The free agent market is ice cold. Big name free agents aren’t coming off the board and the players who are signing are doing so for very low money, often to re-up with the teams they played for last year. Is something fishy going on, or is it just a case of savvy front offices imposing some sanity on a once-over-heated market independently from one another?
Sports Illustrated offers some insight:
Owners claim they are only exercising common sense . . . [an MLB official] pointed out, among other things, that close to $50 million is being paid out to players no longer performing, that players on long-term contracts spend more time on the disabled list, and that performance progressively falls off in each year of a multiyear pact. “I just told [clubs] what I’ve been telling them all along, that they were crazy and running themselves into bankruptcy,” says [the MLB official]. It also has not gone unnoticed that the more successful clubs in recent years have not resorted to signing free agents.
Is that compelling to you? Believable? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Before you answer, let me note that all of that material from above comes from the December 9, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which the free agent being unable to find a lucrative deal was Kirk Gibson and the MLB official whose name I bracketed over was then-chairman of MLB’s Player Relations Committee Lee MacPhail, who died several years ago. As we all know, the excuses offered at the time were bogus and there was, in fact, an active collusion conspiracy going on, orchestrated from MLB’s head office itself.
I’m not saying that collusion is happening now, mind you. I have no evidence of that and I would not lodge such a serious accusation without evidence. I am merely offering a history lesson. I am reminding you that the sorts of statements we’ve been hearing of late about how owners are only exercising common sense and how rationality, not a conspiracy, dictates not signing free agents are nothing new. They can be offered in a genuine fashion and may be now, but they were the disingenuous answers that were given back in a time when collusion was afoot.
Which is to say that, if your favorite team is not actively trying to make itself better, don’t just settle for the pat and broad “we’re just exercising common sense” answer or references to bad contracts handed out in the past or the time aging players stay on the disabled list. Based on that “the more successful clubs in recent years have not resorted to signing free agents” comment, don’t even buy in to the “hey, look what the Cubs and Astros did with their rebuilds” line.
Sure, it may be true, but Major League Baseball clubs have not earned the benefit of the doubt on such matters. They offered all of that stuff in disingenuous fashion in the past, and while it may be genuine now, we are under no obligation to believe clubs when they say so.