustakas might’ve been had more cheaply, the Rays gifted them Evan Longoria, themselves under no real CBA pressure to spend money. The Braves, Phillies, White Sox, Pirates, Marlins and Orioles all would be better teams with Mike Moustakas on them, but they likewise are under no pressure and are thus not incentivized to win more games and/or spend more money, so they’ll go with cheaper, worse options. Shohei Ohtani’s bargain basement price greatly disrupted the market in its own unique but ultimately foreseeable way.

Every single one of those teams’ decisions not to pursue Mike Moustakas, in a vacuum, is defensible and even reasonable. That the Royals were able to get him so cheaply is totally logical if you take it all on a step-by-step basis given the prevalent conditions in the market.

Those conditions are a function of a broken system, however. A system which exists because the Major League Baseball Players’ Association negotiated a series of Collective Bargaining Agreements that have harmed its membership. A system for which now Mike Moustakas is the most prominent poster boy and greatest financial casualty.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images
3 Comments

TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.