It was supposed to be the winter when money ran like water in baseball. With superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper dangling for anxious teams, it was predicted that the previous record for a Major League Baseball contract was going to be shattered.
That would be the $325-million deal inked by Giancarlo Stanton with the New York Yankees last year (all figures are U.S. dollars).
Machado and Harper, both 26 and together possessing 10 all-star berths, are the rarest of birds: available in the prime of their careers. If you’d collected a dollar for every time it was speculated that Machado was bound for the Yankees or Harper would suit up for the Los Angeles Dodgers, you’d be a rich person.
But with barely a month before spring training camps open, the fancy baubles of the offseason remain in the box, waiting for a tree to hang upon.
There are a few qualms about the pair. Despite their glistening records, they’re apparently not the greatest teammates. Machado is reportedly trying to surround himself with pals and relatives wherever he lands. Harper has no self-esteem issues.
So what? Baseball history is littered with great players who were less than humanitarian laureates.
Some other free agents have determined to go short term until the market clarifies. Star catcher Yasmani Grandal accepted a one-year $18.5-million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
And for those with short memories, it needs to be noted that star outfielder J.D. Martinez didn’t ink his deal with the Boston Red Sox until the third week of February 2018. Several others signed just before camps opened in February. So we’ve been here recently.
Still, the MLB Players Association is not happy with the go-slow. It has seen something like this before, of course. In the mid-1980s, owners colluded to bring down the price of free-agent players like André Dawson (Montreal Expos), Jack Morris (Detroit Tigers), Tim Raines (Expos), Ron Guidry (New York Yankees), Rich Gedman (Red Sox), Bob Boone (California Angels) and Doyle Alexander (Atlanta Braves). With few or no bidders, these stars signed one-year deals or stayed with their former teams.
The problem with this notion – urged by then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth – was that they left behind an actual record of their collusion. When this was uncovered in arbitration, owners paid almost $100 million in restitution to players affected by the scheme.
So the one assurance we have is that, if there is collusion, MLB has likely not left crumbs behind for the players association to dine upon.
Part of the problem with this situation is the absence from the market of the Yankees and world champion Red Sox. Usually the pump that primes the market, the AL East rivals seem happy to live with the elite players they corralled in the last two years. Stanton and Martinez cost them a bundle but paid off handsomely. They’re keeping their powder dry in case Mike Trout shows up looking for a deal next winter.
The Chicago Cubs are usually another big-market stimulant. But they seem to be playing the hokey-pokey with Harper and Machado. One foot in. One foot out. It seems they’ll only feel an urge to splurge if their cross-city cousins, the hapless White Sox, make good on the multiple stories saying they’re going ink Machado. Otherwise, not so much.
As well, one class of salary sinner seems to have retired from the field of financial dreams. The Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Angels and Baltimore Orioles once chased these free agents like a dog after a bone. They’ve repented the ludicrous contracts they once loved and are content to build by using cheaper young talents and the scraps of bargain free agents. They’ve jettisoned all their expensive players in hopes the prospect fairy bequeaths them a hot prodigy.
(Apropos of nothing, what are the Orioles doing? They say they’re rebuilding with youth. Well, Machado is 26, one of the top 10 players in the sport. In his prime. Isn’t this the sort of player you’re talking about as the baseline of your franchise? Inane.)
That leaves the Dodgers and a dog’s breakfast of secondary markets. The Philadelphia Phillies (flush with new TV money), the White Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros still seem in spend mode. But it’s only crazy money. Not insane, are-you-kidding-me, Cardi B. type money.
It’s not that MLB has hit the skids financially. The average team was worth $1.645 billion in 2018, seven per cent more than in 2017. The Yankees are worth an estimated $3.7 billion. Even mid-rank teams such as the Blue Jays are over the $1-billion mark.
While it can’t command national TV rights like the National Football League, MLB’s social-media presence and regional deals are still substantial. And with gambling industry income now flowing in a number of states, that will only get better.
It appears the teams have decided to use their market leverage for a change. The mega stars like Machado and Harper are still going to get very serious money. Soon.
But enough owners have been curb-stomped by contracts that didn’t work out (hello Justin Heyward and your $185-million hosing of the Cubs) to steer clear of others who don’t move the needle or boost the box office.
The owners have simply removed artificial deadlines to act. They’re tired of negotiating against themselves. If players sign late, it’s not like they have to practise plays or secret strategies.
And it will remain this way for the foreseeable future. Unless some MLB goof left collusion emails on their server again.
Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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