Due to the scale of events, baseball and otherwise, that have happened within the last three months or so, time feels like it’s going way faster – at least for me. It’s hard to believe it was only one year ago today that then-free agents Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel found homes with the Cubs and Braves, respectively.
Kimbrel, now 32 years old, was coming off of a strong 2018 performance in which he registered 42 saves with a 2.74 ERA and a 96/31 K/BB ratio over 62 1/3 innings. He got off to a poor start in the postseason, allowing runs in each of his first four appearances, which garnered a lot of headlines. He also finished what was ultimately a successful postseason by allowing two runs in an inning to the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series.
Keuchel, meanwhile, had a solid age-30 season, posting a 3.74 ERA with 153 strikeouts and 58 walks over 204 2/3 innings in his seventh year as an Astro.
At the time, the free agent market had been stagnating. While the stars were still getting their money, they were often waiting until January, February, and sometimes even March to sign contracts. The “middle class” and “lower class” among baseball players were even more adversely affected, as teams seemed to simultaneously decide not to sign veterans. Instead, they relied on the younger, cheaper talent in their organizations to fill the gaps.
There were whispers of collusion among MLB front offices. In early 2019, Mark Reynolds and Francisco Liriano both separately said that they received handfuls of minor league offers on the same day after having not heard anything for weeks prior. Brad Brach also heard from teams referring to “an algorithm” with regard to salaries.
Collusion is nothing new to Major League Baseball. The MLB Players Association filed three grievances against the owners in the mid- and late-1980’s, known as Collusion I, Collusion II, and Collusion III. Collusion I dealt with teams freezing players out of the free agent market. Collusion II was more of the same, but came at a time MLB revenues increased and free agent salaries decreased. Collusion III had to do with the owners creating an “information bank” on players that they shared with each other. Ultimately, the owners settled in 1990, agreeing to pay the players $280 million in damages. While that was the last time MLB owners were punished for collusion, there have been several allegations in the years since and many more whispers.
Kimbrel — a seven-time All-Star and potential Hall of Famer – and Keuchel – a two-time All-Star and 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner – both waited out the stagnant market, missing the first two-plus months of the 2019 regular season. Kimbrel signed with the Cubs on a three-year, $43 million contract while Keuchel signed a one-year, $21.2 million contract with the Braves. Both reported to the minors briefly to get into pitching shape before debuting for their new teams.
The long layoff seemed to affect Kimbrel as he was clearly less effective. According to Statcast, Kimbrel’s four-seam fastball was a full MPH lower on average in 2019 than the year prior. Through 23 appearances, Kimbrel allowed 15 runs on 21 hits and 12 walks with 30 strikeouts over 20 2/3 innings. He set a career-worst in strikeout rate at 31.3 percent (career average: 41.1 percent) and home run rate at 3.92 per nine innings (career average: 0.72). Kimbrel went on the injured list in early August due to knee inflammation and returned 15 days later, but went back on the injured in early September, this time with elbow inflammation.
Keuchel was solid for the Braves. Less reliant on velocity than Kimbrel, the lefty induced ground balls at a 60 percent clip. And while, like most pitchers in 2019, he had a little more trouble with home runs, he ultimately had a successful season. Keuchel found a multi-year deal in free agency his next time around, signing with the White Sox in late December on a three-year, $55.5 million deal.
Recent events have pushed baseball’s stagnating free agency onto the back burner. A pandemic caused the league to shut down. The league had been threatening to cut more than 25 percent of its minor league teams and will likely do exactly that, thanks in large part to the pandemic. The league shortened the draft to five rounds this year and the 2021 draft will likely be shorter as well. There may not be a 2020 season.
Regardless, the current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021. No matter what happens this year with regard to the pandemic and a makeshift season, free agency will be a sticking point for the union, as well as other issues like service time manipulation. Kimbrel and Keuchel’s extended time as free agents will serve at least as a talking point as the union attempts to tilt the balance of power closer to even.