Barber: Major League Baseball shunning free agents again

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They call the Major League Baseball offseason the hot stove league, but let’s be honest. This process has become more like a vintage Easy Bake Oven, cooking up new contracts not with a burst of flaming gas but with a 100-watt light bulb.

The situation could experience a seismic shift at any point, of course, but as of Friday afternoon the pace remained tepid — just as it was a year ago. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez are still out there waiting for a phone call, as are outfielders A.J. Pollock and Nick Markakis, and shortstop Jose Iglesias, and relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel, and third baseman Mike Moustakas and utility man extraordinaire Marwin Gonzalez and a lot of other damn good ballplayers.

On Friday, ESPN’s free-agency tracker listed 22 of its top 50 players as still on the market, following the Yankees’ acquisition of second baseman D.J. LeMahieu. CBS Sports put the figure at 20 of its top 50 free agents.

OK, that doesn’t sound terrible. We’re just 12 days into January, and the majority of the top baseball freelancers have found homes. But remember, this includes all the guys who signed with their 2018 teams, like pitchers Nathan Eovaldi of the Red Sox, Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers and J.A. Happ of the Yankees. You would expect some of these players to be wrapped up early by their existing clubs.

And those are just the top-tier candidates. The ESPN site was listing 172 ballplayers still looking for contracts as of Friday. Many of them would be worthy contributors, if not standouts.

Locally, the A’s have been mildly active, re-signing pitcher Mike Fiers and gobbling up reliever Joakim Soria and catcher Chris Herrmann. Meanwhile, the Giants have broken the bank by signing ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte for $585,000.

But it isn’t just the percentage of players inking deals. It’s the length of those agreements. Of the top 28 freshly signed players on that ESPN chart, only eight received contracts of three years or longer. There has really been only one deal all offseason that could be construed as a whopper. That would be the six-year, $140 million contract that starting pitcher Patrick Corbin shook loose from the Nationals.

Most of the free agents have failed to gain any long-term security. Ryu, C.C. Sabathia (Yankees), catcher Yasmani Grandal (Brewers), third baseman Josh Donaldson (Braves), designated hitter Nelson Cruz (Twins) and pitcher Matt Harvey (Angels) are among those who came away with one-year deals.

Grandal will get $18.25 million for that one season in Milwaukee. That’s nothing to sniff at. But how does Grandal, who was an All-Star in 2015, a top-25 MVP vote-getter in 2016 and a World Series starter in 2018 — at one of the most sought-after positions in the sport — warrant nothing more than a one-year tryout?

Meanwhile, the two whales of 2019 MLB free agency, outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Manny Machado, aren’t finding the lines around the block they might have expected. Multiple outlets report that only three or four teams are making serious runs at the two young sluggers.

I get it. There’s a logic behind all of it.

Take the hesitancy over Harper and Machado. Plenty of MLB teams have been burned by uber-contracts in recent years. The Tigers paid Miguel Cabrera $30 million last season, the third in an eight-year, $248 million deal, and he played just 38 games. The Angels are still limping along under the burden of the 10-year, $240 million contract they gave Albert Pujols in 2012; he hit .245 with 64 RBIs in 2018. Chris Davis signed with the Orioles for seven years and $161 million in 2016; last year he hit .168, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.539) fit for a pitcher.

So yeah, it’s hard to fault teams for not committing to one player, even someone as talented as Harper, for a decade.

And Major League Baseball figured out something else last year, in regard to second-tier veterans. They carry much less value than players in the early stages of their contracts. Those younger players are under team control. The most they can hope for is to win a case in arbitration, which still wouldn’t gain them anything close to veteran money. Analytics have demonstrated that it’s savvier to sign several guys under team control than one relatively pricey vet. And that’s what teams did last offseason, repeatedly.

It all looks pretty kosher at the micro level. It’s only when you pan out to the big picture that baseball feels shady.

Then you see Tuesday’s report from the Associated Press noting that combined payroll for all 30 MLB teams declined by $18 million from 2017 to 2018. It was the league’s first cumulative payroll decrease in eight years. And (checks notes) it corresponded with MLB’s 16th consecutive year of record-breaking revenue.

Yes, Major League Baseball brought in $10.3 billion in profit — a figure that does not include the sale of BAMTech (a video streaming platform) to Disney for $2.58 billion. And responded by trimming the money it pays its players.

How is this even possible? Because MLB’s collective bargaining agreement sets no conditions on percentage of revenue due to the athletes. In the NFL, players are guaranteed 47 percent of defined revenue. In the NHL, it’s 50 percent. The NBA calls for 51 percent, though it can shrink to 49 percent under certain conditions.

MLB’s revenue split has historically been right in line with those numbers. But it has been based on precedent, not on negotiated numbers. The system had always worked. Now it’s not working.

I’m sure (because I get emails) some of you will see, for example, the two-year, $30 million contract pitcher Charlie Morton just signed to play in Toronto and think, “I’m supposed to feel bad for this guy? He plays a game and makes more money than I can ever hope to earn.”

No, don’t feel sorry for Charlie Morton. But why would you have a shred of sympathy for the Blue Jays, the team cutting him the deal? Major League Baseball is part of Big Entertainment. It is awash in money. When teams slow down the market and get tight-fisted with veteran players, they aren’t merely impacting their employees. They are disrespecting the game. They’re disrespecting the fans who pay to watch.

MLB’s current CBA is backward, one-sided and in dire need of an overhaul. Unfortunately, it doesn’t expire until December of 2021. That means at least two more years of team owners tossing around nickels as if they were shot puts. It means two more years of the Easy Bake Oven league. Think about that the next time you pay $14.50 for a beer and a hot dog at Oracle Park and settle in to watch Pat Venditte work a couple of batters in mop-up duty.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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