No Big Offseason Money in Baseball
By Zach Epstein
With pitchers and catchers due to report to their clubs in just a few weeks, Major League Baseball is nearing the end of its most vexing offseason in recent memory as two of the game’s marquee players, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, remain on the market. And for a league that already has problems turning its superstars into household names, the shifting dynamics of baseball’s free agent contract negotiations have resulted in an implicit, though clear, message from team owners and front offices: these players just are not worth it.
The offseason began with a promise from Phillies owner John Middleton to spend “stupid” money during the free agency period. Thus far, his team has spent $73 million on two free agents in their 30s—outfielder Andrew McCutchen and relief pitcher David Robertson. Sizeable investments for two solid players, but neither contract represents anything approaching the deals Philadelphia was expected to have doled out by now. Such a contract may still come, but it is puzzling to see teams like the Phillies, potential 2019 contenders and anticipated players for either Harper or Machado, if not both, still lying in wait in hopes their prices come down after stating an intention to be more aggressive.
Part of the reason Machado and Harper remain unsigned can be attributed to natural changes in the market. When Giancarlo Stanton signed his record 10-year, $325 million contract with the Marlins in 2014, many thought the deal set a benchmark for future negotiations with young players of Stanton’s caliber. Instead, teams watched as the Marlins struggled both on and off the field, eventually resorting to trading Stanton to the Yankees, primarily for financial relief, after Miami’s sale to an ownership group fronted by Derek Jeter.
Teams also witnessed the Orioles, primarily bidding against themselves, spend $161 million to retain first baseman Chris Davis for seven years, only to watch him become, literally, the least valuable player in the Major Leagues by WAR. Eric Hosmer signed with the Padres for eight years and $144 million last offseason, then finished 174th in WAR for a team that won 66 games. Miguel Cabrera (remember him?) made $30 million last year.
This recent history suggests teams’ reluctance to spend nine figures on any player, given the potential for injury or natural decline in performance, may be well-founded. But Harper and Machado are the rare star players who hit the open market with their primes still ahead of them. Machado has become one of the game’s best two-way players, providing excellent offensive production, elite defense at third base, and above average skills at shortstop. Harper won an MVP at age 22, and even though he has not approached that level since 2015, his talent and youth suggest he may still have untapped potential.
Whether this stalemate exists because Machado and Harper overestimated their potential value and are holding out for unreasonable deals, or because stingy teams are being overly risk-averse in weighing the benefits of signing these players, the continued standoff is bad for the league.
More and more teams are attempting to follow the Astros and Cubs models of team building, and that has proven an effective strategy. But the result, when so many of the teams that remain playoff hopefuls decline to seriously pursue two of the game’s best players in free agency, is an anti-competitive marketplace and a less interesting sport. The “hot stove league,” which used to sustain interest in baseball throughout the winter, is now almost non-existent, just as interest in the transaction-heavy NBA offseason has skyrocketed and helped propel that league to newfound levels of popularity. No matter who ultimately signs Machado or Harper, Major League Baseball needs to address the clear problem that exists when two of its best players are available, and no one wants them.
References:  Phillies owner: Ready to spend money 'and maybe be a little bit stupid about it', ESPN, (Nov. 16, 2018) http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/25294719/philadelphia-phillies-owner-says-team-ready-spend-money-maybe-even-little-bit-stupid-it  2018 MLB Free Agents – Phillies, ESPN, (Jan. 27, 2019) http://www.espn.com/mlb/freeagents/_/type/signed/newteam/phi  Bryan Hoch, Got Giancarlo? Yanks go big: Stanton ovation!, MLB.com, (Dec. 11, 2017) https://www.mlb.com/news/yankees-acquire-giancarlo-stanton-from-marlins/c-263175874  2018 MLB Player Value, Baseball Reference, (Jan. 27, 2019) https://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2018-value-batting.shtml
*Zach Epstein is a first year student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and a staff writer for the Sports Law Society Blog.