If baseball had a Free Agent Frenzy television show, it would last about 15 minutes before they had to fill the time with blooper reels
The suits hoping to bring Major League Baseball back to Montreal released a study last month that concluded — surprise! — Montreal was eager to see baseball return.
Perhaps this process will eventually lead to something. There is clearly a romance for the days of the Expos that hasn’t been extinguished, there are Serious People involved, and the team in Tampa is once again struggling to come up with a long-term stadium solution. Maybe MLB will decide it really shouldn’t have dumped Montreal all those years ago.
I’m just not sure that Montreal should want baseball back.
With MLB once more in the throes of an interminably dull off-season, there has been a new round of stories about the problems that are plaguing the sport. This has become something of a January tradition. Last year at this time it was written that baseball was “at a crisis point,” that more teams were interested in securing the top draft pick than trying to win a World Series, and, in a bit of rhetorical flourish provided by the L.A. Times, that with spring training just around the corner, “hope and faith is dead across America.” I swear to you that this was a baseball reference.
Six of the top-10 free agents, as ranked by ESPN, have still not signed contracts
With few teams trying to win as many games as possible next season, the off-season hot stove has become a couple of barely warm embers, with loads of players still without contracts even though pitchers and catchers will start to report to camps in a little over a month. The sport has been trending this way for a few years, but the problem has become particularly acute now. Two superstar free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, are still unsigned, even though each is 26 years old and would immediately make any team better. Six of the top-10 free agents, as ranked by ESPN, have still not signed contracts. Just three years ago, teams had committed almost a billion dollars to seven free agents by this point in the off-season — US$967.5-million, to be precise — but this year teams are willing to spend much less. The top seven contracts signed so far total US$396.5-million. Compare that kind of market cooling to a typical offseason in the NBA or NHL, where marquee free agents are always snapped up within days of the signing period opening. If baseball had a Free Agent Frenzy television show, it would last about 15 minutes before they had to fill the time with blooper reels and debates about the merits of the infield shift.
Ken Rosenthal, writing at The Athletic last week, noted the “disturbingly slow” pace of this off-season and said “there is a growing consensus in the sport that the system is broken.”
But the people in a position to fix that, which is the owners, have shown little interest in changing it. Baseball’s inflation-adjusted revenues have doubled over the past 15 years; a Yahoo Sports analysis found that adjusted payrolls have climbed by less than 40% over that same period. With money pouring in from national TV deals, the sale of MLB’s digital media business and new gambling-related partnerships, teams don’t have to worry as much about attendance revenue, so they can go on a youth movement, trim payroll and still make a tidy profit. Somewhere between a third and a half of baseball’s 30 teams are plainly not trying to win in 2019, which is remarkable given that 10 teams will make the playoffs. This is how you end up with Oakland making the post-season by accident last year.
Baseball’s teams have managed the neat trick of convincing the paying public that payrolls need to be kept down because of luxury-tax worries, which mimics what happens in other leagues. But relative to the other big leagues, MLB’s luxury tax is bunkum. The NHL and NFL have actual hard salary caps and the NBA’s tax is at least punitive. The champion Golden State Warriors are scheduled to pay $US50-million in tax penalties this season, which is about what they pay Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, combined, in salary. The champion Boston Red Sox owed about US$12-million in luxury tax. Considering that the Sox paid Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval a combined US$39-million to not play for them in 2018, that tax bill couldn’t have felt too steep. And while half the NBA’s teams will spend near to the tax threshold or over it, only a couple of MLB teams are ever near the tax limit.
This is what makes the lack of a bidding war for Harper or Machado so striking. Rather than jump at the chance to sign a player who would be an excellent asset for several seasons, all but a handful of teams have shown no interest in them, this despite their relative youth. (Over the past three winters before this one, the top-20 free agents as ranked by ESPN have included just two players who were under 30: Jayson Heyward and Eric Hosmer, both 29 at the time of their free agency.) Finding superstars is supposed to be the toughest thing to do in sports, and yet all it would cost these baseball teams is money. Still, they pass. Instead, they wait to see which of the big-market usual suspects will offer the mega-dollar deal. Fans of every other team will have to hope that management can assemble enough home-grown talent to be competitive for a few years, at least until that talent becomes too expensive and will be snapped up by the same big-market teams.
It’s so familiar now in baseball that everyone just accepts the cycle as inevitable. It’s a great deal for the owners. It is much less so for the fans.