Red Sox OF/DH J.D. Martinez has first-hand experience with baseball’s stagnant free agent market. Coming off a season in which he posted a 1.066 OPS with 45 home runs and 104 RBI between the Tigers and Diamondbacks, Martinez didn’t sign until the end of February last year, securing a five-year, $110 million contract. He continues to watch as his peers, including former teammate Craig Kimbrel, remain jobless as March approaches.
WEEI’s Rob Bradford spoke to Martinez about the slow free agent market. Martinez had plenty to say, including calling it “embarrassing for baseball.” The full quote:
“One-hundred-percent,” Martinez told WEEI.com when asked if he had an idea there would be a second straight offseason where free agents were being drastically more undervalued than in years’ past. “I knew it was Why wouldn’t it? They got away with it last year, why wouldn’t they do it again? What’s going to happen? Nothing. It’s embarrassing for baseball, it really is. It’s really embarrassing for the game. You have a business. They say, ‘The market is down, the market is changing.’ The market is higher than it’s ever been. People are making more money than ever, and they’re trying to suppress it. It’s more of a race towards the bottom now than a race towards the top. You can go right now through everyone’s lineup and you already know who’s going to be in the playoffs. What’s the fun in that? We might as well just fast-forward to the end of the season.”
Martinez also pointed out that the canary in the coal mine was Justin Upton unable to finalize a contract until January 2016, when he inked a six-year, $132.75 million contract with the Tigers. He said, “Last year, and almost the year before (he noticed it). When I was in Detroit, and Justin Upton signed late (Jan. 20, 2016). I saw it there. I was like, ‘There’s something up.’ As players, we thought everything was going good and on the right track. We were getting paid, baseball is doing great, we’re getting fair compensation. We’re happy with what we’re getting. Then all of a sudden, we’re in this thing now. This is a product of their creation and what they wanted.”
Martinez was level-headed about the situation, however. As we have mentioned here, the players focused on securing quality-of-life changes as opposed to more money during negotiations for the current collective bargaining agreement. He said, “We were at a point where we were getting paid well and everything was fair. We saw where the product was going, everything was moving forward. Then we’re like, ‘OK, we’re not going to push the envelope fighting for money. Let’s fight for an extra bus.’ Again, I was a lot younger than I am now. I wasn’t aware of those things. When you get older, you go through arbitration, you start seeing it affect you directly, and you get a lot more involved. This has definitely been eye-opening to everyone. Not just myself, but all of the players. There obviously have to be some changes.”
It would be nice if Martinez and others used this teachable moment to realize that the issue is far greater than just free agency. It’s all tied into artificial salary suppression, beginning in the minor leagues and continuing into a player’s first six years in the majors. Fighting on behalf of minor leaguers for better pay and benefits, fighting to abolish the amateur draft, and fighting to speed up a player’s track to free agency would each make a meaningful impact on veteran major leaguers reaching their deserved earning potential.
Martinez is right about one thing, though: this whole situation is embarrassing for Major League Baseball. However, the consequences of such an embarrassment would have been felt in the form of things like lower ticket and merchandising revenues. Now that the league and its individual teams have more diversified revenue streams — and in some teams’ cases, like the Braves, the baseball team is merely an amenity — those consequences aren’t really felt. The owners make money hand over fist with their baseball teams despite self-inflicted austerity measures.