December 20, 2014

Fixing Baseball Free Agency

Free Agency Dilemma
There’s certainly been a lot of chatter about free agency in baseball this off-season – albeit without a lot of actual free agent signings and a real dearth of big-ticket deals. I’ve seen a few different perspectives out there, including some good stuff from the Sons of Steve Garvey predicting a decline in player values this off-season similar to what we’ve seen in real estate in Southern California (the McCourt purchases in Malibu notwithstanding, of course).

We all know that much of the gamesmanship that goes with being a free agent is based on the past performance of other players and their ability to land long-term contracts with large sums tied to them (in the form of up-front money and deferred payments). A small number of teams in MLB can afford to drive a certain number of signings at astronomical levels that, in turn, gets the rest of the free-agent market to hold out for the chance to be one of the lucky few who join the $100 million dollar club.

So how exactly do we fix it? I certainly don’t have the answers – no one yet has come up with a good solution – but there was some good commentary over at The Sporting News blogroll that got me thinking about some steps that would get baseball in the right direction:

1. Gradually phase out long-term contracts – this involves a sliding scale based on age that would ensure that more money was distributed across the entire player pool rather than being tied up in a few stars who may or may not ([cough] Andruw Jones [cough]) actually realize a level of play that justifies a huge payday. As the author puts it:

Sounds good but the players union would never go for it right? Well, the players union is supposed to represent all players, not just A-Rod and the rest of the chosen few. Most MLB players never get a shot at the brass ring – they toil along at the league minimum and never really get their due. Short term contracts would free up more cash for more players. With less dead money, teams could afford to pursue more players aggressively. With the contract years fixed, the only negotiating point then is money so even the stars would benefit.

Sure, the big money teams could still win out and out bid anyone, but it would give every team a chance to get into the game. So, to me, a fan of a mid-market team, I want to see the White Sox be able to be in the game but I do not want to see them tie up salaries in players who can’t play out their contracts. All teams need to be able to make the system work for them – not just the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels and Mets

2. Eliminate Guaranteed Contracts - The NFL definitely got this one right. Why should teams be saddled with an annuity for a player that hasn’t delivered performance equal to his past results? Allow some portion to be guaranteed and let the rest ride – it makes much more sense from a long-term viability perspective and also encourages a player not to show up 20 pounds overweight to spring training and then half-ass it during the season before getting injured ([cough] Andruw Jones [cough]). You’d get teams willing to sign longer-term deals for younger players and get some security for the older player looking to be somewhere for 2-3 years without having to feel like your contract negotiations involve actuarial tables for baseball players.

3. Create the Franchise Player tag - Again, similar to the NFL Franchise Player you would designate a player that you want to build your team franchise around and offer significant benefits over the rest of the roster. The tags would be limited in nature and still enable teams to lock up a signature asset for a long period of time. The tag would also reduce poaching as is customary in the current system

Is this the magic bullet? Is it really this simple? Absolutely not. However, I (and many others that have posted on this topic across the blogosphere) think it’s a step in the right direction and one that needs to come sooner rather than later. After all, who wants to buy $11 beers to support a player who is no longer on the team’s roster ([cough] Andruw Jones [cough] hopefully [cough]) or help an owner who paid $40+ million for two beach front Malibu homes try and eek out a profit in the current environment of Major League Baseball? Not me.